Mornings were clear on my walk to work that December, those last few weeks I worked at Starbucks. The walk took an hour but was mainly downhill and for the return route home I took the bus. Half way down I’d stop at a strange house with mannequin heads in the windows, each with a wig. From there you could see Mount Rainier to the south and Elliot Bay looking west. I’d just turned 27 and decided to quit my job and leave Seattle, to explore Europe and never come back. I made up reasons justifying it but the real reason was I couldn’t find a girlfriend. The first thing you learn is that you can’t blame the space around you, it’s the space inside that matters most.
We had tons of fun in that small group at Starbucks, working at the corporate headquarters. Most of us had come from restaurants or retail and would go out afterwards for a drink. That would turn into dinner, and it would be 8 or 9 and we’d be heading home in our work clothes hitting the sack. I’d pick my favorite bar, Six Arms on Capitol Hill, for a table by the window and the ambient light. The fact I was friends with the manager, a biker guy named Steve, who had a CD by my favorite band on the jukebox. No one liked that band (they were caustic, English) but for $5 I could play the whole record and monopolize the music for an hour. Steve and I would look at each other from across the bar and smile: I’d raise my glass, he’d nod.
We got the biggest table my last night in town and Steve let me smoke a cigar in the bar, gave me a Zippo with their logo etched on the face. I’d made plans to go out for lunch with a fellow secretary the next day as our last goodbye. We sent a lot of emails back and forth that weren’t exactly work related. Being a writer I exploited my audience on email, made them suffer me. We sat in a bank of cubicles divided by faux carpet-covered sectionals assigned to us secretaries. I’d started the job fresh from retail, never used a computer before, didn’t know how to attach a file. The ladies who worked in secretarial positions took me under their wing and showed me the ropes.
Mandy had a sports car and practiced firing handguns at the local shooting range, lived on her own, didn’t have a boyfriend. We drove across the West Seattle bridge to her favorite Italian restaurant in the days before cell phones when the two of us could just leave work and truly leave. On the ride back we held hands across the bridge but never said anything about it, we were just sad to say goodbye and would have to keep in touch.
I moved to a condo in the south of France and wrote Mandy several times that summer imploring her to visit but knew she never would. Many years later I got a package with those letters and a note from her with an XO, her name at the bottom, the real goodbye.
It took me a while, but I finally read those letters again: a bit like releasing a genie from a bottle. Me sitting at a small table by the window in my apartment trying to reach Mandy, talking about my life in France, the life we had in Seattle, the life we might have again some day.
I flew back to Seattle the following October, returned to the same job I’d left: the same phone extension and employee number, the same internet favorites…it was like I hadn’t left. We started going back to Six Arms with a smaller group; Mandy was dating a new guy at Starbucks and a few years later I went to their wedding, but then fell out of touch. I wondered if Mandy got rid of the letters because she didn’t want her husband to find them. Or if she was ready to lay that part of her past to rest — or thought maybe I’d want them for some reason.
I put the letters in a box with a number of loosely related things and stored them in the upper loft of our garage with the kids’ unwanted plush toys and the Barbie dream houses, the coats I had but never wore, the records I inherited from my step-dad and the musical instruments we never played, the lamps and stereo equipment, plaques I got from all my years of service at Starbucks, old cooking magazines, pictures. The past is like that: crammed in the corner of a box, any box it will fit, stored out of sight. The odd array of feelings we get when it’s brought to the light. The little tune that genie plays is sometimes sweet, though most times not. Either a song from another time or a cry from a trap.