She just stood there and stared at the seat, as if this were her last chance. She knew that the decision had already been made for her, but still she stood, acting like there might be another option. She knew full well that she’d awkwardly slide past the overweight man whose girth was spilling over onto 34E, that she’d clumsily bump the copy of the Business section of the Times that he held, and that she’d mumble an unintelligible apology as she sat. But there she stood, staring at 34E as if putting her weight fully on the blue upholstery would forever change the course of her life.
She remembered 9B, which seemed like so much longer than just six years earlier. She had trekked across the country, and even the world, so many times since 9B, but this time was different. Everything about this was different.
There had been no decision to be made before she let the weight of her body fall in to 9B. She didn’t wake up that morning dreading the ride to the airport or burying her head in her pillow, hoping that if she just kept her eyes closed for five more minutes, all of this would go away. In fact, she didn’t sleep at all the night before she took her seat in 9B. The adrenaline of what was on the other side of 9B far outweighed the need for rest. Everything was exciting about 9B. She had not been accustomed to the comforts of 9B, the hired help who would be at her beck and call until the wheels hit the ground, or the satisfaction of watching the other passengers walk back to their 34E, wondering who she was and what she’d done to deserve to be looking down on them from 9B.
But like I said, everything about this was different. It wasn't just the first class seat of 9B or the pre-boarding or the stewardesses who would disregard the pilot's seatbelt warning to fetch her another vodka cranberry.
Back then, she didn't feel like she was just a number on an airplane seat. She definitely wasn't 34E, and she even considered herself more than just 9B. She was Ella Jayne Copeland, and this, the day that she had sat in 9B, was just the beginning. Her whole life was in front of her. Her college newspaper music column turned blog, Do You Hear It?, had blown up during her senior year at Portland State, putting her on the radar of In Stereo Magazine. Just two days after sitting in a metal chair with her cap, gown, and 2,000 classmates, she found herself in 9B, a five and a half hour flight from a Manhattan apartment, a six figure salary, and everything she’d always wanted.
Ever since childhood, Ella had dreamed of being a journalist. On countless evenings, she sat on the front porch of her family’s Southeast Portland home with a pen and paper in hand, writing made up newspaper articles while her mother sipped wine and listened to old jazz records on the wood-cased 1960’s Admiral record player. To this day, Ella can’t hear the sound of rain pattering on the trees without thinking of the scratching that happens when a needle collides with vinyl.
Ella would sit on the steps that led to the porch that was easily larger than the home’s main living room, watching the rain make tiny indentions in the river below while she created stories about presidents visiting her elementary school. She'd listen for the roar of her father's car, always a light blue Honda Accord, although he would upgrade the model every two years. His return from the clinic, usually around 7:30, signaled the preparation of dinner.
For as long as Ella could remember, family dinner had been a nightly tradition in the Copeland house. Each evening, Ella, her father Aaron, and her mother, Caroline, would scour the kitchen with no plan. When they found an ingredient that sounded appetizing, they’d pull it from the pantry or the refrigerator and set it on the counter. Usually, the counter would end up covered with a random smattering of anything from raw chicken to basil to lemon juice to cilantro to apple sauce. Together, they’d start mixing ingredients and adding spices until something tasted right, and while their concoctions cooked, they’d sit around the table, which spent at least 9 months a year on the front porch, and they’d talk about their day. Caroline continued to sip her wine while Aaron nursed an old fashioned glass of whiskey and a tobacco pipe. Ella would watch the orange glow coming from the mouth of the pipe while she listened to her father’s stories of the surgeries he’d performed that day. Mother would pull her knees to her chest and look lovingly at her husband, the beam of her smile visible through the glass that she held to her lips.
Aaron and Caroline would listen intently as Ella would read the articles she’d written that day, and they’d rave about her knowledge of language and grammar. “Great use of the word poignant, dear,” or “the alliteration in that third sentence was brilliant.” She’d grin from ear to ear and eat her apple sauce and lemon chicken. Growing up, these dinners on the front porch were a snapshot of the closeness of the Copeland family.
But that was before 34E.
As Ella sat there, with the excess of 34D pressed against her thigh, she couldn't help but feel like this was the end. She wasn't yet 29, but everything was gone. All that she'd worked for, all that she'd loved… Gone.
She closed her eyes and tried to sleep, but that word kept haunting her... Gone.
Her mind went to Cafe Yama, a night she'd been with Kristina, sipping a Ginger Blossom and picking at a spicy tuna roll. Yama had been a deadline week tradition for the two girls since Ella had started at the magazine. They'd walk the three blocks from the offices of In Stereo around 5:30, taking their seats at the bar just in time to order before happy hour ended. They'd spend an hour or two decompressing over sushi and cocktails before heading back to the office to work until the sun rose.
On this night, Kristina stared at the large aquarium behind the bar, wondering how they made the water look so blue and the fish so neon while Ella spoke. "I just don't understand retirement," she began. "I mean, I get that June wants to spend more time with her grandkids, but I can't imagine a world without the stress, the deadlines, the writing."
"I was with ya until that last one," Kristina cut in. She was the magazine's art director, and often reminded the writers that they were crazy for spending their days putting words together.
"It's just," Ella continued as the orange fish slithered past the lime green seaweed in the tank, "I don't know what in the world I’d possibly do if all of this were gone."
She shuddered as she remembered her words. She’d been worried about it all being gone at retirement, yet here she was, 35 years before she could draw social security, and it was already exactly what she had feared: gone.
She reached up and closed the vent that had been blowing cold air on her, and as she shifted, 34D grunted and glared at her as if she'd inconvenienced him greatly by transferring her weight to her left.
Isn’t it crazy how time flies when you want it to slow down, and it couldn’t go any slower when you’re dreading what’s next? The past six years had been a blur for Ella… and this plane ride felt like it was taking six years.
The only perk of 34E was watching the North American countryside change from east to west beneath the sky.
Being that her final destination was the Pacific Northwest, she had fully anticipated the native clouds to be covering the landscape below. But on this day, the sun was bright, and Ella was surprised to see Mount Hood shining beneath her. It was still covered in snow, even though it was the middle of May. As the plane began to descend toward PDX, Ella couldn’t take her eyes off of the peak that she knew so well.
From family vacations to high school field trips to camping trips with college friends, this mountain had been the backdrop for so much of her childhood. It was also that mountain that signified the end of that childhood.
She could still feel the pit in her stomach as she thought of that day, winding down the mountain, sobbing from the passenger seat while silence was the only sound from the other side of the vehicle. Had she thought that was the end as well?
Certainly not, for it wasn’t even a month later that she was in 9B, looking down on that mountain. The pain that she’d felt on the roads below seemed far more than 30,000 feet away as she flew east.
But now, she found that same pit was resting inside her as the plane inched closer to the terminal.
Growing up, Ella thought she’d never leave Portland. She loved the rain and the culture and the quirkiness and the summers and the gloom and the food. When she’d finished high school, it didn’t even cross her mind to apply to any schools outside of the city. When she showed up to the first day of her freshman year at PSU, she was simply taking the next step in the plan. She figured that she’d spend four years between 12th and Broadway, and then move eight blocks north and live her professional life in the Pearl, walking to and from an old warehouse turned creative agency to old warehouse turned loft apartment building. She’d stop at an old warehouse turned coffee shop on her way to work, and she’d visit an old warehouse turned brewpub with friends on her way home.
This was the plan, and there was no reason to think that she’d have any other life.
But as she felt the wheels of the plane meeting the Oregon earth, Ella Jayne Copeland found herself on the soil of her birth for the first time in six years.
And she was terrified.
//TAKE A BREAK HERE//
You couldn’t tell it by looking at her, but Ella was relieved to be on the ground again. The car was quiet, a new Honda Accord Hybrid, and the only noise coming from the prodigal was the sound of continual deep breaths, as if she were preparing for labor or in the midst of an exercise with a therapist. Neither her nor her mother spoke in the car, and their words had been few in the airport. As her feet had walked on the carpet that she’d seen in so many of her college friends’ Instagram photos, her mind went to the phone conversation she’d had with her mother three long, painful days before.
“Mom, I’m coming home.”
She barely got the last word out before her voice cracked. She flipped the iPhone 180 degrees so that the microphone was above her head, in hopes that her mother could not hear the emotion in her voice. Ella half expected Caroline to reply with an “I thought so,” or “I heard,” or “Of course you are.” These thoughts were totally in Ella’s head, however, for it was neither in her mother’s personality nor her past to use her words to guilt another human.
Caroline Copeland replied exactly in line with her history. Her words were simple, “Ok dear,” but Ella could hear the compassion in her voice.
And when Ella looked up from the carpet at Portland International Airport, the face of her mother was the same face that she’d always known. Through the tears she couldn’t keep inside of her, Ella studied the face of her mother. She’d aged well over the past half decade, and the smile that she displayed reminded Ella of childhood. As she neared, Ella noticed the tears in her mother’s eyes as well. Their embrace told of the years that had passed, the relief of two people who share a past being reunited.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
It was merely in her head, but Ella couldn’t help but wonder if her mother was being truthful. How could Caroline really be glad that her daughter had returned? After what she had done… the way she had left… She closed her eyes and shook her head as if to remove the memory from her brain.
Ella stared out the window as they drove in silence, taking in the Oregon landscape. This place was so incredibly different than New York. In the excitement of moving to Manhattan, she hadn’t thought much about the difference between Portland and New York, but now the contrast was blaring at her. There was so much green here, even inside the city. She now realized the truth of the term “concrete jungle.”
The Accord whispered down the freeway until it reached the Lloyd Center exit. As Caroline turned left and then right toward the Copeland home, it all felt very familiar to Ella. As they angled from Hawthorne onto SE Ladd Avenue, Ella finally felt that she was home. She’d lived her entire childhood on this street, the large trees hovering above the pavement as if to protect it from the rain.
“The Garrison kid got married last weekend. Can you believe it?” Caroline broke the silence with the neighborhood news.
“That little boy who used to throw rocks into our backyard?” The relief that Caroline felt when Ella spoke back was visible on her face.
“Yeah,” she beamed in response. “He graduated from UCLA just before the wedding. It’s hard to imagine him as anything other than that annoying child who couldn’t keep his hands to himself for five seconds."
"Oh, and the Franklin’s finally sold the house.” She looked at Ella to gauge her disappointment.
“Wow,” was all that came from Ella’s mouth. The Franklin family had lived next door to the Copelands since before Ella and Adeline, the Franklin’s only daughter, were born. While Caroline had been pregnant with Ella, she looked out the window of their new home and saw another pregnant woman getting into a car next door.
“Aaron, get over here,” she’d said with excitement. “I think our neighbors are gonna have a baby, too.”
For the Franklins and the Copelands, the more than twenty years that followed were filled with family dinners and vacations. They did everything together. Ella and Adeline went to school together every day from kindergarten until the day that they graduated from PSU. They lived next to each other for 18 years, and then in the same dorm room for four more.
“They’d been talking about selling that thing for years. Who bought it?”
It was small talk, but at least it was talk. The tension that had filled the Accord lifted and slipped out through the cracked windows.
“A couple in their fifties. But they don’t live there. In fact, I don’t think anybody lived there until just a few weeks ago. There’s a guy there now. Probably the son.”
They drove past the house that had belonged to Ella’s best friend and into their own driveway. The house looked just like Ella remembered it. The deep red paint and the brown shutters complemented the perfect green grass and evergreen trees that surrounded the structure. Ella’s eyes found the front porch, complete with the wood-cased Admiral and the kitchen table. She could hear the sounds of old jazz as she gazed at the backdrop of the first two decades of her life.
Walking through the front door was like taking a step into the past. It’s an odd sensation to walk into a room for the first time in six years and for everything to feel the same. It’s even more odd when you've spent so much energy trying to forget the place. There was a spot in Ella’s mind that told her she should be uncomfortable here, that she should feel unwelcome and out of her element… but she didn’t. She was simply home.
In a way, she felt like a little girl again. Ella Jayne, as her father referred to her. In the moment, she wouldn’t have been able to articulate it, but she felt safe. In a world that had been spinning out of control over the past couple weeks, her equilibrium finally seemed to be in order. Standing there, in that living room in Southeast Portland, Ella felt protected. In that moment, she realized that she’d taken this protection for granted her entire life, and when things were good in New York, she hadn’t even realized that it was gone. But dear God, did she notice it now.
She made her way through the house, just taking it all in. The kitchen, the dining room (with no table, of course), the large windows that wrapped around the entire main level. She made her way up the stairs to where the three bedrooms took up most of the second level square footage. She could smell last night’s tobacco pipe coming from the bedroom that had been converted into an office. She walked in, and even though her father was still at the clinic, this room had enough of “him” in it that she felt like he was standing there next to her. She walked over to the small record player and flipped through his collection. It hadn’t changed one bit since she’d left. Cash, Dillon, Taylor. Still in alphabetical order, still in mint condition. She headed to the bookcase, also alphabetized. The books, however, were not in peak condition. They had been read, and showed the wear of years of being poured over. She swept her index finger across the spines of the books, S… T… U… ah, there it was. Her dad’s unlikely obsession with Kurt Vonnegut was there, fourth shelf down, a little to the right. He had at least one copy of each of Vonnegut’s books, sometimes two or three. He’d once paid $3,500 for a silkscreen print by Vonnegut, and on another occasion had driven to Seattle simply to pick up a first edition.
While this interaction with all of her father’s things comforted her, the pounding in her chest reminded her that things would likely not stay this peaceful.
She passed the other two bedrooms and opened the door of what appeared to be a closet. As Ella stood there, staring at the steps that had frightened her as a child, she got excited for the first time in weeks.
The stairs themselves were rather tricky. They were simultaneously extremely steep and extremely narrow. Ella’s entire foot hadn’t fit on one of the steps since seventh grade, and she had to duck in order to not hit her head on the ceiling. Once she had scaled the unsafe stairs, she was introduced to what had been her absolute favorite part of this house, this neighborhood, this city.
She’d slept in one of the rooms on the second floor until her tenth birthday. She awoke on September 9th to eggs, bacon, and orange juice sitting on the nightstand. There was a moment, in the midst of waking up, that she’d forgotten that it was her birthday. Her father entered the room with an oddly shaped gift, wrapped in a brown paper sack.
“What’s that?” 10-year-old Ella asked, her hair disheveled and her smile beaming from ear to ear.
Her father returned her enthusiasm, and handed her the bag. It was heavier than Ella expected, and sharper, too. She ripped the paper off, only to find that her birthday gift was a hammer.
“Um, thanks dad,” she tried to feign an interest in the tool.
Her father laughed. “You’re supposed to ask what the hammer is for."
“Oh. What’s the hammer for?"
“Your new bedroom.”
At that point, Ella didn’t have to manufacture any interest. Her excitement stayed strong through the entire day, and throughout the entire process of turning the attic into a bedroom. Aaron and Ella spent the next three weeks hanging sheet rock and painting walls, cleaning out cob webs and and picking out furniture.
The result was a small, 9x9 room with short ceilings and a musty smell that never really went away, and Ella loved it. It was her own space, a space that she’d created with her own hands, and the hands of her father.
It was in this room that she’d fallen in love with writing. She’d read the novels of Chbosky and McCarthy, eating up the way that each of them put together words, these little amoral collections of letters, into powerful pages of emotion. She’d be sent to bed at the end of the night, only to read by the glow of the streetlight coming in from her window until the wee hours of the morning.
In college, Ella would leave the dorms on Friday afternoon, only to spend much of her weekend in this room. Ironically, though she’d consumed millions of words while in this room, there were no words to explain the connection she felt to this room.
She fell onto her bed, the staleness of sheets that hadn’t been slept in for years creeping into her nose. Despite the scent that could only be described as stuffy, Ella closed her eyes, taking in the fact that she was home.
Ella wasn’t sure how long she’d been asleep, but the sun, which had been directly above her was now hanging outside of the window to the west. She sat up and looked at the woman who was looking back at her from the mirror. Her brown hair was surprisingly still in place, and the little amount of makeup she’d been wearing appeared to still be in the right spot. After a moment of assessing her appearance, her glance became a stare and she looked deeply into her own eyes. Here we go, she told herself, and she descended to the house’s main level. The stairs down to the living room were the same cherry oak wood that they’d been since the house was built, and Ella still remembered their sounds and movements, the slight give in the middle of 2nd step from the top, the creak on the right side of the third step, and how the entire house groaned when she shifted her weight from the bottom step to the matching wood floor of the living room.
The sound of Dizzy Gillespie blaring through the fuzzy Admiral speakers was coming from the patio, and the smell coming from the kitchen told Ella that her mother had just brewed coffee. She found the pot, in the same place it had always been, and poured herself a cup. Oh Portland, I didn’t realize how much I missed you she said out loud after she took her first sip.
Holding her mug with both hands, she walked out of the kitchen, through the living room, and onto the patio.
“Ella.” Her father stood from his spot at the table when he saw his only daughter. He came over and wrapped his arms around her. “It’s so good to see you.”
Ella buried her head in her dad’s chest, and let him hold her. Six years ago, she wasn’t sure that she’d ever be in his arms again. She’d left so much unsaid… and she’d said so much.
After what seemed like five minutes, but had not been even thirty seconds, he stretched his arms out in front of him, still holding onto her arms. “Let me take a look at you,” he said.
His blue eyes searched her up and down, and her eyes never left his. “How are you?” he asked.
Ella had played out this conversation in her head many times in the last six years. She wondered what he’d say and how she’d respond, what he’d bring up and how long it would take her to regret the entire talk. But in all of the role playing, she’d never expected this. What was happening here was a father genuinely concerned about his daughter. A man worried that the world had broken her spirit and killed her will.
They sat on the patio while the sun fell behind the trees, catching up on six years of lost time. This was the man that had sat on this porch countless times over two decades, making Ella feel like the most important girl in the entire world. This was the man that had used an entire year’s worth of vacation to turn his attic into a bedroom for his daughter.
How had Ella forgotten this man?
“You two hungry?” Caroline stepped out onto the patio, visibly ecstatic that her husband and daughter were reconnecting. She had never been good at hiding her emotion.
“I’m starving,” Ella answered.
“Me, too,” Aaron agreed, and they both stood.
It was as if they hadn’t missed a beat. The Copeland family walked into the kitchen together, opening cabinets and pantries until they had covered the counter with the ingredients that would become their dinner.
Long after the sun had disappeared and was replaced by the night sky, Aaron, Caroline, and Ella reclined at the table, each with their vices. Ella was on her third cup of coffee, and Caroline her second glass of wine. Aaron was stuffing his pipe. The only time they stood was to put a new record on or to refill their drink. They felt like a family again.
“Ella,” her dad asked as he dipped a lit match into the bowl of his pipe. “How was your flight today?”
Had 34E really been earlier that day? Sitting here, picking up where she’d left off with her mother and father, on this porch, she felt a thousand years removed from the pit she’d had in her stomach that very morning.
“It was fine,” she said. Actually, the flight was awful. It had been five and a half hours of hell, and Ella hoped that she never had to go through 34E again. But she replied the way she did, not to avoid the question or lie to her parents, but because she truly believed that everything was going to be, in fact, fine.
Whiskey and wine tend to have a much different effect than coffee, and so Aaron and Caroline retired to bed after they’d finished their last glass. Ella walked up the stairs with her mother and father, hugged them, told them that she loved them, and she meant it, and then made her way upstairs to the attic.
Being in this room inspired her. She’d spent countless hours in this room, reading old books and filling journals. She opened both of the rooms creaky windows and sprawled out onto her bed. It was on so many summer nights like this that she’d written her best material, and tonight, she felt motivated to put pen to paper.
Flipping over onto her stomach, Ella reached her hand underneath her bed, expecting to find a journal, but all her hand found was the rug that covered the nicked and broken floor. For a moment, Ella freaked. Where’s my journal? She’d been so lost in the nostalgia of the evening that she’d forgotten that she’d taken all of her writings with her when she left six years before.
Usually, without a journal, she’d just store her thoughts in her head and go to sleep, for there were 24 hours in tomorrow as well. But on this night, she knew that sleep wasn’t an option. The emotion of the day she’d just lived, along with the three cups of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, meant that she would not be sleeping anytime soon, and she would not be deterred from getting her thoughts onto the page.
She walked down the attic stairs as quietly as she could, hoping not to wake her parents. At their age, once you were up, you were up, and she knew that the day had been emotional for them as well. She slipped past their bedroom door, the sounds of sleep still coming from their room.
Ella went into her father’s office, certain that she’d find an unused notebook, or at the least a few sheets of paper.
She knew the room well, and just to make sure her parents didn’t wake, she rummaged through the contents without flipping on the light. She ran her hand across the room’s long wooden desk, hoping to find what she was looking for.
As her fingers moved along the wood, her hand hit something and immediately she was blinded by light. Ella squinted and covered her eyes. Had someone walked in?
She removed her hand from her face and saw the glow of the computer screen that she had just awoken. She breathed deeply, realizing that she had nothing to be afraid of.
And then she looked at the screen.
Her father rarely used this machine. When he did, it was to do research on a new medicine or a new restaurant.
She read the headline of the article before she could make herself look away. The words were burned into her brain.
HAS ELLA COPELAND DESTROYED IN STEREO MAGAZINE?
Oh my god.
The reality of what she’d done came back and hit her like a ton of bricks. And the reality that her father knew all of it hit with the back swing. He’d Googled her name and read about the horrible things she’d done. I mean, she knew that the media had picked up what had happened, but she’d stayed completely away from the harshness of the Internet since it all went down.
She just stood there and read it again.
ELLA COPELAND DESTROYED...
She felt 34E all over again. Dejected, disgusted, destroyed…
She left the room empty-handed and walked down the stairs, hitting the creak on the third step, through the living room, and back out onto the front porch. She sat on the steps, put her face into her hands, and wept.
In that moment, her tears creating puddles in her palms, Ella Jayne Copeland felt as alone as she’d ever been.
Her face was still in her hands when she heard the sound of the front door opening next door.
Adeline? she thought. No, it couldn’t be. The Franklin’s weren’t there anymore.
She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt and looked toward the house next door.
It was dark, but she could see the outline of a man taking a seat on the porch. He let out a sigh as he sat. Ella could hear each of his movements, as the two porches almost touched. As they each sat, their bodies weren't more than 15 feet from each other.
From the noises that were coming from the porch, Ella assumed that this man was either drunk or having about as good of a day as she was having. After a moment, he stood, and Ella could hear his footsteps moving across the wood floor. Her eyes were adjusting to the night, and as he walked, she got a little better look at her new neighbor.
His hair was short and messy, and his beard was dark and full. He was wearing a plain white tee shirt, and as he walked back toward his chair, he was holding some sort of long tube like object.
If I can hear him, then he can hear me, Ella thought. She considered making her presence known, because it would only get more awkward the longer she sat there. But what in the world could she say? "Hey neighbor I don't know, I've been sitting here crying my eyes out and listening to you breathe." So she stayed silent and watched as he took the larger end of the object in his hand and set it on his lap.
Ella again wiped her eyes as she stared, mesmerized by the voyeuristic nature of what she was experiencing. The man let out another deep sigh, obviously filled with emotion, and shifted in his seat.
Ella felt as if she were intruding on this man’s private life, and decided that she needed to say something. She opened her mouth to begin to speak, but another noise cut her off.
It was a guitar.
As he began to pick out a tune, Ella’s sense that she was intruding heightened. The chords were haunting and told of the pain that she’d heard coming from his porch. She contemplated making a break for her front door or stopping him mid strum and announcing that she was there. But as he began singing, she froze.