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The Ward | 2009 | Same River Twice

08.16.09 10:19 p.m.

It was a station-platform kiss - spontaneous enough to begin with, but rather inhibited in the follow-through, and with somewhat of a forehead-bumping aspect.  

-JD Salinger


How I Met Your Mother

The shofar wouldn't work

I spend ten hours in trains, clattering through three states to again taste her kiss. I've lived this month of no snacks, running, proper sleep in preparation for the moment I see her on the platform in Cleveland. I throw myself behind the little rituals, like putting on lip balm before I go to bed and thinking about her for whom I am keeping my lips soft.

I've practiced the kiss in my mind as though running through stage directions. I hit my mark, embrace her, our lips meet and then... things get hazy. I've grown perhaps rusty and forget the flavor.

She will be altered. Another summer to grow into her womanhood, the last of her baby fat banished through an aerobics video, a new perfume she has taken to wearing, another language occupying her mind. My senses will have to remap this sublime creature who boasts that she is my lover.

I have my mini-notebook and an MP3 player for company, but manage not to write much even as the view out of my window turns from green and blue to pink to khaki to black, only islands of light in an ocean of darkness. Every attempt at resting is met by a conductor cramming someone new into the musical chair beside me, even at the expense of several vacant sections in each car, almost conspicuously waking me in the endeavor. Outside the realm of observational humor, the Amtrak coach class seating seems specifically designed to be too uncomfortable for sleep. I've been on trains (albeit for an hour or two rather than over eight) with plush seats where it was not expected the passengers would be dozing but could anyway. This passenger harassment is very probably to sell more pricy sleeper rooms, though one can hardly expect much more there, even in terms of privacy. On the plus side, the sleep deprivation dampens my hyperactivity at the prospect of finally ending my season of celibacy.

I realize soon into my trip that I won't get the platform kiss I imagined. No one gets onto the platform without a ticket, three forms of ID, and a fresh urine sample. As I had neither a steamer trunk nor a gray peacoat, my cinematic fantasy would have to take a backseat to reality anyway. Nothing is like in books and movies but, with a little luck and a lack of specific expectations, perhaps it can be better.

Ten hours after I've begun this journey, at minutes before four AM, the train stops in Cleveland. There is one further complication to my train-based romantic fantasy: there is no train platform at all. The train simply stops at an intersection of track and road. The conductor drops stairs in front of me and helps me down, though possibly more because of my bleariness than the distance between train and ground. I scan the crowd, the hugging Amish people, for my girlfriend. Even in the night, she shines like a beacon and I rush to her. My memory is fuzzy here. We kiss, quite a lot, and hold hands to her car. She drives me to her parents' house as we mutually make fond, exhausted sounds. I remember asking her if it were likely that we would remember anything of our conversation the following day and her stating that she wouldn't bet on it.
Squished shortly after

She leads me into her house and cautions my silence. She gives me a brief tour and coos to her dog for what seemed a long time while I leaned against the doorframe, half in awe of her and half simply weary beyond sleeping. Then we are upstairs in the guest room. She whispers that she has promised her parents that we would continue to keep our relationship chaste the few days I stayed there. I breathe back that I can handle this. What is seventy-two hours when I have spent three months without affection?

It is an intolerable request and is neglected within minutes in deference to consummation.

Aside from this first morning, we sleep in separate rooms for the rest of my visit, both to assure her parents of propriety and because Melanie is more comfortable in the single bed in which she has slept since she was a toddler. Still, I have not slept so soundly as I do that first night in her arms.

Being with her makes this feel like the first real day of summer, that I've been in a holding pattern since I watched her car drive away. This is patently false, I know. I've cemented two new close friends (Jess and Rosemary), learned to dance slightly better, and finished the first draft of my second novel. But, nevertheless, I didn't feel that purposeful euphoria summer provokes in high school kids with no other obligations until I exited that train hours from dawn and in an unfamiliar city to be with her.

She mentions how she has to get her head out of the concept that she is no longer single and concerned only for herself, as do I. We'd spent our summer as autonomous beings and were used to it, at the very least resigned to the inevitability that we made our own schedules. It is certainly in no romantic way - Melanie and I were more together 400 miles apart then some are when only millimeters separate them - but only immediate awareness for the needs of another human being.

Her parents instantly make me feel at home and, though Melanie has warned me about her apparently fastidious mother, everything is lovely and sedate. While questioned, I am never interrogated. I wish to be a good guest and, once I am within the confines of their home, I accept what hospitality they offer and defer from making them go out of their way to accommodate me and my occasional quirks. Having made my sole request that I not be asked to eat lamb (I find it discomfiting), I acceded to most anything else I was served. For the most part, this was a brilliant plan, as it involved delicious cold fish loaf in tomato sauce and a dessert made of rhubarb and yogurt. (Once, while dating Kate, her mother served me liver and onions as a sort of tests of my culinary fidelity. Would I eat a filter organ to earn her respect? Indeed, I did, because that was what was asked of me. Everything I was served as Melanie's house trumped that by a vast margin. Melanie's father even said he liked having me around because his wife and daughter improved their already genetically great cooking.)

Melanie's parents are a great deal softer than she has made them out to be, though I concede that most of the stories of them came from her mid-adolescence where parents are almost constitutionally required to be ogres. I adore Melanie down to her very molecules, but I gather she kept her parents on their toes and they pruned her down to keep her from growing too wild. As their parental ministrations resulted in the woman I love, I couldn't think too ill of them and am certainly given no occasion to.

Melanie's parents' backyard is a private wonderland, bushes and trees guarding them from their neighbors' eyes and several gardens of herbs, vegetables, and flowers for their delectation. I have an easy time picturing a child Melanie wandering through the shrubs into a land of make-believe or an adolescent Melanie seeking her solace and connection amongst green things.
And made into a lovely hat

So much of her life - her crucial and formative moments - happened within a few square blocks. Though she assures me I would not have liked any version of her prior to our meeting, I can't help but wonder at the woman slowly fomenting between the sage and radishes while I was busily pretending to be an adult in New York.

Melanie and her parents chitter in French and I glean small bits, like a baby. "Aubergine" is zucchini. "Tomate" is tomato. I am Toma as, apparently, I have always been to them. Melanie's father asks what to call me mid-way through my visit and clarifies that Melanie only discusses me in French, so am I Thomas in English? I assure him that this is fine with me. I never discover how to refer to them.

I can see how I may look to Melanie's parents, the unemployed writer boyfriend of their only child. In their shoes, I am not certain how I would react. While I know my intentions are as honorable as can be, they might not. I constrict my jewelry to a diamond stud in my ear and one or two rings. I had my hair cut for the occasion, though I am years from being the long-haired punk who likely made date's mothers look askance. I packed and repacked my backpack four times before making the trip to make certain I would present the proper appearance (casual, but not sloppy). By gods, her mother learned mannerliness from Proust! I had better be at the top of my game if I wished to survive unscathed (and I did well, aside from once beginning to eat before everyone was served).

I want badly for Melanie's parents not only to accept me as a part of her life (which they do, I happen to make their daughter happy, stable, and thus productive), but to like me. I want to be acknowledged as a permanent fixture in her life. I want even to be liked by Melanie's bird, but this is impossible. Melanie's mother assures me that it only likes her daughter and nothing can be done about that.

A decade ago, I recall an awkward conversation with Kate's mother, where she explained that I needed to have a relationship with their whole family if I wished to continue to have a relationship with her daughter. This, I think, was after I provided Kate money and shelter when she briefly ran away from home, so her concern is understandable. As I very much wanted to continue to date Kate, I did my best to conquer my fear of her parents, eventually growing to be liked and welcomed (despite what they were aware I did to their daughter in their basement den). By the time I met Emily, my next serious girlfriend, I had just assumed getting in the good graces of the parents was expected. Aside from a couple of rough patches, I believe Emily's parents thought of me almost like a son within short order. I understand that Melanie's parents have slightly more of a reason to be wary of me. I am an older man who could be taking advantage of their daughter's na´vetÚ (were their daughter other than Melanie, who stepped on her na´vetÚ when she was 12). Melanie's mother was seduced away from France when she was around Melanie's age by an older man, Melanie's father. While they are endlessly affectionate and loving to one another why I am there, I am to understand that Melanie's mother especially was keen on her daughter not making herself a child bride. Further, Melanie had kept me away from her parents until this weekend, suggesting that she would handle parental visits unaccompanied (to their evident surprise) and that she'd rather come to me early than have me trek out to her. I believe having her respective worlds collide, having her New York boyfriend traipsing about her Ohio hometown, was simply too psychologically jarring.

Early into our relationship, I asked Melanie why she never introduced me to her friends. I believe my exact questions was along the lines of if I were her dirty little secret. Melanie's response was multi-pronged; that she didn't think I would be interested in having any part in typical college activities, that she wasn't sure which of her Bard friends would be sticking around, and that she wanted to keep the enclave I represented pure and unentangled. I wasn't totally happy with this arrangement, but I respected it. Since then, I had briefly met a few of her friends and am in occasional contact with Melanie's former roommate, Jinx (who is fairly awesome). But these were only latter-day friends, those acquired through college. Being in Melanie's hometown, where she attended private school, allowed me access to those who knew her as she grew up, those who recognize her beyond her most current face, specifically Stephanie and Cole. My mother - one of Melanie's Facebook friends - commented early in the summer as to why there were pictures of Melanie cuddled with the two. I immediately replied that both of Melanie's friends like men and that she was in no immediate danger from cuddles.

If there is any hesitancy in our introductions, however, I don't notice it. I've heard so much about them and so regularly (as, I'm sure, have they of me) that it is like we have known one another for a while. We wander around town, play with sticky foam, flitter through a bookstore, have lunch, and everything is delightfully usual. While I certainly don't have cause to hope for their approval as much as I plainly do Melanie's parents, it is nice to feel I implicitly have it.

Days after arriving, Melanie and I have to leave to attend my family's annual vacation in Lake George. I've done my best to impress her family, such as it is, and hopefully passed some unspoken test. Now it is her turn. Melanie's mother makes us a picnic lunch for the road, full of bread, tomatoes, goat cheese, peanut butter, tabouli, and leftovers. This, as much as anything, makes me feel that I have earned their consent, even if it was only to keep their daughter from indulging in road food on the way to my apartment. As we pull away, Melanie's parents wave and her mother lifts the dog's paw so it can join in.

Soon in Xenology: Lake George. Melissa. Relationships.

last watched: Where the Buffalo Roam
reading: Skinny Legs and All
listening: Peggy Lee

The Ward | 2009 | Same River Twice

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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