Eames doesn't like being alone. Anyone who's met him can tell you just how much he likes to talk, and that's part of it. And anyone who's known him since he was a boy, short list though that is, will tell you it's because he grew up in the country and he hated it, and that's also part of it. And Arthur will tell you it's because Eames is a born performer, and he craves an audience. That also has some truth in it, but none of those things account for why he gets so itchy and nervous and panicky when he's on his own. None of that explains why he moves from big city to big city. Or why he keeps his windows open so that the lullaby of a busy street can croon to him until he can sleep. It's both more and less than all of that. It's just that he's been playing someone else his entire life, and he doesn't know who to be, or how to understand his world without anyone else there. He doesn't need to be watched. He needs to watch someone else. He needs a point of origin, and he can't find one inside himself.
He isn't sure exactly how he became this man, but he is sure it started before he even knew what he was. Something in him knew, though, that he should have been a cuckoos child. That he didn't fit with his perfect priss of a sister, and that his posh, buttoned up, Oxford educated parents would be embarrassed by him if they could see him. And at one point he was young enough to care. At one point he looked at his parents and he looked inside himself and he could tell that it wasn't going to work. That he wasn't going to work. And so he scooped himself out and filled up that emptiness with a person that he knew his parents could stand. And that worked. Of course it worked. Eames doesn't know much about himself anymore, but he knows that he's a brilliant actor and an even better judge of people's desires.
Eames was young, though, and little bits of himself clung to the empty shell he was filling up with someone his parents could find worthwhile. They were a cancer, these pieces of himself. They stuck and they grew and they kept filling him up and forcing out the person his parents loved, the person they approved of. And it happened, over and over and they grew in time with his parents disdain, until one day, when his self was nearly terminal, and he was bursting with personhood, he brought a boy up to his bedroom. His parents found them, of course they did, of course. And that day he lost his origin. He lost his first pair of marks, his first mirror. And he isn't sure what they hated more—that they caught him with a boy, or that he was on his back taking the other boy's cock, or if the other two would have been forgivable if he were a boy of means, and not their driver's son.
It didn't matter, though, why they hated him. It's just that he could see that they did. He could see that they saw his naked body and his naked self and they found him wanting.
He left then. He left their home, and he tore out the pieces of himself that grew like weeds. He tore out what pieces he could and burned the rest, so that, like the heads of the hydra they wouldn't be able to grow back. And this time they didn't. Those little tumors of self, charred and raw, crushed into the darkest corners of his shell and shriveled away almost into nothing. He brushed away the ashes, and called it a win.
They say there are three ways into dream share--academia, the military and crime. The Cobbs studied their way into the business. They read and drafted and imagined and somehow ended up building whole worlds. They paid in paper and ink stains and too many late nights.
Arthur fell into dreamshare through the military. He thought he would spend his days inside an air conditioned base on a computer, listening in on phone conversations or something. But he was too good, and they put him on Project Somnacin, listening in on something much more private than phone calls. Those in the military dreamed and died and died. And they paid their dues in sanity.
Yusuf fell into dreamshare through crime. It's such a small step from selling waking dreams, to selling cleaner, more exciting sleeping dreams. It is somehow kinder. Yusuf gives people what they really want, even if they sometimes waste away getting it. Yusuf is the lucky one. His path didn't cost him much. A dash of respectability and pride are small sacrifices to make for a career in dreamshare.
Eames tells people he followed the third path, Yusuf's path. That he was a confidence man who ended up getting pulled under. It's the closest to the truth that he ever shares.
He did, actually, take the crime route. It just went a little differently. He doesn't tell anyone that he was a teenage prostitute who followed his john into his hotel room and walked right into an early extraction job. They knocked him out too, and as he was coming awake they were discussing whether or not to pay him off or just kill him, and whether or not to do it before or after the dream. He piped up and asked if perhaps there was a third option on offer, and they agreed. And that is how Eames got into dreamshare.
He was one of the early forgers, and when he showed promise with a skill that few could replicate, that team (pair, really) kept him around for job after job. And he learned as much as he could, as quickly as he could. And when he knew he had a place in dreamshare, that he was skilled and valuable and his partners weren't just keeping him on because he was convenient and useful and useable, he set out on his own. He paid his dues in blood, and he left them lying in filth in their shared bed. He got up and washed their blood and their shit and their come off his body. He took their PASIV and he left.
He was 17.
Eames worked job after job. He liked forging. He was perfect for it. His mind was such a blank canvas, that it was easy to paint someone else on.
He liked to forge his colleagues. He could slip into Dom in only a minute. Even Mal couldn't tell them apart when she was still alive. Yusuf he knew so well, that he could wear him like a second skin. Eames could fill up the emptiness inside him with someone else, and it made him feel a little less lonely. It made him feel as if the others were close and dear and lovely, and he loved them because they let him. They thought it was a wonderful trick.
He never forged Arthur. It wasn't that he didn't want to. He did. He wanted to slide what little there was of him up under Arthur's skin, and nestle in and stay for a while. He tried to over and over, but he couldn't seem to adhere himself to Arthur's dream flesh. Arthur was as closed to him in the dreamscape as he was in the waking world. Arthur was insulted, Eames could tell. He joked that Arthur was too rigid for him to slip inside, that he could only forge people, not robots. Arthur was cold with him for years after that. Eames didn’t know what do about it. He didn't want to tell him the truth—that he couldn't forge him no matter how hard he tried. He wasn’t sure why. He didn’t know if Arthur really was too rigid to hold up the tissue paper scraps of Eames. It could be that. Eames didn’t think so. Eames was sure that underneath that diamond tough exterior, Arthur was bright and clean and perfect, and Eames would never have any hope of wedging himself into a crack, and making a home there. You couldn’t work with what wasn’t there. You couldn’t cling to something as light as sunshine.
So Eames spent his life in the images of other people, their faces, their desires, their fears. And nothing, nothing seemed to stick. He spent 14 years like that. He watched other people fall in love. He watched them marry. He watched them die. He watched them live. He watched and watched and watched. He never lived. He was a husk, edges dirty with the charred remains of the person he might have been.
He inhabited flats in busy cities between jobs, and he worked. Sometimes he gambled. Actually, he gambled a lot. He liked casinos. It was always day inside, and they were always open. He could camp out in a casino until he was so tired that the only time he had to spend alone in his flat was the time between the door and his bed. And he loved never having to be alone, so he gambled and he won. He didn’t have any tells, and he was outstanding at reading others, years of watching had honed those skills. He won far too much money. He got kicked out of casino, after casino. He wasn’t cheating, but it didn’t really matter. He knew that too. The gambling didn’t last. He finally stopped after earning one too many broken bones from the bouncers.
He took up tattooing next. It was the only time he tried to explore the debris left within himself. Perhaps, if he couldn’t fill himself with beautiful colors, he could paint them on his skin instead. It didn’t work. They were nice to look at, but they couldn’t cover up the blank space on the inside. You can paint a mutt, but you can’t turn him into a purebred. His mother would have agreed. A painting on a rotten canvas won’t rot any more slowly because of the outward beauty.
Then he mostly worked. When he wasn’t working, and the loneliness was too much to bear, he went out and found someone to go home with. He didn’t really enjoy the sex. He didn’t dislike it, per se, but it wasn’t the point of the exercise. He liked to lie next to them afterwards. He liked to soak in the warmth of another body, and feel like a person. Whatever person they wanted him to be, or maybe someone they didn’t want him to be. It didn’t matter. He just wanted a place to start.
For a while he slept with prostitutes. He tried asking them to just sleep next to him, but they were always afraid of him when he didn’t seem to want more. And how could he tell them, that he was just lonely? That he felt like there was no one in the room when it was just him?
Besides, he liked to use them as character studies for his forges. He would stare at their faces, their bodies, until he could hold their forms behind his eyes. He would talk to them and learn who they were, pick their pockets and check their IDs.
Eventually, when one of the men he picked up turned out to be a boy, only a 16 year old boy, he stopped paying for it. He spent that night with the windows closed. He was punishing himself. He huddled on the cold floor in a puddle of his own sick, and tears, in the thundering silence of his bedroom. When the sun came up, he washed himself off, gathered up his clothes and his PASIV, and left the keys and the deed on the bedside table. He didn’t wake the boy. He never wanted to look back.
He went to Mombasa then. He set up shop near Yusuf. He thought that he might actually be able to live there a long while. It was hot and loud and glorious, and he felt a little something ease within him.
And then Dom Cobb showed up with the Inception job, and maybe a chance to make up with Arthur. The inception job turned out to be the easy part. That wasn’t really surprising, though. Arthur was the most difficult challenge he’d ever faced.
He got his chance to make up with Arthur on their next job together. It was just a two man team. Cobb was with his children, and Arthur’s back up extractor fell through at the last minute. In a clear fit of insanity Arthur asked Eames to step in. He couldn’t say no. He wouldn’t say no to Arthur, and so he said yes.
It was a simple extraction. There was really nothing to the job, but Eames was lost. He couldn’t hold a dream together. He couldn’t keep a whole dreamscape in his head. He was a forger. He could hold entire people in his head, but he couldn’t hold one measly building within him. He couldn’t focus on where he was because he couldn’t decide who he was. He didn’t have a character to play, a person to paint on.
Eames made Arthur angry. He was livid, really, after the third time the dream collapsed around them. Finally, he told Arthur.
“I don’t know who to be. That’s why the dream keeps collapsing.”
“What do you mean, who? You’re not a forger on this job, you’re the extractor.”
“I know,” he shouted, jumping to his feet to pace. “I know I’m not here to play a part, but I can’t. . . I don’t. . . Who am I supposed to be in the dream then?”
“And who is that? Is there a person there? Is there a person inside me? Because I look, and I look, and I look. I try on everyone else. I keep forcing people into my skin, and it never sticks. I can’t see a person there. I don’t see me.”
The room was achingly quiet in the wake of Eames’ outburst. He stood with his back to Arthur, only the rush of his labored breathing in his ears. After a moment he felt Arthur’s hand on his elbow. It was a gentle touch. Arthur turned Eames around to face him.
“Eames,” he breathed.
Eames wouldn’t look at him.
“You are there. There is a person under your skin.”
Eames scoffed. Arthur slid his hands up Eames’ arms, up his neck, to his cheeks, and tilted his head up to look at him.
“I’m looking at you, Eames.”
“Right. With your eyes.”
“No,” Arthur breathed, “Not just my eyes. I see you, Eames. I see you.”
Eames finally met Arthur’s eyes. What he saw reflected back it him wasn’t much. It wasn’t Arthur’s desires, or fears. It wasn’t Arthur’s constructed Eames.
“I still can’t see,” he choked out.
“It’s alright,” Arthur said.
He pulled Eames into his arms, enveloping him in his warmth. Eames shuddered, something in him basking in Arthur’s attention, straining towards him like a flower towards the sun.
“It’s alright,” he repeated, “I can see. I’ll help you.”