Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 6: Mélange à Trois

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For many “liberated” women, the kitchen is a four-walled metaphor for oppression, but not so for Morgana. Nothing makes her happier than being in the kitchen, creating a “Mélange à Trois,” which is her very own term for an improvised “dish” containing any three (or more) ingredients that somehow work together. When they don’t, which isn’t that often, it’s still OK—there’s always some sauce, condiment, or attitude that can be concocted to coax a culinary misfit into palatability.

Morgana’s big problem in life is not that she doesn’t have what she wants, but that she’s generally happy with what she has. Whereas most people would wring their hands in the absence of the one component essential to the success of their present endeavor, Morgana would jerry-rig the underpinnings of potential despair into a reasonable facsimile of the missing item, and, voilà! Problem solved! Well, kind of—her ability to survive and thrive with less, and improvise or ignore the rest, is a strength that so many people lack, but she has it in spades; so much so, to her detriment, that it prevents her from demanding and getting more from life. While she never thought of herself as a passive person, she was surprised by how passive she’d become over the years, particularly in her relationship with Jack. That certainly was not the way she was brought up.

Morgana grew up in a slightly-seedy, but charming, area of Brooklyn, just a couple blocks from Prospect Park. Ever since she could remember, she considered the Park her very own backyard. It was one of the things that always made Morgana feel rich. Morgana’s father, Lester, was a very decent plumber and a clever handyman who worked for Willie, an elderly Jewish man who had survived the Holocaust. Willie owned many crumbling apartment buildings all over the neighborhood, including the also-crumbling, five-storied apartment building in which they lived. Morgana’s mother, Myrtle (who, in so many ways, bore a striking resemblance to Tugboat Annie) ran Willie’s Laundromat, which occupied the ground floor storefront of their building, right there on the Avenue.

Morgana and her sisters were not exactly latchkey kids, since their mother was always just eight flights down and right around the corner in the Laundromat. It was there in their mostly-motherless kitchen that she learned to love cooking. Her mother used to brag that her kids were so NOT fussy that they would eat shit—as long as it was fried on both sides. Held fast to the dented, round-shoulder, dull-white Frigidaire by a neat border of masking tape, a handmade cardboard sign reinforced the kitchen creed: “Eat it up, Wear it out, Make it do, Or do without.” Her mother had made that sign after reading the poem in the “Hints from Heloise” column in one of the dog-eared, disheveled newspapers that the customers would leave forgotten on the aluminum-legged, orange plastic chairs dotted with cigarette burns in Willie’s Laundromat. Maybe that’s how Morgana also began to love poetry and household hints.

They generally ate poor people food, which was so very good, and made all the more delicious by the talking, laughing and camaraderie of her sisters as they invented their own recipes and culinary guidelines: sugar and butter sandwiches made from Wonder Bread and Blue Bonnet Margarine; there was also canned meat like Spam, Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Hormel Chili, and Chef Boyardee everything and anything. Meal preparation was always so much fun and really easy: just round up just about anything left over or languishing in the fridge. If there’s mold or anything on it that doesn’t look or smell too good, just cut or scrape it off, and if you want to get really fancy, just go ahead and run it under the faucet for a few seconds, but not too much, especially if there’s gravy or something good on it. Then chop it all up kind of small and then mix it all up with a can of Chef Boyardee anything with about a teaspoon of salt. If the “casserole” is too dry and tasteless, you’ll wind up with something her mother would have called “asshole cement,” so in order to avoid that, be sure to add ketchup. Oh, but what to do if (as often would be the case) there’s hardly any ketchup left? If there’s time and money, just run down to Mr. Ling’s Corner Grocery and BUY some! Well, there might be time but usually not money, so just put some water in the bottle and shake it up—good and hard if the ketchup is kind of dried up—but don’t uncap it near your face or the bottle will “fah-schitz” a ketchup bomb into your eyes” (as her eldest sister, Jewel, used to say), “that’ll sting like a bitch” (as her mother used to say). It seemed that Morgana and each of her sisters would have to learn that painful lesson the hard way!

As she retrieves a can of black beans from the pantry, she remembers how Jack always used to make fun of her proclivity for cooking with canned food. He once made up a new verse for a Christmas song, which became a family classic: “Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays, so no matter how far away you ro-o-o-oam…If you like to eat food from cans in a million ways, for the holidays you can’t beat home-sweet-home!” How she loved it when Jack was funny—even when she was the object of his humor, just as long as it wasn’t too cruel.

She chops up two big sweet potatoes, four carrots, two inches of fresh ginger, two jalapenos, and four cloves of garlic (and the only thing she peels is the garlic) and simmers it all in a few very healthy squirts each of soy sauce, lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar for five minutes or so. Then she stirs in three good glops of creamy peanut butter, and brings it back to a simmer. In the meantime, she opens up the can of black beans, drains and rinses them and dumps them on top of the whole mixture. Then, just for good measure, she packs in as much raw, chopped kale as she can fit into the pan, covers it, and turns the burner off, letting the simmering mixture warm the beans and coddle the kale. This was a dish she had created on the spur of the moment years before for a Kwanzaa potluck celebration at the church. Everyone had loved it, and it had thenceforth become known as “Morgana’s Kwanzaa Surprise.” She also would internationalize it up a bit by serving it with different bread options, so if one were to serve it with bagels, it would become Morgana’s Jewish Kwanzaa Surprise; with spring roll wrappers, it would become Morgana’s Asian Kwanzaa Surprise; with tortillas, it would become Morgana’s Mexican Kwanzaa Surprise; etc.

The word “surprise” often found its way into the names she would give to her invented dishes. When people would ask her what the “surprise” was, she would tell them the surprise was that people would (1) eat it, (2) like it, and (3) go back for more. She had a few standard criteria for her cooking. She didn’t like to use the oven unless she was using it for several dishes at the same time because she considered it an inefficient use of energy. She also didn’t like to overcook vegetables because she thought the best way to eat them was just at the point where they could no longer be deemed raw. Meals had to take less than a half hour to put together and they had to taste good. There also had to be enough because surely, someone, if not everyone, would go back for seconds, and also because, you never knew when there might be an extra person or two showing up unannounced for dinner. Her family had gotten used to random people at the dinner table. Whoever was around when it was dinnertime, was always welcomed and made a fuss over, whether it was a neighbor, one of the kids’ friends, door-to-door religious zealots, or magazine salespersons.

She sets the table for two, both chairs facing the kitchen window, then heads to the living room, flops down on the couch to watch the news while waiting for Rocky, and promptly falls asleep.

“Hey, Morgana!”

She snorts herself awake as Rocky calls her name. She shuts off the babbling news reporter and leads Rocky into the kitchen.

“How’d it go, Rocky?”

“I know what the doctors are saying at this point, but I’ve got great plans for Jack. I can see his color getting just a bit better every day. Sometimes I can feel just a little resistance from his muscles, a little bit of tone that I didn’t know was there. I still think this is not a permanent condition.”

“Do you really, Rocky? Or are you just saying that to keep me hopeful?”

Before he can answer, Morgana sets a heaping plate of something green, orange and steaming that is decorated around the edges by artistically cut-up corn tortillas.

“Dig in!” she says, and without further ado, he does.

“Wow! This is great! What is it?”

“This is what we’d call ‘Morgana’s Mexican Kwaanza Surprise.’ It’s one of my favorite dishes—it’s got carrots, sweet potatoes, black beans, and kale!” she replies as she herself digs in with gusto.

Rocky pauses to answer her previous question. “I really think Jack’s got more of a chance than the doctors are saying, and as far as the hopeful part of it goes, it can only help.”

They both notice the red-orange haze of the deepening sunset at the same time and share a moment of quite reflection.

“I guess you’re the poster child for hope, right?” she says, without a bit of rancor in her voice.

“Absolutely! Even though being born in the wrong body isn’t exactly like having a stroke, I’m well acquainted with hopelessness. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do and I couldn’t be who I was. I was paralyzed by the fear of losing the respect of everyone who had ever loved me. I was so depressed, but I managed to hide even that from everyone around me. Hiding the real me was the one thing I was really good at. The one saving grace was that it’s more acceptable for a girl to be a tomboy than it is for a guy to be feminine.”

“When did you realize you were really a boy?”

“I guess when I realized that I hated being a girl! It started before I can remember, and it was gradual. Whenever I would get a doll as a present, the first thing I would do would be to rip the head off. My parents thought I was some kind of psychopath. I hated little pink sweaters, and wearing ribbons and bows in my hair, and anything with cute little buttons. The worst was Easter dresses and little Mary Jane shoes!”

“So clothes were an issue right off the bat?”

“Yeah, pretty much so. And then it was the hair. In second grade, I had long, curly black hair, that my mother used to love to brush. I loved it, too, because it made me feel so pampered, but then she would make all kinds of cutesy pony tails and pigtails out of it, and that would set me off on a rampage. The morning we were supposed to have our school pictures taken, I found my mother’s big shears that she used for sewing, and I went into the bathroom, stood in front of the full-length mirror on the back of the door, and cut off all my hair.”

“Whoa! What did your mother do?”

“My mother is a kind person—she drives me nuts, but thank God, she’s kind. Any other mother would have screamed and smacked the kid from here to kingdom come, but my poor mother just stood there and cried her eyes out. I felt so bad that I went over to her and hugged her and told her to look at how much better I looked. She couldn’t see it, maybe because she was still crying. I ran into my bedroom, peeled off the little pink dress that my Mom had put me in that morning, and I put on my little, brown corduroy pants that I fished out of the clothes hamper, which were still dirty from my playing outside in them the day before. I managed to pair them with one of the more boyish pullover shirts I had. Then I took my homework, my notebook, my vocabulary and math workbooks, and my pencils and erasers out of my pink backpack, and crammed it all into a smallish black bag with twine handles from a men’s department store that I found with our stock of other paper bags in the kitchen, and announced to my mother than we’d have to leave soon because I didn’t want to be late for the school pictures.”

“So how did everyone else in your family react to that?”

“They already knew I was a tomboy, so other than the hair incident, no one seemed very concerned, but school was the tricky part.”

Morgana knew from experience how cruel children can be. “How bad was it?”

“The boys made fun of me and called me ‘Girly Man,’ which I didn’t mind that much. Even though some girls agreed with them, most of the girls told me I looked cute, and after that, a few of the girls actually followed my lead. So at that young age, I felt a little bit like a trend setter. After a while, everyone just kind of got used to who I was. I was still considered to be a girl, and that was OK. In high school, things got a little more difficult, but I did have to kick a few asses here and there. I held it all together for what seemed like forever, and then, five years ago, I began looking into transitioning, and here I am. Never did I think I could feel so at home in my own skin. So, see? There’s always hope!”

“So, what about people who have no hope? Then what?”

“There’s always faith and charity.”

“How does that work?” Morgana gives Rocky seconds without asking if he wants any. She also fills up her own plate again.

“Well, Morgana,” says Rocky with his mouth full, “you have to make it up as you go along, don’t you? Maybe you have to have faith that somehow, everything, or mostly everything, will be OK, and then you have to be charitable enough to let yourself believe it.”

She took another bite of “Morgana’s Mexican Kwanzaa Surprise,” and savored the different flavors.

“Yes,” she said, “Just like my ‘Mélange à Trois,’ isn’t it?”

Music Credit: UB40 – Many Rivers To Cross

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eLuFWu_SHQ)

Photo Credit: http://www.tenement.org

To be Continued in Chapter 7: Waiting for Rain

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 5: The Adaptation

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“Only one warning, Morgana: Stay as still as possible. Even with your eyes closed, you will see a blinding profusion of brightly colored lights for a few seconds. It will be painless but momentarily overwhelming—a little like being on a rollercoaster. This will happen twice.”

Dr. Valenzuela positions a flexible, robotic arm ending in a conical device at the top of Morgana’s head. Morgana can hear little, “squitchy” sounds as the robotic arm rolls the conical device over and around her skull as one might move a mouse on a mousepad, ferreting out just the right coordinates.

By the time Morgana mumbles, “OK,” her attention has been snagged away from Dr. Valenzuela, already tangled tightly around the sound of the tail end of “warning,” which reverberates through the dark, echoing hollows of her mind. “Warning, ning, ning, ning, ning, ning….Warning, ning, ning, ning, ning, ning…,” and now, each “ning” is accompanied by an individual flash of a strobe light.

“Warning: This is a high-speed roller coaster.”

“Oh, SHIT! I HATE rollercoasters! I’ve got to get out of here!” gasped Morgana in a thin, wobbly voice. Her older sister, Gwen, reached out and grabbed her arm to steady her.

She’d been laughing and motor mouthing with Gwen during their half-hour wait in line. At last, it was their turn, and then, and only then, did she finally read the sign, the last of many she’d somehow managed to ignore until this very moment. Instantly, she felt faint, weak, and dangerously nauseous while her bowels seemed to fill with ice water.

From behind the two sisters, an outraged reprimand shot through the frozen moment.

“What??? You’ve come all the way to Disney World and you’re NOT going on Space Mountain???” An observant, smart-assed, 10-year-old kid shamed the then-18-year-old Morgana onto the ride that she was, just that very moment, hell-bent on bailing out of.

The crowd tittered because, of course, who, in their right mind, would wait for half an hour on a line to go on a roller coaster and NOT KNOW IT WAS A FECKING ROLLER COASTER?

Too sick to respond or even to feel embarrassed, she practically crawled onto the ride, abandoning herself to her fate. As the rocket car ratcheted its way up into the inky darkness of the steep incline of the ride’s lift hill, Morgana acquiesced to the default decision to “just go with it.” Don’t resist. Don’t tighten your stomach muscles. Don’t hyperventilate. Take a deep breath. Don’t cry. There’s nothing like the paralysis of fear laced with shame to subjugate your persnickety ego into a Zen-like state of acceptance.

And…the payoff was huge. She’d been hauled, in an almost-lifeless state, to the very top of the lift hill. A searing strobe light assailed her eyes and scorched her soul. She could almost perceive the presence of God; instead, that not-quite-realized sublime moment was subducted by a violent and precipitous, almost free-fall plunge. Tortured by loops and twists and taunted by random flashes of scouring lights, the frenetic motion did its level best to wrest her spirit from its mortal tether. The best part was that not only did she survive, but she had experienced a full-blown out-of-body experience, thanks to a big-mouthed 10-year old and a little bit of public shaming. In triumph, she made her way out of the rocket car on rubbery knees, babbling somewhat incoherently to her sister about how glad she was that she hadn’t backed out after all!

“What do you have to say for yourself, Morgana?” asks Dr. Valenzuela, as breezily as one can, given the nature of this bizarre procedure.

“So far, so good!,” Morgana mumbles, somewhat stunned, lying face-down on an examination table with a cut-out for her face as she stares at a picture of a dolphin, strategically placed on the floor below, with a caption that reads, “Everyone smiles in the same language.”

Morgana feels slightly embarrassed when she sees that she has drooled onto the dolphin’s smiling face below. With any luck, she thinks, it will occur to no one to look at the dolphin picture until way after the drool dries.

Dr. Valenzuela gently rubs Morgana’s back. “The worst is already behind you. The BCI (Brain-Computer Interface) nano chip is now safely embedded in your cerebral cortex and the flexible polymer fiber neural implant has already been threaded into the three parts of your brain stem.”

“Really? I didn’t feel a thing!” At this point, she is only aware of the strange table, the dolphin with the drool-drizzled smile, and the smell of alcohol–rubbing alcohol, of course, and thankfully NOT that Boney Stalker Scotch sewer-swill variety.

“That’s because the MRI apparatus we use for this procedure also has a function to temporarily disable the perception of pressure and pain.”

Morgana meditates, if that’s what you could call it, on disabling the perception of pressure and pain. The meditation lulls her into a sound sleep. As she snores peacefully, Dr. Valenzuela ejects the insertion needles from their little carousel at the tip of the conical device, catches them in the palm of her surgical-gloved hand, peels off both gloves, deftly stuffing one inside the other, and tosses them into the hazardous waste receptacle. With well-practiced efficiency, she tap-types a command onto her nearby laptop, which instructs the robotic arm to “squitch” itself back into a recessed wall panel just a couple feet from the top of Morgana’s head.

Dr. Valenzuela rouses Morgana from her meditation on the dolphin’s smiling face and helps her to her feet.

Morgana is slightly confused. “What about the Initialization process?”

“Oh, that doesn’t happen until we actually have your tenem printed out. Remember, the printing takes up to three days, and now that you’ve undergone the Adaptation, we can begin the printing.”

“So that’s it? All I have to do now is wait three days?”

“Yes, Morgana! That’s it! I’m so excited for you!”

Just about fully awake, Morgana takes a few careful steps. Dr. Valenzuela escorts her out of the pink lab, through the hallway and back into the reception area where Calliope is seated at her desk. This time, Morgana barely notices the whooshing doors.

Dr. Valenzuela gives Morgana a farewell hug and a sweet smile. “Just to play safe, don’t take a shower or wash your hair until tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, take good care of yourself, read up on Switzerland, and we’ll see you back here in three days, OK? Call us and we’ll arrange a pick up!”

Calliope takes over, leading Morgana towards the drone pad on the other side of the wall from the reception area. “Well, you’ve had a full day! And no worse for the wear!”

“Thank you so much, Calliope. Oh, and thanks for those blueberry scones! Guess I’ll see you soon!” Morgana walks through the whooshed exit where she steps up into the waiting drone. As soon as the little armchair secures her in its automatic embrace, the pilotless drone spirits her away. After the short, other-worldly ride, the silent, sky-camouflaged drone lands gently on the roof of her apartment building, completely unobserved once again.

Back in her apartment with the door locked behind her, she heads to the room where Jack lies in his hospital bed. He’s awake, sort of; his eyes are open and he’s staring at the ceiling.

“Hi, Jack! How are you doing this afternoon?” She kisses him on the cheek, and he looks at her, but doesn’t respond—not that she expects him to.

She lays her head on his chest and listens to his heart beating—a good, strong, steady thump. Dare she hope that all will be well, despite everything she knows?

“It’s a nice day out! Let’s get some fresh air in here.” She opens up the window and breathes in deeply, hoping to displace the staleness that feels like a third person in the room. She looks out the window, telling herself to start seeing the world with new eyes. She notices how pretty everything looks in the afternoon light—the streets, the trees, the houses, the buildings, the rooftops, the clouds and the sky. She adjusts the blinds so that the afternoon sun doesn’t shine directly into his eyes.

“There!” she says, looking to Jack for his non-existent approval. Not much difference between then and now, she thinks. His approval was always in such short supply. She feels silly for having thought that she ever needed it in the first place. A recent memory of Jack’s face, just before the stroke, flashes across her mind. Was that an admiring glance and was it really meant for her? She had been putting on lipstick, standing in front of the hall mirror. He came up behind her and looked into the mirror at her face—for just an instant. Yes, come to think of it—had she thought about it, had she been receptive to him, had she met his eyes with hers for just a fraction of a second more. Hmmm…maybe she’ll have to roll that one over in her mind again, she thinks, as she tries to ignore an aching pang of regret.

She grabs a comb off the dresser and runs it through his thick, salt-and-pepper but mostly black hair, raking it in different directions and then smoothing it neatly to the side. Ever since the hospital “off-loaded” Jack back into her custody here at home, she’s been cutting his hair herself. At first, she wasn’t very good at it, but she got progressively better by watching youtube videos. Jack, bon vivant that he was, had a standing appointment with a fancy-schmancy stylist for fifty bucks a pop every two weeks. He insisted that he had to look professional in his job as a claims evaluator for Betna, a company that insured commercial and residential property along with motor vehicles and water craft of all kinds.

Stepping back, she exaggerates an appraising look for his benefit. “NOW you look extremely handsome again! Oh! It’s almost 4:00, and you know what that means!!! Rocky’s coming!” Jack’s eyes seem to twinkle. Morgana makes a mental note.

Rocky is not only a home health caregiver, but is also a nurse and a wonderful physical therapist. With the proper encouragement, he talks non-stop about sports. When Morgana was making arrangements with the home health care agency for Jack, she specified that whomever the agency sent had to be a sports enthusiast. Whether or not Jack could understand him or follow what he was talking about, it was clear that Jack loved Rocky. If anyone could bring Jack back from the brink, Morgana thought, it would be Rocky, with his expansive, generous nature.

She believed that wasn’t very likely, though, since Jack’s massive stroke was not merely a massive stroke. He had slipped into a coma that lasted a whole month—and that was the good news. No one wanted to break the bad news to Morgana, but there it was: “Locked-in Syndrome,” a neurological disorder characterized by complete and permanent paralysis. Jack’s condition had attracted a lot of attention—the medical university’s professors, doctors, interns and medical students came to see him every day during his hospital stay. Even at home, there seemed to be a steady stream of professionals who came to monitor and record his progress, or more specifically, his lack thereof. Morgana had to sign all kinds of papers to allow his case to be studied, to permit the administration of new and promising (“experimental”) drugs and therapies, and to release this information for eventual publication.

Rocky’s been coming every day for the last two months or so. Each time, he stays for two hours. He’s so perceptive. He can tell if Jack is in pain, which amazes Morgana, since she can’t seem to read him very much at all.

Funny how life has a way of putting us on different paths that cross each other, and how our needs make us dependent on strangers who quickly become a part of our lives. Rocky is one of those people who can take something awful and recalibrate it to something a little more manageable. Maybe there’s an upside to misfortune—maybe the gloom of disappointment makes the little glimmers of joy, happiness, hope, possibility, love, and all the things that propel the human spirit onward, all the more recognizable.

Just yesterday, she had been in the room watching Rocky massage and move Jack’s limbs, when she realized that she knew him from somewhere, but she just couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Well, actually, you DO know me! I don’t often tell my patients about this, but I’m a transgendered man now. You knew me as Roxanne—remember? From five years ago!”

Morgana broke into a laugh of complete surprise, recognition and wonder, and gushed, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this! Good for you! And Rocky? You look fantastic!” Then she looked at Jack, searching his face for some kind of clue, and back at Rocky. “I wonder if Jack realizes this!”

“I don’t know—I’ve never mentioned it to him.” He continued to bend and knead Jack’s arms, and addressing Jack now, said in a soft voice, “What do ya think, Pal? Remember me when I was that fast-talking, wise-cracking tough girl who talked sports and kicked ass?”

Jack’s eyes continued to twinkle. It was so hard to figure out if Jack was lucid or not. So far, the tests hadn’t shown much one way or the other.

Rocky—then Roxanne—had been Jack’s physical therapist five years ago, when Jack (under the influence of his good friend, that bastard, Boney Stalker Scotch) had fallen down the stairs, breaking his knee, shin, and ankle. Morgana, self-admittedly naïve by nature, thought that the fall would have convinced Jack to stop drinking, but it didn’t. He and Boney continued their love affair. It had been a long, miserable recovery, made much more complicated by Boney, and made a lot more bearable by Roxanne, who worked at a rehab clinic close by.

The doorbell rings. “I’ll bet that’s Rocky,” she announces as she leaves the room to go answer the door.

Morgana hugs Rocky. “Rocky! Other than Jack, you’re the handsomest guy I’ve seen all day long!” Rocky laughs and hugs her back.

Although she tries to be upbeat for everyone’s sake, Morgana’s heart is somewhat heavier than usual this afternoon. She feels conflicted about her arrangement with The Our Little Secret Travel Agency, especially because, as of today, it’s officially too late to back out. She is beginning to realize how much Rocky’s presence is a comfort to her, not only because he is helping Jack, but because she can relate to how Rocky must have struggled to make the transition to being the person he really is.

Morgana walks ahead of Rocky, leading him into Jack’s room and says, “Rocky’s here, Jack!”

Rocky struts into the room with a big, toothy smile. “Ready to get pummeled, Big Guy?” Jack’s eyes sparkle and seem to acknowledge Rocky’s exuberant entrance.

“Well, Rocky, after you finish getting Jack ready for spring training, feel free to join me for supper, if you’ve got the time. As usual, it’s nothing fancy—just throwing a few leftovers together—you know, another one of my infamous ‘melanges.’”

“Ha! ‘Infamous’ and ‘melange’ are two of my favorite things! Thanks, Morgana! It’s a date!”

“I’ll leave you two guys to it!” says Morgana, gently closing the door behind her.

Photo Credit: “Breezy,” by Suzanne Cummings (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sleecphotos/4802848928/in/gallery-whatsmostimportant-72157625115729236/)

To Be Continued in Chapter 6: Melange a Trois

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