Astoria, Oregon circa 2013/2016
It wasn’t that I had forgotten. I couldn’t, even if I tried. The last time I was in this little coastal town was three years ago. It was March, our anniversary weekend. D rented us a little room at the Commodore Hotel. On our second night, we had dinner at Fort George Brewery, because it offered non-seafood mains, because I’ve disliked seafood since I was 6 years-old going on forever. After dinner, D led me out to the pier at the end of 14th Street. We couldn’t see the water, but I heard the mouth of the Columbia River lapping at the pillars underneath us in the dark, the one pier lamp dim and hazy in the mist. Stuffed animals were involved, with our memories sketched in D’s all caps handwriting on paper, tied around their necks, honoring each of the eight years we had been together. My arms became full as he presented each one. And then he got down on one knee and proposed. I said “yes.” We both cried.
Nine months later, I wasn’t engaged anymore. Mary Ruefle’s collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey had a little to do with it. I wrote about it in 2014.
I had no interest in ever visiting that place again. A town so inextricably linked to D; a place that marked the beginning of our end.
But then Matty–my best friend forever, my business partner, my roommate, a person I also love intensely–turned 34 this year. And because I couldn’t make it to Seattle for his actual birthday, I promised him that we’d have a day of unscheduled exploring of any little Oregon beach town of his choice.
“Astoria” had been typed up in several email and text message exchanges between our small group. My brother Haven who would be driving, had also never been there. Gingy was just down to get out of town. “Astoria” had even been talked about between Matty and I at home. We even referenced the 1985 cult-classic movie, The Goonies, which made Astoria famous in pop-culture history: “have you seen it?” and the answers were “yes” and “yes” and then we were surprised when one of us said “no.” But the Astoria he wanted to go to was not the same Astoria I knew. During the planning process, I was so removed that I even asked my brother how long it took to get there, when I knew perfectly well that it took an hour and a half, the exact amount of time that it took D and I to drive there from Portland, three years before.
Coming by way of Seaside, driving up on Hwy 101, as we approached the oldest settlement West of the Rockies, I had that phantom feeling from the back seat. The closer we got, driving under that green bridge, the Cannery, the Taco Del Mar, the bowling alley, the sudden downtown, and then I found myself thinking the same thoughts I had three years ago: why is there still a JC Penney’s and a Sears? Why do things seem to survive here that die everywhere else?
And then I knew what I didn’t want to know. I said, to no one in the car in particular “um, this is where D proposed to me.” How could a writer lose a word like Astoria? So much so that it took my body to arrive, to be placed, to remember the name of the landscape that I’ve played in my mind over and over.
A friend of mine once said that locations were tied strongly to her past loves, that she avoids them until she’s strong enough to create new associations. Landing in Astoria was like walking around in a house you use to live in that’s no longer yours. I started tearing up. Gingy wrapped her arm around me, “it’s okay.” Matty looked at Street 14 Cafe, a hipster haunt attached to The Commodore Hotel and said, “I want to grab a cookie.” I said, “that’s the hotel D and I stayed at.” Matty, responded immediately, “we don’t have to go.”
But the day was not about me. “No, we should go. It’s super cute,” I said. I felt really sad. I paid $5 for a pastry. There’s something about thinking about an old love that makes you want to drown in sugar.
Our bodies know things. I thought briefly about the jam bar that I was eating–it takes eight years for our fat cells to turnover. Our skin, ever wrinkling, is recycled every two weeks. Everything seems to regenerate, but the part made up of our memories, thoughts, language–our cerebral cortex–those cells stay the same from birth to death.
We went into a thrift shop that D and I had also explored. My brother came away with three records for $3. “Cool,” I said, but I didn’t know what I was talking about. D was the phonophile. Then we went to Blue Scorcher Bakery and Cafe, a place where D and I had breakfast. The four of us bought tea and more pastries. Matty, Gingy, and Haven read. I wrote. I thought about D. I felt that sag in my chest, of moving through something I’m no longer a part of. Then I read. Distance and time are sometimes the only truthful things.
And the day slowly started lightening up.
We went to Imogen Gallery. I told Matty and Gingy that D bought his first art piece here: a matchbook drawing of “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski, by artist Mike Bell. D is still such a part of my make-up that I speak about him, sometimes like we’re still in each other’s lives. When we entered the gallery, there were lots of people. On the back table was fruit, brie, crackers, and wine. A black bean corn salad--like the one I learned to make from D–over arugula in small clear plastic cups. I spooned cocktail nuts on my fancy disposable ware, I cut a chunk of brie, I took the biggest strawberry. An older white man stared a little too long at me, until I made eye contact and he said, “that’s a big strawberry.” I responded, “I took the biggest one I could find,” and turned back to face the same animal sketches that Matty, Gingy, and Haven were admiring. There was a painting of a wolf, and my brother said, “I love wolves”–I learned something about my little brother that day.
Then we went next door to Cargo. Gingy bought an evil eye bead for 10 cents. I decided to make a $9 investment in BACKWORDS Press’ future by buying each of the founders–myself, Matty, and Phillip–a Chinese lucky money cat.
We mosied about on the boardwalk. Stopped at WineCraft and shared a bottle of red. Then there was a goat with one curlicue horn that we all petted. There were teens in sparkly ball gowns and suits. “Prom,” we all agreed.
The last stop of the night, we went to Clemente’s on the boardwalk. Matty was craving clam chowder. We ordered a spread of fries to share. They were the best fries I have had in a long time. Haven ordered fish and chips. I have never liked seafood, though I’ve tried it periodically to see if cell turnover has changed my palate. That night, I ate a big piece of halibut, and enjoyed it. I texted someone about it, because he’s become that person that I want to share even the most seemingly mediocre life-changing things with. As we waited for the check, there was a short play Matty and I created for Instagram starring our three Chinese lucky money cats. On our way out, Matty told the chef that the fries were amazing. Outside, Haven said he didn’t remember where the car was. Gingy joked and said, “that’s really comforting that the person with the key, doesn’t know where the car is.” We laughed. Then Gingy remarked how funny it was, that of all the things we ate at dinner that it was the fries that Matty chose to compliment. “You’re right, the fish!” Matty turned back and jogged back toward the restaurant, he yelled back to us “And Jenny, you hate seafood!” Matty disappeared back inside the restaurant so he could relay the more meaningful message to the chef, because that’s the kind of person he is.
We found the car, easily–we were never really lost. During the ride home, the three of us tortured my brother by singing Disney ballads.
It was in this fashion, of just living and being with some of my favorite people that I was able to turnover to find a different Astoria.
Jenny M. Chu