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07.05.06 10:37 p.m.

Of what purpose is longstanding fellowship
If friends' familiar actions are not accepted as one's own?
Familiar with familiarity, the wise are not annoyed
When friends do things without asking.  

-Tirukkural 81:803-804


Previously in Xenology: Xen agreed to do things that terrified him.


I just finished my first week of teaching gifted students from all over the world (one of my students is fresh from China). In some ways, this is an amazingly cushy gig. I teach for only three hours and forty-five minutes, interrupted by a forty-five minute lunch provided free for me at the campus dining center. I don't start teaching until 11:45. The kids, while still challenging by virtue of being children, are nowhere near offensively bad. At the very worst, they are average or quiet, instead of the sort of spawn necessitating "homicide" as a check box on disciplinary referrals. It is rare I feel the need to tell them anything more negative than to stop sharing their story/opinion when it has nothing to do with the topic at hand. They are so eager to be heard that they will often say any damned thing, their brains too full to have built propriety filters. By now, I have picked out those students most likely to seize upon any attention given them and am prepared to restrict their comments the second they veer into irrelevancy. I would much rather have to cut off an overly eager student than cajole them to offer an original opinion for over an hour.

On the other hand, the orientation was Saturday and classes began promptly that Sunday, meaning I had to spend this week scrambling to seem prepared. By this point in my academic career, I am largely capable of talking on most any subject for an hour at a time, punctuated by questions from the peanut gallery, and could more than fake the first few classes while I tried to figure out things like lesson plans and budgets. Lesson plans I can handle, having wasted thousands of dollars taking a class specifically dedicated to the proper formatting and aligning one's plan with the state and national standards. Such is not necessary at this juncture - they were simply happy to know I had some plan - but it is present nonetheless. Budgets intimidate me, as they involve my money and the humble request that it be returned to me after passing through a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies, like medieval dragons, exist to horde treasure and gobble up those seeking to either remove a bit or slay them.

I have dinner every weekday with Jacki, as this too is provided to us free as long as we are willing to stick around an additional half hour. I feel like I have to relearn how to socialize with people outside the company of Emily. Around Jacki, I simply do not feel myself, not nearly sophisticated enough if such a word can ever be applied to me. She is my friend, but I have trouble feeling at full ease with her, like I have to impress her with my humor. I don't want to impress her, nor do I think that she does anything to provoke this in me, but it is nonetheless how I feel.

I told Jacki tonight that I finally felt at peace with the fact that I did not end up going to Vassar, both because I cannot guarantee that it would not have done a number on my personality and because, as judged by the boys who seem echoes of who I used to be, I evidently did and continue to go to Vassar. Perhaps some incarnation of me will always be attending its hallowed grounds. I'm not sure I could quite translate this to her. Perhaps my problem is simply that Emily and I have developed such an intricate and intimate shared cultural context that we can speak volumes without words. Now, my subtle flickers of the eye and soft nods are meaningless gestures to my friends. M and I work synergistically, practically speaking the language of twins, our xenoglossia.

I know who I am outside of Emily's presence, but I feel like no one else does.

The Life

"You are living the life," Zack stated over his glass of citrus alcohol at the Double O Grill.

I put my sandwich down. "I'm doing the what now?"

"You are living the life of an actor, drifting from job to job, never really knowing what the future will bring." He said this almost nostalgically, pining for the days the same could be said of him. He is still chained to a full time and physically straining job when all he really wants is a smoky club and his guitar.

"Except for the part where I am working my ass off teaching, which is only occasionally fun, instead of acting, which is something I nearly always loved, yeah." He wasn't wrong. I take these gambits, exchanging the definite security for a chance at something greater. As long as I don't focus too much at the bottom line or make bets from which I cannot walk away, it should work out. The fact remains, I do not know where I will be in September, but I have a substitute teaching on which to fall should everything else crumble.
He does not die at this time.

These things work out in time, though teaching is not the profession I hope to have my entire life. Teaching is a day job to me, something I do so I can pay the bills and write. This is unfortunate given how absolutely little I actually like my book - and, by extension, my skill as a writer - at the moment. Our friend Dezi had been toiling at a series of unfulfilling jobs for years while he went to school, acting at the manager of a toy store and such just so he could draw. Then, after years of trying and earning a BA in graphic design, he just accepted a prestigious sounding job at DC Comics. I don't remember quite what this job is, he might be the first assistant letterer, but we were sure it put him only a few steps from being the guy whose name is on the cover. People do achieve their dreams after a lot of work; it is something that can be documented as happening.

After dinner and a bit of wandering around Madame Brett Park so Cristin could film the ruined factory with her Super 8, we migrated to Memorial Field for the annual Independence Day fireworks. It was here last year that I took pictures of them wrestling on the ground. Their relationship seemed so new then and I really had no idea who this girl was or if she would be sticking around. I was still mentally reminding myself that her name was not Katlyn. The year passed, bringing them a month-long road trip and a house together. They weathered these, which makes them seem rather permanent in my mind. For a very long time, I couldn't imagine the girl with whom Zack would end up. His type was so variable to me, the uniting factors nothing I could put into words. Cristin would not have been whom I would have picked out - I didn't even notice her presence the first half dozen times I met her - but they make a fine couple and have grown into each other. I don't think I should ever fix my friends up, since the partners they choose themselves are so perfect despite my initial assumption. After all, who could have predicted that Melissa and Stevehen would get together? Yet they are likewise going strong despite the original doubts and drama.

As if to prove my point, Zack and Cristin spent their time while the fireworks exploded overhead criticizing their pacing and structure. I couldn't quite make out if they were serious and listened for them to insult the plot and transparent characterization just to tip their hands.
Zack! Cristin! Distain!  
Nor this.

We ended the night in my apartment, where we watched Cristin's short film "Bull" and MirrorMask. Of the two, Bull might have been slightly better despite amounting to a narrated slideshow. Zack talks frequently of his filmmaker girlfriend in much the reverent tone I mention my ninja girlfriend. She is really living the life, having quit her higher paying job for an ice creamery so she can spend more time working on her movies. It is daring and dangerous, insisting upon more faith in her talents than I think I presently have in my own. Her safety net is smaller and she is much higher up, where the lackluster fireworks explode into poorly scripted tendrils.

I have been watching a lot of fireworks lately, fitting given the season. I miss Emily especially during these, though she is quick to point out that we have spent very few Fourths of July together owing to Tae Kwon Do Nationals or likewise activities that pull her from this area. They are experiences I know she would enjoy, if not for the lights overhead, for the reflection of them in my eyes as I sarcastically state that we should make appreciative "oohs" and "aahs" to appease the firework gods, though a larger part of me than I care to reveal means every word of it.

My parting with Emily as she went to Israel was so sedate, the sort of real situation that the WB dismisses out of hand. Nothing at all like the fireworks, bursting for a moment in light and sound. I helped her bring her bags to the car, thinking about the cable guys who were supposed to be coming that day who would find no one at home. We kissed a few times, gently holding the bottom lip of the other party a bit longer than usual. She unwrapped the sandalwood mala from her wrist and gave it to me. She told me that she would give it to someone special, she just didn't know whom. I demurred for a moment, begging confirmation. She told me I was to wear it and take it off only to shower. It was so pungent, the scent of it gone as I write this. Then she drove to the dumpster and I started toward another day teaching at the Summer Institute for the Gifted. My last memory was her waving as she cleaned out her car and I passed.

I go to the fireworks with my friends, though I do not confess to feeling particularly lonely. This job is simply so engulfing that I feel almost too busy to deal with emotions like that. I want her here, but I am not mourning her lack, rocking back in forth while clutching her sweater to my chest. Well, perhaps a little.

I went to fireworks at Vassar the next night or the night after. Things tend to blur together. The fireworks were... well, they were fireworks. Unless they are utterly spectacular, they are just pretty lights in the sky. Echoing Zack and Cristin's criticism, there was nothing for me to follow. The gathered throng of onlookers, some students and some community members, were more intriguing than the explosions. They were all gathered around a lake which I am sure has some wonderful and poetic name, but that was overshadowed by the fact that its stagnation was beginning to turn aromatic like dirty diapers. As the fireworks began, many looked straight ahead at the glowing aqua screens of their cell phones, trying to take pictures of the lights overhead rather than see them a hundred feet large and in three dimensions. They could have stayed home and downloaded a screensaver.

I returned to Vassar not for the fireworks, but for the opportunity to spend some social time with Jacki where we weren't simply passing one another on the way to our classes. We only spent the time the fireworks began to my walking her to her car together, not even an hour. It sometimes feels like, the more time I spend with some friends, the less I feel I actually know them at all. She sat on a tree branch and I took pictures of her and we laughed, but I couldn't quite bridge the chasm I yet felt between us. So much was new in her life and I was aware of so little. She had a new boyfriend and was distancing herself from several destructive elements, including an unbalanced former roommate and conniving exes or never-was. I do not think she is the creator of this chasm.

The next night was spent with Melissa and Stevehen, watching fireworks in Hopewell. We walked through a fence onto the nearly empty baseball diamond, but everyone else was packed thick around us. I found it hilarious that people could be so inconvenienced simply be abiding a chain link fence, but it represented an authority they were loathe to contradict. This field had been more important to Melissa during her salad days, if by "salad" we mean one made of an array of upper, downers, laughers, and screamers. Now it seemed so far behind her that she could scoff at it, though she never was one to let it weigh upon her. Melissa is someone I feel I know intimately, someone I don't have to get to know better because I have honestly known her longer than anyone else in my acquaintance with who I do not share genetic matter. I have never fully felt Stevehen could grasp the continuity of Melissa, all of the temporal puzzle pieces that floated around her until dropping into place, focusing the picture of whom she is. Sure you can just look at the box and many have, but it is wholly different and fourth dimensional to wait twelve years for the process to run its course to this point.

Soon in Xenology: More Summer Institute for the Gifted. No go shows.

last watched: MirrorMask
reading: Snow Crash
listening: Jill Sobule

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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