Louisa: Road Trip - Minnesota, land of a thousand surprises
Thanksgiving in the Chicago suburbs was... interesting, but more than almost anything else that's happened on this trip, that's Jessica's story. I'm glad she found what she was looking for, even though she said she wasn't looking for anything specific when we started this trip. It's been getting a little tense between us over the past couple of weeks, since I have been looking for something specific and all the time we were spending in Chicago hasn't gotten me much closer to it.
Things should be moving much more quickly now, though, and perhaps a little more smoothly. After Chicago, we took the 94 and 53 north, reaching Minneapolis Sunday evening. Our next move was to spend some most of Monday in the public library, searching local newspapers for mention of a Sarah Hansen graduating high school in 2003 or 2004 who was scheduled to attend Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She had taken a trip to the inn just before starting the 2006-2007 academic year, and the result once everything was said and done was that Vincent DeSantis had wound up with her body and life.
We met the "new" Vincent near the start of this trip, in Long Island, and weren't terribly impressed. When the trip first started taking longer than expected, we initially believed that we'd skip this leg, as Vincent/Sarah would probably wind up returning to Massachusetts for the fall semester. Ashlyn said she hadn't, though; she had tried to meet up with "Sarah" in October only to find the latter was no longer enrolled. She felt guilty about that - that she and Arthur had had someone else who understood their situation so close and just lost track of her. So she asked us to check in on her, if it wasn't too much trouble.
I continue to be amazed just how much detective work can get done in a public library or on the internet. It took a few hours, but using only a microfilm reader, a few selected rolls of film, and the local phone book, Jessica had tracked down Sarah Hansen's parents, and we were off.
We had some idea in our heads of what to expect; if the new "Vinny" had been able to slip into the old one's life without missing a beat, we figured we'd see someone like that - a lazy slob, probably leaching off Sarah's parents after having been chased out of school. Reality, as usual, was somewhat different.
The Jensen home was one of a dozen identical ones laid out inside a grid, separated by trees to look less repetitive. There was a minivan in the driveway despite the two-car garage, so we figured someone had to be home and knocked on the door. A light-haired woman in her early forties answered; not recognizing us, she asked who we were.
Jessica jumped right in to say that we were friends of Sarah's, doing a semester on co-op at a local business, and we were sorry we hadn't come to visit earlier, but we hadn't even realized that Sarah was here until talking to some classmates on Thanksgiving break. Is she home?
I think the woman was about to say no, but someone yelled from the back, asking who it was. Jessica probably would have stepped in if she could, but settled for pushing her head up against the screen door an yelling that it was "Jess and Lu, remember, from the Inn". Mrs. Jensen looked cross, and there was a long pause before the voice said we were okay, but she opened the screen door and told us Sarah was in the den, vaguely pointing to the back of the house. I followed Jessica, and I guess I was looking at the house kind of distractedly, because I ran right into her back where she'd stopped, hands on the edges of the doorway, slack-jawed and repeating variations on "oh...my...god!"
I looked up, and though I didn't say it out loud, I couldn't really disagree with it. Vincent DeSantis had been changed into a beautiful girl, stunning even in the long-sleeved t-shirt and sweatpants she was wearing - tall, with golden blonde hair and incredible blue eyes. She was also very, very, very pregnant.
She shifted her weight a little, as if to indicate she'd get up to greet us, but it was a lot of effort, and gave us a rueful grin. "Careful. 'Mom' isn't a big fan of taking the Lord's name in vain."
Jessica stopped babbling and moved aside so that I could get in, but didn't seem anxious to move any closer to that huge belly. I was nearly as surprised, but tried not to show it, so I sat down on the couch next to her (it is very difficult to use male pronouns to refer to someone who is pregnant), introduced ourselves, and said that she must have had an eventful time since Arthur and Ashlyn lost touch with her.
"Jake," I answered. "She goes by who she appears to be now."
"Oh. Right. That makes sense. I didn't even realize, and I probably started earlier than they did. Going native, I mean. I hated my body at first, but once I got to school, I sort of started getting used to it. Being female didn't seem terribly weird at an all-girl's school, and... it was school, you know? Not the crap job I hated going to every morning. I was ahead of the game in the core courses, and Sarah's major seemed much cooler. It was a weird kind of second chance."
Jessica snorted. I explained that she wasn't a big fan of using someone else's life as a do-over.
Vincent allowed that that made sense, and picked right back up again. I idly wondered if she had liked to talk so much in her old life. "Anyway, Sarah left me a really detailed letter, and actually got in touch with me after a month or so, saying she loved her new life doing costumes for Broadway shows, and wanted to help me fit in any way she could, or help me break away from her family gently. But the Jensens are cool, and I figure it would suck for them to lose their only child, so I kind of settled into Sarah's life."
She stopped a bit longer than necessary to take a breath, almost like that was the whole story. Given that Jessica had been staring at Vincent's belly the whole time, there was no doubt what she meant when she said "AND THEN...?"
"Spring break." She shook her head. "I really hadn't had much to drink at all since my trip to the inn - I was trying to make something of myself, so I was pretty serious, and when I wasn't at school I was here, and you-know-who are kind of strict. I didn't even go down to Daytona or anything; me and some of the girls just took the Chinatown bus to New York to see a concert. But it was Jan's twenty-first birthday, so we went to a bar afterward, a really good one that I remembered from my old life, which is where we ran into my old friends, and that was so exciting. It was like an out-of-body experience when the new Vinny arrived, totally surreal, but we were all hammered enough by then that nothing seemed really weird.
"And then the next morning, we woke up back at my old place. My memory was kind of hazy, but I know I slept with at least two guys that night...
"I considered an abortion after I missed two periods, but considering how churchy Sarah's family is - well, at least compared to mine - it didn't seem right, and, besides... What if Vinny, new Vinny, was the father? I don't know, you understand, but if he is, wouldn't that seem right? I mean, a lot of people don't get any reminder of their old lives, whereas I could..." She didn't quite seem to know how to finish that sentence, and settled for rubbing her belly.
I won't bother to transcribe the rest of Jessica's recording of the conversation. Jess never sat down, but we got through most of the usual questions. About midway through, she started smiling, and as we were about to leave, she asked if we wanted to go with her on her daily chocolate run. "Trust me," she says, "there's this little place in Grand Rapids that makes the best hot cocoa."
We mumbled something about having a long drive to Wyoming, but she said we had to come, and, besides, it's a great excuse to get out of the house: "Mom" and "Dad" always give her trouble when she's seen around town, but they understand her having cravings, so as long as it's someplace their friends won't be reminded of their shame, it's okay.
We pile into Jessica's car (Vincent in the back seat) and follow her directions a half hour to the next city over. We find street parking and settle in at the little café, and each order a hot chocolate. Jessica is finally getting used to the idea of a former guy being pregnant, but still asks how she's handling it so well.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm freaking out all the time, but according to the girls at the Lamaze classes, that's pretty normal. And the whole process is just kind of amazing. I think in some ways I'm handling the whole girl thing better because of the pregnancy. It's even stranger, that's for sure, but it's a really good thing. I don't know if I've ever felt more important, or at least useful, than the first time I heard my baby's heart beat."
I mentioned that Lamaze was a two-person activity; who was her partner; some friend of Sarah's? She gave a big grin and said that's what her folks think, but it's also the second surprise. As she finishes saying that, she then says she timed it perfectly and lifts an arm to wave at someone coming in the door. I'm sitting across from her, with my back to the street, so I have to turn around to see who she's signalling.
It's a good-looking guy - tall, thin, on the light-skinned side of black. He's giving a nice smile to Vincent and walking toward us when I turn around, at which point he stumbles a little bit and doesn't take his eyes off me, sitting down in our table's fourth chair more or less by feel. I'm a little embarrassed - I know this form is pretty, but I don't know about stopping traffic. But that's not quite it.
"Liz? Is that really you?"
Jessica's jaw drops in shock - kind of surprising in and of itself, because she seldom gets caught flat-footed like that - and I smile kind of nervously. "No, I just look like her, or like she did. My name's Louisa."
I reach out a hand and he takes it, still staring at my face. "Of course... Right... Someone has to be. Sorry. I'm... Well, I guess you could say I am or was Sarah Hansen."
I felt the initial gut reaction of disbelief - we always do, even though we've had the same thing happen to us. People who haven't don't have that reaction subside at all, at least without something equally jarring. Jessica seized upon something else, though. "Wait... I thought you were a girl, and didn't you say she was in New York...?"
Sarah shrugged. "Bitsy wanted her life back, and after a few months I didn't mind giving it to her. Working backstage is fun, but the pay isn't really that great. I admit, I was super-pissed when I showed back up at the Inn and Vinny hadn't stayed there, but he told me about the baby and... Well, once I saw how unattached to anything George was, I came out here, and we've been each other's support system since."
"And the real George?"
"Won't say. I think he wanted to make a clean break but just couldn't get up the nerve before." She stopped talking to Jessica and turned to me. "But how about you? Liz and I weren't really close, but she and I did talk, and she said Marie was really looking to make a clean break. How'd you get away from that gangster?"
"Marie's mother died. I told André that there was a cousin in America that I wanted to tell in person, but I didn't know her exact address..."
"That's pretty clever... Oh. How long has it been?"
"Four months, almost five."
"My god... I mean, I moved back here in part to be with Vinny and in part because being around her meant I could be around my own family. If something had happened to my folks while I was Bitsy and I didn't find out until later."
"Can you help me find her? Do you know where she is?"
"I... I can talk to Bitsy, but you've got to understand, she made it sound like Marie and Jean-Michel are kind of hiding. If I just told you..."
"Of course," I said. I wrote down my email address and gave it to him. "Feel free to check us out however you want, get in touch with Ashlyn, anything. I suppose you could just get in touch with her yourself, but I think this should be delivered in person."
He agreed, pocketing the napkin I'd written on. Jessica asked the usual questions about people trying to influence their lives, but I don't know as we found anything really interesting out. Once you get paranoid, anything can look like outside interference.
Maybe we'll get luckier on our next stop in Wyoming.