I exit my car and the sky crashes down. I do not mean that it began to rain. It had been raining for the entirety of my drive, a steady drumming to preamble truly shaking claps of thunder and blinding lightning that slowed my progress. I had grown accustomed to these aspects of the storm. When I say the sky crashed, I mean that I would have stayed drier had I stood in my shower. I slog against endless torrents that soak diagonally, then horizontally, when I try to evade the streams with an umbrella. By the time I make it to the cave, a span of only a few hundred feet, I am so drenched that Jacki looks startled when I slide onto a plastic chair beside her.
"Have you read already?" I ask, squeezing out my shirt bottom onto the cave floor, watching the rivulets seek lower ground. Her reading was the whole reason I am here and, though I am a few minutes late, I am hopeful that the storm sufficiently delayed everyone.
"You missed me. A lot of poets didn't show, so I was bumped up. They probably thought this was canceled because of the rain. What happened to you?"
"Rain happened, like you said."
"But your umbrella..."
"Did not do me a bit of good."
I try to focus my attention on the poet standing on the twenty foot, square stage before the five rows of lawn chairs precariously placed on the cave floor for this poetry reading. The image - poets standing before the audience in a cave, the back of the stage already swallowed beneath the subterranean lake that has formed, reciting above the din of a summer thunderstorm - is a fine one. The effect is poor. All but a few poets seem incapable of understanding the parameters of the space in which they find themselves. Most shout their mediocrity at the walls, as through to challenge the pretension of their own echoes. All that can be deciphered is a sort of screamed murmur, poems about how false and evil technology is, read from a print-out with flashlights into a microphone. A few comprehend the acoustics of where they are, speaking only loudly enough to be heard but not to invoke they own voices back at them. In a sense, this is my issue with many - but certainly not all - poets, more concerned with hearing their own voices than conveying meaning. Worse is how smug they seem to be standing before us, as though they are being ever so kind by allowing us into their presence, as though we are nothing more than shadows cast by their light.
We sit through several more poets as I begin to dry marginally (despite the drops of moisture from the cave ceiling threatening to make me a stalagmite). I feel as though I already reek of mold, though more likely it is just the mustiness of the cave and the stagnancy of the pond. All this contributes to a sort of semi-allergic grumpiness, so I take every opportunity to wander by the food and book donations growing ever damper near the entrance to benefit from the breeze the now insultingly light drizzle produces. This does little to refresh my mood or scent.
We drive to town proper to meet up with Amanda and her friend Melanie, henceforth referred to as Melanie the Overwhelmingly Nice or MtON so as to forestall confusion between her and my friend Melanie. They are in an antique store in Rosendale, poking about in the dimness, since most of the town has lost power. Fortunately, though, the sun has banished the clouds back. I stand beneath its beams to urge dryness. Iíve read anecdotal stories of Buddhist monks putting on soaking robes in blizzard condition and, through force of will, drying them in minutes. I am aware these stories are likely akin to "my religion has better magic tricks than your religion", but I am willing to suspend disbelief to feel a bit less like a toadstool. I close my eyes and incline my head to the sun, irrationally feeling that I can dry more efficiently if I am facing a light source.
Amanda comes out, as MtON is being occupied by the proprietress of the store, who is having her try on different pieces and plying her with free merchandise in acknowledgment of Melanieís overwhelming niceness. In short order, Amanda has somehow convinced me to let her teach me a clapping game, one she is surprised I donít know it.
"I did grow up a boy," I remind her. "We are not taught these things."
"Youíll learn it now," she says, smiling.
As I fumble and clap where I should have patted, her eyes urge me not to be discouraged. "Donít worry," I assure, "this is absolutely the most fun I have had all day. I am not made for cave living."
Over lunch at a vegetarian cafť (Jacki and I split a FLT: fake bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich), the four of us discuss relationships. Jacki and Amanda lived through my harried calls as my romantic relationship with my Melanie dwindled, so I give MtON the haiku version, "She was twenty one and about to graduate. Chose girls over me." This seemed more or less sufficient, though MtON pouts that she has to be other than just "Melanie" to me. "I met her first and more significantly... I suppose you could be my Melanie as well, but not in the same context."
I am shocked that, of everyone at the table, I am the only on in a stable - if new - relationship. Amanda is honestly among the kindest, sweetest people I have ever had the privilege to encounter in all my life. When I was having a breakdown - two parts my Melanieís indecision, one part insomnia induced psychosis - over the winter, Amanda once spent the whole of her lunch break talking to me as I huddled in my car away from the rain and cried. She didnít judge me or tell me what I should do, she just listened and never held it against me. MtON, though this is the first time our paths have crossed, seems a match for Amandaís profound compassion. It exudes from her, as if a gentle psychic vapor. In a Disney movie, she would need do no more than smirk to bring a flock of melodious bluebirds to nearby branches. Jacki, as should be plain, has been among my best friends for almost a decade and I think just as well of her. If these three do not turn the heads of menfolk, individually and collectively, their heads are not worth turning.
They remind me that I belong in the light, among people who got over their egos and who are simply nice because of it. They do not talk down to people or unfairly judge others because of differing life experiences, knowing that it matters much more that someone is present rather than the darkness or humble means from which they have come. I have spent a little too much time putting effort into connecting with people who are brilliant and fascinating, brag-worthy additions to my social stable, but not particularly kind to themselves or others. I donít want to just be proud of someone, I want to love them and I want to respect myself for loving them because how could I do otherwise? I donít want to strain my ears and eyes seeking out the murmurs of poets in the dark and ignoring what comes effortlessly because it is right.
Soon in Xenology: Amber. Hull.