Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Me2: Chapter 1

(from M.Christian's Queer Imaginings)

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 1

"They're everywhere.  Here, there – even next to here, even close to there.  You see them all the time, but you don't see them ... understand?  You look right into their eyes but don't know what they are inside, down deep, where their real selves are – where it really matters.

"I knew you'd say that.  Heard it a million times ... nah, more than a million times.  Billions.  Billions of times.  More than billions ... what's more than a billion-billion?  Is it something like a gazillion, a multi-billion?  Gigillion?

"Heard it lots.  That's good enough to say I guess.  Lots.  But lots more than lots.  Like, when I say 'lots' you take the number that comes to mind and you add it by another billion – and then add that by still more billions.  That would only be a bit of the real number of times I've heard it.

"Just like you, they say 'You're nuts' when I tell them the truth of what's going on, what's up, what's happening.  Bonkers, mad, insane – majorly, completely, totally – fucked up.  That's me ... I mean, that's not me.  Really!  That's just what they say when I say what I say, when I tell them about the shit going down.  I'm not crazy, though.  Lots of other things, sure – but then who isn't, right?  But I'm not.  Crazy, I mean.

"I know how it sounds.  I do.  Really.  But I say it anyway, because someone has to say it.  Even if they do say I'm not right in the head when I say it.

"But aliens are out there.  Here, I mean.

"Don't look at me that way.  You know what I mean, like I'm crazy or something.  Everyone looks at me that way when I tell them the truth – or did I say that already?  Not about the aliens, I mean, but that people always say I'm fucked up when I tell them.  I did say that, didn't I?

"But not because of the aliens.  They're there.  You know it.  Don't tell me you don't.  You see them all the time.  There might be one standing behind me, or next to you, or in front of you, or next to you when you ride the bus ... or do you drive?  They're like the guy my friend Larry saw while he was at the clinic waiting for his meds.  He told me – and I trust Larry in this even though he really is nuts, but never about the aliens – that he could just tell, you know, that there was this guy there who wasn't ... like the rest of us.  Humans, I mean.  And when someone just isn't human then what else could they be but an alien, right?  Doesn't that make sense?  I think it does.  That's not the kind of logic a real crazy person would use – is it?

"Nah, I don't know where they come from.  I'm not an astrologist.  Maybe nearby, like Mars or Venus or Vulcan, or maybe somewhere real far away.  Don't know how they get here, either: ships, or rays, or maybe they have homes and stuff.  But they're here.

"Here and everywhere.  Everywhere ... but they're aliens, see?  So they don't quite 'get' us, what it means to be us.  And that's what fucks them up.  All of us got all our guts in the right places, the right spine, the correct feet ... but the aliens, they aren't born like us.  I don't know how they come out – hatched, grown, built, whatever – but they don't have mothers or fathers.  They have to copy the rest of us who do ... have mothers and fathers I mean.  Not that having them is good, you understand, mothers and fathers I mean.  Fathers, especially.  Like mine.  Not to complain, you know.  Just that sometimes having one – like mine – isn't a good thing.

"But having one – even a bastard like mine – makes us people, right?  They don't have one, or a mother either, and because of that they have to cheat.

"So what they do is they just look around, right?  They look at us and find one that looks right to them.  Maybe pretty because – I don't know – they want to be pretty if they are a girl, or handsome if they are a boy, or maybe they think ugly is pretty, or pretty is ugly, whatever.  I don't know what they think, or why they do it, because they're aliens, right?  And no one can know what an alien thinks.  But they do look at us, you can tell that, and after they look at us they go back to their planet, or their ship, or their houses and they put on makeup and all, fake faces, like masks, maybe even fake eyes and fake hands like you see in the movies, and because they do, these aliens, and you can't tell one of them from one of us.

"But they aren't like us, or they can just pretend to be like us, like humans I mean.  That's how you can tell that they aren't like us, because they look just like us.

"Why?  Don't know that.  They're aliens, right?  They do alien things because they like alien things for alien reasons.  I used to think they wanted our jobs, like Mexicans, but no one wants to do our jobs, not even Mexicans.  Then I thought they might want our human women, like maybe they don't have any where they're from.  But if they do then why don't they all look like movie stars?  They could want to take over, but I'll tell you, friend, I hope they do because even something with alien arms and weird, creepy alien eyes could probably do a better job than those fuckheads in Washington.  Or they could just need water, food, or shit like that.  Or they might just want a new place to live.  Like I said, they're aliens – so I don't know why they're here, just that they're all over place, looking just like us.

"Hmm?  Yeah, I guess that could be it.  But like I said I don't know why they're here, just that they are.  They could be here, like you said, because they just like to look like us and all, like maybe they are real ugly – ugly, ugly, ugly, and we might be the best looking folks in the universe.  Maybe, but – well, have you looked in a mirror lately?"

* * * *

Morning.  Belch.  Monday morning, double belch in a venti cup.  Nothing special in that: lots of people hate mornings.  Hell, everyone hates Monday mornings.

Blink, blink, blink.  The red numbers on my nightstand still there, still too high, no matter how many times I blinked, hoping each time I wasn't reading them right.

But I was reading them right.  I was also late. 

Crap.  No, not just crap: double crap in a venti cup.

Covers tossed aside, I jumped – or rather stumbled – out and into the bathroom.  Hello, me, I thought, greeting my reflection, my face hovering in the mirror above the sink.  My blondness looked to be inching toward too long, and bit jagged with imminent shag, but nothing to worry about – for today.  Note to self: schedule time for a trim, then a shampoo and repeat.

Skin looked clear, no obviously pitted pores, no unnecessary roughness; but you – or more importantly I – could never be too careful.  Lepers might only be on basic cable's 10 Commandments, but zits were the next best – I mean worst – thing.  Second note to same self: while getting my locks done, also get a peel.

Above the cheeks, below my hairline, no red beyond the blues of my eyes.  I heard that they could even bleach it out when it did appear.  It hadn't, but still it might be worth asking about when I got clipped and slathered.

Was that ... well, not yellow, not yet, but they weren't as pearly as they could be.  So, another note, this time for my dentist to bright them back up to their brilliant best.  "Your teeth say hello long before your voice does."  GQEsquireMen?  Couldn't remember which – just that the headline sounded too true not to be.

Piss, comb, brush, exfoliate, deodorate – then back to the bedroom.  This time I knew it was Men, because the July issue was still there on my nightstand, folded back to "The Boys of Summer."  The second page of the spread on top, all Cape Cod dazzling blue-sky backdrop, sand under his sandaled feet, the model all tightly gleaming youth.

Late – very late – sure, but I hadn't spent Saturday and Sunday shopping to go out on Monday with what I'd been wearing on Friday.  Diesel, Gap, Nordstrom, opened and tags carefully cut off with the manicure scissors from the nightstand's drawer.  Shirt, drawers, shirt, sandals, then my closet door full-length reflection with a grin to the Mr. July who smiled back at me.  If my supervisor saw me without my regulation black shirt and pants ... well, there are jobs and then there are jobs, but looking good is better than anything.

Now it was time to get going – or at least not to be so late.  On the way to the door a glance back to the white elegance of my Mac.  Nope, no time to check my email.  That was an option.  What wasn't was the silver elegance of my cell phone, which went in a "Boys of Summer" pocket.

The hall outside my apartment door was cool, dark, and way too long: more like winter rather than the cloudless summer I'd seen going to and coming back from work on Friday and retailing on the weekend.

It only got darker and colder after a trip down in the elevator.  Arms crossed, goose bumps not at all complementing my Boy of Summer self, I walked past spaces, 112, 113 and then to 114, where my 115 Volkswagon GTI sparkled.

Fishing out my keys, Dad was there in my brain, brought up with the clinking metal echoing in the garage and the smooth plastic in my hand.  When I told him about the make and model, he'd originally tisked and tutted, vanishing for a few months into Consumer Reports, only to finally emerge during one of our monthly family phone calls to say that he thought it had been" a good decision," his tone of voice clearly making his agreement with something I'd done a too rare event.

Key going from fished out to lock inserted, I thanked dad for his 'support' in my 'intelligent' and 'well thought out' decision.  Sliding into the driver's seat, twisting my carefully gym-toned butt into the leather, I adjusted the rearview, putting on my best Boy of Summer grin at how my 'intelligent' and 'well thought out' buy made me look so damned good.

Turn of key, spin of wheel, back out and then forward and up the way-too-steep ramp, out of the cool darkness of the garage and into a dazzling, blinking, summer morning: feeling damned good, and looking even better.

* * * *

"Bet they'd even follow us home," Buddy said once, talking about driving the same route over and over again and how our cars could probably do it by themselves by this time.  Shake things up by taking the bus home and there they'd be in the garage when you got there, wounded expressions on their chrome faces.

His car, maybe.  Mine was a bit more absent-minded.  Rather than letting it take me from my apartment to work, I had to put it in the right lane, pay close attention to the correct number of stoplights, and keep an eye out for the proper landmarks.

Martin Luther King Boulevard was a wide and busy one.  Waiting in the left-hand turn lane to merge with it, I checked myself in the rearview, noticing a stray lock of blond.  Sighing at the betrayal of yet another product recommendation, I managed to tame it just before the green arrow popped up.

The road split in two, one side staying MLK, the other the beginning of Main.  It was a weird corner, a triangular oddball in the usual grid, a marker obvious enough for my ditsy car to drive it without a thought in my head.

So, what to do tonight?

I could go out, of course.  Light dinner at the scene of the season, or a casual diner at an acceptably tawdry eatery.  From there a cruise down to a few of my favorite spots to check out some batting eyes, bump some hips, and stroke some chests all toward some possible early week play.  So far my dance card had been nicely filled with a good number of guys between the sheets, or even in the damp darkness between buildings.  A stud?  Not really, certainly not like the one I wanted to be.  But I sure wasn't a blushing, stammering, shoulder-rocking, eye-drooped wallflower.

There was always Buddy, of course.  Speaking of blushing, stammering, shoulder-rocking, eye-drooped wallflowers.  Buddy wasn't his real name, but that's what he was to me, so that's what I called him.  That's all he was to me.  But for a blushing, stammering, shoulder-rocking, eye-drooped wallflower he was still kinda fun to hang out with.

But so much for him (I remembered): Buddy had some kind of temp gig that began at neon-switch-on-time and ended too-damned-late, and he was stuck on it for the next few days.  Setting up a new office for some kind of mortgage company, I think.  Poor guy.  My own employment definitely sucked – sometimes with extreme determination – but at least I had from neon-switch-on-time to too-damned-late to put it behind me.

Blink, blink, blink.  Shit, did I miss the turn?  Luck was a red light and a quick turn left and then right, trying to get my bearings.  Dirty-windowed Domino's on one side, McDonald's on the other, across the intersection a Burger King.  Ah, behind the Burger King was a familiar sign, meaning I hadn't overshot.  Passing the Carpeteria, I gave it a friendly salute, the shoppers inside too focused on either indoor or outdoor styles to notice.

Turning into the packing lot, I winced at the time on the dash.  Crap.  Crud.  Corruption.  Way beyond the "fifteen minutes of safety."  I wasn't supposed to park in front, but I did anyway, sliding the Volks into a no-man's-land space between the Blockbuster and the Site For Sore Eyes.

Mumbling the Prayer of the Late Employee – which went something like "please don't notice" or "be in a good mood" – I jogged down the sidewalk.  Before hitting the door, I sighed that there were only two people behind the counter: Black Girl with Attitude, and Hippie.  Whew, no sign of a supervisor, for which I thanked the slacker gods, promising I'd stay home and tap the remote and gulp beer in praise of their intervention.

I got a "you're so lucky, dude" expression from the Hippie, and a "fucking asshole" one from BGWA.  Coming around the counter, I gave them both a quick nod – agreeing with both of them – punched myself in, and grabbed my green apron.

Welcome to work.  Burner of days, deliverer of money.  Too much of one, not enough of the other, but who was I to complain?

Dad, of course, thought I was wasting my life.  When it came up, and it always did, I explained that it was a good gig – something that provided regular bucks, and even pretty good health insurance.  I sure as shit didn't want to do it for the rest of my life, but it was an adequate enough situation while I weighed my various career options.  That my temporary situation had so far gone on for three years and that my various career options equaled a big, fat goose egg was also something that always seemed to come up during our monthly spats ... I mean calls.  Mom didn't seem to care one way or another, everything was fine with her as long as I was happy.

I was here and they were there, a chasm of more than a thousand or so cashed-in frequent flyer miles.  I tried to imagine how their minds worked: jobs were for life, sex was mostly secret and too often shameful, America was the Greatest Country in the World, pants for men, skirts for girls, and gay people should always be secret and always shameful.  I tried, like I said, but I always had a headache afterwards.

My life was good enough.  I had people (beyond my 'not really a boyfriend'), movies to see, magazines to read, clubs to club, shops to shop, a gym to keep me tight and firm, vacations to plan, eateries to try, and an easy enough job that kept it all going.  It wasn't a big life, extra shiny, well-padded, or splashed on headlines, but then most people's weren't.  Sure there were things I would liked to have changed, and who knows?  – maybe someday I'd have that Porsche, that Architectural Digest house with that House and Garden backyard, a film career, a picture-perfect boyfriend who was also a picture perfect model, but for now it was all average, ordinary, and agreeably satisfactory.

It was then that the place began to hop, the second surging wave of sleepy-eyed commuters on their way to their own life-enabling jobs pushing through the doors and wobbling toward the counter.

Assuming the recommended frozen smile, chipper tone, and plastic politeness I took the disliked position of manning the register as an act of penance.

Saying "Welcome to Starbucks," I began another day at work.

* * * *

Ding.  "Thanks for stopping by."  Ding.  "Have a nice day."  Ding.  "Thank goodness the weekend's almost here, eh?"  Ding.  "Have a real nice day."  Ding.  "Be excellent to one another."  Ding.  "See you tomorrow."  Ding.  "Love the sweater."  Ding.  "Have a damned nice day."  Ding.  "Don't work too hard, okay?"  Ding.  Ding.  Ding.

The Volkswagon parked outside might not be smart enough to get home on its own, but I was a real efficient autopilot.  Prop me up in front of the register and the machine gets going, the numbers begin flashing, and the drawer starts popping – and then the register revs up.

Briefcase in hand – who carries those anymore?  – was the stiff and ironed Double Espresso.  Handing him his Tall, I imagined the cup as cardboard outside but a steaming hot jungle with pounding native drums inside.

Caramel Macchiato was right behind him.  A schoolteacher type, all mom and graying curls, she sipped her grande with a look of religious ecstasy on her beginning-to-wrinkle apple face.  Watching her moment of caffeinated bliss, it was easy to see her bouncing off the playroom walls with her terrible-two students – and then crashing along with them when it was nap time.

Next was Cinnamon Dolce Latte, but not just a Cinnamon Dolce Latte – heaven forbid she'd only order a plain and simple Cinnamon Dolce Latte.  No, she had to have it with this much cinnamon, that much Dolce, only the right kind of espresso, with this measure of steam, a cup from the center of the stack, a lid from a fresh box, and a wooden stirrer untouched by human hands.  The joke goes that that the length of an order is directly proportional to the amount of assholeness in the orderer.  Ms. Cinnamon Dolce Latte was definitely one, so long was the order, and so great her anus that I doubt she could sit down for fear of it swallowing the chair.

Hands softly curled together, head gently bowed, native-sewn skirt, peasant blouse, Tazo Green Tea Frappuccino Blended Creme with Melon Syrup was ordered with a voice like temple bells.  Even though her order was long, it was simple and spiritual.  Accepting her drink, she bowed ever-so-slightly before shuffling out the door.  Even though she ordered it with a chiming voice, the order was still long – and she was still an asshole.  Through the front window I saw her climb behind the wheel of a mountainous SUV, dreamcatcher hanging from the rear view mirror.

Then there was Just Coffee.  God, not Just Coffee.  The day is "special" when he shows up.  "Special" meaning extra crappy.  No Breakfast Blend, no Brazilian Ipanema Bourbon, no Guatemala Antigua, no Gold Coast, no Yukon – Just Coffee.  Not in a tall, not in a grande, not in a venti.  Just Coffee, in a medium cup.

Funny, he doesn't look insane.  Every blue moon or so someone wanders in, their eyes bright and clear with innocence, faces a moon glow of childish delight, and orders a 'coffee' in a 'medium' cup.  Innocent, childish, until my Hippie or BGWA Starbucks pal of the week runs them through the laundry list of flavors, cup sizes, and all the rest, with our plastic smiles on our plastic faces.  But Just Coffee was different.  No matter how many times we tried, he just never got it.

The worst of it was that the day had ebbed, the commuters were on their way to their various destinations, and the place was practically empty.  With only an audience of employees, he could (sigh) chat a bit more than usual.  "They're everywhere, all around us–" he began, the words tumbling out of him loose and broken up.  In clean jeans, new-looking tennis shoes, bright blue hoodie, cleanly clipped hair, freshly shaved cheeks, he was a picture of Average Joe, not a loony who refused to order anything but a Just Coffee in either a tall, grande, or venti cup – and who though that aliens were everywhere.

* * * *

Just Coffee, after he finally left, signaled the official eye of calm.  The storm of the morning gone, along with the cars in the parking lot – the next not due until people swung in to grab a booster for the night.  There was little to do but clean, play around with the thermos mugs and CDs, or chill out in the store room while 'checking the inventory.'

So for an hour I grabbed some supplies and scrubbed, dusted, swept, polished, wiped, deodorized, and sanitized until the cream station, the displays, the floor, the restroom, the windows, and the espresso machine gleamed, glittered, shined, shone, sparkled, and reflected.

For another hour I arranged the CDs by title, band, lead singer, height of hairstyle (where appropriate), and eventually by degree of awfulness.  I sorted the thermos cups by height, color, popularity, and my own 'looking like a jerk while using' scale.  I organized the chocolate by color and pomposity.  I classified teas by flavor, caffeine strength, country of origin, and lastly by hipness.

The last hour, I tried to get comfy in the storeroom, but gave up when the bags of beans, boxes of cups, and cartons of lids just wouldn't cooperate in my quest for comfort.

Lunch came and went like the regulating tick of our time clock.  1PM: exited, proceeded down sidewalk to corner.  I had a wide range of choices, eventually settling for KFC (love their desserts).  2PM: returned, entering to see that a rush hadn't rushed in my absence, that the place was still spotless and still empty.

So I thought about Just Coffee, and what Just Coffee had said about aliens.


* * * *

I've traveled ... some.  No backpacking through the Andes, no throat-singing on the steppes, no sailing the Caribbean – just a bit of Mexico, a touch of Canada, a summer in Paris when I was in college.  But the point is I've done it – just not a lot of it.

But when I have, I've noticed something odd about my foreign tourist self that's very different than my USA residential self.  Same guy, inside and outside, even though the money in my pockets was a bunch of different colors and the street signs made no sense.

Sure I like to be part of the crowd, among my own people – whether they know what to do with a throw pillow, sling Jamaican blend all day, dance the night away, keep on an eye on the latest fashions, or can tell you what Celine Dion is up to – but take me away, plop me down where they spit before shaking hands, put cloves of garlic under their armpits, talk like they're clearing out a ton of phlegm, boil everything they eat (and a lot of things they don't), or shriek like warbling banshees when they're happy (and even when they aren't) and I change.

What happens is I suddenly want to hock a loogie before 'putting it there,' stick an elephant's head in my pits, gargle my words, put everything in a stewpot, or trill at the slightest provocation.  Anything, you see, to fit in; to not be the tourist sticking out like a sore ... well, whatever they stick out there.  I want to blend.  I need to blend.  Blending becomes a very good thing to do.

So it isn't hard to imagine what it might be like to travel a bit further than the Rio Grande, Quebec, or to get a shot in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Stranger in a Strange Land, right?  Where did I hear that?  Anyway, there you are, away from home, friends, the usual and comforting anything.  So what if you have ... weird hands, tentacles, bug eyes, slimy organs, weird heads, and all that kind of sci-fi stuff?  Wouldn't you want to be anything but a tourist with a camera around your eight-foot neck, sandals on your blue feet, zinc oxide on your elephant nose?

Of course you would.  You wouldn't want to stand out – especially if you've seen flicks like Independence Day and Aliens.  E.T.  might have had a nice visit if he looked like one of us, right?

But cruising the mean streets of Mexico City, I might have wanted to vanish into the brown-skinned crowd.  Meandering the avenues of Toronto, I definitely would have been happier knowing when to say – or not say – "eh." Skipping down the boulevards of the City of Lights I absolutely wanted to understand why Jerry Lewis wasn't known as a complete and total asshole.  But wanting to and being able to were at least a thousand miles apart.  Sure, I could have practiced my Spanish, tried to love syrup, and puzzled out the genius in The Lady's Man, but I'd never be able to really blend in.  I'd be the gringo who ordered cerveso rather than cerveza and got a bowl of baby shoes instead of a beer; the tourist from down south who cheered for this guy rather than that guy and got a fist to the face instead of a clap on the back; the Ugly American who ordered French Fries instead of ... whatever they call them.

So what would I do?  What would a spaceman do?  The same, I bet.  He'd look around at what everyone else was doing, and try to do what they were doing, look the way they looked, smell the way they smelled, and sound like their voices.  He couldn't make up a new person; he'd just copy what everyone else was.  I couldn't do it well, but I bet someone who could go from Mars to here could.

So I think Just Coffee might have been on to something.  Nuts, sure.  Freaky, absolutely.  But he had something there.  They wouldn't want to stand out – so they'd look like you or me, or that guy over there, or that girl, that old guy, so forth and so on.

The late day surge rushed in and rushed out, forcing my mind back to mochas, espressos, lattes, chais, macchiatos, americanos, cafe au laits, and frappucinos rather than on the business woman, the surfer dude, the yuppie, the Gen X'er, the Baby Boomer, the fossil, or any of the others I took an order from, made cash for, and handed drinks to.  I had no time to think about what they looked like on the outside, or what might be on the inside.

On a side note, as someone who works in the food industry, that's exactly the concern they should have about the drinks they were walking out with.

As the rush trickled down to just a stream of lead-eyed coffee buyers, and night began to turn neon and fluorescent lights inside the store – and I only had an hour and a half of both left before I could escape – and out along the mini-mall, I began to look at the dribs and drabs that stumbled in and buzzed out.  Him?  Her?  Them?  I never really thought about UFOs and stuff but ... well, could that many people be wrong?  Even if they had crooked teeth and no indoor plumbing there was just too many of them.  Sure, scientists were smart, but did they really know everything?  Who was to say that aliens weren't out there?

At one hour to Getting the Hell Out, I asked my Hippie co-worker about what had been percolating in my mind.

"Aliens?" he said, rearranging pastries in the case, the scorn in his high-pitched, mouse-squeaky voice coming clearly through the thick glass.  "Yeah, right, man."

"Just think about it for a second," I tried, carefully outlining my theories, laying out my well-thought-out logic.  Never, of course, mentioning that Just Coffee was my inspiration.

Out from the case with a toffee almond bar in his tongs, he looked at it to see if it was too stale to sell, then at me to see if I was too nuts to engage.  The toffee almond bar went in the trash, a too-loud noise in the empty shop, and to me he said: "Get real, man.  Aliens.  What a fucking crock."

At half an hour to Getting the Hell Out, I asked the Black Girl with Attitude about what I'd been pondering.  She told me I was crazy and to fuck off.

Then it was time to leave.  Hippie drew the short straw, so he had to close up.  The BGWA and I could get out a bit early.  Leaving our aprons behind, I could tell she was just itching, positively burning, to get the hell away from me, so I did her a favor and snuck out a bit early so as not to be anywhere near her.

Time for the drive home, time to honor the slacker gods with my ass on the couch, a remote in one hand, a beer in the other.  No time for aliens.

But "Hey, hey, hey," came a familiar voice nearby.  Twisting from the beeline to my car and Getting the Hell Out I looked for who said it-and looked right into the bright-eyed faced of Just Coffee.

"Eh, hello," I said, quickly trying to think of a way to escape.  Sick mother?  Urgent appointment?  Had to beat traffic?  Favorite show to catch?  Not feeling well?  Too many options jammed up my head, gummed up my mouth.

"Won't keep ya," he said.  "Just wanted to thank you is all.  No one says that enough, do they?  Must be something really fucking wrong with this world.  Screwed up, it is.  Anyway ... just wanted to say it."

"No – no problem," I sputtered, at least having the brain cells to jingle my keys.

"It's just it takes a real nice person, a great guy, to take time with someone like me – a person they don't even know.  Just deserves thanks, it does.  So I'm saying it."

"No problem at all." Now, I really must be going ... was what I was about to say.

"If it wasn't for you ... well, I bet a lot of folks would think I was stupid, or crazy, or maybe a bit of both.  Right, right, right?"

"Never!" I protested.  Well, yeah, was what I wanted to say.

"Anyway – don't want to start running off at the mouth again.  Saw you and just wanted to say 'thanks.' Because of you I'll never make an idiot of myself again by ordering 'Just Coffee.' Now I know to say 'Coffee of the day in a tall, grande, or venti cup.'''

Then he ... well, I couldn't call him 'Just Coffee' anymore, could I?  ... left, turning around and walking off, looking back one last time with a light and cheery wave of his hand.

Being complimented can be nice, being complimented can make your day, being complimented can give you a warm feeling inside.  But being complimented can also be bad, being complimented can ruin your day, being complimented can give you goose bumps when the compliment is for something you didn't do, but for what another person did.  A person else who sounded like you, looked like you, acted like you.

Yeah, he was crazy, even though he didn't look it.  Positively nuts, even though he'd gotten me thinking.  For sure bonkers, even though he acted like a normal human being.

I got in my car, slid the key in the ignition, but didn't turn it.  Instead, I adjusted my rear-view mirror, seeing in the reflection the glare of nighttime traffic, the bright colors of mini-mall signs-and my own eyes.

And thought about coffee, three sizes of cups, and someone else sitting behind the wheel of another car, key in the ignition, looking at the bright spots of rushing headlights, the glow of advertising – another pair of blue eyes, very much like mine.

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