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Waking Life | 2014 | Six Months for Two Seconds


The figure of a labourer-some furrows in a ploughed field-a bit of sand, sea and sky-are serious subjects, so difficult but at the same time so beautiful, that it is indeed worthwhile to devote one's life to the task of expressing the poetry hidden in them.  

-Vincent van Gogh


Puzzle Pieces

I notice the curve of Caitlin's spine, framed between her sports bra top and the shiny white of her self-made dress. It occurs to me that this awareness does not bespeak "meeting a new potential friend" headspace but "writer dissecting person for later use." She is busy offering champagne or scotch to those who enter her boutique and so I do not know that she would precisely mind being rendered into useful characteristics and bits of dialogue that I will one day sprinkle over my fiction to see what germinates.

We met, such as it was, on a dating website. She listed herself as amenable to new friends and I wrote to her with the prophylactic overstatement that I am in a happy relationship and no matter how pleasant her metaphorical pants no doubt are, I have no interest in getting into them. (I think it is a pity that I feel the need to alert unfamiliar women of this fact, but I have discovered with experience that it is better than leaving it unsaid.)

She told me when and where she works and that I ought to pay her a visit. There our correspondence stalled until today, since Amber asked me to drive her to her job (she teaches ceramics to tykes in exchange for studio hours to use in creating art she can sell), a mere block from Caitlin's shop. I had an hour between dropping Amber off and spiriting her away to Easter egg dyeing. This imposed time limit would give focus to finding and assessing Caitlin, which was for the best. Lingering is just unseemly.

Caitlin has a cadence, a lilting off to an almost vibrato, that I recognize from my former fiancée Emily. Were Caitlin to call, I doubt I could tell them apart, which is a steamer trunk more baggage than a person wanting to get to know me should have to bear. She otherwise casts no resemblance, so I focus on the sight of her, essentializing her to shapes and movements, then reconstructing her. As she convinces customers, I fit together the puzzle pieces she lets slip: She owns this shop. She has a penchant for socializing with artists and intellectuals, so I am vaguely qualified for her company. She claims androgenic face blindness, or just a poor memory when it comes to faces, but she brightly greeted me the moment I stepped into the shop despite having only seen a couple of profile pictures. She made a solid shelf and has knowledge of the composition of the paints she used on the walls and floor. She once worked on a lobster boat. She sings with friends in a bar on Sundays. I may have a corner piece, but I don't have enough to figure out the picture. Some pieces, particularly the lobster boat, seem to belong to different puzzles and I have a hunger to sit her down and suss out how it could possibly fit in. Only, of course, her understandably posh clientele demands her attention.

In the forty-five minutes I sit beside her, I witness her charm her customers. "Listen," she says to a woman contemplating three shades of sweater, "is this something you want to wear right now or tomorrow? If it is, buy it now. Otherwise, think it over." In this way, she sells a pricy sweater to a woman to stave off the spring wind. It does look fetching. Caitlin seems to care a great deal about the sartorial contentment of her customers. This is why she shoos men out of her shop or guides them toward safe gifts. "I do not want to deal with returns, which is why a man is not allowed to buy dresses for his wife." When I worked retail, my focus was on eliminating future problems for me (primarily my unemployment for lackluster sales), not my customers' lasting pleasure. Watching her is thus a strange experience. When a customer's mother asks why a dress is $200, Caitlin proudly proclaims that custom, American-made clothing that will fit beautifully is worth that. This does not earn a sale. She returns behind her desk, vexed. "I should have said, 'Oh, do you mean why isn't it $500?' I know how good all this is. People come in here and ask, 'Can't you do any better on this?' and I tell them, 'Yeah, I could probably get another hundred.'"

Likewise, I could do with at least a hundred more minutes-ideally minutes not occupied by Caitlin earning her keep-to get to sort through who she is beyond my own estimations and extrapolations, but that isn't for today.

Caitlin had assumed Amber and I were recent transplants rather than that we have been in Red Hook for two years and simply have not let our roots spread far. (I think, in fact, that she thought she might be the one to introduce us around Northern Dutchess County.) While I am open to new friends, I am fine with what I have now. I have Amber and we have Daniel. Recently, Amber's high school friend Kristina has entered the mix as a near weekly visitor to our home.

Last night, Kristina, Daniel, Amber, and I ate at a diner together, laughed over Objectivism and Scientology, then returned to our apartment to fail to watch documentaries-by which I mean, watched tangentially related Youtube videos to cleanse the palette or inform the conversational courses. It is humble, but it fulfills us. (Amber and Daniel describe themselves either as introverts or recluses. I would not complain if excitement were to happen around me as long as I had a pen and a star to steer her by.) I cannot quite fathom that Caitlin is the sort to be too impressed by a detailed deconstruction of an ET rip-off meant to shill McDonald's.

As much as I adore Kristina now, I admit to not thinking too much of her when I first met her because my default setting is still "snobby jackass" because I have quite enough people who I feel understand me and I don't wish to be spread too thin. She seemed quiet and dreamy, the sort of woman one either falls in love with or disregards. In appearance as well as well as demeanor, she was not too different from my original interpretations of Amber (which should have been clue enough, since Amber is leagues deeper than I initially thought). However, having already fallen for Amber, that slot in my life was filled. I thus regarded Kristina for the most part as the only one of Amber's high schools friends worth remembering.

I had seen her a few times before I began to grok her, always thinking I had figured her picture out without effort. Once, we went to a Halloween party at her house where people played with foam swords and she fretted about building a fire to keep us warm. Another time, we joined her at the Dutchess County Fair, where I was too annoyed by allergy pills to be good company. Last before actually getting to know her, Amber and I went to a bonfire at her house (different house), but the conversation was dominated by a loud, anime-obsessed woman who seemed to cow Kristina.

The first time Kristina came over, I wasn't certain to make of her, especially in conjunction with Daniel. Our plans were no more exciting than pizza, perhaps a movie or video game, and working on a novella together. I was almost embarrassed by the humbleness of our mutual introversion that night, but it suited Kristina just fine. Within an hour, I felt as comfortable with her there as I would with Amber or Daniel, which is high praise.

She soon added me on Facebook and, intermixed with her textspeak retorts to friends, I saw several impassioned economic dissections of articles that were a bit beyond me. She had perspectives of which I knew little, modalities I did not anticipate. This quiet, dreamy schema into which I had insinuated Kristina burst with the addition of this piece of the puzzle and I realized I had never begun to see the full picture and needed to start solving it afresh. As comfortable as I was and am in her company, I knew then that I didn't quite know who she was or how she functioned. She bridged the gap between a background character-the sort central casting keeps on file for return roles-and the protagonist of a story of which I had seen only the cover.

Soon in Xenology: The perils of poverty. Praise and negotiation. Knowing murderers.

last watched: Venture Brothers
reading: The Disaster Artist
listening: Lorde

Wedding Invitations | 2014 | Six Months for Two Seconds

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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