Portland is cold. I always knew my Los Angeles idea of cold was a joke; it merely graces your skin with little brushes of wind. You can erase it by rubbing your arms. I didn't realize that real cold, Northwest cold, cuts deep. It burrows to your spine and plays your shivers like a puppet. I couldn't stop the jitters.
I was trying to warm up with Stumptown Coffee. It was my first time in the city — I’ve driven through a few times on my way to Seattle or Vancouver, but I never had a reason to stop and experience it. I flew to Portland just days earlier to meet a girl I just started talking to online. It was my third day in the city I was alone again.
Flying to Portland was an impulse decision. I was originally going to drive up to Oakland with my room mate to celebrate the New Year. End 2014 with a party, begin 2015 with new scenery. It would be like old college adventures: long expanses of the highway, big gulps of beer and new inside jokes. He bailed on the trip just a day before.
I decided to take the trip alone. It wasn’t an appealing idea. I had never done such a long drive by myself. It would be a long time to be stuck in my head, but then again, I spent much of 2014 in there. It would be immersive, sometimes like drowning, but this had been a year I learned how to beat it.
Still, I wanted to at least try to find a replacement travel buddy. A few calls didn't turn up anything. I wanted to use this time, the end of a big year, to do something that loomed large.
At the time, I was exchanging messages with a girl I met on a dating website. She lived in Seattle and messaged me first. Eventually we exchanged numbers. That night I told her about my plans for the trip — the solitary drive, the days in the bay. She suggested, in that teasing, jestful way girls do to say something true but absurd, that I keep going to Oregon so that I'd be close enough to visit. I laughed it off but caught myself; why shouldn't I consider it?
There’s the mess of logistics, the risk of meeting any new person, the unpredictable chemistry and the money that would go into it, sure. Yet none of those seemed to be deal breakers. They didn't plant a foothold in my mind.
I had done enough things alone this year. That was the theme of 2014. I could begin the new year with something that flew radically in the face of that.
We settled on Portland, a city neither of us knew. She would drive down from Seattle to pick me up from the airport, and then we would see what would happen, for 2 straight days.
I’m not a spontaneous person. Every inner voice told me that it was risky and a hassle, but I’ve learned to be skeptical of my resistance. The blaring sirens are a sign of something worth considering. I knew through experience that my life was almost always richer when I took social risks and, in the waning years of my 20s, it was time to remember that.
A year ago I wouldn't even humor the idea. But throughout 2014, I learned a lot about being alone; how to sit with it, how to listen to it closely, how to resist the dread it stokes inside of me. A solo trip alone could be like my last great tribute to it, and my Portland adventure could be its fiery cremation. I liked the idea. I worried about the reality.
I used to never go to concerts alone, which is hard when you have a taste for very specific indie bands. I used to maintain a roster of possible concert buddies; people I could pitch if a band I liked was in town. In 2014, it seemed I had tapped that well dry. I wasn't about to stop going altogether, so I experimented with going alone.
The thing about being alone in 2014 is that most people don’t understand what that actually entails. They think waiting in line for coffee or sitting in traffic is isolation. But with our phones in our hands, most of us have a close friend with a direct line into our thoughts. Or, we have a news feed that can simulate a 24 hour conversation. Endless friends telling you about their day.
Being alone in the modern world is about doing none of that and having the discomfort expand and split at the seams. That creeping anxiety is loneliness, and your inner mind panics and alerts you to do something, to get another voice in there. Letting it pass is the goal.
This was especially true for my first solo concert. It was a perfect, anxious situation: the basement of a church that was converted, in great hipster fashion, into a punk & indie venue. The band was the stirring and exciting Bleeding Rainbow, but there were only about 20 of us in attendance. We all stood 5 feet apart , folded our arms, and tried not to acknowledge each other.
There would be no mosh pit or dancing to blend into and lose myself. The band stared at us and we stared back. The way anxiety grows on me is like water droplets running down an icicle. It leaks, crawls along and solidifies until I feel it heavy and hanging. I wanted to bolt for the door every minute. All that kept me there was knowing that if I went into hiding now, all the dread I’d experienced until that point would be pointless.
That was the worst of it. I’m sure to some I looked awkward, never quite comfortable and fiercely insecure. I’m also sure they’ve forgotten me. Since then, it's been easier. I attended most of my 2014 concerts — No Age, Wye Oak, Panama, Alvvays — by myself. I’d never had so much fun alone.
In early January I began going on dates with a girl who had a mind like a roman candle, sparkling and popping with light that you thought would burn you. I had never had an in-depth conversation with someone so engaging. It’s not merely that she was bright, but that she was fast too. She had read all the same articles, wondered about all the same concepts and plugged into all the same thought clouds faster than I did. When we talked, I never explained a thing. I stayed on my toes and tried to keep up.
Her hair was steely red, like a sports car. On the nights I was lucky enough to stay with her, I buried my nose into the tuft of hair at the back of her neck. I wasn’t sure how long this might last, but whatever time there was would have value.
Like everything with her, it was quick and sudden. After about 3 months of feeling this out, I got a text message. “I think we’re at different points in our lives and it would be best if we went our separate ways,” she wrote, and that was all it took. I replied, though it didn’t matter: “It’s been fun.” Even in breaking up, she did it well. What could I be mad about? What about that could make me insecure? I was alone again, and although I didn’t know it right away, that was fine. I was fine.
When she picked me up at the Portland airport, she stopped being the girl from the internet. Pictures from your phone or online are weird ghosts of who you really are. Lenses distort contours, angles bend light and you never get a sense of how they fill space. There wasn’t much of her to fill; she came up short to my neck, and her long, black-ink hair further emphasized her petite stature. She came out of the car, leaving the car running, to greet me. When she smiled at me, I was taken.
We both didn’t totally understand why we trusted each other to meet like this. I got the sense that we were both primed for something radical because we were working through things; some of it hopelessly romantic, some of it just hopeless. But over the next day and night we lived a long first date. We dined at Italian restaurants lit by blue string lights, we created inside jokes at rapid speed and we walked through mist-soaked neighborhoods with fingers intertwined. If we got into the fast lane, it was because the road would only be a few miles long.
I didn’t mind that it was doomed. It’s concentrate, not a diluted cocktail, just a pure shot. The hardest stuff you’ve ever had.
Living alone is a strange experience because your apartment becomes an extension of your inner mind. This is even more true if you live in a tiny studio like I did for most of 2014. At 192 square feet, it was like having a medium sized bedroom for everything — your kitchen, your living room, your entire miserable life.
When I got home from work, my habits and actions were physical manifestations of that inner monologue. I thought aloud, I indulged in my worst habits and I barely scraped a functional life out of the shitty utilities available. I also developed a taste for red wine.
At first it was strange to come home to stale air and four walls. You want home to be a sanctuary, but it was like retreating to this secret, isolated place of shame. Less like Batman’s cave and more like Quasimodo’s bell tower.
It's difficult to pinpoint when it started to be a relief. That’s the thing with learning how to be by yourself — there’s blood-rushing panic, but that’s not sustainable. Dread comes in waves, but in time, the waves come less frequently. Each longer gap gives you time to breathe. At some point living alone became a numb ache that I didn’t even bother to pontificate about. Loneliness stopped being an event and started becoming a condition.
Driving up to Oakland was the longest drive I’d ever done by myself. My previous record was the 4 hour drive to Vegas, but at least I had people with me. They were asleep, sure, but their presence was worth something.
When I started my car in the morning to begin, I set my Spotify playlist to shuffle and the first song that came on was, of course, “This Year” by The Mountain Goats. As if the algorithm caught onto theme, it launched next into Conor Oberst’s “Moab” — “there’s nothing that the road cannot heal,” it goes — so I was off to a good start.
The drive is easy for the first hour or two. Your mind has not yet been tested. For someone like me, who used to get into car-related trouble ever 6 months, it was a high stakes dare.
Still, California along the 5 is beautiful. A week of rain had cut into our desperate drought, and so our hills and deserts were blessed with greenery. I’d seen that area before, but not like that. On a normal December day it would be arid and colored exclusively by shades of yellow and brown, but on this morning it was another world. The year was dying, and I was there to observe its funeral, but god, there was a lot of life out there.
Picking a "best friend" is a tough exercise, but it's easy to pinpoint which friends are valuable to me. I have one friend in particular whom I spoke to, in some form, every day, for years. That does something to you. When someone has a direct line to your constant thoughts, and you to theirs, suddenly you aren’t even thinking for yourself. Suddenly, your inner monologue is framed as a dialogue.
It also makes two people very testy. My friend and I had been getting into tiffs with frightening regularity and, in 2014, we took a long break. We didn’t know when it would end, only that some day it would.
When you turn off all sources of noise to meditate, that’s when you start to hear the wind. When I turned off all outside contact, all reason to be outside of myself, I heard another buried frequency. My breathing and heart beat, yes, but most of all an inner voice. It was always there, but stunted and waiting in the wings to take the stage. We always think to ourselves — “boy I’m hungry,” or “where do I turn?” But thats not a voice. A voice has character to it, one that you don’t always dictate. It reveals personality. Your emotions are performed by your inner voice, instead of just something you feel, like the temperature. There is something alive inside you, and you don’t always get to notice that.
Stumptown Coffee was the last stop. I’d stay behind and work a little bit before my flight and she would move on and drive back to Seattle. Portland was always only a side road. In the new day of 2015, we had entire lives to get back to.
I ordered a drink and took a seat at a table. She sat next to me.
“I’ll see you again,” I said in the silence. “I don’t know how or when, but I’m sure of it. Eventually.” I didn’t say it as a romantic promise or one of those shipped-off-to-war farewells. That wasn’t the tone I used. I said it because of foresight; It just didn’t seem logical or realistic that she would walk out of my life. I didn't live that way anymore.
We said goodbye in the street. A kiss, a back turned, a peace sign over the shoulder. I watched her leave until it became true.
In 2015 I was alone, again, but I saw the way through. I sat with my drink and laptop for a few hours and allowed myself to feel it. It was dense and solid and rested in my chest in the familiar groove it had cut out for itself. If the right song comes on, it dissipates into the rest of my body. Even then, it is sentimental. I treat its imprint like a souvenir of something meaningful.