A few summers ago, I developed a habit of sleeping in the front yards of strangers.
Of course you are shaking your head in disapproval. So dangerous! Especially for a young woman!
I can agree that this might be true in every other city in the world, but in SE Portland, such activities are safe and almost reasonable. The entire quadrant is filled with friendly outdoor cats, idealistic young people, and lush lawns.
The first time it happened was completely unintentional. For the past few months, I had been living on copious amounts of coffee and whiskey. Most meals consisted of trail mix and a banana. Sleep was fleeting and infrequent. I wish I could say that I was depressed or stressed out or even heartbroken. But really, I was moving at such a crazed velocity, that most of my body’s basic needs were cast by the wayside. Nonetheless, my hygiene was impeccable. My clothes were clean and my hair was shiny.
But back to that first night in a foreign lawn. I sat in a old-man bar off of PIoneer Square until closing, reading Sartre and drinking whiskey sours. I was keeping a low profile, thanks to a recent party wherein I was discovered in the laundry room in a delicate position with the hostess’s boyfriend. I wish I had a defense for this behavior, some sort of forgivable excuse…but really, I just wanted to do something fun. And my idea of merriment involved the washing machine.
In penance, I found myself surrounded by drunk and elderly men. My book was dull and I was lonely. When the lights came up at 2 am, the true sadness of my situation was revealed: dirty tables, peeling wallpaper, and a floor covered with tobacco. I collected my belongings and wobbled out of the bar, gathering all of my faculties to unlock my bike. I was definitely drunk. I decided to walk for a bit, at least as far as the bridge, in an effort to sober up.
I walked and walked. I sang “Boots of Spanish Leather.” My rendition was particularly moving, in my opinion.
Soon I was across the bridge, heading up Ankeny. The street was silent and dark, giving me the surreal sensation of sleepwalking. And then i realized that I really was walking with my eyes closed. I was so tired, there was no way I could make it all the way to my house. I decided to sit in the grass for a bit.
Sigh. Lying down with the grass tickling my ears was the most delicious feeling. It was better than any bed I had ever known. A little black and white cat appeared by my side. After a vigorous petting, he crawled onto my chest. A cat’s lulling purr, a cool quiet night, and a belly full of whiskey…I imagined that my ex-boyfriend was lying next to me, holding my hand and matching my breaths. The next time I opened my eyes, the sun was staring down at me. I rubbed my eyes in confusion. I realized where I was: about 20 blocks from my house, in the yard of a purple house with deliberately overgrown flower beds.
I stood up, smoothed out my dress, and jumped on my bike.
When I got home, I tried to sleep in my bed, but I tossed and turned. The mattress was too soft. The room was too bright. I made some coffee and spent the morning organizing my closet.
Two nights later, I went to a show in the SE industrial area. My best friend brought an impressively large flask of liquor, which she generously shared. We used it to wash down two Xanax I had stolen from my ex-boyfriend.
The venue was filled with warm orange light. The band seemed to be reading my mind. My best friend was in the corner talking to a girl I couldn’t stand. I talked to a boy for awhile, but I realized that he might be too attractive for me. I was too woozy and confused to explain this to him. Instead I excused myself and headed outside to my bike.
Once again, I was hiking up Ankeny. Every blade of grass was inviting me to sweet slumber. “Oh, fuck it, “ I thought. I picked a particularly well-cut lawn and locked my bike to the nearest stop sign. I sprawled in the grass with my skirt firmly tucked between my knees. There was no need to show my practical cotton underpants to every passing drunk. I stared up at the sky. The moon was 95% full. A beautiful sight. I closed my eyes and inhaled the green scent of the grass.
A stray dog woke me in the morning, sniffing at my ears. “Hello there, Mr. Dog, “ I exclaimed as I jumped to my feet. Wow! I felt like a new person. All aches and pains–physical, mental, and otherwise–were gone. It was possibly the best night of sleep I had ever experienced.
And so it began. I slept in the grass about four times each week–just enough to make me feel happy and well-rested. I preferred the lawns on Ankeny, but sometimes I strayed as far as Woodward.
Of course, I did not tell my friends. I knew that the disapproval would be unanimous. This would prevent me from ever being chosen to serve as a godparent. Possibly it would affect my ability to obtain reputable employment in the future. And certainly my closest friends–a bunch with a tendency toward melodrama–would be moved to stage some sort of intervention. They would blame my burgeoning alcoholism. Perhaps they would steer me toward a reconciliation with my ex-boyfriend.
My ex-boyfriend Kyle was a barrel of booze, semi-legally prescribed medication, and overwhelming neuroses. Essentially, we were perfect for one another. For more than a year, we had lived a relatively blissful life of self-destruction and high comedy. We were the life of every party. But it all fell apart one night. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I will say that it involved him accidentally punching me in the face in his sleep. With my nose bleeding all over my face, I rolled out of bed and threw a burning candle at him. His eyebrows were singed. A few hours later, he moved out of our house. Through the grapevine, I heard that he received some second degree burns. We hadn’t spoken since then. I had stopped going to the grocery store, for fear I might see him there. Hence the diet of trail mix and bananas.
My nose was fine. No breakage. I have always had a tendency toward show-stopping nosebleeds.
After a few weeks of sleeping al fresco, I stopped drinking. I started eating real meals in restaurants. I was feeling pretty great, but I was not ready for a trip to the grocery store. My friends noticed a change in me. I told them I had taken up meditation.
I began to worry about winter. It was only four months away. I supposed I could wear a heavy coat and maybe even some of those skiing pants. I pondered a trip to the outdoor store. Portland is awfully rainy during every season except for summer. I wasn’t sure how I would deal with that. Sleeping on a tarp defeated the purpose of the whole thing. Six months–or longer–spent in my lifeless bed seemed like a death sentence.
And then a new issue arose.
I woke up one morning, stretched with a smile, and climbed to my feet. It was going to be a glorious day. Maybe I would go to a movie. Or make cupcakes. Take up the guitar.
And then I saw him across the street. A fellow about my age, wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt and well-fitting jeans. He was sprawled out on his back, a smile on his face. I tiptoed over to him. His eyes were closed and he was quietly snoring. I looked around, and realized that there was a bike locked to the fence next t o him. Another yard sleeper? I didn’t like this one bit. Had he seen me? Did we know one another? In a place like this, word of my nocturnal activities would spread like wildfire. Within 24 hours, my boss would be calling me in for a “talk.” A few minutes later, my parents would be calling from the east coast, suggesting a “break” in a nice hospital in New England.
I examined his face. Bright milky skin. Dark beard. Thick tousled hair. No piercings or scars. He was at least six feet tall. He looked familiar and strange all at once. I thought about slapping him, but honestly, he was just too cute.
I stomped across the street to retrieve my bike. Just as I was about to pedal away, I grabbed a piece of gum from my purse, scurried across the street, and gingerly placed it on his chest. One of the few drawbacks to yard sleeping was the unfortunate morning breath accompanied by a lack of convenient dental hygiene facilities.
The next night, I picked a yard on a different street, many blocks south on Brooklyn. I would definitely be alone there. I dreamed about climbing Mt. Hood. When I reached the top, I found a rosebush. Every flower contained all colors. I could see my future in the leaves, but everything was hazy and confusing. Just when I thought I might figure it out, someone gave me a quick shove over the edge of the peak. As I fell, I Iooked up to see Kyle standing with his arms crossed. Bandages crisscrossed his forehead. “I’m not sorry, “ I shouted. I closed my eyes, calmly accepting the inevitable.
When I opened my eyes, the sun was blazing. A cold bottle of orange juice sat next to me. I had not brought this with me. I sat up. He was in the yard on the other side of the street, wearing the same sweatshirt.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this. I have at times been amazed by my tendency toward paralyzing paranoia. Had he followed me? Did he know me? Were my friends or family having me followed? What if the juice was laced with hallucenogic drugs? I drank it anyway. I was thirsty.
I wasn’t about to give up yard sleeping, especially with a few months of pleasant weather remaining.
“This was just a coincidence,” I told myself. It was a small city and paths were likely to converge over and over again.
I tested him. The next night I chose a slightly overgrown lawn in Mt. Tabor. The slight incline made my feet tingle. The moon illuminated Mt. St. Helens off in the distance. I dreamed of seducing Bob Dylan. In the morning, I discovered a pink paper crane on my bike seat. He was two houses away, on the same side of the street. I reciprocated with a bag of sour candy by his left hand.
The following evening I biked to north, choosing a posh yard on Alameda. I hummed Elliott Smith as I drifted off. I awoke with a toy snake wrapped around my ankle. I strolled across the street to to clip a silver Sharpie to his shoelaces.
This continued for weeks.
19th and Francis. The lawn of an apartment complex. He gave me a packet of Pop Rocks and I bravely slid a harmonica into his sweatshirt pocket.
42nd and Stark. A big house with manicured gardenias. I found a sheet of kitten stickers under my head. He received a package of children’s watercolor paints.
22nd and Ash. A slightly shabby house with numerous bicycles on the porch. A slap bracelet on my wrist. A red plastic Silly Putty egg in his palm.
“I just might be in love with this fellow, “I realized as I ate a huge breakfast on Belmont. I wanted to tell my best friend about it, but I knew the background story was a little nutty. I needed advice. I wanted to hear his voice. What was his name?
I thought about placing an “I Saw U” ad in the newspaper.
“You are handsome and your hair smells like grass and topsoil. I wear cowboy boots and I do not snore.”
“Let’s buy a huge meadow and build a house solely for cooking and containing our cats.”
Or the more obvious “We sleep in yards. I think I love you. “
I met my best friend for drinks.
“You look really refreshed,” she said.
“Yes, well, I’ve been sleeping a lot better.”
She took a deep breath. “I saw Kyle yesterday. His face is completely healed.”
I scowled. “He was barely burned! And it was unintentional. Being punched in the face kinda caught me off guard.”
“I know it was an accident. Nobody blames you, “ she replied cheerily.
I did not believe this.
“I think he wants to see you. You should call him,” she offered.
I snorted. “I would, but I’ve lost my phone.” I crossed my fingers under the table.
“I know that’s not true because I talked on the phone with you earlier.”
“I’m just not ready,” I admitted. “And actually, I’m kinda sleeping with someone.”
She sat up straight. “Who?”
“This guy…he’s really cute and outdoorsy. He has a beard. I can’t give you more details than that. “ Silently I added, “because I don’t know any details.”
I can only assume that this information was transmitted to Kyle within ten minutes.
It rained for the next 10 days. A solid downpour that never ended. I paced my house all night long, chain-smoking and listening to Leadbelly. I couldn’t sleep or eat. I ignored my friends’ calls. I fantasized about ripping off my skin and running away from home. Where was he? Holed up in an apartment somewhere, wondering what I was doing? Did he have a girlfriend? A crush at the coffee shop? Did he think I was beautiful?
The sun finally appeared. I celebrated with a bottle of champagne in Laurelhurst Park at dusk. I realized that while the park was quiet, and many people secretly slept there, it would never be the right place for me. I need sidewalks and porches and lawn ornaments.
Where would I spend the night? I decided on Ankeny, somewhere in the teen streets. For old time’s sake. I walked my bike in the center of the street, trying to pick the perfect spot. i followed the scent of lavender to a new yard. The house was dark and the grass was knee-high. Usually I avoid particularly untidy lawns as they tend to be filled with creepy crawlies and angry bees. But something about this seemed so right.
I gingerly stepped into the grass, worrying that mud might be hidden below. The ground seemed solid. I turned around and let myself fall into my bed. Finally! My body moved in slow motion. I felt only joy as my head hit the ground. When I stretched out my arms, I hit something warm. Something alive. A cat? I moved a tentative hand a little closer. Cotton. A zipper. Further. A belt. Denim.
I sat up in alarm. Not another yard sleeper! I couldn’t see anything. Both hands were enlisted to investigate. The reassuring coarseness of a beard. The indescribable creaminess of skin.
The nameless yard sleeper. My secret love. I couldn’t breathe. Should I leave? This was all wrong. I’m was supposed o be the first one to arrive.
I laid down again. Struck by a surprising bit of bravery, I reached over and clasped his hand. I was rewarded with a reassuring squeeze. We stayed in this position for an immeasurable amount of time. I wanted more. I took a deep breath, rolled on to my side, and laid my head on his chest. He smelled like sage and chocolate and candy and sunshine. Before I could truly relish this position, I fell into darkness.
A team of loud rowdy crows woke me up. He was still there; the spell was not broken. Our limbs were entangled in infinite knots. My head rested in the nook between his head and his shoulder. Even though everything felt perfect, I was filled with terror. I wasn’t sure what to do. I should leave before he woke up. What would I say to him? What if we kissed?
We would be forced to exchange numbers. Awkward dates would follow. He would meet my friends, we would plan trips together, and soon we would share a house. He would hold my hair when I threw up. I would make him soup when he had a cold. We would squabble at the grocery store and have sex on odd dates. I would be filled with rage any time a girl looked at him. I would be sad when he spent time with his friends instead of me. I would worry if I was getting to fat for him. Family holidays, gas bills, cat litter. The list of obligations assumed an infinite length.
With slow precision, I extricated myself from his embrace. I smoothed out my hair, pulled down my skirt, and brushed the blades of grass from my socks. I remembered that I had a vial of red glitter in my bag. I sprinkled this all over his body and then ran away as fast as my feet would carry me.
I spent the remaining summer nights sleeping in my bed.