EDITOR'S NOTE: Portland's literary scene would look very different if it didn't have Kevin Sampsell in it. Sampsell runs Future Tense Books, where he publishes important, offbeat new voices like Chloe Caldwell and Jamie Iredell; he organized Portland's first literary-themed pub crawl, LitHop PDX, last month; and he's long curated Powell's small-press section, where he showcases self-published books and independent publishers. Sampsell's memoir A Common Pornography came out in 2010; at the packed Powell's reading for the book, he dropped to one knee and proposed to his longtime girlfriend B. Frayn Masters, producer of the popular storytelling show Back Fence PDX. (She said yes.) He's an indelible part of Portland's literary community, so it's fitting that local outfit Tin House Books is publishing his first novel, This Is Between Us (due out November 12), excerpted here.
• • •
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.
• • •
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 100 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."
You drove away calmly and quietly with a smile on your face and your shirt still unbuttoned. I saw my sweat drying on your chest. A few minutes later you said, "He had his dick out." The way you said it, I couldn't tell if you were excited or repulsed.
• • •
One time, when I was 11, I walked in on my parents when they were having sex. They were doing it doggy style, and my mom's heavy breasts swung back and forth between her locked elbows. I made some kind of sound, a surprised groan maybe, and they noticed me in the door. My mom collapsed flat but my dad kept going on her. I locked eyes with him for a few seconds and he slowed himself to a frustrated stop. And then my mom said, "Honey, can you go to the store and get a loaf of bread?" She was trying to cover herself but my dad stayed defiant and naked, only his groin shielded.
"Okay," I told my mom.
"There's a five-dollar bill in my purse," she said.
Her purse was on their dresser on the other side of their bedroom. I walked across, looking away from them, and unzipped her purse to root around for the money. It was very quiet now. I snuck a sideways glance and saw that my dad was wearing light blue socks that came to his knees. "Okay," I said again.
"You can buy a candy bar for yourself too," she said.
I left the room and walked down the hall. I went to the front door and opened and shut it loudly. But I stayed inside the house and listened.
• • •
It was Sheryl, my ex-wife, who taught me to go slow in bed. I was a jackrabbit. That's what she whispered to her friends. One of her friends told me that later. Or maybe it was a jackhammer. A handful of thrusts and it was over, like I was in a race.
I'm not sure where this method came from, but I was quick to blame a weekly circle jerk I had with friends when I was in 10th grade. We took turns having sleepovers, lugging our smelly sleeping bags from basement to basement. Rusty zippers always getting stuck. To cut down on possibly incriminating evidence, we could use only one piece of stimulation—like a page from Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue, a banana peel, or massage oil. Sometimes we traded panties and bras from our moms' or sisters' dressers. This little private club lasted from Christmas break to summer vacation and then we all went to summer camps and grew apart.
For a long time, I was a speed demon and knew no other way. I could summon a handful of sticky in 12 seconds. I didn't think about how this eventually affected my girlfriends. I thought me coming = them coming too. Their fingers were usually called on to finish my unfinished job. I'd lie there, exhausted, and watch their faces change as their bodies squirmed next to me.
When I met Sheryl, she was just as inexperienced as I was, but she read magazines and had some strategic ideas of her own.
Her best one was the candle trick. She would put lit candles on the headboard of the bed frame. The surface there was only about five inches wide, so if the bed jostled too much, the candles would fall over. Night after night, I would watch the small lineup of flames nervously as I moved inside her. When I was close to climax, I would be tempted to go faster but I had to be careful. For a couple of months, I couldn't even look at her face for more than a few seconds. My brain would play tricks on me. I'd see flames growing tall out of the corner of my eyes. I imagined the bed going up in flames at the same time as my premature ejaculation.
Eventually I mastered the slower speed, the steady pace of delicious friction and heat. I could watch Sheryl's face and breasts and hips again. They glowed in the dark.
• • •
If I flipped over and put my back to you in bed, I called this "cooking the other side." I called it this because I imagined myself as a big piece of meat on a grill. On some nights, I had to flip over continually until I was more comfortable (evenly cooked).
I also liked how it felt when you put your back to me at the same time. We called this "butt to butt."
There were some nights when you lost your patience with me and would ask me to face you for a goodnight kiss, and I'd say, "Hold on a minute. I have to finish cooking this one side."
• • •
Sometimes you have a hard time showing me your body. When we go to bed, you turn off the light before taking your clothes off. By the time my eyes adjust to see anything, you're already under the covers with me.
"I want to see you," I say.
"You can feel me," you say.
"But I like looking at you," I say.
"Why do men always have to be so visual?" you say. I'm not sure if you're exasperated or inquisitive.
"I want you to please all my senses," I say.
"But what if I don't?" you say.
• • •
I went to bed a few minutes before you one night and decided to lie the opposite direction in bed, so my head was where my feet usually were. My feet were sticking out and resting on the pillow, like a weird joke. I heard you getting out of the bath and then brushing your teeth. I readied myself anxiously but quietly in this new position. This probably wasn't quite what you had in mind when you said you wanted to try some new things in the bedroom. You crawled into bed and hugged my legs against your chest. At first you froze, but then you started kissing my ticklish ankles. Your toes brushed my cheeks. The night seemed upside down. .