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The Presence of Predators | 2017 | David and Grillades


You're something between a dream and a miracle.  

-Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Dr. Susan

You seem like a lovely sort and I have a dearth of mindful PhDs in my life (like... one, who also studies the Native American origins of Bigfoot mythos). If I were an element, I'd be lithium. If I were an insect, I'd be a mantis. If I were a food I'd be sesame chicken. If I were an animal, I'd be a spider monkey. If I were an ice cream flavor, I'd be mint peanut butter chip. If I were a garment, I'd be my mid-thigh hoodie. If I were a writing implement, I would be a carbon fiber fountain pen with emerald ink. If I were a god, I would not be a god.

I knew a guy who, after returning from climbing a mountain, found only Cheerios and a block of cheddar cheese in his kitchen, which he ate with gusto, one to each fist. He swore it was the most delicious combination ever and did not understand why everyone didn't know this.

He repeated his culinary experiment when he was not ravenous and found he experience revolting.

I am too hungry to be trustworthy.

I am prepared for meeting with Susan to amount to nothing much because I want it more than I have for a long time and I cannot suffer through being disappointed again. I have liked people in this past year, but that was the crux of it, liking. I don't want to merely like someone. I want it so I can't help smiling at my edges when I see a message from them.

I tell Amber morsels I have uncovered in our conversation - she is involved with a stand-up standup comedian, she is wry and witty, she lives only a town away, she is a philosophy professor - but not so much that she will be unable to be clearheaded about the potential friendship. If she does not get good vibes, I will respect her intuition even if I feel differently. I need a Devil's Advocate in friendship because I want to dive headlong into the potential for a connection.

Susan and I have been exchanging bantering, almost fond messages composed of a barrage of questions for the other for two weeks before I ask when she would like to meet me. From her first response, it was a foregone conclusion that we would meet if I had my way. Susan suggests "tea and cakes and ices," handily boost my esteem of her by referencing my favorite Imagist poem.

I have been trying to ferret our new friends for nearly a year, since learning of Daniel's coming exodus. I have met some fantastic people, but most were first dates with no intention of a second. It is nothing against them, they were just people I like without the potential of adoration. They were not my people.

I am infatuated with Susan and have admitted as much to her because I have no poker face. She is clever and funny. She knows deeply a subject I do not - she is a philosophy professor with a doctorate - so I will have no end of topics on which to pester her to relieve the burden of my ignorance. Since this is platonic - though she is polyamorous, I am monogamous, though we both espouse interests in acquiring new friends - the internet informs me I am suffering a "squish" and not a crush, which is both too earthy and twee to say outside quotation marks.

I realized after arranging this meeting that I did not know what she looked like. Since we both copped to having cyberstalked the other - it is the internet age and we would be remiss not to do our due diligence against sex offenders and serial killers - I did not see an issue in searching social media for a picture. In the one I can find, her eyes cast playfully out of frame, her hair in plaits, a smile like a swallowed laugh. She looks already like my friend, one whom I have not seen for a time and with whom I am overdue to have dinner. Of the dozens of question we have made sport of asking one another, Dr. Susan the Philosopher said the only supernatural with which she might truck was destiny. I want us to have been meant to be friends, for this to bloom into something more than another social media acquaintanceship.

David will be unable to meet us this time, which may be better. Though I would love a couple as friends, my contact is only Susan, as her contact is only me. She knows of Amber exclusively though my boasting. I would be aghast if someone didn't like Amber - it would be a fatal character flaw - but I have detested the partners of those I cared about, usually with good reason. I wouldn't imagine that someone like Susan would be attached to an unsuitable partner, but I have seen it before. Further, the partners of my friends have not liked me, for reasons varying from terminally stupid to retrospectively justified. It's best that I make sure Amber and I get along with Susan first before throwing another person into the dynamic. Let her be unbalanced this once.

I am choosing to be anticipatory for this meeting, edging on anxious. The internet suggests cancelling plans is akin to heroin, but it would only delay the inevitability gestating from her proper reply to my initial message. We are meant to meet, even if it comes to nothing else. I feel the impulse toward this meeting like the draw of music. There is potential this solitary meeting becomes a more serious and lasting friendship, but I cannot proceed with this fantasy as a foregone conclusion. We will have tea and talk and that will be that. It will not be an interview of any stripe, just a casual hello and a warm beverage.

"What will be your safe word?" I ask Amber before we arrive at the cafe.


"So, if you at any point say the word 'stop' in conversation, in any context, I should flip the table and we'll make our escape while Susan tried to recover from a tea scalding?"

Amber considers this a moment. "Yes, absolutely."

I know her only vaguely by sight, one angle of one picture. I am not an academic with students who have unfiltered access to the internet. She has every reason to be stingy with her pictures. She has much fuller access to pictures of me, as they litter the internet owing to my photographic promiscuity and need to market myself. She will have to be the one to approach.

Five minutes elapse past the moment set for our meeting and I consider maybe she won't. Maybe she forgot or chose the wrong place or decided this was unwise, stranger that I am even after two weeks' conversation. These are all unlikely. I arrived tens of minutes early to arrest the possibility that I would be late, that she would be sitting here alone, scanning the crowd for my face in three dimensions. I hate being late, making people wait any amount of time. I will apologize, on occasion, for being on time.

Susan spies me through the window, nearly jumping in recognition. She looks fractionally different from her picture, but I affirm my earlier assessment that she looks like she is already my friend. There is a comfort in her expression, an ease of conversation with the ice already smashed into a vapor. She grins like this friend, speaks like that. She tells me how she has expunged her Texan roots from her mind and I reminisce how Daniel orphaned himself from his own Arizonan origins. I half-joked with Amber that I wanted to bring my DSLR camera and snap a picture of Susan, something that would be mine rather than purloined from the internet, but understood that this was likelier to come off as creepy than eccentrically charming. ("Eccentrically charming" is often creepy in clean clothes and an honest smile, standing in a sunbeam.)

She asks if we are eating, though I confess that Amber and I already had lunch.

"I thought this might be the sort of place where you could get brunch."

I glance at the menu, sandwiches and salads and wraps but not a pancake among them. We will have to have brunch another time and I say as much, setting a second date before we are a hundred words into the first.

She gets herself a drink and, because this is not enough to use her card, offers to buy us something to make up the difference. Amber settles on a cranberry scone, though it is too dry in the way of scones and Amber keeps saying a cinnamon scone would have been better.

The conversation is lively, though it feels to mostly be between Susan and Amber, which I do not mind. I like spectating conversations until the right thing to say occurs to me, otherwise I feel I am just filling up silence. I have had ample time to feel her out in letters, which is my preferred method of initially knowing someone. In person, I am initially either too shy or exuberant, neither of which are conducive to getting to know one another.

I know a little of her biography from my internet research, a fact about which I am no longer cautious when I prompt that she earned her doctoral degree in Indiana so how did she end up here?

Susan has an expiration date, perhaps. She scored her professorship only recently and its term may be two years, though it may turn out to be more or less. Many of the faculty have assured her that they earned their tenure track positions from such humble beginnings, though this is the survivorship bias; the ones who did not receive more permanent employ are not there to have their say. She applied to several other universities and was grateful to find her position on the East Coast, where she could prefer to be. She has not ceased to apply to other colleges and universities until one grants her tenure.

"So, in your messages, you mentioned hiking in the Ice Caves," she says. "Is that a real place?" This is a wise question, as I do write fantasy and employ colorful and unlikely descriptions because I think it is amusing. I might have contrived "Ice Caves" the way others do chimeras.

"Oh yes!" I say, smiling. "They have blueberries. It's over by..." but I cannot think of a proper location, so I wave vaguely toward Kingston.

"And it's only in the winter?"

Amber shakes her head. "In the summer, the caves are still icy."

I believe we have won Susan's interest with this geological anomaly that has berries, a feature which cannot be overstated.

There are a few pauses where I wish to interject something so we all keep talking and she forgets she needs to go grade papers. We linger over media, which is a safe topic until other footholds are more securely established.

Susan mentions that David, her stand up stand-up partner, is somewhere west right now. He is the real deal, not some casual jokesmith. He drives himself twelve hours to perform and then drives back, a duration of road time that would require a honed sense of humor to arrest utter madness. He has friends in the industry who offer him gigs and he appreciates the proximity to trains that can take him to New York City, but he does not presently have the connections that would help him locally.

When I get up to pee - this conversation and the Earl Grey tea I sipped between adding more honey has overexcited my bladder - Amber is in the midst of relating to Susan the story of our honeymoon in the northern Californian food desert. Before I leave, I tap her on the shoulder. "Don't forget to tell her about the emu."

We part after a few hours in this café, as she has professorial duties than need accomplishing before Monday. Outside, we see that she has parked behind us and she adds, "I'm not stalking you."

It is raining enough that my phone buzzes with flash flood warnings. We stand around without umbrellas or any more protection from the storm than our clothing provides. I do not want to part already, though I know already there will be another time and another after that. Both because I want to and because I know it will give a reason to part properly, I tell her I am going in for a hug, which she likes. She smells herbal and familiar and I give her an extra squeeze. When I retreat, Amber hugs her as well.

Soon in Xenology: Apocalypse. Imbalance. Meaning.

last watched: Stranger Things
reading: A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares
listening: They Might be Giants

The Presence of Predators | 2017 | David and Grillades

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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