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Firework Apocalypse | 2017 | Too Far Away for Me to Hold


Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.  

-Zen saying

Daniel, Kest, and the Quiet

The Quiet is a fifth entity in the room, peering over our shoulders to see what we are reading, lengthening minutes to hours. I do not begrudge it, because I want my time with my prodigal Daniel to last. Kest and he arrived on Friday, in the evening. Amber and I were uncertain when they would leave again because we didn't care to have the answer. If we did not know, maybe they would never remember to leave.

As we sit with our respective books, me occasionally scribbling notes, The Quiet fills the room, draining away energy. I doze off, which bespeaks a rare feeling of safety when in a room with three other people and an intangible force. Inertia rules these interactions at home. I feel I am the only one present who wants to do things to move the day forward, but know I will be overruled by committee if I try to press my momentum on them. It is a vacation of sorts for Daniel and Kest and I will not make it about me, except in retrospective retelling.

I owe them this lazy pace because I did not grant it to them when they first arrived. We met them at Foster's Coach House in Rhinebeck. I had not seen them for close to six months, since he left because his landlord was raising his rent and, honestly, it was well past time for him to explore outside the Hudson Valley. That Kest and he wished to marry after a short engagement may have factored in to some small degree.

He visited in part because he quit his new job at the post office, which wasn't worth how little he was able to see his partner.

He wore a short-sleeved, button-up shirt. I am accustomed to him in more formal dress, even in the heat of summer - though the days of his visit are mild. Maryland is hotter than New York and his dress should reflect that. The shirt was black, so I do not have to hire a cult deprogrammer as I might had he appeared in a pastel Hawaiian print.

He complained that, after arriving in Maryland, he had put on weight such that his pants no longer fit right, necessitating the purchase of new clothes. Working in the post office more than burned all the weight, so his clothes became too baggy.

Kest looked as she always does: genderless, with owlish, John Lennon glasses and an almost childlike smirk. I cannot rule out that I would notice a massive change from her, but I have an entrenched schema.

It is not as though time had passed between our visits that would have allowed a distance to grow. Things were as they always were, though perhaps slower. Usually, Amber and I outnumber Daniel when it comes to plans, which is to say that I suggest things and Amber accedes because she is my wife, so Daniel falls in line. Now, he has Kest to affirm his testudinal nature. This, if anything, makes them work even better together, retreating to their respective shells for relaxation and reflection.

I showed off my current favorite garment, an almost fitted, mid-thigh hoodie, and then feel silly for this sartorial flourish in this modest tap house, but I was giddy at seeing Daniel again after so long and had yet to recalibrate.

In a more sensible world, I would have not bought tickets to see a community theater production of American Idiot that night, but I did not get Daniel's message until days after making my non-refundable purchase. As I saw it, the only solution was doubling down and getting them tickets as well.

The play began with such relentlessly self-serious, contrived rebellion, the cast sneering as they flipped off the audience, that I immediately doubled over laughing. There is not much play to the play. One might as well righteously extend one's middle fingers at the original Green Day album for an hour and a half, without intermission, and then decide to enlist in the military. There are maybe twenty lines of dialogue between covers of Green Day songs - all delivered as though they are profound and not weak introductions to pop-punk songs - that never coagulate into plots that amount to anything or matter, to the extent that it was hard to know characters' names. Had a class of ninth graders created the play, I would have applauded their effort but suggested that choreography while an album plays is not a musical.

We barely got outside the exit before savaging the play. It did not matter that the actors, their lids thick with runny kohl, came out to hug family members and play at fame, nor did the spittle of rain dampen our enthusiasm for critique.

After that poor attempt at entertainment, memorable as I am certain it was, I was in no position to dictate the rest of their trip.

We set up an air mattress in the studio for them, which gave them more privacy than sleeping in our living room on a convertible sofa that is uncomfortable even as a place to sit. Sequestering them here also allowed me to creep around when I wake up three hours before anyone else and write or go for a run.

There once was the beginning of a suggestion that we might live with Daniel, back when Amber and I were looking at houses. We liked one - aside from the complete lack of cell reception - that had a full bottom floor that could easily have been an apartment. We decided against the house but our tentative plan lasted long enough that I fantasized about the possibility. This weekend gives insight into what it might be like to live with them. There is a rime of annoyance on Kest's interactions toward Amber and me, because she would prefer to be left alone to read in silence. In part, it is that she regards Daniel as hers alone. We have in the past presented a direction in which her lover's attentions could be divided; we were, in a sense, competition for a finite resource, though she has long ago won that game.

I'm not sure how to regard Kest. I saved bubble wrap from a recent shipment for her, reasoning that a person who adores cotton candy and circus music also likes popping bubble warp. She looked baffled that I would offer this. When, after a long day of being watched by The Quiet, we look for a movie, Daniel cautioned that Kest won't watch horror or anything involving domestic abuse. Coupled with not enjoying comedy where friendly characters are mean to one another and you've systematically eliminated ninety percent of what we watch. (We settled on The Emperor's New Groove, which she did not enjoy.)

If Kest arrived in our lives outside of the context of Daniel, we would have been friends with her. I am not sure she would have much use for us, though. I admire her masks and the rhythm by which she lives her life. Few people can manage to make their living with a forge and masks. I am grateful that our society is not yet so corrupt that it is impossible.

I admit to not really knowing her, though. During a lazy conversation, I wonder aloud what the proper nomenclatures for their relationship might be.

"I'm her wife," Daniel says, which I had taken for a joke prior, but does seem to be his agreed upon title.

I look to Kest. "And you are not his wife?"

She explains that she is technically trans, though she was designated female at birth and still accepts those pronouns as fitting at least as well as any other. She is not comfortable with any particular gendered terminology for their marriage.

During the days, Daniel was most interested in the landmarks he knows in Kingston, restaurants and bookstores and record stores. Everyone still remembers him and a few asked if he had returned for good. I hope it is reassuring to see that he is not forgotten, that the world here has not changed so much that he would not have a place if he ever wanted it, though he cannot want it more than the life he is establishing in Maryland with his spouse.

We lingered long hours in the record store, independently and mostly silently reading. I get through a collection of comics based on the Hellraiser series and am disappointed that authors cannot make much better use of the premise of a puzzle box that punishes the curious and sinful.

Sunday, while Amber is at work, we go to Harney & Sons.

There are few experiences that replicate the first few steps through the door. The collective scent of a hundred teas conspires to wrap one in a sensory blanket, one that doesn't fall off until some minutes after one is in fresh air. Immediately within, one sees a wall of tins of tea and a few glass pots brewing. I heard that one used to be able to request as many samples as was necessary to decide, but that has been reduced to only one because of obvious abuse. I find even that to be intimidating, given that there are so many options and I tend to only like the Earl Grey in my cupboard - it is like highbrow Froot Loops - and infrequently.

I ask the man behind the counter for a lavender chamomile tea, a gift to Amber to make up for her inability to be here.

"We have yellow and blue."

"Ah. What's the difference between the yellow and the blue tea?"

He points to the tin, which is labelled "Yellow & Blue," rather than something descriptive like "Lavender Chamomile Tea." He explains that they put blue corn flowers in, since making it the appropriate shade with lavender would make it undrinkable. I request approximately seven dollars' worth, which is apparently not the actual metric by which one is meant to buy tea.

Kest asks after a caffeinated tea and our tea host - or whatever the preferred nomenclature might be - tells us a story without much preamble. He cannot indulge in caffeine, the devil's tonic. In college, he was addicted to Monster energy drinks to stay awake for studying/partying. Eventually, owing to bladder agony, he visited his doctor who said he could either give up Monster forever or face weekly dialysis. "It's pretty hard to pick up women when you have to have a machine clean out your blood three times a week, so I stopped drinking Monster. They say that withdrawing from caffeine is as bad as heroin." Tea-rista looks to a spot over our shoulders as though having a micro-Nam flashback. "I can't even be around guava anymore. I was on a road trip a few years ago and I decided I would try a Monster again. I figured that one couldn't kill me. The minute I opened the can, I got violently sick. I had to pour it out and throw away the can."

This is a hard comment to follow, so Kest and I exchange a worried look, then she deflects by asking to taste a tea. Daniel samples a tea that costs a day's wages a pound. Kest asks for a tea devised for the G8 Summit in 1997. Both unpretentiously comment on undertones and subtle notes.

I continue to sip a chocolate mint tea because I have the palate of a ten-year-old. As my tea is understandably cheap, I have our tea-rista bag up a quarter pound for pocket change.

I wonder here, no doubt drunk on tea, who I needed to poison to keep Daniel from leaving in the first place.

Kest looks agog over her tea. "You were going to poison me?"

"No," I reply instantly. "I can't see how that would help. Maybe someone at his bank?"

Daniel shakes his head. "No, the property manager at my old apartment."

"But you have a better living situation now," I say.

"Except for shower length."

Kest points out that Amber and I were a factor in his leaving, since she can provide things we cannot.

"We couldn't support Daniel, except emotionally," I agree. "I accept my part of the blame."

She sips her tea. "My dying would make him return."

I shrug, because I consider most angles from a purely storytelling perspective and have played that out. "Yeah, but he'd mope for... twenty years and I can't have that. He really hasn't liked anyone who was good for him as long as I've known him. So you get to keep him forever."

This comment seems to be the one that makes her like me.

That night, we have Mexican food from the restaurant in town, then walk to Holy Cow, which has the best ice cream cash can buy and is a necessity for anyone passing through. After so heavy a meal, I am content just watching Daniel get a cone.

On our way home, though it was dark, Kest spies a horned beetle crossing the sidewalk. She picks it up, cooing over it, and says she will make it a mask. She urges it into Amber's pen case. When we get home, she pops it into a coffee cup and puts it in the freezer; insects are reluctant mask-wearers if they are still animate.

Monday morning, Daniel slinks up the stairs, saying he is glad I am up because they are going to leave. Kest's mother in Massachusetts needs help moving out of her house. If I were not up - or if I had already gone for a run because I was not certain what the day would bring - I'm not certain what he would have done, if he would have left without my notice.

I hug him. He says this worked out better than he expected, though I'm not sure what he anticipated going wrong. Possibly that we would make them sleep on our uncomfortable sofa. More likely that I would alert interested parties to his visit and burden him with activities and company. I knew better than that if I wanted him to return.

"Should I wake Amber?"

He hesitates only a moment before saying I should.

She is already standing in the doorway to our bedroom in her pajamas, looking bleary to be awake after only nine hours in bed. He shakes her hand, then points out that I got a hug.

Kest and he shower, give another round of goodbyes, and are gone.

It does not feel strange or terminal, as it did when first he left. This visit was not heavy with meaning or need. It was merely a visit and won't be the last.

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

last watched: Last Week Tonight
reading: The Burning by Jane Casey
listening: Kate Nash

Firework Apocalypse | 2017 | Too Far Away for Me to Hold

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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