Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Arthur/Penny: The real deal

I apologize for not posting in a couple of weeks; Louisa and I promised not to write anything until the original Marie and Jean-Michel were back home, safe and sound, so even though I've had parts of this written for over a week, it's sat on my hard drive, getting a bit of editing when I couldn't sleep, but otherwise just waiting.

Louisa and I arrived in the Salt Lake City area on Thursday, June 5th. It's an unusual area, at least for me - it's very conservative in some ways that I'm not used to. I don't mean politically - there really wasn't any time or reason for its red-state-ness to make any difference - just that there was a certain lack of edge there. The public art is never trying to push the envelope, for instance. People bustle quietly but with purpose. Most are very polite. The streets are pretty clean.

Louisa says it's because even though Salt Lake is a big city, it's a tighter-knit, more connected community than most cities. When most people have something in common, she says, they tend to work together to handle the smaller details of life. She doesn't totally approve of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints itself - sometimes I think Christians look at other branches of Christianity with more suspicion than they do religions with much more fundamental differences - but she does recognize the irony in saying that it looks like it would be a nice place to live if not for all the Mormons.

It seemed an odd place for a couple of people from as cosmopolitan and sometimes gleefully anything-goes a city as Montreal to land and stay. Still, I guess you never know. For all of us who never feel quite right, there's people like Lyn who embrace their new lives, no matter how far it may be from the one they'd been living. And their little house was so normal, so insulated against things as unusual as turning into a copy of another person. In the city, there can be something strange around every corner, but in a place like this, it seemed impossible.

We would learn different soon enough. Louisa and I rang the doorbell, and a man in his mid-thirties answered it. He was a couple inches taller than me, with light brown hair, and an industrious day's growth of stubble on his cheeks. His eyes darted between Louisa and me, maybe lingering a fraction of a second longer on her, but not so as to give anything away. "Can I help you?"

So, he was going to play it like that. Louisa cleared her throat. "We've got news for you - mainly for your wife - and it didn't seem right to give it to her over the phone."

"Well, then I guess you'd better come in." He opened the door and stood back a bit. Louisa went in first, and he closed the door after me. I turned around to thank him and found myself staring down the barrel of a very large pistol.

Louisa screamed, and I froze. It's strange, but the main thing I remember from that moment is that my eyes were crossing, trying to focus on something so close to my face. "Honey," he yelled, "get Casey and the suitcase, it's time to go!"

I heard some scrambling from the top floor, and then on the stairs. Louisa called out Marie's name, but the man pointed a finger at her and pushed the gun a fraction of an inch closer to my forehead and she stopped. I heard the sound of a car starting and driving off.

"Okay," I said, remembering to breathe, "you got your family away safe. That's fair. Now can you put that thing down so we can talk like reasonable people? Check us over, we're not carrying anything. We really do just want to talk."

He took a step toward me, although the gun stayed in the same position, and used his other hand to pat me down. He wasn't letting his guard down, though, and motioned Louisa to come closer so he could do the same for her. As professional as he'd been with me, he seemed a bit more awkward with her, though I guess that was understandable. Satisfied that we were armed or wired or anything, he lowered the gun, but didn't put it down. "Okay. Who are you?"

We told him, giving him the chance to google me (or Nell, or Penny, or whatever) to make sure that I was not some random person André Trudeau had sent but someone who could at least be traced. He confirmed that he was originally Jean-Michel, and also the basics of what we figured: The Inn had given him and Marie the forms of a newlywed couple from Utah (amazingly, not switching their sexes), and after a little fretting, they decided to act on it: There had been attraction between them for some time, and that it didn't disappear when they had their new looks must have meant something. They had both wanted away from Trudeau's scene, so they took the offered chance, although they were still very cautious, just in case the Inn was part of some bizarre plot on the boss's part.

Convinced we were trustworthy, or at least willing to risk it, he got out his phone and called Marie, using some code words to tell her that he wasn't doing so under duress. She hadn't gotten very far, so it didn't take her long to get back.

Marie and Louisa took a good long look at each other. Marie said she didn't know whether she would have gone for that haircut; Louisa said it was Parker Costello's idea. Louisa asked how old the baby was (eight months).

The small talk was awkward, but Jean-Michel had at least put the gun down. For me, it was almost a relief when they finally asked why it was so important that we track them down. Of course, it meant that Louisa had the hard part coming up.

"Marie... Your mother died last year."

"What? That's ridiculous; she was only--"

"It was sudden - a blood clot. It happens fast like that sometimes. I don't think Elizabeth knew - they weren't close - but soon after she became herself again and I became you, it took a turn for the worse. I'm truly sorry."

"No, it's..." She handed the baby to her husband and walked to the computer Jean-Michel had used to check my bona fides. The website of a Montreal newspaper was on their favorites list (they evidently hadn't cut themselves completely off from their old lives), and she searched it until she found the obituary. "Mon dieu... Almost a whole year..."

Jean-Michel put his hand on her shoulder. "You couldn't have known. And even if you could have, what could we have done?"

"I know, it's just - I had a fantasy, you know, of bringing Casey up to meet her grand-maman, convincing her somehow of everything, letting her know that we're the only family in Utah raising their baby to be bilingual, and now I find out my mother was dead before Casey was even born."

"I'm sorry. Maybe we shouldn't have come--"

"No! I want to thank you for coming. And for being there with her. That can't have been easy."

"It's all right. It's important to not be alone at the end."

"Yes. Well. We've been very rude, pointing a gun at you rather than offering you something to drink. May I--?"

I accepted whole-heartedly, still having the jitters from having that gun pointed at me. They got the bottle of wine from a cabinet in an unused corner (Jean-Michel said the neighbors disapproved when they saw a bottle on the counter when they first came "home" from their honeymoon, but asking them to give up both alcohol and tobacco was too much). I had a good, long sip to steady my nerves, and we spent the evening sharing information.

They didn't have too much to say; they'd deliberately cut themselves off from their fellow guests back in '06. They were fascinated by the tales of other people we'd met and visited, with all the various stories and permutations. They couldn't believe how relatively lucky they and most of their group was; most everyone had stayed the same same sex and ethnicity: Both "before" and "after", theirs was a pretty Caucasian group; Marie apparently gaining some Native American (First Nations, as she put it) blood was about the extent of weirdness on a physical level.

Of course, what they were most interested in was how Louisa's life as Marie had gone; that she hadn't had any communication with Trudeau in months was a relief, although it also made them feel a bit foolish for having been so determined to hide. Not so foolish that they didn't ask us to hold off on talking about this until they'd gone to Montreal and returned, of course. Marie wanted to lay some flowers on her mother's grave, and they both wanted to see if it still felt like home. I told them I hoped they had better luck than I did, but they figured it would be easier just visiting.

One other thing I noticed: Louisa really seemed to get on with the baby. I remembered a moment when Marie sat down next to me looking at them and asked if I'd thought about kids. I responded with a question, whether she heard about me having been a guy, and she shrugged. "I never thought of myself as a mommy type, either, until I saw my first ultrasound. Anyway, I hope Louisa stops thinking of herself as too old and a widow. Aside from the fact that she'd be great at it..."

"You're mom's gone."

"Yeah. I mean, this is me now, but I'd hate for all of her to be gone."

Louisa's back in California now; maybe she'll find someone there and wind up starting her own family. In the meantime, I'm just a few days from being back in Boston. I'm looking forward to seeing Lyn again.

-Art/Penny

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