Post Road Magazine #30

The Goldfish

Julia Strayer

I walked over bones of dead people today, but the red-haired woman begged me over. I was curious so I went. The sky promised rain, but lied. Dried leaves rained down instead.

Henry said I'd never find what I'm looking for.

I said he never has to look for what he finds.

Henry is handsome like a breeze I want to follow. He's been places. Women like that about him and I like that about him, but he's never alone in that way a person is when they're so singular that they can hear the earth breathe.

He said, You're alone like I'm alone, like millions of people on this earth are alone.

But that's not true, I said. I had a twin I still see each time I look in the mirror and she looks back.

She thought Henry was handsome. She told me at my wedding. She said, Wouldn't it be great if Henry were a twin and we were married off like matching salt and pepper shakers and lived next door in identical houses and had children who looked like they could live in either house? That's what she said.

What's next, I said. Matching dogs and cats and guinea pigs? Cars and outdoor barbecues? Springtime pansies around the mailboxes?

She said, How fun!

Henry said, It's only been a short while. When you get older, and your hair gets grayer, you won't see her looking back.

She said, What if I had seen Henry first? Would you have willed yourself to feel nothing for him?

I thought the red-haired woman at the cemetery might have an answer. She appeared from the trees at the edge of the gravestones, her hair and the leaves washed in the same burnt colors.

Henry found a group for me. Lost twins, they call themselves, but I didn't lose her at the mall or behind the radiator or refrigerator. It's not like I'll find her someday and say, So that's where you got yourself off to.

At home, I taped newspaper over the mirrors. The stock market pages of orderly columns and numbers and decimal points. Henry tore it down and said it wasn't natural to live without mirrors. He only said that because he believed it. Because handsome people do not live without mirrors.

The people in the group understood, but none of them was Henry.

She was all the time asking questions. Do you think we kiss alike? Do you think Henry could tell us apart by one kiss? Do you think Henry would be able to tell us apart in bed?

When we were young, she and I loved the bumper cars at the fair, sparks flying from the metal ceiling above as the floor rumbled. I pushed the pedal all the way down and tried to circle without hitting anyone, but she said that wasn't the point, and drove her car straight at mine.

I got to thinking she slept with Henry, but he said no. He said we weren't the same person, she's not the other half of me. I am the whole of me. Like that, he talked. I closed my eyes.

What pretty blue eyes, she used to say. The color of sky. But she was only talking to herself.

I opened my eyes.

My eyes won't change in the mirror. My eyes will always be her eyes. And he's wrong. The mirror will always look like her because she would have always looked like me. No matter how old I get, it will always be her looking back.

At Christmas, I covered the mirrors with reindeer wrapping paper.

I didn't go to the funeral. I was in the hospital because I survived. Everyone said it was a miracle.

The red-haired woman had a map of the cemetery that she kept rolled up with a black ribbon. I followed her over the graves. Clouds broke apart.

I gave the lost twins group a fair chance. We sat in a circle of metal folding chairs in a basement of a church that was always too cold with a floor too shiny and a sink in the corner that dripped.

Her questions stalked me to where I thought of her when I kissed Henry until I finally asked him if we kissed alike.

I kissed her on the lips once. We were six and we wanted to know what it felt like. It felt like kissing myself.

As the red-haired woman led me across the cemetery, she sang a French song, her voice like clouds, sad and full at the same time, drifting across gravestones.

But I don't speak French. My twin spoke French for me. I photographed old barns for her. She cooked homemade soup for me. I sewed frocks for her. We both wore white linen through the hot months and I stitched in labels she bought for me that read Hand Made.

Henry unwrapped the mirrors before Santa came down the chimney.

I asked him to make love to me. I said, We can pretend I'm her. But he pushed me away. I said, What if it had been me who was lost? You would have made love to her as if she were me. You would. He shook his head, then walked away.

But there was something Henry didn't know.

I stared at my twin in the mirror, angry she wouldn't help me. She looked stricken. It was clear she couldn't even help herself. I drove to her apartment.

She used to make fancy cocktails for us to taste before she introduced them at the bar where she worked. They all wore special glasses and pretty colors and exotic names, and they all tasted like candy.

Once, after we'd all been tasting for awhile, feeling lightheaded and free, laughing at everything anyone said, she kissed Henry and said, He tastes like watermelon peppermint, you try.

But I didn't want his lips after hers.

I lost her soon after.

In winter, snow fell heavy on our lawn and I imagined her grave covered and quiet. I taped white muslin over the mirrors.

Henry didn't tell me she died until after her funeral. He said he didn't want to risk my recovery. It was one of the nurses who spoke about a car, a tree, an accident I didn't remember.

Still, something was missing. I asked questions no one would answer.

One summer, side by side at the fair waiting for the bumper cars to power up, she said, Why don't you do it once, just to feel what it's like to slam into something solid?

I often watched Henry sleep. Even then, he was too handsome to be alone. Starlight threaded through the clouds, through the night air, the window, and rested on him quiet. Even starlight lusted for him.

I nested my hand in his as he slept, and he closed his hand around mine as if he meant it.

I told Henry I was going to the group. I didn't want him to worry. But I had been driving to my twin's apartment instead.

In spring, I taped soup can labels over the mirrors, then clothes labels. Henry was angry when he caught me in the closet with the scissors, said I was being ridiculous. I said, Aren't I entitled? No, he said. You are not.

Naked soup cans waited shiny in cupboards, holding tight to who-knows-what flavor. My clothes hung in the closet, unidentified.

Henry took down the muslin, the soup can labels, the clothes labels. He looked at himself in the mirror and he knew it was him looking back.

By August, I moved into her apartment. Slept in her bed. Wore her clothes. Looked out her windows. Played her music. Said hi to her neighbors. Watered her plants. Googled what a good bartender does. Memorized all the old time cocktails: classic she called them so classic I called them. Fed her two goldfish. Bought a cookbook for soup. Signed up for French lessons.

After my twin died, Henry had asked the woman next door to water the plants and feed the goldfish and forward the mail. I told the woman that I would take care of things from then on.

The next week, I saw a Help Wanted sign in a restaurant down the street and took a bartending job as my twin.

At her apartment, it seemed right that I should see her in the mirrors.

Henry said I should bring the goldfish home. I said, The fish are in the only home they've ever known.

I never told Henry about the job. Or the French lessons.

The goldfish circled and circled and thought I was her. I dropped fish flakes on the water's surface, on her reflection, and they thought I was her. I couldn't tell the goldfish apart, but I never told them that.

The people at my new job called me by her name. I used the money to buy fish food and French lessons.

I told Henry, What's crazy is to let go of a perfectly good apartment. Besides, our landlord doesn't allow pets. They're goldfish, he said. They're not pets. If you can't pet them, they're not pets. I said, I'll give that some thought.

At the bartending job, there was a guy who liked my twin. I smiled at him and he smiled back. I asked if goldfish were pets. He said yes, and we had café au lait after work. I told him I was learning French. He said, Say something. But I said, I don't know enough to say anything other than café au lait yet. He said he was going to school to be an accountant because numbers don't lie. I said, I'm not sure about that.

It was late and we sat in the coffee shop next to the window looking out on the dark street. From the window's reflection, I saw my twin sitting at our table, watching me, laughing when I laughed.

Sometimes I woke at four in the morning and didn't remember in the dark whether I was me or my twin.

All through September, Henry left please-come-home messages on the machine, but I didn't call back. Henry said he couldn't find me anymore. I talked back to the machine, said, Maybe you have to look for once. Maybe not everything is easy for you like it used to be.

Goldfish are pets. I told them so as I fed them.

I had dreams about the bumper cars. The wheel on my car was broken and it would only spin and spin, but the car wouldn't move. Sometimes the car moved, but I couldn't go fast enough to outrun my twin.

The someday accountant and I had café au lait until the coffee shop closed and I didn't want to be alone at four in the morning when the who-am-I questions came so he walked me home to my twin's apartment, which he thought was my apartment, and I introduced him to the goldfish, then mixed watermelon peppermint martinis just like my twin did a year ago. We drank until the sun rose and streaked the skyline pink.

I kissed the someday accountant because I wanted to, and he tasted like candy so I kept kissing him as I led him into the bedroom. It was all good until it wasn't. Until I had taken off my clothes and caught my reflection in the mirror, me with this man who wasn't Henry. Me. Not my twin.

I told him, I'm sorry. I can't do this. And he was understanding because that's how accountants are and he kissed me good-bye and probably thought he'd see me at work that night. But I knew he wouldn't.

I stared at myself in the bedroom mirror and then in the bathroom mirror and then in the mirror by the front door just to make sure it was me. And it was. And then I remembered what Henry never told me.

No one told me I was driving the car.

Later that day, I wore my clothes and fed her fish until the door knocked. I looked through the peep hole at Henry standing handsome in the hall light while a white moth with muslin wings haloed his head to warm itself near the light.

I opened the door, but Henry wouldn't come in. He said, Please come home. But, though I knew better, I said, I'm already home. The moth beat its wings. No, he said. You're not home. Home is with me in our house in our bed in my arms. Like that, he talked. I said, First, make love to me here. In this apartment in this bed in my arms. He shook his head and said, I don't want your twin.

Henry said he covered the mirrors at home in pictures of me and my twin as kids, growing up, at birthday parties, in matching Halloween costumes, being silly, being serious. Henry said that every time I looked at the mirror I would be able to see myself separate from her.

That's when Henry stepped into the apartment, picked up the fish bowl, water sloshing from side to side, and walked out. He said, I'm taking the fish home. You'd better bring the food. And he kept walking. Like that. He did.

Who wouldn't want to follow Henry?

I said, I was driving the car, wasn't I? But he was already gone.

I quit my twin's job, the someday accountant, and French lessons. I packed up the fish food and loaded the car. But I didn't go directly home. I drove to the cemetery instead.

I stepped where the red-haired woman stepped, across graves, up stone steps, around headstones, kicking at autumn leaves collecting on the grass. The sun out full by then, and all the while my twin with her questions.

The ones she asked in the car: Wouldn't it be fun if I wore your clothes and you wore mine, and we lived each other's lives for one day and one night? And what if we kept living like that and never stopped? Henry would never know the difference. It would be such fun.

I worried she was right. If he couldn't tell us apart, how would I be able to prove it was me? My fingertips rubbed at the stitches on the steering wheel as I looked at her for a moment, maybe longer. Or maybe I'm confused. Memory is fluid and rustling. Always in a hurry.

The red-haired woman stopped at a grave with no headstone. A breeze picked up and leaves shivered on the trees. It was just the red-haired woman and me, the two of us alone among the dead and I didn't know what to do.

I was driving, I said. A sunny day. An oak, large by the road, a perfectly good tree with bark and leaves I could see and roots I could not.

The red-haired woman closed her eyes in what I assumed was reverence, so I moved closer and whispered, I don't know if I hit that tree on purpose. I don't remember, and there's no one to ask.

She tilted her head back until the sun was on her face. I waited for her to forgive me, but did not. She said, Tell the one you came to see.

I looked down where my twin had lain for a year with no marker, unidentified. Dead leaves swirled at my feet and raised the scent of musty earth. When I looked up, the red-haired woman was walking away, toward the trees, her hair and clothes melding with the leaves still clinging to branches.

I laid myself down on the dried leaves on the grass on the grave of my twin and stared at the sky. My what pretty blue eyes you have, I said to the sky as three plumed airplane trails sewed the sky in stitches of white. I guess to keep it together. Keep it from opening up, falling apart, emptying out. Because once that kind of thing starts, it might never stop.



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