Though he didn’t usually keep count, over the past couple years, Blake was sure he had been mistaken for someone else at least six times. Throughout his adult life, this had happened and lately the phenomenon seemed to have accelerated. It occurred in train stations, supermarkets, baseball stadiums, anyplace where hoards of people converged, where the odds of running into someone you recognized was exponentially increased by the numbers. It was as if there was some generic quality in his face, a kind of template that enabled people to see long lost friends, classmates and colleagues who still generated a faint signal in the recesses of memory. He seemed to emit some invisible current that called out to strangers.
At first, he felt flattered by these episodes of confusion. It had the merest whiff of mild celebrity to be singled out in a crowd, to be addressed in a friendly yet tentative way by someone you had never seen before, as if you had a bit part in a small film that had just come out. There was always something marvelous in their initial expressions, thinking they had rediscovered a piece of their lives they had thought irretrievably gone. Lately though, a certain annoyance had crept into these scenarios because of the bewilderment he passed through as he racked his brain for some semblance in his own past. He wondered why it almost never really was him but rather some anonymous double, a hundred times more popular.
Blake recalled that one time he had retreated from a lacerating February wind inside a café, where he waited for the university bus. It was a good spot because there was a kind of alcove where he could be separated from the actual customers, and without paying a cent, he could loiter and take in the rich atmosphere of the coffee. His mind mostly wandered to the mountains of files awaiting him at his desk, a permanent backlog not of his own doing, that properly could have been one of the seven labors of Hercules.
“Lester?” the man there had almost whispered, leaning in suddenly. He was maybe mid- thirties, completely bald, with those odd uneven surfaces everyone conceals beneath their hair. This guy was so certain of his perception, he put his arm around Blake’s shoulder before asking him if his handicap was still four? Never so much as having touched a golf club in his life, and never being greatly enamored with hugs even among his few friends, Blake was nonplussed. He shook him off as if reacting to an assault, which of course wrecked the man’s generous smile in an instant and had him backpedaling with his hands raised in a universal sign of surrender.
Ever since these strange encounters began happening in his early 20’s, he wondered if he should he act as if he were unfazed or incredulous, as if the solicitor had just escaped from an asylum.“No, I’m sorry,” was Blake’s more customary reply. He usually let them down easy so that the shock of their hallucinations wouldn’t hit them full force. Eventually he settled into a kind of benign condescension, as he was the one being accosted and was armed with the true circumstances. It was nothing high handed, just enough to preserve some sense of personal space like a country that claims a couple miles of territorial water.
Another time it happened at the airport. He and Chloe were headed out to a couples spa in Palm Springs for a desperately needed vacation. They had paraded through the two-hour security ordeal and were waiting to board. They were sitting in the concourse with their exorbitantly priced cinnamon rolls watching planes with different brands and markings taxi along the endless expanses of runway. A well-dressed man looking to be about Blake’s age came toward them with the ubiquitous luggage on wheels, his eyes fixed as if trying to read some inscription on Blake’s forehead.
”Jim, where have you been hiding?” he blurted, as Chloe coughed in response to this ambush. It may have been worse this time either because Chloe was present or from the fact that they were sitting down, which lent the effect of being pinned in a corner. Blake took a second to swallow the last of his hasty breakfast and gather some composure.
“Nowhere…” he said evenly. “Maybe it’s you who has been so scarce.” His identity was being stolen in little increments every time he was being figured for someone else, and now he was getting even, restoring the yin and yang. Chloe gave him a shocked look, as if he had a nickname he had never divulged to her, a secret compartment to his life. The man didn’t quite know what to make of this ambiguous remark, whether it was a real charge of the abandonment of friendship or merely the usual male jousting. “I can’t believe it. You haven’t changed…” was all he could come up with in response. For a few seconds Blake considered letting this go another couple rounds, but Chloe’s anxious glances were bearing down on him like a physical pressure and he relented.
As the people around them began to rise at the announcement for boarding passes, he said, “I’m sorry there’s been some mix-up. I’m not Jim.” He pulled the driver’s license from his wallet to demonstrate he wasn’t kidding. Blake felt a certain duty to defray the guy’s embarrassment after having played along and held his misjudgment in suspense. “Don’t feel bad,” Blake went on. “This happens to me on an almost regular basis. I must have one of those everyman faces. Just fill in the name.”
When the man shrugged and then ambled off in search of his gate, Chloe turned to Blake and said, “What exactly was that?”
“I’m not sure. It’s like being some poor soul in a police lineup where the victim is half blind.”
Later, once they had reached cruising altitude, Blake mused about how exhilarating it had been playing along for a while, some life-altering drug, the rush of the unknown. If it was a rather cruel game, he wasn’t the one who had invited it. He wondered if that might be the key to breaking the curse, to ending the karmic cycle of his somehow being dozens of people whose uniqueness was so fuzzy as to be virtually nonexistent. As he peered down at the aerial clarity of the earth, it suddenly seemed perfectly legitimate to be a casual impostor, not in an attempt to crash some high society ball or a nuclear facility but just for the experience of being someone else for a while, someone he didn’t even know.
During those same few months, Chloe began offering accounts of a recurring dream with an almost feverish persistence. The reveries had him conducting a coldly calculated affair with Chloe’s friend Megha and her descriptions were nearly cinematic in their vividness. They told her the names of the motels where the liaisons occurred, the perfume and type of shoes Megha was wearing, the elaborate fiction Blake had concocted about his whereabouts, even the brand of cabernet they sipped as they lay naked beside one another.
Naturally, he and Chloe had laughed at the beginning but after a while it became like a lurid soap opera. If Blake got up to find something else to do in the middle of another installment, she would follow him around the house, seeming to remember more outlandish aspects of the dream as she uttered them. It was yet another subversion of his real identity, not only because he was depicted as a rakish player in her unconscious but because on some subtle level, she seemed to be judging him on the basis of these nightly scandals. It was nothing she would come out and say; rather a certain doubt, a circumspection, a withdrawal in her manner that he could trace to no other cause.
What made matters worse was that Megha was lovely—the dark eyes and narrow waist, the general insouciance– and he had long nurtured a kind of never to be fulfilled crush. She would jog through the neighborhood in her sweatpants or demure shorts, her agile figure still somehow limned inside the loose fabric. Her breathing seemed hardly to be strained, as she had been a cross-country athlete in her college days. In the course of his weekend errands, he had spotted her a couple times,but she had been so ensconced both in the rhythm of her exertion and the insulated auditory world of her headphones that he hadn’t even tried to say hello. He had just watched the feline grace of her movement until she became obscured by traffic or merely drifted out of sight.
Only one moment at a party long ago had he ever really been tempted. She and her obtuse husband Rudy were leaving and Blake went to retrieve her jacket that was in a heap with the others in the dark bedroom, Megha leading the way. Blake supposed he didn’t think to turn on the light because he was half drunk and it took her a half minute of rummaging to find it. Of course, there was something electric about her search in the dusky room and when she caught a heel and started to fall, he reflexively caught her with the result that his face sank into her soft neck for the brief interval it took to regain their balance. That was all there was to it but the imprint of that happy accident was as indelible as his own name. Even though Blake felt it was not in his DNA to have an affair with anyone, that such a betrayal would stalk his conscience like a predator, Chloe’s accounts of his nonexistent infidelity only stirred up that feeling amid the stack of coats once more.
In the meantime, Chloe informed him one night that Megha and Rudy were getting a divorce. Megha had come over that afternoon while he was at work, spilling the story. Having been married six years, she had accumulated several reasons but it was Rudy who kept accusing Megha of acting strangely, of aloofness, of creating rancor. She had gone by the time Blake got home, but sitting in a favorite leather chair in the living room, he seemed to detect a hint of whatever scent she had been wearing. Chloe and Megha were on the phone a lot the next couple weeks, and one afternoon in another room Blake picked up the receiver, not realizing they were on the line. Megha was lightly crying in that sniffling way that makes the sound almost indistinguishable from a cold or an allergy. In the few seconds he eavesdropped, he reflexively wanted to console her, just as he had caught her before she hurtled toward the pointed corner of a bookcase in their bedroom. It was just natural instinct to want to remind her of the many fun outings the four of them had had together; to hear Yo Yo Ma in the park at Ravinia, the lakeboat cruise where they were all as high as a hot air balloon, the baseball games behind in the bleachers.
Chloe began to stare at him when he would be watching TV or reading National Geographic, as if she were focusing some occult beam that rummaged through the locked rooms of his psyche. She would probe Blake’s itineraries and scrutinize the timelines of his absences like a detective on one of the dozens of dreary cop shows that now littered the airwaves. On one occasion, she examined a vaguely horizontal tomato sauce stain on his collar and said, “interesting shade of lipstick” before tossing the shirt listlessly into the hamper. He became resentful of this surveillance, even more because it had no legitimate basis. Chloe’s romantic attentions dwindled, as might be expected upon getting a crash course in all of Rudy’s vices and inconsiderateness. She began spending more time with her animal rights group, which appeared to regard humans as a heartless and vastly inferior species.
For a while, Blake had walked the streets and went to bars and movies without being hailed or summoned or badgered by some misbegotten passerby with incipient myopia or cataracts. There were a few inevitable instances when he would bump into people he did know but not very well, and he noticed during those exchanges of small talk a certain defensiveness, as if they too might be mistaken somehow. Still, before the incident with Renfield, the whole phenomenon seemed to be receding like some aberrant chapter in adolescence that disappears without a trace.
One Thursday Blake was having lunch in Plato’s, a Greek restaurant a few blocks from where he worked but where he had seldom ventured, owing to the medieval strictures of his lunch break. It was one of those places with murals of terraced cities along the Adriatic coast and frescoes of the retinue of Mount Olympus, with their lyres and thunderbolts. A fleeting March warm front had drifted in and Blake’s boss was not in the office that day, so he was determined to eat with some leisure for a change.
“Paul, is it really you?” came a voice at the edge of his solitary table. There had been something different about this one, some almost desperate timbre that this Paul be found again at last. He was almost in a kind of daze, hesitant, non-threatening. Blake seemed to detect a certain kindness in the man’s dull eyes, and he was seized with the complicated impulse to both befriend and deceive him that had first struck at the airport.
“Who else would it be? Great to see you.” The rejoinder came so naturally this time, as if he were filming a scene that he had rehearsed a hundred times, settling on a few nuances and discarding others that had felt contrived. Finishing the last of his souvlaki, Blake had the sense to proceed slowly and allow the details to come to him. If he came to be exposed, he would plead some kind of minor mental illness, and if that didn’t work, it crossed his mind that the skewers that ran through the columns of meat could be brandished for effect.
“Has it really been 14 years since Columbus?” the gentleman said, his face still flushed with surprise, as the disbelief at the edge of his smile began to recede.
“Sad but true. Tempus fugit. I didn’t even know you were living here,”Blake said, with the semblance of a barely muted enthusiasm.
“Me either. We moved a year and a half ago. A job I just couldn’t pass up. Son of a bitch. There’s something different about you.”
“You’re not exactly a carbon copy yourself,” Blake replied evenly. “But you look good. I would have recognized you anywhere.” The man sat down almost in slow motion, laying his laptop case on the floor.
“You still on the tax side of things?
“No. I switched a few years back. That’s probably how we lost touch.”
Blake felt strangely relaxed, that he would somehow be able to navigate through the minefield of ruses, eliciting information about his double’s past as he went along. There was one moment when he thought he would surely be exposed as a fraud but it passed quickly with a change of subject. His name was Ned Renfield, father of four and fellow alumnus of Ohio State. Ned was an avid member of Facebook and mentioned a number of other of their mutual friends, giving him a thumbnail sketch of their lives. Fortunately, there had been no sudden deaths to report, just the usual half life woes of divorce, minor scrapes with the law and career fiascos.
“It’s funny how things turn out. Jarrett had his wild side but I would have thought him headed for big things, a CEO or something,” Renfield said, after describing how he had recently gone down in flames amid a scandal. “I’m surprised you’ve fallen out of touch with him, Paul. You were pretty close.”
“It’s terrible I know. I just can’t keep all the balls in the air lately.”
“Do you remember when he broke into the provost’s office?”Ned blurted, carried back by the memory.
“God, he had nerves of steel.”
“That’s the way we all were back then. No regard for the consequences. What was it that he took? You were there, with the getaway car so to speak.” Even then, Blake didn’t so much panic as feel a twinge of embarrassment. They were both just actors trying to get the emotions right—the director could yell cut at any moment and they could start all over. Still, he sensed the merest tremor traveling up his left side, as Ned watched him with the fond anticipation of reminiscence.
“How can I not remember that?” Blake lightly knocking his forehead with the heel of his hand, as if to jog the nonexistent information free. “I really ought to cut down on my drinking.” Blake hoped that might get a laugh and create a diversion but it didn’t shake Ned’s intentness. There were a few seconds where Ned was perfectly still, not even blinking while Blake braced himself for the dreaded scene of exposure, the incredulity and reddened faces, the hard stares from the waiters and other patrons.
“The bookends!” Renfield half shouted, drawing a few glances. “Egyptian Figures. Sphinxes, that’s what they were.”
“Of course,” Blake recovered, then felt his confidence coming back like a burst of oxygen. “The provost acted like they were solid gold.”
“It’s a good thing Jarrett was able to get them back the next night.”
“Yes, a prank instead of grand larceny.”
“Maybe it was just a matter of time with him. That the one would turn into the other…”Renfield said. When Blake considered whether to probe this directly, Renfield looked at his watch and stood up from the table, explaining that he was already late for a meeting, and handed him his business card. He made Blake promise to call so they could catch up some more. “This is so terrific,” Ned gushed looking back, as he started to make his way out. “I thought I had lost the trail.”
There was another party, Herb Harbin’s annual April Fools gala which had become a rite of spring. It featured a number of objects scattered in plain sight throughout the house that were somehow counterfeit. He offered a prize for the one who could identify the most. In past years, there had been fake diplomas, cigarettes that would not light, fraudulent books, clocks that ran backwards and sundry other illusions. According to Chloe, Megha was supposed to be there, and he mused about seeing her without the hulking presence of Rudy whose gravity always threw her into a slightly different orbit. When Chloe came down with a nasty chest cold, it surprised Blake that she insisted he go anyway. Maybe this was a test and she had spies planted in every room, or maybe the Megha factor had slipped her mind amid the sneezing and chills.
He sifted through the different ways he could act, empathetic, pretending nothing had happened, playing up the supposed gaiety of the occasion to help her forget her Neanderthal lover. It crossed his mind that he would tell her about Renfield, that especially in her new incarnation she might understand why he needed to be someone else for a while, as if he had become a fugitive from himself. But Blake wasn’t one to go out of bounds, to entertain the idea that he was any more in her universe than he ever had been. He spent most of the party looking over his shoulder, just anxious to find out if there was any detectible change, perhaps some ineffable mark that made her even more beautiful, and comfort her whatever way he could. After a while, Blake figured she wasn’t coming and gradually sank beneath the silly spirit of the evening, in which even real ordinary objects began to seem fake in some ineffable way.
Megha finally arrived more than half way through the party. She was dressed down with just some faded jeans and an oversized pastel shirt. They nodded to each other from across the room when she came in and when he saw her hovering around Mariel, another friend of Chloe’s he had never much liked, he decided she might not be much inclined for male company of any sort and confined himself to one of the other conclaves. But then Mariel got drawn away and Megha looked a bit lost so he wandered over to where she stood near the fireplace. As he got closer, her eyes appeared uncharacteristically vacant, as if she had gotten a considerable head start on the alcohol before she got there.
“I heard about poor Chloe,” she said, smiling wanly so as to not make him feel too guilty for deserting her.
“Yes, she practically kicked me out though,” he said, and immediately regretted his choice of words. “In her case, misery doesn’t love company.”
“Have you found any of Herb’s hidden tricks yet?”
“Only a little funny money—George Bush’s face smack in the middle. He’ll be lucky if he even gets his own stamp…”
“Well, you better try harder,”she said, with a hint of that Punjabi accent that was like a beguiling spice in an unusual dish you couldn’t quite name.“You’re never going to win the grand prize with that.” Her head seemed to sag a little when she spoke as if the weight of it were too much to lift upright, and she leaned a little excessively against the mantel. She didn’t appear sad so much as stranded somehow, on the side of some country road. Blake rummaged his mind for some safe topic, anything to divert her from the circumstance that encompassed her every move now.
“There’s a Kilburn exhibit coming to the Institute. Some very nice stuff. Reminds me a little of Hopper, the urban landscapes, the people in the middle of something but you can’t figure out quite what.” Out of nowhere, Blake had remembered they shared a similar taste in art and that she fooled around with some amateur watercolors herself.
“Yes, I saw a couple of his paintings somewhere. Really interesting,” she said, momentarily emerging from her fog, just as shouts arose from the den where one of the guests had stumbled across a revolver that shot bubbles. “We should go some time,” she said in a voice that immediately seemed slight and wounded, uttered without the new calibrations necessary for all the changes.
“Yes, we should,” Blake said with a little hesitance, silently exploring the ambiguity about whether ‘we’ included his slumbering wife. “I’ll find out when it is.”
Just then, Wendell Ross, one of the neighbors they hardly knew, tripped rounding a couch too quickly, sprawling at the foot of a mammoth antique bureau. By the time Blake and a couple others helped him up and retrieved his miraculously unbroken glass, she had fled to the other side of the house and soon must have slipped out through the back door.
The last time he met Renfield, it was on a Saturday, nearer Blake’s house this time. As it turned out, they only lived about five miles apart. Blake wasn’t going to let him get too close to his life, with all the preparation that would entail, and so he had insisted on yet another neutral site. Quincy’s was an old fashioned tavern Blake had retreated to on many an occasion when his own set of walls would turn briefly oppressive, one that had not succumbed to the craze for flat screen TV’s at every angle.
Blake had slowly become fascinated with his own new persona, the cavalier, fun-loving adventurer he was never destined to be. He recalled a few of the enticements he had really passed up over the years due to some excess financial or moral scruple. The trips to South America Chet Rittenaur took every January, the marijuana trances Bob Gooley still engaged in with their pals on his patio, and the excursions to strip clubs a different crowd scheduled with an almost liturgical frequency. His demurrals had always shunted him to the periphery of every group, this fatal reluctance to take the blind leap.
“It just occurred to me I haven’t seen you smoking,” Ned said, looking a bit puzzled as Blake joined him on a stool at the bar.
“Yes, one demon down, several more to go.”
Maybe it was the early afternoon hour but some of the spark of their initial meetings had dissipated. Blake was glad to put the ball in Ned’s court, become the interlocutor so that he could give the lying center in his brain a break, rest on the fabrications he had already made. After some small talk, Renfield showed him pictures of his kids, told him that his wife Alise had recently broken her ankle, that there was something messed up with the insurance. Maybe that was what was spooking Ned that day, that things had changed, that the aura of college could only carry them so far.
“How’s Madeleine? I’ve been dying to ask. ”
“Not sure. She’s in a land far, far away,” Blake said, with what he hoped would pass for amused resignation.
“You’re kidding. I’m sorry,” Renfield said, concerned enough that Blake had to dial his mood down a notch.
“It’s OK. C’est la vie.”
“So you’re with someone else?
“Well, yes. Though it hasn’t been that long. We’ll see if the cure will take.” Blake had a brief interior glimpse of Chloe with her temperament lately like unpredictable weather—global cooling perhaps. Her image conflicting with that of Paul’s Madeleine whose features kept shifting in his mind’s eye.
“I can’t imagine you without Madeleine. I never saw two people so happy. You were like the royal couple,” Ned said, his voice trailing off at the end. “Something in me doesn’t want to believe it.” Blake noticed that Renfield seemed distracted, a little distant perhaps, as he absorbed each new piece of incongruous background on his old pal.
“It took a while for me too,” Blake said, searching for a way to shift directions.
“How did you mess that up, buddy?” Ned tried to smile when he said it but the muscles around his mouth wouldn’t hold as he turned back to his glass, so that the remark became tinged with accusation. Blake ran through the series of scenarios he had considered when the inevitable topic came up but none of them seemed to appeal to him anymore. They all seemed to call up some strange melancholy that made the subterfuge suddenly like lifting a hundred pounds of dead weight, like inheriting someone else’s sins.
“An affair, what else? Nothing very original.” As Blake said this, he found himself scrambling for the next move. He hit upon a few of the details he recalled from Chloe’s dreams: a green slit skirt, an impetuous trip to the Florida Keys, the curious seduction of stealth itself.
“Oh, well. It happens.” Renfield said, pronouncing his tepid forgiveness when none had been asked for. “You do what you have to do.”
Then he got a call on his cell, the ring like a tune you would hear on one of the summer icecream trucks. Ned had to go pick up his teenager from band practice because a classmate’s ride had inexplicably fallen through. He apologized in the harried mien of a father constantly in demand with too many balls in the air, but Blake thought he detected a hint of relief as well, that a slow disappointment had been seeping into Renfield’s take on the new version of Paul. For a split second, he knew he had taken the game too far, felt the urge to confess and let him restore everything that Paul might still have become.
They lingered for a moment outside the place under the awning, saying their goodbyes, suggesting tenuous plans. Just as Ned turned a bit abruptly and ambled toward his car, Blakesaw Megha jogging by wearing sunglasses. He figured he should at least wave, as if this were shorthand for the fact that he had decided to call her about the Kilburn exhibit. It seemed the easiest thing in the world now and Chloe would never be interested anyway, because people lived in different worlds that only intersected occasionally and mostly by chance. He extended his arm like he was reaching for something, letting it sway rhythmically back and forth like some kind of semaphore. She stopped suddenly in mid stride, still pumping her legs in the simulation of movement, struggling to recognize him through the shifting light of the street. It was apparently too far for his voice to carry. After several seconds of peering at him across the thoroughfare, an unreadable look spread across the contours of her face. Megha couldn’t be sure, must not have known who he was, as she turned and began moving farther and farther away.