I felt utterly drained by the time I got to New York. My mind raced. I was set to play-act as fiancée to a man I have never met, Josh Freeman. I spent the day leading up to it just staring into space.
Pete - characteristically as I have learned - was not helpful, looking at it from a rosy viewpoint, because it wasn't happening to him: "I bet you're really up to this challenge. This is advanced stuff. I mean, you've never really had to fake it before... you wrote your own ticket as Judith, and Alan... hell, even when you were Lauren it kind of seemed like you had leeway to do what you wanted. Imagine if this was your first transformation? Do you think he'll want sex? I can't imagine he doesn't. It's at least a little exciting, isn't it? Like, if you could step outside yourself and watch. I bet it'll make for a good blog."
Imagine that for the length a full-day trip down to NYC... we had gone by train and I was really regretting not springing for plane tickets.
I had made contact with Valerie to get her blessing about me living her life. I know none of us has a choice in all this but I wanted to do the honorable thing. I told her about the blog, and said that she could read up on my personal track record and keep tabs on what I was doing with her life. She said that she would look into my past, but that I should keep her up to date on my actions, so reading the blog would not be necessary in the future.
She and Josh had known each other since high school, began dating five years ago, and had been engaged since last summer. They struck me as sickeningly sweet - their text messages to each other littered with hearts and kisses. From everything I could tell, these are two people utterly, passionately in love with each other. When I called to him to apologize for staying in Maine so extra long, and that I would be home soon, he didn't just say "That's okay," but seemed very concerned for my safety and wellbeing - hell, he was downright apologetic, adding how much he looked forward to seeing me, which gave me a knot in my stomach. After years of, as Pete said, "writing my own ticket," I would have to pretend to be in love with someone, devoted to them, that I was the one who knew them best.
After everything I've been through, it seemed scary, but also borderline offensive. That I could just walk in there and take this woman's place, accept all the love that was meant for her.
"Is there any way we can postpone the wedding?" I asked Valerie.
"No," Valerie said sadly. "The hall is booked, the deposits paid, the invites out, the dress..."
I actually a bit about know how tough it is to plan an event like this thanks to my time as Judith, but I thought maybe there would be leeway.
I couldn't help but say, "But you're going to miss..."
"Don't you think I know that??" she snapped at me. "I don't get to walk down that aisle and stand next to the man I love, say my vows, cut the cake... throw the bouquet..." she was crying, I could hear.
"I'll be there, though," she said, composing herself. "Don't worry."
"Of course, of course... we'll say you're a... cousin or a work friend or something."
"Yes, yes," she said, probably tearing up again, "Oh God... I don't know if I can handle it... I just love him so much..."
"Hey, it's gonna be okay," I said, trying to sound as reassuring as possible, hiding the notes of doubt in my voice. "We'll get you through this."
Here we were, in a situation neither of us wanted to be in, trying to navigate it as best we could.
"I really appreciate your help, Tyler," she sniffled at the end of our call. "When this happened, when they told me there would be another person taking my life, I was afraid... I was so scared this was the end of my relationship."
I couldn't make any promises, but I wanted to be the best Valerie I could.
So by the time I got to Brooklyn, standing at the threshold of Val and Josh's apartment, dimly aware of what was waiting for me and the pressure of my new role, I shed all my selfish fears and insecurity, aware that I was doing all this for somebody else. that if I wasn't meant to have love in my life, I would do my best to help others.
The door opens.
A man has just risen from his place on the couch in anticipation, hearing the key in the lock.
I am vaguely aware he is tall, handsome, with good hair, somewhere between rugged and a pretty-boy in looks.
I will myself into Valerie's psyche, try to imagine how these two lovers must feel after going so long without seeing each other.
I must look like a mess in my shorts and tank top - hair in a ratty ponytail, face red and puffy from heat, sweating under my tits.
I drop my bag on the floor. He rushes over and take me in his arms. I let myself be taken instead of doing the sane thing and saying "I'm tired and I just want to go to bed."
He plants a deep, long passionate kiss on my lips, followed by several small ones, then holds me. I feel how small I am more than ever.
A few things are said, "I missed you, I was worried, I love you so much," that sort of thing - as if he could almost sense the kind of bind she's really in.
"It's okay, it's okay, I'm here now."
It was a whirlwind of emotion. But before things got too out of hand, I parted my lips from his.
"Not to wreck the moment, but I haven't eaten a thing."
A place is already set. It's a prime rib roast - a pretty good one, too.
He stares at me all lovey-dovey while I eat. He's obviously curious about where I've been and what really happened but he seems to respect my desire not to go over it.
I'm so hungry I probably make borderline sexual grunts while I eat. He's amused. I must be very cute.
I find it strangely easy to treat this guy like I already know him -- years of practice faking things. I ask him about his week, prepared with a few conversational prompts Val has offered me. He mentions a few names and I want to double back and clarify who did what but I worry that will reveal my secret somehow, so I nod along and make a point to ask Valerie later.
He's clearly very tuned into Val's emotions because he sees I'm worn out and, when I go to clear the plates, he insists I just head to bed. I was hoping to look in the kitchen and memorize where things are but that will have to wait. I do that in the bedroom instead. The bed is covered in pillows and neatly made. A woman definitely lives here.
I like a glass of water before bed - apparently this is weird because Josh asks, "Isn't that just going to make you have to pee?" I drink it anyway and he turns out to be right, as of 2:30 AM.
Strike two: I forego brushing my hair. ("Man, you must really be tired," he says, lying on the bed in his boxers shamelessly. I curse Val for not detailing every single quirk Josh is likely to note.)
Strike three: I was in a t-shirt that came down nearly to my knees, and a pair of shorts. "Won't you be hot?" he asks. And yes, under the comforter, in the stiff air of the apartment, I am, and the fabric is scratchy against my skin.
I'm reluctant to bare it all especially since I just "got" it, but why be modest? We're in the dark and he's seen it on Val. So what if it didn't used to be mine. (That sounds logical, but in practice, you try getting naked with a man you've only just an hour or so ago. It took a lot of hemming and hawing before I finally gave in and slept shirtless.)
I was frazzled - in all my years I've never been interrogated this way. I was halfway towards breaking down out of exhaustion and frustration right there and tried to tell him everything, but I was stopped.
He slipped into bed behind me and wrapped his arms around me.
"It's okay," he said softly. "Tomorrow will be better. I love you."
My heart sank. But I owed it to Valerie to represent.
As warmly as I could, I cooed, "I love you too, good night."
And so it began...