Friday, October 17, 2014

Me2: Chapter 5

As part of a huge - and much needed - marketing push, I'm going to be serializing a few of my all-time favorite books ... starting with the (ahem) rather infamous novel that I may or may not have actually written: Me2


http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0092B8VOA/ref=cm_sw_su_dp

"Absolutely brilliant!" says Lisabet Sarai, author of Incognito and Fire, about Lambda finalist M. Christian's controversial manlove horror/thriller. 

He looks just like you. He acts exactly like you. He takes away your job. He steals your friends. He seduces your male lover. None of them can tell the difference. Every day he becomes more and more like you, pushing you out of your own life, taking away what was yours … until there’s nothing left. Where did he come from? Robot? Alien? Clone? Doppelganger? Evil twin? Long lost brother? Then you discover there are still more "yous." Can you be sure you are the real you? And how do you fight to take your own life back? 

An absorbing new approach to the question of identity, Me2 is a groundbreaking gay chiller you’ll remember for a long time – no matter who you are, or who you think you may be. 

(Despite rumors that this book was written by an impostor - but, rest assured, this is the real 'M.Christian.' Accept no substitutes!)


Chapter V

Me5

"Well ... when I think about it, I bet Hitler was a nice guy.
"No, that's not what I mean.  Calm down, boy.  Shit, you be a bit wild and people jump all over you: don't give someone a second to explain.  Yeah, you – and everyone else, too.  One crazy idea and people think it's oven-time.
"Hitler, now he wouldn't do that.  I bet he'd keep his opinions to himself till he knew what I was saying.
"There you go again.  Yeah, you didn't say anything but you still showed it in your eyes.  Christ, you could see it across the street.  Damned right you should be sorry.  That's the problem with people these days, they don't listen.  Or they pretend to but they sure as shit aren't.
"Hitler would have listened.
"Ha!  That's better.  Not a lot, but at least you're trying.
Gotta give you that.  Should make you say it till you can't say it no more?  'Hitler, Hitler, Hitler,' then maybe you'd stop twitching when I say it.  Like saying 'toothbrush,' you know: say it till you don't know that the fuck it is.  'Course Hitler ain't a fucking toothbrush, but you know what I mean.
"Don't worry, Hitler wouldn't have figured out where the fuck I'm going with this either.  At least not the one from our history books.  So you're doing as good as he would.  Something to be proud of, huh?
"Yeah, I'm jerking your chain.  Quick one, aren't you, boy?  I'm still kind of pissed, though, that you thought I had a fucking SS outfit in my closet.  World must be a fucking scary place for you, with damned Nazis under every fucking bed.
"It is?  Well, you seem to be handling it well enough, I guess.  Lots of other folks, if I gave 'em that 'Hitler' business, they'd probably lose it lots worse than you, so don't take it so hard.
"Hitler?  Oh, right.  Well, you asked and that's the first thing I thought about.  Well, not the first time.  I've been thinking about Hitler for a while.  Not like that.  You have been listening, right?
"Okay, just wanted to make sure.  We cool now?  You want to come over to my place and make sure there's no damned swastikas?  You sure?  You damned sure?  All right then.  I just want to make sure you understand.  You do understand, right?
"Right.  Okay.  So, Hitler – he was it, you agree?  The worst of the worst.  Ask people who they'd kill and he'd be the one.  The baddest of them all.
"It's just ... he was so bad.  Too bad.  How can someone be that bad?  I ... I really don't think they can.  Not that he wasn't horrible.  He was.  It's just ... have you tried to be an SOB?  Yeah, I know, some people have a knack for it, but I don't mean a part-time prick.  I mean SOB 24/7.  I've tried it; not for real, but real enough.  I can be a asshole on the playfloor, but not for very long.  By breakfast I'm ready to read the paper and watch TV.
"But Hitler did it all the time.  Same with Manson and all the rest.  No rest, no good days, just as bad as they could be.  Yeah, I guess they might have liked it.  But they had to know they were hurting people, right?  How couldn't they?  But they kept doing it, all the time.
"I don't think we can do that.  People, I mean.  I know, I know, it's stupid.  Real stupid, but that's what I believe.  People just can't be nothing but bad, there has to be some good somewhere.
"So here's Hitler, right?  He's ... wait a sec.  There.  He's this quarter.  Heads he's bad.  Very bad.  The Hitler we know.  Tails is the other, that's the good guy.  The Hitler who's a nice guy.  Paints pretty pictures, smiles a lot, cracks jokes; he's someone you'd like to know.  But he's so damned good, the bad has to go somewhere, so he breaks in two, so now you have a heads Hitler and a tails Hitler.  It's like, the only way any of us can be nothing but bad is if the good is pushed out, so there isn't any of it anymore.
"I don't know if it's true or not, it's just what I think, okay?  Maybe after he cracks up, the evil guy gets rid of the good one.  Doesn't want him around, right?  Maybe the good one just disappears, fades away or something, or the good guy goes out and hides because everyone thinks he's the bad one.  Good Hitler shaves off his stupid little mustache and moves to Australia – something like that.
"No, sorry, haven't a clue what to do.  Get out of the way, I guess.  I mean, from the bad one.  After all, he's the one who wouldn't have a problem getting rid of any competition, right?
"Like I said, all of this is really fucked up at best, but for me ... well, for me, personally, I try to walk the line.  Not be one or the other, too good, too bad, just down the middle.  Balance.  Do good, do not good, like that.
"So after being good and all, helping you out like this, I guess I'll have to go say nice things about Hitler.
"The bad one, that is."
* * * *
How could you?
An alley, somewhere.  I must have driven there, but I don't remember exactly how.  Vague memories of blasting horns, the rumble of dots under my wheels, going too fast, stopping too suddenly, the world no longer clear through the windshield, blurry from frightened tears.
My view had gotten better.  Actually, it hadn't.  Clearer, for sure, but not really better.  I could see, but what I saw was a rusted dumpster shoved sideways against a graffiti-mottled brick wall.  Above it and to the side, squeezed into a trapezoid by perspective, was a single glowing window, jade green and diamond-webbed with reinforcing mesh.
My cheeks felt sunburned and snot kept dribbling from my nose.  In the glove compartment were the remnants of a shameful night.  With scratchy napkins from Burger King, I wiped my face.  But I couldn't do a good job; my hands shook too much.
How could you?
I thought I should get keep going.  I thought I should get back on the road.  I thought I should get somewhere.  Then I realized I couldn't keep going, wasn't in any shape to drive – and that I had nowhere to go.
What I needed was – what did I need?  A storm behind my eyes, howling winds and crackling lightning, bolts of twitching shock, biting cold hailstones drumming on the roof of my brain: too much that was bad, too few ideas how to make it good, no idea what to do.
Then I did know what I wanted.  Getting it was even easy, though my solution wouldn't be perfect, or even comfortable.  The seat went back and I stretched out.
A nag of worry, that I wouldn't even be able even do that, but then my arms, legs, and neck were in slow motion.  My eyes couldn't focus, or stay open – and then it all went away.
But before it did, I thought one last time, a tiny sad whisper in my head: How could you?
Then I slept.
* * * *
Parking the car, sliding it into a too-narrow, white, painted slot, I tried to think again of options, the choices I had, the possibilities that were out there.
But by the time I'd opened the door and stepped out into a hot summer day, I'd all but accepted what I already knew, resigned myself to having no options, no choices, and no possibilities.
So I did what I always did.  I went to work.
Walking across heat-shimmering asphalt, taking slow, deep breaths, I tried to pretend it was just an ordinary hot summer day, an ordinary hot summer day at work, an ordinary hot summer day at my ordinary work doing ordinary work things in ordinary work ways.
So what had I always thought as I walked across – hot or cold – asphalt toward the glass doors leading to the everyday averageness of my employment?  How could I force myself into being part of an average, regular, usual, typical – and yes – ordinary day?
How was my hair?  No wild licks or frizzled ends, I hoped.  How was my skin?  No glaring white zits or greasy patches, I hoped?  How were my clothes?  No loud wrinkles or nose-curdling odor, I hoped.  How was my breath?  No eye-searing stink or wincing eye-yellowness, I hoped.  Did I look good?  I really hoped I looked good.
A wry smile on my face, a quick sign of irony: it was too easy.  Maybe there was hope, after all?  If going back to the way things had been was just a matter of allowing myself to drift back to my old day-to-day, average, regular, usual, typical and – yes –ordinary thinking.
So I went across a too-hot parking lot and up to the glass doors, at the same time hoping that I'd stay in my old daily footsteps, my run-of-the-mill working life.
And for a while, I did.
* * * *
Only a while, though.  At the door, a stop, a hesitation, a pause.  I could see inside, of course, and it looked as it always looked: a Starbucks, with two employees behind the counter, who looked as they probably always looked (because I didn't recognize them).  One of them was a big nerd, round with apple cheeks and a prissy little beard; the other was an old troll, thin with salt and pepper hair.
That didn't mean that there wasn't a third Starbucks drone in the back, among the beans and the filters, cups and lids, napkins and CDs, sugar and sugar-free packets, and other boxes, piles, and stacks of store stuff.  That didn't mean he wasn't there.
Hand on the handle I didn't move while my mind raced: how stupid, how fucking stupid.  Of course he's here, or will be soon.  He wants me, right?  He wants to be me, correct?  I'm what he wants to become: appearance, mannerisms, friends, could-be-more-than-friends (How could you?), possessions, and more.
And more: my job.  Not that he should want it – except that it was mine.
Despite myself I kept my eyes focused inside the store, waiting for him to appear from the storeroom, from where he'd been kneeling behind the counter; or even from behind me, running characteristically late.
I almost turned around, went back to my car, drove away – destination somewhere.  Somewhere else.
But where?  Another friend or could-be-more-than-friend's house (How could you?), a club, an eatery, the community center, take in a flick, head for the border, hop on a plane, get a room somewhere and hide under the covers?
Inside the store was the nerd, chubby with even chubbier cheeks and a little fey beard, and the old troll with grey-sprinkled hair.  Inside the store was my life.  Simple but satisfying, average but pleasant, typical but happy – and I wanted it back.
I was in before I knew what I was doing.  Heart hammering, breath rasping, I went up to and then around the counter, saying "Hello" to the fat guy in the finely trimmed beard and "Howdy" to the thin and gray-haired troll.
They answered back, but I don't remember what they said.  Slowly, carefully, terrified, I checked under the counter (he wasn't there), looked in the back (he wasn't there), and watched the front door for an eternally long hour (he didn't come in).
I didn't know where he was, but it looked like he wasn't coming to work.  With a shuddering sigh, I finally began to relax, welcoming the cocoon of those old daily footsteps, my run-of-the-mill working life.
* * * *
"I just can't see it.  Really.  I've tried, I really have, but it's a world I just can't comprehend.  I was just IM-ing a friend of mine about this last night because he told me about this comment war that was going on about who would win in a battle, the Enterprise or Darth Vader and the Death Star.  Stupid, right?  I mean, so damned stupid I can't believe I'm even taking the time to say it's stupid – that kind of stupid.  I mean, seriously (snort) just think about it.  Sure the Empire and the Rebels looked pretty technologically advanced but they really aren't.  Their ships are just big, nothing special about their capabilities.  The Death Star's just a big blaster, that's all it really is.  Lightsabers are just energy swords, which is a pretty stupid weapon if you think about it.  Oh, sure, the movies make it look like they're effective but that's just CGI cheating.  That fight with Yoda?  Come on, give me a break!  Okay, they're pretty good with robots, I got to give them that, but they look like they're gonna fall apart.  'Hi, I'm C3PO.' Crash, bang, boom, nothing but parts on the floor.  Now the Federation, they've got some really serious tech: transporters, replicators, warp drive, not to mention Commander Data – now he's a truly advanced artificial being.  So here comes the Empire, with all those stupid steam pipes and big push button controls; and here comes the Enterprise or better yet the Defiant.  No contest, right?  Bam, zap, and the Death Star's toast.  Sorry, but there's no way Star Wars is going to kick Star Trek's ass.  Star Wars is just weak.  Lucas really doesn't have any real imagination, he just uses other old movies and shit.  But Star Trek, that's been going on since the 60s and it's got this huge and really well thought-out universe behind it.  Like I said, I just can't see why anyone wouldn't take Trek over Wars.  It's just not a contest, right?"
The morning rush had ebbed, becoming just a few straggling business zombies in search of high-octane caffeine.  Bleary-eyed, barely managing to get their ATM cards out of their fine leather wallets, they'd stumble out with a cup in their hands, holding it like it was the answer to every problem in their buffed, manicured, and expensive lives.  Feeling an ebb myself, I also tapped into the vibrating god of espresso, though while I sipped, I kept looking down into the gritty black pool wishing it really was the answer to every problem in my own toned, trimmed, and moderately-affordable life.
The pause between the morning and the afternoon surges was also a window between the nerd and me, one where he took no time at all to fly through, phasers blazing.  Nodding to what he said, I thought for a moment about asking him about ... well, about what was happening to my athletic, preened, and middle-class life.  But after hearing about the battle between Trek and Wars, I just couldn't.
"I used to know this dancer.  Beautiful young man, he was.  All toned muscles and polished skin.  Watching him ... the way he moved, it was like music.  Each step like a perfect note.  You know, you remind me of him.  I hope that's okay to say.  But it really is true: the way you walk, even the shape of your eyes, just like Rudolf.  Dear, sweet, wonderful, Rudolf.  Those summers on Fire Island, the winters in Miami.  The sun always seemed to follow us, wherever we went.  Oh, if I were only a few years younger (sigh).  But in my heart, I'm just as young as I was when I was with my elegant little dancer.  It's just the outside that's gotten all gray and wrinkled, you know?"
The gap between the afternoon and the late afternoon rushes was also an opening between the troll and me, one where he didn't hesitate to stroll through, well-oiled seductive patter at the ready.  I pondered for a second about confessing ... well, what my life had become.  But after being on the receiving end of his sticky-sweet words, I just couldn't.
Mocha java, house blend, espresso, latte, chai, tea, cold drinks, very hot drinks in a tall, a grande, or a venti cup.  Me being a barista, me behind the register, me cleaning up, me circulating with a tray of cranberry muffin samples, me mopping the floor, me trying to stay away from the nerd, me avoiding the troll.  Me doing everything but thinking about what was happening to me.
So I thought, for a few minutes, about my co-worker: a life that was anything but real, full of fantasies other people had provided.  Making out with Uhura, screwing Seven of Nine, or a blowjob from Janeway.  Or maybe even a kiss from Worf, a fuck with Data, or a blowjob from Picard.  Whatever the bend, it really didn't matter: he was always somewhere else, this world not interesting – or way too damned scary.
Then I pondered, for a little while, about my other coworker: a life that was behind him, full of memories without a prayer of adding a good new one.  Those hot months getting sweaty even beyond the heat, those cool months cuddling in front of a mumbling fire, tricks here and there, nights swallowing, days arranging for more swallowing.  But all that behind him, while a younger world cruised right on by, not even glancing in his gray-haired, wrinkled, sagging, and impotent direction.
They were people avoided, ignored, or forgotten; so I avoided, ignored, and would no doubt completely forget them.
Cold water dribbled down my back right in the middle of cleaning the cream and sugar station.  Safe?  Most definitely.  The only place left to go?  Absolutely.  But I'd also stupidly walked back because there was something I still didn't understand, the 'what' in 'what makes me so different' from this nerd, that troll: what made me worth stalking, mimicking, or stealing?
There had to be something.  Some part of my life that I couldn't see because I was in too deep, way too close to myself.  Going back to my wiping, I tried to calm my shivering nerves, take a bit of an inventory: my youth?  Plenty of younger guys out there.  Sex appeal?  I did pretty well in that department – could always be better.  Money?  Had none.  Brilliance?  I was smart enough to know I wasn't smart.  Friends?  Not that many and none that good – not even him.  A special something I didn't know I had?
As theories went, it was a momentarily playful one, so I went with it: was he a mental shadow, a thought projection, a ghostly manifestation of my unconscious mind?  A mental twin living the life I wished I could?  Doing the things I'd only dreamed of doing?
A pause again, my work stopping.  What did being psychically hung feel like?  Did I have a big honking mind but didn't realize it?  Not special enough to copy, but instead special in being able to copy myself?
The sugar and non-sugar sweeteners were full.  The stirrers were plentiful.  The napkins were sufficient.  Shaking myself out of my self-staring, I reached out, lifted, and shook thermoses: half-and-half more than half full, whole milk pretty whole, low fat low but not too low.
No, I thought, shaking my head.  It didn't make sense.  Unless I was so advanced, so superior, I was able to hide my advancement, my superiority, from even myself, I had to face that I was just who I was: kind of young, keeper of a few fuck buddies, not very rich, not very smart, with only a few real friends...  but with something worth copying, whatever the fuck that was.
Maybe I was the perfect worker?  An ideal barista, a superb cashier, a magnificent storeroom cleaner, an incredible floor sweeper?  Wry smile on my kind-of-young face, I finished my wondrous buffing and fantastic polishing of the cream station, imagining myself beyond nerds and trolls, beyond the rest of the world, because I was the ideal Starbucks employee but never knew it.
Then, when the door opened and a supervisor came in, I found out I wasn't even that.  But someone else was.
* * * *
He was ebony, as in Ebony: black and smooth, glassy and classy.  Refined and polished, he glided more than walked, sang more than spoke.  Crisp and starched, you knew that he was walking out the door to a world of flowers and perfume for the ladies, gold and diamonds for him, quality and elegance for both.
"Good afternoon," he said with a polished white-toothed smile.  "How are you doing?"
"Um," I said, suddenly clumsy and pasty white, "fine I guess.  "
"That's good.  That's very good." Under one arm was an official clipboard.  You could tell the way he held it, like it was silently burning his fingers, that it was far too common for him, but a necessity of his profession.  "Fine is a good thing to be.  Some people would say it's the best thing, in fact.  Not too good, and not too bad.  The Golden Mean, the Romans called it.  The perfect state."
"Okay..." I said, inversely inarticulate to his articulate.
"Things also fine here?  In this place, with you in this place?  "
I glanced back towards the counter, catching a quick glimpse of the nerd, looking frightened and nervous, and the troll, looking nervous and frightened.  "Everything seems okay, I guess."
A grim, wide and warming.  "Another way of saying fine, I take it?  The good 'fine' I mentioned previously, I hope."
"Yes ... that's it."
"Superb.  Very much so.  I'm very pleased," the clipboard came out from under his arm, and with a gold pen he very quickly wrote on it.  Looking around, his dark eyes stopping here and there, he added to his notes.
He strolled away on well-oiled bearings, leaving me with a smile.  Even though his voice was a rumble, it didn't travel far enough for me to hear what he said to the nerd, still looking scared and twitchy, and the troll, also looking similarly scared and similarly twitchy.  I thought for a moment about walking back toward them, joining them in Starbucks camaraderie, but instead stayed where I was, between my well-maintained cream station and the door.
Eventually, he left them – the nerd as well as the troll looking quite relieved – and walked back toward me, toward the way out.
But then he stopped, turning that brilliant smile my way.  Under its light.  I felt somehow warm, taken care of, worthwhile, and that the world was back to the way it was supposed to be.
His hand then came to my shoulder, a weight that was a further connection between where I was and where everyone else was.  He seemed to like me, and that felt nice.
"I'm glad you're here," he said, voice a feeling as much as a sound.  "I heard of the great job you did at the downtown store.  Coming in on your off-hours and such.  Working so hard when you didn't even need to.  Everyone there was raving about your performance.  Admirable.  I just wanted to say that.  "
Then he shook my small hand with his large one, a contact that didn't make me feel warm, taken care of, worthwhile, or that the world was back to the way it was supposed to be.
Because it wasn't.  It never was.
* * * *
Passing through a Toyota neighborhood, then a Chevy one (at least I had the foresight to lock my doors), followed by a Honda one (look at all the pretty rainbow flags), leading into and out of a Hummer one (so damned tacky), then finally along a boulevard of broken commercial dreams: storefronts without stores, movie theaters playing SOON TO BE DEMOLISHED, coffee shops without coffee, and liquor stores (thriving).  The rent here was low, the neighbors gone or just very drunk, so no one noticed – or cared – when a bookstore that no longer sold books was rented out to a dozen or so over-earnest queer boys, deadly serious dykes, militant boys-who-used-to-be-girls, and militant girls-who-used-to-be-boys.
Not wanting to be seen hanging out with over-earnest queer boys, deadly serious dykes, militant boys-who-used-to-be-girls, and militant girls-who-used-to-be-boys, I barely even looked when I used to drive by.  When the community center came up in conversation, the expected response was "that's nice for them," "glad someone's doing it," "wish I had time to help out," "have you seen the losers there?" "how desperate do you have to be to go in there?" and, never being someone who failed to meet expectations, I'd always agreed.
But that was before.  This was now, and I didn't care – or, at least, I didn't care that much.  At least it was night; less of a chance of being spotted.
A bell announced me, a cheap electric sound for a cheap space.  Gray office partitions cut across the large room, putting those in need away from those there to hand it out.  A half-dozen chairs had their backs to them, showing any wino who wandered by the big front windows a perfect face-on look at the desperate.  Flyers were taped up – yellow and pink bond announcements for Wiccan AA; Trannyshack nights at the Double-up Lounge; Anal Polyp Support Groups (ewwww); and the four scary initials beginning with 'A' and ending in 'S' I knew about but hated to even think about.
Overhead were banks of flickering fluorescents, buzzing with glee as they drove any potential beauty out of the air.
I wasn't alone in the waiting area.  Reading a two-year-old copy of Outlook ("what do YOU think about Heath Ledger?") was a namesake pants, namesake vest, namesake cap, Leather Daddy, who looked over Heath's face, made quick contact with my eyes, and said: "Howdy."
"H–hello," I said back, looking for somewhere far from him to sit down.
"Nothing to be ashamed about.' The eyes under the cap were brown and soft, leather but without the slap and whip of black.
"Sorry?" The words had finally reached me but the meaning hadn't.
"Whatever you're here for.  There's nothing to be ashamed of."
Oh.  "Oh.  Thanks.  I – I appreciate that." But you don't know what the hell you're talking about.
"Life's hard." A toothy grin, also under the cap.  "I know, that's a fucking fortune cookie.  But people still forget.  Keep that in mind, it helps.  "
"I understand," I said, but I didn't.
"Hope you do.  I find that keeping it up here," he tapped the forehead under his cap "keeps it in perspective.  You know, that no one has it easy.  No one, right?"
"Right." But you have no idea why my life is anything but easy.
"Talking also helps.  Sometimes even with someone who might be a stranger.  No baggage."
"Yeah, I understand.  I don't think I'm up for that, though.  Hope you understand."
"I do.  No worries." Heath's face rose up again, eclipsing again a smile.  "But if you need to talk I'm willing to listen."
"I appreciate that," and I did.  But that didn't mean I really wanted to tell him.  So I asked him something else, starting off with: "You know, there is something you might be able to help me with.  It's kind of a puzzle..."
That's when he told me about Hitler – and evil pushed out into the world.
* * * *
By the time he'd finished, and I was ready to get up and leave, a sound bounced off the acoustic ceiling from somewhere in the back: a deep soothing voice, dropped octaves in sympathy.
A lipstick lesbian came in a few seconds later, immaculate make-up immaculate no more: rouge too bright from a background red of flushed cheeks, mascara melted and flowing, and red lips thoroughly awry.  Dressed for stylish business, she looked like she'd slept in her clothes.  I felt myself sneering at this doll handled by a sloppy child, but only until I realized I must have looked as bad or even worse.
"If you need to talk, please call anytime," a flowery voice said, petals of high notes sharp even though he was still hidden behind partitions.
"T–thank you," the lipstick said, dabbing her corroded beauty with a tissue excavated from the Prada handbag looped over one delicate shoulder.
I was breathing hard, harder than she was.  What to say?  How to say it?  This approach?  That approach?  This choice of words.  That choice of words.  How to make someone – anyone – understand what was happening.  How to make it real for them.  How to make myself sound sane.
"Now – who's next?" the owner of the chiming voice said, stepping around the partition.  He was Ernest, the kind of jeans-and-flannel-shirt, battered running shoes, dull-brown-hair-virginally-free-of-product kind of guy you'd expect to find in a community center: living for the life, not of the life; queer as everything, not just who he liked to fuck; Saturdays in group sessions; Sundays helping with fundraisers; other nights thinking of what to say in group, how else to raise funds.  He'd been on every AIDS walk, walked every marathon – even though he'd probably only kissed three men in his life.
"You go," the leatherman said, a gruff voice lacy with kindness.  "I'm in no rush."
"You sure?" Ernest said back, care-giving radar on full to make sure there was nothing but kindness in the leatherman's offer, and not avoidance masked in politeness.
"Oh, yeah," leather said, then with a tip of his cap in my direction: "You go first."
"If that's okay with you, it's okay with me, I guess,"
Ernest said, then with a nod towards me: "You all set?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Even though I wasn't ready.  I doubt if I ever really could be.
"Just this way," he said with a sincere smile, gesturing me toward the back.  "There's a place where we can talk."
Behind the partitions, there were no surprises: filing cabinets, ancient telephones and prehistoric computers, more posters, still more flyers, myriad Post-its in a rainbow of reminding colors, and read/write boards so written on they'd become dark grey at the edges.  Weaving right along with him as he snaked between battered tables and seen-better-days chairs, I caught a quick glimpse of smiling Polaroid faces pinned to a bulletin board.  Above them a clumsily printed sign: WE MISS YOU.
I almost turned around, almost mumbled something about "...a mistake," but instead I kept following, letting him lead me to a table in the back.
"Here we are," he said, picking up a clipboard from the top of small, and very battered, bookcase.  Sitting as he sat, I noticed the cover sheet said WEDNESDAY in thick, black marker.  Was it really?  Only Wednesday?
"Before we begin I want to assure you that whatever we talk about is completely confidential.  I'm only going to make some very basic notes, just so the center will have a rough idea what we talked about.  Is that okay?"
I nodded, not really knowing what I was expected to say.
"Now, what would you like to talk about?" His eyes gleamed, floating in luminescent sincerity.  He'd listen, he'd dribble out some platitudes, some sugary empowerments, he'd grin like an idiot, he'd try to hold my hand, but he wouldn't be able to do a damned thing.  For a second, I really hated him; felt a lightning, cramping urge to punch his bright, pink face.  So damned happy to help, even though he wouldn't be able to at all.
"I – it's just that ... something's been happening," I said, fists clenched under the table, arms shaking from tightened muscles.
"Go on, you can tell me anything," Ernest said, so damned earnestly.
"I – I don't understand it.  It doesn't make any sense.  It started a few days ago.  It sounds so fucking crazy.  But I know it's been happening.  I know it has.  I just didn't know where else to go, who I could talk to."
"That's what I'm here for," Ernest said, even more earnestly – if that was possible.
Breath in, breath out.  I had to say it.  I had to.  It's what he was there for, what I was there for.  Open your mouth and say it.  Don't think, don't worry, don't hesitate, don't wait, just say the words: there's another me–
"Well, hello there!" Not so earnest, not too soothing: instead rough and loud and coarse.  At the shock of the volume and boisterous familiarity, I jerked around.
"I didn't expect to see you again." Rough and loud and coarse was short and heavy and strong, a dyke if ever there was one: plaid shirt, work boots, durable jeans, chopped short hair, heavy iron ring in one ear, nothing in the other, a pink enameled triangle around her neck.  "Not that I'm complaining, but come on, man, you've got to take a break.  You've been in here three times this week.  Dedication is one thing but you can't keep this up."
My mouth was open, but I couldn't make anything come out.  Across the table, Ernest looked earnestly puzzled.
"No, no – no arguments now.  You're too damned good with people.  I can't have you burning yourself out.  Rent a movie or something, call a friend – do something for yourself for once." Laughter: even rougher, even louder, even coarser.  "Go on, get out of here.  That's an order."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Me2: Chapter 4

As part of a huge - and much needed - marketing push, I'm going to be serializing a few of my all-time favorite books ... starting with the (ahem) rather infamous novel that I may or may not have actually written: Me2


http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0092B8VOA/ref=cm_sw_su_dp

"Absolutely brilliant!" says Lisabet Sarai, author of Incognito and Fire, about Lambda finalist M. Christian's controversial manlove horror/thriller. 

He looks just like you. He acts exactly like you. He takes away your job. He steals your friends. He seduces your male lover. None of them can tell the difference. Every day he becomes more and more like you, pushing you out of your own life, taking away what was yours … until there’s nothing left. Where did he come from? Robot? Alien? Clone? Doppelganger? Evil twin? Long lost brother? Then you discover there are still more "yous." Can you be sure you are the real you? And how do you fight to take your own life back? 

An absorbing new approach to the question of identity, Me2 is a groundbreaking gay chiller you’ll remember for a long time – no matter who you are, or who you think you may be. 

(Despite rumors that this book was written by an impostor - but, rest assured, this is the real 'M.Christian.' Accept no substitutes!)


Chapter IV

Me4

"The phenomenon has been observed, albeit rarely, for a long time.  Quite a number of Saints, including St. Anthony, St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Severus of Ravenna, were reported to have manifested it, the act – of course – lending additional evidence toward their canonization.
"Various contemporary mystics, including the celebrated Emanuel Swedenborg, have also been said to have had the ability.  Skeptics, however, have pointed out that these manifestations have lacked any confirmation.
"This, naturally, doesn't deter believers.  Claiming that this outré practice may very well require outré evidence, they continue their researches, hoping that something outrageous yet undeniably concrete may someday surface, proving their faith was justified.
"While bilocation – the conscious, willing projection of the self – has been reported, albeit scantily, a similar yet distinct phenomenon has been much more widely observed.
"The most celebrated, or at least fairly authenticated, occurrence of a doppelganger was the Emilie Sagée incident, as told by Robert Dale Owen, who was in turn quoting from Julie von Guldenstubbe.  Owen reported that Guldenstubbe, a Latvian aristocrat, was with many others, present from 1845 to 1855 when her teacher, Emilie Sagée, was somehow spectrally duplicated.  She performed many of the French teacher's similar behaviors – including writing and teaching – yet obviously intangibly.  What was even more telling, Owen noticed, was that the doppelganger was visibly in good health, a clear difference between the real and the ghostly, as Sagée was extremely ill at the time.
"Other doppelganger incidents include descriptions of the phenomenon by the famed French author, Guy de Maupassant, the English poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Donne, and even President Lincoln.  While Sagée's duplicate was apparently benign, these other incidents carried with them a clear foreboding.  Donne and Lincoln, especially, felt that the presence of their ghostly copycats was a sign of looming disaster, Lincoln's suspicion being most dramatically true.
"Those who have studied bilocation as well as the doppelganger effect have theorized that they are more similar that disparate, both being mental or spiritual projections.  In bilocation it is conscious, the act of an extraordinarily advanced psyche.  In the case of the doppelganger, they hypothesize that, although it's a projection, it is generated by the lower mind: an independent being created from the depths of the id, from frustrated unconscious drives or repressed desires.  The negative presence being that the subject is somehow wishing himself out of existence because of profound dissatisfaction with his original, physical life.
"But, like all speculations regarding bilocation and doppelgangers, it is a theory lacking still more outrageous evidence of unqualified reality."
* * * *
Away, in the general direction of I-don't-care-where.  The details of how are kind of fuzzy, shot with a Vaseline haze of this-can't-be-happening head shaking.
Hard night, not the soft stuff that came with the sun having set only a few hours before.  Instead it was long gone, having vanished into deep darkness.  Out of the elevator, heading to my space (225) to get in my car (a Volkswagon GTI), I hoped to follow it, and do my own, very personal disappearing act.
Then I stopped, caged bare bulb hanging from gray insulation-flocked cement beams glaring mercilessly into my eyes.  Dad, when he was still alive, would have said that I was watching a ghost taking a slow meander, meaning in his cryptic, down-home, hayseed, plowed-earth kind of way – even though he was really an examiner for the Federal Reserve and couldn't shuck corn with a gun to his head – that I was caught between thoughts, paralyzed with indecision.
Dad would have been wrong.  Yes, I didn't move.  Certainly I didn't want to go forward and sure as hell didn't want to go back, but it wasn't because I was between anything.
I was right in front of something: my car, my German engineered blobject that dad would very much have approved of.  Curved ivory fenders, dull ruby taillights, rear window tossing back a bit of the garage's dazzling bulb.  It was my car ... right?  The license number was the same.  The kitschy pinecone air fresher was there.  The rainbow stripe above the bumper was there.
I could walk up to it, put my key in the lock, climb in.  I could, but that's why I didn't.  Because what if I did walk up to it, did put my key in the lock, did climb in – and found that the stain where that Venti mocha latte splashed a sticky map of Peru next to the parking break was gone?  Or that the crumbs of too many lifted-from-work snickerdoodles had been vacuumed up from the carpeting?  Or that the white crumbles of unwanted receipts had been picked up from the backseat?
What if he'd been there?
Standing there in the garage, trapped by what was in front of me – or what might be in front of me, I finally did move, but not externally.  In the chalky cage of my skull, I felt the jelly-stuff of my brain burn with a hot summer bolt of fury.  Screw it.  Screw him.
Up to it, key in the lock, and then in.  Pause.  Wait.  Then eyes down, then eyes back: the stain was still there, the crumbs were still there, the wads of paper were still there.  The car was still mine.  My sigh of slow-hissing relief was loud in the tight insides of the car.  Needlessly adjusting the rearview mirror for a few minutes, relishing in the control – if I could only move it an inch up, down, and then left and then right – I eventually started the engine, pulled P to R, and twisted around to make sure no one was behind me.
And paused.  The garage was dark, quiet, and empty.  I was alone.  No other cars.  But that wasn't why I was relieved.  Even though the car was mine, I'd halfway expected to see someone behind me, standing in that circle of caged light.  Even though he hadn't touched my car, I'd halfway expected to see him.
Another sigh, even more relief.  Pulling out, twisting the car in a two-point turn ending with it facing up the exit ramp, I paused one more time.  Still alone.  Still just me.
Who had no idea where to go.
* * * *
So I just drove.  Pedal down, I navigated from light to light, losing myself the act of controlling the car.  I turned the wheel, it went to the right; I turned the wheel, it went to the left; I stepped on the gas and it went fast; I stepped on the brake and it slowed or stopped.
Who was he?
The lights might be an interruption but it was my choice to ignore or obey them.  Red could mean stop, green could mean go.  Sure, disregarding them might mean a smash, crash, bang, boom of twisted metal and long-term medical care, but it was still up to me.
What did he want?
Approaching an intersection, a traffic and road decision was up to me.  I could turn right onto Fourth going east, I could turn left onto Fourth going west, I could go forward and stay on Main going north, I could even turn around and go back on Main going south.  Actually, it was only three choices: I still didn't feel like going back.
Why me?
With a deep breath I let my subconscious make the call, a spontaneous choice of right onto Fourth going east.  I knew what was out that way – which was not a lot – but tried not to worry, to trust my deep and mysterious mind.
What was he?
It was happening.  A fact as undeniable as the nighttime traffic coming at me with dazzling headlights, passing with crimson taillights, or pulsing red turning indicators.  As clear as the glowing fast-food signs that rushed by.  As apparent as the black night sky.  As plain as the black road.
What was less evident was everything else.  The sane and cold part of my mind – as opposed to the fright navigating that night – said that I should go to the police.  But even as it was said, that sane and cold part of me realized it might not be a good idea after all: you are a cop, bored and underpaid, long past caring, long past trusting, and into your station comes a blond-haired, blue-eyed, handsome (hey, I have to be honest) young fag, who opens his mouth and says: "He looks like me, he sounds like me, he acts like me, but I don't know why he does it, or even what he is."
What to do?
I needed help.  The section of my brain that wasn't driving suggested pulling my cell phone out of my pocket and dialing one of the dozen or so friends and acquaintances.  But even as it made that proposition that section of my brain realized that it might not be a good idea after all: you are a queer young man, jaded and catty, not yet understanding intimacy, not yet understanding trust, and over your cell comes not quite a friend, not quite a lover, not quite an acquaintance who says: "He looks like me, he sounds like me, he acts like me, but I don't know why he does it, or even what he is."
Who was he?
Was he a person I knew?  A jilted lover, fawning friend, envious stranger, who had so little he saw me as having too much?  It was an idea, but try as I might, I couldn't remember anyone like that.  In fact, I could think of a lot more people I wish I could become.
What did he want?
Did I have something he craved, so much so he'd put on my life and wear it out and about, fooling friends and strangers?  I couldn't think of a damned thing: no mysterious artifacts, no relatives with links to Area 51, no drug connections (aside from some pot now and again), no family fortune (hardly), no one to even pay my ransom.
Why me?
Was I someone he wanted to be, so much so he'd copy me down to the very last detail?  I couldn't think of a damned reason he'd want to: I was young, but there were better preserved guys out there; I wasn't dating anyone remotely fascinating (except for a YMCA fling with a middle-aged porn star); I didn't have any prospects worth hijacking; I didn't even have anything to look forward to.
What was he?
I'd had some crazy ideas over the past few days, but none of them really described what was going on.
What to do?
The light changed, so I pushed down on the gas, feeding the engine, turning the tires, propelling me forward through the intersection.  The well-tuned, German-engineered motor purred when it was stopped, nicely throbbed when it was in motion.  On either side were rows of condominiums very much like mine.  At the far end of the block where another light was waiting, one side changed into a mini-mall, the opposite a glass-walled suburban office block.
As I approached, permission to cross changed to prepare to slow.  Once again, my foot began to push down to bring me to a stop.  I didn't know who he was, what he wanted, why he'd chosen me, what he was, or even what to do about it, but one thing was furiously certain – and feeling it I jammed down hard on the other pedal, pushing the car's calming throb up into a throaty roar of bad gas mileage and very high RPMs.
Horns from the few cars that had jumped off the green, seeing me blast past them on my way – somewhere – in a goddamned hurry.
I had no idea exactly where I was going, but I had that new certainty: I was going to do something – anything – about this.
About him.
* * * *
A few blocks later – another mini-mall, another small office building – a splinter of boulevard signage made me glance, look, then turn the wheel into the nearest parking lot.
For the middle of the week, the place was busy: cars coming, cars going, people doing both.  It took me longer than it should have to find a parking place.
The hustle and bustle of early evening people made everything jarring and noisy, but it was also wonderfully normal.  Looking at the asshole kids in their Japanese toy cars, all desperately wanting to be Japanese drifters despite their gaijin genes; watching the baby gang bangers, all ferociously hungering to be the next TuPac despite their Caucasian lineage; the girls, hoping to be a picture-perfect copy of Christina Aguilera even though they had no looks and even less talent; the old farts, frightened of it all, hiding behind their Bush/Cheney bumper stickers even though they got in worse trouble when they were kids.
I could almost guess where they were going or where they'd been, the normalcy of them all a cool bath on a hot day, a bit of everyday living when mine had taken such a hard and twisting turn: the kids and their cars would find a quiet street somewhere and rev, burn rubber, slide, their way up their totem pole; the gang bangers would crank their bass up to window-rattling obnoxiousness hoping to convince themselves they were bad-asses; the girls would pose and prance, paying more attention to the nearest reflective surface rather than any circling boys; the old farts would escape in their Lexuses to the nearest Denny's for hash browns and ham steak, glaring out the greasy windows at everyone else.
My own mission was out of character.  I should have been on the phone making a date, having a drink in a stylish spot, bumping hips in a place too loud to think, instead of slipping past all these flavors of nighttime city life toward a little coffee shop.  I always felt sorry for Tully's, seeing them get slowly pushed off the map by stronger brews.  Especially sorry seeing as I was serving the competition in grande, venti, and tall cups during my own daily grind.  This one had something that'd caught my eye: the logo of an Internet cafe service.
At the register, I bought a medium – ha!  What a weird size – coffee and sat down at the machine.  With a swipe of plastic – with a hope that I hadn't maxed the damned thing out again – I was greeted by Google.
I didn't know who he was, what he wanted, why he'd chosen me, what he was, or even what to do about it, but the least I could do was pick the brain of the Internet about who he could be, what he might want, why he chose me, and even what I might be able to do about it.
Naturally the first word I typed in was clone.
The same, molecularly similar, genetically identical.  A stolen cell, a laboratory full of men in lab coats, many Petri dishes, a few centrifuges, hypodermics, microscopes, computers, chemicals, drugs – and lots and lots of science.
The idea was easy, the practice – according to the sites I flipped through – was hard.  One cat, one sheep, maybe a dog, lots of small wriggly things, and that's about it after years of lab coats, Petri dishes, centrifuges, hypodermics, microscopes, computers, chemicals, drugs – and lots and lots of money.
Not that it couldn't be done.  That wasn't the issue.  The theory was sound, even put into practice with that cat, that sheep, perhaps even that dog.  But with a few exceptions, cats, sheep, and clearly dogs are less complex than you or I.
You, definitely.  Me?  I wasn't so sure.
It all made a kind of weird, sideways, twisted sense.  My mouse hand stopped, the black arrow cursor hovering above a blue-shaded link.  A copy of a person is a clone, everyone knows that.  A biological reproduction exactly like the original.  Indistinguishable.  Perfect.
Grown in a vat, released into the world: a second me.  That was the nuts and bolts of it.  Answers tickled the back of my neck, a goose-pimple thrill as the puzzle pieces began to snap together.
He was me.  A gene and protein knock-off.  A flesh and blood facsimile.  He had my organs, my bones, my hair, my skin, my eyes, maybe even my fingerprints.  Strip us naked, make us stand next to one another, and you couldn't pick out the original.
He wanted to be me.  That was clear.  Here and there, subtle and less-than-subtle, he'd been stealing my life, bit by bit.  Oh, Christ.  Heels of hands into my eyes, a hard rub and fireworks of compressed eyeballs, with the sudden thought: how long had this been going on?  Was this not the beginning, but instead a rushed ending; he knowing to his sly comfort that there's nothing I can do about it?
Or maybe not, maybe I had plenty of time to figure this out, keep him from taking any more of me?  That's what I decided to think, chose to believe.  Better that than have a breakdown in a Tully's.
Okay ... keep going.  Work it out.  There has to be an answer.  Let's see, you can clone a person.  That's a definite.  They say no one's done it because of missing bits of science and lots of cash.  But someone has done it.
Who did it?  As I'd clicked though site after site of info, I'd picked up a thread, a pattern, a road map that too often led me from the slick and professional pages of info to badly spelled, ALL CAPS, no punctuation, corners where black helicopters mutilated cattle while freemasons poured fluorine into the water supply to make all us hard-working, god-fearing, gun-owning, AMERICANS into porn-addicted, lazy, peacenik COMMIES.
Right.  Sure.  I grinned as I sipped my coffee, then frowned at the taste.  But my frown stayed after the bad taste was gone: rightwing nightmares, libertarian horrors, fundamentalist apocalypses, all making no sense.  Hell, they made negative sense, a total absence of sense, a sense black hole.
Who else could do it?  Who else would want to do it?
Old straight men, rich but always wanting to be richer, in control but wanting to have even more.  If they found a way – more science found, much money added to perfect it – it'd be something they'd do: definitely, absolutely, positively, without a doubt.
All of that answered "what was he?" But a question stayed behind, refusing – as yet – to click into a perfect picture.
This was happening.  No doubt about that.  The evidence was clear.  I thought I was a simple, run-of-the-mill, average, typical kind of guy.  But this was happening to me: there had to be something in my life, in the curls and whorls of my brain that made me worth being replaced by another me, a biological copy.
I thought, then thought some more.  When that didn't work I rubbed my temples.  When that didn't work I sipped my coffee again, and again winced at the taste.  When that didn't work I drummed the desktop.  When that didn't work I began to hum.
I thought again about asking my gay friends for help.  Then I thought about ringing up some old boyfriends for help.  Then I thought about posting something to 365gay.com or gay.com asking for help.  Then I thought about going into a gay bookstore for help.  Then I thought about cruising a few dozen gay bars for help.  Then I thought about going to a gay disco for help.  Then I thought about dropping by the gay community outreach office for help.  One of them – I thought – might have some clue, offer some suggestion about why the government would want to replace me with a clone.
I felt cold.  The coffee shop was humid from perking coffee, but I shivered and shook.  No.  No way.  That couldn't be it.  They wouldn't – would they?
It made sense.  Lots of sense.  Too much sense.  But even though it made it, lots of it, too much of it, I just couldn't accept it.  At least not yet.  It was just too frightening.
So I did some more typing, and up came the word doppelganger, but I barely even noticed it.  My head was too full of swirling plots and roaring conspiracies – the loudest one being the very obvious reason why they'd want to make a copy of a gay man.
* * * *
An hour later, the competition's awful coffee dead cold, my time ran out.  I could have stayed, but didn't.  I didn't need to.
I think the chubby black girl behind the counter said something when I left, but I can't be certain.
Outside, the crowd had thinned: the rice burners off to burn rubber, the gang bangers home to their gated hoods, the girls to chirp into their cell phones, the oldsters to somewhere safe and traditional.  The few remaining looked a bit lost, like they desperately wanted to join the party but didn't know where it was.
My cell came out of my pocket again.  Name after name scrolled by: sort-of-friend, kind-of-fuckbuddy, acquaintance, sort-of-friend-of-a-friend, casual companion, almost stranger, hanger-on – I could call any of them, but there'd be flirting, laughter, gossip, shopping tips, bitching, activism, and nothing else.
Even though there was another me out there, a circling copy no doubt matching my footsteps, I was very, very alone.
Then I realized who I'd forgotten: the one person who might actually listen to me.
* * * *
Back out into the nighttime traffic, easing my car into the middle-evening stream.  Out of early movies, heading toward late ones.  Dinner done and so to a nightcap.  Cocktails done and so out to dinner.  Amateurs off to clubs, pros out to score drugs before clubs.  Rice burners, the gang bangers, the girls, the oldsters off to all their worlds between dusk and midnight.
He'd been working some kind of temp job with weird hours, but he should have finished that tonight.  His place was on the West side, a good hour – or maybe two hours depending on traffic – away.
I should call.  I really should.  Not that he had a life to interrupt – hardly – but it would be the polite thing to do.  At the next red light I pulled my phone out again, scrolled down to his number.
But that's all I did.
Red went to green.  I was a pro, so I could have dialed as I drove and more than likely got him, but instead I closed the phone and tossed it onto the passenger seat.
Every fag has one, or if not then they should: a fuckbuddy you didn't fuck, a trick you'd never think of tricking, friends with jack shit in common, bar buddies who didn't drink together, a one-step-in-the-closet who hangs out with a proud-and-out-loud.  That's what he was to me: my buddy.  To him, I was a big brother who knew the ropes: how to tie them, what to wear with them, what not to wear with them, how to get knots undone when needed, and how not to get too hung up with them.
My buddy was nice, my buddy was smart, my buddy didn't flirt (at least not well), didn't laugh (at least not at Margaret Cho), didn't gossip (at least not about anyone I cared about), didn't shop (at least not where you were supposed to), didn't bitch (at least not about anything I cared about), and didn't do activism (at least not in public).
But I couldn't call him.
I couldn't phone anyone else because they'd do everything but listen to me, would offer nothing smart or useful.  My buddy, though, I knew would at least hear me, would possibly even be able to say something smart and maybe even useful.
It's just that ... well, I was worried.  Thinking of him – of how level-headed he was, how educated he was, how observant he was – I wavered, hesitated, paused.  What if it wasn't happening?  What if a government-created clone wasn't trying to take over my life?  What if a government-created clone was trying to be everything I was – except for one very important difference?  What if I was wrong?
Another light stopped me, and for once I was grateful for the pause in forward motion.
It sounded so damned stupid.  But that wasn't really it.
Time to be honest.
Okay.  Truth-or-dare.  A queer tradition if ever there was one.  Truth: it was happening.  There really was another me out there, taking my life away moment by moment.  I felt it.  I knew it.  I had evidence.  It was fucking happening!
Dare: admit it.  It wasn't doubt, it was desperation: I needed him, needed him more than anyone else, that was the root of my twitch.  My sweet little Buddy was nice, smart, didn't flirt without meaning it, laughed at the right things, didn't gossip because it wasn't important, didn't shop just for the sake of shopping, didn't bitch because he tried to understand everyone, and didn't do activism just because it was what we're supposed to do.  If he couldn't help me, no one could.
A good hour – or maybe two hours depending on traffic – and I'd be at his place.  I'd park my car on the street, get out, walk to his apartment, push No.4 on the call box, and he'd answer.  Maybe he'd be a little surprised that I was there but he'd buzz me in anyway.  Tea?  Yes, please.  How are you doing?  Could be better.  What do you mean?
Then I'd say "He looks like me, he sounds like me, he acts like me, but I don't know why he does it, or even what he is." Then I'd add "but I think he's a government clone created to replace me with a more acceptable substitute."
It had to be in person so I could be there with him, to know I wasn't alone.  It had to be in person so he could see I was serious.
It had to be in person: that was the only way I could beg, plead, and cry for my buddy's help.
* * * *
Not one hour, not two, more closer to three: By the time the landmarks of my immediate neighborhood began to become the landmarks of his immediate neighborhood middle-evening had become early-late night: late movies going home, late dinners going to nightcaps, nightcaps going home, amateurs in bed, pros going home with tricks, rice burners, gangbangers, girls, and oldsters either long home or almost there.
His immediate neighborhood was very different than mine.  For me, home was block after block, mile after mile of concrete and glass apartment/condo, thoroughly tamed palm trees, precisely maintained miniature rectangles of domestically whipped grass, glimpses of azure pools flashing in the narrow gaps between buildings, and the dark mouths of underground parking garages lurking below them.
The street was always busy with rushing traffic, the sidewalks always behind the flashy chrome, fleshy plastic, and black rubber, of not-living-there, only-visiting cars.
For him, home was street after street of dark red brick buildings born in the middle 1900s, rather than my late ones.  Glass was there, but not the made-by-the-thousand glistening squares.  Instead each apartment had the fingerprints of workmen, craftsmen, and a different architect – though of the same school.  No steel; instead the uniquely twisting balconies and railings of wrought iron.  Clipped carefully, but not with the cold precision of mine, the lawns were huge rugs of green.
Rather than palms, here were trees from someone's childhood: thickly branched, tough-barked.  They'd been there for a long time, and would stay there for even longer.  A grandfather's tire swing became a son's tire swing became a grandson's tire swing.
Even though the street was quiet, near his house and then not quite near his house and even pretty damned far from his house didn't have a spare space to park, so a very late evening edged toward seriously deep, awfully dark night as I hunted for a place to pull in.
Cranking my wheel right at every stop sign, I looked with more and more impatience for a clear spot.  Frustration tempted me to become an outlaw: risk that driveway?  Gamble on that red zone?  Commit the ultimate urban outrage of the double-park?
I don't have time for this.
Hope was a bright red pair of taillights far down one murky lane.  I accelerated toward them, but then 45 went down to 15 as ordered by the sign that flashed by my right side window.  Disappointment was that the taillights belonged to a car breaking the rules of a civilized society by parking in front of a fire hydrant.
I thought about crossing that line myself, but knowing my recent luck – or lack of – I decided it wasn't worth the risk.  At least not yet.  Besides, my chest was tight, my hands cranked, my shoulders ached, my stomach acid was anxiety.  Things were odd, different, and frightening.  Driving, even if it was in more and more frustrating circles, was common, ordinary, and routine.
But I didn't have time for this.
I circled one more time.  At a stop sign, I turned right, at another I did the same, eyes tracking back and forth for a break, a slot, an opportunity.
Headlights in my eyes, a sign of life in the blackness of the city street.  Brighter and brighter, until my eyes watered and I had to blink.  Then the car was just in front of me, right by me, and with a rush of air, past me.
A Volkswagon, white and smooth and new.  Just like mine.
Just like mine.
My foot slipped and the engine growled, as angry as I was frightened.  The next corner came at me fast, faster than it should have.  Panicked, face flushed and hot, my foot went from one pedal to the other and the car and I screamed to a rubbery stop.
Black and silent, quiet and dark.  I was alone on the road.  Nothing behind, night in front.  Peering into the rearview I saw nothing but streetlights flickering between trees and leaves, the soft gold of lit windows and even, high up in the mirror, the pinpoints of stars.
And – was it?  It was – a space, a void in the regular line of parked cars.  Carefully, coolly, calmly I pulled forward into the intersection and backed into it.
And then I was there, a few doors down from my Buddy's place, arrived and parked.  Ready to go in.
* * * *
"He looks like me, he sounds like me, he acts like me, but I don't know why he does it, or even what he is." Then I'd add "but I think he's a government clone created to replace me with a more acceptable substitute." I rehearsed it in my mind, trying out different flavors of phrasing, new approaches of posture, fresh ballets with my hands in persuasive gestures.
Tea?  Yes, please.  How are you doing?  Could be better.  What to you mean?  Then I'd say it, yes I would, I'd say it and then I wouldn't be alone.
Ready?  Ready.  All set?  All set – or as much as I'd ever be.  Funny how something private, strange, and terrifying could be embarrassing, foolish, and ridiculous when you decided not to keep it to yourself.
Was it time?  It was time – or as much as it ever could be.  Hand on the door handle, I was ready to pull it, ready to open the door, step out, take the few dozen steps from my car to the sidewalk, from the sidewalk to the door, door to the intercom, intercom to his apartment number.
But then the street was still dark – but not as quiet.  The steps of someone walking was loud, even through the carefully machined insulation of my car.
I stayed in, didn't get out.  Hearing him before I saw him, I didn't move out of simple shyness.  Embarrassed, feeling foolish, and more than a bit ridiculous, I was ready to expose myself to Buddy, but no one else.
Then the figure was by my window.  He was going from the sidewalk to the door, and from the door he turned to the intercom, pressing one of the apartment numbers.
I couldn't see which one, but I didn't need to.  He was dressed in green and black, obviously something for work.  A job that came in three sizes: tall, grande, and venti.  It was a look I recognized.
He was young, handsome enough, with blond hair and a nice face.  The body under the black was no stranger to the gym – tight, but not buff.
Under the porch light, his hair glowed, haloed from an energy-saving bulb.  Even from where I sat I could see his eyes were blue.  He was a guy I might have smiled at, winked at, maybe even flirted with, given the opportunity.
But I didn't smile, didn't wink, didn't flirt.  Instead I sat and stared as he said something into the speaker grill of the call box, his voice carrying across even to me sitting in my car, grinning all the time as he spoke, and when the door buzzed he pushed quickly against it, vanishing into the apartment building.
He looked like me, he sounded like me, he acted like me.  I don't know why he does it, or even what he is, but I thought he might be a government clone created to replace me.
It didn't make me feel better – not at all – but after I finished begging for it to stop, pleading for it to stop, crying for it to stop, I realized that I'd been wrong.
He couldn't be a straight copy of me, a copy bent to be straight.  Not if he'd rung my Buddy's apartment number, and then smiled widely as he'd been buzzed in, and then walked up the stairs to see him.