Mistaken for a Stranger
by Eoghan Walsh
I didn’t bother reading the messages anymore. When I started, each one seemed unique, these perfect snapshots of love and grief and I admit, I’d get choked up sometimes. I’m a pretty sensitive guy. But I started to see how boring they really were. Almost everyone deals with loss and loneliness the same way. I began to notice all the repeating patterns of empty platitudes; each individual’s pain, no different from the next. It’s no wonder the computers were so good at generating responses - grief can be written as an algorithm.
Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be reading them anyway. As a coder, my responsibility was in the technical stuff, making sure the whole system ran properly. I’d still dip in now and then, if something caught my eye but looking at peoples’ profiles was far more interesting. I wasn’t supposed to be doing that either, obviously, but the system had greater access than you normally would if you were just casually snooping at home.
I won’t lie, I used to look for pretty girls and read their messages if they seemed interesting. I wasn’t stalking them or anything, I was just curious. I wanted to understand what made them think. I thought maybe it would help me to talk to them. I didn’t get a chance to talk to girls much, or rather, they didn’t give me much of a chance.
Sometimes I’d look at men. Not in a gay way, I just wanted to know what these girls saw in them. I’d check out their boyfriends or close friends but I just didn’t understand what they had that I didn’t. Almost all of them were preppy morons or pathetic stoners. Well, that’s what I thought, until Alex.
It was Tuesday morning and I was supposed to be compiling data but really, I was poking around the system, checking out profiles. At the other end of the office, some of my co-workers were chatting. I didn’t hang out with them. They thought I was ‘annoying’ and ‘arrogant’ because I corrected them so often. I had always thought of it as imparting knowledge. I couldn’t help myself.
Gerard – one of the directors – was leading another journalist around the office. We got a lot of them in the early days of the company. There was plenty of interest in us and not just from the tech-sites. This one was from a major newspaper; tall and pretty but in a plain kind of way. He gave her the usual tour, delivering his unchanging spiel with the over-earnest smiles. By this time, I knew it almost by heart.
‘At Orpheus, we’re all about solace, y’know? In the past you’d lose someone and that was it. They were gone. Maybe you’d talk to their gravestone but they’d never answer back. Yet, that’s what we want most of all in that moment: a sign, a reply. Orpheus can help with that.’
He gave a sympathetic look and held his hands together, nodding as she no doubt asked questions about why people would even want to email the dead, to which he would reply:
‘It’s natural, in our digital lives, to email our lost ones or to leave messages on their profiles. You’re reaching out to them. That’s where Orpheus comes in. With the permission of the deceased or their family, our system scans their emails, social media profiles and other digital detritus, then uses their words to compose replies to these missives of mourning. You’re not communicating with the other side, it’s just a way to find some comfort, to slowly adjust to that hole in your life.’
She was eating this up. She wasn’t even his type but Gerard had a weird magnetism. Now she’d be asking a question about ‘preying on the grief-stricken’ or something. That’s when Gerard would say, ‘I can see why people might say that but I think they’re wrong. This is a choice people make, a way to help them grieve and cope. Here at Orpheus, we just want to help.’
What Gerard really wanted was to get the figures up, increase traffic to site and then sell the whole thing to one of the big companies and buy a yacht.
Then he walked over to my desk. This was my part in the routine. I switched the screen away from the profile of the girl I was looking at to the dense display of numbers and code he was expecting.
‘And this is Christopher,’ he said, slapping me on the back. I tried not to flinch. ‘He’s one of our genius codemasters here, integral to the operation. We’d be lost without him.’ He leaned down, as he always did and I got a mouthful of cologne. ‘Working on something complicated there, Chris?’
I’d told him a million times not to call me Chris. I looked up at the girl, ready to reel off the script about page-views and processing but she didn’t look at me. Instead, she glanced around the office and asked Gerard about the writers.
‘Oh sure, of course. Right this way,’ he said and ushered her down to the other end of the office. It seemed like a good time for a bathroom break.
When I got back the place had cleared out for lunch. I ate my sandwich at my desk as I browsed the system. I clicked on the name Alex as it popped up but it was not the pretty girl I was hoping for. Alex was a man. I was about to close it but something caught my eye.
I knew Alex’s face. I couldn’t place it but I could see he was from around here. I must have seen him before, a face in the crowd. I guess you could call him handsome: tall, athletic with tightly sheared hair and a bright, lopsided smile. He was 27, like me, and, judging by the system, had been dead for over four months. Usually, I’d close him down but something held my interest. A sense of shared space and time, like maybe we’d passed in the street.
There were hundreds of messages written to him and even more comments on his profile. I’d never seen so many. Most people get maybe a hundred, at most. Over half of Alex’s messages came from one name: Claire. That’s when I did something I hadn’t done in a while. I started reading.
Alex, I couldn’t sleep again last night. I kept turning to look at you. I didn’t even mean to, my body just turned to where you’d be and the bed was empty. Your smell has faded and I’m starting to forget what it was like.
Do you remember when we took your brother’s tent and climbed the mountain? You got bored of staring at the stars and instead acted out a story about the time you and your brothers camped in the back garden and got chased by a stray cat. I laughed so hard. How could one of your stories be more interesting than the galaxy spread out above us? I don’t know, but it was.
You made me laugh so much, Alex. I loved how you made yourself laugh, so entertained by your own silly imagination.
I took out your letters this morning. I treasure them because you live in them. It’s always like you’re right here when I read them. Your hand made them.
This is not the same but it’s all I have. You’d think it’s silly but I need this. I need you.
- C xxx
I read a few more. They weren’t so different from the hundreds of messages I’d read while at Orpheus but something about Claire’s writing pulled at the hairs on my neck. Maybe it was because there were so many; such a volume of yearning, of memories. I wanted that. I didn’t have the words for it but it was there, the thought that no one would write to me like that.
I opened Claire’s profile. She was fantastic, this beautifully curvy girl with streaks of blue hair and tattoos on her arms. I flicked through the photos of her and Alex and found myself imagining it was me in those pictures instead of him. I dug deeper, found her favourite films, books and music. Then I found out she worked in a café on the other side of town. Maybe I shouldn’t have – I don’t know –, but I decided I’d go there.
I caught a bus across town and eventually found it: one of those faux-retro, hipster places with twenty varieties of coffee. Not my scene, but I took a seat by the window anyway. She appeared at the coffee machine behind the counter – the blue streaks, the tattoos, that face - and gave some tight-jeaned bearded guy whatever Fair-Trade Ethiopian blend he’d ordered. She was better than these people. I ordered a tea from one of the other waitresses and watched Claire for a while.
That night, at home, I thought about her. My stomach tightened as I pictured her rejecting me, like they all did. How did Alex do it? It was clear he wasn’t like Gerard. For all the women Gerard had been with, I’d be surprised if he’d get even fifty messages when one of his many venereal diseases won out. No, there was something about Alex I was missing. How had he made Claire laugh? What stories had he hold her?
At work, I picked through his profile for the little details that would help me figure out how he got Claire. Yes, he was handsome, but surely it was more than that? He was more widely read than I expected and his taste in music wasn’t the usual crap these guys listened to. It didn’t feel like enough. A love like that isn’t based on books and music. Maybe, I thought, the secret was in her messages. She’d sent another one overnight. It was in the queue, waiting to be processed. She’d been thinking of him as I’d been thinking of her.
I was craving your hands all day today. Is that strange? Maybe not. I loved your hands. I loved how small my own felt in them. I loved how they felt on my body. You clapped with confidence, you know that? They were always warm, even on the coldest days. How? What was your secret? Some days I feel like I knew everything about you and other days, like I barely knew you at all.
- C xxx
It didn’t tell me much. I opened the next few and read them carefully. Over the next few days, I made my way through every message she sent but in the end, I was no better off. There was nothing of substance there, nothing about how they’d met or what had first drawn her to him.
Every evening, I’d take the bus across town to the café and watch her from the corner of my eye. I didn’t have a plan. I just needed to be near her, to see her in the flesh. I watched how she’d talk to customers and her co-workers; warm, friendly but so sad. You could see the sadness if you looked for it. I wanted to know how I could make her happy. I wanted to know what she was looking for. I realised I could just ask her.
I got in early Monday morning. I’d been waiting to do this all weekend. As I’d hoped, there was a message from Claire. I bumped it to the top of the queue and allowed the computer to compile a message, but before it sent I altered it, careful to use only the words already there. Gerard overlooked the reading and the profile-browsing to a certain extent but to explicitly change a reply? That was bad. I rearranged the words in the message – ‘Do you remember when we met?’ – and clicked send. I erased any record of the change before anyone else came in.
Alex, of course I remember! It was that party you and your friends gatecrashed. We talked until the police came and shut the whole thing down. I remember being surprised you read Atwood but then you were always confounding expectations. I was wary when you called me the next day but now I can’t imagine never having met you again. Can you? How different things would have been. That’s all it takes, I suppose, a few little words to change an entire life. I slept in your t-shirt again, my love. It doesn’t feel like it used to. It doesn’t feel like you.
- C xxx
I read her reply again and again but felt no closer to understanding. How had he struck up the conversation with her and not have her simply ignore him? I felt it was time to push things forward a little.
On Saturday, I placed my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale on the table at the café. I’d spent the night before thumbing through it and bending pages to make it look tattered and worn. I’d swapped my usual black t-shirt and jeans for a light blue Oxford shirt and some dark blue chinos, like I’d seen Alex wear. I felt like I fitted in more at the cafe, which raised all sorts of mixed feelings. But I drank my coffee and pretended to read the book, holding it to be seen by Claire without looking like I was showing off. Hours went by. I felt like maybe this was a waste of time. Then, just as she passed, she noticed my empty cup and picked it up. Our eyes met and she gave me a slight smile. I returned the smile, raising the book an inch or so, in case she hadn’t noticed.
She carried the cup away without giving me a second look. Had she really not even noticed me? Or had I scared her, because I looked too much like Alex? But I felt a little giddy sense of triumph: our eyes had met.
It took Claire a few days to respond to the last message. Was it something I’d done? Eventually, her name appeared in the queue. She wrote about her day. I felt closer now, having met her for real but nowhere near feeling like I could approach her. I altered the reply again – ‘What did you like about me at first?’ – but I had to insert the word ‘first’ myself, which was maybe a step too far.
I spent the night at the mirror again, practising my smile and how Alex would lean against walls.
I tried to stay away from the café for the rest of the week. I didn’t want to look like a stalker. No messages arrived from her. At the weekend, I sat by the window again but she wasn’t there. There was no reply the following week either. I wondered how anxious Alex might have gotten in such a situation. Maybe he wouldn’t. But, with a girl like Claire, how could he not have worried? How could he have loved her any less than I did? No, he would have been just as worried. I thought about sending her another message but it would be too much. All I could do was wait.
When I arrived at the café that weekend, she was there. I had to stop myself from going right up to her. I took the nearest table to the counter, trying to look nonchalant, ordered an Ecuadorian espresso and pretended to read a discarded newspaper. She weaved around the tables, taking orders and carrying trays and walked with a lightness I hadn’t seen before. It made me ache for her.
She chatted with the other girls behind the counter. I eavesdropped a little but most of it was boring. Just as I was finishing my espresso, I heard something important: they were going out, to a bar. My hand shook as I put the cup in the saucer, rattling the ceramic. This was my chance. I got home as fast as I could.
Music from the bar pulsed through the bathroom door as I looked in the long mirror. ‘Come on, this is it. I believe in you, Alex. You did this before. Just be your casual, confident self. You’re the man, Alex.’ I stared into Alex’s eyes and walked out into the noise.
I stood at the bar and ordered a whiskey, neat. Alex’s drink. My drink. I scanned the crowd for a glimpse of the blue streaks of her hair. I tried to look cool. A girl emerged from the crowd and my heart jumped. It wasn’t Claire. She smiled at me and she was pretty, sure, but I went back to looking for my girl.
Just as I was about to give up hope, after my third drink, she came right up to the bar in a blue flowing dress I’d never seen before. Even in the stinking pub I could smell her perfume. I was dizzy. I leaned against the bar and looked at her but she didn’t notice. Her drinks arrived, she picked them up and turned to me.
Our eyes met again. I smiled at her. ‘Hello, Claire.’ Her eyes moved on as she turned to face the crowd. How could she not have recognised me? She dissolved into the mass of people before I could catch her attention. I followed, pushing and shoving but she was gone. I thought I’d done everything right.
Alone at the office, well after midnight, I checked the system. No messages from her. What had happened? I wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t Alex yet, I was missing something. I brought up her profile. My head was swimming and my hands were unsteady. I rested them on the keyboard and started to type.