The first time it snowed in Portland, real Miracle-on-34th-Street snow, I was 8 years old.
My family walked to the bakery down the street, and I jumped on the parking lot which had frozen over. One sheet of ice split into two, and then four, and then eight. A little web of cracks, spreading from my pink snow boots until they licked the curb.
The last time it snowed it Portland, I was 16. It was January and it came fast and heavy. Thursday started out dry and icy, the kind of day where the wind hurts when it whips your cheeks. By 9PM the cars, the sidewalks, and the streetlamps were buried in 6 inches of fresh, pillowy white.
It had been half a lifetime since I’d had a chance at snow. As soon as the streets got quiet and the moon got bright, I pulled on my boots (no longer pink) and walked out to the sidewalk.
Any weather harsher than rain is like a mute button on Portland. Cars go into hibernation, prompted by popular fear of skidding on ice. Buses grow chains, and are easy to outwalk as they lumber down major streets. People, for the most part, stay inside.
The winter had been frigid that year, sapping the streets of their color. Plants were brown, and they huddled close to the dirt awaiting the return of the usually temperate climate. The industrial gray of cement, asphalt, and steel had overwhelmed the city.
That night barren, urban neutrals surrendered to glittering white.
I couldn’t walk farther than a block alone, even with the brightness of the moonlight reflecting off the fresh coat of snow. It was still past 9 in the heart of the city. If I was going to traverse past Grant street I would need an accomplice.
Jeffrey lived a block down on 40th. I don’t know where he was when it snowed in 2008, but he would’ve been 7. His birthday is in the first half of January, mine October.
I didn’t know if Jeffrey was still my friend. But I refused to pass up on the opportunity to see the bigger streets transformed into winter wonderlands. His number was still dutifully programmed into my phone, complete with an unflattering contact photo and a stupid nickname. I resisted the urge to delve into old conversations, to stalk my past self and the nature of her relationships. Eventually, I settled for: “Do you want to go outside?” –Jane. 6 words that could’ve been copy-pasted as an afterthought, messaged to a multitude of neighbors.
He says yes, after a few minutes. We meet halfway between our houses, and walk up to the main road.
“How are you?”
All the talking is like that: short, clippy, and impersonal. He’s not stoned, which is surprising. Without his regular dose of THC he is dull and tired.
We come up on Fred Meyer, a big chain grocery store that sprawls across the streets after 39th. He isn’t dressed well for the weather, a thin hoodie and a thrifted t-shirt that’s seen better days. The worst choice by far are his shoes: red polka-dotted vans already soaked to the socks. If we stay out too long his toes might fall off.
“Wanna go in?” I ask, gesturing at the supermarket doors.
The harsh industrial lighting is a shock after the low glow of street lamps. I glance up at the security monitor, a squat mirror-me stares back. Jeffrey slides his hoodie off his shoulders, balancing it on his forearm. A miniature flurry drips off it and onto the floor, joining a puddle of melted snow provided by previous customers. One of those yellow plastic “wet floor” signs has collapsed on Jeffery’s left.
Jeffery has skinny arms that are just a little too long for his torso, exaggerated by slim feminine fingers. His clothes hang off him like plastic bags snagged on a tree branch, catching on his bony hips and shoulders. I remember in May our Freshman year, when we had the same friends and ate in the back parking lot, he’d pulled me up onto a concrete block. It was about 10 feet tall, double my height. Jeffrey, Andrew, and Nick had made a big deal out of climbing up, swinging their legs over the sides and throwing orange peels and chip bags off the edge: a slow downpour of trash aimed at the rest of our heads. I had made a bargain, my can of pepsi for a boost. I was shocked when it was Jeffrey who volunteered to lift me, not trusting those twiggy arms to get me over the edge. But he followed through. We perched on the top, passing the pepsi back and forth and laughing at our friends below.
There wasn’t a lot to do in Fred Meyer. We strolled through the isles, occasionally stopping to point out a graphic or comment on junk food we wished we had money for. We passed the bulk distribution and I snagged a peanut butter cup. When I faced him again he was picking at a red stub of licorice.
Jeffrey taught me how to casually reach into the bins, grab your prize, and pop it in your mouth without missing a step. Shoplifting was one of the many vices he’d acquired through high school, eventually graduating from candy to food, from food to clothes. I doubt he paid for the shirt he wore that night. I never went bigger than peanut butter cups.
We took the escalator up to the part of the store devoted to kids toys and off-season school supplies. I realized I didn’t know if he’d kept up in school. Frankly, I didn’t know if he still went to school.
“How are you doing in Physics?”
“I mean, fine I guess. Torque kinda sucks.”
“Yeah. I finally get Kinematics and now everything is spinning. Literally.” He cracked a smile at that, which made me feel a little warmer. It was a dumb joke, but he was humoring me. He always used to do that, rescue me when no one was laughing. With him gone the duty of covering my social faux pas falls to others, but I couldn’t see anyone else laughing at a science pun. Groaning, maybe. “Sophomore year kinda blows.”
“Yeah.” He pulled a shiny plastic “Lighting McQueen” model off the shelf. “Level with me: should I buy this?”
I can tell he’s saving me again, redirecting the conversation out of emotionally risky territory. “Oh, 100%. Actually don’t, I never got you a Christmas present. Now I know what’s on your wishlist.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” he said, replacing the car, smiling again.
We make our way over to the “home” section, and I hop up onto one of the bed displays. It’s a kind of small Fred Meyer, so only the headboard and a couple inches of comforter have been built into the wall, but it’s wide enough for me to sit comfortably. Jeffery has to cram, but he doesn’t complain.
“Which candle would I be,” I say, pointing at the Yankee Candle display a few feet away.
“Hmmm. The red.”
“Sweet melon?” I ask, squinting to make out the name.
“Sure. But for the color, not the scent. What about me?”
“Lavender,” I say, immediately. Jeffery is (or at least was) obsessed with lavender. He always used to pick it walking back from the bus stop, snagging stray flowers from strangers front gardens. He’d crush it up for the scent, or stow it so it poked out of his breast pocket. When he could get extra he’d leave his pickings at bus stops. He liked the idea of improving the world’s aesthetic.
A pimply 20 year old informs us that the store is closing in 5 minutes, and we leave through the empty upper parking lot, making our way down the snowy ramp onto 36th. It’s 11PM.
“Should we head back?” I ask, and he shakes his head, looking out at the lights of the Baghdad theater. All the neon is brighter tonight, reflecting off the still pristine snowfall.
“Let’s just walk a little farther.”
Freshman year me and girl in my group had had this big falling out. Diane and were always having petty fights, and she decided in April that our friendship was toxic and should cease to exist. She said this in a text message during 2nd period biology, and by lunch it had exploded into an unprecedented drama.
I hadn’t told anyone about my panic attacks. They were personal, and since I’d never had one at school, I figured there was no need to spread awareness. Mostly I was embarrassed by a mental health phenomenon I couldn’t control. The day me and Diane fought I suffered a whammy: hyperventilation, sobbing, racing heartbeat; the whole nine yards, all in the handicap stall of the second floor girls bathroom.
People were worried, wondering why I wasn’t at lunch, why I’d run out of bio. My phone was blowing up with questions I didn’t feel equipped to answer.
Jeffrey was the person I messaged. Back then I didn’t even have his number, just a Kik username in a group chat our friends used to make plans. That was how our friendship started, with a confession I was unprepared to make, even to my closest confidants. Our friendship had always been a little too emotionally charged for either of our likings. We didn’t text much, but when we did it was always overwhelming, too deep too fast.
This night wasn’t like that. We walked past the charming mix of Asian nail salons and upscale boutiques that line Hawthorne. The stores were all a flurry of sweeping and packing and closing early, harried employees eyeing the continued snowfall with unease. It was coming up past my ankles now, completely burying Jeffery’s useless sneakers. Neither of us talked much.
Around 25th I suggested we turn off towards Lincoln. There’s a little playground off of a closed school a couple blocks down there. It’s officially titled Sewallcrest but my dad always called in Edward’s when he took me down there to play by the community garden. The waiting list for plots is nearly a decade now, but when my parents moved here in the 90s it was largely up for grabs. I used to dress up in old Halloween costumes and run through the plants, picking raspberries when the bushes flowered. I’d stain my mouth red with the juice, and then run off to swing from the rings and tip the see-saw. I wanted to see the garden in the snow.
The combination for the lock was 2223. I had to take my gloves off to enter it, tucking them into the tiny pocket of my skinny jeans. The metal was frigid, coated in a thin layer of ice that cracked off and fell into the snow when I touched it. By the time I pushed the gate open my fingers were numb.
There weren’t any Raspberries. Just limp brown leaves pressed flat under the snowfall. We walked through the expanse of the garden, which isn’t large. Wheelbarrows and watering cans had been abandoned in the paths. The sight was a little apocalyptic, and after a short tour we left.
“Do you think anyone’s growing lavender?” Jeffery asked quietly as I closed the gate.
“I dunno. Someone always does.”
“That’s good,” he muttered looking out on the sleeping garden. “That’s good.”
We turned to the playground, but most of the old metal was too cold for prolonged exposure. The swings were plastic, and we swung for a while. Sometimes one of us would fall behind the other, and we’d be pendulums in opposition. In moments of unison we might talk briefly.
“The snow looks pretty in your hair. The way it’s caught there.”
Mostly we enjoyed the quiet. Observing as the world was coated again and again in pristine white.
After the swings we turned to the merry-go-round, and he pushed us until everything was only a pale blur. Around and around and around, interrupted only by the mechanical whine of old hinges.
In October Jeffery and I went to the homecoming game. We didn’t have tickets to the dance, but we went anyway. It was easy for me, I had rehearsal for the school play in the hours before. Jeffery had bused out under the guise of supporting Andrew, who was in pep band. We ended up sitting together when everyone went into the gym to dance and escape the cold.
“I don’t really understand football,” I said, as we cheered on a player running up the sideline. “But I appreciate the spirit.”
“I don’t even know who you’re cheering for.”
“Well,” I turned towards him, straddling the bench so he could fully experience my
explanation. “If my dad has taught me anything—” I went on to describe the bare basics of the sport, probably incorrectly. My dad grew up playing in Louisiana, and loved to sit me down next to his radio and enthusiastically explain the semantics of college games. He always used to see Jeffery playing basketball outside his house. “Jeffery’s my man,” he’d say of their short encounters. “The MAN.”
“Wait,” I paused, leaning out. “You play sports. How do you not know this?”
“I played basketball,” he said. “Badly. In 8th grade.”
We took the bus home. The 9 down powell to the 14. Somewhere before division a crowd of kids from my middle school hopped on, bundled up against the incoming fall.
“Oh my god,” I hissed. “We have to get off. They’re going to recognize me.”
“Aw cmon,” he sat up a little straighter. “You’ll be fine. Hey guys!” He all but yelled, shifting his attention to their little gang. “What’s good!”
“Oh my god,” I turned my head to the window, hoping to hide my face. “Oh my god.”
“Hey dude,” Tod Sharpe’s voice had gotten lower. He’d been in my sixth grade intro to drawing class. “Hey! It’s Jane Thomas! That is your name right?”
I wasn’t popular in middle school. I was mousy and quiet and nerdy. I wore second hand Hannah Anderson until I outgrew their size range. I wasn’t exactly bullied, but I was silent. I spent three years waiting to move on. It’s not an era I love to remember.
“Yooo I was right! What school are ya’ll comin from?”
“Franklin,” Jeffery said, glancing over at me. “What are you guys doing out?”
“We just came from a second run of The Hateful Eight my dude.”
“That’s so sick!” I turned back to the window, trying to ignore the conversation.
“You guys like Tarantino?”
“Fuck yeah. Reservoir dogs is like, one of the top five greatest films of all time.”
“What about you, Jane?” One of the girls in the back of the pack asked, leaning out past a yellow pole. Her face glowed pink under the red Ttrimet fluorescents.
“Oh I dunno. I’ve kind of been boycotting him. He’s a friends favorite director, so I made a pact to avoid his films to mess with her.”
“That’s kinda spiteful,” Tod said, taking the seat next to Jeffrey.
I looked at my lap, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. “Yeah, I guess.”
When Jeffrey asked if I wanted to bus home from Edward’s, homecoming night was all I could think of. “Let’s walk,” I suggested, and he agreed.
I snapped a picture of one of the side streets we walked down, where the tree branches had been weighed down, forming a tunnel around the road. We walked home in the the middle of streets, no cars were out in 6 inches of snow past midnight.
The picture is still saved in my Snapchat memories. As I’m writing this I’m looking at it, a slightly blurry horizontal shot. I couldn’t get my gloved fingers to focus the camera right.
He walked me back to my house, even though it was farther than his.
“Do you want some tea or something?” I asked. “A different pair of shoes?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
We stood on the concrete stairs that lead up to my porch for a moment, lingering in the end of Thursday.
“This was fun,” I said finally. “We should hang out more.”
“Yeah. You can show me that garden again, when the lavender’s growing.”
“Sure,” I smiled, and he walked away towards Lincoln. I let myself into the house, changed into drier clothes and made myself a cup of hot chocolate.
If I had known that would be the last time we’d talk on friendly terms, the last time we’d hang out, maybe I would’ve said something more meaningful. Maybe I would’ve talked more, recounted some of our memories out loud. Maybe I wouldn’t have, I don’t know.
When spring comes around and the lavender blooms, I pick a few sprigs of the plants I encounter. I crush up the flowers, inhale their scent. Sometimes, when there’s extra, I leave them at the bus stop, tucked behind a sign or in the holes of the bench. I wonder if he sees them. Even when I hate him, I hope he does. The world needs a little more beauty.