Veronica Reilly works as a Teacher on Special Assignment for San Francisco Unified School District, where she specializes in college and career readiness programs. Her writing has recently appeared in Diverse Voices Quarterly and The Alabama Literary Review. In addition to writing, Veronica enjoys hiking in the many beautiful parks in the Bay Area and practicing Zen Buddhism. Read more at veronicareillywrites.com.
My body double lives here in Paris. She likes existentialist philosophers and Russian novelists. She does yoga, and then walks to a nearby café to drink espresso and smoke cheap, unfiltered cigarettes. The only things I know about her are those that I've been able to observe since I arrived in Paris a week ago for my annual, monthlong sojourn abroad. I take it in a different country every year, and I've never found a body double before. Learning about her has become my summer passion.
Yesterday I followed her for a few hours, out of curiosity, out of an altogether understandable desire to know everything about this reflection of myself; I admit that without shame. That's how I saw her weeping as she left a shabby apartment building down the street, and I'm sure it was over a man, even though I've never seen him. And her tears reminded me that I wasted so much time on Jack when I was her age—I wish I had known he was going to completely inhabit my late twenties with what appeared to be his permanent presence, and then leave me with little to choose from by the time he was through with my thicker, older, sadder self. If her man makes her come crying out of the apartment on a sunny afternoon, then she is only wasting her time, as I now know I did. She is still young, and there are still possibilities for her happiness, which are lost to me, a lonely old woman.
I'm waiting for her to arrive this afternoon; I haven't seen her all day. I know that I need to speak to her; I must warn her about what is in store for her. She doesn't have to end up looking and feeling like me. She can make better choices. But how can I approach this image of myself? "Just present yourself to her," you might think. "She'll recognize the situation instantly. If you see yourself sitting there, won't she see herself standing, nodding, trying to find a word?"
No, unfortunately, because she is not my body double of today, but of thirty years ago.
# # #
How could I even begin to prove that we would have been mistaken for twins if she had been my contemporary? I don't have any photos with me. They have mostly been destroyed, and the few that are left are buried deep in storage back in California. I wouldn't have believed a woman like myself if she had walked up to me when I was young and said, "This is what you have to fear. You look just like I did thirty years ago, and I think it goes deeper than that. You can have what I never will. Cut out the red meat, the heavy drinking, and most importantly, leave that worthless man."
"She used to look like me—ha," I would have thought, while nodding politely.
Perhaps I could gain her confidence gradually. I could start by asking for directions to the metro, or advice on galleries to visit—anything just to hear her voice, learn a little more about her. Then I could buy her a glass of wine. Ask her about her life. Work gradually around to the problems—and then give her the solutions. She doesn't have to know how I am so certain about what is best for her.
Also, I took French a long time ago, and I can still do things like order a croissant, or ask for the nearest meat store, but how can I explain something this complicated in a foreign language?
She'll just think I'm some batty, lonely old woman. It won't be the first time.
I've done some strange things, yes, I can see that now. But my intentions were always good. I just don't want anyone to suffer as I have.
It did turn out that Robert was not cheating on my dear childhood friend Florence, as I had suspected, and perhaps I shouldn't have said anything to her. But if anyone had known what Jack was doing behind my back, I wish they had shared that with me. I would have been grateful, even if they had been wrong. Unlike Florence, who later said that my certainty about Robert's duplicity created hers, and that false belief drove him away from her. I mean, if a marriage can't withstand a little scrutiny, a little tension, a little soul-searching, is that my fault? She must have already had some deep distrust in the man, which allowed my suspicions to so thoroughly invade her consciousness. Then she accused me of being jealous of her marriage, even of coveting that foolish know-it-all Robert. And now neither of them will speak to me, and they have vilified me to all of our good friends, leaving me persona non grata at quite a few social functions, including many faculty gatherings at the university where we work. Talk about killing the messenger.
My body double walks into the café, moving among the scuffed wooden tables with precision, carefully maneuvering the yoga mat slung over her shoulder, her white dress hovering around her body like a heat wave. I realize that I feel relieved to see her. She makes small talk with the barista—it sounds like they are talking about a dog. She waits while he pulls down two shots of espresso, and I watch her glance around for a table. I try not to stare, but it is like trying not to watch an old movie of myself. I'm completely fascinated. I must admit that I was a beautiful young woman. It can be difficult to remember that when I'm looking in the mirror nowadays.
For a moment I doubt my own certainty. Is it just my own wishful thinking to believe that I once was as beautiful as this young French woman? Has nostalgia clouded my judgment, my perception, as it might with a fondly remembered old lover, whose photos, when finally unearthed from some dim corner of a closet, reveal forgotten flaws? Do I remember myself as I wish I had appeared back then, rather than as I was?
Even just one old photo would be so helpful. Perhaps one of my friends has such a thing handy somewhere? Unfortunately, I don't have many friends left, which really isn't my fault, as I've mentioned, and I'd rather not overtax the few who remain. Besides, it would be embarrassing to ask, even more embarrassing to explain, why I need an old photo of myself.
If my parents were still alive, they would have an album full of them. But my sister tore that house apart after they died, and I was too wrecked with grief to realize what she was doing until it was too late. She got a big Dumpster and threw all of our memories into it. True, someone had to empty the house out; it had been sitting there for over a year, with the ghosts wandering the halls, and the pipes freezing and bursting in the silent winter. But my sister could have preserved for me a few mementos of our childhood, as far from idyllic as it was. That bitch. I can't ask her for anything.
What can I do? This young woman's life hangs in the balance, to a certain extent. Not that she'll die suddenly from this terrible relationship—but ending up like me is worse than dying, really. It is a lifetime of lonely torture. I must speak to her directly, but the thought makes my whole body tense, and I feel the sweat beginning to form in small drops at my hairline.
I try to stare into space while keeping my double in my field of vision. She doesn't seem to particularly notice me. She takes her drink and floats to her favorite table. Post-yoga grace, I think. Is she perhaps a dancer as well, I wonder? Her posture is exceptionally healthy, with her chest pushed out just a bit, her shoulders thrown back, but in the most natural way—not militaristic at all.
It's hot today, and the white linen dress she wears exposes her long, pale arms completely. They have just enough muscle definition to make them shapely. Her legs are obscured from me by the table, but I know that she has strong, sturdy thighs and well-developed calf muscles. Maybe she dances in the mornings, before I see her. She may emerge in the half-light of dawn from that dingy building where that terrible man lives—does she live there too? I can't tell. I didn't follow her past dinner because it started to get dark, and my eyesight is not so sharp in the garish Paris night. I realize I must follow her today until she goes home for the evening, and then I should wait for her early in the morning so I can gather all the data I need to truly help her. I feel like I'm trying to save myself, though it's too late for that. At least my suffering can lead to some good.
When she gets up to leave, I gulp the rest of my tea and follow her, at a respectable distance. It is late afternoon already. We walk through the narrow aisles of the vegetable market, slowly. I wonder what she's planning for dinner, since I'm feeling a bit peckish myself. It's hard to stay far enough away not to be noticed, and she turns and looks right at me a few times. I busy myself by handling the smooth, cool produce whenever her eyes rest on me. When she gets in line with a head of lettuce, several cucumbers, and some tomatoes, I do too, with an eggplant and a tomato in my hand basket. However, her line moves more quickly than mine, so I abandon everything by the register and rush out, almost losing her in the process. Is she glancing back again?
We walk up and down increasingly deserted streets as the dark deepens, and finally she ducks into a doorway. I think perhaps this is her home, so I continue slowly toward the building to note the address. Instead, I come face to face with her, holding her bag of vegetables against her body, looking a little shocked. We stare at each other for a moment; then I think quickly and ask her, in poor French, where the metro is. She points back in the direction we came from, she says nothing, and I am obligated to retrace our steps. When I glance back, she is standing in the street, watching me go, one hand on her hip.
I find a bistro, a beacon of light in the heavily fallen night, and eat ravenously. My feet hurt, and I feel that perhaps I'm not cut out to be a spy, or savior of young French women. But I must try.
Early the next morning I plant myself in front of the shabby apartment building where I saw her come out the other day. I'm across the street, leaning against a tree, looking as nonchalant as possible. After a while, I'm tired of standing, and I begin to wish I'd brought a cup of tea with me. I sit on the ground under the tree.
An old woman leans out the second-story window and shouts something at me in French. I wave cheerily and shout, "Bonjour." She keeps talking, and I stare at her, smiling—in this case, being a tourist is working in my favor. I decide to get out my sketchbook, since that will be the perfect cover, and the woman finally withdraws into her lair.
At about nine a.m. my double comes out of the building across the street carrying her yoga mat, and she pauses, looking in my direction. I pretend not to see her. I stare intently at a third-floor window, then make some random lines on my paper, all the while keeping the girl in my peripheral vision.
As soon as she is far enough away, I haul myself to my feet and follow after her. It's not hard, since I am sure she is headed for the yoga studio near the café.
I've noticed her enter this place a few times as I happened to walk by, but I've never gone into class. I decide that I should take a class with her—perhaps we'll casually talk about the yoga poses in the café later. It would be a great, natural way to begin a conversation. She turns to look when I come in the door behind her, and I wonder if her face expresses some displeasure upon seeing me. I smile cheerfully and wait until she has completed her transaction with the handsome, tan yogi at the desk.
When it is my turn, I ask which yoga classes are available now. Luckily he indicates that only one is happening, at 9:30 a.m., in studio A. I sign up and find myself a spot in the back corner.
My dear double is beautiful and very flexible. I'm glad she's taking good care of herself, at least in this way, and wish that I had discovered yoga at an early age. Maybe she's already making better choices than I ever did.
I don't understand the French teacher's instructions, but I can watch the other students and imitate them. It moves quickly, and sometimes he looks at me and says something unintelligible. At one point I think he tells me to lift my leg, even though no one else is doing that, so I try, but I fall over. He looks disappointed.
"English?" he asks.
"Please take it easy," he says.
But I'm not going to let these young girls out-yoga me. It's only a stretching class, for crying out loud!
Just as I'm sure I can't push myself up into a wedge shape with my hands and feet on the floor one more time, everyone lies down on their backs. My face and chest are slick and moist with sweat. A cascade of synthesizers is playing softly, and I begin to drop down a warm waterfall in my mind. Before I know it the instructor is saying, "Wake up, please."
There are just a few people left in the studio, and my double is not one of them! Worried I might lose her on this crucial day, I hurry to get up, hoping she has gone to the café as usual. We can catch up there.
Sure enough, when I walk in, she is sitting at a corner table with a tiny steaming cup.
She gets out a book—I can't see what it is—and lights a cigarette. I'm sitting closer than usual today, emboldened by our shared experience, and I try not to let the smoke make me cough. I'm incredibly sensitive to even the smallest bit of smoke. This habit of hers seems like an ominous anomaly to me—how can she be so much like me and still smoke?
Should I ask her what she's reading? That would be a natural conversation opener. Or I could ask her what she thought of the yoga class. She's just a few tables away, but she looks so absorbed in her book. She glances up, toward me, and I quickly avert my eyes. Have I been staring too much? Has she noticed that I'm here every day? I want to explain, "My hotel is right next door. It's so convenient to stop here every day. You look just like me thirty years ago. I can't prove it, but it's true."
Instead, I try to read my book. I picked up an English translation of The Stranger by Camus because I noticed her reading it the other day. Her copy was in French, of course, but I recognized the title.
I stare at the blurred and wavering page, and my stomach quivers with the possibility of speaking to her. It might ruin the whole magical spell, though. It seems as potentially fraught with danger as actually speaking with my past self would be. I glance up and she's looking at me again. I stare back a moment, then return to my book.
What is she thinking?
Then she is standing next to me. Instead of looking at her, I stare at the still burning cigarette and splayed book, left forlornly on her table.
"Are you American?" she asks.
"Yes," I finally say, looking up into her eyes, which I notice for the first time are ice-blue, unlike my brown ones.
"Why are you following me?" she asks.
We stare at each other. I want to say just the right thing. This is the opening I needed, and I can't blow it.
"I'm worried about you," I finally say.
"You do not know me."
"You look like me," I say.
She erupts into laughter, but stifles it quickly.
"I cannot agree with you," she says, and her accent makes this statement sound even haughtier than it is.
"If your boyfriend makes you so unhappy, you should leave him while you are still young enough to find someone who will appreciate you. And how can you smoke?"
Her mouth stiffens.
"I do not have a boyfriend. And it is not your business if I smoke. Are you mentally unstable?" she says, her voice rising. People at nearby tables are glancing at us, though very casually. Just another café scene.
"You don't have a boyfriend?" I can't believe it. "Then what makes you cry when you leave that apartment building?"
"That is my personal matter! Just please leave me alone, you crazy American woman!"
She walks back to her table, downs her espresso in one gulp, puts the book in her small shoulder bag, and takes a last drag off of the cigarette, which she puts out roughly in the ashtray. Then she walks out the café door without a single glance at me.
# # #
I come back to the café day after day, but I don't see her again. I wait outside the apartment building a few times too, but she is not there either. I sometimes think I see her pale, lovely face in a third-floor window, but I can't be sure. I don't even know what I want to tell her anymore. Her eyes were blue and she didn't have a boyfriend, so maybe I don't have anything useful to offer her.
But I start to think about exactly how old I was when I met Jack—maybe she hasn't even met him yet! Maybe I can save her from the whole disaster—from all of it! Now I know I've got to find her. This feels like a mission, and it's no wonder it's a challenge. I wouldn't have prepared my whole life for this if it wasn't going to be hard.
I ask the man who owns the café if he knows the young woman.
"Which young woman?"
I explain her carefully, sparing no detail, and he looks at me with one eyebrow raised. Then he shakes his head and goes back to wiping down the bar.