By Lauren Derrick

Two universes collided. That’s how I came face to face with myself.

I—she—looked good. Man, that version of me looked good. Ever since I can remember, I’ve wished my hair would cooperate for a whole day at a time like that. I’ve wished that I could pull off that polished professional and completely confident look. I’ve wished that my skin would be smooth and clear and that I could make makeup work for me.

My quick up-do always ended up with a halo of escaped hairs by the end of the day. I liked to think that I was rocking that look of barely knowing where I was and what I needed to be doing next. But she had it all, and had it all together. I had this strange cocktail of pride and hope shaken up with a shot of disappointment. Because there it was: the version of me that I hadn’t even dared hope for. Seeing her there, it was not just a hypothetical “maybe I could have” but a reality in another universe. I couldn’t help but feel proud of what I could have been. And maybe just a little disappointed that I wasn’t her.

So I asked all the questions. I listened with rapture as the other me told me about her journey. How she’d persistently clawed her way to the top–written a New York Times best seller–had played her $40K cello in the symphony. The other me told me about her success, that she had finally been able to make money doing what she loved, that she was a real professional. She was a real novelist, a real cellist. A real badass. Mom and Dad had to eat every word they had ever said to her about choosing the wrong major or the wrong career. There was nothing she could not do.

I was in awe. I wanted to see the novel she had written. It had so much of my—her— soul in it. I wanted to know the whole process, all the research, all the edits, all the concessions she had had to make. I wanted to see her studio apartment, I wanted to see this life I—she–had made in another world. It was beautiful. Everything was so tidy. The floor was shining and pristine. None of the food in the fridge was moldy or fighting for space with last week’s lasagna. She had an entire room to herself just for her cello, a private desk with her writing supplies, art supplies, anything I could ever want.

I couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious with the fraying strings on the bottom of my jeans pulling me towards the floor. The crusty oatmeal on my sleeve corroded my confidence.

Her bed was small but looked comfortable. Her closet was minimalistic, I thought. Just the necessities. Nothing that wouldn’t be worn. Everything coordinated with something. But it was just her clothes. No men’s slacks, no Sketchers sneakers with worn-out velcro straps. Only a single size of women’s shoes. Her cello sat on a stand, on display, not tucked away in its case. There was nothing there that could threaten it.

Not even a dog.

So. That was all about her. She asked about me. What had I done with my life so far?

I was able to get a bachelor’s degree. That seemed pathetic to say, as I glanced over at a signed photograph of myself—her—next to Yo-Yo Ma next to a framed Doctorate of Arts Diploma, but I started there. I looked around at the clean–but lonely–apartment, and slowly my words began to gain traction.

I worked retail for a while. I dated. I fell in love, and I married an amazing man. He was really good to me, even made sure I had a room to myself for art and cello and writing. I had kids and had been a stay-at-home mom for the past several years. I went through debilitating depression, a sleepless year, and then? I learned how to take better care of my body and my mind. I became focused on health and wellness.

I still practiced my cello sometimes. I still wrote sometimes. But mostly? Mostly I was looking after the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being of my family.

Kids? I had three. That’s where I really got into talking about my world. I described their personalities, their talents, and I told stories. I told about the times that I had found the toddler in the top shelf of the game closet, at least a foot above my head. I told about the family vacations, the time my son threw up all over my husband at Disneyland, the love of reading that I had instilled in them all. I went on and on and on. And she listened in awe, raptured. She wanted to see.

I instantly felt uncomfortable. Going from her chic studio apartment to my suburban home with the cracked pavement and the scratched wood floors covered in dried-up rice and hardened peas from last night’s dinner? I felt embarrassed. The second-hand leather couch had not been conditioned and the painted layer on the outside was peeling, leaving shreds of debris on anyone who sat on it. The dog had peed downstairs for a while without us knowing about it, and the smell still wasn’t entirely gone, even though she’d been strictly kept to the backyard since.

She looked a little uncomfortable too when we got there. I showed her my designated “art” room, with the cracked concrete floor and the scattering of pom poms, craft sticks, scrapbook paper, and glue. I explained somewhat sheepishly that I didn’t get much time to myself–so cleaning my own space was a rare event.

We toured the rest of the house. She wanted to see the kids, but I didn’t want to freak them out. She wanted to meet my husband, but he was working. I showed her pictures instead. I showed her our photos and videos, and she watched the kids grow up that way. First steps, tiny singing voices, crazy antics.

When we finished, she was silent for a long while. Anxiety crept up my arms. Did she think that I was less? Did she think I had been wasting my time? Had she stepped on a goldfish cracker with her fancy shoes–and if so, was that the first time anything like that had happened to her?

Finally, she gently smacked her lips. “What do you say we switch for a day? You can go back to my studio apartment, and you can be a world-famous novelist and sign autographs and practice on my nice cello. I’m sure you could use a break.”

My eyes popped for a split second. “Oh—oh!”

I thought about it. Wow, wouldn’t that be a trip. I could live out the life I used to think I’d have someday. I could have absolute freedom. I could nap. I could create and write and draw and think to my heart’s content. That sure sounded nice.

On the other hand, that meant leaving my family with her.

“I didn’t write that book.” I finally sighed. “It wouldn’t be right.”

Still, the other pressed. Wouldn’t it be fun? Wouldn’t it be great to get just a taste of the other life, just to know what it was like? Was it really impersonating if you were impersonating yourself? Wouldn’t it be a great thought experiment, a great thing to write about later? A soul-expanding experience? Didn’t we both have so much to gain?

I couldn’t get a word in. The woman could tell what I was thinking. Tactically, she switched to telling me how we looked just alike, how my family would never know the difference. Her skilled debate promised not to even touch my husband, and to take good care of everyone. We were the same, she said. Who could do my job better than, well, myself?

My youngest must have overheard, because she came creeping in through the hall. The diapered diva came over and hugged my leg. Her large, brown eyes glistened as she looked up at me, parts of her hair kinked from where she had removed the tiny rubber bands I’d put in earlier. “Mama, who’s zat?”

My first impulse was to laugh. Of course this alternate version didn’t look anything like me to my baby. Maybe it was the makeup. I had long since abandoned the idea that I needed to wear makeup every day.

I did not laugh, however. Instead I stroked the top of her hair the way I always do.

The other saw a chance to prove her point. She knelt down and held her arms outstretched towards my little girl. “It’s me—it’s Mommy.”

My daughter gripped the seam of my jeans a little tighter and scooted behind my leg. “Mama, who is zat?”

“It’s Mommy!” The strange woman insisted.

The toddler was having none of it. My daughter looked that lady square in the face and enunciated quite clearly, “YOU are not my mom.”

Her sweet round face tilted up to mine, searching for answers. I smiled, knelt down, and hugged her. “She’s just an old acquaintance.”

“Oh.” My sweet, impertinent, amazing little girl gave the stranger in her house the dirtiest look she could muster. It was her sassy, “Mom says I’m right, so there” stare. My heart was bursting with pride. I tried very hard not to smirk. This other woman thought she could just waltz in and replace me, did she? She thought it was that easy? She couldn’t even fool a three-year-old.

“Mama, can I have a popsic-o?”

Well, yeah, kid. I thought I would give her an ice cream cake right then if she asked for it.

“Sure, but you have to eat it at the table. Bring it over to me, and I’ll open it for you—remember to close the freezer!”

Her little feet pattered across the floor in a scuttle to the freezer.

My eyes met the eyes of my mirror, and we both knew. She didn’t know what the house rules were or which ones she would have to remind the kids about. She didn’t know that the toddler sometimes forgot to close the freezer. She also didn’t know whether or not the toddler should be allowed to have a popsicle, whether she was likely to make a mess with it, whether she was even able to open it herself or whether she should be allowed to attempt to do so. She didn’t know my kids’ names, their favorite things, whether they had allergies, what they would eat, what they wouldn’t, what the bedtime routine was. Most of all, she was not their mom.

Even if she could fool them for a short while—which she quite obviously couldn’t—my family would discover her fraud before she could even catch a glimpse of what my life was really like.

“You didn’t write this book.” I whispered. “It wouldn’t be right.”

The perfect posture slumped. The facade melted away. It wasn’t until then that I saw the pain in my own eyes. A perfect, hollow instrument with no music.

Two universes collided. One crumpled into a heap before my very eyes.


Jenn Forbes said…
Excellent ! What a beautiful and interesting collision!you definitely have a way with words :).
Joanne Searcy said…
What a fascinating supposition. I'm curious. In your younger life, did you actually live that kind of life? You are a captivating writer. Best wishes!

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