G ray stared at his dinner. He did not like eating alone in restaurants. Not that Gray struggled with being alone. He enjoyed it � in private. To be alone in public was a different matter.
He glanced repeatedly at the other solo diner at the Dragon Express. Five tables away. The other guy sat comfortably, legs crossed, leaning back against the colorful waterfall murals. Yeah, that's the way Gray wanted to look too. They both wore jeans and a plaid flannel shirt and sandals.
Gray refocused on his Blackberry, blinking and bleeping beside his plate. The phone was his dinner partner. Text messages floated in from his distant wife, away at a yoga retreat for the week.
R U at Dragon again? R U having sesame noodles?
Gray typed, "chow w/ doppelganger."
The other guy unrolled a newspaper and spread it out across his table. The pink pages were a give-away. The Financial Times. Gray had read it at breakfast and could easily guess which front-page article the other guy was digesting. The one about retirement portfolios. The one that made Gray think, "I'm never going to get out of this rat race." From his perplexed frown, Gray surmised the other guy was a not a banker or professional money man. Probably a mid-career academic, like Gray, trying to learn how to protect a diminished 401K.
Gray scooted his chair. Crossed and uncrossed his legs. He stood and walked over to the drinks counter to refill his tea. He passed close to the other guy's table and noticed that the doppelganger was eating sesame noodles. On the way back, the guy glanced up and Gray gestured at the newspaper and said, "It's enough to make you decide to stuff the mattress."
The other guy smiled and said, "The problem is I already have."
Gray said, "How do like the sesame noodles?"
"My favorite," the guy said.
"You eat here a lot?"
"Usually take-out," the other guy answered, "my wife likes ordering take-out, but she's away at a conference this week, so tonight I just came on over."
Gray struggled to contain a rippling sensation of space/time warp. He slowly, matter-of-factly said, "Yeah, same here."
"You're welcome to join me," the other guy said.
Gray wavered. He wanted to accept the invitation, but in the world of professorial male bonding, it was too much too soon. Also, he noticed a pack of cigarettes in the other guy's shirt pocket. Gray had finally quit smoking only six months before. He knew that if the other guy offered him a smoke… no, he couldn't risk it.
"I'll take a raincheck," Gray said, "I'm just finishing up. And I don't want to keep you from your paper. Important time. We're the last of the newspaper readers."
"Right on," the other guy said.
Gray bussed his dishes, except for his Styrofoam tea cup. He exited the restaurant. The evening sky had gone dark. He started toward home, sipping his tea. Why had he and the other guy not at least exchanged names? Would that have broken the spell, to voice their different names?
Like many people, Gray occasionally Googled himself. He had found several individuals with his same first and last name scattered around the country. He once dreamed of inviting them all to assemble at a spring break resort in Florida.
Gray turned and crossed the street and headed back toward Dragon Express. He paused behind the tall bushes in the parking lot. He saw the other guy inside, framed by the large, front window, reading his newspaper beside the waterfall mural. Gray stared and suddenly remembered something mysterious about waterfalls. The secret place behind the deluge.
He was a young child. An outing to a state park. Ledges. A tributary creek. The waterfall now would seem small. Back then, it was thunderously gigantic. A dare from someone, an older kid, his brother. A dare to walk into the spray, to walk directly through the noisy curtain of water and discover the secret place on the other side. His brother did it first. He disappeared. Gray froze and yelled for help.
The other guy folded his newspaper and swallowed the last of his drink. He stood and stretched and strode out of the restaurant. He lit a cigarette. The smoke wafted across the parking lot to the bushes. It smelled delicious to Gray. The other guy began walking down the cross street.
Gray followed him at a distance. Matching his pace and gait. Three blocks later, the other guy arrived at a brick bungalow perched on a rise. He turned and climbed the steep, frost-heaved limestone steps to the porch. He paused to snuff out his cigarette in a clam shell ashtray on the porch railing.
Gray watched from the corner.
Inside the house, ceiling lights flicked on and off and on, as the man's shadow migrated from the living room to the kitchen, upstairs to a bedroom. Gray approached, gathered his courage, and gingerly took the stone front steps, one at a time, up to the porch. He rescued the cigarette butt from the ashtray and inhaled a reviving puff. It was like crossing through the veil of the waterfall. Trespassing into alien space. Now he was the other guy.
BIO: Ian Woollen lives in Bloomington, Indiana, walking distance to Bryan Park. His day job is psychotherapy. Short fiction has surfaced in a variety of places, including Juked, Unlikely Stories, decomP, and The Blue Lake Review. A new novel, UNCLE ANTON'S ATOMIC BOMB, is due out this fall from Coffeetown Press.