(or, Its Hard to Find a Friend in the City)
The sky above Portland held Liesls attention and her lunch
date did not.
"I think its going to rain," Joanna
Were in Portland, Liesl thought. Of
course its going to fucking rain.
After three months in the Northwest, Liesl
questioned her decision to leave Los Angeles. LA offered the depth of a wading pool and
the culture of a petri dish, but she had never lacked friends there. In a megalopolis of
fifteen or twenty million people, its impossible not to connect. Cozy, scenic
Portland overflowed with tattooed hipsters too busy self-publishing poetry chapbooks and
getting loaded on local microbrews to bother returning calls from a new arrival. When the
walls closed in and the phone didnt ring and her e-mail box contained no new
messages, she contemplated dyeing her hair blue and getting a labret. Thinking shed
have better luck when she lingered in bookstores and cafés, she wrote her first poems
since high school. Theyd give her something to talk about with Portlands
cigarettes-and-Sartre set. In theory it should have worked; in practice, she still got
blown off. Creative enough to know that her poems sucked but not creative enough to know
how to fix them, she burned her notebook and passed the time watching rented DVDs and
reading library books by the dozen.
Within three weeks of her move, she had noticed a
chill when she tried to strike up a conversation outside of the office. She asked a
friendly co-worker (also a fairly recent California refugee), Is there something wrong
This citys grown too fast, Ed
explained. It thinks its still a small town. Even the new people want to think
theyre in a small town. So they circle the wagons and keep to themselves. The
Scandinavian roots dont help. People with centuries of cold in their genes take a
long time to thaw out. But dont worry, theyre much worse in Seattle.
Youll get used to it.
Thanks, I feel so much better now, Liesl said.
Ed said, I have a friend you should meet.
Youll like her.
Liesl made a mental list of things she liked about
Portland: the clean air, the mild weather, the rain, the misty hills west of the city, the
mellow skyline (skyscrapery enough to keep the eye busy but not overwhelming like
Manhattan or San Francisco), the relative lack of traffic, and the sheer retropolitan
loveliness of the place. The coffee shop across from her apartment served espressos just
the way she liked them, blacker than Satans cough syrup. She enjoyed the walkable
nature of the city. You could spend all afternoon reading at a snug sidewalk café, and
when it was time to go home, you could jump on a streetcar. Not once had she heard a
horror story about a two-hour commute under baking brown skies.
The words Grind your teeth and remind yourself
youre happy popped into her head. Who had said that? Her mother? Her sister? Ed?
Joanna asked her a question.
Youll like her, Ed had said. Liesl kept
waiting for it to happen.
"What?" Liesl blinked. "Im
sorry," she lied. She returned to the truth: "I was watching a man across the
street. I thought he was going to drop the package he was carrying."
Joanna turned to look.
"Hes inside that shop now. He almost
didnt make it, though."
"Portland is so amazing, in terms of
people-watching!" Joanna said. "Theres always something to see here,
especially when youre in the Pearl."
You havent travelled much, have you? Once
youve seen one tongue-piercing, youve seen them all.
Portlands Pearl District had been
transformed overnight, more or less, from a derelict patch of brick warehouses north of
downtown into an upscale wonderland of condos and cafés. Liesl wanted to buy a loft in
the area but prices had wafted out of her reach. After the endless pavement of Los
Angeles, her soul craved cobbled streets and convenience. Yes, Portland had a lot to offer
in terms of people-watching, but Liesl felt somewhat jaded after the nonstop human freak
show offered up by Southern California.
"I think Im going to have a Caesar
salad," she said, giving in to a moment of nostalgia for the Golden State.
"White wine with that?" Joanna asked.
"Oregon Pinot Gris is some of the best in the world. The climate here is very similar
to Bordeaux. Grapes that grow well in Bordeaux grow well here too. Did you know that most
red Bordeaux is really Pinot Noir? I didnt know that until I moved here. Isnt
that just fascinating?"
"Will anybody ever understand France?" Liesl
She spoke French fluently. Joanna didnt need to
know that. When would the waitress come back? Maybe a glass or two of Pinot Gris would be
just the thing. Liesl intended to work from home this afternoon, so her jet fuel breath
wouldnt attract managerial notice. Make that three glasses. She could stand in front
of her bathroom mirror, twist blond knots in her hair, and ask herself what the hell had
ever made her think leaving Los Angeles would be a good idea.
"I want geoduck chowder," Joanna announced.
"I know it tastes like sperm but
well, you know. Is that such a bad
"De gustibus non disputandum est,"
Liesl said, knowing Joanna wouldnt get it.
"Was that Italian?"
"Romanian," Liesl said. "Oh look,
heres the waitress."
They placed their orders.
"How long have you lived in Portland?" Liesl
asked. The distant whirr of a streetcar distracted her.
"Oh, about ten years, I think." Joanna
looked into space and counted time on her fingers. She mumbled something and nodded to
herself. "I grew up in Coeur dAlene, Idaho. Can you imagine that?"
"No," Liesl said. "It sounds like a
medication. Couer dAlene, cortisone, Dramamine
. When I was a kid I thought
dopamine was a drug. Imagine how disappointed I was to learn its a
"Theres not much neurotransmission going on
in Coeur dAlene, believe me," Joanna said. "I went to college in Boise and
it was better, you know, it was bigger, but it wasnt what I wanted."
"Ive never been to Boise," Liesl said.
She wondered about her own neurotransmitters. Did they need amplification or sedation?
Both? Maybe all they needed was more wine. She thought, Something from Napa, damn it!
Joanna shrugged. "Its a town that wants
to be a city. Give it another five years. Let the annual murder rate and the average
commute time rise, and itll be a better place to live."
Except for the bit about the murder rate, Ed had said
something similar about Portland. He had moved up from Sacramento three years earlier. At
first, most displaced Californians feel that way about this place, hed added. As
small towns go, this ones as urban as they come.
"I thought art galleries and Thai restaurants
were the usual indicators," Liesl said. Faint hope bloomed within her. Not showy
camellia blossoms, no ostentatious pink rhododendrons, more of a ground cover. Emotional
vetch. Good enough; shed take it. After prattling on about nothing their first
twenty minutes together, Joanna was finally becoming interesting. "Unless the
restaurants are run by cannibals, I guess. Or unless youre one of the corpses."
"To corpses!" Joanna raised her glass.
"Do people get murdered in Boise?"
"They must," Joanna said. "I dont
know. Arguments about sheep, maybe."
"So where did you live after Boise?"
Liesl thought shed misheard.
"Brooklyn. I started law school at Hofstra and
quit after my first year. I double-majored in business and information technology, and
after I graduated, I went into the Peace Corps and taught entrepreneurship skills in the
Ukraine. It wasnt gritty enough, so once my gig was up, I moved to Cambodia and
taught English. Sometimes I miss the smell of Phnom Penh. Urine, fish sauce, and hot dust.
Hows that for a leap? Phnom Penh to Portland?"
Law school? The Peace Corps? It wasnt gritty
enough? But you were supposed to be a vapid brunette, Liesl thought. Youre
making my preconceptions hurt. The stretch marks will never fade, not even if I
soak my brain in Clorox.
"Sounds unappetizing, but I bet the
people-watching was better there," Liesl ventured.
"Not really. Not better. Just different. People
here usually have all their limbs still attached. Stumps have their appeal as long as
theyre not still bleeding, but
I dont know. I like the way people look
"Like they overslept and put on the cleanest
things they could find on the floor before running out the front door?"
"Something like that. Except for the junkies
around the Lloyd Center, nobody looks like a poster child for a UN campaign against land
"This is the kind of town where Elmers
School Glue is popular as a hair-styling product."
"You have no idea," Joanna said. "At
least the people here use it to fix their hair and not to glue their body parts back
on." She rolled her eyes, then stopped and seemed to be staring at something
overhead. More clouds, Liesl assumed. People here found the cloudscape endlessly
fascinating. If you stared at them long enough, you could almost hear them say baaa.
Who had told her that? Ed?
"Do I want to have an idea?"
"Is there a man balancing on top of that
Liesl looked up. She squinted into the bright silver
glare of the clouds and saw an outline standing at the building across the street.
"Thats not a ledge. Its the
"He looks like hes going to jump,"
Joanna said. "Did you know some high school kids out in the suburbs formed a Suicide
Club? They even tried to get it officially recognized. This place does that to people. Do
you think hes really going to jump?"
"Hed have done it by now if he really
wanted to kill himself," Liesl said.
"Are you ready to order?" The waitress
startled Liesl. "What are you looking
oh my God! Somebody call 911!"
She raced inside, trailing a cloud of flowery perfume
Liesl couldnt identify. Must have just started her shift, she thought. It
hasnt worn off yet.
"Do you think the copsll come before he
jumps?" Joanna asked.
"Do they ever?"
"I dont know. Ive never seen anybody
leap off a building before."
"And I bet youve never done it,
either," Liesl said.
"Not since I was a little girl. I followed my big
brother around all the time. He and his friends liked climbing up on the roof of the
house. One day they decided it was low enough to the ground for them to jump. It was
autumn, so first we all raked up a huge pile of leaves to land in. Up we went, and
everybody jumped. I went last. I got scared, but I did it anyway."
"And did you break any bones?"
"No, but this one boy named Kenny fractured
something in his foot. We all got yelled at but my father had that look in his eye. I
think he wished he could get away with jumping into a pile of leaves, you know?"
The man tottered. His arms pinwheeled. Liesl held her
breath, waiting to see whether hed plummet. She scanned the café and the sidewalk
to see whether anyone else had noticed, but apart from their waitress, no one had.
From this angle, Liesl couldnt tell what type of
clothes the man was wearing, how old he might be, or anything. She searched his outline
for clues. Backlit by the sky, he didnt offer much information, just a dark shape
against blue and puffs of white. Maybe a baseball cap, maybe loose pants and a jacket.
What could his motivation be, she wondered. He wasnt screaming for attention but he
wasnt choosing the most private way to dispatch himself, either.
Prior to her move, several friends had warned her,
independently of each other, to avoid the Northwest. Visit in midwinter, they said.
Youll understand why so many antidepressants are prescribed up there. Why the
suicide rates so high. The unremitting clouds and rain make people lose their shit
in a dark and fatal way. Someone even did a study of serial murderers and found that a
disproportionate number of them grew up in the Northwest. Theres not enough sunlight
there. Dont go. It messes people up.
Liesl searched her soul for murderous urges. Finding
none, she concluded she hadnt lived in Portland long enough. Maybe after a few more
years of snubs from the hipper-than-thou locals, shed want to eviscerate a few with
"If he lands on his legs," Joanna said,
"he might live. But if he dives, hes toast. The only question left is how much
of a mess hell make."
"Hes wearing a baseball cap, isnt
Sirens droned in the distance, coming closer.
"Yes, I think so. Wheres the waitress? I
need more alcohol."
"Want to bet the impact will knock his cap
off?" Liesl finished her drink. "Fuck, I shouldnt have said that. You must
think Im a ghoul."
A mans voice broke her concentration: "She
may not, but I do. You both are."
Liesl had forgotten other people might be sitting
within earshot. She turned to see the offended party. The man looked like a rumpled
college lecturer, the sort whose suits are always a decade out of date and whose trousers
float an inch above his ankles. He had a bad case of what the Japanese call bar-code
head, arguably the best euphemism ever for an uneven comb-over. His face burned with
She enjoyed the moment like a fine Pinot Noir from
Oregon or Bordeaux or Zimbabwe or the Gobi Desert or wherever the hell Joanna had said was
climatically ideal for that type of grape. She held Bar-Code Heads shock on her
tongue and rolled notes of flavor back and forth like oenological marbles: black cherries,
horror, vanilla, dismay, and luxurious tannins.
Their offended fellow diner threw a few bills at his
plate and stormed off. A five blew off the table and landed on Liesls foot. No one
but Joanna was looking. All heads strained toward the sky. The mans arms pinwheeled
again. He tottered. And Liesl pocketed the money. Let the waitress think shed been
"He was thinking How could a little blond
piece like her have such ghoulish thoughts in her head?" Joanna said. "It
was written all over his face."
Liesl shook her head. "You left out one part. He
would have prefaced it with Fuck, man. Dont all straight men start sentences
that way? Like, when theyre appalled or grossed out or whatever?" She flapped a
well-manicured hand at the empty chair where the offended party had been sitting. "I
dont know. There are women and there are women. I used to want to be a doctor. As an
undergrad I took mortuary science because the courses were never full, and I thought
theyd be more practical then the usual biology dreck, so
"You changed your major?" Joanna seemed
intrigued and surprised in equal measure.
Liesl nodded. "I got tired of stitching anuses
Joanna shook her head. "I can see that becoming
tiresome." She raised her glass, and said "To anal needlepoint!"
"Anal cross-stitch!" They clinked glasses.
Liesl looked around to see whether she was offending anybody else. When nobody recoiled in
righteous horror, she felt pins and needles of disappointment. "So not to go too far
off the point, but, like, do you think hes really going to jump?"
They squinted up. Liesl had a brief image of new
buildings being constructed over the streets and sidewalks, forming bridges overhead.
Ultimately the city would be a solid reef of brick and glass and mortar. People would move
among the conjoined buildings like tiny fish through coral. The thought of the crowds gave
her the horrors. She watched the would-be jumper totter again, flailing to keep his
"Its a bit windy," Liesl said.
"A bit. You know, hes kind of a pussy,
isnt he?" Joanna asked.
Liesl opened her mouth to agree but the screeching
arrival of two police cruisers interrupted her. Four officers leapt from their cars. Two
took positions on the sidewalk, gesturing for the flock of rubberneckers to move away. The
other two raced inside, one barking into his walkie-talkie. A cloud of noise and
turbulence lingered in their wake.
"How exciting," Liesl said. "Isnt
"Moist panty alert!" Joanna said. "I
think hes going to jump. Look at him
you can tell."
Liesl had to admit, something in the mans
posture had changed. He looked over his shoulder as if to see what was making a noise
behind him. Liesls neck began to cramp from looking up, and the squinting was going
to give her a headache sooner or later. She wished the guy would either climb down or jump
and get it over with. Does this make me a bad person?
"Ill make you a bet," Joanna said.
"That he jumps? Foregone conclusion," Liesl
said. "The only worthwhile bet is how long it takes him to get airborne."
Joanna shook her head. "The copsll rig up a
safety net first. Isnt it funny how the law tries to prevent you from ending your
own life, as if it doesnt belong to you? I think people who want to kill themselves
should be left alone to do it. Its not like you do it on a whim, you know? Hmm,
its double coupon day at Safeway but theyre out of 1% milk. Should I buy a
different brand instead or kill myself? Guess Ill open a vein. Hmm, what aisle are
the box cutters in? People dont operate that way. They dont."
"I bet hell jump before
hes gonna do it
But the man regained his balance. A collective sigh of
relief (or disappointment?) rose from the gaggle of onlookers who had drifted up in
ones and twos to watch the drama. A third police car arrived, distracting Liesl for a
moment. Portlands police cruisers didnt look austere, as she expected them to.
They were basic white sedans with a rose logo painted on the sides and PORTLAND POLICE
spelled out in a simple font. In a place as huggy-friendly as the City of Roses purported
to be, she supposed it made sense, but she wanted police cars to look like theyd
been manufactured in the Death Star. She directed her attention upward again. The clouds
had parted, revealing a slice of diluted sunlight. Liesl blinked. Her eyes stung. Not
wanting to miss anything, she fought an urge to rummage in her purse for Visine. The black
outline tottered again.
"The cops wont make it," Joanna said.
"And the angles wrong to shoot him with a beanbag gun. That would only work if
theres a marksman in an elevator now, in one of these buildings." She gestured
at the midrises around them. "Put a guy with a rifle on about the third floor, and he
could get a clear shot. But they wont do that. I think this assholes going to
"How far will he splatter?"
There, thats what weve been coming
toward, isnt it? Liesl looked down to hell with the jumper and
stared into the bottom of her wine glass. The waitress had obviously forgotten about them.
Like everybody else, she was staring at the suicide wannabe up above.
"That depends," said Joanna, and her tone of
voice made Liesl look up. Joanna shrugged. "You studied mortuary science. Youve
seen people make a mess of themselves before. Does he dive or does he jump feet first? If
he decides to be Greg Louganis, well be wiping blood and brain matter off our
"But if he jumps feet first, he might not make
such a mess. Youre right," Liesl said. "For a second there I was afraid
Id gone too far."
"I just went through a bad breakup," Joanna
said. "Did Ed tell you that? I walked in on him my boyfriend, not Ed
screwing my best friend. Who is also a guy. Is. Was. As in, was my best friend.
Whatever, fuck verb tenses, Im not a big fan of men right now. I hope the
motherfucker jumps, and the sooner the better."
"Which is all a long way of saying I didnt
go too far," Liesl said. "Thanks for easing my mind. So youre saying you
think hes going to jump before the cops get to him, right?"
Joanna nodded. She looked like a lioness about to rip
the throat out of a gazelle. Liesl had never gone on safari but she imagined it must be
something like this. You dont have to go to Botswana to see blood-lust.
"Lunch is on you if he jumps and splatters,
Joanna shook her head. "Lunch is on me if he
jumps. If we get splashed, were both calling in sick and getting wasted this
afternoon. Drinks are on me, too. But only if we get splattered."
"Cool," Liesl said. She wondered if gore
would ruin the color of her hair. No big deal. It was time to see her stylist. Hed
ask what on earth happened and shed say something like I went to a sex party in
an abattoir because sometimes the truth is just too weird. "But what if he
doesnt jump? Guess that means Im buying, then?"
Joanna smiled and nodded. "Works for me. I hope
youre not disappointed to be the loser if he lives?"
"Its not the worst thing in the world.
Guess that means well have to do this again sometime, and Ill buy the
"Do you really think well find another
place with a suicidal loser on a roof?"
"I dont know. Its Portland. Who can
Joanna looked up. "Either way, I guess we both
win. You havent been in the Northwest long, have you? Its hard to find friends
here. I know what its like, so
" She raised her glass, which contained as
little wine as Liesls. "Is this enough for a toast?"
"If you dont mind toasting with backwash, I
They clinked glasses.
And at that precise moment, the man on the rooftop
This made Liesl happier than shed been in weeks.