Walking Up Hill by Kelly Froh
She told me she bought our one-way train tickets, that we were leaving in a month, and that I owed her $96.
But let’s start where a lot of things either begin or end — in high school.
Halfway through, I decided to stop taking showers in the morning and wear the same 2 concert t-shirts alternately every other day. I’d wear clothes too big for me to completely hide my body, and wear my hair un-styled in a pony tail. I had struggled for too many years trying to keep up with rich friends and ever-changing trends. I decided to simply not give a fuck.
It was that “new me” that was sitting in ceramics class one morning, when I heard what I like to think of as a “call to freedom”. A girl a little older than me, wielding a hammer, was bashing the shit out of a half-hardened ceramic bust.
Our art teacher had just told her that she took too long creating her piece, that there was no more room in the kiln for another firing, and that she should just destroy it.
Everything that would happen to us after that day can be traced back to that first moment where she didn’t hold back, and to me, the nervous girl trying to just get through the rest of high school, it was incredible.
I pretty much dumped all my other friends for Missie. Most of them would not be considered friends by any other standard outside of the screwed up world of high school cliques anyway. Missie was different, she wasn’t bitchy. She seriously was a caring person. I was confused by this, since being bitchy, snobbish, and negative was the standard all around me. She once told me, “You know, it’s ok to be nice”. This shocked me, but I decided I liked the idea.
She was older than me, more experienced, prettier, thinner, but she made me feel like I was smart and pretty too. That we were equals. She introduced me to new and challenging books, harder music, and a whole new way to be friends. She was the first friend I had who had shown me genuine love.
My senior year I started listening to The Pixies, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and my sloppy look was now consequentially sort-of in fashion. No one asked me what name brand my flannel shirt was, because no one cared anymore.
Missie graduated ahead of me and moved from Sheboygan Falls to Milwaukee and lived in the college dorms. I visited her a lot, because I had a car and the will to leave home often. Experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs brought us even closer.
Though our nights always started at house parties filled with dumb drunk guys, we took our dilated eyes and ducked out on our own, walking around the neighborhood, exploring construction sites, looking up at trees from below, rolling down snow drifts and riding bikes down steep hills with no brakes.
She was flirtatious and always had a guy chasing after her. I was a virgin and had no urge to undergo a sexual awakening, I was completely locked down. We didn’t talk about it very much; maybe she knew to just leave it alone. Occasionally she’d try to set me up with someone, but the guy would only be giving me attention in the hopes of ending up with her and I never made it easy for them.
Missie had a bumper sticker on her dorm room bunk bed that read: “Orgasm Donor”. I didn’t even really know what that meant.
I moved to Madison after high school and went to technical college for commercial art. I dropped out after one year and worked 3 different jobs in an attempt to not be completely aimless.
Missie visited me and we consumed a bag of mushrooms mixed with Cracker Jack while watching “Aladdin” at the cinema at the mall. When we walked out, we felt like crying because we had to mentally disconnect from the movie. There was a car with the keys inside right in front of us, and no one around. Was this our magic carpet? We thought about it for probably too long and then decided to walk home, although it was several miles. We walked and walked, and became more empowered with every step. We talked about how we felt we could continue walking forever! The sidewalk ended and we had to edge along the dusty and weed-laden highway into town. We entered an underpass that contained a painted mural of sea life. The scene started off with smiling swimming fish and then got scary and surreal, with open-mouthed sharks with bloody teeth. We turned and looked behind us and saw a pack of wild dogs at the mouth from where we just came. I blinked hard and tried to focus, thinking maybe it was a hallucination. We didn’t know if we should run or walk very slow. We stood in the middle of the tunnel and held each other’s arms. The dogs were frozen, awaiting our decision. I finally said, “Ok, we are going to slowly walk out of here.” So we took small steps until we were back in the light and then we ran as fast as we could until we reached a gas station. When we looked behind us, there were no dogs.
A few weeks later I got a letter in the mail from her, she told me she wanted to leave Wisconsin and travel to the West Coast and she wanted me to come with her. She said that whenever she played that America song, “Sister Golden Hair” she thought of me and how we should be together.
Our plan was that I would move to Milwaukee and share her room on the top floor of a house shared with 3 other people. I’d pay about $90/month plus heat. We’d both work a lot, save money, then leave in about 6 months. What sort-of threatened our plans is that I made a great group of friends at work. We went out almost every night, and I spent that hard-earned money on drinks! I also stopped paying as much attention to Missie, and she must have had doubts that I’d even go through with the move out west.
I loved Milwaukee and the new friends I had made, but I couldn’t let Missie down. The day before we were to leave, my friends gathered in one place for our goodbye. The guy I sort-of had a crush on kissed me on the cheek, and I hugged everyone, and ran out of the room.
I cried in the bathroom at home, until Missie knocked on the door and said, “Are you going to be ok?” in a half-concerned and half-annoyed way. I knew I had to pull it together.
My parents didn’t really know what to say. I told them that even though I had barely ever travelled outside of Wisconsin, knew practically nothing about where we were going, didn’t know a single soul out west, and that we had neither an apartment nor any job leads, and barely any money, that everything was going to be just FINE! God! I’m SO sure!
I thought that if we didn’t find an apartment right away, that we’d just camp out in a National forest! Judging by the map, it seemed Seattle was surrounded by them. This must have quelled my parents’ fears, and what did they know? They’d never been far from Wisconsin either.
I listened to a mix tape my friend Bradford made for me, on repeat, almost the whole trip. We slept unnaturally, and the views got old fast. At one point, Missie went to sit with some guy and I saw them take swigs out of a bottle of Jack Daniels. One night we had mix drinks in cans from the bar. I was so haggard, they didn’t dare card me.
42 hours later, after 2 nights sleeping upright, we arrived at King Street Station in the dark of night. We looked around at the tourist information boards and wrote down a few hotels near something called The Space Needle. We locked our boxes in the lockers available, and took a cab across town. We were scared, exhilarated, but also just really tired and sore. We checked in to the Travelodge and went right to bed.
In the morning, the 11 am check-out came WAY too soon. At the front desk I said, “Hi, we just got to town, um…where should we live?” She took one look at us and said, “Walk to Denny Way, then up the hill to the East to Capitol Hill.”
It was like we had never walked up a hill in our lives. Halfway up, we stopped at a mini-mart for water. I looked around and saw that they sold single-sized Schneider string cheese and that comforted me because I used to work there. It made me feel like I wasn’t as far away as I thought. At the top of the hill, with hearts nearly exploding, and no breath in which to speak, we wrote down the phone number off the first vacancy sign we saw.
We wrote down some other numbers too and then went to a payphone to try to make some appointments. We needed to find an apartment right away, or the little money we had would have been eaten up by hotels or hostels. We waited in line behind 3 others to view an available apartment, and everyone we met had just moved like us, and from all over the country.
We met a man named Lars, who was very friendly and curious about us. When we told him we didn’t actually have a place to stay that night, he offered to let us spend the night at his place. He was older than us, and kind of a small-boned nerd, so we thought we could trust him (or physically overcome him if necessary.)
We chopped up vegetables and made a stir-fry, then sat around and talked until we went to sleep. He let us borrow his ex-wife’s pajamas and when he retired to his own room, we said, “Goodnight Uncle Lars” just to let him know we didn’t want a visit in the middle of the night.
We negotiated an apartment the next day, in the very first building we looked at, the 2nd building on the south side of Denny Way after you cross over the bridge. The landlord said only one of us needed to have a job. Missie said she worked as a temp and that was good enough. We moved in that night, our 3rd night in Seattle.
We got our boxes from the train station and “unpacked”. Here are the things I brought with me: some clothes, a fanny pack, a tent, a sleeping bag, a canteen, the Keith Haring biography, 3 books of Charles Bukowski poetry, $750 and some waterproof matches.
What I maybe needed instead? Try a lamp, a radio or CD player, towels, some dishes, and I don’t know, maybe like $3,000 more?!
One of our first nights in our new place, a good looking neighbor stopped over and invited us to meet his room-mate and hang out at their place at the end of the hall. We were a little apprehensive, but decided to go. We pushed open the door to find rotting food on plates with flies bussing around on the windowsill, one lonely chair in the room with garbage on the floor, a poster ripped from a porn magazine hastily taped to the wall, and the room-mate, bent over with his pants down, pulling a needle from his bare ass. “Want some?” he asked. We were in Seattle for less than one week before getting offered heroin.
Lars was a great and charitable friend to us. He took us to Discovery Park, and Whidbey Island, and all over. He was like an ambassador, showing us the best of the city.
He was originally from Alaska and he told us great stories about it, how beautiful it was, and how he’d love to take us both there. Soon I noticed what I guess what was inevitable: Missie was always in the front seat next to Lars, and eventually his hand was on her knee.
Every day I took off walking in a new direction, so that I’d get to know my way around the city. I looked for jobs in the paper and went on a few interviews. I considered going to bartending school in a place called Renton. Lars suggested I work on a fishing vessel for 3 months and make enough money to support myself for a whole year. I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly, but I didn’t want to pull out fish guts all day long.
One day I got back to the apartment and Missie was packing up a suitcase. “Where are you going?” “Um…just away for the weekend.” “With Lars?”, “Yeah” “Where are you going?”, “Um…he’s taking me to Alaska”, “…Well…have a nice time”, “Thanks.”
I got an office job at an insurance company by day and by night I was the box office cashier at the Guild 45th movie theatre. Missie and I barely saw each other. It wasn’t like I’d imagined it would be. We were supposed to be Thelma & Louise!
On Capitol Hill I saw people that looked like me, and if they didn’t, they were so much more interesting! It felt good to be living in this Mecca of music, art, film, and poetry. Seattle had really opened her arms to me, and she made me feel accepted.
One afternoon, Missie and I shared a plate of fries at Hamburger Mary’s. The waiter left a note in the middle of the table. I assumed it was for Missie, but she pushed it towards me and said, “I think it’s for you.” The note said, “I hope this isn’t too cheesy but can I have your phone number?” I was so surprised; I took the note and went to the kitchen. “Is this for me?” and the waiter said, “Yes” nervously, and then I said, “I just moved here, I don’t have a phone, but thank you for asking” and I left the kitchen door swinging as I walked out smiling.
Missie decided to move in with Lars 6 months after we got to Seattle. She packed up her suitcase, we hugged and she left. I looked around the apartment and felt settled. I knew that I would stay and I would thrive.
This story was commissioned by Hugo House Literary Series 2012/2013; it is now being made into a graphic novel, coming soon (2017).