For most of my life, I assumed I was the only Matthew Baise in the United States. Then, four years ago, I received an e-mail from a man who claimed to be my father.
"Son, I'm sorry I deserted you and your mother 10 years ago. I just wanted to see how you guys were doing," the note said. More than a decade before, my father had died and my mother had concocted bizarre theories about him faking his death. When I read the e-mail, my palms went clammy and I stopped breathing.
I read on and realized that I was not the Matthew Baise he was after, even though I later found out that the other Matthew was about my age, was born in the same part of the country as I was and had even lived near Baltimore for a time, where I currently reside. Coupled with the rare last name, it was no wonder that so many people -- including collection agents, parole officers and absentee parents -- thought that I was their Matthew.
The father insisted on calling me at home one evening, as it had turned out I was distantly related. He wanted to find out more about my life and to probe for information on his missing son. My grandparents filled in the rest of the puzzle a few weeks later, and after they finished arguing about who married whom and how long an unrelated couple had been divorced, they confirmed that there was indeed another Matthew. We had a good laugh about it and I soon forgot the whole thing.
And that's the problem. These incidents of mistaken identity come far enough apart -- usually every six months or so -- that I tend to forget about them and get the crap scared out of me with each new episode. Like the parole officer who called and left a threatening message on my answering machine in the summer of 1999.
Coming home from work one day, I checked my machine to find a belligerent message that said I owed several thousand dollars and demanded that I call my parole officer. Having forgotten about the other Matthew, I freaked out and called the number. I tried to explain that they had the wrong guy, terrified that a SWAT team might come bursting into my apartment, "Cops" style. The humiliation. I don't even own a wife beater T-shirt.
After I managed to choke out my date of birth, middle name and Social Security number, the woman on the other end started to believe me. She told me that they had confused the two of us by simply looking up the name in the phone book. "I haven't ever heard that name before," she said. "Figured it had to be the same guy."
The least threatening of these episodes came about a year ago when a woman who had been friends with my evil twin's mother called me, hoping to reach the mother through the son. I explained who I was and what I knew about the other Matthew and, in a moment of empty-headed bravado, told her to pass along a message to my cousin that if I ever met him, I'd "put my foot in his ass" for all the trouble he'd caused me. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't said that. He probably owns guns, some of which he's given names to.
I can always tell when a collections agency has me in its sights. For weeks, sometimes months, I'll come home to hang-ups on my answering machine. This will continue until I'm finally at home to answer the call. When the collections agent starts his or her tirade, sometimes I get frustrated and start yelling about how it's not me, that they've got the wrong guy. The profanity that passes between us is liberal, profuse and vivid. But some are nicer, like the agent I talked with at length about my predicament. We even made fun of the misfortunes of the other Matthew -- I guess to displace her anxiety about not being able to find him and mine about being constantly mistaken for him.
My co-workers and friends are in on the joke. I always share the latest case of mistaken identity with them so they can have a laugh at my expense. The "Fight Club" jokes started soon after the movie came out, that maybe this Matthew K. Baise was my Tyler Durden and I would wake up to find a dead hooker stashed under my bed.
My boss asked me once if I wanted to meet the other Matthew. I told him that it was unlikely I could find him, given that so many professional trackers kept coming up empty-handed. But even if I could, I don't know that I would want to. There's something vaguely unsettling about the prospect. I think back to my adolescence and early adulthood and all the bad choices I made and lucky breaks I got. I don't know if I want to meet a parallel universe version of me who works at Dunkin' Donuts and stays just ahead of illicit debt and parole officers by moving from state to state. He's probably scared all the time.
This week I received a notice from the state of Maryland that I owe almost $4,000 to its Central Collection Unit. In the next few days I will pick up the phone and try to convince a complete stranger, once again, that he or she has the wrong guy. I'm not that Matthew Baise.