The man must have recognised me when I got on the bus, because as soon as I sat down, he almost leapt over to sit beside me, asking me directly if the damp I had rising in my house had been successfully treated by the specialist he had recommended.
Clearly he had mistaken me for someone else, for there was no damp in my house, nor had I received any recommendation from him; indeed, though I racked my memory for several moments, by the time he had finished speaking, I was sure that I had never seen the man before. He seemed, however, so certain in his recognition of me that I felt somehow reluctant to put him straight, and so, when the silence between us was in danger of becoming unbearably awkward, I replied that yes, the specialist had done an excellent job, all was concluded, and thanked him sincerely for his help.
He is happy to hear that, he says, and wonders if I might do him a favour this Friday?
Of course, I say, unable to see in the moment how I can refuse him without seeming rude.
Wonderful, he says, I am to meet him at his house at seven a.m. this Friday and drive him to a meeting several towns over. His car is at the garage, and there is no convenient bus route; is that agreeable to me? He knows I have Fridays off, and so it shouldn't put me out unduly.
I say I would be happy to.
Clapping me on the shoulder, he rises from the seat. This is his stop, but he will see me on Friday. I nod and he alights, disappearing down a side street as we pull out once again into the heavy evening traffic.
I shall probably never see him again, I think, knowing that I have no intention, no more the means, of keeping my appointment with him; but what a strange experience it all had been.
When Thursday evening drew round, however, I found myself beset by an unbearable guilt. The man would be expecting me the coming morning, and I would be absent to help him. What would he do? He would very likely miss his meeting, perhaps even lose his job; certainly he would curse my name—meaning, of course, the name of whomever it was he had mistaken me for. I shuddered to think how I would be responsible for driving an irreversible wedge between them, the man and his friend, from whom he had asked such a simple favour.
I spend the night tossing and turning, deeply disturbed by the consequences of my deceit. My wife, lying next to me, had to be up early the next morning to drive the children to school and kicked me without compassion and turned away from me, grumbling in her half sleep at my insomnia, after which I did my best to remain still as the bedroom window turned from a black to a pale grey, its delicate shading seeming always just one gradation away from true morning. I left my wife sleeping, my children without breakfast, such was my urgency to amend the sin of my impostership. I would make it my mission to find the man and fulfil my obligation to him, as well as setting the record straight about who I really was and the nature of his honest but terrible mistake.
I took my wife's car and drove to the bus stop where I had seen the man alight and disappear down the side street, and followed the road to a housing estate, around which I drove for perhaps half an hour or more, circling slowly, keeping a keen eye out for any sign of the man, until a few minutes after seven, when I was almost a nervous wreck, I spotted him leaning on the gate of a bungalow, dressed in a long, grey trenchcoat and holding a worn brown leather briefcase.
Spotting me, he waved me down and, opening the door, offered me such sincere thanks that I was immediately rendered unable to confess, but as we drove, the man seemed to grow increasingly uneasy, fidgeting in his seat and casting furtive glances at me. I began to suspect that he had caught on to my ruse and was feeling acutely uncomfortable at his proximity to an imposter.
I had been so eager to confess, but seeing him in such evident distress made me more reluctant than ever to confront the truth.
As we approach the outskirts of the town, the man clears his throat and says that he knows. I stutter through a few perfunctory phrases, managing to say nothing at all, but he puts his hand on my shoulder in a gesture of supplication or beatification and says that he knows about my condition, about my chronic wound, and that I shouldn't be embarrassed or ashamed, for he has a congested nose and cannot smell it festering, and how he feels so terribly guilty about having asked this favour of me when I should be convalescing, but that he only found out late last night when he mentioned our meeting to a mutual friend, and had not been able to reach me by telephone to tell me not to come.
No, no, I insist, relieved that I have not been revealed; it is all right, no trouble at all, and the wound is not as uncomfortable as all that for I have been prescribed an excellent analgesic by my family physician.
That's good, he says, he is glad I am being made comfortable, though there is doubt in his voice.
For a while, we drive in silence, he occasionally glancing sideways piteously at me, and when we finally reach his destination, he pauses for a long time before getting out, as if he is seeing me for the last time, and lays his hand once again on my shoulder, saying how much he admires my strength and how I should return home quickly now and rest.
I say I will do just that, and as I drive away, he waves at me like a lover does her sailor beau when she sees him off at the quay and knows that the sea holds his destiny in her hand and that the sea is heartless and cruel.
When I arrived home, the house was empty, and after reading the hurriedly scrawled note my wife had left me on the fridge, I went directly to the bathroom, where there was a full length mirror, before which I quickly undressed and made a full inspection of my body, for on the way home I had begun to feel strangely out of sorts, as if a chasm were opening up in my side.
I was not in the habit of examining myself and seldom paid any attention to my figure, unlike my wife, who examined her body regularly and minutely, and seemed to know the shape of herself like a vagrant knows a city, aware of every dark nook and corner and alley of ill repute. I, on the other hand, felt like a tourist in some strange city, who had grown up with false and lofty impressions of the place from magazines and brochures and period films, only on arriving myself to be shocked to my core by its degeneration and squalor.
The body was to my surprise riddled with flaws; the belly was quickly becoming a paunch as I approached my middle years, and the pectorals bulged to the sides like the handles of a grotesque sugar bowl; the legs appeared as sinewy columns of dubious structural integrity supporting a pediment that was rapidly losing its battle against the inexorable advance of ages; and yet I also felt something of a relief, for there was no glistening wound in evidence on this body, no ghastly excavation of this flawed flesh. The body was whole, and yet now I felt worse than ever, trapped in this thing which was not mine. A wave of exhaustion came over me all of a sudden, whereby I took to the sofa, hoping for a blessed release into sleep, the kind a dead man might experience before resurrection; and as I lay there, sleepless, I wanted only one person by my side—the man from the bus, who knew so much about me that we must have been the closest of friends. I wished he were by my side; I wished he would find me as I had found him in his hour of need. And then as if by some miracle, there he was, at my bedside, like a country doctor come to visit his patient. And he says to me: "You are awake, M——," giving me finally the gift of my name, "but you are very sick."
I know, I know, I say, wishing to return the gift of a name to him but having none but my own alias to give him, so I give it to him, my false name, though he will think me delirious and so I won't be judged. And then he leans close to my face as if to kiss me, and whispers all his sins to me, all his terrible sins, and when I have accepted them all as my own, he stands straight and tall and pulls up his shirt to show me his side, wrapped in bloody bandages, which he unwinds and unwinds until his bare flesh is exposed, and I see that he is whole, with no wound in his side, only a rosy shadow of where a wound once was.
And when the opening of the door wakes me, I try to rise, but a pain in my side stops me and I put my hand to it and feel the wetness seeping through my shirt, and I feel at once so completely like myself, and yet also that I will never feel like myself again.