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04.02.07 10:22 a.m.

Sometimes the angel appears in the form of a friend who says exactly the words we need to hear that day. Or you will unwillingly act as an angel to someone else, tossing off a message so casually that, though it saves another person's life, you hardly remember the moment at all.  

-Sophy Burnham


Previously in Xenology: Yeah, I didn't think so.


I look away from Dan, having a solemn moment with some man seated in 60 Main and declining the music this man is offering him, and see as much loss in Lora's eyes as I just noticed in Dan's. "Is everything okay?" I ask her, weighing if Lora watering eyes amount to death or something less severe.

She shakes her head, her dreadlock pigtails swaying, slightly sucking her bottom lip into a mouth that she does not think can make words.

"Do you need a hug or for me to go away?" I back away half a step in case of the latter. We are not friends - we're barely acquaintances through our lack of exposure - and I have no right to her pain. I certainly like her without adequate reason, but that only give me the right of appreciation from afar.

"I'll take the hug," she says and I embrace her as I would an old friend in pain. In that moment, as I feel her arms around my back, I no longer feel we are acquaintances. I find it plain that Dan could love her so much.

"You're a really good guy," she says, not letting me go. "I really like you."

I don't recall what I say, if anything, but I keep holding her and measuring each of her breaths in fear of a sob. I want to ask what this is about, why two minutes into seeing the two of them I am holding her against me like this - but it would not matter. I would hug her as well in my knowledge as I do in my ignorance. Pressing her for a reason would be selfish, only for my sense of literary completeness.

She releases me and looks into my face for a moment. While our embrace felt confident and sincere, even the momentary lack of physical contact renders me awkward. I turn to Dan, flopped on the couch in 60 Main, and ask Lora if he needs a hug.

"Probably," she nods.

I sit and pull him toward me, our embrace quicker, as it must be even with good friends when both are male. I want badly to ask him what is wrong, as if his arms give me more reason to probe into their mutual pain. I can't bring myself to do it, and just hold him.

Her voice thick, she announces she is leaving. Dan holds her against him, desperate and loving, their kissing audibly wet. I feel voyeuristic watching them and embarrassed that mere presence is intrusion. I don't watch them - I stare at a bottle full of organic brown sugar - but I still know their kissing. They part reluctantly. She smiles sadly at me and each of her fingers curls in a separate goodbye.

He falls back onto the couch next to me and confesses, far away and boyish, "I think we just broke up." I don't press him for clarity, though I certainly feel that their pathos should mean one of them knows if they are together. But why should a breakup change that uncertainty?

I am struck mute at all this. I do not feel a dearth of questions, but none have the connective tissue and would be a burden to impose on him. A woman calls from the other end of the café and asks if Dan will play his sarod for the assembled crowd. If she witnessed the scene I did, nothing in her manner betrays her. To my shame, I feel relief as he agrees, as I am given time to process and note and he is given outlet to catharsis. His playing will relieve some of the pain. He will become more himself and less lost.

When he returns, the man seated near me who Dan spoke to as I held Lora - who observed exactly what I did, less the sensational warmth of Lora's bare arms - states that he thinks Dan is unraveling about something. "I can just tell," I hear him say.

Soon in Xenology: Ella, enchanted.

last watched: The Color Purple
reading: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior
listening: My Better Self

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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