Forking Paths

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  • There is this guy, a big fellow, taller than me. There’s a smear of blonde on his head and a beard to match. Spectacles. When I see him, in the environs of the train station on my way to work, he wears over-the-ear headphones that pinch his lobes shiny red. He’s fat. Pear-shaped. Sausage-fingered. His clothes are cheap and ill-fitting – faded black chinos strain and no-name sneakers bulge. He wraps it all in a too-short black trench coat which is further constrained by a backpack that looks comically tiny compared to the rest of him.

    He hunches, as tall men often do. And he trudges, weighed down by thoughts I cannot imagine.

    Deep down, the only thing that separated us was a little bit of extra love, from somebody else or from deep down inside.

    Today, he was wearing a shapeless hat that, at one time, was probably a fedora. From a distance, it looked fine, but closer up it looked velvety. Instead of a feather or the understated bow that adorns most hat bands, this one had a large, gold circlet. I think it might have been a woman’s hat.

    We stood next to each other at the corner, waiting for the light to change. I could feel his discomfort and wondered what was causing it. Was it simply proximity to another person? Was it the fact that we were both wearing hats? Was I doing that thing where I smirk without realizing it – did he think I was laughing at him?

    He walked ahead of me and vanished into the station. I didn’t notice him again until we were on the train. He was poured between two people, backpack still on, arms smooshed in front of him, miserably reading the latest issue of Game Informer.

    Shit. Gabba Gabba Hey, this guy is one of us.

    MirrorActually, it is more than that. I look at this guy and despair because I could easily have been that guy. I wore a black trench coat for more years than was even remotely appropriate, through high school and college and beyond. I have veered in and out of being overweight (hey, you know what does wonders for a fat ass? A big old trench coat!). I have logged countless hours at the comic book shop, at the Dungeons & Dragons table and in front of the TV playing videogames. This poor bastard is a window into a parallel present, the multiverse cruelly reminding me what could have been.

    Everyone has these almost-doppelgangers. They are living, breathing fun house mirrors we encounter in our daily life. They keep us honest and compassionate because, deep down, we know the only thing that separated us from them was a kind word one day, or a cool parent, or a good friend. A little bit of extra love, from somebody else or from deep down inside.

    These mirrors make us ask those most insecure of questions, like “Is that how people see me?” or “Is that what I am like?”

    The answer is yes.

    This guy may love his backpack. He might be unapologetic about his shabby clothes. He may get joy from things that are incomprehensible to me. He very well might be happy. All my conclusions about him are mixture of conjecture and my own insecurities projected onto him.

    I do know one thing for sure, though – there is someone out there, someone cooler and more assured at another train station. He is looking at me, at my off-the-rack blazer, my scuffed boots and the bags under my eyes. He is noting the ostentatious rings on my fingers and the lint on my collar, but he isn’t seeing me; he’s seeing himself and everything he’s afraid he might be.

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    2 thoughts on “Forking Paths

    1. Davey Wreden says:

      I had a friend once who I despised being around because he reminded me of the worse of my own tendencies, he was this walking reminder of every insecurity I had and what I didn't want people to see in me. I thought he was another version of me. It was only after a certain point I realized that actually he wasn't me, that the difference between the two of us was far greater and more complex than the question mark in your pic at the top of the article. But everyone sees what they want to see, and for a while all I saw was the overlapping insecurities. Thinking that he and I were the same person was keeping me from putting those insecurities in the past and becoming whoever I wanted to be. (damn that sounds cheesy) Plus, it acts as a kind of crutch, if I think that this other person and I are the same it implies a sort of biological predisposition to that kind of behavior. If I thought that no one else was like me, I'd have no excuse for doing exactly what I personally want.

      Like you said, the biggest question is, are you happy? You are not that guy and there are a thousand reasons why. If he's happy or sad it's for an uncountable number of reasons that have nothing to do with your life. Interestingly if you got to know him better you'd probably find that out, but the distance makes for better snap judgements. I personally find it just takes repetition, noticing my pattern of projecting my insecurities onto others, and every time I do it reminding myself of the Truth.

    2. Andrew says:

      I recently watched The Power of Myth and there was a bit about how everyone has this "Shadow Person." At first, I thought it sounded like a load of hooey, something a strip mall fortune teller that's using a repurposed bowling ball to divine bullshits o'plenty, but after some further unfurling of this Shadow Person theory, it became clear that it's something I do myself with just about everyone I encounter. If we don't like someone and make a snap judgment about them, it's because we're seeing something in that person we don't like about ourselves by way of projecting. But I'm with you, I lost roughly a hundred pounds in the last couple of years and every time I see a guy miserably sweating outside a GameStop smoking a cigarette, pleading to those on high to scrape through the day without some asshole calling him fat, I get a bit of the old "Jesus, that's me. That WAS me. That, in a many great ways, is STILL me."

      But then again, the fat guy in the trench coat, fedora and bookbag is pretty much the zeitgeist of our generation. Sad but true.

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