The Presence of Another

The roads and sidewalks glittered in the morning mist from a storm that had drenched the city the night before. Natalie peered out her car window at the overcast sky on her way to work and decided she might as well stay late at the office that night. The forecast called for more wind and rain in intermittent bursts over the next few days, so a nice run or stroll in the early evening was out of the question, and she needed to get ahead on a few projects, anyway.

She coasted to a stop at a light in the heart of the downtown area and watched people hurry through the crosswalks on their way to work. As she waited for the light to turn green, a woman who looked exactly like her pierced through the mist and passed directly in front of her at a brisk pace. The woman wore what looked like Natalie’s favorite outfit, the one Natalie wore only for special business occasions—dark skinny jeans, a purple sleeveless shirt with ruffles down the front, a black blazer, and heels. Staring straight ahead and noticeably preoccupied, the woman reached the sidewalk and disappeared into the crowd. Not knowing what to think, Natalie shifted her focus to the first project she would tackle when she got to work.

A few days later, Natalie and her boyfriend Sam were out for dinner at The Guest, an elegant Art Deco restaurant in the heart of the city. Sam spent most of the conversation describing the darkroom he had built in his basement and the black and white photos he was developing. Natalie stifled a yawn, tapped her fingers on the table to the Billie Holiday song playing in the background, and peered around a tall-standing floor plant to see if anyone she knew was sitting at the bar. Directly under a large picture of Albert Camus smoking a cigarette sat the woman Natalie had seen in the crosswalk just a few days earlier, the one who looked exactly like her. The woman signed her bill, finished her martini, and peered over at Natalie. Then she stood up and began walking to the door.

Natalie turned to Sam, shook his wrist, and said, “Sam, look quick. Look at that woman over there,” but it was too late. The woman had already left. Natalie hopped out of her chair and hurried outside. By the time she reached the sidewalk, the woman was gone. Natalie strolled to the bar where the woman had been sitting and studied the empty martini glass still sitting on the counter. It smelled of mango, and chocolate cherry lipstick stained the rim. Natalie had been drinking a mango martini and wearing chocolate cherry lipstick the night she met Sam. The bartender stared at Natalie suspiciously. She hurried back to the table and told Sam, “Never mind. We need to go home soon.”

Over the next few weeks, the woman continued to make herself present in Natalie’s life although she always remained just out of reach, to the point where Natalie gave up on trying to pursue her. Observing the woman’s actions was an experience in itself, after all. One day, Natalie visited a Warhol exhibit at a local museum. As she was leaving in the late afternoon, she gazed at the park across the street. Once again, she saw the woman, who this time was wearing jean shorts, a bright flowy tank top, and flip-flops, the casual clothes Natalie wore when she was younger. The woman was throwing a Frisbee to a Golden Retriever that reminded Natalie of her old dog Bark Ruffalo, who had been killed in a car accident a few years ago. Natalie’s face flushed, and she began to tremble. She left as quickly as possible, before the tears came.

On the morning after Memorial Day, Natalie walked through the revolving doors of her bank and onto the sidewalk and found herself face-to-face with her identical other. The woman stared at Natalie with a searching look. A construction worker was jackhammering parts of the sidewalk just a half a block away, and police sirens screamed in the distance. Amid the noise and confusion, the woman ran the back of her hand gently down the side of Natalie’s face and smiled. She began speaking, but Natalie couldn’t hear a word the woman was saying in the middle of all that commotion. When the jackhammer stopped, the woman’s voice became audible, and Natalie caught the remainder of her conversation in mid-sentence: “. . . it was all just a fait accompli, but no one planned it this way, and who knows what you’ll decide to do next? Anyway, let’s take a trip together someday, OK? We’ll tell everyone we’re twins. It’s up to you, though. I’ll keep in touch. Goodbye for now. I love you.” She turned and walked away. Natalie didn’t follow her.

That night, Natalie stared at herself in the bathroom mirror for a very long time. She promised to start asking herself more questions about everything.