On Friday, after coffee with a friend and lunch with my mom and a work call conducted on a city sidewalk, I met up with my brother Devin at a sports bar off Greeley Avenue. We grabbed a corner booth, ordered vodka sodas (I normally drink gin and tonics but I have been informed that in Portland, gin and tonics are passé) and quickly found our familiar sibling rhythm: ping-ponging back and forth between raunchy jokes and dumb impressions of our junior high science teachers and serious discussions about love and life and happiness and creativity.
“Is there anything better than a sports bar?” Devin asked, leaning back in his chair, neon lights of the video poker machine behind him catching the angles of his face.
“Deep talks in a sports bar,” I said.
I miss my brothers so much.
We cashed out and met up with some friends at a karaoke spot on the other side of town. I sang “Only the Good Die Young.” A guy I’ve known since kindergarten showed up and we talked about growing up in the country. His favorite childhood game was pushing the garden hose into the sod of his backyard and turning it on full-blast, watching little rivers burble up from under the surface and move downhill, carrying away clumps of grass and dirt.
“Sounds like you like to play God,” I told him. (My favorite game was hitting termites with a tennis racket.)
At 2 AM, I got home and fell asleep on an air mattress in my childhood bedroom.
Trips back home are like this. They’ll always be like this: frantic races to see family and friends, sleep-deprived, hungover and nostalgia-drunk, fighting off exhaustion with a steady stream of Dutch Brothers iced coffee and #400s with extra pepperoncinis from Phil’s 1500 Subs. Between reunions and goodbyes, I sit in traffic in Southeast Portland and drive too fast on the back roads in North Plains. I track the time that’s passed between my visits by the wrinkles on my great aunt’s face and the trees my brother planted in the yard next to the chicken coop.
“I’m so sorry I can’t stay longer,” I say, but really what I mean is, “I’m so sorry I left.”
It’s been almost seven years since I left Oregon for Tennessee. A few years ago, I tried to come back. I missed my family, and I thought maybe if I shifted some of the Tetris pieces of my life and psyche around, I could make it fit. Make me fit.
I found a house for sale, in my favorite neighborhood a couple towns over from where I grew up. It was a little blue farmhouse with a big backyard and a generous fig tree right outside the kitchen window. It reminded me a lot of my great grandma’s house, which was just a few miles away. It was, against all odds, within my price range.
I called the number on the sign and asked for a tour. The realtor showed up ten minutes later and told me she couldn’t believe this place hadn’t been snapped up yet. She thought maybe the problem was it was old and small, an anomaly in a neighborhood that was increasingly trending toward big and new.
She opened the door, and I saw the bright living room, the wood stove, the earnest country kitchen.
I was instantly certain of two things: this was the perfect house for me, and this was not my house.
I went through the motions of the house tour, brainstorming different fixtures to spruce up the tiny bathroom, listening to the reassurances about the aging plumbing, and staring out at the backyard for what may have been a weirdly long time. If I concentrated, I could see myself there: a hazy specter of my future self mowing the lawn, putting in raised garden beds, and lounging in the shade on summer days. I could see the path that led me there — the choices I’d need to make to get there. It was a good life, a logical life, a life filled with family and love and rainy Oregon Sundays and homegrown motherfucking figs.
I told the realtor I was going to think about it, and I walked across the street and a few blocks over to a park. I sat on a bench and cried for a long time. I wondered if I’d ever forgive myself for not belonging here, for not wanting this perfectly lovely life.
A few weeks ago a friend was going through some hard stuff in her relationship and asked me if I thought we really had a choice in these things, or if our paths are predetermined, and we’re all flowing in the general direction of an inevitable outcome.
(What a great question, right? Perfect topic for a sports bar.)
I knew that house in Oregon wasn’t mine. I could feel it. The decision to pass it up felt heartwrenching, but in many ways it didn’t even feel like a decision — it was a preexisting fact waiting for me to accept it. I couldn’t stay in Oregon. My inevitable outcome was somewhere else, something else: a brick ranch house in Nashville that my friend Corrie would text me a link to a few weeks later. “Hey,” she will write, “the house next door to us is for sale. You should check it out.”
That’s my house. There’s a wonderful man there, and a cute dog, and a fig tree we planted outside the bedroom window. I’m sitting at the airport right now, about to fly back there.