One Double, Six Ingredients
illustration by A.J. Garces
I carry maps but rarely consult them; I like the sense of feeling my way. En route from New Orleans to Austin, I thought I knew the number of the Austin-bound road that goes west from I-10 at Houston. But often I blank on numbers, even numbers I should know well. I blanked on the number of the Austin road. That didn't faze me; I assumed there'd be a sign that said "Austin." But it's a Texas quirk that, while there are signs to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and El Paso all over the state, you've got to be practically within sight of the city to see an Austin highway sign. In themselves, my reluctance to use maps, my tendency to forget numbers, and Texas' odd attitude toward directing travelers to its capital are unimportant; it's just that they are three of the essential ingredients that combined to lead me to this mystery.
As in the fairy tales of old, it is usually something seemingly insignificant that leads a journeyer to the gateway of the Other World.
The fourth ingredient went like this:
I was west of Houston, still on I-10, before I'd given up hope of either remembering the proper number or finding an Austin sign. I knew the Austin road was not too far north of me, so I cruised a few exits until I selected a two-lane heading north. This fourth ingredient wasn't so much that particular two-lane, as why I chose it -- since I'd already cruised past at least two perfectly adequate north-bound roads. Well, the one I chose felt right, and the others hadn't. This may be the most mysterious ingredient of all. For I wasn't feeling in the grip of any destiny -- didn't have any strange feelings at all. There've been times when I've heard voices (yes, voices) telling me which way to go. Scoff if you like, but it's true. But this time I didn't hear anything. Apparently, I was being guided -- by what, I wouldn't venture to guess -- but I had no sensation of it. I find this both a hopeful and a disturbing fact. Just what is doing the guiding, and why, and what is the bond between the guider and us? In this realm there seem to be no answers.
My only conscious intention that day -- besides reaching Austin sooner or later -- was to call my mother in the Bronx and wish her a happy Mother's Day. I wasn't looking forward to that call. Once my mother and I had a kind of secret code between us -- we could say a few words, inconsequential to others, but full of meaning to each other, as though we were spies or conspirators. But things had happened four years before, and we'd lost that secret code. We still spoke, but formally, like foreigners uncertain of the other's language. This is the fifth ingredient, because I kept putting off making the call.
So: five ingredients. My attitude toward maps. My forgetfulness of numbers. No Austin sign. A feeling that I should take one road instead of another. A discomfort about phoning my mother. Together, they formed a kind of gateway.
Isn't this the underlying pattern of existence, some powerful aspect of life that happens beyond our intentions and beyond analysis -- and seems to possess a sense of will that is not ours? Words like "coincidence," "synchronicity," and "destiny," are puny; after they've been said we don't know any more than before. Life just does this sort of thing. While it's happening, it seems like chance: When you look back, it seems purposeful. Logic can't account for it. Cynics say one thing, mystics another, and scientists say nothing, but none account for it. Nevertheless, these things happen. And when they happen, we feel touched by something larger than ourselves.
The sixth ingredient: I got hungry. Stopped at a Burger King. I'd call Mama and have a burger. I called, and she wasn't home. Got my burger, and sat down. And then the mystery appeared.
A Burger King is no place for the appearance of a great mystery, is it? The surroundings gave an almost-but-not-quite nightmarish quality to what felt like a waking dream.
Have I neglected to mention that this was 17 years ago? I was 34 that May. The apparition was a youth of about 15 who walked in with a roly-poly friend slightly younger than he. The friend obviously idolized the youth, and the youth played to him as though he were a large audience. But the youth was -- me.
I may be crazy but I'm not kidding. I mean, literally, he was my double. He looked, dressed, moved, and spoke, almost exactly as I did when I was his age -- and, more or less, as I still do. His eyebrows were a little thicker, his hands seemed a little stronger, his teeth were straighter. The duplication wasn't exact, but close enough to be a twin. His facial expressions were mine -- I recognized them from my mirror and from home movies. What seemed strangest was the way he used his hands. My hands are always in motion when I speak, and they are motions very particular to me -- a kind of signature, if you like. His hands moved exactly as mine. I'd never seen that before. He wore a long-sleeved shirt, the cut that I usually wear, and a white T-shirt underneath, as I usually do, no matter how hot it is (and it was hot). And his top three or four shirt buttons were unbuttoned, as mine usually are. And he was my height. And had my eyes. And his walk was mine. It was me.
He noticed me looking at him, then looked away and seemed not to notice. I looked away too. I didn't want to be intrusive. But long ago, first because of a life of minor crime and then because of my curiosity as a writer, I'd learned to study things carefully with my side-vision while seeming to be looking at something else in front of me. (It's also a skill taught in advanced martial arts, I've since discovered.) So I studied him carefully without looking directly at him. He was me, alright.
I wondered why he didn't recognize himself in me as well. Then I realized two things. One, that I was sitting still and he was in animated conversation. He might see that I wore my clothing and my hair as he did (we had on practically the same shirt), but my hands were still and his were not, and that made a difference. And it hit me that he had no way of knowing what he'd look like when he was 34, while I remembered very clearly what I looked like when I was 15-ish. I sensed that he was aware of me, if only because I was studying him. He had the street-thing I have, that sense of what people in a room are really paying attention to -- you needed it, where I grew up, or you didn't survive well. But I assumed that he'd filed me away as just some strange cat over in the corner whom he didn't have to worry about.
But I was worrying about him. I can't express the unworldly sensation of seeing one's double -- especially a young double. I'm a religious person, and in certain situations I find myself asking (only half in jest), "What could God possibly be thinking of?" I neither expect nor get an answer, but the question somehow centers me. And in that Burger King, of all places, I was asking it very earnestly. For instance, in addition to my six ingredients, how many other ingredients had directed him to that Burger King during the very half hour that, against all likelihood, I would also be there?
Some pretty girls came in. He knew them, but they were obviously affluent and he obviously wasn't, and the banter was the ritualized exchange of people who watch each other carefully but from different worlds. He pretended they weren't important to him, but they were; for their part, they treated him dismissively on the surface but actually very carefully, and with respect. Me, I was in a kind of trance. Here was this impossible double. Different history. Different geography. Different DNA. Different era. Different ethnicity (I'm Sicilian and he was Mexican). But my double nonetheless. As I was his.
I have no explanation. But the fact that it was so -- that fact, in the flesh, meant that there was something operative in existence that neither our science nor our philosophy has even attempted to encompass.
Because I am not a chosen one. By which I mean: If he and I are each other's double, then other people (perhaps you) have doubles -- just as unlikely, but just as real.
I had no idea what to make of it then, and have no idea what to make of it now. He watched me carefully as I left -- which meant he'd been aware of me all along, watching me sideways as I'd watched him. Which, in turn, meant to me that he was really my double -- in the cut of his mind as much as in the cut of his clothes and his features.
That was 17 years ago. Today he's roughly the age I was then. A month doesn't go by that I don't think of him. Did he become a writer? Did he take some of the paths I almost did -- criminal, family man, cop (yes, I almost became a cop once), priest (that, too)? Are each of us living out a fate the other missed? If he's still alive (and I was almost killed several times at that age), he's out there somewhere. Which is to say, I'm out there somewhere, living an entirely different, unknowable life. As you may be. What could God be thinking of?