The Guest House


Last summer I’d successfully moved from Chicago to Portland, but my dishes were in the next state up. My cousin Paul had them, and had since May. The china belonged to his parents, a gift from their wedding thirty years earlier. A place setting for 12, it consisted of dinner and salad plates, bowls, tea cups, and saucers, all decorated in a delicate blue and yellow flowered pattern. Too formal for regular use, they went mostly unused for three decades. But two years ago, when my Chicago boyfriend and I broke up and he moved out, he took his dishes with him. My aunt gave me hers, and they were precious to me in my time of sudden need.

A year and a half later I drove them from Chicago back to her house in Columbus a few weeks before I moved to Portland, thinking she would want them back. She was surprised to see them, but I told her I was too nervous to move them in an Amtrak shipping load with the rest of my things. She offered to send them with her sons on their upcoming road trip and suggested I go get them from my oldest cousin’s house at some point once I was settled in Portland. Olympia was only a two-hour drive, after all.

My three cousins left Columbus, Ohio the weekend after the youngest’s high school graduation and the brothers headed toward Washington. Paul had lived in Olympia since he was 18, having attended Evergreen for school. That was six years ago, and he showed no signs of leaving the Pacific Northwest. I remember feeling surprised that he had chosen to go to college so far away, but it was clear the move had suited him. He moved into a group house full of other college kids after his first year there, and the housemates would often host house shows for local bands and ones traveling through on their way to Seattle or Portland. The Guest House, they called it. It was a little green ranch-style house, which I’d only seen in pictures.

I had never expected to end up in the Pacific Northwest myself but nevertheless, I moved to Portland in July, into a tiny but comfortable studio apartment in the northwest quadrant of the city. In August, I decided to go see Paul in Olympia and retrieve the dishes. I texted him to ask if he was around the weekend of the 21, and he called me in response, taking me by surprise. My dad is the only person I still speak with on the phone — everything with everyone else is communicated via text. We made plans for that weekend, when I would drive up to Olympia after work on a Friday.

“Leave as early as you can,” he advised. “Traffic is so bad.”

He wasn’t kidding. A million other cars competed with mine for space on I-5 toward Seattle. Eventually I made it the 100 miles north to Olympia and parked outside the little green house. He gave me a hug and we walked over to a bar nearby for dinner. We smoked his Marlboros as we waited for our burgers out on the patio in the August sun.

Paul is tall, with curly brown hair and an extremely rueful smile. He has always seemed to me like the type who could start a cult and probably get away with it for a while. His brain likes math and art equally, a combination I’ve never been able to relate to, but one that is common in our family. He is a musician, an artist, and braver than me. In high school he would sneak out of the house and attend literary parties with people much older than he was, and would have probably done so for longer had he not been spotted by friends of his parents.

He loves to play devil’s advocate. I remember him once getting into a debate with one of my girlfriends from college about the ethics of hunting. I can’t remember who was on which side of the argument, but I do remember my friend’s frustration at being so challenged by a 14-year-old.

Since my own mom’s passing, his has become a mother to me, the woman I go to with questions about ovarian cysts or new guys in my life. His father has given me career advice and served as a sounding board for my complaints about bad edits and bad editors.

Now Paul works on websites during the day, from home, and on his art in his spare time. Over dinner, he surprised me and told me he was leaving Olympia. He’d found a large one-bedroom in a town called Hoquiam, more than an hour away, on the coast. He talked about how few people lived there, and that seemed to appeal to him. I wondered what had changed his mind: A house always full of people, or the state of the house itself?

His lease in Hoquiam was for six months, and he was leaving Monday. He said wanted to be alone. He wanted to get a cat and have his own space and make his own messes and clean them up himself. He wanted room to draw, and the time and solitude to create. I understood these feelings and thought about how freeing it had been to live by myself for the first time, in my small Portland studio.

I nodded sympathetically. It felt nice catching up over a beer, both of us finally grown ups, and glad to see each other in a new place.

After we ate, we walked to a corner store for more cigarettes so I wouldn’t be bumming off of him all weekend. Then he took me to Cafe Vita, a coffee shop in Olympia. The walls of the coffee shop were devoted to Paul’s drawings for the entire month of August, and they were for sale. I looked at them for a long time as he sat and read at one of the tables. I picked out a drawing I liked and told him I wanted to buy it. He told me it was funny I’d picked the one I did, because it was one out of only two or three that had been drawn in Portland. While many of his drawings were in black and white, the one I’d picked had a splash of yellow. I liked it.

I told him I had cash, but he told me I would have to wait until the show was over to claim it.

“Oh,” I said, feeling stupid. It hadn’t occurred to me that buying a piece of art on display wasn’t like picking up something you needed on the way home from Target.

We headed back to the Guest House, and the inside of it was a lot like I’d pictured it. A small crowd of early 20-somethings were gathered in the kitchen, the air thick with the smoke from a pan of slightly burnt fried eggs in oil. A girl there was baking a pie and offered me a slice.

One of their friends had been visiting all week from the Midwest but was leaving that night. Paul offered to drive her to the airport and I went with them, sitting alone in the backseat of his 1982 Mercedes Benz. With her leaving and him moving, I realized I’d stumbled upon a week of goodbyes among friends. He and I talked the whole drive back, about books and music.

I slept in Paul’s room and he took the couch in the common area. I woke up the next morning when I felt a slight thump on the bed. I rolled over to face the window and saw that a small cat had leapt deftly from the window sill onto the bed where I slept. She walked up to me gingerly, sniffed my chin, and hopped down toward the partially open door. She slipped out, and I wondered blearily if I was actually awake.

I crept outside the door a few minutes after the cat, but the house was quiet. I saw Paul curled up on the couch under a blanket, and saw his phone on the coffee table next to him. I texted him to let him know I was leaving to get coffee in case he woke up, and I went back on my own this time to Cafe Vita. A Chicago man I liked sent me a picture of his coffee mug without comment, and I texted him back a photo of my Cafe Vita cup to go.

As an afterthought, I took a picture of the Portland drawing and left.

I brought back coffee for Paul and one of his housemates, and we stepped outside to drink it and smoke. The backyard of the Guest House was populated by found objects and assorted chairs. We sat for a moment, and then Paul asked me if I was dating anyone. I surprised myself by being honest with him instead of shrugging off the question. I told him about the Chicago man and mentioned hopefully that he was planning a visit to come see me in Portland. If Paul thought this was ill-advised or an unlikely event, he didn’t say so, and nodded without judgement.

“If you’re moving an hour away, I’m guessing you’re not seeing anyone,” I ventured, hoping he wouldn’t be annoyed with me for prying. He wasn’t.

“No,” he admitted.

Paul went back inside and started messing with the record player in the living room. He put on the White Album and played “Blackbird,” which made me laugh. He always remembered that song as played by our dads’ friend, Buzz. I don’t remember Buzz playing that one on regular rotation the way Paul did, but whenever I hear it, I end up thinking of Paul thinking of Buzz.

The house was slowly waking up, so I took him to breakfast at a restaurant where one of his housemates was working. I dropped him back off at the Guest House before going to meet a couple of friends of mine downtown. 

When I walked back into Paul’s room a couple hours later, I saw it was half in boxes. He’d been packing while I was out, and working quickly. I tried to help, but felt unsure of what went where. Instead, he let me help him unstick some of his photos from his walls. There were dozens of them. He explained that a wall full of them had been from his most recent birthday in March, a party at which he’d given everyone a disposable camera and asked his guests to fill them up that night. He developed them later and hung them up with tape. I watched him pull them down one by one and gather them in a box. I wondered if he was sad to leave or excited for change.

Not asking which, I quietly left the rest of the pack of cigarettes I’d bought on his desk chair.

A while later, we walked out to the porch with my things and he gave me a hug.

“I’m glad we’re family,” he said.

I blinked back sudden tears, moved. I said the same to him, and walked back toward my car.

I opened the driver’s side door and suddenly realized I was about to drive away without even asking about the dishes for which I’d ostensibly drove there. I laughed at myself and walked back. I sheepishly re-entered the house, and Paul looked surprised.

“The dishes,” I said simply, feeling ridiculous.

“Oh!” he said with a laugh. He led me to his car, parked near mine, and we transferred them from his trunk to mine. I drove off with a little wave.

I left feeling glad that he was there, or at least that he would be nearby in Hoquiam. We talked about going camping in the Cascades before it got too cold but we never did. I could wait until spring to visit, I suppose, but I like the idea of a rainy winter drive to a town of almost no one but my cousin, to an apartment by the ocean.