Thomm Quackenbush, author

Rehearsing Goodbyes | 2009 | Crushed

06.06.09 2:48 p.m.

Every great personality I have ever known who has demonstrated the capacity for prodigious work has been a person in tune with the Infinite. Every person seems in harmony with Nature.  

-Norman Vincent Peale

 


Knowing Jess

Jess

We meet again to make good on the promise of Infinite Fries. While I don't hunger for the mélange of salt and fat that is about to be coursing through my veins, I am ravenous to know more about Jess, to further justify why I like her so well and consider her a good friend despite having spent a single hour in her presence.

"How are you holding up with Melanie gone?" she asks as we sit down. I hesitate for a moment, trying to recall if I had mentioned Melanie's exodus to her. But I must have, as an explanation for why I had been seeking company... unless she has started reading what I write.

"I'm doing about as well as can be expected. I am not just sitting at my house, being asocial and moping. I'm making new friends," I say.

"It's real pretty, what you write about her. And sad," she says, drawling the words so that come out as "real purty". It's an affection I quite like, reminding me - perhaps intentionally - of Jewel Staite's character Kaylee Frye on Firefly. And I like her better for having read what I've written, as I explain myself much better in writing than I ever could aloud.

I prod out little facts about her throughout the meal, such as her last name, number of family members, and the beginnings of her history. (She has a Facebook group started by her college friends and dedicated to how awesome she is, she is acting as Cecily in a community theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest being directed by her mother, she wears as many rings as she has fingers.) We talk fondly in pitch, if not in content, like we are two old friends with selective amnesia, catching up.

I see no reason to hide any part of myself or, at that, things she is going to read anyway. I tell her outright that Melanie and I have nominated her the replacement Hannah, not that we are expecting her to fit those exact shoes but that we see her as a mutual close friend (albeit one Melanie will not meet for another two and a half months). The only remediable deficit is that we will need to teach her to make Hannah's pumpkin bread (to which Hannah graciously gave me the recipe when I last saw her), once I perfect making it on my own. Jess seems, if anything, eager for the challenge of our friendship. She may feel less so when I begin referring to her as my filthy assistant, ala Spider Jerusalem.

We have no trouble passing the time between the beginning of our meal and of the bad movie (The Haunting in Connecticut) we are going to watch only to mock. The hour slips by, greased by refills of soda and fries.

We take her car - named Glinda because it magically has so few miles on it and is purple - rather than separating for the four miles to the theater. I smell the car and ask, with a twinge of worry, "Do you smoke?"

"Oh, no. My friend does and I gave him a ride. Finn," she explains, though there is something in this I can't quite read. "I should tell him not to smoke in here."

We arrive at the theater early, and it is delightfully vacant, giving us hope that we will be able to ridicule the film at full volume. In the meantime, we talk more, having no end of topics at our disposal, as everything persists in its newness.

"I've already written about you, you know," I tell her.

"Can I read it?"

I pull out my mini-notebook that Melanie refers to at the Tiny Beast and hand it over. I generally find people reading what I write in front of me as an unnerving experience, exponentially so when they are reading about themselves and might need to scold me into making corrections, and wish to get that potential awkwardness out of the way as quickly as possible. I had already warned her that I was going to write about her. Jess smirks and outright laughs a few times as she reads and then asks if she can read on beyond what is specifically about her. She, if anything, seems flattered by my written attention.

During the movie, we jump at each other during the scary parts and in the midst of our teasing (spoiler alert: a mix of formaldehyde fire and demonic possession cure cancer). Our contact is playful and chaste, but affectionate. Aside from Melanie and the departing Hannah, I do not feel that I have people in my life with whom I can safely cuddle up and mock horror movies, and avidly welcome Jess's addition.

After the movie, we sit in her car for a long time, just looking at each other and talking like we've had decades apart. Again, I don't want the night to end, but there is no natural way to keep it extended. I've gotten a few more hours to get to know her, and that should be gift enough for me.

But it isn't.

"What are you doing tomorrow?" I ask.

"My friends and I are doing role playing at my house, actually…" she says as though this prospect is deeply embarrassing. From what I already know about her, I'm aware that she is the organizer and facilitator of role playing, that she very much wishes to spend a Saturday night doing precisely this but has been conditioned to state so apologetically.

"Would it be okay if I came and watched? I am stuck on the sequel to my book and there are people role playing in it. My only experience with role playing is a book about the vampire killings in Florida in the 90s."

"Yeah," she grins, "That would be fine."


When I arrive the next day, her house is bigger than I expected, which is to say that it is larger than the house in which I grew up. I mentally calculate how many of my apartments could fit in there and stop counting at a dozen.

I knock on her door and, when she doesn't immediately answer, poke at the shrubs around her porch to give myself an excuse to peek through the picture window and study her habitat. Hearing footsteps, I return to the door and smile as though I wasn't spying.

She gives me a quick tour of the house, pointing up and down stairways, until it ends in her bedroom.

Her friend Finn is there, sitting at her computer. For a fraction of a second, I am disappointed, as I had hoped to have a little unadulterated Jess interaction prior to the arrival of more people, but it evanesces upon eye contact with Finn. In my gentle cyber stalking of Jess, I noted that Finn and I had mutual acquaintances, giving me additional in-roads into Jess's social circle, albeit highly tenuous ones. He steps up from the computer and it is almost like he, too, wants to go for the hug. "I've heard a lot about you!" he assures me, though it isn't terrifying when he says it.

I've heard very little about him - he is her friend, he smokes - but I will remedy this. He has short black hair and wears a tight black Under Armour shirt over jeans, seeming physically fit with a touch of quiet frenzy.

I hand Jess a copy of the comic my writing was in, though caution that I will need it back despite finding my involvement in it less than ideal (aspects of my story, including the ending, were changed prior to publication). She, in turn, gives me some graphic novels I'd never heard of before but am instantly certain I will like. I also give her a CD I made, titled "Jazmina Mix", an intentional distortion of her college nickname, which she promptly puts in the computer and Finn begins to rip.

"Oh, no…" I immediately protest, from a corner of her room, where I am inspecting her books and copious unicorn décor (she collects My Little Ponies and has ninety-eight). "There's no need… I mean…" because I am already embarrassed as to the content of the disc. While I started out just loading it with songs I like, I quickly fell into the conceit of making it tell a kind of story, one that I don't know that I want to have shared with Finn quite yet. One that, in fact, I am now not sure I should be sharing with Jess. (My friend Kate's first experience with music came from Les Misérables, so she assumed that all recordings were from musicals. Before realizing the truth, she had mentally sketched out a rock opera to justify her brother's Grateful Dead tapes. I have since tried to make mixes in this spirit.) Eris comes to my aid, however, making it impossible to both rip and listen to the CD. Jess orders Finn away from her computer with his cursed fingers and I am free of discomfiture.

We go down to her screened-in porch, where the game will commence in hours. Finn initial talks to us, mostly to interject a question about this or that bit of Jess's world. Jess's game composes five or six books and binders, elaborate maps she has sketched on antiqued parchment, a whole book of herbs and their magical properties that she handwrote out. I've written a novel with less background than she has for this game.

I mentioned this, explaining how my fantasy universe operates on consensus beliefs, so things exist because people believe they do and that magic tends to be a bad idea as it attracts disbelief. Finn stares at me with disconcerting concentration.

"Jess?" I ask, a little worried by this reaction.

"No, that's good, he's pleased. Finn had a similar idea in a game, so it's good to hear it independently stated."

Finn reminds me, in his occasionally startled gestures and jovial intensity, of a love child of Conor and Emily. I am more than willing to favor people simply for reminding me of someone I already like. He puts headphones in to absorb the minutia of the campaign before him and his place in it, briefly breaking out in dance when The Black-Eyed Peas play. Jess and I talk in low tones, using our geeky equivalence language, saying that he is the Xander to her Willow, meaning that there are infrequent bursts of attraction residual from when they dated in high school. He disappeared for several year without a word, then reappeared and resumed a friendship with her.

"He might be listening to us now," she says, eyeing him. "He's been known to pretend he was listening to his music and then repeat a whole conversation at a later time."

"Well, don't look at him then! He will feel the magnetism of our eyes." It's such a bad habit, remembering conversations and repeating them later.

The doorbell rings and Jess goes to answer it. I sit for a moment longer, then decide I don't care to watch Finn read. I follow after, wordlessly, as Jess lets a short blonde woman into the house. Before I can be introduced or noticed, the woman - Rachel - asks Jess for something alcoholic to ease the ravages of a bad day. Rachel is tiny with bleached hair and a grass green dress that spills around her when she crouches to look at something near the floor.

Jess disappears into another room and reappears in a moment, holding a glass full of a tan, milky liquid. Then Rachel turns to me, takes a sip, and says appreciatively, "Our Jess is a trained bartender. Did you know that?"

I look to Jess, who gives a half smile. "I did not!" For the rest of the evening, Jess will periodically disappear to bring someone a highball glass of amaretto sour and remind them that they are welcome to crash at her house.

The alcohol loosening Rachel's tension, we return to the porch and Finn, who does not seem to have noticed our absence. With the addition of this woman, Finn rejoins the conversation, which spirals into his knowing my younger brother (and, he claims, anyone who spent time in the Dutchess Community College lounge in the last eight years) and Jess, Finn, and I all speaking favorably of a forty-something mutual acquaintance. As Jess resumes sorting her world, Rachel begins plinking out M&Ms from a dispenser at the center of the table and offers me some.

"No thanks, I don't like them much. They last forever, though. The military puts them in MREs," I say.

Finn brightens. "MREs? I love them! Do you like them?"

"Not really, from what I've had."

"I was going to be in the air force, until I got knifed in a bar fight."

"You were in a bar fight?" Rachel asks.

"Not exactly," Finn explains. "See, what happened was that I was in a bar in the city. A guy was going to stab someone else, stumbled, and shoved the knife into me to catch his balance."

Rachel further probes into his story and it spins out extravagantly. According to Finn, the military released him from any obligations. "And I was good, too. Graduated ROTC early, perfect scores in every test they gave me at West Point. I even made a dual prop helicopter do a barrel roll. The captain bet me it couldn't be done, but I took it up. If it can be flown, I can do a barrel roll in it."

Rachel is suitably awed. I just smirk, especially when he tells her that his doctor unofficially prescribed cigarettes to soothe the damage from his punctured lung, which is apparently otherwise treated with an ephedrine rescue inhaler. I think better of asking to see the scar.

With them, even ordering Chinese food takes on an air of theatricality.

"Lots of white rice. Could you italicize that?" Finn asks Jess.

"I already wrote it. I could underline it, though."

"Do that, then give it an exclamation mark. And then another, but with a smiley face under it," he orders.

"Now it looks like the exclamation point is underlined."

"Good!"

I find an odd comfort in Jess and her friends (especially Rachel and Finn), as this is a group dynamic I had been seeking. Even as more people are added to the mix throughout the night, I never feel that symptomatic pause and tension that has driven me from my enjoyment of activities (from sitting at a coffee house to a wedding) in the past. I don't have to find my level because there is never a moment I do not feel I am at it. I love them a little for that.

Over dinner, I cannot even act as an observer, as I want to quiz everyone present (including Pink Rachel - owing to the streaks in her hair - and her boyfriend Andrew) as to their interrelationships and lives, through I do this more by listening than actively prodding them with my fork.

This, I gather, is Jess's idea of a party. Her parents, with whom she lives, are out touring Canada on motorcycles and she feels the need to make full use of her freedom. Rachel mentions something about Jess being out past her curfew, despite being in her mid-twenties and a college graduate. The sincerity in both their tones suggests this is not, strictly, a joke between them.

Because of all this, I am surprised when she suggests how serious a prior romantic relationship was.

"You were going to get married?" I ask.

"Well, apparently not like you. We didn't have a date or a dress, but it was implied we were moving in that direction. Then… we weren't anymore."

"Ouch, that's lousy," I say, but am further intrigued and store this fact away with her bartending skills.

After dinner, everyone corrals down to the screened-in porch and I get out the Tiny Beast to take notes on their role playing, since this wasn't simply my excuse to see Jess again as soon as possible. I really am hideously stuck on my book and, while I have plenty of good ideas and actions until the end of Red Hook sketched out, I don't feel it is currently strong enough to continue.

The group, now six or seven people, begins to plot out how they will proceed in the game. Blonde Rachel has wrapped herself in a blanket for warmth and incorporated this accessory into her ghostly character. Then, quickly, things degrade into a conversation about the sexual spectrum which Jess interrupts with, "There can be sex in the game, guys! There isn't, but it could definitely happen!" They settle and game in earnest.

The evening chills further and I ask Jess if she might lend me something to wear. She brings me to her bedroom and pulls a blue hoodie from a plastic bin. On the sleeves are brightly colored dragons and it smells delightfully of her, which is to say, of the fabric softener and detergent her parents use, since she has not yet worn this. As I return to their game, I feel cuddled up and warm, as though my new friend is hugging me whenever the breeze catches the scent of the shirt.

Soon in Xenology: When I was a girl. Crushed.

last watched: Pushing Daisies
reading: Fables
listening: Garfunkel and Oates

Rehearsing Goodbyes | 2009 | Crushed

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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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

Anthologies

Find What You Love and Let It Kill You by Thomm Quackenbush
Pagan Standard Times: Essays on the Craft by Thomm Quackenbush
A Creature Was Stirring: A Twisted Christmas Anthology by Thomm Quackenbush
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