Thomm Quackenbush, author

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06.14.07 3:34 p.m.

I am a little world made cunningly of elements, and an angelic sprite.  

-John Donne

 


Second Impressions

I cannot help what people have decided about me - even what they have decided about versions of me I have never been except in their eyes - but I can help revise my own presumptions about them so I feel like less of a hypocrite.Flick and swish!

I meet Zack and Cristin outside The Muddy Cup, a chain of artistic coffeehouses that opened their latest outlet in Beacon. Tonight was a show for the attendants at the Dia Museum, all of whom fancy themselves artists of one stripe or another. The logic is familiar to me, since I worked at libraries to be around books. Cristin's particular brand of art was a movie she had shot and cut. I jokingly asked if it involved a cow, as the only completed movie of hers I had previously seen featured a sketched cow following a boy. It was therefore my presumption that the cow should be a sort of leitmotif throughout her work or should at least make a cameo in the background. She assured me that this movie was cow-free, but I couldn't know that for certain since the DVD player and television refused to cooperate.

Zack and Cristin are talking to a friend about Fred Sandback, an artist whose tangle of yarn art is displayed at the Dia, and I interject with my anecdote that I honestly believed he had committed suicide by hanging. Given his milieu, rope seemed a cutting choice of weapon, but it turned out that he shot himself or overdosed on pills. He did not want irony, he just wanted to die. Zack hushes me, pointing out that Fred Sandback's widow was displaying her work tonight and telling his friend that I am the loudest person he knows. I pause and wonder if this is true and how long this has been thought of me. Zack knows me better than most and has had a more consistent view of me as I have grown. Perhaps I am loud then.

I stay outside while Zack and Cristin try to tackle the technology in a nearly literal fashion. Zack had handed me his plastic cup of wine - what is an art opening without plastic cups of cheap wine? - assuming correctly that I would not drink it. There has yet to be an incarnation of me that likes alcohol beyond a few sips. Instead, for spite, I sniffed at it.

A girl named Christina Valentine joins me in my wine wafting. When I was introduced to her tens of minutes before, she looked distinctly familiar in a way in which I felt immediately positively inclined toward her. She had said, "Remember me? From the dinner party?" I nodded and assured her that I did, but couldn't actually place which dinner party. She noticed me at this dinner party enough to remember that much (though not my name at first) and I only had the feeling that I liked her. Then again, I attended numerous parties with Cristin and swear I saw her for the first time when she joined us at the movies, so my powers of perception are far from keen.

We talk about people peeing on themselves and loved ones for reasons that are still not clear to me until Zack absconds with me to pick up a television from Dezi's house, since Cristin's TV refuses to have relations with the DVD player. Zack is barely in my car before he is complaining about nascent issues in his relationship with Cristin, a concept that silences me instantly despite my apparent loudness.

A hour later and for much of the rest of the time I stayed at the Muddy Cup, I sit at a table outside with Christina and her mohawk bearing friend named Hanna at the insistence of the former. We chat about, of all things, various gross sexual kinks and how the Roman vomitorium was actually just the exit and not the place where one puked. Amazingly and to their credit, this trivia does not lose me my new friends.

In the course of our conversation, I point out that I had never so much as been annoyed by the beggars in New York City, but had gotten mugged in Beacon. This gave Christina and her friend an excuse to ask me to walk them to Hanna's car. I scoffed at the ruse of being a male protector to walk three blocks from an art show, but play along. Nine PM in June is hardly the nightmare hour. Still, I enjoy the excuse, because I genuinely enjoyed the little time I had spent with Christina. She was clever and superbly funny, as well as weird enough to make a conversation about golden showers seem polite. While I feel I do not connect with many people, I feel a connection with her. This is the best picture she would let me take

She mentions that she is going to Vassar over the summer and I mention that I am going to be teaching there. She immediately jokes that she knows that because she is in my classes. Without missing a beat, I point out that this means I am having an inappropriate relationship with a student and will get my hand slapped. She laughs and gives me an excuse to give her my card, since we will be on the same campus for a month and might actually want to meet up to discuss people urinating on others.

I occasionally come back to this issue that there are likely dozens of people I've ignored or who have ignored me when we might otherwise have become good friends. First impressions are powerful masters and few people get the chance to revise them, fewer still care to take that chance.

At the show, there was this boy who I initially believed to be Christina's boyfriend except that he later seemed completely apathetic to her existence, who kept trying to make cracks on me without success. For example, when he saw me in front of the café, he asked what I was doing there. I pointed out that I was there for Cristin, one of the artists. Though he acted as though he knew Zack, he couldn't possibly if he is for a moment confused as to the identity of his girlfriend. Likewise, after walking with Christina and Hanna, I returned to the show and he greeted me with a derisive, "You're still here?" I casually informed him that he seemed to be there as well, but at least I had met some nice people in the interim. He didn't like this rejoinder. This boy and I had apparently taken some writing class together at New Paltz several years ago and he refuses to revise his opinion since then. He wasn't particularly memorable to me, but I guess I had made impression enough that he clings to it. From what I can put together, his picture of me is a morbid milquetoast and there is no way he will let me out of that schema. While I feel I am more open to his changing, I only formed my opinion of him in reaction to his and thus find it unlikely that I will see some brilliant side of him while he is trying to prod my ego to satisfy his own.

After the show ended, I join Dezi and his crew at the diner. They are all people with whom I went to high school. We were never the best of friends, but we are also never less than friends. I know that I could call any one of them up and we would hang out, but I also know that I wouldn't actually call anyone but Dezi and Annie. I don't totally know what they think of me. Their starting point is in high school, when I was even more fumbling in my attempts to be myself than I am now. Some at the diner table had known me, off and on, for a decade. Who am I to them? How would they explain me to a stranger? Would they feel any need?

There is this girl, Tara, with whom I went to high school. We do not speak, we chatted only once. In high school, we were passing friends at best. She was in my social strata but that was about it. I undoubtedly had a few crushes on her between sixth and twelfth grade, she undoubtedly and wisely rebuffed me.

She has since become a beautiful woman, a claim I do not make lightly. Physically, there can be no question that she is stunning but this is nothing whatsoever. The world abounds in beautiful shells. She is also spiritual. She honors yoga and the traditions thereto. From what minutia I can weave together, she lives a remarkable life in New York City. She follows her bliss in a way that defies such bumper sticker philosophy.

As should be clear, I want badly to be her friend, but lack the credibility or capability to convince her that I want in her esteem and not her panties. I repent that I was ever the person that unconsciously dissuaded her from actually knowing me. I didn't and wouldn't have done this overtly, but high school presented its own drama and she only ever had a walk-on role. When I was a young witchling, I tried to convince her of the worth of my particularly brand of spirituality rather than understanding that it was more than enough that she was actually spiritual. Reading what she writes in her blog, I find her achingly sweet and witty. She is the sort of person I would fall over myself just for a chance to meet, only I've met her in a lower incarnation and don't know how to tactfully inform her that I haven't been that person for nearly a decade.

I visit her blog and see that she feels anxious that the anniversary of a big car accident is coming and all I can think is, "There was a car accident?" I want to know the details, what happened to her and how she reacted, how it still affects her but I don't have any right to her story. I've done nothing to earn that. As of now, I don't see how I can.

If she is as noble and graceful as I believe, I should be able to trust that she will see me not for who I was but for who I am, but she hasn't found the opportunity to yet. To know that she thinks me lower than I think her is much harder than the amorphous speculation. It is nearly effortless to remain ever on the periphery, just a weird guy with whom she went to high school who shared the senior superlatives of "Best Hair" and "Most Unique". What easy is not always right, but I have yet few people who see the world in quite the shades I do. What is passionate and pure to me is most definitely desperate and creepy to others. I am not so culturally chauvinistic or arrogant enough to feel they are wrong.

Emily has occasionally confessed this fear that no one can feel things as deeply as she does. I love her as I've never before loved, but I know I do little more than skate atop a bubble in the lake of her passions. I don't fear her emotions as she worries people will should they discover the depths of her soul. Likewise, I have developed a worldview that allows me to smile as the dentist chisels and scrapes my teeth but my magical thinking is a hairsbreadth from madness and I know it. I wonder if the only difference between schizophrenia and how I see the world is the degree to which I can function by sharing only whispers of the twisted logic that is charming in my writing and delusional when said with a straight face. I won't tell you that I really to consider fortune cookies divination or believe that some people aren't as human as others. I won't tell you that I've yelled at the clouds and watched them roll down a mountain after me until I am engulfed in mist. I won't tell you that I take advice from the chirps of birds or by opening a random internet site. I won't tell you that I think these challenges and people are in my life for a reason and I have to work to figure out why and make use of it.

I realize with dismay that I am exact as codependent as I tend to joke I am. It is not merely a dependency for Emily, though it is my unfulfilled hope of her 2AM call that keeps me awake past midnight. I am desperate for legitimate connections like I felt I had with Christina and withering for want of them.

I could never be single and live in a place like Anemia, isolated from definite opportunity for meaningful interaction. I lack the strength of personality. When Kate dumped me years ago, I was in college, surrounded by thousands of potential moments each day, a staggering majority of which I wasted utterly as is the spendthrift's prerogative. I had a family to bookend my days and wanted for little (though I imagine my past self would have scoffed at that statement just as I now would if my future self said as much to me). Even single, I managed to have an unfortunately active social life, sharing ill-advised kisses and deathly-ill-advised more with a few young women. I would not have had a grasp on this degree of solitude, since I need do no more than go into the lounge to be bluntly disabused of it.

Things changed at New Paltz, after Emily graduated. Though I take part of the blame for the situation, I felt exiled from sincere collegiate interaction. I didn't have friends on campus with whom I could banter, lacked those crucial few (or crucial one) who would verbally joust with me on the benches in front of the Humanities building. In between late classes, I hid in the locked landing on the top floor of the stairwell and sometimes cried for the disconnect. It is not something of which I am proud - a brighter disposition would have done wonders for my enjoyment of my creative writing class where the off-putting boy formed his concrete opinion of me.

Now, I want nothing more than for my phone to ring. The dentist's office called earlier to confirm my appointment and I nearly jumped. I feel as pathetic as I likely am, but I thought it might have been Emily calling me in the middle of her Indian night or one of my friends with an attractive offer to pull me away from the doldrums of cow country.

This ennui is only for eleven more days, I remind myself. Then I will be teaching at Summer Institute for the Gifted once more. I will be at Vassar College five days a week, active, motivated, and productive. I will be challenged by the brightest minds under twenty that could afford tuition and amused by college students indulging in a summer session.

A paid vacation shouldn't feel so wretched and I worry there is something honestly wrong that I feel hairline fractures after a week of unstructured time. I revise my novel, but I can only do about thirty pages before my brain starts playing Pong with my neurochemical impulses and I have to take a break. I struggle and fight to keep myself motivated, to do more with my day than read in solitude.

I ache to be social, but cannot attempt it lightly; I need to know that I am going where I am specifically wanted or else I will just be lonely in public as when I was an undergrad at New Paltz.

I thought I was a social butterfly, but I may be more like a mosquito. I feel myself being overly careful that I am not clinging. I would rather be lonely than resented for by someone I care about. I fear burdening people with my presence. Dan Kessler, particularly, since he presently leads a life that is at least situationally convenient for me. If I hang out with him in New Paltz, there is a better than average possibility that something noteworthy will occur. He may not find it an ideal place for himself, but it has the perks of a proximal social scene and liberal swath of characters. I want to be around him, I want to discover him in the moonlight, in strobes, Christmas lights, and tungsten bulbs, but I don't for a second want him to feel I am using him as a conduit to interaction.

I know that I have connections, but I bond so infrequently with so few and want each connection to mean as much as it does to me. Emily is right when she says I either like someone utterly and instantly or never. There are people with whom I am polite and nice, but if I don't feel connection. I regard, admire, respect, but I don't adore. Anything less than mutual adoration or the potential thereto and I will become a bad friend no matter how objectively great the association could be. I neglect calls, I forget birthdays, because always my eyes are on the horizon, scanning for kindred I'm sure must be coming for me.

When Todd died six years ago, I wept. He was a human being in so much pain, trapped in a situation he felt he could only control at the end of a twisted bed sheet. But I didn't know him deeply and did not imagine I ever would, so the sadness only soaked through a few layers of skin. I went cold when I found out he had died, but the weeping came only when I spoke to Keilaina and heard how utterly wrecked she was. If anyone I've love died, every part of me would be tainted. My bones would go weaker because a companion universe to mine snuffed out. I may move on, but I would never stop mourning the galaxies of interactions and intimacies that would never be fulfilled.

I am just starting this friendship with a girl, Jill, who found me through a social networking site and proclaimed we should be friends in a way that abided my worldview entirely. We have not met in person and will not for a while, but I feel a spark of genuine connection between us. We chat online and I find myself truly looking forward to her messages and both sad and envious when she leaves to cuddle with her friends. We spoke utterly naturally on the phone once, acting like old friends yet I walk on eggshells because I feel the craving in me to be a nuisance. I do adore her, or at least have an advanced case of well-reasoned infatuation. I want to cling to her because she is there, witty and sweet. I want her to be my outlet when I feel no one else is listening and restrain myself because I might get scared away were the situations reversed and I didn't feel as strongly or similarly.

I write this with the spark of tears under my eyes and realize that I cannot think of a single person in this country who I feel comfortable confessing this. Emily is my only means for true emotional intimacy (you don't count since this is only a one-way transaction) and she is across the globe and will remain for five weeks.

There is an urge to just give a hearty "sod off!" to the universe and simply be belligerently alone. I may be lonely, but I am certainly not bored, able to create vast stories about people who never existed. But even if I don't have connections, I want people. I want to watch them build their lives. I want to smell them because that makes them more real to me. I want to love them from a distance, because I know I cannot love them up close. I don't even want them close to me. Just close enough for me to reach them if I need to and that is my true dependency.

Soon in Xenology: Heaven and Hell.

last watched: Dead Like Me
reading: Lost Girls
listening: Avenue Q

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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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