Polly Patria (I still don’t know her last name) entered my life late one night, inserting first one leg, then the other, and finally the rest of her long body, bent in paper-clip fashion, through my friend Lincoln’s fifth-floor window. She surveyed us levelly, the perfect arch of her eyebrows unperturbed, parked her designer-denimed ass down at the kitchen table and lit a cigarette with long, elegant fingers. It must have been three o’clock in the morning.
I was at standing at the stove, having decided to make pancakes. A raid on Lincoln’s shelves had uncovered, besides pancake mix, some wasabi, chard, honey, onion, and a bag of crunchy-chewy Honduran fried peanuts the likes of which none of us had ever seen before. The intrepid combination of ingredients tasted surprisingly good, possibly more attributable to our blitzed states than my cooking.
Lincoln went to bed, and Wilson and I stayed up watching Patria wrap her fuchsia scarf around her head, fashioning a sort of swollen headband that bandaged back her explosion of bleached-blond hair. This condensed her peaked, thin features so they seemed to radiate from the inside out, framed by her hot-pink punk’s gloriole. And over the course of a great many more cigarettes, which she kept close to her face at all times, drawing in little breaths, her motions birdlike, she told us a story whose veracity we spent some time deliberating once she left, so implausible it seemed.
I met her again a few weeks later, for brunch, and asked her to tell it again. She did, and it matched. I now believe her.
It begins, unlike most of ours, in Wyoming and Alaska, the two American states with the lowest population densities. (Wyoming plays host to an average of 5.25 people per mile, Alaska to 1.16—New Jersey, the most densely populated state, squeezes in 1,175 bodies per mile.) Polly’s dad wore a carpenter’s hat in Wyoming and a crab fisherman’s in Alaska. “It’s the world’s most dangerous profession,” she tells me, chewing on her lower lip. “Everybody does a bunch of speed and pulls up these ice-encrusted crab pots that are liable to flip the boats. They’ve done whole shows on it for the Discovery Channel.” Polly’s mom floats around the world on Peace Corps projects; Mauritania, Morocco, Ukraine. They divorced shortly after Polly moved to Seattle, the day she turned seventeen.
Life had already interrupted, had started interrupting several years before, when she went to Quito as an exchange student. The ‘wrong crowd’ had something to do with it. “We were doing coke between classes and stuff. Chalk powder would make me start fiending. It was kind of extreme.” The school kicked her out, but no one seemed to care, so she and new boyfriend Ivan (“quite the cokehead”) spent their weekdays in the Mushroom Valley, where Quechuas led them to hallucinogenics. “We’d have to take a bus for half an hour, hitchhike another half hour, and walk for an hour, but still we went three, four times a week.” Eventually, they headed north to Calí and snuck across the Colombian border. “I wasn’t in very good touch with my family then,” she says, tossing her head, insouciant. “I kept taking money out, so they knew I was alive, but my mom was on the point of filling out a missing persons report. Eventually someone from the embassy found me and told me to call her.” She was about to board a plane to Colombia.
Our food arrives: eggs benedict, crab and salmon; home fries; fruit salad. Fawn-like and skittish as Patria is, she packs away most of her teeming plate and drinks cheerfully, taking dainty swallows frequently enough to outdrink me. “Cheers to a good story,” we clink.
After Colómbia, Wyoming hardly cut the mustard. So Polly headed for Seattle, where she found work at the youth hostel. In December 1996, she flew to Las Vegas to see Phish perform. Coincidentally, one of the band members was on the same flight. “I didn’t look like a Phishhead,” she remembers. “I was wearing, like, a blazer or something. I looked like an English writer.” Her shirt on the day we brunch depicts a silhouette of a woman with a star for a crotch, and she’s wearing a Suicide Girls hoodie. Hardly a look associated with jodhpurs, but she’s the kind of girl who survives by on strength of cutting cheekbones, slim thighs and her wry, sly smile; whatever the apparel, she looks at once capable of freezing and warmth.
“He just swooped me up,” she says. “I was like a deer in headlights. I’d never been to Vegas before, and my plan was to take the bus to the hostel. Instead, I was suddenly in a limo on my way to Caesar’s Palace.” She’s quiet for a second. “It was a crazy few days—I remember a mother-daughter yodeling duo, Malachi from Children of the Corn was there, I mean, some crazy shit!—and when they left, I went back to the hostel. All I could think was…what just happened?”
The musician had her number, but she didn’t hear from him again until March, when he called from Dublin to say he was on his way to Seattle. She went to the show. “Everyone’s dancing and doing their drugs, and I’m there, stone-cold sober. He’d just gotten engaged. And he came up and said, so…how about a dip in the hot tub?” The band and various groupies all lounged, stylized, within the swirling chlorine. Later that night, Polly, the guy, and a woman named Lindy had sex in practice room under the stage. It was the first time, she thinks, he’d ever cheated on his girlfriend. At this moment Patria moves the fuchsia scarf from her neck back up to her head, which nimbus makes her look at once vivacious and consumptive, like an L.M. Montgomery character destined for a blowsy life and tragic end, volatile and vulnerable, but potent, heady.
Polly’s brother was living in Prague, so she moved there shortly after, and hung out for a couple of years. Then she moved to Japan and spent six months pouring sake, singing karaoke and making polite conversation with Japanese businessmen. “I liked being there. The money was good, like $40-50 an hour, although they taxed the shit out of us.” I ask her, is that like being a prostitute? “No.” She laughs. “Only the girls who did the meth did the sexy dance.”
Patria’s next stop: Gloucester, Massachusetts. Her best friend from the Phishing days was there, engaged to an Oxycontin-doing, beer-drinking fisherman, and invited her to stay awhile (the fisherman, meanwhile, died; the friend is now an elected Green Party official). Polly got a job at a restaurant called The Studio. “It was me and all these salty Gloucester girls—‘Eh, got a coupla kids, getting my real estate license,’ but good people.” They drank next door at this place called the Rudder, where, one night, she met the owner’s son Mark.
“He was that whole New England WASPy thing: Exeter, Brown, an architect. He lived in Boston. I was on my way home and was wearing my bike helmet. All these blinking lights around my face. He’d never seen anything quite like it.” Her large earrings jangle dance spastically to much the same effect. Polly’s saving grace: despite her ice-princess looks and self-involvement, she possesses an appealing goofiness, a genuine ability to poke fun at herself that is really endearing.
Once the season ended, she thought about going back to Japan, but Mark said he’d miss her. “It’s funny to say, but the harder thing for me to do was stay and see if it’d work between the two of us. It was a novelty to me, this new adult life, like playing dress-up.” They dated for two years, and one day he told her they were going away for the weekend and that she should wear something nice. Drinking a ginger ale, he proposed. “The ring was beautiful: a square princess cut, a striking diamond, really clean. He did a good job.” And like that, the most unlikely couple in Gloucester, Mass, got married.
A call interrupts our conversation. “Girl, what’s the haps, the haps?” she yelps into the phone, a sleek little number. She clicks off. “That’s my pot dealer. I gotta little pickup this afternoon—“ and, slipping the phone back into her pocket, picks up right back where she left off—“What were we talking about? Japan--meth--money---oh, my husband.”
If in the beginning, Mark and Patria complemented each other, before long, she starved him as much as he suffocated her. “He’d go to bed, I’d go into the bathroom and get stoned and talk on the phone.” Mark had wanted children by the time he was forty (he was 36, she was 26), and she’d assumed that “that maternal thing” would kick in by the time she was twenty-seven. It didn’t.
I ask her how she knew it was over. “I’d been telling him for years that all I wanted to do was go dancing. And for my birthday, he takes me to the SYMPHONY?”
So Polly Patria, single, moved to New York. Gone was the car payment, the mortgage. All she had was a cell phone bill to pay. She found a Craigslist roommate and an Australian surfer.
A year later, she’s still here. Managing a shoe store in Soho, bursting in spectacularly through fifth-floor windows, finding Sunday mornings perfect for downing mimosas, wearing that scarf wrapped around her head like a furry fuchsia mane. A modern-day Gibson Girl who wouldn’t say no to a crack pipe, if it came from the hands of someone intriguing enough.
I think she’s rad.