I WAS BEING WATCHED, I could feel it. Eyes strangely like my own were trained on me but would not let go. I tried to ignore this and go on with my work but it was difficult. Through a sheer force of will I managed to push out the thought that was in my head, typing it on the laptop as quietly as possible (thinking that perhaps my relative silence would be like playing possum and that my tormentor would think I was asleep and thus leave me alone). This was the sentence I typed:
I was a teenager when I first discovered the word solipsism.
After this I paused, trying to sense if the coast was clear. It wasn’t. I still could feel those eyes on my back, familiar eyes just like my own. I turned slowly to see if my suspicions were founded; they were. Those tiny eyes were looking right at me. Zachery—in his avocado green and baby blue Little Driver Baby Walker—was looking up at me, his wide brown eyes imploring me to grab him, pick him up, do anything other than sit at my boring desk and ignore him.
“Grainne,” I called out, hoping my wife would be nearby and could take Zachery off my hands. “Grainne? Are you there?”
It was Sunday and I was trying to get some writing done. I knew I was taking a risk since Zachery, just a few minutes before, had been crazily wheeling himself throughout the ground floor of our two-story home in Montclair, New Jersey. I was supposed to be watching him while Grainne was upstairs doing housework, but I’d had an idea and so went into the study to write it down.
Grainne didn’t respond. I could hear her walking back-and-forth above me, going in and out of various closets and gathering clothes for a few loads of laundry she hoped to get done when Zachery went down for his daily nap. I thought of yelling again but figured it wouldn’t help. Our bedroom was in the rear of the second story of the house and I was near the front of the ground floor, overlooking the street. I was competing with the sound of traffic and with Zachery determined to smack every button on the control panel of his plastic buggy. I was on my own.
I was trying to get some work done because I’d recently learned that my latest book, a non-fiction title called Print is Dead, was going to come out in a few months in paperback. The excitement was somewhat muted when the publisher told me that I couldn’t make any corrections to the text, nor would they print it with a new introduction. I was disappointed but didn’t take it personally. My book was about the future of publishing; it had a limited audience and was never expected or intended to be a bestseller. Still, I wanted to put some of the material I wrote about in context and to discuss new developments with the topic. I decided to write a new introduction anyway, one that would live solely on my website.
Lately I’d been reading books about science. I started with the big bang but then moved on to quantum physics and, finally, to the elusive theory of everything. Einstein had figured out how the stars worked but those theories didn’t gel with incredibly small things like atoms, protons, and electrons. The quest was to unite these two scientific worlds. I wanted to use this as a metaphor for publishing. There was a tried-and-true system for physical books and another business model was rapidly developing for electronic books. What was needed was a theory or set of rules for both. It seemed like a good metaphor: neat and tidy and, hopefully, original.
Across the room Zachery had become momentarily quiet. He was drooling, but otherwise silent. I watched as a string of spittle dripped down his chin and then onto his shirt. He seemed fine with it so I decided I was fine with it, too. I used this lull to write the following:
The instant I learned of its meaning I loved the word for its poetic simplicity, silky alliteration, and the fact that a collection of just a few letters could encompass such a big idea. Ever since then, while hopefully never suffering from solipsism (if anything I usually experience the opposite), I’ve thought of the word from time to time. It also occasionally surfaces in print or conversation, or else a character in a movie will say it. But while we can all hope to eradicate solipsism—so that no one person thinks that they’re the center of the universe—that doesn’t settle the question of the universe itself. After all, what kind of universe has none of us at its center?
That was as far as I got before Zachery started in again with the buttons that in turn triggered various sounds. He then began shouting at the top of his lungs, drowning out the other noises as if it were a competition.
“Okay, okay, little man.” I got out of my chair and walked toward where he was repeatedly bumping into the doorjamb as he tried to head back into the living room (Zachery was good at moving forward, but he’d yet to master reverse). “Why don’t we go see what Mommy is up to? Huh? What do you say? You want to see Mommy?”
I reached down and scooped him out of the plastic buggy. His body felt warm and fat in my arms.
“What is going on down here?”
Grainne finally came downstairs. She was wearing beige shorts stained from working in the garden and a green Beck T-shirt I’d bought her years ago. Her black hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She took Zachery from my arms and walked around in circles, bouncing him up and down.
“Well,” I said, “I was trying to get some work done.”
“Yeah,” Grainne replied, still bobbing Zachery up and down in her arms, “and what did this little cuddle monster have to say about it?”
“He had other plans.”
She paused for a second and I leaned in for kiss. She then took Zachery upstairs to put him down for a nap. From downstairs I could hear Grainne singing to Zachery, lulling him to sleep. I grabbed the Graco baby monitor sitting on my desk and switched it on just in time to hear the end of the improvised tune she’d been humming.
Grainne and I met in 2003, moved in with each other the following year, got engaged the year after that and were married in 2006. Once Grainne became pregnant we decided we needed more room than we had at the time. We’d been living in an 1,100 square foot, two-bedroom apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. We’d lived there for just about three years and needed a change anyway. I work in publishing and take New Jersey Transit to my office in Soho. Grainne works in public relations but has taken an indefinite leave of absence to care for Zachery, our son who’s just over a year-old.
Grainne came back downstairs. On the monitor I could hear Zachery’s heavy breathing; he was already in a deep sleep. Grainne motioned to the kitchen and we both tiptoed toward it.
“So,” she said, “how’s the new introduction coming?”
She sat down at the kitchen table while I leaned against the counter. It was late September but it was hotter than it should have been for that time of year. Fall, so close on the calendar, felt very far away.
“Fine,” I answered, quietly. “At least I think it is. I just wrote a bit of the opening. I think I have a hook. Talked about solipsism.”
She grinned. “A topic near and dear to your heart.” On the monitor, Zachery sighed or burped or did something that caused a blip of noise. Grainne and I paused to listen. But it was nothing. Then she said, “Do you think you’ll ever write another novel?”
It was always funny to me how other people thought it’d be a good idea for me to write books. It was probably because they didn’t have to do the writing.
“Writing Print is Dead was hard enough. Plus, I have a full-time job and now we have Zachery. Anyway, what would I write about?”
“This, maybe?” She pointed to her, our house, toward the top floor where our son was currently, thankfully, napping.
“Nah,” I replied. “That’d have to be that quiet suburban angst I can’t stand. Revolutionary Road or Bullet Park. Picket fences that turn into jail cells. It’s been done to death and I’m no John Updike.”
“How about being just Jeff Gomez?”
“That didn’t work out so well last time.”
This was a reference to my last couple of novels, none of which sold very well.
“Besides,” I continued, “I’d have to get all meta this time around, writing myself into the story in some cliché way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know. What Paul Auster does. There’d be a character named Jeff Gomez but it’s not really me. And then the novel that the ‘Jeff Gomez’ in the book ends up ‘writing,’” I used the first two fingers of each hand for air quotes, “is actually the book the reader has been reading all along. Blah blah blah. Stuff like that.”
“Well,” Grainne said softly, “do you have to do that?”
“Yes, I’d have to. It’s a law, I think. Like moving to the suburbs when you have a child.”
“Well, seeing as how law-abiding you were with that last one I’d hate for you to go and get in any kind of trouble.”
A few seconds passed. The silence was deafening but welcome. When I was single—years ago—there was just silence, but now it was rare. It reminded me of those books where you read about everyday items such as salt or cinnamon being treated as valuably as gold or silver. We laugh at their ubiquity now, but in another time they were sacred.
I gave Grainne a quick kiss and headed back to the study. I managed to work for another half-hour until Zachery woke up from his nap. For the rest of our Sunday, he was the center of our attention. We got him fed, bathed him, and put him to bed. I’d written about solipsism earlier in the day, and even though Zachery didn’t and couldn’t know what that meant at his age, he was its perfect embodiment. Grainne and I were merely planets in orbit around him, cold until morning when we’d see his face again.
“You’re a ghost.”
I looked up and saw Abby, a co-worker, standing in my doorway. Behind her, through the glass wall of my office, I watched as a group of people from the art department walked by, probably on their way to the conference room around the corner. It was already Tuesday, Monday having passed by in a blur.
“What?” I said, distracted.
“You’re not here,” she replied.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve emailed and called you today. Your email bounced back with an out of the office message and your voicemail said you’re not here. But I thought that was odd since I’d seen you this morning, in the lobby, so I thought I’d stop by. And here you are. A ghost, I guess.”
“Ghost,” I said, lost in thought. This must have made the word sound ominous and, well, ghostly.
When I didn’t speak again, Abby broke into nervous laughter.
“Sorry, Jeff, just trying to keep it light.” She fiddled with the red string on an interoffice envelope as she spoke. “At any rate, the reason I’m here is, can you send me last year’s traffic numbers for the website? I need them for the board meetings.”
“Sure, I’ll dig that out of my hard drive and send it up to you.”
“Thanks,” she said. She started to walk away, but then stopped. “Oh, by the way, a friend of mine said she saw you and your wife last week at Bobo.”
“Bobo, it’s on West Tenth Street, I think. Small, charming.”
I knew about and had been to restaurants in Manhattan named Bolo, Babbo, and Beppe, but I wasn’t aware of any place named Bobo.
“Never heard of it. When did you say this was?”
“Last Friday. You and your wife. Corner booth.” Abby smiled slyly. “Sounds romantic. ”
“Yeah, it does,” I replied, rolling my thin silver wedding band back in forth with my thumb and index finger. Last Friday night I was in Montclair with Grainne and Zachery. “And they were sure it was me?”
“Yup, she saw you speak at a conference. Knew we worked together so she mentioned it. Anyway, send me those stats when you can.” She started to walk away but then stopped yet again and said, “and don’t forget to fix your computer.”
I watched, somewhat in a daze, as Abby disappeared down the hallway. In the background was the general hum of an office: typing, smalltalk, a copier somewhere rhythmically spitting out clones.
I checked my email and, sure enough, the Out of Office message was turned on. I then picked up the phone and dialed my own extension. It took a couple of seconds to route its way through the system before boomeranging back into my handset. When it finally rang, and my own name popped up in the caller ID, it was unnerving to look down and see JEFF GOMEZ in the small LCD window. I was, somehow, calling myself. After five rings the voicemail kicked in. “Hi there, you’ve reached Jeff Gomez. I’m going to be out of the office for the rest of the week.” It was certainly my voice. “You can leave a message for me here, and I’ll return your call as soon as I’m back.”
I wasn’t sure what could have caused these two glitches. They were each on a different system; there’s no way that it could have been one glitch that switched them both. The fact that I hadn’t mentioned any dates in the voicemail message meant that I couldn’t tell whether this was an old message from a while ago somehow resurfacing. The same with my email; all the message said was that I was out of the office. No dates, no explanation, no nothing.
I Googled the phone number to Bobo. I dialed and a woman with a British accent answered.
“Hi there, I wanted to check on a reservation for last week.”
“For last week? Why would you want to do that?”
She had a point.
“I thought I saw an old friend of mine in there last week. Jeff Gomez. Last Friday night. Could you see if he had a reservation? That way, I’d know if it was him.”
“Let me see,” she replied, sounding skeptical. “Friday night. That was the twenty-fifth, right? Yes, seven o’clock. Jeff Gomez.”
This gave me the chills, but I tried to remain calm.
“Oh, great.” I faked sounding happy, but wasn’t very convincing. “Uh, could you tell me who made that reservation?”
There was silence on the other line. Then she laughed and said, “Yeah, I can tell you who made the reservation. You did.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Mr. Gomez, we have caller ID. I can see that it’s you who’s calling me right now. The number’s the same one you gave us so we could confirm your reservation. I even recognize your voice. We spoke last week. You requested a quiet table and I gave it to you. So, what is this? Some kind of a test? To see if I’d give out a customer’s name?” She paused for a second, and then spoke in whisper. “You want to know if you can come here with your mistress or something? Is that who you were with that night?”
“No,” I protested, “I was there with my wife.” But I wasn’t.
“Well, then, what’s the problem?”
“No problem,” I answered. Then I said it again, “No problem.”
I hung up the phone and just sat there. A few minutes later Abby walked by my office. She paused and, raising her hands and turning them into claws, mouthed the word, “Boo.”
I was busy the rest of the day, up until I had to leave at a little before seven for my therapist appointment uptown. I considered telling Dr. Schwartz about all this, how strange it had seemed and how odd it had made me feel—the voicemail, the email, the woman from Bobo—but as I rode the subway to the Upper West Side, I decided not to. It seemed a silly thing to want to discuss. Instead, I spent the session talking about the usual: my feelings as a new father, the stress of trying to juggle my career and home life. In response, Dr. Schwartz followed his usual routine: nodded a bit and asked me how I felt about my feelings.
By the time I got home it was after nine. Zachery had already been put down for the night and I was sad to have missed him. On my way to our room to change into some jeans and a T-shirt—downstairs I could hear Grainne popping some leftover pasta in the microwave for me—I looked in on Zachery. He was sleeping soundly, curled on his side and wearing pajamas that had the faces of frogs on the feet. I ate my dinner standing up, in the kitchen, leaning against the counter. Grainne kept me company and even joined me in a glass of red wine. I told her about my day and she told me about hers. When I was finished with the pasta, I went to the study and Grainne settled herself on the couch for one of her ten o’clock shows.
I opened up my laptop and then turned on some quiet music to help drown out the TV in the other room. Just as I was re-reading what I’d written over the weekend, the phone rang. I froze, my fingers hovering above the laptop. I let Grainne answer it and, when she didn’t call out my name, I figured it wasn’t for me. I continued to write until Grainne swept into the room a half-hour later and enveloped me in a hug that was touching and confusing. I could tell she’d been crying.
“Hey,” I said into her hair as she held me tight. I felt her tears go straight through my T-shirt, soaking my chest. “What’s the matter?”
She told me that it had been Heather on the phone, an old college friend I’d met a few times. She’d had a miscarriage a few days earlier. They’d gone to the doctor for a checkup and there wasn’t a heartbeat. It had been fairly early in the pregnancy, that point where—in just another few days—she would have been safely out of the woods (the first trimester; the longest three months of a woman’s life). She was just going to begin telling friends and family about the news. She even had a ticket to come to New York in another week in order to tell Grainne in person. She had planned a whole day around the event. Brunch, then a matinee, and finally drinks. The centerpiece of the day was going to be news of the latest child (she already had a daughter named Isabella). But then disaster struck and instead of Heather flying to see Grainne, the reverse was requested.
“How long will you be gone for?”
“Hopefully not too long,” Grainne said as she sniffled. “Most of the week, I guess. Maybe through the weekend, too.”
Grainne contemplated leaving Zachery with me while she was gone, but Heather said she didn’t mind if Grainne brought him along (Isabella was just about his age; they could play together).
“I’ll be back before our anniversary next week,” she said, still holding me tight. “Don’t you worry about that.”
“Yes, our anniversary.” I said this in a strong voice that hopefully conveyed that I hadn’t forgotten about it even though I had. “What do you want to do for it?”
“Oh, nothing,” she said in a sigh. “When I get back I’ll be tired and cranky after having been away, so let’s just relax and order in. Okay?”
It sounded fine with me, so I just nodded.
“Maybe some Indian food from Satish Palace? Chicken tikka masala and saag paneer?”
Indian food wasn’t my favorite, but I continued to nod.
“As long as you get some extra garlic naan, I’m on board.”
Grainne laughed, but then turned serious.
“It’s just,” she began to speak, but the words trailed off. “I’m worried.”
“That you’ll turn back into a bachelor.” She chuckled as she said this but there was an edge in her voice that showed she was serious. We’d worked so hard to get where we were; we’d been through so much to get Zachery. It felt like we’d climbed a huge mountain and Grainne wanted to make sure we didn’t slip and end up right back where we’d started: two separate people standing in front of a mountain. “I’m worried that you’ll go back to being who you used to be, before we met.”
“That’s not possible.”
I kissed her.
“It is,” she said, “but I hope it doesn’t happen.”
I slept poorly that night. Grainne had stayed up late packing and when she finally came to bed she tossed and turned and kept me awake. When her alarm went off at five so she could shower and get Zachery ready for the car service that was coming at six, it felt like I hadn’t been asleep at all. I kissed her and Zachery goodbye with bloodshot eyes.
My morning was busy with meetings, so it wasn’t until lunch that I was able to sit down at my desk to check my email. There weren’t many new or important messages at my work account, but in my Mac account—the one I used for personal correspondence— I had a notice from American Express. They wanted to verify a recent purchase. Glancing at the amount on the screen, it didn’t seem to match anything I’d bought in the last month or so. I logged on to their website in order to investigate further.
“If it’s for dinner at Bobo,” I said to myself, “I’m going to be pissed.”
The transaction that had been flagged was a $600 charge from a Bed, Bath and Beyond on the Upper West Side. This was odd since I hadn’t been to that location for years, ever since Grainne and I lived together on Seventy-seventh Street. Since moving from the Upper West Side four years ago, I never went to that neighborhood except to see Dr. Schwartz.
I called American Express to try and figure out where the charge had come from. After punching in my account number, I was transferred to an “account specialist.” When a female finally answered, after eight minutes of Muzak, she repeated back to me the details of the charge I’d seen online.
“This must be some mistake,” I said.
“I’m sorry, sir, but Jeff Gomez made this charge. And you’re Jeff Gomez.”
“Well then, it must be for another Jeff Gomez.”
“That may be so.” I could hear more typing through the phone. “In order to confirm your identity, can you please tell me the last four digits of your Social Security number?”
I sighed, about to protest, but finally relented and said quickly, “2-3-74.”
A few seconds passed as she checked my file.
“Yes, sir. That is it. I am positive this is your account.”
While we were talking, she emailed to me a scan of the credit card slip. It was a bit blurry from being blown up so much, but it certainly looked like my signature. After I hung up, I didn’t know what to think. Was it a mistake or identity theft? Was this charge for a different Jeff Gomez or was someone pretending to be me, and which was worse? And was this tied to the glitch with the email and voicemail, and were those two things connected to the Jeff Gomez sighting at Bobo?
Turning back to my computer, I Googled the Bed, Bath and Beyond on the Upper West Side, scribbling down the phone number on a Post-It. I called and, after asking to speak to the manager, was connected to someone who sounded not much older than Zachery. His name was Chip, and since the manager and the assistant manager were out to lunch, he was in charge. I told him the situation and he asked for my credit card number. As I told it to him, I could hear him punching the numbers into a computer.
“Okay,” he said, “looks like they charged a bunch of stuff. Let’s see…inflatable mattress, some dishes, a side table, a lamp. Um—a blanket, some sheets. That’s it.”
This all seemed rather benign and random. Wouldn’t someone stealing my identity go for bigger and more expensive items than these? Flat screen TVs or a car or, at the very least, a drunken binge? I was about to hang up when Chip said, “Oh, and there’s one more charge.”
“For how much?”
“It looks like it was a delivery.”
Outside my office a few co-workers were coming back from lunch, talking loudly and laughing. I covered my ears, trying to drown out the noise.
“Can you tell me the address?”
Through the phone I heard typing.
“Let me see. Looks like it’s 129 West Seventy-third Street. Apartment 4F.”
I wrote down the address on the Post-It note. I thanked him and then hung up. Then I just sat there, staring at the address. It didn’t mean anything to me but the fact that I had it—that I could conceivably track down whoever was doing this—spooked me. I then went to the Chase website to make sure nothing was wrong with my checking account.
The first thing I noticed was that my balance was lower than it should have been. I clicked on Recent Activity and saw that a check for $5,200 had just been cashed. Clicking on the amount, a photocopy of the check popped up in a new window. It was indeed one of my checks, and the writing and signature seemed to be authentically mine. It was dated this past Sunday and was made out to Tegmark Real Estate, LLC. Written in the memo section, in my own chicken-scratch printing, it said, Security deposit and first months rent, Wakefield apartments, NYC.
I Googled “Wakefield apartment NYC” and the first listing that came up was for the website of what I guessed was the parent company, Tegmark Real Estate. I followed a link for tegmarkrealestate.com. The page had a large black-and-white logo in the corner that featured an illustration of a number of New York landmarks. Underneath this was the slogan, “Your next home is only a click away.” After clicking on the properties tag, I scrolled through a number of high-rise buildings in Manhattan, both uptown and downtown. It seemed the Wakefield was a newly refurbished apartment building on the Upper West Side, on Seventy-third Street between Columbus and Amsterdam.
“That’s right near Dr. Schwartz’s office,” I said out loud but under my breath.
In addition to the check for $5,200 there were also a couple of cash withdrawals from ATM units on the Upper West Side, as well as a couple of charges from Pioneer Foods, an ancient grocery store on Columbus that I remembered from back when Grainne and I lived on Seventy-seventh Street near the museum of natural history.
“What the fuck,” I said again, but this time actually loud.
I examined the check more closely. It was from my personal account, but the address was from the apartment in Hoboken Grainne and I lived in right before we had Zachery, the place we moved to after moving out of Manhattan. I no longer had any of those checks, so they couldn’t have been recently stolen. This made me somewhat comfortable. If someone had indeed stolen my identity, they had stolen it from a couple of years ago. It didn’t explain the other charges, or the American Express bill, but I let that go for now.
I had enough money in my account to cover the phantom charges—none of them were going to bankrupt me—so rather than call the bank and cancel my card and freeze the account (which would have screwed up a bunch of bills that I paid automatically) I decided to keep an eyes on things over the next couple of days, seeing if I couldn’t get to the bottom of this mystery by myself.
“Who the fuck is Leah?”
It was Grainne calling from Philadelphia. Before I could ask her anything about how she and Zachery were doing, or when she was coming home, that’s what she blurted out. I’d been sitting on the couch, enjoying my quiet Saturday listening to the radio and reading The Economist. When I didn’t initially respond, she repeated the question. “I said, who is Leah?”
“What? I don’t know. What Leah?”
“That’s what I want to know.” Her voice was very deep and very serious. “That’s what I’m asking you.”
“Grainne, what’s going on? You sound weird.”
“Well, Jeff.” She emphasized my name in an ironic way, as if I may have been sketchy on names but she certainly wasn’t. “You would sound weird, too, if you’d just seen your husband’s Facebook page after being out of town for a couple of days, only to see a bunch of status updates about some slut named Leah.”
I burst out laughing and expected Grainne to join me. She didn’t.
“Grainne, you know I hate Facebook.” I spoke quickly, as if the faster I talked the faster I could solve this mess. “I haven’t updated my status for weeks. Months, maybe.”
“Oh, really? Well, listen to this. Here are a few gems from the past week or so. From your page. Let’s see. ‘Getting ready for dinner at Bobo with Leah.’ ‘Dinner last week was great. Leah wore a red dress and looked amazing.’ ‘Ordered pizza and watched Shadow of a Doubt. Joseph Cotton is a god.’ ‘Had a good run, three laps around the Reservoir.’ ‘Chinese food tonight with Leah, can’t wait.’ And the icing on the cake is that, under relationships, it says single. Care to, uh, explain?”
“Wait—wait.” An idea was forming; a connection was made. “Wasn’t Anne’s Facebook account hacked? Her status update said she’d been mugged in London but she wasn’t actually in London at the time?”
Grainne, absentmindedly: “It was something like that.”
“Well, that must be what’s happening here.”
“Jeff, no. This isn’t a hacker. This is you. You like Hitchcock, I don’t think Nigerian Princes do.”
Lamely, hopefully, I replied, “They might?”
“Babe, babe, listen to me. This is messed up but it’s not me. I don’t know anyone named Leah and I didn’t change my status, I swear. It must be, it must be,” I paused, trying to think of what it must be. There was just a blank. Also, something clicked. Bobo? I finally said, “Wait a second, let me take a look. Let me see.”
“Okay, but don’t try and palm this off on some other Jeff Gomez. There’s your picture at the top of the page, there’s your dumb George Orwell quote, and those are our photos from our trip to Venice, the one where you sat in that throne in the Guggenheim garden looking like a goddamn idiot.”
This was going downhill very fast. I went to my Facebook page; I couldn’t remember the last time I was there. On my wall were a number strange status updates from the past couple of weeks, ones other than the half-dozen or so Grainne had read.
“Look, Grainne, I don’t know what’s happening but, come on, I wouldn’t be that big of an idiot. Half of my friends on Facebook are your friends. Some of them are your relatives for chrissakes. Do you think I really think that they wouldn’t think it was a little weird and would then go and tell you? If I were having an affair, I’d be posting stuff like ‘Went out for beers with Matthew’ or something like that, but instead I’d meet Leah at her place…or in a hotel room.”
I slowly realized that was the wrong thing to say.
“Jeff.” Grainne said this in a voice that in an old movie about Southern women would have conveyed, Well, I never.
“Forget that. That was dumb. But really, I swear to god I have no idea who this Leah person is. I don’t even think I’ve ever met one in my life, and I promise to you I’m not having an affair. Not now, not ever. Okay? Please please believe me.”
There was silence. I’d momentarily won her back to my side. This was good since there were plenty of other unsavory things to discuss.
“Listen, sweetie, there’s something else we need to worry about.”
“Like what?” Her voice sounded hard; I was losing her again.
“Financial stuff. There have been some charges made to a few of my credit cards. And some checks have been cashed.”
“Someone got hold of our checks? Jeff, how could this have happened? I’ve told you a million times—”
“My checks, Grainne,” I cut her off. “My checks. Okay? They’re not going to get into our account and suck all our money out, I promise. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“But Jeff, this is serious.”
“I know it is, Gran, that’s why I’m working to get it all sorted out.”
“And how, exactly, are you going to do that?”
“Tomorrow I’m going to go to where some of the charges have been made and do some snooping around. If someone’s trying to steal my identity or, I don’t know, impersonating me, maybe I can track him down before it gets out of hand.”
“Oh, my god.” She sounded worried again. “You’re going to try and bust up some counterfeit identity ring?”
“Grainne, it couldn’t be a counterfeit identity ring, now could it? What would be the point of stealing fake identities?” This idea captured my attention for a few seconds. Could you steal someone’s alter ego? Could you be for real what someone else only pretended to be?
“Whatever, Jeff, you know what I mean. I don’t want you thinking that you’re Philip Marlowe or someone like that, going around busting into a boiler room filled with a bunch of gangsters.”
“Don’t worry about me, Dollface.” I slurred my words in a very mediocre Bogart impression. “I’ll be okay.”
“Jeff, I’m serious.”
I went back to my regular voice.
“I am, too, sweetie. I won’t do anything stupid.”
I hesitated before answering, “Promise.”
The next afternoon I went into Manhattan, taking the 1 train to Sixty-sixth Street. I hit the Barnes and Noble that’s right near Lincoln Center, looking to see if they had any good books on identity theft. I didn’t find anything too useful, so I left and started walking up to where that building should be on Seventy-third Street.
As I passed Sixty-eighth Street, I saw—out of the corner of my eye—someone who looked a lot like me. He was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a black digital watch. But none of this registered until I was a few steps past where he’d been standing in the middle of the block staring across the street at a hotel I’d never seen before. I blinked, thinking that I was seeing things. When I looked down at my watch—I was wearing one just like his—I noticed it was flashing twelve o’clock. I shook off the growing paranoia and kept heading north. At Seventy-third I turned right and, as soon as I did, I could see an awning announcing the Wakefield.
It was a nice building but nothing special. The Upper West Side was filled with lots of apartment buildings like this. Across the street there were brownstones. On the corner there was a bodega. Farther down the block there were a few restaurants and what looked like a dry cleaner. Pretty routine.
I walked into the lobby and the doorman approached. He seemed to know me.
“Hey, Mr. Gomez, you forget something?”
“Why—why do you say that?”
“Well,” he said in a thick Bronx accent, “seeing as how you just left here ten minutes ago I figured maybe you forgot something.”
“Yeah, I guess I did.” I tried to play along, but nothing came to me. “It’s just…”
The doorman looked puzzled. He stared at me and I didn’t know my next move, so I just stared back.
“Maybe you should just go upstairs and lie down. Catch your breath or something?”
I continued to stare, pausing only to pat down my pants pockets. If I were going to lie down in an apartment, I’d have to get into it first.
“Keys,” I blurted out.
“Oh, your keys.” The doorman slapped his forehead. He was wearing a short-sleeved version of what must have been, in the winter, a very majestic blazer. “No problem, Mr. Gomez. I’ll get Jake to let you in. No problem at all.” He patted me on the shoulders, trying to comfort me. “You don’t worry about a thing. He’ll be up there in a jiffy.”
“Jake?” I repeated. “Jiffy?” I said.
I moved toward the elevators. There were two of them. The one on the left arrived first and expelled a couple about my age. I didn’t recognize them and they didn’t seem to recognize me. How long had the other Jeff Gomez lived here? The doorman seemed to know me, but so far no one else did. When I paused after entering the elevator, and then froze, the doorman helped me out.
“Fourth floor, Mr. Gomez. Remember? Fourth floor. And don’t worry, Jake’ll be up in two minutes.”
The hallway on the fourth floor held a dozen doors, six on each side. I wondered how I could possibly be connected to any of them.
I was fishing around in my pocket for the Post-It note with the apartment number when the elevator arrived and an older guy wearing jeans, a denim work shirt, and a tool belt got off.
“Good one, Mr. Gomez,” he said as he walked down the hallway. He drew a key from an enormous keyring attached to his work belt and let me into 4F. “You need anything,” he said as he retreated down the hallway, “you just holler.”
The apartment was small; it was just a studio. It was even smaller than the one I’d lived in on Ninety-sixth Street before I met Grainne. There was an inflatable mattress on the floor, a cheap bedside table, a few clothes scattered about, and an iPod tucked into a set of portable speakers that matched a set I had at home. In the small kitchenette there were only a couple of dishes: plate, glass, coffee cup. One fork, one spoon, one knife. I opened the fridge and didn’t find much: some leftover pizza and Chinese food, a six-pack of beer, the ingredients for a turkey sandwich. In the bathroom I noticed a few toiletries. The closet was empty and there wasn’t a dresser.
Right beside one of the two windows that looked onto Seventy-third Street was a cheap office chair. The view out the window looked directly into the third-floor apartment of one the brownstones across the street. I couldn’t see the entire apartment, but what I could see shocked me. It looked like my living room back in Montclair. It was the same exact television, entertainment center, and bookshelves. The only things missing were Zachery’s toys strewn everywhere and a new carpet we’d bought from Pottery Barn six months ago. This spooked me so much I had to sit down. As I did I spotted a pair of opera glasses on the windowsill sitting atop a paperback book. It was a novel. The High Window by Raymond Chandler.
This all seemed to me like some strange, elaborate joke. The opera glasses were the same as I pair that I owned, and most of the items in the studio matched what had been purchased under my name at Bed, Bath and Beyond a week ago. I couldn’t help but laugh. Nervous, paranoid laughter.
As I was laughing, I picked up the book and looked at it. On the back was a sepia-tinged picture of two windows. On the front was a cropped photo of an apartment building that looked an awful lot like the Wakefield. As I began to flip through the book, it opened instantly to page 66. Still shaking with frightened laughter my eyes quickly zeroed in on a short, one-sentence paragraph near the bottom of the page: He was laughing.
I threw the book onto the floor and got up fast from the chair. I backed out of the apartment and ran down the stairs two at a time. In the lobby the doorman was dealing with a delivery guy and didn’t see me leave. I didn’t know what else to do or investigate, so I sprinted down Seventy-third, took the subway to Penn Station, and caught a train back to Montclair.
On Tuesday, even though I was a bit freaked out about what happened over the weekend in the Wakefield, I came back to the neighborhood in order to keep my appointment with Dr. Schwartz. During the session I tried to talk about the usual things, but I was distant and distracted and Dr. Schwartz picked up on this. When he asked, three times during the hour, “Jeff, is anything wrong?” I lied and chalked it up to the fact that Grainne and Zachery being out of town had left me unmoored. All of my routines, no matter how I sometimes felt smothered by them, had been derailed and this left me feeling adrift. Dr. Schwartz listened to all of this and merely nodded. When the hour was up, I headed straight home.
I slept uneasily that night, eventually dropping off around three. I was a wreck when morning finally arrived. I was groggy and my eyes were surrounded by purple pools of sagging skin. My hands shook as I poured a cup of coffee. As soon as I got to the office, I Googled the Wakefield and looked at the neighborhood through Google Earth, scrutinizing the satellite image as if that could solve my mystery. All of the buildings and streets seemed to interlock like a jigsaw puzzle, fitting neatly together, but the whole picture wasn’t apparent until I zoomed all the way out and saw nothing but the earth.
Thursday was slow and I was able to concentrate on various projects. When it came time for lunch, I considered ordering in and having my assistant go down to the lobby to get it when it arrived. I was about to go online to check the menu for Olive’s, over on Prince, when the phone rang.
“Hi there, I’m calling from Amanda’s.” It was a female’s voice. In the background I could hear conversation and the clinking of dishes. “I’m confirming your reservation for tonight.”
The words she said all made sense, but I couldn’t quite comprehend what she was saying.
“What? Reservation for who?”
“Uh, for you. I mean, for two, for tonight at eight o’clock. For Gomez.”
“Who is this again?”
“Amanda’s restaurant. In Hoboken.”
“Oh, Hoboken. Yeah, I remember. On Washington, right?’
She was silent. I’d obviously pushed this conversation longer than it usually lasted and she no longer had a script to follow.
“That’s correct, sir. Is there a problem?”
“No, no,” I said, the pieces finally falling into place. “I’m sorry. My wife must have made the reservation. As a surprise. Tonight’s our anniversary.”
“Oh, I hope I didn’t ruin the surprise.”
“No, don’t worry about it. I’ll play dumb when she mentions it. Besides, it’s her fault for giving you my number instead of hers.”
After we hung up I called Olive’s and ordered lunch. Just as I was finishing my sandwich, Grainne called. The plan for later today had been that I was going to leave work early, pick up her car at the train station, and then drive down to Newark to pick them up. Her shuttle flight from Philadelphia was scheduled to get in at a bit after six. After that I guess a baby sitter was going to show up and then we’d drive to Hoboken for dinner at Amanda’s.
“Listen,” Grainne said right after I’d said hello, “I’ve got some bad news. I’m going to be stuck in Philadelphia for a few more days. At least until Saturday. I can’t make it home for our anniversary.”
“Wait, what? Why not?”
“The flights, babe. They’ve all been cancelled. Everything in and out of the tri-state area. It’s that huge storm.”
I looked out my office and could see golden sunshine pouring in, creating long shadows that fell upon the cubicles and office walls in what looked like layers.
“Storm, what storm? It’s gorgeous here.”
“Jeff, stop it. This isn’t the time for jokes. I’m watching CNN right now and they’re showing footage from Long Island and Queens. Boats are keeling over and drivers are stuck in floods on the roads. In New Jersey it’s practically a hurricane. They’re calling it Katrina: The Sequel.”
“Who’s calling it that.”
“Oh,” she paused briefly, “let’s see…Wolf Blitzer, Diane Sawyer. The black guy on NBC who used to be fat.”
“Grainne,” I laughed, “is this a joke? Is this because of that Leah person? Are you still mad at me?”
“Jeff, look online. You’ll see. It’s the top story of the Times.”
“Okay, give me a second.” I turned to my computer and clicked on the bookmark for The New York Times. The top story was about a bomb that went off in the parking lot of a newly opened Sunni marketplace. There was no mention of a storm. “Gran, stop it. This is bullshit. There’s nothing online about this. Nothing.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Jeff.” She sounded exhausted. It must have been a tough trip and I wasn’t making it any better. “Look, I mean, listen.” She held her cell phone to the window in order to let the sound of all that rain pour into the mouthpiece. It sounded like the crinkling of tissue paper. I looked again out the floor-to-ceiling windows lining the second floor of my office building; there was nothing but sun.
“Sorry, sweetie, but that’s not convincing me.”
“Fine,” she said. “Hang on.”
Grainne’s voice disappeared for a second and was replaced by various background noises and then the artificial shutter-click sound of her cell phone. I could then hear her fingers typing in my email address on the tiny keyboard. A few seconds later my computer beeped; the photo she’d beamed first to space and then back down to earth had arrived on my desktop. It took millions of years of evolution and hundreds of years of technological breakthroughs in order to make this small thing happen.
“Hang on, I just got your email.”
“Open it.” She sounded a bit mad. “You’ll see.”
I clicked on the email. There was no message, just an attachment.
The photo showed Grainne, looking not very happy, posing in front of a window in Heather’s kitchen. Behind her I could see a dark sky filled with clouds. The windows were soaked with rain, beaded up and dripping down. This was turning into a bad kidnapping movie; I uttered the standard dialogue. “That could have been taken any time.”
“Jeff, seriously, stop it.”
I didn’t speak and neither did she. I could hear her phantom storm; thunder and rain against the pane of glass she’d just posed in front of.
“Well,” I finally said, “I guess we’re not going to need those reservations for Amanda’s.”
“For Amanda’s. That restaurant in Hoboken we used to go to. They called earlier to confirm for tonight at eight. I didn’t make the reservation so I assumed you did. As a surprise.”
I could now hear Zachery begin to cry, gently at first but it soon escalated into one of his bouts of full-blown wailing.
“Look, Jeff, I have to go. I’m sorry to miss our anniversary but there’s nothing I can do. Okay? I love you. Bye.”
“Tomorrow, we’ll talk tomorrow.”
I was about to hang up when I heard Grainne add, “Oh, and Jeff? I didn’t make any reservation for Amanda’s.”
“Wait,” I said just as the line went dead. I hung up the phone.
Something didn’t feel right. If Grainne hadn’t made the reservation, and I hadn’t either, then who did? I began to think that it was somehow connected to the other strange events that had happened recently. Was my doppelganger beginning to steal my history and not just my credit cards? If I went out to Amanda’s tonight, would I find him sitting in a booth wearing a blue-checked shirt, convincing some poor girl that he was the one who’d written Our Noise and Geniuses of Crack? Having nothing better to do, I decided to go and find out.
It took me longer than usual to drive down to Hoboken. I had hoped to get there early so I could stake out the entrance and get a good view of everyone going in and out of the restaurant, but traffic heading into the Lincoln Tunnel had thwarted that plan. I didn’t hit Washington Street until well past eight. By the time I approached Tenth Street I could see, from the large two-faced clock that stood right outside the restaurant, that it was 8:12. My plan had been to find a parking space somewhere along Washington and then get a table for one at Amanda’s and see if I could spot my double. Instead, it was already past eight and I was stuck behind three cars at the stoplight at Ninth Street. That’s when I saw him.
Standing near the clock—or rather, it looked like he was trying to hide behind it—was a figure whose silhouette looked strangely familiar. He was tall, kind of thin, and was wearing jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The face of a black digital wristwatch—worn on his right hand—reflected light from a nearby streetlamp. He had dark hair, though not much of it. It was hard to tell how tall he was since he was hunched over, trying to appear inconspicuous although that behavior just made him stand out more. I then realized that this person was me; I was looking at myself.
I was stunned but managed to shake it off and tried to focus in on what the Jeff on the street was looking at. I followed the direction of his gaze and it led into the restaurant. In the window, in the second section of the restaurant—sitting in a booth that overlooked the street—I again saw myself. This version of me was sitting with Grainne. We were dressed nicely and smiling. Zachery was nowhere to be found. I seemed to be initiating a toast. Right after the glasses met, and they each took a sip, the driver behind me leaned on his horn. I don’t know how long the light had been green, but it must have been awhile.