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" The Breakup | 2008 | Threshold "

01.01.08 1:54 a.m.

Philosophers have argued for centuries about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but materialists have always known it depends on whether they are jitterbugging or dancing cheek to cheek.  

-Tom Robbins


New Years Even

We leave Dan Kessler to finish closing up his store and Stephanie asks what we should do until we meet up with him again.

"I say we check out hot girls."

"Sounds excellent," she says and huddles against me so that neither one of us slips on the icy sidewalks of New Paltz.

We enter a coffeehouse called The Muddy Cup. Behind the register, there is a sign reading "Men are like parking spots. The good ones are taken and the free ones are handicapped." I raise my eyebrow at the sign.

"You aren't handicapped," she responds.

"Eh, I'm a little handicapped right now."

I leave her for a moment while the barista makes her tea so I can give a quick once-over of the other patrons. I have been pacing a lot since the breakup, just to give my body something to do. Coupled with the fact that I have to consciously will myself to eat, I may end up scrawnier than usual. Unlike the prior two days, where I was little better than catatonically following people around and trying not to burst into wracking sobs, I had been okay most of today, even upbeat. I started bantering more naturally and lucidly, possibly having otherwise exhausted my understandable malaise by talking in detail to no fewer than twenty people (including a crisis hotline and the man who makes referrals at my doctor's office, since I wanted to convince him to summarily refer me to the proper sort of psychotherapist) about my situation and thoughts. As long as I keep myself from sitting too long in one place to think, I could function like a normal human being. Well, as normal as I am ever.

I return to Stephanie and she asks if I saw anyone I liked. I appreciate that she has already caught onto how I work. When I hung out with Zack, he told me that he specifically forbade me to date for at least three months to avoid getting a rebound crush and getting hurt more. He said that I was welcome to make whatever friends I wished, but that I couldn't date them until the deadline was up. I asked if I was allowed to kiss these new friends, hypothetically. He allowed the cheek and nothing more. When I told Melissa this, she told me to ignore Zack and that I should date if I meet someone I wish to date. I think I will meet somewhere in the middle, though I do want to try to find an unattached and friendly person tonight so I can be kissed at midnight. It would be good mojo given what I am going through.

"There is a girl over there. I got a quick look. Of everyone in the place, she had the most potential."

Paying for her tea, she walks over to a sofa four feet from the girl's back and motions for me to sit. She then leans over to casually examine the girl. When I get a better look, my theory that this stranger had potential evaporates. What she actually had was a nice coat and the right lighting.

Stephanie and I fall into a discussion of my situation, of prior relationships good and bad. I tell her about some of my regrets in my breakup with Kate, of having cried in her lap over how much I missed her, which aroused her enough that she slept with some boy named Rick once I left her dorm. I told Stephanie that I am trying to do this breakup with Emily so I will regret nothing, just as I regretted nothing in our relationship. We are two people who genuinely love and care for one another and who cannot be together. I offer her analogies both divine (Abelard and Eloise) and infernal (Buffy and Angel), and she appreciates both. I talk a little bit about how, before his death, I promised Emily's father that I would love and take care of his daughter and how I still take that vow seriously. She tells me of her anally fixated, conspiracy theorist ex-boyfriend, whom she has recently seen for an extended period for the first time since their breakup. I feel even better by contrast.

As we are chatting, a woman walks in and I nudge Stephanie. "She is totally my type." This woman is a little taller than average and has soft, curious features, long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. She is wearing a short, denim skirt which she keeps tugging down over her black fishnet stockings (the kind women wore years ago, with a fine mesh, not the type emo kiddies slide on their arms). She has on a sweater with only the top two buttons fastened over a long sleeved, green shirt. She bites the side of her lip considering the drink specials and stands with a posture that is alluring only to people who have breathed in copious atoms of decaying library books.

"Wow, she is your type," Stephanie agrees, despite having known me for a sum total of only ten or so hours in her lifetime. The woman takes a seat on a sofa ten feet from us and immediately begins a lively conversation with the people sitting around, likely her friends. Her delight only fades one her companion joins here with the drinks. We'd seen him standing near her in the queue, but his balding, spongy head suggested that he wasn't actually with her. He seemed too old for her by fifteen years and, contrasted with her tasteful but appealing array, dressed as though he just got off work as a middle manager and was about to go to a theme restaurant for drinks with his old frat buddies. We might have forgiven him his existence, completely resigned him to the matte background of the scene, but our desired subject clammed up when he sat next to her. Her lips - lovely ones, full enough for rich kissing but not ostentatiously so - dropped not into a frown, but simply lost the smile they had erstwhile held. Given this, Stephanie decides that he is not her partner, especially as she points out that the woman keeps looking at me. I look up and we lock eyes for a moment. She offers a shy smile whose meaning I can't quite read, but it does not say, "please stop noticing me noticing you noticing me".

"What do you imagine her name is?" I ask Stephanie.

She suggests several euphonious ones before settling on Elizabeth. "But her friends call her Liz," she amends. This fits well enough, and I begin drawing up details of her life, especially trying to deduce what went wrong in her life that this schmo has his arm around her.

"What about him?"

"Oh, that's Dave. I hate Dave," Stephanie intones. "She is plainly unhappy with him. He doesn't do anything fun with her ever, mostly just plays videogames when she wants to go out. That is why she keeps looking around instead of paying attention to him. She is looking for a way out." I study Elizabeth and wonder if anyone has ever tried so hard to look away from me while my arm was around them. Then our gazes meet again and we share her cryptic smile once more.
Hard to look at her

As I cannot figure out, despite my lack of social boundaries and general cleverness, a way to flirt with a girl who is plainly otherwise occupied - despite her best interests - Stephanie and I resume our conversation. She says that she is frankly shocked at what Emily has done and I suddenly remember that Stephanie has never actually had the pleasure of Emily's company, the latter woman too busy when Stephanie was around me. Though I truly cannot foresee when the two will be in the same place at the same time now, Emily having moved temporarily to Warwick until she is emotionally ready to move to her apartment in the city, I try to remedy this deficit as best I can by showing Stephanie pictures of all of my friends. The sadness that had been largely absent from my interactions today comes back in full force when we stop on a picture of Emily looking down her nose at the camera while wearing a Carebear hoodie. Suddenly, I miss her keenly and breathing gets hard again. I tell Stephanie this, tell her how much things hurt and how hard this is for me, and she hugs me. When I look up, Elizabeth is studying our interaction while Dave blathers on about sports or stocks and I wonder what she makes of it. Elizabeth has watched us studying her, she can't imagine that Stephanie and I are together, but what then does she make of the hug?
Dan and Stephanie  
Shake your groove thing!

Stephanie decides that we has spent too long silently stalking Elizabeth without a method of rescue, so she suggests that we return to the room she now shares with Dan and that I show her my profile on OkCupid. We poke around the site a bit, answering questions until Dan comes back to joins us and direct us to our New Year's Eve party.

I did not have a clear understanding of what to expect, except that it was a house party at New Paltz and would therefore be rather loose. I feel I could more or less crash any party with sufficiently loud music that one can hear it from the street. While I have yet to test this hypothesis, I have no reason to doubt I'd even be noticed. I don't drink, therefore I am not a threat to the beer supply. I presently eat like a dying bird, so the snacks are likewise safe. I would be disinclined to do much more than chat with a girl, so the host's girlfriend or the hostess is immune.

The house we enter is dark and thrumming with unidentifiable music. I don't have an ear to distinguish music, only lyrics, but what I heard seemed good enough to inspire fifteen odd people to dance around in the darkness, encircling a flickering LED ball. I hesitate for a moment - Emily had always been skittish about dancing in public, at least when outside of the presence of copious Pagans - but then dive in. I have joked that I had dancing skills until I imitated Kate's dance moves while we were together. As cosmic punishment for my crimes against dance floor and girlfriend, I lost all rhythm. Still, I followed the twee aphorism and danced like no one was watching, because they really did have better things to do. No one questioned my addition, just as I expected.

I communicate nonverbally with the guests while they are in the dancing room, a queer language built of smiles and shrugs. I only really chat with people while in the kitchen. There is more to the house, but no one acts as through this is true and I feel awkward moving outside their architectural acknowledgement, as though I will vanish or intrude upon another party should I go up or down stairs. I only break the taboo of silence on the dance floor when I topple onto the sofa next to a blonde girl with whom I had vaguely been dancing earlier.

"I'm Thomm," I shout into her ear.

"Jen. You're here with Dan, right?"

We end up chatting about relationships within a matter of seconds, I tell her that I had been in one for seven years that I was sure was going to result in a very happy marriage. She shares her philosophy that one should either be single or gay, having suffered through a breakup of her own recently. We both resume dancing at the next song, but notice one another a bit more while doing do.

In the midst of all of this pulsing and strange music, Unchained Melody begins to croon out of the omnipresent speakers. I pull Jen into a slow dance, and she accedes instantly. We are dancing inelegantly, with enough space between us for two Holy Ghosts, and talk over the music to fill in the small awkwardness of this. I talk of my last slow dancing experiences from high school, of telling my Jen that I loved her during a dance and her telling me that she appreciated that.

"I think that people basically kiss during slow dances so they don't have to look at the other person," I share and add, demonstrating for a moment, "Or they put their head on the other person's shoulder."

"How old are you?" the Jen in my arms asks me, blue eyes reflecting the dim light.

"Twenty-seven. Why, how old did you think I was?" I ask this because I can see that my answer is not the one she'd wanted.

"I dunno. Twenty-three at the oldest. You don't look twenty-seven."

"Well, how old are you?"

"Twenty," she laughs.
You know, we do have cups...

I lean in close to her ear, the scent of her hair tickling my nose. "I guess this pretty much nixes that I was going to proposition you for a kiss at midnight." Time is growing short before the new year and I need every opportunity God or the Alex North can grant to get my good mojo.

"Yeah, pretty much," she echoes, but we keep dancing.

"If it helps at all," I add a moment later, "I just turned twenty-seven."

She smirks. "I just turned twenty. I was nineteen very recently."

I grin back. "Well played." As a first rejection, it is rather a nice one.

The song ends and I leave her to the faster beats, finding Dan and Stephanie. Before I can speak, Dan tells me that I should ask Jen to kiss me at midnight, obviously having seen us dancing together.

"I just did. She said no," and I detail exactly how she said no.

"You are so brave," they both agree, stating that this isn't anything either one of them would feel the confidence to do. I shrug this off, but am aware that people have called me confident for similar reasons in the distant past. Maybe I was brave then or maybe then, like now, I felt I had lost all that I could to the vagaries of fate.

Midnight rolls around and everyone makes a low thrum, either with an instrument or just their voices. I have no one to kiss and concertedly look away when Stephanie and Dan begin to do so, both because it is rude to do otherwise and because lovers - even lovers I really like and whose union I wholly approve - kissing are a bit much for me right now. After the screams of "Happy New Year!" die down a bit, Jen gets on the floor and lifts her shirt above her stomach. Some boy to whom I have not been introduced dribbles apple cider from a glass bottle into the shell of her small belly button, despite her giggling and protestations that it is cold. He leans next to her and proceeds to drink it to the best of his ability given their positioning. It isn't exactly a kiss for her, but I think the fates would count it. At least her belly button will have love for the coming year.

At the end of the night for me, as I am beginning the process of leaving, I lean over and touch her shoulder. "Sorry if I was a bit skeezy."

"Oh you weren't. At all." And I feel much better for what I have done, for what little I chanced for a kiss from this elfin girl.

"Thank you. You dance divinely." I will have to keep such courage in the future.

Emily calls me back after midnight to wish me a happy New Year and we are fond and friendly. I don't see why we shouldn't be, we've loved each other for so long and still did even as she moved out. She had better luck at midnight, claiming to share a group kiss with her clan. She may be in for a better year than I am then.

I leave, but the evening does not quite end. I high spirits, I pass strangers and wish them a happy New Year. As I am pulling on my gloves, I notice a dark man walking in my direction, his ear affixed to his cell phone.

"Rick," I greet, smiling. He doesn't recognize me. I didn't expect him to and I don't really need him to. I would not remember the ex of the girl who came to me for late night affection.

"Thomm. We met through Kate?" I fill in.

He greets me back as though we are old friends and we shake hands. It feels good to do this, as though I have finally forgiven him for a sin that existed only to me, only in my mind. There were years where I had a subtle dislike of him because he had been an actor in something hurtful against me and it mattered not a bit that he had no idea I felt this way. Compassion comes not when you forgive another person for hurting, but when you realize that there was nothing to forgive.

"Hey, Thomm, you have a happy New Year," he says as we part again.

"I'm going to try my hardest."

When I get home, to an apartment that Emily and her friends have picked over to remove most traces of her, I am surprised to not start crying again, to just feel empty and alone.

Soon in Xenology: Coping.

last watched: Juno
reading: The Great Gatsby
listening: The Moldy Peaches

" The Breakup | 2008 | Threshold "

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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