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Atmospheric Disturbances (a novel excerpt)

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November 15, 2007

Leo believes his wife has been replaced by an exact lookalike, who happens to have brought home a dog unannounced.

13. We exchange words, not pleasures

The dog lover did not take it well that night over dinner—a heap of lentils and bacon and spinach with a facedown sunny-side-up egg on top, I’d always loved our messy pile-on meals—when I said that I’d be leaving for an indefinite length of time. She asked me why I was leaving; I said because something had changed and I just needed to get away. She asked what did I mean by leaving and I realized I didn’t quite know so I decided to be cautious and say that I was taking a personal vacation. Those phrases, something has changed, just need to get away, personal vacation, were not really my words but TV words, movie words, pollen in the air. Not even aliens from within me, but aliens from without. More luggage. She: leaning on an elbow, holding her fork aloft and still, with nothing on it, asking, What did I mean by “changed”? Me saying I wasn’t quite sure what I meant, that I hadn’t found words for it yet. She: asking, Where, exactly, was I going? Me telling her that as nice a person as she seemed to be I didn’t really feel comfortable telling her. “Not yet,” I clarified. “But maybe never.”

She pressed the empty tines of her fork against her bottom lip. Then she set her fork down. She was very sober, and very calm, very unlike Rema.

“Are you seeing someone?” she then asked, which struck me as funny, because there are so few people in the world that I like even a little bit.

I may have cracked a nervous smile. I shook my head no.

“Are you playing a joke?” she asked.

Again I shook my head.

“Is this related to, are you relating to, um, yesterday?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said, which was as honest an answer as I knew.

“Or Harvey?”

“I don’t think so,” I said again.

“I don’t understand,” she said, putting down her fork, which, touching the plate, sounded a gentle reverberating ting like a creeping chill. Her tines then disappeared into the lentils.

“I don’t understand either,” I said, and I also put down my fork, as a gesture of respect, even though I was still hungry, and even a little bit happy, since I had a kind of plan. I could almost see the pulley system—something made of thick gray rope and metal coated over with a chipping white paint—by which my life’s getting better would make this other Rema’s life worse, and just having that thought moved the ropes back against me, for her.

We were quiet for a little while. I looked at her and then when I saw her look at me I looked back away, down at my plate. The lentil dish we were eating that night was made with tarragon, which I always forget smells like licorice until I close my eyes and ask myself why I have an image of myself laying under a patchwork quilt and coughing. I wonder if Rema, or her doppelganger for that matter, experiences silence (or tarragon) the same way I do; for me silence is like a humid swelling of scents, origin-less clicks, phantom elbow pains, a puff of air near the eyes, a sense of grass pushing up through the earth somewhere, or everywhere at once. I’ve never asked Rema about this.

The simulacrum scooted her chair back, went to sit on the sofa; the russet dog joined her. “You are trying,” she said, not actually looking at me, “to make me say I love you and beg you to sleep with me, but I am not here to perform for you, you can go through your preoccupations on your own and talk to me on the other side of them.”

I said nothing. I just looked at her. There on the sofa, unnamed pup at her side, she was running her fingers perpendicular to the wale of her corduroy skirt. Then parallel to the wale. Then perpendicular. Just by watching, I could feel the grain of the fabric, which made me think of the grooves that make our fingerprints, which made me think of the fingerprint-y look of that meteorological image in Tzvi Gal-Chen’s paper, which made me think of the myth of fingerprints, of one of the few things that I remember my father telling me, that really all fingerprints were the same. And snowflakes? I’d asked. And snowflakes he’d answered.

The russet dog nose-sighed, turned a tired gaze toward me.

“Is it your plan,” the simulacrum said, “ to say nothing? You’re not really going to leave. You’re just imitating a drama of me, a show I might put on.”

Despite a certain type of certainty, I remained very unsure as to how conscious this woman was of being an impostor, or perhaps an alternate. As far as I knew she might be like an understudy who’s been lied to and believes that the show goes on only on Tuesdays, and that she is really the only star. Maybe this woman also felt that something was somehow wrong, that she was with the wrong Leo; maybe she, like me, could not articulate precisely what was wrong, but unlike me she did not trust her feeling. Maybe at some point in time, in some place, an other Rema and an other Leo were living together very happily in a whole other parallel possible world. A world not unlike the ones Harvey so often talked about. It was possible.

Again the dog’s nostrils flared.

And I found myself saying to this other Rema, calling out to her across the apartment—and this too felt like clichéd speech that had infected me—that I wanted to tell her the whole truth.

“Okay,” she said, returning her gaze to me.

So laconic. It was details like that that made it clear to me that I was not speaking with my Rema. But even so, the doppelganger, she had a wintry kind of pretty about her that day, chapped and rosy like freshly sanded wood. Even if she wasn’t my wife, I still felt sorry for her. My heart always goes out to beautiful people, which I realize really isn’t fair, but at least my heart goes somewhere. And at least, unlike the previous day, I did not feel that I wanted to hold the impostress, though I was surprised and perhaps a little offended that she didn’t—even as a kind of ploy—try to seduce me. But once I realized that I didn’t want to hold her, I realized that I had nothing further to say. She was still waiting for my promised explication. But I did not know what “the whole truth” was. I cast about for an explanation with the sense that it would arrive whole, entire, like a forgotten memorized poem, if only I could recall the first word or two. Again like my sincere belief in my non-existent German. But I couldn’t find my way out of the crisscrossing thought: either I tell her she’s not really Rema and she thinks I’m crazy, or I tell her she’s not really Rema and she doesn’t think I’m crazy, because she already knows she’s not Rema, in which case why should I let on that I know? Those weren’t really the only two options, logically speaking, but I got caught within that syllogism, like in the still place inside of storms.

“You aren’t speaking?” she asked.

Even though the vein on this woman’s forehead had not been prominent before, it became ghostly blue prominent. Like her maybe lover’s, the night nurse’s.

Then the phone rang.

Rivka Galchen‘s first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, is forthcoming from FSG next spring.

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