He was in the lobby of that office building down on Broadway, the one that’s all glass, just standing there. And I was outside on the sidewalk, locking up my bike and looking for addresses. At first, I didn’t notice him because I thought I was looking at my own reflection. But then he smiled.
It still took a second to realize what I was seeing. I don’t know if I can describe it. There’s your face, doing something you don’t feel your face doing. And then there’s your hand, rising up in a tentative greeting. But your own hand hangs limply at your side. You feel stuck.
It reminds me of those dreams where you can’t open your eyes. Ever have those? I get them all the time. Usually right before the alarm goes off.
In fact, I think I had one that very morning, mere hours before I found myself on Broadway, gawking at my clone, my twin, my self, now exiting the rotating door, walking just like me.
Sure, he was wearing different clothes: leather shoes instead of bike shoes; jeans instead of cargo pants; an expensive-looking, embroidered cowboy shirt; no shoulder bag. But that face! “How’s it goin’?” he said. He gave me a chin nod. Single strangest experience I’ve ever had in my life and this guy, who just happens to look exactly like me, greets me like we’re a couple of frat boys.
I had no reply.
“Oh shit. Am I your first?”
I wondered if he was from the future.
Were there more of him? Or us?
Was I really going to start saying dude all the time?
“Aw, man. I remember my first one. I was, like, 15! You must be freaked out.”
“Totally.” He offered me a high five.
I’d been going for sarcasm, but I slapped his hand anyway. Flesh met flesh; he was solid. I thought about that Zen koan: “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” It took on a new dimension, that’s for sure. But I had no answers. At least I knew he wasn’t a ghost or some other type of spirit. Maybe he was a shape shifter. Then again, maybe he was Greg in one of those ultra-real-looking masks that spies like James Bond and Tom Cruise put on.
“You must have a lot of questions.” He walked off. “C’mon.”
I guarantee you’ve never had an existential crisis like this one. And I wonder if, faced with the prospect of following a version of yourself claiming to have answers, you would have responded with, “Hold on. I have to deliver this package.”
“Dude, trust me. This is way more important.” His smiled vanished. He stepped close. “Thirty six hours from now, one of us will be dead.” Which was compelling.
So I followed.
We walked through alleys, past dumpsters reeking of stale beer, under fire escapes and a web of telephone wires. Pigeons cooed overhead. Unseen rodents scuttled through the shadows; one tipped over a glass. The typical horror film omens. I was tempted to turn and run. Instead I made conversation. “So, what do you do?”
“I trade futures on the S & P 500.”
“Naw. I tend bar at a nightclub.”
“You know what hot chicks are willing to do at four a.m. when they’re drunk and stoned?”
I thought maybe it was a rhetorical question, so I didn’t answer. We emerged from the alley onto an empty street, full of storefronts with “For Lease” signs displayed in the windows, no other people in sight. He sat on a bus stop bench.
The city was still pretty new to me. I had followed my girlfriend Maggie when she said, “Let’s move to Portland” since I trusted her and had nothing to lose. But I didn’t feel as comfortable with this other me. “Um, where are we?”
He countered with a question of his own. “So what’s your name?”
“Eric.” I was starting to doubt my decision. As, I suppose, I should have. If you met a guy and followed him to some abandoned street, I’d be inclined to call you a dumb ass.
“What about you?”
He nodded. “Eric.”
He didn’t answer. He picked up a pebble and threw it at a pigeon ambling toward us on the sidewalk. “Well, so I’m your first, which means I have to explain.”
I noticed several other pigeons strutting toward us, and a smattering of sparrows on a telephone wire. I notice birds; I wanted to be an ornithologist once.
“Within 36 hours, we’ll meet again. It will seem to be by chance. But it’s guaranteed to happen. We don’t have to arrange a meeting or anything. It will happen. Understand?”
What a douche bag. “Okay?”
“When we do meet again, we’re going to fight.”
I laughed, but he didn’t respond. “Are you serious?” I examined him closely, wondering if he clenched his jaw like I did when I was trying not to laugh.
But his face was sincere. A mixture of envy and pity, maybe? It was like the expression I saw on Maggie’s face just last week when we spotted a young mother with twin toddler boys, who seemed like a handful. He sighed. “Because if we don’t, then we’ll both die.” I hadn’t asked the question, but he’d answered it.
For the second time, I was tempted to leave.
“We both have 36 hours to live; we’re like ticking time bombs. And the only way to diffuse the bomb is to kill the other guy.”
“Kill? As in murder?”
“Well, I don’t think of it as murder. But yeah, that’s basically what it is.”
“So the next time you see me, you’re going to try to kill me?”
“I probably will kill you. I’m pretty good, actually.” He was clenching his jaw.
“Why aren’t you killing me now?”
“Oh, that’s right. Thanks for reminding me. You’re not allowed to do anything during the first meeting.”
Good grief. “You’re messing with me, right?”
“Who makes up these rules?”
“I don’t know; I’ve never really asked.”
Assessing your own facial expressions – and, by extension, the facial expressions of people who look exactly like you – is not that easy. The line he was feeding me seemed like bullshit, but I couldn’t read him. “So let me get this straight. You’ve met other people who look exactly like us? And you’ve killed them? And you’ve never stopped to wonder why?”
“Dude. After the first one, you just kind of know it’s right. I wish you could experience it.”
“But I’m not going to because I don’t stand a chance against you?”
“Correct.” He was smiling.
I was sure he was joking with me, so I humored the bastard. “Alright, well, do you have any tips?”
He stood up. “Do you get queasy at the sight of blood?”
Boy, do I ever. TV surgery, gangster films, and Animal Planet have all been known to send me into a whimpering fetal position. “Yes, very much so.”
“Get over that.” He walked through the crowd of pigeons like he was Clint Eastwood or something. “Oh, by the way,” he added, “no guns.”
“Too easy.” And with that, he turned the corner, leaving me with the increasingly courageous birds who, I discovered, were eyeing a half-eaten sandwich that had been discarded below the bench I was sitting on. And here I was beginning to think I was like the bird whisperer or something.
When you’re a kid, adults tell you you can be anything when you grow up – the president, an astronaut – you name it. “Even an ornithologist?” I’d ask. And they’d say yes, though they thought it was strange, which you could tell by the way they’d raise their eyebrows and pause too long before replying, “Sure, you can be an ornithologist.”
Except they’d also chuckle a little. So you’d start to wonder if you really wanted to be an ornithologist; you’d look for signs that people who study birds are dumb or silly or have less status. (Not that you knew what status was, but you could see how janitors were treated.) And soon you’d start to believe wholeheartedly in the utter stupidity of studying birds for a living. Dad would ask you one day, didn’t you want to be an ornithologist? And you’d kick the ground and say “naw.”
But then one June on a trip with your parents to see Grandma in Iowa, you’d pull over at a rest stop near Des Moines and let the dog go running in the unusually large pet exercise area and you’d see a bird limping and dragging its wing until your dog chased it and it flew away; Dad would explain to you that it was a killdeer and that it was faking the broken wing. And just like that, you’re in love again.
If you’re me, though, what happens next is you wake up after your 21st birthday and you have a hangover and you think to yourself, shit, if I’m going to be a fill-in-the-blank (president, ornithologist), I’ve gotta get crackin’. You might even make some lists. (1. Go back to college. 2. No more weed.) But your buddies show up around 2:00 and you sit around playing Super Mario Brothers for an hour and then you realize you haven’t eaten anything, so you go get a Donor Kebab and pretty soon it’s Monday, and then pretty soon it’s four years later and you’re 25 and Maggie asks if you want to move to Portland.
Don’t get me wrong; I liked Portland. And my relationship with Maggie was wonderful. But I could see myself now from outside – a third person presented with two versions of “I” and able to recognize the foolishness of both.
My delivery to the glass building had been 30 minutes late, which meant I had to forfeit $15 per the 50-cent-per-minute fee reduction policy for late deliveries. I also had to face the wrath of Big Jasper, the trucker-cum-bike-messenger who ran Magpie Messengers. He assigned me to Beaverton for the rest of the afternoon, which had me running some ridiculously hilly routes to locations too far away to make hiring a bike messenger practical.
The long rides gave me plenty of opportunity to ponder whether to tell Maggie about the other me. But the farther I got from downtown, the less I trusted my senses. You ever hear those stories about little kids forgetting what their dead mothers look like? That was how I was beginning to think of Eric Two – like a dream five minutes after waking up.
So I didn’t tell her.
Did he really, after all, look exactly like me?
Maggie asked if I wanted to play snooker that night, which is our code for you-know-what. Since it’s my policy to never say no, I said yes. “Let’s do it in the bathroom,” she said, which we both like on account of the two mirrors on opposing walls. You can see an infinite array of pornographic parallel universes. It’s trippy.
But as anyone might anticipate, given my particular situation that day, the mirror was problematic. “Is something wrong?” Maggie asked. “You’re not acting like yourself.” I had to laugh at that one, even as I put my clothes back on. The shame.
She insisted we meet for lunch the next day; she also insisted that I was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SAD, which I find funny – imagine going to a shrink and having him tell you you’re experiencing sad. Thanks asshole. But it’s sadness).
Turns out Jasper was still mad at me, though. He put me in the West Hills and then had me riding up to St. John’s and down to Sellwood – obscure locations I had never ridden to, which required lots of map-reading. I called Maggie, told her I didn’t know if I’d be able to make it. She was nice. “No problem. I’ll be at home. If you make it, you make it. If you don’t, you don’t.”
There are some perks to having your girlfriend believe you’re sick.
I saw Eric Two everywhere I went. Hovering amongst the window displays of the boutiques on 23rd, in the windshields of minivans parked curbside in the West Hills, in the cyclists I passed as I cut through Ladd’s Addition. Nothing materialized, though. And the fact that he wasn’t where I thought he might be but he might be anywhere I thought he wasn’t – it fucks with you, you know? Your brain begins to process everything in this convoluted syntax.
I suppose death is always right around the corner. But murder isn’t. And when your murderer is yourself, well, you don’t exactly feel safe.
Still, I didn’t believe it would all come to pass. Not really.
But then I got home.
Maggie was aglow when I walked through the door. “Hey. How was your afternoon?” she said. It was a comfort to see her smiling face.
She jumped up and kissed me. “You’re in a good mood,” I said.
“Well, yeah. I had a great lunch.” She winked and then kissed me again – a dramatic smooch on the cheek with a “muh” to finish it off.
I held her an arm’s length away and stared into her eyes. I knew then that I could kill him. I was capable.
Maggie’s expression melted into concern. “Is something wrong?”
What was I supposed to do? Tell her I’d been wondering for the past 30 hours whether I’m insane? Tell her that the revelation of a hot lunch date only confirmed that I’m not? And that the alternative to insanity is actually more disturbing? “No, I’m fine. How about Chinese food?”
I think she could tell I was lying. But she put on a happy front. “Ooh, I was hoping you’d say that.”
I grabbed my keys. “The usual?”
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
When I was sixteen, I had a brief stint working at a Chinese restaurant in the mall – The General’s Chicken. (They billed themselves as the Kentucky Fried Chicken alternative, and their logo was of a Colonel Sanders look-alike with squinty eyes. Not very PC, but, hey, this was northern Illinois we’re talking about.) One day, the manager put me in a chicken costume and had me flap my wings as I stood just outside the food court. I only did it once, but it was for a six-hour shift on a Saturday, and now every time I go to a Chinese restaurant and smell scalding sesame oil and hosein sauce, I’m back in that bird suit, flapping my heavy wings and smelling my own breath.
Tonight was no exception. Just outside the front door, I recalled the ridicule I’d been forced to withstand. And then someone hit me in side of my head. I fell to the ground, my ears ringing.
Through my star-filled gaze, I saw Eric Two looking down at me. “Let me guess,” he said. “Szechwan chicken.”
I held my ear and moved my jaw a few times. “Kung Pao,” I said.
“Let’s go around back. We don’t want anyone breaking up the fight.”
I didn’t have the first clue on how to fight. He did. When I charged at him, he threw me against the dumpster. It hurt, but not as bad as I made it sound. “Ow, Jesus! My arm!”
“I think you broke it,” I said.
He took a step closer. “Told you I was good.” He was holding a knife.
I cowered against the dumpster like a hurt animal. I noticed a pair of chopsticks on the ground.
“Your girlfriend thinks I’m pretty good, too.”
I told him to fuck himself.
He swung the knife toward me. I held up my left arm, the one he thought was broken, knowing full well I was offering it as a sacrifice. But before he cut me, I plunged the chopsticks into his Achilles heel. A split second later, I felt the slice across my forearm. My own blood splattered into my face as he fell to the ground.
I’ve never heard anyone scream like he did. I’d shoved the chopsticks behind his Achilles tendon, penetrating the soft patch of flesh between the tendon and the ankle. He was writhing; his knife lay on the pavement beside him. Only when I reached for it with my left arm did I realize that I couldn’t move my hand. He’d cut through several tendons just below my elbow on the outer, hairy side of my arm.
I grabbed the knife with my other hand and stood above him. But in the three seconds I took to contemplate how best to proceed, he kicked me, landing a blow to my groin. In real fights, it turns out, you don’t ever have time to think.
As I doubled over, he stood up. “If you make it out of this alive, there’s one more thing you need to know.”
I noted his chopstick-skewered heel.
“If you meet a first-timer, like yourself, you have to make him hate you.”
“Fuck your rules,” I said, dropping to the ground and sweeping my leg toward his. I made contact with the chopsticks. He went down. I plunged the knife into his thigh and pulled it out.
Possessed, I jumped on top of him, slicing both of his arms at the elbows, rendering him essentially immobile. Then I put the knife to his neck.
It was almost disheartening to see how easily human flesh gives way to a sharp knife. Maybe more difficult than cutting through ravioli, but definitely easier than slicing a bagel. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of blood, though. I thought I was being delicate, poking him like he was a water balloon. But blood gushed out.
He let loose terrified shrieks as the knife was covered in a violent rush of red ooze. It got on my hands and made everything slick. I pulled the knife from his neck and blood spurted like a geyser. He wouldn’t stop screaming, so I chopped at his Adam’s apple like a sous chef dicing carrots. That stopped him.
But my squeamishness returned full force at the sight of the bits of red pulp on the knife. I tried to stand but slipped on blood, landing with a thud on top of him. I thought he started screaming again but I was nose to nose with him, staring into his eyes, which had lost the spark of life; I realized it was I who was screaming. I could smell my own breath.
By the time I’d finished throwing him into the dumpster, I felt oddly calm. He was right: after the first one, you know it’s right. I ripped open a couple of plastic trash bags to cover his body, spilling rancid leftovers in the process. Some things are ugly when spilled. Like rice. It looks like maggots. Others, like Szechwan Chicken, look no different. But then there are things like milk or blood, it turns out, that look quite beautiful.
I told Maggie I cut my arm on a piece of sheet metal hanging out the back of some pickup truck. We ate the Chinese in the emergency room – quietly until Maggie asked if I was having second thoughts.
I had no idea what she was talking about, of course.
“Cuz I got online this afternoon and found out that you’ll be an Oregonian resident in two months. So you can start up next fall, like we talked about.”
Thanks to the casual drug use in my past, I was well practiced in bullshitting my way through subjects I had no recollection of. Which is how I got Maggie to recap “our” lunchtime conversation.
We’d apparently come up with a five-year plan. “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” I said.
“Why?” Maggie said.
I tousled her hair and claimed I was just delirious from blood loss.
“I don’t suppose you’d be up for a friendly match of snooker when we get home?” she asked.
“What do you mean? It’s been, like five days. I think this is a record for you. Besides, you have to redeem yourself for last night.”
He was a good guy, Eric Two. They’re all good guys.
It doesn’t get easier. But you have to kill them.