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This Is Between Us

Chronicling five years of a troubled romance, This Is Between Us offers an intimate view of one couple’s struggle—from the illicit beginnings of sexual obsession to the fragile architecture of a pieced-together family. Full of sweet moments, emotional time bombs, unexpected humor, and blunt sexuality, the daily life of this man and woman, both recently divorced, with children and baggage in tow, emerges in all of its complexity. In this utterly engrossing debut novel, Kevin Sampsell delivers a confessional tale of love between two resilient people who have staked their hearts on each other.
  • Page Count: 240
  • Direct Price: 12.75
  • List Price: 15.95
  • 5 x 7 3/4
  • November 2013
  • 978-1-935639-70-1
Format Price

Price as Configured $0.00

Kevin Sampsell is the author of the memoir A Common Pornography (2010 Harper Perennial) and the short story collection Creamy Bullets (Chiasmus) and the editor of the anthology Portland Noir (Akashic).

Sampsell is the publisher of the micropress Future Tense Books, which he started in 1990. He has worked at Powell's Books as an events coordinator and the head of the small press section for fifteen years. His essays have appeared recently in Salon, the Faster TimesJewcy, and the Good Men Project. His fiction has been published in McSweeney’s,NerveHobart, and in several anthologies. He lives in Portland, OR, with his wife and son.



"Well written . . . . consisting of telling moments and epiphanies rendered in precise, poetic prose."
—Publishers Weekly

"Sampsell moves on from the personal essays of his book A Common Pornography, and gives readers this sad and sweet tale of a love that doesn’t seem right."
—Flavorwire (picked This Is Between Us as a 10 Must-Read Books for November)

"Sampsell's novel This Is Between Us is an excellent, very funny and very creepy story of a relationship. It's narrated by a man who's telling the story to his girlfriend, who the book's about. This is the sort of book you should blank out an afternoon for, because you'll want to read the whole thing all at once."
The Stranger

"The warmer moments in this novel have all the real-life glow of a flowering relationship. Sampsell’s crafting of these scenes is commendable. He is unafraid of the 'unmentionables,' and gracefully and bravely takes on these characters’ many sex scenes..."

"It makes for a reading experience that feels both uncomfortably voyeuristic and engrossingly personal. This Is Between Us is a remarkable achievement."
—Joseph Riippi, Tweeds: Magazine of Literature and Art

"There is a book called This Is Between Us. In this book there is a man, a storyteller, talking to a woman. He is telling her stories, short memories directed to her, meant for her. He is telling her their story. Pick up this book and read it."
—Busking at the Seams

"This Is Between Us, traverses the peaks and valleys of a passionate relationship between an unnamed single father and an unnamed single mother over a five-year period with a frankness rarely seen in fiction. Told in a series of lean, almost poetic vignette’s, Sampsell presents not a sentimental slideshow of Kodak moments, but a raw inventory of private confessions. He observes with an unvarnished eye all of the resentments, fears, and insecurities that can weed their way into adult relationships, along with moments of lustful elation."
—YAY LA Magazine

"The writing is strange and unexpected enough to keep us interested, and the content is both funny and devastating."

"Sampsell’s phrasing and imagery never fall short of wonderfully surprising or equally heartbreaking."
The Austin Review

"This is Between Us by Kevin Sampsell is an articulate and deliciously written novel which maps a relationship over the span of five years."
—Ardor Literary Magazine

"Lovely...understated...This is a book that deserves to be read in one sitting."
—Your Impossible Voice

"Kevin Sampsell's novel This Is Between Us is a mosaic of captured moments, a book that brilliantly builds an intricate portrait of a relationship."
—Largehearted Boy

"This is Between Us is like the anti-romcom (although it is romantic. And funny.) [….] Sampsell’s protagonist is candid about the struggles in the relationship and the problems he has with the person he loves. This is Between Us is a powerful reminder of the world you create with someone when the two of you fall in love."
—The Airship

"The ending of the book felt spot-on to me, in the way that it provided some emotional release and deepened everything that came before it—understated, sure, but nearly perfect. It's not often that I read a book and think the author got the ending so right."
—CCLaP (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography)

"This Is Between Us is an imperturbable, strange, melancholy (but never maudlin) piece of work. Kevin Sampsell straddles the line between candor and oversharing with an artful grace I found infectious."
—Patrick deWitt, author of Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers

"This Is Between Us is an utterly unsentimental and deeply nuanced portrait of a relationship. With great delicacy and compassion, Kevin Sampsell unflinchingly examines love from every angle-- sacred and profane, transcendent and mundane. This is Between Us asserts that messy, terrifying, imperfect love is worth it, after all. After reading it, you'll be a believer."
—Jillian Lauren, author of NY Times best-selling memoir Some Girls and Pretty

"Here is the quiet, funny, heartbreak truth of Real Love. Read it and weep."
—Amelia Gray, author of THREATS

"In This Is Between Us Kevin Sampsell writes with grace and intimacy about the toughest subject of all—love—and manages to capture a relationship in its natural state: wry and wistful, strange and sexy, humming with desire, quaking with vulnerability."
—Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

"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."
—Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

"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."
—Davy Rothbart, author of My Heart Is an Idiot, creator of Found Magazine, contributor to public radio's This American Life

"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 really DOES feel like you and he are sharing these intimacies—sexy, honest moments that not everyone is lucky enough to experience."
—Susie Bright, author of Big Sex, Little Death

"Sampsell constructs a quiet and honest ultra-reality that slyly becomes profound. He is telling us something about ourselves. We are selfish and stubborn and flawed and never as good as we want to be. But we also have an amazing capacity to love, and when we do, we can trump it all."
The Register-Guard

Critical Praise for Kevin Sampsell's Memoir: A Common Pornography

“Sampsell shares loneliness with such intensity that his book almost defeats it—both his and yours. Five stars.”

“Sampsell has written a memoir almost unlike any other...a fascinating read.”

“Its droll style and its archaeological attentiveness to the debris of American life - the remote controls, video recorders, tight ends, and one-hit wonders of yesteryear - combined with Sampsell’s talent for observing the ordinary, infuse the most ‘common’ incidents of growing up with wit and meaning.”

“[A] rather miraculous act of artistic self-creation...his story alone is an adequate metaphor for itself, the life it describes, and its hard-won pleasures.”

“The material perfectly fits the form, shards of memory fused into a compelling concretion of moments. A worthy addition to the work of such contemporary memoirists as Nick Flynn, Augusten Burroughs, Dave Eggers, and Stephen Elliott”

“Embarrassing and honest, heartbreaking and hilarious. A Common Pornography is a great memoir from one of the Northwest’s best writers.”
—Willy Vlautin, author of Northline and The Motel Life

“Kevin Sampsell’s stories are brief incantations, uppercuts to the gut, prose poems given over to the bloodiest realms of the self. It’s all here: the emotional squalor, the sweet bite of loneliness. Make no mistake: Sampsell can write like hell.”
—Steve Almond, author of My Life in Heavy Metal

“This is a heartbreaking and magnificent book....I am reminded of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. This is the kind of book where you want to thank the author for helping you feel less alone with being alive.”
—Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir! and The Double Life is Twice as Good

“For beauty, honesty, sheer weirdness, and a haunting evocation of place, Kevin Sampsell is my favorite Oregon writer. Ken Kesey, Chuck Palahniuk—make some room on the shelf.”
—Sean Wilsey, author of Oh the Glory of it All


The first time I went to your apartment, I wanted you to show me each room and demonstrate something you did in those rooms. “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 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.



“I’ve never hated saying good night more than I do with you,” I texted you the next night.
“You feel that way, too?” you replied.
“Yes. It’s too much like good bye and I never want to say good bye to you,” I texted back.
A minute later, you texted, “I know. It's depressing the way dinner is depressing.”
I laughed about that but didn’t know if you were joking or not. I wondered if you would be depressed every time we ate dinner. It didn’t seem like a good state of mind to deal with every night for the rest of our lives.
“Let’s just say, happy Easter or merry Christmas or happy Halloween instead of saying good night or good bye,” I texted.
“I like Halloween the best,” you replied.
“Okay,” I responded. “Happy Halloween.” 
Twenty minutes later you texted, “Happy Rosh Hashanah.” 

One night, you said you just wanted us to be friends. I was trying to be understanding but felt like I was on the defensive. This was over the phone, with the added frustration of not being able to see you or touch you. 
“That’s okay,” I said. “But I will still want to tell you that I love you.”
“No,” you said. “Don’t even do that.”
“I just think it’s dumb when people don’t say what’s in their heart,” I said. “I know things will get better for us, even if we have to wait for months or years to work it out. To be together.”
You didn’t say anything. Your silence almost had an angry hum to it.
Finally, I said, softly, “I just don’t believe in saying never.”
You answered back, “But I want to say never.”
“What?” I said, not sure of what I’d heard.
“I want to say never,” you said again. 

I wish I could make you magically appear before me whenever I want you. Do I just want to know where you are at all times? I ask myself twenty questions that are all answered by yes. Do I love you? Do I enjoy being with you? Do you make me anxious and frustrated? Do I want to die with you?
Here is a puzzle: If you were to move halfway around the world, to China or Pakistan, wouldn’t we also be living half a day apart, so many miles and so much time separating us? If it were three in the morning there and three in the afternoon here, I would probably assume you were asleep. My mind could rest easy and not race with concerns about you doing something to hurt me. But if it were the other way around, I probably wouldn’t be able to sleep because I’d be wondering what you were doing there, who you were seeing, and what you were wearing. I wonder what the difference between love and control is, but I’m afraid to look those words up in a dictionary. 
Do you wonder about these things too?
Do you want a machine that’ll make me appear before you whenever you want?
Do I make you anxious and frustrated? When you’re with me, do you want to take fewer pills, or more pills?
Do you want me to go to bed at a certain time, wearing a full set of pajamas? 
Do you want to monitor me with an electronic ankle bracelet?
Do you want to smell me when I get home, the same way I want to smell you when I come home from work?
Do you think of me when you’re shelving books at the library?
Do I make you laugh? In a good way, I mean.
Do you love me?
Did you answer yes to all of these?
I remember once you told me that it was hard to say no to me. We always seem to float toward the yes in any situation, without thinking too much about it. But should we be more careful? More under control?
What should we do with our urges?

You picked me up for lunch one day and I could see you’d been crying. Your divorce had finally gone through. The bill was in an envelope between us. An open bottle of anxiety pills sat in one of the cup holders. You told me to look at the bill. “Tell me the damage,” you said.
The envelope was nice, a slightly textured paper that reminded me of bleached teeth, and the law office name looked regal in the left corner. I pulled out the bill and saw that it was for $2,900. Moneywise, this wasn’t good timing. We both had a lot of debt at this point, as well as a new dentist bill, a speeding ticket, and overdue credit cards. You’d even checked out a book at the library about how women’s emotional distress leads to money problems. You said you couldn’t read for pleasure anymore.
“Tell me it’ll be okay,” you said.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“But it’s not okay right now,” you said. “I’m fine with that. I’m dealing. I just want to know that things will be okay. In the future. Like, some day when the library gives me a decent pay raise.”
I held your hand and watched your eyes turn bright and wet again. “It’s funny,” you said. “The more I watch Maxine grow up, the less I think about myself. I can fake my well-being. I can live hungry. I can take on a shitload of problems. I just can’t stand the thought of her having an unhappy childhood.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, although I wasn’t sure if I had the same willingness to sacrifice. 

The first time I met your brother, Daniel, I could tell he was checking me out, sizing me up. You had told me that he was hard to predict. When you were just starting college, he had already stolen two of your boyfriends and had even tried to seduce one of your dad’s friends. But he also took you out to dinner and talked to you whenever you were having problems. He loaned you money often. He gossiped about guys with you. He brought you soup and flowers when you were home sick.
“You get to stay at the hotel for free whenever you want?” he asked me. We were at a restaurant that he had chosen. It was too expensive for us, so we just had appetizers and water. He sat on the other side of the table and you held my hand on your lap, where he couldn’t see.
“No,” I told him. “But we do get one free weekend a year if we need it. And discounts.”
He laughed a little, more like a smirk. It took a while, but we found something to talk about over the cheese and bread plate—boxing. He was a big Mike Tyson fan. “I like his voice,” he said. “I like how he beat people in the first round all the time.” 
Under the table, I accidentally brushed my foot against his leg. He didn’t flinch at all. 

We had the drug conversation one night. I’d only had this talk with a couple of other past girlfriends and my ex-wife. It made me feel the same way the question How many people have you slept with? makes me feel. It’s almost like asking someone how much indescribable pleasure they’ve had in their life. One past girlfriend went on for so long about how much she liked ecstasy that I started to feel like I could never measure up.
One ex told me that she never did drugs, but I eventually found out that she was an alcoholic. Another one didn’t count the antidepressants that she almost overdosed on six months later. My first girlfriend was addicted to Lucky Charms cereal (she would keep a Ziploc bag of it in her purse). 
You told me you used to like cocaine but switched to pills when your dealer got busted. You gave me a long list of the pills and I had heard of only a couple of them. You described the different combinations you’d tried, the various effects. But you also said you were trying to become more healthy. You were running, doing yoga, buying crossword puzzle books, and watching more documentaries. 
All the documentaries you watch are about drugs. 

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. 
Formerly 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. 

As we started to figure out our new living together routine, I often wondered which one of us had a darker, gloomier spirit. You always wore black and listened to bands like Swans and Psychic TV. You had seen all the movies about serial killers and even showed me the YouTube video of the politician who shot himself in the head at a press conference. 
I used to watch the Faces of Death movies, and thought G.G. Allin was funny. I had a Joel-Peter Witkin photograph in my bathroom. 
But since Vince was born, I had become surprisingly sensitive to some things. I was getting soft. Sentimental TV commercials would make me cry. If a movie was sexually suggestive, I’d turn it off until he wasn’t around. If someone was using bad language at a basketball game, I’d ask the person to stop. I was suddenly a concerned dad. Mr. Clean. A polite papa. I was responsible for a son. And now, in a lot of ways, for Maxine too.
But when we were alone, after the kids were sent to bed, we let our dark spirits out—and they came out with a vengeance. Like they had been repressed all day long, forced to watch the Disney Channel and read The Velveteen Rabbit out loud.
We drank and swore and made sexist and racist jokes about everything on the late news. I’m not even sure if you could say irony was present in these jokes. We’d unload them like it was a competition. If you said something offensive, I had to one-up you. We laughed a good long time and turned the TV back to the kids’ station before turning it off. We went to bed, and in the morning we woke up clean again.

When we first met, you were still married but separated from your husband. It was not the ideal circumstance, but it’s what we found ourselves in. You told me he still loved you but your feelings for him had changed for some unknown reason. His name was Sage and he would send you gifts and leave messages for you. You didn’t want to tell him to stop because you secretly liked it. But deep inside, you knew that you couldn’t love Sage in the same way.
I often wondered if I would be in his position someday.
But I had no right to think that. I was also married when we met and my feelings for my wife had changed too. I never told anyone exactly why, but it came down to one thing: disappointment. I became disappointed in her and I was disappointed in myself. Our relationship was infected with disappointment. It ate away at me.
You and I found each other and tried to run away from our poisons and sadness. You looked for freedom. I looked for escape. Once a leaver, always a leaver. Sometimes I feel like we we’re just keeping an eye on each other.

You have a locket that holds a photo of you with your brother and mom and dad. You’re nine years old and your hair is in a ponytail that juts up behind you, just under your dad’s chin. You have other lockets with old photos in them too—you with your best friend, you with your family dog, you with Santa Claus. 
I asked you why you don’t have lockets with current photos in them. “Because these are like treasures,” you said. “Because I admire the innocence in these pictures. Because I like to wear them close to my heart. Because people are always curious what I was like before now.”
I gave you a locket with an old photo of me, when I was about fifteen. “I like this so much,” you said, tracing your finger around the photograph. “I feel like this answers a lot of questions for me. Like I knew you then, even if I didn’t.”