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Of Authors and Uncles | 2011 | Eulogy for Kelley


Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure.  

-Rainier Maria Rilke


How the Dragon Got a New Lair

Xen was a man. Or at least a dragon man. Or maybe he was a dragon.

I am signing up for a discount card at a grocery store when I get the call, asking me if I would accept the job. I did not even manage to get home from the interview. I stammer that I accept, of course, trying to find a scrap of paper so I can write down what paperwork they need from me on Monday in order to move forward with my employment.

I call Amber and ask her for the most celebratory food she can think of. She settles on cake and reminds me that she already intended to bring a small bottle of champagne tomorrow. Now we will have a good reason for it. I then call my mother and say, affecting sadness, that I will have to move. She realizes my meaning and shouts her congratulations, affirming that the hour commute absolutely means I will have to relocate.

I thought I had done well enough in the interview, but have long since abandoned believing my level of qualification and aplomb in an interview bore any correlation to my employability. I had arrived early - which is apparently a faux pas according to articles I have read, but it has to be better than tardiness - and chatted with the secretary about Those Kids These Days and How Things Used to Be Different. That she is affable tells me much about this facility, at least as much as that there are M&M lawn gnomes and no razor wire fences (though, of course, there are locked and alarmed doors). It makes up for the suicide prevention doorknobs in the bathroom that cause me to become trapped for a minute. The last time I interviewed at a residential center - what others largely seriously call "kiddy prisons" - it bore all the marks of its adult equivalent. Where I interviewed today is a low security center in the middle of the country. In my research, all I pulled up was that local college students teach the residents poetry, which suggests to me that these are not the irredeemable thugs implied to exist at the other facility - murderers and rapists who would be expected (in fact, all but allowed) to assault me at a whim. When I interviewed today, I walked past a few of the residents and they seemed no worse at first blush than those I encounter daily while substitute teaching at an inner-city school. During the interview proper, two people scrutinized my resume and asked questions when necessary: why I no longer worked at this job or that, what this program I had used involved, why my novels take place in this area. Then, one of the interviewers played at being one of the residents and I dealt with him as I would any of my students. That I was compassionate, yet respectful and firm, seemed to impress him, but how else should one approach this population? I am not certain when I got the job, but I think it was decided before I left, as they had begun saying phrases like, "When you take the job" and "when we offer you the job." I do not know what was different this time, what they found lacking in all other comers that I possessed. I later suggest that, given that the interviewers mentioned that at least two of the five applicants to have made it this far are female, it might come down to my being the only male whose application was passed onto them.

Leaving the grocery store, I feel disconnected from reality. It has been over two years since I have had a steady job. I am uneasy with the idea that I might not have to struggle and live by each paycheck. Doing so was difficult, but I had grown accustomed to it. It is what I know now. To have a job that pays me for twenty hours more than I otherwise have to work almost fifty hours a week for now - one that finds my service valuable enough to offer me medical, dental, vision, and retirement - is a stunning turnabout and a vindication of what I had long hoped about myself despite the pain of the recession.

Part of my ego had been fractured by my inability to find gainful employment, making me meek. I was made to feel inadequate as I was again and again passed over for applicants who seemed far greener, living with the specter of eviction over my head every month. Last year at this time, I was subbing and barely meeting my bills (though I did). I panicked my girlfriend was going to leave me (and she did). Now I have a stable relationship and will soon have a state job with benefits. On paper, this is what I have long wanted.

This job and its requisite move means that Amber can now live with me. I will make enough money to support us until she gets a job. (She is more flexible in her employment requirements than I am, as she wishes only that it is at least part time and not excruciatingly boring, meaning it involves in no great proportion phones or food. I tell her she is not permitted to take a job that forces her to work weekends.) She admits that this step is scary and sudden, but expresses confidence that this will all be fine, that we will find a suitable apartment at the right price (which is at or under $800 a month, which surprisingly narrows the options quite a lot in the Hudson Valley). We suss out, too, what we require in our future home: likely an electric stove, as many utilities included but definitely heat and water, ideally pastoral with a nearby area where I can run, not a half hour drive to any entertainment or culture (preferably walking distance), a nearby post office (so Amber can mail out her crafts), no roommates or landlord in the same building, unfurnished (since we have too much furniture), closets, a proper internet connection (though we have no need for cable).

In these three years on my own, I have grown accustomed to certain routines and wonder at continuing these when we share a home. I need to exercise at least four days a week if I am to keep my happiness and health, something I tend not to do when Amber is around because I think it is rude to work up a sweat without her help. I then realize that I would be delighted to sometimes use my elliptical while she plays a video game, finding this the perfect concession. If only all issues we will face can be so easily resolved.

I need to figure out, too, what foods we can eat. She tends to say that she is good with anything, which I know cannot be true. Amber jokingly suggests that we can eat nothing but toast sandwiches, but we do need to figure out a more diverse menu than the pasta and turkey burgers I currently feed her.

I think through issues I had when last I lived with a partner and those I have witnessed in other relationships to enumerate to her in hopes of forestalling them in our domesticity. In brief:

  • Do not throw out all my dish sponges without telling me.
  • Do not put bleach on the clothes when you mean to use detergent.
  • If there is something you own that is complicated to wash and you know how to wash it, do not presume I have any idea.
  • Ask me to do things and I generally will. Glare at my head and I will cower.
  • If I am cleaning, I am not trying to guilt you into cleaning. I just decided to tidy up.
  • If you are hungry, say, "I am hungry, are you hungry?" and we will begin making food.
  • I only know how to make so many things, but I will eat just about anything.
  • Please do not have sex with anyone else.
  • Do not take money out of my wallet without telling me. It confuses me.
  • If you find surprising money in your pocket, please consider whether I have recently given you my half of the rent and do not spend your windfall before mentioning it.

Amber assures me that none of these will be a problem, as she likes having dish sponges, rarely uses bleach, is less complicated with her washing then she should be, and would like to learn to make more things but tends to be overly cautious with raw meat. As for money, she does not care for it and won't pilfer mine.

She adds from her own (roommate, not partner) experience:

  • If I leave my stuff in the way, just tell me rather then complaining about it to other people.

We discuss, too, what chores we actually like doing (washing dishes and laundry, vacuuming and sweeping, cleaning windows) and tend to avoid (bathroom stuff and cleaning the refrigerator).

She wants to know what she can do in order to make me excited about this transition rather than worried. I offer that she could find us the perfect apartment, teleport our stuff there, and get me my security deposit back, which she rules as perhaps a little beyond her abilities. There are parts of this move that do excite me. I cannot wait to see how Amber will decorate, creating a space that is equal parts the two of us. When we are settled, when I spend every night with Amber asleep on my chest and wake to her kisses, I will feel that this was all worth it.

I think I feel better having had these conversations, but what I want most is to be sleeping beside her, which makes it clear her part of this transition is firm. This is not to say she does not frighten me. Things between us are lovely right now, I cannot help but be concerned about adding anything that might tip the scales. I do think this will work well because neither one of us is selfish in our relationship, but it is my nature to over analyze.

I fall asleep quickly but wake up after a few hours. For the rest of the night, I do not even rest. My mind will not cease buffeting adrenaline through my body, urging me to figure out a place to move immediately, before the snow comes. Every doubt, every bit of worry and panic, floats at the surface of my mind and will not be quieted until I figure out individual solutions that I will be unable to institute for a month.

As for this time to not be utterly fruitless, I sign online and write Amber the following message:

I keep waking up from vivid dreams and hoping the whole night has passed. No such luck. I am scared, as you might imagine. Of course, I want a real job. I haven't had benefits in over two years (not that I did much with them when I had them last time). It's just a very large change that I have to plan for and execute. And yes, when it is all finished, I will be in a home with you, leading the life I could not previously believe would be possible so soon. Feeling, if anything, like a real person rather than someone perpetually waiting for his life to begin. But it is nevertheless a daunting change. What if I find the job too difficult? What if we are not as compatible when money is thrown into the picture? What if I cannot find anywhere decent for us to live? I warrant that these are typical jitters - it would be weird if I were not thinking these things - but I nevertheless have them. In a way, I am used to the difficulty of my current life, since I have been doing it for so long. I am used to my relationship being much more uncertain and reliant on external factors. I love you to bits and you are stable, but I cannot deny that I fret a bit that you will pull off your mask (don't do that, I love your face) and be the worst parts of Melanie or Emily.
Here is the thing, when stressed, I have the maladaptive tendency to catastrophize. I can't breathe through the incremental steps, I just have to swallow everything at once. I had nightmares about my boarding school job for a month before I moved (as, in retrospect, I should have).
You are in this with me, my main ally given that I am dragging you along like a rag doll. So, it is going to be to you that I say these things at three in the morning.
I am scared. This is better than the initial fright, but I am still a bit shaky and worried. I am getting what I want, if not exactly as I would have wanted it (except for you. I do want you), but that is no less unnerving. I wish I were a little more ready or that this were a bit better.
I hope you are dreaming right now. I love you. I cannot wait to see you.

She replied:

I was actually asleep for once, and I am there for you even when I'm asleep, so you can always call if you want too - if I'm too asleep I may not answer or be very confused for a bit though. It is scary, but we do have some time. Honestly, I'm not entirely sure it's sunk in with me completely but I also tend not to worry too much except about the incredible amount of things I'm trying to get done in a short time or that the world simply doesn't work they way I want it. Either way, things tend to work themselves out as long as I actually work on them rather than procrastinating. I understand worrying that I'll end up being similar to an ex and such, as I have similar fears in reverse that I'll end up being something you don't expect or want, but I don't actually see that happening as, so far, nothing I've done seems to bother you as much as it does some people. Also I'm learning to trust you and be more open than I have before. I think it will go well and I'm really excited that I'll get to see you more and be moving out of here. I feel the same about how moving would be a good thing in the path of becoming a real person rater then a bit stuck as I have/had been feeling, especially before I had met you. And I can't wait to see you either!

At the very least, I feel that we understand one another. I managed to get through a full day as a fifth grade teacher - I am not wholly certain how and definitely felt my body rebelling against effort - and think I am functional despite my sleep loss. However, by the time Amber gets to me that evening, I am so delirious that I insist I am now a dragon (my hair is specifically a dragon independent of the reptilian nature of the rest of me, as it refuses to obey the edict of my brush). I intermittently roar at her so she is aware that she has wandered into a dragons lair and should be mindful not to step on my treasure. Toher credit, she roars back.

As I am already punch drunk from sleep deprivation, I nix the champagne and cake making until tomorrow and instead focus on a celebratory dinner of abysmally average Korean barbecue. I look at myself in the mirrored walls and can't help but feel like a stranger looks back. I have heard that every hour of sleep one doesnt get is the equivalent of one alcoholic drink. By this metric, I am stumbling about with most of a six pack under my belt.

We then go to a friends birthday gathering at a local wine bar. I can focus only on Amber, though, and so talk to her about the life we shall soon be leading, as woman and dragon. The hostess Tara chats with us a little, but has her guest to keep her occupied, thankfully, as I am certain I make for poor company tonight.

I wake the next morning and mentally review the prior night.

"Was I," I ask Amber, "at any point last night sure I was, for instance, a dragon?"

"You were a dragon," she says. "Happens to everyone."

"I'm sorry anyway."

She roars at me, gently, and I kiss her. We make cupcakes and drink half a glass each of champagne from spider glasses she bought me last month. With her, this whole situation feels surmountable, even a bit easy and thrilling. I am a bit grateful that, when she leaves to travel south to visit relatives for Thanksgiving, she will be able to tell people that her boyfriend is gainfully employed.

When I go in Monday to fill out paperwork, I am introduced to some other members of the staff, including the man who will be my mentor. I am shown around, told I can have a free lunch there daily. After asking the residents to applaud my hiring, a counselor asks me to follow him out to a gazebo so he can get a bit of sunlight.

"I want you to know that you can't come in here and make them change," he says as though he fears this is my unspoken plan. "You can offer them change, you can put it out to them, but they are the ones that have to take the initiative to change. You are just there to teach them."

"I guarantee you, that will not be a problem," I say, a bit to preoccupied with my own change to deal with the total transformation of twenty young men in a residential center.

Soon in Xenology: Kelley. Moving.

last watched: Santa Claus
reading: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
listening: Spinning Jennies

Of Authors and Uncles | 2011 | Eulogy for Kelley

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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