In a dream, she inhabited a new self—not a mere fusion of her other selves, but a self existing separately and wholly, operating with a kind of strict movement and grace that she hadn’t known her whole life, a self whose every decision day to day remained focused toward the completion of some goal and, when that goal was finished, began working toward its next goal—and there was nothing it couldn’t accomplish—an impossible self for Laura, who, by her standards, accomplished very little—nevertheless, if she was being honest, there were perhaps times when this other self was the one that she liked to tell the world existed all the time, and it was enough to know that the world believed her, so much so that Laura almost believed herself—and sometimes believed completely—that this dream self was who she was, even with all the evidence, day to day, to the contrary—and in the dream this ideal self began laughing right in the middle of what she was doing, which happened to be an online course in the Russian language, began laughing uncontrollably, which caused Laura to wake up—also laughing, but with the feeling that the laughter was connected to nothing, a strange feeling like the emptiness of a wagon left out in the rain.
She thought she heard someone say her name—not loudly, but not loud enough that she could make out the melody of vowel sounds that comprised her name—Laura, it said—in a way that asked her to look quickly, as if there were something to see suddenly alighting just behind her on the shelf of the bookcase—but she didn’t see anything—and things like this happened to her once and a while, but not so much that she thought it odd. She’d certainly heard of others having the same thing happening to them. Ghosts were out of the question. She didn’t believe in them at all. No, she thought, it was just myself, my other self reaching out to me from the backseat of wherever it goes to when it hides itself away for a time, absorbed, she thought, in its own dark and desolate thoughts—though that’s wrong, maybe it remained absorbed in her—like a lover—she laughed, “Oh Lord, now I’m my own lover.”
In the film, Harvey Dent, known as Two Face, says something about heroes and villains, something about how we all become the villain, and Laura thought that maybe this was ridiculous—a pretty one-lined peripeteia—that there were no villains, no antiheroes—just heroes of a different narrative, one from their points of view, one that remains unwritten, unspoken—in those narratives, those deemed villains were given souls with which, however objectively and morally reprehensible, the reader could connect with—but then again, she thought, maybe that’s saying the same thing, maybe I’m just saying the same thing, but rephrasing it in a way that makes me feel like I’m saving the villain—Laura, she thought to herself, always trying to explain away the evil of the world—and she became uncomfortable and confused, and turned off the television—Laura, who believes in salvation without damnation, who makes herbal tea when the bad thoughts come around.
Oh, and the dialogues she had with this other self of hers.
“I don’t remember ordering this bed curtain, as lovely as it is, and I haven’t even a way to hang it.”
“I ordered it one day, on a whim, because I thought it would be so nice to have one—the way they do in those old movies and books—the way they close them, as a way of finally shutting off the world—even the world of their bedroom for a while—and I thought, for that reason, it might help us get to sleep on time, darkening that which kept us up.” Oh, I know what I’ll say, she thought—something about luxury of it, implying the needlessness of it.
“Well, if you already know what I’m going to say, what’s the point?”
“But it isn’t needless if it helps and it makes you feel better.” And before any reply could come at all. “I know. I should be looking inward to feel better, not looking for outside things, but you know we can’t help it. It’s not as if we buy something like this every day. If you would take the time to just try it, I’m certain it’s all you’ll need to sleep.”
Laura paced back and forth holding the curtains in the box, staring at the receipt—which was not insubstantial for one cotton curtain meant to surround your bed—finally she put the box on the kitchen table, took out the curtains and put them to her face. Her other self sighed—for it knew that this meant she was keeping them.
Sometimes she would be running, and it would happen, the other self within her breaking free, mid-stride—sometimes right in the middle of the city’s busiest intersection with the walk light flashing yellow and counting down—she’d stop. It happened just the other day. The cars honked furiously like caged animals trying to move—but she was done with running just then, wanting something else—maybe to be one of the ones in the car, off on her way to somewhere with someone special—maybe an ice cream cone from Joe’s—maybe just a beer.
One day one self left awhile, and Laura did not know why—or even where a self could go on its own in a busy city, uninhabited by a body. She imagined where she thought this self would go, but could no longer inhabit it in a way that allowed her to understand it—as if it had completely separated, as if it never existed within her at all, as if the man who sold water ice at the ball fields was, not only never there anymore, but had become a woman in a business suit preaching about the hell that awaited those who have abortions—and what’s more, it’s as if you now believed that it was always the angry woman, that the man must never have sold water ice here, but maybe in a different town at a different time, and you must have misremembered—so it was like that when it left, and Laura realized that she could manage without it, but had grown used to it—that there were purposes it served for her—helping her sleep for instance, or allowing her the space to consider regret, bringing her to important tears—and she did not know for how long she would live without it or what she might have done to cause it to want to leave.
She had men come in and out of her life, since she could remember. There was Joe who loved his mother very much, and Terry who she never saw for more than thirty minutes at a time, and Vick who caught stray dogs and liked to bring them home with him, and William who taught swing dance lessons down at the community center and was a bit too energetic generally, and Keith, and so many more—but, she knew it wasn’t all their fault. She knew that there was one side of her that was lovable to each of them and, in the same respect, only one side of her that was capable of loving them—that the kind of back and forth that she exhibited was making it impossible for any stability. There was one guy, however, Brent, who she saw for almost a year, who seemed to adapt to her own adaptations—a real trooper she thought, and a nice guy—but, and she felt bad for even thinking this, there was something she couldn’t trust in him—and it was due to the very ability that allowed them to function together—namely, his way of shifting tones and personas to better suit her own. Who could manage that, she would think, and who knows who he really is—and she began to hate him, she began to hate the thing in him that made him most like herself.
She went out looking for her other self, though not the way one typically looks for something so dear to them—which is to say, in a frantic and hurried way, often involving speeding from room to room, from road to road, and having conversations with yourself that try to help you narrow down the possibilities and remember the particular path you took when you last had it—no, Laura knew that this was unnecessary for what she was looking for, that there was no logical way of finding it, that wherever it went to would be both far away and near, and no eye could hope to spot it amidst the sun and leaves, and no hand could reach out to it in the hopes of gripping it—so she started by just taking a slow walk around the block, which is something that she had never done—and at this pace she could really see each house. She saw her neighbors busy with their outside labor, and their kids doing kid things like writing on the sidewalk in chalk and yelling loudly something about some video game. She even had the opportunity to exchange a few pleasantries with one of her neighbors, who said they lived in that house their whole life and their parents did, too, which is phenomenal Laura thought. She always thought that the city was inhabited only by twenty-something new arrivals looking to escape the comfortable suburban lives of their parents, only to create the kind of comfort that they hoped to escape right here in the city. Indeed, Laura thought, the walk was rewarding though she never found herself. Once, she thought she saw herself scurrying between a few small bushes, but it was just a rabbit rightfully scared of everything that moves.
Laura had one good friend because—as Laura told herself—any more than that left her too little time for anything else. She found she’d spend too much time nurturing those relationships. She didn’t understand how some people could have a whole fleet of close friends that they managed to keep in touch with all the time, and still manage to read a book or go grocery shopping or even go on a date. Evy, her one friend then, thought the whole missing self thing was just another existential crisis of Laura’s. Evy found herself constantly listening while Laura questioned the meaning of everything that happened in her life—as if it was written down somewhere ahead of time and her job, as the person living it, entailed dissecting the meaning of it—as opposed to just experiencing it. Though Laura knew that the idea that her “other self” might exist as anything more than just an idea never entered Evy’s mind.
“Evy …” she said over the phone one particularly difficult evening.
“Yes … what is it, honey?”
“What if it’s cold somewhere? And alone?”
“What if what is?”
“My other self.”
“Your other self? What are you talking about?”
“I mean … what if it wants to come home to me, but it’s scared—scared that I might not take it back maybe or that I’ll be mad at it?”
“Your other self. Honey, are you still seeing your therapist?”
“No, but just listen to me a for a minute. Let’s say you just up and left Frank for a few weeks without a word—wouldn’t you be scared to go home to him?”
“Well … yeah, I guess so, but listen …”
Laura sobbed a bit. “I’m sorry, Evy. I’ve got to go.” She hung up the phone before Evy could protest. Laura opened the front door and felt the cool air immediately on her hands and ears. She looked around, half expecting to see her other self peeking at her from behind a parked car or some hedge. But it was just a quiet, chilly afternoon on her street. She bent down and straightened the welcome mat, before going back inside.
After a few months, she gave up on looking for it entirely. She figured that it would come back on its own or it wouldn’t—like a missing cat, but, unlike a missing cat, she couldn’t exactly just post pictures on the telephone poles and trees in her neighborhood. What would the photo even be?—it would be her, she guessed—and the neighbors would think she was psycho, which Laura couldn’t exactly argue too well against anyway. And what would it even say?—Missing: Laura’s other self. Last seen falling asleep on Laura’s couch to a book about windmills (not Don Quixote). Has no collar, but does occasionally wear a necklace of Laura’s given to her by her father (gold with a fake emerald pendant). Will not bite and is not dangerous, but will likely run away should you approach it. Reward—well, and what would she even offer for herself? Was a hundred bucks enough? Two hundred? She checked her purse—Reward: $43.
Once when Laura was a young girl she thought she saw a zebra in the patch of trees that ran along the perimeter of her back yard. She was standing on a chair and stuck her little nose against the glass of the kitchen window. “Mom,” she yelled. “Mom.” But her mother was upstairs in the shower. Laura watched the black and white stripes moving in and out of the misty background. She could see the steam from its nostrils, as it bent down to eat a little tall grass. She had only ever seen one on those television nature shows or drawn and colored in morning cartoons. It was bigger than she imagined and more majestic in real life. Laura’s small eyes opened wide. It was the most beautiful thing she’d seen her life—that was for sure. “Mom!” Laura became afraid that the zebra might leave. She walked over to the back door, and managed to unlock the little door handle lock—but there was still the upper lock which was bigger and harder to reach. Even on her toes, she could just barely touch the bottom of it—so she tried jumping up and down, swinging her arm at it—but she just didn’t have the strength to turn it. She went back to the kitchen window. The zebra was still there, but its ears were up and it was looking at the door—alert maybe to the noise she was making. Laura became even more worried it would run off. She thought for a moment. A long wooden spoon hung just to left of her head. She grabbed it, hopped down and ran toward the door. It wasn’t the spoon-end of the spoon that she used, however, but the handle—particularly the little loop of string that her mother would use to hang it next to the sink. Laura, after a few failed jumping attempts, hooked the string neatly around the lock, and pulled straight down like she was ringing a heavy bell. It worked. Next thing, she was outside and walking with slow steps toward the zebra, lest she scare it off. Everything not in focus appeared to tremble for her, as if an earthquake were disturbing the whole world that surrounded her and the zebra. The zebra, however, remained still. It watched her approach. It let her approach. When Laura got close enough to the zebra, she said, “Hi, there. My name is Laura.” The zebra appeared relieved at hearing this in a way, and bent down to continue eating grass—letting Laura move freely around. As she got closer to the zebra, what she thought were stripes weren’t stripes at all—they were long paragraphs of text spaced evenly apart. She got closer. On the top of the zebra’s neck was written, in big letters, THE BOOK OF LAURA. Laura gasped. She read further. There was written below her name things about her life thus far—her birth was there, and her first day of school, her trip to Disney world, the day her daddy left for good—each event had lots of details, details that even Laura hadn’t remembered—she skimmed them right up until that very day, where it was written that she saw a zebra and that she read THE BOOK OF LAURA. She looked at the rest of the zebra. There were many more stripes with things written in them. This must be my future, Laura thought. She rushed to read further.
“Laura! Come on honey. It’s time for your bus,” her mother yelled from the kitchen. The zebra looked up at Laura, as if Laura had betrayed it—as if whatever trust the zebra had in her vanished at that moment—and the zebra ran off through the trees, disappearing in the mist.
Laura never forgave her mom for that. “Either the zebra or the book may have been invented,” she told her therapist once, “but not both;” then, a bird flew in the open window, singing its panicked tune as it flew around the office and alighted on a sconce near the door. Her therapist, whose name was William said, trying to be funny, “Ah, look…the book of William just flew in.” She never saw a therapist again.
A year went by, and—just like that—on a day of no particular importance—she saw her other self. It was evening. She was washing the dishes in the sink of her kitchen, and she looked up—and what looked back at her was a face in tears—a face that looked to have no particular reason to be in tears, but nevertheless was crying, nevertheless it’s nose was turning red and the hair that hung down into its face was sticking to its chin—and the face was barely visible at times but it was there—and she thought, this is you, isn’t it?
“You know it’s me, silly.”
“You’ve come back.”
But it said nothing. She shut off the light, and it seemed gone again. It wasn’t though. She could feel this other self return to her, as if settling down into her body through her skin and sternum. After a while, it took over again for a time—and she thought, I should be running now, then a shower, then a snack, then tea and maybe a book about windmills.
Note on title: What’ll I Do, as sung by Judy Garland
M. A. Vizsolyi is the author two books of poetry, Anthem for the Wounded, and The Lamp with Wings: Love Sonnets, (HarperPerennial) winner of the National Poetry Series, selected by Ilya Kaminsky. He is also the author of the chapbooks, Notes on Melancholia (Monk Books) and The Case of Jane: A Verse Play (500places press). He teaches in the BFAW program at Goddard College, where he edits the online journal, Duende. This is his first published short story.