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06.21.05 12:24 p.m.

Consider the public.... Never fear it nor despise it. Coax it, charm it, interest it, stimulate it, shock it now and then if you must, make it laugh, make it cry, but above all ... never, never, never bore the living hell out of it.  

-Noel Coward


Previously in Xenology: Xen and Emily signed a lease. Zack and Cristin got together.

Prosthetic Fairy Vaginas

Many men, if television is to be believed, spend guys' nights out when there significant others are otherwise occupied. I do not. I spend time with Melissa.

My evening with Melissa began at the local sex shop, Giggles. It is not that I had any particular prurient interest in the shop, merely that I find it strange that so near my house there is such a place to which I have not gone. There is an energy associated with such places, as though they were conspicuously invisible. Everyone passing the store on the major highway adjoining it sees it and most must know its purpose, but no one actually looks at it. As such, the accumulation of thousands of averted gazes rests at its smudged doorstep.

I had, strictly speaking, been to Giggles before. However, it had been in a previous location which has since burned down and then only for a scavenger hunt, not for a proper looking over. Knowing the hunts we tend to plan, I very likely was supposed to find midget porn.

The shop was much larger than its previous locale and brightly lit, which seems counterintuitive. Such places, at least in the popular consciousness, are dank and poorly lit, smelling faintly of mushrooms. The clientele are all middle-aged men who have not shaved in many days. Despite the temperature in or out of the store, they all wear tan raincoats and are sweating profusely. Melissa and I should therefore stick out like sore thumbs, as I am too young and generally well kempt to fit the stereotype and she has a vagina that is not made of latex or silicone.

Melissa and I wandered through the shop, alternately bemused and horrified. Only once or twice did we express anything approaching interest in the obviously carefully researched but utterly off-putting toys we found. One of the weirder objects one could purchase, which is saying quite a lot given that there was a blow up doll being tortured in a sex swing as the store's centerpiece (and I do hope you will forgive that I have not taken pictures), was a prosthetic woman's groin. This, of itself, was common enough. However, there was a Barbie doll sized version of the crotch that one could poke to get a feel for the larger version.

"Poke it, Melissa. It's like fingering Tinkerbelle."

She tentatively jabbed it with her pinky, which stretched it considerably, and recoiled. "It's cold inside!"

Now you know that fairy vaginas are chilly. Don't you wish you didn't?

There were other people shopping in the store, entirely in heteronormative couples. There is a certain degree of freedom in acting like a jackass in a sex shop, because no one is going to look at you. Eye contact is strictly verboten amongst the clientele by unwritten accord, like Baptists in a liquor store. Therefore, I had no fear about confusedly asking or noting the purposes of what seemed to be medieval torture devices. These made up the bulk of the major items once one transcended the realm of inflatable porn star rejects from Sesame Street ("C is for coochie, that's good enough for me!") and their fae crotched cohorts. I can't see much of a purpose in tying up and cutting one's beloved, but maybe that is because I wasn't beaten as a child. (I can feel some S&M slave in a leather, zippered hood dashing off a vicious e-mail. Little does he know that I get off on that.)

We did not feel the need to purchase anything, though Melissa earnestly pressed me that Emily needed a gift. "I would, but I am so bad at sizing," I insisted, "Plus, I think Emily prefers to buy her sex accoutrements from her friend Christine." This excuse seemed to largely stop Melissa and, since I couldn't embarrass her into submission given the Porn Shop Cloak of Invisibility all the customers had, a straight answer seemed best.

Any evening that starts in a sex shop has to end in a bar. Shut up, that is so completely how these things work. You can't contradict me without divulging your propensity for sex shops.

We picked up Angela and made our way to Kevin's house. The bar, it should be noted, was his idea.

Both Melissa and Angela harbor what would not so much be called a crush as unquenchable lust for Melissa's coworker Kevin, though neither act on it, Angela because she is otherwise romantically occupied and Melissa because she gets surprisingly shy when it seems that someone might unsurprisingly find her attractive. Nonetheless, neither of them can give a real reason for wanting to throw him to the ground and having their respective ways with him, though the fact that he has a guitar has been mentioned. My theory is that he is so utterly confident in being what Mae West would affectionately call a lummox that girls cannot help themselves. If he can be this way and still be so sure of himself, the subconscious reasoning goes, he must really have something there. It is like when birds evolve debilitating decorative attachments, since any being that can thrive with such a handicap must indeed have powerful seeds within. Were they two very different girls, I might even suggest the trite and true idea that good girls go for bad boys. They are not dainty enough, however, and I simply cannot imagine Kevin in a leather jacket and pompadour.

The bar was a tiny affair, though I do not know how large a bar should be. So just imagine a bar and cut it in half, that should yield an accurate measure. It had the feel of a rumpus room, though with much more cigarette smoke than someone possessing a room specifically to rumpus should allow. I consistently am surprised that there are still indoor establishments within the bound of the fine state of New York where smoking is allowed, particularly given the several prominent "No Smoking" signs found on every flat, glass surface.

That sounds like a terribly anti-smoking stance to have, but you must understand the terrier tenacity of the anti-smoking lobby in this state. There have been proposals to outlaw smoking in private homes and a recent seizure of quite a lot of imported cigarettes because they might be funding terrorists in Sweden or Amsterdam. Apparently, however, all that is necessary to smoke is to liquor up the anti-smoking lobby.

Kevin quickly convinced Melissa that she needed to do shots. When she demurred that she had better not and that she had to get up the next morning for a bridal shower, he pulled out the big guns. He dared her. What you may not realize about Melissa is that she cannot stand being told that she cannot do something. It goes hand in hand with people underestimating her because she is the possessor of a vagina, latex or otherwise. When she was much more heavily into drugs, she scored quite a bit of free product by accepting dares that she could not ingest potentially lethal amounts of varied substances. Even if she lost, she had still gotten to do free drugs. She also had a few sexual experiences prompted only by someone daring her that she would not, though we cannot wholly discount the role played by the free drugs.

I could not help but imagine that Kevin was aware of this quirk and Angela certainly was going to play Jiminy Cricket no further than to take Melissa's car keys away. As for me, I was an observer here and not one to suggest to Melissa that she cannot handle alcohol. She has about sixteen years of drinking experience to my occasional sip of a girly drink. I have to have faith that she well knows her limits now, if only through meticulous testing.

She finished the first two shot and then the two that followed. Despite his insistence that he would go shot for shot and the fact that he seemed to be paying to inebriate Melissa, she stopped him there. Melissa is, after all, not the same girl who she was as a teenager. While I do not doubt that she could drink him under that table (this girl has handled chemicals a lot more noxious than whiskey), she didn't have to prove herself to anyone. Or maybe she proved herself by knowing her limit.

I was a bit uneasy in the bar. Bars are not made for my people. My people patronize coffee houses. I do not drink. I do not smoke. My billiard skills are sub par. Were I single, I would be off put by the sort of girls I imagine frequent such places, emaciated sylphs with too much make-up and a voice more suiting Talia Zydek or Tom Waits. There was nothing at the bar for me.

Then I found my filter. We all use filters to understand our world. All that we have, all that we process, is heavily filtered through our past experiences, our expectations, and a thousand other distractions.

While I did not go to bars, my character Shane had. The bar is an important scene in Deaths Worse Than Fate. I looked around and realized that I had been writing the bar completely wrong. I needed to study this place and note things that I could add for the sake of authenticity. Suddenly, the place opened up to me and I was genuinely enjoying myself. This all could be digested and written. This, at the very core, was a part of very many stories. Yes, I do know how lame that is.

I found the dart board, though the electronic scoring was turned off, and began flinging the darts at it. Once I realized the darts were not pointy metal, my skill decreased. It only increased again when I started distractedly bantering with Melissa and Angela, who had begun playing a card game that quickly devolved into strip poker with Kevin. They got no further than losing their shoes, though not for want of Kevin's effort. He was damned sly.

We left that bar soon after. Melissa was slightly drunk, though far less than I would have been. I would have likely been slightly dead. Still, she was not sober enough to convince Angela to let her drive home.

When she asked Kevin how she could repay his alcoholic kindness, he assured her that the usual sex act would do the trick. So damned sly. She insisted in the car that he was joking, but I know my gender well enough to state that many a true word was said in jest. No longer did I doubt Kevin's appeal to them.

Fire-Eating Munchkin

"So where do you live?" Emily and I were asked for what felt the tenth time. Next would come the question about what we did. At best, this would result in a few comments about teaching or animals. Then a period of silent eating. Then a new person asking the paired questions.

It was not that we disliked Sara the Goode's barbecue and were flattered to have been invited. It was just that Emily and I could not find the base level we could use to converse with the others there. These were not instantly our people, so there was a distance. A steady dribble of rain kept us all largely contained to the covered porch and kept Sara playing the gracious hostess.
Zack, a llama, Emily  
M's going to kiss that llama

As such, I was pleased when I returned to the bathroom to find Emily on the phone with a smile on her face.

"We have to leave," she explained, the delight him her voice barely contained.

"Why is that?"

"Zack has a dead bird that he has to deliver to a movie set. After we go to a carnival. Dead bird. Now?"

This sounded precisely like a plan, so we bid a fond farewell to Sara and the few people at the party with whom we had spoken (all of whom lived places and had jobs, I'll have you know) and went on our mission.

The carnival was large and asked for a cover change, which I never see as a good sign. Good carnivals can get my money by interesting rides and clever games and so do not need me to pay up front.

When we went on the ferris wheel, the gristly carnie ejected Emily and I after only a few rotations because we were busy kissing. This is a main purpose of such rides. Zack, on the other hand, was trapped on the wheel for another five minutes while we looked up at him and waved.

There was a genuine freak show tent in the back of the carnival. In front of it sat a bean-shaped man ambivalently barking from a memorized script like a very drunk Hunter S. Thompson. On the stage stood a thirty-year-old man with a sword and a midget in a tiny easy chair. The wrinkled midget, we were told, was one of the last surviving Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz, a claim I did not find inclined to doubt. The midget occasionally touched a stick to a small pan and set it aflame, only to stare at it. Finally, after a large enough crowd had gathered, the casual barker ordered them to do their thing, swallowing the sword and eating fire, respectively.
Zack and Emily  
This ride made Xen ill

I wanted to cry when the munchkin ate the fire. It seems like such an unfulfilling life to be part of a carnival freak show. At least he isn't the Snake Girl or the Man Spider (I imagined they took pains in naming the latter). Still, he had once had something a little more like fame. He didn't have to eat fire in some backward carnival in Dutchess County. He had a life and people loved him. He might have even represented the Lollipop Guild.

Emily, Zack, and I did not sacrifice any money to become better acquainted with the remainder of the freaks, as there was a surprising amount of genetic anomalies wandering through the fair as spectators. I am not certain what aspect of carnivals attract people with improbable deformities to wander. I never see these people food shopping or at the Laundromat, though they certainly must. Yet they are at the carnival, apparently with dates. Perhaps, and I am not intentionally being cruel here, they feel more normal in this environment. When there is an actual freak show to distract people, it takes some of the pressure off of you.

As we prepared to watch the pig races and my stomach recovered from a badly tuned ride, Zack informed us that his roommate had once had sex with a carnie for $40.

My jaw dropped. "Zack... I'm not exactly sure which part of that information horrifies me the most. That your roommate has sex. That she does it with carnies. That she charges and they pay." This did not help my nausea.

In the end, the dead bird was acquired and delivered. Zack produced a bag of dead birds from his parents refrigerator and asked for my help in selected the choicest one.

"Why..." I began.

"My mother wants to take up taxidermy. Don't worry, she found all of these birds already dead."

I very rarely happen upon dead animals, which I do not lament. "Your father is just lucky he found your mother before I did. That's all I'm saying."

Adult Children

My generation, by which I mean the small peer group to which I belong, are adult children. I don't mean in any creepy, diaper wearing way. By the time my mother was twenty-five, as Emily now is, she had three children. Granted, she was living in a trailer with my father, having a rocky marriage. But they were fairly adult, having responsibility and statuses that distinguished them from being children.

I do not covet this specific lifestyle, please understand. Mine is tenuous, only a few weeks without pay from being homeless and carless.

I am soon to move out of my house once more. This time, my mother informs me, it is for keeps. Anything left in my room is going to be ritually destroyed. A daybed is going to move into what is now my room. What was my room as a child. The room I dug out from my younger brother's filth years ago in order to create a nest for Emily and me.

I don't even know if I am going to have children, because I am too selfish and scared. I don't even like the responsibility pets present. This may not be a problem, as Emily and my chemical mix may not yield workable results for offspring.

I want to move away and be a part of a Lost Generation. I do want an apartment and I most definitely want to be with Emily. I just might like to do it as an expatriate living in the South of France, discussing postmodernist writing with a ballet dancer and her matador poet. I'm almost certain I owe the estate of Ernest Hemingway $.35 for even thinking that. My life feels a bit too domesticated and easy to forecast. One might think this is a good thing, if one had never actually met a twenty something from a middle class background. When do I get to hitchhike across Europe? Zack and Cristin are going on a road trip for the entire month of August. They are going to see America, travel from one roadside attraction to the next. That sound like a month that will live forever within them. I will be working and writing. Writing about people and actions that never happened and it all feels a little hollow if I have not run from Pamplona bulls (another $.05 into the coffers of Hemingway). I am getting older and older and life isn't providing the sense of utter adventure I was promised. There is not a war like there was in Hemingway's time, which is not something I specifically lament. But the trick of military recruiting used to be that one would see the world. My world is possibly no more than fifty miles around for most of my life.

M has asked me if we can join Peace Corp for a year if no job offers pan out for her or me. I told her yes, because what else was I to tell her? I am perhaps too rooted to be the Viking I would imagine myself to be. Writing, I think, was once a sort of escape. At the very least, it was a way to metaphorically pay for the tickets that would bring me to places. Reporters, by which I mean Hunter S. Thompson, were well paid and well regarded. He had a Doctorate of Journalism. I have a Masters of Education. Who is going to be remembered in one hundred years? And don't feed me that guff about how teachers shape lives. I guarantee I remember the names of only a handful of teachers. That is not immortality.

I just want to feel that life holds some mysterious luster over the horizon. I want to have adventures that make me feel a little more like a man, though not by the conventional societal standards.

Soon in Xenology: Free Spirit.

last watched: Bewitched
reading: Under the Banner of Heaven
listening: Mix CDs I am making for Emily and Dives Dives. Completely different CDs with entirely different songs and contexts.

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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