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Stolen Time | 2017 | Fleeing Happiness


What we remember from childhood we remember forever - permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.  

-Cynthia Ozick

Radical Times at Lake George

The family at Scotty's

Vacations are an exercise in radical acceptance. I have little control over what happens. All attempts to pretend otherwise are fraught with friction. I am exuberant to be here yet again. If this is the paradigm with which I am presented, the vinegar I taste yearly, I intend to find it sweet, which comes from accepting what vacation otherwise entrails. I pay few expenses (aside from getting discounted tickets to Great Escape, along with meal and parking vouchers, though my union; I am no cheapskate) and, in return, I nod at the generalities.

Amber and I arrive to our annual family vacation to Lake George within forty-five minutes of the requested time of 2pm, which is nearly early for any member of the Quackenbush bloodline.

My older brother texts that he will be along shortly, going so far as to send a picture of an indecipherable body of water, but we are no fools. When he tells us this, we assume he has yet to move from his home. He could admit this and we would move on with our plans for the day, but that would not be sporting. Better to keep us guessing.

We wait near our rooms for an hour. Amber studies calculus, I read a book on the origins of the English language because neither of us understands relaxation.

Bryan, who cannot smile right

My mother notes that she has been coming to Lake George since before she was Bryan's age. We mutually wonder what she was doing here so young before realizing this would make her thirty-five. She was here with us when we were in grade school. Most vacations before and since where in Lake George, at Scotty's Lakeside Resort. To both Bryan and me, he is still seven years old.

Eventually, we collectively concede defeat to Dan's predictable procrastination. We go to our yearly tour on the Horicon, a guided trip we could narrate at this point.

When the captain announces the home of John Cannon, I immediately quip that he was the inventor of the cannon and was later executed by it, which I say so convincingly that Amber must check if I am lying for my own amusement.

When we return to shore around seven, my phone informs me that Dan is in town.

We try to find a place to eat, but are quoted an hour wait, whether we are the five of us or thirteen, including my brother's family. My family bickers over going somewhere else with worse food but a slightly shorter supposed wait, but no one wants to be the one of make the unpopular decision. I step in and make the only and deciding vote, that I am willing to wait longer for marginally better food. Plus, there is a sandwich I liked before.

Mom and Dad
I'm not sure if they like one another
or if this is a camera trick

My mother is irritated and implies my father is culpable for this wait. My father thrusts his keys at my mother and tells her to have fun without him. She looks momentarily helpless, then says she has no money to buy dinner. He returns and nothing else is said about it. I look to Amber to gauge whether I ought to be embarrassed for her witnessing marital strife, but she is too occupied making faces at our niece to have noticed the drama over her head.

We procrastinate an hour in town, then are summoned back, where we are asked to wait another fifteen minutes as another party lingers over paying.

I look at the menu outside. The sandwich I wanted is no longer offered. I accept this, if just because I am invested in this course of action and am not about to suggest we leave for spite of a menu change. It is nearly nine and I will chug this metaphorical vinegar just to have something in my stomach.

In acknowledgement of this, I order a sandwich with a balsamic reduction as a middle ground. My tongue can appreciate any figurative language that comes in the form of a goat cheese panini with a side of French fries.

Lake George
The Lake

The next morning is devoted to Great Escape. I am not, as I've mentioned before, an amusement park kind of guy. I pretended enjoyment as a child, but adulthood has inclined me toward nausea even at the sight of a twirling, jerky, inverted ride. Not only does my family consider this experience essential - and it may will be just for the tradition of it - but Amber has absolutely no qualms about rollercoasters that could efficiently get me to reveal state secrets. I try to be a good sport and go on several - more than I have in years prior - and only refuse one that Amber still indulges, a ring many stories tall that spins her back and forth like a load of laundry. There was another she wanted to attempt, which zooms through loops and up and incline before doing the whole thing backward, but I later find out that it had broken down with my niblings on it and was thereafter taken off line for inspection.

When we meet to leave, my father intones that this will be the last time we will be here. He mentioned before vacation that one of our nights of this vacation would involve a discussion of where we might go next year. I remember few vacations that were not on the shores of Lake George, often in the same room, a fact some of my partners found bizarre given that there is a wide world to explore. We went to Mystic, Connecticut once. Having visited the town on the way to Lizzie Borden's house, I struggle to think I would have found it entertaining as a child, once I walked through the eponymous aquarium. Once, we drove down to Virginia Beach, but I managed to have my panicked mother about to call the Coast Guard and I do not think my parents otherwise found it charming. We went to Hull, Massachusetts, which was an experience we are unlikely to repeat given how rundown and frankly dull the town itself was. Aside from these, we were in Lake George, which could be a bit stale since we've been here through four decades.

This is none of us

Over pizza, my father throws out the apparent qualifications for our next destination: within a four-hour drive (from him, I assume, as I am already an hour drive away), relatively close to an amusement park and water, and able not to bore three generations of us for four to five days. We throw out and discard options - Hershey Park is fun only for a day, Rhode Island is pretty and otherwise bereft of reasons to be there - before settling vaguely on Massachusetts. I try to narrow it to Cape Cod, as it is not Hull or Boston and I've been there so long ago, with a girlfriend's family both times, that it can be new again. They do not agree and the issue is apparently put aside.

To see if the hypothetical stirs anything in my breast, when Amber and I walk into town, I pretend I believe I won't come here again with my family, but this is a well-mapped country to me. I could navigate the shops with my eyes closed, the salt and savory tomato sauce of the Italian restaurant, the curry of the Indian one, the fried fishiness of the seafood shack, the burnt sugar of the candy store, the sweet breadiness of Ben & Jerry's, the incense tang of the Silvermines. I would mourn forever Lake George being wiped from the map, as I would if one of my exes died, but I have done this. I know it too well, which is relaxing but also dull. Let us find a new horizon.

My beautiful niece

If not the last time we do this, it is possibly the last time we visit Lake George with my niece Ayannah, who is going to California to study makeup and, it is quietly hoped, where she will be so successful and satisfied that she will make it her more permanent home. She nearly changed the course of the vacation, as she was supposed to go to her program this week. Dan and Becky were going to take her. It was then decided that she would start in November so she could apprentice at one of the local haunted attractions. I can think of no other reason, as she is as finished with us as a seventeen-year-old on the verge of a new life can be. I've known her since she was barely out of diapers and I love her. I am beyond impressed at the talented woman she is in the process of becoming and I can say without hesitation that she should go and make her fortune. As with Lake George, she has taken a big bite out of home and needs to leave for a while so she can see its familiarity with new eyes. Her home contains five siblings, most of whom she spends a portion of her day caring for. For that alone, in her shoes, I'd want to be on the other side of the country.

I wake Wednesday from a dream that Melissa had not died. Instead, the heroin put her in a state of profoundly suspended animation, like the titular lovers in Romeo & Juliet. This was no blessing. She had still been autopsied and embalmed and was now a shambling, rotting thing in a half-conscious agony, too horrible to look at for long.

It is the first time I remember a dream about her since her death.

She is ready to be Californian

I muck about in the lake. Amber had warned me that there was presently a water quality issue owing to too much of one bacteria or other, but I would rather squish my toes in the silt, startling fish and alarming the ducks I chased. Amber did not join me, more because she sustains a dislike of water and swimming than any specific fear of microbial parasites.

I would slog up to her, pulling myself onto the pier where she dangled her feet into the cloudy water. So long as my dampness did not encroach too far into her personal space, she seemed happy for my company.

Playing in the lake is not, in itself, fun, particularly when done alone at thirty-six. However, I mark it as a muddy baptismal. Every year my feet touch unfiltered, piscine, murky water, some of my modern detachment is cleansed. I prefer lakes, streams, and ponds to the sea. My people left the oceans for a reason and since preferred their salt from shakers than brine. I can, ankle-deep in the slick velvet of lake bed, pretend I am in a different life, one where I have a small cabin on the water's edge, where I read my stories to grateful passing deer and squirrels, where Amber tends to the needs of a flock of dairy goats while enriching herself in math and science, the complexity of which would see her burned as a witch in the Old Country.

At Lake George, any use of a computer seems gratuitous. Why bother with that senseless, flat world when so much could be done here and there is a finite amount of time in which to do it? That is always the case, even in the bitter gray of February, but I am toe-to-mantle with the Source when I am in my muck.

A difficulty with anxiety is an urge toward mind reading, a hypervigilance toward other people's thought and emotions, and a smack in the gut when you don't notice someone in your presence is unhappy.

Yesterday, Amber and I went on the Steamin' Demon at Great Escape. I realized when we got on - and thus too late to do much about it - that it tended toward half a minute of rapid jostling. I warned Amber to be ready for this, since warning was all I could do once the safety bar lowered. Still, she acquired an aching neck that ails her today and I felt guilt that I didn't warn her off it entirely, though she was the one spearheading more coasters when I would have been fine only doing slow and calm rides after my first bout of nausea ten seconds into the first ride.

You know he is up to mischief

We took a paddleboat out onto the lake. I did not realize this aggravated her neck and that the tiny waves and rocking of the plastic craft as we pedaled gave her motion sickness until she threatened to vomit over the side. We headed back to shore, which my mother helpfully informed us is a half an hour early, because she bordered on miserable from an activity that made me happy.

I feel Amber is irritated with me on this trip and recently, though she also would not tell me if there were an issue until she was about to vomit into a lake, metaphorically speaking. It represents one of my greater under-spoken fears: that she will lose the joy in me and I won't realize until there is no longer anything I can do about it. Seeming shortness with me, distraction when I am trying to have fun, has been the first symptoms that led me to singledom again.

When I have been so adored as I am by her, my hypervigilance takes itself to the nth degree.

Today was suggested to be the day we went to an outdoor adventure course with my brother and his family, but I know better than investing myself in this plan. It does not happen because we did not have the foresight to make reservations a month in advance. Dan and his brood go off to ostensibly visit Fort William Henry. The rest of us go to the outlets. Amber needs clothes for back-to-school, though we only ended up getting her a couple shirts. I accepted that this may be the course of vacation and keep from attachment toward what should be.

Dan says he will go to the adventure course tomorrow, though it is forecasted to rain, thus why we have scheduled an escape room and lunch at a chain restaurant. One course of events seems far more likely.

Victorious seagull

Thursday, during a heavy lunch, my mother sighs that vacation has gone so quickly. I am not ready to indulge this sort of thought. I have become downright maudlin that Lake George had elapsed again for the year, that I had to soon transition to a student or, now, a teacher again.

The day's main attraction was an escape room, the sort of activity that challenges my intellect in both senses. I discovered it only a week before when my parents were over having pizza and complained that we needed new activities. From the moment I stepped into the room, I was antsy to begin. Ayannah plops into a chair before the worker explains that we should not break or tear anything in the room; she would be no help and wanted us to know this. The rest of us worked together well enough to solve clues with only a few missteps. I can only imagine what the workers thing listening to familiar and couples bickering over clues. It is not often one can say their family defused a fake bomb on vacation.

This would not be the only fake bomb, but it was the only physical one.

Dan's family is its own discrete unit. It nearly does not make sense to cater to them, because they have their own needs by dint of six children between the ages of three and seventeen.

The room forces my mindset into noticing clues and finding solutions. Ayannah won't be with us next year. I think Dan and Becky would be happier without this trip. They work hard - too hard given that their leisure is CrossFit - and they play hard enough that they take several trips a year I see curated on social media. I love my family and want to be with them, even factoring in the predictable friction close quarters. Vacation ought to be a pleasure, not an obligation. That said, I am not certain how long we could prove good company for one another. Four solid days is possibly the upper limit short of some personal revelatory experience.

Lake George
I'll see you again

I cling to this experience of Lake George less (I hope) because I have other things I want to do as the unofficial social director of my dwindling friend group. Social media serves at least to direct me toward events with which to populate my archipelago of social islands. There are street festivals, county fairs, a coming wedding. Work, yes, but my job is not my life. I can't mourn that Lake George has nearly ended for this year, that we may not come again next year (though I can't imagine we will be gone long.)

Friday, we wake too early. Given that we stayed up late to drink and snack, any time prior to "immediately before checkout" is too early. My mother has tried to advocate for moving our small bacchanal to Wednesday, leaving us to our late start on a morning when we are not expected to drive hours home. For reasons of stubborn tradition, this has never taken. The post-fireworks powwow is, in its way, the last desperate throes of vacation before we part again for our separate lives, if ever we actually left them. It would make no sense to grieve a healthy patient. There is nothing to stop us from putting a dent in our snack and alcohol stocks every night, except that we don't. Dan is too busy with his children, I have a bullheaded belief that the street lit tourist town above our cabins contains anything for me any longer (though I do buy a turquoise bear fetish from someone who opened her craft fair booth a day early. I have no use for it, but it stuck in my head enough that I returned). I am not sure what Bryan wants or needs. He goes off on this own for long, secret hours or plays on his computer. I see no reason he would be averse to more food and drink. In demonstration, when Amber and I return late from watching the town shut down for the night, he is well into inebriation, asking my mother if she remembers the time he got a certificate for being on the space shuttle, which devolves into a probably fabricated downshift to his having once submitted a picture to a website that put it on a space shuttle, or maybe only a picture of one.

Beautiful wife

Amber and I mostly play with our niece Adalynn, whom we are assured does not sleep at night and who, in her three-year-old exuberance, seems as intoxicated as anyone else tonight.

The weather alternates between drizzle and downpour as we pack up our cars, which I nearly prefer. Leaving the lakeside in sunny weather is rubbing salt in a fresh wound. In the rain, we only want to be gone because there can be nothing else for us.

Since the remaining food is packed, Amber and I go to breakfast up the street. We talk over Ready Player One, the book I suggested yesterday when she asked for a recommendation and of which she immediately read a quarter. Under her umbrella, we scope out the presumptive craft fair, which is humble by the rain, many tents not bothering to open at all. We then go to the outlets again so that I can make good on Amber's decree that I buy her back-to-school clothes. I suggested entertainment in town and on the way home, but I have clung to the point of tears before and this is impossible at the LL Bean Outlet.

When we are done shopping, we just want to be home, from exhaustion but also because this is the turning of a page and not the closing of a book.

Soon in Xenology: The nature of happiness. The sound of silence. Underutilization. Infinite consequences. Abuse.

last watched: IT
reading: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
listening: Fuel

Stolen Time | 2017 | Fleeing Happiness

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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