There were a number of reasons why Jessica and I knew we had to stop in New York on our cross-country jaunt, but it wound up being first simply based upon proximity.
We had to get out of Boston first, of course. By now, you've probably read Ashlyn's description of my meeting Jessica, which covers everything important. I must admit, I wasn't entirely sure what to make of her. I've worked in a high school library for years, so even though I never had any children of my own, teenagers aren't a great mystery to me. Jessica looks like a certain group of them on the surface - the high-achievers who handle a course load of subjects that most of their parents would cringe at while somehow playing a sport each season and participating in another extracurricular activity or two... And having time to talk about the latest movies and music and having lives worth gossiping about.
I've met a lot of those kids (as you might expect, they tend to hang around the library more), but Jessica is different. She's got neither the apparent belief that she can conquer the world or the insecurity that many of those teens have. She looks like them, with the too-tight jeans and clever t-shirt, but there's a disconcerting maturity and wisdom to her. When she acts like a typical teenager - like shouting "Road Trip!" when Ashlyn suggested that she could help me search for the real Marie, it's like she's imitating her apparent peers, although maybe she's just got an acute awareness of what kind of freedom from expectations she has.
I had only expected to get some pointers or a cell phone number that I could use to ask her for help, so the idea of us traveling across the country to where she's been accepted to college in Pasadena was sort of overwhelming. It was to her mother, too - she insisted on meeting me, which seemed eminently reasonable.
The two of them have a strange relationship. "Jessica" (she hasn't told any of us the name she was born with, yet) has actually lived longer than her adopted mother, and they more like best friends than parent and child sometimes. They got out a map and plotted a route that should get us to California in time for her to start classes, even figuring in a couple of weeks for unscheduled stops. When Jessica went to move some things into her car from her mother's, though, the older woman touched my hand to signal she wanted to speak with me alone for a moment.
You have to understand, she said, I don't really believe you are who you say you are. Not you, not this Ashlyn girl... I don't feel it like I do with Jess. But she does, and I hope the two of you can find what you're looking for. After eight years, there's no way I can get my original Jessie back, but if you can find out she's okay, and safe... And make sure that the girl I've got stays safe too...
I may not have had children, but I've had friends who went into crisis about their teenagers, or had trouble letting go. I've never seen it be easy.
Jessica drove the first leg of the trip, while I handled the map. That wasn't really necessary, as it's a trip she's made a few times before, as evidenced by her knowing exactly where to find a new classic rock station on the radio dial when the one she'd been listening to faded out. After a while we ran out of things to chat about, and I started listening to a book on tape somewhere around Hartford.
Initially, we drove around the city, figuring it would be easier to find an inexpensive motel out on Long Island than in the city. One of the people from Arthur and Ashlyn's group came from the area, too, and we thought we might have some luck interviewing his "successor". We didn't, yesterday, but we did at least find a place to stay that was near a Long Island Railroad station. After a few hours in the car, it was nice to stretch out on the beds for a couple minutes.
Jessica has all of our stops planned in a notebook, with four pairs of names written on the page for "New York": Darren Bridger/Jamie Connor - recent, but potentially well-connected, might be worth a courtesy visit at least; Mark Lange/Ginessa Lopez - Blue collar guy, Peruvian immigrant actress; Vinessa Lopez/Nicoleta Fidatov - Ginessa's cousin, also from Peru; and ????/Vinny DeSantis. Mostly from "Ashlyn" and Arthur's group, or connected somehow.
I have never been to such a large place; before staying at the inn, I was not much of a traveler. Baton Rouge is home, and New Orleans, Boston, and Montreal are big cities themselves, but New York is somehow bigger than all of them put together. I just stared out the window of the train, gawking, as we entered the city, and then even more as we actually stepped outside the station and the buildings seemed to go on forever. I confess I'd been guilty of taking the word "skyscrapers" for granted, not understanding how literally true it was.
Jessica just sort of stood aside grinning. "It is amazing, isn't it? Pity it's full of Yankee fans."
I laughed. "As far as I'm concerned, it's just full of yankees." Then I thought of something. "So, you've gone a little native, being in New England for eight years?"
"As a lifelong Orioles fan, I can hate the Yankees just as well as anybody from Boston. Although, yeah, I have sort of started pulling for the Sox. It's easier when your hometown team is so inept. I still hate the Patriots, though. Of course, I still like the Colts, too." He let me gawk a little more, until I got sick of being shoved past, and then suggested we start looking for our fellow transformees.
The easiest name to track down had been Jaime Connor; from reading the blog we knew Darren was in Tribeca, so all we needed was the phone book. Calling his/her home phone number didn't do us much good during the day. We thought about calling the newspaper, but thought better of it. We'd sent an email to the address Ashlyn had before leaving (the one registered with Blogger), but gotten no reply.
Next up was "Nicoleta Fidatov". She, at least, was listed in the phone book, although when we called the number we were told it had been disconnected. We still had an address, though, and it wasn't much trouble to take the subway there.
Nicoleta's place was sort of on the border between a good and a bad nieghborhood, a third-story walk-up. Jessica could see a light underneath the door, so started banging. "Vinessa, we'd like to talk with you."
The door opened a crack. "How... you know that name?"
"We've been to the inn too," I said.
"Come in. Habla espanol?"
We shook our heads. I said I was afraid not.
"Ah, well." She undid the latch and indicated a couple of chairs. She's pretty in that blonde, eastern European way - a very strong jaw, but kind of skinny, though I'm sure many men would find her body perfect. "You want to sit down?"
We sat. "Your English is very good," I said. "Ashlyn gave the impression you barely spoke."
She shrugged. "I had to. I can't go home. The... new me and new Mark... were married, are again... It's very confusing."
"So... you have contact with them?"
She shook her head. "No, they live in Peru now. Her... my.. visa expired, and he followed her." She started to cry. "Now they want to deport me, but I can't go to Ukraine!"
I moved to sit next to her. "Hey, don't worry... I'm sure there's something you can do."
"I do everything! The man says... The man at INS says Nicoleta did everything, and I do everything, but someone above him... Says someone has it out for us."
Jessica took her glasses off to clean them for a second. "Us?"
Vinessa had laughed, and asked to use my phone. She dialed a number from memory and asked about clubbing.
I'm still not used to this body; I was quite frankly shocked to find that I was almost the same size as Nicoleta. Sure, her clothes were a little tight on my new bottom and not quite so tight up top, but these things are kind of one size fits all. I felt slightly scandalized looking at myself in the mirror, but also a little impressed; it has been a while since I've tried to dress sexily, but I remember what it was like to be a young woman trying to impress the field.
Putting on club clothes just made Jessica look even younger, and we weren't terribly surprised when the bouncer shook his head at her (Nicoleta knew him, and Vinessa had inherited the relationship). "We can only let so much slide, Nic. You know how it is."
Jessica had sort of been expecting this. "I hate being under twenty-one!" she grumbled, and said she was off to see a movie. Vinessa and I went inside.
Vinessa wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as I was; she may not speak the language that well and may have grown up on another continent, but she was young and single and knows the game. We hung around and danced a little for about an hour before we heard someone call "Nic!"
Ashlyn had described Mark as being "blue collar", but that would hardly be the word I'd use to describe the person who moved across the crowded room like she was wading in shallow water. She was petite, wearing a painted-on dress with a plunging neckline and four-inch heels. She grabbed Vinessa by the hands and air-kissed her cheek. "How are you? It's been weeks?"
"Better, maybe. This is--" She gave me an enquiring look.
"Nice to meet you, Louisa. How do you know Nic?"
"We've stayed at the same inn, although nearly a year apart. It's nice to meet you, Mark."
She looked surprised, but quickly gave me a hug. "Oh, god, it's so good to meet you! Who were you before?"
"Well, the way I figure it, I'm still Louisa Torrence, even if my passport does say 'Marie Desjardins' now."
"I know what you mean... It's just like that with me!" From the way she touched her chest, with a palm resting on her breast in such a way as to flash a rather large diamond ring, I was beginning to doubt it.
She noticed me staring at the ring, and blushed. "I know, isn't it crazy? But I'm sure Nic--"
"Of course. Vinessa. I'm sorry." She turned toward me to say that she doesn't have many opportunities to use real names, so referring to Vinessa as Nicoleta is sort of habit. "Anyway, I'm sure Vinessa has told you about the INS trying to deport us. Fortunately, I had just auditioned for a play, and while the producer didn't think I was right for THAT part... Probably because I didn't have any of Ginny's training... Well, I couldn't let them send me 'back' to Peru. No offense, Vinessa."
I don't understand Spanish, but I suspect Vinessa said something about Peru being glad to let her stay here.
At about ten-thirty, my phone rang; Jessica's movie was done. I told 'Mark' and Vinessa this, and Vinessa was only too glad to get out, although Mark looked a little disappointed.
To be fair, though, she didn't sulk. We met Jessica at one of the million or so pizza places that line the streets in New York, and the former guys got on like a house on fire. Within about ten minutes they were arguing about sports, and Mark seemed to practically glow when (s)he bit into a folded-over slice.
"Mmm... That is so. Fucking. Good. Don't tell my husband, though - he is not keen on the idea of me gaining weight."
More proof that Jessica used to be a guy - she apparently did not inventory Mark's jewelry without prompting, or only registered the big old ring as a sparkly thing. Or she subconsciously couldn't believe it. "Husband? You've only been a woman, what, less than a year?"
"Just about... But circumstances... Well, you know. There was some sort of SNAFU at INS and I was looking at deportation. You do what you've got to do. It's not always so bad."
We talked a bit more, but Jessica just seemed sort of stunned. I asked if they had any contact with the original Ginessa and Nicoleta, and they said no. Vinessa looked particularly pained by that, and I felt for her - she came to look for her cousin almost a year ago, still hasn't found her, but has to put up with another person taking her face and name, while the real Ginessa could be anyone, anywhere.
We took our leave of them, after a quick stop back at Vinessa's for me to change clothes. Then it was back to the train and the hotel.