I spotted myself at a Japanese hot dog stand. Me. Exactly as I am. No toppings on the dog, as I prefer it, eating greedily, as I do. She shoved the last bite in with such recognizable eagerness that I can’t say if it was disbelief or familiarity that stopped me cold. A taxi nearly ran me down before I stumbled across the street toward her—toward me.
“How?” I tried to say, but couldn’t speak. I stepped up onto the sidewalk and clutched the hot dog stand’s cool metal edge. One of the young people staffing it bent down, his round, red hat on a tilt. “Hot dog?” he said, cheerfully.
This other person who was me—I’ll call her “the other me”—was still only half visible. It was lunchtime and a popular spot. I could see her face, framed by short dark hair, like mine until recently (I had added highlights and was growing it out). She wore no makeup, just as I normally did not. The skin around her eyes showed the precise signs of age I had seen in my own features just minutes before, standing in front of a department store mirror down the block, asking myself if I needed to start using cosmetics. I had decided I did and had allowed a salesperson to apply a face full of them. I could still smell the powder she’d applied to my cheekbones while looking at me like I was a half-decorated cake.
Then several people shifted out of the way and I saw the rest of her. My double. Sameness in the torso, the stance. Sameness in her wariness, which I sensed even at that distance. But there was one important difference: this woman’s free hand was holding a stroller handle, pushing it gently back and forth. I stepped closer, incredulous, looking between the other me and her buggy.
She saw me. We locked eyes, hazel on hazel. I thought I would freeze again, but now my shock was mobile. I circled slowly, as if facing a mirror. I became momentarily worried about my mental health. I saw myself in the straitjacket and padded rooms of movies. I saw my elderly father visiting me, wiping away my drool, trimming my toenails. He would resent every minute.
Someone gasped. I turned and saw people around the hot dog stand staring. Several more who were seated on a low brick fence nearby had stopped eating entirely, hot dogs horizontal, paused mid-air. The movie-like images in my mind switched to a montage of zombie horror: This crowd would become a mob. The young vendor would throw down his hat as he righteously dived forward with his long barbeque fork to pierce the hearts of each of us, we . . . aberrations.
I cleared my throat and forced myself to speak loudly enough to be overheard.
“I—didn’t expect to see you here. Shall we get lunch? . . . Like we enjoy doing? As twins.”
The other me was still pushing her stroller back and forth absently. Her face was blank—with shock, probably. She looked around, taking in people’s unease.
“O.K.,” she said, and immediately began pushing the stroller away from the crowd.
I caught up to her. Neither of us looked back. At the next intersection, we hit a red light.
“We have to get somewhere no one can see us,” I said, thinking aloud. “I’ll get the next cab—no wait: the stroller. It won’t fit. My place, then. It’s close.”
As soon as I’d said it, I knew I didn’t want that. My apartment was a sanctuary for one. How could I bring this other, a total stranger, there?
“Actually . . . the concierge won’t buy the twins thing. Forget that.”
The other me said nothing, so I turned. There she was, completely grey, knees buckling. I reached over and grabbed her around the waist, holding her up just in time. She was thinner than I’d thought myself to be, bony-ribbed. Someone on her other side noticed her fainting too and took her arm. It was a young man in low-slung jeans and a hat that said “I’m hard . . . to resist.”
“She O.K.?” he said, his voice not quite broken.
“We’re fine,” I said. “Low blood sugar.”
“You should sit,” he said, pointing across the intersection to a chain bookstore that also housed a café.
Not knowing how to object to this reasonable suggestion, I steered the other me and the stroller across the street, turning back once to see the young man still watching. I hoped he was exactly as he looked: someone who’d forget about us in two minutes. I waved and smiled eagerly, opened the café door, letting the other me in first, then lining up the stroller’s wheels to wedge it inside.
The other me let herself fall into the nearest seat. I brought the stroller over and tried to get it out of people’s way. It was so big and awkward; I had no experience with strollers.
“Sure,” I said, and went over to a side table where there was a pitcher of ice water and glasses. I poured a cup. The clinking ice made such a normal, healthily physical sound I wanted it to go on forever.
The other me drank her water in three big gulps, the pink coming back into her cheeks. It was like watching someone colour in a black and white portrait of me.
She assessed me for the first time, which made me self-conscious, especially about my made-up face. I could almost hear my father. How, whenever I’d tried on lipstick or eye shadow in high school, he had smirked, deadpanned, “Hollywood superstar.” I don’t even think he thought I looked bad. He just didn’t like the idea behind it.
The other me opened her mouth to talk, but then a sharp wail emerged from the stroller. The baby. She stood and lifted it out from a heap of blankets.
I nodded. She lifted her shirt and quickly put the infant to her breast—my breast! Except with huge, distorted nipples, based on what I glimpsed before the baby seized one.
“Coffee?” I asked, disturbed, but also seeing she was stuck where she was until it finished.
She agreed to tea. I ordered and we sat in silence, steam from our cups mingling between us. Words kept rising and falling away before they made enough sense to be uttered, like water not quite reaching the boil. Twice, someone approached our table. “Uncanny!” said the first, an excitable woman we willed away. The other, a man with a smug expression, said, “My daughter has triplets,” as if this trumped every possible example of likeness. But these intrusions eased my panic. Everyone just assumed we were twins now that we were sitting quietly together. We didn’t have to fake it.
The other me rubbed her forehead.
“What the fuck is happening?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?” I said, a bit defensively, because the other me’s tone had been sharp, like an accusation, as if she was the original, and me the copy. I saw things differently.
“And who is that?” I nodded toward the baby.
“Well, I don’t have a child.”
I didn’t feel like answering the question. It was no one’s business but my own.
The other me laughed for the first time. A rebuking laugh.
“More personal than what’s happening right now?”
I shook my head. I didn’t enjoy explaining my life choices to people. Why I was single. Why men had not been a consistent theme in my life. How each one I’d been close to had been tremendous, but in the way an iceberg is, looming and fearsome too. I blamed this on my father, but no one needed to know that either. The other me was different, obviously. She wanted to share. Yet we were the same, weren’t we?
I needed an explanation. Something sane-sounding, like ice on ice.
“Could you be my twin?”
It was her turn to shake her head.
“I’ve seen pictures. I came alone.”
“They could’ve faked them.”
Annoyance disrupted her composure like tiny local explosions she had to smooth over. Her eyes blinked fast. She licked her lips.
I realized that this is what I also had done on countless occasions when I’d thought I could hide an inner battle against too much feeling, how anyone who had looked closely would’ve seen the effort. I shuddered at this insight; I’d never understood before how much people could know, just by watching you sit and think.
“What’s with the makeup?” she said.
“What about it?”
“It doesn’t suit—you. Me. Whatever.”
“Um, sorry, but do you get to say that?”
“This is all a big dream. I’ll say what I want.”
“It’s not a dream.”
“Even if it isn’t, I don’t like the makeup.”
I tried to let the comment go. I had practice letting things slide. Besides, part of me was bracing for a jolt, something funny to break the tension. This would turn out like those TV bank ads—she had invested for retirement, I hadn’t. Or gore was around the corner—this other me, an evil double, had arrived to harvest my organs. I would be eviscerated, the café patrons traumatized. My boss would be without his sales team leader that he could send anywhere, anytime, my father without anyone to systematically undermine. In stories, meeting oneself is supposed to be like that. Something important. Corrective or horrific. But nothing was happening. I had met myself. She had a baby. I wore a mask of cosmetics. She seemed short-fused. She had questions. As did I.
“What’s it like?” I asked, nodding toward the baby.
The other me paused, then unplugged the infant from her breast and lifted it in my direction.
My eyes went wide.
“I don’t really know how . . .”
“It’s not hard,” the other me said stiffly, transferring its weight into my hands, then running a free hand over her hair.
“Ahh,” I said, experiencing the heft of a real live baby. A girl, she’d said. I couldn’t tell by the face, which to me looked like every other baby face.
“It’s work,” said the other me, answering my earlier questions. “But I don’t mind.”
I tilted the baby into a cradle position. What would she make of my face, I wondered. Her own mother’s face, but with painted lips and coloured hair. She seemed to like it. I thought I saw her smile. Then a stream of yellowish breast milk emerged from one corner of her mouth.
“I see a person forming in there, now,” the other me went on.
“I don’t,” I said, the warm milk soaking my sleeve.
I stood and put her back into the stroller.
“You don’t know her.”
“Are you mad about all this?” I asked, sitting back down.
“Why should I be mad?”
“You sounded judgmental just now. Like I’m an idiot for having a baby. I could be free like you, right? Wandering the streets all done up and wearing clothes designed for someone ten years younger.”
“O.K. That’s—you don’t look so great yourself, you know.” Which was true. She was not only aging, as I was, she was obviously bone tired. Her entire face sagged with fatigue.
“Fuck you,” she said.
“You’re just scared. Reacting to the weirdness.”
“Nothing is as weird as giving birth,” she said. “This is just—strange. You might not know the difference.”
“You make it sound like this is my fault. I didn’t ask to come across you. Or her.”
“I think if these people really think we’re twins, then they must be wondering why I look like a grown-up and you look like an overgrown teenager.”
“Stop it,” I said, my voice rising. “Just stop.”
I swung my hand out in an accompanying gesture, accidentally overturning her coffee mug, which landed in her lap.
The other me glared, then did something amazing. She pushed my mug of coffee onto my lap. It lay in a lukewarm puddle on my skirt. Nearby, I heard someone clear their throat. People were staring.
I picked up the mug and brought a napkin to my thigh, but the other me got out of her chair and came over to my side. She pushed my shoulder aggressively.
“You did it on purpose.”
“What are you talking about? You just spilled mine on purpose.”
She pushed my shoulder again, harder. I noticed her clothes for the first time. She wore ugly jeans with a too-high waist. Mom jeans. Into them was tucked a faded cotton top. I stood. I had never been in a physical fight, except once, in Grade 7, when the class bully had made me fight someone else whom she’d chosen. She always enjoyed creating difficult situations for her minions. But all I could muster was a pinch to the girl’s arm. Then I ran home crying and told my father, who was busy reading a novel and was in the final steps of rolling a cigarette, his lower lip slightly wet. He ran the paper over it and said, “We need bread.”
I did not relish the idea of hitting my double. But I also found her negative reaction to me painful and unfair. I grabbed her arm, as I had done in Grade 7, and squeezed it hard. Then I threw it back so she spun around slightly. She struggled to regain her balance before lunging at me. In the next moment several people surrounded us. A young woman from behind the counter stomped forward, waving her arms like a ref telling someone they’re out of a boxing match.
“I’m calling security!”
The other me managed to scratch my face hard before someone with long, muscular fingers grabbed both my elbows and yanked me backwards. “Take ’er down a notch,” said a man’s voice, in an accent I couldn’t place. Rural.
The other me came forward again like she was going to hit me with a closed fist. I prepared for pain, or to awaken from the dream I knew this wasn’t. But her baby started crying again, this time in a different pitch—hysterically, I thought. It screamed so hard the café worker and the man with the thin fingers both took a step back. “The twins have upset the child,” was what they must’ve thought. They couldn’t have accepted the reality that there were two of the same person present, that we had different lives, that we rejected one another’s choices, that the baby was confused. If they had known, they might have ripped her from the stroller, warded us off with a crucifix, never let us touch her again.
The other me began organizing her things.
“It’s fine. We’re fine. We fight, my twin and I. She’ll sleep if I move—the baby, I mean.”
“She thinks I’m prettier than you,” I said, my blood boiling.
I bent past the other me, who now seemed on the verge of strangling me. But now we had the attention of the entire café, and she held herself in check. I brought my face to within inches of the baby’s.
“It’s true, isn’t it?” I asked her.
Her crying stopped and her bumpy potato-like features smoothed as they had in my arms. In her formlessness, her thoughts were a complete mystery, but I told myself that she knew: I was the one, the original. I kissed her. Then everything pinched again. She screamed.
“She’s overtired,” the other me said with finality. “We’ll go.”
“O.K.,” I said, standing. What else could I do?
People started to relax. The café worker had not called security. The thin-fingered man returned to a table where he whispered something to a woman who seemed proud of him for intervening.
I turned to the other me. Another mirror experience. Two hysterics. Two fools. I felt compelled, suddenly, illogically, to hug her, and took her in my arms. She did not return the gesture. She was holding back, almost like she was waiting for the jolt I’d expected earlier. Something extreme that would justify fuller release. That she didn’t recognize this as that moment angered me, and I also gave less than the moment called for.
As our awkward embrace ended, I reflected on the fate of the baby, what she could expect from knowing and being known, from having a parent, eventually leaving childhood behind for adulthood, and then, in time, aging. My face must’ve fallen, because the other me smiled without malice for the first time, and I caught the expression I’d seen in photos of myself, when I’d assessed my smile as inoffensive, but which had photographed as impatient, wanting freedom.
I smiled too, trying to show acceptance—of her departure, my inevitable separation from the child. Yet I was no longer sure how to judge what I was putting into the world through my face or body. Then, thinking I should use the restroom to attend to the scratch on my face, I said my goodbyes.
When the café door closed on the other me though, I didn’t feel like moving. Generic music was playing. I lingered, listening, people watching me. It might’ve been delayed shock, but I suddenly was relieved to be rid of her, of both of them.
The very first man who’d approached us, with the smug mouth and triplet granddaughters, returned. “Don’t get much alone time, eh?” he said, looking me over.
Oddly, it was these words that most upset me that afternoon. The veneer of everydayness seeped from the moment like makeup remover smearing mascara. I could feel, starkly, where I was in space, who I was in time. I looked at him blankly, unable to reply, then rushed to the restroom where, ignoring the throbbing scratch, I touched up my face.