Photo: Damon Garrett on Flickr

Our Secret Better Lives: Chapter 1

This is the first chapter of Our Secret Better Lives, out now. Buy it.

September 1994

The scent of rain drew Katy out of her room. She pulled on her University of Oregon sweatshirt, stepped through the open door, and glanced back at her roommate. “I’m going to the record store. Want to come with?”

Alicia was lying on her stomach on the top bunk with a highlighter and an open copy of Campbell Biology, her feet almost touching the ceiling. “Hmm? I need to finish this before I head out to the party in Weller. You sure you don’t want to come? I’ll wait for you.”

“No thanks.”

Alicia sighed. “You should consider it for once. Lot of senior hotties in that dorm.”

Katy headed downstairs and out the double doors of Mitchell Hall. Hands in her pockets, she walked down College Way and turned onto Eagle Rock Boulevard. The sun was on its way down, and it wasn’t raining yet, just threatening, that pre-rain static crackling in the air like a sneeze refusing to happen. She passed small shops plastered with signs for aguas frescas and tortas, and a pile of limes outside one store, ten for a dollar.

The Rhombus Records sign came into view. Posters for upcoming releases and shows covered the front window, and a couple of milk crates out front were filled with 99-cent LPs. When Katy pushed open the door, a bell jingled.

Saturday night, and the store was full of people flipping through CDs and standing at listening stations, wearing oversize headphones, nodding to various beats. She found the new Lush album and turned it over to look at the track list.

“It’s not punk, it’s pop.” The declaration came from the next aisle over. Katy looked up to see if the guy was talking to her, and smiled when she realized he wasn’t. It was exactly the same kind of record-store argument she and her friends used to get into back in Salem.

“Who gives a shit?” said a female voice. “I’m not asking if they misfiled it, I want to know if I should get it.” The woman held a CD out over the divider and waved it in front of Katy’s face. Bad Religion, Stranger Than Fiction. “This guy is no help. Should I get this?”

“I’ve only heard some of their stuff,” said Katy. “But ‘American Jesus’ is pretty good.”

Katy had been wrestling with the thorny vocabulary issue of whether female college students should be referred to as “girls” — they shouldn’t, Katy had concluded, but she couldn’t stop saying it. This person, however, was obviously on the “woman” side of the line. Tall, black leather jacket that made her light skin look even paler, silver stud earrings.

“See, Travis,” said the woman. “‘It’s pretty good.’ That’s all you had to say.”

“I was getting there,” said Travis. “Pop is not a bad thing. I approve.” He was Asian, skinny, with a gray hooded sweatshirt zipped up to his chin. Katy recognized him from the other side of her dorm. First-years lived on the west side of Mitchell, also known as Mitchell I. Over in Mitchell II, an assortment of sophomores and upperclassmen lived the sweet life in singles, roommate-free.

Leather Jacket turned back to Katy. “You go to Atwood, right?” Katy nodded. “Megan. Senior. From Spokane. That’s Travis. Sophomore. Seattle.”

“Katy. First-year. Salem. Um, Oregon, not Massachusetts.”

“Yeah, no shit,” said Megan.

“The sweatshirt?”

“That, and the fact that you went out when it’s obviously going to rain.” Megan headed off toward the local music section, leaving Katy and Travis behind in Pop/Rock/Soul A through L.

Katy kept flipping through CDs. Travis watched over her shoulder, scrutinizing, and several times it seemed like he was about to say something about the album she’d paused on. She sighed and turned around. “Travis, right?” The guy nodded. “What’s it like, living in Seattle? Rock bands and espresso, twenty-four-seven?” Great. Katy Blundell, brilliant conversationalist, maintains her perfect record of saying the most awkward thing.

“We’ve moved beyond espresso,” said Travis. “A new place called Just the Foam opened last summer. They only serve steamed milk, but in a hundred flavors.”

“Really?”

“No.”

Before Katy could figure out how to respond to this, Megan wandered back over. “Let me guess, Oregon Girl. Smartest kid in your high school, then you show up here and everyone else is just as smart as you, and now you don’t know what the fuck is going on.”

“How’d you know?” asked Katy.

“Because that was me, three years ago.”

“And now?”

“Applying to med school. If I get in, great, I get to go be the dumbest chick in med school. If I don’t, who knows? I know how to make forty-seven different coffee drinks, including steamed milk, so I should be employable.”

“Megan thinks angst makes her more sophisticated,” said Travis.

Katy turned to him. “So what’s your story?”

“I don’t think he actually applied,” said Megan. “I hear he wandered onto campus, outsmarted some professors, and they begged him to study civil engineering.”

“Chemical,” said Travis. He reached for Katy’s CD without asking. “Shoegaze with pop hooks. Strong female vocals. I approve.”

“You know Lush?” said Katy.

“Mostly from 120 Minutes.

“I saw them at Lollapalooza ’92 in Tacoma. Did you go?”

Travis snorted. “Yeah, right. My mom told me it was the dream of all overprotective Korean parents to have their son spend the day in a field doing ecstasy, having anonymous sex, and watching the Chili Peppers put socks on their dicks.”

“She said that?”

“I think maybe she was also worried about sunburn. So did she nail the Lollapalooza atmosphere?”

“Pretty much. I read an interview where Eddie Vedder said he was going to be in the crowd hanging out with the kids when we wasn’t on stage, so I brought the insert from my Ten CD and a Sharpie in case I ran into him.”

Megan’s lips curled up into a smile. “I’m sure that happened as soon as you got there and now you and Eddie are like this.” She held up her crossed fingers.

“I call him Uncle Eddie,” said Katy. “Actually, my CD insert got all crumpled, and now it doesn’t fit into the jewel box anymore.”

It was dark out now, and the first raindrops splashed against the window. Three guys who were about to leave turned around and went back to comparing DJ headphones, and a store employee rushed out to rescue the crates of LPs.

Megan turned to Travis. “Should we head? I want to see Californians freaking out.” She and Katy brought their purchases up to the front. The clerk glanced at the rain-slicked window and slipped each CD into a plastic bag.

Katy followed them out into the rain. It was coming down hard now, but the temperature remained stubbornly at seventy-five, and she felt like a poached egg. She wiped her glasses with her shirttail, but it was useless. By the time they crossed College Way, she was soaked through to her underwear.

“Well, I’m up north in Broad,” said Megan. “Catch you next time it rains, I guess.” She turned onto the North Campus path and broke into a run.

Travis and Katy continued on toward Mitchell. “You want me to tape this CD for you if it’s any good?” said Katy.

“Nah,” said Travis. “I’m trying to wean myself off cassettes.”