"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!)
"What? What did you say? That's what I thought you said. No, no, it's okay, it's not that weird. I just don't get asked this kind of question very often.
"Well, if I had to guess, I'd say it probably had to do with technology, with a machine. It does sound kind of ridiculous, doesn't it? But that's what I'd think if it was happening to me. I saw too many movies when I was a kid, I guess. Something like that.
"There's just so much happening. Hell, I remember Liquid Paper, even black and white television. It feels like only a year ago that cell phones were like bricks; now you can swallow them if you inhale. I have an iPod now. I hold it in my hand and just can't believe that it can hold 5,000 songs. That's more than I've ever owned. 5,000 – and it's this big. Amazing.
"But that's nothing. Have you seen some of the stuff coming out of Japan? We lost the race. They won. Sure some of our stuff is okay – I think Macs are sexy – but what they're doing. It's all wonderful but also creepy.
"I saw this thing a week or two ago on a Web site – and that's something, too. When was the last time you read a newspaper? Pretty soon we won't have books anymore. Just screens and little beeping devices everywhere. Like bugs. Fireflies.
"What? Oh, the site. Yeah, it was one of those technology ones. Cell phones, new iPods, flat screen TVs, that kind of thing. I don't look at them very often, but I was just clicking around one day and saw this new thing they'd developed.
"It was really creepy. I said that, didn't I? Well, it was. Really. I mean I know they've done some great things, but this was over the top. It looked just like a woman. Perfectly. A Japanese woman, of course. But you couldn't tell it was a machine. Not at all.
"They had a video clip of it. This Japanese guy was talking to it – just like you and I are talking – and it was talking right back to him. I couldn't tell what they were talking about, of course, because it was all in Japanese, but the way it was moving ... it was like she was a real, live girl. Lips moving, eyes blinking, she even raised her hand and brushed aside some hair, like this. Well, better than this because I'm not doing it right, but she did. It was ... well, I'm not going to say it was creepy again.
"It looked so real. I mean it was real but she wasn't a real woman. Listen to me, 'she' wasn't real. See what I mean? If I didn't know what was going on, I'd think she wasn't anything but a girl.
"That's what I'd think was going on. I know it's stupid – that something like that robot could be walking the streets. But I tell you, and don't you dare tell anyone I said this, but after I saw that clip I had a nightmare. I know, it's nothing to be ashamed of, but I don't get nightmares, at least not since I was a kid. But I had one that night. It was a real doozy, too.
"No, I'm not going to tell you what it was. I said no, and I mean it. Yeah, I've heard that, too, but it's just kind of ... embarrassing. Even if it will make it better to talk about it, I just – well, I don't want to.
"Okay, okay. Just don't tell anyone. Promise? I mean it. Alright ... well, I was walking near Third and Spring, you know, where Crate & Barrel is? It wasn't exactly it, because there was a lot of things that didn't fit – like I remember a cop car was green, not black and white, but it's a dream, right? They don't make a lot of sense.
"I was walking down the street. It was sunny. I remember that. Sunny and hot. Hmm? Yeah, I guess I do have pretty vivid dreams. Color, sounds, things like being hot and cold.
Don't know if that's really lucky, it just is. There were a lot of cars on the street, heavy traffic. Honking horns, engine noise – that kind of thing. Then there was this woman, older, kind of like ... I don't know, an older Liz Taylor. Fancy, all done up. Pearls around the neck, Prada handbag – that kind of thing.
"She also had a dog. A little thing, one of those hyper purebreds, pulling at a leash. A white puffball. It was yapping, too. Barking at everything.
"When ... when I was a kid there was this lady on our block with a dog just like that. 'Pixie' she called it. I hated the thing. It bit – well, nipped, really – and never shut up. One day it got out, got hit by a car. I didn't see it, but the next day on the way to school I saw some blood on the street and knew that's where it had happened. Maybe it'd have been better if I saw it, because the rest of that summer all I could do was think what it must have been like, guts and bones and all that.
"That's where the dog in my dream came from. Pretty obvious, really. So naturally the thing slipped off the leash and ran into the street. Got hit – of course. "
"But no guts or blood or bones, that kind of thing. It was – it was really weird. I mean, odd. Said 'weird' too many times. But when the car hit the dog, there was this sound like ... I don't know what it was like. Snapping. Grinding. Like that.
"The woman was shrieking, really wailing. Tears and everything. But when I looked at the dog there was nothing but springs, gears, electronic parts, metal. A machine, you see? Like a toy ... a real toy poodle.
"But then I looked at the woman, the woman who owned the dog, and instead of skin on her face I saw it was plastic, like a mask, and her eyes were like those things at Disneyland. A robot. Her mouth was open, but inside was a speaker, and that's where her crying was coming from.
"I'm not telling it right. But that's what happened. It was ... I kept thinking about it all day. Actually for the rest of the week. The sound she made, the way her skin looked – like a plastic toy. Her eyes clicked and clacked when they moved, but even though she was a ... thing, she kept trying to be like a person. That was the worst of it. Not that she was a machine, but that she – it – was trying to be like a real, human, person.
"It was sad, that she couldn't ever do it. She could just go through the motions. Be the way she was programmed, I mean.
"Hmm? Oh, sorry, just thinking about it again. I just can't tell it right. It was ... well, I keep wondering if the machines, like her, would think the same thing about me if they saw me. Just doing what I was doing, trying to be a person, and not doing it very well..."
* * * *
Leaving work, merging with traffic, I kept more than my usual focus on driving, seeing stoplights two blocks away rather than just one, noticing every car on the highway instead of the ones only in front and behind, eyes on a coming then going 35-miles-an-hour sign and flickering back to my speedometer to make sure the needle wasn't on 34 or (heaven forbid) 36.
I visualized my fridge – the racks and shelves and bins – and what was in there, and then what wasn't in there that I might need. Beer? Always needed beer. Dutch? German? Japanese? A commercial played between my thoughts: a couple on a beach, looking sedately out at a pure blue sea, a bottle between them with a wedge of bright yellow lemon wedged gently in the neck. Corona, that was it. Mexican. Sounded good. Mexican sounded real good.
Where to find Mexican? The store, obviously. A liquor store, even more obviously. Supermarket, very convenient – there was a Safeway only a few blocks from my place. But the thought of walking into the buzzing fluorescents, yellowed linoleum, and screaming signage wasn't exactly appealing.
Home had been the promise made to myself, but the idea of stepping into the silent rooms, the institutional indoor/outdoor carpeting, and the cold, staring blue of my monitor, wasn't appealing at all.
They had Coronas at Chevy's. There were people at Chevy's. I wouldn't be alone at Chevy's. The next light, far ahead, was green. The lane to my right was empty, so I drifted over, turned hard at the next corner. Even though it was Monday, Chevy's it was.
Driving. My fridge. Beer. Chevy's. One after another, in way too much detail, with more thought than was really needed.
Anything but thinking of what had happened after work.
* * * *
For a few more signals (one red, one green, and one a yellow 'what light?') I considered the Chevy's on Twelfth, and not my usual one downtown.
No, I finally decided: it would be the old haunt. The usual. The place to go before or after dancing for a protein fix of cheap Mexican. If I was lucky, some of the various hangers on would be there in all their flirty, silly selves. Not really friends, not really strangers, just people I might recognize: distractions with colorful drinks in their hands.
But I wasn't there yet, and so no colorful distractions: without a blip of warning my mind returned to twitching, fretting, sweating about myself.
* * * *
Even though it wasn't exactly my specialty, I tried to reason it out. Breathing deep, gripping the steering wheel tightly, I put real effort into it. Logic: the power of mental exertion.
Tail and headlights coming and going reminded me of the stars I couldn’t see for the coming and going tail and headlights. Thinking of stars became thinking of other worlds. Other worlds became thinking of other kinds of life.
This is the way my thoughts went: the universe was a big place – a very big place. Why couldn’t someone from somewhere, a someone very weird from a someplace even weirder, have come to our little corner of that very big place? Why not? And wouldn’t he – as someone very weird from someplace even weirder – not want to appear out of place? When in Rome, he’d want to look Roman ... right?
Had I been Roman enough? Had I been what he’d needed not to stand out as someone weird form someplace even weirder?
This is the way my thoughts continued to go: the universe is so damned big that maybe it’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ someone from somewhere, a somewhere very weird from a someplace even weirder comes to my place that isn’t that weird, looking for someone totally not weird. Me: totally not weird. He: wanting to be totally not weird. He tries to look like me.
A few signals and my brain cells began to calm a bit. It all seemed too silly. Ridiculous. Face it, accept it, the theory I’d been mulling, chewing, pondering made no sense.
Beer made sense. Think about that: go back to beer. Long-necked, the color of ... well, I always thought it looked like piss, and according to a few of my snobbier friends that’s just what it tasted like. But they were also the guys who wanted to look like a spread in Vanity Fair. Not me. I was a proud Boy of Summer, tanned and buffed, pearly white teeth, bright gold hair, pure blue eyes. Much more accessible, a more fleshy, more bloody kind of guy, someone you could really see waking up next to you.
Not like the manikins my 'Looks like piss, tastes like piss' friends wanted to be. Too pretty, too perfect – and, yes, there really is such a thing. Michelangelo's David is a masterpiece – is absolutely a masterpiece – but marble can be awfully cold, and way too stiff to have fun with, or at least not stiff in a good way.
A sigh at another light. It felt good to only think about beer – even beer that looked like piss. Damned good. My brain finally felt like it was beginning to wind down, going from 120 to the legal limit of 35 ... 25 in a school zone. What had happened had been ... odd, that's all it was. Not weird from outer space. There were lots things right here that are just as weird: grown men who like Saturday morning cartoons (knew one), all that Ripley's Believe it or Not crap, ghosts (knew someone who saw one), Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, guys who didn't get their teeth whitened, even though they were a horrible shade of yellow (knew one), gay Republicans (knew two), people who collect plates (never knew one, thank god) – those kinds of things.
Then I was there, at Chevy's, where I could get some Coronas – piss or no piss – and, hopefully, after a bottle or two in a place where nothing was ever strange, or odd, or weird, or disturbing I could return to routine, dull-as-dishwater, predicable, ordinary normalcy.
* * * *
Turning this way, then that way, light to light to light, and before I knew it I glimpsed a familiar landmark, a signpost up ahead, which meant I was just about, almost at the Chevy's.
It would have been easy to miss if you didn't know what to look for, as the marker was just about as gaudy and bright as the restaurant. I turned in, green/red/blue neon of the Lowe's Megaplex thrown into my car as I passed. Eyes off the parking lot for a second, I saw on the marquee, in black letters, that a new blockbuster had opened. The title rang a commercial bell or two. Ben Affleck? Matt Damon? Nicholas Cage? All three? Macho chests, rippled and gleaming ... with explosions? Definitely explosions. A Saturday with popcorn and a well-oiled Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Nicholas Cage, or maybe even (sigh) all three. It was a date, even if I didn't have a date (heaven forbid).
The Chevy's was in the back, its own tequila and mariachi neon not as bright as the Lowe's, but it was still a throbbing, eye-hurting, fake Acapulco island against the black sea of the parking lot.
Fuck, it was busy. I had to circle and weave around at least four times before I spotted a pair of bright white tail lights. Parking where the minivan had left, I killed the engine, opened the door, checked myself out in the rear view by the glare of the dome light, after a quick hand through my hair to fluff it up a bit, I saw that it was all still good – or at least not bad – and stepped out.
Terracotta tiles, heavy iron patio furniture, fake and real ferns (or were they really fake ferns?): Chevy's was a Disneyland Mexico, but remembering my last trip down to the real Acapulco – and the three days out of the week I'd spent with both of my ends spewing into a toilet – I liked the safety of a fake cantina.
A peasant-skirted waitress waved a five out of ten Commandments-sized plastic-coated menu, but I shook my head, pointing to the bar and the gaggle waving back at me from a booth.
Ladies (well, 'gentlemen' then), the gaggle (well, a few of them to be general, three to be specific):
'Intense' was hard brown eyes, severely cut black hair, one heavy steel ring in one ear (the left), a speckless turtleneck and black jeans. He was rap, minimalist living rooms in Architectural Digest, fresh-on-DVD Japanese movies, and meth.
'Sandy' was drifting blue eyes, always wind-blown and always 'producted' gold hair, a 90-decibel Hawaiian shirt, painfully white shorts, and sandals. He was the Beach Boys, a van, zinc oxide, Quiksilver, Billabong, Volcom, Hurley, Roxy, Reef and O'Neill, the perfect curl (both in the water and on his head), and weed.
'Family' was dark green eyes, caramel brown hair, Mister Rogers sweater, sensible cotton pants, and Florsheim's. He was a committed relationship, a cream-colored ranch house in the suburbs with a manicured front lawn, three dogs, an SUV, a boxed set of Sex & The City, and Amstel Light.
"Hey there," chirped The Family Man, toasting my arrival with a lift of his diet ice tea. "Welcome back."
"Dude," saluted Sandy with a thumbs up from one hand, a margarita in the other. "Glad you came."
"Ta," said Intense with an almost-not-there nod. "Always good to see you."
Sliding along cheap leather, I tapped hips with Family Man, returned Sandy's thumb, and then Intense's bare nod. "Good to be back."
"Thought you weren't going to come," Family said, a mellow bite to his words.
"Yeah, dude," Sandy added with a distracted twirl of his faggy drink umbrella, "we were thinking it was, like, something we said or some shit?"
"Or you just needed your eyes checked." Intense's voice was maybe a touch tighter than usual.
"Sorry guys, didn't mean to keep you waiting," I said, twisting to scope out the waitress. That and to get away from their stares.
"It's okay," Family said. "You're here now."
"Yeah, dude," Sandy said. "All's forgiven."
"Friends are too rare," Intense said. "No problem."
"Whew!" I pantomimed wiping mythical sweat from my brow. "Glad that's all over." Laughs from each, more from some (Sandy), less from others (Intense).
Once past the rocks, conversation drifted into calmer waters. Around the table, slices of their lives were casually offered up. Family wondered if he should trade in his SUV, having read good things about a new Ford model – and, besides, the old one was at least two years past its brand new showroom prime (we said that it was a good idea). Sandy pondered out loud whether his hair was getting too long, and asking the table if Zachary Travis's look on American Idol would be good on him (we said it probably would). Intense threw out his pissed-ness at having to get rid of his Buddhist books after reading an article online saying the Dalai Lama wasn't gay-supportive (we said that was upsetting).
I followed their chatter, losing myself in the to and fro, in and out, up and down, of their voices, trying to vanish into what Car and Driver and Road and Track said about the new Ford SUV, how wonderful Zachary's hair looked, and how it would have been better not to read that article on the Web.
Eventually things rolled to my direction. "Anything new with you?" Family asked. "What's up, dude?" Sandy inquired. "Life worth reporting?" Intense questioned.
"Same old," I responded with a forced smile. "It goes on."
"That's good," Family replied. "Groovy," Sandy grinned back. "Cool," Intense said.
It was ... life as usual, same old, nothing special going on. But with a tickle behind my ear, a shiver where my spine ended and my ass began, I had a niggling feeling of oddity. I looked at them – carefully, slowly – peering surreptitiously into brown, blue, and green eyes as they continued to chatter at each other. Ever walked in thinking something had just started, not realizing that it was actually halfway over? A new car, a new haircut, a new belief system – laughter, giggles, smiles, but I felt like I'd missed the setups, hearing only the punchlines.
Brown, blue, green were staring at me, Chevy's plastic Mexifornia the quiet eye of a conversation storm. "Sorry," I coughed out, realizing that they'd asked me something, and a while ago at that. "I spaced."
"No sweat," Family said. "That's cool, dude," Sandy said. "Meets with my approval," Intense said.
Relief untied the muscles of my jaw, especially the ones I didn't know I'd knotted. Pushing myself, I squeezed into the conversation: "That model seems really popular," and "If he looks that good then you certainly will," and "I'd hate to be queer and Buddhist right now."
Slowly, one word at a time, I melted, becoming just one of the gang, so much so that when Family and Sandy slipped out to go to the can, it wasn't only Intense and I, just a slightly smaller group.
But then he looked across the table at me, saying nothing for a long stretch of time. Just when I was about to cough (again), he said "What's up?"
From anyone else it would have been casual, cheaply tossed out. Two words that didn't mean anything. But for Intense, who chose the contents of his vocabulary as carefully as he picked out the complementary colors of his living room (charcoal and burgundy, if you have to know), "What's up?" was a sentence made up of two-thousand-pound letters: weighty, unable to be ignored.
"Nothing," I lied.
"You're lying," he said.
"No, really. I'm fine."
"No, you're not. I've seen you fine. What you are right now ain't 'fine.'"
"It's just–" I began, but then didn't. Family would've feigned concern, maybe say a few greeting card words about how he 'understood' how I might be disturbed, how he'd 'feel' for my discomfort, how he'd try and 'be there' for me. But he wouldn't.
Sandy couldn't feign anything, let alone concern; his laughter would be too loud, his smile too broad, his joke about it not funny, and that would be that.
Intense, though ... if I could tell anyone about it, it would be the serious, the thoughtful, the intellectual, the perceptive one. But even with him there was a risk. I had to be careful, cautious. It sounded so stupid. Or rather I knew it would sound stupid, because that's how I felt just thinking about it.
So I said. "Really, I'm okay. But there's this thing that's been kind of ... preying on my mind. Something I just can't stop thinking about..."
So I said it that way, hidden in a game, in an intellectual exercise.
He listened, then he told me about a dream he'd had. A dream about a robot.
* * * *
After he'd finished, I looked across the table, met his firm brown eyes and said with as much honesty and kindness as I could: "Thank you."
In return he didn't do anything but pass me another of his subtle nods. I didn't know what to think – at least not right then – but knew he'd stepped far into very harsh sunlight.
From returning my look, his head tilted up, an inch or so that said we wouldn't be alone for too much longer. Sure enough, Family and Sandy announced themselves a moment later, a duet of laughter at an unheard (at least by Intense and I) bit of bathroom humor. Getting up to let Family slide in, I grinned back at both of them, hoping they wouldn't be aware of the deep oddness that had been shared between the serious one and me.
I shouldn't have worried. Not about them, at least.
"So glad you decided to come," Family said, making himself comfortable next to me. "We really were thinking that maybe you were pissed at us or something."
"Yeah, man" Sandy echoed, playing with his umbrella again. "We didn't know what to think there for a while."
"Like I said," Intense said, "Friends really are rare." His own few words hinting of softness, continued reflection at the momentary vulnerability between us.
"Really sorry, guys," I repeated, finishing the second of the two words with a trickling drip down the back of my neck. The chill wasn't from Intense and my conversation; the shivers were from finally not just hearing what they were saying, but beginning to understand what they were saying.
Cold became ice, the stuff you find in drinks. "There you are, hon," a waitress said, appearing at my side. "I know you said you didn't want another, seeing that you were leaving, but since you're still here I thought I might tempt you."
It was a beer. My drink of choice. "Thought you weren't going to come," "we were thinking it was, like, something we said or some shit." "Or you just needed your eyes checked. "
Reaching out, I pushed the bottle away, causing the Corona to get dangerously close to the edge of the table. Family, Sandy, and Intense had seen me sitting at another table, but I'd ignored them. I told the waitress I didn't want another beer. Then I left.
But that hadn't been me.
* * * *
Run! Ass sliding along faux leather, and then I'm on my feet. Run! Behind me, three quick voices of shock (Family), concern (Sandy), and disappointment (Intense). Run! Three hurried excuses tossed over my shoulder: "I forgot... I forgot something," (to Family); "I've really got to get going," to Sandy; "So sorry," (to Intense).
Run! The waitress stepped quickly back, reflexively shielding her breasts behind a serving tray. Run! I heard glass hit the fake terra cotta-tiled floor with an explosive yet musical chiming. Run!
The Corona had fallen off the table. Broken.
As things went, it didn't count for much, but it did, at least, count for something: despite panic beating up my heart I didn't actually run. Instead I walked – okay, it was very, very fast walking, but still walking nonetheless – through the bar, past plastic ferns, and up to and then out the front door.
The night felt good: brisk and clear. Stopping a foot away from the edge of the curb, I took a shuddering, careful breath. Calm down ... take it easy ... breathe easy, breathe slow ... in and out, in and out ... there's a reasonable explanation ... there's always a reasonable explanation. Always.
Eventually, it worked: my chest didn't feel quite so tight, my pulse not quite so hammering. I probably should have gone back in, made my apologies, tried to slip back into the chatter and laughter of three friends. A drink. That would be good ... a stiff one. Not just a beer.
But I didn't go back inside. Sure those guys were nice enough, but turning around, going back through those doors, down the length of the bar, to the booth, would mean seeing bits of broken glass and a gleam of wet on the butterscotch-colored tiles – from the beer I hadn't ordered.
Instead, I finally stepped off the curb and headed out across the parking lot toward my car. At first I didn't recognize mine, it blending in with the other Jello-mold machines – and my mind being still very, very rattled. After a minute or so, though, I remembered the view through the windshield when I'd parked, and got my bearings.
Still, I tried to open the Volkswagon GTI next to mine, only realizing my mistake when my key stubbornly refused to work. Finally behind the wheel, safe in my home away from home, I didn't immediately turn the ignition. Breathe, I thought. Take it easy. There's always a reasonable explanation.
I didn't know what it was, but there's always a reasonable explanation. I wished to hell I did know what that reasonable explanation was. But I couldn't think of one.
What I did think of was that I didn't want to be there anymore, friends, beer or not. Away, was what I thought of. As in, I have to get away.
So with a twist of my wrist, I started the engine – a comforting German-engineered purr – and pulled out of the parking lot, into sparse late-night traffic.
A stoplight – another machine – stopped me. Time for breaths, one after another, one after another. In out. In out. Scared, freaked, creeped? Yup. But I held the wheel tightly, maybe too tightly, using the fleshy and bloody reality of 'hand' on 'wheel' engaged in the act of 'driving' to keep me from dissolving into a greasy puddle. It might not be a real answer, but it kept me focused. It might not be colorful drinks, beer, and friends, but it kept me from freaking out.
Red to green, foot down, and me and my car moved through the intersection. Joining, as always, a surge of fellow machines racing to their various destinations, or at least the next red light.
Home. Yes, home. Apartment safety. Life safety. Close the door behind me, curl up on the couch with a hit show, try to let the creamy smoothness of my Ikea living room set lull me into cool and tranquil safety. When sleep finally began to tug at my eyelids, I'd stumble into the bathroom for my nightly regime of scrubs and peels, and then to bed and a snug womb of Crate & Barrel sheets with a Bed, Bath & Beyond comforter.
Then with the hated morning, reverse it all: bed to bath, bath to clothes, clothes to the door, door to my car, car to my job. I never really thought about it before – my life always just being there – but it was nice to have it be so common, so predictable, so average, so ordinary.
But was it? There had to be a reason, something about me that wasn't a part of the crowd. There had to be something special, something unique about me. If all of this was happening – really happening, I mean, and I wasn't just having a breakdown or something – then I wasn't just, only, merely, simply, who I thought I was.