I LOVE MYSELF

Stephen finds peace in large mirrors. His face is smooth and chiselled from the same stone that Michelangelo worked with. Royal bones jut from his gaunt cheeks, the result of many years careful diet and exercise.

He’s eating only one thousand calories a day for this face. He’s doing three hours of cardio daily for this face. A face like this is worthy of love.

The dinner he’s preparing is refined yet classy. He’s preparing fresh tortellini, hand-made from scratch. He stuffs soft, firm shells with ricotta, fresh basil and a small amount of roast garlic. All ingredients are sourced directly from a local Italian bakery. Marinara sauce simmers with bay leaves and high quality pancetta. His taut forearms grate Parmaggiano Reggiano.

Stephen wrenches open a bottle of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione and pours it through his crystal aerator. Aged fifteen years, the bottle is showing wonderfully as it opens up. The air fills with the smell of soft, juicy cherries and summer roses.

He sets two places with cream cloth and lays out his best cutlery. Sterling forks on the left and gold-finished knives on the right. He lights a french vanilla candle and steps back, admiring the scene. He’s almost got the ambience he wants, all it needs is a little music.

Stephen walks over to his mint-condition turntable and selects a Bill Withers record. He sets it carefully onto the player and the record begins to spin. The needle drops and in a few moments Bill Wither’s voice serenades the kitchen. Perfect.

There’s a knock at the door and Stephen gives himself a final once-over in the mirror.

He’s the very image of grace and objective beauty. Shakespeare’s attitude in the body of David.

Stephen swings the door open with a sly smile and looks at his date with twinkling eyes. It’s the same expression he uses to close deals at work.

Stephen’s date is identical to – well – himself. They have the same hazel brown eyes, the same cropped chocolate-brown hair, the same smile. The only difference is his Doppleganger wears a fur coat over a tight red-sequin dress that accentuates a powerful, muscled body.

But it’s not just any dress.

Doppleganger wears a dress starting halfway down his smooth, masculine legs. His legs are unparalleled. Creations of the gods, rather than simple men.

“Hi there,” Stephen says as he takes Doppleganger’s coat and hangs it in the closet.

Doppleganger enters the apartment, looking around at all the obvious preparation. Candles, old records and Italian cooking. He smiles at the dinner set on the table. Just served pasta steams lightly.

“You’ve cooked -“ Doppleganger sighs as he inhales, “and it smells delcious.”

“I just whipped something together, it wasn’t any trouble,” Stephen says with a shy smile. He holds out a chair for Doppleganger to sit.

Doppleganger takes a seat and Stephen pours him a glass of the Chianti.

“I hope you’re not trying to get me drunk,” Doppleganger says. He winks at Stephen and raises the glass of Chianti to his nose. He wears jade earrings and a delicate, floral perfume.

“Do I even need to?” Stephen asks.

Doppleganger giggles, and gently slaps Stephen’s arm.

They sit together and clink glasses in a cheers.

“To a beautiful evening,” Stephen says.

“To a beautiful evening,” says Doppleganger.

They both drink to avoid an awkward pause.

“So-“ They both start and stop simulatenously. They laugh.

Instead of trying to turn words into conversation, they eat.

Doppleganger moans as he tastes the first bite.

“In-cred-uh-ble. You’re an outstanding chef Stephen,” he says.

Blushing, Stephen looks up and beams at Doppleganger.

“Please, call me Steve,” he says.

They both laugh hysterically and clink glasses.

Stephen looks up and sees a small patch of sauce on the right side of Doppleganger’s mouth.

“Here,” Stephen says. He put down his knife and fork.

Doppleganger goes very still as Stephen leans in.

Stephen tenderly tabs the spot of sauce until it’s clean.

“There,” says Stephen.

Doppleganger smiles and laughs. He picks up a napkin, reaches out and dabs at Stephen’s mouth.

Stephen also had a stain. They share a look of delight as they revel in shared likeness.

They laugh together; perfectly harmonious humour.

After dinner’s finished, Stephen leaves the dishes for later and they cuddle up on the couch in front of Stephen’s 84-inch flat screen television. It’s 4K and best accompanied by cuddles.

They put something funny on Netflix, it’s easy to agree on what they should watch because they have the same taste. The best relationships are founded on common ground.

Stephen’s arm winds around Doppleganger’s shoulders and they hold each other, revelling in the warmth of their combined bodies.

A bowl of buttered popcorn sits on Stephen’s lap. Doppleganger reaches out to grab a handful at the same time as Stephen and their hands touch. They both laugh for a moment, and then their eyes meet and laughter parts in the wake of more powerful emotions.

Stephen’s hand wraps around Doppleganger’s middle and pulls him closer. Their faces are inches apart. Stephen can see the finite details of Doppleganger’s face. A splash of freckles on the nose, barely visible and endearing. Teeth as white as doves and a wet, tempting tongue.

Their mouths gravitate together and tongues wrestle as the movie is forgotten.

Doppleganger pull away, running his hands down Stephen’s firm chest.

“Turn off the TV,” Doppleganger says.

Stephen turns off the movie with a remote and then leans back against his boutique leather couch. Doppleganger stands and turns around, so his back is facing Stephen.

Doppleganger’s lowers his bum onto Stephen’s lap and hi hips begin to sway sensually. Stephen wants to reach out and rake his fingers down the V of that powerful back but he doesn’t want to seem too forwards.

With a swing of his head, Doppleganger peeps over his shoulder and his eyes sizzle as they meet Stephen’s.

Stephen reaches out to touch, and explore but Doppleganger rises and steps out of reach, the movement nothing but part of the dance, completely natural.

Doppleganger pulls at the hem of the red dress, revealing some hairless thigh and Stephen gasps. The skin is creamy, milky white and the sight of it makes breathing a challenge.

Swishing back and forth, Doppleganger reveals more and more leg until a buttocks pops out and drops.

Once revealed, this part of Doppleganger cannot be contained, and neither can Stephen. Stephen reaches out with shaking hands and cups the heavenly slab, tickled by short, sharp hairs, recently shaved.

Doppleganger adjusts his dance to the new attention.

Stephen is lost in paradise, eyes closed as his hands knead, pause and slap. Knead, pause and slap. Giggle. Knead, pause and slap.

Doppleganger wrenches the dress over his head and throws it on the floor. Beneath the sequinned slip, he wears nothing but a lacy red thong.

Stephen stands and rips free of his outfit, clothes falling like lead weights. They make their way to Stephen’s bedroom, siamese twins caught in a desperate, frenzied act of self-release. Hands pump and rub, muscles clench and go limp. Their breathing becomes one.

They fall into the sheets and their passion burns hotter, warmer, threatening to stretch skin and leave a rash.  The slap of a palm leaves a red handprint, and the bite of a lip leaves blood in the mouth.

The fire of their merging burns so hot the roof melts and a hole opens. The sun pours into Stephen like smelted metal; gold and syrup-thick. It doesn’t matter that it’s a cold, windy night in December. It doesn’t matter that he owes money on his apartment, on his BMW, even on his white-gold Rolex.

Nothing matters except the release.

His groans are as old as the grunts of early man.

Seed sprays from the bees and the birds but neither of them utter a word. The moment is beyond language, and as their eyes catch in the beyond, hooks take hold, digging in so deep that the roots lick their souls.

Stephen falls back to the sheets as light as a skydiver. There’s a coy smile on his face.

Without a word, Doppleganger stands and pulls Stephen’s housecoat, hanging on a chair, over his naked form. Doppleganger opens the door and steps out into the shadows of Stephen’s apartment.

With a throaty chuckle and a gluttonous appetite, Stephen stands and follows Doppleganger out into the apartment.

Doppleganger stands in front of the full-length mirror that hangs at one end of a hallway.

The moon pours in through a skylight and Doppleganger stands in it’s aura, a Broadway talent. His hands caress a belly bump, newly aquired.

Bathing in magnets too strong to resist, Stephen is pulled to Doppleganger, eyes on the swollen belly bump.

It can’t be real. There’s no doubt he’s spectacular but how is this possible?

Doppleganger holds the swell like a lover and looks up at Stephen with victorious eyes. Those eyes are saying look, we did it and singing the gospel of ownership but Stephen feels burned by the strength of the gaze.

Stephen reaches out cautiously, tenderly and his hand falls upon the bump. Something within it kicks and he draws his hand back.

Doppleganger laughs. With a spring lily tucked behind his ear, he takes Stephen’s wrist. “Look at what we made,” Doppleganger whispers as he leads Stephen’s hand to the bump. Doppleganger’s belly bubbles and stretches like a cat in a velvet bag.

After a sweaty pocketful of long, hard minutes, Stephen draws his hand away, goes to his room and closes the door, where he falls into a deep, dreamless sleep. Doppleganger keeps to the mirror, turning and admiring his newest feature in profile.

Stephen dreams that he’s speaking to a packed auditorium about his favourite topic; himself. The crowd explodes into applause as he finishes and they stand. The audience is made up of hundreds of thousands of Stephens.

Nine months after that night, Stephen kicks open the door of his home. He has to kick because his arms serve as storage for a wide range of gifts; little dainty outfits on little dainty hangers, bags of diapers, gag books, and even a comically oversized bottle.

Sweat plasters his hair to his forehead as he holds the door open with one, straight leg. Stephen’s arms ache under the weight of all their new belongings. A family doesn’t have stuff, they have belongings. They belong.

Someone has left a window open, and a chill invades his home, sending his nipples into granite territory. He want to go close to the window but he has to hold the door, that much is sure.

Doppleganger follows holding a bundle of swaddling; shitting, crying and piping-hot screams.

Once Doppleganger and Baby are inside, Stephen retracts his leg and the door closes. He dumps everything onto the counter.

Stephen glares at Doppleganger, catching his breath. Doppleganger is doing a slow two step and whispering to Baby.

With a gruff growl, Stephen holds out his arms, showing that he wants to hold the fuss, because he has to, that much is sure.

Doppleganger transfers the little bundle into Stephen’s arms and takes a few steps back, removing himself to spectator distance.

“I don’t see the big deal,” Stephen murmurs. He says it just loud enough for Baby to hear, though Baby is hidden inside earth-deep layers of blanket. Doppleganger coos and swoons, face bright with vibrant joy as he watches Stephen whispering to Baby.

With a manicured finger, Stephen reaches out and parts the blankets covering Baby’s face.

A small face pokes through the newly opened gap and gurgles, the little mouth toothless like a reptile and eyes hammered into slants by the sheer effort of being.

Stephen freezes as he looks down at the child. Bile rises from his belly like rage slurring and spitting from an alcoholic’s white-capped tongue. He coughs once and narrows his eyes.

The child is nothing like him. He might as well be an eagle regurgitating food into the gullet of a baby vulture, taken by accident from the nest. Now, look as Baby has the audacity to rest in his arms and say with it’s presence that it’s him.

Alarm pricks it’s way up Stephen’s arms and his eyes snap open like rat traps. He carefully but swiftly puts the child down on the kitchen counter, only for Doppleganger to squawk in surprise and swoop the child up.

Stephen turns and looks at Doppleganger only to find his lover no longer shares his face. Instead, an affectionate, elegant woman holds Baby in hand with nails painted bright red.

Her hair is long, curly and streaked with auburn and hazel. Her eyes are green, which he sees are shared by Baby; Stephen’s eyes are blue.

Stephen scrambles away from them, the imposters in his life and his home. He laughs nervously in a very high pitch as he looks around for an escape.

His eyes settle on a set of kitchen knives but in the blades he sees unflinching iron bars, not the warm, blooming blue of an open sky.

“Honey?” says Doppleganger. The voice is not his own. It’s like silken honey, not the rough gasping words of his own throat.

Stephen shakes his head, covers his eyes and is about to fall to the ground when he becomes aware of the incredible weight that has settled upon him. He feels like Atlas carrying the world on Vogue magazine shoulders.

“Honey what’s wrong?”

Here comes that damned, cursed sugar-sweet simper again. Stephen actually gags. She’s nothing like him.

Squaring his shoulders into a stance of steadfast stoicism, Stephen avoids her gaze. His eyes settle on the mirror where they stood nine months ago. The only reflection is his own.

Doppleganger is gone.

He turns and walks expressionlessly out of the apartment.

“Honey?” she says.

Stephen walks down the hallway to the elevator and presses the down arrow repeatedly until it flicks alight.

She calls again, voice ripe with panic.

Ding.

Sharp relief on Stephen’s part.

Hurrying inside, Stephen selects the ground floor and smashes the close door button.

As the door to the elevator closes, the front door opens and Wife emerges. Stephen hears her soft feet falling on carpet as she runs after him. Her wide eyes catch Stephen’s through the closing doors and melt when they see his face, but he doesn’t mind. He’s staring at his reflection in the elevator’s mirror.

When the elevator opens and releases Stephen, he strikes out into the world, never to be seen by Wife or Baby again.