Portland in the nineties was a lot like me: broke, struggling with employment, mostly white, mostly hopeful even though there was no real change in sight. For all the drive-through espresso stands and downtown restoration, the new paint on aged bungalows and vintage glasses on young women, it was still an old industrial river town in a remote corner of the country. Hard to get to. Hard to leave.
The town matched something in me, the way a certain kind of guitar dissonance could strike an internal tuning fork that made my bones hum. I loved the slightly ruined quality of everything—the rusted joints, the mossy edges. The containers stacked in the weeds by the train tracks, the evergreen hills striped pale green with recovering clear-cuts. I’d go out to Kelley Point, where the Columbia and Willamette Rivers met, and the near-empty beach would be populated by enormous satiny driftwood trunks and rusting hunks of industrial debris, Latino families fishing and white dog owners throwing sticks and lonely men waiting for furtive sex in the woods while long low barges slid slowly by. All of us out at the end of the country, hoping for a quick small fix.
Tech money kept on puffing up Seattle and San Francisco like toxic blowfish but skipped over Portland. We just got the leftovers: the priced-out queers and artists, and the ongoing plague of gleeful professionals who couldn’t believe how much Oregon house you could get on a California dollar. Seattle’s grunge explosion had raised some hopes but left only a patter of shrapnel here. The Portland sound—there was no single such thing—couldn’t be packaged and sold so easily. The major-label searchlights turned elsewhere and the music still flourished in the dark, mushrooming in basements and garages and warehouse practice spaces, in crammed clubs and beat-up ballrooms.
All of which is to say: there was no money in the place. No matter. All the better. Young people kept coming, seeking all the things you’d expect—music, work, drugs, adulthood, refuge from adulthood—but mostly, seeking each other. We came from dying logging towns and the rocky coast, from Salem and Nehalem and Battle Ground and Boring, runaways from Boise, SoCal misfits, kids from the South and Midwest, the suburbs of anywhere. Some stayed a month, others a year or two, some stuck around. Me, I came at seventeen from rural western Nebraska, where adulthood came hard and fast and narrow, and queers kept quiet or met violence. Here I was no longer The Only but one of an ever-gathering crowd—young forever, queer forever, friends forever, or so we all thought then. My people.
Open relationship: It had sounded like a blue sky, a vast field, a sunny lake. It was more like the door kicked in on a basement. It had turned out the only person my former girlfriend of three years didn’t want to have sex with—or share sex with, as she called it—was me. From a book called The Ethical Slut she had learned to articulate this in earnest detail. She called it Positive Communication. Too broken by it all to share sex with anyone, I’d moved out of our house and found myself in the shadow world of the dumped, sympathetic and untouchable, righteous yet damaged. Now, three months later, Flynn was still the last person who’d touched me, and at my worst moments, I was convinced she was The Last Person I Would Kiss, Ever.
The thought of rain was forming in the air as I locked up the letterpress studio that evening in early June, the night of the benefit show. I pulled my hood over my head and broke into a jog, my ink-smeared old Levi’s slipping down my hips with every step so I had to keep tugging them up. Mist speckled my glasses. My look walked the line between Letterpress Punk and Totally Letting Herself Go. I hoped I could pull off the former.
It was Queer Night, I’d made the posters, my friends’ band the Gold Stars was playing. Though I might have been going alone, everyone I knew would be there, I reassured myself—including Flynn, I deassured myself. But tonight I would reemerge.
Up Seventh Avenue, through the smash-and-grab warehouse district where you parked at your own risk, toward the rare beacon of La Luna: ballroom windows aglow, grand doors guarded by a moat of disheveled youth. And there at the door was my poster, hand-set with vintage wood type and cranked through the letterpress by my own arms. Someone had scrawled a careless tonight! across my silky gold ink, a reminder that all my art was ephemera. I couldn’t let it get to me.
“I’m on the Gold Stars list,” I told the girl at the door, panting a little. She had a clipboard and a tongue piercing that she was clacking around her teeth. “Andrea Morales.”
“Is your plus-one here?” The piercing gave her a slight lisp.
“It’s just me. Plus zero.”
I found my friends at the end of a narrow smelly hall in the smallest of the three backstage rooms. Meena leaped to her feet and socked me on the arm before clamping me in a butch side-hug. Lawrence waved apologetically from the couch. Others raised their bottles, went back to their conversations. No Flynn in sight.
“We were just planning an intervention to pry you out from under your rock,” Meena said.
“Here I am,” I said. “Fresh from the rock. Like a grub.”
“You look good,” Lawrence offered. Even when excited, Lawrence sounded, at best, optimistically woeful. She’d finished high school early and fled Salem for Portland at sixteen. Meena had found her at a show at the X-Ray Café and taken her under her wing, our androgynous teenage pet we smuggled into bars and clubs; we renamed her from Lauren Stanich to just Lawrence. Now she was twenty but still pale and scrawny, with elfin ears and dark blue eyes, the runt of our litter, a self-taught computer programmer who was allergic to the cat who was the love of her life. She played guitar with the focus of a surgeon.
“We’ve decided to set you up with someone,” Meena said.
“Good luck,” I said. “No one will get near me. What am I, Dumpster fruit?”
“People eat Dumpster fruit,” Lawrence said.
“We’re working on it,” Meena said. “But I can’t help you if you keep crawling off under a porch to lick your wounds.” Everything about Meena Desai was strong—her arms, her eyebrows, her opinions. Meena believed she knew what was best for me, and for everyone. She fancied herself an unofficial life coach. She preferred to be right, and arranged her life and friendships for minimal disturbance of this worldview. Now she steered me to the snack table and handed me a beer from the tub of ice. “So stay close.”
I promised I would and dropped onto the sofa, nestled between my friends with a cold bottle, ice-softened label ready to be peeled away.
Our shows were a kind of home. Out front, a dark room, everyone facing the same thing together, awash in sound. Backstage, scrappy girls in a borrowed room, old couches, graffiti on the walls, a pile of snacks to scavenge, trading information and gossip as the air thickened with smoke.
Every time the door opened, my chest tightened, but Flynn never entered. No one even said her name. I relaxed. My people were with me. I was with them. Portland was still mine. And tonight, I was going to get some.
The drummer picked up her drumsticks and started tapping out warm-up fills on the edge of the couch, Lawrence began tuning her guitar, and the rest of us took our cue to exit to the floor.
Out in the ballroom the crowd had thickened. I scanned the room for new faces, for any possibility—I was back, and I was hungry. I dropped my empty bottle in a trash bin and when I looked up, to my surprise, my eyes lit upon Vivian.
Her chestnut bob was clipped back from her forehead with a barrette, and she wore a slightly-too-large thrift dress and knee-high boots. The sight of her triggered a surge of joy or relief—I could no longer tell them apart. Vivian was my Special Ex. We all had one, the one who’s not so much an ex-girlfriend as a friend-plus, an old beloved song on the radio. She lived in Olympia, two hours away, which made her a peripheral and perpetual safe place. My ranger station. I didn’t want all of Portland to know how Flynn had wrecked me, what a failure and fool I felt like, so I assumed an air of calm, efficacious regret at all times, but there had been moments late at night when I’d broken down and called Vivian. She had been extraordinarily patient and gracious about it. Nobody could talk me off a ledge like she could.
“Vivian!” I grabbed her jacket sleeve. “I didn’t know you were coming down for this.”
She started and then clasped her hands over her sternum. “Oh my god. You!” Vivian said. Then she smiled and hugged me. She smelled warm and faintly like Old Spice deodorant. I had found it off-putting when we dated, the sweet muskiness haunting the armpits of all her shirts and dresses, but now it just smelled safe. “I came for the show.”
“Well yeah, obviously,” I said. “Oh, Viv, I’m so glad to see you here. Thanks again for being there for me when I was really in the worst of it.” I clung like a koala.
“Oh, honey! Breakups are tough. But so are you,” Vivian said, gently releasing the hug. She gripped my arms and held me back a little, looking me seriously in the eye. “How are you doing now? Are you better?”
I joked that I missed the house more than Flynn. That wasn’t entirely true. I didn’t want the house without her, or to keep sleeping in that bedroom where she had opened her booming nonmonogamy practice.
“It’s a good little house,” Vivian said sympathetically. “But you found a great new place.”
“Yes, great.” An alarming neediness welled up in me, threatening to slosh out in public. I sighed brightly. “It’s wonderful. Sweet roommate. New space. Room to think. It’s been good for me.” I nodded for emphasis.
“Excellent. Breakup progress?” Vivian sounded like a doctor performing a checkup.
“I really think we should have broken up, like, a year ago.” I laughed to convey my over-it-ness.
“Good,” said Vivian. “It really seems like you’re in a better place now.”
“I am in a better place.” I paused. “Isn’t that what they say when people die?”
“You are too funny.” She patted my bicep briskly. “And I need a drink.”
I looked over at the bar. Flynn was standing there, wearing a worn gray T-shirt and a pair of black leather pants she must have procured since the breakup. The leather pants were tacky but fit her tall frame distressingly well. They made her look ludicrous yet hot. Like someone a good vegan would want to both scold and fuck. “I’ll pass for now,” I said.
Vivian followed my gaze. “Ah.” Her eyes tightened like she was doing a math problem in her head.
“But you go ahead, of course,” I said. “You know my stance on these things. No drama. I’ll get mine later.”
Vivian squeezed my arm. “I’ve always loved that about you. It’s so good to see you, Andy. Be well.” She gave my cheek a quick, tart kiss, then turned and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear as she headed to the bar.
The Gold Stars took the stage and Meena said, “This is for Kat and Lucas. You’re not victims, you’re our heroes,” and loosed a squall of feedback. I wove my way to the front, seeking obliteration by sound, and I got it. When I pressed a hand to my chest I could feel the drums and low throb of the bass beating there, a respite from my dogged heart.
When the Gold Stars bashed out their final racket, I wriggled loose from the crowd, my whole body ringing, and headed to the bar. I had just wedged myself between two stools and staked an elbow claim on the bar when a man’s voice next to me said, “Hey.” Pre-annoyed, I shot it a dark glance.
“Oh. Hey, Ryan.” I knew Ryan Coates in the Portland way, one and a half degrees of separation. He played drums in a decent trio called the Cold Shoulder, a band that was always opening for other bands on the verge of fame; he also cut hair, including Flynn’s, at a little punkish barbershop his friend ran. His own hair was tousled and artfully overgrown, an unwashed, winter-dim dark gold. He wore a tissue-thin Wipers T-shirt faded to dark gray and perched on his bar stool with an effortless lanky slouch betrayed by restless feet, one scuffed boot toe tapping the floor. “What are you doing here?”
“My friend Neil played in the first band,” he said. “How’s Flynn?”
“We broke up.”
“Damn,” he said.
“Oh man. I’m sorry.” He looked genuinely sorry.
“She didn’t tell her barber?” I caught the bartender’s eye and signaled for a pint. “Sometimes I wonder if she even experienced it.”
“I guess she might have mentioned it,” he said. “She doesn’t really talk about that stuff with me, though.”
“You can be grateful for that. I’ve heard a lot more than I ever wanted to know.”
My beer appeared, tall and cool and serene, brimming. A stool opened up on the other side of Ryan and he invited me to take it.
“What’s up with the Cold Shoulder?” I said, sliding onto the seat but keeping one foot on the ground. “Weren’t you on that big tour opening for what’s-their-name? I thought I read something in the Willamette Week.”
“Yeah, that’s done. We’re leaving to play some California and Southwest shows next week.”
“On your own?”
“Yeah, thank god. I’m ready to play for people who actually want to hear us.”
“I know the feeling.” I raised my glass. “To doing it on your own.”
We clinked. And as I brought the glass back to my lips, I swung half a turn around on my bar stool and saw Flynn and Vivian standing at the edge of the crowd. Their legs overlapped. Vivian was holding her drink in Flynn’s airspace, saying something so Flynn had to bend her head down to hear. Then Flynn gave a little kick against Vivian’s knee-high boot, Vivian flashed her a smile, and I knew. ●
Illustrations by Rachell Sumpter for BuzzFeed News.
Chelsey Johnson received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, and NPR’s Selected Shorts, among other outlets. She has received fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Signal Fire Arts. Born and raised in Northern Minnesota, she currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, and teaches at the College of William & Mary. STRAY CITY is her first novel.