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Comfortable in Their Skin | 2017 | Late for the Love of My Life


The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.  

-Samuel Johnson

Madeline, Who Makes Zines

Amber and I wait at Outdated in Kingston because I wrote, for the second time in four years, to a local woman on the internet dating site I use as a garden for potential new friends. I received no response last time and did not begrudge it. Women get so much harassment and illicit attention on the internet. It's impossible that some earnest messages would not go ignored and it is a far better thing than withstanding the barrage with full attention.

This time, I apologized for giving it another shot and updated her as to how my life had turned out in those four years (girlfriend is now my wife, I am working on a different book). I didn't expect anything more than my message going unread again, but her profile seemed worth another shot.

I am circumspect in my interactions with women, certain each has had their fill of men treating them solely as receptacles for sex. I assume my motivations are implicitly suspect but that preceding any first interaction with women with "I am not trying to sleep with you" would surely not improve matters.

For much of my life, I had always thrown my lot in with women over men. However, I wear the uniform of this team. A woman could not possibly know from a distance that I am not a threat, even though Daniel once described me at "aggressively nonthreatening" to a woman I met and I never forgot it. I cannot expect that this apparent aura appears as anything better than camouflage.

Maybe my existence, my gender, is threat enough. On the street the day before, on the last leg of my near daily run, I saw a likely Bard student with leggings like galaxies. I said, "You have amazing tights!"

From her look of shock and bewilderment, I understood my compliment had not been received as intended and stopped to clarify, motioning to her legs. "Your tights. They are spectacular." This set her more at ease and she gave a nervous thanks. It is only repeating this story to my in-laws later that I understand she thought I had complimented her breasts with an accent.

For this reason, I was thrilled when this dating-site woman, Madeline, replied within a day or so and suggested we meet for this breakfast.

We arrived early, which is always a struggle for us, but it gave Amber and me an opportunity to claim a table and seem as though we casually belong here. She immediately takes out her tablet and begins in on scribbling out biology notes. I take out a notebook and start writing out my thoughts and assumptions for the day.

When Madeline enters Outdated, two people immediately greet her at the door. They exchange pleasantries for a few minutes. Amber doesn't mind this, as she is studying, as she is always studying. She cautioned me that she might not be too available for conversation because she might be looking up parasites instead.

Madeline sits across from me and beside Amber, but just as quickly stands to get us menus, though I do not need one. In preparation, I looked at Outdated's site and weighed my options before landing on the greens scramble with avocado and a salad. I didn't wish to perseverate over my options once I was at the café. I offered to help Amber pick out what she might want to eat in advance, though she said she was perfectly fine with letting her stomach decide in the moment.

I have already told Madeline the essentials about Amber at this point in her life (artist turned farmer turned vet tech students turning likely doctor of human medicine), so they immediately get to talking.

It soon comes out that Madeline has more than once befriended a centenarian, and was so taken by one that she created a zine about this woman who had known Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou, had lived in Harlem during the Renaissance, had moved to Indonesia for five years in her eighties for the hell of it. She gave us two of these. We had meant to give Madeline a micro-pop popcorn popper, but it turned out she already had one - these are the sorts of well-intentioned gifts that everyone has gathering dust somewhere in their homes. Given that she rewarded our presence with her zines, I do not think it is presumptuous to, at some future date, foist upon her one of my books.

Madeline is incisive and kind. On her arm is a black tattoo of a snail whose meaning I do not get around to asking her. Her hair is as short and auburn in life as in the few pictures I have seen of her. Her face is oval and she is often given to a perfectly wry lopsided smile when she is talking on the absurdity of the world. She has travelled and returned wiser for it.

I called this breakfast a friend-date not out of any romantic tinge but because this felt different from meeting Chris when he met me while I was working No Such Convention. My digital conversation with Madeline to this point centered on death: John B. from S-Town; Melissa; a student I knew who exuded potential, but whose death became fodder for internet wags because it occurred outside a strip club (she was on her way to a swim meet and her site of death was nothing more than a tragic coincidence). It is an unavoidable fact of life, but perhaps a bit too morbid for initial contact. Still, neither of us flinched from the depth.

She talks of the inherent goodness of meeting people "in the wild," in person rather than on the internet. I do not see this as a slight against me and our meeting. Our meeting happened as it happened and no other way. This was only a statement of her philosophy and preferences, for which I cannot begin to fault her. I would have preferred to have met her in the wild, but I do not know that we would have. As it was, she could consider my profile and how I presented myself. I could be a character before I had to be in the flesh, which is tempting for any writer. In person, what would she have had to go on? Unless she caught me in a ramble to a friend in public or attended one of my mythic and paranormal lectures, I do not think I stand out in a crowd. We have a few mutual friends on social media, one whom Amber and I particularly adore, but I do not know under what circumstances this would have resulted in us having this breakfast together if not my writing letters to tempting strangers.

I do not think of myself as necessarily interesting on my own, but encountering the stimulus of a new person forces me to share stories about a negligent boarding school; watching for UFOs as research for a novel; a literally famous poetic student, said by Maya Angelou to be her successor, who was blithe about her indigenous mystic photographing mother and Black Panther father; and unwise romantic entanglements to women who loved wandering more than they could ever love me. Since I live my life one second at a time without expurgation, I tend to think I am almost dull. I see how often I sit and stare at trees, which would never pass muster during Sweeps Week. I've never traveled much out of the country - a few weeks camping around Nova Scotia when I was in college - though my travels within its borders have at least been worth chronicling. None of my novels are much read or appreciated and were probably most useful for the practice they gave me in shaping scenes. Though I know the offspring of a few celebrities and an awesome woman who went topless to be an extra in Citizen Toxie, my own accomplishments feel puny when weighed against someone else's curated misadventures. However, when a friendship is nascent, each story gets to be fresh again, once. I joke to Amber that, every time I tell a story to Madeline, the meter over my head of Potentially Interesting Things I Can Say shrinks. Once it zeroes out, I may turn mute. Until that fated moment, I get to have near strangers find me captivating enough for two-hour breakfasts and sushi dinners. Experience should show me that I have almost endless triggers for entertaining stories waiting for an excuse to unfurl. I do have over fifteen years' experience trying to make all I've loved and lost articulable and, if I am luck that day, beautiful. I do have thirty-six years of living under my belt, at least some of which was fun in recollection if not in the living. I shouldn't be surprised that this might result in a few dozen polished anecdotes of Bigfoots and masked protests. Further, and despite my apparent assumptions, my friendship might count for more than my ability to keep other people amused, particularly as I have most cherished those times with Daniel and Amber where there ceased to be a need for words.

I tell Madeline of the last time I connected instantly - the quirky and neurotic nurse from six months ago, to whom I could not figure out how to slip my contact information while she was coercing me into a flu shot - but it occurs to me after saying that I felt the wild connection to Eryn and her boyfriend Gregory at Daniel's going away party. We invited them to a Valentine's Day carnival party that was called on account of a blizzard - and that was largely the end of that. We ate at Pakt once in hopes of seeing Eryn, but she was not working that night. I might again crave a catfish sandwich if it came with a side of her company (I crave them anyway).

Madeline asks if I am writing a book right now. I tell her that I am always writing a book. I am plumping up a book inspired by Melissa (though otherwise fiction) and which I wish I could have co-written with her, germinating stories based on the talks I give at conventions, and will have to get back into editing and polishing the next book in the Night's Dream series, since I assume my two remaining alpha readers are not going to get back to me with their notes and I dislike stalling this long.

Conversation between Amber, Madeline, and me never came close to lagging, but that is the nature of things when interesting and interested people are meeting for the first time. It is obvious to say I found her charming - though I did, because she is - but I felt comfortable around her, which is a rarer quality. I have been charmed by dozens of wily people. I don't need to imagine what we would be like as friends, because we already are. It is not so easy to envision what this friendship will entail with a zine-making librarian, but it is something for which I would strive.

Soon in Xenology: Adventures. Spring.

last watched: Stranger Things
reading: Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis
listening: Letters to Cleo

Comfortable in Their Skin | 2017 | Late for the Love of My Life

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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