Authors: Julia Mayer
If I were prettier than I am, had more confidence than I do, and had better posture and nicer clothes, I would look exactly like Dee. I wondered why she would want to talk to me anyway. I continued staring at her, wondering if she would just go away.
Instead, she sat down next to me, stretching her legs out and putting her right leg over her left. She leaned back on her hands and shook her hair out behind her. Her hair caught the light, showing her natural highlights.
Dee had this way of turning every positive up ten notches and every negative into a positive. She was happy and bright and cheerful all the time. For one day, Dee was more than a friend to me. She was like the perfect reflection. The person I so desperately wanted to be but couldn't quite manage to become.
She took a deep breath and turned to me smiling. “How do you feel about mechanical soldiers?” she asked.
“What?” Who was this girl, and what kind of question was that? “I don't know. I guess I've never thought about them.”
“So pick a side,” she said. “You'll probably prove my point and I'll probably prove yours, but who cares? It's true with everything. Even if you don't believe what you think you believe, at least you know what you think by the end.”
“I know what I think.”
“So what do you think of mechanical soldiers?”
It was a ridiculous question. But what Dee said stuck with me. She dropped a ton of little tips like that. Things that were important but that she didn't even seem to think about. Like how to argue yourself into an opinion: she even convinced me that ice cream was health food later that day. I understood Dee, and she was able to give me so much. She gave me a feeling of light, a feeling I hadn't had in years.
My last class that day was gym, and I decided to cut it to hang out with Dee. She suggested that we go ice-skating at an indoor place nearby. She, of course, was perfectly dressed for it in her little skirt and sweater, whereas in my sweatpants and heavy long-sleeved shirt I was not prepared for ice-skating at all, so instead we went for a long walk and wound up at a coffee shop.
We sat for a little bit and just watched people walking by. But it was starting to get dark and I needed to get home. As much fun as I was having, I still needed time toâ¦stress release (that was how I had started thinking of it) and clean up before my dad came home. Dee said she was going to grab another coffee, but she popped up to give me a hug before I left.
I was halfway down the block when I realized that I had grabbed Dee's bag of scones instead of my own bag of cookies. I ran back to switch but didn't see her anywhere in the cafÃ©. I asked the barista if she had seen the girl I was with leave.
“Yeah, she went in there,” she said, pointing toward the bathrooms and popping her gum loudly.
I walked into the bathroom just in time to see the end of Dee's boot disappearing into the mirror. And then there she was, standing in the mirror staring at me. I looked around the empty bathroom. Then I looked at my reflection showing me pasty whiteâwith my mouth agape. I blinked and looked again and all of a sudden it was Dee's image standing in the mirror staring at me. It would be impossible to say which of us looked more shocked.
It All Began
My friend Jamie brought me to the party where it all began. It was right after junior year started. We were in some guy's basement. It opened into his backyard, but the door was closed to keep the smoke in the room and it was working. Jamie always invited me to these parties even though he knew I didn't smoke. I appreciated it. I always like to say it's not that I don't do anything; it's just that I'm not doing it tonight.
I was listening to a dull conversation about all the times the people next to me had gotten high before and thinking about leaving. I let my mind wander over the room. The ceiling was that stucco stuff with little sparkles in it. I've wondered how they make those stick to the ceiling. I couldn't even get glitter to stick to the kitchen floor when I tried painting it when I was six. (It seemed like a good idea at the time.)
The house was cookie-cutterâlike all the other ones on the blockâand even though I know a lot of people don't like houses and neighborhoods like that, there was something comforting about being able to walk into any of my friends' houses and predict exactly which direction the basement would be in and which of two rooms they would occupy. And it was equally comforting to know that my family, my mom and I, are not like this. Nothing about our life is cookie-cutter. When Jamie and I had arrived to help set up, there had been a couple of big, comfy inflatable chairs around. My favorite one had a matching inflatable pillow and footrest, but over the course of the three or four hours since then, most of the chairs had been deflated to make room for more people. I was stuck standing now. I'd given up my chair to get a soda at some point, and by the time I came back, it was gone, moved somewhere probably. After all, there are some benefits of furniture filled with air.
My feet were starting to hurt and the air was getting heavier with smoke, so I was just about to get my stuff and get going when Jamie caught my eye and gestured that I should come over. I did, and chairs being the commodity that they were, Jamie pulled me sideways onto his lap. He was talking with three other people about God, the universe, and the idea of other intelligent life. I wondered if this conversation would be more interesting if I was stoned, and I thought that if I waited another half hour or so, I'd probably wind up with a contact high and I could find out.
Jamie took a hit off the bowl that was coming around. Even though he was dressed for a party like everyone else, he just looked more put together than the other guys there. I guess I always think that about him. It might be because his hair is always buzzed so it never looks messy. Plus it's really fun to touch the back of a guy's neck after he's had his hair buzzed. I resisted the urge to do that while Jamie pulled me backward so that he could reach over me and hand the bowl to the girl next to me.
“You skipped your girlfriend,” she said, rolling her eyes and passing it back to me.
“Oh, no. I'm anemicâ¦” I trailed off and Jamie laughed at me.
“Anemic? What does your iron level have to do with it?”
I shrugged sheepishly. It had seemed like a good explanation.
He smiled and looked back at the other girl. “She's not my girlfriend.” I saw her perk up. “Take it,” he said, still trying to hold his breath in. “I mean,” he exhaled in the other direction, “sorry. I just assumed you guys knew each other. This is my friend Dee. Dee,” he looked at me, “this is Cassie. She knows Taylor.”
Taylor was a friend of Jamie's from school. He and I were in some class or other together, but I couldn't remember which. Cassie was pretty but way overdressed. The rest of us were basically in jeans and T-shirts, and she looked ridiculous to me in her sparkly low-cut tank top.
I shook my head at the bowl and waved it away. I started to move to the arm of the chair Jamie was on, but he tightened his arms around my waist so I stayed put. Cassie shrugged, lit up, and took another hit.
“Anyway,” said Taylor, “I think there's an alternate universe. But I think we gotta go all the way out there to find it. We have to break the solar system or something.”
I liked the idea of breaking the solar system. I laughed, wondering which part of the solar system would be the easiest to break. Maybe the not-planet Pluto.
“Nah, man. You got it all wrong,” Jamie said. “If they ever find another universe, it's gonna be right here under our noses. We're gonna kick ourselves for not seeing it before.” It would be a long time until I knewâand even longer until
knewâthat was a life-changing statement.
“Definitely,” Cassie agreed immediately.
I felt Jamie squeeze my hand. What if he was right?
“I think if there's another world it'll look just like this world, but it'll still be crazy different,” he said.
I couldn't imagine the solar system just falling apart and leaving people alive and well to witness it, but another universe that you just had to see, just had to be looking for, that was something to work toward, something to hope for. I loved the idea.
My thoughts started racing, and I felt my breathing get really shallow. I was gulping in more smoke than air and I needed to get up, to get someplace else, as quickly as possible. Something incredible was happening, and nobody knew it but me.
I got up to try to steady myself. I went into the bathroom and locked the door, leaning against the sink for support. I stared at myself in the mirror and reminded myself to take deep breaths. I felt like all of a sudden I had the key to a door I hadn't even known existed. I splashed some water on my face and heard somebody pound on the door.
“Just a second,” I called.
“Umm, now,” the person outside the door called back. I guess taking over the bathroom for 10 or 15 minutes when people are getting drunk isn't the best idea in the world. I took one last deep breath and stared at my paint-speckled shirt in the mirror. I ran my hands over my hair, moving a couple of curls out of the way.
Jamie was still talking to Cassie. On the one hand, I didn't want to interrupt them because she obviously liked him. But on the other hand, well, he was the one who had invited me, and it would be rude to leave without saying good-bye.
I loved how restless his hands were when he talked. He was always running his hands over the back of his neck or tapping his fingers. He'd always start by tapping to the music that was on, but eventually he would get too impatient with that and go off on the beat that was in his head.
It was like he was always waiting for something more, something more interesting or new or, I don't know, just something. And whatever else he was doing, his heel was always tapping the floor really lightly. Anyone who didn't already know that about him probably wouldn't notice because the movement was so small. Right now the tapping was a little heavier, and I knew that meant he was restless.
I leaned down at the side of his chair. “I think I'm going to head out.”
Jamie looked at me. “It's late. Do you want me to walk you home?”
“No, I can make it. Stay and have fun with your friends. I'll see you in school on Monday.” Jamie absentmindedly moved a few strands of my hair out of his way.
“Well, I'll just walk you out then.” Then to Cassie, “I'll catch up with you later.”
“Did you have a good time?” he asked me on our way up the stairs.
“Very good. Mostly because of you. You gave me a lot to think about.”
“Really?” he asked. “I didn't think it was possible to have a thought you hadn't had first.”
I felt myself get red, and I was glad we were outside and it was dark. “Don't say that. You know you're smart,” I said, touching his arm. Walking me out became walking me to the end of the block, but from there I insisted on walking home myself. I don't like girls who can't walk six blocks alone, especially in a neighborhood like mine that's completely safe.
When I told Jamie that, he smiled a little bit and said, “Okay, get home safe then. Let me know when you're home?”
“I will.” I gave Jamie a quick hug.
Jamie and I had known each other for a long time. We had been on-and-off friends since our elementary schools had merged into one middle school. Our sixth-grade social studies teacher had put us next to each other. We used to trade candy because Jamie always brought little bags but he didn't like the red onesâand the red ones were my favorite. But something had been different lately. I couldn't quite wrap my head around it yet, but there was definitely something new with us.
Maybe that's why I took his suggestion of an alternate universe so seriously. If there was an alternate universe, where was it? Who would be there? Anyone different, anyone new? It must be what artists tapped into every time they created something. But I wanted more than that. I wanted a universe I could touch and be a part of it.
But there was a flaw, of course. Where could this alternate universe be? If it was right under my nose and I had been looking for it the whole time, why hadn't I found it?
As I put the key into the front door of my building, I wondered for a moment if Jamie had gone back inside to talk to Cassie. I didn't think so; he had looked pretty bored when he was talking to her earlier. And he had come outside with me, probably just to get away from her.
I walked up to the third floor and down the hall. I stood outside the apartment door for a moment. For some reason, I wasn't ready for this night to be over. There were too many more things to think about. I leaned my back against the wall and heard my phone beep.
I took it out of my jeans pocket and flipped it open. There was a text from Jamie. “Home safe? Didn't stumble into an alt univ on your way? Better bring me back something if you did. ;)”
I smiled to myself, texted him I was fine, and went inside.
I stuck my head into my mom's room. She was sleeping and I hated to wake her, but I knew if I didn't she would be worried in the morning.
“Mom?” I whispered. “Mom?”
I heard her roll over. “You have a good time, honey?”
“Yeah, I did. Thanks. Sorry to wake you.”
“That's okay. I sleep better knowing you're here safe anyway.” I heard her move around under the blankets and walked over toward her, my eyes starting to adjust to the darkness. I leaned down and kissed her forehead.
“You too,” she said, and I could tell she was already drifting back to sleep.
The unfortunate thing about junior year is that it doesn't give you much time to go looking for entrances to an alternate universe. I had always been a good student, but with college applications coming up the next year, my grades were especially important. Plus I didn't want to get to the point where I was looking so hard that I just made something up. I wanted to find something that really existed.
A few weeks later, there was a really muggy day and I wanted to get into cool bathwater instead of waiting until the next morning to shower. I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed my shirt. My mom and I had decided to paint the entire apartment one weekend. We only got as far as the living room and kitchen before we gave up. Painting isn't as easy as it looks. Due to a combination of drips and a small paint fight, most of the paint wound up on us and my plain, green shirt had gotten speckled with red and baby blue.
It was my favorite shirt, and I'd worn it to the party with Jamie. As I looked at it on the bathroom floor, I thought back to the fifteen minutes I had spent in the bathroom at the party that night. I began to think about the alternate universe Jamie had suggested. Something better than my own world, something that seemed just like this world but was actually completely different.
I used my right hand to readjust my towel around my left shoulder as I sat next to the tub, waiting for it to fill, and I saw my reflection use her left hand to touch her right shoulder. I paused for a moment, absentmindedly running my hand over my skin.
I watched my reflection in the water making all the same motions that I did, but the exact opposite. I stared at her for a moment. I thought of Jamie. “It'll look just like this world, but completely different,” he had said. I rubbed my cheek against my shoulder, and my reflection made all the same motions I did, but the exact opposite every time. She was exactly what Jamie had said she would be: something identical and completely different at the same time.
I stared at my reflection in the water and began to wonderâ¦I took a deep breath and plunged my head into the cool water. I thought for a moment that I had gotten through and I opened my eyes to look around, but all I got was soap in my eye. It burned.
The bathwater didn't discourage me, though. The mirror seemed like such a perfect place for this alternate universe. Walking to school two days later, I passed my reflection in a store window. I walked toward it, watching my reflection walk toward me. I tapped on the glass. Someone tapped back.
For a moment I thought I had found it. I thought my reflection was there ready to talk to me, tapping back, ready to let me into her world. All I needed to do was know it was there, there was myâ¦I looked past my reflection for a moment and noticed a guy cleaning the inside of the window. He was staring at me, snickering. He waved. I smiled but I felt my shoulders slump. I smiled a little more to try to make it seem like I wasn't crazy.
I became fascinated with mirrors. I'm sure everyone must have thought I was just enchanted with myself. I carried around a hand mirror and checked the mirrors in my locker and the school bathroom all the time. Of course, I couldn't be sure that the alternate universe was in the mirror, but I had a gut instinct. The way you know when you're walking down the street if the person behind you shouldn't be there.
I knew the alternate universe had to be related to the face in the mirror. My face, but not really mine because I have a birthmark on my right cheek and she has one on her left. After I realized this, I could have sworn that once in a while, I would see my reflection fall a half second behind me, but I was sure that was just my imagination. I wanted it to happen so badly that I was pretending to see it, even if it wasn't there.