She arrived at his apartment ten minutes late and discovered that she was already there.
The woman was a champion worrier, but this was something she had not thought to worry about. She had considered: is this a date, is this not a date, am I ready, is he a psycho/rapist/murderer who is going to drug/rape/murder me, what if I am a bad kisser, and even what if dinner makes me gassy and he leans in to kiss me and I let one rip and the whole evening comes down around our ears.
She rang the doorbell and the man appeared with a rosy smile that drained slowly from his face like paint.
“Hi,” the woman said. She had a bottle of cheap wine in her hand. She had picked it because it was on sale and had a tag beneath it that advertised it as REGINALD’S PICK, and she felt a person named Reginald was somebody who probably knew something about wine.
The man stared.
“Can I come in?” the woman asked.
She heard a woman’s laugh behind him: a familiar laugh, a things-aren’t-funny-but-we’re-making-them-funny-laugh. A laugh the woman used herself when social situations got uncomfortable or slow.
“You forgot I was coming over,” the woman blurted. She knew this had been a mistake. She wanted to drop the wine bottle, or to club him over the head with it and run.
“Who is it?” asked a female voice from the kitchen. There was the scraping of a chair, footsteps. Over the man’s paralyzed shoulder, a face appeared.
It was her face.
“Oh my God,” the two of her murmured in unison.
The women sat on the man’s couch, studied him and each other and the identical bottles of wine.
“This is a joke,” the man said. The woman didn’t know him very well. He was a friend of a friend, new to town. She had helped him find an apartment, and he invited her over for dinner as a thank-you. “You have an identical twin,” he said, to the first one, the Other, “and you’re playing a joke.”
“No,” the women said in unison. “I’m an only child.”
“This is sick,” muttered the man. He was slumped in a terrible plaid armchair. It never would have worked out between them, with an armchair like that. The woman could see that now.
The women looked at each other.
“Who are you?” the woman said.
The Other said her name. It was the woman’s name.
The woman said, “Me, too.”
They regarded each other, considering.
“When did He leave?” the Other asked softly. She didn’t need to say: your husband. She said He with a capital H, like something venerated, then dead.
The woman answered, “Six weeks ago, Sunday.”
Tears pricked the Other’s eyes. The woman had been unable to find this sympathy in anyone else.
“So you’re not twins,” the man said, startling them. They had forgotten he was there. “You’ve never met each other before. And you’re both at my house for dinner.”
“Yes,” they said, perhaps a little too emphatically.
“Can we at least open the second bottle of wine then?” he asked piteously.
“Go ahead,” the women said.
He scurried off toward the kitchen. The women regarded each other. They were worriers, not panickers. They stared and tried to understand.
“What time did you get here?” the woman asked.
“7:23,” said the Other.
“You were early,” the woman said. “I’m never early.”
“I know,” the Other said. “But I had nothing better to do, so I left.”
“I was going to,” the woman said. “But then I had to fix the button on my sweater.”
“Button?” the Other said. She looked down at her sweater. The third middle button dangled loosely on a bright green thread.
“How did you not notice?” the woman said.
The Other shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just grabbed a sweater. I wasn’t thinking too much about it, you know?”
But I always think about things, the woman thought. She was disappointed in herself, but also relieved. She felt, somehow, that this could make sense of everything.
The man returned and sat in his terrible chair with two half-empty glasses of cheap wine. “Everyone overthinks everything these days.” The women looked at him, and he added hastily, “But that’s fine. I like that in a woman. Women.”
The women looked at each other.
“I guess we should go home,” they said.
“I only cooked enough for two,” he said, apologetically.
He walked them to the door. “This is the weirdest date I’ve ever been on,” he said.
“So it was a date,” the women said. They had been suspicious. He shrugged, smiled disarmingly.
“Yeah, well,” he said. “Chris warned me not to hope for much. But you sounded pretty cute on the phone. I thought I’d give it a shot.”
Once, this would’ve made the women blush, but they were too preoccupied, now, with each other. They waved goodbye, walked each other out.
They were disappointed to find just one car, parked in the one space. “Damn,” the Other said. “I thought the car would double, too.”
“I wonder how that works?”
“I have no idea.”
They stood, fingering their identical keys in their identical purses. Wondering what it would mean to take their two bodies home to the empty one-bedroom apartment.
“Do you want me to drive?” said the Other, at last.
Gratefully, the woman curled up in the passenger seat of her own car. She watched the city streets slide by and basked in the glow of being taken care of by herself.
Everything was not the same. There was discomfort over the shared toothbrush, confusion over which side of the bed was whose. Each still considered herself the original one. Neither wanted to accept being a copy.
They established a system: took turns going to work in the woman’s law office, doing the dishes, the shopping. They got hungry together. Missed their husband together, furiously and unashamedly. When they woke in the night, frightened of the sounds outside, they took turns getting up, patrolling the darkened exterior rooms. After a week of cohabitation, the Other called a security company and had alarms installed, and they dozed snug and safe, identically entwined beneath one shared quilt.
The thing they were most grateful for was someone to share their loneliness without judgment. They stroked each other’s hair in bed, sometimes laughed, sometimes cried. The world, closed to lonely people, opened up again like a flower: the HOV lane on the highway. Two-for-one admissions. Full-sized gallons of milk. The woman had missed the movies after the husband left, felt too ashamed to go by herself. Now she and the Other went to matinees, split swimming pool-sized Cokes and popcorns. They always thought the same previews looked good. They always laughed at the same jokes.
Pulling out of the parking lot one evening, the Other said, “This is actually better than it used to be.”
The woman looked over, stunned. “How can you say that?” she said.
The Other shrugged, uncomfortably. “He never liked the same movies I did. We did,” she said.
“Well, yeah,” the woman said. “But then we could talk about it afterward. We could debate.”
“And he always spent the whole movie hitting our arm and saying, who’s that actress? I know I’ve seen her in something, what did I see her in?”
The woman shifted in her seat, looked out the window.
“I’m just saying,” the Other said. “It’s not so bad now.”
The light turned yellow and the Other slowed to a stop. It was out of consideration for the woman. Her nervousness which had been consuming everything lately. She checked the locks three times before leaving the house, flinched when lighting the stove. The week before, coming home from the bank, they’d seen a car hurtle through a red light and T-bone a lavender minivan, and the woman had cried all afternoon, imagining: those poor kids. That poor mother. The Other checked beneath the car for them in dark parking lots. Tested the bathwater before they climbed in.
“Don’t be mad,” the Other said. The light turned green and lit her hair marine. “I’m just trying to look on the bright side.”
The woman chewed her salt-shriveled lips, glaring at her reflection in the rearview mirror as they slowly accelerated toward home.
The woman came in late from work one evening, stomping the cold out of her toes. “God, I hate him,” she announced. “What an idiot.”
She had been parked in the driveway for twenty minutes, trying to decide if she should call her (ex)husband. She had become embarrassed doing these things in the house: pausing over the phone, checking her e-mail incessantly. Her stomach ached with the pressure of shrinking from her own scrutiny.
The Other was draped over the arm of the couch, reading Crime and Punishment with one eye closed. The house was warm, smelled richly of coffee and take-out Chinese. The woman had always wanted to read Crime and Punishment. She was dimly happy to see that one of her was finally doing it.
“Hey,” the woman said. She felt awkward calling the Other by her own name, tried to avoid using it. She sat on the floor, sipped at the Other’s coffee. The Other’s coffee was cold and too sweet, a syrupy shock to her tongue. She sighed and leaned her head against the Other’s thigh.
The Other lowered the book, peered down its spine at the woman.
“What’s going on?” she asked. But her voice sounded tired.
“I miss him so much,” the woman said.
“So just call him,” the Other said. She gestured to the mug. “There’s some fresh in the kitchen. Could you get me some?”
The woman ignored the mug. She felt obliquely betrayed. “I can’t call him. We hate him. He won’t tell us anything we want to hear anyway. Right?”
“Whatever,” the Other said. “If you want to do it, then do it.” She disappeared again behind Dostoevsky.
The woman sat still, cradling the cold mug of coffee like a nest. She wanted the Other to convince her. She wanted the two of them to call together, like high school girls in eighties movies, clinging breathlessly to the receiver together and listening. She knew, since they were the same person, that the Other knew what she needed. But the Other kept reading and the woman, lonely on the floor, sipped chill and bitter coffee and listened to the pages turn without her.
The woman began to get smaller.
Nobody else seemed to notice. Her coworkers greeted her like always, dropping cheery helloes as they zipped past her cube. No one in the break room asked, in a puzzled way, if she had changed anything: her hair, maybe. But it was getting harder for the woman to reach the wineglasses in their high cabinet. Driving the car after the Other, she had to adjust the seat.
She wanted to seek help, to find a specialist, but she didn’t know where to start. She wished that her ex-husband were there. He had always been better at these things than she had.
When she came home from work on the third day of shrinking, the house smelled like curry. Cardboard boxes lined the halls. The Other was in the kitchen, stirring something in an unfamiliar pot.
“What’s all that?” the woman asked. She fiddled with her wedding band, dangling loosely on her shrunken finger.
“Chana masala,” the Other said. “It’s Indian. I found a recipe online. Do you think we should go vegetarian?”
“No,” the woman said. “What’s that in the hall?”
“I cleaned out our closet,” the Other said. She lifted the lid of the rice pot. Beads of fragrant steam clung gemlike to her hair. “There was stuff in there we hadn’t worn in years.”
The woman stared at the Other’s face so hard she thought she could split the flesh, peel it away to reveal cold, unfeeling bone. She tried to keep her voice light. “Do you mind if I go through it? In case you got rid of something I want.”
The Other pulled out hot pads, sighed. “I’m worried that we’re sort of a pack rat.”
“That’s okay” the woman asked. “Think of all the closet space we have now.” She tried to force a laugh. It sounded like swallowing a seagull.
The Other, carrying plates to the table, didn’t smile. The woman went and stood in the darkened hallway, breathing cumin and garlic and surveying the boxes of her past life. One by one, she hauled them back up the ever-growing stairs.
At the end of the month, the woman, on tiptoe, got their utilities and mortgage and car payment bills. She sat on a stack of phone books at the kitchen table, head swimming.
“We need money,” she said.
The Other peered over her shoulder. “Do we?” she said. “We don’t eat much.”
“I know,” the woman said. “It doesn’t make sense to me, either.” She didn’t mention: the new clothes, the night creams, the flowers, the perfume. The things the Other seemed to think she was entitled to, now that she was a single woman.
The Other considered.
“I was thinking about a new job,” she said. “If you don’t mind going to the office every day.”
“Great,” the woman said. “What is it?”
“Dancing,” said the Other.
“Like,” the woman felt extraordinarily stupid even before she finished saying it, “Ballet?”
“Actually, exotic dancing,” said the Other.
The woman blinked. Her mouth wanted to work, but couldn’t. She made an incoherent noise, the combination of several other syllables. The new word, if it were a new word, expressed what and why and really and that’s amazing and Jesus.
“Marie has a friend who does it,” the Other said. “I met her at Frank’s yesterday. She’s actually pretty great. She says she can bring home six hundred a night. At least.”
The woman weighed thirty-six hundred dollars a week against her personal sense of revulsion.
“I’ve never wanted to do that,” she said instead.
The Other shrugged. “I don’t think it would be that bad,” she said.
Who are you, the woman wanted to say. But the Other leaned across her and added, in her own handwriting, $12,000 to the monthly income column.
“If it’s no fun, I’ll quit,” she said over her shoulder as she went upstairs.
The woman sat alone at the table, staring at the numbers, her feet dangling from the chair like a child’s.
When she couldn’t see over the steering wheel anymore, the woman called in sick to work. She lay under the bed, feeling tiny and desolate and missing her husband. She wanted him to come cradle her in his big arms, make her feel safe again.
“Come on,” the Other said on the third day, standing over the bed. “Get yourself cleaned up.”
“I can’t,” the woman said.
“That’s a lie,” the Other said. She was wearing seaglass green heels that the woman didn’t recognize. Her toenails were purple. “Get up.”
“I don’t want to,” the woman said. The floor was cool and hard under her back. She felt it grinding into her bones, numbing her spine, skull, elbows. She liked the grinding. It made her feel arrested in the present. It helped her forget that she was disappearing, day by day.
“Fine,” the Other said at last. Her feet shifted in her shoes. “I can’t argue with you right now.”
The woman listened to the shoes retreat, stared at the cool lemon light of the ceiling. From down the hall, she heard the shower come on: the muted sound of water running serpentine down skin and walls. Closing her eyes, she imagined the warmth.
The smell of soap rolled off the Other’s skin when she rejoined the woman, scootching her legs beneath the bed, and lying on the floor. Her body was large and warm and reassuring. The woman rolled her greasy head onto the Other’s giant shoulder, and caught, as she did, the Other wrinkling her nose. The woman felt quietly ashamed.
“I just feel so sad,” she said. That small token. That peace offering of their shared lives.
The Other patted her hand. “I know you do,” she said. But her eyes were far away.
It was late on a Saturday night, and the woman was the size of a large toddler. She sat curled on the couch in a tent-sized sweater and tried not to think about the Other, out working: the eyes of strange men on the body that had been her own, of the system-scummed dollars, the hands.
The woman watched the wall clock toss seconds against the blank-faced windows until the emptiness filled her with nausea. Then she picked up the phone and dialed her ex-husband.
The phone rang too loudly. When he picked up, he sounded like he’d been asleep.
“What do you want?” he said. It sounded like the voice of the man she had loved, and another voice. It sounded like nothing she understood.
“Hi,” she said. She leaned her whole head into the cradle of the phone, closed her eyes. “Nothing. I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I thought you made it pretty clear you never wanted to hear from me again,” he said warily. His voice something that needed to be coaxed out of a tinny den.
She wanted to ask, what, when. But she already knew. She knew what she would’ve said if she were braver and solid on her feet. The woman hated that the Other had talked to him and not told her. She hated the Other for having heard his voice.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “I haven’t been myself lately.”
“I don’t know what you want.” His voice broke, a familiar whine of fatigue. She remembered it from the nights when he was up working, wrecked with insomnia, pacing their small kitchen. She would come down some nights, make him a cup of tea. Other nights, she slept. Those were the nights she regretted after it was all over, when all she could think of was the million small ways in which she had not loved him enough to keep him.
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. I just really miss you.”
“You miss me?” He laughed, shortly. “That explains so much. Like why you don’t return my calls for a fucking week, and when you do finally pick up, you tell me to eat Drano.”
“You’ve been calling for a week?” the woman asked, faintly.
“Make up your mind,” her ex-husband said. “I can’t keep doing this.”
He hung up the phone. The woman sat on the couch, numb.
She woke to the gentle click of the door, the Other slipping in from the night. It was some lonely hour between midnight and predawn. The chill air flooded the room like a whisper, kissed the coffee table, the coat rack, the books and tea cups littering the floor. The woman looked at this, the Other’s mess, and felt like lead.
“He said he’d been calling for a week,” the woman said. Her tongue was swollen, too large for her mouth.
The Other hung her coat and keys. She didn’t answer.
“A week,” the woman said, loudly. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
The Other’s mascaraed eyes glittered in the dark. “Because it shouldn’t matter to you anymore.”
The woman struggled to her feet. The sweater, too large for her body, slipped to her elbow, exposing her shoulder to the cold. “It was eight years of my life,” she growled.
“Was eight years,” the Other said. “Was. Okay? It’s over. Move on.”
The woman laughed, bitterly. The noise bounced off the side of the Other’s enormous breast and fell to the floor and shriveled.
“No wonder he left us,” she said. “He knew I was half enormous bitch.”
The Other grabbed her hand, suddenly, so hard that the woman cried out. Her tiny palm eclipsed by the giant grip.
“It was a shitty thing that happened to you.” The Other spoke low and urgently. She was just pieces in the dark, built of shadows and scraps of moonlight. “It was shitty, and it was unfair, and you didn’t deserve it. But you can’t let it destroy your life.”
“I’m not letting anything,” the woman shrilled. “You’re hurting me. Let me go.”
“Bullshit,” the Other said softly, and released her. The woman clutched her hand to herself, turning it over like a treasured thing. She flexed it, experimentally. Smooth and whole.
“I quit the club,” the Other said, rising. “It wasn’t for me. I’m going to bed. Come up when you’re ready.”
The Other disappeared upstairs. The woman sat for a long time in the dark, cradling her hand and watching the silent phone, cold and remote as a stone in a well. Ring, she begged it. Ring. Come save me from myself.
Eventually, when the sky began to streak pink, the woman crept up to bed. She was frightened of herself but had nowhere else to go. She was so little now that she had to climb up the night table, the drawers of which had been left open for her.
The woman awoke so small that she was lost in the bedding. She screamed and screamed for the Other, but her tiny voice wandered weakly into the comforter, was lost among the thread count. She weighed so little now that she made no dent.
She wanted her husband. She wanted everything to go back to the way it was, when she was normal and happy and thought she was going to be that way forever. That’s what’s most unfair, she thought. He stole my sense of always.
The Other rolled over in bed. The pillowy cloud beneath the woman’s feet sighed and sank.
She screamed a tiny scream, scrabbled up the edge of the pillow, gripping at the folds in the fabric. Something slammed the world into blackness a foot away–a giant hand, coming down with crushing force.
The woman knew clearly, for the first time, that she was going to die. That she would be killed, advertently or not, by herself, waking up and rolling out of bed in the morning. That the Other would go on without her, take over her life. She would wear pants that fit, make marsalas and souffles, host dinner parties, go on dates. She would take herself to the movies and laugh at the dumb parts, would not call their ex-husband, and the world, without the pathetic woman, would be a better place.
Something boomed above, and light crashed through her whole self like a riptide. The Other had pulled back the sheet. The woman cringed, ducking her head into the pillow as the world around her dissolved into an endless roar and the immense shadow of the Other’s hand blotted out the white-ceilinged sky.
Oh, howled the world, swallowing her ears. There you are.
The Other lifted the woman towards the wet abyss of her mouth. The woman covered her ears and prayed that she would disappear entirely before herself consumed her, prayed as the Other’s breath washed unbrushed and moist over her head: wake up, wake up, wake up.
Darkness did not come in the form of teeth: it was a kiss. Gentle, the softness of warm lips enfolding her small body. A kiss of forgiveness, of love despite itself. Something that did not soak her up, but drank her in again.
The woman yawned, swung her legs to the floor, shivered against the bright shock of cold to her toes. She went downstairs, made an omelet and toast, sliced fruit. She set, for the first time in a month, one place at the table. She surveyed it, considering. Moved a stack of books and papers beside the plate. A vase of fresh-cut flowers in the place opposite.
The phone rang in a far room and she pricked for a moment, hand floating over the silverware. But her omelet was hot, and the jam just beginning to sink into the toast, and the part of her that needed to dash to the phone, to check for his missed calls six times an hour, had gotten smaller by the day.
The phone rang again, and the woman settled into her chair. There was the crossword, the weak winter sun curling catlike through the window and around her warming toes. She bit into her toast and savored the sweetness of jam unfurling across her tongue. She closed one eye, and then the other, and when she opened them, there was the world.