LETTER TO A STRANGER: PORTLAND, OREGON
BY WILL BOAST
I barely knew you—I hadn’t seen you since high school—and I hated you. You were my brother’s best friend.
Fourteen years later, we met in a bar in Portland, Oregon. I was on tour, playing drums with my band. I don’t remember the name of the bar, only that, as I waited for you to arrive, I was gulping down my beer, trying to hold down the scream that had been gathering all those years, since the night of the accident.
I’d always known why Rory had wanted to be your friend. You showed him partying, girls, getting wasted, getting high. We’d lost our mom the year before, and Rory and I were grieving in mutually unfathomable ways—me by trying to be perfect, him by going as far off the rails as possible. That year, he all but stopped talking to me. You made my best friend a stranger to me.
What would I do when I saw you? We both knew I blamed you for that night. Six months after you guys graduated, you, Rory, and another buddy of yours were driving down to a party in the city. Beer, pot, a dark country road, an eighteen-wheeler out of nowhere, your buddy too loaded to stop in time—I probably knew more of the details than you did. I’d researched. A lot. But the only thing that mattered: Rory and your buddy died on impact; you walked away without scratch. You were the last person to see my brother alive. Maybe I’d ask you what was the last thing he said. Christ, maybe I’d want to know what you heard, what you saw, as you stumbled away from the wreck. I was clutching my glass hard. Then you were there beside me, shaking my hand.
I hardly knew what to say. “Come to this bar much?”
“Sure,” you said quietly, “after work sometimes.” You told me you had a large-scale printing business. Signs, banners, that kind of thing. Good work, you said, and I agreed, mechanically. Silence shoved itself between us.
“But the real reason I’m living out here,” you finally said, “is the kite surfing.”
Portland, you explained, was surrounded by bays and rivers perfect for kiting. You seemed both hesitant and eager to tell me about it, maybe because that silence felt so heavy. You showed me some photos on your phone, shots you’d taken with a camera rigged to your kite. They showed you cutting across the water or straining back to control the kite’s bar. Another showed you suspended maybe ten feet above a wave. “Wicked air,” you said.
Fourteen years, and you hadn’t really changed—still that kid in the backward ball cap and tie-dyed Phish shirt. Rory loved Phish, too, and I, of course, despised them. Back then, I spent every free moment with my geeky jazz ensemble buddies, dissecting obscure records and mocking popular kids like you.
We ordered another round. You asked about my band.
“It’s sort of folk-inflected,” I said, “but not actually folk. We’re basically super mathy, female-fronted, R&B/art rock. Basically.” A smile flitted across your face. Maybe I hadn’t changed that much either.
The easy conversation was done. I couldn’t help studying your face. You looked trim and tanned and as uncomplicated as always. But then I saw it in your eyes—a startle, a flinch, frozen there for fourteen years—the same look I saw when you last shook my hand, at Rory’s funeral.
“That night...” you began. “We didn’t see the truck until we were on it. We just, I don’t know, there no was time to… When I woke up, I was in a ditch.”
I was shaking, boiling over, the scream clawing its way up.
“I miss him,” you said. “I still think about him every day. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better friend.”
My rage surged. You took my brother away from me, twice.
But then something just slumped in me. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t put the accident on you. Rory needed a way out from our dad’s disapproval, from my irony and snobbery. He found you, and you were just doing what so many high school kids do. My brother put himself in that car that night. Every night another drunk, giddy teenager is putting himself in that car.
“It’s good to hear from people who knew him,” I said. “To talk about him.”
“Yeah,” you said deliberately, “it feels good.”
Maybe we were both a reciting a script, the kinds of things everyone says in mutual remembrance of the dead. But I was surprised, too, to find that I really meant it. I was glad to have met you here, halfway along our line of mutual grief.
Yet, as we settled our tab, you didn’t un-flinch. And my scream didn’t unwind. We said goodbye. (Four years have gone by, I haven’t talked to you since.) I left the bar and took a cab to the club where my band was playing, feeling a little stomach sick.
But soon, with our bassist’s amp whomping next to me, I found myself lost in the dark, warm pulse of a song, where I could forget everything, beat and hammer the drums until there was only quiet left inside me.
When I think of you now, I see you on your board, the wind tugging your kite through the spray and chop. The bar feels so heavy, sometimes you can barely hold on. Then you hit a wave, just the right wave, and you float up far above it, hanging, for a moment, somewhere between heaven and earth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Will Boast is the author of Power Ballads, a story collection, and Epilogue, a memoir. His essays and journalism have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among other publications. His next book, Daphne, a novel, is out with Norton in early 2018, and he recently wore a goat, very much on assignment.
Photo adapted from Thomas Hawk.