Plus-One With A Vengeance : 11 / 29

Plus-One With A Vengeance : 11 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"If you begin to understand what you are
without trying to change it,
then what you are undergoes a transformation."
— Jiddu Krishnamurti


 

Monday night, the night after Max and I spoke, was the worst night of my life. It was as though I fell into an abyss of uncertainty.

On the one hand, everything seemed simple. It was as if we could flip a switch and instantly I'd be Max's date for the wedding. Then click! we'd throw the switch back, and I'd be Elliot again. What could be simpler?

Instead, I was fearfully confused. What made it worse was that it was Max who'd confused me. I hoped that talking with him would clear the air; I figured that if we spoke, it would help move things along. Instead, Max loaded me up with doubts and inner conflict. If I hadn't gone into it with Max tonight, I might be more confident in what was ahead.

My goal last night was simple: I wanted Max to see that the transformations hadn't hurt me, the way they'd hurt him. I imagined he was suffering — suffering from something like PTSD, as though his aunt had used the medallion to do violence to his inner world and then done the same thing to me. I wanted him to see that I was fine, and then, by extension, by application, that he, too, was fine.

I didn't expect him to have already processed the experience, rejected it, tossed it over his shoulder like a piece of trash, and walked away from it.

And yet...

I ran over and over our conversation, replaying it in my memory, and I noticed something interesting. He never came right out and told me not to do it. He gave me downsides, potential issues, dangers, but he didn't come right out and say, Don't do it, Elliot.

What did that mean? It meant that he wasn't sure. Maybe it even meant that he wanted me to do it? Could I go that far, in my inferences? I mean, if I put myself in Max's place... let's say that I was Max and I loved the idea. Would I be able to tell myself (tell Elliot, that is), "Yes, Elliot, go do it. It will be like Cinderella at the ball, more or less."

I laughed. It would be like Cinderella at the ball, wouldn't it. No one would know who I was ("You should have heard the oohs and ahhs / Everyone wondering who she was"), and afterward, I'd disappear. More effectively than Cinderella, though — I wouldn't be leaving a glass slipper behind, and Max wouldn't have to search the town to find me.

I laughed as though Max was in on the joke, but of course he wasn't. I had no idea how Max really felt — and clearly I couldn't simply ask him. Even in that, it's like I said: The only way we can know is to try.

Max wouldn't be able to bring himself to the point of telling me to do it. He knows that if he asked me, I would. And then, if it all went wrong, if it fucked me up, if either or both of us were hurt, or if our friendship was blown to pieces, Max would feel the blame. He'd think it was all his fault, all on him.

This way, it was all on me: the decision, the trying — well, no, the trying would be on both of us. But I'd have to be Lorelei before we could even look at each other.

The worst part of this being my decision is that I wasn't sure how I felt. Or did I? Was I simply afraid of making a bad decision? a wrong decision?

Sure, the physical change could be undone. I could always go back to being Elliot, but any emotional damage, any reputational damage... well, that could last forever. Turning back into Elliot wouldn't necessarily heal all wounds.

Should I become Lorelei? Would I be making a mistake? Would I be making a fool of myself? Would everyone at the wedding — or worse, before the wedding — guess that I was really Elliot? Was that even possible?

A dozen times I got up in the night to make a list of pros and cons, but I didn't have any paper or anything to write with. In spite of knowing I'd find nothing, I wandered around, looking again in the same cabinets and drawers. I debated going up to the kitchen to find what I needed, but I didn't want to wake Max. I needed to be alone, so I could hash this out with myself.

In spite of it being a warm night, I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat on the floor, shivering.

What was the problem? I tried to calm myself, to sort out my feelings. To see... what did my uncertainty boil down to? Fear, obviously. Fear of making a wrong decision, fearing of making a fool of myself, and fear of alienating Max.

All of Max's objections echoed in my head, including his mention of the possibility of sex, and its aftermath. Did I want to have sex with Max? No. Was I in love with Max? No. Did I want to be Max's girlfriend?

That last question was a puzzler. Max has always been my best friend. I've always been happy to be with him, to do things with him, but it was never sexual. I never felt a desire to sleep with him, or cuddle with him, or kiss him, or anything like that. It never entered my mind — until now. The medallion opened up possibilities that didn't exist before.

I tried whittling down the question to its smallest size: Could I be Max's date for the wedding? That's what this was all about, right? The answer was, yes, I think I could be Max's date. I could be affectionate and attentive. Mainly, I'd have to be there, on his arm. Showing up was most of it. The rest was playing the part. We could try. If it didn't work, if it wasn't believable, I'd simply pay another visit to Vivianne and have her change me back to Elliot. That was the worst-case scenario, right? And as a worst-case, it wasn't so bad. Max would go alone to the wedding. He might be embarrassed or feel stupid. He might get teased, but he wouldn't die. It wouldn't ruin his life. He'd handle it like a man.

Okay. With that consideration, I felt that I'd settled the question. I'd ask Vivianne to change me into Lorelei, and then we'd see whether I made a viable candidate for Max's plus-one. It was simple. If I failed to mesh with Max, to be believable, I'd change back right away. Otherwise, I'd turn back after the wedding.

The time on my phone was 2:30. It was dark, but I didn't want to turn on the light. For a moment I wondered whether Amber was lurking in the shadows, circling the house, creeping through the shrubbery, peeking through the windows. I tried to laugh at the idea, but it wasn't really funny.

With the feeling that I'd accomplished all the thinking and made all the decisions that needed to be done, I crawled into bed, shifted around a bit to get comfortable, and closed my eyes.

All was peaceful, without and within, until something Max said echoed in my memory:

"It bothers me that you're so willing to do this for me. If you wanted to be a girl for your own reasons, that would be one thing. But what is it really about? Finding a date for Max, so he won't be alone at Nessa's wedding? Come on, Elliot! You'd be paying an enormous price for such a small payoff."

THAT question opened an entirely new can of worms. Did I want to be a girl? If Max was not in the picture, would I take advantage of the medallion, and turn into Lorelei, for a little over two months? Or even — did I dare to think it? — forever and ever? I mean, if I was willing to be a woman for weeks and weeks, did that imply that I wanted to be a girl? If I was alone in the world, what choice would I make, now that the choice was being offered?

My brain spun, turning back on itself, asking questions about questions, and getting no answers.

It came down to this, or so I thought: Have I ever made a decision simply and solely for myself? Thinking back to the pivotal moments in my life, I couldn't come up with an example of a decision that was all about me. In retrospect, in the light of this crazy night, it looked like all my big decisions were based on someone else.

Going backward from today, there was the move here, into the mother-in-law apartment. *That* was Max's decision, pure and simple. Max unilaterally moved me in. He didn't ask whether I wanted to. I *did* want to, but the impetus, the decision, was his.

Before that, the move above the garage. That was Amber's call: she decided, and I went along with it.

Before that, I moved in with my Dad and worked on the renovation. That was Dad's plan. I was along for the ride.

And before that, the startup. Sure, that was my decision, and I did have to make efforts to get in there, but there's a bigger principle at work. In this case, it's about what I didn't do.

I'm supposedly a highly-sought, highly-valued software developer. I know a couple of programming languages well, and I've worked on a couple of well-known projects as well as gigs at a prestigious company and a top-notch university.

And so, one would think — *I* would think — that I could take all my experience and expertise and strike out on my own. What I intended to do, before I joined the startup, was to create something on my own. I wanted to develop my own product, start my own company. I didn't want to join a startup, I wanted to be a startup. I wanted to be able to call myself a Founder.

The problem was, I didn't have any ideas. What did people want or need that didn't already exist?

In the end, it came down to earning money, which I was unable to do on my own. When the startup offered me a job, it was exciting at first. All the romance of being in on the ground floor, and the supposedly imminent big payoff. It was great, yeah, until they worked the life out of me. All right — I don't want to air my beef with the startup. Not right now. My point in mentioning it is this: I was along for the ride. As usual, I wasn't driving. Did I ever drive? Did I ever act on my own ideas?

I sighed. Even so, I didn't have cause to complain. My life has been good. I've always been healthy. I've never gone hungry or homeless. I've always had friends. So what if I was destined to be a second fiddle, or a sidekick, or a follower? We can't all be leaders.

So, okay, yes: my life has been good. Better than the lives of most people in this world.

Still, now that I have a choice, do I like being Elliot? How do I feel about my life right now?

Honestly, apart from my confusion and fear, my main, overriding emotion, the backdrop to my life, was sadness. Just in this moment, in these few days, I mean. Why was I sad? Because I missed being Lorelei, or even Darcy. I missed being a girl, even if I'd only had a little taste of that life.

Was that enough to go on? Could I decide, just based on that? On my feeling that I was sad about not being Lorelei? Did that make any sense at all?

Was I making too much of a brief, exciting experience?

I very nearly asked myself, Who could I ask? — absurdly, ironically, I wanted someone else to validate my choice; to tell me whether my desires and feelings were enough, when it came to making a decision for myself.

That said, there was someone I wanted to talk to. My Dad. Not to talk about Lorelei, of course! All I wanted was to touch base, to ground myself, to hear his voice. It couldn't hurt. It would probably help.

 


 

Morning found me in the kitchen, making tea and toast. Max came bounding down the stairs. "You're full of energy today," I observed.

"Yeah!" he agreed. "I feel good. I slept like a log! But what about you? You look like you've been up all night!"

"Yeah. I didn't sleep much."

"Are you going to be alright for tonight? The dinner with Kitty and Claus?"

"Oh, yeah. I'll take a nap at some point. I'll be fine."

He grabbed a couple of energy bars and some fruit. "You look stressed out, man. You're stressed about the girl thing, aren't you."

"Yeah," I confessed.

"Make it easy on yourself," he suggested. "Don't do it. It's the simplest thing."

"Oh, hey," I said, "Not to change the subject, but — changing the subject — about Kitty."

"What about Kitty?"

"Your mother mentioned that she doesn't trust her."

Max groaned. "Oh, I know! She's been telling me that for years!"

"Really?"

"Yes, really! And when I ask her why, she has no reasons. It's just a feeling." Max shrugged.

"Well, how about this for a reason: Kitty is friends with Amber."

"And?"

"What if Kitty is coming tonight to spy for Amber?"

"What if she is?"

I gestured mutely, a little frantically, as if to say Don't you get it?

Max considered a moment, then asked, "Let's say she *is* spying for Amber. What would you want to do about it?"

"I don't know. Maybe we need some kind of plan. We don't want to give any more ammunition to Amber. She doesn't need more material for her lies."

Max took a long breath and looked steadily at me. He cleared his throat and said, "No. Just no. I am not going to nurture a sense of paranoia and I am NOT going to change anything in my life because of that woman." He shook his head. "If Kitty comes as a spy, let her come and spy. I don't care. There's nothing about this house or about me that Amber doesn't already know. And listen: Kitty's not just Amber's friend; she's our friend, and I am not going to cut her off because she likes that crazy woman. Amber wants to isolate us. I'm not going along with it." I opened my mouth to speak, but he cut me off. "If she's going to report to Amber, she's perfectly free to waste her time doing that — as far as I'm concerned."

"Okay," I conceded. "I guess you're right."

"Amber wants to play her idiotic game, but it takes two, and I'm not playing."

He stopped talking and took time to peel a banana. He took a bite, watching me the whole time.

"My God, bro — you look miserable. You're letting this crazy BS get to you. You need to quit thinking about Amber. And forget about my aunt and my mother, while you're at it!" He made a smoothing motion with his hands. "Just chill out. Just... you do you. Screw everybody else."

"Okay," I said. "I just need a nap. Or maybe a long walk."

He smiled. Then his smile broadened. "Hey, I know what might cheer you up! You look like you could use a present! A Christmas present!" He chuckled and walked into the kitchen pantry. On the highest shelf were five Christmas presents, the same ones that were under the tree on Christmas Eve. They were still perfectly wrapped in gold paper with red ribbons. Max got a step-stool and reached down the biggest one. He set on the kitchen island, next to my tea and toast.

"Merry Christmas!" he said, laughing. "I'm off to work. See you tonight!" Before he went out the back door, he stopped and joked, "I sure hope I picked the right box! Otherwise, this could be pretty embarrassing!"

I watched his car back out of the driveway as the garage door automatically closed. Once he was out of sight I picked up the box and shook it. It was a little heavy, and it didn't make any noise when shaken. I lifted the tag on top. It read, "To Amber, From Max."

"Hmmph," I said to myself. "Fuck you, Amber!" I rubbed the tag between my fingers, ready to tear it off. Then, after a little reflection, I noted, "At least it doesn't say Love, Max!" I took that as a little victory, and folded the wrapping paper over, hiding the tag from sight.

I tugged on the red ribbon, but it didn't give. Instead, my phone rang. It was Melissa.

"Good morning, Elliot!" she gushed, spilling over with enthusiasm. "Or should I say, Lorelei?"

"No, Melissa, I'm still Elliot. Also, I'm still waking up."

"Do you want me to come pick you up? We could have breakfast together on the way to Vivianne's house."

"Melissa, I'm not ready," I told her, gently.

"Why not?" she whined.

"Are you kidding? Come on, it's a big decision!"

"No, *you* come on! Time's a-wastin'! The clock is tickling!"

"Melissa, Melissa—" I interrupted "—the clock is ticking, not tickling."

"Yes, and that's why we need to strike! Strike while the iron is hot! What are you doing now, anyway, that's so important?"

"Um, Max just gave me a Christmas present."

"Why?"

"To cheer me up, I guess."

"Oh, really! What is it?"

To make a long dialog shorter, she pestered me until I opened the package. When she learned that it was an All-in-One Cooker, she was wildly disappointed. Then, struck by a thought, she asked, "Do you think it's some kind of message?"

"No," I said. "It's just practical. No message. In fact, he told me this morning that he doesn't think I should change into Lorelei."

"Oh, did he? Didn't he like the pictures? How did he react when he saw the swimsuit photos?"

"He didn't see the photos. He doesn't want to see the photos."

"Oh, my God!" she cried. "I don't think my heart can take this! What do I have to do to convince you two?"

"Just give me time, Melissa. Please. It's a big decision."

 


 

I tried to call my Dad, but his voicemail said that he was "probably sailing or maybe golfing, but in any case, not at home."

"It's your cell phone, Dad! You don't need to be at home!" I exclaimed at his recording, but I didn't leave a message.

 


 

I couldn't find a tablecloth, and I had to look on the internet to see whether the wine glass or the water glass was on the inside, but in the end I set a pretty nice table. We had no flowers or candles, but I said, "I'm not a girl, so I don't care!"

When Max arrived, he ran upstairs to shower and change. When he came down, I set out an antipasto platter.

"You made this?" he asked, popping an olive in his mouth. "I'm impressed."

"Don't be," I told him. "It's from the delicatessen in Town Center."

"Still, impressive," he said, taking a few slices of cheese.

Kitty and Claus arrived soon after. Claus called out, "Hello, all together!" Kitty punched his arm and gave him a reproving look.

"Ow!" he said. "'Hello, all together' is a perfectly acceptable greeting!"

"In Germany, maybe," she said. "Not here."

"Okay," he conceded. "Howdy, y'all!"

"Howdy, pardner," I replied, laughing. I kissed Kitty's cheek. After Melissa's warning, Kitty didn't seem to radiate her usual magical aura, but I was determined to keep an open mind and judge for myself.

Max handed around glasses of white wine. He asked Claus, "So, are we clear? No smoking at the wedding."

"No smoking?" I asked.

"Germans call tuxedos smoking," Kitty explained. "Claus thought he'd have to wear a tuxedo at Nessa's wedding. That's why he called Max yesterday."

Claus protested, "In my defense, I figured destination wedding, smoking! Sorry, tuxedo! Newport mansion, tuxedo! Am I wrong?"

"If the invitation said black tie, which it does't," Max answered.

"And do we need separate clothes for the ceremony and the— uh— der Hochzeitsempfang?"

"Whoa, that's a mouthful," Max chuckled.

"The, um, reception?" I hazarded.

"Yes!" Claus cried. "Exactly! Do you speak German?" I shook my head.

I began to feel that Claus was playing up the "helpless foreigner" bit. He moved here when he was seventeen years old, so the "how-do-you-say-in-English" act seemed put-on. Still, I was determined to keep an open mind.

Kitty gave a sideward glance at Claus and asked, "If that word for 'reception' was so long—"

"Der Hochzeitsempfang."

"—what do the bride and groom say in German instead of I do?"

"They say Ja," Claus replied.

"Seriously?"

"Yes, of course! Why not?"

"It's so prosaic," I said. Claus shrugged.

"Speaking of weddings," Kitty said, "Specifically, Nessa's wedding—" she turned to me with a teasing look "—you're coming, aren't you, Elliot?"

Max's face remained impassive.

"No, I'm not invited," I replied..

"Not yet," she breathed in a quick whisper. Then to Max, "Do you have a date yet? Have you found your plus-one?" Clearly, Kitty was in the mood to tease.

"No," he told her. "The current plan is for me to go alone."

"No!" Kitty exclaimed, "You can't!" She leaned forward with a sly, wicked smile, "I found a girl who'd be a PERFECT date for you — if only she was ten years older! Look!"

She held her phone out for Max to see. He was nonplussed. She showed it to Claus, who frowned.

"Do I get a look?" I asked. She showed me her selfie with Darcy.

"I don't understand," Claus said. "This is a little girl. Where is the joke?"

Kitty scoffed. "Can't you see? This girl looks just like Elliot! Isn't it freaky?"

"What's her name?" I asked.

"Darcy. I didn't get her last name."

"It could be Darcy Gight," I told her. "I have a cousin with that name."

"If she's your cousin, why don't you recognize her?"

"I've never met her. Her father and my mother were estranged when I was little." As a lie, it was coming out pretty well. I actually *do* have an uncle who cut ties with the family while I was still a baby.

"Really! So where does she live?"

"I don't know," I insisted. "For my whole life, my uncle's had nothing to do with my family. I've never met him or Darcy."

Claus interjected, "But, Kitty, look — Does the little girl have an older sister? I thought *that* was the punchline here."

Kitty ignored him. Not having gotten the reaction from Max that she was looking for, she tried a different tack. She turned to Max and gestured at her phone. "Darcy was with your Aunt Vivian." Max shrugged. Kitty turned to me. "How does Max's aunt know your cousin Darcy?"

"I don't know," I repeated. "Again: Darcy's family and mine are estranged. It means we don't have any contact." That much was true.

"You know," Claus said, "This situation — of Max and the wedding — is a typical rom-com pattern, you know? Like in a Lifetime movie?"

"You watch Lifetime?" Max asked. "Isn't that 'Television for women'?"

Claus blushed slightly, but he defended himself, "I watch it so I can share Kitty's interests. Besides those films are often funny and cute." After a pause, he added, "And you — how do you know their slogan? You must have watched it as well."

Max side-stepped that question. He asked, "How is this in any way like a rom-com? Aren't rom-com's supposed to be funny?"

"Well," Claus said, expansively, "Of course there is conflict, frustration, problems. It wouldn't be a good story if everything was smooth as butter. But, see — the frustrations and complications can be funny in themselves, but the attempts at resolution go comically awry.

"Also, there can be other elements, such as outlandish coincidences, well-intentioned relatives who try to help, but only make things worse, simple misunderstandings that balloon into heated conflicts... Secrets! Secrets aren't told, but are discovered at the worst time. And occasionally, by a huge stretch of the imagination, something magical. For instance, if this girl Darcy became older, and you meet, and—"

"It's getting more than a little creepy," Max objected.

"You're right, you're right, not a good example at all. Cancel all that. More typically, it's much simpler. There is a man, like you — good looking, well off, but for some reason he cannot get a date for this family wedding! Perhaps he is afraid of commitment, ja? So, what does he do? His car breaks down outside a funny little bookstore, or a quaint, quirky cafe, and there he meets an attractive woman. They hit it off, and on impulse, he invites her to be his date — but only pretending."

"Why only pretending?"

"Because it isn't real!" Claus warms to his subject. "See — she, for some reason, is willing to cover his embarrassment, and she plays along. At the wedding, he sleeps on the sofa; she in the bed."

"Uh... sleeping at the wedding?"

"It's a destination wedding! Like Nessa's! More than one day is spent at this gorgeous destination."

"Again I ask: how is any of this funny?"

"Well, they are pretending to be in a relationship, but in actual fact they know nothing about each other. Everyone wants to know how they met, what they do together, who she is, and so on. There are many contradictions, and much comedy ensues."

"And then?"

"Well, and then! Inevitably they fight. They have a tremendous knocking of heads — a huge scene, at the wedding. Perhaps someone falls into the wedding cake, for example, or knocks the bride, still in her wedding dress, into the pool. Of course, purely by accident."

Claus laughed inordinately. The rest of us smiled politely.

"The joke, you see, is that the relationship is completely fake. But then, inevitably, there is a denoument. In the end, they fall in love, and possibly get married themselves." He cleared his throat, seeing he'd let himself get carried away. "In any case, this is the pattern."

"Okay!" I said. "And on that note, why don't we come sit at the table? The food is ready."

Max turned to Kitty and talked to her as they ambled over to the dining room. Claus scampered after me to help serve the food.

"This food is beautiful, Ell!" he exclaimed. "You certainly have a knack for cooking!"

"What did you call me?" I asked.

"Ell. That's what Kitty calls you. I thought everyone calls you that."

"I never heard her call me that. And I've never heard 'Ell' as a nickname for Elliot. It sounds kind of feminine." I was irritated, mildly offended.

"Oh, no," contradicted Claus. "Think of el Cid! More manly than he, there is no other."

"I don't know that name."

"Oh, but you must! Everyone knows el Cid! Eleventh century soldier, I don't know a lot of details, but he was a brilliant strategist. He fought against both Christians and Muslims."

"Sounds like he didn't get along with anyone," I joked. Claus shrugged.

"My God, Ell!" he exclaimed, "Everything smells so wonderful! I can see that you are quite the Hausfrau."

Hausfrau? "Ah... Claus, I don't know that word."

"Ach! I should say hausfraulein, really."

"Fraulein?" I repeated, "Doesn't that mean girl?"

"I don't mean that literally," he protested. "Don't be offended! But you do play the female part in the relationship, don't you?"

"Yes," I said drily, "Like el Cid."

He gave an embarrassed laugh. I think he meant to tease, the way that Kitty teases, but he'd gone too far. He gave a quick bow of the head, said "Sorry!"

"Don't worry," I said. "But don't call me 'Ell', okay?"

"Fine," he agreed.

 


 

The rest of the dinner was unremarkable. Claus remained on his best behavior, and turned out to be a good dinner companion. Kitty chatted about various friends we all knew, and refrained from making any more of her little insinuations.

For dessert, they brought three flavors of flan: the classic flan, coconut flan, and pina colada flan. All perfectly delicious.

After dessert, we went out back so Max and Claus could smoke cigars. Max, Claus, and I had snifters of rum. Kitty drank tea. ("I need to be able to drive," she explained.)

They left after ten, close to ten-thirty. Max and I took a first pass at clean-up, putting the food away, loading the dishwasher.

"I had a really good time," I confessed. "I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did."

"There were a few brief awkward moments at the start," Max agreed, nodding.

"But it didn't spoil the evening," I said.

"I still like Kitty."

"Me, too," I said. "Claus can be a bit much, though."

"I think that he tries too hard to be funny. He plays the buffoon, but he doesn't need to."

I nodded.

All that remained were the pots and the pans, and the general putting-things-back-in-order. "I'll get the rest tomorrow," I told Max. He saluted me, said "thanks," and shuffled upstairs to bed.

 


 

It was almost eleven when I went downstairs to my room. My phone, which I'd left down there the entire time, was vibrating. I had a text message.

It was from my Dad. He sent a comment on the photo I'd sent him — the photo of me as Lorelei. My heart was in my throat.

The text from Dad read, "Am I crazy, or is this Lorelei? Call me!"

Then another text: "I bought a sailboat!"



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