Visiting 20 Years Later
By Rasha Refaie
I stand in the aisle of the plane after landing, all of us passengers pressed together and desperate to exit. A small child behind me lifts my dress, flashing my rear to the other people. One man snickers, judging the shape of my buttocks no doubt, in my black Wolford tights. I ignore them all because I'm afraid I'll want to hit the little kid. Finally we escape and I get my suitcase. On the Link light rail system that stretches from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to University of Washington, an elderly woman bashes me in the head as she stumbles and loses her balance when the train begins to move (and she doesn't apologize). That morning's breaking news is that there is a killer on the loose who escaped from a nearby psychiatric hospital.
It's all so Seattle.
I haven't been here since 1997. Coming to Seattle almost twenty years after going to college here is like Halloween H20, where Jamie Lee Curtis's character Laurie Strode has faked her death, changed her identity to Keri Tate, and become a pill-popping, anxious alcoholic working as headmistress at a posh boarding school, only to find out that her brother – I almost wrote ex-brother – is on the loose again. Seattle -- or maybe me, back then, when I lived here -- is my Michael Myers. I am Laurie Strode/Keri Tate. But maybe to Seattle, I am that repetitive, ominous theme song? It all jumbles together. We're all rotating the roles in this movie and I don't know yet exactly how it ends.
I'm back in Seattle after all this time because John Toews, head of my former department, Comparative History of Ideas at the University of Washington, is retiring. He's a brilliant historian, a 1984 MacArthur fellow, and generally excellent at being super smart. And we're having a big party. Some of my old, dear friends from college will be there. So it's a sort of reunion.
This is my first time using the Link light rail. I immediately fall in love with it, grateful that a Siri-like voice explains everything to me – what the next stop will be, on what side the doors will open. The transportation system is new and clean and shiny. The windows offer a big wide view of everything around us: trees and distant hills, new developments and old bungalows. It is sunny and clear, seventy-five degrees. And I am shaking.
But it's not all bad. People compliment my suitcase (it's a Tumi – and it's pink) as I walk to my hotel in Pioneer Square, which was once the heart of the city when its founders landed here in 1852. I hear a lot of seagulls screaming overhead. The sky is impossibly blue. That isn't very Seattle. In my hotel room mirror, my reflection shocks me. My face looks sunken, old and dehydrated in this brilliant sunshine. Older than I look in New York.
The view from my room is of a historic building on Cherry Street and Second Avenue that for some reason or another has swastikas in the design motif near the roof, just under where the seagulls perch. I like that this is the corner I have, a street named after a fruit. I am comforted that I can look across into the windows of this building at 11:02 pm and see exposed ceiling beams, dangling chords of beaded white lights, other floors that are completely empty or under construction, like large galleries or small businesses. I don't see any people at all. Maybe one or two random men who look like they're doing manual labor. This building is my friend, my therapist, my cheerleader. You can do it, the empty floors tell me. You can get through the memories and still have this building to look at, to feel free. I'm having so many feelings about my lost, dumb, hectic youth that I need this neutral view, as if those bare loft spaces are there for me to hoard up my feelings and sift through them to decide which stays and which goes.
The next day my New York-pedicured feet look great in the sunny morning light. I cross and re-cross my feet on the stool in front of me, admiring the red nail polish. I never got pedicures or manicures when I lived here. I never spent much time in Pioneer Square either, which is why I chose it to be my neutral territory and home base for this trip.
This is the part of the movie where, if I'm Michael Myers, I steal the car from the lady at the rest stop bathroom and show up at the gates of the school. Except I take the Link light rail, get a day pass, and tremble with nerves until arriving at the last stop, University of Washington. I step out into the warm sunlight. The station is next to Husky Stadium, which was never a part of my student life at all. There is a pedestrian overpass. And there I am, on campus, moving with gooey legs toward Drumheller Fountain. Snow-capped mountains line the horizon in the distance. Students loll on the grass reading books or playing Frisbee. The trees are all in bloom. It's idyllic. I get lost finding my old path, but I have Google Maps. I know I have to get to the corner of NE 42nd Street and 15th Avenue NE, which is Ground Zero of my past.
In the early 90s my student life was sometimes spent on campus at Suzzallo Library. But mostly I was at Café Allegro, the coffee shop downstairs from my building, La Paz Apartments. The Allegro has been open since 1975; the building dates back to 1909. There is even a Starbucks connection. Once upon a time, Dave Olsen was the owner of this coffeehouse and it was his prototype for all the future Starbucks, until Nathaniel Jackson and Chris Peterson bought it from him in 1990. Right when I arrived.
I walk by. I'm not ready to go in yet. I'm not ready to sit down. So I walk. The first person I see from the old days is Nathaniel, who now works around the corner at Bulldog News. He doesn't see me, but I see him. I feel like I'm in a science fiction movie. The used bookstore, Magus Books, seems to be in a different spot but is nevertheless still there – probably it had always been in this spot, I just remembered it down the block. Orange King, a goofy restaurant, is also still here. The things that are the same shock me. The things that are new shock me as well.
Walking on "The Ave" as we used to call it – University Way NE – is for me a little apocalypse. My first purchase pilgrimage is at Bartell Drugs. This is where I spent years filling antidepressant prescriptions while having no energy at all, or having all kinds of energy but not enough confidence or finesse to channel it out into the world in a way that actually had any use.
I buy a bottle of water. I almost feel like I recognize the cashier, an older lady with white hair and a sweet disposition. Maybe she recognizes me too? But there's no way. It's my imagination. The store still has terrible dirty yellow lighting. But even this place is rearranged – the shelves, the products, there's an extra room. Everything, everywhere is rearranged. Everyone around me looks so young. I look wrinkled, tired, puffy. I walk around in jittery fear, possibly of my old life and who I used to be, and how lovely and charming it all seems now compared to the tortured thoughts I was having at that time.
It's time to enter my old coffee shop and take a seat. I'm meeting my friend Tracie, who teaches at the University of Texas now. We used to spend endless days here studying.
A bell jingles when I walk through the door just like it always did. There are the exposed brick walls, square tables with a splash of fabric beneath each glass top, and simple wooden chairs. One wall is windows, other walls are art, another wall is just posters - of events, concerts, theater, galleries. I see my old friend Nick working behind the counter and it takes him a minute to recognize me. When he does and says he's happy to see me, I'm shaking so badly I can't carry my tea to the table, and the girl behind me in line is nice enough to help me.
Tracie walks in. I am at the table nearest the door but I don't see her, because I'm digging around in my handbag for tissues. She recognizes me right away anyway, and it's like no time has passed. We immediately get into our old mode, our old friendship, even though I haven't seen her since 2000, in Berlin, when I was visiting family and she was doing research on her Ph.D. dissertation. We laugh endlessly. Nick even comments as he walks by, "I'm enjoying listening to you guys giggle like you used to do." We giggle some more and talk for a long time.
I have lunch at Thai 65 on University Way NE, around the corner from my old La Paz apartment but it wasn't there back then. My booth has a taped-up seat and the walls are painted orange. There's a big buffet that seems popular with the students. After lunch I walk by my building again. The front door is the same. I am not the same. I go back to the Allegro as if I had forgotten something, and Nick pours me a glass of wine and doesn't charge me a dime. And I realize how deeply I have missed this place.
The Mariners home opening game is that night, so the hotel bar/ restaurant is deserted. Great, I think, and sit down at the bar. I chat with the bartender and order a glass of wine and shrimp pot stickers. Before those pot stickers get anywhere near to arriving, there are three men sitting at the bar right next to me. One of them bumps my elbow with his. We're in an empty bar with a variety of seating options and two screens broadcasting the Mariners game, and yet I still don't have any elbow room.
Being here again reminds me how much time I spent lying on my bed, feeling my feelings. And so I find myself doing that again, spending two hours just lying on my bed, reviewing my feelings. I was so terrible at life in my twenties, and though a lot of people often are, I can't help but feel I was extra-terrible at it: romantic dalliances that knocked the wind out of me, classwork that overwhelmed and crushed me, either eating horrifying amounts of dairy, pasta and chocolate bars or going macrobiotic; making friends, making enemies. Then again, these were the years where I had the best skin in my life. It astonishes me now that I didn't feel more motivated to succeed at life when I had that perfect skin.
Saturday is another brilliantly clear day, full of sunshine. The air is fresh and smells clean. It feels good on my face as I walk down the street and head towards Pike Place Market. It is throbbing with people. I've never seen Pike Place Market this full in my life.
I walk to the pig statue. I also see a dog statue. There is a leopard print shoe chair out on the sidewalk for $95. A couple on a motorcycle yells at us tourists for being in the street. I inhale the fragrant smells of vanilla, coffee, and is that Mexican food? It's mouth-watering, Crowds. More crowds. I walk farther down to my other old apartment building in Belltown. That neighborhood is now an extreme combination -- luxury glass towers are under construction or already exist everywhere I look, but I think I’m seeing a lot of homeless men, too.
And then as I walk by a coffee shop, an employee releases a moth that had been trapped inside.
That is so Seattle.
This is the day of our big party. I take the Link train from Pioneer Square to the Columbia City stop, with plans to meet two friends early. A guy on the train tells me I smell good and he likes my pleather jacket and my hair fascinator. People are so vocal in expressing their compliments here. Then we talk about drag queens, and I understand he is more than likely gay. I enjoy our chat more.
I get out at Columbia City station, walk a few blocks through small, colorful bungalow houses with blossoming trees and an intense fragrance of honeysuckle hanging in the air. The neighborhood looks like a weird version of the Hamptons. I see one of the residents working on her garden as I pass by rows of red and purple flowers and trees adorned with pink blooms.
Our meeting point is Lottie's Lounge on Rainier Avenue South. My friends and I hug, and I order a Cava and olives. The place is funky and cute and reminds me of something I maybe would have seen in the Seattle neighborhood of Fremont back in the 1990s. Matt, Tracie and I laugh and chat like no time has passed at all. The last time I saw Matt, he was visiting New York City in maybe 2000, and we briefly met over a coffee. We talk about everything, including Matt's chickens that he keeps in his yard. He shows me a photo of his birds. They're beautiful. One of them is named Edith, which makes me like the chickens even more.
Columbia City Theater, where the Toews party is held, has been around since 1917 and hosted everything from vaudeville and jazz to punk and raves. The decor, from a 2010 remodeling, is all exposed brick walls and sunlight streaming in through the windows. The look matches the Mexican food theme and live Banda music for our party. There is an impressive taco bar spread: a long line of tortillas, beans, chicken, rice, potatoes, cilantro, cheese, lettuce and salsas and guacamole. I make a pretty display out of my food plate. The music and toasts begin. My friends are the kind of people who talk and joke during toasts, which makes me adore them that much more. I start to feel a glow in their presence. We're still us. We're still hilarious and amazing (in our own minds, with each other).
It's a long night, with lots of drinks. My former thesis advisor, the glorious Leroy Searle, who tolerated my senior thesis and somehow got me through the process, shows up at the party. We embrace. I feel lucky that I ended up in this department.
Toews is magnificent. He still has his lisp, which I always found endearing. He is smart as hell. I love the things they say about him and our program. He actually remembers me, and we have several opportunities to chat.
The smell of cinnamon fills the room as the staff brings out dessert trays of churros, chocolate, and whipped cream. Toews's grown kids give a toast that's funny and irreverent, just as I imagine their father taught them to be.
The next day, Sunday, I have to check out of my hotel at noon. The sidewalks are empty as I walk downtown. I go to Fran's on First Avenue to buy some chocolates. The shop has Prosecco bottles lovingly displayed in the spare, precisely shelved interior design. Gleaming pale floors make it feel very bright and everything looks… expensive. But it's a relief that finally we have some gray clouds in the sky and cooler temperatures. That's the Seattle I always knew – not the hyperactive sunlit place I've had so far. I need some overcast, otherwise this just isn't really Seattle. I finally get my fix, and then after Fran's, cross the street to go to Seattle Art Museum.
I act like a supremely nervous dork when I buy my entrance ticket. I don't even know why. Doing things out of my routine makes me jangly. It's embarrassing, but I can't do too much about it. I wander through the Rauschenbergs and various other artworks before going up to the exhibit "Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic" on the fourth floor. It is marvelous. It begins with an impossibly great painting of Michael Jackson in mounted Napoleon mode, cherubs fluttering near his head. It somehow took a trip to Seattle for me to see this art made in Brooklyn. The exhibit is such a pleasure. As I stroll around taking photos, I keep hearing howls of laughter. Everyone is loving this exhibit, even the guards.
If I'm Laurie Strode, this is the part of the movie where I decide I'm going to win and vanquish my shitty brother. I walk back along First Avenue toward Pioneer Square and plant myself at Café Bengodi. It's a cute little Italian place on the corner of First and Cherry, and it's been there since 1999. I take in the quirky atmosphere and décor and tweet a few pictures of the Wiley show. The restaurant has pasta puttanesca on the menu. My head starts to feel light and my eyes almost tear up.
I used to eat pasta puttanesca almost every day when I lived in the University District and a friend of mine was a waiter at an Italian restaurant on University Way NE. My tendency to sit for long periods at Italian restaurants has been going strong ever since. I haven't eaten this dish in a million years.
It's tart and salty and I can feel how it's both me in the past and me in the present eating these olives and anchovies and capers mixed in with spaghetti. I suddenly can't understand why I haven't eaten this dish in so long, why I haven't been back to Seattle in so long, why I shunned my memories of my twenties for so long. I drink many leisurely glasses of white wine while chatting with the waiter, who pretends to think I am attractive because I am there alone and I'm drinking. We have a lively, interesting conversation about the old days in this city: the music, the cheap rent. None of these exist anymore – there is no good music, there is no cheap rent, it is all glass towers.
My theory about the Halloween movies is that Laurie Strode and Michael Myers are the same character all along. Metaphorically, anyway. He is her pooka, or her poltergeist. He won't vanish until she decides to make peace with her dark side. Now I think I've made peace with my dark twenties and how dumb they were. Seattle is a different place now, just as I am a different person. The spell is broken. I pick up my suitcase from the hotel, take the elevator down into my newly beloved Link light rail heading for SeaTac Airport, and glide off in the sunlight – the clouds have parted now in the late afternoon – to fly away from my own private Haddonfield.
Published April 25th, 2016
Rasha Refaie has written for The Normal School Magazine, Newsday, New York Press, and others. She lives in the East Village.