Early in the morning is the best time to do this. It’s less crowded, almost like a little walking meditation through the pricey things I sometimes covet, in their pretty, perfect wrappings, with fewer representatives of the native peoples to remind me that I am not really that person. Unnoticed and undistracted, I can sample imported cheeses, try on lotions that cost five times what they cost in a stripped-down package, sniff the loose teas, and eventually, put the couple things in my basket that I can’t find anywhere else, an herbal supplement or a bottle of sesame shiitake salad dressing.
So you can imagine my displeasure, as I examined an enticing bottle of kiwi blueberry pomegranate soda, to discover that I was being watched. I thought at first that this person was simply waiting for me to move out of her way so she could get her own sesame shiitake salad dressing, but this was only partly true, because once I turned to face her, she became much more interested in scrutinizing me. Initially, I believed that this was because it was clear that I did not belong in the fancy grocery store. I thought I had dressed for the occasion; maybe I should have known that the $65-dollar tank top given to me by a wealthier friend would not fully distract from my knockoff jeans. But this did not explain the staredown I received.
“Am I in your way?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, with a laugh that told me I should have known why she was staring at me. I was about to walk away when I noticed that we were wearing the same top.
“Oh,” I said. “Funny.” It was an odd coincidence, I thought, not quite enough to warrant the duration of her gaze, but at the same time, I didn’t want anyone actually thinking I was that person. I just wanted to know what it felt like to shop with impunity. My husband and I are artists and teachers; we do OK, but there’s a budget. More or less. Our hierarchy of needs are met and then some, but I often thought that that hierarchy should be in a constant state of revision, that at this point it should include homeownership, health insurance, social media, fancy face creams and government-sponsored yoga retreats. Everyone could use that, I think.
“My girlfriend gave this to me,” I said. She had literally taken it off her back when I admired it. She had another one in a different color.
“Um,” the woman said.
Again I was about to walk away, but she never averted her eyes from me, waiting for me to get it. I looked at her one more time. Oh. The same jeans too.
“Okay, yeah, that’s weird,” I said. I was now kind of creeped out, and began to walk away, toward the register. This little excursion of mine to the fancy side didn’t usually go like this. Usually I got a three-dollar scone and some weirdberry jam to go with it, satisfied enough with that tiny bit of luxury to finish my day out as an upper-lower middle-class person, my husband’s and my little joke.
The woman wearing my outfit also proceeded to the checkout line behind me, with her cup of coffee and the same two items in her cart as I had. She even had the same well-worn bag from Trader Joe’s that I’d brought with us from Chicago when we moved to Austin. Yet I still didn’t catch on until she followed me out into the parking lot and clicked her car key, then reached for the door handle.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “I think you must be confused.”
“No,” she said, opening the car door, “I think you’re confused.” She put her shopping bag in the back seat, which was laid flat and covered with a ratty blanket, as it almost always was for the dog, as I glanced over to the parking space next to her car to see another one just like it. Momentarily stunned, I clicked my car key to find that it opened the second car.
I understood only that this was some sort of Single White Female scenario. I’ve been to the movies. I knew that you never think it will happen to you. I told her to stay away from me (resisting the urge to call her a psycho bitch, like they do in the movies), and moved to get into my own car, nearly backing it into a Volvo wagon in the process. I hurried home, running two yellow lights and one that was fully red.
But her car was in my driveway when I got there, and she was in my living room playing with my dog when I opened the door. Thank God he also came to me when I walked in, otherwise I might have checked myself into a hospital right then.
“How the fuck did you get into my house,” I said.
“With the key,” she said.
I still had no idea what was going on, so I kicked her in the shin and tried to push her out the door. She didn’t try too hard to fight me, but once she was out the door, she stayed on the stoop. I went back inside and put my two things away. I called my husband and told him what was going on. He laughed, told me I was imagining things, that I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, to take a nap. I told him I wasn’t imagining anything, that a woman dressed like me followed me home from Central Market and was sitting on our stoop, and that he should come home right away because I was seriously freaked out. He didn’t want to indulge me in this, but when I wouldn’t hang up, he could tell how scared I was, and told me he was on his way.
When he walked in the door, I asked him if the lady was still on the stoop. He said no, that there was no lady on the stoop.
I looked out the front window. She was gone from the stoop all right. “But her car is still there,” I said.
“That’s our car,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “the second one is ours, the first one is hers.”
“Second what?” he asked.
I might point out here that my husband and I often have "who’s on first" type conversations, often hilariously so, but this wasn’t one of them.
“The second Toyota,” I said.
“Honey,” he said, “there’s only one Toyota in the driveway.”
I looked out the window again. “Well, she must have left,” I said.
My husband loves me. He’s never had any previous reason to think I hallucinate, so this wasn’t the first conclusion he jumped to. I mean, I don’t know exactly what he thought. He suggested calling the police, but when I thought about what I would say, that a woman dressed in my clothes driving a car just like mine followed me home and then left, well, it sounded as weird as it was, and mostly like I was crazy. So after he calmed me down, I let him go back to work. I stopped shopping at Central Market altogether. I tried to forget about it.
* * *
I was making monkfish with an asparagus couscous for dinner one night when my husband came home from the art store and told me he saw a guy wearing his same work pants.
“Doesn’t everybody wear those?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “but they had paint and plaster in the exact same places. And then he bought a sable brush, just like the one I had in my hand, and a tube of Schminke Caput Mortuum.”
“I don’t know what you just said.”
“Oil paint. Brown.”
“Did he say anything?”
“Neither of you said anything?”
“Where did he go after that?”
“I have no idea.”
“Did he get into a truck like yours?”
“And you weren’t freaked out?”
“Of course I was freaked out! Why do you think I’m telling you this?”
We sat at the table, finished a whole bottle of wine between us. We’re not big drinkers, but we like a nice wine with a nice meal and a lot of times we don’t get to sit down together for dinner – he stays late at the studio. But trying to make sense of what was going on, which we really didn’t, required a bit of numbing. Slightly buzzed, I asked what he thought we should do. He said it didn’t seem like they wanted anything from us, and unlike mine, his doppelganger hadn’t followed him home.
“Okay,” I said, “well, let’s not worry about it, then.” He nodded. I nodded. As though we could just not worry, by saying we wouldn’t worry. Our way of not worrying was to drink a little more wine. A few weeks later, we were in the wine aisle at Central Market pricing cases of reds and whites.
It should be no surprise who we ran into there. The people who look like us. Weirdly, they were buying soda. You’d think this might have somehow been a relief, but they were still dressed like us, and most everything else in their cart was also identical to ours. There was a jar of wasabi blue cheese mustard on top that looked in no way appealing to me. My weirdo twin looked at me. “You think you know who we are,” she said, “but you don’t.”
“No! I totally know who you are, it’s you who doesn’t know us!” What was I saying? What was this conversation even about? Was I about to throw down in the liquor aisle with the pseudo-usses, over something I didn’t even understand? I didn’t believe in God, but it felt like I was getting a psychotic message from the universe telling me I had no business shopping in a place like Central Market.
“C’mon honey, let’s just go,” my husband said. “We’ve obviously been drinking too much.”
“No,” I said. “This began before we started drinking. I want to get to the bottom of this. Who are you? What the hell is going on?”
The duplicates invited us over to dinner to explain. I could think of nothing that would make me less comfortable. But my husband accepted the invitation.
“What? Honey, are you kidding?”
“Well, do you want to know what’s going on, or not?”
I did, but I didn’t want to sit across the table from those people. I wanted to find out what was going on right then, and change it back. I grumbled.
“What can we bring?” my husband asked.
“How about some cheese and crackers, maybe some olives?”
“Great,” said my husband.
On the car ride home, we discussed this moment at length. I couldn’t understand why he was suddenly so calm about it.
“I dunno,” he said. “I guess it just is what it is.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. We don’t know what it is.”
“I just mean maybe it’s not a terrible thing.”
“It’s totally terrible!”
“Maybe we judge things too quickly, before we know everything.”
“I like judging. I’m a good judge.”
“C’mon honey. What could happen?”
I didn’t know what could happen, which is probably what freaked me out about it. I feared that they would take us over, that we were in the middle of some weird Stepford remake, and that we’d be replaced. I told him so. “And the poor dog!” I said.
“You’re worried about the dog?”
“What if we get replaced, but the dog secretly knows it’s not us, but he can’t say or do anything because he’s a dog?”
“Didn’t you already tell me the dog liked the fake you when she came here?”
“He seemed to. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t know the difference. He likes everyone.”
“Well then, so if he likes everyone, he’ll be fine, right?”
“Oh, whatever.” I hated it when he was kind of right.
I spent the day of the bizarre dinner trying to pick out clothes for us that the others couldn’t possibly have. A pocket watch necklace that had belonged to my mother, her initials engraved on the back, a shirt of my grandfather’s my husband often wore, everything else pieces from thrift and vintage stores. Our shoes were new, but I could live with having one thing be the same. But my husband pointed out that it was probably futile. I knew he was right but I was determined. I thought maybe if I wore a sweater as a skirt or teased my hair into a beehive or something, I could stump them. I still wanted to look cute though, so I stuck with wearing them the normal way. My husband was right, of course. We arrived at the duplicate’s house to find them dressed exactly as we were. They were friendly, happy to see us, like we were old friends.
It probably goes without saying that their house was just exactly like ours, filled with things just exactly like ours.
The one thing I hadn’t been expecting was other guests.
Go ahead, I’ll wait. You already know.
Not one but two other couples, just like us.
No one besides me seemed the least bit disturbed. Even my husband was now fully in the camp of undisturbed. I had the sense that he was starting to think it was funny. How I could tell this was because he was cracking up.
“Can we open some wine?” I said. “I need some wine.”
“Wine for everyone,” the hostess said. Her husband opened a bottle, poured it into glasses just like we had at home, that we’d gotten as a wedding gift. “To new friends,” he said, raising his glass. I wanted to smash mine into the lot of the clinking glasses, but I didn’t want to waste it. I downed it, made him open another bottle right away, downed a second glass. Over cheese and crackers, I again asked what this was all about.
“Well,” said one of the wives (I was already unsure who was who, our names were the same, in addition to everything else), “I think it’s about the current disparity between social norms and our information society.”
This was not the type of answer I was looking for. I was looking for an answer that meant something.
“No, it’s about metanarratives,” said a husband.
Nor this. Not that I knew what that meant.
“I think it’s more about pastiche,” someone said. Or it was what I heard.
Suddenly all I heard were single words, fancy ones I hardly understood the meaning of, that seemed irrelevant anyway, until those gave way to just random words that seemed entirely without meaning at all.
“Made in China.”
“Why is everyone just saying words?” I asked.
“What?” someone said.
“I’m just hearing words. Do I say these words?” I asked my husband. “I don’t even know what half these words mean.”
“I think it’s about art.” My own husband said this.
“What?” I said.
“No, it’s about margins of error in perception,” said a wife.
“Oh for God’s sake,” I said out loud.
“Possibly,” said a husband who said nothing else, and when I said possibly what he shrugged.
“It’s not any of those things. It’s obviously about death,” said another wife.
“How is it about death?” I asked.
“Everything is about death.”
I was not looking for abstract commentary. I wanted facts. I wanted science. I was a non-believer, but I would have settled for an appearance from Jesus right then if he would have straightened things out. I wanted to switch it back.
The group played a lively game of charades while I sat on the couch drinking wine.
* * *
That was the normal part of the evening.
After this game, I assumed that my husband and I would be on our way and that when I woke up in the morning from this horrible, horrible dream, I would get help for my obviously severe drinking problem and there would be no other usses ever again. What actually happened was that that was when the subject of an orgy was raised. With the casualness of a proposal of dessert, or an after-dinner drink, one of the wives suggested an orgy. “Wasn’t that so fun last time?”
“It was,” said a husband. By now I’d had enough wine that I had no idea which one went with who, and only felt sure of who my own husband was because I’d hardly let go of his arm since we walked in.
“What if we just – watch?” said my own husband. I knew that he knew I had no interest in participating. “Could be – interesting?” He had never been less than empirically, madly in love with me, totally faithful, and yet somehow even just watching seemed slightly beyond the boundary of what felt okay. I stared at him for a minute.
“Honey,” I whispered, “not that I’m super well-informed on orgies, but this seems like it’d be the weirdest orgy ever.”
“I think it’d be the least weird. Think about it. Everything will be familiar.”
I contemplated his use of that last word for a moment in this context. Watching identical dicks poking in and out of identical orifices didn’t call out to me as something I had been missing out on. I was no more interested in watching a live sex show than I was in participating in one. But he convinced me watching an orgy wouldn’t be any different than watching the occasional porn as we did. So I drank some more wine and we watched the six remaining partners remove their clothing and slowly pile up on the living room floor, same parts going into other same parts, familiar noises and more familiar noises. I was never comfortable with my own sex noises, but hearing what I assumed were noises not unlike mine, outside the vantage of my own head was another thing entirely. Was that what I looked like having sex with my husband, minus four? I felt like I was watching a nature show, that there should be some whispery British narrator. Notice how the male of the species builds a bower to entice his potential mate and endeavors to insert his genitals wherever he can find an opening in the pile, with seeming little regard for the possibility of insemination … Why would anyone ever tape themselves if this was what it looked like?
I looked at my watch about sixteen times. When I realized it was eight, I grabbed the remote and turned on their TV. "Dateline" was on, my favorite show. I hardly cared, at this point, if I was committing a social faux pas. I noticed the other wives peeking at it as soon as it came on, the men peeking for the remote to hit the mute button. Keith Morrison looked into the camera, posed with his arm on his hip in a pile of snow in front of a house where a man’s wife had been found bludgeoned to death. As though implicating me instead of the widower with blood on his boots.
“Are you happy?” my husband asked me.
I hadn’t been asked this question since my mother asked it about fifteen years earlier, when my response involved screaming.
“I thought I was,” I said.
“Well, what’s different now?”
“Um, we’re watching ourselves have an orgy?”
“No, but I mean what’s really different,” he said.
I was lost. I looked at the pile. The men were going down on the women, who quietly moaned. For a brief moment I was certain I saw the entire throbbing mass levitate, a fuzzy halo of light at their lumpy edges, which was when I put down my wineglass.
He asked me if I thought anything was missing from my life.
“Not really. Nothing you don’t already know about. It’d be nice to worry a little less about – stuff. Have better insurance. Own a house. Know what was coming next, where we’ll be a year from now.” Out loud it sounded so – imprecise and weak. I was expecting some response involving people in third world countries, or at least another question I didn’t have an answer for.
* * *
The men came at the exact same time, a chorus of loud grunts and ohmygods.
* * *
Everyone (besides us) pledged to do it again soon, said they all had a wonderful time.
On the drive home, my husband said, “Well, they seemed nice enough.” As though it had been any ordinary dinner party. As though we hadn’t just watched a pile of our clones fucking in front of us. I felt simultaneously like plunging my fist into my own face and signing up for electroshock therapy. Had this really just happened? It seemed like it had. I couldn’t think of anything to say. His lack of affect about the whole thing disturbed me, perhaps not as much as what I’d just witnessed, not as much as there being any number of our duplicates wandering around town, but nevertheless, it bothered me that he didn’t share my alarm.
“How are you not totally weirded out by all of this?” I finally asked.
He shrugged. “I dunno, I guess I’m not really sure there’s much to be done about it. ‘Hey, police? There are a bunch of people out there who kinda look like us, but they seem pretty nice.’”
“In the movies, after the part where the police don’t believe you, somebody would poke around in the dark and find the basement where David Arquette or somebody was doing the crazy duplicating plastic surgery.”
He laughed. “And then what?”
“And then he’d have a calm but creepy laugh and make it out like that person was also one of his creations and then that person would have to kill him.”
“Well, you’re probably that person in that scenario.”
“Or maybe I’m the David Arquette but I just don’t know it.”
“Or maybe the David Arquette knows exactly what he’s doing.”
“I don’t think I know what we’re talking about anymore.” My husband seemed like he did, though.
“Well, just think about it for a while,” he said.
* * *
Right after this, everything went back to normal for a while. I dropped the subject of the doppelgangers and their orgy seeing as how it could not possibly have happened. We never saw them again. We didn’t friend them on Facebook, nor they us, because they weren’t on Facebook. They were on nothing. Enough years passed to where I came to think it was one of those odd memories you have where you can no longer be sure it’s even a memory of a real thing, that it’s far enough back in time that it’s on the line between real and dream, or maybe even a story you read somewhere, or an episode of a sitcom, one that only aired six episodes, and never in the same time slot twice. There was no one anywhere who looked any more like either of us than two people who look vaguely alike ever do. And believe me, I looked. We had long since left Austin, but I looked in upscale delis and bookstores, I went into a few high-end clothing stores I could not afford and where I did not enjoy even browsing. (There’s no clothing equivalent to sampling cheese. You can’t try on a ring and walk out with it just because it’s smaller than the other things in the store.)
* * *
Long after I stopped looking for me-twins, in the books section of a nearby Goodwill, I noticed a book I was interested in, in the hands of the person next to me. A celebrity memoir, the sort of book I could only ever justify to myself if I bought it for fifty cents. I asked if she’d seen another copy, and she pulled one off the shelf in front of her and handed it to me. When I looked up to say thanks, I finally noticed. “Hey,” I said, “you live here now?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “do I know you?”
Reminding her about the orgy didn’t seem like the right response. “Um.” It seemed clear, looking at her looking at me, that she was not among the lookalikes I had previously met. “I guess I was mistaken. But, uh, you see the resemblance here? Between us?”
She didn’t. I didn’t press it. I remembered how I felt the first time it happened to me and I suddenly wondered if maybe I hadn’t dug deeply enough with all the twins, really tried to see who they were underneath the fancy tank tops and imported cheeses. Was that the point? I still didn’t know for sure. I was hardly one who believed in signs and lessons from the universe and that shit, though I suddenly felt something benevolent at work. I only knew that in this moment, I felt oddly reassured knowing I had a twin in the Goodwill in Brooklyn. I wondered if all of us had twins all around the world, if there were copies of ourselves in Tokyo right now, making paintings, sampling salsas, sifting through used books, and if that was really such a bad thing.
* * *
Several weeks later, I was at the cheese counter of Fairway. I had a copy of Rob Lowe’s memoir in my bag and was wearing a moth-eaten but gorgeous lavender cashmere cardigan I scored at the Goodwill that week.
I tasted a cheese sample, a leaf-wrapped Valdeon. It was like a precious morsel of divinity in my mouth. I picked up a two-ounce wedge of it, priced at $11.47, along with a box of the crackers piled next to it, and put them my basket.