Stray City by Chelsey Johnson Read Online (FREE)
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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.