I was deep in thought the entire flight, with a bit of concern over how to present myself when I finally got to Florida. I had barely ever communicated with this man, except to confirm that I would be visiting him. I guess I could have taken a pass on the whole thing and just stayed at home, made up some excuse, but I the idea of taking a break from PA appealed to me. Much as I was looking forward to never going back to the South, the weather and the crowd has gotten me down, and this was my best bet for a brief escape.
I dunno what I was worried about: I jumped into this whole Lauren thing with hardly a second thought. 'Course, I knew I didn't have much of a choice. I took my marching orders knowing that if I felt shitty about it, it didn't make a bit of difference. I trusted it would work out fine, and it did.
considering what I've been through lately, I set the bar low for comfort anyway. Worst case scenario for the vacation: I have a less than pleasurable week but still get to enjoy good weather.
When I arrived in Florida, Bert and his girlfriend Stef were there to pick me up. I almost didn't recognize him: the photos Lauren has of him he is balding, but since then he's shaved his head completely and grown a greying goatee. His entire aesthetic screams "midlife crisis," right down to the bosomy, slightly younger woman on his arm.
Stef is very boisterous. She wraps me up in a hug, saying she's excited to finally meet me, and we're just going to be the best of friends. Uh huh. I have a hard time resisting playing the bratty teenage daughter as I push her to arms length (when I catch myself acting like that I wonder if the lifestyle has rubbed off on me, or if it's me being me - if grown men sometimes act the same as teenage girls without realizing it.) Bert and Stef go on and on about all the kinds of stuff we can do while I'm here, repeatedly assuring me that it's all up to me. I tell them I don't have much of an opinion. All I really want is to be alone, but that doesn't look like it's on the menu.
I don't want to be ungrateful for their hospitality, but I break it to them quickly that I'm not staying the whole week. I tell them I'm taking a college tour at the end of the week, so I have to leave a few days early. It's in Texas, too, and mom is real skittish about me moving out of state, so it's a secret, and I don't want her to know until I've made up my mind and heard the pitch. Bert says he understands - maybe he's a bit disappointed, but I think he's relieved I trust him enough to tell him something I'm keeping from Sue.
It's a lie, of course, the kind of bald-faced one I've gotten real used to telling. Lauren's not even going to graduate high school this year: Even if I pass every course, she won't have the academic pre-requisites to qualify for a diploma. I made a decision that I wasn't going to rob this girl of an education, so I've been treading water all year.
What I'm actually doing on Thursday is heading to Houston to see the real Lauren and Tasha in their current bodies. We have everything confirmed for July, and it's not as though I don't trust that they want their bodies back, but we agreed it would be nice to visit while I had time. Kind of a show of good faith.
I've learned from reading this blog that sometimes you can't trust people when they say they're going to do something.
When we got to Bert and Stef's house, it felt very spacious, but that's maybe because the Blanchard house is such cramped quarters. I wandered the halls of this sparsely-decorated two-storey detached home feeling like I was in an art gallery or something: from what I could tell, Stef was starting to influence the design, and she later told me she was interested in interior decorating. I made the mistake of asking her about the sofa and she went on and on about the relative merits of leather versus fabric and I completely blanked out. She also has a huge thing for vases, the more exotic-looking the better, but she says she's never traveled.
Stef is definitely a very feminine woman: never leaves her bedroom in the morning without full makeup, loves to cook and clean. It's not hard to see why Bert is attracted to her, but she represents a kind of womanhood I've gotten really uncomfortable with since being on this side of the fence.
Bert works weekends at a boat dealership, so I wound up spending a lot of time with Stef at first. She got me up at 8 saying that just because I was on vacation didn't mean she was going to let me sleep my life away. I said, "What if that's what I want to do?" and she said the was a whole world out there for me, and you only live once.
She boasted that their backyard opened right to the beach, and asked if I had brought my bikini. Of course I had - it's Florida after all. She said that if I wanted to I could spend all day lying around in the sand, but she was determined to get me out of the house. I felt like that was an acceptable compromise.
The new swimsuit I had bought as modest but form-fitting - not showy, but not exactly a burqa. It was high-waisted, which I imagined might make me look like Taylor Swift, but conceals the weight gain around my midsection, which is more noticeable than my butt or thighs, which have also increased in size in the last 8 months. I wore it under a tanktop and a light see-through wrap around my waist.
Stef accompanied me to the beach. As soon as we arrived she removed her cutoff jeans and hoodie to reveal a very miniscule bikini. I suppressed a gasp - for a woman her age and physique, it was pretty daring, letting her breasts hang out, as well as her lovehandles and belly. I wouldn't have called her fat, but her suit didn't hide anything at all. I wondered if I should be embarrassed for her or impressed by her.
She began to apply sunscreen and I removed my top layer to do the same. She remarked "Wow girl, you're a fox! Don't let your dad find out what you're hiding under there, he'll never let you leave the house!"
"Um, thanks." I got uncomfortable in a way I don't when men compliment me. It's praise from women I can't seem to shrug off. "You look good too..." I added, not-very-convincingly.
She smiled, "I like to think I'm still a 17-year-old hottie inside," she sighed, "Let this be a warning, it can all go south on you quick."
I honestly didn't know if she was fishing for compliments or what, but I had already said she looked good so I just laughed lightly.
As we laid out on blankets, she asked, "So, you got a boyfriend? Maybe we can find you a fling while we're here. Hah, just kidding." Except I think maybe she wasn't.
"I'm not really looking," I sighed.
"Of course you are," she said smugly, "Everyone's always looking, even if they say they're not."
I didn't respond, so she continued trying to engage me in girl talk. "Who's your ideal guy?"
"I don't really have one," I said, "I mean, I thought I did, but... I really don't."
"Come on, give me something!" she laughed, "If you could date any actor, who would it be?"
I sighed and started to recount a conversation the girls at school had had about Liam Hemsworth from the Hunger Games movies, pretending I was part of it. I felt like Stef could sense my apathy, so she interjected by saying she would date any of the guys on Game of Thrones, "Even the little guy," but not to tell my dad because they all have luxurious hair.
I laughed and had to admit that Jon Snow guy is a bit cute. Maybe it's the accent.
Despite myself, I started really thinking about it. I like to pretend otherwise, but I do have a straight girl's hormones rushing around inside of me, and there have been moments I've been overtaken by some pretty serious desires. But they aren't tied to looks. It's more personalities that I respond to, moments where I feel genuinely charmed by someone, looked at as an equal and a human being. That's probably why all the guys at school bug me. Having to square these feelings with the person I believe myself to be inside, as well as keeping Lauren's life drama-free as possible, is pretty torturous, so it becomes convenient to ignore it altogether.
"There's one guy back home," I finally admitted, "He's cocky and a bit of a jerk, but I can talk to him a bit, so that's nice. It just... it wouldn't work." I think about Phil sometimes, how he's right there under my roof if I ever want him, but I know it would end badly.
"Well, you never know," she said, elbowing me suggestively. "Is he cute at least?"
"Yeah," I admitted, "But I would never tell him that." That got a laugh.
I also think of Mark once in a while. Poor kid. He really liked me, and I just had to push him away, and now we're not even really friends. I went back to the Drama Club and his entire attitude toward me had changed as if overnight. That's more guilt than regret, because I played that one exactly right.
I abruptly changed the subject. "There's one person I like more, but... it can't happen. They're with someone else."
"See, that's why I never say never," she winked, "What's he like?"
"A good friend. Really understanding. Sometimes frustrating. And I feel pretty bad for having these feelings." I didn't mention it was a she. "We both know about it, but pretend we don't because it's easier."
"You can't be afraid to take what you want," she said. She seemed very eager to provide these little fortune cookie sayings.
I quickly got used to Stef's strong personality and it even brought out some really repressed sense of fun in me. It was the first time since my pageant adventures that I played girly-girl -- she took me to her favorite nail place to get pedicures, and even though I was uncomfortable being fussed over, I was pretty pleased with the results.
We met Bert for dinner that night at a French restaurant so nice it made me uncomfortable (and underdressed compared to the elegant dresses on the ladies nearby.)
"You know I'm not exactly loaded," Bert said, "But my daughter doesn't come to town very often, so you deserve a bit of spoiling." He leaned in to give me a peck on the cheek and I tried to feel grateful, but all I could think of was having waffles for dinner in the mobile home where I used to live -- or more recently, bringing a plate of chicken to my room because I just need to get away from the family for a while. I told him I appreciated it.
We spent the next few days sightseeing, and I did end up getting a fair amount of "me-"time and R&R. We had BBQs with the neighbors, and I was invited to play cards with Stef's lady friends. It was a pretty full few days.
Once I was feeling comfortable after a few days, I vented some of my frustrations about living with Sue and Paul, which Bert was all too happy to hear and it felt like we were almost bonding. On my last day there he took me to a Grapefruit League game, which was nice.
Thursday morning he drove me to the airport, and he reminded me that it was a secret between him and me that I as going to Texas. I smiled and hugged him, "Thanks for everything."