Meeting myself kept me from jumping off the Keystone Bridge. It was a dark day. Most were, but this one was especially bad. She was on a tear, hopped up on something new and convinced I was the source of every bad thing life handed her. She had started with shrieking and ended by ripping a clump of hair from my head, lighting it with her Zippo and throwing it on me, sneering, "That's what it will smell like when you're burning up into nothing."
I was 11. I was not going to be doing this at 12. I was leaving that night.
Most children in stories like this usually get dead parents. If only I were so lucky. I only got one dead parent, and the one left was not fit for public consumption. I called her M, because she lost access to the rest of the letters the first time she kicked me in the stomach. I was four. Listen, not everyone is meant to be a mother, I get it. There are the obvious crazies; the psychopaths, sadists and narcissists. Others merely lack the gene, and are more cut out for dog fighting or adult dancing. Something with a shorter shelf life than 18 years, either because you go to jail or your knees give out. Everyone always says you need a license to drive, but not to have a baby. Hilarious, really. Even if licensing were a requirement, M would breeze her way around the legalities of it. Her beauty was flashy but felt natural and hypnotizing on her, with a slash of red lipstick that looked like a scar to me but the beginning of something delightfully sordid to those who were not me. She used her face and body to her every advantage, and mostly I just got in the way. Broke the spell too often and paid the price.
I slept in a closet she kept locked at night, legs pulled up because stretching them meant walking them up the wall, and they'd be almost too sore to walk the next day. That wouldn't do when I never knew if I'd need to run. The carpet smelled of smoke and was gummy with an invisible layer of despair that threatened to stick to you forever. Or at least that's what I thought. In the closet I could hear everything. I didn't understand what all the words meant. I was pretty facile with drugs at this point, but the sounds made my stomach hurt terribly, and ruined every innocent screen crush I was just starting to develop. Is this what people do? I never wanted to have to make those sounds. Little did I know it was heading for me, that soon I would be a high-ponied object of desire in a horrible motel next to a 7-11 that was always out of Coke Slurpee. And she would be right there egging it on.
It was in the closet that I would press my face up against the farthest wall so hard I was certain my face would permanently flatten. It was what I called looking for a crack. A place to shrink into. This dump was far too cheap for magical wardrobes, but I still had a vivid dream life then. I believed there were openings everywhere for people who really need a break. Phone booths for the super, secret doors in retaining walls for children who needed a real mother. When my break finally came it was unexpected, and maybe that's how openings work. Half asleep, I rolled smoothly into a room that immediately smelled like cinnamon and real Christmases.
I was on the softest carpet ever made, in a room I didn't recognize, M was not here, I didn't know if I'd been kidnapped. I didn't know if being kidnapped might be preferable. As I pondered this a hand reached out from a canopy bed a few feet away and turned on a lamp. It was a beautiful carousel horse lamp with a magical umbrella shade. It looked eerily like one I'd wanted desperately years ago, when I still hoped for things instead of exit routes. I had no idea what was going on. But I wasn't scared. That was the one advantage I held, would always hold: I'd already seen the scariest things, so the basic unknown was often just a head scratcher rather than a reason to panic.
As soon as the room was flushed with a soft pink light that I already wished was the color of everything, a girl about my age looked at me with a furrowed brow. Immediately I knew she wasn't just about my age. I dropped my head and exhale-laughed. I'd always hoped something like this would happen. I knew it. I knew. I was adopted. I started to cry, softly, which didn't happen often; didn't happen at all anymore, really. My real family had finally come to get me. This could be my carpet.
"Who are you," the little girl in the violet flannel nightgown asked.
"It appears that I'm you," the little girl in the too-small Speed Racer t-shirt and kneeless cords responded.
She looked at me very closely, eyes widening, and that's when my plan to jump off a bridge became a distant memory and the entire galaxy fell apart.
Of course she sounded like an otherworldly princess, with a name you'd give your unicorn.
I was oddly embarrassed about my own name, thinking it sounded like the classiest preteen in the trailer park, but offered it anyway.
"Gemini," I whispered, awkwardly sticking my hand out, then quickly pulling it back after realizing she was still across the room. Like I said, classy.
The quiet was getting weird. I hadn't moved from my criss-cross position on the unrealistically soft carpet, so a serious and determined Tamsen flung back her covers, slipped her feet into slippers and padded up close to me. She glided down in front of me like a feather and I sat dead still as she silently inspected me, gently feeling my face and combing my hair with fairy wing fingers, even though I don't usually let people touch me. Although my brain only had 11 years on it, and I was not loved, I possessed some facility with science and was precocious enough to know that something crazy special and electromagnetically weird was going on. We were identical. We were not from the same place.
The air was crackling in this unfamiliar world as she sat looking for shared freckles and scars and softness. She'd find the scars, but would have to look very hard for any soft edges. Inspection should have felt weirder than it did. This all should have felt weirder than it did, but as soon as Tamsen grabbed my hand I felt an immediate warmth and peace within my mind and heart, as if all the bad wiring within my brain was repaired; synapses finally started firing in the right direction and the leering, sweaty ghosts were served notice. She had the power to pass information to me like wordless little brain notes, sealed with an unlikely bond. I felt things as they could and should be. My head was being made right. We laughed until we cried and it all felt so completely normal that I'd fallen through a hole in the universe and found myself. I reached out and hugged her, something new for me. An alternate version of myself was the first friend I'd ever had.
Even now I still remember the terrifying delight at seeing her face up close. Sometimes when you're handed change at the corner store you find coins that are all scraggly on one side and completely unblemished on the other, as if only one side ever had the duty of payment. Tamsen was the shimmering side of our same old coin. From the moment we met I knew she wasn't just another me, but a me from a dream I rarely dared to dream, loved and cared for and fed. Her hair, clean and shiny, swung over her shoulder in a sleek braid with no flyaway bits, even mid-sleep. She beamed a smile we couldn't possibly share. She contained years of possibility in this one small moment, and erased all that had gone before. She was perfect. And talkative, it turned out. She asked me a million questions, talking so fast I could barely keep up. My own questions threatened to tumble out in a hysterical mess. She wanted to compare every note that hadn't yet been taken. Her rapid fire queries were interspersed with moments of silent awe and squeals of disbelief. We spent time in front of the hallway mirror, sticking out our tongues, scrunching our noses and measuring the depth of our dimples with pinkies that undoubtedly shared the same fingerprint.
Tamsen asked if I could stay the night, but I wasn't sure if the idea of M finding an empty closet was a good thing. Yet I was desperate to stay, to never leave her or the seaside or this planet or wherever I was ever again. In compromise I told her I could stay just a while longer, and we went downstairs for a snack. I was starving, as usual. Food was usually a scarce resource for me. Being left without it for days at a time had become commonplace, with me rationing a stashed packet of Skittles, or stick of butter in the fridge. It was hard living and I was a wiry little thing, smaller than most in my class (when I made it to class). I used to tell myself maybe M rarely noticed me between explosions in temper because I was so small. She must have forgotten I was there, and that's why she left me for so long. That's why there was no food, and why I had to hide under the bed sometimes on rent day when the landlord let himself in to have a look around. I'd lay quiet as a mouse and watch his dirty work boots travel around the small space and thank the stars that I was so small. Too big might have meant big trouble.
We settled on popsicles, which seemed a fine early morning snack to me. I had no idea what time it was, or how time even worked here or anywhere anymore. I locked eyes with her and asked if she knew what was happening, really, and she shook her head, looking genuinely perplexed. I knew she was telling the truth just as surely as if I'd answered myself. I did consider that maybe I had just died. Pushed the wrong buttons with M for the last time and this was the space between. "Am I dead," I asked Tamsen. She giggled and whispered no. I didn't think that was a funny question, but things were obviously more clear to her. I was starting to get sleepy. "Am I on earth," I asked. No laughter this time. Just confusion and the sound of her breathing. My breathing. I didn't know if I cared to figure out the particulars. I wanted to just enjoy the moment without loud people with louder fists. If I were in fact alive I'd face those things soon enough.
We talked quietly as we licked and freezed our brains and she told me about this small slice of her world, a bustling little village not far from town, where she and her father lived in this heavenly modern cottage looking out over the swirling sea, where they farmed some and raised horses. Her father, Sidon, was a fisherman in some seasons and sheriff in all of them. I tried to imagine what he was like. A man of the law and of the sea, who tamed horses and loved a little girl like me. A man who did right. I imagined what it might be like to have a father who learned how to braid hair like that. Fishermen do have an advantage working with rope and knots, I suppose. As if mere pondering were a summons, we heard a noise at the top of the stairs and a deep, hacking cough. She failed to mention how early he greeted the day. I panicked, threw my popsicle toward the sink and dove behind a chair. I usually have hiding spots picked out in every room I enter so I was prepared for this eventuality, but I was still terrified. Peeking out I could see Tamsen standing there, popsicle dripping down her hand, mouth slack, as her father entered the kitchen full of bluster and excitement. He didn't seem to notice her fugue state.
"Tamsen, Tamsen! My sweet tiny dove of electric magic, I had the most dazzling dream! I was out in the deep and a trio of mermaids called to me, 'Sidon, Sidon, come live with us in a palace made of fool's gold and silvery shells,'" he said. He still didn't seem to notice her agitation or shock as he spoke of his temptation to live forever with his three watery brides, all with different shades of gossamer hair. He tore a hunk of bread from a loaf in a handwoven basket, grabbed some cheese, started brewing some coffee and sat down to start his breakfast. It was from this vantage that I realized my poor choice in hiding spot, as it was no longer possible to remain unseen. And saw me he did. Fear gripped me. He carefully sat down his bread and his cheese. He stared. Hard. He looked at Tamsen. And then he did the oddest thing. He started to cry.
"Daddy," Tamsen cried. "Oh, Daddy, you're not going mad. I can explain." And even though she couldn't explain, not even a little bit, she ran to his side, clutching him tightly, helping to dry his eyes. This sort of familial scene was all so unfamiliar to me and for the first time I felt uncomfortable.
He finally dried his eyes, swiveling his head between both of us until I thought it might pop off. Finally he beckoned me toward him, and I slowly approached the table. He pointed to a seat, and I sat, preparing for a smack that did not come. His eyes and face softened and his breath hitched as he spoke.
"How are things going in your universe?"