Merope, Maybe : 15 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 15 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 



Buckaroo Banzai: You remind me of someone I once knew.
Penny Priddy: Was she... very beautiful?
— The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension [1984 film]


 

After Leon gave in to Carrie's revolutionary plan, Mukti dug deep into Leon's soft shoulder flesh until he yelped and — to Leon's profound astonishment — found relief from a pain and tightness he'd nearly grown used to.

Leon's abrupt yelp was enough to bring the entire code floor to its feet in alarm. Dave panicked, knocking on the door rat-a-tat-tat-tat and calling out in a high, frightened voice, "Everything all right in there?"

Leon opened the door a crack, stuck his head into the room, looked each of the men in the face, and reassured Dave (and the rest of the crew) that everything was fine. "I just had a surprise...," he said. "A big surprise." Then, not wanting to get stuck explaining, he added, "I'll tell you all later."

The "later" for the code crew didn't come for a full fifteen minutes, when Carrie finally released us. She laid out a preliminary plan for a public-relations strategy. She talked about managing the media, about interviews and appearances. She was intent on securing promises, on making sure we all found ourselves on the same page, and that we — mainly Leon and myself — were willing to be scrutinized, questioned, and no doubt criticized and even mocked.

"You, too, Mukti," she added. "Since you're the old Anson. You've got something to say as well."

"No doubt," he responded.

Then Carrie asked us for our contacts. "Do you mean our phone numbers?" I asked her, pulling out my phone.

"Well, sure, of course your numbers, but I meant your contact numbers with the Switcher processing people."

Mukti and I frowned, not understanding.

She crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently. "I mean, the names, the phone numbers. The ones they gave you."

"Nobody gave us anything," I told her. Mukti said the same.

"At the end of your Switcher processing," Carrie insisted, as if we were holding out on her. "They must have given you someone, some agency... something! someone! to keep in touch with. Someone monitors your progress, right? Somebody checks in on you? To see how you're getting along?"

"No, they don't do that," I informed her. "I was specifically told that not only do they *not* do that, they never did that."

"You must be mistaken," Leon told me. "That makes no sense whatsoever. So what do they do? Take your name and send you home? No way." He and Carrie asked the same question in several different ways, as if Mukti and I didn't understand what they wanted. Eventually they gave up, but they clearly didn't believe us.

"I'm going to find out," Carrie declared. "I'm surprised at the two of you, letting something like that slip! There has to be an information service, or a clearinghouse, or a tracking system."

I didn't bother to comment.

 


 

We had a brief hello/goodbye/see-you-tomorrow with the men on the code floor. — It was fun, for as long as Leon allowed it to last. The general reaction was incredulity mixed with welcome. At first, most of them thought it was a practical joke — an idea that didn't last very long. Leon would never be party to anything so frivilous, so not-rule-based, but once the coders began to grill me, asking questions only Anson would know, they were quickly convinced.

Something else that didn't escape their notice was the difference in Mukti's bearing. "His posture is better than yours," Dave commented. "He walks in a... smoother way. He's a lot more relaxed than you were."

 


 

Mukti had generally kept his mouth shut while Carrie outlined her PR campaign, but the moment we got in my car and closed the doors, he grabbed my arm and confided, "There's a very obvious next step for the two of us here, dude."

"What next step would that be?"

"The podcast!" he exclaimed. "Are you kidding me? I mean, I never considered THIS aspect of life after switching! This whole question about employability! See, I've always been self-employed: I've had to market myself, find clients, keep clients... and for me, that hasn't changed. But someone who has a full-time job... who can't rely on simply demonstrating what they know... I mean, your world, this world, where your resume is required... where, if you don't tick all the boxes, you don't even exist... It's just..." He shook his head in disbelief. "I mean, wow."

"Yeah," I agreed, in an isn't it obvious? tone. "That's why I wanted you to come with me. There's no objective, documented way for me to prove that I was switched. Especially to someone like Leon. It *is* like trying to land a job without experience, without a resume. I do have a resume, though, I just can't use it."

"Yeah, yeah," he nodded. "Think about all the people who were switched, and then cast out into the world. It's like—" he opened his hands, searching for an image "—it's like a vast shipwreck in a huge, dark ocean. It's so dark that we can just barely see the people floating right next to us, while out there, in the near distance, in the far distance—" he opened his arms to gesture at the entired world "—there are.. how many? Hundreds, thousands of people? Fighting to keep their heads above water." He gaped at me, earntestly struck by the enormity of it. His eyes teared a little. "Think of all that pain! that suffering! And who is helping them? Who, Merope? Who?"

"No one," I said, and turned my head away. The look on his face was loaded with pathos, and I wasn't in the mood to cry. I was too irritated. Even though I'd done what I came to do, all I'd really done was get my old, crappy job back -- and I had to beg for it. Yay, me, right?

At the same time, I knew I had no right to complain. In similar situations, most Switcher victims would be shit out of luck.

Mukti gave my arm a shake. "Dude, you have to help with this podcast. You have to."

"Okay," I agreed. "I will. But can we hold off until Carrie gets her shit underway? I mean, for one thing, I really need this job, and for another, she has the resources to make things happen. Not just for me, but for all Switcher victims, I think."

He gave a doubtful, sideward smile. "We'll try to coordinate," he promised. "But remember — she doesn't own this issue. And I don't want her stealing *my* opportunity to do good."

"I understand," I told him. "It's just, maybe, a matter of timing?"

He looked thoughtful. "Maybe *she* could be our first interview." He thought some more. "I don't know. I have to run it by Linda. I'm sure she'll have ideas on timing, sequence, buildup, payoff. Right! Merope, can you drop me at Linda's house? I need to bring her up to date, hear her reactions... We need to plan, project, manifest." He nodded.

Then he added, "Don't worry. I'll do my best with Carrie. I don't have her number though, do you?"

"Ah... no. I'll get it from Leon tomorrow morning and text it to you, okay?"

 


 

After dropping Mukti off, I became aware of a buzzing. It was my phone. My new phone... so not a familiar buzz.

The buzz signified a missed call. I had turned off the ringer while visiting Leon. I didn't want a random call interrupting my interview. I turned it back on now, and listened to the message.

"This is Agent Lassrop with the Springfield FBI office. I got your message about, uh, alleged industrial espionage? Do you think you could drop by our office tomorrow? We'd like to get some more details. Give us a call back, and, uh, hopefully we'll see you tomorrow."

I didn't like the tone of Agent Lassrop's message. He sounded pushy and arrogant. That frat boy Paul from the processing center came to mind.

Even so, I had a civic duty to report what I knew.

However, tomorrow wasn't going to work. Tomorrow is my first day on the job. I wanted to sit in my old chair: take ownership, take possession. Occupy.

I checked the time on my phone: nearly ten after ten. Why not go see the FBI today? It was twenty-something miles, if I remembered correctly.

I called the number back and was told that they'd be happy to see me now.

 


 

Twenty-five minutes later I pulled up outside a one-story office building in Springfield. It was on the edge of town, with grass and trees all around. The facade wasn't very wide, but the building ran deep.

There was no shade whatsoever in the parking lot, so I parked close to the entrance. The sun came in at an angle, lighting my car's interior. It made me glance at my legs. I was still wearing the peach shift dress, which showed a fair amount of leg. Nothing indecent, of course. Femke helped me choose it, specifically for my interview. Office attire, but not too dressy. If it was good enough for Leon and the crew, it would be fine for the FBI.

However— it did make me realize that I needed to start shaving my legs. I'd pick up the necessaries on the way home. It'd be smart to shave before my date tonight, too, I realized, my face reddening.

Regarding the FBI: I thought that I had no expectations, but as it turned out, I had them, and how! Expectations, I mean. I assumed that an agent would have me tell my story. He'd listen, take notes, ask a few questions, and that would be it. Simple. My civic duty, done. See something, say something.

They had me wait in reception for nearly five minutes. Fine. Not a problem.

They brought me to an interview room. One of the walls was entirely glass, and the whole time I was in there, people passed by. Most of them took a long look at me. I sat there for about three minutes by myself. Again, no problem.

Then, Agent Lassrop entered, accompanied by a female agent, Kirchmeyer. Neither of them gave their first names.

Lassrop brought a pad and pen with him. Kirchmeyer came empty handed. He offered me coffee, water, tea? I declined.

We sat on opposite sides of a very plain table. There was nothing else in the room, except for a large, broad-leafed plant in the corner: nothing on the walls, no furniture other than the table and four chairs. On the table was a microphone, but it wasn't turned on, and they didn't bother to turn it on.

Lassrop took my contact information, and asked me to tell my story. He compared it to the message I'd left — he had a printed transcript of my call.

I tried to be brief. It was a little daunting, the telling, because the two of them simply sat there, poker-faced. They didn't ask questions, take notes, or react in any way.

When I finished, Lassrop scratched his head. "Merope. Unusual name." I shrugged. "Tell me, Merope, if you switched last Friday — it was Friday, right? So that's—" he counted on his fingers "—four days. Why did you wait four days to report this?"

"In all fairness," Kirchmeyer put in, "it's only two business days. And one of those days, well, she was just switched, right? So, there's some shock, confusion, right? We could say it's only one business day."

I immediately twigged the good cop/bad cop routine. Still, I smiled at her response.

"Actually, I reported this on Saturday, at the processing center."

"Ah, right, the processing center. The one up north on I-60?"

"Correct. They said they would 'pass it up the chain'."

"Did you hear that, Kirchmeyer? They told her that they'd pass it up the chain. Do you think that we're up that chain? You and me?" Her eyebrows went up, but she didn't reply.

"They told me they have a special channel for observations like these."

He smiled a smarmy, self-pleased smile. "Hmm. A chain. A channel. Did you hear anything from a chain or a channel, Agent Kirchmeyer? Maybe I forgot to check our chains and channels this morning."

"No. I didn't hear anything," she replied. "Maybe I'm not on that chain."

"Or in that channel." He shrugged.

My indignation rose. I could feel my face turn red. They wanted to mock me, did they? Okay. Maybe it was part of their interrogation technique. A friend who worked in security once told me, If you get a person angry, they're more likely to tell you the truth. Okay. I took a breath and tried to keep a lid on my anger. I told them, "They interviewed me at the processing center on Saturday morning, a little after nine o'clock. A guy named Matt. He recorded the interview. You can listen to the tape."

"We could. We could do that," he agreed, "if there *was* such a recording, but there isn't. Not only is there no recording, there's no record of your ever visiting that processing center at all." He cocked one eyebrow at me. Gotcha!

I felt my face go white. It's that fucker, Stan, I told myself.

"Oh, really!" I exclaimed. There **had*** to be a way for me to prove that I'd been there. "Hang on, hang on, give me a minute." I stopped to think. "I have a lanyard at home. They gave it to me at the processing center. They assigned me a number. You can check that. I mean, check the number."

Kirchmeyer glanced at Lassrop. Lassrop's eyes narrowed.

"Also," I continued, "There's the daisy chain. The people who deal with the Switcher, they keep track of who got switched into whom."

"Hear that, Kirchmeyer? Who... whom. Somebody knows their English grammar."

"Each person who's switched, is in the body of the person the Switcher met before them, and they know the name of the person the switcher met after them. It's a linked list; it can't be broken or changed. I'm in Merope Goddard's body; she came before me. The person who comes after me is Anson Charpont, because that's who I am, inside. He'll tell you the same thing. He's in Anson's body, my body, because I came before him. And he saw the Switcher run off in *his* body, so he knows who came after him."

My explanation was too complicated and too logical for Lassrop to easily scoff at. I took advantage of his being on the back foot for a moment and pressed on.

I told the two of them: "I don't care what you think about me, or what you think about what I saw. I have a civic duty to tell you. And now that I told you, I want to leave. And if there is a God above us, hopefully we will never meet again."

That was a bit more honesty than either of them was ready to hear, but they still had a few cards up their sleeves.

"Here's the thing, Merope," Agent Kirchmeyer said. "If we take what you said at face value, what do we have? Something about cylinders. We don't know what these cylinders are. Frankly, they sound like rolls of money. Which, of course, is nice for him, but not really remarkable, if you know anything about the Switcher. On top of that, the area of Harmish that you mentioned is full of businesses of every kind. You know that: there are towers full of offices, laboratories... and I don't know what."

She tapped the table, tap tap tap. "The thing is, none of those businesses reported a loss of any kind. No theft of material, no theft of intellectual property, no theft of little metal cylinders. And so, you see... if all we have is your story — and for the sake of argument, let's say that everything you said is literally and completely true — What do we do with it? Where do we go with it? Without a victim, how can we investigate a crime. Do you follow me?"

I felt lost for a moment, as though the rug had been pulled from under me. But then I remembered...

"I have the USB drive," I told them.

"Great!" Kirchmeyer replied with a smile. "Let's see it."

Crap. "I came here..." I hestitated. I sighed. "I came here on the spur of the moment," I told her. "I left the USB drive at home."

"But you said that you didn't see any copyright notices, or company name on the drive itself, am I right?"

"Yes," I said, deflating.

"Or in the files on that drive?"

"No," I agree. My head bent down, looking at the table. They let me sit there in silence, soaking in my unsupportable assertions. They'd gotten to the end with me. They were done with mocking and teasing. They unwrapped my observations and found nothing inside them.

"I can send you the drive," I said without looking up. "And my lanyard from the processing center." Then I lifted my head and looked at each of them in the face. "I was only trying to do my civic duty. I saw something; I said something."

Kirchmeyer reached out her hand and covered mine. I wanted to jerk my arm away, but it would have been a pointless gesture on my part. All I wanted was to get the hell out of there. 'You send it to us," she told me. "We know where to contact you if we have questions."

"Okay," I said, and stood up.

 


 

My car was hot from sitting in the sun. Luckily my seats were cloth, so there was only one quick moment of sitting down before the heat subsided. I turned the air on high and drove out of the parking lot to a space on the street under a tree. I was too upset to drive. I kept the windows open until the air conditioner was able to kick in.

"Fuck them!" I shouted, once my windows were closed. It was the only appropriate thing to say. They didn't have to treat me like a... like a what? Is there a word for people who make silly claims so they can talk to law enforcement?

Whatever it was, the FBI didn't need a name for it. They just assumed that I had it: That I was making things up, simply to get their attention.

Do you know what I wanted to say to them? I was so angry. What I wanted to ask them, was: What about J. Edgar Hoover? Wow, talk about somebody with problems! That man, the one who founded the FBI, he was one hot mess, and yet these agents had the nerve to act like there was something wrong with me?

 


 

Eventually I calmed down enough to feel hungry. I asked my phone for "restaurants near me" and the only listing anywhere nearby was a place called The Peckish Perch. It was a ten-minute drive, to the town of Devall, which is only known for the Devall Small Mall.

The Small Mall features a bowling alley, a Department of Motor Vehicles office, and a few oddly-assorted stores. It's anchor was a large Gimbrels department store — the last remnant of a once-booming national chain.

Naturally, the Peckish Perch was nestled into the mall. The restaurant — and the mall in general — were surprisingly busy. I asked how long it would take for them to seat me.

"Right away," the hostess replied. "We have a lot of ones and twos over there — see?" She pointed, in case I missed it.

"Okay, uh, but one question: Is this a fish restaurant?"

She gave me a strange look. "No, of course not. Why would it be?"

"Well, perch," I replied. "A perch is a type of fish."

She smiled and touched my arm with her fingertips. "No," she informed me, and explained as if she was talking to a somewhat slow child. "A perch is where a bird sits, and when a bird eats, they peck. See? Peckish Perch means that this is a place where you can sit down and eat."

It called itself a restaurant, but really it was nothing more than a fast-food joint with table service. One of my high-school teachers liked to say that fast food tastes good at first, but when you're halfway through, you ask yourself why you're eating it.

I had a "Perch Burger" with fries and a vanilla milkshake, and it fit that description. I stopped exactly halfway through my meal. Stopped dead. How on earth did it manage to taste good at the start? It not only made me feel cruddy inside, it made my skin feel greasy. If I were still Anson, I would have kept going, and eaten it all, in spite of how it made me feel. But I wasn't Anson any more. My metabolism, my tastes, my nutritional needs, were all changed. It was a good change; clearly a salutary change. I pushed the food away and left the restaurant.

Even so, the portion I'd eaten was enough to weigh me down. I took a walk through the mall to try to help me digest. True to its name, the mall wasn't very large. It did include a pharmacy, where I picked up my shaving supplies. After circulating through a quarter of the mall, I wandered into Gimbrels. All of the perfume and cosmetic counters were right there at the store entrance.

I stopped and on impulse, decided to get a makeover. I told the woman that I needed a light office look. "It has to be dirt-simple to put on," I told her. "I'm not very good at this."

She suggested that I make a video on my phone as she worked on my face. She talked the entire time, describing what she was doing, the effect she was aiming for, and so on. It was extremely helpful and reassuring.

I was pretty pleased at the end result. She was pleased that I was pleased. She was about my age, and dressed in a way that looked both professional and comfortable. It was the sort of look I figured I'd be wearing to the office. When she asked me whether there was anything else she could help me with, I immediately responded: "What would you wear to a first date in a bar?"

"Jeans and a nice top," she replied, without a moment's hesitation. "As for shoes, I'd wear flats, but you could really wear whatever you want."

 


 

When I got back to Femke's apartment, she wasn't there.

The first thing I did was to sit in the tub and shave my legs. I think I held my breath the entire time, but I was careful enough that I didn't nick or cut myself.

Then I removed all my makeup, took a shower, redid my makeup and fixed my hair. When I say I fixed my hair, it's not as though there was a lot to do. Luckily the old Merope favored a bob, which took a little styling, but not much.

While digging through my duffle bag, I happened on an outfit for the office tomorrow: black flared pants and a sleeveless cream-colored top. I also found some tight jeans and a black one-shoulder top for my date tonight. Remembering what the Gimbrels woman told me, I picked a pair of black flats that went with both outfits.

I'm going to have to start accessorizing, I quickly realized. A nice necklace and a bracelet or wrist watch would have finished off the look nicely.

But then, as I was pushing the duffle bag out of my way, my eye fell on a dress. It was — I want to stay "a little black dress" because that's the stock phrase: the LBD. When I saw it, I wanted to touch it, and once I touched it, I had to pick it up. Whatever material it was made from, it felt like magic under my fingers. It was stretchy, but soft. It wasn't shiny, but it almost seemed to glow.

I had to try it on.

Once I tried it on, I had to wear it.

Once I wore it, the flats I'd chosen simply didn't do it justice. I knelt down and fished around the bottom of the bag, where I found a pair of black strappy heels.

But then, once I put the shoes on, it made me see how awful my toes looked. I mean, I needed a pedicure. The blue nail polish the original Merope had applied a week ago was now chipped and cracked. My fingernails, too. I don't know how I hadn't noticed.

When I asked my phone for "nail salons near me" it showed a place just a block away called "Best Hygenic Nail" — a name that inspired both confidence and doubt at the same time. I clopped on over in my new heels — without calling ahead! But lucky me! they were able to accomodate me right away.

It was, as advertised (and much to my relief), hygenic, and they did a wonderful job of restoring the Ocean Blue favored by the original Merope. I wasn't totally convinced by the color, myself, but didn't feel that now was the time to experiment.

The women at the salon tried to sell me false eyelashes. She pushed me hard. Her colleagues joined in. They were ready and willing to apply them to my eyelids. They showed me a surprising variety of lengths and styles. To tell the truth, I was tempted. Not sorely tempted, but a little tempted. What stopped me? It was the fact that I was already dolled-up. As feminine as I felt, as feminine as I wanted to feel, I was uneasy about going any further. I was wearing black heels — not stilettos, but even so, they were seriously feminine heels. My legs were hairless and smooth to the touch. My dress wasn't exactly short but I felt pretty exposed in the salon chair: my knees were at the same level as the head of the woman painting my toes.

And my face! I could feel the make-up. I was very conscious of it, and was startled each time I'd see my red lips in a mirror. It wasn't uncomfortable, no. In fact, I liked it. I liked it a lot. I felt attractive. I felt like a work of art. I wanted to be seen.

Even so, false eyelashes was a step farther than I was ready to go. I mean, it was all new to me, and it was wonderful. I suppose I could have told myself in for a penny, in for a pound, but I didn't. If I had to put my reticence into words, my problem was this: What I'd done to myself, for myself — shaving my legs, having my face made over (and learning to do it myself), choosing the little black dress and the heels — and getting my nails done! That was all me.

The lashes, it seemed, would have pushed me over into a very different feeling: the feeling that I was wearing a costume. That it was all pretend. I didn't want that. I wanted to be me tonight. The new Merope, as far as I could.

 


 

By the time the salon finished with me, it was a quarter to six.

More than three hours until my date.

I returned to Femke's and forced myself to sift through some more files on Stan's USB drive. It was both tedious and interesting at the same time. I didn't learn anything new about old Merope, but going through her records gave me a feeling of solidity, of reality.

I'm glad I didn't let the processing center stick me with a new name. Here, now, if I asked myself Who am I? I had material at hand to help answer that question. If they'd given me a made-up name, that question of Who am I? would have landed in a void. Oddly, or paradoxically, I the more I learned about Merope, the more I felt I was learning about myself. I mean, I *am* Merope, at least in a physical sense. I'm somebody's daughter; maybe somebody's sister or niece. Those are physical facts. Merope paid taxes and has money in the bank. That, in a societal sense, makes her real.

I have relatives. I have objective correlatives. I have roots. I have history. It's a history I can learn.

 


 

Opening and sorting the files Stan gave me was a slog, but I fell into it, deeply. I got into the zone, the way I do when I'm writing computer programs. It's a state where the work flows easily, almost effortlessly through me; I'm not aware of time passing or the conditions around me. I forget to eat or drink. Usually the only things that rouse me are external: a person calling my name, my phone ringing, or — as in the present case — the need to use the bathroom.

As I trotted off to the smallest room, the kitchen clock caught my eye. Somehow, the time was 9:25! I had five minutes to meet Wayne downtown!

While sitting on the toilet, I called an Uber. At this point, driving myself would take longer. I'd never find parking anywhere near Olduvai Street, and if I had a few drinks, I wouldn't want to chance driving myself home.

The driver pulled up as I stepped out the front door. I gave the street address of the bar, and we took off.

It occurred to me while I was going through my files that I could take time this Sunday and start reading through Merope's life, one year at a time: starting with her tax return, her bank statements, her credit card statements, and whatever other documents memorialized that year. I'd read through as if I were reading a novel. It would help to steep me in my new life.

I was called out of my reverie by the driver. He was talking to me.

He complimented me on my appearance. I thanked him. He asked me where I was going, exactly.

"I know Olduvai," he told me, "but the street numbers? Not so much. A lot of those stores, they don't put the street numbers on the buildings. So: where are we going?"

Honestly, I was a little distracted, a little anxious. Anxious about being late... in fact, did I have my bag with me? Yes, yes, here it is. Do I have my phone? Yes. My wallet? Some money? Yes and yes.

Also, a large part of my consciousness was still immersed in the Merope files I'd been reading.

So I looked up, almost as though he'd woken me from a sleep, and told him, "The Golden Farting."

He scoffed, disgusted. "Why do you young people have to do that?" he demanded. "It's the Golden **Farthing***. The Golden Farthing. Do you even know what a farthing is?"

The smartass in me wanted to reply that a farthing was a fart-thing, but as amusing as I found it in that moment, I bit my tongue. A quick search in my trivia memory gave me the answer. I replied, "It's a coin. A fraction of a penny, I think."

"Hmmph," he grunted. "There's hope for you yet. And here we are!" He stopped in front of a building with a very active crowd out front. "The Golden Farthing. Have a lovely time."

I climbed out of the car. A couple of young men watched my legs as I exited the vehicle. Damn — I needed to practice that move. No — before practicing, I needed to learn how a woman gets out of a car. Maybe there was a YouTube video I could watch.

The time was 9:35. Not bad. Not on time, but not too badly late.

Looking up, I checked the sign. Of course, it wasn't the Golden Farting. There was never a chance of that. However, it wasn't the Golden Farthing, either. The name of the pub was the Golden Fairling. I had no idea what the name meant, not that it mattered.

As with most businesses on Olduvai, the entrance was set back several yards from the street. About a dozen people lounged on the sidewalk: some of them were smoking or vaping (breathing out huge billows of cloud, like two-legged dragons), others simply chatted with their friends. None of them were waiting to enter; there wasn't a queue. These people were taking a break, coming up for air — or for smoke — whatever the case called for.

I'd never been to the Golden Fairling; never even glanced inside. So I was relieved to see the range of ages of the people gathered out front. A few were clearly north of fifty. Most were somewhere in their thirties or forties. As to people in their twenties? If I was any judge of ages, there were few.

I pushed past the hangers-on, flashed my ID at the bouncer at the door, and entered another world. I imagined I'd quickly scan the room, pick out Wayne, walk over and connect.

Instead I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere.

By "atmosphere" I don't mean by the smell. Sure, it smelled like a bar: the accumulated aroma old burgers and fried food, of spilled beer and ketchup. Not that they didn't clean: the place was hygenic enough. I'm just saying that if you were blindfolded and taken there, with nothing but your nose to guide you, you'd immediately know you were in a bar. If — again, guided only by your nose — if you were asked, Would you eat a meal here? Your nose would reply, Sure. Why not?

What struck me, what knocked me back a half-step, was the darkness. All the furniture — the bar, the shelving behind the bar, the tables and chairs, the hostess' stand and the cashier's desk — all of it was dark walnut. All of it dyed deeper black by cigarette smoke back in the years when smoking indoors was still allowed.

Somehow the air itself seemed darker, like the air at night.

And the sound, too, was overwhelming. The music, which I couldn't recognize, was loud and pounding. I felt it in my chest. A young man approached me and said something. I shook my head and pointed at my ears. He leaned closer and shouted to me, asking if I wanted... something. I couldn't make out what.

When I shrugged, made an apologetic face, and shook my head no, he looked disappointed, but he walked away.

Here, inside, the demographic was quite different than the people I saw outside. The crowd was predominantly young; college age. Tattoos and piercings abounded.

I had to run my eyes over the room three times before I spotted Wayne. He was sitting at the bar, talking to a young man who was very nearly his twin. The two were roughly the same height and build. They had the same open, smiling face, the same full, untamed head of hair. Of course, there were obvious differences between them, but at a glance they were nearly interchangeable.

As I approached them, those differences became more evident. Wayne was a golden boy. If a sculptor sought a model for a statue of Alcibiades, he'd stop looking the moment he met Wayne.

If Wayne was gold, his friend was silver at best. I never found out his name; never met him again. As soon as I put my hand on Wayne's shoulder, his friend nodded in my direction, said something to Wayne that was inaudible to me, and stepped away to dissolve into the crowd.

Wayne turned to face me, and a sunny smile lit up his face. I felt the sun respond inside of me.

He said something that I couldn't hear. The music rendered normal speech impossible. I shouted back. He smiled, not even trying to hear.

The bartender approached. Somehow his voice was able to penetrate the noise: he asked me what I wanted to drink. I pointed at Wayne's beer and he nodded.

I moved my head toward Wayne's, intending to talk in his ear. Instead, he gently took my head with his fingertips, steered my mouth toward his own, and he kissed me.

It was a warm, wet, soul-absorbing kiss. The kind of kiss that teenagers experience: the kind that closes out the world and everyone in it. I rested my hands on his chest, feeling his muscular torso, making my hands feel small. I realized I was on tiptoe while he was sitting down.

We kissed for a long time, it seemed. His hands moved to my shoulders, then down my back. When his hands reached my waist, my hip bones, he pulled me closer to him. His knees closed, holding my thighs. I wrapped my arms around his neck.

I can't tell if anyone noticed us kissing. I'm sure I didn't care whether they did.

When we came up for air, we pressed our foreheads lightly together and gazed into each others' eyes.

He spoke again. In spite of the closeness, I still couldn't hear. I moved my mouth next to his ear.

"It's so LOUD in here!" I said, stating the obvious.

He nodded, moved his lips to my ear and suggested, "Let's finish these beers and take a walk."

I nodded. The beers came in a tall glass, too tall for me to hurry through. By the time I was halfway down, Wayne's glass was empty. He touched my glass and raised his left eyebrow, asking silently if he should finish mine. I nodded.

A few swallows later, my glass was empty as well, and the two of us emerged in the cooler night air.

As we sauntered up the avenue, Wayne told me about his business as a personal trainer. He had a couple of interesting and amusing anecdotes about his clients. After we'd walked slowly hand-in-hand for several blocks, he glanced at me and said, "I've been doing all the talking. Why don't you tell me something about yourself?"

"What do you want to know?"

"Anything. What do you do for a living, for instance?"

"I'm a Cobol programmer."

Wayne chuckled. "Like Mr Charpont."

"Yeah," I agreed. "Exactly like Mr Charpont. I keep telling you, Wayne. I've been switched. I *am* Anson Charpont. I know your family. I used to live next door."

"Oh, right," he responded, clearly not giving me any credence. I don't know why I felt the need to insist on this point with him, but somehow it rankled me that he either didn't get it, or didn't believe it. Maybe he just didn't care, which seemed the worst option of the three.

He abruptly stopped; stood still in the middle of the sidewalk, and looked at me. I'm pretty sure he sensed my irritation, so he placed his hands on my hips, smiled a wary smile, and said, "Can I ask you something, then?"

"Sure."

"If you're Anson Charpont, recently switched, does that make you a virgin?"

"Oh!" I exclaimed. I never expected *that* question. "Well... ah..."

"Have you ever had sex as a woman? That's what I'm asking."

"Well, no."

A heat radiated between us, from him to me and back again. He stood there, looking at me, not caring about the crowd of pedestrians around us. He was fully at ease, as if we were standing alone in a grassy field. I stood there, looking up at him. People milled around us, like a flood -- parting when they encountered us, splitting briefly as they passed us, then fluidly joining back up again, the the way a stream flows and shapes itself around a rock in a stream.

Wayne tugged on his earlobe. He rubbed his chin.

"Do you know what I'm thinking?" he asked.

"I'm pretty sure I do," I replied.

"And yet I don't see you running away," he teased.

"Nope, not running, me."

"I'm going to call an Uber," he warned me, conspiratorially.

I nodded slowly. "Good idea."

"Wow, you're so easy!" he teased, and gave me a playful push on my shoulder.



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
55 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 6742 words long.