When I last posted, I was in the airport waiting for a flight to Chicago, to go insert myself into the life of Elaine Preston, the woman I had become without realizing it for the better part of two weeks. Left to myself, I might have just stayed in Old Orchard, working my truck and living something close to my life, but the real Elaine makes something of a good point when she says that she's got obligations, and a few months just abandoning them doesn't work for her.
I don't like flying, enough that it's been almost twenty years since the last time I got on a plane, and now the airport experience gives the actual flight a run for its money in terms of being Hellish. I suspect I'd look askance on being told to remove shoes, belt, and the like anyway, but having to do that while your ID is scrutinized and you step into a "body scanner" while not yourself... Well, how is a person not supposed to be terrified of that?
I have to transfer in Atlanta, which is not exactly the most logical route to get from Portland to Chicago, and then I'm initially a little flummoxed on how to get to Elaine's apartment from Midway Airport. She's given me instructions for trains and buses, but that's all confusing to me. The trouble is, she also has her ATM cards and stuff with her in her apartment, and I'm a little worried about being able to pay a cab with what little cash I've got on me. Maybe I shouldn't have had that drink to calm my nerves in the Atlanta airport bar. Elaine's phone has all the ways to call one of those "ride-share" services, but she's still got that, having put a cheap pay-as-you-go phone in the bag with her clothing.
Fortunately, a cabbie is willing to say I can make it to her apartment on what's in my pocket. He helps me with my luggage, and tries to talk on the way, but I'm not sure what to say. I'm kind of returning home, kind of visiting, kind of moving, and not sure when he's being polite or complimenting me. I hope I don't look too much like a damn fool when he drops me off at my address and I look around, trying to figure out which of the buildings on the corner is the one where I live now.
I figure it out and find Elaine's name on the intercom, press the button, and when I hear "who is it?", feel a bit uncertain what to say. "It's Cary... or Elaine... not sure how we want to do this." She buzzes me up.
The apartment's on the fourth floor, so I take the elevator. The door is open when I get there, and I step in cautiously, calling Elaine's name.
The voice coming from the kitchen sounds different, and not just because I'm not hearing it come out of some machine. For the last few days, I realize, she's been trying to sound different, imitating the voice I have now. And I can't blame her - not only is she white, but she's still pale despite it being the end of summer, with the fiery red hair to match. She's sitting on a barstool, giving me an intense look, probably trying not to look as unsettled as I was upon seeing someone else walk up with my face, trying not to look intimidated because the Inn has left her about four foot tall and...
"You're a little girl?"
Her eyes narrow a bit. "No, I'm a 29-year-old woman who just looks like a 9-year-old white girl. Just like you're an old man who temporarily looks like me. Don't forget that, just because you got the better deal out of all this."
"I wouldn't call me an old man..." She rolls her eyes. "Anyway, don't you have, you know, parents...?"
"Yeah, two very hardworking ones in Detroit. But I suppose you mean, 'doesn't Mackenzie Mahoney have parents?' Yeah, she does, but my sister and her dumbass boyfriend are no more interested in tooling around the suburbs in a minivan than I am in going to elementary school again. So they are spending the next few months traveling around the world without me crimping their style, while I make sure that you don't put a giant hole in my work history or reputation."
She sounds bitter, which I guess is only natural, and I wonder what she's most angry about. I'm not sure how to respond, though - she looks and sounds like a sad little girl, but she's also just made it very clear that she does not want to be treated that way.
She jumps down from the stool and looks me over. "Well, you must be hungry after your flight, so go have a shower and I'll let you use my credit card to take us out to eat."
It sounds weird coming out of her mouth, but accurate enough. I have to admit, I'm a little self-conscious undressing and stepping into the shower with her right on the next room, but once the hot water starts beating on my skin, it's kind of relaxing, and I wonder if this is how she unwinds at the end of the day and her body just responds to it naturally. I don't really notice that she's come in and picked up my dirty clothes until I get out, see the clean floor, and then walk into the bedroom wearing a towel to find some clothes laid out on the bed. I grab them and walk into the living room, other hand grabbing at the towel on my chest. "What the heck is this?"
She looks at me like I'm an idiot. "What, you didn't think we'd be going out in the Wal-Mart brand stuff you wore on the plane, did you? Folks could see us, and then judge me on what you're wearing!"
"But this is a skirt!"
"Trust me, you've got the legs for it now. Besides, it's a warm night and it goes to the knee; you can even get away with not crossing your legs with it."
"These shoes have heels!"
"Like, an inch. I'm starting you off easy; you won't even notice them after a minute or two. I run in those all the time."
I start to look at her the way she's been looking at me, almost like an adversary. "What do you mean, 'starting me off'?"
"What do you think I mean? Cary, I don't have a job right now - my last contract was going to bring me on full-time after getting back from vacation with my sister, but when I couldn't be contacted because you were running around Maine selling hot dogs, they gave the job to someone else. So I/you/we are going to have to go on interviews, and you're going to have to dress the part. And while we can cover next month's rent, November or December might be a problem. I don't have that much time to get you up to speed, so, yeah, I need you to get used to this stuff right away."
There's a certain logic to what she's saying, even if I had, in the back of my head, planned on staying in slacks and sneakers for however long I was stuck as Elaine. I retreat to the bedroom and put what she chose on. I don't want to admit it's comfortable, but the right sized bra turns out to make a difference. It takes me a moment to recognize what the half-slip is for (the red skirt she laid out is simple, but starts clinging to my legs with static electricity as soon as I start walking). She's right about the shoes, too; by the time I've walked back across the room to the door, those short heels aren't really an issue.
I'm a bit surprised to see her wearing basically the same outfit when I go back to the living room. She shrugs her shoulders, saying fair's fair, before walking around me making sure I'm zipped and buttoned and not showing any panty line. She says I really should be wearing stockings and makeup and that we're definitely making an appointment at the hairstylist, but eff it, she's hungry.
She leads me out of the apartment and down (or is it up? not sure yet) a few blocks to an Italian place she says she likes but where she doesn't go often enough that folks will notice her (or me, as the case may be) having a kid in tow.
We are pretty funny to watch, I imagine - her making sure that I see how to properly shot in a skirt without it riding up and then looking at the wine list and letting out a large sigh before ordering a cranberry juice (and kind of scowling at me ordering a beer), me talking to her like an adult. I'm sure the wait staff expects her to order "p'sketti" or cheese pizza only to hear her ask for "risotto ai funghi" without stumbling over pronunciation nearly as much as I did asking for a seafood dish.
And for all that she had spent most of the previous hours looking like she had swallowed a bug, her kid's face had a look of perfect joy after he first bite. "God, I needed this. My sister went grocery shopping before dripping me off, but it's hard to cook standing on a chair and delivery has been getting me too scared of someone finding out I'm alone in the apartment to really enjoy my food. But this..." She looks up at me. "We're going to eat out a lot, okay? I used to stay in relationships too long because I didn't think you could eat out alone, and if I'm already giving up work, wine, and sex..."
I look around to make sure nobody else is listening, but we seem pretty safe. She insists on putting away her whole plate and a desert and a half (saying the one advantage she's got is that she's still growing while I have to watch my figure as she's stealing mine), and we haven't taken many steps out of the restaurant before she's clutching her stomach, saying this may have been a bad idea. We're only halfway "home" before she's really moving slow. I squat down and hold out my hands because it's hard not to see her as a kid at that moment. She grumbles that this is so embarrassing but let's me pick her up, and by the time we get back to the building, she's asleep with her head on my shoulder. I shake her shoulder, asking if she's got the keys, and she pulls them out of her pocket, mumbling that she should get a new set made before falling back asleep.
I carry her up the stairs and lie her down on the bed, thinking that even though it's only ten o'clock, she probably had a busy and stressful day. Come to think of it, I did too, and I fall asleep on the couch watching The Tonight Show.
She's full of energy the next morning, though, running over when I start to stir at 8am. "Finally, you're up! We've got a lot to cover, but first up: I'm pretty sure you didn't drink enough after I went to bed to sleep with your clothes on. But never mind, I've got to show you make-up..."