A new Star Wars movie came out a couple weeks ago; perhaps you heard about it? I sure did, living in an apartment full of guys in their mid-twenties. And, hey, I wasn't immune; I dig Star Wars even if I was still able to recognize that Amidala just dying of a broken heart in Revenge of the Sith was some bullshit (yes, old people, I was a little girl when the prequels came out and loved Padme the way you loved Han Solo; deal with it). I hit that over the weekend with Missy and we had a blast.
Still, the really big media release for me that week was Penny Lincoln-Kim's new novel, Pygmalion's Proposal. If you've been reading the blog since I got here, you might remember that being a fan of her first two books in the series, as well as her Lynn Ashford mysteries, is what got me to book a room at the Trading Past Inn, leading to me becoming Ravi, Sandra becoming me, and everything else that got me to this moment. They're pretty great books, set in a future where mind-exchanges are possible but top-secret, with the super-rich stealing the bodies of teenagers. Usually it's done right before death, but one survived, and although he or she can't switch again, this mystery person is doing the same, matching the minds of kids with certain aptitudes with suitable bodies, the "Pygmalion" of the title. It's great stuff if you're a teen, about how the previous generation is wrecking the world for us, imposing their pop culture with an endless series of remakes, sequels, and reboots, as well as the sensation of having to set used to your changing body. Once you learn about the Inn first-hand, what Arthur-Liz-Penny and her friends went through, etc., it's got new levels.
It's also written with teenage girls as the target audience, which was cool when I was one, but I kind of stick out like a sore thumb at Penny's signings now. Sandra would blend, but it didn't look like she read my copies and became a fan. I guess I should be grateful for that; even with the event moved from the store to a local theater to accumulate the crowd, running into her would have been awkward enough to put a damper on things.
Moving the signing away from the store unfortunately meant I wouldn't get to see Marybeth until later; she had pulled an evening shift and would be there until the shop closed at 11pm (the bookstore being open later than most restaurants is just the most Harvard Square thing imaginable). That was okay, in a way, because it meant I didn't have to explain Jonah/Krystle to my girlfriend. She's met Missy, but a girl with the figure Jonah inherited who has an actual stripper name even when she's not stripping... Well, I know I wouldn't have liked it!
Jonah and I had texted and chatted online since he showed up at my place looking for help at the start of November, although I've held off mentioning him until he said it was okay and started contributing to the blog himself. It's a little tougher to say "himself" now - he still favors shapeless sweatshirts when not at work to minimize his curvy figure, but he's responded to the pressure to wear make-up when there, as well as pulling shoes with an inch or two of heel out of Krystle's stock so that he is not quite so towered-over (he's actually a bit taller than Missy, but he'd just hit a growth spurt before going to the Inn, so he's sensitive about height). The big change is the hair; Krystle had grown it long and had it "relaxed" as a rule, but it naturally grew in curly, so sometime in the last month he had all the straight stuff cut off and now has a couple inches of afro. I think the idea was to look a little less feminine, and maybe it does in his head, but it also shows off his slender neck, and any earrings he might be wearing. I like it, at least.
We grabbed seats next to each other and chatted a bit before the reading. He had brought one of the mystery novels, not being much of a sci-fi/fantasy fan. He was clearly uncomfortable in the crowd, especially when someone moving to an inside seat made sure that squeezing through meant he brushed against Jonah's breast (kind of don't miss that), and always brought his voice down real low when discussing anything Inn-related. I kind of get the impression that he hadn't spent much time unsupervised before the Inn made him an adult, and even after four months, he still feels like there's someone watching who will scold him if he screws up, even beyond however much being religious has you thinking that way.
The actual reading started just a few minutes late, and I got really excited as the guest of honor came out on stage. The book was supposed to come out a few months ago, but got delayed a number of times for reasons I'd learn later. The first chapter she read sounded good, though, making me glad I'd be able to start it that night. Even Jonah seemed to like it.
There was a Q&A afterward, and I liked it both for the "regular" fan reasons and for how I could parse out Penny mostly avoiding actual lies. When someone asked how she went from athlete to author, it was "I always wrote, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I thought I had ideas for novels people would want to read." Or taking about marrying into Korean-American family making her want to portray a more multi-cultural society than a lot of young adult series do without mentioning that she actually was Korean-American for a while. Or how she's not always sure about what motivates the "Pygmalion" in her books, because there were a couple of inspirations, some more benign than others.
After the Q&A, the kind of scary part began. Scary for me, at least; while I'm sure that a lot of the other folks in line were nervous about the few sentences they were going to exchange with the author, they probably had that neutralized by the frustration of waiting in line. I, on the other hand, was sweating enough to make a lot of the parents there with their teenage daughters look askance, and dropped my money when paying for my copy of the novel. I had to swallow a couple of times when I finally did get to the front of the line. She wasn't really intimidating in person, beyond being tall, attractive, and super-healthy-looking, but, still...
She asked me to whom to address the autograph, and I said "Annette Grayson". Then she did the most awesome damn thing ever.
She smiled, started scribbling on the title page, and said "Hi, Benjamin. I was hoping you'd come." I had this whole thing ready to go about how I went to the Inn because of her, all vague so that the other people in line wouldn't think I was nuts, and she already knew who I was! Then she reached into a pile of books that were already inscribed, gave me one, and made sure to point out the slip of paper stuck in there like a bookmark.
That was it, at least until Jonah and I got outside and I could pull the paper out and read it: "Special post-signing event for fellow guests of the Trading Post Inn. 8:30pm, The Changeling, Arlington." I showed it to Jonah, dumbfounded, before my brain started working again and I looked up transit directions. Getting out to Arlington meant taking the bus, one which I may not have found except that Jonah goes through Alewife station daily to get to work.
I called Missy, but there was no response. Her loss. The neighborhood where we got off the bus was kind of modest, and "The Changeling" blended in, without even a neon sign advertising some beer or other. It was still obviously a bar, though, which made Jonah nervous. I told him to relax - we'd get carded, but our genuine IDs would check out.
We walked in, and it turned out to be a cozy-looking Irish pub, with a bar, tables for dining, a jukebox, the usual. The bartender fit the general atmosphere; a redhead of about thirty who greeted us with an accent that didn't quite seem to be from any specific place but wasn't the generic middle-American thing, either. My eyes were drawn to her tight sweater, and that's when it hit me, and I got nervous all over again.
"Are you... Are you Ashlyn Shelley?"
She smiled. "For eight years now, if you know what I mean."
"I do!" I grabbed Jonah's hands and pulled him toward the bar. "I'm--" I stopped for a second as I realized what I was about to say, but then went through with it. "I'm Annette Grayson, and this is my friend Jonah."
Jonah looked at me like I was crazy for a second, but Ashlyn reassured him. "Don't worry, you're among friends. Come on, there's a table set up for us back here, and drinks are on the house. What would you like?"
I kept it simple and ordered a Guinness, and Jonah stuck with a Coke, seeming a little uncomfortable that I was having a beer despite not chronologically being of legal age. Ashlyn didn't make a big deal of it in either direction.
She kept tending bar until another red-headed girl came in, rattling off every lousy thing that had made her late and then loudly announcing to the whole pub that the authentic experience began right now, at least as far as the bar was concerned. Ashlyn semi-sarcastically saluted - Moira had apparently been a wiseass since the day she was hired - and then settled into a seat at our table. "If only she knew how inauthentic an Irish girl I really am! This is just about all the barbecue on the menu."
"Right, because you were originally from Texas!" Not knowing how far back Jonah had read, I introduced him. "Jonah, this is Ashlyn Shelly, though she started out as Jake Matthews - she's one of the original writers of the blog!" Belatedly realizing I had no idea how much she knew about us, I repeated that I was Annette Grayson, how Benjamin Jones, with some time spent as Ravi Kapoor in between. I started to explain about Jonah before deciding it really wasn't my place, although he didn't leave much out. Then I felt myself doing a thing I hadn't thought much about before I started seeing girls my actual age from the outside - kind of letting a little air out as I realized this exciting thing I could hardly have hoped far was actually happening, probably getting a dopey grin that would look cute on my original face. "Sorry, this is just so cool! Although you don't quite look like I imagined you."
"Hey, you don't stay in your early twenties forever without going back to the Inn. You hit thirty, the metabolism that made you curvy slows down whether you stop eating barbecue or not, so you start running with your fitness-nut best friend, and as a side effect the boobs shrink from 'holy shit!' to 'still very nice!' Then you get a simpler haircut, start dressing a little more respectably because you remember that being respected was just as gratifying as guys trying to get in your panties..." She laughed. "Don't mind the girl whining about having to act only ten years less than her age; I've done pretty well in every category but guys, and I'm still pretty optimistic on that count."
She looked up as the door opened, then raised her hand to signal the folks who had just come in. I had my back to it, so I just heard some guy asking is this was it before Ashlyn said that seemed to be the case, what with everyone busy with the holidays. Then the chair next to me was pulled out and Penny Freaking Lincoln extended her hand, said we hadn't been properly introduced, and also indicated that the Korean-American man on her other side was her husband Ray.
I stammered like crazy, saying something dumb like not being sure whether this was more like meeting J.K. Rowling or Harry Potter, and felt mortified when the whole table, even Jonah, laughed. I started to apologize, but Penny stopped me, saying it was a good line and I should use it in something someday.
(I'm not sure at what point in the evening she said I could call her Penny, but she totally did!)
In fact, she said she should apologize to me for not deleting her entries or changing the names in them when her agent said not to put something like that on the web for free, because she never imagined it would lead to someone actually coming to the Inn and getting stuck in the same situation. I told her she shouldn't because reading all about her experiences was really helpful, and besides, she couldn't get rid of all the posts that referred to her, and believe me, I would have dug down far enough in the search results to find them. She said she was glad I felt that way, but she still seemed to feel a bit guilty.
Somehow, Jonah was able to interrupt me and say "hey, about the blog - I notice that not a lot of people who wrote on it seem to change back, and out of all the people at this table, only Mr. Kim seems to be himself again; just how doomed am I?"
That quieted things down a bit, but Ashlyn took his hand and said not to worry. "A lot of people who do change back tend to delete their posts, like they can just erase the whole experience. Other folks, the ones who are really dedicated to just getting through this and getting back tend not to post at all. That's kind of you, right? And while I sometimes wonder if writing on the blog contributes to some of us getting 'stuck' because every time we find something interesting or enjoyable can be read as 'well, they wouldn't really mind staying like that' to people inclined to steal our lives, you can probably counteract that by staying in pretty close contact with the other people in your line."
Ray took his hand. "It can be done. I'm living proof."
That reassured Jonah a bit, I think. The last bit did make me wonder about my own situation a bit - did my excitement over exploring Ravi's life help Sandra justify just walking away when she saw Missy at the Inn? I don't like victim-blaming (especially when I'm the victim in question!), but did I help create the situation?
Penny seemed to read my mind and gave me a punch on the shoulder. ''Hey, if you're going to tell me that I'm not responsible for you going to the Inn, then you can't blame yourself for that other chick turning away. Now, c'mon, you've got your favorite author in a bar. Ask me shit!"
I froze for a second, and then asked about the ending of the first book, with Marcus choosing Jan over Nancy, and if that was about how she and Ray ended up together. She said that was certainly part of it, but also sprung from Ashlyn shutting the real Pygmalion out of her life.
I asked half-jokingly why the third book was so late, and she said it was because women who used to be men are the craziest pregnant people and most obsessed new mothers, and the only reason she wasn't texting little Lizzie's sitter every ten minutes was that Ray had confiscated her phone. The only way she got anything done at all over the past year was by making Lynn pregnant in the new mystery novel so that she had something to pour that into.
"Yeah, thanks for that." Ashlyn rolled her eyes. "Like the family hasn't been pestering me about settling down and supplying grandkids already!"
"Hey, you know the character is more me than you, but you're the one who wants them to be impressed!"
Something hit me. "You named your daughter after Liz?"
"Well, she is Ray's oldest friend."
"I know it's hard for you in particular to believe, but we get along. I mean, we share a life. I understand her in ways you can't even articulate, and once it was all over, and she and Ray were back 'home' and done switching for good, and we could all talk about it... You'll see someday, I hope. There's just too much to gain from being friends."
I wasn't sure. "Maybe after Sandra gives me my life back, we'll be buddies. AFTER that."
I thought for a second, then had another question. ''How come there's no gender-bending stuff in the Pygmalion books? I never questioned it before, but now..."
Ray groaned, but Penny laughed. "Oh, that's a thing. There was in the first draft of the first book, but both my agent and the publisher freaked, saying that was the sort of controversy that they didn't need. Fine, whatever, I get it. I write in that you can't do this. Then, this time, they actually want it, figuring that it's a good way to capitalize on all the hubbub about Caitlin Jenner, Tangerine, The Danish Girl, Lana Wachowski, all that. And I'm like, crap, why wasn't this okay three years ago? It's not like I've forgotten what changing sex is like, but there have been so many other changes since then..."
We all laughed at that, even Jonah, especially once Ashlyn reassured him that every once few months she'll wake up in the middle of the night, stumble to the bathroom, and try to pee standing up.
That's about when my phone rang and Marybeth said she was almost finished with her shift, and was I up for a nightcap? I felt terrible about feeling torn, but they all said to go ahead, you've got to live your life and she sounded like a good one.
And she really is, if only for putting up with me replaying a heavily redacted version of the evening before we feel asleep on the couch.