I’d gone too far this time. I’d taken my lie past the point of no return. Not only had I gained Mel’s trust and met her son — I’d spent nearly an hour in his school.
Justin, her nine-year-old, was in a bit of trouble for a (potentially racist but ultimately harmless) bullying incident. The victim — a nine-year-old girl — showed up to this makeshift parent-teacher conference with her parents, who seemed more interested in me than in the incident.
“Who’s this guy?” the father asked.
“He’s with me,” Mel responded.
The couple stared at me, then looked at each other curiously. The father continued, “I feel like we know him from somewhere…”
“He’s my boss. Dr. Jeremy is one of the top psychiatrists in the state.”
The conversation carried on like I wasn’t in the room. I mean, technically Dr. Jeremy wasn’t.
“No, that’s not it,” said the husband. “I just can’t put my finger on it.”
I saw the wife’s eyebrows shoot up. That’s when it hit me — they probably did know me from somewhere. But perhaps they would’ve recognized me better with my pants around my ankles and a mail carrier’s hat on. The woman promptly nudged her husband.
“What, hon? I’m just sayin’ he looks familiar.” The man didn’t catch his wife’s drift until she subtly shook her head at him and made prolonged eye contact. Then his eyebrows shot up.
“Maybe you’re thinking of someone else, sweetie…” suggested the woman.
The husband complied hastily, “Yep. You’re right. My mistake.”
I had a friend who was a “filmmaker” back in college. When I dropped out, my job search yielded no results. So, I agreed to help him make one of his “films” — you know, just set up lights or hold a mic or whatever. But he had an immediate need for talent when his lead “actor” experienced an “equipment malfunction” that had “never happened before.” I stepped in. That was where the little girl’s parents knew me from. Their faces told the whole story.
My cover may have been blown, but not as thoroughly as I was in the video. The couple left it alone, electing to head home as soon as the children made amends. They couldn’t call me out on how they recognized me — especially not in front of their daughter and her fourth grade teacher.
Pretending to be my brother allowed me to infiltrate Mel’s life in ways I’d never intended. Though he didn’t say much on the ride home, I’d met her son — which is closer than any degenerate lying about being her boss should’ve gotten to him. It wasn’t fair to her (or the kid), and I needed to come clean to someone. I just didn’t know who.
I couldn’t tell Adam — that was out of the question. I wasn’t prepared for a conversation like that yet. I wasn’t going to confess to Mel either, because she’d definitely turn me in after I’d unwittingly dragged Justin into the picture. I didn’t want my fake life to end, but I also didn’t want to carry all of the guilt that came with it.
I could write all of my thoughts and feelings down in a journal of some sort. Maybe that would help me shoulder the weight. Journaling would be therapeutic. Catharsis. I began writing:
My name is Ben Jeremy and I’ve been pretending to be my brother for almost two weeks. Adam is a doctor — a psychiatrist — and a damn good one. I’ve assumed his identity while he is overseas, partially to escape from my own life and partially to win over his receptionist, the girl of my dreams. Why couldn’t I just be myself to impress this woman? Because I’m a total fuck-up. Because I’m immature and lazy. Because I can’t —
My journal read more like a suicide note. Also, if somebody were to stumble upon this, it could be used against me in court. I knew I had to burn my words immediately. Writing was out.
I could talk to a complete stranger. Sit down next to someone at the park and just lay it all out there. I’m not looking for answers, I’m just asking for you to listen… Maybe someone would end up listening and help me get out of this mess:
“…the girl of my dreams. Why can’t I just be myself? Do I really need to pretend around her? If it’s meant to be, won’t she just accept me for who I am?”
“I’m gonna need another one of these,” replied a homeless man, referring to the hot pretzel he’d just finished.
“The deal was one pretzel to listen to me.”
“I didn’t know you’d talk that much!”
Soliciting a stranger’s advice wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. As much as I wanted to plan an endgame to this role play — specifically one that didn’t hurt anyone — I realized there would be no clean getaway. There was no minor misunderstanding. I’d knowingly assumed my brother’s identity, treated patients, and lied to his only employee. I’d even lied to a priest.
I’m not the religious type, and that’s not because I’m almost definitely going to hell if it exists. It was just never a priority for me. My parents raised Adam and I to believe in something, just not anything specific. We used to go to church, but then our dad died. When we stopped going to church, we still prayed together. But then our mom died and we stopped praying.
Or so I thought.
On my first day as Doctor Jeremy, I received a call from a pastor — Father Cortolo from Sacred Heart Church. He called to thank me for the generous donation I’d sent to the parish. I wasn’t sure why my brother had been donating money to the church, but it’s amazing how inspirational a priest can be.
Those men just have a way about them. One conversation can change everything, whether you’re spiritual or not. A priest can help give your life direction, your actions meaning — with just a single quote or line of encouragement. Father Cortolo’s praise gave me the clarity and motivation I needed to power through the rest of my first day as a psychiatrist. Even if my day was going to be filled with bullshitting and identity theft, that chat provided me with the ambition I’d been lacking for years.
With one phone call, Father Cortolo had unknowingly inspired an impostor, aided a fraud. He’d helped push a vulnerable loser toward a life of crime. He molded an impressionable lump of clay into a hardened criminal.
My life had only developed meaning when I started living somebody else’s.
Knowing my brother wasn’t part of this operation made me feel lonely, and knowing he’d oppose my behavior made it even worse. Adam had always been by my side when I got into trouble. When our family went to church on Sundays, he and I used to play a game: The object was to hit the other person in the face without Mom or Dad noticing. I’d like to think that’s where most of my creativity stems from.
This time, the closest thing I had to a partner in crime was a priest. It was only right for me to make him my confidant.
Church is quiet during the day, eerie even. The place was empty — except for you know, God and stuff. I passed those candles in the back of the church and refrained from pressing the buttons to light all of them, like I used to do as a kid. The air smelled clean, almost as if it’d been purified by the Lord Himself. (You’re supposed to capitalize the “H,” right?)
As I approached the table thing on the stage, the organ began thundering from the balcony at the rear of the building. I jumped, startled. I turned to see a woman — probably in her mid-30s — practicing interludes for an upcoming Mass. As she finished the tune, a man’s voice called to me from the altar. (That was the word.)
“Hello there,” said the man.
“Hi. I’m, uh, looking for Father Cortolo.”
He smiled. “In the flesh. What can I do for you?”
I explained to him that we’d spoken on the phone two weeks prior and that I wanted to make a confession. The priest thanked me again for “my” donation, burdening my shoulders even further.
“I’m not looking for forgiveness or advice or anything. I just need to get something off my chest.”
“I understand,” he said, as he led me to the confessional booth.
“Wait, I don’t really want to do it like this,” I hesitated. “Can’t we just talk face-to-face? I mean, what’s the point of the screen if you already know what I look like?”
“Just get in the booth, son.” When a priest tells you to do something, you do it.
Well, most of the time.
I got in the booth and knelt down. The screen in front of me was useless because I could clearly see Father Cortolo’s face. This meant I’d be able to gauge his reactions to my confession in real-time, rather than trying to decipher how bad “10 Hail Mary’s” is after the fact. I cleared my throat.
“I haven’t been to church in a long time, Father, so I don’t know if there’s a special way to do this. But I’m gonna talk and I just need you to listen.”
“That’s usually how it works, Dr. Jeremy.”
“Right. Okay. Well, we can start there…”
I came clean and told Father Cortolo everything. Adam’s trip, Melanie, the LEGOs, Justin, the “Kool Kids Klub,” the patients I’d been treating. It was a lot to take in, but as overwhelming as my confession was, it didn’t seem to break the priest’s calm. He nodded from the other side of the screen, silent.
“You can’t tell anybody about this, right? There’s some confidentiality clause or something in the Bible.”
Finally, he broke his silence. “Your secret is safe with me. But there’s a reason you felt obligated to tell me all this, um…”
“Ben. My name is Ben.”
“Ben,” he repeated. “I do believe you’re a good person, Ben. And I think that’s why you came here today.” I exhaled. “But good people don’t willingly hurt others by lying to them.” He slid the screen so there was no divider between us. I didn’t even know he could do that. “Ben, listen… If you handle this situation the wrong way, it’s going to hurt your brother and everyone around you. And I know you don’t want that. Your heart seems like it’s in the right place.”
Before I could thank him for listening, he closed the screen and stepped out of the booth. I followed.
“Father, I really appreciate this. If there’s anything I can do, anything…”
“Ben, I don’t want any more of your money. That’s not how this works,” he responded. I could see his gears turning. “That donation wasn’t you, was it?” Okay, so I hadn’t told him everything.
“Well, Ben, there is something you can help me with.” I nodded, giving him my full attention. “See, there’s this young woman who’s been coming to meetings at the church. I’m going to recommend that she schedule an appointment with you.”
Was this dude crazy? He’d just found out I’d been lying about my identity and he wanted to give me another patient?
“Give her a few free sessions and see if she opens up.”
When a priest tells you to do something, you do it. I agreed and shook his hand — firm and cold, yet comforting.
“Hey, Ben,” Father Cortolo started, gears turning again. “Are you sure I don’t know you from somewhere?”
My eyebrows shot up. “I used to, uh, deliver mail.”