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."

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