Relationship Status: It’s Complicated
The Third Option
He had shifty eyes, that Dr. Hirsch. Shifty eyes and a smooth way of talking that made Paul see him as more of a salesman than a medicine man. If it weren’t for the one diploma hanging conspicuously behind him, his office would have been indistinguishable from a marketing intern’s cubicle. The walls were plastered with flashy posters and looped videos exalting the technological breakthroughs now available to the public.
And all of this, at a bargain price.
“Now we come to the part of the conversation where we have to put away the fancy marketing mumbo-jumbo and talk man to man about the reality of this procedure,” said Dr. Hirsch. His face seemed to blank as he adjusted in his chair. “You see, when we advertise for a service such as ours, we inevitably get the rich and powerful Westlaker looking for a way to extend their lives. They arrive in their fancy cars and demand champagne while they use my executive waiting room to dash off some can’t-wait e-mail or talk loudly on their Bluetooths. I go through my presentation with them as I have done with you and though everyone has the same reaction to that part, it is this conversation that separates the men from the boys.
“The average captain of industry is more than happy to know that their clone will continue to run their empire, live another forty or fifty years in a new body, taking over for the real them when their time runs out. And to the public, it appears as if said captain simply had cosmetic surgery to look years younger. Certainly, it is not far-fetched to think that modern medical science couldn’t sustain a man for another sixty years after his normal life expectancy, though at diminished capacity.
“These are all the benefits of the cloning process. It is the caveat that really gets to people, that turns them away only to come back six months later saying mejor que nada. That caveat, Mr. Conner, is simply this: it will not be you who continues on in the new body. It will be a copy of you. A copy of you with a perfect bill of health, free from genetic predispositions and blocked arteries.”
At this, Paul shrugged.
The doctor continued. “Now, there are a lot of philosophical arguments about what constitutes a soul, or consciousness itself, where and how and whatnot. I don’t mind admitting to you that I had my own ideas about the procedure at first. I was anxious to see how it would really work out. Of course, now I know that while we can clone a new body, accelerate its growth, and do a bit for bit copy of the host brain, it does absolutely nothing for the donor. You will still be you after you are cloned. Still stuck in your body.”
Paul smiled to show he understood.
“Most people have a hard time with this concept. It’s not an easy one to wrap your head around. Do you have any questions?”
“No,” replied Paul, “I get it. I’ll be cloned, but I’ll still die in due time.”
Dr. Hirsch winced at the mention of death. “To be blunt, yes. It’s the harsh reality at the center of this wonderful breakthrough. Critics of cloning are quick to point out the selfish nature of the process, of using technology to cheat death and live forever. Yet they fail to acknowledge the fact that death can’t be cheated. We don’t clone for ourselves, we clone for others. We clone so the great minds stay alive long enough to contribute to society.”
His shifty eyes slowed, grew wistful. “We give a copy of ourselves to the world, for their benefit.”
Paul nodded and clasped his hands together in his lap.
“Well, I can see you don’t need any convincing. You’re one of the few and yet I can’t help but feel cheated of an argument. I usually spend a good hour going over the ins and outs of the process, debating philosophical mantra and scientific evidence for and against the soul.” He sighed, got lost in one of the moving pictures on the wall for a moment. “Before we adjourn, I’d like to leave you with a thought that will hopefully give us something to discuss in our follow-up meeting.”
Dr. Hirsch leaned forward over his large desk, peering deep into Paul’s eyes. “So I said earlier that it will be a copy of you that lives on. That copy is already running around inside your head right now, experiencing things as you do. It will be there during the cloning process and afterwards, it will be your consciousness running parallel to itself.” The doctor brought his two hands together vertically and crossed his eyes. He chuckled to himself. “Ten minutes from now, you will be outside on the street thinking about the conversation we’re having right now. In two weeks, there will be a copy of you, at which point both of you will be able to remember this moment and feel the same level of ownership. One of you, namely you, the one sitting in front of me right now, will recall being told that a copy of you will live on and your reality will reflect that. It may cause anxiety and when you leave this place and let your clone take over, that anxiety will be realized.
“But again, your clone will also remember this conversation and will apply it to his reality and think that I was just yanking his chain. He will actually think that his consciousness, by some fluke of science, has been transferred. I’ve seen it happen, almost like a religious experience. As much as we will try to convince him otherwise, he will not believe it deep down. And yet he will have the memory of this conversation and have me warning you about it and…”
The doctor paused to catch his breath. “Well, the ramifications are ponderous. I could go on and on. But as we are both men of limited time, I will not keep you any longer.” Standing, he extended his hand. “It was a pleasure speaking with you, Paul. I look forward to our next meeting. Mrs. Daniels will show you out.”
“Thanks,” said Paul, rising and shaking the man’s hand. He followed the receptionist into the waiting area where she paused to examine her tablet.
“We still have you on the schedule for next Wednesday, the twentieth?”
Mrs. Daniels nodded and swiped at the screen to read the next page. “We should have your payment booklet ready for you then. You and your clone will share liability on that loan, as I mentioned earlier.”
Paul scratched at his nose, trying to look disinterested.
Bowing slightly, Mrs. Daniels retreated to the hallway.
Outside, foot traffic on Congress Avenue had begun to pick up and the sun was hanging almost directly overhead. Paul headed north and tried to read the signs on either side of the street, looking for a place to pick up lunch on the way back to the office. His struggle made him laugh. The clone wasn’t going to have any trouble seeing down the road. He’d be genetically engineered to be better than Paul.
Beside him, the shop windows reflected the image of a smiling yet sullen-faced man. He examined himself and began to wonder just who he was looking at, himself or the clone.
Theresa Conner’s mother had the look of a woman fading into her golden years, but the way she carried herself told of a strong soul within. It was that internal light, that ability to see the world so clearly even after so many years, that drew Theresa to her side whenever the sky threatened to come down around her.
“Don’t be silly, Paul would never cheat on you. I’ve known him since you two first hooked up in high school. It’s just not in the man’s genes.”
Theresa sighed at the ancient parlance. “I know, Mom, but I just can’t shake the feeling. I was reading in Cosmo—”
Mrs. Stratton scoffed as she picked up her tea from the small table between them.
“I was reading in Cosmo,” continued Theresa, “about the seven signs that your man is cheating.”
“Filthy liberal rag,” muttered Mrs. Stratton into her tea.
“And the number two sign is withdrawal from the family.”
“Which means nothing. Paul is not yet forty-five years old. He is totally due for a midlife crisis. And you may not remember your father’s, bless his soul, but depression was a major part of it until he bought that awful little Japacar. Just look at your brother! Jacob is scared to death of hitting forty. What’s he going to do with all those treadmills when he’s fifty?”
Theresa ignored her mother, followed her own train of thought. She said calmly, “Number three talked about signs of letting go, preparing to leave. He spends a lot of time with Lindsey. It’s a lot more attention than he’s ever given her. Like all of the sudden he’s become this caring super-dad.”
“I thought you said he was withdrawing from the family?”
Shaking her head, she presented further evidence, “He stays out late, doesn’t come straight home from work. I know he’s doing something else. Or someone else.”
Mrs. Stratton replaced her cup on the table. “I tell you that magazine puts evil thoughts in your head. Come now, what do we know about Paul? He’s been nothing but a devoted partner since you got married. And he’s been nothing but a devoted father since Lindsey was born.”
“But what if that’s just it? What if he’s bored now? We’ve been together twenty-six years. What if he wants something else now? Signs five, six, and seven; he won’t communicate, he gets defensive when I ask where he’s been, and he doesn’t seem to want to do anything with me anymore. He says he’s always tired…” Theresa trailed off. She let the words hang in the air for a while, thinking about them as they echoed in her mind.
It was all true, of course, whether or not it meant what she thought it meant. Paul’s behavior at home had become strange and suspicious. She had talked about it with her coworkers, then her friends, and they all came to the obvious conclusion, that he was having an affair. Theresa refused to believe it, but couldn’t find a single person amongst her acquaintances who suggested otherwise. It took braving the thirty miles up I-35 to see her mother, someone who couldn’t possibly think the worst of Paul.
Mrs. Stratton hadn’t disappointed her daughter. Theresa was almost comforted by her mother’s dismissal of even the slightest suggestion of infidelity. And yet it didn’t have the calming effect she thought it would. Despite what her mother thought, Paul had changed. Theresa didn’t want to believe that he was having an affair but the uncertainty of it was eating away at her. A very small part of her just wanted it to be true just to put an end to the suspense.
After a few minutes of silence, Mrs. Stratton spoke in a subdued voice. “What’s the first sign?”
“Pardon,” asked Theresa, withdrawing from her thoughts.
“You said there were seven signs of cheating, but you only listed six.”
“It’s not important.”
“I should think it is. Right now he’s only got six out of seven and most of those have alternate, if not more plausible, explanations. How are you going to convict him of such a heinous crime without a strong body of evidence?” Mrs. Stratton pulled herself up into a haughty position in her chair.
Theresa didn’t like when her mother talked like that, in that calm, cool way she learned from her father. He had been a shrewd businessman, a child of the startup revolution with a way of talking that put employees in their place and investors in his pocket. With family, it only made the recipient feel small, or at least Theresa felt that way.
“I don’t want to discuss it,” said Theresa, looking away.
“When was the last time you and Paul had sex?”
“Mother!” She couldn’t help but blush.
“Is that not the first sign? I know enough of the left-wing manifesto to know that sex has to be in there somewhere. It wouldn’t be Cosmo without some mention of things that should remain private.”
“You’re right, it should remain private, so don’t ask me questions like that.”
Mrs. Stratton put a hand on the table, reaching for her daughter. “Private between you, God, and your mother. Don’t forget that I’m a woman no different from you. If you are to have any credibility in your claims, then Paul should satisfy all seven of these clearly scientific requirements.”
Theresa pouted, but remained mute.
“Surely not six?”
Theresa snorted and glanced quickly at her mother.
“My God! My God in Heaven with His choir of angels who told His children to go out into the world and procreate! Sweet Jesus in a saddle, six months! Job hath suffered less in his lifetime!” Mrs. Stratton gesticulated wildly and feigned a swoon.
Theresa laughed despite herself. Watching her mother play evangelical in the parlor of her old house was more than enough to evoke memories of happier days spent with her parents, of the endless stories her father would tell, and of the reenactments and voiceovers that her mother would provide. It was a spark of joy in an otherwise dull period, a small reminder of the good things still left in the world, whatever problems she may have with her husband.
Mrs. Stratton didn’t stop when her daughter started crying. She knew that they were the good kind of tears, knew in a way only she could know. She stood and left the room, all the while inquiring of the ceiling as to why such injustice had befallen her daughter, her own flesh and blood.
“Is my daughter not the daughter of my husband,” she cried as she entered the front hall, knowing the echo would reach her daughter and elicit more laughter.
In the kitchen, Mrs. Stratton touched the small mirror above the phone on the wall, bringing the display back to life. With a few taps on the virtual keyboard, she brought up the Yellow Pages for Austin, Texas and navigated to the Special Services category. There were more than a hundred listings for private investigators.
Lindsey was in the front yard when Paul arrived home in West Austin. She looked up as he pulled into the driveway and pushed away a strand of brown hair before waving at him. Her hair used to be black, just like Paul’s, but as the years went on, Lindsey had evolved into the darker shade of her mother.
Her youthful face was enchanting and the thoughts that had troubled Paul for the better part of the afternoon faded away as he watched her play with her Barbie dolls on the manicured grass. He dropped his briefcase and jacket on the porch and joined Lindsey on the lawn.
“What’re you up to?” he asked.
“Having a party. It’s Brittany’s birthday today.” She held up a doll that looked identical to the others except for having red hair.
“Oh, and how old is Brittany?”
“A lady never tells.” Lindsey scrunched up her face in an adorable smile.
Paul saw a flash of his mother-in-law. “I promise I won’t tell anyone else.”
Lindsey eyed her father warily. “It’s a Sweet Sixteen party.”
His eyes widened, looking down at the doll that would have been at least six feet tall in proper scale. “Sixteen? She looks a little older than that.”
“Yeah. She hasn’t aged well.”
Paul laughed, surprised by his daughter’s observation. She had taken on so much of her mother’s attractive qualities in the last few months. So many.
“I’m going to have ponies at my Sweet Sixteen party. I wasn’t able to find any ponies for Brittany.”
Paul sighed. Another day, another reference to the future. Life was like that, always looking ahead to what the days might hold if the days were to come at all. When he was a kid, he planned to be a fireman. Then he planned for college and a career. Someday, he always told himself. When he got older, things would work out for him. The only thing that could have ever put those dreams in perspective would be the idea that time wasn’t unlimited. Just a short six months before, Paul had been forced to reevaluate his goals. Others, like Theresa and Lindsey, would still have their own dreams, but for the first time, Paul considered what it would be like for those to occur after his time with them had ended.
He shook his head, tried not to think about Lindsey at sixteen, tried not to imagine the party and the ponies. He cursed his earlier meeting with Dr. Hirsch. Not only could he not stop thinking of all the things he would never get to see, but now he was fostering the hope that maybe he would get to see them. Someone would remember this moment, whether him or the clone. Someone in the future, standing next to Lindsey at the party, looking at the ponies that cost way too much to rent, would remember this moment on the lawn and try to reconcile this despair with that reality. Why did I feel that way then, he would ask himself. Why was he worried? He was there, experiencing the moment. He got to see it after all.
“What are you guys doing?” Theresa was standing on the porch, holding the glass ante-door open.
“It’s a birthday party,” called Paul over his shoulder.
“Well if you’re not too full from cake, it’s time for dinner. Come inside, Lindsey.”
Paul watched his daughter collect her toys and run into the house. He lingered on the lawn for a moment, taking in the sprawling suburbia around him. Down the street where the road dipped, he could see a glimpse of the sun setting over a row of houses. The glare made the rest of the neighborhood hard to see, seemed to fracture reality itself.
“Look what you did,” said Theresa, behind him. “You’ve got grass stains on your pants. I’ll never be able to get that out.”
Turning, Paul caught eyes with his wife. When she gave him a so-what stare in return, he stood and approached the door. As he passed her, he muttered, “They’re just pants, Theresa.”
In the foyer, he sat on the short bench next to the closet to remove his shoes. Theresa said nothing as she went by him to the kitchen and he listened for a few minutes to the reckless banging of pots and plates. For a moment, he debated heading upstairs to change into more comfortable clothes, but he could tell from the clatter that a few minutes delay would equal several hours of torment later. Forcing a smile, he joined his wife and daughter in the dining room.
The table was set in the usual garb, nothing fancy for the Conner family. The evening’s meal consisted of meatloaf, with corn and mashed potatoes on the side. A basket of bread rolls sat next to Lindsey’s plate. She was already using a dull knife to insert a sliver of butter into the steaming bread.
In spite of everything, he was going to miss meatloaf night. Again, the doubt came. Maybe he wouldn’t miss it after all. Maybe he would get to keep having meatloaf. His eyebrows furrowed and he chided himself for once again thinking of the future.
“I went to see Mom today,” said Theresa, scooping a helping of potatoes onto Lindsey’s plate and then on her own.
“How is the old bat?”
Lindsey giggled and Paul shared a private smile with her.
“She’s doing fine. She wants to know when she will see her son and granddaughter again. I told her we would be by this weekend.”
Son in law, thought Paul, and then he pulled up the calendar in his head, flipping through to Sunday morning, to somewhere he had to be. “I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. We’ve got a big push coming up at work and I think we’ll be putting in some overtime.”
“But I want to see Gam-gam,” protested Lindsey.
“You’re not going to disappoint your princess are you?” Theresa’s tone was mocking.
“Mommy will take you to see Gam-gam. Daddy has to do some extra work this weekend.”
“Why?” asked Lindsey.
“So I can earn more money.”
“So you can have ponies at your Sweet Sixteen party.”
The answer seemed to suffice inasmuch as it sent Lindsey off in a different direction, thinking about the possibility of having everything she could ever want out of her party.
“Mom will be disappointed if you don’t show up.”
“I’m sure she’s used to disappointment at this point.” The sentence came out too harsh and Paul knew it. He tried to cover. “Maybe next weekend I can take Friday off. We’ll go up to Temple and spend a few days at the plantation.” It was still a jab at her parents, but again his words seemed to satisfy.
Every day of supposed normal life was a struggle to keep his emotions intact. It was one thing to know the future and to know that after a point, his part in their lives would be all but over. Except that his clone still had to operate in this world and if he damaged it too much on the way out, it might not be sustainable. Everything he was doing was for Lindsey and Theresa, so that they could live on comfortably and not be bothered by the weakness of their father and husband. Every day he had to bite his tongue. Every day he had to make up for the slips that betrayed his true feelings.
Sunday afternoon was the kind of clear and hot day best observed from the air-conditioned comfort of Mrs. Stratton’s parlor. It was here that Lindsey sat with her mother and grandmother, engaged in her favorite activity of poring over old photo albums. Several of the memoirs were spread out on the floor between the fireplace and the antiquated sofa and loveseat where the older women sat.
Theresa was looking at her mother. Her silence spoke for her, pointing out the fact that Paul was not in attendance. Mrs. Stratton tried to give her a comforting smile, but Theresa ignored it and turned away.
“A big push at work,” said Theresa at last. “He actually said that!”
Mrs. Stratton nodded towards Lindsey, imploring her daughter to save the conversation for when little ears weren’t listening.
“I know exactly what kind of big push he has going on up there.”
Amazed that her daughter had turned so quickly, Mrs. Stratton tried to think of something comforting to say. It was unfortunate that Paul had been unable to come. If only he had been aware of the suspicions against him, he would have seen how his absence could be construed as evidence of infidelity, circumstantial as it was.
“Have another drink, dear.” She refilled her daughter’s glass with red liquid from an unmarked bottle. “Now, Lin, have I ever told you the story of Little Red Riding Hood?”
Lindsey looked up and nodded, uninterested in hearing the story for the fifth time.
“Alright, but have I ever told you the story of Little Red Riding Hood’s sister?
“Little Red Riding Hood had a sister?”
Mrs. Stratton smiled, knowing she had set the hook. “A sister and a brother.”
Lindsey’s eyes grew slightly larger. “What were their names?”
“Terrence and Paulina.”
Theresa looked up, narrowing her eyes at her mother.
“Which was which?” asked Lindsey.
“Have you ever heard of a boy named Paulina?”
Lindsey shook her head.
“Well, Paulina was Little Red Riding Hood’s sister and if you remember, she was taking cookies to her grandmother when there was that unfortunate business with the wolf. It was Paulina who made the cookies. She was actually quite the pastry chef. In fact, their grandmother used to come to their house all the time and eat their cookies, until she got sick one day and Little Red Riding Hood had to start taking the cookies to her. Meanwhile, Paulina was making cookies day and night.”
“Did a witch put a curse on her and make her make cookies all the time?”
“No, she just very much enjoyed baking. And everyone else in the village enjoyed her cookies. Everyone except Terrence.”
“Why didn’t Terrence like cookies?”
“It wasn’t that he didn’t like all cookies. He used to eat Paulina’s cookies all the time. But then one day, he just stopped.” Mrs. Stratton turned to Theresa as she said this.
“Why did he stop?”
“Nobody knew. Maybe he didn’t like chocolate chip.”
“Maybe he was getting his cookies elsewhere,” put in Theresa.
“Paulina thought the same thing your mother did, that Terrence was sneaking cookies from somebody else’s kitchen.”
Lindsey gasped, horrified at the thought. “Then what happened?”
“Well, Paulina wanted to find out where Terrence was getting his cookies. You see, he was leaving all the time and staying away for hours on end.”
“Why didn’t she just follow him?”
“She was busy!” Mrs. Stratton sat up very straight. “She had to make cookies to send to her grandmother, not to mention the orders she had to fill for the rest of the village.”
“What’s that supposed to mean,” asked Theresa.
“Just a story, my dear, just a story.” Instead of turning back to Lindsey, Mrs. Stratton seemed to speak directly to her daughter. “Since she couldn’t follow Terrence herself, Paulina gave two hundred cookies to a forest gnome to watch Terrence for her.”
“To spy on him,” asked Lindsey.
Mrs. Stratton forced a laugh. “You could call it spying. Paulina just wanted to find out where Terrence was getting his cookies, if he was getting cookies.”
“Why?” Lindsey cocked her head to the side.
“For the same reason you don’t take candy from strangers. It may not be safe. Paulina cared very much for her brother and didn’t want to see him get hurt. What if the cookie was cursed like in Sleeping Beauty?”
“He’d fall asleep forever!”
“Exactly, then he’d be no use to anybody.”
Theresa coughed and muttered something about Terrence getting what he deserved under her breath.
“So the next day, the gnome—”
“What was his name?”
“That’s a good name,” said Lindsey, clearly impressed.
“He thought so too,” admitted Mrs. Stratton. “So the next day, the gnome follows Terrence all around the village. First, he goes to the library where he reads a book about unicorns. Then he gets the paper and reads an article on how to spot poison apples. Then he eats lunch with an elf.”
“What was the elf’s name?”
“Bartleby Francis. He was very tall and had pointy ears. After lunch with Bartleby, Terrence took a nap. When the sun was starting to go down, Terrence started acting strange. He started sneaking in between the houses, skulking through the alleys, until finally he ducked inside a sweet shop on the north end of the village. A few minutes later, he came out with a small bag and then ran very quickly into the forest.”
“What was in the bag?”
“What do you think was in there?”
“A younger, more attractive cookie,” suggested Theresa.
“An apple,” asked Lindsey.
“Why an apple, dear?”
“To poison Paulina.”
“My dear child, no! Terrence loved his sister very much. Ever since they were born they had been very close. He would have never done anything to hurt her.”
“Then why wasn’t he eating her goddamn cookies?!”
Lindsey looked at her mother, then to her grandmother for an answer.
Mrs. Stratton channeled her husband again and slipped into a mellow voice. “He was, my dears, he was. That’s what he was buying in the shop, a bag of his sister’s cookies.”
Lindsey looked confused.
“You see, Terrence thought that his sister would feel better if she sold a lot of cookies, so he spent all of his money buying them at the store. But since he liked them so much, he was always full by the time he got back home.”
“So he was trying to do something nice for her,” asked Lindsey.
“Exactly, but he didn’t know that it was hurting her feelings. Sometimes we do things with very good intentions without realizing that they hurt other people. It happens more often than you may think, so you always have to be mindful of other people’s feelings, especially those of the people you love.”
Lindsey considered this for a moment while Theresa and her mother shared a long look.
“So did the gnome tell Paulina?”
“He sure did. Told her everything, including the bit about the cookies and how much Terrence bought.”
“Did Paulina tell Terrence that he didn’t have to buy the cookies anymore?”
“No, she never told him about it, because then he would have known she was spying on him.”
“But then nothing changed,” protested Theresa.
“Well what do you want? Paulina didn’t want to ask Terrence why he didn’t like her cookies. At least now she knew that he wasn’t eating someone else’s cookies. She knew for a fact that Terrence had good intentions and being a kind and understanding sister, she tolerated it.”
Lindsey’s eyebrows were scrunched together, still pondering some loose end in the story. After a few minutes, her eyes found the photo album in her lap. She flipped through the pages absentmindedly, not really looking at the pictures. Theresa watched her daughter, watched all of her worry crystallize into concern for her welfare.
“We should have some tea,” said Mrs. Stratton, beckoning her daughter with a shake of her head. As they entered the kitchen, she asked quietly, “What did you think of the story?”
“It was an interesting fairy tale,” replied Theresa. “Definitely something fantastical about the choices the characters made.” She paused by the sink, as if unable to choose from the glasses in the drying rack beside it.
“We all do strange things in strange situations.”
“I supposed it’s a question of character,” said Theresa, derisively.
“The only question, my dear, is whether you would have had the guts to hire Richard Tracy.”
Theresa smirked as her mother slipped a business card into her hand.
The next morning, Paul awoke to the shadowy image of Theresa standing in the doorway to their bedroom. She was calling to him, asking him to wake up. He tried to ignore her, tried to cling to the serenity of his dreams, but she was persistent.
“Get your ass up. Lindsey has to leave for school in a few minutes.”
Paul propped his head up on the pillow. “What’s the big deal?”
Theresa moved further into the room. The bottom of her robe flowed in the sudden wind. “You missed Father’s Day. Lindsey waited up all night for you.”
Father’s Day, thought Paul. Here it had come and sprung out at him like a wild animal hiding in the bush. The supposed holiday had never been anything special to him, just a card to the old man until he split for greener pastures. But with Lindsey, Father’s Day was an excuse to be nicer to her, to live up to the ideal of father that he had never had. And he had forgotten all about it.
“She made you breakfast,” continued Theresa. “You need to go down and eat before she has to leave for school.
“I’m up,” he said, clearing his throat. He searched the floor with his toes to find his boxers and pulled them up. He grabbed a similar robe from the back of the door as he followed Theresa into the hallway.
“How was work last night?” The way she asked it made him doubt her sincerity.
“Fine,” replied Paul. He responded in kind. “How was your mother’s?”
“She told Lindsey a new fairy tale. And she asked about you again.”
Paul nodded and grabbed at the ties on his robe to close it up.
“I missed you last night,” said Theresa as they reached the ground floor. This time, her words seemed genuine.
Without a glance backwards, Paul entered the dining room. He found the head of the table ready for him, complete with a bowl of a cereal and a glass of orange juice, all of it neatly arranged on a Christmas placemat. Standing beside his chair was Lindsey, already dressed in her school uniform. Her hair had been pulled back into two ponytails on either side of her head.
“Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.”
Paul barely had time to bend down before his daughter was upon him and squeezing him with the strongest bear hug that her little arms could muster.
“I made you breakfast!”
“Thank you, honey,” said Paul, withdrawing. He took his seat and examined the soggy Cheerios in the bowl in front of him. “It looks delicious.”
“I got you a present!” Lindsey bolted out of the room and her quick footsteps on the stairs echoed throughout the house.
Paul poked at the bowl of cereal with his spoon and found it sufficiently squishy.
“It was fresh ten minutes ago.”
Paul tried to think of a response, but his brain kept coming back with nothing. It was what it was, he thought. There’s no going back to when things were better. All he could do was go forward and play the hand he was dealt. Failing that, he’d ask for a new dealer. Before the silence got too stifling, Lindsey’s footsteps once again sounded from the hallway. She rushed in a moment later carrying a long rectangular box.
Lindsey nodded enthusiastically. With her hands behind her back, she waited for his reaction.
“What is it?”
“Open it,” she cried, barely able to contain herself.
Paul removed the wrapping slowly, building the suspense for her benefit. He could tell from the look on her face that she was enjoying it as much as he was. The box contained several layers of tissue paper, but under that was a burgundy tie with a slightly off-center line running its length. It had an elegant look that he was immediately drawn to.
“Did you pick this out yourself,” he asked.
Lindsey shook her head up and down, still smiling.
“You sure Mommy didn’t help you?”
“I picked it!”
“Well, it is a very beautiful tie. You have great taste.”
“Are you going to wear it today?”
“Of course!” Paul removed the tie from the box and wrapped it around his neck. “I’m going to wear it every single day this week, that’s how much I like it.”
“You’d better find your lunchbox, Lindsey,” said Theresa. “Mrs. Julie will be here any minute to take you and Jennifer to school.”
“Okay,” replied Lindsey. She began to leave the room, but stopped and ran to Paul again, giving him another hug. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, angel.” He kissed her on the forehead.
“And Mommy too?”
Theresa caught Paul’s eyes and for a few blissful moments, she truly believed the words. The way he looked at her reminded her of the earlier days when his eyes were full of lust and love and compassion. The sudden attention made her blush, made a long lost feeling stir in her abdomen. The moment was lost when the doorbell rang and Lindsey came running out of the kitchen with her lunch satchel.
Paul watched as his wife escorted Lindsey to the door and into the care of their neighbor, Julie. While they exchanged pleasantries, he examined his new tie. Although it was a very grown-up, very contemporary tie, it immediately began to evoke images of Lindsey. He didn’t just see the dark burgundy; he saw her smiling face and bobbing pigtails. It would be one of those memories that he would have to share with his clone, but he decided then and there that the tie would be his to keep.
The front door closed and Theresa reappeared in the dining room. She stood in the archway and looked at her husband. “Did you really mean it,” she asked.
Paul replied automatically, “Of course.”
Theresa smiled coyly and looked at the floor. Her hands moved to the knot tied at the front of her robe and her nimble fingers undid it quickly. The robe slid to the side, revealing her body. She looked up at Paul again. “How about a Father’s Day quickie?” Her voice was trembling. Whether from fear or anticipation, neither of them could tell.
With a glance to the clock on the wall, Paul replied, “I’m already going to be late.” He stood and took in the scenery again before saying, “Rain check though, okay?”
Theresa had been slightly amused when she examined the business card and found that the private investigator’s name actually was Richard Tracy. But now, sitting in the man’s small and poorly ventilated office off Wickersham, the novelty had worn off. Even though the man’s name was plastered very professionally on a hand-crafted nameplate on his desk, she didn’t find it reassuring. Part of her brain kept asking her what she was doing there. The other half kept refusing to answer the question. The constant bickering combined with her mother’s fairy tale put a demented smile on her face.
“I’m glad to see you’re in a good mood,” said Richard, dropping a fresh legal pad onto the desk in front of him. He was younger than Theresa had been expecting, with cropped black hair and only a trace of perfectly manicured stubble. The way his shoulders filled out his suit indicated that he kept in shape, probably a useful habit for a man in his line of work. “It’s such a change of pace, you know,” he continued. “Most women come to me either sobbing or seething. Can’t say I’ve ever seen a woman sit where you’re sitting without a box of tissues or a loaded gun.” He smiled and showed his perfect white teeth.
“I’m not happy about this,” said Theresa, her voice low. “I’m not even sure I want to be here.”
“That’s natural,” assured Richard. “Everyone has second thoughts. Let me venture a guess, it’s something to do with the husband right?”
“You shouldn’t take it personally. I see it happen all the time. People never want to believe their spouse is cheating on them. So when they come to me, they do it apprehensively, half-heartedly, you know? They want to know the truth but they don’t want to. But that’s what I do, I find out the truth.”
“I just want to know if my husband is seeing someone else.”
“No problem,” said Richard, pulling a pen from his jacket. “Let’s just get a little background here. I need you to tell me everything you can about your husband. First, what’s his name?”
“Paul,” said Theresa, almost stammering. Over the next half-hour, she told Richard about her waning marriage, about the daughter that she didn’t want to see grow up in a split household. Mostly, she talked about Paul, about his job as operations director at Applied Tectonics, about his strange behavior and sneaking around. She detailed his daily routine, told Richard where he worked, on what floor and in what office. The lack of sex she left out, along with many other details she found too private to disclose to anyone but herself. She desperately wanted to tell someone about his early morning rebuff of her sexual advances, but she knew it wasn’t the time, the place, or the right person.
As the pages in Richard’s notebook filled up, Theresa was overcome by a sense of guilt, as if she were betraying Paul by giving up his life story and intimate details. It was only a stone’s throw away from ordering a hit on him or ratting him out to the government. But that was all sentimental misdirection, she told herself. He was the one betraying her. He was the one keeping secrets.
“When would you like me to start?”
“Tomorrow morning,” said Theresa, wiping at the corner of her eye. “He may just go straight to work, but I think he leaves for lunch. He may be seeing her then.” For the first time, the idea of another woman crystallized in her mind. Before, she had just been this abstract thought, not even an anonymous face or shapeless body. But now, she could almost see her, a replica of one of Paul’s old girlfriends or internet porn star. She’d be younger, probably. More attractive, definitely. Somehow just referring to this hypothetical person was enough to convince Theresa of her existence. It was concrete now. If anything, that would make the truth that much easier to take.
“We’ll be travelling to Temple on Friday. He’ll be with me all weekend.”
Richard nodded and scribbled a crude calendar in the margins.
“Then I’ll pick up the Monday after that,” he said, looking up. “From what you’ve told me, it looks like he’s been acting this way for months. If he’s up to anything fishy, I should be able to reel it in this week. I’ll start bright and early tomorrow morning. I drive a beat-up Camry when I’m on stakeout, so if you see me parked down your street, don’t be alarmed. Otherwise, neither of you will be aware of my presence.”
“I would like to be contacted the moment you know anything. If he leaves work, if he stops somewhere on the way home. Anything.”
Richard nodded in agreement. “I have your cell phone here,” he said, checking his notes. “Is there anything else?”
“I think that’s all.”
“Alright.” He closed his notepad and pulled another binder from a drawer in his desk. “If you don’t mind, we can settle half the bill today and half upon termination.”
Theresa’s eyes widened.
“Termination of the contract,” said Richard, chuckling softly, “not the subject.”
Theresa laughed nervously as she reached for her purse.
The waiting room at Dr. Hirsch’s office was full, which wasn’t a difficult feat considering there were only two chairs and a couch. Paul passed the time by looking over the young woman sitting across from him, wondering whether she wanted a clone to give herself a younger look or just to have some fun with on the weekends. He smirked, let his fantasy run wild until Dr. Hirsch walked into the room and greeted him.
“Welcome back, sir,” said Dr. Hirsch, avoiding Paul’s name in mixed company. He led him into the hallway and then the now familiar office. “I’m glad you were able to make our appointment today. Have you given any thought to the riddle I left you with?”
Paul shrugged. He hadn’t really thought about what he was going to say, though the idea had been bugging him all week. “It’s not really worth thinking about, is it? Until the split anyway. I mean, why beat myself up about it now when I don’t even know if it’s true or not.”
“Huh,” said the doctor, pausing for a moment. “I never thought of it that way. Most people are too concerned with the future to even consider a wait and see approach. You may have just come up with the first reasonable answer. Congratulations, Mr. Conner. I must say that given your current predicament, you’re retaining quite a level head.”
“You do what you gotta do,” said Paul, slapping his hand on his knee.
“Well put,” agreed Dr. Hirsch. He retrieved his glasses and examined the printout on his desk. “And what we’ve gotta do is discuss the future. Now, we’re doing the shadow copy today, immediately following this session. It should take anywhere from twenty to thirty minutes to read and just a little longer to write into the clone. You don’t need to be around for that part. Sometime late tonight, we’ll initialize your clone and run him through a battery of tests.” He held up a loose piece of paper. “We’ll give him the quiz you made for yourself. If he passes all the tests, someone from my staff will call you and let you know.”
“Call my cell phone, please.”
“Sure. I can understand that you’re trying to keep this clandestine, for personal reasons.”
“I’ve made a reservation for you at a Holiday Inn near the Y at Oak Hill. Are you familiar with the area?”
“I’m sure I can find it.”
“It’s remote enough for our purposes and we should be able to avoid anyone recognizing you as they would if you and your clone both walked out of this building. We’ll drop him off at noon, at which time you’ll need to bring him up to speed on any significant developments. You should bring a change of clothes too. You’ll need to give the ones you’re wearing to your clone.” Dr. Hirsch consulted his checklist. “For the most part, I would suggest acquiring new personal effects. A new watch and sunglasses, paid for with cash, obviously. You are planning to leave Austin, right?”
“Yeah, I have a flight booked for tomorrow afternoon.”
“In the end, the decision is completely yours, but we like to suggest that our clients get a new wardrobe and dramatically change their appearance. In your case, maybe shave your mustache and goatee. Perhaps dye your hair?” He chuckled to himself. “It’s almost as if we’re putting you into the witness protection program.”
“My crimes aren’t that great,” admitted Paul.
Dr. Hirsch smirked, but pressed on. “You will need to exchange every last bit of makes you Paul Conner with your clone. Right down to the car keys.”
“Sounds simple enough.”
“That part really is, but you would be surprised how often something slips through the cracks.” He closed one folder and opened another. “Now, we come to the hard stuff.”
Paul listened as the doctor again delved into the legal notifications and liability waivers and all sorts of things that mattered little in the face of the knowledge that by this time tomorrow, all the trouble that he had had with Theresa would fall away. Her life would improve. She would see her marriage take on new life, find that sexual intensity would be rediscovered. She would have her husband, Lindsey would have her father, and Paul would never have to disappoint either of them. He would never have to abandon them. They could live on unaware thanks to the reality that he had provided for them.
Dr. Hirsch was right. He was cloning himself for the good of others, for the benefit of more people than he could count. Somewhere deep in his soul, in the very thing that could not be cloned, he suddenly began to believe himself.
Theresa was halfway through her mid-afternoon coffee break when she finally put her pen down and looked over the paper on the table. It was divided into two sides, one labeled PROS and the other labeled CONS. Across from her, her coworker Rosa reached out and turned the list so that she could read it.
“You didn’t mention that he was cute,” said Rosa, eating the last of her donut. “I mean, he’s old, but he’s cute.”
Theresa thought back to her first year in college, to the drunken party where she just happened to bump into a boy named Paul Conner. He was much skinnier then, just a lanky teenager in a man’s body. She had watched him change through the years, growing a bit husky by the end of college, thinning down again when he discovered weightlifting after graduation. He had never reached the ripped physique that Theresa admired on the Hollywood stars of the day, but at least he tried.
“And that hair,” continued Rosa.
“Pro,” repeated Theresa, granting Paul his looks.
“And that sweet ass.”
“Rosa!” She slapped playfully at her coworker’s hand. “Don’t forget he’s my husband.”
Rosa ignored her and tallied up the check marks. “That makes twenty-four for and eighteen against. And that’s with lack of sex in there five times.”
“Shouldn’t there be something on there about this not being a scientific poll?”
“No,” replied Rosa, checking the list, “there’s nothing about his pole. Should that go under PRO or CON?”
Theresa laughed and had a brief moment of levity as her thoughts of Paul suddenly became favorable again. He was momentarily encased in a beam of white light where no suspicion could get at him, where she could never doubt the fact that she loved him and he loved her. There was no doubt at all, until her cell phone rang.
“Excuse me for a moment,” said Theresa.
Rosa nodded and wandered off to investigate the vending machines.
“Mrs. Conner, this is Richard Tracy.”
“Yes, Mr. Tracy. I was waiting to hear from you.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t call you on Tuesday because there was nothing to report. Your husband went to work, left for lunch with a few friends, male, to a restaurant on Sixth. He was never out of their company and never met anyone else. He stopped for half an hour at the gym, but unless he was meeting a woman in the men’s locker room…” Richard coughed and then continued. “Anyway, he went back to the office and then came straight home.”
“Okay,” said Theresa, wondering why he bothered to call at all.
“But today was different. He left work around noon and went by foot to Fifth and Congress, to the Regent Center. I lost him in the lobby though. He managed to get into an elevator and they don’t have floor indicators above the doors.”
“So what did he do there?”
“I can’t be certain, but I do know that there are no restaurants in that place, maybe a snack shop or two in the lobby. But he went up and there are only offices and condos that way.”
Something cold wrapped around Theresa’s heart at just the mention of condos.
“It’s no smoking gun, Mrs. Conner. He could very well have been visiting one of the businesses. Even though there’s only twenty floors of residential, there’s really no telling where he was going.”
“Okay.” She had to force the word out.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Conner. He’ll slip up eventually.”
Theresa let her emotions spill into her voice. “You sound like you’re rooting for a bad outcome.”
“I apologize,” said Richard, quickly. “That wasn’t my intention. I meant that the truth will come out eventually, that’s all.”
The uncomfortable silence buzzed with cell phone static.
“Anyway,” continued Richard, “I’ll phone again when something else comes up.”
“Thanks,” said Theresa. She flipped her phone shut without waiting for a response. For the rest of the day, she couldn’t keep her mind focused on business. She kept thinking of the Regent Center, that looming structure in the heart of downtown. What could he have possibly been doing there? Despite asking the question a million times, no answer came. Before she knew it, the workday ended and she made the long trek home, too distracted to be annoyed by the heavy traffic.
At dinner, Theresa did her best to keep from asking Paul about his lunchtime excursion. On one hand, he might answer with the truth, tell her he was visiting one of the many financial firms to start a college savings account for Lindsey. Or, he might lie and say he ate lunch with the guys, thereby confirming Theresa’s suspicions that the purpose of his visit had been less than noble. She ate her lasagna quietly as she watched her distant husband make funny faces at their daughter.
For several minutes, she studied them, studied him. At lunch, she had had no second thoughts about putting his relationship with Lindsey in the PRO column. It was evident to friends and family that he cared about her too much to let his waning attraction to her mother get in the way. She couldn’t deny that he was good with her. Lindsey may have ended up looking like Theresa, but her personality was all Paul.
She bit her lip, thinking. If it came down to a matter of custody, there was no way that she could deny him access. They’d have to split their daughter down the middle, share time, have separate households. As much as she didn’t want her daughter to have a fractured life, she could no more give her up than see her face the world without her father.
In the living room, a cell phone began to ring. Paul and Theresa shared a brief look, but she stood up first.
“I’ll get it,” she called, as she walked quickly into the hallway. She approached the two SLVR phones on the table next to the couch expecting to see the small LCD of her pink phone lit up. Instead, it was Paul’s black phone that was ringing and displaying an unknown caller-id number.
His ringer sounds just like mine, she thought to herself. She cast a quick glance back towards the dining room. It was plausible, just enough, that she could mistake her phone from his by the sound of the ringer. Maybe she was rushing to get back to dinner or the living room was too dark. It was easy to see how she could have picked up his phone, opened it, and answered it.
The phone rang once more before she convinced herself fully. She scooped up Paul’s phone and flipped it open.
“Who is it?” Paul was standing in the hallway, watching her. He dabbed his mouth with the red napkin in his hand.
“Oh,” said Theresa, flustered, “sorry, this is your phone.”
She handed it to Paul and quickly exited the living room, but not before hearing a voice call out from the tiny speaker. It was a soft voice, a female voice. And she was asking the question that Theresa had so often asked.
Whatever conversation he had with the mystery woman, it was very brief. Theresa crinkled her nose. He was probably telling her not to call anymore, that his wife was getting too suspicious. Though by the time Paul returned to the table, she was too ashamed to ask him who was on the phone. It didn’t really matter anyway. She knew the answer would have been no one.
Theresa didn’t leave the office for lunch the next day. Instead, she camped out at her computer and watched Paul’s IM status switch from online to idle and back again. Finally, around one, his screen-name changed to away. After a tense few minutes to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, she pulled out her cell phone and placed it on the desk in front of her. Stretching over the arm of her chair, she grabbed at her cubicle door and shut it. In the relative seclusion, she waited for the call. Thirty minutes later, it arrived.
“Mrs. Conner? This is Richard Tracy.”
“Yes, I know. Where did he go to today?”
“Well, I…” The usually loquacious detective seemed at a loss for words. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“What is it?”
“First, I want to apologize about yesterday. Given today’s events, I’m going to look like a complete asshole.”
“Just tell me what happened!” She was practically screaming.
“Right, right. Well, your husband left work for lunch today and took his car, which I thought was odd. I followed him west on 290 for a while, until we got to Oak Hill. Now I’m sitting in the parking lot where your husband stopped. Mrs. Conner, I’m at a Holiday Inn.”
Theresa’s stomach dropped so quickly that she nearly threw up. She had to put a hand to her mouth to restrain herself.
Richard continued in a methodical and practiced voice. “About five minutes ago, your husband entered room three-two-six. One minute ago, a taxi dropped someone off and they joined your husband in the room.”
“Oh God,” said Theresa, heartbroken. “It can’t be…” Her words came out jumbled and lacking inflection.
On the other end of the line, Richard listened to his client cry. Having heard it all before, he waited patiently.
“Did you,” asked Theresa through halting breaths, “did you get a good look at her? Can you find out her name?”
“Well, I’m not exactly sure how to tell you this, Mrs. Conner.”
“You know her?”
“No, I didn’t see the person’s face. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to put it out there. The person that joined your husband wasn’t a woman.”
Theresa let out a meek sound, a mix of sadness and confusion all rolled up into one vain utterance.
“It was an older gentleman, about your husband’s age.”
She had already stopped listening, had already lowered the phone and flipped it shut. Without anything else to do, she put her head down on the desk and cried. She cried out of anger and pain, but mostly out of deranged uncertainty. How could Paul be gay? The thought of it, the twenty-six years they had spent together, and her never knowing? And for him to suddenly come to terms with it, not six months ago to suddenly withdraw from the woman he shared his bed with? All to slink around a seedy motel with a man?! Her stomach heaved again.
It was so vile, so unnatural. Being gay was fine for distant friends, for those Hollywood types that thought kissing another girl would get them publicity, but not her Paul.
Not the man she thought she had a spiritual, physical, and emotional connection with.
At long last, she thought of Lindsey. How was she going to tell her that her father was a…
Theresa stopped crying for herself and cried harder for her daughter.
“This is the weirdest damn thing I’ve ever seen,” said Paul’s clone. He was standing opposite of Paul, putting on the clothes his donor has just shed. “I mean, there you are, standing in your boxers, my boxers, and I can barely fight the urge the look away.”
Paul smirked and flexed his muscles. “It’s like looking into a mirror, only not.”
“Yeah, but something about watching a grown man undress just doesn’t sit right with me. You have no idea how unattractive this looks from the other side.”
“It was no picnic watching you get undressed either. I honestly thought you were going to take down your shorts and have no cock or something.”
The clone sat down on the bed, laughing. He tied his shoes with a subdued wonder, awed by the faux reflection of himself on the opposite bed. “I know we already decided this, but do we really think it’s a good idea for you to keep that tie?” He motioned with his eyes to the burgundy tie on the bed next to Paul. “I mean, I thought it was a good idea at the time, too. But now I’m not so sure.”
It was strange talking to himself. For the first time, he was unsure of what he might say. Paul shrugged. “I’m keeping it. You get the rest. You get Theresa and Lindsey and the house and the job. That should be enough.”
“Yeah,” agreed the clone.
They continued in silence until everything had been exchanged. At last, they sat looking at each other, each staring into identical eyes.
“We’ve still got a few minutes. You want to talk,” asked Paul’s clone.
“Well, what happened yesterday evening and this morning?”
Paul thought about it for a moment, going over the last twenty-four hours that his clone had missed. “Nothing much. I went home early, played with Lindsey for a while. Theresa made lasagna.” He smiled. “That girl would not stop giggling all through dinner. I don’t know how Dad could ever yell at us for laughing at the table.”
“If he could only see us now.”
“Oh, yeah, I got a call during dinner. I think Theresa got suspicious. If she didn’t think you were having an affair before, she certainly believes it now.”
The clone nodded knowingly. “Well at least I won’t be giving her any more reasons to suspect. Everything will go back to the way it was, just like we planned.”
“You’re a stronger man than I,” admitted Paul. “You’ll never know how thankful I am for you. This would have been so much worse if Lindsey were left without a father. I don’t have to tell you though.”
“No,” said the clone. “I understand.” He let a few ticks go by before speaking again. “You know, I can’t help but think that one of us is getting the short end of the stick here.”
Paul stood up and adjusted the new pair of jeans on his hips. “Well, the way I see it, it’s just like flipping a coin. Fucker’s gotta come down one way or the other.”
Theresa waited in the darkened living room with a bottle of something dark and soothing. The longer she waited, the more she drank. The more she drank, the more time seemed to stretch out in front of her. How late was he? Hours or minutes? Days or weeks? Her mind swirled so much that when Paul finally entered the room, she had to concentrate to form her question.
“Are you some kind of queer?”
Paul laughed nervously. “What?” He thought she might be making a joke, but the slur of her speech and tightness of her eyes told him otherwise. He was more than prepared for a question about an affair, but an allegation of homosexuality put him off balance. “Why would you ask a thing like that?”
“Answer the goddamn question!” Her glass slipped from her hand but fell harmlessly on the carpet below her chair.
Paul took a cautious step backwards and quickly scanned the room. “Where’s Lindsey?”
“At my mother’s house. And she’s gonna stay there until you and I work this out. Now tell me, Paul. Are you gay?”
He had to force the smile, had to force an air of nonchalance. “Come on, honey. Do I look gay to you? In these pants?” His attempt at a joke didn’t lessen his wife’s anger. Emboldened by her temper, he crossed the room and kneeled down by her chair. He tried to take her hand, but she jerked it away.
“Theresa,” he said, putting his right hand in the air, “I solemnly swear that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a dude-smoocher or a pee-pee-toucher or any variation in between.” When Theresa’s lip trembled, he pressed on. “I will have it put down in writing that I love women, specifically you, and that I am utterly attracted to your female form, specifically your ample bosoms.”
Theresa narrowed her eyes a bit.
“Big ol’ titties?” He cracked a thin smile.
Theresa wiped her eyes and looked away.
“If I have to, I’ll have sex with you right now. If that’s what I’ve got to do to prove my devotion, then so be it.”
“Where have you been all this time, Paul?” Her voice was softer and carried with it a sadness that had been growing over the many months.
“I was at work, same as every day.”
“Not just today. For the past week, the past months. You’ve been somewhere else and I don’t know why you prefer it there.”
Paul’s smile faded as he stood up and took a seat on the adjacent couch. He had rehearsed the movement so many times that when his head dipped, it was the perfect facsimile of a man in shame.
“Are you having an affair?” There was no emotion in her voice.
“No,” he answered, precisely on beat, adjusting to her tempo.
“Then why are you acting so strange? Why the cold shoulder?” Theresa wanted desperately to play her private investigator card, but she kept thinking of her mother’s story, of how Paulina had spared Terrence’s feelings. Still, she could not help but divulge information that she could not have known otherwise. “Who are you seeing on your lunch breaks?”
Paul stole a quick look at Theresa, a movement meant to confirm the secret that she had just revealed. He let the silence hang for a few moments to give her time to imagine his answer, to build up a resistance to hearing the truth that yes, he was cheating on her.
“His name is Bruce,” he said at last.
“Oh my God,” said Theresa, putting her face in her hands. “It’s true.”
“No, no,” said Paul, quickly. “He’s not my gay lover.” He paused for effect. “He’s my shrink.” His confession was met with a blank face, so he continued. “Several months ago, I got really depressed, so utterly depressed that I really didn’t want to live anymore. And the worst part about it was that I couldn’t explain it. I have a beautiful wife, a beautiful daughter, a big house, and a good-paying job. This is exactly where I wanted to be at this stage in my life. And yet, when I got out of bed every morning, I was unhappy.”
Theresa flashed a small sign of recognition in her eyes.
“Yeah,” said Paul, rolling into the monologue “Mid-life crisis. I didn’t think it really happened. I thought it was just a thing middle-aged men did in movies. But after talking with Bruce, Dr. Lansky, I found out that it is actually a real emotional disorder. I’ve been taking pills to help with the depression and visiting Dr. Lansky a few days out of the week at lunch.” It all came out faster than Paul had scripted in his mind, but his wife seemed to be grasping the major points. For all his planning, he honestly didn’t know how he would transition her from accusation to understanding. How long would she sit there debating whether to believe him? Would she ever truly believe anything he said?
In the end, it played out better than he had hoped. There was a long period of silence, until finally Theresa joined him on the couch and put a tentative hand on his leg. Paul put his arm around her, moved his face closer to hers. After the first kiss, the rest was automatic, but no less meaningful. When they moved to the bedroom, when Paul moved inside her, he couldn’t help but feel grateful that he was the one who got to stay with her. After all, she was quite beautiful. And soft in all the right places. Of all the multiple lives he could have lived, this one was the right balance of risk and reward.
As the sunlight faded behind the curtains, Theresa draped her arm over Paul and listened to his heartbeat, so familiar even after all their time apart. The whole thing seemed to have a fairy tale ending. Terrence still loved Paulina’s cookies. In return, she would help him work through the depression, maybe help him pick out a nice, dangerous motorcycle when they got back from her mother’s on Sunday.
“What time do you want to leave tomorrow?”
“Leave for what?”
“We’re going to my mother’s for the weekend, remember? You said you were going to take tomorrow off.”
“Crap,” said Paul, shutting his eyes tight. “I forgot to ask off. And my boss called a meeting for tomorrow morning. I really can’t miss it.”
Theresa tried to hide the disappointment and anger in her voice. It was much too soon to start that up again. “So we’re not going?”
“I have to be at that meeting, but I can ditch as soon as it’s over. You go on without me and I’ll meet you up there by lunch.”
“Okay,” said Theresa, half-satisfied. She thought for a moment about seeing Lindsey the next day. Even being away from her daughter for a single night was uncomfortable. As Lindsey’s image faded, she started to think about Paul’s sudden change. She was angry that he didn’t ask for the day off like he said he would, even angrier that he hadn’t even suggested calling in sick. And all because of a meeting that may or may not exist.
And just like that, the seeds of doubt once again took root in her heart.
Friday dawned after a long and restless night. Theresa had tried to sleep, but every time she closed her eyes, her suspicions manifested into scenes of Paul with various women in various places. All she could really do was watch the ceiling, listen to Paul snore soundly beside her, and wait for the morning to come. The light in the room changed gradually and she realized it was the way of the natural world. Things changed so slowly that no one even noticed it was happening until the alarm clock finally went off.
At six, she watched Paul from the bed as he dressed for work and then listened as he prepared breakfast downstairs. He came back up after a while and kissed her on the forehead.
“I’ll meet you in Temple,” he said, touching the side of her face.
Theresa did her best to pretend that nothing was wrong, but as soon as she heard the growl of his engine fading into the distance, she was out of bed and headed downstairs. In the living room, she found her phone and dialed her mother to let her know that they wouldn’t be showing up until after noon. “Paul has to work,” she told her, “and I have some errands that can’t wait ‘til Monday.” Mrs. Stratton didn’t question the delayed arrival at all.
After hanging up with her mother, she scrolled her address book until she found Richard Tracy. She got voicemail on the first try, but he picked up the second time.
“Hello, Mrs. Conner. Sorry I didn’t answer the phone, I don’t open for another half hour or so.”
“I need a favor, Richard.”
“What can I do for you? And by the way, if you’re satisfied with the results of my investigation, you can come by and settle the bill anytime. I don’t imagine I could just send it to your home.”
“I’ll do that,” assured Theresa. “But I need you to follow Paul Today.”
Papers shuffled in the background. “My notes say you and Paul are heading to Temple this morning. I’m sorry, but I have other engagements.”
“You can’t break them? He said he couldn’t go with me until later because of some meeting he has this morning. I need to know if he’s telling the truth.” A brief pause. “I have to know if I can trust him.”
“Again, I’m very sorry, Mrs. Conner. But I have paying clients expecting my services. Although…”
Richard let out a triumphant laugh as more papers shuffled. “The tie!”
“The tie that your daughter bought him for Father’s Day,” said Richard quickly. “He’s been wearing it all week long. Did he wear it today?”
Theresa thought back, but couldn’t remember what Paul was wearing when he left. “Hold on, let me check.” She returned to the bedroom and found the empty tie box on the dresser. “Yes, he wore it today. Why does that matter?”
“Standard operating procedure,” said Richard, his voice giddy. “There’s a lot more to surveillance than just watching from the shadows. On Tuesday, when your husband was at the gym, I broke into his locker and put a cellular transmitter in his tie. It’s just a little expendable one that only has enough power for a couple weeks, but it’s traceable anywhere there’s cell phone coverage.”
“So you can track him today without having to leave your office?”
“No, I’ve really got an engagement with another client. But since this is an emergency, I can give you access to my tracking software. Is your phone web-enabled?”
“Of course,” said Theresa, slightly unsure.
“I’ll send you a link. If you pull it up on your phone, you should be able to use it to track Paul.”
“I’m just one human being trying to help another,” said Richard.
“Bye,” said Theresa, pressing the End key. There was something cold and empty about the way Richard spoke there at the end. Maybe she was just starting to doubt all men. That was the way it started after all. One man betrays a woman and from then on, she can’t trust anyone else.
The phone beeped and she was relieved to see an e-mail from Richard. In the body of the message was a link and she pressed the necessary buttons to select it. The small LCD screen displayed a loading message and then blacked out. Slowly, it filled in with a blue gradient that turned out to be a large circle enveloping all of Texas. She tapped on the map and the image zoomed in fluidly. Clouds faded in and out as the camera moved closer to the ground. Austin appeared on the map, but Theresa was surprised to see it scroll off the top of the screen.
A little red dot appeared on a large yellow line marked as I-35. The gut-wrenching feeling returned as Theresa squeezed her cell phone. The dot was moving south on the interstate. Paul was already outside of Austin’s city limits.
Without hesitating, Theresa threw on some old clothes, got into her car, and drove.
The desk clerk looked up when the front door chime rang and was surprised to see a slightly disheveled woman quickly approach the counter.
“Hi,” she said, flashing a smile that didn’t match her appearance. “I’m meeting my husband here and I believe he’s already arrived. Could you tell me what room Paul Conner is in?”
The clerk looked her up and down cautiously.
“I know how I must look,” she stammered. “It’s been one of those mornings. First I lose my cell phone, then a tire goes flat just as I’m turning onto 410.”
Her rambling speech swayed the clerk, who immediately returned to the role of helpful servant. “Your husband’s name again, mam?”
“I’m sorry to have to ask this, but may I see some ID?”
“Certainly,” replied Theresa, reaching into her purse.
“You can’t be too careful,” said the clerk. After examining her driver’s license, he began typing at the computer. “Room four-oh-eight.” He motioned to the hallway. “You can take the elevator to the fourth floor and turn right as you exit.”
“Thank you,” said Theresa, turning to leave.
“Mam, your keycard.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry.” She put her hands up in exasperation. “One of those mornings!” She smiled as she took the card from the clerk and hurried to the elevators. As the door closed in front of her, her mind began to race.
The drive down had been frantic, with Theresa pushing her Monte Carlo up to ninety miles per hour. She had been trying to catch up to Paul, maybe overtake him on the highway. But as she passed New Braunfels, the map started shifting. Paul was exiting the highway and moving onto 410. Theresa had to slow down so that she could watch the map closely. The dot exited the interstate a few minutes later and started flowing down 410 until it had come to a stop near the airport. Theresa had been more than disgusted when she arrived at the same spot half an hour later to find that it was a parking lot for another Holiday Inn.
Her eyes found the keycard in her hand and noticed the self-promoting advertising adorning both sides of it. “Welcome to the Holiday Inn,” it said, on top of a picture of a setting sun off a tropical beach. Below, written in festive lettering was, “We hope you enjoy your stay.”
The sentiment made Theresa smile. She would enjoy her stay alright. There were several tense minutes in the parking lot outside where Theresa imagined all the different ways that she could confront Paul. But each of those started with her knocking on the door. Now she had a keycard. She could just walk in, take him by surprise.
Did she dare?
Her stomach churned painfully, begging for an end to the anxiety. The elevator doors opened and she told herself that this was it. This was the final test. All she had to do was put the keycard in the lock, turn the handle, and walk inside. It sounded easy enough. And it would reveal the truth once and for all.
Theresa wondered why she couldn’t take the first step. Half of her wanted to go into the room, the other was heading off in another direction, filling her head with useless questions with infinite answers. It raised the dilemma of Paul being a homosexual, a thought that had turned Theresa’s insides to shreds, temporarily overwhelming the feeling of betrayal. Yes, he was having an affair, but that had been what she was expecting, not for him to be gay. It was a jump from a petty crime to mass murder. It was unforgivable and yet as she rested with her head on his chest in the aftermath of make-up sex, she was forced to consider her own prejudices. The question of homosexuality outweighed the question of fidelity. It was an imbalance that caused Theresa to feel an overwhelming sense of failure as a tolerant human being.
Paul was in bed with another woman.
At first, Theresa thought she had walked into the wrong room. The man in the bed had cropped hair and was clean-shaven, but his face looked so much like Paul’s. For half a second, she wondered if he could have been some long lost twin, a brother he had never told her about. But then this man who would be Paul opened his eyes and looked at her and Theresa saw a kind of recognition that only twenty-six years of marriage could produce.
Then there was the question of what to do about Lindsey if Paul did turn out to be a homosexual. If she made the case for sole custody, she would have to prove that Paul was an unfit father. Abuse, neglect, and personal problems made great fodder in court, but there was nothing on the books that proved a gay father couldn’t be as loving or caring as a straight one. It would expose the prejudice on her part if she brought it up. After all, he made good money and Lindsey adored him. Maybe should could just make something up. Tell one lie to cover another one. Would anyone believe that Paul would strike his wife or daughter? Could she claim that he was a pedophile?
The woman sleeping next to Paul woke up quickly when she heard Theresa screaming. At first, she didn’t make the connection between Paul and Theresa, having only seen a few pictures on public websites. But through the wild hair and watery eyes, she recognized the woman she had privately envied for so many years. But what was she doing here? Hadn’t Paul said he left her for good? That she turned out to be a psycho? Wasn’t that why he was changing his name and taking her to California?
Mrs. Stratton would never have entertained the notion that Paul liked men and as a result, Theresa had never brought it up with her. She had not even told her that she hired Richard to spy on him. There was some latent feeling from childhood about not wanting to let her mother know that she was right in suggesting a private investigator. It seemed easier as well. If Mrs. Stratton didn’t know that Theresa had hired someone, she wouldn’t ask questions every time they talked, wouldn’t keep trying to find out what was going on in her daughter’s life. To do it properly, Theresa would have to compose her thoughts carefully, find some way to break it to her mother without breaking her heart.
Theresa let all of her anger spill from her mouth in a torrent of curses and cries. She ignored the naked woman who was climbing out of bed and into a robe. On some level, she could hear her talking, asking questions to Paul with a familiarity that made Theresa cringe. Who was this woman? His fucking wife, that’s who! Meanwhile, the expression on Paul’s face was oddly resigned. He had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and Theresa was launching a verbal barrage that would have brought a weaker man to his knees. Her main points were succinct. He was never to return home again. He was never to see his daughter again. And God help him if they ever met on the street and found that Theresa was carrying something sharp.
The last real thing that Theresa remembered was throwing her cell phone at Paul, striking him in the forehead. The sight of blood trickling down his face was strangely satisfying.
Paul stood at the mirror in the small bathroom, wiping the cut on his forehead with a wad of toilet paper. Thankfully, it wasn’t going to need stitches. He didn’t even know how he was going to handle doctors and medical insurance. They were all little problems before, all small in the face of the one big question of how to tell Theresa that he didn’t love her anymore. How could he tell her that he had found someone else? He glanced at Michelle sitting nervously on the side of the bathtub. Her robe was slightly open and he could see the inside edges of her breasts and the smooth tan skin of her stomach. The reality of it was that eventually her tight body would begin to sag, fill out in places that made Paul sneer in disgust. For a frightening moment, he considered the possibility of having to trade up again. Would he get another clone? Would his inability to break up with women cause an epidemic of Paul lookalikes?
“I know you said it was going to be complicated,” said Michelle, “but I didn’t know it would be like this.” She was staring at the floor, at a spot near Paul’s feet.
“Sorry,” he said, pausing as if deep in thought. “This isn’t what I had in mind. She was never supposed to find out about you. And you were never supposed to meet her.”
Michelle shrugged. “You know, when you told me she was psycho, I thought you were just being a man. Anything you don’t understand you just call psycho, but I’m sorry I doubted you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Paul, splashing some water onto his face. “I am a man.” He smirked. “But that bitch is crazy.”
Suppressing a chuckle, she joined Paul at the mirror. The small line on his forehead was still bright red. “Looks like she left a lasting impression on you though.”
Paul grumbled and pinched Michelle’s stomach.
“She sure was surprised to see me.”
“And you her.” Paul turned around and leaned against the sink while holding his forehead.
“I don’t know why she was so upset,” she said, coyly. “You told me you ended it with her. You told her it was over, right?”
“Of course I did. Maybe she just wasn’t expecting to see me with another woman so soon.”
“Maybe,” said Michelle, not really agreeing.
Paul noticed the look on her face and tossed the bloody toilet paper into the trash can. He sat down on the toilet and sighed. “Look, I never mentioned this before, because I didn’t really think it was important. But for the last year or so, Theresa’s been battling severe depression. She’s seeing a psychiatrist a few days out of the week and she’s on medication, but as you can see, it doesn’t seem to be helping her.”
“You don’t feel bad abandoning her like that?”
“She’ll be better off without me. Besides, she has her mother to help out. It’s better than staying in a loveless marriage. Those kinds of things shouldn’t be allowed to continue.”
Michelle stepped closer to Paul, put her stomach near his face. “Do you love me?”
Paul leaned forward slightly and kissed her just above her pubic hair. “Considering what I just said, would I be here if I didn’t?”
She was quiet for a moment while he caressed her backside with his hands. “You know, this might be the first case of a married man actually leaving his wife after he promised his girlfriend on the side that he would. If you would have asked me honestly a couple years ago if I thought you would ever leave her, I’d have said no.”
“Things change,” said Paul, softly. “Technology changes. Things that were impossible just five years ago are now commonplace.” He looked up at her, past her breasts to her smiling face. “And if any woman was ever going to make it happen, it would have had to be one as beautiful as you.”
She put her hand on his face and playfully pushed him away. “Now I see why your wife went insane.”
“Just for that, you don’t get to help me pick out my new name. I was thinking, Adam or Hank.”
“Fine, be that way, Fred. Just exclude me from everything, David. I’ll be in bed if you need me, Ronald.” Michelle smiled as she exited the bathroom, leaving FDR staring at the peeling wallpaper.
It had been a tough road, but it was finally ended. His part was over. He could be seen in public with his girlfriend now, could move to California and change his name, leave his old life behind forever. Sure, it hadn’t worked out exactly as planned. Theresa was never supposed to discover him with Michelle, was never supposed to confirm her suspicions that he was cheating on her.
FDR smiled and shook his head. A conversation with Dr. Hirsch came back to him, something about the clone inheriting his life. It was true in so many ways. Paul’s infidelity was no longer his problem, it was his clone’s. He was the one would have to continue a relationship with Theresa, find some way to reconcile what she had seen here. He felt bad that Lindsey would end up with a broken home, that Theresa would have to deal with the fallout for many years to come, and that the clone wouldn’t get the consolation prizes that he had been so eagerly anticipating.
But that was the way things went. FDR counted himself lucky that at least only one of his lives had been ruined. It was as he told himself the day before, on the tail end of his former life.
The coin had to come down one way or another.
The pain had not lessened when Theresa crossed into Temple’s city limits, nor had the tears ceased as she crept slowly down the quiet streets to the mother’s house. Her hands trembled as she pulled the car over on a cross street, put it in park, and killed the engine. She couldn’t show up like this, she told herself. But with the task of driving suddenly over, she broke down into heavy sobs, and leaned her head against the steering wheel. It was all so unfair, so expected, but so unfair. How could he do this to her, to Lindsey? How could he take her to bed one night and then do it all again with another woman the next morning? Anger and sadness swirled around her, blocking out the rest of the world and leaving her alone in a cocoon of suffering.
Time passed and her crying waxed and waned in intensity. Her thoughts turned to Lindsey and she started thinking about her daughter and what she would need to get through this. Struggling to regain her composure, Theresa checked her reflection in the mirror. She looked as bad as she felt, but several tissues and a quick application of make-up gave the appearance of normalcy. All she had to do was make it to the house, get inside, and hug her daughter. Later, she could have some alone time with her mother and then the crying would start again. But not until then.
Theresa started the car once more and drove down her mother’s street. As she neared the house, she noticed people standing on the front porch and a familiar car in the driveway. She parked quickly on the side of the street and got out of her car, unable to comprehend what she was seeing.
Standing in the doorway to her childhood home was her mother and Lindsey. Except that Lindsey was being carried in the arms of a very familiar man with hair that hung down over his ears and a mustache and goatee that reminded her of some old Western she had long since forgotten the name of.
She approached slowly as if in a bad dream.
The main raised a hand in her direction and waved.
“Hey, honey,” Paul called out. “What took you so long?”