by Derek Ivan Webster
For the first time in his life, Raymond stared himself in the face without the use of a mirror. Raymond Too stared back, just as disconcerted by the oddness of the occasion. Raymond was thinking about that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucille Ball dressed up like Harpo Marx and matched his every move. He almost raised one hand to see if Raymond Too would do the same but, with no small embarrassment at the notion, he quickly thought better of it.
For his part, Raymond Too was thinking about the tiny patchwork of wrinkles he could clearly make out at the corner of his other’s eyes. Somehow those little crow’s feet looked larger and deeper when he actually saw them on the skin instead of the surface of a photograph. He almost raised one hand to the corner of his own eyes before checking himself and, with some difficulty, reigning in the impulse.
Both men blinked before continuing their mutual stare.
“Hello,” said Raymond.
“Hello,” Raymond Too returned, though it sounded more like an echo than any sort of real answer.
“My name is Raymond,” Raymond continued, uncertain.
“So is mine.”
“Nice to meet you, Raymond.”
The conversation died at that point and Raymond had a hard time understanding why. Here he was staring at his own unreflected self, and he was so overcome by the moment that he could barely think of anything to say. Shouldn’t there be questions he was supposed to ask himself? Secrets he should try and get himself to reveal?
“Do you remember that time I... I mean we... I mean, do you remember that time Raymond fell out of the tree-house and broke his leg?”
“Yes. I was twelve. It hurt like hell,” Raymond Too responded but offered nothing more.
Raymond watched his other’s features closely, searching for some hint at the thoughts behind his own face. Yes, he’d fallen out of the tree-house when he was twelve, but what about what he was doing up in that tree-house when he fell? What about the binoculars and Vaseline and the numbing pain of pulling his pants up overtop of the broken limb? Could he really ask himself about that? To what purpose? Just to hear someone else speak about a secret he’d never told another soul?
Raymond Too noticed Raymond’s awkward moment of pause and began to smile.
“I’m sorry, did you mean to ask me about Mrs. Dreyer? Were you meaning to ask whether or not I could still remember the violet-pink shade of her nipples before I fell?”
“What? Well, I, uh...?” Raymond’s mind reeled for a moment. Hearing such old and long buried thoughts verbalized, brought to breathing life (and so crudely, at that) was proving a stronger experience than he had imagined. Those thoughts never sounded so horrible locked safely away in his own mind. No wonder he’d never told anyone else about the experience.
“What’s the matter, Ray?” Raymond Too continued, “Not quite the way you remember it? You must excuse me. I’ve had a bit of a long day, after all.”
“Then I’m not the first?” Raymond asked, curiosity calming his nerves.
Raymond Too sighed and rocked back in the uncomfortable steel-folding chair. Raymond had not noticed the weariness in his other until now but once realized the familiar signs were as painful as they were hard to ignore.
Is that really how I look when I slope my shoulders? Raymond thought. Somehow he had always imagined the gesture as gallant resignation when he wore it himself. On Raymond Too’s body the tired shoulders and sloping spine looked mostly pathetic and defeated. Subconsciously, Raymond sat up in his own chair.
“First? I’ll tell you, Ray, you’re not even close. To tell the truth, I lost count a good ways back. They’ve been coming all day, every day, 15 minutes a pop. All with the same questions, the same awkward embarrassment. I never thought of myself as such a disappointment until I met so many of me in a row.”
“You mean, we’re all the same?”
“Of course, that’s the point right? We’re all from the same bubble. Otherwise why would you want to meet me? I’m the one that knows everything about you, Ray. I’m the one that’s got the answers to all those questions you’re too wigged out to remember to ask.”
“Then you received the same letter, the same invitation?”
Raymond Too’s features hardened a bit at the mention of the letter. Raymond wondered if his other wasn’t losing patience at having to answer the same question for possibly the hundredth time today.
“Yeah, I got a letter. We all got letters. Come to such and such address, step through a door and meet yourself. Ta-da! Sounded like a great ol’ good time, didn’t it?
“But if you got an invitation just like me, how come you’ve stayed to meet so many of us?”
Raymond Too shook his head and pointed into the dark room behind him. “They locked the door on me. I sat here having the same bogus heart to heart with myself that you came looking for. And when I was done, I stood up, said good-bye, headed for the door and found a note there waiting for me.”
“A note? What kind of note.”
“Can we please stop with all the senseless questions? It doesn’t matter to you. The note was for me. I’m the one that’s supposed to sit here for as long as they want me to. Contractually bound, they said. Read the fine print.”
“Do you still have the letter?”
“I crumpled it up and threw it across the table. Tried to hit one of us right between the eyes ‘cause he wouldn’t stop asking the same stupid questions you seem so fond of.”
Raymond spun around looking for the discarded page on his side of the dark room.
“Don’t bother looking. It disappeared in mid-air as soon as it left my side of the table.”
“But how could that be possible?”
Raymond Too gave Raymond a withering look that made the latter feel he was twelve again. “You’re talking to another version of yourself and you’re asking him how it’s possible to make a piece of paper disappear. Man, am I an idiot!”
“Hey now, there’s no call to be rude. I’m just trying to help you figure this thing out.”
“Screw off. You’re just here to look through the window and see yourself from a different angle. Don’t try and blow smoke up my bung-hole. We’re the same person, remember? We got the same letter and decided to come to the same place for the same reason. We both asked the same question of ourselves and had the same response. I’ve met hundreds of you, Ray, and ever last one of them was the same stupid schmuck that you are.”
Raymond started to get upset again but Raymond Too simply waved him off. “It doesn’t matter, don’t you see? I’m that same stupid schmuck too. I came here ‘cause I know my wife is thinking about leaving me. She told me last Friday that I wasn’t enough of a man for her, and if I couldn’t find out where I lost my balls then she’d have to go looking for another set somewhere else. Sound familiar?”
Raymond could only nod his befuddled agreement.
“Well, then we got drunk, passed-out at Maloney’s, stumbled home the next morning and found our darling wife screwing the aforementioned someone else.”
Just hearing his other talk about the recently painful experience so cavalierly brought a tremble to Raymond’s voice. “How can you say something like that without making yourself sick?”
“How? Well, it’s simple really. To you, Veronica broke your heart last Saturday, right? You threw her out of the house that night and when you checked the mail the next morning you found that curious little invite waiting for you.”
“Yeah, and you said the same thing happened to you.”
“It did, Ray, but the same thing happened to me somewhere around, by my best recollection, three to five years ago. You see, they don’t give me a calendar here, and I’ve spent enough time counting in my head to realize the three meals they bring each day come at irregular intervals. But that’s beside the point.
“The real point is that you and I are the exact same person, with the exact same memories, thoughts, feelings and experiences, right up until the moment you walked through that door behind you. You walked through that door fifteen minutes ago but I walked through the door behind me three to five years ago. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in those three to five years, it’s that neither of us should have ever come here in the first place.”
Raymond Too took a moment to catch his breath. Just long enough to notice the look of abject fear that had finally fully taken control of Raymond’s face. Raymond Too wondered if he had said too much. He couldn’t remember the last time he had mentioned his own experience to himself and never before had he gotten so worked up about it. It just all seemed so silly. Here he was about to tell this other version of himself that all he needed to do was go home, kiss his wife without her asking first and forget that he’d ever had the misfortune of meeting himself in this dark room. Yeah, you go Raymond, but too bad his own door would still remain locked.
“Just go home and give Vernoica a kiss for me, okay?” Raymond Too felt tired again as he sagged back into his seat.
“Well, I suppose... I mean that if...”
Raymond Too leaped so forcefully out of his seat that the metal chair collapsed behind him. He was hurtling across the table before he’d really even thought his action through. He thought about trying to catch himself as he watched the tip of one outstretched finger disappear in mid-air before him. He had time to consider hooking his foot on the edge of the solid steel table and reigning himself back before it was too late. He saw Raymond’s look of shock and terror from the far side of the table’s invisible pane. The fool hadn’t listened to a word he’d said. None of them had. Screw it.
He made up his mind as he watched his right hand disappear into the nothingness that existed between the two sides of the table. All or nothing, right Ray, he thought and closed his eyes. Nothing somehow seemed a whole lot better than an eternity with nothing but himself.
Raymond barely had time to register Raymond Too’s jump before his other self was gone. The body didn’t disappear so much in a poof as in a blink. One instant there he was hurdling across the table and the next he simply no longer existed.
Raymond sat in his chair for a few minutes after that, pondering what he might or might not have just seen. He wondered if Raymond Too wouldn’t laugh at him right now if he were still here, say something like: “You just got attacked by yourself and you’re wondering how something can be there one second and gone the next.” But Raymond Too wasn’t there any longer so Raymond let the thought slip out of his head.
He supposed his fifteen minutes must be up by now so he stood carefully from the chair and headed back the way he had come down the dark corridor that opened into the small room. The cramped hallway had been intimidating on the unknown walk in but it proved far more frightening now, having seen what he’d seen.
The exit door appeared in front of him, looming suddenly out of the darkness as if it had materialized from nowhere. Raymond reached for the door handle even before he noticed the single page of white paper taped to the center of the door.
Typed on the page, in a clear and unobtrusive font was the simple message:
WE HOPE YOU’VE ENJOYED YOUR peek BEHIND THE CURTAIN. MIRRORED REALITY, INC. WOULD LIKE TO THANK YOU FOR TAKING PART IN OUR SURVEY OF PARALLEL SELVES. AS PER YOUR SIGNATURE WE WOULD LIKE TO OFFER YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE PART IN THE SECOND PHASE OF OUR...
Raymond stopped reading then and immediately took hold of the heavy door’s reinforced steel knob. He was only partially surprised to find it locked from the outside. He wanted to bang on the door but couldn’t bring himself to do so. He knew no one would answer as well as he knew what was expected of him. Raymond began to cry then as he slumped down to the ground and rested his forehead against the door’s cold steel.
The tears seemed necessary, at first, but he had mostly gotten a hold of himself by the time he made it down the long corridor and reseated himself at the empty table.
His first guest was a familiar face.
* * *
Raymond Too came awake with his face pressed against cold concrete. He immediately stumbled to his feet and spun around. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to more light than they’d seen in some years, and by the time they did Raymond couldn’t believe what he saw. He was right back in the same office warehouse he’d been invited to so long before. And there, right in front of him, looking just exactly as bored as she had when he’d left her, was the receptionist that had made him sign his paperwork before he could step into the little room.
Raymond Too turned about to find the little portable shack exactly as he had left it as well. The whole thing was made of plastic and except for its heavy steel door resembled nothing more than an oversized port-a-potty.
“Ahem,” the receptionist cleared her throat loud enough to reestablish Raymond Too’s fractured attention. She offered him the same clipboard as before and presented him with an identical pen.
“Did you enjoy your journey?” She did not wait long enough for Raymond Too to answer. “Please sign at the bottom and have a wonderful day.”
“But, I...” He had a hard time putting words to the enormity of the question under his tongue. “How long was I in there?”
The receptionist’s eyes took on a wary glean. “You just stepped into the booth for a moment and stepped right back out. Don’t you remember?”
“Then why was I lying on my face right now?”
“You fell stepping out of the booth, of course,” her answer seemed rehearsed, as if she were reading off of an internal prompter. “I would have helped you up but I have a bad back.”
“Well, what about—”
“Please,” she overemphasized the word to threatening effect, “just sign on the bottom and take the receipt.”
Raymond Too did just that. He left the little warehouse as quickly as he could and never looked back. He was almost home by the time he remembered the wadded up contract in his pants pocket. He rolled down the Volkswagen’s window and threw the receipt out without another look.
* * *
Veronica answered the door with a look of surprise and confusion.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded, her features quickly dissolving into a much more familiar brand of frustrated anger.
His first bold step opened the doorway wide and caused her to take her own unbalanced step backwards. His second step took her off her feet and into his arms.
“What are you do—”
He pulled her face into his. They stared at each other for a long, revealing minute. Neither dared blink or look away. She saw him then, perhaps for the first time in years. She saw the man she had married: The smart, fun, romantic man. The quiet, searching, curious man. All of him. Every extreme and every layer in between. She saw Raymond.
He kissed her then. Without asking. It seemed to go on for three to five years.
“Who are you?” she whispered, at last.
He didn’t answer her. Instead he carried her back to their bedroom and closed the door behind them.
He was the one that loved her. He was the only Raymond that mattered. There was nothing more to be said.
Copyright © 2010 by Derek Ivan Webster