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My Other Life
The alarm rang as the clock struck 6:30 a.m. Claire Smith removed her eye patch and rolled her Egyptian cotton sheets off her body as she lazily slid out of bed. Her Park Avenue apartment was immaculate and decorated mostly with large glossy photos of herself. Her wardrobe consisted of basic black suits and crisp color-coded blouses hung meticulously in her closet directly over coordinated Manolo Blahnik shoes. Her refrigerator was full of tofu-based products and fat-free alternatives. Claire was an efficient and well-organized machine of a woman.
Today she was celebrating her 25th birthday in the same style she had all her others since moving to the city 6 years ago, alone. She had sworn off the complications caused by pets and people and opted for solitude. After work, she scheduled her facial and botox treatment in plenty of time to go for her manicure and body waxing. Claire purchased a vegan cupcake on her way home and looked forward to watching the Nightly News.
Claire sat on her white couch in front of her 42-inch flat screen TV and watched yet another bombing on the news. She sighed as she looked around the bare room. She remembered the life she once had, before she moved to the city to find work in a law firm, back in Ohio where she had a loving family and boyfriend. She began flipping through her 927 channels looking for something appealing, until she stumbled upon a newly found channel, 928? She flipped to the channel. The current program was titled, “My Other Life.” The lights in Claire’s apartment began to flicker, and Claire’s body was thrown off the couch and propelled into the television.
Claire was no longer in her apartment, sitting on her couch, in her black suit and heels. She was in a basement, one that looked very familiar, wearing ripped jeans, flip-flops and a wife beater. There were bottles of champagne and plastic cups strewn about the room. A group of kids knocked at the side door, carrying a giant, clearly homemade cake decorated with 19 candles. The kids were all singing Happy Birthday. When their faces came into the light of the basement, Claire recognized every one of them, old friends from Ohio, one of them being her boyfriend. She felt overwhelmed with emotion. She was happy, but confused, as well as nervous. Before she knew it, she fainted head first into the cake.
Claire could hear the voices around her frantically trying to get her to respond.
“Claire,” she felt a man whisper into her ear, “are you okay?” She knew and missed this voice deeply, and the sound of it opened her eyes. As she had suspected, it was her old boyfriend, John. Claire could do nothing but smile blissfully at his sight. She finally gathered the strength to bring herself to her feet and she uttered her first words in what had seemed like days.
“I’m fine,” she assured the people in the room. “I think that champagne finally kicked in.” Everyone in the room laughed, including Claire who smiled and licked a smudge of icing off the side of her cheek. Claire excused herself and stumbled into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. She was astonished to see her younger self peering back at her. She scrutinized her appearance and wondered how this could be happening. Bewildered but content to not understand for the time being, Claire rejoined her friends and was happy to be back in this place.
As midnight drew closer, the guests one by one began to leave. Claire was left alone. She walked outside and looked incredulously at the small house she grew up in. She walked up to the kitchen, remembering the creak in the steps of the tenuous outside porch. Claire had to work hard to open the sliding door and walked into the kitchen. The ingredients for sauce lay out on the old countertops, which were now permanently stained, with smell of olive oil from her mother’s delicious cooking. Her parents were asleep on the couch in the living room, suspended in their chaperone roles, so Claire quietly tiptoed up to the second floor, where her old bedroom lay. Everything looked just like the way she had left it, her lavender comforter placed neatly on the bed and tucked in under the mattress, her collection of Beanie Babies still waiting patiently on the top shelf.
Claire had not always lived the way she did in New York. She once lived a very carefree life, full of people and unconditional love here in Springfield, Ohio with her mother and father. Her childhood was full of friends and games, just like any kid would want. Her teenage years were remarkable as well, loaded with parties, good grades and a perfect relationship. She carefully removed her high school yearbook from her bedside dresser and began flipping through the pages. She filled with joy as she glanced through the photos of Halloween and prom. She turned to the back of the book where her collection of signatures lay¬– the page was full from the very top to the very bottom with paragraph-long signings from her closest friends.
“I love you, Claire. These past couple of years with you have been amazing. I’m so lucky to have a girlfriend like you and I know we will be happy together for many more years to come.” Claire smiled to herself as she read aloud, “Love, John.”
Claire couldn’t figure out if she was in a dream or experiencing time travel, but whatever the reason was, she felt no need to argue with it. The messy room, the years of memories called to her from every corner. The pictures of friends and family on the walls, the delightful clutter of clothing on the floor and the nearness of people she loved all opened a place in Claire’s heart that she had shut down somewhere along the line.
The Claire she had become was a stranger to this place. Her neat, lonely life in New York suddenly seemed like some bizarre nightmare.
She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, and checked the date. It read March 20th across the screen. Claire suddenly had a flashback of the day she left home; it was this same day. She remembered lining her suitcases outside the door waiting for the cab, her friends and family gathered around her all crying and holding her, begging her to stay. Claire had never left to get away from Springfield; she had left only to find bigger things for herself. She had always been very determined and wanted to become a lawyer, so she had planned to leave for the big city when she turned 19. She left behind everything she loved for what she thought she would love even more. Claire got a leading job at a law firm after only a couple of weeks in the city, and day by day she began to forget her old life and essentially her old self. She knew how she would do things this time around.
Morning finally came. Claire saw the empty suitcases sitting by the closet waiting to be packed, but she ignored them. She proceeded to the kitchen where her mother and father were making breakfast; she hugged them, having not seen them in years.
“I don’t want to go to New York,” Claire said sternly. Her mother and father glared at her.
“What? You’ve been wanting this for years!,” Mother proclaimed.
“Well, I’ve changed my mind, I’m not ready to go yet. The city’s not going anywhere.”
“If that’s what you want,” Father said gently.
Claire, feeling relieved, sat down on the dark blue couch in the living room and turned on the television. All of a sudden the lights began to flicker. Claire gripped on to the couch hoping it would prevent her from being transported back to her current life, but it did no good.
Claire yawned as she opened her eyes. She was on her same white couch with the Nightly News on.
“It was all a dream,” she murmured to herself.
Although it was all a dream, Claire felt like something inside her had changed. She picked herself up off the couch, grabbed the telephone, called her law firm and left them an interesting message.
“Uh, hi, it’s Claire. I know this seems sudden, but I have some things I need to do and I’m going to be taking a couple of days off. Thanks.”
Claire pulled into the driveway of her old house. The siding was newly remodelled cedar shingle and the back porch looked completely redone with a much-needed staircase leading to the kitchen. Claire imagined the rotting beams of that old porch having to be replaced, maybe threatening to collapse her once perfect winter Ohio River view.
The resident looked out the sliding glass kitchen door and then slid it open, more easily than Claire remembered it sliding, to look at her questioningly, although still with one ear to the phone.
"I used to live here, " Claire apologized from underneath her black umbrella.
The brief quirky March snowstorm suddenly picked up and drove Claire back into her car and away again up that ridiculously steep hill she didn't miss at all. That life she counted on and left so quickly for the big city was no longer there. She used to live here and might still be part of that family that moved in unison, stayed together and got fixed up.
"Sorry to have disturbed your phone call, your counter tops and your family. Sorry to have disrupted all that, " Claire thought as she gunned her engine up the hill.
As the snow lightened, Claire felt the ache of trying to recapture something she had lost. She knew her present imperfect life would never feel like this other life, and that trying to replace what is lost can never feel as whole as it once felt.