The Average Man

I do not know exactly when it was that I first started thinking about him. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was the day I went for ribs with my sister. As we ripped into the moist flesh with our hands, I remember wondering where the pig I was eating had come from. For a moment I imagined it, fat and filthy, penned up with a thousand other pigs in a dark warehouse. I comforted myself with the thought that it had known no other world, but the guilt stuck. Still, I kept eating.

Once done, I sat back and sucked the sweet juices off my fingertips, nibbling on ragged cuticles, content. Cleaned my hands on a lemony wipe and started folding it into a damp origami crane. Then I noticed my sister staring.

“You know, there’s a name for that,” she said, “I looked it up on Wikipedia.”

“What,” I feigned, because I knew the name, I too had looked it up on Wikipedia.

“Dermatophagia, it’s a type of obsessive compulsive disorder. You should see someone about it.”

I looked at my fingertips. A tiny spot of blood was welling up where I’d bitten through the skin.

“It’s just a bad habit,”I defended, “Like picking your nose. You pick your nose.”

“I don’t pick my nose. But even if I did, that would be normal. Chewing the skin off your fingertips is totally not normal. The average person doesn’t hurt himself like that.”

It doesn’t hurt, I thought, but didn’t say it in case she thought I also had some kind of delusional disorder.

Yes, I’d say it was probably then that I started thinking about him. Not jealously, just curiously. Since that day he hasn’t left me. Deciding whether a pair of boxers can be worn for the third time without washing, I wonderis this what he’s doing now too? WWAMD… What Would the Average Man Do? It becomes a kind of peer pressure. When the barista flicks her hair at me at Starbucks and I experience a ripple of revulsion, I force myself to smile back flirtatiously as the Average Man would. In fact, I ask for her number and she obliges, and now I must pick her up tomorrow night at seven thirty for organic gourmet burgers even though I do not really like organic gourmet burgers.

At this point I begin doing some research on him: according to Google, the average thirty to thirty-nine year old American man has a body mass index of 29, just shy of the medical definition of obese. His eyes are brown, quite unlike my grey-green ones (the right is greener). He is five foot nine, has a waist of thirty-nine inches, and his name is James. This does not help me much except I do feel slightly better about my large but apparently below average mid-section. There is no mention on the internet whether the Average Man prefers the company of his ferret to his family or whether stepping beyond the yellow line at train platforms constitutes the most rebellious behaviour of his adult life.

Some days I feel as though I know what he is like, in the same way one feels familiar with an actress or writer. On these days I believe that he’s the kind of guy with a girlfriend who works in marketing and comes over to clean his apartment on Sunday afternoons, sometimes staying the night and sometimes going home in a huff because of one too many emails to an attractive female colleague. He himself occupies some kind of middle management role, an adequate but uninspiring corporate subject. He shaves daily and definitely does not have dermatophagia.

On these days, I can finish my grocery shopping in under fifteen minutes (without stopping at every aisle to weigh up the implications of choosing low-fat versus regular), I can make small talk with strangers (without wondering if I come across as a paedophile or particularly annoying strain of extrovert) and I almost, just almost, enjoy my job as an auditor (without feeling over-privileged and under-stimulated). I feel as if I am on stable ground.

Some days I feel as though I know what he is like, in the same way one feels familiar with an actress or writer.

The other days I realize that my image of the Average Man is a pure composition of stereotypes and hence cannot be accurate. It takes time for the average to become the archetype and even longer to become the cliché. My Average Man is maybe the Average Man of the 1990s, listening to Three Doors Down while working out on an elliptical machine. The days I realize this are not so great. I take a full fifteen minutes (or more) to choose a brand of muesli, I alternate between hysterical greetings and suspicion when dealing with friends of friends, and I am nasty to the team secretary over misplaced paperclips.

It is on one of these infuriating days that I finally decide that enough is enough; I will put an end to my fruitless speculation and take matters into my own hands. I will find him, talk to him, take notes, and come away satisfied with a thorough understanding of how I deviate from the mean. In case I miss any points worth noting, I will endeavour to obtain his personal phone number to facilitate future consultations.

I have no idea where to start looking, so I turn to Google once again. Soon I locate several other average things used for measurement of their counterparts’ relative value. The official kilogram, for example, resides in a leafy suburb of Paris under guard of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. Because the platinum-iridium cylinder has lost about fifty micrograms (the weight of a single grain of sand) over the last hundred years, disconcerted scientists now want to redefine the kilogram in terms of the Planck constant. The Planck constant is not expected to change any time soon, and this is a good thing for standard units of measure. All this is interesting but not very helpful, so I keep looking.

After six hours of research, I find a tenuous lead. A thread in the sub-forum of a sub-forum of a sub-forum refers briefly to an ‘International Bureau of Human Standards’, or IBHS. Subsequent comments suggest a mysterious but powerful body that tracks all human thought, feeling, act, and appearance in relation to an official Average Man. Even better, under the Freedom of Information Act, anyone can request access to this Average Man. I expect that arranging to see him must involve a lengthy hold period on a one eight hundred number, followed by the pronouncement that I am seven thousandth in queue and must hence wait three years before I may visit, but it is actually surprisingly easy, and the IBHS website obligingly registers me for an appointment next week in a few clicks.

Naively, I’d thought that some kind of burden would be lifted off my chest once I took concrete steps towards satisfying my curiosity. Instead I find myself pacing up and down my hundred square foot studio, working myself up into a nervous sweat trying to figure out what questions are worthy of asking in that precious one hour. Do I want to know if it’s weird that my favourite colour has always been fuchsia? Maybe I want to figure out if my diet gives me a higher or lower than average chance of dying from coronary thrombosis. Or inquire if everybody from time to time pretends that they are already dead while lying still in bed at night, trying to imagine what it feels like and realizing it is the most peace you have had all day. No, I will not ask about that, it would make for awkward conversation.

How is one supposed to carry out such an interview anyway? The Average Man must have, by definition, only average patience, which in this tweet-saturated day and age I can’t imagine is all that much. He must get bored pretty quickly, living his life under lock and key in that glass cage (the IBHS occupies the thirty-seventh floor of a tall shiny building in midtown Manhattan). Maybe I should prepare a witty riposte or two. Ought I to read up on certain topics to ensure that I may provide at least a smidgen of entertainment? Perhaps baseball or the latest political rumblings of the Middle East? It is impossible to know what will tickle the Average Man’s fancy. And isn’t that the point of this interview anyway, to find out? I spend the rest of the week feverishly perusing The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and Perez Hilton, in hope that I will have imbibed sufficient cultural references to sustain an hour’s worth of interesting conversation.

Finally the day arrives. I find myself in the shiny lobby of the IBHS, being greeted by a receptionist who only registers in my mind as a flash of white teeth and red lips. I am wearing a maroon plaid shirt with nice jeans, dark brown suede belt and matching shoes. I’m not sure why I’m dressed as if on a date; I feel as though I forgot the flowers. My palms are cold and my cuticles bitten right down to the basal cell layer.

“Follow me please,” the receptionist says, opening a door. We step into a long hallway, so long that it ends in a vanishing point. She starts walking, quickly. In her four inch high pumps she sways like a model, but a model capable of Olympic sprint speeds. We pass identical door after door, each one spaced the width of a door apart along the endless wall. The walls are a spotless white, lit by naked bulbs that hang from the ceiling every three doors down. It is a comforting space, in the way that the ugliness of a hospital waiting room sometimes is.

After what feels like forever (my watch sensibly informs me that only seven minutes that have passed) I turn to look in the direction we came from. Another vanishing point. The sound of the receptionist’s clacking heels reminds me to keep going, like the bubbles that lead a nitrogen narcosis stricken scuba diver back to the surface. I hurry to keep up.

There is something about him that evokes the feeling of a high school reunion, being surrounded by ex-classmates swapping stories of babies and yachts.

Without warning, she stops in front of a door no different than any of the three thousand (okay, maybe thirty) others that we’ve passed. “Here we are,” she says, smiling brightly and brandishing one arm towards the door like a game show hostess unveiling a sports car. The thought occurs to me that this is in fact an elaborate reality TV set-up, but an apprehensive glance around identifies no nooks or crannies, no potential hiding places for tiny cameras, save maybe the receptionist herself. “Thank you,” I say, scrutinizing her nostrils for recording devices. My suspicion is met by yet another encouraging smile, before she turns and clacks away.

Soon I am alone in the vertiginous hallway, where if not for the faint sound of the now out-of-sight receptionist’s heels on the hard marble, it feels as though I have stepped out of time altogether. This feeling begins to grow, threatening to snowball into a maddening disorientation, so I push open the door in front of me and enter the room of the Average Man.

The space in which I find myself is modest but cosy, and very clean. It is smaller than the average dentist’s waiting room but larger than a college dorm room. Contents comprise a sofa bed, a bookshelf occupying the entire length of one wall, and in the corner, a dark-haired clean-shaven man in his late twenties or early thirties. I stand awkwardly in the doorway, unsure of the etiquette advised in standard visiting procedure. “Hello,” he says, standing up and walking towards me.

As he approaches, I wonder to myself if we’ve met before. There is something about him that evokes the feeling of a high school reunion, being surrounded by ex-classmates swapping stories of babies and yachts. He looks nothing like the James of my Google-fueled imagination; he is slightly taller, younger, and has a more athletic build. His clothes are fashionable and his manners relaxed. His voice is a strong baritone. Yet still there is something about him that remains familiar. I rack my memory for cluesan old business acquaintance? Friend of a long lost friend? Spin class?but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

It is not until I say “Hello” back, looking him in the eye and returning his firm handshake that I realize something; then the greeting sticks in my throat and a sick feeling rises from the pit of my stomach. It is his eyes that first give it away, but once I see it I don’t see how I could have not seen it right away.

His eyes are the same green-grey as mine, except the left is greener and the right greyer. Looking at him is like looking in a mirror but not exactly, because our features are identical but he is different. It is like looking at a fitter, better groomed, more charismatic version of myself.

As I shake his hand, I glance down. His fingernails are smooth, wholesome squares, so shiny that the slightest movement causes them to catch the light reproachfully. The feeling in my stomach expands into wretchedness, and as I try to choke out the word “Hello” again I tear my hand from his grasp. Stepping back out through the open door, I walk, run and then sprint down the endless hallway until my shirt sticks to my back and my breath goes ragged.

The doors go on and on. It terrifies me to think how many average people reside behind them, like pigs in filthy dark pens. I must have picked the wrong direction to run in, because time keeps passing and I still haven’t found the receptionist’s desk.

Rachel Heng HeadshotRachel recently graduated from Columbia University. She now lives in London.