FICTION | Other Susan
The first time I hear from Other Susan is on a Saturday morning, in the form of a long and overly apologetic email. She says she’s been in town for three days, and is writing from a computer in the public library. She wanted to approach me in person, but didn’t think it was a good idea because we have a heart murmur, and she worried the shock of seeing her might literally kill me, which is definitely something I’d worry about, if the situation were reversed. This is my first clue that she isn’t lying, but I’m still skeptical.
She makes it clear that she’s not a long-lost twin of any kind. Her understanding is that identical twins are biologically identical, but psychologically distinct, and I know that a growing body of pop psychology has been written on the matter. This is not the case here, however; she doesn’t just look like me, she is me. But she says although we’re technically the same person, she is, as far as she knows, independent in terms of individual thoughts. Her mind is not a mirror of my own at any given moment. It’s kind of a lot to swallow.
She thinks it must have been some kind of wormhole, which seems extremely unlikely but not impossible. She isn’t sure how it happened or at what point she shifted timelines, but what she really wants to ask is could she stay with me for a few days? Just for a few days while she gets back on her feet and figures out what to do next?
It sounds like a scam, but I feel oddly moved by the whole thing. What would I do in the same situation? And what would the alternative be if I were completely unwilling to help myself? I want some more time to think it through, but I know that if she’s real, and is truly out on the streets like she claims, every hour matters.
I tell her sure, of course you can stay here; what else am I supposed to say?
The dress that she’s wearing when she shows up at my door is identical to a dress that I own, a dress which I immediately go and confirm is still hanging neatly in my closet, unworn since at least the last wash cycle. Her version of the dress is quite filthy, and her hair is unkempt, and she does not smell good at all. It’s clear that she’s been homeless for the last few days before contacting me, and I feel terrible because we’re a sensitive person and have never had to deal with anything quite that traumatic. But she seems in relatively good spirits all the same.
I advised against meeting in a cafe or other public place, as she suggested in her email. I was still hoping the whole thing was some sort of elaborate joke, but I knew we shouldn’t be seen together if it wasn’t.
But now she’s standing in my doorway wearing my dress—our dress—and I know this is not a joke, and I feel light-headed and sick to my stomach, the same way I felt a few years ago when I was convinced I had advanced cervical cancer and would soon be hospice care with only colorless fuzz where my hair used to be.
I have a lot of work to do this week and the moment I see her I know it isn’t going to get done by Friday, or potentially ever. But she’s very apologetic—as I tend to be—and says she’ll do everything she can to be as unobtrusive as possible.
“So which parallel universe do you come from, exactly?” I ask, handing her a mug of coffee with the logo of my university on it. I know it’s a dumb way to phrase the question—since I don’t know anything about any other universes and neither does she—but I don’t know how else to put it.
“Well, the big thing I know is it’s the one where you—where I—didn’t get into grad school,” she says. She tells me that striking out on her applications was one of the biggest disappointments of her life, and I don’t tell her that the loneliness I’ve felt since I started has been mine.
“Do you think that’s the only way your universe deviates from mine?” I say.
She just looks at me, blankly.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“You had 9/11, right?”
“And the Allies won WWII?”
Those were the first two things that came to mind, but I started asking her questions about her own life, starting with the year we were born. And as far as we could tell, everything seemed pretty much the same until the last year or so.
She was still living at home, as I probably would be had I not gone back to school. Her latest temp job recently ended, and she was in the process of looking for another one. I pour myself a cup of coffee, and she asks if she could drink out of my mug instead, a mug from the MoMA gift shop with Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl on it. It’s her favorite mug, she tells me, the one she always drinks out of every morning while cuddling with the dogs on the couch. I remember those days well. She says it reminds her of home, and she seems like she’s about to cry, so I gladly switch mugs with her.
I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around the whole thing, so I ask if I can call her Other Susan, and she says, “That seems fair enough. I’m your guest after all” and we both laugh.
That night I sleep on the couch and give her the bed, sensitive to all that she’s been through and wanting to make her as comfortable as possible. And then at about three in the morning she comes out into the living room and asks if I want to come share the bed with her. I take her up on the offer and the moment I crawl under the covers she grabs ahold of me and starts crying.
She tells me how much she misses home and misses Mom and Dad. I get the impression she’s closer to Other Mom and Other Dad than I am to my own, but I’m sure if I went through her situation my perspective would change pretty quickly regardless. She tells me how much she misses our room and our bed—even though the bed we’re lying in is newer and more comfortable than our springy old childhood mattress. She tells me that she misses our sister Danielle, and our beloved dogs Rutherford and Lucy, and that she regrets ever complaining about being stuck at home and not getting into grad school.
She asks if we can go home and visit Mom and Dad in this universe, and I tell her probably eventually, but not now.
I tell her we need some time to figure everything out.
She asks me if there’s any hope of her ever getting back home, and how we can possibly both live like this.
I tell her not to worry, that whatever happens she will be safe with me. And while I know this is a blatant lie for the most part, there is an element of truth in just how safe I feel cuddling with her. Holding Other Susan, I realized how good it feels to hold me. It clears away any remaining doubt that I’m someone worth holding in the first place, and it is intoxicating.
At breakfast the next morning, Other Susan asks me what I’m currently working on. I tell her I’m supposed to be working on my dissertation, but have been neglecting it in recent weeks and doing a lot of freelance proofreading on the side. Mostly technical writing for a firm that does outsourced work for various clients. I tell her it’s not huge money, but every little bit counts.
Throughout the summer I’ve been working my way—one chapter at a time—through a 500 page manual from the National Fire Prevention Foundation that’s all about “water based prevention systems,” i.e. sprinklers. This week’s chapter is about the apparent epidemic of zebra mussels getting into the sprinkler pipes and clogging them up, and it goes into exhaustive detail on the various methods being studied to remove them, including molluscicides, chlorines, ozone, shell strainers, sonic pulses, robotic cleaning, water jetting, line pigging, thermal backwashing, high voltage electrical fields, and manual removal. The jury’s still out on which one works best.
Other Susan wants to help me with this, and suggests that we take turns, one of us doing dissertation work, and one of us doing proofreading work, and then vice versa.
I’m starting to wonder how I ever lived without her.
On Friday afternoon I have a Tinder date scheduled with a guy named James. It’s just a low-key thing at a coffee shop, but I’m terrified as usual. Other Susan is very reassuring about the whole thing, and offers to come by and watch me from a distance. She even suggests we dress the same so she can swoop in and take over if things got too out of hand.
“Come on, it’ll be fun!” she says.
“What if someone sees you?”
“We can say we’re identical twins. It’s not that big of a deal. Lots of people in this world have twins, you know.”
“What if he sees you? What am I supposed to say? ‘Oh don’t worry, that’s just my twin sister who accompanies me on dates because I have severe social anxiety?’”
“Wouldn’t be the end of the world. What do you have to lose?”
We get to the coffee shop early, to ensure we were there before James. It’s a large, two-level place with a mezzanine overlooking the main seating area, and I grab a table on the first level near the window while Other Susan finds an out-of-the-way spot up above.
James is an attractive, dark haired, bearded man about my age who works in the medical software industry. Things go well for about the first five minutes, until he starts asking about the topic of my dissertation, and I immediately freeze up because I’m terrible at describing it to people who aren’t already familiar with my field. He asks me several times if I’m okay, and after the third or fourth awkward silence I’m about ready to give up.
“Do you find sprinklers fascinating?” I say, my voice trembling. “I do.”
“Sprinklers. Like, the kind you water your lawn with?”
“No, like those,” I say, pointing up at the rafters. “The ones in case of a fire.” I suddenly remember Other Susan is seated at one of the tables up on the mezzanine, and I hope and pray he doesn’t see her.
“I’ve never really thought about them, I guess.”
“I find them very fascinating.”
“Did you know that it’s illegal to paint over them?”
“I did not know that. No.”
I go into the bathroom, splash cold water on my face and just sort of stare at myself in the mirror for a while. I don’t think this actually helps in any way, but I enjoy doing it because it’s a thing people in movies always do following awkward moments. It makes my life feel more cinematic. Just then there’s a knock on the door. It's a single occupancy bathroom, but I know it’s her from the way she knocked, so I open it up and quickly let her in.
“How’s it going?” she says.
“Every topic he throws out there I find a way of extinguishing; it must be like trying to light a cigarette in the wind. He keeps asking questions. I don’t like it; I wish he was one of those guys who only talks about himself the whole time.”
“No you don’t! You don’t want that at all. He’s clearly interested in you, so that’s promising.”
“I ended up talking about sprinklers, can you believe it?”
“Through your proofreading you’ve been picking up a bunch of specialized knowledge in ultra niche fields. That’s really cool. Use it to your advantage.”
“Do you want to give it a try?”
“Do you want me to?”
“If you don’t mind.”
We’re mostly dressed the same except for her long, flowing scarf and oversized sunglasses. She gives these to me and I use them to cover my face as I discreetly climb the stairs and sit down at her table on the second level. I peek down and am shocked to see the two of them hitting it off almost immediately. They’re talking and laughing the whole time with very few pauses, and though she uses a lot of hand gestures when she speaks just like I do, for some reason it seemed completely natural, maybe even kind of attractive.
About an hour later she texts me saying, “He’s going to the bathroom. We’re almost ready to leave. You can take over from here.” She gets up and leaves the building and I immediately go down to take her place. I get a few odd looks from people nearby but I try not to get too anxious over this. When James comes back, I’m shocked at how different things feel than before. He says he had a great time, that I am extremely interesting, and he’s glad he met me. I make a joke about sprinklers, and he just laughs and says we should get together again sometime. I am shaking like mad once again, but I hold it together throughout the goodbyes, and once he’s gone I run out into the street, where I find Other Susan lurking in an alley.
I give her a big hug and say I thought that it went well.
She tells me she definitely agrees.
That night in bed, clutching each other tightly, I run my trembling fingers across the top of her left thigh but stop when I notice something that doesn’t exist on my own.
“Recent?” I say.
“Fairly” she says.
I caress the scar for a moment, and I grab her other hand and squeeze it gently. I realize she’s told me next to nothing about what the last nine months have been like for her. I think about how happy I was to get accepted into my grad school, to move here. My new apartment, the prospect of new friends. How I’ve been riding on that almost exclusively. And then how the darkness started to seep back in. Until she showed up.
“Have you?” she says. “Lately?”
“Just once,” I tell her, and I show her where.
“I love you, Susan,” she tells me.
“I love you too.”
We meet James for coffee two more times, following the same routine as before, with Other Susan doing most of the heavy lifting. I’ve been handling the goodbyes, but the third time I’m caught off guard when he says, “See you tonight.”
On the walk home she confesses that earlier in the conversation they had talked about having dinner that night, and maybe hanging out somewhere afterward. “Hanging out” is exactly the way she puts it.
“How could you do that without telling me?” I say. We’re back at the apartment, and she’s looking through my closet, trying to pick out something to wear for dinner.
“I’m sorry, Susan, it just sort of came up.”
“Why should you get to go?”
“I did most of the talking today, so I think it would make the most sense. You can have him next time, I promise.”
I’m tortured by the possibility that she might sleep with him, but don’t want to say so because I don’t want to give her any ideas. So I prod and poke a little more and she just shrugs and says, “Whatever happens happens.”
I feel sick.
“I don’t like this idea at all,” I say.
“I just don’t.”
“I’ll help get him warmed up to you, and then when you’re ready, you can take over.”
“But he won’t be warming up to me, he’ll be warming up to you.”
“You’re capable of everything I’m capable of,” she says. “You just don’t know it yet. I’m only trying to help you out.”
I know this isn’t true. I know she wants him all to herself. And I understand that she’s been through a lot recently, and is undoubtedly lonely and scared. But more than anything, I hate the extreme passive aggressiveness—my passive aggressiveness, our passive aggressiveness—in how we’re both handling the situation.
“I probably wouldn’t even sleep with him on the third date anyway,” I say, which is a lie.
“Well, you don’t have to. And like I said, you can take over whenever you’re ready.”
“I don’t know.”
“You understand, right?”
“You can have him next time, okay?”
“Sure,” I say, but I’m practically shaking by this point, and just as she’s getting ready to leave I say, “I wonder what the homeless shelters in this town are like. Have you ever thought about that?” She looks deeply hurt by this remark. This in turn, hurts me, and I realize that if I hurt one of us I was hurting both of us.
I say I’m sorry and so does she.
“Listen,” she says, “If it does happen, and it goes well, there’s a good chance I’ll want to touch myself a lot over the next week,” and she just looks at me and our faces both turn red at the same time.
She and James start dating seriously long after that, and eventually I start to come to terms with it. I never really got to know him properly, and to suddenly jump in at that stage in the game would complicate things for all three of us. But true to her word, she does, at least initially, want to touch herself quite a bit in the coming weeks, and as we lie in bed together she whispers in my ear the things that they’ve done and we try reenacting them as best as we can, taking turns playing the roles of Susan and James. But then one night it ends as abruptly as it started.
“Why not?” I ask, somewhat desperately.
“It just doesn’t feel right. It feels like cheating. Especially thinking about him.”
“But how can it be cheating when we’re the same person?” I say, and she doesn’t seem to have an easy reply to this.
Soon after that she suggests that we stop sharing a bed, and take turns sleeping on the couch. So we do, until she starts sleeping almost exclusively at James’s place and I have the bed to myself once again.
One day she suggests that maybe I should start spending more time with James, as had been the plan from the beginning.
“What about the cheating part?”
“I feel like you and him are different from you and me, you know? And besides… I need to start thinking about the long term. I don’t want to get too attached to him, and I want you to be able to continue in my place after I go back home.”
I know the chances of her somehow getting ‘home’ are almost nonexistent, but I don’t have the heart to say anything.
I finally end up spending one night with James, and it’s a disaster. It’s not that I’m still uncomfortable around him, but it’s the sheer magnitude of everything I’ve missed out on. There are so many gaps, so many things they’ve already talked about. So many things he knows about me that I didn’t know he knew.
As we’re cuddling in bed at his place that night—Other Susan back at mine—he asks me what’s wrong, and I say I don’t know. He pleads and begs, and I tell him, “Honestly. I really don’t know.”
Other Susan is getting increasingly homesick and keeps asking when she can go visit Mom and Dad. The problem with letting her talk to either of them—even on the phone—is that she inevitably gets all teary eyed, and they ask her if everything’s okay. I know if I let her actually see them in person it would be a thousand times worse.
Whenever James calls or texts, I let her answer.
Whenever Mom calls or texts, she lets me answer.
This is no way for either of us to live.
I do a few Google searches, to see if there’s anything that can be done, but there isn’t a lot of precedent for a situation like this. Legally, it’s fairly cut and dry: there is only supposed to be one Susan in this world, and that Susan is me, and all the necessary documents and paperwork would attest to that. But at the moment there are two physically identical bodies in this world with an equally valid claim to the sovereignty of Susan, and if one of those bodies were to simply disappear, nothing would be any different than it had been that day she showed up at my door.
I start looking into methods. Just to see. I want to know what would cause the least amount of pain—preferably no pain whatsoever—though it seems that given my complete lack of experience in this field, it would be very difficult to pull off.
I’ll be looking this stuff up and she’ll be reading on the couch, curled up under a blanket and drinking from her favorite mug. And whenever I look at her she always smiles at me, and every time she smiles I immediately clear my browsing history and close my laptop in disgust.
I briefly consider the reverse scenario. I consider ceding my entire existence to her, since she seems better suited for it anyway. But I’m a coward, and I’m afraid of not existing, and I’m afraid of making somebody else not exist. So in the end I settle for the most ridiculous and half-assed solution for either of us.
It’s a warm, clear August night, and we’ve been trying to spend as much time outside as possible, before the semester begins. We’ve go to places outside of city limits, places where we wouldn’t likely run into anyone we knew, and can pass as twins.
The northern lights are supposed to be visible tonight, and I suggest that we drive out somewhere we can see them. She seems surprised by this, since I bring it up so late and so abruptly. But I’m adamant, and pretty soon we’re barreling down the deserted Interstate with the lights already flickering faintly above us.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Are you okay?”
“Aren’t you going to pull over somewhere? You’re the one who wanted to see them so bad.”
“Well there’s this one spot I heard about where they’re supposed to be even brighter and clearer than they are here.”
“This spot” turns out to be a big, sprawling truck stop at the edge of some town nobody ever goes into. It suddenly hits me how ridiculous my whole cover story had been: the spotlights in the parking lot are huge, and bright, and truck stop-y to the point where you can’t even see the sky. She seems to sense that something is wrong.
“What are we doing here?” she says.
“I thought you might want to get something.”
“Aren’t you thirsty though? Don’t you maybe want a snack?”
“I’m honestly okay. Where is this spot you’re taking us to?”
“Susan,” I say.
“I’m fine,” she says, almost in a whisper.
“I’m not though. Could you please go get me a bottle of water? And maybe some chips or pretzels or something?” I hand her a $50 bill, which immediately makes things clear if they weren’t already. “Please?”
“Can’t you come with me? This place is kind of creepy at night.”
“It’s well lit.”
“Susan, what’s going on?” she says. I am trying desperately to hold back tears at this point, and am hoping she’ll get out of the car before they actually start flowing.
“Don’t be afraid, I’ll be here.”
“I don’t—why are you doing this?”
I push the $50 bill in her direction again. “Can you please go get the things I asked for?”
“Will you be here when I come back out,” she says, but it isn’t even phrased as a question, and it sounds as though all the life has drained from her voice. I nod lightly and I grab ahold of her and kiss her on the top of the head, and she gets out of the car and walks towards the convenience store in what feels like slow motion. I pull away immediately, and I’m not sure if she’ll come running out after me or if she’ll stand inside watching it all silently from the window. But I’ll never know what she did because I turn the radio up as loud as it goes and don’t look back at all because I am a coward.
Throughout the ride home, while sobbing uncontrollably, I mostly think about alternate universe Mom and Dad. What kind of agony have they been enduring the last few months? There would have been no clues whatsoever. There couldn’t have been. Their beautiful daughter simply vanished without a trace, and now her selfish counterpart across some impenetrable curtain of space and time abandoned her with $50 and the clothes on her back at some random truck stop in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin.
And I try to console myself by reminding myself that alternate universe Mom and Dad are merely two out of a potentially infinite number. Why not torture myself with thoughts the universe where Susan is dying of cancer? Or meningitis? Or a heart defect? What about the Susan who was killed by a drunk driver, or in a mass shooting? What about the Susan whose plane crashed on her way home from having the time of her life studying abroad in Japan? (I never did study abroad in Japan, but I thought about it, and maybe I should have!) And that’s to say nothing of all the universes where neither Susan nor her parents nor anyone else ever existed because atoms were unable to fuse together into anything bigger. And maybe those would have been better for all of us, because we wouldn’t be there to suffer.
When I get back to my apartment I am shaking so bad I can hardly sit down. I take a long shower, make myself a cup of hot chocolate, and am still every bit as agitated as before. I decide to hop back into the car—in my pajamas and bathrobe—and drive as fast as I can back to the truck stop but she’s nowhere to be found.
How far could she have gone? Not very, I tell myself. She wouldn’t have hitchhiked, that would be insane. She could have walked into the nearest town, but she wouldn’t have had anywhere to stay. I want to believe that she found a way to call James and had him pick her up, but I’m afraid to call him to verify, in part because of his inevitable shock if she’s sitting right next to him, and in part because I know it will destroy me if she isn’t.
I know it would destroy her if I wasn’t.
I know it would destroy us if we weren’t.
I know it will one way or the other.
Will Kelly was born and raised in Dubuque, IA, and currently lives in Madison, WI. He received his MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is his first publication.
photo: Carlos Heredia