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Almost the Same Person
Stroke, stroke, gulp for air—no, not gulp. This woman doesn’t gulp. Delicately inhale. Elegantly draw in. She reminds of a clock; everything about her is timely and precise. She arrives at the gym approximately at 8:30 a.m. in one of her several Brown University sweatshirts and fine cotton shorts—usually gray or black. Then, she glides to the locker room and stashes away her Hermès gym bag in the tall gray cubicle that is next to mine after she slides off her sweatshirts and shorts, revealing a black one-piece swimsuit. All of her bathing suits are black one-pieces with variant backs and sloping necks. Tying her hair into a tight bun as she walks, she will swiftly make her way to the gym pool and make a clean dive into the deep end of the second lane. Invariably. Like a carefully wound and polished clock.
I’ve been watching her for almost a year now. She’s my latest celebrity phase. She isn’t actually a celebrity—but she sure could pass for one. Stylishly short marigold-colored hair. Creamy white skin. Long limbs, long neck, and hazel irises that flower like skirts around miniscule points of irises. She’s stylish, she’s chic, and I’d like nothing more than to be her.
I don’t know anything about her personal life, other than the fact that she is married (her diamond engagement ring sparkles even against the dull light bulbs of the locker room ceiling), and that she is wealthy (obviously, considering the designer gym bag, high-end hair products, and expensive bathing suits and Mercedes Benz that she owns).
Now, as I watch her swim her daily laps, I self-consciously finger my newly cut hair. I went to the salon to cut it like Ingrid’s—this is what I call her, since I haven’t learned her name and have always admired the name Ingrid, which is more poetic than plain Brianna—but it did not turn out nearly as well as I had expected. Instead of a smooth bob-like cut, my hair is now a choppy news anchorwoman shag with frizzy angled layers. My husband cried out in shock when we first saw it; he spent the entire night regretfully toying with the awkwardly short pieces, which I resented. I got so angry when he did it that I—I wrenched his hand from the top of my head and squeezed it so tightly that I broke two of his fingers. We currently aren’t on speaking terms.
I tie my hair into a bun and dive into the pool from the deep end of the third lane, commencing my freestyle routine, my thoughts now focused on Jerry. I bet Ingrid doesn’t have to tolerate such a husband. So weak. If he had his way, we’d be living on a farm in Ithaca, New York, with seven children and three cows. I had to push him to get a job in agriculture marketing, here in NYC. As for babies, it’ll never happen. I got my tubes tied behind his back in our second year of marriage and managed to convince him that he is impotent and that is why I can’t get pregnant, no matter how hard “we” try.
I look to my left and see that Ingrid and I are now swimming together, side by side. A sudden thrill travels from my spinal cord to the tips of my toes. We could almost be the same person. Tight bun (though mine browner), black bathing suit (though mine cheaper), freestyle swim (though mine sloppier). Would anyone watching us from above think we are sisters?
I get exhausted before Ingrid does and retreat to the locker room to take a long hot shower. I scrub and scrub vigorously on my hairy arms with my yellow loofah sponge. I’m ashamed of them and hope that if I scrub deep enough, I’ll rip off the hair follicles. Ingrid’s body is practically hairless. Twenty minutes later, I am still in the shower when I hear someone shuffling through their locker before heading to the showers. I can tell that it is Ingrid, recognizing the sound that her shampoo bottle makes as it is dragged down the top shelf of her locker.
Before long, I step out of the shower, slowly change into my clothes, and comb my hair. I finally succeed in clipping back the shortest layers of my shag when Ingrid pads to her locker, which is next to mine. She is careful about changing over her towel, not exposing any indecent parts of her body. Then, she takes out her Hermés gym bag and rummages in its inner pockets, her movements growing more panicky by the second. “What?” she mutters frantically, turning the pockets of her cotton shorts inside out. She whimpers and drops to her hands and knees, searching under a wooden bench in the middle of the floor. She cannot find what she is looking for. I watch as she draws her knees to her chest and begins to sob with her back pressed against a locker.
I breathe sharply through my nostrils before asking her, “Is everything okay?”
Her tear-streaked face gleams and quivers as she says, “My rings—my engagement ring and my wedding band—I can’t find them. I took them off before I went swimming and locked them up. Now they’re gone!” It’s the first time I ever clearly hear her voice; she’s British and sounds somewhat childlike.
My face melts into a tragic expression. “Are you sure you’ve looked everywhere?” I inquire. “Maybe they rolled off someplace.”
She shakes her head dejectedly. “I don’t think so. Someone must have stolen them.”
I raise an eyebrow and turn to inspect her locker. “It doesn’t look as if someone has broken in,” I announce. And very quickly, very discreetly, I run my forefinger down the handle of her hairbrush.
“Maybe someone found out my combination,” she suggests. Her voice thickens in an attempt to suppress a sob.
“I suppose that’s possible,” I allow. “Have you ever told it to anyone? Or maybe left the numbers lying around on a piece of paper?”
Ingrid thinks for a moment and says, “No.” Then, her eyes widen as she remembers something. “Wait,” she says. “I remember—when I first joined this gym, I kept my combination on a transparent piece of tape stuck to the back of my lock. I peeled it off eventually, but someone must have looked at it before that. Oh God, it explains so much—missing hairpins, vanished lipstick…” I watch silently as she begins to put the pieces together.
Now, her voice is hollow and fearful as she says, “My husband will kill me.”
“I’m sure it’ll be alright. They must be insured, right?”
“That’s not it,” Ingrid dismisses. “He’ll lose it. He’ll kill me.” Her left hand rises to cover her right arm—but not before I see four purple finger-shaped bruises on it. So, her husband beats her.
I offer her hand. For a moment she mournfully stares at it; then, she grasps my tanned hand with her milky white one. I note the tender softness of her palm before pulling her up and in for a hug. Her body is rigid with surprise, but then she breaks down and sobs into my shoulder. I pat her back while imaging us fusing into the same person. “There, there, Ingrid,” I croon aloud.
The shaking and weeping abruptly stops. She pulls away and stares me in the eye. “What did you call me?” she demands.
“I’m sorry,” I laugh. The glands of my skin begin to flood with sweat. “I though you said your name was Ingrid…ha ha ha.”
Her eyes narrow; they appear to be scanning my soul. “It’s Theresa,” she says, still glaring. “Although, I don’t remember introducing myself at all.”
I chuckle nervously and begin to pluck the hairs on my arm. “Oh—well it’s nice to meet you, Theresa. I’m Brianna.” When she doesn’t reply, I continue, “Well…would you like to go get a coffee or something? I’ll try to cheer you up!”
“No thank you,” she refuses coldly. “My husband is expecting me.” And without another word, she hauls her gym bag over her shoulder, wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand, and leaves the locker room.
I shrug, still smiling, and collect my own things, my mind buzzing. We have so much in common. Theresa, Brianna—both common names. In fact, I think my mother almost named me Theresa when I was born. Or Tina. Something like that.
I walk across the parking lot, to my brown run-down Toyota. As I do so, there is a light jingling in my pocket. I reach my hand inside and pull out a sparkling diamond ring and a shiny gold wedding band. They glitter in the sun and make my eyes squint. I quickly toss my own rusty rings onto the pavement and replace them with the prettier, more expensive ones. I smile to myself. My hand looks like Theresa’s now, except browner.
I unlock the car door and sit inside, observing how grand my left hand looks on the steering wheel. Then, a thought occurs to me: I remember the dark welts on Theresa’s arm. Without a second thought, I pinch the top of my right arm and twist twist twist until an ugly purple bruise flowers underneath the flesh. I smile to myself. Now we could almost be the same person.