You Who Never Arrived
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled,
gave back my too-sudden image .…
–from “You Who Never Arrived,” Rainer Maria Rilke
I’m back in my hometown visiting friends for a wedding, and I stop at the supermarket to pick up avocados and limes, and I see–there across the produce section rummaging among the lettuces–myself. I’m buying iceberg lettuce–or rather, the other me is buying iceberg. This me prefers more exotic varieties: Boston or Bibb.
It’s not a great moment, meeting yourself. It’s the kind of thing you might have a bad dream about. For starters, although the me amongst the lettuces looks a little younger than me–the person telling you this story–she also looks tired, worn out in ways I confess I’m not.
I think I’d better stop calling her me. Let’s call her the Other.
I need to get those avocados and limes and head back to help my friends make guacamole and mojitos–company’s coming for cocktails, and my friends are worried enough, what with the wedding and all. One of them joked yesterday: What if you planned the perfect party, and nobody came?
And I said, Who cares? We’re the only ones who matter.
But here I am, here she is–the Other. I’m not going anywhere until I talk to her.
So I grab four avocados–dark green eggs with black patches, their wrinkled skins promising ripeness–and I head over to the lettuces. “How bizarre,” I say, looking at myself—looking at this Other. She’s wearing the kind of jeans I haven’t worn since graduate school–ratty Levi’s with holes in the knees–and her hair needs a trim. She looks at me and then back at the icebergs as if she’s not all that interested.
“Hello!” I say.
The Other looks up. “Do I know you?”
I can’t tell if she’s trying to be cute or not. “Well, I’d certainly think so,
And when she stares at me, then moves away, I catch sight of us in the mirror strip above the produce section. “Look, ” I say, gesturing up at the mirror–and there we are, two women with identical faces (granted, hers is a little more youthful, yet a little more tired), identical heights, body types, fingerprints no doubt–all the same. “Amazing,” I say, staring at us, and she meets my eyes in the mirror. Then she makes a face, a kind of grimace, and looks back at the lettuces again.
“Don’t you think it’s amazing?” I ask the Other.
“What do you mean?” she says. I’m still watching the mirror. My face is a little broader, hers a little more gaunt. Her eyes look weary, yet somehow more innocent than mine. And, of course, I’m wearing a dress and earrings and a necklace.
Then the automatic mister comes on, and our reflections are filmed by water.
“We’re the same,” I say, not trying at all to be cute.
She picks up a lettuce, flips it over to examine its stem, frowns, and puts it back. “So?”
“So it’s a kind of miracle.” This language isn’t like me at all, and I regret saying it immediately. “You know what I mean,” I say, but I’m beginning to think she doesn’t. Is it possible she doesn’t recognize me? “Isn’t it odd that we should meet?” I say. “I’m in town for Tiffany’s wedding. Remember Tiffany Saper?”
“Why would I remember her?” She doesn’t sound curious. She throws a lettuce into her cart and says, “I can’t believe they’re charging 99 cents a head.” And she pushes her cart away.
“Wait,” I say. “Please.” I walk after her, cradling the avocados in the pits of my elbows. She’s stopping at the seedless grapes. I walk around her cart and say, “I’ve been waiting years for something like this to happen.”
Again, I am not being cute. Many times, since I finished school and moved as far away as I could from that town and the old neighborhood, I’ve had a sense of an Other, somebody out here living the life I would have led if I hadn’t moved away and gone to college and secured my current high-paying position. While I was out there, building my career, climbing the greasy pole, shattering the glass ceiling, I sensed the Other was back here, living the life I might have had (by all accounts should have had)–barely finishing high school, getting and losing a series of minimum-wage jobs, still living at home in my parents’ house, sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom, growing older. Once in a while I had glimmers of the Other’s life in a dream or in a daydream, a sense that she lived in a shadowy place, dating men in the neighborhood, men I was too good for, maybe marrying one of them, probably being mistreated, maybe stuck with a baby or two. Who knew? Who could tell the depths to which the Other might have sunk while I climbed so high?
I have to find out. “Are you married?”
The Other is frowning into the grapes. “Rotten,” she mutters. “Rotten.”
“Please,” I say. “Let me ask you one question.”
Her eyes flash, yet still look weary. “Look,” she says. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know why you’re bothering me. If I answer your question, will you leave me alone?”
“Yes,” I say, grateful for even this scornful attention. “Please.” But now I’m not sure I’ve asked the right question. Her mouth opens but I put up my hand. “I’ll leave you alone if you answer one question,” I say. “But not that one. I don’t really care whether you’re married or not. I mean to say, that’s not the big question.”
She tosses a plastic bag of grapes on top of the lettuce in her cart. “So ask the big question,” she says. “I haven’t got all day.”
Why not? I wonder. But that isn’t the right question either. My mind is racing now, trying to think back to those earlier intimations of the Other, trying to remember what I wondered about her. Was she married, sure, but that wasn’t the big one. Did she sleep better than I do? How was her dental work? Did she remember to vote, and was she active in a political party?
But none of that really matters. What kind of car does she have and what’s her favorite color? Does she have a tattoo? Does she watch the same sitcoms I do? How often does she eat out? How often does she work out? How about that weight problem? Does she own a gun? And what kind of gun is it? Did she bother to get a license, or did she pick it up on the street?
The Other is restless. She pats a pineapple as she passes it–sort of slaps it, really. She’s over there by the potatoes now, and I dog along behind her, thinking, thinking. She looks over her shoulder at me, as if she’s not surprised and not happy that I’m still here. “Shoot!” she says. “Ask your question, or go away and leave me alone.”
“Okay,” I say and open my mouth to ask–but she holds up her hand. “Wait a minute,” she says. “The deal is you ask me one, then I ask you one. Then you leave me alone. Is that a deal?”
I nod, several times. “So shoot,” she says.
I take a deep breath and ask my question.: “Do you wish you were me?” Then I figure I’d better make it very clear. “Do you wish you were me?”
The Other looks at me. She looks me up and down, from my shoes to my capris to my hair extensions. Then she looks me square in the eye. “No,” she says. “No. I’m glad I’m not you.”
I feel a little dizzy. It’s because I skipped lunch, I need small amounts of protein at regular intervals, that’s what my nutritionist says, but today there wasn’t time, and the lights overhead are flickering. Fluorescent lighting is bad for the brain, I read that somewhere.
Her mouth is moving, but there’s a buzz in my ears. I hit the side of my head with my hand, hard, and in a second I hear the supermarket Muzak playing. Something by Elton John. Is it Tiny Dancer, or is it Candle in the Wind?
Then I hear her voice: “I answered yours. Now you answer mine.”
“Ask me again,” I say. “I couldn’t hear you.”
And the other opens her mouth–our mouth–and she says, “Are you sorry?”
“Sorry for what?” But I know what she means. Sorry for trying to murder her. Sorry for leaving her so far behind.
She’s standing so close I can see my reflection in her eyes–or is it her reflection mirrored back by mine? It’s like mirrors in a hotel bathroom–infinite iterations of self. Dizzy again, I take a step backwards and she advances. I take two steps. “Not me,” I say.
I head for the door. She’s following me, so I begin to run. Outside, I drop one of the avocados as I unlock the rental car. I throw the others into the backseat and jump in. And as I drive away I see her, standing in the parking lot, holding my avocado in one hand, using the other to point at me, shouting.
I hear one word: “Thief!” Then I turn up the car radio and make for the street.
Susan Hubbard’s seven books of fiction include The Season of Risks, Blue Money (Janet Heidinger Kakfa Prize) and Walking on Ice (AWP Short Fiction Prize). Her short fiction has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, and other journals. Her work has been published in fifteen languages. A recipient of several teaching and research awards, Hubbard has been a guest at Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cill Rialaig, and the Djerassi Resident Artists’ Project, and in 2016 she will be a resident artist at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. Currently she is Professor of English at the University of Central Florida. Details are available at www.susanhubbard.com.