Stray City

Chelsey Johnson

March 22, 2018 
The following is from Chelsey Johnson's debut novel, Stray City. As a 23-year-old, Andrea moves to Portland for its small, lesbian community—and to escape her Midwestern-Catholic family. When she becomes pregnant from a one-night-stand, her new friends discourage her from keeping the baby. Chelsey Johnson's stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.

Born Family

My mother loved limits. They were a ten-foot fence guarding her and her family. Nothing could get in, nothing could get out. She was the most ardent kind of Catholic: a convert. As if to make up for her first twenty years of lax Lutheranism, she attended mass every day. She had converted to marry my father, who had been only casually faithful, a Mexican-American Catholicism relaxed by a couple generations of assimilation and intermarriage, but she took it all the way, one-upping him as if to prove something—perhaps to her own parents, who had disapproved of the relationship and worried her children would be “confused.” Maybe it was living in rural Nebraska, a place where the weather is harsh and the landscape open, and she needed to buttress herself with the element-proof structures of the mind. Her convictions became her fortress.

My plan was not to crash the fortress but to build a small annex onto it. One brick at a time, a gradual reveal. I would go on with my underground life, my real life, but acquire the trappings of college degree, respectable work, even membership in the Catholic church downtown (whose progressive tendencies could be incrementally introduced into productive conversations)—a life that sounded good over the phone and at family gatherings. I would come home for every Christmas. And one day, I would ask to bring A Person, and they would be helpless in the face of her charm and kindness, and our love would radiate and encircle the whole family, and the annex would be complete. All of us within it.

Christmas was my first trip back home from college. I packed clothes I hadn’t worn since the third week of school, washed my hair, and put on mascara, three things I did seldom to never. I shrugged on my old Andrea drag. It was part of my long game.

When I landed in Nebraska, the emerald fields I’d left in August were now wiped blank by winter. The white went on forever. Snowdrifts sculpted their way up the sides of the houses and outbuildings.

The man relatives: How are classes?

The lady relatives: Got a boyfriend out there?

My brother: “Yeah, right. She looks like a boy.” He smirked at my short hair and my horn-rimmed glasses.

“It’s a pixie cut, like she had when she was little,” said an aunt helpfully. “I think she looks . . . French.”

“A pixie cut,” my father agreed.

“It’s cool,” declared Annabel, the youngest, and my mom gazed at her with fond relief, as if Annabel could see beauty the rest of us couldn’t. She was the only one of us four who had blue eyes and my mother treated that recessive gene as if it had bravely fought its way to the top just for her.


I imagined how she would light up if I told her I’d come out. How, in doing so, I would become a real queer. I too would have a coming-out story.”


For mass I changed into a skirt from high school and one of my mom’s sweaters, and the symbolism killed me a little, all dressed up in a past that was long gone and a future that never would be. “Why don’t you keep it,” my mom said. The sweater was pale yellow with scalloped edges, like a decorative soap. “It’s just darling on you.”

“No thanks, Mom,” I said. This became a ritual when I returned to Nebraska. She would call me to her room, make me try on her sweaters and blouses, and urge me to take them back with me. “I think it’s more you.”

“I think it’s very you,” she retorted.

I opened my mouth to ask just who she thought I was, then imagined that cellar door opening and swiftly closed it. I made myself smile. “Are you sure?” Of course she was. I accepted the sweater and thanked her, and she was pleased.


It was when I returned home my sophomore year, in 1993, that my plan broke down. I was in love with Vivian and Portland and my head was full of ideas from Reed, and my new confidence made me careless where my fear had always kept me in line. I wore a new Mom sweater and lipstick but couldn’t hold my tongue when Alex said the Clinton health care plan would turn the country Communist.

The phone rang on Christmas Eve. Vivian. My mother answered upstairs and I took it in the laundry room.

“Hi. Save me,” I said. I sat down in a basket of clean clothes. Vivian was at her parents’ home in a Seattle suburb, still in reach of everything. We talked for half an hour and then she had to go; they were going out for Thai food. Her dad was a secular Jew and her mom just secular, and I envied this incomprehensibly simple Christmas of presents and a restaurant meal, as if everyone had a birthday on the same day. “I love you too,” I said. “Can’t wait to see you.” Vivian said, “Hang in there. Be brave.” I hung up the phone and opened the door and there was my mother.

She said, “Who were you talking to?”

“Vivian.” My face grew hot. “My friend. From school.”

“Everything okay?”

“Of course. Do you need any help? I’ll do this load of whites.”

For the next two days I could feel her watching me. I tried to snap back into high school Andrea, but my mother already knew too much, and for once she seemed to be contemplating action instead of denial. To be surveyed like this made my skin hot and my stomach heavy. Every sentence out of my mouth seemed constructed by a scribe in my brain who was always a second late in the transcription.


The day before I was to leave, they sat me down in the living room. I tucked my feet underneath me on the scratchy plaid couch. Behind me, the record player’s lid was pinned shut by stacks of Christmas CDs. “We don’t care how good an education it is,” my father started.

My mother broke in, “I don’t like what this place is doing to you. Honey, look at yourself.”

“It’s just a haircut,” I said. “It’ll grow back.”

“It’s not the haircut,” said my father.

“It’s your whole attitude,” said my mother. “You didn’t want to go to church, you won’t eat the food your grandmother made, you have a hole in your nose—” She teared up at this. I didn’t know she’d noticed—I had removed the ring, slipping it in only to sleep. “We don’t know what kind of friends you have there, your grades are slipping. You were never like this. We sent away a beautiful, well-adjusted daughter and you’ve come back—it’s like we don’t even know who you are.”

“This is me,” I said. “I’m more me than I have ever been.”

“Come back home. Stop acting like someone you’re not.”

“What do you think I was doing here all those years?”

“I don’t know what that means,” my mother snapped. “And who is this Vivian you’re always talking about and talking to on the phone?”

“My friend?” I hated the lie. I was so proud of the word girlfriend. It was awful to neuter it.

“Promise me it is not what I think it is.”

“What do you think it is?”

“I can’t even say it.” Her eyes were bright, her cheeks red. How disconcerting to see a kind face grow cold—it is such a subtle shift, the way the muscles switch into place, harden. “Promise me. Promise.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Promise your mother,” said my dad.

I looked away from them, out the window. Wind lifted a haze of snow off the surface of the fields. My parents had stopped farming and now leased them to a distant cousin. They were ours in name only. Like me, I thought.


All my stockpiling of good behavior had been for nothing; my currency was no good with them, counterfeit from the start. They still wanted the other Andrea, the one I had made up for and with them.”


I could have rented out that life for much longer, according to my plan. Later, I wondered if I could have told them the truth another way. I promise you have nothing to worry about. Or I could have said what they wanted to hear. But I thought of relating my lie to Vivian later. I thought of her hand stroking my arm and her sympathetic, disappointed eyes. I imagined how she would light up if I told her I’d come out. How, in doing so, I would become a real queer. I too would have a coming-out story. My long game looked to be shot anyway. Be brave.

“Do you want me to lie?” I said. “Isn’t lying a sin?”

“God forgives us our sins,” said my mother. “But not all sins.”

I took a breath and said I was in love.

My father gripped the arms of his chair and closed his eyes, a pilot going down. My mom said my whole name, spoke it like a curse. The tacit, they could have lived with; it could have been my invisible cross to bear, its weight mine alone. After all, it was not a sin to be homosexual; it was a sin to act on it. And I—

Even in the long version, I keep the worst of it to myself.

All that is necessary to know is that my mother wept and my father’s voice shook, but their certainty was ironclad. They had raised me Catholic and moral and with strong role models, and all my siblings were turning out right, so the culprit was obvious. I could come home and go to one of the state schools or they would find a way to pay for Creighton, but as a matter of conscience, they would not pay that institution another cent.

I shifted back into survival mode. I said okay, I would pack my things. I went limp and contrite just long enough to board my plane back to Oregon.

When my feet touched the carpet of the Portland airport, my knees trembled with relief. I didn’t yet know that a few days earlier, on New Year’s Eve, in another corner of Nebraska, Brandon Teena had been murdered. When the story emerged I felt sick for weeks. We all mourned this brave, sweet person we had never known but imagined we could. And I mourned the Nebraska that I once knew, also dead.

At Reed, I went straight to the financial aid office. Surely parental severance would qualify me for a generous package. But I learned that no matter how on my own I said I was, in the universe of financial aid I still belonged to my parents and their tax bracket until age twenty-four. That was five years away. The Reed staffer offered me loans and said she’d try to get me a better deal for the next year, but there was no way I could carry the debt of even one semester there on my own, much less five.

As my parents had expected, I packed my clothes and books and turned in my dorm key, leaving my roommate with a super-single for the rest of the year. But I mailed them back the one-way plane ticket they had booked for me.

Vivian and my friends took care of me, many with a knowing embrace. People shared their own stories, helped me find a place, hooked me up with extra jobs. I moved into a

$150-a-month attic bedroom in a cozily dilapidated, haunted punk house.

“Come home,” my parents pleaded, and then commanded. But I already was. I thought they would come around, but their pain was deep and real, and they transformed it into an instrument of force. Their immovability shook me. My sin was mortal. They needed to be certain of something and they stuck with the thing they’d known longer than they’d known me, the church. All my stockpiling of good behavior had been for nothing; my currency was no good with them, counterfeit from the start. They still wanted the other Andrea, the one I had made up for and with them.

For the first time I understood why queer people changed their names. It was about more than trying to be different or weird, though maybe it was a little bit that, to go by Tiger or Ace or Ponyboy or Dirtbag or whatever, my future girlfriend Flynn adding the F to her name. The name they gave you belongs to someone else, their invention of you; if you turn out not to be that person, you have to name yourself. But I stayed Andrea—I couldn’t let go entirely of the person I’d always been. The tyranny of family love is that you can’t help but love people who think God can’t stand the sight of you.


From Stray City. Used with permission of Custom House. Copyright © 2018 by Chelsey Johnson.

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