Kevin Sampsell isn’t convinced his debut novel, This Is Between Us, is a novel at all. Which is kind of funny, given no one in town is more steeped in books. In addition to running his own press, editing short-story collections, and writing a memoir, Sampsell has overseen Powell’s highly influential independent publishing section for 12 years and run many of the bookstore’s events, bringing authors in unknown and sending them out with a following.
“Kevin is the hot, beating heart of the Portland literary world,” says Justin Hocking, a writer and the director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center. “Almost everything important that happens here, in terms of books, circulates through him in some way.”
That role is nowhere more apparent than on a toasty August night at the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center. Sampsell is camped out in the air-conditioned green room before the irregular and irreverent variety show Entertainment 4 People, surrounded by gushing writers.
“I read his memoir [A Common Pornography] on a tiny prop plane in massive turbulence,” recalls Dan Kennedy, the New York–based author and sometimes host of the storytelling program The Moth, who met Sampsell while on tour for his first book in 2003. “I thought, ‘This would be a great way to go down.’”
“Is this your second novel?” asks author and filmmaker Arthur Bradford, who first read at Powell’s in 2001 and has been a Sampsell fan since.
“No, I’m a novice novelist,” Sampsell replies—although he’s not sure everyone will agree. Between Us, due out November 12, is a love story told through a series of vignettes—similar to the experimental style Sampsell employed in Pornography. Lacking a traditional narrative, it is more a series of subplots that revel in love’s most quotidian moments: the instant you realize you’re both in love, the awareness that you no longer hide your bad habits, the moving out, and, then, the moving back in. Written from the perspective of a man who speaks to his lover (and thereby the reader) in second person, the story is like a pop song. It seduces you with its intimacy, whispering: “This could be you,” and then allows you to fill in the empty spaces between the vignettes with your own story.
And that’s kind of what Sampsell does at the evening’s event, reading vignettes between the other performers. It’s also what he does for the city. To extend Hocking’s metaphor, he is like a pulse fueling our literary metabolism.
Below are excerpts from This Is Between Us, as well as his recent piece selected for The Best American Essays 2013.
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. (This Is Between Us, p. 11)
Moving in with someone is like pruning yourself. Two people turning into a multilimbed, two-headed, two-hearted being. There were things to be considered, like colors (my mismatched dishes were given to Goodwill), bed sheets (yours didn’t quite fit my bed), and food choices (everything with high-fructose corn syrup had to go).
Plus there were the kids, who were excited to live together, despite their lingering confusion. Just months before, they’d had both biological parents going to their teacher conferences, eating dinner with them, and tucking them in at night. I wondered if they sensed any of the cracking, the shifting, or the trepidation that was happening in us—you, me, our exes. We tried to “act normal.” As if breaking vows happened every day. You asked me, “Do you think we’re sending the wrong message by falling in love?” I didn’t know how to answer that.
Maybe my perspective was a little skewed, but it looked like everything in the Goodwill pile was mine.
It felt like more you than me in our new place. We were both moving from our own cozy houses to a slightly cramped apartment. But by the next day I was okay with that.
Here we were: eight legs, eight arms, four hearts. Neatly packed in a white wooden box. Sometimes I stood outside and stared at the chimney on top, slowly puffing smoke. (This Is Between Us, p. 26)
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. (This Is Between Us, p. 205)
Sometimes I wondered if I was teaching Vince enough about life stuff. Like laundry, dishes, cooking eggs, and how much toilet paper to use. My parents were stricter with me, and made me mop and dust and garden and also wash the family car all the time. I learned hospital corners on the bed and how to cook something medium rare. They even made me squeegee the car windows when we stopped for gas. But I failed at grocery shopping for some reason. Always got the wrong cheese or milk. Couldn’t make myself buy wheat bread as a child.
Maybe I was too relaxed with Vince, like I wanted to be the cool dad. I would tell him ten more minutes on his video game and let him play for thirty. I would ask him to help with cleaning the bathroom but do most of it myself while he wiped the sink out over and over.
Then I had sudden bouts of guilt about my non-structure, his lack of chores. It became a strange, double-sided guilt. I felt guilty for wanting him to have fun, and I felt guilty for not preparing him for future responsibilities.
One day, I made him iron our nice shirts and pants. I made him spray and wipe off the TV screen. I showed him exactly how long to cook corn on the cob. I even taught him how to log in to the websites for the cable and electric bills and pay them with my bank card.
Before it was time for bed, I remembered one last thing that I’d never shown him: how to change a lightbulb. For some reason, this task made me especially nervous, like he was going to get electrocuted or something. I mean, I don’t even know how electricity works.
I pulled the small ladder out and had him climb up and twist the old bulb out. I showed him how to shake it gently and listen for the tiny rattle. I gave him the new one and watched him twist it in. I put my hands on his waist to steady him, though I didn’t really need to. I went to bed that night wondering if I had overloaded him with information. If it was too much for his young brain.
I wondered if he’d remember any of these things. (This Is Between Us, p. 228)
Read more: Kevin Sampsell's Salon essay, “I’m Jumping Off the Bridge,” is about talking a man who comes into Powell's out of suicide, only to contemplate his own. It attracted a flurry of attention online and will be included in the forthcoming Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed. You can read it here.