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Once Bitten | 2012 | Create the Opportunity to Be Him


"Just living isn't enough," said the butterfly, "one must also have freedom, sunshine, and a little flower."  

-Hans Christian Anderson


Sunburnt Cupcakes

Merrill, Cris, and Marisa  
On a date.

Amber and I tire of the Cupcake Festival within the span of two shared cupcakes, one of which must have arrived at the festival two days stale, its slimy frosting slipping to the grass the moment sunlight hits it.

Last year at this festival came literally days after Melanie left me. Someone who I thought would turn into a good friend came with me, though the friendship shortly thereafter stalled, possible because she encountered the most inward version of me and didn't see much reason to persist in getting to know me. This year’s festival thus has an added weight in my mind, a threshold that seemed so daunting last year.

In years past, the Gardiner Cupcake Festival took place on a roped off section of the town proper, surrounded by businesses overjoyed to part tourists from our money. This year, it is held at the top of a long hill, on a farm, providing nearly no shade on a cloudless day. Aside from a stage featuring bands playing especially twangy country music, there is little for adults not possessed by children to do but eat and be baked red by the sun.
Marisa, Daniel, Amber  
Not on a date.

Amber and I veer from the festival for a bit of comfort under a sapling apple tree, itself ignored by the festival-goers owing to its lack of frosting. We cuddle far enough from prying eyes and refine the art of kissing until my phone vibrates in my pocket, which Amber happens to be sitting atop at the time.

Merrill, who was due half an hour ago, is calling to inform us that she is still a good forty-five minutes away and would we mind finding the girl with whom she is going on a date today? (At least, I think this is a date, but I did not care to pry too much.)

I am the partial impetus why Merrill is coming. Merrill had weeks ago mentioned a pleasant first date with an artist and the new photos of her online at least attested that the photographer liked her as a model. I did what research on this woman I could to see whether she is a savory enough character for my friend. Savory or no, she is smart enough to be difficult to intrude upon online. All I could glean without alerting her to my searching was that she is thin with short, dark hair and a warm smile and that she is named Marisa.
Amber and Merrill  
Aw. (Little do you realize they are constricting one another to death.)

Merrill gives me Marisa's number and set about finding a stranger in this sugary hellscape.

Marisa quickly returns the call, asking if Merrill is with us. "No, she isn't. She is a bit away. She told me that we ought to find you and keep you company until she gets here."

"Okay," she says.

"We'll come find you. We are near the bouncy castle."

"I see a helicopter," she offers. "In the sky."

I glance upward. "We know where that is, we'll head to you."

"Great," she says, then there is a pause. "I don't know what you look like... or who you are, actually. Who is this?"

"Thomm, Merrill's friend. She may have mentioned me. Amber is here, too. She's is wearing a pink and blue plaid shirt," I offer, unhelpfully. "No matter. I know what you look like, sort of."

"I'm wearing," she says, "a lot of gray. And sunglasses."
Merrill and Daniel  
Not on a date.

Despite this paucity of identifying characteristics and the vastness of the crowd, we find her in a few minutes, looking confused and about to call us back for further direction.

From the moment we connect with her, it is not as though we are harassing some near stranger, but that we have found one of our friends. It is only after a few hours that I bother asking her about interests and history, since there feels to be no need for that. We know one another, everything else amounts to piddling details. (It likely does not hurt that she reminds me of a leaner version of a former friend's former lover.)

We soon find Daniel who, after quick introductions, reacts to Marisa as though she is not an alien in this personal space, which I believe ranks as one of his higher compliments.

Merrill arrives to finds Marisa, Amber, and me crowding in the shade of a black umbrella Daniel is thoughtfully holding over us. She wears a slightly-in-danger-of-slipping, pink sundress and squeals when she sees us, hugging one person after another as though she has returned from a long sea voyage. She is followed by her current roommate, Cris, a bearded man with a baseball cap and long hair, his t-shirt proclaiming him medicated and his pants camouflage. She rarely lets go of his hand while moving, which strikes me as perhaps not how I would conduct a "date", but I pride myself on being done with dating and its mores. At the very least, Merrill is a rather different animal than me and I shouldn't presume.
Sunglasses, wearing a lot of gray.

Even with our group having grown to six (and briefly to eight, as a couple Marisa knows join us only long enough to seem like Hollywood-perfect, suburban gays and then vanish to be a bit more than affectionate with one another), all there exists to do is disabuse Merrill of the notion that there is anything to do. She possesses the raw delight of a toddler, which is endearing but not given to admitting the fair has bested us already despite being both colorful and sweet.

In short order, Jacki appears with her retinue, expecting a bit more fun than we are capable of providing with our low level sunstroke. We sniff around the meal tents, trying to find a foodstuff not composed entirely of high fructose corn syrup. I can tell she is perhaps a bit disappointed by my trying to shepherd my group to a shady spot beside a barn, but there is only so many cupcakes I can choke down while listening to country music and still pretend I am having fun.

I can feel my skin, tight and hot, and know I have endured a burn. Still, there is something almost pleasant about knowing that discomfort while resting in the shade largely with people whom I like. Fed, sheltered, and watered, as it were, I regain some of my verve and set about getting more of a feeling for Marisa. In part, I do this because Jacki's friend Hector interrogates her with a flirtatious edge and I am hoping to hit on the question that will cause her to tactfully reply that she did not swing toward men, even if they happen to be local politicians.
On a date?

This backfires when he says his goodbyes and kisses Amber's hand, though she is good enough not to burst out laughing. Daniel and I proffer our hands in turn, but he refrains from applying his lips. We dutifully affect sadness that we, too, are not the recipients of his kisses. Marisa gets no more than a wave from a good five paces away.

I gather that Jacki and her group do not quite know what to make of my de facto circle. While we sit and chat, Merrill alternates in hanging off of Cris and Daniel. Later, Jacki will mention that she is surprised at Daniel's new girlfriend and I will contain myself long enough to correct her misapprehension. Theirs is a friendship more akin to kid sis and patient older brother (or, at that, new puppy and loving but reserved owner) than lovers. I explain that I believe Merrill was on a date with Marisa, though, by this point, I am not prepared to state this confidently.

Jacki and Eric disappear to examine cupcakes enough to justify coming to this festival. I have a large enough group to maintain the cohesion of, so I think little of their exodus. They are not here for us and, when they return an hour later and tell us there are dollar cupcakes to be had as the booths close up, I feel this is underscored by their sitting in the shade instead of joining us on the hunt.

The quality of cupcakes increases neither with several more hours in the sun, a drop in price, or the increase in quantity afforded by being a dollar. Nor, incidentally, does the quality of the festival.

Cris and Merrill try to invite us to go fishing in Newburgh, a city known for a higher homicide rate than New York City and a history of racial enmity. Cris assures us that his car is full of firearms, but we decline all the more vociferously for this statement.

"What about Beacon?" he asks of the city across the river from Newburgh, one gentrified enough for safety once the sun goes down.
Not on a date.

"Yeah, Cris has to catch me dinner," Merrill says.

"You don't eat things out of the Hudson. You'll mutate your unborn babies," I say. "Also, it's in the wrong direction from us. What about catching a cooked dinner with us in New Paltz?"

Cris says he does not have the gas to drive six miles to New Paltz, so our group splits. Marisa with Merrill and Cris to set about catching fish from the Hudson (and subsequently hepatitis) and Daniel with Amber and me. Daniel, parked closer than we, lends us the use of his umbrella so that I do not burn more.

Once in the restaurant, Amber goes to the bathroom. When the door shuts behind her, I turn conspiratorially to Daniel. "What do you think of me marrying that girl?"

He shrugs. "It's good for you that you got to her before I did."

"Noted." I take a sip of my water. "It's just... she is-" how shall I phrase this to him? "-low impact on my system. She's not a pain in the ass," I explain, trusting he will get it.

"Usually I would laugh to my cat when I got home about what a disaster you are walking into. I always figured Melanie would get bored and leave you. But Amber seems fine. It makes sense." Amber emerges and Daniel continues, "Yeah, my advice to you is to cut the bitch loose."

I nod somberly and we both pretend surprise as Amber seats herself before her freshly delivered perogies. "What are you talking about?"

"Nothing. Not you, certainly. The very idea," I say. When she turns to get Daniel to spill what we were saying - doubtlessly employing sad kitty eyes - I make a slashing motion across my throat and nod at her, letting her catch me so I can feign innocence.

"You guys suck," she giggles. "Tell me what you said!"

"No, I don't believe we'll be doing that," I say. "It would only hurt your feelings."

Soon in Xenology: Male friendships.

last watched: Paradise Lost
reading: John Dies at the End
listening: Led Zepplin

Once Bitten | 2012 | Create the Opportunity to Be Him

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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