every fiber of my being at that point just wanted to stay home and pretend i didn’t exist. i felt awash with an uneasy sadness that desperately wanted to topple me over into existential anguish and i remember my hand gripping the banister of the staircase so hard my knuckles were white, as if letting go would make me tumble off into ennuic infinity. i averted my eyes from kurt, staring at the ground. it felt like hours but was probably only a few seconds before i squeaked out, “yeah. okay. is that okay with ellen?”
kurt smiled. “yeah, let me text her, i’m sure she’ll be fine with it. we go on enough trips on our own, plus she hasn’t seen you in a while, i’m sure she’d love to catch up.” he pulled out his phone and started to text as i spun around and walked back up the stairs to shower and put on deodorant.
in short, the arboretum was gorgeous. it was like walking into the ideal form of autumn, every tree was a different color, varying shades of red, orange, yellow, and green. and because it was fall and relatively early, there weren’t very many people there, which made wandering the hiking trails and pathways even more enjoyable, because the last thing i wanted to deal with was saying that quick, muffled “mornin'” usually said to passersby on a hike. you have to say something or else you’re a serial killer or something, i swear. one time years ago i was on a hike with kelsey and she was a few feet ahead of me for some reason, the point being that i was alone, and this older couple with a big old dog were walking towards me and the man said, “hello” to me and i didn’t respond, and so the old woman said, “are you alright?” in this manner like i was being chased by terrorists or something. i said, “yeah i’m fine. morning” and walked past them, but ever since i’ve made sure to say hello because people out in the woods are concerned for your well-being, apparently.
ellen and kurt were both shorter than me, so i kept to the back while they instagrammed pictures of the leaves and the trees and the sky and hashtagged #fall #autumn #portland #pdx #lovinglife #arboretum etc etc. i forgot my phone at home. i actually don’t do that very often so it was a bit unnerving at first. they were both dressed in hipster hiking gear, and ellen wore basically the hiking equivalent of the outfit diane keaton made famous in annie hall. you know the one. every woman alive today wears it and none of them know why. i read about this study done with chimpanzees years ago. it was a really long experiment dealing with cultural knowledge. they had a ladder and at the top of the ladder was a banana. they brought some chimps in and every time one of them tried to climb the ladder to get the banana, all the chimps were sprayed down with cold water, which they hated. but chimps love bananas, so they’d keep climbing, and keep getting all the other chimps wet. so eventually the other chimps would beat up any chimp trying to climb the ladder. well then the scientists took one of the chimps out and put in a new one, and the new one would try to get the banana and get the shit beat out of him, and didn’t even know why. this kept going on–they’d take a monkey out, it would try to get the banana, it would get beat up–until finally all the original monkeys weren’t even in the cage anymore, it was all new monkeys, and they were beating each other up not even knowing why. none of them were even being sprayed with water anymore. they just knew something was up with that ladder, apparently.
(one of the reasons i loved kelsey so much is that when i told her about this study, she immediately took to google to debunk it. i love debunking things. nothing makes me happier than reading a bullshit post on facebook and then tracking down what the truth was. kelsey loved it too and so we were always fact checking each other. we’d call it a trap. one of us would read something and blindly attach belief to it, and sort of absentmindedly tell the other person, and then we’d be like “that sounds like bullshit” and look up the truth. and the truth about that story is that it probably didn’t happen that way, if it happened at all. but there’s something about it that rings true, some aspect of being a part of something dictated by the past, and you’re indoctrinated into it but don’t know why. it’s very religious sounding, to be honest, which is probably the intended bias of he person who wrote about the bullshit monkey banana ladder in the first place.)
point being, a lot of indie/hipster fashion is dictated by this mid to late 60s fusion of hippie floppy clothes and that one outfit diane keaton wore in annie hall. i think that’s amazing. imagine if you wore one outfit one day and suddenly everyone else was wearing it all the time.
kurt meanwhile was dressed like an intrepid explorer who just bought his intrepid explorer clothes ten minutes ago from REI. they honestly looked very ridiculous, and i wondered if they had ever been to the arboretum before. it’s not a “hiking” venue. trails, yes, winding paths under thick canopy, yes, but it’s not like you’re climbing a mountain and need a camelbak and an oxygen tank.
ellen was a very forward type of woman in a lot of ways. she was the kind of woman who just did what she wanted and said what she wanted didn’t care about what anyone thought of her. i enjoyed that about her, except when it was pointed at me. so when she first asked me about my love life, i deflected the question, but she kept asking me again and again, until finally she asked, “are you depressed, cal?”
we were standing beside some gnarled roots of a big old tree from south america, on a path that descended into a patch of bamboo. i guess bamboo is a tree. before i could reply, kurt amended her question. “ell’s just looking out for you, cal, we all are, really. the other guys an i were talking and we agree that you’ve been looking kind of mopey lately. we just want to make sure you’re okay.”
“because you can’t just sit on your ass and be sad,” said ellen. her voice was somewhat high pitched and strident, and always had this timbre that made her sound good-natured, even when she was calling you out on your bullshit. that probably drove me the most nuts, that she could sound so nice but also be so forward and annoying with her questions. it was like a child telling you you’re a child. it killed me.
kurt lightly put his hand on ellen’s shoulder. “we’re just looking out for you, cal. you doing alright?”
“yeah, i’m fine,” i said reflexively.
the arboretum has a lot of winding paths, including one called the wildwood trail, which is, i suppose, a bit of a hike, especially if you head north. that will take you to pittock mansion, which is a mansion built for henry pittock, who first published the oregonian newspaper. they give tours and stuff and you can drive up there, so it’s really fun to hike up to the mansion looking like you just appeared out of the woods, among these other people dressed for driving a car to a place. anyway, the mansion is on the top of a hill with a pretty steep decline. the only reason i’m describing this is because as i said “i’m fine” i imagined being at pittock mansion and just jumping off the edge of the grounds and rolling down the hill forever, maybe smashing into a tree or two, braining me into unconsciousness before my lifeless body collapses along the side of west burnside road.
kurt and ellen looked at me for a moment. ellen was definitely assessing my situation, her eyes narrowed and brow furrowed. ellen was, as far as i knew from the little that i knew her, a person perpetual in the pursuit of happiness, and when that happiness began to wane, she would immediately begin to find ways to bring it back. that type of pursuit would exhaust me before lunch, but she was also one of those people who had relentless amounts of energy. she was furiously extroverted and loved parties full of people that she would meet for seconds at a time, before running off to meet someone new. i had never really had a conversation with her that lasted longer than three minutes, and even during this time at the arboretum, she and kurt would bound off on a trail and practically leave me in the dust. which i was fine with. i knew the arboretum well enough to get around on my own, and could easily take the train back home. kurt was nearly as extroverted as she was, but he was more laid back; he loved regaling groups of people with elaborate stories about his life, which were usually very interesting, but probably totally exaggerated. at least the stories he told about college were exaggerated. i knew because i was there, like a wallflower, watching him seduce women and fail, get into small tiffs that he turned into brawls, and get As in class when he should’ve gotten Cs or Ds, all because of his charm. that last one was true, at least.
so more often than not ellen did not have the patience to deal with my slow, aloof, introverted nature, and honestly i was surprised she even agreed for me to be their third wheel. likely kurt convinced her to take me because i was acting like a sad sack. at this moment, having her gaze at me, i sensed a bit of vulnerability in her extroversion shield, a brief second of her dropping her guard, as her eyes seemed to say, “what the fuck is wrong with this guy?”
i was used to being considered weird, off, or sometimes stupid, so her steely, unsure eyes were not surprising. what was surprising, however, was the story kurt told as we were walking down the roadway, headed back to the car.
“i just gotta tell you,” he began, which is how he usually began stories, “about when i was, i don’t know, seventeen, eighteen years old. i mean i know what you’re going through and i just want to prove to you that i can relate. i think i was eighteen, yeah, it was a couple of months after my eighteenth birthday, i had the day off from the gas station i was working at so i had stayed up late the night before, doing, i don’t even know what. probably playing super nintendo or something. anyway, i was living in my parents’ basement at the time and my dad, at light ten o’clock or something, shouts at me from the top of the stairs, ‘KURT, WAKE UP, WORLD WAR THREE IS HAPPENING.’ he woke me up from the middle of a deep sleep, drooling all over the pillow and all that, and suddenly my mind is racing, like ‘oh shit, i’m going to be drafted, i’m going to have to fight on the front lines,’ as my brain is waking up and my body is waking up. it was 9/11. he had watched the planes fly into the twin towers, and he thought that meant world war three was starting. i went upstairs, i mean, we all saw it, right? there was something about that moment, being scared awake and then going upstairs and just sitting at the tv watching these two enormous towers collapse to the ground. that sat with me for a long time. and i was in idaho! imagine if you were there, in new york city.”
i was eighteen too at the time and i remember 9/11 with a crystal clarity i did not have for very many other events in my life. i recalled the video of people falling out of the building, the video crew following firefighters and the sound in the background of bodies slamming into the street. i hadn’t told kurt or ellen about the suicidal woman so i was pretty surprised how close to it kurt had gotten.
“a week, two weeks after it happened i had trouble shaking it,” he continued. “i spent a lot of time in my house, i was a little afraid to go out, even though what terrorist cares about boise, idaho, you know what i mean? the tallest building there is the US bank building which has like 20 floors. but still, i kept inside and kept watching the tv. i was depressed and scared and i didn’t tell anyone, and for a few months that kept with me like a dull ache, until one day my dad just said, ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’ after i lost my job and didn’t feel like looking for a new one. what’s the point, after 3,000 people are murdered by terrorists? i was supposed to start college in the winter but just wanted to lay around and do nothing instead. my dad hated it. he kept pushing me and pushing me and threatening to kick me out of the house. i knew from the start that life kept going on even after tremendous tragedy, but i didn’t want to face it. i wanted to hide and hope it went away. but you have to face it and you have to walk through it, you have to keep going, no matter how bad things get.”
kurt paused. we had reached the car and ellen walked around to the driver’s side. “i just want you to know,” kurt said, “that i know how you feel, is all.”
“what made you turn around?” i asked. “what made you feel better?”
kurt pursed his lips and thought for a moment, and then did a half-shrug as he opened the passenger door. “i don’t know,” he said. “i just one day looked back and realized i was okay.” he then got into the car, and i got into the backseat, and we drove back home as a light, cold rain began to spritz itself across the city.