I've been to a couple of them in the past few weeks, and I can't say it's not kind of tough. Sure, when I look at what Jonah is staring down, the fact that I'm skipping college seems like small potatoes - by the time he gives birth and goes back to the Inn next summer, he'll have missed his last couple years of high school, and who knows how that particular experience will change him - but I worked so hard to get there, and now I'm the townie boyfriend in the audience whom everybody thinks that Marybeth is going to eventually outgrow and leave behind.
It's a pretty tough pill to swallow, at times. I mean, I'm proud as heck of her - her Master's is no small accomplishment, and I've got no idea whether I would have had the patience for it. She lit up as she accepted her diploma and then, afterwards, jumped into my arms when she and all her friends finished giving each other high-fives. We kissed for a long time, and it was a really blissful kiss - I slowly eased her to the ground, and it felt like a portion of her satisfaction and success flowed into me. I never had that with boyfriends in high school or the ones I had as Ravi in New York, and I wonder if that's what being in love, really in love, as a grown-up feels like.
We had to come up for air eventually, and that's when she dragged me over to meet her parents. They seem like nice folks, although I'm not sure exactly what she had told them about me and what they've assumed. They're in their mid-fifties and Marybeth is their only child, so they were looking askance at me to begin with, and I don't know if I quite made the best first impression.
I've at least learned to navigate the whole "firm handshake" thing; the line between showing that you are a dependable person of some substance and turning it into a test-of-strength battle for dominance is a lot thinner than you may expect! Her dad was strong but kind of recreationally strong, like he goes out and does physical things but wears custom gloves when he does it to protect his hands. He sized me up too and asked what I was studying.
I could hear Marybeth going "uh..." beside me, but I just smiled and said "same things as your daughter, just without so much institutional support and formal direction." He gave me a look that said he had it half figured out but wasn't quite there, but wanted me to say the thing that made me look bad. "I bus tables, sir, but I read and write a lot, and I hope to make a career of it someday."
He wasn't sure how to react to that, although Marybeth's mom looked at her daughter mock-seriously and asked why she hadn't said that was an option - they could have had a house on the lake! Everyone laughed at that, and her quizzing me on what sort of experiences I'd be able to bring to my writing outside of ivory-tower twenties was kind of fun. I obviously couldn't say ''well, I was a gay Indian man for a year", but I could string together just enough of my real life, Benny's, and the year that Ronan lived this life to make it sound interesting,
It was an exhausting but enlightening afternoon, and the party that night with Marybeth's classmates was a good way to blow off steam. I didn't drink quite as much as I might have last year - I'm no longer a kid excited that I can get a beer just by asking for it, and I've gotten pretty decent about just drinking enough to take the edge off in awkward social situations rather than obliterating it. Which was good; as much as I felt kind of needled that day, seeing her parents was kind of stressful for Marybeth as well, and we engaged in some terrific tension relief when we got back to her place that night. It would have sucked to be too out of it for that.
Then, the next morning, we woke up in each other's arms. I kissed her and asked what it was like for her to be both that much more overqualified for her job and that much too good for the likes of me, and she laughed before saying that it was pretty awesome, although if I keep it up with the uncanny instincts about what a girl likes, the second part will stay debatable. And as to the first, well, that's just a matter of stepping up her résumé-writing/sending game, because her student loans have officially become a ticking time bomb.
The other party wasn't really for anybody I knew, but sometimes being an "Inn Person" doesn't just mean that life dealt you an unfair supernatural hand, but that you are part of a community of people who are so much more than they seem at first glance. That I wound up in Boston makes me especially lucky in that regard; being kind of near the Inn means that there are enough other people around who have been through the same thing that your support system is not just your roommate, with whom you now likely have an even more complicated relationship. There's The Changeling, and while Ashlyn, Penny, and everyone else may be a little reluctant to immediately welcome anyone who posts on the blog or says that they've been to the Trading Post with open arms - "Pygmalion" and a number of other incidents (like how Penny is Penny rather than Arthur) have reminded them that being in the same boat doesn't mean people want to steer it the same way - the connection is wonderful.
This second party was kind of a delayed affair, as Jessica Brooks was going to law school out in California, but she still wanted to celebrate with her Inn family who know that she used to be a middle-aged cop in Baltimore, and making it here was about finding her new self as much as anything else.
She wasn't the first to arrive, though - Jonah had just finished a day shift, and didn't protest too much when I hugged her, or when Penny arrived and told her that, even though being pregnant was obviously something that, having been born a man, he wasn't prepared for, it would be amazing, changing the way he saw the world for the better. I felt a bit of a twinge - I'd never really given much thought to having children beyond it being part of some vague future but something to take precautions against for right now, but now it was an entirely different potential thing.
Soon Penny was there, and despite what she's told me before, I was still kind of surprised to be introduced to Elizabeth Kim. She read that on my face and smiled at it, saying that she was obviously still one of the villains of Penny's story when she stopped writing, but, of course, nobody is the bad guy in her own, although it took her a while to really comprehend what sort of selfish choices she had made at times and how, sometimes, you need to change your whole way of thinking. It was an interesting conversation, although I don't know if I buy it as it relates to me and Sandra.
The next person I was introduced to was Louisa Torrence, and I did kind of fangirl out meeting her, which looks funny coming from a working-class guy. I told her that when I thought that the whole blog was a piece of fiction that Penny (and others) were writing, she was one of my favorite characters because she reminded me of my mom in a couple of ways and just seemed so empathetic and genuine, and to find out she was a real person... Well, you get it. She reacted to that sort of thing about as well as she could and caught me up on what she'd been up to, and, as she put it, a bunch of other "dangling plot threads". As she said, it's not dangerous for "Marie Desjardins"in Montreal any more; the gangster boyfriend was in jail and the original Ashlyn had enough influence to keep people off her back. She's back to being a librarian again, and kind of loving it - she makes sure that she sets to work in both French and English, and the classes in library science she took (because while someone her actual age would be able to list experience but "Marie" needs to be a specialist) help her keep her mind sharp. She says she probably doesn't need to worry about senior moments, but it seems to vary for everyone. She hopes and thinks that because she dropped thirty years before her brain started to deteriorate, she's probably got the mental acuity of someone her apparent age, but that the Inn won't necessarily fix what's already brown up there.
Which, she joked, could have applied just as much to the guest of honor as anyone else, as Jessica Brooks had been a veteran cop before the Inn made him a pre-teen girl who has, in the years since, made it to adulthood, graduated college, and then finished law school out in California, which had to put her near retirement age, old enough to be my father (and then some) if we had never visited the Inn, but physically maybe a couple of years older than I look right now. She arrived with an entourage - the road trip she and Louisa took eight years ago had led her to Dana Costello, the guy who started life as Jessica, and his best-friend's-father-turned-mother Parker (mother of Dana, not the friend, because she was now Dana's adult husband because sometimes the Inn really fucks families up), and the whole group sort of arrived together - Jessica & Kathleen Brooks and Dana & Parker & Carson & Phuong Costello.
They weren't how I'd pictured them, obviously; though my binge-reading of the blog happened within the last couple of years, the posts which introduced me to them were from 2007, so it was a bit jarring to see Jessica, Dana, and Phuong as adults in their mid-twenties, Carson as a confident middle-aged man, and Parker and Kathleen as, I don't know, the veteran moms? You know, folks who buckled down to be parents in tough situations while still trying to do their own things, probably don't get enough credit for either, and now look at each other and know they kicked ass even if guys are just counting ways they don't look like swimsuit models.
It got loud quickly, and though I've been welcomed into the Boston group of Inn people, I'm admittedly an outsider with this collection. Still, when I reached out to shake Jessica's hand and noticed the ring my eyebrows went up a bit. I asked who the lucky guy was, and she nodded toward Dana.
I squealed, which is probably kind of scary coming out of someone who looks like I do, but she laughed, saying that for a moment, she could totally see the teenage girl whose fanfic had just actually happened underneath the mid-twenties male exterior. I blushed, but nobody noticed, as they were all too busy congratulating the happy couple. As soon as that died down, Ashlyn handed Penny a twenty, and Dana looked genuinely shocked. "Really? You guys were betting on this?"
Ray said that of course they were betting on it, what with them being the most hot and cold couple they've ever seen, and that's before getting into the Inn stuff. I guess it must be kind of crazy dating someone who sort of used to be you. "You've got no idea!" Dana said. "But compared to watching her date losers that I never would have gone near..."
"I have never dated a loser! Do you have any idea how high the standards someone who's secretly thirty years older than the kids who look age-appropriate are? You're the most immature person I've ever dated, by far, in two lifetimes!"
"Oh, not the 'two lifetimes' thing! You promised that treating me like a kid was over, because you know what this life is like and how it doesn't work if you don't trust me--"
"AFTER we're married--"
"Hey!" Kathleen just needed one word to quiet them down as she put her hands on my and Jonah's shoulders. "You're scaring the kids!" They apologized to us, and the whole crowd laughed. Ashlyn was grinning the biggest.
"This is why Penny and I had money on the two of them winding up together. Their fights are legendary, even if they were missing something before Dana applied to the police academy."
"Which is still the most god-damn foolish mmmmph!"
Dana had put his hand over Jessica's mouth, but I guess this was a thing with them, as she quickly pulled it down, kissed him, and had the whole thing sort of turn into him embracing him from behind. "See what I'm signing up for?"
"You love it!" He kissed her (it was kind of a good thing she was wearing heels, because he has about a foot on her), and squeezed. "Yeah, we fight, because we both think we know what's best for each other and broadly have a better claim than most couples. But, let me tell you, I can't imagine my life without those fights, and when I realized that she might actually move away after graduating, and I'd have to argue with her over the internet--"
"Seriously, we weren't together two months ago, but when this goofball got down on one knee, that seemed absurd."
There was a big round of "awwwww!!!", maybe with me the loudest despite knowing them for about ten minutes.
After that, it sort of became a regular party, and it was a lot of fun. I really found myself liking Dana; I gather that when Louisa and Jessica met her, she was really a guy's guy, but maybe it's just knowing the truth or his having spent more time with other folks who have been through the change, since it certainly feels like we've got common ground as men who used to be girls. For insurance, he really enjoyed choosing a ring for Jessica, even as his friends broke into cops sweats. Got some Taylor Swift on his phone, too.
Later in the night, I asked Penny if she'd bet on Jessica and Dana getting together randomly, and she said it was because she and Ray had worked out. I mentioned that I worried about things with Marybeth sometimes, because there was something I was holding back. She said not to worry, because she's seen a lot of cases where it had worked out with people who couldn't know.
"So are you and Ashlyn being on me now?"
She smiled and said that if they were, it would probably be about me and Missy, chuckling when I said there was no chance of that.
I think she's just messing with me. She's better be.