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A Special Place in Hell | 2017 | A Cup o Kindness Yet


To survive, you must tell stories.  

-Umberto Eco

What a Story, Thomm

"We are poaching you from Chris," I tell Sarah T, already sitting at a booth in Red Robin (because I have a birthday burger owed to me and I will cripple my friends into a sodium coma to get it).

"I told him to text you back," Sarah says. "I was sitting right next to him, asking if he did. He kept saying he would until I forced him. So, you aren't poaching."

I look to Amber and Susan in silent conference. "The opposite of poaching would be nature conservation? We are protecting Sarah's habitat?"

Sarah and Chris had come over the week before to watch The Room in preparation of seeing The Disaster Artist. Chris is out of town tonight, visiting his family for the holidays, but I, with a deficit of tact, asked if Sarah could come out and play, specifically to see the movie. I would not leapfrog his okay by asking Sarah to make her own dates. I was impressed that he said he was about to suggest she come with us.

Sarah has an open, guileless, apple pie sweet face and, in delightful contrast, the sort of devious mind that apparently seeks out my company. She will later text holiday greetings and gratitude for being added to my posse, but I have only very recently and with her addition felt I had something worth terming a posse.

Authentic friendship is crucial to my life at present. Earlier in the month, I turned off the social media's ability to know it was my birthday because the false outpouring from people who wouldn't notice if I blipped out of existence made me so much lonelier annually. Then, of course, I was incensed that more business robots realized it was the anniversary of my birth than people whom I have known for decades (the robots even gave some simulacra of heartwarming fondness that surpassed in effusiveness a texted "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" with an emoji).

I once thought I was an introvert, but that had more to do with the copious, shallow companionship options of late adolescence and unacknowledged anxiety and depression. At nineteen, introversion felt almost artful. Now, I find it justifiably isolating. I am never more content than when I am around people whom I genuinely like and with whom I can be more effortlessly myself without abridgment. Susan, I sought out based on a cunning, entertaining, and slightly intimidating profile on a dating site. It improbably seems to have worked. Sarah was a surprise, the friend of a friend I accidentally slighted one recent evening, hardly the picturesque origin of something I hope to be more lasting.

My interest in Sarah is not arbitrary. She is incisive and witty. She keeps the conversation among us aflutter with her contributions. It warms something in me to be the reason she is laughing. In short, I like her and I do not like most people, despite how badly I want and need to like people. I like also that she shares her fries with me, even when I pretend I am being healthy by ordering salad as my side.

In the tangle of conversation, I share my seasonal story of having almost married a Jewish, Christmas-loving, semi-pro martial artist and note aloud to myself, "I am not as interesting as this is making me out to seem."

We live through all the times we screwed around on the internet instead climbing a mountain on a summer evening. My toxic introversion that was so keen that I refused to leave my apartment when people from my high school class were reuniting at a bar a few miles away - not that missing a high school reunion tends to be a tragedy. To someone new, I can rattle off the distilled story of three years in as many sentences, but only because I have boiled out for them all the dullness of everydays. It is only once stories are coming out of my mouth that I remember that most people have not been the indentured servant of a boarding school for learning disabled children, done rituals with the head of druids in America, or bickered with psychometricians over art meant to implicitly test if elementary school students are Islamophobic. With age, I have accrued these tales almost without meaning, because the life rafts to which I've clung have led me to peculiar shores, but I do not realize how it sounds to other people until I see their reactions in the moment.

Professionally and personally, I have known some pathological liars, a term I mean in the clinical and not pejorative sense. Their stories tend to hit the same sort of points mine do, "Let me tell you about this borderline incredible thing, but it's really no big deal. I am sure you've had a sleepover at a major celebrity's house as a teenager, right?" My saving grace for these stories is also my near pathology: my need to write them down publicly when they happened so that I may later consult them and, in the last few years, unearth from them the skeletons of stories and essays. If doubted, I can easily pull up what I wrote, which was likely not contested at the time. (This has also saved me in breakups, when a phase of revisionism and gaslighting occurred.)

"Can I tell you something depressing?" I ask, but then think better of dragging the conversation down. "No, never mind that."

"Now you have to," Sarah insists, not unreasonably.

I relate what would amount to tragedy porn from a weaker author, a series of issues that have cropped up in my work, problems I am grateful to leave behind for the ten days of my holiday break. I laugh through the telling because I have cried, sobbing helplessly at the bottom of my stairs as Amber cradled me, but it is so awful that it cycles to black humor for me.

The fries are already salty enough without my tears.

Susan offers with a small shrug and a mock nervous smile that sometimes her student turn their work in late.

The theater is sparsely occupied this holiday weekend, most people more interested in anything other than the comedic biopic about the creation of one of the worst movies. We guffaw through the film which, while not flawless, is well worth the evening by itself. It is not necessary for anyone to see the source movie, though I am certain many will after watching. They cannot induce themselves to believe it really is as bad as The Disaster Artist makes it seem (it's worse), though reading the book would improve the experience. It stands on its own as an almost uplifting jaunt about believing in your dreams, even if they might be someone else's febrile nightmares.

When it ends, I am charmed that Sarah - along with several other members of the audience - claps, since I was intent to applaud anyway. The Disaster Artist is the culmination of years of emotional investment in a piece of media that no one in their right minds would admire. It could only be better for me if Tommy Wiseau showed up to our screening and thanked us for coming.

We walk Sarah to her car, only a little away from my own, visible now since most shoppers are snug in their beds. As we watch the fog follow the wind, we talk for close to another hour about the movie, our medications, Christmas missteps, and all those other bits of minutia that feel so important on a December night after an adequate meal and unique film.

The year started roughly for friendships. Daniel went from a weekly guest in our home to someone we see a couple of times a year. Melissa died. A friend told me she no longer wanted me in her life because she didn't think I fit there. I put myself out there, often hitting walls, then met both Chris and Susan, whose influence in my life I think is just beginning. Sarah was a latter-day addition, and none too soon. Had I not put in the work when I was low, I would not have had this night with these friends. I would feel loneliness closing in instead of this glorious potentiality.

In the last six months, I can instantly think of a few days and nights that nourished my soul. One or more of these people (along with Chris) was there when it happened, not coincidentally. These nights make me feel I am closer to the life I want to live, beside to fascinating and intricate adults about whom I am just beginning to learn. I need to continue to nurture the potential for these experiences, as small as they may seem from the outside, because they get me outside my head and into a world of which I want to be a part.

With them on this cold evening, I feel closer to the relationships media has conditioned me to expect this time of year. True, they do not live in my building for convenient shenanigans and have the tact not to surprise me with a visit (I will be in a robe, therefore never dressed to receive), but it is warm companionability. Next year, there could be the exchange of cookies and gifts, trimming trees, watching Rankin-Bass movies with hot cider as the snow drifts from the blackness. There could be, within certain parameters, eggnog, wassailing, a roaring fire.

Soon in Xenology: Apocalypse. Imbalance. Meaning.

last watched: The Punisher
reading: The Superhuman Mind
listening: She and Him

A Special Place in Hell | 2017 | A Cup o Kindness Yet

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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