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Swing Vote | 2010 | How To Jive and Wail

01.28.10 10:18 a.m.

Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.  

-Charles Spurgeon


Tomorrow of Its Strength

Jinx and Kestrel  
Good sorts

I arrive at Bard hours early, because I am done working and want to be elsewhere with haste. All day, I have been in distrait. In Plato's The Republic, he said a just man who is thought unjust is ultimately happier than an unjust man who is thought just. The unemployment board on New York does not agree with Plato, deciding shenanigans must be afoot given that I substitute taught often prior to December 23rd and then didn't again until after January 3rd. The fact that undoubtedly occurs to you - that this is winter recess for most every school in the United States - does not occur to the bureaucrats, who have opted to believe that my industry is tantamount to deception and thus have kept my benefits for a month so far and will continue to keep my money unless I am proven innocent by their investigation. Had I done anything wrong, had I been trying to cheat or been lazy, I certainly wouldn't be happy about what was now happening but I would at least feel it was deserved by my chicanery. Instead, I know that I made every effort to be honest and hard-working and am being punished where a scheming lay-about would be receiving benefits unabated.

Though the day is well below freezing and knowing that Melanie is in class until 4, I wander to Blythewood Garden, one of the settings for my first book. I feel that this is a quest of sorts - or at the very least a partial reenactment of my first date with Melanie - which makes me less irritated that I am likely flagellating by freezing for the sin of letting a number dictate how I feel.

The garden is blocked off for the winter, but there are fresh enough footprints in the snow that I feel my trespass is minor and likely to be ignored. There are no steps going to the statue that is the subject of my fixation. I had planned to pour out my worries to this stone woman, but my ritualistic idiosyncrasies take a backseat to my numb ears and numbing face. I settle for a kiss on her gray cheek and a quick sentence beseeching divine intercession, then return to the student center, to defrost until Melanie finds me.

In an hour, I am with her, trying to keep from disappearing into my own head for uncertainty of what I am going to do should the unemployment board decide to keep my money (which I have to accept might happen). I have been trying without ceasing to find more regular employment to no success and I only have so many possessions I can sell (books so far, though Melanie suggests I put my electronic on the auction block next). But, more immediately, I don't want my financial worries to bitch up the weekend Melanie has planned. It is the second anniversary of our first date and we are going to visit Jinx at home in Massachusetts before she leaves for a semester in Germany, a fact that causes many of Melanie's sighs of late. Moreover, this qualifies as an adventure and a road trip, both of which I have been goading Melanie toward almost since we met. (Road trips are often dashed by reminders that she is not much for caves in February or that she does not care to spend the night where people were historically axe-murdered just so I have the privilege of pretending I am spooked.)

I mope as Melanie tries to soothe me with logic and love as best she can, but the former can't totally penetrate my funk. Nevertheless, she insists she will be paying for everything this weekend and that I had better not even imply otherwise. "Just assume that this is all for a reason and that things are going to work out. You will get your money back because you have done nothing wrong."

"You don't believe that, though," I say, as I tend to whenever she tries to drag shadows of predestination into her metaphors.

"No," she admits, "but it will help you to think that."

On our car ride there, Melanie verbally prods me whenever I am quiet for more than a few minutes, for fear that I am in danger of succumbing. My anxieties are present and I want to find some resolution that will mean I get to retain my humble lifestyle, but I know my priority is to her and this weekend, not my diminutive bank balance and governmental impugning.

We arrive by nine, impeded only by Melanie's uncharacteristic hankering for a chocolate McDonald's shake, the sugar of which takes the edge off my navel-gazing.

Jinx and her sister Kestrel (whose birth name really is Kestrel; Jinx was born Thalia and is so called by most everyone who does not know her through Bard) fall on us with affection. This is the first time I have met Kestrel, though I have followed her through cyberspace, and it is as though we are very old friends just reunited. I grok that there will never be distance between us. Kestrel is three years younger than Jinx, a sophomore at Bennington, but they function with the unity of identical twins (their twin language is gangsta rap - they are both musicians). Kestrel is slightly taller than her sister with a more angular face, but they wear the same chaotic wisdom in their eyes that marks them as souls sharing two bodies. In my life, instant kinship (especially extending to siblings) is vanishingly rare.
Of infinite jest

In the kitchen, as they offer us tea and food, we four talk at a frenzied pace, of nothing I can remember now owing to being both emotionally and physically frazzled (having been up since 5:30). It seems there is so much about which to catch up and so little time for it all. Delightfully, rather than decreasing the nonsense between us in deference to more important subjects, they instinctively know that the nonsense is of the utmost importance.

Nym, their father, returns home from a supporting role in a high school production of Arsenic and Old Lace at the private school where he teaches. He is dressed as a cop and rattles off a few of his lines in character, then breaks into an infectious, almost childlike, grin that belies the prior gruffness. His daughters laugh over how neat his hair looks for once. Needless to say, I instantly like him. This feeling persists during our weekend in their home. I even like all their pets, when I wasn't snifflingly allergic to them (their poodle Crispin loved me on sight and tried to rest his head in my lap whenever I sat for even a second).

Nym and Daphne, their mother, have the sort of life I want to build with Melanie, one of quaint finery and eccentricities, personal passions and united affection, books on each wall in each room, antique cases filled with ostrich eggs and mother-of-pearl curios. Things may seem a trifle desperate for me right now, as I ask my parents for loans and ponder how else I can get employed so that I can continue to survive, but this represents the sort of life I would most like to be leading a decade in the future (or sooner, if remotely possible).

That night, with Melanie's head on my chest on a pull-out sofa bed, in a room otherwise full of a piano and drums, everything feels perfect and I am nearly bereft of worry. Melanie feels like home, so much a place I am supposed to be, that I have odd faith that everything else will work out when it is supposed to, however disinclined the world is in indulging my magical thinking. As if to underscore this, I spontaneously gain a Zen-like ability to empty my mind of all thoughts, something I have sought for more than fifteen years and which allows me to fall to sleep in a wink.

The next morning, Nym expresses his pleasure that Melanie and I so integrated ourselves into the household. We sit in near silence, save for occasional crackles from the fireplace and reading the other a funny or compelling passage from our respective books (her Monstrous Regiment, me Franny and Zooey). He says it is as though we had always been here. Haven't we?

An hour later, as his daughters join us, Nym mentions how his first introduction to me was when he read something I wrote about Daniel and the restrictions of American masculine friendships. I am flattered to have been at all known by Nym prior to my entrance into his home, much more so for a bit of writing of which I am proud. He seems genuinely interested and sympathetic to Daniel, which further impresses me. We have a short discussion of the skewed and detrimental perception of masculinity, a point on which Nym would plainly agree. He seems like a self-created man, one who is what he wishes to be rather than the amalgam of what others have expected him to be. There is something in him of the guru, I feel, though I do not doubt that he would be among the first to say that he is not. Those guru-types are big on humility.

After eating, Kestrel, Jinx, Melanie, and I leave to go shopping in a town about an hour away. Melanie puts of Prodigy and Infected Mushroom at Kestrel's request, Kestrel then miming a one-person rave in the backseat until Jinx joins in. While the music is slightly harsh, it makes for a wonderful way to pass the time until we reach our destination. I feel that this is precisely the sort of situation of which there is not enough in my life and want to hug them all right then, save that this would cause Melanie to swerve into oncoming traffic and kill us all.

We flitter from shop to shop, inspecting gewgaws, sneering at hipster trifles, quaffing smoothies the color and texture of swamp mud, or giggling over the contents of a sensuality shop named Oh My. The town, as promised, is excellent for people watching, from the children collecting for Haitian relief to the homeless man asking for change so he can buy a specific brand of local pizza to the androgynous couples clinging to one another under layers of Gore-Tex to chase away the cold. In a shop called Sid Vintage, Melanie grins over clothes that were in style a decade before she was born and Kestrel coerces Jinx into matching leather vests. I offer the woman at the register a wry smile and say, "My girls are something of a handful." The woman, dressed all in black with the accompany beret, smirks back and suggests in an untraceable accent that, given my black coat and a white scarf I borrowed, I try on a gray fedora a size too small. When I do, she coos over me, but that works contrary to making my head smaller.

We leave the town having spent only a few dollars on baked goods and candy that ceases its charms even before we are again in the car.

When we return to our respective places by the fire, Nym mentions the pair of origami roses Melanie had made the night prior and which now adorn the mantle. "Would you let me watch you make one?" he asks with his characteristic twinkle.

Melanie assents. I cannot tell if this flatters her, though it would make me all nerves were I in her shoes. One cannot watch me write, as I will look up and talk to the person until the person gets the hint and leaves me be, but I warrant the art forms are worlds apart. She folds and unfolds as Nym makes observations, such as the intricacies of her movements or how her ministrations turn the paper almost into smooth fabric. He studies her with the devotion most give to television. I've never watched Melanie make one of these, so I am just was surprised as she turns over the unremarkable boxy shape in her hand, twists a pair of tweezers, and a white rose blooms in her palms. When she hands it to Nym, he regards it as if it were a real rose that manifested in her palm as he watched.

That night, Nym asks us to come to the play at the school where he works. This is part of the prescribed adventure and I don't have to pay, so I am enthusiastic. Kestrel, however, demurs, preferring a quiet night at home.

On the drive, I tell Nym how I used to be the head of the drama department at the boarding school where I worked and how, for spite, I made the learning disabled students do A Midsummer Night's Dream, though with a script I had mercifully rewritten. Further, how the administration heard me admonishing the cast after a lousy dress rehearsal and chided me in turn, telling me that no one expected the kids to be any good, but how I beamed when they admitted nights later that I had managed to put on an entertaining play that awed the parents. I realize that part of my telling him this is that I want to impress him with my accomplishments because, though I have it already, his respect is important to me.
Is this a rose I see before me?

Nym's school is amazing - what the boarding school where I worked wishes it were - thanks to generous endowments from involved parents. There is an energy around the property that is undeniable, this is a place where Things Are Truly Learned. The building we enter is expansive and professional, looking more that it could be used as part of an upscale private college. My heart leaps into my throat in envy. It is rare that I crush on institutions, but I am smitten. In a better world than this one, I am English faculty in a place like this.

Nym buys us tickets, introducing Melanie to a member of the administration as "Thalia's old roommate" and me as "[his] friend". I repeat this to Melanie, making no effort to disguise my glee at how I have been described.

The play is as one would expect for a high school play, lines swallowed and sound cues seconds off, and I love them for that. It makes me miss my students, for all their lovable imperfections. I can't deny that I want to be a full-time teacher still. When I interviewed for my last job at a standardized tests publisher, they asked whether I would abandon their ship should a teaching job present itself. I replied, "I feel like teaching had its chance. It didn't want me." Then I felt a pang, because I wanted it no matter how little it wanted me. My year there coupled with my substitute teaching, more than rekindled my longing for those days when I had my own classroom and I could feel like I was bettering the lives of kids. I have witnessed too many apathetic teachers who are there for the paycheck, too many who left middle management for the summers off and never lost the attitude, and I want to be the force combating this. Only, the world of education does not seem inclined to let me. I am trying not to be bitter or cynical, as that attitude isn't about to help me toward my goals. And, of course, a teaching job means I no longer have to fret about battling the unemployment department with terse faxes and weekly letters.

After the play, Nym shows us his music classroom and boasts how it is being soundproofed so it can be used as a recording studio. He is so in his element here that it is hard not to see this room as an almost organic extension of him. Nym is the sort of teacher I have always admired, a fact I know without needing to see him in front of a class. He will be remembered, he will be an inspiration to his students long after they graduate.

Sitting on the bed the next morning, writing after a delicious omelet made by Kestrel just because she wanted to make me breakfast, listening to Jinx teach Melanie to play the squeeze box, things feel perfect and manageable. I don't know that this feeling will extend when we leave this enclave, when I will no longer be surrounded by people who make everything feel possible and yielding. If only there were a world where Melanie and I could live with Kestrel and Jinx in a properly sized home, I think I could hope without ceasing. Aside from my family and a two-week summer program, I have only ever had Emily for a roommate and think I would be disinclined to room with anyone who I didn't already love. How else can one happily wash dishes and clean toilets without love? (It does not hurt matters that Kestrel idly mentions that she occasionally scours their entire home because she gets in an industrious mood.)

When the room with the fireplace is empty, I retrieve the better part of the rind from a clementine I had eaten at the play the night prior. Holding it in my hands, I focus all my tension and concern, all the angst for my present lot, on the peel. Then, feeling enough has imperceptibly soaked in, I toss it among the embers and watch as flames spring up to claim the oils and fibers.

I then wander up to Kestrel's curiously pink room, where Melanie and Jinx are listening to music.

"I chose the color when I was little," Kestrel says with some vexation. As I scan her books, Melanie and she talk music. This soon turns to us dashing down to an empty room where a dance party breaks out, beginning with Right Said Fred, transitioning to Lady Gaga, and ending in sea shanties. Then, as quickly as it began, in awkward but confident flailing, it ends and we wander off in separate directions as though that were the natural conclusion of things.

Later, in the midst of sharing odd videos on the internet, Daphne rather casually mentions the time she had a lion bite her on the arm, saying this as though it were the sort of thing that happens to people from time to time. Melanie and I are transfixed, begging for the story that led up to their even being lions in her presence.

"Oh, at Harvard, I trained them to run on treadmills."

"Why?" Melanie asks.

"So we could measure their carbon dioxide output. The hardest part was getting them to wear the masks, but you can train a lion to do most anything." This would be the point in the story, if I were telling it, that my voice would either rise in excitement at the wonderful put-on or fall in feigned casualness. Hers does neither. "It was more insulting than anything," she went on. "I mean, here is this animal that I had been taking care of all this time and I looked down to find my arm in its mouth. I was mostly in shock, here. It's difficult to get your arm out of a lion's mouth. I thought, once it opened its mouth, I could just pull it out, but they can grip even as their mouths open. Very tricky."

"Did you have any other troubles with animals?" Melanie asks.

"Oh no... Well, yes. A ostrich was coming at me and was about to attack."

"What did you do?" Melanie asks.

"I grabbed it just under its neck, and hard. That put it off." This said, Daphne returns to her book.

Melanie is astounded that Daphne even had the presence of mind to do this. I cannot begin to express the vastness of how shocked I am. This family cannot exist in the world from which we had driven.

It feels nearly impossible to leave this place where, suddenly, things make sense. It is as though I have found the home and family I will one day have, and now have to relinquish my grip until I can earn this life properly. This weekend has stretched on forever in the best ways.

Nym and Daphne say that they welcome us to return at any time and Melanie assures them for both of us that we will be, there can be no argument or debate.

As we get in the car to drive back (and after they try to load us down with food for our journey home), Kestrel stands at the door, shouting "I love you!" and making a heart with her hands. We shout it back, because how can we do less than shout?

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job, Jinx and Kestrel.

last watched: Arrested Development
reading: The Bell Jar
listening: Mark & James

Swing Vote | 2010 | How To Jive and Wail

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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