Photo by jean huysman
The air here smells of pine, I notice it immediately as I exit the plane. I know I’ll soon acclimatise, its potency will fade, but I make a vow to remember this wanton newness, fresh trees sailing invisibly on the breeze.
A flat-faced building dominates the view from our sublet balcony; it’s both anonymous and filmic in a motel-ish, North American way. I’m waiting for something sleazy to happen — that’s usually how it goes, in those films with motels. I watch as a man in a black vest moves around inside. He’s making solemn, repetitive gestures. If I were in the room with him I might recognise a morning routine, I would see how pragmatic he is. But from afar, through the semi-dark of 6:30am, I can only discern the well-versed performance of what must be an eerie dance ritual. In the foreground are more electricity lines than I’m used to in London — they bury them there — and beyond are the mountains that mark the beginning of the island’s jagged interior. Clouds hang back and cling to the peaks, shape-shifting with the new sun. By 8am all has dissolved into a grey mist that sweeps towards the city.
Our second-floor flat — or, suite, a local term which pleases me, suggesting hotel rooms and confectionary — is inexpensive, bright and a short walk from downtown. I remember a few months ago C. and I sitting in the lounge of my Finsbury Park house-share, peering at the screen as our future landlady gave us a low-res tour of the sublet. From her 2D realm, she handles an ornate carving of a cheetah, telling us how expensive and special it is. She points to a mauve silk fan hanging above the sofa, and then to a porcelain seated fairy figurine, indicating they, too, are objects of significant merit. We make appreciative noises. You both seem like honest people, she says, but I will lock these valuables away in a room that you won’t have access to. Sadly we never got to meet her; by the time we arrive at the sublet, she’s halfway to Texas, riding alongside Penelope the dog in a 44ft RV. Many traces of her remain, though. As we ascend the stairs to the main living space we are welcomed by two gilded decorative plates, balancing on wall-mounted gilded decorative plinths. A quick scan reveals that the ornament purge she carried out really didn’t make much of a dent: numerous Hula-related objects, three dried crabs, florid candles preserved in cellophane wrap, mother and child animal portraits, artificial cherry blossom galore, a complicated mobile made of tiny driftwood shards. The suite is also festooned with instructive Post-Its. We have been charged with the care of two orchids and a mature money tree. A lot of anxious energy has been poured into the note for keeping the money tree happy. If something has to die, let it be the orchids! she implores.
On our first full day we walk to the sea and discover that the shores are covered with timber, fallen angels from waterside logging industries. Down in a secluded cove, with the help of the lapping waves, we push one gigantic trunk into the water. The log bobs in the icy North Pacific waters, invitingly. My legs go numb as I dash in, jump on, straddle and kick to move forward. The water bubbles around me, I’m Queen of the Ocean, riding my very own killer whale, my very own water horse. The euphoria makes sense of all the months of anticipation, the tectonic shifts, the long denouement. We dry off quickly in the unseasonably warm sun and, wandering inland, we come across a strange construction of two hulking stone pillars, between them a piece of wood emblazoned with ‘Mile Zero’. It is circled by a flowerbed of pansies, shrine-like, and there’s even a little wooden roof to protect the grouping from the elements. We don’t know what it is but regard the display as a monument to beginnings, and take a selfie in front of it. Later we identify it as the marker point for the start of the country’s major highway: the five-thousand mile line that we have decided to follow, over the next two years, all the way to the Eastern coast.
The plan was to buy champagne to celebrate our arrival, but at the liquor store we establish that, here as in the UK, we can’t afford champagne. We scan the lower shelves. I’m drawn to a prosecco-style sparkling wine made by Australian hipsters, there’s a hologram of an eye on the neck and a myth on the back. Walking home we encounter our first racoon. It’s like a frumpy fox, lacking the poise of its London counterpart, but just as furtive. Back in the suite we drink to the all the sneaky racoons of this fine continent.
In London I zoomed around on a black Specialized racer, on the island I will mosey on my neon blue cruiser. I find the bike cheap on Craigslist, an ill-conceived gift that the seller had bought for his girlfriend a few days previously. He now needs it out the house, because he fears that every time she sees it she’s reminded of how wildly he misunderstands her, that’s how I understand the situation anyway. It’s a legal requirement to wear helmets here, and he gives me a tip-off to go to Walmart. I feel a bit of the picture getting filled in: I now live in a city with a Walmart. I first encountered Walmart aged eleven, my parents had just separated and Mum organised a trip to Disney World in Florida. I still recall the limitless of its scale, and the things I bought there: matching necklace and earrings with peridot gems; Britney’s latest album not yet out in the UK; some cola-flavoured shimmer lip-gloss, the lid filled with colourful plastic balls. The island Walmart isn’t anywhere near as big as the superstar-store of my memories but it has a surprise feature — a McDonald’s inside. Apparently it’s totally common nowadays, not that I’m an expert on Walmarts or anything, but I didn’t expect that. It’s disturbing seeing a boundary between two giant malevolents so slender, so explicitly nothing. The frontier represented by a neat row of little brown tiles, the airborne oil slick of the restaurant melding with the dry rattle of the supermarket.
The morning I’m due to meet with a recruitment agent I get dressed and ready and then decide that my hair is too greasy. I have a shower, enjoying the thoroughness of the water jet. As I towel-dry my hair, languid, I ask C. for the time. It’s twenty minutes till my interview. I throw my best clothes on in a rush, don’t have time for make-up, my hand eczema is bad, I have some acne too, and I’m livid. The woman who interviews me is Swedish and has only been on the island three months herself, I’m jealous of how serene and settled she is. Afterwards I go to the bank to see if I can resolve an issue I had with their website and I discover I’ve been a victim of a phishing scam. They didn’t manage to get any money, and I change my security details straightaway, but the thought that I’ve been targeted, that some villain tried to hack into my three-day-old account, and that I fell for it, makes me go nuts. I thought I was on top of things, doing the move seamlessly, making good decisions. I had been looking to others to see how they act and doing my best to copy them. People are very considerate pavement-users here, I’ve noted it, I’ve imitated it. Everyone says thank you to the bus driver when they disembark, so I do too, joining the crowd of thank yous. I came here to be gentle, to bake, to walk around, to live with my boyfriend, to write letters, to be supportive, to break the habit of eating crisps for dinner in bed. But I’m just a frothing red-faced demon, and it seems that all my most hopeless aspects have seethed to the surface in the bank. I cry so hard at the teller’s face. Then I don’t want her to see me so cover my eyes with my scarf, remain standing there partially hidden and bawling while the queue grows longer behind me. A horrible experience, overall, but sort of nice, refreshing. No one here knows me yet.
Exploring the industrial area to the north of our suite, we walk into a microbrewery, it’s cramped and, as you might expect, overflowing with men, on a stag presumably. Behind the counter are two workers who are casually fielding verbal abuse from the group. C. has a vague idea that it would be nice to work there, and hands in his resume. While he chats with the boss no one pays me attention but I feel a heightened sense of my presence as the only woman in the space and can’t wait to leave. A few minutes later, outside and walking along a river we take a detour onto a small pier where we encounter a lone man, with a bike and a trailer loaded with blankets, tent and cushions, topped with a piece of tarpaulin. He’s wearing two pairs of glasses, one dark pair atop spectacles. He talks to us for a long time, mainly about Joan of Arc: as far as monologues go it’s pretty good. I draw my tarot cards for the week ahead and they tell me to put myself out there, meet women, connect with the divine feminine. I take it on board but wonder where the women are. I haven’t had a satisfying face-to-face conversation with a woman in ten days. There’s a woman who roams the streets in black Ugg boots, yelling at full pelt in a pitch that travels incredibly well. We’ve spotted her four times, and one other time we heard but didn’t see her.
I wake in the middle of the night to the sensation of wetness coursing out of me. When I turn on the lamp I see there’s blood on the sheets, spreading onto the mattress protector, the duvet, threatening the very mattress itself. I haven’t been caught off-guard like this since I was a teenager. My cycle is normally on the long side and I wasn’t expecting it for a few more days. It turns out that, now I’m away from London, for the first time in years, it has arrived bang on the twenty-eighth day. I feel perfectly aligned with the moon — the sacred lunar energy must have visited while I slept — but mainly, in the moment, I feel terrified that I’ll stain all the bedding that doesn’t even belong to me. I wake C., rip everything off and chuck it in the coin-operated machines in the communal basement. The wash cycle is surprisingly quick (like my menstrual cycle this month, ha), the dryer takes forever though, and when the sheets and clothes finally emerge they smell like wet dog. I devour an Elena Ferrante book in two angst-ridden bleeding days and watch the episode of Black Mirror where the two women fall in love and decide that when they die they want their consciousness to be uploaded to the cloud, so they can be together forever. I cry all the way through. Afterwards I realise I made way more of a big deal about moving across eight time zones than the Black Mirror characters did about passing from life into death.
In search of likeminded people, I trial a co-working place. There’s a longhaired dog who spends his days roaming between the desks, while a group of young creatives write and design with headphones on. It’s Friday so there’s a social hour in the communal space afterwards. I drink a can of sour beer with an online gambling journalist and talk about how part of the reason I moved here was my fascination with the geology, so different from the UK, so igneous, and to live on the Ring of Fire: how cool. He listens to me in a jaded fashion, then urges me to read an article that came out in the The New Yorker a couple of years ago which prophesises how the whole of the Pacific Northwest will be destroyed, probably any day now, by a mega-tsunami. We jest grimly about the threat, but later, at home, I pull it up on my laptop and read the whole six-thousand-word article out loud to C. He cooks pasta while I become increasingly grave. I find out about the magnitude-9 earthquake of 1701: the Europeans hadn’t invaded yet, and the writer explains how stories told by First Nations people, of shaking lands and entire tribes drowned, had repeatedly been overlooked by the colonizers over the years. It wasn’t until recent forensic evidence was uncovered that seismologists started taking the oral accounts, passed down through generations, seriously. I look to the decorative plates, golden and stupid, their fate suspended above the stairs. How precarious, how pre-apocalyptic, how it will all come crumbling down.
We join the local library and are excited to learn we can each take out up to sixty DVDs at a time, for free. It’s a utopia, after all. Back in the suite, we make two small stacks of our selection, and devour them one by one at night. Lying there on the sofa one evening I reflect that, on the whole, I’ve adapted quite well to the metamorphosis. It reminds me a bit of when a cat lives her whole life with a family, who love and care for her, and then, for whatever reason, they have to give her up, perhaps they move away, or someone develops an allergy, and the cat is suddenly living in a new house, with new people, and shows no visible signs of caring. Maybe I’m a bit like that cat.
There’s no incense holder — there’s a lot we haven’t got, blissfully — so I fashion one out of a DVD stack and a saucepan. When I return to the living room some time later I see that the contraption has failed me and the burning stick has fallen and created its own little ring of fire, melting a sizeable hole right the way through one of the DVD cases. I wonder if we’ll be punished for the hole, and determine that I would happily pay the library a fine — I’m sure it would be a reasonable fine — a fair levy for facilitating our many evenings of relaxation on the sublet’s sofa, in front of the sublet’s nice, big TV. Before arriving on the island I hadn’t watched DVDs in years, thought my DVD life was behind me, thought it was pure streaming from now on. Then I came here, and everything changed.
‘Tectonic’ was published in Ossian, The First in April 2019.