by Laura Eddy
Your eyes blink open, and for the briefest moment, you feel happy and expectant.
Then, your heart begins to harden as you realize that all of it—the manmade lagoon, Alex’s acceptance of your affair, the crowd, the gilded dentist office, Cara Delevingne—was only a dream. You close your eyes and roll over, not wanting to let the faintly erotic, reassuring reprieve of the dream ebb away. But what day is it? Wednesday. You have that status conference to call into at nine. Your eyes blink open before you can stop them, and you register the early morning light wobbling through the Belgian linen curtains. You check your phone on the nightstand. 5:39. You should get up now if you want to fit a run in before work.
Since Frankie texted two months ago to end things, you’ve become a running addict. The physical work is tortuous, but it’s a torture that’s recuperating, allowing the instinctual, wild self that Frankie awoke in you to become independent and self-contained. On the best mornings, it’s as if your individual soul—your real soul—has been left behind to strengthen and fortify itself, while the you-of-the-present dissolves into uncomplicated, kinetic energy. In those moments, you feel something approaching happiness.
Still in bed, you peer over at Alex whose habitually alert and observant face is now passive and remote. You watch the bulging eyes move rapidly from behind Alex’s lustrous eyelids and wonder what Alex is dreaming about. You make a mental note to ask about them—Alex’s dreams—later, although even now you know you’ll forget.
You roll over and silently extract yourself from the prodigious duvet. You stumble to the bathroom, or the “en-suite” as Alex half-jokingly calls it. After you’ve relieved yourself, you flick on the bathroom lights and linger before the substantial mirror, trying to merge your present circumstances with the unblinking human staring keenly back at you in the sparkling glass. The more intently you study your face, the more estranged you feel from it. Is it really you with the red-rimmed eyes and blotchy skin who couldn’t leave Alex? Can it truly be you with the veiny temples and slightly saggy chin who lost Frankie? It doesn’t connect: the bland, middle-aged face staring back at you reflects nothing of the turmoil you feel inside. You pull back your shoulders, suck in your gut, and force your features to participate in a confident masters-of-the-universe smirk. That’s you, you tell yourself. That’s you: spouse, parent, lawyer, cheater, pathetic-obsessor-over-Frankie. Then, as if to confirm how pathetic and undesirable you are, you let your face drop in dumb, doleful repose and distend your abdomen to its embarrassing maximum. That’s you, you repeat. That dopey, pathetic loser is you. In a burst of irritation, you slap the sink faucet and splash cold water on your face. You’ll feel better after your run, you tell yourself.
You pad back through the bedroom and into the walk-in closet. Surrounded by your suits and business-casual to your left and Alex’s expensive, artistic rags to your right, you pull on your running gear. Through the half-open door, you hear Alex’s deep, rhythmic breathing, which is much louder than usual. The heavy breathing is probably caused by the sleeping pill Alex swallowed last night after polishing off the bottle of wine you’d opened with the Chinese food. You and Alex had both pretended as though it wasn’t just Alex who was drinking too much, although, weary of the effects of alcohol on your mood since Frankie left, you’d only had half a glass. It’d been a good night though, a pleasant night. There’d been no meltdowns from Quin, whose little body had exhausted itself with improvised dance, all walloping and bursting, animated by some internal vision of Quin’s that the young limbs couldn’t quite approximate. Meanwhile, Alex’s and your banter came easily, which isn’t unusual, experts that the two of you are at ignoring all that is dark, subterranean, and helpless between you. Much of the routine was recycled, so you’d frequently finished each other’s sentences. It’d gone like this: Seriously, why isn’t there cheese in Chinese food—there’s beef, so they could have milk—so why isn’t there cheese?; By the way, the burden should be on meat-eaters to justify their eating habits, not on us vegetarians; Conservatives act like things used to be so great, but look at Bill Cosby, everyone thought he was all pudding pops and pullover sweaters, but really he was drugging and raping people; Hopefully the men performing at Quin’s friends’ birthday parties aren’t secretly perverts—that last one, not the fat one, the skinny one—he seemed kinda pervy, right?; Wouldn’t it be funny if real wizards did the type of magic that’s performed at kids’ birthday parties, like if Gandalf tried to defeat Sauron with a card trick or by pulling a rainbow scarf out of his cloak? And later, after you’d distributed and broken open the fortune cookies, Alex’s protruding eyes had grown even larger in mock disbelief at the tiny slip of paper floating between Alex’s shapely fingers. ‘“Two good talkers are not worth one good listener,’” Alex had read, in a throaty voice. “That’s not a fortune—that’s just life advice!” The two of you could go on like that forever. The problem isn’t that you and Alex don’t get along or don’t love each other. The problem is that it’s not enough for you.
Still in the closet, you finish roping the laces of your running shoes into fat double knots. From the bedroom, Alex’s breathing has become so loud and rumbly that it’s almost menacing. You want to make a joke about it. You crane your head out of the closet and look over at the colossal bed. That’s when you see it: someone is lying on top of the bed next to Alex. Your heart leaps to your throat. You gape in confusion, then realize what you’re looking at, and a great, choking terror sizzles from your finger tips to the top of your brain. The person is you, or at least it’s an exact replica of you. Your heart turns over and icy liquid shoots through all your veins. You know you’re not having an out-of-body experience because this copy of you is naked and lying supine, pharaoh-like, on top of the covers, and you never sleep like that. Moreover, you’re quite plainly corporal, at the moment, trembling in the closet in your running clothes. You want to back away from the doorway, but you can’t, your limbs won’t move. You are nothing but a giant eye, helplessly transfixed. The naked replica on your bed is still breathing in and out those deep, ominous moans you’d heard. But its face—your face—looks strangely serene, like that of a dog who’s been given permission to sleep in bed with its human.
Panic starts to set in. You need to calm down. The meditator breathes in, the meditator breathes out, you tell yourself in sync to your breath, the way that the app on your phone instructs. You try to adjust your imagination to the circumstances, searching your mind for plausible explanations. There is a sharp, unyielding quality about the present moment that makes you think you’re not still dreaming, but you need to be sure. You remember reading that electric lights always work by dimmer in dreams, something about the sleeping brain’s inability to accomplish rapid transitions in backgrounds. So, as calmly as you can, you flick on the closet light. The recessed lighting overhead illuminates instantly. Okay. So, you’re probably awake. The back of your brain buzzes. Could you be hallucinating? You glance back at the bed. Alex has slung a toned, careless arm over your double’s torso. If this is a hallucination, you think, it’s a robust one, high resolution.
You shut your eyes and open them again. Your partner, whom you’ve betrayed, is still holding your slumbering, possibly elusory, twin. They look so peaceful and solid. You remember how once, on a gorgeous spring afternoon before you were married, you and Alex were walking back to Alex’s crumbly, midtown apartment when you crossed paths with two youths wearing preppy, pastel-colored outfits whom appeared to be peaking on LSD. Clinging to each other, the pair pointed their fingers at you and Alex, and, as if to convince themselves you posed no threat, urgently proclaimed you to be a “normal couple, normal couple.” For months afterwards, you and Alex had delighted in referring to yourselves that way: We’re a normal couple, one or the other of you would declare in an artificially urgent voice. A normal couple, you’d both repeat with the same mock urgency. Now here lay Alex and your double in a natural-seeming, somnambulant embrace, the normal couple you and Alex once were.
The closet is suddenly unbearably warm. What you need is some fresh air so you can think properly. What you need is to get away from yourself—that is, the version of you sleeping naked on top of your giant bed. You again try to steady your breath (the meditator breathes in, the meditator breathes out). Then you inhale deeply and force your shaky legs to carry you out of the closet. You tiptoe out of the bedroom, shutting the door shyly behind you, and make your way down the beige-carpeted hall, past Quin’s room and past the lurid oil paintings of half-dressed people you painted in college and law school. When you reach the top of the stairs you almost trip over Quin, who is on the floor rolled in a pale-yellow blanket, like a pale-yellow worm. “Goooood moooorniiing,” the worm moans in a low, creaking voice. The worm has graced the hallway floor most early mornings this week. You’ve tried to play along (asking the worm how it slept and what it wants for breakfast), but you must admit, the worm strains your patience. Certainly now—when you have either seen or hallucinated your doppelgänger—is not a good time. The worm looks fixedly at you. “Aaaare yoooouuuu goooing ruuuuunning?” it creeks. In a whispering, impatient voice you answer affirmatively. It occurs to you, however, that an encounter with your double might cause Quin to go into shock, or at least mental unrest, so you instruct that under no circumstances may the worm enter your bedroom until you get back. The worm nods its head in bright understanding. You feel disarmed. Hoping to hide your vexation, you bow down and ruffle the soft curls poking out of the blanket. Then you step over the cocooned body and descend the carpeted stairs.
Outside, the misty morning air comes startling. It tingles cold and vivid in your throat. The impenetrable tule fog has swallowed up most of the treeless cul-de-sac on which your hulking tract house resides, though, through the mist, you spot the ghostly motions of the neighbor’s white cat patrolling her little patch of lawn. Otherwise, stillness is everywhere. The fright has given you a visceral craving for movement and air, so without bothering to stretch first, you take off running, opening your lungs to the damp valley fog. Feeling some antipathy toward the pavement, you set off in the direction of the river (the river’s proximity being the main benefit of living in a flood zone). Friends tell you that if you’re going to be running alone you ought to get a large dog, but part of you welcomes the risk.
As you launch your body forward, you trace over the morning’s events, as if finding a duplicate of yourself were some manageable conceit, and not a blistering event horizon marking the end of your sanity. Undoubtedly, you hallucinated the whole thing, you tell yourself. It’s merely a reaction to all the recent strain: the small, daily deceptions and evasions of the affair, the grueling hours at work attempting, and mostly failing, to impress the managing partner, the in-over-your-head mortgage payments, and, of course, the gaping heartbreak of losing Frankie.
Not that Frankie’s decision to end things hadn’t come at some relief. The intricate superstructure of your affair had been difficult to maintain. Like a child’s popsicle-stick tower constructed on top of all the murky melancholy that makes up your bottom-most state, one wrong move would topple the whole thing. And it did. At least you think it did. Though, in truth, Frankie never gave you a reason. The text only said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore.” And just like that, Frankie was gone. Wait. Why are you thinking about Frankie when you’ve just seen your double? Isn’t that more pressing? But all your brain ever wants is to wallow in Frankie and to try to make sense of the loss. Frankie is gone and you’re safe, you proceed, not for the first time, as you fling yourself past the large, garage-dominated houses.
That’s a good thing.
You won’t be caught.
You don’t have to keep your phone on silent. You can delete the email account you created specifically for communicating with Frankie (though you haven’t). And you no longer need to work so hard to mask how old and uncool you are. There will be no more gratuitous appointments at the dentist’s to have the coffee stains bleached off your teeth; you can keep your hair at the length that feels most comfortable; you can go back to listening to the music you liked in your teens and 20s. There’s no one to impress. Best of all, you can stop feeling like a monster of a spouse and parent. You and Alex can keep on pretending to be happy. You’re safe from all that. Safe, but miserable.
You pass over the freeway and into a neighborhood where the near-poor live. The houses are ramshackle and set at varying angles and distances from the road with seemingly no planning or foresight. The front yards are mostly fenced in and overrun by old toys, dismembered vehicles, and broken-down furniture. Sour-grass and messy privet trees have choked out most of the other vegetation. You jog past an oddly-shaped house with multiple add-ons that’s painted a startling shade of electric blue, past a stone house with numerous antennae appended to its roof, piercing the misty, morning sky, past a mean-looking shack of a house encased in an iron fence with two well-behaved Pitbull’s staring you down from the front porch. You can smell eggs and grease cooking, and you imagine the houses’ insides are all bent toward breakfast.
The janky hominess of this neighborhood has always appealed to you. Alex grew up near here, a fact that used to warm you with childish feelings of purity and romance. When you first met, Alex was still living at home and attending community college. On one of your first hang-outs, you brought two large coffees in paper cups and the two of you drained them while you wandered around this same neighborhood, stopping now and then so that Alex could light another cigarette. The caffeine, combined with the exercise and the rush of mutual attraction, launched a rampage of discursive conversation—about: the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, videogame cheat codes and which ones you could remember, how the tinfoil wrapped around burritos makes you both cringe, Led Zeppelin’s obsession with The Lord of the Rings (like what if Radiohead wrote half its songs about Watership Down?), how, as a child, Alex had a recurring dream in which a giant frog taught Alex how to swim, and how (no offense) you think Alex looks like a good-looking frog (a good-looking one!), how no one knows with certainty whether they see the same blue, say, or the same red, as everybody else, and whether Jon bakes the lasagna for Garfield, or if Garfield just steals it. The conversation delighted you. Back then, you liked how Alex saw things from a particular angle, a stance, an aesthetic even, and so did you, once you’d seen things Alex’s way. Now that stance—Alex’s set of rules—is simply predictable, codified in you both.
Thinking these thoughts as you dart along, it suddenly occurs to you that Alex has likely awoken to find your double, that is, assuming your double’s real. (It can’t be real, right? Although how do you explain Alex’s athletic arm draped over the disconcertingly naked body?) In retrospect, perhaps fleeing like that was a bit reckless. If it is real, will Alex recognize the interloper as a fake? You can picture Alex’s steady gaze, the shrewd, wide-set eyes, studying the familiar alien face, registering the infinitesimal differences between you and your double and locking them away. For even if Alex noticed something was off, Alex would never say so. Just like the affair: you’d long suspected Alex knew, and Alex knew that you knew Alex knew, yet never a word about it was breathed between you. Instead, you hid from each other, shielded yourselves from the truth, in chipper, controlled brightness. You followed Alex’s lead. You remember how once, exhausted with all the lying, you tested the waters of honesty by telling Alex you were meeting a “friend,” rather than giving a wholly false excuse for your Frankie-induced absence. You thought you saw a shadow of hurt cross Alex’s face, but in a firm, bright tone, Alex had replied, “okay, have fun!” When you opened your mouth to say more, Alex had interrupted and, with a perky, housekeeping air, asked you to pick up kale on your way home, as if that settled the matter. It exasperated you, all the false brightness.
You reach the levy road that takes you to the little clearing where you like to access the river trail. The silver-grey fog billowing up off the river and onto the road is almost opaque. It seems less like a chemical reaction of water and heat, and more like an other-worldly creature that’s busy carrying out its own quiet, ethereal objectives. You race headlong into it, heaving your spirt into the restful, silver-grey being. It’s not so bad, you think as you inhale the peaceful, misty air. You’re most certainly being too hard on Alex, whose forced sunniness is just Alex’s way of coping with your betrayal. Alex is holding on for dear life because Alex is in this with you until the end. The image of Alex sleeping attractively next to your double floats through your mind. They’re certainly awake by now, you think again. It’s possible they’re even having morning sex.
That isn’t something you and Alex have done lately. Before Frankie, sex with Alex had been like something the two of you invented. There was an eagerness to it, a vigorousness, yet at the same time a reticence and self-consciousness. The two of you were always fumbling a little. And even after all these years, you can be shy to look at each other’s naked bodies and into each other’s eyes. Before your affair, this chronic holding back hadn’t bothered you, not really. Back then, sex didn’t have to be made special because it already was. But since Frankie, the self-consciousness between you and Alex—the separateness that has always existed between you—is almost unbearable. You’ve come to realize that Alex is completely unaware of the states of feeling on which so much of your inner life depends. And you’re so lonely.
Sex with Frankie, on the other hand, was a metamorphosis. Your body seemed to change, to become something different, better. It was as if touching and being touched by Frankie altered and redirected the totality of your being toward the real. Your movements became exactly right. You had perfect command of every part of your body. And you weren’t shy. The change wasn’t just physical either. Every memory and belief that occurred to you while you were intimate with Frankie would take on a new, yet ultimate, clarity, like your soul was finally allowed to speak. With Frankie, your life was not simply dominated by anticipation and unfulfilled promise; it had value all on its own, right there in the present. Frankie saw your real soul, which permitted you to see it too.
Looking at the landscape below the levy road, you note with gratification a certain fecund magnificence in the scrappy oak trees dominating the riverbank’s foliage. Your real self, you continue, the self that Frankie saw, was so much more present and alive than the fake self that Alex forces you to be. But how does Alex force you? Can’t you control it? There’s nothing preventing you from being the version of you that Frankie saw, but with Alex, right? Yet you can’t; you aren’t. Suddenly, the possibility occurs to you that the version of you that you left back at home—your double—might be the real you that Frankie saw, only with Alex. If so, you ask yourself, would you want to trade places with it? No, you conclude instantly, you wouldn’t. Because if Alex could see the real you, that would mean you no longer need Frankie, and you don’t want to live in a world where Frankie isn’t necessary. But Frankie left you. And Alex is still here and, as far as you can tell, always will be. You pick up your pace.
Perhaps your double isn’t the real you that Frankie saw, but a version of you that’s better for Alex—the perfect-for-Alex you. That actually seems plausible. After all, your double never cheated on Alex. Your double never even existed until this morning. It’s as innocent and new as a baby, a blank slate free to worship Alex for all of Alex’s unique intelligence, humor, and loyalty. Your double is free to be the person that you should be. You imagine Alex and this better-you wrapped in blankets, rolling around the hallway with Quin: three worms—a big one, a medium one, and a small one—giggling and happy to be alive. You almost feel magnanimous at the thought of their happiness, but jealousy and guilt overcome you. That should be you.
You look around, trying to distract yourself from the guilt and regret. Through the fog, you notice a patch of bright flowers and a cross on the side of the levy road. They put you in mind of the single road trip you and Frankie took together. On the drive to Half Moon Bay, you and Frankie had zoomed past a roadside memorial and joked about what if every time something died people placed flowers to mark the location. There’d be flowers everywhere. This had actually been one of your and Alex’s bits, but Frankie had laughed so uncharacteristically openly, free as the two of you were that day, that you now think of it as belonging to you and Frankie. It belongs too to the unclouded, dazzling sky that had poised over Frankie’s car, the open road, the flowers, and the mylar balloon, which glinted and pitched in the sunlight on the side of the road where a stranger had died. You’d have to put up new flowers for the flowers that died in the making of the memorial, Frankie had offered. Yes, we’d have to devote most of our agricultural resources to flower-growing, you’d agreed. A spasm of despair rips through you at the memory. That’s not how it works, of course, you now think. The placing of flowers is reserved for humans and some pets. We do it to mask the disaster—the searing, indiscriminate singularity—that ultimately eradicates everyone we love. What’s the use of all this?
You’ve reached the river trail, which is veiled in a dense, ghostly cloud that seems to answer your mood. The river slides by you, silent and swift. For everybody, everything, it’s the same thing, you think as your feet pound the raw earth. Death snatches us when we’re sleeping. Pain and decay lie in wait. The simple joys of movement and breath, the scrappy oaks, the rushing water, all of this, can be stolen away in an instant. And it will be. You try again to catch your runner’s rhythm, matching breath to movement. And here you are, you say to yourself. Here’s you, pretending it’s not real. Here’s you, running away. You’ve fled your family. You’ve, at this very moment, left them with some sort of supernatural imposter. It was a bad omen, and you left. Alex will know. Alex knows you’re a coward. Alex knows you’re a selfish fool. And if these cold truths aren’t known to sweet Quin already, they will be. You fail everybody you love.
You attempt to push these thoughts out of your mind by focusing on the present—observing the plants and shrubs, hearing the birds, feeling the influence of the soil. But a proposal that’s been forming just below the surface of your consciousness all morning solidifies itself: You could just not go back. A wild, desperate throb of rebellion seizes you. Why not just leave? Your double can take your place. You again imagine your double playing worms with Quin and Alex. Your double can be you. And this you—the you of the present—can be with Frankie. You’ll tell Frankie you left Alex. And this time, it will be true. But suddenly the bigger picture reels back. How can you leave Quin? Beneath Quin’s freshness, there are already hints of suffering. Life won’t be easy for your serious and creative child whom you love more than you ever thought possible. You simply can’t abandon Quin. And what about Alex? Observant and quick-witted Alex with the fastidious and biting ability to perceive the plain truth about things, and who has never used that ability against you? Alex with the charmingly ranine good looks and beautiful hands, who, in truth, knows you better than anyone and in whose heart you’ve always been accepted and belonged? You can’t just leave Alex. Alex and Quin are your home. But Frankie, the voice in your heart chimes in. Frankie: quiet, soft-spoken Frankie, whose spacious soul seems so full of solitary and silent adventure; Frankie, with the enviably clean-cut features, and tidy, purposeful way of moving that makes your heart leap; Frankie with whom you feel the pull of destiny. You can’t give up on Frankie. You haven’t had enough of Frankie yet. When you were together, snatching an hour here, two hours there, you had told yourself there would always be more time for the two of you. But you were so wrong. There was always less time. At this thought, a spasm of profound grief halts you on the trail completely.
You force yourself to begin again. Just focus on running, you tell yourself, as you push your body to the limits. You’ll be able to sort out what to do once your head’s clear. The meditator breathes in, the meditator breathes out, you mentally chant, timing your panting and gasping to support your challenging pace. The meditator breathes in, the meditator breathes out. The elevator breathes in, the elevator breathes out. The elephant breathes in, the elephant breathes out. No. Focus. The runner breathes in, the runner breathes out.
The focus is helping. Soon, your movements cease to be mechanical and an exhilarating sense of strength and accomplishment takes hold. Like the ducks sailing down the river beside you, you plunge effortlessly forward. The fog, the trees, the grass, the dirt, the birds, the insects, even the crumpled beer cans and cigarette butts, combine and fuse into harmony. It’s going to be okay, you say to yourself, and the mud-blue water, the ducks, the shrubs, the leaves, all of Nature answer back in agreement.
You could keep plunging forward and forward. But when you reach the rusty bridge that usually marks your halfway point on this route, without thinking, you wipe your brow and turn around, not even realizing what you’re doing. But now that you’re facing west, you notice how the sun is shining delicately through the dissipating fog. The river’s so beautiful this time of day, you think. You ought to paint it. Hadn’t people always said you had a talent for painting, a spark? But you haven’t so much as held a paintbrush since law school. Maybe this weekend you can pick up supplies and clean out a corner of the garage to use as a studio. But wait, what about your double? What about never going back? Well, you at least need to grab some things and find a place to stay first. Plus, you can’t miss work today. Too much is riding on this afternoon’s settlement meeting. The important thing is that if there are really two of you, a solution to the Alex/Quin-Frankie problem is possible. You just need to sort it out.
As for today, you’ll look over those talking points.
You’ll follow up with Rodriguez about the Washington report.
You’ll coordinate with Alex about booking a hotel near Disneyland for Quin’s birthday.
You’ll pick up soy ice-cream bars on your way home.
You’ll… But your thoughts are interrupted by the realization that you’re not alone. A runner with a strangely erratic, fussy gait is tearing towards you. You look away, not wanting to stare. But as you pass the runner, you exchange nods. You don’t get a good look at the stranger’s face because you’re focused on the eyes, which are bloodshot and overwrought, like the eyes of a frightened horse. Startled, you look away in a mixture of confusion and disgust. Those desperate eyes seemed deeply familiar, like they saw everything about you and pitied, yet hated, what they saw. You almost turn around to get a second look at the overwrought figure, but you don’t. You keep moving forward, heading home.
Laura Eddy is an environmental lawyer in Sacramento, California. She was a winner of Tulip Tree Publishing's 2017 "Stories that Need to Told" contest and a finalist for the 2017 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards Competition. Laura holds a B.A. in Philosophy and a Juris Doctorate, both from the University of California, Davis. When she's not working, writing, or reading, she's binge-watching "The Bachelorette" with her husband and their (less-interested) pets.
Art by Jessica Wassil.