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Judy in Her Good Robe

ISSUE:  Spring 2021

 

The other me started calling the day after my ex-wife Shauna’s funeral. I didn’t pick up at first. When I saw my own phone number blinking on my caller ID I thought, well that’s weird, and checked the number again. I thought it may have been a telemarketer, or someone from my hometown toying with me, which would have been a strange and fruitless prank to pull off, but more unlikely things have happened. 

Hello, my own voice said back to me. And I said Hi since I’m never as formal as a Hello type of person. This was the first difference between us, though there would be many more to come. What’s with your calling? I asked, as if there could be a simple answer to this, some tidy explanation. But my own voice replied, I’m calling to check in with us, to see how we’re doing, and I had to think about that for a while. 

That the woman on the other end of the phone was another me, I’ll admit, took some time to register. Her voice was familiar, but not so much so; it didn’t match the voice I’d lined up with myself. I thought back to my own answering machine, the recordings I’d made many times over many years, trying three times, no, four, to sound slightly bothered but kind. I thought about those VHS tapes of myself in another life as I laughed and narrated vacations and camping trips to a black clunker camera. That recorded voice never felt true, but there it was. Squealy and smaller than I’d imagined. 

I don’t know if I can trust this, I said.

I got myself comfortable on the couch, used a finger to momentarily bend open a window blind. 

That’s fair, she said. And again, I noted that we reached for different words to express ourselves, me and this other me.

My God, is it really you? I wanted to know. By you I mean me?

Ask me anything, she said. Really, anything. 

I became obsessed, just then, and for some time after, with building elaborate quizzes about my life. How would I finally test someone to determine my truth, to ask after the exact pith of who I am? What moments, I wondered, could define me? What is the point of my life? 

Our life doesn’t have a point, other me said, a bit sarcastically. I didn’t appreciate this tone, because I recognized the way I myself have used it. When annoyed, or tired of someone. When I don’t feel like bothering anymore for any small reason of my choosing. 

Of course our life has a point, I said. We were born, and then the accident, and then Aunt Helen’s gray rubbery steaks for so many years, and then Jim, and then Shauna, and now this, I gestured around to no one in my empty living room, a half-warmed glass of whiskey spilling from my left hand.

If you really think about it, other me said, Shauna was before Jim.

She wasn’t. The civil thing we had was nine years ago, and Jim was nine years before that.

But you loved her first, other me reminded me. You loved her ever since you were thirteen, remember?

She was onto something here. I had loved Shauna all my life, and would continue to do so even after her death. More, I think—much more. The day of Shauna’s funeral, in fact, was the worst day of my life so far, and I didn’t like being reminded of it. She needed me, is what it was. Shauna in her polished poplar casket way deep down in that hole, the Kaddish recited, and the rabbi who made us each take turns shoveling dirt onto her. The slap of pebble and sand on that perfect wood about did me in, and when it was my turn, I used the shovel, instead, to balance myself upright, embarrassed. Shauna’s family, old and alive, all looked at me. The sun shone through the whole bad thing. 

Well, what about love? I wanted to know. I don’t see how Shauna relates to this situation we have here, with your calling me.

We’ve dealt with a lot of loss, tremendous loss, other me said, slowly. She was a bit theatrical, I noticed. Cloyingly so. I suddenly worried that this version of me was the one most people knew. This tone of voice and obtuse questioning, this absolute melodrama. Was this what I’d become? Or who I’d once been?

Do you still need me to prove anything to you? she asked, but she didn’t—I already believed her.

What was our favorite toy as a child? I asked, just for fun now. Just to hear a little more about myself, from someone other than myself, which I didn’t believe could ever happen again. 

The label machine, she answered, pleased with herself for recognizing a trick question. We loved to label everything: the jadeite mug that belonged to our mother, the plastic neon flowers, the bookshelf, the light-up globe—do you remember that globe? It was terrific.

The globe! By God, I had forgotten. The transformed pale pink of it once plugged in, the way it spun in your hands, my face lit up with its winding rivers, its complications.

Thanks for that one, I said. 

 

Over the next few months, I found comfort in talking to other me for most hours of the day. At first, I was careful to measure our ratio—my calls to my own number, my own number calling me—so that it remained approximately 50/50. I did not want my other self to know how much I needed her, enjoyed her company, even, because I’d always prided myself on an upright independence, a refusal to get too attached. 

When I went to work at the office—filing expense and medical reports, ordering rubber bands, reheating coffee, stamping mail—I missed her. I wondered what she would have said about the precise thing I was doing or seeing right then, but I couldn’t ask until later. To be on the phone with yourself would’ve been considered unprofessional, I was sure. But later, arriving home, I’d clip off my loafers—right foot, then left—and get comfortable with my little glass, a neck-roll pillow between my knees on the living-room couch, phone in hand, ready. And then I’d dial her, or she, me, and I’d ask like I really needed to know, What did you think of that report today about the seven-year-old kid and the idiot cop? and she’d say, Don’t like that case, and that Collin boss of yours is a real asshole. Correct again! And we’d laugh and laugh and laugh at this, this peculiar and full knowing. 

Tell me what I’m doing with my hands, right this moment.

You’re making a duck puppet.

It was amazing.

It would be dishonest of me to say I didn’t sometimes feel romantic toward this other self of mine. Late nights with company will do that to anyone, rootlessly in and out of sleep, my own voice on the line saying, Still there? right into me. Sometimes I rocked the neck-roll pillow between me and myself as she spoke badly into the phone, knowing the kinds of things I most needed to hear. A late-night drive, every window rolled down, the car pulled over on the shore. That music—low, but I can still hear it—her panties tugged aside, wanting. We loved to be kissed like that, other me would say, sloppy tongues like that kiss was meant for us, only us, and my legs went buoyant at the memory, the reminder. Oh, the shore! A whole wife. But that was a different summer. 

Weekends, of course, became newly lit up with possibility. Uninterrupted time on the phone, no work, no stamps or shared bathrooms, just the dialing, my own voice held to my aching ear for such long periods of time I’d have to switch sides for a brief reprieve. Tell me when I knew, I asked one morning, kettle on the stove, my eyes swollen. 

Knew what? other me asked. 

You should know what I mean.

Context clues. Are you lying on the floor? 

I am not,I said, honestly. Tell me when I knew.

Don’t forget: Black tea bags on our eyes will help with the swelling, she said. Mom did that for us when we were a kid, remember?

I nodded, a little annoyed. I got up off the floor, the carpet pinching sharp beneath all that softness. Other me had a way, over the months, of avoiding difficult questions. Still, I pulled the teabags from the kettle like I was told, the wet paper labels between my fingers, and I wrung the bags out over the sink, hands burning. I moved back to the couch and pressed them to my eyes, the tea dripping down my temples, wetting the phone.

Are we happy now? I asked. 

You still don’t listen so well, do you, the voice said, a little laughter in the receiver, a little mean this time. 

 

Once, before a call, I slid a mauve lipstick over my mouth, a small thing purchased for my first wedding, the one to Jim, saved for the next best occasion. We look grand in this color, I imagined other me saying, fully aware of this subtle but powerful improvement. But she didn’t say anything. I waited and waited on the phone, pressing and smacking my lips together: Look, notice. 

Feel anything different? I asked.

Why’d you leave Shauna for no good purpose? 

I’m testing you,I said. I want to see if you’re caught up in real time, paying attention. What’s different on my face?

She would have stayed, you know, if you didn’t do the one thing she told you never to do.

Shauna was fake gay, I said. She’d go back to Carl Greenberg, eventually.

I see, other me said, disappointed in us both. And what about that Jim?

He was just so tall. Breath like a fish tank. 

You’ve made a lot of excuses for us.

I think you’re getting delayed, I said. You’re somewhere back, behind me. I’ve got this lipstick on.

That’s fair.

 

That winter, about six months after the funeral, other me began calling later and later. Sometimes, when I called, she didn’t pick up at all. When I dialed and arrived at my own voicemail recording I’d rage at it, list the number of reasons other me owed me her time—You know how it feels, I’d say, to need—and then my rage would dissolve into something like pleading, though these tender moments were mostly feigned. Perhaps she might screen my messages, I thought, and give in, pick up.

Where are you, anyhow? I finally asked one night, a pink-wolf-dagger-something-something moon out my living-room window. Can you even tell me what kind of moon this is outside?

What’s it to you? she said, drunk again. Where I am, I mean. Maybe I’m up here, on the moon.

You’re always dialing drunk lately.

That’s what we do.

Where is it you live, in the space-time continuum? How old are you, even? I asked.

How old are we? I am you and we are me and we are all together. 

I’d about had it with the sloppy calls. Sometimes this version of other me was truly cruel in her tone of voice, nudging me, testing. My face, if she could see it, went disgusted and sad, the face of someone waiting and waiting for a sneeze.

It’s the Prince of Sheba calling; wire me some money! she said.

She knew I was sensitive at the possibility that she could, indeed, be an impersonator of me. A swindler who’d done a great deal of research. Despite our half a year of talking, sometimes I still worried, and resorted to quizzing other me about our life, writing some things down, checking. I liked most of all to have her remind me of who I was and how I felt in certain moments. Moments that seemed, now, like they may have happened to somebody else. 

She knew my suspicions, my concerns, and so she pushed on them, just because. 

I’m trapped in an airport in Westchester; I need more money!

We never go to Westchester.

I need new shoes!

There’s no airport for Westchester.

By then, of course, I’d quit my job and everything. My life revolved around the time we talked and the time we didn’t. I got some money after my parents’ accident, saved until I was old enough to use it, though I’d never had a thing to spend it on until now. Now, I liked living jobless, purchasing new chic wallpapers from the smiling women in my catalogs. 

Hey, what do you think of coming over sometime?

No can see, no can do.

What do you think of these balloons? I asked other me, staring right at them, the clusters of balloons printed on the dining-room wallpaper. I’d pasted it all myself, followed the instructions. I had even cooked myself a fine dinner to celebrate.

Balloons for what? We hate balloons.

But I didn’t hate balloons. My whole life I’ve loved balloons very much. Never did I once hate them. With their earnest knots, their languorous flight, they reminded me of a pure and simplified joy. 

 

My old friend Bea called me about Shauna. Not when she died, but later. Frankly, I didn’t want to talk about it. I nudged the catalogs on my counter. See, I had become a very tidy person. 

I’m busy, on the other line, I said to Bea, because other me had been yammering on about some conspiracy theories lately, particularly that Paul McCartney had died before he was even born, and had been replaced, instead, with a government informant. This was the Paul we’d all learned to love, other me explained, the Paul we can maybe sing along to, when pressed. I was distracted by this whole Paul thing; it was not something I’d ever known or believed or even considered. It reminded me of exactly nothing. 

I’m sorry it took so long to call, to hear about it,said Bea about Shauna. I didn’t know. I’d missed it in the papers.

This was a year later. After Shauna in that hole. 

I twisted open a bottle of something sugary and carbonated, the sudden hiss of gas scaring me a little.

I’ve really got something to attend to on the other line, I said. It’s urgent.

Did you know about her, I mean, were there signs? Bea asked, and at this I hung up.

Not being anyone’s wife anymore was not accidental, but this was not anyone’s business. Bea finding out all this time later angered me, in fact. As time went on, I liked to imagine Shauna still alive to someone somewhere who never kept in touch, who didn’t pay close attention. I wish I wasn’t caulked with the knowledge of it myself, her being a part of the world, then not. What’s that Shauna Hirschhorn up to these days? the last person keeping Shauna alive might ask themselves early one morning, years from now, brushing their teeth. I wonder if she still gardens, still has those yellow flowers all over her yard. The last person to think of Shauna alive would never call, of course not, they’d just hold that image of her: Shauna in her gardening gloves, still digging at weeds. 

Other me dialed back in. She had more evidence, she explained, for Paul McCartney. 

Who just called me and what did they say? I asked her, testing again. 

You, that’s who. 

 

There eventually came a time in which I no longer shared any beliefs with this other me. It was as if we shared no memories, no intimate knowledges, at all. She became more and more juvenile, tantrumming over burrs in her hair—What hair?—and Ralph Nader—Ralph who?—as I sat on my couch by my little window, watching the neighborhood go by. I tightened the sash of my robe around my waist. 

Remind me, I’d say, of the time I wore the green dress to Ernie’s. We loved that place. What did we order?

But she couldn’t. There was nothing left. It wasn’t that I couldn’t altogether stand this, but I wanted to know where our differences began, where our lives had split up. Other me not knowing me felt like a high-pitched ringing; a distant, bleeping sound, bearable only if the source of it could be identified, pointed to, Oh, that—only then could I tune it out. 

We ordered the prime rib, that’s what, I said. 

I think we need some time, she said, to work on ourselves, apart.

That is not a good thing to say, I said.

It’s been years and all you do is talk, she said. 

I clean up around here. I’ve painted too. The trim—that took especially long.

I did what I could to keep her there, on the phone. It went like that often. I tried to remind the both of us how much we had once liked certain movies, how humbled we felt by daylight saving time, clay bird whistles, things for which there might still be some trace of fondness. Hot chocolate with water isn’t so bad. But she loved absolutely nothing and so she hung up. 

One time, outraged, I held a photo in my hand. A stupid photo, really. Me, on a pony, led with a rope by a person without a face. I wore a tiny cowboy hat, I beamed. Tell me when this was, I said, and I will forgive you, though I knew the answer. After that, I didn’t hear from her again. I wonder if she thinks of me. 

But Sundays still had some promise. That’s what I told myself the last time I dialed my number again, four times, then five, hearing my other voice on the machine, giving up. I organized the catalogs into new stacks, a few books too. It’s true, the place looked nice. I breathed on the window to fog up my own shape, then squiggled my fingers down through it. Spring out there. A barking dog, heard for miles, I bet. The sky a scrim, colorless. 

I moved to the front door, clipped on my loafers—right foot, then left. It had been some time since I had done this. My hand went for the door and I said yes, yes, you go, but I didn’t. Still I stood there a minute as if I could. I imagined the way I might look to someone else, paused and patient, Judy in her good robe, a real woman, ready. 

Back at my window, I looked around some more. I could really take it in from here, it was true. Up in the powerlines a silver balloon drooped, deflated and tangled between the wires, the balloon the shape of a kidney. Sparks shot off between the cables and the ruined thing, but I’d missed what had happened that ruined it. Somebody’s birthday, I said to myself, sure of it now, though nothing moved on the street. If only I could have seen it happen, I thought, I’d tell anyone all about it. The wind sending it right over my house, the poor child who’d let it go. 

 

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