Test Tube 2 – Starting over from scratch


I’ve been struggling to follow up, despite Sam’s gentle nudges.

I went to Costa Rica with a 17-person chunk of my very large extended family and it was the normal mixed bag of wonderful moments and difficult ones. Moments when I had to stop and look around and wonder how I share genes with a bunch of well-adjusted people who managed to create families and stable livelihoods by their thirties.

But mostly I’ve been lost. Whether in Costa Rica or on Vashon, I’ve been wandering, losing sight of the plans I had made for myself back when I had it figured out.

You see an island feels exactly like that. It’s a Simon and Garfunkel song in living color, with huge trees and a stretch of Quartermaster Harbor that lays placid like a challenge. It is idyllic with none of the idealism and I have been returning to it every day with the feeling that I’m fitting a big foot in a very small shoe. It hadn’t quite occurred to me that I was going to be a very expensive ferry ride from almost everyone I know and I was 95% sure all people had forgotten me and I was doomed to spend a life slowly decomposing in obscurity under these tall trees.

This is something I am sure I’m projecting.

Today I worked from home. I woke up knowing I had to write pithy one-liners for engaging newsletters at my job. I sent a message to my bosses and told them I’d be foregoing the two hour commute to work from home. They, as usual, were frustratingly understanding and then left me to my work.

After I was done in the afternoon, I walked out and looked at Mt. Rainier looming in the distance, her hugeness overwhelming the small waterfront alcove below my property. I sat on the grass and threw a ball to my dog while on the phone wishing my mom a happy birthday, trying to figure out what to do with myself with no more deadlines.

As I talked to my mom, she asked if I was sure I wanted to go freelance (by the way I decided instigating a small financial upset was a good way to really solidify this small existential crisis). I said yes with conviction and then asked myself the same question privately. Instead of getting caught up in a comforting round of navel-gazing I decided to get out from under the mountain’s shadow.

On the drive into what is generously called “town” (about five restaurants and some really on-the-nose healing arts stores on quarter mile of the main drag) I stopped by the small book store and was immediately chagrined by Ayn Rand’s prominence. I brushed past The Fountainhead while briefly considering burning it. Instead I picked out a couple novels I had been meaning to read and a book by a local author called Onions in the Stew that promised me a story about a woman rebuilding her life on Vashon in the 1940’s, which means she probably didn’t complain about the slow WiFi.

The sun was high and I walked across the street to the dive that also serves sushi. It’s one of those places with too few chairs for the amount of space, empty no matter how many people squeeze in. I waited at the unmanned bar, staring at the taps and thumbing the book I had just purchased. A man asked me what I was reading. I told him I hadn’t started yet.

I was quiet and sat on the back patio – a space two feet above a parking lot cordoned off by a wooden ramp. Big cans served as ashtrays and as I read people wandered in and out. Conversations started blooming around me and I stared at the same word on page 20 of my book and invited myself to listen in.

I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to do this. My first memories of it are from the backpacking camp I attended as an 11 year old (to build character, obviously). I got the nickname “the gopher”. Surprisingly, not because of my two front teeth that still jut out despite four years of braces, and I am frankly surprised that the sixth graders didn’t catch on to that. I would sit on the edge of a group, most of the time just enjoying being around so much activity without feeling the overwhelming need to contribute, and then a small energy would build in me. A knot of bravery. I would chime in loudly, as kids who spend most of their time with YA novels about lady knights will do, and surprise the hell out of everyone. A quiet toothpick girl yelling out of nowhere, unsure of how to join.

I would pop up, and then in an immediate rush of self-doubt, pull back in. I had so much to say, so many questions I wanted to ask. I didn’t know how to read a room, much less a cluster of trees in the Northern Rockies. The lithe kids with their bleached tips and Sofie shorts would side-eye me in that silently cruel way youth can muster, and then go back to talking. I went back to listening.

Almost twenty years and a lot of practice later I was on the patio, listening as two women talked about their financial states. One gently suggested to the other that she camp behind the Vashon Eagles club. The other, on the verge of tears, said very little and seemed less than enthusiastic about the solution.

A man with curly gray hair that hung around his head like heavy smoke chimed in that he had been homeless on Vashon on purpose, and loved it. After a beat of silence, he moved on to his real problem – the woman he is dating is a Gemini, while he is an Aquarius. The women nodded and switched topics, the one in distress looked relieved and walked inside to get another drink, her steps careful and measured, often going more sideways than forward.

A cook walked by to say hello. We had met before briefly. He is the warm type of man who always seems like he’s had a shot, and who, my friend had whispered to me, once got in trouble for getting into the stash of sake. His pin-up girl tattoos winked at me in the late afternoon sun and he held out a lilac wordlessly. I took it and he sat down next to a bearded man and started a soliloquy about how the lilacs by his first home smelled – fragrant and safe.

The man who had been homeless asked me what I was reading. I flipped the book and told him Super Sad True Love Story. He grinned and said that he had experienced a few of those personally. He asked me my birthday, and I told him. He was delighted to find another Aquarius and bid me “aloha”. I was hesitant to engage. I felt like I was intruding on someone’s family. I felt like I had wandered into a living room uninvited and just sat down. I didn’t want to be side-eyed out of the bar.

After about ten minutes I realized I had somehow not noticed that everyone was talking to me. I got asked who I was, where I was from. I met a man who had moved from the same neighborhood in Capitol Hill and we talked about the gay bars there. He asked if I went to them and I said I sometimes I went to Pony but only if invited. He said it was a problem that so many people were tourists in gay bars. The cook who gave me the lilac heard me mention that I like chicken fingers and brought a basket over.

My one friend on the island wandered in, and then more people she knew. By 8 we were surrounded by young people in overalls and knit sweaters. One of them had brought a guitar and started singing “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” by Townes Van Zandt and I sang along under my breath, whispering into the darkening purple sky the sweetest song ever written about foregoing plans on a dime.

I noticed when I was young, the quieter I was the more people thought I was nice. I still believe I am nice, most of the time. But niceness was a characteristic pinned to my jacket when I was raised by parents of opposite natures. Two very good people who saw the world respectively in full color and photo negative and still chose to stay together. Two very good people who had a high strung daughter and accidentally taught me to stay right in the middle of the dark room.

I was never taught to pick a side, or to add my voice and risk cold glances and social isolation. So I stayed quiet on the edges.

As I’ve aged I’ve gotten louder. I’ve gotten less nice. But around new people I fall into the mediation position like an old sweater. I get very nice and then I get very tired. It’s why I isolate. When I feel so much I perceive as negative I instinctively protect the world from myself, like my sadness and anger are monsters capable of destroying Tokyo. I just wanted to be sweet. I wanted to be noticed and then forgotten.

One of the women piped up that she wanted someone to play “Stairway to Heaven.” Out of nowhere I laughed. She looked at me, puzzled, and asked what was funny.

“I mean, someone could play it, but I don’t know that anyone should.”

Oh my god, I thought, I’m such an asshole.

Instead of giving me sideways looks, a raucous debate broke out about criticism, Led Zeppelin (gross), and the songs everyone can play a little bit of.

When I left to go back to my Airstream my friend messaged me and said “Everyone loved you!”

I doubted love was on the table, but as I held my wiggling cat in the dark, I thought about it more. They didn’t think I was that nice. And it was fine.

There’s a lesson there. But I figured it would probably take me a lot longer to figure it out. And in the meantime, all this quiet was cracking that sweet shell I had put around me to fool people into thinking I was someone who wasn’t going to make a mess. Led Zeppelin wasn’t going to be the worst of it.

Kathleen Tarrant
Kathleen is a music writer in Seattle, Washington who believes very deeply that feelings are the worst and should be avoided at all costs but who keeps trying to play sad records during dinner parties anyway. Her writing has appeared in The Stranger, City Arts, The Denver Post, NPR, and overwrought emails to close friends at 3 AM.


  1. I read this not knowing at all what it would be about and discovered it was about me. Just kidding. But I definitely related to this!


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