Joyland

New York |

The Other You's

by Leland Cheuk

edited by Michelle Lyn King

We rented an apartment on Avenue Trudaine. The place was on the third floor and overlooked Square D’Anvers, which was a short downhill walk from Sacre Coeur. A farmers market convened beside the tree-lined square. There was quite a crowd when we arrived. Anne wanted to nap off the long flight, but I was ready to begin exploring immediately. I had never been to Paris, and already, I was smitten.

It was August, sunny and temperate. At the market, my goodness, the colors of fruit, the variety! The olives! The nuts and spices! The French prunes! Row upon row of hale-looking tomatoes and eggplants and strawberries and all kinds of produce that made one imagine the most fertile of soil, capable of sprouting infinite abundance, endless and undying versions of natural sustenance.

I drifted into the square, where a playground and gazebo stood. On a green and red slide, several children swooped down. On the seesaw, twin girls crested and dropped. Though I had never felt any gut-level pinings for parenthood, Anne and I had reached an age when all of our friends had kids. Reproduction seemed like the correct, next box to check despite the fact we were obviously free to choose. A mom and dad sat in the gazebo and observed their playing children from afar, speaking Italian. I inhaled the fresh Parisian air and imagined Anne and myself in the couple’s place.

Then I saw him.

He wore a red turtleneck sweater. He squatted and spoke French to his daughter, who was a toddler and Eurasian. He buttoned up her jacket.

He looked just like me. He was me.

My impulse was to hide, lower my eyes, pretend I hadn’t seen him. He hoisted his daughter into his arms and walked out of the gazebo toward his waiting wife. She lowered a canvas bag gravid with produce into the back of a stroller. The three—a family—walked away as I stared, stunned, changed forever.

Anne and I dined at the Italian restaurant on the corner of the square, in view of that gazebo. We both ordered linguini and clams and shared a bottle of white wine. We were one of those couples, so long married that we dressed nearly identically (polo and shorts) and had all the same preferences. Our life was everything we had said we wanted. Stable, caring, nothing like my childhood. I was raised by selfish parents who never really wanted children. Anne’s family had been even more fractured than my own. (She was one of seven half-siblings, and none had the same combination of birth parents.) She and I grew up self-reliant, knowing that we couldn’t count on the emotional support of our forebears. We were self-reliant in our marriage too. Even when we took after-dinner walks outside our home, we always took our keys, money, and IDs in case we were separated for any reason.

Our lives were purposefully simple—just the two of us. But at night, I’d wake unsettled. I’d have vivid dreams about doing other things, being other people. Lately, I’d dreamt of being, among other occupations, a stay-at-home father, a Little League coach, a line cook, and a construction worker. I didn’t tell Anne about these fantasies. Instead, I talked about the fifteen types of tomatoes I saw at the farmers market.

Anne smiled, twirling fork in pasta. “It’s only been three hours, but I could imagine myself living here.”

I do live here. “Me too.”

After dinner, we walked past the gazebo where I’d seen myself, and I regretted not saying anything to my doppelgänger and his family. I should have followed them. They likely lived in the arrondissement. But what would I have done once I’d met them/us?

We trekked to the base of Sacre Coeur and took the funicular up to the glowing Basilica. When we disembarked, Anne held my hand, and we sauntered toward the tourists taking photos of the city panorama. The lights of Paris had just started twinkling in the late dusk. The Eiffel Tower peaked in the distance. The sky was the color of rose quartz. I wrapped my arms around my wife and smelled her hair. I was happy. We were happy, weren’t we?

“Are we happy?” I asked.

She smiled and gave me an expedient kiss.

To our left, a gay couple was also relishing the panorama. The taller white man had his arms around an Asian fellow, whose back was pressed against his lover’s front. They were far enough away that I couldn’t see them clearly in the rapidly advancing darkness. They broke their hold and walked past us hand-in-hand.

The Asian guy was me too!

My eyes followed them in shock as they conversed in German. My head felt like a clapping bell.

Anne asked whether I was okay. I managed to mutter that I was fine.

Needless to say, I had trouble sleeping that evening. I roamed the apartment and tried to read some of the books on my tablet.Outliers: The Story of Success, The Entrepreneur Mind, The Ten-Day MBA. (I was a management consultant.) I couldn’t focus on any of them. Whatever I was feeling was well beyond jetlag. I was consumed with the sensation that the books were worthless, meaningless drivel, and anyone who read them was an imbecile. By three in the morning, I had convinced myself that the versions of me that I was seeing were manifestations of a troubled mind, a scatology of some hackneyed midlife anxiety. There was no way that other mes lived elsewhere, let alone two in one city! I considered confiding in Anne, but just imagining the insanity spewing from my mouth made me want to fit myself for a straitjacket. I needed to relax. I tried some basic abdominal breathing exercises I’d learned from a recent foray into yoga. Stay in the moment. That’s what vacation is for, is it not?

I finally fell asleep on the couch. When I woke, a purple dawn was breaking, and my phone was bright with a voicemail even though I had turned off cellular service to avoid international charges.

“I assume you want to meet, correct?” my voice said to me. “Tomorrow morning, three a.m. on the River Seine. Quai Malaquais.” He then spelled the word “Malaquais” for my benefit.

How did he get my number? I turned my service on, went into the bathroom, and tried to return the call, knowing that a successful connection might cost hundreds of dollars, but there was no answer and no voicemail box.

Anne and I spent the next day at The Louvre. While we waited in line to get in, I searched my map for the location of Quai Malaquais on the River Seine. It was south across the river from where we were. We spent several hours at the museum, and Anne intuited that I was distracted and kept asking whether I wanted to leave.

“I thought you wanted to see this,” she said. “Do you want to go to Notre Dame, instead?”

I denied I was distracted. “I guess I’m not as much of an art guy as I thought.”

For lunch, I suggested we eat at a restaurant on a boat on the Seine. I ordered steak frites. She ordered beef tartare. I asked if she wanted to split a bottle of white, but she wanted red, so we ordered by the glass. We started talking about our jobs. Anne was planning layoffs in her department in an initiative that she and her leadership team codenamed Making the WE (Work Easier). It bothered her that she’d have to put her friends on the cut list.

“Maybe you should stop giving layoffs cute names,” I said.

Anne’s expression changed from intellectual engagement to emotionally stung. I hadn’t meant to be so harsh. I apologized.

“No, I get what you mean,” she said, as I said, “I didn’t mean it.”

“Is this all there is?” Anne said. “I mean, just us. Just work. Just this?”

“Are you not enjoying Paris?”

“I’m not sure what I enjoy anymore,” Anne said. “Everything I enjoy just seems to be stuff that other people tell us to enjoy. Like we got a list with our stock options. Scandinavian furniture, check. Farm-to-table restaurants, check. Apple picking, check. Paris in August, check.”

I wanted to agree and disagree with her. If other people didn’t tell us what to like, how would we figure it out ourselves? My head began to hurt again. Too much introspection. “I think I’m going to get another glass,” I said, looking for the waiter.

“I want to put myself on the cut list,” Anne replied.

But your salary, I nearly blurted. If we decided to have children, we’d need a bigger home. “If that’s what you want,” I said.

“Which me?”

My eardrums buzzed. “Did you say ‘Which you?’”

“One me says we have a great life. Another me says I could be different.”

I noticed the change in pronouns. “Are you happy with me?”

“Which you?”

“I swear, I understand, like, half the things you’re saying. You might as well be speaking French.”

We should have left. Should have gone our separate ways for the afternoon. But we ordered more and more wine. We kept drinking and vomiting more unintelligible versions of baffling honesty. We were determined to drown our marriage in the Seine.

“Do you want children?” I asked.

“Sometimes, sometimes not.”

“You’d better figure it out soon.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, thanks,” she said. “How convenient for you that it’s all on me.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“We’ve got to figure it out soon.”

“Do you want them?”

“I’m not sure. Depends which version of me you ask on which day.”

“Do you want to make love to another woman?”

I didn’t answer.

“That’s a yes.”

“No,” I said. I hadn’t met another woman for which I had strong parallel and alternate feelings. But if I did, I could imagine it. Oh yes, of course, in that hypothetical instance, my usually limited imagination was expansive and varied.

“Maybe you should look for that next someone,” she said.

“Anne,” I said in a warning tone.

“Maybe that next someone will even be a guy.”

I laughed, shaking my head.

“What? Is that so crazy?”

“I think we’re in need of a new adventure,” I said. “Maybe we can learn a language. Position ourselves for an overseas assignment. Get away from the same old same old.”

I reached for her hand. She reached for her wine glass and finished it. Was that three or four? We ordered another round. I couldn’t remember how we got home.

By late afternoon, Anne was in our apartment, in the bathroom, puking. Afterward, I asked her if there was anything I could do to make her feel better. She didn’t answer, crawled into bed, and fell asleep almost immediately. I filled a pitcher with water and put it on the nightstand alongside an empty glass and gazed out the window down at the gazebo in the square. Anne had said “Which me?” Had she also encountered other versions of herself?

Our row at lunch was more serious than I realized. That’s when you know your marriage has grinded to a halt, when you’re not even sure you’ve had a fight. After two hours of waiting for her to wake, I got sober and tired. I checked if she was still alive. Sure enough, she was snoring. I imagined a life without Anne and immediately felt the edges of pain and grief that I couldn’t bring myself to consider for another second. Wasn’t that feeling love?

I wandered outside to get some air, pondering the state of our supposedly happy life. I had this nagging feeling that every alternate path in life was forged by some larger construct, every option dictated by some other choice you already made and couldn’t reverse—none of my thoughts were truly my own, none of my actions were those of a free person.

I confined myself to back alleys and slowly zigzagged south. Cobblestone streets, bakeries, cafes, comfort in shadows. Comfort, that is, until I saw my French self’s wife! She toted a canvas sack of baguettes. I followed her. Around the Plaza Opera, past a synagogue. She wore a green sundress and had sinewy, biker’s calves and walked with a bowlegged gait. Her hair was dirty blond and poured over her shoulders like candle wax.

I followed my other wife into the sunlight, and its flash momentarily blinded me. Disoriented, I blinked away stars and tried to locate her again, but she was gone. I peeked into a women’s clothing and accessories store, then into a patisserie. I’d lost the mother of my child.

I tried to call the other me again. This time, I reached voicemail. My voice, but speaking French.

“I need to see you,” I said to myself. “It is driving me mad. I can’t think. I can’t relax. I’m supposed to be on vacation! I just saw your wife. I tried to follow her to where you live. If you don’t want me to do that again, you will meet me in an hour. I will be down by the Seine as you requested. It cannot wait until three a.m.”

And so I continued on toward the meeting point. I sat on a bench in the quay and waited for my other self to appear. My altered meeting time passed, then another hour, and another. I called him and left several messages. Messages such as:

“Who the hell are you?”

“How did you get my number?”

“Are you a con man?”

Passersby ogled me like I was homeless. It was a warm day and large sweat pits formed on my shirt. Soon it was after dinnertime, and surely Anne was now awake and wondering where I was. I finally got a call around ten p.m.

“Where are you?” said the other me.

“I’m where you told me to meet.”

“So am I.”

“Same place, same person!” I barked, my voice shrill with apparent mental illness.

“No, I see you.” He emerged from the other side of a nearby cypress tree. He was wearing a turtleneck workout fleece, running pants, and white sneakers that had grayed from use. He was indeed, another version of myself. I liked to wear turtleneck fleeces when I ran along the foggy and cold beach near my home.

“How’s Anne?” he said.

“How do you know her?”

“Senior year, I had a choice to study abroad or finish my degree in four years,” he said. “I chose to study in Brussels. Anne didn’t wait for me. I came back to The City, graduated the next year, worked at a litigation consulting firm, but I couldn’t get Europe out of my head. I had traveled all of Scandinavia and the Eastern Bloc on a Europass. I gave up the corporate job and came back to Paris to teach English. That’s where I’ve been ever since. Sound familiar?”

While I processed what he’d told me, he sat beside me and said, “I remembered my American number and figured I’d give it a shot.”

“I chose to graduate in four years. Then I was recruited by one of the Big Six—now Big Four—consultancies. I’ve been working my way up there since. Anne and I got married a few years after college. How did you know I was still with her?”

His gaze lowered upon my shirt. “She used to dress me too.”

I hadn’t given a thought to my clothes in over a decade.

“I saw another me,” I said. “Speaking German, up at Sacre Coeur. He’s gay.”

“Oh, him?” he said. “Yeah, we met last week. This seems to happen most during the summer months. I’m not sure I like it. I’m afraid to go vacationing now. There are infinite others, I think. I first saw one in Buenos Aires. I was running a marathon there. I thought I was delirious or hallucinating from overexertion. But then I nearly ran into the guy at the finish line. He crossed just moments before me. We agreed to meet in the middle of the night. He said he never went to college. He moved to The City right after high school. Somehow he ended up working at the United Nations and then got assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Argentina. He didn’t know Anne at all.”

Infinite selves! Parallel and alternate lives overlapping and intertwining like fabric threads. Piled on top of each other like produce. Eight billion people on Earth, each with billions more. The quay seemed to tremulate.

“How do you explain this?” I said.

He shrugged. “I’ve been writing down a lot of my feelings about this experience. The only explanation that soothes me is that there’s no reason to have regrets in life, because the road not taken happens anyway, somewhere, somehow.”

“I like that.”

“Of course you do,” he said. “You made it up. We’ve always been quietly narcissistic.”

I laughed. My first on this vacation.

“What’s it like being a parent?”

The other me looked away. “It’s like having another you. It’s like watching yourself start over.”

I pointed to him and then me. “So it’s like this?”

He checked his phone for the time and stood. “I have to go,” he said. “I told my wife I was going for a run.”

“You’re not going to give me more?”

“You’re so fucking American. You always need more. ” He reached down to shake my hand. “Bon soir, monsieur. Au revoir.

And off he jogged.

I wandered north back toward the apartment, trying to convince myself that what had just happened couldn’t be explained away by psychosis. I stayed on the main boulevards this time, following the brightest lights, afraid of what else might lurk in dark alleys.

Near the Opera stop and the Palais Garnier, I saw her. My wife, walking out of a restaurant across the street, hugging another Asian woman farewell. She was roughly the same height as Anne, but thinner. She also had the same skin tone, but her lipstick was far redder, and her haircut was styled with long bangs that covered one side of her face and arched around her chin. A friend of Anne’s I didn’t know about?

When the light turned, I trotted across the street, feeling sore in my feet from walking, and as the woman separated from Anne, I called out my wife’s name.

Both women faced me. The French version of Anne began running away. The Anne I’d come to Paris with stood before me with reddened eyes.

She inspected my disheveled, oleaginous appearance. I didn’t want to ask what I wanted to. Was that your other you? She was my wife of twelve years. She had some idea what I was thinking just by looking at me.

“The waiter thought we were twins,” she said. “She’s a mother of three and plays in a punk band.” During freshman year, Anne had played bass in an industrial metal band named The Frack Sures.

“He decided to study abroad senior year,” I said. “You didn’t wait for me.”

“I would never wait for a man.”

We began to walk toward our apartment side-by-side, not touching. So many thoughts coursing through our heads. Our many parallel heads. How could this have happened to both of us? In the same city? On this vacation? Did we want other lovers, other versions of us in the form of children, other jobs, other lives? Goodness gracious, what the fuck was my wife and all the other versions of my wife thinking?

As we rounded the corner of Avenue Trudaine, I stopped. But Anne kept on, deep in her thoughts, our shared nest of mental vaults. She was nearly to the front door of the apartment before she noticed that I was not by her side.

“Hey,” I called after her. “I want another me. I want to start over.”

“Me too,” she said.

And as I told her I wanted to be a father, she said she wanted to quit her job and play music again.

For some reason, her revelation surprised me, just as, I believe, my revelation surprised her.

As she walked back towards me, Anne’s figure flashed under the light of the streetlamp, and I could have sworn I saw several silhouettes of her. Since I was standing in the midst of street bollards and short trees, I might have looked like several figures to her.

Were we ever truly happy? Or were we just constantly pining deep in the gut for alternate ways out of the present, infinite escapes, endless and undying versions of newness, only to find ourselves coming back to the same destination: trying to close this distance between us?

I opened my arms and hoped my wife would choose to open hers.

Photo via Flickr