Normally, I leave work through the theater’s back door and pause to light my 6:01 smoke, then once my smoke is lit I rush to the K train so I can go home and goof off. But today my routine’s interrupted by a young lady saying, “That’s a hot shirt.”
I turn to look at her, and she’s just lovely. She’s smoking her own cigarette, and she’s young enough that the habit hasn’t weathered her yet. She stands with her back straight against the brick wall, her posture firm and proper but not stiff. She starts pulling back the sides of her snug motorcycle jacket and thrusting her chest out just a little. It takes me a moment to realize that she’s doing this because we’re wearing identical T-shirts, which advertise an obscure rock band called The Luscious Assassins. I’ve never seen anyone else wear a Luscious Assassins T-shirt- not even at one of their shows- and I’d bet that she hasn’t either.
I tell her, “Thanks. Looks much better on you, though.”
My admittedly cheap line seems to charm her far more than I expected. She asks if I’m going to see the Assassins play at Cookie’s in July, and I say of course. I ask if she’s going too, and she says she thinks she’ll have to. We start talking about other great bands we’ve seen recently, and our tastes overlap in some very important places. By the time we stub out our smokes we’re also bonding over our love of German expressionist movies, and she does the funniest Peter Lorre impression I’ve ever seen.
Her name’s Ferida, by the way. Just finished auditioning for the role of the rebellious 18 year-old daughter in The Honesty of Deceit– that’s why she wore the shirt today. Not that she’s 18 herself…in fact she was just about to go drink her some whiskey. Only problem is she has no one to drink with (hint, hint).
Here’s where I know she must have an angle. I wonder if she thinks I’m some big-shot artistic director who can be charmed into giving her a big break, and not the lowly stagehand I actually am. If that’s what she thinks, I figure she can’t be very bright. I doubt that though. She seems pretty smart, and it’s virtually impossible for a dumb actress to play pretty smart. Besides, wearing that Luscious Assassins T-shirt is too good to be coincidence. It’s like she’s done research on me. She’s certainly up to something. Maybe even something on someone else’s behalf.
Yet my gut assures me she’s not criminally insane, and whatever her angle is, it can’t be a terribly dangerous one. So I think I should just see where this goes for now.
* * *
It goes across the street to The Gulag, a dive plastered with 1950s soviet propaganda posters. When we get there, the bartender and the only customer are both too strung out to speak. I ask the bartender if I can start a tab, and she just nods and grunts and takes my credit card. Ferida and I order our first round, we program the jukebox to play Internal Wrangler, and we sit on a torn, linty couch in a dim, empty corner.
After a toast and a few seconds of flirty eyes, Ferida says she has an unusual question to ask. See, she’s been haunted by this odd feeling for a while, at least a year now. And whenever she tells her friends about it, most of them look at her like she’s cocoa-puffs. But a select few of them know exactly what she’s talking about. She says that something tells her I’ll be one of the ones who understand.
Anyway, she feels like she’s living the wrong life. I ask her if it’s like the song- this is not my beautiful house, and such. Yes and no, she says, but mostly no. It’s not so much looking through time and questioning how you got where you are. It’s more like a nagging feeling that you’ve been switched onto the wrong track. Mistakenly cast in the wrong drama. Playing bass in the wrong band.
I say sure, I feel that way once in a while. I’m surprised more of her friends said they didn’t. In fact I bet that anyone who says they never feel that way probably just can’t admit it. Ferida thinks that could be a possibility, but she’s not just talking about some simple case of chronic dissatisfaction. She’s talking hallucinations, too. Occasionally catching glimpses of what look like holographic spaces where you see something that’s very much like our world and yet very much not, and you tell yourself that the other world is where you really belong.
Her words make me feel strange. I’m actually trying to remember if I’ve ever seen one of these hologram worlds when suddenly I’m reminded of a dream I had years ago and then forgot about until now. Could she have put something in my drink? I’m about to ask her that when she says she can tell from the look on my face that I’m one of the ones who understand. I tell her honestly that I’m not sure if I do understand. She says I do understand, I just don’t know it yet. Besides, a lot of people who understand often forget or repress the holograms. Now that she’s made me more aware of them, though, apparently I’ll start to notice them more.
The strange feeling passes, but its shadow lingers. I start to question my decision to see where this goes. Ferida must sense my discomfort because she asks if I’d rather change the subject. I say sure, and she says, “OK then…why don’t you tell me how long you’ve been with your girlfriend?”
Before I can respond, Ferida guesses it’s been at least 5 years. She says this like she knows the truth- that while I do in fact have a girlfriend, and her name is Hannah, we’ve only been together a little over 3 years. Apparently she just wants to hear the truth from me. So I tell her the truth, and then she looks at me like she sincerely appreciates my honesty.
“You don’t want to cheat on her, though, do you?” Ferida asks. This she also says like she already knows the answer, and I confirm her suspicions. But if she already knows, why does she ask? Is this for my benefit? All right, I’ll explain: sure, sometimes I go out with other women, like I’m doing right now. At least a couple times every month. We have drinks, sometimes we eat dinner, other times we even go dancing and engage in other moderately flirtatious behavior. But that’s pretty much it- I can never bring myself to take it any further. It’s just because Hannah and I are low on sparks at the moment, that’s all. Ferida asks me how long ‘at the moment’ really means. 2 months? 3 months? Of course I assume she knows the truth here, too. Truth is, it’s been closer to 10 months, but I say 5. Ferida humors my lie with a nod, then asks if that’s why I’m not removing her hand from my thigh.
* * *
The next thing I know I’m lying on a much nicer couch in a studio apartment that smells just like my grandma’s blueberry muffins. So in addition to my musical tastes and my relationship status, Ferida also knows my favorite aroma. Huh. She must have a whole file on me, gigabytes thick. I feel heavy and light at the same time, like a magnet stuck to another magnet floating in zero gravity. Now I’m certain I’ve been drugged, although I still feel safe. But maybe that’s the drugs talking, too.
I watch Ferida lock the front door from the inside and bury the key in her jeans. Then she comes over and sits in a wicker chair across from me. She looks like she’s about to break some serious news- maybe not bad news, but news that will affect my future significantly.
Ferida, it turns out, is actually a customer service representative for something called “Oola-Kai.” I ask her who or what the hell “Oola-Kai” is, and she says it’s an “essence-assignment organization.” She says there’s been “an unfortunate error” with my “account.” I find this funny because I didn’t even know I had an account with Oola-Kai. It seems, Ferida says, that my essence has been “installed in the wrong system” for the past few years and now I’ll have to be “transferred into the correct system.”
Through my ferocious confusion about essence accounts and incorrect systems, I can still see why Oola-Kai would choose Ferida as their customer service rep. In addition to her exquisite Hawaiian beauty and her amiable charisma, she seems to feel genuine sympathy for me and my unfortunate error. At least I’m guessing her sympathy’s genuine, because I’m almost positive she’s a shoddy liar. And I think she’s dying to tell me more than what Oola-Kai has authorized her to tell. Unless, of course, this is all just precisely what she wants me to think.
Then again, what do I know? At this moment I feel about as straight as a knuckleball.
I ask Ferida if she could just elaborate on what exactly my essence is, how it got an account with Oola-Kai, and how it got transferred to the wrong system. She does this thing that Hannah often does when she thinks: she touches her pinkie to her lips and looks to the side. Then Ferida explains that essence is, “you know, your essence.” She tries to move right into the next topic before I interrupt her, asking if essence is like the soul, or the mind. She says yes and no, but mostly no. “Your account is your relationship with Oola-Kai, and it needs to be fixed by re-directing your essence into its proper location.”
I point out that Ferida just said almost the exact same thing she told me a few seconds earlier, which wasn’t very helpful at all. I ask her to explain this thing to me like I’m an idiot child.
“I’m afraid I just can’t make it any clearer,” she tells me, and her eyes remind me that her superiors over at Oola-Kai are to blame for that, implying that if she could tell me more without jeopardizing her job, or perhaps her well-being, she would. “Your essence is in the wrong system. It’s that simple.”
Fine, I’ll drop that line of inquiry. So, then, what will my new and correct system will be like?
Ferida’s answer sounds like it’s been memorized word-for-word from some official Oola-Kai employee manual: “Unfortunately, I’m not able to provide any details about your future system at this time. You can inquire again at your scheduled essence transfer, where we should have more up-to-date information.” She hands me a small card printed with FRIDAY APRIL 7, 9:30 AM. That’s 2 days from now, and right around the time I usually head out for work. Ferida adds that I don’t even have to go anywhere on that date and time- just make sure I’m home. And preferably alone.
I’ve been keeping a straight face until she says that. Now I laugh out loud. “Good one,” I tell her, before I re-compose myself and continue playing along in my woozy and agreeable state. OK then, Miss Oola-Kai Customer Service Representative…what happens if I’m not home on FRIDAY APRIL 7, 9:30 AM? What if I don’t want my essence transferred to the correct system?
That would be bad, Ferida tells me. I can see she means it, and she doesn’t like imagining me going through that particular fate. I ask her to be specific, and she hesitates. The conflicting emotions wrestling beneath her professional facade feel so real and vivid it’s unsettling. Makes my guts feel like they’re aswarm with cranked-up nanobots. She says that if Oola-Kai has to come find me and force me into the proper system, I would be…
She clears her throat and pauses. Despite her numerous strengths in the field of customer service, her weaknesses have yet to be sanded off. She’s not as detached as she knows she needs to be. First week on the job- that must be part of her angle.
Finally she explains that if Oola-Kai has to come find me and force me into the proper system, it will be an extremely unpleasant situation- mostly for me. The trauma will be excruciating, it’ll be permanent, and in my new system I’ll have no memory of where it came from. She trembles, as if she has a pretty good idea just how profoundly awful this mysterious trauma feels.
I don’t know where they’re watching from, but some of Ferida’s bosses at Oola-Kai must be looking over her proverbial shoulder as we speak, paying close attention to how gracefully she handles my unfortunate error. She can’t quite hide all her nerves.
Unless, once again, this is all just precisely what she wants me to think.
* * *
I experience another sudden and drastic change of scenery, awakening as the doors open on a southbound K train. I no longer smell the comforting aroma of my grandmother’s blueberry muffins. Instead, I smell the briny air of Baywood Beach, which means I’m about 15 stops past my place. I run out of the train just before the doors close again, and I cross over to the northbound side of this above-ground platform.
It’s now 10:12 PM, and my druggy haze has almost completely worn off. I piece together my last memories, and when I get to the part where I started a tab at The Gulag, I curse out loud and hope I didn’t leave my credit card with that junkie bartender. I snatch my wallet from my pocket and sigh with relief when I see my credit card, safe and sound- along with a receipt for $30 worth of whiskey, plus a $5 tip, marked with a highly intoxicated version of my signature. Still have all my other cards, IDs and cash too. Phew.
I also find in my pocket the small card that says FRIDAY APRIL 7, 9:30 AM. So that part was real too, I guess.
Which makes me think real hard about how Ferida said I’ve been installed in the wrong system for the past few years. I do a quick look back over my past few years and wonder- was there a point where everything started feeling more off-kilter than usual? Though I guess if there was, most likely it would’ve happened during some mundane moment I forgot all about anyway.
My freaking train is taking freaking forever. I watch as another southbound K pulls into the station and stops to open its doors. And that’s when I notice the damnedest thing:
A sliver of light, maybe 10 feet tall and 3 feet wide, shines from within the car directly across from me. I can only see it in my peripheral vision- when I try to look directly at it, it vanishes. No one else in the station seems to see it.
The sliver contains the inside of the subway car, but the colors are all shiny and silvery. You know, just like a hologram. And sitting in a seat that’s empty in the non-hologram world is what appears to be, as far as my peripheral vision can tell, a hologram version of myself.
My hologram-self sleeps, and his face signals it’s a peaceful kind of sleep I haven’t enjoyed in a very long time.
And as he sleeps, he leans against somebody’s shoulder. I can’t really see the other person’s face, though, because it lies outside the sliver.
Then the car doors close, the sliver vanishes, and the train continues southward.
* * *
to be continued…