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06.14.05 12:24 p.m.

He covered page after page with wild words of sorrow and wilder words of pain. There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.  

-Oscar Wilde


Previously in Xenology: Emily's father was diagnosed with cancer and Emily's parents looked to sell their house. Emily went to high school with fascinating people. Emily is a future Olympian.


I watch Emily's father walk around the garden. This was our third supposed barbecue in two days, this one at the rustic home of M's parents' oldest friends.

Emily's father seems quietly contemplative, and he certainly has enough about which to think. His voice is softer, quieter than it was before. I do not know if it is through the addition of some qualities or the preemptive subtraction of vitality.
M's father

No one mentions what is going on, but I get the feeling that everyone knows and is just being tactful. How can they not know, after all?

I constantly want to say something to him and struggle with muteness. I think this may be better. He knows what I would say and no words of mine are going to be particular comfort, no matter how arrogantly I appraise my linguistic ability. No pithy quote is applicable, no words pilfered from wiser mouths turned since to dust would be enough. So I just look at him and feel compassion.

He drew Emily aside and walked with her. I do not know about what they spoke and did not ask her. It seemed too sacred a moment, something shared solely between a father and his daughter. Emily's mother remarked to M's sister (who altered her summer traveling plans to be here) and me that Emily isn't really her daughter, just a clone of her father turned female.

Emily and her father were like a painting over which people ponder and pour. They were a Mona Lisa's smile as he walked with one arm around her through this walled garden.

The occasion was not as somber as you may imagine from my description. It was after all a party, though more the sort of party immortalized in caricature on the cover of the New Yorker than the parties to which twenty-somethings are generally privy. As we ate, Stuart was livelier. I wonder if he can just forget his tumors. They are so new to him, it seems hard and unnecessary to keep them always in mind. What did cancer have to do with the mint in the couscous or the parrot chattering at us from its perch? How can one keep words like "metastasized" in mind when the day is lovely and friends are trading bon mots about the state of education and politics over grilled chicken and baby back ribs?

I want him to have nothing but wonderful moments anymore, just in case. It seems like the time to travel to Paris again. It seems like now should come the masterpiece that ties together every bit of painting he has every done, from toilet seats in New Mexico for Hammacher Schlemmer to his nephew Daniel lying against a sleeping horse. Something should come of this where the world leans back on the balls of their collective heels and says, "Why, that Stuart Shedletsky is an utter genius. We were fools to have ignored it for so long."

And then he should miraculously get better, because he had made a Dorian Gray pact. The painting can have cancer in its lungs and brain. The painting can be dying and my father-in-law can be healthy. Bargaining.

I fall in the trap that befalls so many, though usually a trap invoked in the name of the equally sinister AIDS. He looks so healthy, so vivacious. Ergo, he can't possibly be sick. Sickness is visible. He doesn't even have the sniffles. So he must be fine. Denial.

And somewhere, if the world was a better place, a painting of him sneezes.


Emily was planning a wine and cheese party at her parents' empty house, the house that is sold. However, despite the fact that she no longer lives there (only Emily lives there, having taken the dog and cat as her wards), Emily's mother vetoed the plan because there were boxes in the house and Emily's sister and her husband would be staying over. Ergo, no one could see inside. She, I think, just wanted to object to someone having fun in the house while she is unhappy because it restored a measure of her control in the world.

As such, the party was shifted to Emily's friend Jerame's house in New Jersey and the tentative guest list contracted.
Zack and Cristin  
Yeah, I have no idea what is going on here.

Jerame, while chronologically the same age as Emily, seems much older to me. He has a home, which is like a big apartment you've lived in for a while. He has a career, which is like a job here one is paid a great deal of money to do something at which one is good. He has a wife, a girlfriend you give a shiny rock to and then plan a huge party for. I, in fact, was at his wedding where the tables were arranged by Hobbit families. I believe I was a Hornblower.

Zack and Cristin joined us as the only guests we had managed to invite to the party, as they were with us planning it and buying wine before Emily's mother quashed our plans.

What's important to note at this juncture is that I like neither wine nor cheese. I do not drink alcohol. It tastes strangely medicinal and inebriates. Cheese cannot easily be semiotically disconnected from curdled cow lactation. Sure, I like cheese on my pizza and the occasional slice on a pre-made sandwich, but it simply has the wrong texture to be eaten alone by human beings and most varieties seem to employ natural defenses against being consumed, such as smelling precisely like the congealed byproduct of an animal's secretion. Bear in mind, however, that I do not bat an eye at eating squid and raw fish, so my opinions on comestibles may be a bit naive and hypocritical.

Emily reveled at spending time with Jerame, who had been one of her best friends throughout high school. Zack and Cristin also got on well, as Zack is likely much more of an epicure than I could hope to be. I tried sips of alcoholic beverages and tried to restrain my gag reflex nearly every time.

Jerame is a collector of wines. He has a wine rack where things are classified and labeled. He makes his own alcohol and a lemon beverage which is so utterly potent that is could peel the stain from a floor.

In the midst of various other strands of conversation, I was asked my plans over the coming summer.

"I am going to write a book," I proclaimed, as this is the only self-made plan that seemed assured.

"You are going to finish your book," corrected Emily, "You are 150 pages in."

"Yes, I'll finish it," I smiled uneasily, wishing suddenly to have interest in the proffered Dutch courage.

Then came the dreaded question from another party attendee. "What's it about?"

It's about 114 pages, I thought, not 150. It's about baffling to me most of the time. "It's about a girl who falls out of reality," I stammered and tried to smile my way out of awkwardness.

I like my book, quite a lot. I wish I knew how to end it and struggle against how contrived parts of it feel right now, but I do like it. The problem is that I do not know how to explain it to other people. It is like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with much higher stakes? It's how reality might actually be, in a metaphorical way? It's the first book in a series of three (at least)? It's fantasy? None of these feel right. At best, I could explain how it is an analogy for what happens when most people go to college. You leave your life behind, you get drunk, you get forgotten, you forge a new life.

I know my book is not captivating enough, mostly because people are not captivated by the process of writing. They just want it written.

Emily was not satisfied with my lack of an answer and dismissed what I said to this man, assuring him that it was more than that though she didn't say what. Such defensiveness of me, even from myself, is requisite to Emily and I love her even more for it.

On the way back to New York, Zack and Cristin related the circumstances of their relationship. While they knew one another for years and thought well when they thought of one another at all, they never really connected. Then, one night, Cristin came into Zack's diner a bit before his shift was over. They ended up talking, and then touching, and then going to a bar afterward to touch and talk more. Still, nothing real was going on. It was likely unseemly, but not illicit.

There was such energy between them that another couple asked them how long they had been together. "Oh, we're not... together. We're just friends." The other couple was doubtful. "No, really," confirmed Zack, "I have a girlfriend."

The male of the other couple, giving Zack the final nail in the coffin, scoffed, "Oh, that won't last."

And indeed it did not. Zack wanted to immediately explain to Katlyn what had happened, cloaking it in vague terms like one feels one must to soften the blow. Unfortunately, Katlyn had to deal with some pressing personal problems, so Zack patiently waited until she was properly comforted and supported. Then he dumped her.

Apartment 1

Emily is fairly intent upon moving us to a new apartment. Therefore - and this is the crucial point here - we will move to a new apartment. Our relationship works because Emily is high strung and I am so calm I scare the blood pressure cuff. Often I think I make out better on this deal, but not when it comes to actually getting something done expediently. Were it up to me, I would just look casually and wait for a proper apartment to introduce itself to me, which might occur at some time this decade.

Apartment Reality

Emily and I signed the lease for our new apartment. It was not an easy process. As she drove me to look at the complete lack of noticeable view we will have, I broke down and explained how unsure of all of this I am. I am not unsure about living with her. Aside from her occasional and somewhat endearing biological imperative toward anal retention, she is wonderful company and I can imagine no one else with whom I would rather live (a few people in addition, but no one could surmount Emily). My concern was solely on how unsure I was that I would even have a job come September, let alone a job that would pay me enough to afford my half of the rent and utilities. I also was irritated that so much of my life has to be altered to accommodate a high strung and overly sensitive greyhound. We could have a bigger and cheaper apartment if we did not need to worry about Emily's dog Quest. However, he is a major concern and burden for Emily and I could not ask her to part with him. Not only because he is the main bargaining chip that Emily's parents used to control her actions, but because she has a genuine need for him. He was her therapy when she got out of the psychiatric hospital, they healed together. It is not that I am not a pet person, I merely feel that pets should be compact and low maintenance... so perhaps I am not a pet person. I even forget to water my bamboo plant on occasion, though I believe The Dwayne forgives me once I remember.

In the end, Emily made me promise that I would take a less suitable job (though I explicitly drew the line at fast food) to pay my way if it came to that and I made her swear that she will not spend her time worrying about money.

For the remainder of the day, Emily kept suggesting restaurants at which I could be a waiter, but I am going to operate under the belief that I will not have to turn to waitering, noble though I find the profession. At worst, I could work at a preschool. I certainly would be overqualified, though I tend to believe that degrees no longer mean much of anything.

It is not any less scary. I just want Emily to assure me that everything is going to be okay and that we won't have any problems. I do not have this indication from her.

None of Emily's alternate living suggestions made any sense to me, such as her living in the animal shelter or bouncing between the houses of her clan mates. The latter flared within me a rare spark of jealousy that they could support her and I may not be able. I couldn't allow her to do this, couldn't let her be effectively homeless.

If she didn't have the dog, we could continue to live with my parents, but that is not a solution adults should have to take. I should not be living at home any longer and Emily certainly should not either, though my parents do love us.

So I will have an apartment and quite a large amount of monthly expenses to manage, though I have to believe that I will rise to the occasion.


It is difficult for me to watch someone crippled and in pain because of her art. On the one hand, twenty-five year old women should not have arthritis. On the other hand, where is life if not in one's art?
Zack and Cristin  
She'll hit you, and she'll be happy doing it.

I speak obviously of Emily, our martial artist in residence (though the title is currently only an honorific, at least until July 7th and the new apartment). Yesterday, during our date night, she hobbled and winced in palpable pain. She had gotten a cortisol shot in her foot to combat some condition caused by her over-training. Immediately afterward, ignoring the physical therapist's advice, she trained for at least an hour. Outside the rain beat down on the earth as Emily jumped and kick and tore herself up. She trains more in one day than most people exercise in a week. Her body rebels against her cultivated ignorance of its needs. This meal at a chain restaurant would be the first food she had all day because she was too busy punching and kicking to eat.

It is unconscionable to ask her not to train. She is a martial artist. Read that sentence again. Note the verb. Training, preparing, chambering, jumping, kicking, punching, breaking is who and what she is. And she is an artist.

She sings like a nightingale Joni Mitchell, but she is not a singer. She acted the lead in Tommy when she was prepubescent, but she is not an actress. She writes compellingly of her life, but she is not a writer. She is a martial artist and I fear that it is killing her or at least making her old before her time in everywhere but her face, which will be a cherub's until she is dust in the wind over Everest.

There is a famous painter, perhaps a great many, who died of lead poisoning because he used his tongue to sharpen his brushes after having dipped them in the paint. Could his partner have said, "You know what? I don't think painting is doing you any good. You must give it up immediately."

Even if she did, would he have? Could he?

I can't and won't give up my writing, which destroys my posture at the very worst. It is so greatly an integrated part of my personality that it is the filter through which I see the world. Without the filter, could I even process the world? Or would I instead become one of those surly souls who rejects the world before it can do them a bad turn? As long as I can imagine and write some light at the end of my personal tunnel, I can deal with adversity.

Emily's art is, understandably, a very different craft than mine, but I do believe she sees the world through the eyes of a martial artist. I do not know what those eyes can see, as they are alien to me. A beloved alien, but still beyond my ken. Maybe she only sees wood as something to be broken, but I rather doubt it. There is so much to her. Martial arts is her religion in a very tangible way. Front kicks like Hail Marys, horse stance her lotus position.

I am one who believes that one should practice their art even to their very death. Even, I suppose, if it might well be. So I say nothing to her and buy her some food and a place to sit for an hour.

Soon in Xenology: Free Spirit. Porn shop.

last watched: Batman Begins
reading: The Vampire Lestat
listening: So-Called Chaos

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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