Friday, October 24, 2014

Me2: Chapter 6

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

"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 VI


"Like, for instance, yesterday I thought about going to the movies to see that new Hugh Jackman thing.  But instead I, like, went down to mall to Sharona and Liselle, 'cause you know that Liselle used to work down the Gap – I know, can you believe it?  Talk about being a loser –  and so she knows all the people who work down there and when the good stuff is supposed to come in.  Not that she really does but sometimes you can still find something really cute or hot.

"But I didn't go to the movies, see?  I went to the mall instead.  But Bobby also called when we were walking to my car but I didn't talk to him 'cause I saw it was him and 'cause he was such a fucking asshole last Saturday, so maybe I'd talk to him and maybe he'd, like, majorly apologize and do something really cute which you know he can do sometimes.  So maybe we I would have not gone to the movies or the mall and instead, like, have gone out with Bobby.

"But Bobby's an asshole – most of the time.  So I didn't pick up.  But maybe I did, somewhere, right?  Like today I came to but I also thought about not, you know?  Just called Betty and said that I was, like, sick or something.  Just stayed home, or gone to the movies, or even to the mall even though Sharona doesn't get out of work until five and Liselle's got school till four.  But I could have.  Maybe I would have called Bobby, just to chew his ass out or something, and maybe he would have said the right things and made it all better, or maybe he would still be an asshole and that would be it, right?  I mean he's nice and all but there's lots of other guys out there who are a LOT less asshole that Bobby.  It's just that he's there, you know?

"The girl who works from eight-thirty to noon, Tammara I think her name is.  Her mother, like, died a week ago.  Just fell down the stairs.  Sad, yeah, but it makes you think, you know?  Like the next time you go down the stairs you could be like her mother, you know?  One wrong step and you fall down and break something, or just drop dead just like that.  Alive and then you're not, right?  Could happen at any time.  Like maybe today or tomorrow or this weekend.  Or maybe it did, you know?  Somewhere you step on the wrong fucking stair and down you go.  Just not here, you know?

"Sometimes you might want pancakes – like from Ihop, you know?  Other days you might want a McMuffin, 'kay?  But maybe one day there's a bunch of old people in the Ihop, or a lot of cars at McDonalds so you can't have either of them so instead you gotta get something from Starbucks, right?  But not here, you know?  Somewhere maybe the Ihop was empty, or you could real easy get into McDonalds.  It's not a biggie, right?  But there you did get the breakfast you wanted – but not here.  There you did, but not here, you know?

"Like somewhere the planes never hit New York.  Like that.  Here they did, but somewhere maybe they didn't.  That kind of thing.  I don't know why or any of that shit, but it could be that way – somewhere, right?  Maybe it would be better but ... what the fuck do I know?  I just think about it sometimes.  Like that I do something here but maybe there's another me out there who did something else instead.  Like going to the movies or going to the movies or fucking dropped dead.  Maybe she's out there or maybe I'm just fucking nuts.  But I think about that sometimes, like if maybe she's a bitch or something or maybe even really cool and all – or if I'd even like her if I met her or something.  Shit like that, you know?"

* * * *

Unfamiliar territory.  Good.  Heard about it, of course, but never went: it was one of those places, for those kinds of people, who liked to do those kinds of things.  A Lexus place, a Gap place, a Borders place, a Starbucks place, a Lane Bryant place...  okay, everyplace was a Starbucks place, but there it was upscale, a sign of progress, instead of just being there.

Parking, I walked across asphalt steaming from an early morning light rain, blinking at hard sunlight, exhaustion a crushing weight, and then up to and inside the mall.  Hotdog on a Stick, Orange Julius, Panda Express, Star of India – all of them under the heat lamp of huge, high windows.

Noon on a weekday, it was a geriatric institution.  Wrinkled eaters sitting at tables, finishing by wrinkling napkins, but not getting up, not leaving: nowhere better to go.

Hotdog on a Stick, Orange Julius, Panda Express, Star of India behind me, Warehouse, Sanrio, Container Store in front of me, Lenscrafters, Sunset Video next to me.  I stopped at the directory while giggling schoolgirls, professional hooky players, walked by.

Finding it wasn't that hard.  It stood out: an oddity that the place had one.  Theories abounded, at least inside my own bubbling brain: a sign of approaching progress?  A last vestige of status before submerging into mediocrity?

Lenscrafters, Sunset Video behind me; Warehouse, Sanrio, Container Store next to me, I stopped and turned hard right, into the coolly air-conditioned mouth of a two-storey Borders: a sign of approaching progress or a last vestige of status before submerging into mediocrity.

No GQ, no Men, no Architectural Digest, no "Boys of Summer." The other magazines made me dizzy, bright cover stocks making my head bob in a hurricane of smiling faces, sun-splashed beaches, and smoldering good looks.  Then one was in my hands – not there one second, there and open to a spread the next without reaching out, being even aware of picking it up.  Um, interesting: Tom Cruise's mortgage-expensive dentistry alongside tight columns of serif-text.  "You may think you know him, but you'd be surprised..." the article began.

It went back on the stand, Cruise's false happiness vanishing among the other so-bright, so-fake colors.  Details.  That sounded right.  A Details kind of guy.  A guy who reads Details.  A guy who goes to malls like this, who buys Details in places like Borders.

No GQ, no Men, no Architectural Digest, no "Boys of Summer." Not anymore.  That wasn't working out.  Especially after last night.  "You may think you know him, but you'd be surprised." I certainly was.

From the magazine section, the newest Details rolled into a tight club in my left hand, I strolled as carefully, cautiously, as possible back toward the front.  Yes, that felt right: I was a slow and careful guy, a thoughtful and controlled fellow.  A Details kind of guy.  A guy who reads Details.  A guy who goes to malls like this, who buys Details in places like Borders, and when it comes time to buy his newest issue he's the kind of guy who walks carefully, cautiously toward the front.

Maybe I was an art fag?  Was that the kind of guy who reads Details?  I used to have a Keith Haring print, so maybe art fag was too close to what I'd been.  But then again maybe a guy who reads Details should be even more of an art fag.

Maybe I was a foodie?  Was that the kind of guy who read Details?  I used to like to eat – nothing fancy mind you – so maybe foodie was too close to what I'd been.  But then again maybe a guy who reads Details should be even more of a foodie.

Maybe I'd be ... better.  Couldn't be worse, eh?  This could be a chance, the magazine rolled up in one hand.  An opportunity to be more than I could have been before.  A potential to be great, good, successful, praised, and – there's the sting, the ache, all coming as I rolled the magazine even tighter in my hand – desired.

A lot can happen in a few days, a lot of thinking can go on in a few steps.  During the last few days he'd shown up, strolled through my life, stealing at first little bits then huge hunks then parts I didn't know I had.  Part of my thinking as I walked toward the register: flattering, really.  He was somehow an extrusion of me (image of black pasta oozing out of a deep mind, id-manufactured piece of cranial machinery).  A sense of pride had come with that image: that there had been something wonderful and nice and special and grand and great about me, something I'd missed even myself.  A wonderful and nice and special and grand and greatness that'd been so wonderful and nice and special and grand and great that anything sour and nasty and evil and horrible and bad had been squeezed out.

A lot can happen in just a few hours, a lot of thinking can go on in a few steps.  During the last few days he'd appeared, walked through my existence, taking small things to begin with, then bigger ones I didn't realize had even been.  Minor element of my thoughts as I moved to the register: so fucking insulting.  Bad enough he took what was mine, worse that he'd been so much better at being me that I had.  I knew now that he hadn't been dark pasta squeezed out of my right ear, he hadn't been my personal Stalin, Manson, Hitler, or even just my own externalized Ann Coulter.

It was now pretty damned obvious that he wasn't bad – because he was so much better at being me than I'd been.

And with a bitter taste on the back of my tongue was hidden information, reclusive knowledge: I thought I hadn't cared about being great, good, successful, praised and – a hard pain, a belly-low and the magazine crunched in my hand – desired but it had taken him getting it for me to see that I really had, and now it was too late for me to ever get it.

To ever get it, that is, as me.  But maybe I could get my greatness, my goodness, my success, my praise as someone else?

So I bought my magazine and, before I knew what I was saying, I was chatting with the gum-chewing girl behind the counter about a copy, a duplicate, a knock-off, but one far better than any original, and she started talking about parallel realities and alternative selves.

* * * *

You don't know me.  Oh, sure, you may think you know me, but you'd be wrong.  You see the stylishly cut blond hair, the blue eyes, the tight ass, the hard (enough) chest, the good smile, the pretty-close-to-perfect teeth, the refined dress sense, and it would no doubt cross your mind that there he goes, here he comes: A Boy of Summer, full of Cape Cod life and vitality, a sexy young man, a sparkling little erotic treasure, a clever entertainer, but you'd be wrong.

No Boy of Summer am I.  Was, sure, but that was a life ago.  This me, the one you see coming, the one you watch going, is still blond-haired and blue eyed, still nicely buff without being all body and no dick, still funny without being nothing but guffaws and stupid giggles.

I may stand on the deck of a yacht and sip a perfect gin and tonic, or look admiringly out at a fat red sun setting over the spires and ivy-wrapped bricks of Kennebunkport from the polished cream boards of a cottage's deck.  I may tie a cerulean sweater around my neck and playfully twirl a racket in one hand while Buffy and Mandy smooth the mischievous pleats of their skirts.  I may stroll the sands of Fire Island, just as happy to smile back at one of my dozen immediate admirers as not, and simply keep walking.

I may, but not as a Boy of Summer.

It was hard to deal with, a change like this: from Summer to Fall, from Boy to ... well, maybe not a 'man' but not a 'boy' either.  Not a GQ, not a Men, not what I'd been.  But it was also exciting: a new chance, a fresh start, a new me – and best of all a chance to do some shopping.

From Borders down through the echoing canyon of the mall.  Hallmark Cards, Circuit City, Hot Topic alongside me; Gymboree, Radio Shack, Sprint store approaching.  Then, after a few more strides over a few more minutes Gymboree, Radio Shack, Sprint store were alongside and in the distant future was a Brookstone, a Kay Jewelers, and the reason I'd come: the whites and colors of my new self, the outfits I'd have to come to know and love.

Never thought I'd ever become a Tommy Hilfiger guy – but there I was, and inside I went.

* * * *

I liked what I saw – or I should say the person I had become liked what I saw, because the person I used to be probably wouldn't have liked the colors, patterns, cut, design, or the style.

The salesman, looking what I imagined I might look like when I left, floated over.  He said something – probably "Can I help you" or a derivation thereof – but I just replied with something like "No, just looking" or a derivation thereof.

Later, maybe, I'd need his Tommy Hilfigerness expertise but at that moment I couldn't think, could barely handle just wandering, looking, sampling, trying, and admiring.

You may know me, but you don't.  Sure I might look like a boy who spent the summer with GQ, but I'm not.  Yeah, I might appear to be a GQ summer kind of boy, but I wasn't.  I certainly might be taken to be a summer boy from GQ, but that wasn't correct.

The problem was that I didn't know – at least not yet – what I was – at least not specifically.  Maybe a red linen shirt and banana leaf shorts Tommy?  Perhaps a Noyo Madras top and linen bottoms of Tommy?  Could I be a Pacific V-neck and California trunks Tommy?  How about a prep above and a Manhattan jeans Tommy?

Daunted, my sight glazed over; a too loud, too bright, too stylish glaucoma.  So many types, so many kinds, so many choices.  I was tempted to open my Details and choose a look, something – anything – to push me in a direction – any direction – rather than just stand there like a blank slate, with a blank look, in the Tommy Hilfiger store.

To occupy my mind and hands, I reached out and grabbed the first bit of cloth.  Unhooking a painfully illuminated canary shirt from a rack, I held it in front of my chest then turned around looking for a reflection to see how it looked on me, even though I knew the look was not good.

A steel-clad pillar was a good enough mirror, and so I stepped over toward it.  Yes, it was bad.  But at least the store and I were down one type, one kind, one choice.  It went back, to be replaced by a royally purple short-sleeve number.  At least that type, that kind, that choice wasn't as alarmingly bright a failure.  If anything it was a darker one – but still a failure.  It went back, to be replaced in front of me, bounced back by the polished metal of the pillar, by a beetle-green version.  Better, a closer type, kind and choice.  A perhaps.  A maybe.  A could be.

Eventually, I began to relax, the knotted fibers of my back and arms releasing from the Gordian Knot stress I'd unconsciously tied myself into.  I was shopping.  Just shopping.  Only shopping.  It was an ordinary thing, a common thing, a thing I'd used to do, a thing I used to enjoy doing – and looked like I might enjoy doing again.


The green shirt was a possible, then a near-certainty when I saw a plaster or plastic consumer model wearing nearly the same thing in the front window, though no way in hell was I going to wear it with those tangerine pants.  Tres gauche!  In pursuit of something shorts-like, slacks-ish, jeans-reminiscent, I moved between the islands of other manikins and wheels of comparable displays letting my eyes get wonderfully exhausted from looking at everything there was to see.  Those shorts?  No, they wouldn't hang right.  Those slacks?  No, I didn't like the fabric.  Those jeans?  No, I didn't like the weight.  Maybe those?  Maybe these?

"Having a good time?"

I jerked, my finally relaxed spine bolted tight by the shock of a human voice.  "Oh, yeah," I said before doing anything, not even trying to find out who'd done the speaking.

Turning around, I saw that it was the salesperson again, talking from behind the register.  With the same visual machine gun I'd aimed at shorts, slacks, and jeans I shot him into my brain: young but not so much as to bruise easily.  He knew what he had and – most importantly – what to do with it.  Beneath a light cotton shirt I could see enough of a chest to know that he also more than likely had flesh where it should be and muscle where it was nice.  His face was a good combo of dark eyes below a skull well-defined by close-cropped black hair, an elegantly shaped and sized Grecian nose above plum red lips.  The counter kept me from estimating below the belt, but above it he seemed to be something worth trying on.  All in all, he was the perfect picture of a plaything: fun for a night, delight for a weekend, but beyond that – well, who thought that far ahead with someone like him all sweaty and naked in the same room?

A grin at all this, almost a laugh: I was cruising.  Just cruising.  Only cruising.  It was an ordinary thing, a common thing, a thing I used to do, a thing I used to enjoy doing and looked like I might enjoy doing again.  Thank god.

"Always like to see someone having a good time," he said, rounding the counter – though my view was still blocked, this time by the items under the sign: HALF OFF.

"Makes two of us," I fenced back, letting my relaxation and perhaps happiness out in a short, but loud, laugh.  "Finding everything you need?"

"Oh, you mean the clothes!  Yes."

"Great.  Well, if you need anything else just give me a yell.  That's what I'm here for."

"I hope it's not the only thing you're here for – in life, I mean.  Not the store." Did I say that?  Shit, I was either out of practice or just out of my mind.  Whichever came first.

At least this Plaything didn't seem to mind.  He fenced back with his own laugh: a deep, gruff sound that made me feel cut adrift and floating.  "Never!"

"That's good." What else to say walked off the roof.  Momentarily floundering, I plucked a shirt from the pile in my arms.  "Actually, you might be able to help."

"Sure!  What do you need?"

"Any suggestions for this?  I like it but I'm not seeing any thing I like to go with it."

"Hummm..." he said, body in a delightful, pondering posture.  "I think I have just the thing..."

He didn't, but I didn't care.  For the next few minutes I followed him around the store, letting him make suggestions of shorts (even though they didn't hang right), slacks (even though I didn't like the fabric) and jeans (even though I didn't like the weight).  As he lifted each and even more from the racks to stroke his elegant fingers across, praise with his musical voice, hold up to me with his strong arms, I said less and less and blushed more and more.  With each demonstration and recommendation my mind got noisier and noisier, reason becoming harder and harder to maintain: he's really kind of cute broke down into half-felt and half-thought bits and pieces like hope he's a good kisser, hope he's got a good one, hope he wants to, really hope he wants to, please let him want to, and finally how to get him away from here...?

"I really shouldn't say this–" but you could tell he wanted to, the tone and melody of his words skipping from nerves "–but would you like to get some coffee or something?"

It was old, it was dumb, it was trite, it certainly wasn't stylish, but it was something I needed and wanted to hear.  You may not know me, and I might not even know what I was going to become, but at least it looked like I was going to be someone who could be needed and wanted.

But then a thought came.  A bad one.  The light at the end of my tunnel changing into a howling locomotive.  Coffee?  Yes.  Giggles and good conversation?  Absolutely.  A hand touching another hand?  Certainly.  A kiss?  Definitely.  Your place or mine – and there was the impact, the crash, the smash, the twisted wreckage of the day before.

I didn't have a place.  He had a place – and what was worse was that this all might happen, could happen, possibly might happen, if I was damned lucky.

But he didn't need luck.

He was better – better than I could ever have been.  In all things, but especially where it really mattered.

* * * *

Lack of sleep was a part of it.  But not all of it.  Having lazy eyes drifting too often toward closed didn't explain the whole thing.  Going crazy – well, yes, that was another portion.  But I couldn't say how much.  A question: did being completely crazy mean you could no longer tell how much of what you did was acting crazy?

I also didn't care.  Maybe he'd be there, maybe he wouldn't.  Was or wasn't, neither bothered me.  The amount of emotion between opening the door and seeing him, seeing the thief of my life right there in my apartment, or opening the door and not seeing him, the copycat, was about the same.

I had to do something, anything.  Even if it wasn't smart – or, yes, sane – I couldn't be frightened all the time, couldn't run away, couldn't hide, or fret, or panic, or scream, or cry, or shake.  Anything but.

So I drove, letting my hands and my feet weave my car down streets, avenues, boulevards, streets, drives, and everything between any of them, until I was in my neighborhood: rows and rows of brightly shining windows set in cream-colored, stucco-slathered apartment blocks.

Still not thinking, still driving with just my hands and my feet, I was turning into the dark hole of a garage before I was even consciously aware of it.  215?  Yes, slot 215.  Then, with a turn of the wheel, my Volkswagon found its home.

My home?  His home?  I didn't know for sure.

With a push of a 5, I rose in the elevator past 1 then 2 then 3 then 4 and finally to my floor.  Opening to cream-colored stucco walls, a stutter of industrial fixtures overhead illuminating door after door after door of neighbors, I was walking before I realized what I was doing.  Then, with a turn of by body, I was standing in front of my home.

My home?  His home?  I didn't know for sure.

Hand on the knob, cool metal – even though it was thin, cheap brass – I had fished out my key before I was even aware that I'd done it.  Then, as I fed gleaming steel into the lock and turned it, I realized a very certain, powerful, fact: the knob wouldn't turn, the door wouldn't open.

His home: he'd changed the lock.

Screw that.  I knew that for sure: a blast, a bolt, a shock that made me stand up straighter, get a bit taller, feel a bit stronger.  I hoped he was in there, I prayed he was so scared of me that he'd had to change the lock.  Right then, he had a good reason to be scared and hiding.

I was pounding on the door before I knew what I was doing, the meaty side of my hand going from unfeeling to sore and possibly even bruised with a few reckless full-body swings of my arms.  The door, of course, didn't budge.

I was about to try the moves of every private detective I'd ever seen – and no doubt break every bone in my shoulder or foot, when a cheerful bell announced that the elevator had returned to my floor.

Turning quick, I half expected be see myself walking toward me, having spent another full day creeping around behind my back, stuffing the people, places, and things of my life into his own: taking what didn't belong to me, replacing what had been mine with his replication.

If my hands hadn't been sore I probably wouldn't have realized I'd curled them into fists, but they were – so I was aware my knuckles had lifted from my joints in a tight fury.

Then they released, uncoiling from their compression into my palm, muscles releasing furious tension.  No him.  Not him at all.  Breath held, breath released.  Not him at all.

Jingle, jingle, a new kind of bell, meaning instead of possible arrival, the coming of a feature of the building – for all buildings for that matter.  "Hola," the Handyman said with a nod of his dark hair, his dark skin gleaming with the perspiration of a hard day's work.

"H–hello," I said, this and that and something else shy at his arrival: "this" being the cheek-warming shame that he might have seen me banging my fists into puffy bruises on my door; "that" being the embarrassed blush of my not remembering his name; the "something else" being the humiliation of not knowing whether I'd ever met him before – because they all looked alike to me.

"You ... have problem?" he said, face aglow with innocent happiness.  I envied him for that grin, for the pure averageness, everydayness, commonness behind it.

"No–" I began then stopped.  Instead, I gave him my own smile, but with anything but happiness, without any kind of averageness, everydayness, commonness behind it.

"Well, yeah, there kind of is a problem.  I did something very–" how do you say stupid in Spanish?  "–silly.  I forgot my keys at work.  Can you let me in?"

"Sure," he said, the word very English, obviously a word that didn't exist with a Latin accent.  "I do that for you.  I know you."

"Thanks," I answered through clenched teeth.  Did you know me?  Did you know me at all?  Or did you just know him?

So, just like that, I was in.

He wasn't in the apartment.  But that's not why it was good – so very good.  At least to start, that is.

Saying goodbye to the handyman, hoping that he'd never know his sweet-sweet-sweet kindness was to a pair of refisted hands that'd been ready to swing-swing-swing at anyone in the place, I closed the door behind me.

It was odd to be home: an oddness that made my hair bristle, run goosebumps up and down my arms, make my breath come in ragged gasps.  A lot was the same, like I'd just stepped out, just come back: the Ikea catalog of perfectly assembled living, the same knicks and the same knacks just as they'd appeared in that same issue of the same catalog, the same little things here, the same little things there that spelled each letter of HOME: Haring print on the wall, Olberman book that'd been number one on Amazon this week, Mapplethorpe calendar magneted to the fridge, and the Enigma CD that was number one on iTunes this week.

It was my home – but it was still his home more than it was mine.

He'd changed the rug in the kitchen (mine had been from the Fall Ikea catalog; he'd replaced it with one from a different season), the pillows on the bed (mine had been Bed, Bath and Beyond royal blue; he'd bought Bed Bath and Beyond blood red), in the kitchen he'd thrown out my Restoration Hardware silverware for crap from Target ... I think.  In the bathroom the towels I'd bought from Bloomingdales were gone, and instead there were some run-of-the-mill fluffy things that could have been from Ross ... I think.

He'd started, but hadn't finished making what had been mine into his.  I had time.  But there was something else, something that was that good – so very good.  At least to start, that is: In the sink, dirty dishes.  On the bed, dirty sheets.  In the living room, dirty clothes.  In the bathroom, a dirty tub.  In the window, dirty glass.

Good – so very good.  He wasn't perfect, wasn't superior.  He was dirty.  Wonderfully, gloriously, magnificently, excellently, gloriously, filthy.  Under his bright, shiny lie that was my stolen life, he couldn't keep it up.

I'd show him, I decided.  I couldn't punch him, couldn't slap his mirror-face, couldn't kick him in the nuts, couldn't do anything to him – but I could show him who was the better man, the better me.

It took at least two hours.  For the first hour every sound was him coming back, walking in.  For the first hour every sound made me want to scream, bellow, roar in rage, and go after him for what he'd done to me.  But all during the second hour, I didn't hear anything, or if I did I didn't notice any of it.

I pulled Windex out from under the sink, opened the front windows, leaned out, spritzed and sprayed, wiped and rubbed until the glass was clear enough to be gone, the view out the front obstructed only by the playful reflections of my earnestly grinning face.

I pulled Formula 409 from under the sink, pulled aside the shower curtain, leaned in, spritzed and sprayed, wiped and rubbed until the porcelain was white enough to be surgical, its antiseptic appearance marred only by the mirroring of my earnestly scrubbing face.

I pulled a Hefty garbage bag out from under the sink, bent down and yanked, plucked, swept up, collected, and stuffed all the socks, shorts, slacks, jeans, shirts, and sweaters that were on the sofa, under the sofa, between the cushions of the sofa, and even behind the sofa.

I pulled another Hefty garbage bag out from under the sink, leaned across and yanked, pulled, stripped, collected and stuffed the fitted and cover sheet that was twisted up, wadded up, bunched up, and tangled up on the bed.

I pulled Dawn out from under the sink, bent over and soaked, soaped, rinsed, dried, soaked, soaped, rinsed, dried, soaked, soaped, rinsed, dried every last pot, pan, glass, plate, bowl, knife, fork, and spoon, until the kitchen gleamed, shone, and dazzled with lemon-scented, spectacular cleanliness.

Walking around my apartment, looking at what I'd done with what was mine, admiring my handiwork, an emotion fluttered through my bones, played a lovely tune on my tendons and muscles, and out through my grinning lips in the form of a happy little tune: la, la, la – I'd show him – la, la, la – the fucking bastard – la, la, la – I'm better than he is – la, la, la – he's the loser – la, la, la – I'm better – la, la, la – I'm so much better – la, la, la – I'm so much better at being me – la, la, la.

I felt very good: the best I'd felt in days.  I was the one that was perfect, I was the one who was superior.  I was wonderfully, gloriously, magnificently, excellently, gloriously, me.

Then my walking stopped, my humming stopped, my singing stopped.  The bedroom.  It was because of the bedroom.  It was because of the trash in the bedroom.

Because of that, he'd shown me.  He wasn't there to punch me, he couldn't slap my face, couldn't kick me in the nuts, couldn't do anything to me – but because of the trash in the bedroom, he showed me that he was the better man, the better me.

The apartment didn't matter.  Dishes didn't matter.  Sheets didn't matter.  Clothes didn't matter.  The tub didn't matter.  Windows didn't matter.

The apartment was just a place: rented, occupied, left behind for a new one.  Dishes, sheets, clothes, tubs, windows, all of them – clean or dirty – were just things: purchased, used, thrown away, then replaced.

There were the things that did matter.  Six of them, in fact.

One: People mattered, and what they thought of you – that's what mattered.

Two: Being wanted mattered, being able to get it whenever you needed it – that's what mattered.

Three: Being successful was good, being who they thought about when they were with other guys – that's what mattered.

Four: Being able to pick up who you wanted, to be the first one out with the best pick – that's what mattered.

Five: Never being alone, unless you wanted to be – that's what mattered.

Six (the most important of all): Your dick mattered, getting it sucked or getting to fuck with it – that's what mattered.

Each of them – one, two, three, four, five, six – were why I walked, ran, ate, worked, drove, slept, or earned.  In fact why anyone walked, ran, ate, worked, drove, slept, or earned.

And each of them – one, two, three, four, five, six – were there in the trash, proof that he was better at this, at what really mattered, than I was.

It was worth admiring, I had to admit, even though to do so made my heart break into six irregular pieces.  I should have applauded, rather than leave to try and become someone else, but I just couldn't.

Six condoms in the trash.  Six fucks in one night, three fucks on two nights, six fucks in six days.  Whatever the math – more than I'd ever done.

That had been it: that had finished it.  That had been why I'd left it all behind, that's why I'd walked the mall, that's why I'd bought a copy of Details, that's why I'd shopped at Tommy Hilfiger.

He could have my fucking life.  He was obviously so much better at it than I'd ever been.

Or maybe ever could be.

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

"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


"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."