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Empty Chairs | 2013 | Lighthouse Keeper


Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.  

-Mark Twain


The Return of the Meli

She would not let me take a better picture, so she gets an old one.

"We need to go."

Melanie seems not to hear me. Dan, post-movie night and foisting dozen of books on us so he doesn't have to move them to a new apartment, is excitedly telling her of the technology he has implemented throughout his soon-to-be former home, how he can control it all from his smartphone, how his keyboard is ergonomic, so I can't very well expect him to hear me. It is charming seeing him so enthralled with sharing the outcome and tools his talent, but I am well aware Melanie has a minor addiction to fascinating people. She is the one I need to extract and take home.

I tug on Melanie's sleeve. "If you need to, you can pick your car up and drive back, but I need to sleep before work tomorrow."

Melanie chose to spend a few days with Amber and me, though her plans did not allow this to occur a week later, when I would have a break prior to summer school. As such, she needed to contend with the fact that I had both a bedtime and somewhere else to be for eight hours a day. This had yet to present much of an issue as she has other friends to see during the day. She is no longer an undergrad and doesn't feel the need to stay up until four in the morning, though I wouldn't mind what she did so long as she was quiet. Given that she spent most of the first night with us chatting online with and texting her new girlfriend, I doubt that would be an issue. She thankfully is content to bed down on an air mattress in the studio when I turn in.

The last time she visited New York, it felt dire. We hadn't seen one another in a year. When I opened the door to her a year ago, she hugged me long and hard, arms strong from bringing her physique closer to how she envisions herself. It was a hug that said, "I thought I might never see you again, yet here you are."

When she arrived this time, the hug was brief. She stammered a bit, as though she thought she might be imposing on near strangers. Then she took up a broom and swept our kitchen floor for reasons of her own. I let her because I didn't know what else to do, really. The floor could have used the sweeping. When she was satisfied, she suggested we walk to Amber's plot in the community garden, where my girlfriend toiled. We talked but it didn't feel as though there was a profound need to bridge some gap between us, as before. At the garden, Melanie busied herself pulling weeds alongside Amber. Then we had some well-earned ice cream (on their parts. I just watched them work).

When I arrive home the next afternoon, Amber and Melanie are not in the apartment, though Melanie's car is in the driveway. I call Amber and she confirms they are working in the garden again. "You aren't talking about me, right?"

"Nope! About gardening."

"I suppose that is acceptable."

My plan for the afternoon is a picnic at Poet's Walk. The night before, prior to movie night, Melanie prepared a meal of fish and asparagus, both excellent. I cannot beat that for deliciousness, but I will do my damnedest to meet it with ambiance. I want this to be memorable, to have a final hurrah with my friend instead of sitting in my apartment and doing very little of note.

I text Daniel and, after a few minutes, Holly and Dan to see if they would like to meet us. Dan immediately texts back, saying he is packed and ready for the picnic. He is not one to do things halfway.

"Which way would you think would be best to get there?" I ask as we drive.

"I don't know," says Melanie. "I don't live here." She did live at Bard for four years, which is on the same road and in the other direction, but it slips my mind that Bard prevents its students from leaving campus.

I look at the road, choosing a path. "That will do nicely, then. I'll go in that direction and hopefully we'll end up in the right place."

"You are kind of being a jerk," Melanie says.

"Am I being a jerk?" I ask Amber.

"I don't think so."

I glance in my rearview mirror. "Nope, not a jerk. I know it is before the bridge, since I see it from there and it's likely on this road. If I hit the bridge, we'll know I went too far."

A moment later, we pull into the park. Dan and Holly lounge in front of the entrance and Holly immediately reminds us that Dan had to go play quizmaster in a little while.

I wince. "Of course! I had forgotten all about that!"

"Don't worry," Holly says with a smirk, "so had he."

Cicadas buzz around, stupidly bumping into things and being crushed underfoot. We stop at the first gazebo, a broad open one with a view of the Hudson River that would bring a painter to frustrated tears because she couldn't have enough colors. Dan does not wish to stop here, however, despite the fact that he is due at a bar in a little while.

"You are the important one," I remind him. "I'm fairly sure they can't start without you."

"It'll be fine!" He tromps on to a smaller gazebo down a winding path, some ten minutes' walk. We trudge past mud and hundreds of tiny holes from which cicadas emerged. When we pass a hole two inches in diameter, I tell Amber that this was the home of the queen cicada.

Amber, Holly, and I lag behind Melanie and Dan, who seem to be hitting it off.

"We are the introverts," I say. "We stick together and let the extrovert gesticulate up there."

At the gazebo, we eat and touch on familiar subjects: sex dolls, child endangerment, the Uncanny Valley, espionage, self-injury, sideshows. Melanie tells Dan that I tend to research subjects that border on the nearly perverse, but that I do it for edifying reasons.

"I write books about them!" I protest.

"You are going to write a book about RealDolls?" Dan asks.
Don't act innocent, sir. You discoursed with us in the woods!

"Maybe! It could be a retelling of Pygmalion... with latex vaginas. Did you know that there is a RealDoll brothel? Do you think one is charged more or less for that? And whose job is it to take a hose to them? Do you assume that pays well?"

Melanie rolls her eyes and resumes chatting with Dan ahead of us. "She is mocking me, I can tell," I say to Holly. "She does that sometimes, when she is meeting new people who know me and don't know her. It's like her social lubricant, to ease her transition into knowing this person by whittling me down a bit. I don't think she means any harm by it, really."

When we arrive at the entrance, Daniel is there, chatting to Melanie and Dan. It is all a bit too perfect, his arrival just in time. Dan and Holly pass the torch to Daniel, who does not in fact wish to wander about a public park.

In the sky, I see a hawk circling. "Oh god, it's the queen cicada! Get in the car!"

Amber makes a show of panicking and darts in. Melanie, showing no sense of self-preservation, calmly begs herself into Daniel's.

As we drive back to the apartment, Amber details her interest in anarchism, based entirely on the fact that I informed her last night that Alan Moore, author of the graphic novel on which the movie V for Vendetta was based, criticized the filmmakers for making it about neoconservatism versus neoliberalism rather than fascism versus anarchy. "But it isn't as though there are no rules," she says, "you just follow the rules you think are right. There are some societies that have made this work. Like, police are something to be feared in our society. I worked for DPS and a lot of those people are corrupt, because it's about wielding power over people, you see? They would go after people they didn't like and ignore people they did like. No one cared I had a kitten in the dorms, for instance, though that's a small issue. Instead, it should be civilian corps of peacekeepers. You see the difference? They would be the people who would help you out if your cat was stuck in the tree of you were trapped. It wouldn't be about enforcing laws, it would be about keeping the peace, keeping society working. Of course, under anarchy, there aren't taxes, which is why a lot of people mix anarchy and communism, which is fine because I was sort of communist when I was younger. Everyone would help one another out. And I know this is difficult. I mean, look at the kids you work with. They don't function in society, they wouldn't help and it's generational... I'm sorry I'm rambling on."
Anarchists don't walk on pavement!

"You aren't. I like it."

"I think I ramble on more now, thanks to my medication. Do you think I'm different?" Since she realized that social anxiety had long been a pervasive influence on her life, she has taken a couple of pills a day, one to combat the anxiety and one to remind her heart to ignore the pacifying suggestions of the first pill.

"Maybe, but I wouldn't call it rambling. You are expressing yourself now. You aren't different, you are just more you. I remember when I first met you and instantly liked you, but I couldn't figure out why. I'm very verbal-linguistic and you were almost selectively mute, but... I'm sorry, this is about to get a little cosmic."

"That's okay, let it."

"Basically, I think I recognized the you inside the shell on an intuitive level, even as my conscious mind sort of fought it because it wanted to make you logical. So I am now getting the version of you that I knew without knowing was there."

"Makes sense."

We return to my apartment and Daniel suggests we watch a play through of The Last of Us, which - true to his hyping - begins with an unease akin to the Dawn of the Dead remake and then continues on for another hour and a half. This soon devolves into three out of the four of us just playing on computers while munching homemade popcorn (Amber is not immune, since she is researching branches of anarchism on her phone). It is not the stuff of cinematic moments. I do not expect that Melanie will avidly recalls, a year down the line, the time she watched a play-through of a survival horror game while on Tumblr, but it is proper enough.

Around ten thirty, I announce that I am going to have to duck downstairs to take a shower and get ready for bed, since I have the last day of work for two weeks. Daniel takes his leave.

"So, will I see you in the morning?" I ask Melanie.

"When do you get lunch? Maybe I can meet you?"

I shake my head. "It's a working lunch tomorrow. I won't be able to see you. So, tonight is it?"

"I guess so."

I know I should be feeling something, but this visit had been so staccato. I see her, then I work, then I see her. I don't feel we've connected in the way we did last time, but I also don't know that we need to anymore. This will not be the last time. When she spoke of missing me, of missing the East Coast, I told her simply to move here upon graduation. She assures me that this is still her plan, that she cannot stomach a PhD in Colorado. Maybe I won't see her once a month or one ever six, but there will come a time when we can see one another without a plane or a day in the car. It doesn't feel dire because our souls have finally accepted that each visit isn't going to be our last and things don't need to be rushed.

Soon in Xenology: Summer. Amber's show.

last watched: Man of Steel
reading: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
listening: Colbie Caillat

Empty Chairs | 2013 | Lighthouse Keeper

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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