Authors: Kevin Sampsell
MORE PRAISE FOR
THIS IS BETWEEN US
This Is Between Us
lets the reader under the covers of what it means to be in human relationships—not the lame-o story everyone so desperately wants to smoothly fit within, but the crumpled and stained and yet still beautiful version we actually live. Kevin Sampsell has written the pieces of our glorious failures and fleeting victories with such poignancy my head and my heart are laughing, bleeding, and, above all, dreaming onward. You want this book more than Facebook and chocolate. I love it with my whole body.”
, author of
Dora: A Headcase
“Kevin Sampsell is the original unadorned romantic. His writing makes you love him, and it’s easy all the way down.
This Is Between Us
feel like you and he are sharing these intimacies—sexy, honest moments that not everyone is lucky enough to experience.”
, author of
Big Sex, Little Death
“Finely detailed and beautifully observed,
This Is Between Us
captures the humorous and heart-wrenching intimacies of two people in love. Kevin Sampsell sheds exquisite insight into the way a hundred ordinary moments in a relationship add up to something extraordinary and deeply meaningful. This novel is moving, surprising, and utterly absorbing—I couldn’t put it down.”
, author of
My Heart Is an Idiot
TIN HOUSE BOOKS / Portland, Oregon & Brooklyn, New York
Copyright © 2013 Kevin Sampsell
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, contact Tin House Books, 2617 NW Thurman St., Portland, OR 97210.
Published by Tin House Books, Portland, Oregon, and Brooklyn, New York
Distributed to the trade by Publishers Group West, 1700 Fourth St., Berkeley, CA 94710,
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
This is between us : a novel / by Kevin Sampsell. — First U.S. edition.
Distributed to the trade by Publishers Group West—T.p. verso.
ISBN 978-1-935639-71-8 (ebook)
Unmarried couples—Oregon—Portland—Fiction. 2.
Single parent families—Oregon—Portland—Fiction. 3.
Selections from this book originally appeared in the following publications:
Hart House Review
Writers’ Dojo, Fugue, Page Boy, Prism Index
First U.S. edition 2013
Interior design by Jakob Vala
The first time I went to your apartment, I wanted you to show me every room and demonstrate something you did in each one. “I like to imagine what you’re doing all day when you’re here,” I said. “I like to think of you all the time,” I said.
In the kitchen, I watched you make coffee. In the bathroom, you sat on the toilet seat for me. In the living room, you did some jumping jacks. You sat at the dining room table and ate a carrot while I watched you. In the bedroom, you slowly changed your clothes without taking your eyes off me.
We are both divorced, with one kid apiece. My son, Vince, was ten when we met. Your daughter, Maxine, was nine. We both have old school loans to pay. We couldn’t remember exactly what we went to school for. We said things like, “Life gets in the way,” and we laughed like it was a punch line.
We went to see a friend play music and there was only one chair left. I sat in it and you sat on my lap. We drank strong beer and felt the alcohol numb our blood. My legs fell asleep, and then I imagined that you were attached to me. There were eight legs—four wooden ones and four human ones, but two of the human ones were dead and useless. They just dragged on the ground. I imagined us wandering the aisles of a grocery store like that.
As I listened to the music—a grand and sweet and beautiful lilt—I read the label on the beer bottle and saw that the brewing company was founded in 1896. Then it felt like I was a mummy and you were a mummy. We were one drunken mummy, in love with our own wrapping.
When we first met, I became infatuated with your looks and I would project that infatuation onto strangers. I would see women about your height (five foot seven) and with your color hair (blonde) and with square librarian glasses and I’d want to follow them around to see if they walked like you, moved like you, or if their voice was like yours.
I would have fucked anyone who looked like you.
There was a time more recently when your hair was suddenly short and dark and my wandering eyes turned to women like that. When you weren’t around I’d go to porn websites and search for porn stars who looked like you. It was a mix of fantasy and reality that I craved.
I watched a clip of a dark-haired woman with glasses performing oral sex on someone who was supposed to be her boss, in his office. Her hair was tied in two pigtails and the man had them in his hands, pulling her back toward him when she pulled away. I asked you to do that with your hair, but it wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped. I guess I didn’t really want you to look like other people. I wanted other people to look like you.
I wonder how you described me to others. I wonder if you saw other guys who looked like me and felt like following them around. Did you objectify six-foot-tall dark-haired guys with glasses and receding hairlines? Did you really—as you implied once—like guys who were a little heavy? You said you liked my belly even though I could sometimes pinch three inches of it in my hand.
You said you liked it when I dressed up for my job at the hotel. You imagined me carrying your suitcases down a hallway to a top-floor suite and opening the door with a flourish. You’d enter the room and I would linger by the door and clear my throat, waiting for a tip. You wouldn’t have cash.
You’d explain that you were a librarian and didn’t have much money on you but you could pull some strings and eliminate any library late fees I had.
I’d watch your red-lipsticked mouth say the words
. I’d see your lips floating across the room, as if to kiss my lips, to say the words into my mouth—
Late fees late fees late fees
. . . you’d pull your glasses down a little and look at me over the frames as I imagined this fantasy inside a fantasy. Then I’d watch your eyes moving up and down my suit. You’d notice my right hand, still open and empty at my side. I’d start to say something but you’d put your finger to your lips, shushing me. Your fingernails also red, the color of
On just our second real date, we started talking about what our life together would be like. We talked about houses, careers, dreams, our kids, and our friends. Then we reluctantly talked about honesty, as if we weren’t really sure what it meant.
“Will you tell me if you’re attracted to someone else?” you said.
“I’m attracted to a lot of people,” I said.
“But if you want to sleep with them?”
“I’ll tell you if that happens,” I said without thinking.
You took a long drink of your beer and looked around the restaurant.
“What about you?” I said. “Don’t you find people attractive?”
“I do,” you answered. “But there is always something wrong with them.”
“What about us? There’s gotta be something wrong with us.”
“We’re okay,” you said. “We’re perfect somehow.”
The waiter came to our table and asked us about dessert. He seemed insistent about it, as if he knew we were trying to cultivate a romance. We noticed he had bad breath but ordered a mousse anyway.
“If I ever have bad breath, will you please tell me?” I said after he walked away.
“Okay,” you said. “You mean starting right now?”
“Yes,” I said, instinctively covering my mouth. “Even now.”
“You have a little bit of a breath thing going on,” you finally said.
“Thank you for being honest,” I said.
My son, Vince, was droopy-eyed, sweet, a kid with soft, almost chubby edges. He wore friendship bracelets and always wanted to be useful. He hardly took naps after the age of four. He was a tornado with Legos and remote-control cars circling around him. He turned his attention later to skateboards and cop shows and European metal bands that released techno remixes. He sighed more, smiled less, as he got older. His black hair was a cowlick in front and a cowlick by his right ear. He hated his hair.
He was named after his mother’s father, who used to like me but doesn’t anymore. It’s always strange when I see my former father-in-law now and call him by that name, the tension tightening the air around us.
It’s something we joked about. Let’s move in together and it will be like the Brady Bunch, but just two kids. We could all eat macaroni and cheese.
We synched our schedules with our exes so the kids would be at our apartment together more often than not. We fed them and made them give us good-night kisses. We clipped their nails at the same time on certain nights, with Nickelodeon on
, because they were scared of things that cut. Because they seemed to trust us.
Your daughter, Maxine, was lanky, always leaning forward, with knees that she had to grow into. Her hair boyish and short, dirty blonde sometimes, brown and tawny in the colder months. She used her cell phone more than the rest of us. Sometimes she seemed too mean to be a kid. But she had a lot of friends, even though they seemed nervous around her. Or maybe they were nervous around us. She started wearing lipstick the same week she started wearing a bra. One friend of hers always smelled like cigarettes. The others smelled like perfume.
We were lying on the couch and you were talking about the food your mom used to make for you when you were growing up in Missouri. You asked me if I knew what Bunny Bread was and I said I didn’t.
“Is it like sweet bread?” I asked.
“No, it’s really probably-bad-for-you white bread.”
“Oh, like Wonder Bread, then. That’s what we had in the Northwest. Bright polka dots on the bag, like circus colors.”
“Yeah, Bunny Bread is probably the same thing,” you said. “My mom would make us really bad homemade chili with peanut butter sandwiches on Bunny Bread.”
“What do you mean,
“Like we were supposed to dip the sandwich in the chili. I guess it’s a Midwest thing. I never liked it. I went on my first diet when I was eight and I never had it again.”
“When you were eight?”
“Yeah, I couldn’t eat what my mom was giving me. She didn’t know how to cook. Her idea of eating healthier was to switch to wheat bread and diet soda.”
“You ever taste Steak-umms?” I asked.
“It’s like thinly sliced meat. Cooked in a pan, greasy and delicious and kind of gross at the same time. We used to eat it on Mondays.”
“Why Mondays?” you asked.
“Because Spam was on Tuesdays,” I answered.
“Did your family ever eat vegetables?”
“We had one onion in the freezer that my mom frugally shaved slivers from sometimes. I think that onion lasted for my whole childhood. Do potatoes count as a vegetable? I’m always confused about that.”
“No,” you said. “It’s a tuber.”
“I hate that word,” I said.
You leaned back against me and lifted my arm to your mouth. You started chewing on it like it was corn on the cob.
When you took your shirt off for me the first time, I noticed the scar on your left nipple. I kissed your right breast and carefully cupped your left breast. You didn’t seem shy about it, so I thought about asking you what happened, but decided not to yet. I wondered what other men before me had done. Did they talk to you about it right away? Were they turned off? Did they awkwardly apologize? I also wondered what you’d want me to do. Ask you about it? Ignore it? Maybe say it’s beautiful and give it extra attention?
My face rubbed across your chest and I opened my eyes to focus on the nipple. It didn’t look like a surgery scar. I wondered if you’d had a pierced nipple and maybe a stud or ring had been torn out during some horrible accident. I took my mouth off your right nipple and softly licked around your left. I waited for a few seconds to see if you’d stop me or flinch. I thought about the time an old girlfriend made it a point to kiss the mole on my back.
“Does that feel good?” I finally whispered.
“More than good,” you answered, and your hand went up to my head, fingers spreading through my hair.
I covered your left nipple with my mouth, felt it with my tongue. I gave it a tender suck and felt something bloom there. I took my mouth off for a second and saw that the nipple was hard and alive, like the right one. I leaned back a moment and admired them both. They were matching now, moving hypnotically with your breathing.
Later, I said something to you about it. You didn’t know what I was talking about. “Your left nipple is shy,” I said. “It doesn’t stick out like the other one. I had to coax it out.”
“I never noticed it like that before,” you said.
I started to think I was wrong about it. Like maybe I was seeing things or having some kind of anxiety about how much attention I paid to your breasts. I never noticed the nipple receding after that. They were both so proud and hard. Sometimes I objectified them and thought of them as separate from your body. I imagined your breasts doing other things like driving a car, typing on a computer, or buttering toast. I wanted to give them names. Perky and Pokey. Betty and Boop. You and You. Mine and Mine.
You wanted to do it from behind, but I said I wanted to see your eyes. We hadn’t seen each other for several days.
This was when we were both married to other people.
The passenger seat was pushed back and reclined. We were in your car, parked by the train tracks. It was far away from any busy street, so it was private enough. An abandoned warehouse gave us a little shield on one side, even though anyone on the passing cargo trains could see us easily. Maybe we were giving some hobos and conductors a show. But it was cold outside and our heat fogged up the windows.
You straddled me and wiped a clear spot on the window next to us so you could watch the trains passing. We could feel the vibration of their heavy loads, with names of companies like Bekins and Burlington Northern scrolling by. Elaborate graffiti of distorted faces and taggers’ names decorated many of the cars. The windows kept fogging, so you reached up and opened the sunroof. You stuck your head out and for a second I could imagine the Headless Horseman riding on top of me. I heard you gasp and say, “There’s someone over there.”
“Where?” I said. “Is he coming over here?”
“He’s just standing there, about a hundred feet away,” you said. “But he’s watching us.”
The way you kept moving told me that the person didn’t bother you too much. I tried to imagine what it looked like to that person—a small trembling Subaru with a woman’s head sticking out of the top. Half woman, half car.
But maybe the person couldn’t see us very well. It was pretty dark out and the only illumination came from some of the blinking red lights by the tracks.
You slowed down to a grind and we both came. You weren’t saying anything but I could see your breath puffing out of your mouth like a steam whistle.
You slid back into the car and closed the sunroof and turned the key in the ignition. You laughed a little and said, “That was treacherous.”
I nervously pulled my pants back on and looked out the window to see if the man was still around. “I wonder if that guy called the cops,” I said. “We could get busted for public indecency.”