Saturday, December 22, 2007

Jessica: So close...

None of us who have been transformed by the Inn really envy others. I mean, not enough for it to be common. We all know just how traumatic it is, so even when someone gets the draw that Louisa did - younger but not a child, in a more comfortable socio-economic position, no sex change - we take it for granted that it hurts for them too. We know it hurts bad, and it's hard for us to conceive of ourselves as lucky until we meet someone who is worse off.

Take Dina, for instance. On the surface, it looks like she got off easy - she even got to keep her family. Look below the surface, and she's in pretty rough shape. What's worse is, she knows it - she's smart enough to see that the past eight years have stunted her natural growth as a person in some ways, and I pity the psychiatrist who has to try to unravel her parental issues down the line almost as much as I pity her for having them.

Ashlyn, Arthur, and Louisa at least got relative independence. I at least got a mother who loved me even after she knew the truth. Dina got something I don't even have words for.

And when I called her the other night, she still acknowledged that she got off easy compared to the original Cahills.

We've been driving with a little extra urgency since Wyoming - we've got an idea that even though we only have a few people left on our list, they need to know about Pygmalion before their lives are fouled up incontrovertibly. It's silly - in most cases Pygmalion has had months or years to do his worst, so what's a couple of days on our part going to matter - but no-one wants to be too late. But unless Pygmalion is in control of whose body changes into what (and the current best theory is that it relies on proximity, rather than the will of any person or thing), there's not much more he could do to the Cahills.

We got to Seattle late at night, and checked into a motel. We dilly-dallied the next morning - I think it took me two hours to eat my pancakes at the diner we found, and even Louisa wasn't as nosy as she usually is when some element of my past comes up. We were within miles of the original Jessica Brooks, and a million strange thoughts were going through my head - would she approve of how I'd lived her life? Would she resent me? Would I find out she wasn't a very nice person? I've been carrying a mental image of Mom's Daughter around in my head, and she was eternally ten years old. Could I even handle her being something else?

Finally, though, we got out of the diner to let them serve lunchtime customers, and headed to the address Louisa had coaxed out of the Wrights. We walked up to the door and knocked.

No-one was home. Pretty much the only thing that could make me more tense.

Made sense; it was a weekday afternoon, so everybody was going to be at school or work except people on months-long cross-country road trips. We made sure the name on the mailbox - "Costello" - matched, and then settled down into the car to wait for someone to show. Louisa, thankfully, kept the "stakeout" jokes to a minimum.

At around four o'clock, one of the people getting off the bus at the end of the road made a turn there. She was an asian girl, seventeen-looking, with her hair in her eyes and wearing ripped jeans underneath a skirt and a Sex Pistols T-shirt. Figuring that no good could come of waiting until the last minute, I jumped out of the car and ran up to talk to her. "Excuse me," I said, a bit taken by her not exactly looking like a Costello, "do you live here?"

"Have all my life," she said. "What do you want? Did I piss you off without knowing it? Did my father?"

"No, not at all. It's just... Uh... Well, I'm Jessica Brooks."

She looked confused for a second, then squinted at me before the realization hit her. "Oh, you mean the new one! Although after eight years, it's not quite "new", is it?"

I agreed it wasn't, and she got out her keys. "This is amazing... I didn't think I'd ever get to meet you, although we've considered heading back East to try every once in a while, but once those assholes who wound up with our lives made it clear that they weren't going to let us try to get our real bodies back by staying in the inn in reverse order, we figured it might hurt too much to see the new us... I'm Phuong Costello, by the way, although I was born a Molly. Who were you?"

"Conrad Mancini... I was a cop in Baltimore. So you're not Mindy or Jessica?"

"Oh, no... We've got stories to share, I guess. And I'll bet you do too, Miss...?"

"Louisa Torrence, although my passport says 'Marie Desjardins'."

"Passport, huh? I know that feeling. But come on in, it's too cold to keep this up out here."

Phuong opened the door, dropping her backpack in the entryway. "I don't remember there being so many books my first time through high school. Do you?" I shook my head, but said I wasn't one for studying that time. "Ah, me neither. Not really now, but you lap your classmates in elementary school while being an asian besides, you wind up on the 'gifted' track. Sounds like a good idea when you're thirty-four-going-on-ten, then you hit junior high and find out how hard those kids work..."

I laughed at that, and we swapped stories about being adults in children's bodies. Our stories were different, of course, although they had points of similarity: It took us a long time to feel like we belonged in a locker room during sports and gym classes, although she had more luck getting her friends to dig her favorite music. It was so amazing to find someone who had had so many experiences close to my own - it was something I'd been missing for most of the past decade - even Dina wasn't this close to my own experience.

We must have talked for an hour and a half straight, and we didn't realize where the time had gone when we heard the door open again. Phuong quickly looked at her watch and then ran to the door. "Honey, come into the living room! You'll never believe who found us!"

She leads a man through the door. He's a big, burly guy, with a bit of an unkempt beard just starting to show some gray. He's wearing a Mariners cap and a grocery store nametag that reads "Carson". He introduces us as Conrad Mancini and her friend Louisa, and mentions that I'm the person who became Jessica. He looks me up and down for a moment and I wonder whether or not I should be uncomfortable. There's the "older man checking out a younger girl" thing, sure, but we're both aware that the inside doesn't necessarily match the outside. He nods, saying that "she" turned out pretty, and I blush a little. Phuong gives him a kiss on the cheek and says she's sorry, we just got caught up talking, but she'd get dinner started. He thanks her and heads to the bathroom.

She suggests we take it to the kitchen where she pulls a package of chicken breasts out of the fridge. "Yeah, I still do the cooking; old habits die hard. You guys are going to stay and have dinner with us, won't you?" I say I'd be glad to, and Louisa nods agreement.

"It's nice to see that you and your husband still get along," Louisa says. Cautiously. "A lot of relationships might not be able to handle the strain."

Phuong stops with her hand on the oven's temperature control, and sighs. "Yeah. Well... You know how I was talking about being on the gifted track because I knew so much more than a nine-year-old usually would? Well, one of the things they teach you in the AP physics courses is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

"Carson wasn't my husband. Carson was Mindy."

I stop thinking for a bit there. Nothing is going through my head. I hear Louisa say she's so sorry, and that it's worse than Dylan; I think she may have suspected something like this. She says she's not much of a detective, but while I was comparing notes with Phuong, she was looking around the house, and I think she's a good half-dozen steps ahead of us.

Finally, I'm able to think again, and tell Phuong I'm also so sorry.

"Yeah, me too. People talk about kids having to grow up fast these days, but Mindy... Mindy was so totally unequipped to live Carson's life. He was a lawyer - family law. That's why the Costellos had adopted Phuong - he'd been moved drawing up adoption papers for another family. The partners at his firm were livid when his wife drove him in to work a week late from vacation so that he could say he couldn't do the work any more and was resigning effective immediately. We had to refinance the house and the school loans so the family could get by on one income because I wasn't old enough to work. And Carson... Mindy... felt so bad about it. She thought it was all her fault somehow."

Louisa asks where the dishes are, and Phuong points to a cupboard. Louisa reaches in, pulls out a stack of four plates, and closes the door. I'm not looking terribly smart at this point as I sputter out that that can't be enough if we're staying for dinner. What about Jessica, and Mindy's father.

"There's been a divorce."

I turn around and see Carson Costello (né Mindy Cahill) standing there. I try to see him as someone who's only lived eighteen years, but it's hard. Eight years can bury one's old self pretty deep.

Louisa gestured at the walls. "It is a small house."

Phuong nodded. "It is indeed. Too small for a lot of things. No spare bedroom, for instance, and you couldn't expect Mindy to share a bed with someone who used to be her father. Couldn't expect Barry to share a bed with the nine-year-old girl who used to be his wife. Mindy and Jessica had been best friends, but one suddenly being the parent and the other the child drove a wedge between them." She almost automatically turned to her father/daughter, barely leaving a pause. "It's not your fault, dear. We're just not made to take this."

"If you say so, Mom."

Phuong chuckled at the looks on our faces - it just seemed so incongruous coming out of Carson Costello's mouth. "Yeah, he calls me 'mom' sometimes. It's a joke with the neighbors; they think growing up in Cambodia made me mature beyond my years and treat it like a pet name. We're known to have a weird family dynamic."

"And I thought my mom and I were unique."

Phuong started laughing hysterically. "That's right! When you were talking about you and your mother, I forgot that would have to be Kathleen! Oh, man, I hope you made it easy on her! She was always such a great neighbor and friend."

"Not hardly. I got into fights, and was anti-social, and she only was able to know the truth because I said something horrible when her father died."

"That's nothing," Carson said, giving Phuong an elbow. "Tell them about the time you found my porn stash."

(About a second later, Louisa said something in French that I think translates to "Pardon me, I've just thrown up in my mouth a little.")

Phuong turned beet red, but soldiered on. "You have to understand... Mindy was about twelve but Carson was about thirty-five. Barry tried to find a job where he could work nights so that he could look after Mindy during the day while I took the night shift, but it didn't always work out. We tried to pretend that he wasn't a grown man with his needs, but when he had a day to himself, he could watch R- or X-rated movies, and he is kind of ruggedly handsome. Women notice him, and that energy had to go somewhere... We were just too blind to see it until I was getting the laundry and saw what my little baby had stashed in a closet."

"Oh, they yelled at me good. Dad had to give me 'the talk', which was all kinds of weird."

They were laughing, so I decided to broach a subject that gave me fits. "So, what did you wind up doing... about that stuff?"

"Well, they reminded me that I was technically still a married man, and pointed out that I of all people shouldn't think of women that way. But they also agreed I needed an outlet, because I'd go crazy without it, and I was about to start my job at the supermarket and it wouldn't be right for someone with a kid to look so ignorant about sex."

"But we also told him that just because he looked older didn't mean he was dating before he turned fifteen."

"Right. I could touch myself, but no-one else."

The two of them were laughing, and it had me pretty confused. "How can you...?"

"Comedy equals tragedy plus time. Trust me, we were just as horrified then as you are now."

"Yeah." Carson's laughter stopped kind of abruptly. "I was a real jerk to Jessie. She was going through her own stuff, missing her family, and I was lording the fact that I was a grown-up and she was still just a little kid over her. That's why..." He stopped, tearing up.

Phuong was serious now, too. "That's why Carson has custody of me, as far as the government is concerned, and 'Parker' has custody of 'Dana'. It was easier for everyone that way."

Louisa touched Phuong's hand. "But still not easy, right?"

"Not at all. Don't get me wrong, we still talk - we try to have a vacation together every year, although it's been harder since we all decided to let ourselves be attracted to people. A week is about all we can do anyway, and you add other people and the jealousy gets really ugly. When Barry got the new job, it was a good thing for us to get some distance."

We all got quiet, so Louisa mentioned that she saw Carson's Mariner's hat - did that mean they'd abandoned Red Sox nation. That led to a lot of sports talk - Carson had gotten into sports in a big way to try to fit in with other guys, and there was still enough New Englander left in Phuong for her to be excited about the World Series and Super Bowls. That led to other, lighter topics that kept us up late that night.

We probably would have stayed all night, but Phuong's boyfriend called. She put him on hold, claiming another call. "Sorry, new boyfriend, and aren't newly-besotted teenagers clingy? High school boys haven't changed in the past twenty-five years, that's for sure. It's totally not going to last, and a dumb idea because we're in the same band, but man, he is so cute, and is that stuff about men being at their sexual peak at nineteen true or what?"

I declined to comment, and she smiled wickedly before getting back to her call. Carson said she could be hours, so Louisa and I got our coats, said goodbye, and headed for the door.

Before we left, Phuong held up a finger for us to wait. After she found a scrap of paper, she wrote an address down and handed it to me. "You've been very nice," she said, putting the phone on her shoulder for a moment, "to act so interested in us. But I know why you came here. Give them my best."

I thanked her, and put the piece of paper in my pocket without looking at it. It only stayed there until we reached the car, when I took it out.

And laughed. Harder than I've laughed at anything in a long time. Louisa asked what was so funny.

"I put off going to college in Pasadena for the semester to do this trip. But check this out - Parker and Dana Costello live in Malibu."

Louisa was a little confused until I pulled out the road maps I'd bought six months ago, in preparation for living down there. Then she laughed, too.

What a strange trip this has wound up being. Next stop, Los Angeles. If we drive through the night, we should get there tomorrow morning.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, talk about irony... the original Jessica being so close to where you were going to be attending college!

Just curious...considering both your mother's knowledge about the curse of the inn because of you, and Molly's fond memories of her friendship with your mother, are you going to tell your mother about the real Molly? Did you ever tell your mother that it wasn't just you that was transformed, but the original Cahills as well?

How many degrees of separation (i.e. third parties telling the story) does there have to be between a victim of the inn and an acquaintance of the victim hearing the victim's story before the disbelief spell loses its effectiveness (leaving just ordinary cynicism to overcome)? Has anyone tried testing that limit beyond you telling your mother about Louisa and Ashlyn and her not entirely believing it? How much of a crack has to be opened by a third party in order for a victim to be believed?