Susan Hubbard

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,” I say.

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.