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10.29.03 11:45 p.m.

I simply can't resist a cat, particularly a purring one. They are the cleanest, cunningest, and most intelligent things I know, outside of the girl you love, of course.

 -Mark Twain  

Previously in Xenology: Emily became a National Champion and then hurt her knee. Dan and Corinne broke up. Keilaina returned.

In the Distance Someone Is Singing
I arrived at Mount Saint Mary, noting with trepidation that Corinne's car was parked like a chrome June bug in the only reasonably close parking lot. I suppose I cannot say that I had expected otherwise, frankly, but am chagrinned to admit that I was mentally prepared for her to jump out sobbing.
I sat next to her in class, my normal seat. This was really the first time since the break-up that we had this class and I was uneasy. I weighed the virtues of sitting elsewhere to spare her my resemblance to my elder brother, but figured that I would be doing her more harm than good. It would feel like abandonment, and that was really the last thing she needs when she feel that her whole world is crumbling. In a way, I have been a member of her family for the past seven years and suppose I expect that I owe her a degree of familial respect.
After tens of minutes of silence, she wrote "hello" on a bit of paper and slid it over to me. For the rest of the class, we passed notes on this bit of paper. The crux of what she told me if that she misses Dan (understandably), misses my family (a little surprisingly), and was trying to better herself. She walked a careful line between admitting this was to make herself more appealing to my brother and seeking self-improvement so she wouldn't be the same person who had just been dumped. After Kate broke up with me, I remember finding a strange catharsis in the lactic acid pain building up in my chest as I did pushups. Coupled with disinclination to eat beyond physical need and I was quite fit for a few weeks. Corinne, too, seemed to be experiencing the easy fasting that comes (ironically) from feeling such emptiness within her. Perhaps the line between physical and emotional hunger becomes so vague that pangs of one are perceived as the other.
She also told me that she has taken up yoga to fill some of the free time she now finds herself having. I scribbled that I thought this was a wonderful idea.
"You could join me," she hopefully suggested in response.
I smiled halfheartedly and tried to dodge the question. Having one class with her is fine, but I hear the cracking in her voice when she is reminded of - vis--vis my presence - Dan. I would not subject her to me any more than is necessary for me to pass this class.
Yes, there is a small selfish component to my actions; seeing someone I care about in this much pain and knowing that I officially wear the colors of the enemy team is difficult and confusing for me. I empathize with the afflicted, though I share the DNA of the afflicter. No matter what I do or feel, it is to Dan that I owe my allegiance because he will never cease to be my brother and a member of my true family.
I walked her back to her car after the class had ended. She was barely restraining her tears with wet eyelashes. Eyelashes make poor paddocks for tears.
"I still love your brother," she began or continued.
"I know. I know you do. I..."
"I wanted him to be the father of my children. And now... I guess that isn't going to happen?" She likely meant this question as a statement, but the word and her eyes formed a question mark. I nodded an ambiguous shake and held her shoulder. I don't really know what to do, what sympathetic action is appropriate in these moments. I only know she is hurting more than she can explain and is full of hope that I could dash with a word. Maybe that would be better, if she lost hope. Then she would be at the bottom and could built on something other than the sand.
"Your brother told me that I could move back in. If Mark backed out. I heard Mark backed out. He said it wouldn't mean we were together again. It would just be until I could make other arrangements..."
I looked askance at her, knowing what I would have said was I given the choice and wishing my nails were long enough to cut half moons in the palm of my clenched hands for my inevitable answer.
"I told him no. I told him I wasn't going back to him unless there was a real relationship attached to it... Have you spoken to Dan?"
"No, I haven't. He speaks a little to my father but... I really haven't heard anything." I did not tell her that I have almost purposely not discussed a word of this with Dan because then I will know something. If I know something, she can ask me simple questions and my words may betray me. My lack of words my betray me. It is best I be kept in ignorance while I have to do this weekly.
"You know what the worst part of all of this is? Not only did I lose my boyfriend of seven years, but I lost my best friend in the whole world. And I lost the apartment that I loved. That was my home." I was grateful that she said this, because I had been thinking the latter part since I first heard that she was moving out. Given that Emily had recently moved in (granted, into my parents' home), it was a disturbing commentary of what could occur. Though, really, I was just happy to see the spark of her indignation.
"You're right. And you just lost your job, which really complicates things. You just got your car fixed, right?"
"Yeah. Dan fixed the alternator and then broke up with me when we got the car home from my sister's." She looked away, as though the car knew she was speaking of it. "Real sweet."
"Oh." Oh.
"But... but I still have my memories. I can remember the good times and... Like this time in Lake George a few years ago. Your brother and I were on the boat and one of my fillings fell out. And he got me drunk on chocolate liqueurs until we got off the boat so it wouldn't hurt so much..." She paused and looked past me, smiling, trying to be surrounded in her memories. "I could barely walk to the drugstore to get the dental adhesive. When we got back to the hotel room, I couldn't sit up long enough to put the filling back in. I just kept flopping down on the bed." She let out a laugh full of nostalgia and remorse and then got in her car.
I couldn't keep a tear from rolling out of my eye as I walked away from her.

Toweling off my hair, I exited the bathroom. There were two pomegranates sitting on the table in a very mock casual fashion, far too nonchalant to be anything but obvious. My mother looked up from a screen full of eBay auctions. "I got you a pomegranate. You may have one."
I experimentally picked up the nearest one, threw it in the air, and decided that it landed nicely in my hand. Still, it didn't make very much sense that my mother had purchased them, as we had not seen a pomegranate in this house since... last Samhain, actually... "You know," my mother began smoothly, "the price of a pomegranate is always the same."
Oh dear. I know foreshadowing when I hear it. "How so, mamacita?"
"Well, they are always pretty much a dollar." No mention of Persephone. I think it was implied, though.
This was not the last of the strange objects. In visiting M and making room for her in my excessively messy car, I found a pewter pendant of the High Priestess tarot card. I walked over to M and handed her the lost necklace.
"Where did this come from?"
"Oh, you must have dropped it in my car and the sediment piled on top. Sorry about that. But here is it, hardly worse for the wear."
"This isn't mine."
But it had to be. Few other jewelry wearing Pagans ride shotgun in the Grape Ape. Emily concurred with this point, though still could not claim ownership. Nonetheless, ownership was granted to her because... it should be hers if it isn't.
Let us look closer, courtesy of Thirteen's Tarot Basics:

The High Priestess is the card of knowledge, instinctual, supernatural, secret knowledge. She holds scrolls of arcane information that she might, or might not reveal to you. The moon crown on her head as well as the crescent by her foot indicates her willingness to illuminate what you otherwise might not see, reveal the secrets you need to know in order to make a decision about a problem or a job, an investment, love, career, family, etc. And, finally, behind her is the curtain to the future; the pomegranates that decorate it remind us of Persephone, who was taken down into the land of the dead, ate its fruit, and became the only goddess allowed to travel to and from that strange land. Which indicates that when you get the High Priestess, you're going to be learning some very odd things. Very odd.
Samhain should be interesting this year.

Angel Ground
"So, you are definitely coming to sleep over tonight?" asked Emily. It was a silly question if taken in the singular sense. Rare is the occasion when I am willing to pass up a bed full of Emily. However, in this sense, she was speaking of Keilaina as well, a variable of which I did not know the value.
I called Keilaina and put the question to her bluntly.
Kei, in repose
"Silly boy, of course I want to sleep over. Is it just going to be you, Emily, and me?" Her question was slightly loaded and I assured her that I very much doubted that Zack would be joining us. Before you raise your eyebrows suggestively, she was merely engaging in pattern recognition. Where there is Emily, Xen, and an open invitation for a sleepover, there is so very often Zack.
Still, I preferred to tease her as though she were nursing a schoolgirl crush because... well, it is more entertaining to think it. "I don't know, Kei. He's such a very busy man. Perhaps he is squeezing juice or... acting. Yes. I believe he is acting. He always is." The latter part wasn't a bad guess, as regular readers will note. Rare is the month when he isn't lured by the siren song of the theater.
Kei chirruped in retort, "Oh you. Quit it. Ian is already mad at what you write about me..." Her playful scolding melted quickly into her asking, seemingly apropos of nothing, "You know what my favorite entry on your site is? It's the one where you, Zack, and Emily are at the Palisades Mall. You are all just so happy. You especially." What she did not say, but what her tone suggested, is that this is a belonging she covets. I, however, was too busy being happy that people actually read what I write and remember it to assure her that I consider her a close part of my life.
The conversation soon devolved into my asking her if she was serious about coming trick-or-treating with M and me on Halloween. I taunted her by suggesting Zack would be in attendance, though this was a statement I really had no authority to make.
I clicked off the phone and went in search of appropriate Halloween costumes for Kei in my basement. Emily and I had mutually decided that it would be quite inappropriate (and far too easy) to allow Kei to have a stereotypically "sexy" costume. We are in this for the treats and the mock fear of out marks, we cannot have some sexpot vamping it up and cutting into our future sugar highs.
The phone rang again before I could put in much effort.
"Kei?" I asked.
"No... no, I'm definitely not Kei," came the tenor response from Zack.
"Zack! Oh hi! How are you? More importantly, what are you doing tonight? Most importantly, do you want to have a sleepover with Emily, Kei, and me?"
"Hi. I've been better. Nothing. And definitely."
"That's great! Wonderful great... Why have you been better?" I asked after his words set in.
"I angle grinded my arm, so they sent me home from practice."
"Their-and your arm's-loss, our gain."
An hour later, Kei arrived and was glowingly happy. I suppose she needed a night out. "So Zack is going to meet us at M's?"
I shook my head. "No, Zack doesn't drive or have a car. Also, he lives down the street from me. So, no. Actually you are picking him up. Please. And thank you." This unnerved her, as (though she isn't mad crushing) she has never been in any prolonged social situation with Zack ever. They had shared a class a few years ago, but Kei gives me the distinct feeling that the conversations were only a couple of requisite words. On the way over, I did not mention Zack's newly acquired wound. I had no real understanding of what an angle grinder does to the human arm. It may involve grinding. Zack seemed by and large whole, his arm was the right shape though covered in a bandage from wrist to elbow.
"Hey, Zack, Kei is waiting in the car. Can we pretend that you tried to slit you wrist?"
He mulled this over. "I don't see why not."
I entered the car before Zack in a rush. "Kei, Zack tried to kill himself today... because... just be cool about it, okay?"
Angle grinded
Kei twisted her face concernedly and looked back at Zack, who was settling into his seat. She appraised his bandaged appendage and asked causally, "What happened to your arm?"
"Angle grinder."
"See, Kei! See how desperate he was to die that he caused a very nasty abrasion. And he put even more holes into his lovely Reese's shirt! For that alone, he could lose the will to live and..."
She stuck her tongue out at me. "You can stop."
"Oh, Zack, I have something that will restore your will to live: your Vegas present." I tossed the small paper bag back to him.
"It's... a shot glass. From Vegas." He was happy to have a present, but not thrilled.
"Look to whom it's monogrammed," I suggested.
"...'Jesus'...? Oh, man! That's excellent. I've got a Jesus/Vegas shot glass." Now he had the joy.
"I think it's from when Jesus visited North America. You know, according to the Mormons. No stop in the Americas is complete without a shot glass from Vegas."
"No, certainly not," came Zack's response. "Oh, I saw Jen the other day. I think she asked me on a date."
Kei looked over at me as I laughed incredulously. "Who's Jen?" she asked.
"Jen... is my ex-girlfriend. Quite ex. Pre-Katean. It was to her that I lost my tender, tender innocence," I sighed in mock nostalgia.
Zack interjected, "I don't think I could do anything with her. She did bed both Nick and you."
Keilaina was musing in the driver's seat and finally perked up with, "Wait, didn't you once say that she was built like a twelve year old boy?"
I demurred, "No... Not a twelve-year-old boy... per se. Maybe a twelve-year-old girl. Is she built any differently now, Zack?" I hadn't seen her close up for almost four years. I'm not happy about this, especially given that I have long since overcome any animosity I felt toward her for cheating on me with Nick. Emily did once follow Jen's car halfway home, in hopes of getting a good look at her, but I forced her to give up before stalking charges could be pressed.
"Maybe a thirteen-year-old girl," he conceded.
Kei giggled, "Does that mean you like teenage boys?"
"No! They are too gangly and awkward. I like Johnny Depp. He looks like a cuddler. And Emily, who is a snuggler," I confessed.
"Yeah, about M," Kei began, "How is she getting to school if she can't drive and she isn't currently living with you?"
"That's simple. She isn't."
She scares me sometimes
"What?! How can this be?" quoth Kei.
"She dropped out for... pretty much the year. But that's okay, because the head of the department likes her so much that she will be returning as a grad student in the fall. Which means she will be graduating at the same time as her best friend study group. And her knee will be whole. It's a win-win situation."
When we arrived at La Casa de M, Emily seemed to want us to leave immediately. "Us" in the most pluralistic sense, herself included. She also seemed decidedly irked, but my attempts to extricate the proverbial thorn were met with assurances that I would be told later. As Emily had yet to eat and her parents were disinclined to allow us to ransack their kitchen, we had a not wholly satisfying meal at Friday's. I am still quite opposed to eateries named after weekdays.
After our meal and by Emily's suggestion, we went to Wal-Mart. The goal, I believe, as to procure new bandages for Zack's wound. Of course, as is well detailed, Wal-Mart has this propensity toward absorbing hours.
In the parking lot, I gave Kei my final test for my enduring friendship (not that it was much needed). I read her the Pablo Neruda poem, which I keep on Flea for just such occasions. When I arrived at the part about cutting a sliver off Pablo Neruda and eating it, Kei verbally winced and claimed, "I have cannibalism issues."
"Well, I have issues with public speaking. It is more likely that I will have to give a speech then you will be eaten. So to speak."
Once the poem was finished, she liked it well enough because her brain can process metaphors and humor. She is now stuck with my adoring her and having to keep her around. The gods themselves do tremble.
We ended up trying to find proper costumes for Zack and Kei for Halloween. This was no easy feat, as costume manufacturers seem to have gone postmodern and believe that a picture of a monster on a smock is quite the same thing as a costume of the monster itself. However, Zack and I were privileged enough to discover numerous copies of the horror classic "They Live". For those of you who have yet to be blessed, this bit of fine cinema casts Sir Roderic "Rowdy Roddy" Piper as a man who can see Smurf jerky aliens with the help of sunglasses. No, really. What it is best known for is the twenty-minute fight scene between Sir Roderic and another wrestler. Twenty whole minutes of actual fighting. Unedited. John Carpenter evidently felt that deleting even a second of this would be a crime.
"Know what, Zack? I came here to kick ass and chew bubblegum... and I'm all out of bubblegum." He grinned, knowingly.
It should be noted that I took many picture of Kei in various hats and gloves, because I have a decided dearth of good Kei pictures. I no longer have any of these because, as we were about to leave, a man ran up to me claiming to be the manager. Evidently he felt that I was, as the gangsters say, "casing the joint" (Wal-Mart?!) and said he would have me arrested if I didn't delete the pictures. I showed them to him, proving that all I was casing was Kei's upper torso. Still, the troglodyte stared for quite a while before deducing, "You were taking pictures for... fun?"
"Yes. That's what I just told you. I am definitely not 'casing the joint.'"
This concept was lost on him and he repeated that he could have me arrested. It must be nice to abuse what little power one will ever have.
Pooping Barron  
Pooping the cat
Soon after my accosting, Emily needed to return home to take care of her newly acquired kitten Barron. He is a tiny black kitten she found outside of her Tae Kwon Do school and whom she has been caring for since he is no older than three weeks. He still must be bottle-fed and "pooped," since young cats cannot excrete without convincing. As Emily cannot do much else owing to her knee, I'm grateful she has someone of whom she can take care.
So we then retired, grumbling, to Emily's home where Zack taught me Pente, if just to he could beat me at another cyber board game. Given that I am evasive when ignorant, I tried to slowly turn the conversation to poetry or literature, where I stood a chance of holding my own against Zack. For the most part, this ruse would never work because it takes a certain degree of passion about poetry to actually bother with a conversation. I rather disliked poetry until I arrived in college and one of my teachers managed to convince me that poetry is just a locked door until you find the right key. One of my currently favorite poems (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) was an anathema to me until I finally understood that is was self-deprecatingly funny.
Ezra Pound can still bite me, though. The uber-referential, anti-Semitic nutball.
After I asked Emily what her favorite poem was, M confided in Kei that I think less of her because she doesn't know everything. Then she walked into the bathroom to poop Barron and I followed.
"What on earth are you talking about?" I asked, incredulous.
She turned away from the mirror to me and insisted, "You do think less of my because I am not brilliant and can't discuss Elizabeth Bishop and T.S. Eliot with you. That I don't know everything."
"But you are everything to me, so it's okay. Zack can discuss poetry with me and you can discuss theophanies. And you are brilliant. Really, all good." With this, I kissed the excellent spot where her shoulder meets her neck.
My people  
My peeps
"Well, when you put it that way..." She kissed me warmly on the lips. "I suppose it's okay."
I have so long craved to build a surrogate family around me, to exist in these powerful and mutually held roles with others. This is not to say that there is anything unsatisfactory about my actually family, nor do I mean to suggest those friend that are mine alone are any less for this. However, watching Kei banter with Emily and Zack, I felt as though a home has formed around me. Vapors in the air solidified into something I could touch, into people that I could hold without an ounce of self-consciousness or the need for masks. And I loved them all the better, individually and communally, for giving me something I have so long lacked.
Later, long after Emily had fallen asleep as I played Kingdom Hearts, I crept into the other room. I had been hearing Zack and Kei speaking in soft tones for hours and felt left out. Also, I was stuck in Wonderland on Kingdom Hearts and needed Zack help finding more evidence to free Alice.
"What're you guys talking about?" I asked sleepily.
"God. And books," Kei answered.
I flopped own on Kei's bed and listened. I added very little to the overall discussion, but I think that was for the best. I know how insightful Kei can be and how profoundly well read Zack was, but they didn't yet know it of one another. I think I dozed off halfway through a thesis on The Tales of Alvin Maker and eventually toddled off to bed to have very satisfied dreams.

Soon in Xenology: Dave and the chumpkin. Halloween. Heathens.

last watched: Leaves flitter in the wind
reading: Blood Canticle
listening: The Nightmare Before Christmas
wanting: ominous jewelry for me.
interesting thought: So much changes to keep the constant.
moment of zen: quadratic consciousness.
someday I must: have another sleepover

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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