The Places I Know
There are many places I have been to, but these are the only ones I know. Places are like people. You have to love them, hate them, explore them, and talk to them before you can really know them. Only after you share a cup of soup and a sandwich together will they reveal themselves to you.
I live on a street in Keizer, Oregon with an abundance of maple trees and single story duplexes. Mine in particular is a worn yellow 3 bedroom with a deep colored wood door and cracked driveway. On a good day the grass is green, the flowers are pink, the heater works, and all the lights have bulbs in them. Its walls closed in as we grew up, and at one point when my oldest sister and her two kids had to live with us after they lost their house, I was sure we would all kill each other for an extra square foot. There is an old CD player in our dining room which we use to listen to jazz music on happy days. The garage always smells like weed because of my dad’s stash that he still thinks none of us know about. An endless pile of bills and letters is always stacked on our kitchen table and every inch of our fridge is covered with pictures, school awards, sticky notes, and grocery lists. It was always loud in that house. Whether it was my sisters and I yelling at each other, all of us laughing and singing, the house’s old bones settling in at night, my parents arguing behind thin walls, or the television going, there was always some sort of noise. When it rained on 3rd Avenue, it poured and washed all of us clean. It drowned out all of our suburban sins and cleaned our shoes for us. There were no fights, no troubled minds, no sleepless nights, and no hurt when the raindrops fell. Things always looked more beautiful after it rained.
During the fall and winter of my junior year it was especially gray in Oregon. Even the trees, which normally blazed amber and green in October, were dull. The lack of saturation weighed on everyone. My twin sister, Alex, stopped eating in September and lost 50 pounds by the time the leaves started to fall. For the first time in her life my mother, who was normally too beautiful and bright to look at, seemed colorless. Her hair went dull and monochrome and she became taxed by every step she took. My dad was tired all the time and spent his only day off from work every week figuring out his taxes and how many extra hours of labor he would have to tack on to keep up with our Mortgage payment. I was the only one who noticed anything those days.
In November I told my parents that I was worried about Alex’s eating. I lit the match that set the fire to every stable thing in my life, and it would burn for a very long time after. My parents started stocking up on chalky vanilla protein shakes and taking her to therapy appointments with middle aged women who had forgotten entirely what it was like to be a teenage girl. For some reason they were shocked when she was diagnosed with depression and anorexia, even though we’ve had just about every mental illness in the book at some point in our family tree. Alex continued to get worse and my parents had to take her out of the swim team and pretty much everything else she loved. When she found out that I was the first person to bring up my worries about her with our parents, she called me a cunt and told me I’d ruined her life. I remember her looking at me in a way I never thought either of us would be able to look at the other: with hate. We shared a room, but didn’t talk, hung out with our friends together, but no longer laughed at each other’s jokes. She was my favorite thing about this world and we couldn’t even look at each other.
When we were little and one of us would lose a baby tooth, the other would rip their own out, even if it wasn’t wiggly yet. We’d both smile with bloody gums and put our teeth under our pillows together. This was the first time in our lives that we didn’t look like each other.
I hated it.
I resented her a lot during this time. And I felt guilty and ashamed for having that resentment in the first place. I was so angry, but I didn’t know who exactly to be angry at, and even if I could find an answer to that problem, it wouldn’t do any good. My being angry wouldn’t make her get better. I don’t think there was anything I could have done to make her get better. Eating disorders are like pretty girls smoking cigarettes or rich kids snorting coke. It’s addicting as hell and everyone loves to look at it like it’s some romantic tragedy, some horribly beautiful spectacle. I couldn’t be angry that she wasn’t able to stop. If I’m being honest, I’m surprised it didn’t happen to one of us sooner. Body checking and calorie counting has been ingrained in our minds since we were small. Our mom stretched out a single handful of almonds for two out of her three meals a day and called it a “healthy diet.” We were weighed weekly as kids in our tiny swimsuits at swimming practice and had our protective layers of squishy fat poked and prodded by people who had no business with our young bodies. Thin waists and hollow bones and the daintiest of frames have been the only beautiful things allowed for as long as I’ve been alive.
I won’t lie and try to make it sound not as bad as it was, like people often do. I’ve never been one to soften things around the edges. I’m not going to chew this food for you. I was scared more than any other emotion those days. During the first two weeks of December, I stayed awake every night just to make sure I didn’t wake up to find out that Alex had killed herself while I was sleeping. After I started falling asleep in classes and at the dinner table I finally decided to wave my white flag and actually talk to her. I didn’t even get one syllable out before we both started to cry. That’s the thing about Alex and I, we don’t need words to know what the other is thinking. We will never be able to keep a secret from each other. We sat holding one another for a long time. We have this one way of sitting together that takes us all the way back to when we were just cells, when it was just us and nothing else. We sit side by side and smush our shoulders together as close as they can be, pull our knees up to our chests, intertwine our pinky’s like we are making a sacred promise, and she rests her head on my shoulder. It is always Alex’s head on my shoulder. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I’m older or maybe it’s because it just fits better that way. That pose is the only time that I actually understand how people describe twins as being halves of a whole. In that smush, my skin finally feels right, instead of being too tight around my head and too loose around my stomach, and my heartbeat feels consistent and stable unlike the scared-rabbit tempo it normally holds. When she finally put her head on my shoulder and her pinky in mine, I felt like I had gotten a piece of me back, a half of me back. Things weren’t back to the way they were, we had changed too much for that, but at least we could talk and laugh together again.
It rained hard that night.
My grandmother lives in a big yellow house on Little Lake road in Mendocino California. We drive down from Oregon every winter to spend the holidays with her and to make the house feel a little smaller. Alex and I always sleep in what the family has labeled “the Hat Room.” It is the small attic of the house where all of my grandparents’ winter clothes, hats and gloves, and boxes of memories and photographs are stored. It has just enough room for two twin sized beds dressed in floral sheets and old quilts, a wooden desk, a stained glass lamp, and a large mirror that is propped up against the wall near the door. There is one of those light bulbs hanging from the middle of the ceiling that you have to pull a string down to turn it on and off and when it’s on, everything is bathed in the warmest yellow light.
I remember it was one of the first Christmases I had spent there since my grandfather had died, and it felt like he was still everywhere. His suits still hung in his closet and his comb still in the bathroom cabinet. People in town still referred to me as Daphne and Michael’s granddaughter and still told me how sorry they were to hear that he had passed on. I didn’t mind. I liked being reminded of him. Getting to hear stories from people who knew him better than I did. People’s lives have a way of continuing to unfold themselves for you even after they are gone, as long as you keep paying attention to them. On Christmas morning that year, over a cup of coffee and English sausage rolls in the kitchen, my dad told me about how much my grandfather had adored Alex and I when we were babies. He told me that Papa used to sit with both of us in his armchair and sing us to sleep. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t the world’s best singer, we never cried with him.
I took a walk on the cliffs near the beach a few days later. The tall and brittle grass made its way into my pant legs and scratched at my ankles. It was cold and I could feel my nose starting to run. When I was just about to bail on the last mile or so of the trail and run back to the fireplace in my grandmother’s kitchen, I noticed a familiar face a few yards ahead of me, walking in my direction. The pastor of the local Christian church was approaching me in a long black peacoat and thin framed glasses. I remember when he had spoken at Papa’s funeral he talked about how he was a great addition to the church’s choir. I remember he cried when leading a prayer.
“Afternoon,” he said. “You’re the Beard’s granddaughter, aren’t you? One of the twins?” He was not too old, but he spoke with a deep voice that made everything he said seem very important.
“Yes, I’m Bella,” I said, my voice sounding weak and insignificant.
“That’s right, I remember you from Michael’s funeral. We all miss him very much.” There was sincerity behind his voice and kindness in his eyes.
“I do too.”
“Don’t worry dear, You’ll see him again someday, until then, he’ll be waiting for you up in heaven with the big guy.”
I do not believe in heaven, or god for that matter, but I didn’t tell him this. Religious people always pity you when you don’t believe what they do.
“Thank you.” I said with a smile.
I walked back to the house and sat in the kitchen for the rest of the night, listening to my dad ask my grandmother questions about her childhood, one of the only concrete things left in her aging mind. She told us about the first time she met my Grandfather, and we both sat and listened to the entire story, even though we both already knew it well.
Every year, for a few days in March, Oregon decides to take a break from the cold rain and everyone thinks it’s time to crack out their shorts and barbecues. On one of these days, I don’t remember the exact day of the week, I took my small green truck down to a little beach in Oregon called Neskowin. I let my hand rest outside of the passenger seat’s window, feeling the sun kiss my skin for the first time in months. The truck was the last heirloom given to me from Papa. It shakes if you go over 80 mph on the highway and you can’t roll the windows down all the way without them getting stuck, but my friends and I all loved it too much to drive anything else. My sister sat in the small seat that pulls out from the side of the car behind me, her golden hair looking as if it were harvested from the sun itself. In the front I was crammed in with my best friend Madison and the boy I loved, who drove. All of our thighs touched and knees bumped into each other. He was a much better driver than I was, and besides, his hands looked very beautiful on the steering wheel. When we got close to the forest that engulfed the beach and sea, I stuck my head out of the window and took a deep breath of the salty air. It made my skin prickle with goosebumps and excitement. It tasted clean and I could feel it travel from my nose to my lungs and then swirl around, finally clearing out all of that stagnant air that I hadn’t even realized was there.
When the tires touched the first grain of sand we all took off our shoes and ran to the beach. We shed layers of clothing and sprawled our bodies onto a large blanket, its wool already heating up from the sun and inviting us to sleep on its breadth. I remember tracing my thumb through the sand and feeling the tiny grains of sand going under my nail. I remember my chest rising and falling as it filled with sweet air. I remember smiling until my face ached.
We all sat there for a very long time, defrosting our limbs, but finally the ocean’s call was too enticing to ignore. It started out slowly, dipping our toes in and then running away at the chill of the waves, but eventually we went numb and couldn’t feel the cold anymore. I don’t think any of us planned on going past our calves, but one splash to the face changed all of that. I watched them all dance and laugh and push each other in the water. We stayed there until our toes began to tingle and all of our clothes were drenched to the bone. We were there after everyone else had packed up their beach chairs in their Jeep’s and Subaru’s and gone home to the suburbs. After the sun had gone down in a mix of orange and red hues, and left us to the devices of the moon. We stayed well past when the day’s heat had worn off, but it didn’t matter, we were kept warm by our adrenaline. I watched my friends shout into the ocean, like they were praying into the darkness. Praying for everything we had lost and every piece of us that we had given away as we grew up. We got it all back then, the giddiness we had as children, the ignorance to all of the weighty things, and the ability to love unconditionally, to expect nothing in return. They were so peaceful. For once in my life I felt simple. My mind was drenched in the sounds of the ocean rather than the usual thoughts that were crammed in there. It made living feel easy.
There is an old country road near the outskirts of my town that my friends and I call Crescent loop. It begins and ends at the edge of my High school’s football field and stretches through the rural landscapes that enclose our entire town. We never go a full week without driving through it at least once. I know the whole thing like the back of my hand. I know when to hold my breath in order to keep the smell of cow manure away. I know how much I need to slow down before each turn and how fast I need to go leading into the hill so that my old truck can make it to the top. I know where the best places to watch the sunset is and where cop cars sit in wait to give out speeding tickets. In the early summer, wildflowers grow red and pink and yellow in the fields. In the winter, the roads are salted and the houses billow smoke from their Chimneys.
Halfway through the loop and you’ll come across the old abandoned house that my friends and I used to dare each other to sneak into. It was a museum, pictures of the deceased owners still in frames on the walls, clothes still on hangers in the closets, and dishes still piled in the sink. The windows were all broken in and every step you took creaked on the hardwood. I remember holding onto my best friend’s hand as we explored every room and how we both jumped when a bird flew through the kitchen. I took a book from their shelves once and felt so guilty about it that I brought it back along with a bouquet of flowers I had picked, the first living thing that would reside in that house in years.
There is a bridge that kids would go smoke under after football games and a long stretch of land that people race cars on. This road is filled with the ghosts of nights I’ll always remember. Like the night I sat parked in my car with a boy I once loved and felt heartbreak for the first time next to a twisting tree about 5 miles into the drive. Or the night that I saw the abandoned house had been torn down and I wept for hours on its lonely driveway. I learned how to drive on that road, learned why you should always buckle your seatbelt, and learned how to replace a tire on those twists and turns of roughly paved concrete. On a drive home from a school play a few years ago, My older sister McKenzie and I took the long way home through crescent loop, and I asked her if she’d miss the trees when she went off to college in Washington DC. People keep telling me that there are trees on the East coast too, but there’s nothing that compares to an Oregon evergreen. Keeping her eyes on the road she said yes. We stayed silent for a little while and then she told me that she hadn’t really thought about it. She sounded sad and I felt bad for making her mourn something before it had even left her life, so I told her that me and the trees would always be there waiting for her. But that’s not exactly true anymore because even I have left the trees behind. Now it is just them waiting for us all to return home. I hope they know that I will come back someday. That I won’t leave them forever.
If you park on the hill next to the cornfields you can get the best view of the stars you’ll ever see. My friends and I liked to sneak out to watch the meteor showers there, laying in the fields and being swallowed by the sounds of crickets. We did this on Alex’s last night home before she moved to college. Madison, My friend Gabriel, Alex, and I settled on the ground and let the tall, scratchy grass wrap around our bodies. The most visible meteor shower of the year happened to be that night. I think I saw a hundred shooting stars. Far too many to come up with enough wishes to make on them, but I still tried. Shooting stars have a way of making you feel the happiness that belongs only to children when you see them, no matter how many you’ve come across before. It’s funny that something so quickly fleeting can cause you to feel something so strong. But I guess a lot of things that evoke such emotions are like that. Momentary and transient. Maybe that’s what makes things like shooting stars so special- the fact that they won’t be there forever, that they have an end.
After I dropped off my friends at their houses and they said their final goodbyes to Alex, Alex and I decided to drive around the loop one more time, for good measure. I remember that I asked her what she thought would happen when we die.
“I think it just ends,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I think that when we die, that’s it. Our hearts stop beating and eventually we become food for the worms.”
“Worm food. I like that idea,” I said. “I think most people find comfort in the idea of heaven or some sort of afterlife, but to me I feel like the ending is what makes everything have meaning. If we have another chance, a backup plan, then I think everything we are doing now feels cheapened, less important.”
“When I die, I hope we’re together,” she said. “Not that I want you to die too, I just-”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “I hope so too.”
I drove us home and we didn’t say too much for the rest of the night. I don’t think we needed to.
The Places Unknown
I now live in a place that I have not yet gotten to know. It has not opened up to me. It seems hesitant. Its old brick and tall buildings guard its many secrets, but I will keep exploring, keep asking it questions. I’ll ask it what its favorite color is and what it takes in its coffee in the morning, and eventually I’ll ask where the best soup and sandwich deal in town is and we will share a meal.