Showing posts with label queer imaginings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label queer imaginings. Show all posts

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Me2: Chapter 4

(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 IV


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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Me2: Chapter 2

(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 11

"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.

...and 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.

Like hell.

* * * *

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.

Why me?