Once there was a man who looked like someone else. Eugene was his name, but everyone kept on mistaking him for John, or James, or Joseph, or Jeremiah, or Jason, or Jefferson, or even Jennifer. For some reason, he was unable to be recognised for himself. As a student at school, other students would mistake him for the teacher, and the teachers would mistake him for the district supervisor. At work, workmates would mistake him for the boss, and the boss would mistake him for a another workmate, or the state manager, or even just a person off the street. It was very frustrating: he was either being admired for achievements which he had never actually achieved while having his own talents ignored, or not having his own mistakes recognised in preference for the mistakes of other people. In the hands of a mighty leader like Winston Churchill or an espionage genius like Mata Hari, this strange quirk of fate that kept him from being recognised could have achieved great things, but not with Eugene. He was just an ordinary guy who was the victim of extraordinarily annoying circumstances.
There was, however, one person who actually could recognise Eugene for who he was and not someone else. It was not his father, who kept on mistaking him for his sister Emmeline, and it was not his sister Emmeline, who was very social and he hardly ever saw anyway, or even his mother, who was incredibly forgetful and kept on mistaking him for his twin brother Barry. But it was his twin brother Barry, who was a little short-sighted and kept on mistaking everybody. Eugene's identity was perpetually mistaken anyway, so when Barry met up with him, he would habitually mistake his mistaken identity, which evened things out, although it made for a lot of confusion in the family. Tragically, Barry was lost for many years in the Amazon rainforest with the rest of biology class 8B during a one-off school excursion to the region which had been intended mostly to look at some of the native bird life. So Eugene had no-one to recognise him. Still, he got by.
The first time I met the man who looked like someone else, I recognised him immediately, as I had never seen him before. It was at a quiet bar near Sydney Road in Coburg, and I had just dipped in for a quiet drink; instead, I found myself engaged in deep conversation with this unfortunate individual who was unable to look like himself. Eugene poured out his heart to me, telling me something of his story, explaining how his whole existence was an existential dilemma. I had had a beer or two by that time, so I was naturally able to sympathise, and we became firm friends. Over the years that followed, I learned more about the remarkable life led by this unremarkable individual, or rather, the remarkable things that people were constantly mistaking the man who looked like someone else as being responsible for.
On later occasions, the man who looked like someone else effortlessly looked like someone else each time I saw him. Of course, this did not bother me in the slightest: I never remember names and faces, and so I have always recognised him straightaway. He was deeply grateful to me for this.
I can only set out a few bare details from his life here in this history ...
Clothes were always something of a difficulty for Eugene. He had no eye for fashion, but his mother had bought him up to keep neat and clean - just like his brother Barry (who she kept on mistaking him for). He liked to order his clothes before he ordered his day or his life, which was often not possible; when he faced himself in the mirror, he was never sure what he was going to see. Some days he would have the face of Patrick Stewart and the hair to match; on other occasions, he would look like a bum from the street. After all, the man who looked like someone else to other people looked like someone else to himself, too.
He was constantly being mistaken on the streets for various individuals famous for their achievements, such as Thomas Edison, Jackie Chan, and Al Capone. He could not, naturally, control how he looked like, and so could not help being consistently recognised for who he was not. If other people were famous for doing this or achieving that, Eugene was often, simply, famous for being famous. It was incredibly frustrating for him. He was forever being dragged off the streets by deluded fans asking for autographs (which of course he usually refused) or being dragged by screaming wasabi chefs into their restaurant asking why he was late (he was not, but evidently whoever he looked like was), or being chased by either gangsters or the police (depending on whoever was closest at the time). Several times a year, he was mistaken for a super-criminal or a terrorist by national and international authorities, and I hear the government was building a whole dossier on him.
His genealogy was curious. He told me that he had inherited his facial features (whatever they were at the time) from either his father or his mother. His father, apparently, bore an uncanny resemblance to a mirror - as did his father before that, and his father before that. His mother, on the other hand, more closely resembled an actress (she was, in fact, a teller at the local bank, but merely appeared to everyone who saw her as an actress.) I doubted this description of his parents and family at first, but then he showed me pictures of his family. His father really did look remarkably like a mirror and his mother really did appear amazingly like an actress.
He went on to describe to me several other curious family traits. His children, it seemed, did not appear like any of their parents or grandparents. Rather, they bore an uncanny resemblance to one another, despite being of different ages and vastly different sexes. He concluded his strange family history by telling me of a great aunt of his who looked curiously like a metaphor - although she was so alarmingly large and threatening, no-one of his family members wanted to know what sort of metaphor ...
Eugene became married to a university friend of his, but the marriage was not a happy one. Her name was Jasmine, and although she was kind and understanding in her way, she had a changeable nature. Their marriage lasted, in its own way, partly because Jasmine kept on mistaking Eugene for someone else, and falling in lust or love with that other person. Eugene, for his part, simply wanted the stability and contentedness that marriage provided; unfortunately, this was only possible with a person like Jasmine. After some years of things carrying on in this way, the couple split out of mutual dissatisfaction. The children - a boy and a girl of equal height but different ages - went to live with Jasmine. Whenever Eugene came to visit them, they would fail to recognise him, and instead tell him stories about how mean their mother was, and how she stayed out for hours with strange men at night, and how much they wanted to live with their father, who was kind and neat and who they loved very much and always took care of them. For some reason, Eugene always found visiting his children a very depressing experience, but still, he kept on with the visits.
For a time after his break up with Jasmine, Eugene did consider plastic surgery. He had come to hate the way he didn't look, (which was like himself). He wanted more than anything else to be recognised by his friends and family; and he fell into a deep depression. He consulted with a doctor about his difficulty, pouring out his problems a kindly grey-haired old physician. The doctor looked at him, looked away, and looked at him again and decided that he did indeed look like someone else. He drew out a ruler, took measurements of Eugene's face, and sent Eugene on to a team of quantum physicists he knew. The team of quantum physicists looked at Eugene, looked away, and looked at him again, before deciding that he actually did look like someone else. They took out geiger counters and gravity-beam detectors and various other gadgets and meters that made strange noises, and began to perform various tests on Eugene. After a while, the man who looked like someone else got bored and got up to go, leaving them at it.
On the whole, Eugene decided, plastic surgery was best left to the celebrities, and it didn't do them any good either. Besides, he decided, it was against his personal beliefs.
He grew infinitely weary with being insistently mistaken for who he was not. For days he would not move from his house. Finally, one day he bought a small farm in the countryside and took up a small business breeding fox terriers, and refused to speak to anyone, even customers (unless absolutely necessary). The dogs, after all, didn't really know who or what he looked like. If they did see him, it was rather fuzzily, and they didn't have the brains to not recognise him. They just thought he had a friendly smell. Sometimes, Eugene did not take a bath for days in order to oblige these simple creatures. They loved him for it. He lived this way for some time, but he grew tired of the company of the dogs. They may have thought he had a friendly smell, but occasionally he really felt like going to see a movie with some friends. Eventually, he moved back to the city (taking the dogs with him)
Eugene was by this time 40 years old, an older and wiser man who looked like someone else. I had known him for several years, and was amongst the first to welcome him back from the countryside.
We sat down together, as we always had, in the local bar, and he told me about how his life was. Things were looking up; several months ago he and a girl he knew from work had fallen deeply in love. Her name was Iphigenia, and she was a ballet dancer who liked pink flowers and poodles and cooking cupcakes and heavy metal music. Their relationship, of course, had some difficulties; Iphigenia kept on mistaking Eugene for her ex-husband, a man who worked as an accountant to a group of international ivory merchants, and who she detested with all her heart. However, Eugene told me, he felt sure they could work through these troubles together.
We raised our glasses and drank late into the night. Above all else, I shall remember one thing of that time; a warm tableau that comes at me from out of the chill of the winter night, with Eugene's eyes winking at me from across the top of his glass: the man who looked like someone else was smiling.
(Cross posted on my other blog.)