Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Harmon Keller/Alicia Polawski: The Briefest Consideration

One of Lindsey's current favorite ways to mock me is to call me melodramatic, as it is apparently a term I would occasionally apply to millennials like herself, although likely not so often as she implies.  Most of the time, the epithet is misplaced but I cannot deny that, in the aftermath of the man currently wearing my face making me look like a fool at a conference in December, I started to wonder if, perhaps, I should abandon the life I had lived for over sixty years.  Though I would certainly have the opportunity to produce important new work for years to come, would I be able to attract good collaborators or re-engage with the dozens of other academic matters which my substitute had allowed to languish?  The thought of having to rebuild my reputation at this point in my life was dreadful.
It was awful enough, in fact, that I started to think seriously about leaving my life behind.  Under that scenario, I would not remain Alicia Polawski - the thought of living my days out like this sends a chill down my spine - but I would find some other life to live.  The would be an element of randomness, and I might back off once I see what is available, but as the time to start booking rooms in an appropriate chain came, it seemed like a reasonable option to consider.

I did not share this with Lindsey - she has the date reservations open circled on the calendar, a reminder in her phone, and frequent conversations with the Coopers about what they are doing with our lives, commitments being made, and the like.  She has also taken to creating scenarios where somehow the Inn's magic can be acknowledged and legal arguments can be made about how one has acted while living another's life, or steering people to the Inn.  It is complete sophistry that requires one to treat the Inn as simultaneously an unacknowledgeable force of nature and something that can be brought into a court of law, and this pointless.  She claims the ethical considerations are interesting in and of themselves, and that it's a way to quantify what Inn visitors can expect from each other.  As such, she would very likely disapprove of my leaving someone else with my life and appropriating another.

Rather than consider theory, I was instead more ingesting talking to people with practical experience, which was why, when it was time to choose routes for January, I made a request to have a few days off in a row in Boston.  It may not be a particular favorite place to visit, especially in the middle of winter, but it has the biggest cluster of people living lives other than the one that they were born into that I know about, and I thought it might be useful to learn what particular challenges such people faced. 

We met in the Changeling bar, which took some getting to - once I de-planed, it was an expensive cab ride to get across Boston and Cambridge to the suburb of Arlington - but which the people I was meeting said was where they liked to meet for Inn stuff, both because it could be difficult for Ashlyn to get away and because they liked to support each other.  So, that was where I met Ashlyn, Penelope, Ray, Annette, and Yuan-wei.

I was still wearing my uniform from the flight, which made it easy enough for them to call me over.  Given the range of ages and Yuan-wei being Chinese, it was easy enough to match names to faces, although it still took me somewhat by surprise to see that Yuan-wei wore stockings and heels while Annette was wearing denim jeans, with Ashlyn in a tight top with holes at the shoulders.  I knew, intellectually, that they had all been in other shapes longer than I and had acclimated, but it still surprised me that they would choose such feminine attire during their own free time.  Though only Ashlyn truly had the same sort of figure that I had been cursed with, the attention it garnered was enough of a bother that I could hardly fathom wanting to encourage it.  But, of course they are closer to their apparent age than I, so maybe they saw it differently.

They would soon prove unsympathetic to my enquiries.  Initially, they offered their condolences, tempered with surprise that the Coopers would not be relinquishing or lives, since that was not the impression they got from Lindsey's post of a few days before.  As soon as I said that, too the best of my knowledge, they were in fact planning to return to their own lives, the whole group seemed at a loss for words until Annette broke the silence.

"You'd...  You'd just let your real life go?"

"Young lady, ones reputation is ones life in academia.  If that has been irrevocably damaged, is it really my life any more?"

"Well, yeah," she answered.  "I mean, that's not really your whole life.  There's family, and friends, and...  You know, everything but the job."

I shrugged, mentioning that my patents were gone and I had no children of my own.  There are not that many ties that would be severed.

Penelope, the writer, said that may be true in one direction, but not necessarily the other.  "Have you ever heard of Impostor Syndrome?  I know a bunch of successful writers who are almost crippled by it, thinking that their success is an illusion and undeserved, and any minute people are going to see they're a fraud.  Now, I don't get the impression you are anything less than competent confident in your element, but I want as Arthur Milligan, either.  Still, unless you manage to parachute into a complete blank slate, you're going to get hit with the same symptoms, only for real.  My wedding almost destroyed me, for instance, and I need to take pills to sleep any day I've had any sort of meaningful interaction with the original Penny's parents.  And the fear of other moms judging me is...  Look, I'm happy most of the time.  If I hadn't gone to the Inn that first time, I would have never met this guy, and if Germy hadn't stolen my life, I never would have considered trying to make it work, but it's not destiny and it's not easy; it's being lucky and having outlets into which I can channel my other selves."

Her red-haired friend picked that up.  "What she said.  I thought my own life being stolen was a blessing in disguise, justification for continuing to be Ashlyn, which was and is really fun.  But there is something missing sometimes, especially since you never really know what that easy, fun life is going to be like ten years down the road."

"Well, I wouldn't be subjecting myself to the change in sex if I can possibly help it."

"It's not just that," said Annette, "I went from female to male at first, and that made some things easier, but letting go of your identity is hard.  I was so glad when I could be myself again."

I turned to look at Yuan-wei, and she held up her hands.  "Don't look at me to contradict her!  My life has gotten ten times better since my brother's been part of it again, and I still can't bring myself to call Benny by 'Jordan'.  I'm doing really well, but I ain't gonna tell you the decision want fucking difficult!"

I wasn't convinced, but soon the food arrived and ended the conversation.  The people who knew each other wound up playing catch-up, and I eventually wound up waiting with Yuan-wei for a car back to her apartment, where I would be staying the night.  She stared at me, squinted a bit, and then asked my cup size.

"I beg your pardon!"

She then told me about the last few scenes of her student film needing to shoot over the weekend despite the lead actress having walked off the set, leaving a few custom-fitted costumes behind.  I may not be quite as busty as this "Bree" person, but I was closer to fitting her costumes than Yuan-wei was herself.  Ashlyn had apparently been her first choice, but she couldn't schedule it around the bar's needs.  I blanched when he told me what the parts were - mindless sex robots dressed in skimpy costumes, assisting some sort of mad scientist - but it is somewhat difficult to turn down a request from the person offering one her spare room for the evening while waiting for a car to arrive in the freezing cold.

I should have summoned the courage to do so.

It was not as simple as just slipping on a costume, staring gladly, and saying a few inanities.  Because the performers whose secondary roles I was filling in was quite busty, Yuan-wei arranged to meet the girl doing costumes early, so that she could get a quick look at me before we made our way not to the locations, but to the a butcherie.  There she examined packages of chicken breasts in what seemed like a peculiar manner until buying a few before we continued to the laboratory space Yuan-wei had rented.  There was a small changing area rigged with curtains, and I was handed thong panties, white fishnet stockings, and something like a "sexy nurse" Halloween costume, including a corset.  I initially thought the panties would be the worst part of it, and thought I would get out of it without doing anything because the costume wouldn't zip up.  That when the costumer came in and with an absurdly casual "excuse me" stated paying at my chest, placing the chicken breasts in the costume's cups and arranging things so that someone looking from the outside could find no border between them and my own mammaries.  I thought that would be it until she had me lay down on a table and started sewing the costume up.  After that, someone came to apply make-up and I was given a mirror to look in.  I looked ridiculous.

Yuan-wei intercepted the seamstress as she was approaching with a frightening pair of shoes, bringing them to me herself.  "I'm gonna guess you've never worn anything with this sort of heel before."

"Of course I haven't."

"Well, just see how you do.  I looked over the footage last night and I think we can mostly get away with shooting you in the heels while standing still and maybe rig some 2x4s for you to walk on.  If we can't, try holding your arms out at an angle like this, palms parallel to the floor, and placing one foot directly in from of the other while looking straight ahead."  She demonstrated.  "The arms actually make you look sexier while helping your balance, but it's kind of showy for real life.  Your lines are pretty simple, and if you can't do breathy -- 'is there anything else, Doctor?' -- don't worry about it, I can ADR later."

I could do "breathy", of course - the more Marilyn Monroe I put into my lines, the more she liked it.   Though I stumbled a few times early on and was grateful for the moments between takes when I could sit and rest my feet, the actual shooting was mostly rather dull.  Something like two hours over the course of the day seemed to just be spent on having me stand at a different location and stare blankly so that she could later paste it all together so that it looked like there were a half-dozen of these nurse/lab-assistant robots in the room.  There was also a great deal of tape on the floor, especially when shooting a scene where three of me were helping the main actor implant a man's brain in another robot's body, with some hastily-added dialogue about it being a different model.

I seemed some resentment from the cast, but paid it no heed.  They were just actors, after all, and ones who had to work for peanuts in student films.  I daresay by the end of the day, they had a certain level of respect for the work I was doing the first time around.

It was nevertheless a relief to get to the end of the day, be cut out of that costume and apply adhesive bandages to my ankles after a shower to wash the smell of raw meat and perspiration from my body. 

Sunday would prove an even more peculiar day.  While Saturday had mostly been building one particular sequence from every angle, Sunday had us shooting in Yuan-wei's apartment.  This time, I was given a similarly farcical French maid's costume - once again having my chest augmented and being sewn in - but I worked with different actors, including the director, who served as Bree's double so that I had a proper eye-line and voices to react to.  As a person who feels that work is best done focusing on one thing, this constant shifting was tremendously aggravating, and my cast-mates' occasional impatience entirely unwarranted.  We eventually got all we could done before I had to work a flight back out to the west coast.  It was clear Yuan-wei wanted to do more even if the cast was ready to be done hours ago, especially since I had established early on that I could not stay later than a certain time and all the innuendo withwhich Miss Lee's friend Ernesto and my co-star were peppering their conversation would be for naught.

After I had showered and changed into my work clothes, I saw Yuan-wei smirking.  "Still thinking of spending the rest of your life pretending to be someone else?"

I have her a withering look.  "Was that the point of this, young lady?"

"Nah, I just needed a girl who fit the costume, and you saved my [behind] there.  But, like Annette said a billion times while working on the script, it's never just one thing."

I suppose, I said, that this is true when writing a story, but I nevertheless wished I had more time to speak with the more experienced people about how they had applied their previous life experience to their new lives, but I had opted to give of my own time instead.

I did, perhaps, look at the various passengers on the flight "home" (and on others during the subsequent weeks) and find myself a little less convinced that I could drop into their lives with relatively little complication.  There would be details and obligations that I doubt I would have the stomach for.  In some ways, Alicia's life is relatively simple in that respect - she interacts with different people every day and lives with her mother, who is also someone else - but even more than when dealing with people on the plane, this solidified my lack of desire to have much dealing with the people more interested in Alicia's body than my mind.

My true life may have been somewhat battered, then, with undue setbacks, but it is clearly the best situation to which I can return, and I am quite happy that Lindsey and I have already been able to calculate the proper time to return to Old Orchard Beach and have booked the room where we shall become ourselves again.

-Harmon Keller

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