Thomm Quackenbush, author

07.05.04 2:42 a.m.

We do not fall in love, we grow in love and love grows in us.  

-Karl Menninger

 



Previously in Xenology: Emily was Tibet obsessed. Lauren was engaged.

Mainiacs
Emily and I had decided to go along with her parents to a port city, despite their complete ignorance of who Emily actually is. This was a mistake, as the torturous amalgam of Emily's father's driving, the shakiness of a very expensive car, and early Dylan on the stereo contrived to make us both fiercely car sick. Emily was already sour on the experience, so my tight jawed nausea deprived her of the final bastion of commiseration.
Our temporary reprieve, if it can be so called, came when Emily's father stopped at a used book store that specialized in art books. He swore it was a one of a kind place and, after having explored a little, I am grateful for this. The owner had purchased several thousand new and used books. So far, this seems to be a sound business model. Then he cut pages out, defaced, and otherwise mutilated the books so credulous people would be none the wiser that he was marking the books up a ridiculous amount. As I am both a huge bibliophile and a former library clerk, I was able to spot new releases, even with the indicia razored out. I picked up a biography about Sylvia Plath that couldn't be a decade old and covertly scratched off the paint over the barcode with my thumbnail while I seemingly skimmed it. He had marked it up seven dollars and claimed it was an antique from the fifties. I doubt the author was alive in the fifties. This seemed like a moral misdemeanor and social annoyance to me, but Emily's father was happy to buy several books (which were legitimately out of print, at least) at jacked up prices.
While my stomach was far more settled for this interruption, the metaphorical bile it provoked more than made up for it.
We returned to the car, though I was ruing agreeing to this trip already, and continued to be nauseated onto Camden. Well, we were not nauseated onto Camden; it is a fairly sizeable quaint seaport/tourist trap.
Emily and I were wasted by the time we reached Camden and just grateful to no longer be in a car with her parents, who had dropped us off so they could enjoy art unencumbered by twentysomethings with a tendency to poke the pieces.
Several organic snacks later, we were able to function seemingly like normal people rather than people in the depths of an ether binge and set to exploring. In our inconspicuous shopping we happened upon a novelty store selling what I can only describe as Kate action figures. Tens of disembodied, robin-haired Kate heads hanging from hooks staring at me through their thick rimmed glasses. Judging me.
Kico  
I'm right about this
I pulled one off a hook any showed it to M. "Who is this?"
She looked at the box. "Nico the Barista?" she guessed, reading the title.
"Wrong! It's Kate. In a box. With no body."
She gave me an assuaging look, which only increased my certainty. I didn't care what some Mainer clerk thought of me, especially when someone had obviously made a cast of my ex-girlfriends head and was now mass producing her as a novelty.
"You'll see. Someone is watching and planning. One day, years from now, you'll be in a box too."
Emily put down the poetic dog magnets with which she had been playing. "It might be statements like that that make people think you are a bit off."

***

Hours later, Emily's parents picked us up and subjected us to another nauseating drive, this time through the thickening fog. Emily's father did not falter in his driving one iota, despite the increasing car sickness coming from the back seat or the fact that the fog obscured the road completely. When we drove over a bridge, we could see no further than a few feet in front of us. The bridge may well have ended halfway across and we would have no idea until we were floating in the drink.
The destination was a seafood restaurant an hour away, where more friends of the groom's parents would be congregating and congealing. To my chagrin, I must admit that I regarded them as something of a foreign species because this is how I decided I was seen through their thick glasses. I did, after all, have long hair and an accent that, while hardly that of a New Yawker, did not mesh with their more northern cadence. They were all also over the age of fifty-five and were, to my prejudices, predisposed to not much comprehend me as an individual (as I so obviously am extending them this courtesy in my retelling) but rather an adulterant of media suppositions. The fact that I whispered lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to Emily when I looked at the pant legs of some of the men would be largely be disregarded were it noted. This is not to say that I did not find them perfectly pleasant, but the pleasantries were impersonal. Their rustic, hearty hellos might well be given to a passing stranger, which, I decided, is how I would rather they see me unless necessity demanded otherwise.
The waitresses treated our presence with undisguised contempt, on the other hand, which was honestly a first for me. Never before in my life had waitstaff actually all but said that they wished we were not there; that we were provoking them to do too much work. Also, as became apparent, they preferred that the locals dine there and the locals alone. The older of our two waitresses, who would later ask that we give her a tip before finishing our meals because she wanted to leave, stated in a stage whisper that she was annoyed that locals had brought strangers to eat. This does not seem a particularly prudent method of garnering tips, though she was given a large tip nonetheless.
Moments after I entered this expropriated residence, Chris's father walked up to me. "I got something I need to say to you." I mentally assessed if he was going to take a swing at me. It rather sounded like the right prelude to a fistfight, if movies are to be trusted, but his shoulders were lowered relaxed and apologetic. "It seems I may have hit your car," he continued, my neck tensing involuntarily. Off my reaction, he finished, "I didn't see any damage, but if there is a problem, I will make good."
"No harm, no foul," I said uncertainly after what felt like a long moment of silence, though it had truly been a flicker of time wherein the rest of the restaurant kept chatting away. I had almost rather he not told me if there didn't seem to be damage. It is an entirely awkward position in which to be. While I could rage at him and demand reparations, this is both not in my demeanor and not feasible. I was a good fifty miles away from my car and thus had to trust that he was right about the lack of damage. Also, he is the father of the groom, surrounded by friends and well-wishers. I am the boyfriend of the bride's sister, with only a single ninja on my side. Advantage: Mainer.

FOR-BA
This is the first time in the three years of dating Emily that I have gone on any sort of extended trip with her parents (though we arrived and will leave separately). Katie's family, on the other hand, put up with me during two long vacations, showing admirable restraint given how utterly bitchy I could get as a teenager. With both sets of parents, the ordinary undercurrents present in interactions with her parents were more like riptides.
During my travels with Katie, the core issue, at least as I saw it then, was that Katie's parents did not trust her. It can be argued that they had good cause to, as she had a rebellious period in her early teen years where she experimented, as I imagine typical teenagers do. Though she was far more centered and in control by the time she and I had interactions, this belief that Katie was always up to something never wholly left their minds. Maybe they were just overprotective and parenting the best they knew how. It seems too late to speculate; it has been many years since I have been inside their home.
M  
And she likes fuzzy things
On these trips and likely because this resulted in my having weeks of constant exposure to them, I noticed the sides of them I only really knew from Katie's stories. For example, we camped in Cape Cod one year and the showers were half a mile away on foot. Ergo, Katie and I thought it prudent to go to the showers together for protection and company. The shower facilities were separated by genders, so it wasn't as though we were planning a soapy tryst (though admittedly, I was a teenage boy and deeply in lusty love with their daughter, so there was always some aspect of me assessing how to best use a situation to remove a majority of Katie's clothing before she noticed). Nonetheless, I was held at the campground while Katie showered, and she when I did. As a singular situation, this is understandable, but the mindset was always there that Katie needed to be protected from herself and her actions. However, and I hope I won't be seen as being too biased, Katie was pretty in control of herself and her surroundings (both then and now) and a little faith in her as a trustworthy young adult would have gone a long way toward strengthening a familial bond.
Emily's parents, as we have covered, honestly haven't the foggiest idea who she is. Even outside of their adulation of Emily's elder sister Lauren, which is wholly justified given that the nuptial date was near upon us, they somehow managed to raise her for more than twenty years, instilling her with their neurosis and yet not actually meeting her. Her accomplishments, which may bring her to the Olympics one day, are brushed aside by them as inconsequential because these things just do not blip on their radar. My pet theory is that Emily was born too late for them, nine years her sister's junior, after her parents had decided that they had more than enough attention and love for one daughter, but not quite enough for two. It's not that they don't love Emily, merely that she is a bit too late to the party and was now being told to serve mini-lobster quiches to the guests. To a degree, I suppose this is a matter of a lack of faith as well, but flowing from a different well. Kate's parents thought they knew her too well, though they were actually operating from old (albeit traumatic) information. They had gotten briefings on their witty, charming daughter and her academic accomplishments, but they were suspicious of the fifteen-for-the-fifth-year girl who they caught smoking in the closet. Emily's parents heard a little about her a few years back, but they really thought the idea of an eloquent six-year-old doing Tae Kwon Do was a little ridiculous, never mind the fact that she is nearly nineteen years older now. While I suspect they could tell an interested party the name of Lauren's doctoral advisor, I doubt they could name Emily's idol or favorite book. They only very recently acknowledged that not being Jewish isn't just a phase Emily has been going through for the last decade.
***

Emily and I kept passing the entrance for a Tibetan store on the way to the bed and breakfast where we had migrated. (Apparently, our invitation at the guest house was a limited one given that the owner of the house had not actually been invited to the wedding.) As Emily loves all things Tibetan, there was no question that we needed to pay a visit.
The store was packed with authentic artifacts (or, at the very least, convincing fakes) from Asian countries collected by the aged hippy proprietor. He saw us, spoke to Emily briefly, and left us unobserved to shop.
Bed and Breakfast  
This is where we stayed.
When he returned, I asked him if he had any phurpa daggers. Seeking them out had become a small hobby for me. They are unsharpened, three-sided ritual blades used in Buddhist rituals to exorcise literal and figurative demons. I had been swindled by a Tibetan the last time I purchased one and quite fancied acquiring one for which I did not have to pay shipping and handling.
The hippy glared very sharp daggers at me. "The FOR-BA is not a dagger," he demanded and corrected my phonetic pronunciation (which, while perhaps not favored, wasn't wrong), his jaw tensing. "Do you know what a FOR-BA is?"
This was no more an actual question than "Why did you just shit on my Oriental rug?" but I endeavored to answered it anyway. "It is a dull, three-sided ritual blade used by..."
He made it clear that he wasn't even bothering to listen to me by turning away slightly, so I just asked him to tell me what he thought it was. It should have been quite plain to him that I knew what they were, I had asked for them by name.
As though I were a disobedient child and he were sagaciously scolding me for not being toilet trained, he sing-songed with no trace of irony, "It is not a dagger. It is a three-sided, ritual blade used by Buddhists. It is a vicious weapon... for the mind! The three sided blade creates a wound that doesn't heal, but in a spiritual sense..." He gloated on, quite pleased to be chastising me.
M  
99 44/100 Pure
I quite literally gritted my teeth. Perhaps this was some manner of test, I hoped. Then he would just laugh merrily and give me a kindly tweak on the nose for beginning to fall for the idea that the owner of a store specializing in crafts made by Cambodian and Tibetan craftspeople would behave as such an arrogant and half-blind bastard. People who act like this pick fights in bars. They don't try to uplift the downtrodden and make a profit at it.
But, no, he soldiered on, adding contemptuous glances my way. "These are antique FOR-BAS," he lectured, stressing the name more each time he said it, "but you wouldn't want those, since they are old."
Wanting to look closer and putting aside the degree to which I wanted to cut the tip of his forefinger off in accordance with the laws of Zen koans, I insisted that antique phurpas were exactly what I had in mind. He answered this by locking the case and walking to a different corner of the room to point out that a large drum had a phurpa handle.
"Yes, I had seen that, this is why I asked," I told him, but again I may as well have been protesting the winds.
He went back to his workshop after showing me a small silver phurpa on a satin cord and, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I was so furious that I was on the brink of tears. I wanted nothing more than to get out of his store and never look back. Cambodian artisans be spited, I did not want this white sepulcher to get a penny of my dwindling cash. Emily, though she was partially witness to my treatment, was not to be deprived of her shopping experience. I refused to look at any person in the store and put back the phurpa pendant I had been pressing into my palm.
After an agonizing ten minutes, during which I managed not to run out of the store only by virtue of the fact that I knew I would weep from frustration and I felt it beneath my dignity to let this mountebank have that satisfaction, Emily made her selection and bought over a hundred dollars in merchandise. I wonder how much of that Tibet will see. Outside the store, she gave me a hug from behind and asked if I was okay. I poured out my story to her, including the bits she did not hear because she was elsewhere in the store.
"What an utter bastard," she concurred certainly.
I smiled weakly. "I'm glad you back me."
"Why wouldn't I, because he had lots of cool stuff?" she asked.
"No," I said, though a part of me certainly meant yes. I cannot argue the spiritual pull goods from Tibet have on Emily and I thought that she might have been deceived because of proximity. It's easy to overlook an asp when you are finding your bodhi tree.
***

After dinner and a sportive chasing of fireflies in the pitch darkness, Emily and her family were discussing the mikveh plans with Jenn the Rabbi. A mikveh, for you gentle Gentiles, is professedly a bit like a baptism. Prior to marriage, the woman purifies herself by immersing herself in sacred water as a means to rebirth. Or maybe she merely immerses herself in water in the presence of a rabbi. I am not quite sure, as this ritual had taken on a bit of a "girl power" edge that I am reticent to believe is a part of Orthodox Jewish law. During the whole of this discussion, I was sitting on a sofa, eavesdropping by pretending to be playing with my camera. I had a penis and was therefore exempt from contributing what I thought.
The intent of the ritual was that Lauren would get behind sheets being held by Emily (among others), strip and sit in the ocean while Jenn canted above her. I've heard of rituals like this, but they always involved Pagans and thus salty subsequent jokes. The concern and argument on the table was that the ocean in Maine before six in the morning is a kind of cold that makes penguins shiver.
Emily was in favor of moving the mikveh to a more comfortable, arguing, "The womb was not a cold and hostile place..." Turning to her mother, she added, "Was it?"

For Better or For Worse
Lauren and Chris  
Fair princess bride
I woke up on the day of the wedding to Emily jumping on the bed, telling me to get up and get my breakfast. I grumbled and tried to put a pillow over my face, either to kill the sunshine or myself with smothering. Emily pulled the pillow off.
"We have to have a talk. Last night, you were sprawled out on the bed and you were snoring. I barely got any sleep. I ended up getting up around four and cleaning the room and the bathtub."
Blinking awake, I asked, "Why did you clean the hotel bathtub?"
"That's where we had the mikveh and I wanted it to be as holy as possible. Anyway, I tried to wake you up, but you just wouldn't budge. I elbowed you in the ribs." This would explain why I woke up in pain. "Really, I hated you. I wanted you to die. When I spoke to my mother, I yelled, 'Do you have like or accept everything about your partner? Because I don't. I'm going to end up being a spinster, bald, Tibetan monk living in Colorado.'"
"In my defense, I was unconscious at the time." But I was genuinely upset and frightened by her attitude. This was certainly the first time anyone I loved had specifically and openly wished I would die. I asked her, not jokingly, if she was breaking up with me.
"Not now," she said after a heated moment. This didn't exactly help, as I took this to mean the ax would be dropped when we got closer to New York. We had jokingly discussed that I would not even be able to be her friend for a long time if she broke up with me on this trip, because I was five hundred miles away from home, it is her sister's wedding, and I happened to live with her. I wondered aloud if this was the reason she wasn't just ending things now, because I would prefer to just get things over with now than let them malinger.
She tried to explain she phrased it poorly, that she doesn't want to leave me, but I am still scared she will be leaving me soon. I can't stand for her to be angry with me, especially for something over which I have very little control. I certainly wouldn't purposely take her sheets or deprive her of sleep, nor do I even slightly feel that this is a valid reason to wish I would die.
***
She is napping now at my behest. I just want to go home. To my parents' house. And just hide from the world for a while. I don't want to have to go to some wedding and celebration of love. I don't want to wake Emily up ever because she doesn't hate me when she is asleep. I just want to go home. I wish I could just sneak out, but I don't know my way home and I don't want to cause a scene. But I can't do this for much longer and I ache because I hurt so much. I am crying and I feel the blood constricting in my arms. I don't care that this isn't what is actually happening. I feel it and it hurts. I don't know how much longer this swansong will last.
***
She heard me crying, though I was trying to be silent as a church mouse in my sobbing. I had lost all coherence in my tears, they were just flowing from deep inside of me. The tears weren't even specifically for the moment anymore, just fears of abandonment, fears of being lost, fears of losing the people who matter most.
She told me to come up onto the bed to we can talk, as I was writing on the floor to minimize the sound my keyboard made. I listened to her, though I didn't really want to be touched. I didn't actually want to stop crying because, like a goldfish, these past few moment had become all I could remember of life. Crying was something I knew and the catharsis was very releasing, even if it hurt like hell and a more logical part of my brain told me that crying would make my eyes red and puffy for the ceremony.
"You know you are being silly, right?" she asks, not the ideal way to dry my tears, but at least it was friendly dialogue. No more of wishing I would die. No more bruising my ribs as I sleep because I sleep.
"I know no such thing," I retorted.
Jenn  
L.L. Cool Jew
"I'm not going to leave you. I feel so much better after my nap. I don't want you to die and I'm sorry I said I did."
"Prove it."
"Look in the pouch of the hoodie you were wearing yesterday," she offered. Inside the shirt was the small, silver phurpa which I had told her I would not accept for her to buy. Already being purchased and so opportune, I gave her a kiss.
***
The wedding was small, but nice. The weather changed from dismal to picture perfect overnight, as though a special request had been sent in. Lauren wore a small blue dress, looking every bit as glowing and wondrous as one would expect given that she looked like a ballerina-fairy-princess. This made a nice contract to the fact that Jenn was wearing very hip sunglasses with her prayer shawl, a look thereafter dubbed L.L. Cool Jew.
After the ceremony, Lauren and Chris climbed a rock at the edge of a peninsula. This had been one of those storybook perfect places where their romance had bloomed as they watched a Hollywood sunset over the Atlantic, so this is where they wished to be to meditate about what had just occurred. Emily and I were appointed as the guards to make sure none of the guests intruded upon this reverie, a role that Jenn claimed was very traditional and very honorable.


Soon in Xenology: A job. Crouching tigers. Zack's new apartment. Fireworks. Sex toys. Lake George.

last watched: Bowling for Columbine
reading: The Screwtape Letters
listening: Closing Time
wanting: Security.
moment of zen: Not decking the cozener.
someday I must: never drive nine and a half hours again.

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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