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You went into the cramped bathroom, smiling in the mirror while you urinated. You flushed with one hand and cranked on the faucet with the other. As the water ran, you reached into the cabinet under the sink. Inside the mildewed cube of particleboard was an unopened box of cotton balls, an empty picture frame, a rotted copy of the old course catalog, and your Mind Fund, which was nearly full. You took several bills from your wallet, half the day’s earnings, and crammed them into the can. Soon you would have enough, you thought, checking yourself in the mirror once again, nodding proudly.
You sat on the futon imagining yourself among a hall full of students, except they were not regular students. They were people you recognized: The Girl, Your Friend, the two men you had passed earlier, and a few younger versions of yourself.
The metallic clatter of someone repeatedly pressing the doorbell woke you. You went to open it. Standing there was a person who you assumed was one of your downstairs neighbors, a withered old man with a red kimono parted over the ceramic smoothness of his mole-flecked chest. He shoved an envelope at you.
This you, he said loudly in an accent you could not place. Mail oops!
Then he shrugged and disappeared down the staircase.
It was another letter from the Old Country, but when you opened it, expecting to see several pages of your mother’s erratic blue squiggles, you were met instead with a single page, covered in faint, angular pencil marks that you did not recognize immediately.
I hope you don’t mind my writing you, the letter began. I got your address from your mother. She did not seem happy to hear from me when I called the other day. It reminded me of how we used to joke that she never really liked me. Now I guess she doesn’t have to hide it. I understand that you are very busy these days, and I am happy to hear that. You must be living a very different life now.
I am doing okay.
That is a lie. I am not doing okay. But that is my concern, not yours.
You must know that I always think of you…
The following night was your slowest ever. You crawled from light to light, seeking out the emptiest streets, as the past came speeding back: memories of your last days in the Old Country, your helplessness, your hysteria. The Girl had ruined your life, had brazenly left you for a rich man her father’s age, had made you feel less than a man, less than human. Through time and space, you could still hear the honk of this man’s Mercedes outside your parents’ house as she sat beside you in the living room, crying and asking you to understand.
Why had she written after all this time? Why now? Was it true that she still thought of you?
All these things were swerving through your mind, rendering your other faculties useless, out of order, Off-Duty. You had ignored Adem earlier that morning when he had tried to read you your horoscope.
Gemini, you thought you heard him yell as you screeched out of the garage.
You were at the tail end of your shift when a black man, standing alone, came into view. His right hand was raised while his dark lips mouthed the word taxi. He had seen you. You pretended not to see him and hit the Off-Duty light. But as you sped past, you snuck a second look. There was something about him. Wide eyes. High forehead. Until the horn of a city bus went off, loud and long, you didn’t see how far you had drifted into the wrong lane.
You were staring because he looked exactly like you.
You hung a sudden right at the next light and more horns went off. A woman in a towering fur hat flagged you down, but you did not stop. You rubbed your eyes. You were hallucinating. The Girl was doing it again, even from a world away. You should have returned the car to Adem hours ago, taken the train home, been dozing on your futon. You should have been feeling the burn of whiskey in your throat as you watched her letter go up in flames on your fire escape.
But you had to make sure, didn’t you? So you steered back onto the street where you had last seen him, and he was still waving away and mouthing taxi over and over. No one else was stopping. You pulled up beside him.
The rearview gave you a better look at him, and now it was undeniable. This man was you. Not someone who resembled you, not a man who might have also been from the Old Country, not a long-lost relative or even a twin, but you exactly. Your face, your black wiry moustache, your movements—you. The only difference was his clothing. He was wearing The Movement’s scarf. It was the same blue scarf Your Friend had given you. You recognized the loops and swirls in the knitting as he closed the door.
His scarf was much shabbier, fraying at the ends and full of stains and small holes, so worn it seemed silken. Seconds ticked away as you idled at the light, neither of you saying a word. You asked him where he was going, and in a thin, quivering voice he said, The University. You forgot to start the meter.
$2.50: You are still in the world. Your hands are on the steering wheel. You are driving a taxi. You are a taxi driver. This is The Big City.
$2.50: Why is he rubbing his temples like that?
$2.50: What in God’s name? Doesn’t he see his face on the license?
Do you know the university very well? he asked after a while. I am trying to reach The Psychiatry House.
That’s what he said, The Psychiatry House.
Something about him made you think that you weren’t dropping him off at class.
You shook your head slowly, and in the rearview he stared back at you with an even wearier, blanker version of your own eyes. As you stared, his right eye seemed to wander toward the window and turn green.
When you reached The University, you printed out a receipt for $2.50. Neither of you seemed to notice that the meter hadn’t been running. He gave you a few dollars, and when he left, you parked the car to follow him on foot.
You trailed him through the wrought iron gates of The University, through the brick-lined walkways, watching him blush as he stopped to ask one person after another for directions to The Psychiatry House. Finally, he found it, and after a few of the most anxious minutes of your life, waiting outside the building and cursing The Girl for finally having made you lose your mind, you pulled open the heavy oak door and stepped in.
There was a receptionist at the front desk. She had a short bob and wore a telephone headset, which for a moment appeared alien to you, as though it were an invention from the future.
You’re back, said the receptionist, with a surprised smile. Didn’t you find the room?
Careful, you thought.
I’m sorry, you said. I’m very forgetful. What did I say I was here for?
The receptionist slowly blinked and nodded, a calculated gesture of pity. A bead of sweat fell from the tip of your nose. You’re here to see Doctor Greene, she said with the air of a person who often answered strange questions.
For the study, she nodded, even slower.
Your country, she paused, unsure. Where you came from.
Yes, you said. Where I came from.
You were tortured.
Yes, you said. Tortured.