I saw the other me at the airport. We were waiting for the same plane, both of us halfway home. I recognized her immediately, the woman that I might have been, by her hard disappointment, the way she stretched her lips into something that did not resemble a smile. The way her eyes gave out no kindness. Not even to her children. She held herself tense against the crowd of people, an exhaustion on her face that did not fully mask her restlessness. She has not yet settled completely into her fatigue, has not quite accepted what she must be.
As we boarded the plane, I thought about gathering up that little boy and girl of hers and giving them all the love the other me no longer has. I know how she lost this love, not without a fight, but gone all the same. But the children wouldn’t want me, not this me, I am too simple for them now, I am what my own children need. Hers are more accustomed to picking their way through her unsteady territory or racing heads down across the mine field of her affection. Yes, the other me resents these children sometimes. Often. Especially on a day like today. When she must take them back across the world to visit their grandparents. This is the ritual that must be undertaken once a year—from east to west, a return to a former home—until she has the means to support herself again. This ritual is only a reminder of what she got herself into.
He wasn’t good-looking. He wasn’t smart. He wasn’t even always very nice. And she didn’t know it, but he wasn’t in good health. So now the other me is alone again, worried all the time, angry as often as she is sad. She carries the kind of sadness that doesn’t even recognize itself anymore. It’s gone all hard and flinty. Sadness as bedrock, as birth basket of anger.
The children were out of control on the plane, bothering neighbors and crying or shouting. I felt for her as she twisted and re-braided the rope of her patience, again and again. Some of the other passengers watched her, judged her. One older woman went to help. I was happy to be on my side of the plane and several rows away. Nothing brought me close enough to offer a hand. So, I kept my distance and was thankful that she was she and I was now me.
They didn’t speak the same language. It would be easy to blame everything on this fact, but it isn’t really important in the end. He wasn’t even good-looking. He wasn’t even smart. Not that either should ever be used as solace. But she wouldn’t mind a memory now, she wouldn’t mind an excuse. Because living alone in a foreign country is never easy and when no one else came near her, when she started to forget what it felt like for a hand to move along her skin, he offered one. Nothing more, nothing less. If she could name her monster, it would be called alone. I can still see her, this other me, the one who underestimated her need to be contained in someone else’s thoughts. This is all he agreed to do, and she hoped it would be enough, hoped that her monster would be satisfied.
She forgot, silly woman, that by nature all monsters are never sated. The other me had those children when, despite his presence and his touch, alone returned and threatened to stay. She pushed that nasty demon away with the sound of an infant crying, the gurgle of their laughter, the fierce clutch of their little hands. This, for a time, gave her a sleek and satisfying peace. To be needed in this way made loneliness almost impossible.
She would have had to continue having children. There is a place inside her that understands this. But then—his illness. She wasn’t sad when he died. On the surface, yes, but where it really mattered, in the space of herself she had never shared with him, she wept for how much time she had lost. She worried she had let herself go too far. She had misplaced her original self.
Which is true. Here I am to prove it. Having snatched it up and escaped when I could. It’s true that no one’s life is perfect, but it’s the degrees of anger that count. It’s the measure of joy against the measure of dark. It is easy for her, and for me, to make a tally. Judge who is going to come out ahead.
Now the other me is biding her time in a desperate way. Some days the children are what keep her sane, others they destroy her completely. Some days she imagines a different life—free from bedrock, from anger. She imagines it has not changed her. She imagines that with a little more time and a measure of luck, she might walk backwards from her current life, arms wrapped around each child, and start again.
She would like to find the other her. She knows I must be out here somewhere.
Yes, I almost said to her when she caught my eye as we exited the plane back at home, you’re right, here I am. I almost stopped her, almost gave her my hand. Instead, I watched her walk on, I watched her re-shoulder her bag and take her daughter’s hand while checking for her son in the crowd. Then I started walking fast in the opposite direction, careful to keep myself moving because I know that my running, my furious pace, is the only way I can leave her behind.
Michelle Bailat-Jones is the author of two novels, Unfurled, (2018, Ig Publishing) and Fog Island Mountains, which won the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction. Her translations, fiction, poetry, and criticism have appeared in various journals including the Kenyon Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Necessary Fiction, Ascent, the Atticus Review, PANK, Cerise Press, The Quarterly Conversation, and the Women's Review of Books. Michelle was born in Japan, grew up in the Pacific NW, and currently lives in Switzerland. (2019)