I was twenty-four when I wrote the first draft of “What We Look Like Together,” and I wanted to write about bars. I lived in the same town where this story takes place—Fort Collins, Colorado—and my Saturday nights were a predictable deluge of light beer and overpriced cocktails as my friends and I crawled up and down the Old Town bar scene. When I remember those nights, I think of them less in terms of specific outings and more like a kind of movie montage: dancing on the bar at Bondi as the lights turned up, inching for space at Lucky Joe’s, and, of course, cramming way too many people into the photo booth at Pour Brothers Community Tavern.
Much like Lilith, the story’s protagonist, the bulletin board currently hanging in my bedroom is exploding with Pour Brothers photo strips. When I sat down to write the first draft, I was thinking a lot about what made that bar matter so much to me, about old photographs, and relationships, and hauntings, and college towns, and growing apart, and how to talk about the Me Too movement with my eighth grade language arts class. My first handful of friends were just starting to get engaged, and I was beginning to wonder if this college town I’d fallen in love with could ever really be home in a permanent sense. I’m a big believer in the idea that stories are a sort of time capsule, and “What We Look Like Together” is largely representative of the disparate threads that were on my mind in the early months of 2018.
Once I zeroed in on Pour Brothers as a setting, the story’s basic premise—that after a stranger forces his way into the photo booth with Lilith, he continues to appear in every picture that is taken of her—took shape almost immediately, and it quickly became clear I was writing a horror story. Given the subject matter, though, it mattered to me that it have more in common with It Follows than Friday the 13th: a horror story that doesn’t resolve itself in ninety minutes, a horror story that the characters need to live with. Implicit to that intention—particularly in a piece that spans over a year of Lilith’s life—was the necessity for the tone to modulate alongside her understanding of the situation, and so the genre shifts throughout from a standard portrait of mid-twentysomething ennui to a horror story to a relationship drama and back again, before landing in a tonal gray space. In straddling the line between these genres, I wanted to show that the stranger’s violation couldn’t be quarantined to any one aspect of her life, and the story is about Lilith grappling with that.
CHRIS VANJONACK is an MFA candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an editorial assistant at Ninth Letter, and a former language arts teacher from Fort Collins, Colorado. He’s also a recipient of the 2020 AWP Intro Journals Award, and his fiction has appeared in One Story, Hobart, The Rumpus, Carve Magazine, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. Read more stories at chrisvanjonack.com, and find him on Twitter @chrisvanjonack.