Yesterday I divulged the secret that I have a thing for Portland low-brow haunts. You know, dive bars, hole-in-the-wall eateries, food carts... little known out of the way places with lot's of personality.
Anyway, the confession made me feel nostalgic.
I think one of the reasons I'm so drawn to these places, is that they were the settings where a love story unfolded. My love story. When I first met my husband, I was rather newly divorced. We worked together at another culinary school in town, became friends, and spent evenings after work, talking, eating, listening to music and eventually, falling in love around Portland.
Next month is our 5th wedding anniversary. This little story, tells about a night that may well have been the very beginning of our romance.
Good vs Evil at Kelly’s Olympian
We sat across from each other at Kelly’s Olympian bar downtown after work. I had never been to this sort of a bar before. It was dark, except for the numerous neon signs electrifying the walls. Classic motorcycles hung suspended over our heads and the tables were lined up closely against the wall. A thin strip of pathway separated us from the bar. There was so much to look at and so much to see, and I drank it all in. Sitting by himself at the end of the bar was a man in a cowboy hat. He had a handlebar moustache, plaid shirt, and long hair escaping out the back of his hat, trailing into a thin ponytail. He gripped a mug of beer in one hand, the droplets of condensation collecting around the base of it and onto the wet coaster, now clinging to the bar. He stared at the door and watched everyone who came and went.
Other patrons included the obligatory group of indie hipsters, who sat to our left and smoked. Most of them had dyed, long black hair with bangs draped across their faces and were cloaked in predictable uniform of black t-shirts and ripped denim jackets. They wore thick, black leather belts with studded silver edges, which didn’t seem necessary to hold skinny-leg, black and grey jeans to their undernourished frames. One wore cut-off black Carhart pants that were too big. He really did need the belt. He also wore black socks with faded black-and-white checkered Vans. I focused in on the Vans. I recognized those. I had some just like them in high school. Crap. Was he wearing them ironically, or were they actually cool again?
Kevin ordered us a sandwich. He said that he had been here a few times before, and since he wanted to show me a few other places, we thought it best to pace ourselves and split the sandwich. We ordered a couple of IPA’s that he recommended to go with our light dinner. I was happy to follow his lead. Visiting places like this was not a part of the life I was accustomed to, and I was fascinated. The music pulsed, and I tried to imagine myself,as I was back in my old life, sitting in this bar. It was very hard to picture.
Our turkey sandwich and a side of fries arrived, and we sipped our beer. I caught a glimpse of Kevin out of the corner of my eye. I secretly thought he was handsome, and I tried to act cool and nonchalant every time I was around him. I tried to be unimpressed and uninterested. I worked hard at not looking at him at all, directly or indirectly. I didn’t want to think of him in any way other than as a friend. After all, he had a girlfriend. A rock star girlfriend in fact. She was beautiful, had recorded her own CD, and had six pack abs according to the photos on her MySpace and Indie music website--I had a minivan, kids and a C section scar. In the back of my mind I kept thinking about how he was younger and so much cooler than me. I reminded myself that I was just along for the ride. I felt like Kevin was doing some sort of public service by escorting me around the city to show me the hip side of Portland nightlife. Why was he so polite in showing me around? I couldn’t help but wonder if he was a volunteer in a community outreach program to reintegrate ex-suburban soccer moms into the intricacies of city life.
Talking to Kevin was so easy to do. He never made me feel out of place or uncool. I wasn’t compelled to talk to him about things I used to always talk about, like the Fred Meyer ad from Sunday’s paper or which of the neighborhood kids was having a birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese or the McDonald’s Play land that weekend, or which detergent did the best job of getting out dried gum and grass stains. Things like this never entered into our conversations, and it was refreshing. Instead, we talked about passages from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and how, on nights when the moon was full, we both felt inspired to drive someplace open and high so we could bask in the moonlight. We talked about Spain, morning cartoons of our childhood, and which three things we would want with us if we were stranded on a deserted island.
We also talked about dreams.
“When I was a kid, I often dreamed about good versus evil… superheroes and villains, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader… that sort of thing. I was always “the good guy”, or “good-girl”… or, well, you know. It was weird though, and tough, actually,” I said to him as he dragged a French fry across a pool of ketchup and popped it in his mouth. “I mean, if you meet a truly evil person and you know you should kill them, in your dream, because you are good-- you still don’t really want to kill them. It’s a tough one…to have to destroy the evil thing, but you have something in your heart and your conscience that prevents you from doing it. I always want to try and give the evil being a second chance. Maybe if you give it a chance, it will learn from it and become suddenly good.”
I recounted one particular dream in which I was a hero, a superhero, but with no actual super powers. Instead, I dreamed I wrestled a witch with my bare hands, squeezing her nose and pushing her into the ground, but then feeling sorry for her when I knew it was the moment that I needed to finish her off.
“I just sat back and let go. I couldn’t do it. But when she rose up again to grab me, I had no choice but to kill her. I felt bad, though. I felt sadness and a loss. Even though I didn’t think I should, because she was evil. But I still regretted hurting her. I know it sounds ridiculous… silly.”
I’d never confessed the odd dream to anyone. As silly as it seemed, it had haunted me most of my life -- a childhood dream I’d never let go of.
“I know. I had one like that too,” he said. “In mine, I was in some kind of post-apocalyptic desert landscape. I had come across a village that was plagued by an evil presence. The head of the village was some kind of demon -- I remember thinking ‘It’s Beelzebub.’”
We both laughed out loud.
“It had a big bulky body but a tiny face on its head. It was pretty creepy looking. This demon had been wreaking havoc on the village, but it always blamed it on his sidekick, who was essentially the village idiot. And incredibly, everyone believed it, and each time something bad happened, they shrugged, as if to say ‘it’s the village idiot – we can’t do anything about it.’ I couldn’t believe it, but I knew that it was up to me to kill the demon.”
Kevin grabbed his pint glass and took a drink, and seemed to be collecting his thoughts. He looked around before re-establishing eye contact with me again.
“So I fought the demon. I don’t remember much about the actual fight, but I do remember having it on the ground and kneeling on its neck, suffocating it. I realized I was killing it, and I just slightly let my knee up. The moment I did, it filled with life and I immediately sensed the venom and evil resurge in it. In that split second, I dropped my knee, crushing its windpipe and killing it. It gave me no choice. There was too much at stake. I woke up and wrote that dream down because it was so wild.”
He paused, perhaps for dramatic effect.
“It’s been years now, but I still feel that offing Beelzebub was the right decision.”
He smiled wryly.
I sat there in this bar, looking at Kevin and considering that our dreams were eerily similar. I wondered if he’d told his girlfriend this story. I wondered if she had dreams about fighting evil and shared them with him. I secretly hoped not.
Kevin paid the bill, and I left the tip. We stepped out of the bar into the cool evening air. As the door swung shut, the loud, pounding music instantly became muffled, and I could hear the sounds of the city. For a minute we stood there just outside the front door. I realized I had a comfortable little buzz going, certainly from the IPA but partly from being out so uncharacteristically late. It was after 10 PM.
I looked down at my black boots, the leather of the toe reflecting in the street light. I thought high-heeled black boots might make me look like a superhero, maybe Batgirl or Cat Woman. Or even Lara Croft. I wondered if choosing your fashion statement based on a superhero instead of a model was okay. I didn’t care. I had always preferred superheroes to supermodels. Maybe all of my good-versus-evil-themed dreams had something to do with my lifelong fascination with them.
Finding out that Kevin had dreams like mine made me wonder even more about him -- what was he like? Why did he seem to have such a strong moral compass and sense of right and wrong? Did he get it from his parents? I wondered if it is something you come by naturally or by default because of how you are raised or what books you read or what movies you watch. Do church and religion really have much to do with understanding right from wrong and making decisions accordingly?
I wondered what it would be like to see me in my old church now, in my high-heeled black boots, black pencil skirt, hair smelling like cigarette smoke, and beer on my breath. What would Pastor Gill think? My mind wandered. I pictured a scene of superheroes sitting in church pews. Would they be in the front row? Who would preach to them? A regular, everyday pastor? More likely, someone famous, like the Pope. Or better yet, Professor Xavier from X-Men. I wondered if Xavier believed in God. I wondered what the sermon would be about. And would the superheroes swoosh their capes over the back of the pew or sit with it under them? Wouldn’t it get more wrinkled that way? No, the fabric was probably super enough that it didn’t wrinkle. I wanted some of that fabric. The effects of the beer must have begun to wear off. My true identity was beginning to surface.
“I want to show you something”.
Kevin started walking across the Old Town Street and I matched his brisk pace. We ducked under a brick archway and found ourselves in a small, open space, almost like a ceiling-less urban garden arena. There was ivy growing on the walls, and exposed brick from the adjoining buildings was crumbling and looked phosphorescent in the moonlight. There was a quiet grace about this place, beautiful in its decomposition. I wasn’t sure what it had been or what it was now. When I lowered my eyes I thought that maybe it was a parking lot during the day, but in the dark cover of night, I was beginning to sense its former self. I could almost hear echoes of the debauchery of frontier nightlife. It was a city ruin, alive with moonlit ghosts.
“Portland has a lot of places like this.”
I could tell that Kevin sensed the sublimity and history of this peculiar, mystical space. I wanted him to show me more. We stood there for a moment, looking around and at the moon overhead. We stepped back out onto the street.
We silently walked on, probably headed to the next bar for another drink and to listen to some music. We were side-by-side, moving with effortless purpose, my stride matching his.
Like Batman and Batgirl.