I meet my doppelgänger at a poetry reading. I’m sitting at a tall bar table with two friends, drinking a spiked hot chocolate. I don’t need the dairy, but it fits my low key, cozy aesthetic. We arrived early to get our seats, and are deep into one of our usual existential crises when my doppelgänger walks toward me. They are one of the poets reading that night. I recognize them from Twitter, and have seen them laughing with the other poets. They seem comfortable, excited but not jitterish. I twist around, anticipating their arrival.
“Hey, so, we have the exact same face,” they announce without introduction, in a way that makes me question whether we’ve met before. We exchange names, I assume, but I don’t actually remember that part. I struggle to speak, wanting to be funny and clever, knowing this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me. This is a New York Story, but also a New Friend. Quality among both a rarity. I want them to like me, I already like them. Bold, funny. Our eyebrows appear the most similar, thick and long. Maybe our noses a little, too.
My companions assure us that my doppelgänger is correct —we are deemed the same. They ask if we can take a photo together. “But don’t smile,” my doppelgänger says. “Don’t worry, I’m good at that.”
They walk away without offering to send me the photo, without asking for my number, or even my Twitter handle. Between readers, I find their profile and see that they have posted the photo. I follow them. I retweet the photo. I refresh Twitter. Later that night, during another refresh, they post again: I’ve never felt more alone in my life shouts out to nyc.
Their loneliness is not the real reason I reach out, but it’s a great excuse. I want a friend. I reply to the tweet. Let’s be friends. For real. I invite them to my birthday party. I hope this isn’t too weird, I write. My doppelgänger is a real poet and they are so much cooler than me, yet they respond immediately. Nothing is too weird for us, they say.
Out of six readers, my friends and I agree that my doppelgänger was at least in the top two, if not the best of the night. I feel proud, as if it were my own poem, or at least a good omen for my own poetry. Proud that somebody with a real skill, a skill that I chase, if sometimes halfheartedly, chose me to be their doppelgänger.
“I don’t think I’d recognize my own face on somebody else,” a friend says at my birthday party, as we await my doppelgänger’s arrival. I nod. Sure, of course. I’m not really listening.
“But you have a twin,” my boyfriend reminds her.
In the bathroom, my doppelgänger watches me cut a friend’s hair. It goes all the way down to her waist, sunflower yellow, and she needs to trim off the dead ends. In college, she would braid my hair all the time, spindly fingers quick to knot up anything you ask. She says that in elementary school, kids would line up at her lap for braids before class. She doesn’t trust me with scissors, but she’s drunk enough to risk it. Besides, it’s my birthday. She sits on the toilet lid facing the wall, and I place the trash can under her back. I try to be gentle as I pull her hair together, taking off as little as I can. She laughs as I work, probably to push away the fear, but my doppelgänger reassures her: I’m doing a really good job. I do the thing that hairdressers do at the end of the haircut, snipping upwards for texture.
Later, my friend and I lay in my bed cuddling, me stroking her dead end-less hair. She’s here visiting my city on my birthday in no small part because of the breakup that she’s going through. She didn’t see it coming, she tells me. She had no idea he was capable of doing it. She hasn’t heard from him in weeks.
“I wish that I could be set free, guiltless, into the wild.”
I tell her a secret. I’m a little jealous. I love my boyfriend, and I think we’re going to get married someday, and continue to be very happy. But sometimes, I think about what would happen if he left me. I wish that I could be set free, guiltless, into the wild. I tell her a second secret. I’m bisexual. He knows it, along with a few other people. It’s something I decided/discovered somewhere along the way in our five and a half year relationship. Right now, being bi in a long-term relationship looks like wanting to queer my relationship, to open myself — ourselves — up, to charge up the gay inside me until I’m a dizzy battery green, but ultimately, suppressing those desires. Telling them shhh, wait, be still, so that he doesn’t think I’m one of those bisexuals who cheats.
My doppelgänger appears in the doorway and we turn to them. “What are you talking about?”
“I told her I’m bi,” I say. An honest drunk.
“Is that a secret?”
“Well, kind of.”
“You need to free yourself,” they tell me.
“I am free. I’m, like, 89% free. How free are you?”
Halfway through the party, it has been brought to my attention that my doppelgänger wants to make out with me. Or rather, wants to know if I want to make out with them. They’re into me, my friend who took the photo of us at the reading tells me. She and I are standing in my kitchen alone, her resting on the window sill catching the breeze, me leaning into the wall, trying to stay close to keep her attention. “What do you want me to say to them?” She asks.
“What do you want me to say to them?” She keeps asking me this same question. I do not understand if I am supposed to be responding to a question (Yes I Will Make Out With You / No, Sorry, Maybe Next Year), or simply listening and taking note. I am also worried that, like a game of middle school crush telephone, the message has been distorted by the amount of vodka that my friend has had to drink. A head pops quickly in then out of the kitchen. My friend nods and I don’t need to ask who it was.
“Barely queer, unshaved legs hidden safely under thick black tights, I know who I’m cast as in this film: Straight White Girl In Boring Relationship Wants Some Adventure.”
As the party begins to dwindle, my doppelgänger remains. My two friends from the reading prepare to leave, slurring through the story of the two, no, three? cigarettes they had with my doppelgänger. One encouraged them to try to talk to me — “Theresa’s always down to talk about sexuality and stuff,” she says she said. The other tells me that my doppelgänger is always, apparently, that person who queers a straight couple. I don’t know if this is something they said in support of why I might want to make out with them, or a quip whipped in accusation. Barely queer, unshaved legs hidden safely under thick black tights, I know who I’m cast as in this film: Straight White Girl In Boring Relationship Wants Some Adventure. The girl who flirts, but, when called out for flirting, recoils. Rejects. I’m embarrassed for the caricature of myself.
The party dwindles more. I pick melon balls from my fruit basket and my doppelgänger asks me to sit on the couch. I can’t remember if this next part happened in real life, or just in my head, but I see them pat the seat next to them softly with a hand. Come Hither, Child.
“What do you need right now?” They ask, then wait. My doppelgänger is very patient, I’ve noticed. What have they noticed about me? My doppelgänger speaks deliberately, maintains eye contact. My eyes run around the walls and I speak quickly, spitting words out before I lose the courage.
“A friend?” I am too preoccupied by the rest of the people in the room, some of my oldest, closest friends who have come to celebrate, for some reason, me. Yet it’s no longer so crowded in my one-bedroom apartment that the bodies act as walls. A few conversations here and there, but in our silence, I feel more and more eyes on our eyes. Are they listening? Almost nobody in the room knows I’m bisexual, and I’m not sure that the way I want to tell them is by letting them eavesdrop on this conversation.
My golden-haired friend, drunk and smiling, plops onto my lap, oblivious to the mirror I’m staring into. Whatever conversation my doppelgänger wants to have, I cannot have right now. I see disappointment in their eyes, I think. Later, I decide it’s probably only what I hoped I had seen.
I spend the rest of the party trying, then pretending, briefly succeeding, then pretending to be asleep. I lean against a warm shoulder while listening to my doppelgänger argue with the blonde friend about poetry in the kitchen. Finally, my doppelgänger looks for me. “Is she sleeping?” I open my eyes slowly. We hug goodbye. Their rideshare home will be expensive, and I offer to pay part of the ride. They scoff.
My doppelgänger’s name is — well, let’s say H. H is not older, like I assumed they were. There’s a certain amount of shame that accompanies the realization that somebody is not, in fact, supposed to be more mature than you; they just are somehow. H is 23. As of midnight, a year younger than me.
On my birthday, everything I know about H is in relation to me. H is a real poet, who tells me that all poetry workshops should be free, and open. I am a fake writer, who paid $400 for a crappy fiction workshop, because I thought I should. Where I look plain, small, straight, they look patterned, tall, queer. I am ironic to a fault. H is sincere, so far, always. I tell them I’m looking for more more short-sleeved collared shirts, like what they’re wearing. I can’t find them anywhere. They tell me, in different words, that I must not really be looking.
My dad says this thing sometimes about how when we interact with people, we don’t see them as who they are today. We’re interacting with our idea of them, which is informed by our imperfect and emotional memory. When he and an old friend fight, he explains, that friend isn’t fighting with my dad as he is today, but with the version of him as he is in their heads, which was formed 10, 20, even 30 years ago. But even when we talk with somebody we’ve just met, they are conversing with a person in their head that they’ve made up completely.
“Your truth is always your truth, whether said or silent. It just might not be the idea of your truth that somebody else has in their mind.”
On my first morning as a 24-year-old, my boyfriend and I watch television along with a few party stragglers. Sitting next to me on the couch, he texts me, asking if I have ever made out with a certain friend of mine. Not H, but another person that wasn’t at the party. I have never cheated on you and I am not going to cheat on you, I type. Ever. There are many things that I don’t say. I don’t say that I would, actually, like to kiss another human sometimes. I don’t say that I would like to open our relationship, but I’m scared that he will be jealous, consenting on the outside, accusing me of cheating on the inside. I don’t start a fight about the difference between cheating and being open. I don’t say that I am willing to let parts of myself wait, atrophy, while he adjusts to truth. I don’t say that even though I wanted to make out with my doppelgänger, I didn’t want to make out with my doppelgänger. I don’t say that I carry these truths with more love for him than anyone but he and I could ever understand. I don’t say that I’d rather lose that part of myself than lose him. It’s not a heroic, independent woman-like thing to say, and on my birthday of all days, I’d like to be a heroic, independent woman.
I do say I love you. I do say I want to be with you forever. I do say I need you to trust me more. Your truth is always your truth, whether said or silent. It just might not be the idea of your truth that somebody else has in their mind.
A few days later, I don’t attend a poetry reading that H had invited me to, because I am on a train to another city. I re-read the text I sent to thank them for coming to the party, to let them know that, drunk, I had forgotten about the train and the other city. They don’t respond. Later in the week, I try again. How was the reading? Were you the best one again? I apologize for any awkwardness at my party. No response.
I remember that, upon settling into the buzz of the party, they told me that the reason they responded right away to my invitation was because they were already on their phone. “That’s always the reason for a fast response,” they said. And a slow response is always due to not being on their phone. “You never just pretend you hadn’t seen it yet?”
In my first dream as a 24-year-old, I dream that a tooth falls out of my mouth. I don’t remember the context. Just the tooth rolling around in my hand, roots and all, yellowing.
On the toilet in the morning, I search online for the meaning of this, even though I already know. It means that you have let something out of your mouth that you shouldn’t have. It means anxiety about self-worth, self-image. It’s powerlessness. It’s an unanticipated loss.
H responds one week after the party. I’m at, of all things, a book club meetup when I receive the text. It’s long, and I try to scan for tone without arousing suspicion from the girls around me. H apologizes for the delay in response, saying that they have been busy, but also weren’t sure how to respond.
I don’t think your party was awkward, they say, so much as I felt incredibly tokenized the entire time. I suck in my breath and a curtain falls.
There are certain phrases in H’s messages that will never leave my mind. Queer guru. Dehumanizing. The Big Queer. I had thought it was the most badass thing to show up to a party where you don’t know anybody. Never did I stop to think what it might feel like to be at a party where you don’t know anybody.
H tells me that they felt like they were brought there to solve a problem. The problem being how queer you are and the solution being me, because I’m Visible. I think back to when they walked in on me and my friend.
I told her I’m bi.
Is that a secret?
I think of the conversations that others had with H, that I didn’t hear and my friends don’t remember. I don’t know how one wins a game of drunk telephone, but it sounds like we all lost. A fuller picture of H comes into view. I can see clearer somebody who has been asked over and over again to provide guidance, to do work, and who felt themself being pulled into that situation, again.
H says they don’t blame me, but I feel guilty all the same. I’m embarrassed to have assumed that any tension was centered around the question of making out, and realize I played the role of Straight White Girl Pretending to Look For Some Adventure all too well.
I talk to my boyfriend again about my queerness, my desire to explore it. Our realities haven’t melded just yet, but we’re getting there.
H and I still follow each other on Twitter. I try not to think that I know them any better now that I know their online persona, but it’s a powerful illusion. They’ve been tweeting a lot about Anne Sexton lately, reading her letters. I want to talk to them about my favorite poem of hers: For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further. I wonder if they like that one. I tapped my own head; / it was a glass, an inverted bowl. / It is a small thing / to rage in your own bowl.
I looked at H and thought I was looking into the eyes of my twin, my doppelgänger. But H is just a person, and doppelgängers aren’t real.