I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This First Proof contains the story “What Happened Between Us.”
One unusually rainy evening, when I was home early with a migraine, a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife Rema. This woman closed the door behind herself casually. In her oversized pale blue purse—Rema’s purse—she was carrying a russet puppy. I did not know the puppy. And the real Rema, she doesn’t greet dogs on the sidewalk, she doesn’t like dogs at all. The hayfeverishly fresh scent of Rema’s shampoo was filling the air and through that brashness I squinted at this woman, and at that small dog, acknowledging to myself only that something was extraordinarily wrong.
She, the woman, the potential dog-lover, leaned down to de-shoe. Her hair obscured her face somewhat, and my migraine occluded the edges of my vision, but still, I could see: same unzipping of wrinkly boots, same taking off of same baby blue coat with oversized charcoal buttons, same tucking behind ears of dyed cornsilk blonde hair. Same bangs cut straight across like on those dolls done up in native costumes that live their whole lives in plastic cases held up by a metal wire around the waist. Same everything but it wasn’t Rema. How I knew? Then just a feeling. But a feeling that was really a thought groping its way towards articulation. Like the moment near the end of a dream when I am sometimes able to whisper to myself, “I am dreaming.” I remember once waking up from a dream in which my mother, dead now for 33 years, was sipping tea at my kitchen table, reading a newspaper on the back of which there was the headline, “Wrong Man, Right Name, Convicted in Murder Trial.” I was trying to read the smaller print of the article, but my mother kept moving the paper, readjusting, turning pages, a sound like a mess of pigeons taking sudden flight. When I woke up I searched all through the house for that newspaper, and through the trash outside as well, but I never found it.
“Oh!” the simulacrum said quietly, seeming to notice the dimmed lights. “I’m so sorry.” She imitated Rema’s Argentine accent perfectly. “You are having your migraine?” She pressed that lean russet puppy against her chest; the puppy trembled.
I held a hushing finger to my lips, maybe hamming up my physical suffering, but also signing truly, because I was terrified, though of precisely what I could not yet say.
“You,” the simulacrum whispered seemingly to herself, or maybe to the dog, or maybe to me, “can meet your gentle new friend later. ” She then began a remarkable imitation of Rema’s slightly irregularly rhythm-ed walk across the room, past me, into the kitchen. I heard her set the teakettle to boil.
“You look odd,” I found myself calling out to the woman I could no longer see.
“Yes a dog,” she sing-songed happily from the kitchen. And, as if already forgetting about my migraine, she trounced on, speaking at length, maybe about the dog, maybe not, I couldn’t quite concentrate. She said something about Chinatown. Not seeing her, just hearing her voice, and the rhythm of Rema’s customary evasions, made me feel that she really was her.
But this strange impostress, moments later, when she kissed my forehead, I blushed.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” she said. “About my making theater.”
Which was a Rema turn of phrase. My migraine winced and pulsed. This young woman, leaning over me intimately—would the real Rema walk in at any moment, and find us like this?
“Rema should have been home an hour ago,” I said.
“Yes,” she said inscrutably.
“You brought home a dog,” I said, trying not to sound accusatory.
“I want you to love her, you’ll meet her when you feel better, I put her away—”
“I don’t think—” I said suddenly, surprised by my own words, “you’re Rema.”
“You’re still mad with me monster?” she said. It was Rema’s pet name for me.
“No,” I said, and turned to hide my face in the sofa’s cushions. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled to the tight wool weave of the cushion’s covering. And when I felt her hand on my shoulder, “I feel so rainy today,” I whispered. “It must be the tired.”
She left my side. As the water neared its boil—the ascending pitches of our teakettle’s tremble are so familiar to me—I reached for the telephone and dialed Rema’s cell. A muffled ring then, from this woman’s bag, a ring decidedly not in stereo with the sound from the receiver in my hand, and the ersatz Rema thus hearkened back out to the living room, now holding the dog, and then the teakettle whistling, and, literally, sirens outside.
She laughed at me.
I was then a 51-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous hospitalizations, and no relevant past medical, social, or family history.
* * *
After the simulacrum fell asleep (the dog in her arms, their breathing synchronous), I found myself searching through Rema’s pale blue purse that smelled only very faintly of dog. But when I noticed what I was doing—unfolding credit card receipts, breathing in the scent of her change purse, licking the powder off a half-stick of cinnamon gum—I felt like a cuckolded husband in an old movie. Why did I seem to think this simulacrum’s appearance meant that Rema was deceiving me? It was as if I was expecting to find theater tickets, or a monogrammed cigarette case, or a bottle of arsenic. Just because Rema is so much younger than me, just because I didn’t necessarily know at every moment exactly where she was or what, precisely, in Spanish, she said over the phone to people who might very well have been perfect strangers to me and whom I was respectful enough to never ask about—just because of these very normal facets of our relationship, it is still not necessarily likely—not at all—that she is, or was, in love, with some, or many, other people. And isn’t this all irrelevant anyway? Why would infidelities lead to disappearances? Or false appearances? Or dog appearances?
I took Rema’s pale blue purse and left.
* * *
As I walked the dewy night I counted backwards from one hundred by sevens. I asked myself if I knew what it meant, the phrase A rolling stone gathers no moss. I wondered to myself what I might do if I were to find an unmailed letter on the ground, and it comforted me to realize that I would either open it, or put it in a mailbox, or both, all of which were acceptable answers.
Basically, I was administering to myself a modified mini-mental exam and I was doing, by the way, just fine. In that way, anyway.
Soon I found myself walking along Bourbon Street, still crowded at that hour with tourists, mostly men whom I imagined were sailors on leave though I saw no one in a uniform, except for a woman who was dancing in a window box, and whose sailor outfit was half mesh. The cursive ‘R’ of a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum reflected against the glass, and against her skin, with varied refraction. I found I wanted to stop and look at her—as if she might possibly be Rema?—but just then two other men, boys really, stopped there; I did not want to be part of a crowd, and so I walked on.
When I was first with Rema, my ears would grow hot and my blood pressure would rise if I saw a man chatting up a woman in line at a store. As if any woman being hit on anywhere revealed the sexually corrupt souls of millions of men I did not know who might one day steal Rema away from me. I used to carry beta blockers just to make it through my day. But I had been better of late. I had not had to take one for months, maybe almost a year.
“Are you cold?” I heard a woman’s voice say, but I turned, and it was clear, she was talking not to me. (Often on Bourbon Street I hear one visitor pedant-ing to another about how in New Orleans the graves are above ground, on account of the water table being so high. All those people, feeling so singular, learning the same small fact again and again.)
One window box had no woman, just cold light, peeling paint walls, something blue and silky on the floor; the glass showed a shimmery ghost parade—like an old television screen—of passersby. I found myself walking to the box, imagining one of the walls to be false, to be falling away, to be hiding a woman, or a rabbit, behind it. I put my face up against the glass, hands at the side of my face, so as to see past the mirroring surface.
Someone’s hand—not my hand—went into the backpocket of my pants. And a moony voice—not my voice—said, “What are you looking for?”
“I don’t know,” I said, not because I didn’t want to say I was looking for my wife, but because I was so startled.
He laughed. It was a he I saw—a very tall he, with a Roman nose and strangely familiar—when I turned around. I found myself clutching Rema’s purse (which I’d forgotten I was carrying), as if he were going to steal it. But when he reached towards me it was not towards the purse; instead he put a hand, gently, to my cheek.
“Am I feverish?” I asked.
“Do you like powdered sugar?” he asked.
I found myself saying no. Then I said no again.
He said okay and walked away. I reached my own hand up to my own cheek, to the same place where he had touched me, and I thought that maybe it was me who was not myself. That maybe it was me who had been replaced.
* * *
When I returned home I put Rema’s pale blue shoulderbag underneath the sink, for safekeeping. It was 5:00 AM and my new houseguest was not yet awake. I peered in at where she was sleeping, but she was hidden beneath Rema’s ugly old yellow quilt, with only one indefinite tan arm and a few tickles of blonde hair showing.
It was a little bit uncanny, the feeling I had, looking at her.
Leaving the sleeping simulacrum to herself I lay myself down alone on the sofa, experiencing the unhappy déjà vu of having lain myself down in just the same way 12 hours earlier, expecting my Rema’s imminent arrival. I tried to rest. But although the phone did not ring—our phone of late rings terribly often but frequently disconnects after I say hello—intrusive thoughts, rising as if carbonated, disturbed me from sleep:
—a movie dimly recalled from childhood, with a blind samurai whose doppelganger pursues him
—John Donne meeting his wife’s doppelganger in Paris, and this portending his baby’s death
—Maupassant seeing his own doppelganger, and it portending his own death
—a bruise on the back of Rema’s knee
—and a hand in my back pocket
This is just a problem, I told myself. Probably just a very normal problem masquerading as a strange one. An ordinary problem pretending to be extraordinary. I don’t know if I thought it then but I was thinking it just now, about how my mother used to say that almost any problem could be solved by one of the following three solutions: a warm bath, a hot drink, or what she called “going to the bathroom,” though she never specified what was to be done in there and sometimes I would just go there to think. I can’t really recall a time in my childhood when that didn’t work. Our bathtub was in the middle of our kitchen, and the bathroom was a thin-walled room just the other side of the kitchen sink; both rooms had the same houndstooth hand-laid tile floor, and one always heard water coursing through pipes, or braking, or boiling.
That’s just something I was thinking about. I feel like I should report these seemingly irrelevant thoughts, just on the off-chance that they’re important in a way I don’t immediately understand. The possible significance of whatever comes to mind: that’s one of the few precepts of psychoanalysis that I don’t consider utterly foolish.
* * *
The sound of painfully familiar sockfooting about woke me from what couldn’t have been much more than an hour of sleep, but an awkward hour, from which I woke with a numb and tingly left hand that I prodded experimentally until it returned—with starbursting hurt—back to life. I’d suffered a dream in which what was happening to me was exactly what was actually happening to me but because I woke up with a sense of relief, I had the clawing hope that Rema’s disappearance had been not also but only in my dream, had been induced simply by indigestion, or a cold draft, or a foot cramp.
But then I was being lavished with affection, affection from that russet dog.
“I don’t understand where this came from—” I said, aloud I think.
But I heard Rema’s voice coming from the kitchen. And a teakettle being set to boil. Yes, it really was Rema’s voice. Strange dog in the house, but Rema’s voice. A relaxation started right at the base of my shoulder blades, tracing down in swaths. Meanwhile that dog had taken ahold of my loose sock with its teeth and was shaking its head back and forth. (Such behavior may appear playful, but it’s quite clearly a component of the instinct that breaks the neck of caught prey. Yet we call it cute. It’s just like how we have so successfully forgotten as a species that a smile was born as a masking afterthought to the sudden baring of teeth.)
“You feel better,” Rema’s voice said, but when I turned I saw her, the simulacrum of my true love. And when I saw her, well, I smiled. She was the same. Despite the voice the same. Same false vision of Rema from before. And yes I kind of hated her, the stranger.
“The dog makes you happy?” the substitute continued, and what could I answer except no. The dog then left me for her; she picked the dog up in her arms. She told me she didn’t care what I thought about what to name the dog, that she was going to name her without me. I said I didn’t care what she named the dog, the dog who was licking her face with dedication.
“But I got this dog,” she said to me, “for you.”
The dog had dark wet eyes; the woman’s eyes were similar. Then I noticed that she—the woman—had fine lines of age on her face, tiny crow’s feet, and not just when she smiled since I could see the lines right then and she was not smiling. The look-alike Rema, I began to realize, was not such a perfect look-alike. It would seem Rema was being played by someone older, or who at least looked older. Someone pretty, but not as pretty. Not that there’s anything wrong with an older woman, there is nothing wrong with women my age for example, I just don’t happen to be married to one.
“You said dogs are brilliant,” she said. “You said Freud’s dogs could diagnose the patients.”
And it struck me to wonder: was Rema kidnapped or did she willingly leave? Which would be worse? I was determined not to let my voice crack, and that is part of the reason why I was trying to avoid speaking. Fortunately the doppelganger seemed to have the same talent as Rema for filling up silent spaces, and she went on: “You said Freud’s dogs knew when therapy was over, and knew who was psychotic and who was neurotic, and that when memories were recovered the dog would wag its tail. You said you would have liked to have such insight, such dog insight, that it would be better than your own, and I listened to you because that is something that I do, and here I go against my own instincts and get us this beautiful dog, in order to please you, and to help us, to bring a little bit of life into this home, and from you I get nothing but silence and strangeness and you’re looking at me like I’m green, or dead. Why? Why do you look at me like that?” The russet puppy—I mean dog—was licking tears from the doppelganger’s face.
“But Freud’s dogs were Chow dogs,” I said.
It was all I could think to say. Looking at her, at this ever so slightly older Rema, feeling a dimness advancing from the base of my skull. I turned away from this woman and went to the bathroom where I ran hot water over my hands, which is something I like to do in the colder months, is something that just makes me feel a little bit better. Then I touch my face with my warmed hands. This is something I do to calm down, it’s just this very normal thing that I do.
Over the sound of the running water I could hear Rema’s voice, calling through the door. She was not pleased. I was thinking, Does Rema know this twin of hers? Did Rema complain about me to her? There were difficult aspects of Rema, I can’t deny that—a lot of this arguing through a bathroom door had been going on in the time before her disappearance, though the details of those arguments are unimportant, especially since now that she is gone, those difficulties, those details, well it’s almost impossible to remember what they were.
The Rema-like voice came through the door with something about being tired of it always being her getting stuck with the label of being unreasonable, irrational, crazy. I thought to shout back that of course it was her getting stuck with that label, and that furthermore I’d only ever said irrational and unreasonable, never crazy and that it was she alone who was assigning normative value to those labels and, listen, she couldn’t even let a man just wash his hands in peace, but I stopped myself, instead said nothing, thinking to myself: This fight is stupid. This fight is ridiculous. And to have it with a woman I don’t even know—that is even more ridiculous.
Older, wrong, and no more manageable, this replacement wife. And I admit, the thought briefly crossed my mind: I don’t want anyone at all.
* * *
Some people will think they have perceived something ugly here, between the lines. But I believe there are those who will recognize my situation—notwithstanding its deceivingly eccentric particulars—for what it truly is. Let me be clear. It is not I who misunderstands the significance of unspeaking callers, or of a dog who appears to be a puppy, or of a grave above ground, or of men who aren’t sailors. It is not the wrong movie whose ticket I have in my pocket, whose plot I have forgotten.
But I don’t care. Let them have her.
I had to leave of course. Because my love is faithful. Because I love only the original Rema. And I’m certain that I will find her. I know that what is extraordinarily wrong often returns to itself as something simply extraordinary.
Rivka Galchen completed her MD at Mount Sinai in 2003, and her MFA at Columbia in 2006. She’s the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Fellowship in Fiction, of Columbia’s Robert Bingham Fellowship for Fiction Writers, and of a Columbia University Writing Instructor Fellowship. Her first novel came out with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in Spring of 2008.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee