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01.22.07 3:38 p.m.

Don't worry that children never listen to you. Worry that they are always watching you.  

-Robert Fulghum


Previously in Xenology: Xen got a job.

Free is Just Another Word

A small boy in the requisite prep school garb deviates from his path enough to covertly intersect with mine. "How do you like it here?" he asks. It is the question everyone seems to ponder of late.

On Monday, I felt on the brink of tears when criticized for wearing a mock turtleneck instead of a turtleneck. The morning had already gone on far too long and now some useless punctilio was being shoved against my chest like an arthritic forefinger. I felt trapped by hideous life choices, taken advantage of owing to the withholding of pertinent information until it was too late to make an informed decision. Years ago, I was once locked in an editing closet by the head of the communication department at DCC, who could not grasp that the equipment was broken before I arrived. He insisted that I needed to print my movie to film or he would personally see to it that I fail the class and thus lose my scholarship. I nearly went mad and it turned out there was no reason for him to have trapped me, I had an A just for having made a movie. I feel likewise trapped now. I need the separation between my work and personal life. I had been on duty for 48 hours with only a break for sleep and no written schedule.

I have traveled so far from being an English teacher. This school requires neither a degree in English nor any experience. The assumption seems to be that no student is going to challenge the accuracy of what a teacher says, so a vague awareness of the subject matter is more than necessary. Many of my colleagues are clearly quite clever given that they do a great job with these classes despite having majored in business administration or accounting. I have no real experience with learning disabilities or special ed, yet that seems to be the lion's share of my duties.

The next day, I had only to sit through my awesome mentor (herself a history major) teaching four English classes consisting of the same five students before I was off for the rest of the afternoon and night. I also finally received a written schedule to shield me from revisions that I had extra duties of which I was previously unaware. Free of the campus, Emily and I ate at the Chinese Buffet in Fishkill, the MSG laden food seeming far tastier than it ever had before, and scouring our vacant apartment in futile hope of getting any of our security deposit back. Then we gobbled down ice cream, the whole day taking on the air of a Hedonism Day, which we had not had in a long while and which Emily desperately needed after doing the vast majority of the unpacking in our prep school apartment. This helps a lot

"I'm getting used to it," I told the kid, not lying. I had been in his dorm a previous night and witnessed what an awful time he was having adjusting again to being away from home. "It's not easy at first, but now that I am getting into a routine it is getting easier," I said for his benefit. The boy mumbled something like unconvinced agreement. I added, "Though having my wife here helps a lot. It's like having my best friend in my apartment waiting for me."

"I could be your friend?" he offers, absolutely killing me with the Hallmark moment.

"I'd like that," I reply, giving his shoulder an appropriate squeeze for effect. When the cheesiness seizes you, you'd best ride that lactose bull until the end.

Emily has been wonderful through all of this, setting up the apartment while I was observing classes and constantly affirming how right she thinks this decision is. She loves the children, especially as they chitter to her during meals or abduct her into their female cadres while I watch the boys. I believe she thinks this is training me for parenthood and bringing me closer to becoming a breeder.

The children are not "retarded", incidentally. I think that is a crucial distinction for you to understand. They are challenged and more than a little challenging, and some are not as high functioning as others, but they are just kids. I find them almost painfully charming most of the time and they tend to keep me amused long enough that I indulge temporary amnesia about how much I hate this schedule. I play a silent game where I diagnose what I imagine the kids' problems to be. Words like "copralalia" and "autism spectrum" float through my head but quite often all I can label is "kid" or "teenager", pathologies to be certain but nothing necessitating inclusion in this prep school.

What morbidity brought me here?


I force myself to interact, to go to New Paltz and see Dan Kessler when all I really want to do is be alone. That is the actual issue at hand. Whether or not it is externally true, I feel very alone presently, even surrounded by the throngs. Codependently, the feeling only abates around Emily and she is enjoying the company of her Pagans this evening, leaving just after we finished cleaning our Wappingers Falls apartment and turned in our keys. Watching her vacuum the stained and burned rug for the last time - the acrid odor of an overfull vacuum bag assaulting the air and my boots too muddy to do anything but sabotage her work - proved emotionally fraught. Last night, watching Breakfast at Tiffany's on the bed in our prep school apartment, we became disoriented and thought we were back in Wappingers, in our home, until some boy called to a compatriot from beneath the window and my brain spatially flexed for a moment as I realized the boy would be buried under twenty feet of dirt were I in my home.

The prep school is not my home and currently feels that it can never be. While I have had this kind of experience before - Summer Scholars is likely the closest corollary - I did so with the implicit knowledge that home awaited me when I was done. In Anemia, the respite is only on the other side of the door from the thing from which I so desperately need a respite. It helps to think without context, not comparing against the comforts of Wappingers but as its inherent value as an experience. I can almost maintain equilibrium when I do that.

All night with Dan, I felt as though my psycho-emotional level slipped, that I thought and behaved in an unusual way. My educational psych teacher at Dutchess told me that this happens to people confronted by great and sudden stress. Her example involved her finding the fresh corpse of what was - until a very recent self inflicted gunshot blast - her best friend and needing to talk herself through the appropriate steps for summoning help. I've often heard that people into sexual infantilism only wish to escape the particularly stifling binds of adulthood, returning to a time where even the basic demands of biology were handled by someone else. I don't wish to infantilize, just adolesce. Being in New Paltz with Dan is excellent in this capacity, daytime trappings fading with proximity to a college. I don't need to be an overburdened prep school teacher any longer and can return to being yet another pretentious college student populating the foggy streets of New Paltz.

I follow Dan to a house down the street. The common room is filled with wall length paintings, tapestries, and a modular metal sculpture composed of braced squares. All of the decor had been rescued from local dumpsters; a town like New Paltz can more than support such collecting from disillusioned art majors who create things almost for the joy of outgrowing their successes and failures.

Dan enters the kitchen and I observe those gathered around the table weighing dried mushroom. I had been warned both that there would be food and that it would be of the "couscous flavored in vegan yak's milk" variety, thus why we stopped for chicken gyros on the way here. Owing to the sheer volume and casualness of the fungi, I write them off as some organic ingredient. There is no way to inquire as to my suspicions without sounding utterly clueless, like a narc, or potential customer. Later, as storage method are discussed as though these mushrooms were rhubarb preserve, their illicit nature is affirmed. I am fairly ignorant of most drug related. Perhaps a baggie of these withered plants is the recommended dosage, but I doubt it.

Those gathered light a glass pipe and, taking tokes in turn, pass it my way. It is the common etiquette, despite that few of them know my name. I decline, as does Dan, though I find uneasy comfort in the idea of chemical relaxants. What does this imply about my mental state? It is not as though I could inhale through the pipe even if I momentarily thought I might want to. My programming is too strong to be surmounted so quickly. Years ago, Kate tried to get me to take one drag off a clove cigarette to prove that it wasn't so bad. I held it to my lips, but my throat closed at the thought of smoking and I couldn't breathe in until I handed it back to her. As she exhaled a sweet cloud and shot her billiard ball into the corner pocket, I felt she thought less of me or thought I was being silly. I wouldn't attempt this again before a gathering of consummate smokers, a few of whom were lightly tripping on shrooms.

They sit and talk music, the collegiate equivalent of chatting about the weather. A didgeridoo is passed counterclockwise, chasing the glass pipe and taking on the aura of a giant blunt. No one can manage the circular breathing necessary for much success at the instrument, helped in no way by the smoke. I pronounce the didgeridoo the anti-Theremin. Until hours before, I had assumed a Theremin was a strange stringed instrument. Dan corrected that it is as sci-fi as it sounds, two antennae that modulate pitch and volume depending on how one moves one's hands. It is a difficult instrument to master, though few people bother with it and simply make funny sounds.

Everyone goes into a bedroom and rather skillful improvisational jazz issues forth. I assume correctly and to my pleasure that the musicians will ignore me as I remain out in the living room and write for forty minutes, they too focused on feeding off one another's music and I too focused on feeding my writing jones. I feel I can escape my situation and actually be myself rather than some imposter in a turtleneck and blazer.

The music ends and I clap to assure them that I was involved on some level. As I stand to talk to Dan and put my Palm Pilot back in my pocket as nonchalantly as possible, my mala - the string of sandalwood beads I keep looped around my right wrist at all times since Emily gave it to me before leaving for Israel - breaks and the beads tumble into the chair. I look at them and just laugh as Dan asks if there are any small, plastic bags to contain the beads. When I later tell Emily I would like a new mala, she is thrilled. "It means you are ready for new experiences."

Soon in Xenology: Teaching.

last watched: Breakfast at Tiffany's
reading: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
listening: Avenue Q

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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