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  • Last night, I passed the alley.

    I moved to Seattle a year ago now, from Santa Fe. I don't move well. A part of me stays in the city I've left and for a long time I'm walking in two places at once. So the few times I'd walked in the alley, it also seemed to be one of the old, uneven gravel roads that rambles through the hilly outskirts of tiny, distant Santa Fe.

    I felt disoriented here for much of the year. I still do, some days. It smells and feels wrong. The people talk up in their noses like they did back in LA where I grew up. No one in Santa Fe does. They'd roll their eyes at the sound of it, if they were the sorts who rolled their eyes. The people here are just the sorts who roll their eyes at everything.

    In Santa Fe, I'd struggled with depression. It got dangerous. I almost gave up. I contemplated a course of action I'm glad I never followed through on. But there was the plan. Slowly though, I crawled out from under that shadow. It was a slow, hard process. Along the way I took up dancing after a long hiatus. I fell deeply in love with west African dance. I took three to four classes a week. I danced solos in performances. My struggles faded. Santa Fe became a place I cherished.

    Here in Seattle, the first thing I discovered was I couldn't afford any of the things I loved and found sustaining in Santa Fe. And I arrived in November, with holidays and winter right in my face when I touched down. So it took until January before I could get to a class. That first class, I threw out my back. All spring and summer I stretched and waited, but every day, my back still hurt enough that I knew African dance was out of the question.

    I took walks when I could. I cycled some too. I'd gotten attached to the cottonwood trees back in Santa Fe. What trees I rode and walked past here though were mysteries to me, so I started learning to identify them on my walks. But many days, I had to content myself with resting.

    The back couldn't keep me from writing, though. Every day, even before the injury, even before Seattle, I'd carry a Moleskine notebook with me and every day I'd write the date at the top of a blank page, then sit and see where the page took me. I couldn't do it at home though—there were always too many easy distractions. In Santa Fe, I'd take my notebook out to one of a couple of favorite cafes and drink tea and read a book. In between sentences, I'd write.

    The cafes in Seattle though are just as nasal and rolling of eye and expensive as the rest of the city, and it's hard to sit in many of them for very long. But after several months I stumbled on a little place near my apartment. It was in an old, converted house, and inside were sepia tone photographs and dusty taxidermy and donated books. It reminded me of the Aztec Cafe in Santa Fe.

    And behind it ran that haphazard little alley. It was mostly holes and it reminded me of Santa Fe a little, too. I'd pass it as I walked back home after I'd finished writing, maybe four times a week. I walked down it once or twice. But a sideways glance as I carefully climbed the hill, keeping my back straight and even, was all I usually managed.

    I hadn't meant to be there last night. My route home was blocks away and I had no reason to be in the alley. But a whiny pair of smokers billowing cigarette clouds and boundless negativity behind them turned in front of me halfway up the hill, and I turned off to take a new route that smelled better. Few enough people walk at all in Santa Fe and I'd gotten used to the only smoke in the air smelling of cedar and snaking up from the adobe flues of kiva fireplaces.

    The smell every morning at my new cafe was blackberry scones coming out of the oven. The owner of the cafe, Tristan, was a baker. His pastries were very good. I'd sit over a scone and a cup of tea and I'd write until it felt almost as if I were high up in the mountains to the south-east again. Big Star would play on the PA in the converted living room. Tristan had good taste in music. He played a few bands I'd never heard and we got to talking about favorites. We had many in common. I started talking with the rest of the staff as well, but my conversations with Tristan had some sort of resonance for me. He'd gone to school for English, as I had. He was a comedian; he organized a lot of local comedy events. We talked art, philosophy. He asked after my writing. We traded opinions about genres and about the inherent shortcomings of post-modernism. We friended each other on Facebook. He invited me to his comedy events. It was all very gradual. I'm a slow friend.

    Last week, talking about books, he loaned me one of his favorites, Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. It was a brick wrapped in a glossary, and it doubled the weight of my backpack. But it was loaned to me by a new friend. My first real new friend, it seemed to me, in Seattle. He asked after my opinion of the book a few days later, but I'm a slow reader. I was only a few pages in.

    This last Sunday morning, after stalling and wishing and fretting for almost a year, I got myself into a yoga class close to home. It wasn't dance. In dance I'm lifted a little past my insecurity, by the jolt of music. Yoga has none of that, and I was anxious. But I knew I'd never get myself back to dancing shape without it. So I finally persisted and part way in I'd ended up in a room with strangers, on a mat on my back, looking at the ceiling of the studio. There were stars painted above. I looked at the one directly over me and almost saw it twinkle. I felt at peace, like I could let go and die right then and be ok with how much I'd done with life. I've struggled for years with never feeling at home. I'd check in, trying to get a sense of how I was doing, and all I'd hear echoing inside me were the words, “I want to go home.” But there in that star, I felt as if I were on a journey, maybe to the Further Shore, maybe to another planet. The words that came unbidden to my mind, as I tried to focus on my breathing were, “I'm going home.” It felt peaceful and I cried a little, silently, in between poses.

    After, I made for my cafe. There was a sign on the door that read “Closed Today” in hasty handwriting, taped up lopsided against the inside glass, looking out. I shrugged and walked home instead, past the alley.

    Tuesday, I got a late start. I gathered up a book to lend Tristan, walked down the hill, and stopped at the cafe's steps. The same leaning sign was in the window, unmoved. Beneath it on the stoop, were flowers. “We were sorry to hear...” “Our thoughts are with everyone...” There were candles on the mat. I rushed back home. On Tristan's Facebook wall were memories and confusion. There was a memorial that coming night.

    A Google search said he'd hanged himself behind the shop in the alley, early Sunday morning. A cafe employee was frantically directing EMTs while I stared up at the star painted on the ceiling and tried to keep my breathing even. I'm going home.

    At the memorial the cafe was crowded to the walls with people I didn't know who knew and loved Tristan more than I had the chance, or ever would have to chance to do. Pictures of him in front of a mic were on the walls. He smiled down on us. I never had the chance to see him perform. I never had a chance to talk to him about depression and the possibility of recovery. The people around me were introducing themselves to one another. I went in the kitchen and hugged his business partner, but I didn't have the heart to talk to anyone else. I'm a slow friend. I drank a toast to Tristan and then left.

    Last night, on my altered route to my warm apartment, it took me past the alley's mouth, as if I were walking home from the cafe and from writing. The alley was unpaved, spewing gravel down the street. It was muddy and badly rutted. I turned and walked down it in the dark. I stood a long while in the shadow of an unknown tree behind the cafe and stared at the back entrance and knew that a few days ago my friend swung from one of those beams and left forever.

    I moved further down the alley, scraping along the bottoms of black puddles. A fog gathered. At the alley's far end, I looked back. I half-expected to see a ghost. I meant to, but the night was empty. I turned up the hill. A block ahead under a canopy of trees, Tristan seemed to disentangle from the shadows and run directly at me. But by the time he got to me, he'd become someone else entirely, off on a nighttime jog. The stranger flew past me into the dark and was gone. I was alone again in the street; I went home and could not sleep.

    Image credit: Beckett Gladney, via Flickr under the Creative Commons License
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