Doppelgangers

“You have a double!”

It’s disconcerting when someone tells you this. An old friend nearly embraced a total stranger in Hyde Park. “At the very last moment I realised she wasn’t you at all. So embarrassing!”

My brother saw my absolute double on Antiques Roadshow. I managed to find the episode. Surely not, I thought. Perhaps I have faded to a pair of specs and a haircut.

But once it was serious. Disconcerting. Haunting.

San Antonio is a dot on the map near Highway 25, just south of Socorro, New Mexico. It is famous for two things, the Bosque del Apache Bird Sanctuary, and the green chile hamburgers at the Owl Cafe.

The Owl Cafe, known for green chile hamburgers

The first time Michael and I went south to the bird sanctuary, it was dusk. Whooping cranes, herons, ducks and other water birds were gliding down to spend the night in the trees of the Rio Grande. The last rays of sun glinted on the rocks as birds shuffled and carolled. But it was Sunday, and the famous cafe was closed.

We tried again on a Wednesday evening. Dozens of cars were parked outside, and only one table was free. We were about to sit down when a man at the adjoining table spread his arms out and said he was expecting a big party of friends. We stood back.

An elderly foursome nearby took pity on us. “Plenty of room at our table,” they said. “Please join us.” Gratefully, we did.

“Did you see the turkeys?” our rescuer asked, leaning towards us. We looked baffled. “You saw the deer at least,” she insisted. We said we hadn’t come from the bird sanctuary; we’d only just driven down from Socorro.

“That’s funny,” the woman said. “You look just like the couple who were following behind us in the Bosque.”

We smiled politely. We ordered beer and hamburgers with chile on the side.

Then another couple came in, dressed for a nature tour. The man had a beard. The woman, while younger and bigger than I am, was wearing similar glasses and a shade of turquoise that I like.

Our table mates, thrilled, motioned to the newcomers to join us too. “He combs his beard different, but it was an understandable confusion,” our rescuer said, as she explained the situation to the new couple.

They sat down, the man beside Michael and the woman next to me. The two guys were too embarrassed to look at each other, but the woman and I stared frankly and laughed. She had longer, curlier hair, and a robust laugh: she was a younger, brightly coloured, more outgoing version of me.

The elderly foursome picked up the conversation they’d tried to have with us. The new arrivals had not only seen the turkeys and the deer, but owls too. They revealed an interesting fact about themselves: they were brother and sister.

The hamburgers were very good.

As we drove home later, I remarked that we had been mistaken for quite an attractive couple. “If we must have doppelgangers, we could have done much worse,” I said. “What do you make of them being brother and sister? Is there some kind of incestuous attraction in our relationship, do you think?”

Michael didn’t know, but he agreed there was something unnerving about the experience. The other two were so bright and talkative, so vivacious. Beside them we were pale and no longer young. Our vision of ourselves had been turned upside down. My doubleganger, or wraith, Walter Scott wrote.

Who was whose double? “What if we’re not really who we think we are,” I wondered. “What if we’re only the doppelgangers of the couple in the cafe? They’re the real people and we’re the wraiths?”

It was winter, but winter alone did not account for an alarmingly cold feeling that started at the back of my skull and then crept down my spine, inch by shivery inch.

— PENELOPE NELSON

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