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08.14.05 12:54 p.m.

The supreme happiness of life is the conviction of being loved for yourself, or, more correctly, being loved in spite of yourself.  

-Victor Hugo


Previously in Xenology: Xen met this girl named Emily.


"Is Emily there," Melissa asked over the phone.

"Yeah, of course. Want to talk to her?" Up until a few moments ago, Melissa thought that she would be looking after Emily's dog Quest while we were on vacation in Lake George. Instead, it would just be our cat Seltzer, for which she was given free run of our apartment if she wished. I would not be the right person to ask questions about the cat or apartment, however; my answers would all be, "Yeah, I don't know. Just feed her some and rub her head a little. She hides in the closet sometimes."

"No, I want to talk to you, I just want you to be able to give me straight answers. About things."
Xen in the stocks  
Why does this keep happening?

Ah, yes, things. "The plan is going forth," I assured her.


Listen to Emily coo to the cat and feeling secure that she could not hear me, I stated, "Thursday. Fireworks."

This met with Melissa's approval and she extracted a vow from me that I would call her immediately afterward.

It's said that you can't step in the same river twice, but how many times have I waded into this glacial lake? With the exception of a few forgettable trips elsewhere before I was old enough to care, this has been my vacation destination for a dozen years or more. A home away from home. I'm even in the same room I occupied last year, albeit in a different area thereto in order to accommodate my nieces.

In the bathroom there is the very same broken soap dish. Other people would be annoyed that this hadn't been fixed, but it is familiar to me. My parents' room contains the same television with the melted top. Next year, these same rooms will be ours as long as we keep reserving them.

Back in the days of Kate, she was baffled that I would be so pleased to do the same thing. I do see her point. She is a wanderer in her soul, and thrived on the camping trips her parents took and later the summer work in the American Midwest. Lake George was only for her once. She refused to go a second time, stating that her life guarding job would not allow her the time off. I believed then as I do not that she simply didn't wish to do Lake George all over again and I understand.

When my family started going to Lake George, I was quite small. My parent's used to wisely restrict the number of stuffed animals I would bring on vacation with me, which I imagine was a difficult feat. I had more than a few dozen of them at this time and was ridiculously fond of them. I used to have each of their sundry names and back stories memorized, which was difficult considering the sheer vastness of my collection.

This has long since changed, I having lost all interest in stuffed animals years before I discovered the reciprocal, if lackluster, affection of my first girlfriend. Now the stuffed animals have long since been resigned to storage in my parents' basement for the day a younger half of my genes can make use of them. Instead of dolls, I bring lovely young woman and books, one stunning example of the former and a self-imposed limit of four of the latter. After all, I still need my stories.
Becky and the girls  
Becky, tending to the sea sick needs of her daughters

Becky, my older brother's long time girlfriend, brought her two daughters on vacation with us this year, which is worse than my stuffed animals. The girls' presence was nothing any of us wanted to have happen, but Becky's mother completely resisted babysitting the girls for reasons at which it is best not to guess. At first, she was willing to take one of the girls off our hands, but we somehow got stuck with the full force of both, far more than a sum of their parts.

This understandably changed the dynamic of vacation, which tends to be a fairly low-key and relaxing affair when half the country doesn't lose power. As point of fact, the entirely first day is generally dedicated to entering the twin valleys of sloth and gluttony, made considerably harder by the persistent crying of the girls endeavoring to pull Becky away.

They are small girls and far from self-sufficiency, resorting to crocodile tears to get attention and affection from their mother at every slight inconvenience. During our yearly boat ride around the lake, they fidgeted, whined, complained, fought, and faked tears so that Becky would be forced to ignore the lame jokes the guide repeats by rote in order to soothe one or the other. That one is getting attention causes the other to complain more vociferously for attention.

In the future, should they come, we likely with not bring them on the boat. Though I love them as an avuncular figure should, they can be a pain in the ass. I am informed by those in the know that they are considerably more obnoxious in consort than most their age. To me, most tiny girls are like them, fickle and desperately needy. I do not know differently and there is certainly little evidence that I am incorrect.

The older of the two, still only six or seven (is it my business to remember how old my nieces are?), jumps on me constantly, though this vacation has taught her enough tact that she inquires "attack?" before latching onto me. I may have to slip Valium into her juice box for this vacation to be at all palatable.

Before leaving for vacation, I had a mad dash to find anything I might be missing. By this, I specifically meant the diamond ring I intended to give to Emily. It was not in the place where I remembered having hidden it. This certainly could pose a hitch to my plans, so I sat on the bed and meditated for a moment. Not in the sock drawer, that was certain. But why? Would I have moved it? The sock drawer certainly would be a bad hiding spot, Emily might feel she was being nice by putting away errant clothing. So I likely moved it... to... my jacket pocket in the closet. There sat the old red box.

I bought the ring years ago, though I cannot remember why I chose that time. It has since known a dozen different hiding spots, only one of which Emily discovered but demurred against looking at the ring. It would be a relief to no longer have to hide it.

Great Escapes

So much of my relationship with Emily seems to be an effort to move past the hollow encumbrances of verbal communication. I could have said that entire sentence to her with a cocked eyebrow and a shrug and she would have gotten more than a little of the meaning, responded with upturned hands and a half smile. We touch and slightly motion with our heads, having entire conversations between us before we say a seeming non sequitur to check our understanding. This is not an occasional quasi-telepathy but, exposed to a variety of situations were being our forthright selves would be inelegant at best, we have resorted to litter-bearing pauses.

This, of course, can be quite annoying to those around us, so our gesticulation must be all the more subtle. We don't want to be one of those couples.

At the theme park Great Escape, Emily asked me pick those women out of crowds that share her endomorphic body. This is our third most common social game and one I like least. (The first most common game is picking out those women that are most attractive to the other party followed closely by divining the stories of unusual strangers.)

Emily has no real comprehension as to what she looks like, selecting womanatees as her twins. I am not merely seeing her through love besotted eyes, though sometimes I am. I am aware how she looks and am generally crass enough to honestly answer the supposed trap questions like, "Does this make me look fat?" Better to answer now than earn her ire when she wears an outfit in public and sees that it does not flatter her and that I have been disingenuous to avert a wrath that would not come. Emily can look rather becoming in quite a variety of clothing, though she is typically in the practice of wearing utilitarian garb that does nothing for her (sweatshirts and matching pants emblazoned with the logos of one of her two jobs). In sundresses or like-minded hippy attire, she turns more heads than usual. She certainly is no slouch when formality is asked of her, making me into a lusty cad until such a time as I can relieve her of a black velour dress and appropriate jewelry.

It is important to know how one looks, because most everyone can look good in something. It is merely to the chore of figuring out what on you is most flattering.

I ask her to play the game for me in return, though I care a lot less how I look. She is unable to pick out a single male that matches me, stating that I am shaped peculiarly. Looking at a wave pool full of men, she amends that most men are shaped funny and that's why she likes girls.

We returned to the hotel room, grateful to no longer be at the park. A few rides on roller coasters go a long way.
Emily, naked  
She looks quite nice like this as well.

Great Escape, as I lament every year, is further and further being corrupted by corporate influences. Fairy Tale Land has been gutted for Wanger Elmer Fudd's shack. One cannot move without seeing a logo or ad space. Given how much cash one must drop to enter this park (and I do not know how much that would be; my father deigned this as one of his fatherly duties. We are otherwise on our own when is comes to vacation accoutrements) one would hope we could be proselytized to slightly less to join the Cult of Consumption. It feels dirty, this being the locale of so many childhood memories. Yes, it is corporate, existing to make money. And yes, much of this apparent money seems to be put forth to create new attractions, but I can't see why the world cannot have theme parks that do not belong to Six Flags or Disney. Must everything be a fight against the monopoly? Doesn't competition give birth to innovations, or do we need a homogenization of our thrills as well? That at every Six Flags in this great country, there are the same rides offering the same experiences. Even the same lay-out, geography permitting?

Rules of Engagement

"If you are kidding, I will fucking kill you."

This was not the reaction I had quite been expecting. However, on vacation, sitting on a dock jutting into Lake George as the weekly fireworks flared overhead, I felt it was time to relinquish my possession of the ring. She seemed so utterly thrilled there - fireworks are her favorite part of vacation - that I could find no better moment. This, unexpectedly, earned me her death threat.

"That was not the reaction I was going for," I admitted.

"I'll kill you. You know that."

"I am aware. So is that a yes?"

"You aren't joking?"
Emily, beautiful  
She doesn't have to kill me.

I shook my head, still a bit startled. Maybe it would be better to say I was joking and put the ring away. Death didn't seem like such a big price. We could try this again at the Buddhist Monastery or some other holy moment, should I inexplicably return from the dead.

I had been anxious all during the fireworks, holding the box in my hand and trying to figure out when would be ideal. Earlier in the day, Emily insisted that we should buy chocolate covered strawberries and sparkling cider to make the fireworks more romantic. I feared she knew my plans and was trying to improve them. I had told a few friends what I intended, which resulted in a couple of calls each day we were on vacation asking me if I had done it or if I was still going to follow through with it. Maybe one of them let it slip and would have to be poisoned.

Worse for my surprise, Emily had walked into the room when I was unpacking the ring box into a drawer and could have seen it. I was almost sure in the moment that she had and merely said nothing in order to not prevent my proposal.

We procured the chocolates from a candy store and failed utterly to get the cider from a liquor store where the proprietor made mobiles out of confiscated fake IDs. This wasn't actually the first plan. Originally, I was going to bring her fried chicken to recreate our first year in Lake George together. This was, in fact, something she specifically requested, before we both realized that KFC had moved to greener, genetically-engineered pastures.

Emily's eyes sprung leaks as she accepted my proposal. I didn't know what to do. In my head, she said yes and everything was normal. She just happened to have a new bit of jewelry. I know, in retrospect, that this is a ridiculous thought to have had.

I interrupted her tears to ask if she actually wanted to see the ring, as all she could see was a dark box against the night sky.

"No, I'm just so happy. You like me!"

"Of course I like you. Are you just figuring this out?" I didn't understand my role here. I petted her and waited until I could find a place in this interaction where I was more comfortable.

"We have to go tell your family. Did they know you were going to do this?"

"No," I said pensively, "Not precisely as such. At all." This was specifically not the place were interaction was more comfortable. I had kept this whole issue quiet from my family. They were distantly aware that I owned the ring and therefore that I would, at some point, trade it in for valuable prizes, but there was no time frame attached. I was frankly terrified at the idea of telling my parents, remembering too keenly the utter disappointment in their eyes when Emily and I pretended we had gotten hitched in Vegas.

Emily ran ahead of me with her hand extended to show them what I had given her. I lagged a little back, arriving on the cement porch of their cabin in time for my mother to shoot me a look that said nothing so much as that she thought I was mentally incapacitated and should have let her kill me when I had the chance. Becky was thrilled, however, and proceeded to take pictures of Emily, who was on the phone to various family members sharing the happy news.

I felt so very terribly alone. I wandered off to a patch of grass to emulate Emily and try to call people. Melissa knew, of course, and congratulated me for following through. No one else was around to call, not that I wanted to. My world felt like it was collapsing.

This is not the appropriate reaction to the stimuli, I know. This was my choice and I do want to be with Emily. Being on this vacation with her had given me time to appreciate us anew. In our daily lives, schedules clash and problems demand attention, so that I don't get enough time to just be with Emily. She is devastatingly witty and sweet, practically telepathic in her comprehension of our shared perceptions. This is to mention nothing of the fact of how attractive she is when she is dressing for fashion instead of the necessity of dog feces and sick toddlers.

That I proposed meant nothing new to me. I intend to stick by her into the unforeseeable future.

Earlier in the day, Emily and I tied two inflatable rafts together and paddled a few dozen feet into the lake; we could go no further or Emily would begin worrying that we were going to float into the center of the lake and never again be seen.

In our rafts, both of which constantly took in water, we had two water guns. Hers was the better one, a pump action Super Soaker knock off. We used these to hunt and spray the ducks in the lake. "It's okay," I would assure the water fowl, "we're not like the other ones. We're your friends." Then we would do our best to hit them with concentrated streams of lake water. We were rarely successful, a fact which did not seem to affect the ducks either way. They would only become anything more than placid feathered plants in the presence of bread crumbs.

I left the raft convoy at one point to use the snack bar bathroom, despite Emily telling me that we were swimming in other animals' urine and no one would notice.

When I returned, I saw a small white rock where the tide lapped at the shore. I picked it up and starting walking to where Emily had drifted in my absence, but I waddled a little bit in the muck to accommodate a knee I had strained walking around town.

"You look like a penguin," she proclaimed and she was not wrong.

I handed her the white rock. "Penguins give rocks to the ones with whom they want to spend the rest of their lives," I explained, practicing for my proposal.

"I don't believe you."

"What do you want me to swear on that penguins really do this?"

Aiming a water pistol my way, she proclaimed, "Swear on penguins!"

"Fine. I swear on all penguins everywhere that boy penguins give small stones to the girl penguin they like."

"To mate."

"But they mate for life, don't they?"

"I don't know, we'll have to look it up." She took the rock and secreted it away into a pocket, accepting my practice proposal.

Fresh from a call to her sister in Minnesota, Emily found me sitting at the table that was bolted in front of our cabin. "What's wrong?"

I tried to resist telling her, because I couldn't bear ruining her moment, but it was too much for me. I told her how I was feeling, how alone, how worried that this would change things between us now that there were going so well.

I felt like I did when I thought I lost my virginity (as opposed to when I actually did less than a week later), a very palpable change in identity that I wanted to resist even if it was my own fault. When that experience happened, I cried for three days, actually kicking in a locked bathroom on the first floor of the school so I would have a quiet place for catharsis.

"Nothing is changing," Emily assured me.

"And I'm not ready to get married soon... no, that's not it. I am not ready to have a wedding soon. I don't want to be weddinged." 'Weddinged' is a term I came across or invented for when a couple lets this lavish party become the center of their life. I do not want that ever. I ascribe to the notion that the more spent on the wedding, the nearer the divorce. I want to be with Emily, but I don't want our relationship to become about a party. We all know how my parties turn out.

"I feel the same way. There is no rush for us to get married."

I looked up at her with my dripping eyes and asked, "Really?"

"Really really," she confirmed. "I'm okay about that; I feel the same way."

"And that's why I like you."

Soon in Xenology: Dives Dives's concert.

last watched: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
reading: Our Lady of the Forest
listening: The Dresden Dolls

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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