Monday, 6th. of August. Location: Carnaby Street, Bloomsbury.
The year, unknown.
It happened one sunny afternoon when a man was walking down a street he knew all too well. From afar, it looked like he could be heading to a business meeting or a law firm. His black coat, nice and long, his hair, freshly cut and smeared with wax. His face, empirically handsome and shaved. The buttons on his shirt and the briefcase he was holding could tell almost anyone about his blue-blooded upper-class-status. And yet, for whatever particular reason, there was a murky cloud about him that day. In the midst of passing colorful houses with storied pasts, shops with titles everyone recognized from all parts of the world and pubs where his mates would meet for a Sunday pint, he caught a glimpse of a familiar figure – almost dissolving into the crowd. Long and slim she was, dressed in a 1920s fur-coat. Her hair was of a lustrous black, her skin, pale as snow.
“I’m sorry. Julia?” he uttered by the time he had lurked his way through the herd of tourists and deafening middle-school students. His hand was touching her shoulder now. She turned around slowly and locked eyes with the stranger.
“I … think you are mistaken. I’m Alexandra. Not Julia.”
The man shook his head. “Julia … come on. You do have the talent of making a fool out of me, but fooling me would be impossible. You know that.”
The lady said nothing, only smiled. Then she pulled out her hand and greeted him hello. “I’m Alexandra, I’m visiting a friend here. Originally from Poland. And … you are?”
The man couldn’t help but laugh; Joyful over having met an old ghost from his past yet stunned by the lady’s slight Slavic accent on her English.
“Okay … Julia. Joke’s over. You can let go of the facade now.”
The lady looked down for a couple of minutes. Then she paused her breath and said harshly: “Believe me I am telling you the truth. We have not under any circumstances met each other before. Trust me. I’d remember you.” And with no apparent intention of seeming discrete, she then studied the man’s tall figure from the top of his forehead and all the way down to his bottom feet. “No. Never seen you before. Sorry, you must’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
“Are you suggesting there are two of you?” The man asked, pulling them both away from the crowds of people and into a street-corner, next to an Italian bakery. “Because you are the spitting image of a girl I used to know in my old school days. I …” The man closed his speech abruptly, as if in slight hesitation as to what he was about to say next. “I refuse to let you go before I find a way of solving this mystery.” The man blushed as his gaze went downwards, embarrassed by the flock of middle-schoolers passing them at that moment.
The lady looked weary. “Is this some sort of a pickup-line? If so, I honestly don’t have time for this right now. Let go of my arm, please.”
The man shook his head and smiled nervously. “I can assure you that for the present moment, all my actions are sanctioned with complete romantic sobriety. I am, in other words, not on the look for a partner.”
“Then what do you want? Aren’t you heading somewhere?” She took a quick glance at the man’s briefcase.
“Oh … not really. I … Okay. I might as well tell you.” he said and felt a flush of shame. “I just got fired from my job.”
“And now you just saw someone who reminded you of a nostalgic past?” The woman suggested with a curious smile. “Random day ha?”
“And that made you feel something?”
With those words, the man felt a cold mist swirling through the insides of his body. In an instant, he realized what a lumpish fool he had been, assaulting a stranger on the street and practically forcing her to admit to a false identity. “Listen, Alexandra. You probably have things to do in town, so .. I’ll leave you be. Sorry for the inconvenience. Goodbye.” The man walked off in a hurry, but his feet had not reached far when he felt a cold hand grab his shoulder and spun him to the other side. It was the lady.
“Hold on!” she said, locking eyes with the stranger again. “This sort of thing doesn’t happen often. If I have doubleganger, I would at least like to see her picture. If … you have one.” The man let his mind wander for a moment, then slowly, he motioned towards her. “Alright. You do have a point. If I’d ever meet someone who knew my doubleganger, I’d be raging with excitement. Would you …” The man placed his gaze at the Italian pastry-shop, situated just opposite them. “Would you like to have a coffee with me?”
Inside the coffee shop, sitting opposite a little round table with one candlelight, two espressos, and a large lemon cheesecake to share, silence had fallen between the two strangers. While the man carefully sipped his strong coffee, he studied Alexandra’s eyes, lips, nose, and forehead – his look on her, induced with noticeable amazement. “Can you stop?” she laughed, turning her bashful face away from him. “I’m not her. Most likely you’re just infatuated with a daydream. I mean, we must have some differences. It’s impossible for two people to be like clones.”
“I guess you’re right.” the man said and finally pulled up a picture hiding in the insides of his wallet. “See?” he pointed to the polaroid. “Her hair was shorter, a bit thicker and hazel-colored. And her eyes … I was reluctant to admit it at first, but … I can see now that they were greener. Not so brown, as yours.”
Alexandra studied the photo of a girl dressed in pastel-colored 50s clothes, sitting on a wooden bar-stool, her hands clasping around a tall glass of beer, her pale cheeks, flushed with a pinkish red.
“Very cute.” Alexandra murmured under her breath, her eyes still fixed on the photo. “She looks like a girl in love.”
“She was …” he said. “Vulnerable too.”
“Hey!” She spurted out, breaking the forlorn energy that seemed to have amounted them both. “You haven’t introduced yourself yet. I don’t know your name.”
“That is true.” the man said. “Well …” With his hand pulling out to meet Alexandra’s and his eyes fixed on hers, he uttered out: “I’m Larry Blythe; Born in Exeter under the poor choice of my parents – who, also gave me a name I loathe more than anything. British to the blood, meaning impeccably dull, with no sense of humor except for the one inherited by the famous sitcom, Monty Python. Lousy at cooking, exceptionally good at making weak and watery coffee, a secret sci-fi geek and … painfully inadequate in love.”
“Well you do have the British sarcasm going for you.” she giggled as her eyes grew wider with each look on him. “Now …” she paused, her voice, this time, somber and more serious: “The world has yet to know … what happened with Julia?”
“That’s unfair.” the man said. “First, I need to know about you. You said earlier that you arrived here from… Poland, was it?”
“No.” She said, shaking her head in a firm manner. “Let’s do a game. First, tell me about your friend Julia. Then, I’ll see how much I have in common with her. If we’re very similar, we have a doubleganger. If we’re not, you’re delusional.”
The man thought the game to be ridiculous, and in a moment or two, he wondered why he had even accepted a coffee with a complete stranger on the street. I might as well go along with it … He thought, brushing his British intolerance off, staring callously into the eyes of a woman he had yet to know.
“So … Tell me about her!” Alexandra yammered out, her eyes glittering with curiosity.
The man nodded, then asked her what she would want him to explain.
“Everything! What was her favorite thing to do? What foods did she like? How did she talk, was she humorous? Was she good at dancing?”
“Alright. I guess there’s no choice huh?” he added, placing his gaze away from the woman and out the window, eyeing the glistening rain that had started falling from the sky two minutes ago. Then, with a soft voice, he told her … everything.
For the remaining hour and a half, he called upon the time spent with Julia in his younger, more youthly years. He told her about their friendship, about everything she had taught him, about their arguments and their irrecusable differences of which eventually, led them to their parting. He spoke in detail about her genius; Her ability to learn a new language within a week, her fondness of the Greek myths, Aristotle and Plato. And most importantly, he told her about his own ignorance.
“She trumped me in every way …” the man sighed, his eyes, still fixed on the rain pattering on the window-glass.
“And you felt … threatened?” Alexandra asked, mesmerized by the detailed recollections of his past.
“Not threatened,” he answered and took a deep look into Alexandra’s eyes. “Worse. I didn’t understand her enthusiasm. By the time we went from being friends to lovers, I had a hard time keeping up with the ways of her world. She did not fit into my social circle. I did not fit into hers. Her conservative parents insisted on us getting married. Every day, every hour, she was impatiently waiting on a ring. We parted, I guess I left her with a broken heart. No! I know I left her with a broken heart. It was obvious! She loved me, but in ways, I could not comprehend. When we called the whole thing off, I looked at the whole situation with indifference. I thought it best that we left our worlds and social-circles unharmed. I was happy with my ignorance. But then … I realized my foolery, and I slowly but surely began … despising myself for it.”
The man’s voice had evolved over the course of their conversation; It was deeper now, less cheerful. And to Alexandra’s astonishing surprise, his chosen words and tone almost sounded crestfallen – as if, she was talking to a man at the very peak of committing suicide. With that, she boldly decided to ask the most obvious question of them all:
“Do you .. wish you could go back, experience it all again? Perhaps … do things differently?”
“Do I wish?!” the man cried. “Do I wish?!” he howled again, still staring into the woman’s eyes with a dismal expression.
“I’d die for her to speak to me again,” he said, lowering his head in despair. “Of course, when I realized my mistake in letting her go, she had already moved on. The woman refused to return any of my phone calls or voice-mails. I sent her a letter with an update on my life every year. They were all sent back to me.”
“But …” Alexandra sensed there was some piece of information she was missing. Hesitant at first, but curious to know the truth of it all, she burst out: “It can’t have been that bad! Surely this woman – Julia – would have forgiven you after all these years?”
The man sighed and took a quick stare out the window again when he said: “I’m afraid I left out a little detail in my story … Alexandra … I … ” He paused for a second, then turned his gaze down on his shoes and continued: “I did something bad. Something really really bad.”
To be continued …. part 2 will be published next week. Stay tuned…