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04.05.07 9:08 p.m.

The analysis of character is the highest human entertainment.  

-Isaac Bashevis Singer


Tiptoe Through the Two Lips

Dan motions to the space on the ground that prostrate Ella no longer occupies, having risen from a thorough massage being given by a man named Timmy. (Dan said he was jealous as he watched the massage and I agreed, though he referred to being the massaged and not the masseur.) Then he motions to the picture in the corner, the photograph of a nude girl on a maroon background, and mouths "Ella".

I rise from the mattress on the floor that serves as her bed to look closer. I had noticed it before, but my vision was far from acute enough to make out that it was more than a humanoid blob. I am tentative and hesitating in glancing, as I feel I must be. The subject is impassive, hands spread as though she were offering proof that there was nothing up her sleeves or, at that, sleeves. I do not study it for too long, certainly not long enough to have petite Ella return to her bedroom to see my appreciation vacillate between artistic and sleazy. I do not imagine she would mind terribly; she occupies the same building that houses (or once housed, since I really cannot figure out who pays rent) Marigo, and one does not post pictures in one's room if one minds that visitors look. I don't pay much attention to her nudity, more concerned with how she looked with longer hair then the flicker of focus to her small breasts and the downy triangle between her legs. I don't know when the picture was taken, nor do I expect her secondary sex characteristics to ground the photo in a moment. With the anonymous background, it takes on an air of uncertain timelessness.

It seemed an insight to her mind - not that I have any more right to dwell there than in her room, a temporary, tertiary visitor at best. There is no judgment on my part, simply curiosity. I certainly am in no position, having long since come to the conclusion that clothing is merely something I wear in order to keep from upsetting strangers and coworkers. Within the confines of my apartment and with the shades drawn, I tend to neglect clothing until it is time to be elsewhere. Nudity ceased to be erotic act for me years ago. When I do it, it is merely an issue of comfort or laziness (I sleep nude), not a political or artistic statement. I would be suspicious of the politics or arts that were keen on average, naked, hirsutulous men, though I suppose they must exist. I can't ascribe meaning to Ella's nude photograph - Dan gave me an indication of direction and subject, not context - nor was it apparently an open topic. By the time she returns, Dan and I had transitioned into a discussion of Daniel Radcliff's nudity in Equus and that was the conversation Timmy and she joined, obvious wand puns included.

Ella is unconventionally attractive, particularly fully dressed, which is not at all intended as a backhanded compliment. She is slender and elfin, with short curly hair and a ready smile with a small gap between her front teeth that only supplements her allure. She might not be the first girl you notice at a party, but she will certainly be the one you remember the next day as you get your morning coffee or walk your dog. I can easily imagine someone twice her age affectionately calling her a character and someone exactly her age just calling her often.

I linger in the moment, in this pocket of obscure time I share with my dear sarod playing Dan Kessler and two people whose surnames I will likely never learn, for the reason I always cling to my time in New Paltz. It is somewhere separate from my daily life in Anemia and I can't get over the sensation I receive as I cross into the city proper that someone is going to kiss me. Perhaps this irrational instinct is vestigial, from when Katie and, later, Emily dwelt here and there seemed a very definite possibility my lips would be soon meeting their contemporaries. I don't wish to disabuse myself of the ephemeral exhilaration, as it drives me past my boundaries of interaction. Though I do not anticipate being kissed and would be vexed if anyone took the liberty, it pushes me to mingle and share where I would otherwise turn turtle and hide in my shell.

It is getting late and I know I ought to be on my way home, but cannot bring myself to commit, to willing transition into tomorrow's workday. Ella, ukulele in hand, suggests we four take a walk. I glance at my watch, factor in an hour drive home, consider my lesson plans and decide I can function with the deprivation of a few dreams. I would rather have these memories than sufficient sleep.

The full moon casts uneasy light on us. We can see without struggle once we are away from streetlights, once we walk past the community garden placed idiotically downwind of the sewage treatment plant. We wander through a forest of trees, all birch white in memory but more likely a heterogeneous mix. Moonlight takes liberty with memory. I follow closely, listening more than speaking. They speak the language of music and college, a tongue I appreciate hearing but in which I never expect fluency.

I don't feel any of us have a destination in mind, but that's secondary. I just want to see where we will be led by our whims. We arrive in a vast clearing in the trees, acres across. Ella and Timmy plot how best to use this undiscovered commodity for a concert. They run to the edges of the field, Dan chasing. I stand in a circle of light grass - which they blamed on aliens and I, on fairies - and inexpertly strummed the ukulele Ella handed off to me. I could not vanish into the middle distance as they had done, my ankle still throbbing from having been twisted earlier. I needed to keep my Hawaiian clarion call, my tinkling theme music to nocturnal frolics, or my companions may disappear to the haze of night and I would be left to the fairies' snare.

I felt odd, if understandable, intimacy with Ella and Timmy. I don't know them but superficially, having not checked the obverse of Ella's nude photograph for a list of turn-ons and turn-offs, but I like them. She does not seem the "long walks of the beach" type unless allowed to accompany herself on the portable theremin. I recognized Timmy from posters for a show plastered over the entrance of 60 Main, even though he was fully dressed when I was properly introduced. I know that I like their choice of company in Dan, that they are aspects of the New Paltz artist community. I know that they seem to accept the free gift of my presence with the purchase price of Dan's company. I know that it makes me happy to spend part of this night with them and that I would not be averse to others.

When I say I have to leave, they all insist upon coming with me, though I make it clear I don't require an escort. While it is not a test - I have few tests of strangers I unconsciously like - they would pass were it. I modulate my speed, weaving in the triad, listening to each person's contribution of the energy, underscored by the ukulele. Were there tulips, I would tip toe through them.

Soon in Xenology: Masters. Locations.

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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