[What’s in a name? Well, whatever it is, some of these names are made up.]
Seattle is a dichotomous city: Hills and valleys, waterways and mountain ranges, limitless summer sun followed by an oppressively gray winter. Fun fact: Seattle’s annual rainfall doesn’t even put it in the top 20 of US cities, but from late October to April, the skies are shrouded in a blanket of drizzling clouds trapped overhead by the Cascades.
I arrived in the heart of summer, filled with optimism for the future of my project. This uncharacteristic positivity was in large part due to the pending publication of a Washington Post article I’d written about the financial travails of my travels. Though personal finance was the least interesting part of my project to me, when the opportunity to write a feature article for a national publication presents itself, a fledgling writer jumps at the opportunity.
The patron of my opportunity was Marianne, a friend since college who at the time was designing at the Post and had put the idea in the ear of an editor. Marianne and I have the type of friendship in which we catch up infrequently, but always with ease and an appreciation for our mutual side-eyed view of our lives. She’d witnessed and supported 10 Cities/10 Years essentially since its conception.
The featured article, complete with photo spread, provided my first taste of wide exposure and brought a flood of attention. The online comment section was divided evenly between those expressing admiration for my goal, people calling me an idiot, and pedants crowing about a typo. Truly, it had reached every demographic.
I rode the high of having my first major publishing credit for a few weeks, which led to local interviews with radio and digital publications and hearing from people who I hadn’t spoken to since high school. I was even recognized by a stranger on the street. Fame!
Luxuriating in the moment, I reunited with Ashley, yet again. As geographically removed as we had ever been, we still couldn’t resist each other. Her absence from my life left gnawing emptiness. She flew out and together we ascended the Space Needle, visited the aquarium, attended a Ryan Adams concert, and spent the still warm evenings huddled in dark booths. We didn’t even fight, a true rarity for us.
Our third go-round lasted only two months.
For years, Ashley had ridden the ups and downs of my sporadic attention, tolerating an art project that she didn’t understand and I couldn’t justify. Whatever she saw in me, whatever drew us together, it was in spite of my single-minded dedication to art, not because of it. All she wanted was a family and a home near her parents and I, well, I couldn’t say what I wanted. But it wasn’t in North Carolina.
When I ended it for the third time, it was with the understanding that there wouldn’t be a fourth. As long as we were holding on to the possibility of reconnecting someday, we’d both be miserable. And so, with an eviscerating finality, it was over.
I told the doctor everything.
It was mid-January and I had returned to familiar territory: jobless and scrambling to put together enough income to make it another month.
In the wake of yet another break up and the rapidly dwindling interest of the public for 10 Cities/10 Years, my mental state had taken another precipitous drop. My circumstances didn’t help. Weeks before Christmas, my coworkers at Levi’s and I learned that our store was closing in January.
With the winter months a job desert, I responded to an online posting for a medical study. Déjà vu, all over again.
The psychologist, Dr. Alden, explained that they were studying the efficacy of a new anti-depressant. I had never taken any medication for my depression (self-diagnosed in high school, and confirmed every year of my life afterwards), but I was in a low place, and Seattle’s unvarying gray skies only made matters worse. I couldn’t keep fighting my brain chemistry unarmed.
For an hour and a half, I shared: career missteps, romantic failings, family history, and the current uneasy state of my nomadic existence. I checked off almost every box for depression – trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, suicidal ideations, loss of interest in activities, repetitive negative thoughts – and looked to be an ideal subject for the study. One thing gave her pause: my drinking.
“If I put you on this drug, you’ll have to cut out all alcohol. Is that something you think you can do?”
I paused a beat before saying, “Of course.” She must have known it was a lie, but she pushed ahead anyway.
Having reached the conclusion of my interview, she was preparing to sign off on my admission to the study when an off-hand comment made her go back to her notes. Earlier, I had mentioned feeling more buoyant in the sunnier months. She quickly flipped back through her folder.
She read off a series of questions.
Do I have periods where I feel sped-up? Do I rapidly swing back and forth between extremes of self-confidence and self-doubt? Does my libido increase dramatically in happier phases? Is my creativity affected?
The interview went on like that for a few more minutes, with me answering in the affirmative for nearly every inquiry. When she had read through the full list, she looked up at me, sighed, and informed me, “I can’t add you to the study.”
The medication was intended to treat clinical depression, which I’d always assumed I had. Instead, she explained, my symptoms suggested Bipolar II (typified by hypomanic phases instead of the more erratic manic episodes of Bipolar I).
Her diagnosis, cursory though it might have been, provided two strands of relief. Firstly, having a framework to describe the oscillating swings of mood and personality that had dictated my identity since I was a teenager helped me feel that I was no longer at the whim of some unknowable trickster god. I could understand my cycles, and therefore, myself.
The other source or relief: since I wouldn’t be in the study, I didn’t have to give up drinking.
Even without a job, I refused to spend every night locked up in my room. About once a week, I met my former coworker, Albert, at the Rabbit Hole, a cocktail bar less than ten minutes’ walk from my Belltown apartment. Sometimes we played a few abysmal rounds of trivia or a couple games of skeeball. Behind the bar was an alluring and statuesque Venus who Albert swore he’d marry one day, just as soon as she knew his name.
One February evening, while sitting at the bar, a short, young woman, plainly dressed, took the stool next to me. I’m not usually one to chat up a stranger (strangers generally approach me) but the whiskey had me feeling outgoing so I introduced myself. By chance, she was a visitor from Pennsylvania, traipsing through the Pacific Northwest on her own. We had an immediate rapport and began exchanging travel stories.
With a knowing look, Albert excused himself, leaving me alone with my new companion, Dahlia.
After a couple more drinks, I offered to give her the almost-local tour. From the Rabbit Hole, we walked a half mile through the cooling evening towards downtown Seattle to try Von’s, a garish cocktail lounge where they spin a wheel on the wall every half hour to determine what the current special will be. It’s usually some variant of martini in the $4 to $5 range.
Topics flowed with ease as we rapidly progressed through family, career, past travel, and even former relationships. We shared a restless worldview and waxed sibyllicly of the locales we would one day explore. A half dozen drinks into the night, we finished our discount martinis and ordered another. The quiet inner monologue that grows ever more insistent with alcohol was screaming that this was going somewhere.
Leaving Von’s, I offered to bring her to the Space Needle. It had grown late and the iconic site would be lit up brightly against the dark clouds. Like me, Dahlia preferred walking to taking a car, and since Seattle is deceptively small, we continued our evening with a mile-long stroll back through Belltown.
Conversation started to taper off during the walk, either because we had exhausted all obvious roads or because the alcohol had chemically transformed from social lubricant to depressant. Nearing the Space Needle, we stopped into Seattle’s beloved 24-hour diner, the 5 Point Café, for another round.
Dahlia made a point of mentioning that she was staying at a hostel, though she wasn’t quite sure where it was in relation to our current location. Sitting on those black vinyl stools, confident that I had accumulated enough evidence to know where this was going, I leaned in to kiss her.
Abruptly, she rebuffed me before I made contact. I retracted, stunned and ashamed. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d had a kiss rejected – whiskey isn’t just a social lubricant – but each time, it’s always deeply embarrassing. No means no, infinitum: I apologized and hoped to salvage the night by changing the subject.
I suppose the rejection – or, from her perspective, the intrusion – had irreparably shifted the tone of the evening, because the conversation quickly soured.
Slipping through an alcoholic black hole, I emerged on the other side firmly enmeshed in a heated debate with Dahlia about moral relativism. I’ve no memory of how the conversation began, but with each passing exchange, our volume increased in inverse proportion to our civility.
She argued that no person or society has the right to dictate to any other person or society their moral values. I took the, perhaps, more provincial view that a society – and by extension, humanity – could not function if we did not enforce some sort of moral code.
I assume we’re all familiar with Godwin’s Law.
“You would let the Nazis kill the Jews?” This inarticulately worded question seemed like the logical conclusion of her position, and I assumed the only possible response was “no.” I assumed wrong. “You would let the Nazis kills the Jews!” I repeated, this time not a question, but an accusation.
She held steadfast while my mind locked onto that one phrase like a glitching robot trapped in an inescapable loop. With deepening incredulity, I rebutted her every point with that refrain, until, finally, pissed off and not a little drunk, she stormed off to the restroom.
Ten minutes passed before I concluded that she had, in fact, exited 5 Points, leaving me with the bill and a hazy understanding of how the night had flipped so dramatically, so quickly.
And then the skies began to clear.
Seattle’s shifting weather mirrored my mental oscillations, and either because of that or despite it, the city remains among my favorites of the ten years.
Friendships made a big difference. One couple, Clarice and Tom, welcomed me into their home frequently and introduced me to varied and fascinating people, including Rhiannon, with whom I enjoyed burlesque shows, speakeasies, and casual misanthropy.
My two month job search ended in March when I found one of the most laidback and lucrative waiting jobs I ever had, bartending on Blake Island for visitors to Tillicum Village and the customers of Argosy Cruises. My young and sprightly coworkers often complained about working hard (we never did), and in their company I felt like an elder statesman, having lived a thousand different lives. I could have lived in that summer feeling forever, but I had more roads ahead.
With my exit a week away, my coworker, Brielle – an inveterate hostess – threw a raucous going away party at her apartment. Having seven cities in the books, I felt like a man on a victory tour. In two years I’d be in New York, and before that, all I had to do was live it up in New Orleans and Boston.
Little did I know that an old face from Chicago was about to blow everything up.
It was Seattle in late August; I couldn’t see them yet, but clouds were on the horizon. They always are.