If I Were You
by Ray Nayler
1. If I were you, I would pack my bags and leave this place. I would not pack everything: I would select a certain number of the most important items. I would cancel my cell phone, because carrying a cell phone is not leaving. I would cancel my internet subscription, and make out a check to the landlord for the balance of the lease. I would do this because I wanted to leave, but did not want to ruin my credit rating. I would leave notes for all of my friends that did not imply suicide or induce worry. I would carry my essential documents with me in a fire proof box. The box would not be large because I would scan and destroy all non-essential documents and carry those with me on a thumb drive to save space. I would select a place to travel to by throwing a dart at a map, or perhaps by opening up a road atlas of the United States, eyes closed, and pointing to a page. Since you do not own an atlas or a map or darts, I would take a walk to Barnes and Nobles and use one of theirs. I would try three times before “randomly selecting” a town with a cool-sounding name somewhere in southern Illinois. While at Barnes and Nobles I would have a cup of coffee, reconsider my options, return home and tear up the letters, because I am you and you are a coward. I didn’t even put the letters in the mail. I knew you weren’t really going. I would continue my life as normal, but occasionally fantasize about the life that could have been. Invariably, in this fantasy I work in a small-town coffee shop waiting tables. The sky is blue, the landscape flat, and there is a dog on the hot pavement of a cracked parking lot. In this fantasy, I smoke, but do not feel guilty about it, and the smoke has no smell. I smoke leaning against the wall of the coffee shop. Invariably in this fantasy life is impossibly interesting and there is no boredom. Somehow, boredom is replaced by mystery — although that town is probably the most boring of all possible places, if you could think about it logically (you can’t, because you are illogical and driven by emotion). If I were you, I would continue for the rest of my life to think that that town is out there, somewhere. I would be both right and wrong. Mostly wrong, because southern Illinois is not flat and your geography is questionable.
2. If I were you, I would move to a cabin in the woods, somewhere. The cabin would have a well, no electricity, and it would be in a small clearing. The woods would be evergreen. I would make sure that the cabin had a phone, but one of those rotary dial phones that probably don’t even exist anymore except in small-town junk shops. If it had a push-button phone or, god help us, one of those modern ones, I would drive out and buy a rotary phone in the nearest town to replace it with. In the evening, after spending most of the day fishing in the nearby lake, I would come back to the cabin and wait for that phone to ring. Although I initially thought I wanted to be cut off from the rest of the world, I would constantly be waiting for one of my friends, for a relative, or for you-know-who to call me. How would they have found this number? Well, they would have to work for it, wouldn’t they? That way, I would know that someone cared. Even better, they could show up on the doorstep of the cabin. I would be coming back from fishing with a string of trout – all of approximately the same size and more rainbow-y than rainbow trout really are. I would stop and see them standing on the porch, waiting. They would have waited for hours. The reunion would be joyful, and depending on who it was (this changes all the time, doesn’t it?) we would make love, or have coffee, or whatever. But I would send them away again, because now that it has been proven to me that someone cares about me, it is no longer necessary for that person to be present. That’s the truth you don’t want to face, isn’t it? Every once in a while, someone from my former life could come crawling to my porch. They would be penitent, worried, missing me. And after I sank my fangs into their neck, I would send them away again. Soon, trout fishing would get monotonous and I would move again. I might make it easier to follow me this time. And if for a moment I thought I had been forgotten, I would send postcards. But they would be cryptic. They would reveal nothing of what is inside me. They would give nothing to others. Because, after all, I am you.
3. If I were you, I would drive immediately to the airport with a week of clothing and the appropriate, permissible amount of toiletries in a carry-on, rolling suitcase. If I did not have such a suitcase I would buy one, since money is really no object, within limits. After checking that I had shifted money around on my bank cards properly, I would proceed to the first ticket counter and purchase a ticket for the next available flight to a country where I spoke the language well enough to get a hotel. This country would be Morocco, where a convenient portion of the population speaks either English or French and I would wander Tangiers pretending that the time was not now, and that things in the world were still the way they were when Burroughs or Bowles lived their sweet exile out on this same, but somehow now more boring, soil. Now is never the right time, but sometimes you can steal a warm nostalgia from the past to help you battle the methodical dullness of the present. I would not smoke hashish because I am afraid of drugs and of what lives inside my skull in the places that I cannot see, and drugs sometimes throw a light there. I would sit at a café and drink coffee with grounds in it which I would wash away with a glass of water provided for the purpose. I would listen to the call of the Muezzin and the Moroccans would form a conveniently non-interactive tableau for me. I might smoke a water pipe, though I do not know the logistics of this. Tangiers would smell of spices and the past and of the pages of novels, especially the one that ends with the protagonist hammering a nail into another man’s ear; the one you recommended to me but I hated because the pacing sucked and it was impossible to like the main character. The city would smell of shadow and of mulberry. In no way would it reek of diesel fuel or human feces. When I had punished the people who loved me enough, I would return to my life. If they didn’t seem to get it, see #2, above, because I am you and there is no length that you will not go to for the sake of a little drama.
4. If I were you, I would consider a change in careers. I’m not talking about upward mobility, but a move into the service industry. I would shock my former friends by waiting tables at a local restaurant and accruing, almost as if by magic, a new circle of friends. By disappearing without going away at all. These new friends would be younger than me, and they would find me fascinating because I had thrown it all away and was this tragic figure that was beyond them, and yet one of them. I would not talk too much about my past, but just enough to be tantalizing. Occasionally, someone from my old life would come into the restaurant and I would wait on them as if they were any other customer. If they tried to make a scene, I would ask them, politely, to leave. They would have to do as I say. They would be powerless against my slipping out of their lives. They would be powerless against me staying right there, like a swimmy mote in their eye, glimpsed against the sun. My new friends would always go out for drinks after work and I would feel younger, renewed, among them. I would feel I was getting a second chance at youth. But this would be a youth without confusion and definitely without inconvenient commitment. I would do whatever I wanted, and because none of this is real my new circle of friends would not hate or resent me for treating them like interchangeable, amusing objects. Life would basically be a television show of my own design, and problems would have their resolution, and if anyone caused too much strife they would eventually move on into the void because they were just a guest star anyway, or because they were affecting the ratings. Isn’t that what I really want? It isn’t my fault – after all, it’s what I have been taught all my life to want. The only problem is, everyone else wants it too. The only problem is, we can’t all be the star.
5. If I were you, I would be worried that maybe it was me who is going to be moved into the void. Censored, for the betterment of the light and continuing drama. I would learn not to make waves. Especially around those season finales, where the producers really like to bump inconvenient characters off. There’s a million ways to do it. Cars, knives, suicide and just forgetting you were ever a part of the show in the first place. I would keep that in mind, if I were you.
6. If I were you, I would not be able to sleep after our conversation, and I would lay in the not-quite-dark of my room and really hear all the sounds in my apartment. I would walk around the apartment unplugging things and some of the background noise would go away, but some of it would stay. And this mix of electronic buzzes and vague whistling from inside the walls would feel, suddenly, like a cage. I would open up the window in the bedroom and look out into the night that is full of lights and admire the living fact of trees and of telephone poles and of bird-sound that the city cannot kill. I would consider picking up the phone and calling me, but I would realize that it can wait until morning. After all, you are you and I am me, and neither one of us is really going anywhere. And neither of us is really trapped, though we occasionally pace the floor and strike out at those who care about us. Though we may lay awake and full of our own death in the dark, wishing we were separable, somehow, from our selves.
Ray Nayler’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, Atlantic Review, Potomac Review, Able Muse, Sentence, and many other magazines. His speculative fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Crimewave, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, among others. His story ‘Winter Timeshare’ was collected in The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by legendary, multiple Hugo Award winning editor Gardner Dozois. Ray has lived and worked in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the former Soviet Union for well over a decade, and is posted to Pristina, Kosovo with the Foreign Service.