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The Other Car

by Paul Levinson 10 months ago in Sci Fi · updated 10 months ago
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Seeing Really Double

illustration by Joel Iskowitz

I came down the stairs from the sports club and saw two identical cars. This surprised me, because only one of the cars was mine. I owned only a single car, no one else in the family had a car, and in fact I had driven here in that one car -- a Prius hybrid I had bought about a year ago.

I looked more closely. Each of the two cars had the same license plate -- mine -- and they both had the same set of scuff marks on the rear left fender. One of the things I really liked about my Prius was how it unlocked automatically as I approached with its digital key in my pocket, but I couldn’t always hear the unlocking, especially in an active, noisy parking lot like this one. I pulled open the door of the car which I was sure was mine -- pretty sure, no, I was positive this was the space in which I had parked it about an hour ago, before my swim. There had been a big red Subaru next to it, on one side, and an empty space on the other.

The Subaru was still here, but now there was a Prius next to mine, identical to it from what I could see, in the space that had previously been empty. It had to be someone else’s, even though it looked the same as mine, down to the plate, unless I was suffering from some kind of strange double vision. I guess someone could have been playing some kind of weird joke on me, someone who had the capacity to make up a phony license plate, and took the time to scout out my car and put similar scuffs on the rear fender. But who? And why?

I wondered if the chip in my keychain had opened this second car. I was tempted to see, but there were other people in the parking lot, and I didn’t want the owner of this other car to see me breaking into it, if he or she came down the stairs or walked out of the elevator at the wrong time -- but, on the other hand, who could blame me, the two cars seemed exactly the same.

I took a step towards the second car--

And she appeared, as if on cue. I’d noticed her and her bathing suit getting out of the pool. She gave me a slight smile now and opened the door to her Subaru. I pretended I had some business on my phone, and waited by my car until she left.

I looked again at the second car -- still identical to mine -- when my phone buzzed, now with some real business. Donna, the secretary in my Philosophy Department at Fordham University, was saying in a message that a student, Dava Hernandez, had an urgent problem regarding her mid-year graduation in February, which was just a month away, and could I come in to my office to see this student right away. “Dava would really appreciate it, Professor Oleson, thank you!” Going into the office was the last thing I wanted to do with this cloned car in my face, but I do like helping my students, and there was an old book on my desk that I needed, so … But I couldn’t just leave that car.

I looked at the second Prius again, and continued debating with myself. I noticed a cop car had pulled up across the lot, likely to get a coffee at the Starbuck’s, and that settled my debate. No way I was going to take a chance and break into a car that looked just like mine but couldn’t be mine, with a cop just a few feet away. I waited a couple of minutes, anyway. But the officer looked like he was going to be on these premises for a while, sipping that hot latte or whatever it was at a snail's pace.

I took a quick photo of the second car -- I hope no one saw me -- as I pulled away in mine. The license plate that was on this second Prius was indeed mine, and those scuffs were in the exact same place as on my car. I shook my head. I’d be back in this parking lot tomorrow -- I went swimming every day -- and could wait until then to see if there was anything more going on with this doppelganger car, or if it was a one-time inexplicable event. Hey, I could even drive back here after I saw the student.

***

I helped Dava with her problem, but struggled not to think about the second car as I was dispensing advice. I hoped what I was saying made sense -- she seemed to think so -- certainly what I was thinking made no sense to me.

I sighed after she left, grabbed the book I needed, and made to leave. I’d been gone from that parking lot by the pool just a little more than an hour. There was a chance that car which looked exactly like mine was still there, if I hadn’t been imagining this whole experience in the first place. I checked the photograph I had taken -- nope, I hadn’t been imagining anything, unless I was imagining looking at this photograph. I proceeded down the stairs to my car. I patted it with affection -- this was my car -- and focused on what I might find by the pool.

I didn’t get very far. The book I had just taken from my office -- an old reprint edition of Albert Schwegler’s History of Philosophy that I had picked up years ago -- was also waiting for me in my car. Right next to me in the front seat. Not only the same edition, but with similar cracks on the olive green cover and the same yellowing on the edges of the pages. I looked through the two books. Both had brown spots on pages 16, 27, and 52, in the exact same places. I stopped looking and closed my eyes. First the two identical cars, now these two books. I wrapped my hands around the books and squeezed hard. No, I wasn’t imagining this.

What was going on? I had always thought it likely that my copy of Schwegler’s book, translated by Julius Seelye, was the only copy now in existence -- how many other copies of this 1888 translation of the German original, written years earlier, could there be? Libraries had probably discarded their copies more than half a century ago, and replaced them with more current histories of philosophy. I had purchased my copy for a dollar in a used book store near Bowdoin College in Maine in 2002, on a rare vacation trip. And now there were two copies in front of me, absolutely identical as far as I could see, down to the signature of the first owner, no doubt a student, one “Q. R. Smith, Bowdoin, ‘89,” who had written that inscription in what was now faded brown ink -- and was now in each of the books in front of me.

At least I had both books in my possession -- unlike the cars -- better proof than my photograph of the second car that this wasn’t all in my mind. Even if I’d thought to photograph both cars side by side -- which I wished I had -- photographs were photoshopped and faked all the time. And anyone who looked at the photograph I did have on my phone would no doubt say, right, it’s a photograph of your car. I was the only one who knew it was a photograph of a second car, identical to mine, right next to it in the parking lot.

But did I really know for sure that the second car, with or without the photograph, and these two books, were not just bizarre figments of my imagination? What had Samuel Johnson offered his biographer Boswell as proof that this world wasn’t just God’s dream? Kick that stone with my foot -- if it hurts, the world is real. Except the pain could have been part of God’s or Johnson’s or anyone’s dream, too -- just as these twin books on my car seat, and the two cars in the parking lot, could be part of mine. True, all too true, except every ounce of my shaken being was screaming this wasn’t a dream.

***

I slowly drove home -- too upset now to go back to the sports club -- with my hand on the two books, to make sure one didn’t disappear. I needed to show the books to Jennifer, my wife, and tell her what was going on. Except I didn’t know what was going on, certainly not the meaning of what I was seeing and now touching. But Jennifer had always been the more sensible of the two of us, her feet on the ground of medicine, an obstetrician, while my head was in the clouds of philosophy.

A crazed part of me wondered if I’d find that she, too, had split in two. Actually, that could be the least incredible of what I’d seen today -- that Jennifer had a secret identical twin sister that she’d been keeping to herself. I wondered if her twin would do exactly the same thing in bed …

I was relieved to find that there was no car in our driveway, no identical twin of my Prius. Jennifer took a bus home from the medical center where she worked -- it stopped about half a block from our house. I’d considered calling her and telling her about the cars and the books, but decided that this would be better done in person.

There were a pair of tulips in our garden -- I hadn’t noticed them before -- but some kinds of tulips did that, didn’t they, push up two flowers on one stem from a single bulb, right? Yeah, they were called multi-headed tulips, the way my own head was feeling right now.

Jennifer wasn’t home, not even a single version of her. My phone buzzed with email -- a message from Jennifer. It was a single message, but it said she was stuck with a patient expecting twins. This was quickly becoming a bad joke already, except the punchline was on me, because I was staring at the twin books on the kitchen table now -- the ones I had brought in from the car -- the two exact same copies of Schwegler’s History of Philosophy, down to the tear on the bottom right edge of page 61 in both books.

I had always found philosophy to be catnip for my mind -- I could easily lose myself in Seelye’s translation of Schwegler a thousandth time, read his cogent explanations of Kant that worked so well, and turn away from the world that seemed to be splitting in two around me. Cars, books--

I heard a sound at the door. It was the mailman pushing some envelopes through my door slot. Nothing surprising there. And if I did receive two pieces of identical mail, hey, that happened from time to time with mass mailings. I picked up my envelopes and looked through the window at the mailman.

No, not the mailman. The mailmen. There were two of them, and they looked exactly the same.

***

I yanked open the door. “Hey--,” I shouted out.

The twin mailmen turned around. “Is everything ok?” one of them responded. “I’m pretty sure I got it right this time, and didn’t give you anyone else’s mail.” He smiled.

“No, the mail is fine,” I said. “I didn’t know you were a twin.”

Both men gave me an odd look.

“I have twins in my family,” I lied, to explain my interest in these guys being twins.

They both nodded. “He’s a mail carrier, too,” one of them said. “We both like the same things.”

Right, not surprising that identical twins like the same things, I thought, but why had I seen nothing of this twin before now? I suppose that was not surprising, either -- but it certainly was incredible that I’d seen these twin mailmen the very same day as my two identical cars and two identical books, neither of which had existed in duplicate before, I was sure.

I was tempted to ask these mailmen if they had been twins before this instant -- but they would have just thought I was nuts. I did have an opportunity, unlike with the cars and the books, to talk to these guys and maybe get some inkling about what was going on here in my life.

But what could I say to them? They were starting to leave. “So, tell me the truth, do you switch off on each other’s routes?” I tried to think back over the four years we’d lived here. I’d had conversations with at least one of these guys from time to time, and I couldn’t recall any time he had not remembered something we’d discussed or joked about previously.

“Right, we do that all the time,” one of them replied, with a laugh, and the two turned and walked on to the next house.

I wondered what my neighbors, Jack and Susan Palmieri, would think of this. Would they be surprised by the twin mail carriers? Had they had just a single mailman until now, just as I had, and was their world now splitting apart, too? Somehow, I thought not.

Unfortunately, neither Jack nor Susan seemed to be home. The mailmen delivered their mail and walked on.

But I noticed Jack and Susan’s car was in their driveway -- maybe one or both of them was inside their house, after all, and just hadn’t come to the door. I might as well see if they were home, and talk to them if they were there.

***

Susan answered the door. She was dressed in jeans and a sweater and looked good. “James,” she said and smiled at me, as she bent down to pick up her mail. Something about her form was familiar -- yeah, her body reminded me of the woman in the bathing suit at the pool, the red Subaru driver. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? I put it out of my mind now -- thinking about my neighbor’s wife like this didn’t make sense, for all kinds of reasons.

“Uhm, this might sound like a stupid question,” I began. I decided to ask her a question that was anything but stupid, and could be crucial to my understanding what was happening to me.

She looked up from her mail. “Sure -- the kids ask me stupid questions all the time.” She flashed a bright smile.

“Well, I don’t know if you noticed the mailmen,” I replied, “but did you know they were twins? With all the mail fraud going on these days, and identity thefts, you can’t be too careful about who is delivering your mail.”

She gave me a strange look.

That was indeed a stupid point, I thought to myself -- what did twin mailmen have to do with identity theft? But the question was important -- did my neighbor know that the mailman had an identical twin? If she did, then what I had just seen was maybe just a wild coincidence, given the books and the cars. If not--

She shook her head no. “News to me,” she said, and walked out on to her driveway, and looked down the street. The twin mailmen were nowhere to be seen.

“Mommy!” her eight year-old daughter, Samantha, called out from inside. “Daniel took my cupcake!”

“I did not!” Daniel protested.

Susan gave me an apologetic look, and walked back into her house. Yeah, she definitely looked like the woman from the pool, from behind, too.

***

I walked back into my house, and hit the laptop -- I still preferred that to my phone when seeking maximum information.

A few minutes of searching brought up Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome -- but, other than the double vision, that syndrome had little in common with what I’d been experiencing. I had no loss of memory -- as far as I knew -- and no loss of muscle coordination, either. I looked in the mirror -- my eyelids weren’t drooping. I wasn’t an alcoholic -- I had maybe a glass or two of red wine a month. I had no vitamin B1 deficiency that I knew of -- one of the causes of this syndrome -- I took a multi-vitamin every day, and it had plenty of B1. I took the vitamin bottle out of the kitchen cabinet and checked -- yep, 1.5 milligrams of vitamin B1 in every pill, 100% of daily requirements, the label said. I was certain that I’d taken one of these pills after breakfast this morning, but I popped another in my mouth now just to be sure.

I thought again about memory loss. I guess that would explain why I’d seen the twin mailmen, with no recollection of seeing them before, if they had indeed come by only once in a while. If that’s what had happened, Susan’s not seeing them could just be the result of her not being home the few times the twins had made their deliveries.

But I looked again at the two copies of Schwegler. Unless I was flat out psychotic and hallucinating, the two identical copies were clearly in front of me now. Hallucinations were unfortunately one of the symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome, but how could I prove these two identical books were or were not an hallucination? Go back to Susan and ask if she saw one or two copies of Schwegler? If she hadn’t thought I was out of my mind about the mailmen, asking her about the two books would definitely seal it. And whatever she said, that could be part of my hallucination, too. There was no escaping the tentacles of the Johnson-Boswell infinite regress when it came to this.

I shook my head and tried another tack. I looked up real, undeniable examples of doubling. They were everywhere -- binary fission of bacteria and single-celled organisms happened all the time. And bilateral symmetry in higher-level organisms was every place you looked -- we humans had two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two cheeks, two breasts, and lots of other parts of our bodies that came in pairs. Those twosomes all started out the same in the fetus, before the wear and tear of living took its toll and made one arm a little different from the other, one ear lobe pierced, and gave each member of the pair its own identity.

So what was I? Someone experiencing double vision illusions or a true binary division of the world into some kind of alternate? If I was indeed at the center of a world undergoing binary fission, that would be a new wrinkle in the Gaia hypothesis that the world was a single, unified organism. Was I some kind of witness to a bilateral symmetry beginning to emerge in the reality all around me?

One thing I was sure of: if that was what was happening, if reality itself was starting to split in two, if that’s what the cars and the books and the mailmen were all about, I was an unwilling witness in the extreme. I never volunteered for this. I wanted no part of the world’s partition.

And if “this” -- whatever exactly that was -- was really happening -- wasn’t that crazier, sicker, far more insane, than any kind of psychosis or mental syndrome?

I shook my head again, to clear it of some of these desperately complex cobwebs, and only barely succeeded. I looked again at the two identically worn Schwegler books -- they were my best proof, my only proof in hand, that I wasn’t hallucinating. I picked up the two books. Or, if I was hallucinating, this was far more than a visual hallucination -- something far more profound than an optical illusion, psychotic or otherwise.

I put the books down and exhaled. I needed more evidence. I looked at the clock on my kitchen wall. It was only about two hours since I’d been at the pool, even though it felt like a lifetime ago. But there was still a chance that the other car which looked just like mine, down to the license plate and the scrapes on the fender, was still there in the parking lot.

***

It was 12-minute drive from my home to the sports club, exactly 12 minutes, I’d timed it many times. I took the two copies of Schwegler with me, I didn’t want to let them out of my sight and grasp. I thought over my situation, this impossible situation, as I drove. Was I really at the center, the nucleus, of reality splitting in two? Egotistical, I know, but I preferred that to being insane. And if reality was indeed undergoing some kind of binary split, and it was for some reason starting with me, or what was happening around me, what would happen when the split was complete, when the fission had yielded two realities where previously there had been only one? Would there be two versions of me -- two “me”s, one in each reality? And would we start out exactly the same, perfect duplicates, two grown clones, but gradually go our slightly separate ways, maybe like two legs, one of which had a scar and the other not?

I pulled into the sports club parking lot. A Japanese gentleman -- whom I’d seen many times in the pool -- was opening the door of his car. Thank goodness he had no twin -- or, if he had, the twin wasn’t with him now. I drove carefully around the lot, very carefully, but there was no other car there like mine, not even another Prius. I was waiting for the other car to drop, an irreverent part of my brain piped up. I told it to shut up. Then I began to rejoice -- there was no other Prius! None like mine or anyone else's in the parking lot! Maybe the vitamin B was working! Then I looked at the two copies of Schwegler’s book on my seat. No, this aspect of the binary fission, at least, was still very much in evidence, down to that Q. R. Smith on two pages in two books in the same place in faded brown ink.

I always kept an extra bathing suit in my car. Why not go upstairs to the pool for a swim? It would clear my head -- I did some of my best thinking with it briefly underwater. I did ten laps, breaststroke. I’d left the books on a towel on a lounge chair by the pool, so I could see them when I was swimming. I climbed out of the pool, dried off, and took the books to my locker. I dressed quickly.

Two men were having a conversation about going to the Daily Double at Yonkers Raceway tonight, which caught my attention.

“I was going to bet on Enchanted Pair. But the temperature’s supposed to drop like a stone,” one of the men said. “Will it be too cold for the horses to run?”

The other man laughed. “The horse is a North American animal -- they don’t give a damn about the cold.”

I was tempted to point out that horses actually came from the steppes of Asia, but no one had asked for my opinion. Then I thought, hey, for all I know, maybe I’m in an alternate reality already, and in this reality horses originated in North America. Great. The swim had been relaxing, but had made me no less insane, if that’s what I was.

I walked quickly down the stairs to my car. There was just one car. I drove around the parking lot again, very slowly. Still no other cars exactly like mine, no other Priuses at all. I began to drive home. Maybe whatever had been happening -- to me, to reality, to both -- was subsiding. But I still had the twin books on the car seat.

***

I passed by the Jelly Fish, a summer sports store on the corner, closed now, and that got me thinking. What did an amoeba feel when it split in half? It was a blob of jelly, and it had no feelings, not even any perceptions, the way higher animals did. All that an amoeba knew of its world is what it bumped into at any instant. But if the amoeba had a mind, what would it be thinking when it split in half? Would it suddenly have two separate trains of thought, both going back to a common source, the amoeba before it split?

What would I experience, would I be thinking, if I somehow split in half -- if the cars, the books, the two mailmen were the beginning of a mitosis I was already undergoing? Would I end up with two streams of perceptions and thoughts at the same time? No, that would be crazy. Really crazy. Crazier by a greater order of magnitude than what I’d been going through today. I patted the two Schweglers on the seat and laughed ruefully to myself. Crazy? I was already there with these books and everything that had been happening these past few hours. I needed to speak to Jennifer. She was a doctor -- she’d know what to do. I tried her again on the phone and got voicemail. She was likely still tied up with those twins -- real twins, a sarcastic part of my brain said, in my mother’s voice.

I pulled into my empty driveway. No mailmen were in sight. The two tulips were still in the garden, but they were by far the least extraordinary of the pairs I’d been encountering.

I took the books with me, and went upstairs to shower. Yeah, a nice long shower, to wash off the chlorine and soothe my mind some more. Showers, like swimming, were always conducive to some of my best thinking. I put the two Schweglers on the bed, and stroked them, almost protectively. I’d always loved the book, but this was something more. The two identical volumes, with the same exact flecks on the spines, were somehow sweet proof that maybe I wasn’t crazy. No, nothing was sweet about this. But these two books were my touchstones of reality, such as it now was for me.

***

The hot shower felt good, just as I’d expected. There was something not only cleansing but generative about water. It was after all the place in which in we, all individuals and I guess all life, were born. Now, as the water and the steam enveloped me, I wondered if some other rendition of me was also taking a shower, also enjoying the hot water right now. I suppose there could be an infinite number of “me”s right now, but would we each be taking a shower, or doing different things? The key was not really the number, and what each of us might have been doing, but what knowledge we might have of these other, alternate lives. As Schwegler explained so clearly, Kant had said that there were aspects of existence, maybe the deepest aspects, that were so far from our perception that we could never really know them at all -- the “thing-in-itself,” was the usual translation, meaning, the object, the reality, that existed underneath whatever perception we may have had of it. But, as Ernst Haeckel had remarked about a hundred years after Kant, if some deep aspect of reality existed that we could never have any knowledge of at all, what did it matter, why even bother to think and talk about it?

I vigorously shook my head no -- this bifurcation, this binary fission that I seemed to be experiencing in some way, was something I was very much aware of. That was precisely the problem--

My phone was ringing. Could be Jennifer. I stepped out of the shower, grabbed a towel, and went for the phone, which I had left on the bathroom sink.

“Honey,” it was Jennifer, “had a hell of a day, but I’m just about finished here. I see you called?”

“Yeah,” I said. “How about dinner at Taverna?” I knew I didn’t want to tell her about my worse than hellish day on the phone – difficult conversations always went down better over dinner.

“Sounds wonderful, I’m famished,” Jennifer said. “Those twins took a long time coming out, but all’s well that ends well.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “I love you.”

“Me too,” Jennifer said. “I should be home in about 45 minutes.”

“Great -- see you then,” I said.

***

I finished toweling, and put on some fresh clothes. That shower and Jennifer’s call had done me a lot of good. I felt better than I had felt since I’d first seen that other car, exactly like mine, at the sports club. That felt like a long time ago, now.

I put on my pairs of socks and shoes. They were identical twins, too -- no, come to think of it, the socks were identical but not the shoes. Anyway, unlike the books, the socks had been identical from the get-go. I looked at my bed. I hadn’t thought about the two identical Schwegler books since I’d walked into the shower. I’d left the two copies on the bed. There was just one book there now.

***

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This meant, what, that my world was not actually splitting in two and that I had indeed been suffering some kind of profound hallucination that included holding two books in my hand, when there really had been only one? And this insane illusion had ended now, why, because the extra vitamin I had taken had finally been absorbed by my system and had its recuperative effect?

I looked around the room, under the bed, frantic to find the second book -- no, this was not a time to be frantic but happy, relieved, that this psychotic double vision had apparently ended. I looked under the bed a second time. Nothing there but dust and a stray piece of paper or two. I should be jumping up and down with joy about this -- yes, this was good. That had to be right. I’d had a mental episode of some unfathomable kind, gone postal with the mailmen and the books and the cars for a couple of hours, but that had been corrected by the vitamin B. I’d talk to Jennifer about all of this over dinner -- maybe all I needed was some vitamin therapy.

I took the single copy of Schwegler in my hand, and walked slowly downstairs. There were tears in my eyes now. What a day, what a day. Is this the way it started for people who lost their minds? I didn’t know. I still didn’t feel that I’d lost my mind, at all, today. Was that all part of the syndrome?

It had all begun with that other car, identical down to the scrapes in the paint job to mine. I put on a coat -- it was beginning to get really cold outside -- and gave my car a close examination. It was the only car in my driveway, that was good. And it seemed no different from the way it had been, none the worse for it apparently having been the victim of a clone. No, a clone of my mind’s own making, if all that I had been suffering today was not the birth of a second reality but just a slicing of my perception.

I breathed in deeply and looked around. No double mailmen on the street, either. I guessed that if I waited here until tomorrow’s mail delivery, all I’d see was one mailman. My neighbor Susan must have thought I was having some kind of mental lapse -- I hope I hadn’t overly disconcerted her with my questions.

I looked up and down the street and turned back to the house. Wait-- what about the photograph of the second Prius I had taken at the sports club? I’d forgotten about that -- would it be gone too? I reached into my pocket for my phone--

But I saw something on the street in the periphery of my vision. It was a car coming around the corner. Damn, it was a Prius, just like mine.

Okay, okay, there were lots of Prius’s in Westchester. I needed to calm down. I stood on my doorstep and watched the approaching car.

It was indeed just like mine. I tried not to look at the driver, or if there were any passengers. But I couldn’t turn away. Would this car pull into my driveway, right next to mine? Who the hell was driving it?

My eyes were on the driver. But I saw Jennifer sitting next to him. Had someone with a Prius, a colleague doctor, given her a ride home?

No, that wasn’t it. I looked at the driver. He looked at me. Our eyes locked for a minute. I needed a photo of this. I shoved the phone in front of my face and snapped. There was a huge bright flash, even though it was broad daylight--

And I drove on, with Jennifer clutching my hand.

###

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About the author

Paul Levinson

Novels include The Silk Code & The Plot To Save Socrates; LPs Twice Upon A Rhyme & Welcome Up; nonfiction includes Fake News in Real Context, The Soft Edge, & Digital McLuhan translated into 15 languages. Details here. Prof, Fordham Univ.

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