In Rodi's tepid latest, Jack Ackerly, 53, has made a pile in public relations and earned himself a comfortable place among Chicago's gay A-crowd, but the recent decamping of his boyfriend, Wicker Park art dealer Harold "Harry" McGann, has left him aware of a hole in his life. At the other end of the social sphere, 26-year-old space cadet Corey Szaslow lives on the kindness of friends, getting by—just barely—on his looks. A crystal meth habit he's lately kicked has cost him most of his friends, and he's now wondering what it would be like to get a job, maybe some health insurance. They meet cute (Jack hits Corey's bicycle with his Porsche), the two quickly engage in an unholy plot to switch bodies via New Age witch Francesca LaBrash: Corey will be middle-aged and liver-spotted with a 36-inch waist and an uninspiring hard-on, but he'll be rich. Jack will be young once more and able to enjoy the promiscuous sex he denied himself while climbing the ladder of Mammon. Queer pulp favorite Rodi (Fag Hag, etc.) makes a rare misstep; Victorian satirist F. Anstey, who originated the body-switching genre with Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathersin 1882, has a lot to answer for. (June)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
When You Were Meby Robert Rodi
All work and no play have made Jack Ackerly a dull boy. It's also made him very rich. Now, at age 53, he regrets devoting his youth to capitalism over hedonism. Alas he can't turn back time;but according to a self-styled "fusion witch" named Francesca, he can trade places with a willing participant. He just has to find a hot young stud ready to make the switch.
Enter Corey Szaslo, 26, a jaded party boy whose life of sex, drugs, and barhopping has left him with no education, no career, no assets, and no prospects. Jumping into the skin of a retired millionaire seems a fair way out of this predicament, even if it means doubling his age and adding five inches to his waistline.
Faster than you can say, "Be careful what you wish for," Jack and Corey are living each other's lives to the fullest. But their successfully swapped lives soon begin to come apart at the seams. And when Jack's former lover comes back, begging "Jack" for another chance, all bets are off, driving both Jack and Corey into unsuspecting competition--and resulting in a climax that takes each of them farther beyond their essential selves than they ever dreamed they'd go.
"Rodi's quick-paced satire of the joys and sorrows of body swapping is one kind of perfect vacation and beach reading." --Booklist
"Another fabulous and funny book." --After Elton.com
Robert Rodi is the author of six novels, including Fag Hag, Closet Case, What They Did to Princess Paragon, Drag Queen, Kept Boy, and Bitch Goddess. He lives in Chicago with his partner, Jeffrey Smith, and a constantly shifting number of dogs.
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WHEN YOU WERE ME
By ROBERT RODI
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Robert Rodi
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThat it began with Sharon was no surprise. Pretty much every shock or trauma in Jack's life had begun with Sharon. He and Jimmy used to call her "the hellhound." She was their junior by a decade, but they lived in a kind of quailing awe of her. She might do anything, and usually did. Their father's first heart attack, for instance, occurred when he learned Sharon had hospitalized one of her seventh grade classmates-pushed him behind some collapsible bleachers and tried to close them on him. (She was apparently provoked by a disparaging comment about Adam Ant.) The second heart attack followed some dozen years later, when Sharon called home at a quarter to three in the morning to say she was flying to Riyadh with a handsome Saudi architect whom she intended to marry. She showed up at Intensive Care the next morning, trailing an aroma of distillation, and reassured Dad that not only was she was still in town, she didn't even remember making the call, and had only the haziest recollection of meeting anyone even remotely Arab. Then she said "Excuse me," turned her head, and projectile-vomited all over his I.V. drip.
So any phone call from or about Sharon was as likely as not to involve high cardiovascular risk. But this time the hammer blow came, not from what she had done, but from what shehad become.
"A grandmother," she repeated, as Jack had apparently asked her to do. He couldn't remember doing so. He was busy trying to blink away the cottony white film that had descended over his eyes when he'd heard it the first time.
"You're-" he stuttered. "You're-"
"A grand-muth-ur," she said yet again, enunciating as if to an idiot. "For God's sake, what's with the mealy mouth? You knew Kari was pregnant. I told you at Thanksgiving."
Jack looked for a place to sit down, but he'd answered the phone in the foyer so there was no chair. Improvising, he slid his back down the wall and squatted on the floor.
"I know, I know," he said. "But ... it's like, 'My niece is pregnant' is one thing. 'My little sister's a grandmother' is ... I dunno. Something else."
"It's the same damn thing, fathead." She'd never had any respect.
"No it's not, it's not remotely the same. The perspective is completely different. I mean ... my God, since when are you even old enough?"
"I'm forty-three, Jack. You'd know that if you bothered sending cards."
"You don't send me any."
"Well ... no. I picked up that bad habit from you. You were supposed to be a good influence on me, see?"
"As if anyone on the planet could've influenced you."
"Don't try to shirk the blame. All my failings are really your fault." Her tone was light, bubbly; she was clearly ecstatic, and was enjoying teasing him. Why? ... Why was she so giddy?
Oh, right-the baby.
"Boy or girl?" he asked.
She hooted. "I'm impressed, it took you just under two minutes! I was betting you'd forget to ask at all."
"Boy. Or. Girl," he repeated, unamused.
"Girl," she said. "Six pounds, four ounces, with little apple cheeks you could almost eat."
"That's ... wonderful. Seriously, I'm a little freaked out, but I'm so happy for you, Sharon. You and Bert both. And of course Kari and Steve. Congratulations all around."
"Thanks. We're all delighted."
A longish pause followed. Jack knit his brow; Sharon wasn't usually the kind who let that happen. When confronted with any silence, she was only too happy to fill it.
"Well," he said, "umm ..."
"You're not going to ask her name, are you?"
"Oh, Christ! Sorry. What've they chosen?"
She giggled. "I knew you'd forget."
"Just tell me the name, Grandma."
"Pretty. Family names?"
"Jocelyn was Steve's mother. So you'd think my name would be in there too, but no, Cassandra is from some character in a book Kari read as a kid and never got over."
"You're kidding ... I Capture the Castle? Dodie Smith? ... I gave her that book!"
"Well, thanks a lot. What are you doing poisoning my daughter's mind?"
"I gave you the same damn book when you were ten. You just never opened it."
"Yeah, well, I was never much of a reader."
"Few juvenile delinquents are."
"Hardy-har. Anyway, you have to fly out and see us now. Be introduced to the baby you apparently helped name."
"Of course, of course. I wouldn't dream of missing the christening."
"Well, a dream's the only place there'll be one."
"Oh, Sharon, come on! It's just a little sprinkled water. And then all the gifts!"
"No, they've decided. Neither of them is religious. And it's fine with me. I mean, can you see me walking into a church? Place would burst into flames."
"Hey, that should've been my line!"
"Beat you to it, didn't I? ... Seriously, Jack, do come and see us. We miss you."
"Soon, I promise. Meantime, my love to Bert."
"And mine to-" She stopped herself. "And mine."
Jack turned off the phone but remained seated on the floor a while longer. "And mine to Harry," she'd almost said. Caught herself just in time. For God's sake, he and Harry had split almost a year ago. And she had the nerve to mock him for forgetting things?
With a groan, he got to his feet and placed the phone back in its cradle. He looked up at his reflection in the little gilt-framed mirror that hung above the cherrywood stand.
Your baby sister is a grandmother, he told himself. And that makes you ...
He stopped short, unwilling to admit the word. Old, he thought. Old, old, old.
He leaned into the mirror and ran his hand across his surprisingly unlined face. Despite a receding hairline, he didn't look old. People routinely guessed him ten years younger than he was.
Except, he thought, tugging at the still supple skin around his eyes, ten years younger is still old enough to be a grandparent. Damn you, Sharon.
As he continued probing his face, he noticed a few liver spots-not on his face, on his hand. They were lurking sheepishly beneath the sandy hair splayed across his knuckles. Old man hands, he thought.
"All right," he said aloud, "enough." If there was anything more pathetic than an aging single gay man, it was an aging single gay man minutely assessing himself in a mirror. He turned resolutely away and headed back to his bedroom to dress.
But as he padded down the hallway, he couldn't resist giving his pectorals a squeeze, if only to reassure himself that they were still there, and still impressively cut. "And I've got the blood pressure of a man half my age," he said, seemingly to Nelly, who was curled up on the sheets he'd tossed aside when he woke up. But Nelly, who in dog years was even older than he, was plainly sound asleep.
Chapter TwoIt was unusual for Jack to have to dress in the morning. Ordinarily he had no place to go, no reason to get out of bed at all. Not since he'd sold his public relations agency, Ackerly & Associates, to the larger, multinational HDG Corp., for a sum of money so extravagant it took him several weeks to realize, I never have to lift a finger on my own behalf ever again.
But in the two years since, Jack had learned that this wasn't quite so felicitous a condition as he'd thought. He'd been working since his teens, in business for himself since twenty-four. With his career now ended, he was left with but one directive: to do whatever he wanted. To this day, he had absolutely no idea what that was.
Accordingly, he tried to fill his calendar with whatever he could, which, at his level of achievement usually meant boards and committees. This morning he was scheduled to attend a meeting of the board of directors of the Tealight Theatre, a small, quirky, often distressingly snide company that specialized in putting on nude re-enactments of 1970s sitcoms. They were currently into a mildly successful run of Welcome Back, Kotter episodes, but were excited to have recently been granted the rights to re-stage Mork and Mindy (largely by neglecting to mention the bare-ass aspect to the copyright holders; their philosophy was, "It's easier to get forgiveness than permission"). The company had lately come up with some new ideas to increase its draw, one of which was audience participation-meaning that before each show, someone who had paid for the privilege of ogling naked people making fools of themselves was forcibly drafted into joining them. This innovation had been wildly successful at driving people away, which had in turn put increased pressure on the board to find new sources of funding-which is, Jack had learned very quickly, the sole raison d'être of any board, anywhere.
Still, Jack liked having somewhere to go this morning-a reason to put on a Dolce & Gabbana suit, a reason to skip breakfast-a reason to shave, for Christ's sake. But he dreaded the actual meeting. He wondered what he had to do to get on the board of something slightly more prestigious; say, the Court Theatre, or Hubbard Street Dance. He knew the answer: show them the money. So far, he'd raised exactly five thousand dollars and change for Tealight, which wasn't exactly the kind of booty that would prompt other organizations to clamor for him. It was a classic Catch-22: he had to raise money to graduate from Tealight-caliber organizations, but that meant raising money for Tealight-caliber productions. Jack, whose idea of theatrical subversion pretty much ended at The Boys In the Band-if not Mrs. Warren's Profession-just didn't feel the requisite passion to oblige.
Traffic was terrible this morning; Lake Shore Drive was moving at the speed of a suppurating wound. Jack had forgotten the soul-shriveling tedium of commuting; and yet he'd done it, day in, day out, for a quarter of a century. How had he borne it? ... He turned up the CD he'd selected for the drive, The Easy Way by the Jimmy Giuffre 3, but even the cool, muted chords of his favorite Fifties jazz combo couldn't quite hold his attention.
Well no wonder, he could hear Harry saying. That's not even music. It's, like, "noodle-noodle-noodle." You want something to take you out of yourself, you need Bonnie Tyler, man! "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
"Yes, of course," he said aloud, "how stupid of me. The Eighties being so much more relevant and useful than the Fifties."
I didn't say that, he imagined Harry retorting. I was quite clearly talking about the differences between two specific pieces of music.
"But your conclusion is based on your pathological adoration of the world in which you came of age, and your equally fierce loathing of any era before you were born."
Am I on the couch now? ... Did you get your license to practice psychotherapy when I wasn't looking? I wish you'd told me, I'd have thrown you a party ...
And that's how it started-another imaginary sparring match with Harry. When they'd broken up, ten months before, the actual dialogue had been minimal; Harry had said, "Listen, I just feel we've reached the end point here; I mean, have we ground to a halt, or what?" and Jack had straightened his spine and channeled Margaret Dumont, loftily replying, "If you expect me to help you bail out of this relationship, or God forbid beg you to stay, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint you." After that they'd been terse and matter-of-fact with each other, speaking only about the practical aspects of their breakup, who was keeping what and what was owed to whom for whatever.
That's only because, after twenty-four years with the man, Jack knew exactly why Harry was leaving. He'd known for some time, but wouldn't-couldn't-address it. Too proud, perhaps, or simply too aware of his inability to fix the problem; or possibly, probably, just plain angry at Harry for being such a cliché.
"Ah, fading youth," he said now, a little sarcastic trill in his voice. "You're forty-two, handsome, fit, successful, much loved, and completely at liberty to do whatever it is you want with your life. You're richer, healthier, luckier, and freer than just about anyone else on the planet. Statistically, the people who rate higher than you in the equation don't even register as a blip. But ah me! You've got laugh lines, so your life is a tragedy. You've got a middle-aged gut, so the world can offer you no consolation. You're not a fresh young twink anymore, so all that's left for you is the grave. And all of this is, of course, my fault. Because I plucked you out of circulation when you were just nineteen, I'm the one who's made you this way. Intellectually, you know that's not true, but in your heart it's what you believe. So go ahead, pull up stakes and flee as fast as you can. Put me behind you and hurl yourself back onto the party-boy circuit. You'll get your youth back that way. Of course you will."
Jack realized he was tailgating the Taurus in front of him; its jittery driver kept looking at him in her rearview mirror, clearly concerned by his dogged proximity, and by the look of open rage on his face.
He forced himself to calm down, to prevent his anger from consuming him. Especially since such anger would scarcely have any impact; at the first strong word, Harry's shields would go up, and he'd go defensively deaf. And in fact, things weren't as simple as Jack had been making them out to be, anyway. The reality was more ambiguous, as reality usually is.
"See, I went through it myself," he said now, his voice gentler. "I know you think I didn't, but I did." He smiled, which Harry would perhaps find condescending, but it was meant to be warm, avuncular; an older man passing along his wisdom to a younger one. "It's tough to grow old. It's the toughest thing any of us will ever have to do. Suddenly, your own body betrays you. You look in the mirror, and all you see is betrayal. You try to run for a cab, and your knees seize up. You try to read a book, you fall asleep. And if your own slow decline isn't bad enough, there are all the young turks infiltrating your world, living life with the same intensity you used to. Bad enough to have to look at them, but then they start snapping at your heels, going after everything you worked so hard for-your job, your status, your goddamn identity.
"Still, I think I had it easier," he continued, as he inched up on the Taurus, taking care to brake a good three feet from its bumper. "I mean, there I was, growing old, struggling to accept it, to learn to live within the law of diminishing returns-and right beside me, in bed with me, I had a strapping young buck. Nine years younger, and filled with all the sap that would rise in me no longer. I could accommodate myself to middle age, because I could reach out and feel youth, literally hold it in my hands, whenever I wanted. Just take a revivifying hit off of your beauty and vitality-hell, the sheer heat you gave off, even when you were asleep.
"But you ... you don't have that. Here you are, all these years later, going through your own midlife crisis, and instead you're joined at the hip with someone even older. Someone whose hair is thin and whose blood is thinner and whose feet are always cold, who can't help reminding you of all the wilting and flagging and fading yet to come. I don't blame you for wanting to get away. Honestly, I don't. Go on, go, as far as you can! Drink from the cup of youth till they force it out of your hands. Go, with my blessing."
Traffic opened up before him, and he had to snap himself out of his reverie in order to shift into gear and accelerate. It was only when he was cruising towards the Grand Avenue exit that he realized he'd done it yet again. Why was it, every time he had one of these imaginary confrontations with Harry, he never ended up justifying himself and reducing Harry to penitent tears? Why did he never right the great wrong done to him? Why, in his own revenge fantasy, did he always lose?
Chapter ThreeA light rain was falling by the time Jack reached Orleans Street, so he pulled into one of the Self-Park garages that cropped up every few blocks. It would've been faster to leave it with an attendant somewhere, but Jack was constitutionally unable to hand over the keys to his precious Porsche to someone he had never met before. Once, Harry had convinced him to do just that, when they were running late for a restaurant reservation; Jack had just slipped in a CD-Dexter Gordon's Our Man In Paris-and the first cut ("Scrapple From the Apple") was playing when they got out of the car. After dinner, when the attendant returned it to him, he noticed that the CD was now on the final cut ("Like Someone In Love"), which to Jack just plain spelled joyride. He cursed himself for not having noted the mileage, because Harry only laughed at his CD "proof"-as he always seemed to be laughing at him, at the end.
Excerpted from WHEN YOU WERE ME by ROBERT RODI Copyright © 2007 by Robert Rodi. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Robert Rodi was born in Chicago in the conformist 1950s, grew up in the insurrectionist 1960s, came of age in the hedonist 1970s, and went to work in the elitist 1980s. This roller-coaster ride has left him with a distinct aversion to isms of any kind; it also left him with an ear for hypocrisy, cant, and platitudes that allowed him, in the 1990s, to become a much-lauded social satirist.
His first novel, Fag Hag, was published in 1991 and was swiftly translated into Italian, French, German, and Japanese. It was followed by Closet Case (1992), What They Did to Princess Paragon (1994), Drag Queen (1995), Kept Boy (1997), Bitch Goddess (2002), and When You Were Me (2007). His first nonfiction book, Dogged Pursuit: My Year of Competing Dusty, the World's Least Likely Agility Dog was released by Hudson Street Press in 2009.
Robert's shorter fiction can be found in a number of anthologies, including Men On Men 5, His, and Sandman: Book of Dreams. His novella Glad, Gladder, Gladys was serialized online at USAToday.com. His literary criticism has appeared in the pages of The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, NewCity, and The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review.
Robert is the creator of several comic-book series, including 4 Horsemen, Codename: Knockout, and The Crossovers. He was a founding member of the Chicago-based performance art troupe, The Pansy Kings, who were active throughout the 1990s, and he wrote sketches for the Live Bait Theater's revues Junk Food and Dear Jackie: The Queen of Camelot Remembered.
Robert still lives in Chicago, in a century-old Queen Anne house with his partner Jeffrey Smith and a constantly shifting number of dogs.
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I read this book a littlte while back and really loved it. This story has been told before (more or less), but this is told by gay men.
This is solid Robert Rodi. I didn't love the ending, but otherwise the book was fun and funny. I'm a fan.