The switch came at night. It went quickly and felt nearly seamless. This was not a test or some kind of social experiment that would be taped for reality television. This was a permanent, real, switch; James would become Peter, and Peter would become James, and no one would find out if they kept to the plan.
For years, they had been neighbors. James lived in the house he inherited from his parents and Peter moved in shortly after he was promoted to Senior Vice President at the town’s Credit Union. They both lived with their wives and kids—James had a boy and a girl, aged 9 and 13. Peter had twin 7-year-old girls. Both men were 49 years old.
The envy began soon after Peter moved in. James coveted Peter’s car, a ’74 Thunderbird. He thought Peter’s wife was stunning and he appreciated her blunt and brutal honesty that did not discriminate. She had a demonic laugh, too, that James found irresistibly sexy. James thought his own wife as meek and passive aggressive. He wished she’d talk to him more, and tell him things and just communicate. But, she had a crippling fear of disappointing James, a fear of which James remained unaware. And, so, the invisible wall of tension between the two grew thicker by the day. James often stayed late at work, creating tasks for himself, to avoid the dread of crossing the front-door threshold. He was a carpenter and had his own shop a few miles from his home.
Peter saw James’s daughters as the model for proper behavior. They always said please and thank you and yes sir and yes ma’am. They dressed alike and held hands. Their smiles melted Peter’s heart when they all gathered in James’s backyard for bar-b-ques. Peter loved their house–from the crimson-colored doors and window-treatments, to the odd, ovular shape of each shingle on the rotting roof. He thought of it as a house with personality, one that was worn in and loved. His own house, meanwhile, was a constant source of problems: a faulty criss-cross of electrical wiring causing constant outages, cracks and upturned nails in the hardwood floor, and a seemingly endless stream of leaks. In turn, these problems caused screaming matches between Peter and his wife.
One evening, Peter was shutting his computer down at the credit union. As he turned off the lights and locked his office door, he saw someone in the lobby and began to say “Sorry, Sir, we’re closed for the night,” but he then realized it was James. He looked distraught. He was rubbing his hands and swaying, standing next to the couch, next to the table of magazines.
“Oh, James,” Peter said. “What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry to bother you at work, but,” James said. “Can we get a beer?”
“Sure,” Peter said. “I’ll follow you?”
They pulled out of the parking lot in tandem. James drove slowly down I-16 and pulled off at an exit one town away from their homes. At the end of the ramp he made a right, and turned into a place called Hungry Charlie’s Tavern.
Inside, they sat together at the end of the bar, avoiding the tables and booths inhabited by families and middle-aged men and women on dates. James apologized once again, and launched into a monologue about his current state of affairs. He was unhappy with everything: his marriage, his job, and his home. He was seeing everything as if it was starting to fade away. He even remarked on the over-the-top formality his daughters exuded.
Peter sat, and listened patiently. He squeezed the remains of a lemon wedge into his drink. James apologized several times. He told Peter he hadn’t many friends and that his own wife wasn’t ever much help. He told Peter he wished his life weren’t so awful, that it seemed like things were so much better at his neighbor’s place: that strong, confident wife, a high-paying job and two rascal children.
After a moment and a few breaths of contemplation, Peter said “You know, I’ve been reading about this new technology, where you can essentially become someone else. It’s an intensive process, but basically, you go to a specialist who begins measuring out all your parameters: body size, hair color, vocal inflections, etcetera. They even do a genetic analysis, so when you do switch lives with someone else, things like hair patterns and general decay stay intact.
“Huh,” James said. He sipped his drink. The bartender came by and asked if they wanted another, and both men nodded.
“I don’t want to be too presumptuous here, but,” Peter said. “I’ve been thinking that things in my life aren’t so hot either. I know it seems like it, you know, the grass is always greener, but I’m a bit stuck myself, a bit fed up and tired. I’ve been aching for something new. I’ve always liked your house, the freedom your job allows you, the ability to work with your hands, even. I don’t want to force you into anything you don’t want, but—“
“We could switch lives,” James said with widened eyes.
“We could switch lives,” Peter said.
After much more discussion, much more drinking and laughing and yelling and the verge of tears, the two men got into their separate cars and drove home. The next week, they would secretly see a specialist and begin the process. They did their best to hide the informational pamphlets from their families. They acted casually around one another. In fact, they seemed to talk even less, to the point where Peter’s wife remarked on it. In reality, they both met up every night after to work and discussed the particulars. They began to train each other on how to be a carpenter and how to be a VP at a credit union. They told their wives that they were swamped with additional, unexpected projects at work.
“I wonder why we haven’t seen James lately,” she said one night at dinner to no one in particular. She did not receive, nor did she want a response. Her son belched and stuck his finger in mashed potatoes.
“Eat your food, Tommy,” Peter said.
Tommy jumped up and stood in his seat. He pulled his arms close to his chest and began growling.
“Rarr!” he screeched. “I’m a T-rex! I don’t eat vegetables. I’m a carnivore!” He jumped down and chased his sister around the dining room. Peter’s wife slowly chewed her food, ignoring the scene.
Just a few months more, Peter thought to himself.
The preparations were extensive. Measurements were taken for every possible aspect. Each man recorded nearly 30,000 words into a synthetic voice box that would be placed in their throats during surgery. As homework, each man was to write his personal history down, to ensure neither would be caught in a lie.
Both James and Peter grew excited reading these histories, as it was a brief preview of what was to come. Here were there new lives, splattered onto a page, waiting to be soaked up. It was like preparing for a role in a movie.
As a means of creating alibis for the surgery day, the pair planned a fake fishing trip at a lake some 400 miles away. The surgery and information upload would take the better part of a day, and recovery would take two more.
Their wives, happy to have a house to themselves for a few days sent them off with sandwiches and coolers of beer.
The surgeries went well. The facial and body shaping took the longest. It was difficult to mold Peter’s flabby pectorals into the stone-like chest James sported. Likewise for the reshaping of James’s face, which needed to be stretched and pulled in several directions.
After the surgery was complete, the two bandaged men were placed in a room and slept side-by-side for the better part of a day. The next morning, the surgical team entered to remove the bandages. They had the men speak to one another and get used to their newly minted voices.
When the bandages came off, there was applause. Each man looked at one another and cried. They stood up and hugged. They laughed, looking at their former selves. There was no remorse, no regrets. They were told they needed to stay one day longer to heal. Since the added skin was synthetic, it wouldn’t take much longer. They spoke quickly to each other; positively ecstatic about the new directions they were headed in. The resemblances were uncanny, almost frightening. These doctors were good.
When they left the hospital, Peter, now James, made the mistake of getting in the driver’s seat. They shared a laugh and exchanged keys. James, now Peter, got into the driver’s seat and lingered a moment. He fingered the crisp, white steering wheel. He laughed, and New James patted New Peter on the back. The ride back was filled with classic rock on the radio and off-key singing. Every few minutes, they burst into laughter at the thought of their new voices, lives and wives. New Peter pulled into his new driveway, and New James tromped across the lawn to his new home.
In the hospital, after the surgery, they made sure the summaries of their fishing trip matched. Corroboration would be key in many things now.
That night, when they both slipped into bed with their new wives, they each immediately reached over touched their women.
The women responded in kind, giving complicit touches on shoulders and necks.
“You feel different,” Peter’s wife said.
“You feel different,” James’s wife said.
Each man pulled away, and rested on his side.
“Goodnight,” Peter’s wife said.
“Goodnight,” James’s wife said.
That night, neither man slept well. It would be quite some time before they would.