Georgia was one of the states hit hardest by the pandemic (51K cases in a state of 11 Mil, aka 5% of everyone who lives here) largely thanks to what I would characterize as insanely poor leadership, but I did not come here to get political. Only to talk about the toll it has taken on on me - as the floor manager of a Big Box store, I have spent the last two months in the trenches as people fought for the last scrap of toilet paper, water, and for some reason flour (you all people know you can buy bread, right?)
We're through the worst of it now, although unfortunately that has led the news cycle to focus on even more harrowing things, but in March and April things got way worse than I ever expected when I took this job. "Lower management at a superstore? I have an MSc from Georgia Tech." Little did I know more lives would seemingly depend on me while I'm wearing a gray polo than when I wore a lab coat.
I saw the worst in people. Frenzy, panic, frustration, abuse heaped on our underpaid and overworked employees, many of whom took this job as an after-school position because they're, you know, teens. Entitlement, ignorance, and outright flouting of the rules as time went on, as if this disease weren't taking more and more people into the hospital for two months, many of whom never came out - and a lot of whom never made it there in the first place.
I don't want to harp because we're past it now and things have moved on, but I saw awful things. I saw 15-year-old girls spat on for trying to enforce the posted limit of certain items per customer. I saw one of my brightest workers, an honors student, shoved down and nearly trampled. I've seen disadvantaged folks and seniors not being able to get things they need because - and there "ain't no rule" - the same wealthy people come back day after day to scoop up what they want. It hurt, and many days I would just go home and hold my head in my freshly-washed hands and hold back tears.
Amidst all of this, three things happened that have changed the trajectory of my life.
One was a chance encounter with an old classmate of mine from high school. Ricky West. Ricky was practically the king of the school, or at least the prince. He was an offensive first-stringer on the football team, was in homecoming and prom court, married a teen pageant queen from our school at 18. All the guys envied him. The worst part is you couldn't even really hate him because he was humble and kind, and not that dumb - no genius but not dumb.
So when I saw him in the liquor aisle of the store, still looking just like an older, more tired and potbellied version of the handsome guy from high school, I momentarily forgot myself and gave him a smile - "Heya Rick!" Oop. The moment it came out of my mouth I remembered - not Steven. And Shona didn't grow up around here.
So as expected, he looked at me sideways. "I know you?"
"Oh uh, not personally, but we have friends in common. I'm Shona. I... used to date Steven Blassie."
He scratched his chin. "Oh, uh... yeah, him." I could tell he only dimly remembered me, if at all. Saying we had "mutual friends" was a big stretch but not a total lie.
He looked rough, his hair unkempt, unshaved, and like maybe he wasn't sleeping good. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
"Well, I don't really drink, but uh... that whisky is looking real good."
"Tennessee's finest," I said.
"I uh... I just got laid off. Been with that company for eight years. It took them a week into the pandemic to decide I wasn't worth paying."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "You're just gonna drown your sorrows?" He looked rough, like maybe he was on his way to rock bottom.
"Don't have much of a choice. Nobody's hiring."
"Well, we happen to need some help on the loading dock - these are really tough times you know. Why don't I get you an application?"
He backed off. "Hey, I don't want any charity..."
"It's not charity," I said, "We need help. And I can't give you anything except an interview. You have to get yourself the job."
He stepped forward and went to hug me, but I backed off - "Woah, pandemic remember?"
He turned red. "Oh yeah. Sorry about that."
Well, he did get the job. And he was good at it. Nice guy, friendly, hard worker, lively conversation. And I think he always had a lot of gratitude to me for reaching out because he always made sure to talk with me, check in on me if I maybe needed help or someone to vent to. He became somebody I actively looked forward to seeing during my day, probably because it felt so good to be on friendly terms with the prince of high school, even if those days were long past.
And I was the same for him. He was working long hours and it led to a lot of disagreements with his wife, and he felt like, he's out here trying to put food on the table and why can't she just accept that? And I said that being a woman doesn't mean I understand them, and he laughed.
And then one night, after yet another stressful day, it was just him and me finishing up some receiving and paperwork, and we're talking about what we're going to do when we got home - which was not much since it was nearly 11. Then he said we might as well sleep here and I said yeah, let's make a bed out of toilet paper.
And then he kissed me.
And I didn't stop it. I didn't know how to react in the moment. It felt right even though he's married and I'm not who I look like. In that moment it felt good to be wanted by somebody, and extra good for it to be him. As Shona - being as big as I am - a lot of men don't look at me as a sex object, and the ones that do think I should feel lucky that they do, not realizing I don't want their attention or care. But this guy... he has a beautiful wife at home and we struck up a bond that felt real and... well, my head was spinning.
I had a split second to decide what happened next and... I had sex with him, right there on the loading dock floor.
I'm not proud of it, and it has been weighing on my conscience ever since, but in the moment I needed the release badly, both because of how overworked and stressed I was, and because I thought the opportunity would never present itself again, and because of... the second of the other two things I have yet to explain.
In March - not long after the pandemic started and Ricky was hired - I received a letter from Shona. It read in part:
It has come to my attention that for the past several months you have been inhabiting my former body and living as me. Please know that this was in no way my intended or hoped for outcome, even when I learned that the Trading Post Inn had transformed me into a new person. But I'll admit it is not the worst outcome in my eyes. I was so afraid that whoever got that body would hate it, disrespect it, resent it or harm it. and i know you would do none of those things. You had always claimed to love how I was, and I hope you are capable of bringing that same energy to the challenge of being me.
I had made my peace with the physical fact of my body since I was 14, with how it was to me and how the world treated me. But I never made peace with being me.
I felt guilty for accepting your love because I never felt the same way. I did not love you the way you loved me, but i did my best to convince myself to try. You are a good man and treated me well, and it's nobody's fault those feelings aren't there on my side. I stayed with you so long because I felt you were the best I could do, that I could never hoped to be loved more than you loved me, and never hope to find someone I loved that way too.
I am so sorry to tell you this, especially under these circumstances.
My friend Reby, who knew of the Inn's magic, and knew of my inner conflict, took it on herself to arrange the trip for me. I resent that, but I know that if she could have explained it beforehand - if I could imagine it were real - I would have agreed. This is what I want.
I will always remember you fondly.
This was accompanied by pages of directives on how best to live as her and other notes, some of which would have been very helpful months ago.
To learn, this far in, that the woman I devoted my life to, whose legacy I now proudly wore, was lying to me for years about her feelings, felt she was settling for me and never truly loved me, destroyed me. I carried that with me, privately, for weeks, trying to suppress the hurt and confusion as I navigated the high pressures of the pandemic world, until finally it exploded that night with Ricky and we both made a major mistake.
FWIW - It's completely immaterial whether the sex was any good because it was so WRONG to do, but I do have thoughts that I would like to share someday in a more appropriate venue, and maybe when I have more "data." Which may never happen, or it may.
I spent days afterward feeling completely ashamed, unable to look him in the eye, and he seemed ashamed too since it took days for us to work up the nerve to look at each other again. In his case, he let me know that he was feeling bad about it, and how he was going through so much and I said clearly, it was a mistake we both made - nothing excused it (although he desperately seemed to want to justify it by talking about issues in his marriage, which... get those sorted out yourself.) I said it would be best to just pretend it never happened and he said it would try.
"I just want my friend back," I said. He seemed to agree.
Then he muttered something about asking whether there were any "loose ends" that needed to be tied up. I did a double take at that but realized what he was saying. I had opted to take a morning-after pill the next day because being that it had happened so fast neither of us had any contraceptive handy and didn't exactly stop to ask questions in the moment (if we had, we probably would have come to our senses.)
That brings us to the last thing that happened, in April. I was notified that, due to COVID-19 causing all out-of-state travel to be cancelled, my reservation to the Inn would be refunded and I would have to re-book for a later date.
I was unsure exactly what this meant but I could feel safe in assuming that, since I was relying on going there at a certain time to recoup my body, that whenever I did end up getting there, my body would no longer be available.
Not knowing exactly how the Inn works, only having what I've read on this blog as "evidence" it seems like I have completely lost my chance to become Steven in body again. Perhaps ever. How long will it take for the Inn to find someone to transform into me? Has it already happened? Is there some kind of holding pattern for when there is less than enough people to trigger the change, or can it only stay dormant for so long before it just... randomly starts assigning bodies? I guess we'll have to watch the news out of Old Orchard Beach for that but I doubt the local Bangor CBS Affiliate covers body swapping.
Damn it. Damn it all. Honestly after Shona sent me her letter telling me she would never be herself again, it's not like I thought that was my cue to stay as her - it was still not a life I wanted to lead for myself, even if I wanted to ensure that her body was respected per her wishes. I was too hurt by what she had said about our relationship. Honestly, I hoped I could go back to being myself and abandon this body to fate, out of spite and hurt a little bit. But now... well, if I ever get back to Maine, why should I bother? Why leap into the great unknown when history has shown that I would probably just end up someplace worse, still female, probably not as free as this?
So... am I Shona forever?
I honestly don't know. I feel lost.