Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Max: Nothing's quite normal now

After last week, I'm grateful to be back to normal again - male, Chinese-American, just out of college.  It happened relatively quick, in terms of not having to wait around as Elaine for days after having Yang Chen-ai switch up the plan so that I can become myself again ahead of schedule - it happened late Friday night or early Saturday morning, depending on how you count those hours - and I think that was probably by design, with the Wong sisters figuring on a full house on Labor Day weekend as unsuspecting guests try to get the most out of the last holiday before fall.

I did like Chen-ai suggested (which, to be fair, is along the lines of what Jordan's model says) and stuck a chair in exactly the spot Carlotta had been when she changed.  Nothing happened Thursday night other than me giving up at around 4am and having a stiff back when I woke up at noon.  Annette had already caught the train south when I woke up and met Jordan for brunch, saying she had friends and roommates to meet for the first time before class started.  If she was freaked out enough by the whole general situation and wanted as far from Old Orchard as possible, I can't say I blame her.

Friday was pretty boring.  Jordan and I are both city people, and we felt like we'd pretty much exhausted what there was to do in Old Orchard by then.  We played some cards, wasted time on the Internet, and quietly mocked the folks next to us who thought that Lisa's Pizza was top-tier pie (we are New Yorkers under the skin, after all).  Then night came, he went back to his rented apartment, and I went back to the Inn.

Regular visitors talk about a tingle that comes earlier in the evening on nights that the change takes place, and Jordan, who makes computer models to try to predict the changes, has a theory about the change actually sending some sort of wave back in time because it's pushing and pulling information and extra mass out of some alternate dimension and this causing ripples on the t-axis, but I don't know about any of that.  I just know there was some sort of electricity when I walked into the building, although it might be easy to miss if you weren't looking for it.

As 2am approached, I found myself wondering what to wear.  I don't think I've heard any stories about people harmed by wearing chokers or thongs and becoming bigger, but the thought gets in your head, even though being naked starts to feel super inappropriate - like, soon those won't be your curves anymore, so you shouldn't be so causal with them, even if it took you weeks to get to that point.  I wound up in a t-shirt and a new pair of boxers - I wonder how much fresh underwear gets bought in the nearest department store after the Inn does is thing - so when I did change back, I mostly saw my skin tone change rather than really noticing inflation and deflation.  I noticed it when walking to the bathroom to check in the mirror, in that certain parts being non-retractable is proud positive that Apple doesn't design the human body.

It was me.  Carlotta hadn't given me a stupid haircut or let me get fat or left me with a tattoo or anything, although I guess she might have if she'd had the winter and next spring.  I let out a breath I didn't realize I'd been holding; maybe I'd find this experience educational someday, but no sleight to Elaine, I was glad to be myself again.

A noise from the adjoining room made me stop moving for a moment.  It was right next to the wall, and when I closed my eyes and tried to imagine Jordan's floor plan, I wondered if the person on the other side of the wall had become Bingbing or if they had become whoever was in the room, and someone else drew that straw.  That was room 8, so they should have become Brittany and Ethan.

I did take out my phone and send Jordan and Annette selfies.  It felt pretty good that they both responded in a couple of minutes, with Jordan sarcastically saying good, I can go to bed now and Annette sending a couple emojis (I think the wink indicates that the hearts-for-eyes-and-wide-open-mouth was partly in jest) and a request to look her up the next time I'm in Boston.

I officially still had a girlfriend, though, and I figured that whoever wound up with that rule was going to need help like I did, as would everyone else, so I took my bag and the one I recognized as Bingbing's and headed out to the lobby.  Starting around 5am, there were a bunch of freaked-out people, and I did my best to explain what was going on.  Jordan wasn't letting her phone wake her at first, so I was on my own, and it wasn't so bad after a while.  Some folks were angry that I hadn't done anything to warn them, but being myself again made me a bit more intimidating than I was as Elaine, so it didn't get violent.

By about 11am, I'd counted twelve of us, but no Bingbing.  Only room 4 seemed to be unaccounted for, so I walked over and knocked on the door.  "Are you okay in there?  I know what's happened to you is scary, but I've been through it.  Things can get back to normal and I can help."

The door opened as far as the chain would let it, and "Bingbing" looked out.  Her hair was messy, and she had a look I'd never seen on that face when it was Carlotta inside, though it occurred to me that maybe I should have seen her look worried at some point if we'd actually been as close as I thought we were.  Seeing that I was Asian too, she asked what had happened in Cantonese.

I was a little surprised by that, and I guess it showed, and I told her the Inn was cursed, that the guests turned into the last people to stay there, but while the origins were hard to dig up, the effects were fairly predictable, so if you got the timing and positioning right, you could be yourself again, although it generally took about a year because this place filed up pretty well for someplace under a hex.  I took the passport out of the bag and handed it to her, and she closed the door, likely running to the mirror to check that she'd become Bingbing rather than just a new girl - after all, if she was Chinese to start, that wouldn't seem so random.

She came back and opened the door all the way.  "So I'm this Chen Bingbing now.  Why?  I thought I was just getting a job in America, and they told me to do a training thing here while they sorted out my visa.  Did they know?"

I said we'd have to do some research, but I suspected of we traced whoever owned her new employer back a ways, we'd find Yang Chen-ai, and her new job was keeping an eye on me and Jordan.  I told her that story, trying to minimize some of the scarier parts, but she was curling up into a ball by the end anyway.

By then I'd looked around the room and saw that the clothes on the floor were guys', and rolled the suitcase over.  "I'm guessing what's in here will be more comfortable than what you've got.  It looks like you were, uh, taller before."

She admitted that was the case and took the suitcase into the bathroom.  Not sure whether to stay or go, I stood by the door and looked at my phone until she came out wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers.  She hadn't put a bra on, but it seemed like it would be really inappropriate to offer help with that.  "So," I said, "you want to meet Jordan?  Yuan-wei is supposed to be your best friend, although I guess it might seem silly to keep it up."

"Might as well, especially if you're right about what I'm supposed to do."

So I texted Jordan, found out that Cary had his truck nearby, and decided to meet up there.  On the way, I asked who she really was.

"I...  I don't know if I should say.  You seem nice, and I'm sure your brother will too, but how can I really know?"

I was kind of disappointed, but said it was fair enough.  Jordan was a little less thrilled about not knowing who her supposed best friend was, but figured there was no way too force this information out of her, especially since she already seemed freaked out by how comfortable this girl I kept calling my brother was - elated, even, to still be Yuan-wei.

Jordan yelled "guess who!" when we came to order, introducing me and Bingbing.  To my surprise, Elaine was in the back of the truck as well, reading something on a tablet that I suspect would raise eyebrows if it had been a physical book in the hands of an eleven-year-old, and she jumped out the back to look at me from all angles.  "Don't take this the wrong way, but you gave up being me for this?"

"Like you won't be thinking 'he's hot and knows my body, I should call him' in a couple of weeks."

"Dude, I'm in fifth grade.  That'd get you in so much trouble even if I had the right hormones to care."

Jordan raised an eyebrow.  "You're not changing back?"

"Well, it's not like your wicked stepmother gave me a heads-up on her plan so I could just run away from home before this guy got temporary custody and Mackenzie disappearing again would have the cops sniffing around him.  Instead, I get to re-experience middle school!"

"Ouch.  Although, I guess it will be easy this time."

"The schoolwork, but having ten- and eleven-year-olds try to befriend you as the new girl is weird.  And I think one of the boys already has a crush on me."

We came up with the idea of co-writing a letter to Elaine #4, and sat down at a picnic table to do so.  I'm not sure what Jordan and Bingbing #3 talked about, but by the time we were done they were talking about getting moving, because school was about to start, whether in Boston or New York. 

It seemed weirdly abrupt, but at least we didn't have to really say goodbye until we got to Boston, and we stood kind of awkwardly in North Station until she said that, look, just because she'd been a girl for the years didn't make her a hugger, but...  And then she grabbed me, and I hugged her back, and he said he was glad we could talk without hiding anything now.

"Yeah, I'm just glad to know.  We've got to find a way to make Mom and Dad believe, though."

"I know!  I keep trying to figure out how that's going to work, besides hijacking some other major life event.  Cause that's be fucking weird and selfish, right?"

"Maybe I can tell them I've proposed to her, and then we can be like 'okay, now that you're in the right frame of mind, what I really want to tell you is...'"

It was weird that we were able to laugh at that, although Bingbing said not to even pretend, and why not just do it ourselves without involving her.  We were like, dude, gross, but I have to admit, we gave it some thought.

Jordan offered to buy us plane tickets home, saying if Chen-ai had a problem with that, then they might as well get the argument over spending her allowance out of the way early.  I almost said no, but I figured Bingbing's first exposure to New York didn't have to come via the Chinatown bus.

When we did land, she wasn't exactly thrilled to find out that Carlotta/Bingbing had moved in with me/Giorgia over the summer, or that there was just one bed in the apartment.  Truth be told, I also kind of wanted to throw the mattress out the window when I thought about that - sure, she moved in before the trip to the Inn, but she must have known what she was going to do by then, right?  Gross.

I took the couch that night and we did our own things for the first few days - she's been doing school registration stuff, buying books, all that, while I've been trying to set up job interviews - Carlotta taking the summer after graduation off hadn't really helped my prospects.

The text from Benny-Jordan didn't come until a couple nights ago, and I was kind of nervous when he asked if I wanted to hang out, shoot some hoops, and talk.  I kind of had to.

Meeting up with him at the gym, it seemed almost as absurd to think I'd been fooled into thinking he was the real Jordan as it was to have "Yuan-wei" tell me she was.  He just didn't move like my brother always had, he enjoyed ruining and sweating, and he was friendly toward people the old Jordan would have snapped at.  And the first thing he did was apologize.

"So, like, your brother said I should have tried to get you to dump Bingbing as soon as she found out she wasn't the original, and I said she deserved a chance."

"I wouldn't have listened.  She was too much exactly what I wanted in a girl, and Jordan, well, he could be kind of a jealous dick about girls."

"Ah."

We talked a little more, but that was the main thing he wanted to say.  He didn't really apologize for taking over Jordan's life; he said that as much as he knew it didn't really feel like what he was supposed to do, Jordan did say to take it and how do you just give Kareena up?  And while he had gotten his Cantonese up to "embarrassing" in the last two years, he couldn't imagine landing in the position Jordan and Annette had found.

So that's where things are now.  In a lot of ways, things are kind of back to normal - I'm in my apartment, looking for work, and I've been hanging out with Bingbing more in the last few days, showing her where to get authentic Chinese food in Manhattan, where you can see Chinese movies, that sort of thing.  We met a friend of mine for dinner last night, and it was almost like a date.

But it wasn't, and it seems like there are a lot of things right now that seem the same as they were at the beginning of summer, but which I know aren't true.  My girlfriend's not my girlfriend, my brother's not my brother, there's a hot chick out there who is, a scary lady in Hong Kong who can redirect or lives in crazy ways, and two women whom I've been told I don't have to worry about, but how can I not?  How do I just answer my parents calling about Sunday dinner and act like all that's not out there?

I suppose the every-day stuff will overwhelm it, especially when I'm working and have a real daily routine.  But there's way more at the edges of my life that I didn't know about before.

-Max

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