“Man is not truly one, but two.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
“Sit down, Alex," the doctor told me.
“Thank you, Charles. Please, don’t beat around the bush, just tell me what you have to say.”
“Well, here are the results of the CAT scan. I have good news and bad news...”
Sarah. Sarah Arbogast, that’s the name she gave me. Hard information to get out of her because of her extreme shyness. In retrospect, I don’t know how real that shyness was, or if it was nothing more than a sheepskin covering a fierce wolf. As soon as I met her, I had the distinct impression that beneath that dull and gray exterior lurked a tumultuous and complex inner world, full of traps and chasms waiting to exert their attraction on an unwary and eagerly curious explorer.
As a journalist, one of my duties is to try to be objective and impartial in the face of a set of facts, to make a kind of synthesis, present it before the public, let them draw their conclusions, and form their own opinions. This is something very complicated to achieve. And it becomes more complicated when we are in the center of events and can hardly believe our own memories, but I can try.
I had been commissioned to interview a prominent politician who had recently published his memoirs. I had a copy of his book, but the gentleman in question was no stranger to the practice of making his prose available on bookstore shelves. I wanted to be prepared, to have the means to ask incisive questions, to confront the man’s thoughts and actions, and to get as accurate a picture as possible of the man they called one of the greatest statesmen of the century.
That’s how I met her. Sarah Arbogast. A woman of thirty, body of a girl of twenty, dressed like an old woman of sixty. I should have guessed there was something wrong with her. Getting her name out of her cost me several trips to the bookstore where she worked, using more or less lame excuses to make conversation. Not bothering to be discreet, I tried to find out more about her by questioning her colleagues but could find out little else. Having always kept a professional distance, one day she confessed to me her admiration for my interest in her. From my own experience, which is not that vast, I admit without any compunction whatsoever, I know that a decent, honest woman with whom it is worth having a relationship, at whatever level, goes to a disco to have fun, to be with friends, to dance, and not to meet men. A woman who goes to a disco to meet men doesn’t interest me in the least. All my relationships with women began after meeting them, in a purely casual way, in supermarkets, concerts, exhibitions, movies, and, of course, in bookstores. Since then my theory has been seriously shaken up, partly because of Sarah, but at the time it made a lot of sense to me. I just told her that I thought she was pretty and nice. She didn’t seem very convinced.
Whenever work allowed me, I would wander aimlessly through the streets of Saint Paul, invariably ending up inside the bookstore where Sarah worked. I spent a lot of money during that time, but today I can be proud of having a nice library.
The turning point came when one of the security guards, who had had his eye on me for some time, wanted to get rough with me. Until then, Sarah had ignored my advances with Olympian stoicism. Just as I was about to put into practice the Krav Maga techniques I had learned in my correspondent days in Israel, Sarah stepped in and put an end to the incident.
“You just saved a life.”
“He’s just a bully," she said, “I couldn’t let him hurt you.”
“I meant the security guard, you just saved his life.”
That’s how I got the first smile out of her.
It took some time, but I managed to convince her to let me take her out to lunch. It was more of an ambush than a proper invitation. I asked her if she would prefer that I follow her around like a neurotic dog, or if she would be better off allowing me to be a gentleman and share a meal with me in a civilized manner. During lunch, Sarah maintained the same attitude of disbelief about my interest in her.
“You’re not married, are you? At least you don’t wear a wedding ring...”
“No, I’m not married.”
One night when I left the newsroom late, I went to Nikita and refresh my thoughts with a White Russian. At the third Caucasian, a woman approached me, wanting to offer me a drink. She wanted to know my name, introduced herself as Jacqueline, and asked me if I preferred at her place or mine. On her left shoulder, she had a tattoo, a stylized representation of Janus, the god of the two faces.
Jacqueline was aggressive in bed, not shy in the use of her nails and teeth, leaving me marked like a bear attack victim. Only when her insatiability allowed me a break could I watch her more closely. It didn’t take me long to realize that the familiarity of her face was due to her unusual resemblance to Sarah Arbogast, the shy bookseller who couldn’t say two words in a row without blushing. It reminded me of those movies where the dull, gray protagonist undergoes an extreme make-over and becomes an attractive, sexy woman overnight. If the woman before me in my bedroom was not the red-haired, make-up-wearing, short dress, and high heels Sarah, then it could only be her twin sister, a sister diametrically opposed in terms of personality and demeanor. However, I must admit that I was feeling exhausted and somewhat touched by alcohol that evening, so I could very well just be seeing what I wanted to see. It was, perhaps, an excuse invented by my subconscious to redeem myself from the fact that I had done something I was proud of not doing: going to bed with a woman I had just met in a bar...
The fact that my relationship with Sarah didn’t seem to be going anywhere left me frustrated and permeable to slips of incoherence. Every encounter with her was like one of those interviews that journalists like to forget.
What little I knew of her life came down to this: her father had abandoned her mother when she was six months pregnant, and so the two had a very close relationship. Too close, it seemed to me, since Sarah was not allowed to go out at night, much less date. Her mother feared, perhaps, that the same thing that had happened to her would happen to her daughter. It took a Herculean effort on my part to make Sarah imagine a different life. She was a grown woman with a steady job and higher education, and it wouldn’t be hard for her to get a small apartment and live in freedom.
As if I wasn’t confused enough already, days later I ran into Jacqueline again at Nikita’s. Later, in my bed, Jacqueline told me a story with similar elements: the absent father, the protective and controlling mother who forbade her to go out at night, to date, or to wear revealing clothes. However, Jacqueline was not as passive as Sarah. She bought miniskirts and low-cut blouses, kept them in her locker at school or friends’ houses, and left the house in her mother-approved clothes, changing them for clothes more to her liking.
“When I wanted to go out at night, I would make up study sessions at the homes of friends whose mothers were more understanding than mine and went along with our lies...” she confided to me, laughing at her mother’s naivety.
One gray winter day at lunch, Sarah told me, without being able to hide her pride, that she had told her mother that she was going out to dinner that night and that she didn’t know what time she would be back home.
“And what was her reaction?”
She had started by forbidding it outright and, seeing that it wouldn’t work, tried emotional blackmail, but when Sarah threatened to leave home to go live on her own, the lady reconsidered and "allowed" her, giving her a series of absurd pieces of advice that we laughed ourselves to tears about.
We had dinner at Casagrande, Italian food washed down with red wine, took a walk by the Arion, and ended the meeting at my place, drinking coffee and listening to music.
In one of those moments of awkward silence that always come in the middle of a conversation, I took her in my arms and kissed her tenderly and longingly. I led her from the sofa to the bedroom, where she sat on the bed with her hands on her knees, looking around as if searching for an emergency exit. As soon as I started undressing, Sarah mimicked me without facing me, blushing and continuing to look around.
“You are a virgin, right?” I asked her, both of us lying on the bed, she on the left side, me on the right.
“What do you think?” was her answer, in a neutral tone that now seems to me a good way to have evaded my question.
I took it easy, trying to make her experience as less painful as possible, stroking and kissing her while carefully penetrating her in the missionary position. I had the presence of mind to put a towel under her, not only thinking of her comfort but also my Egyptian sheets.
After returning to the room from the bathroom, I congratulated myself on the idea when I noticed a small spot of blood in the middle of the towel. I asked her if it had hurt much, to which Sarah replied that it hadn’t. Not only had it not hurt, but she immediately wanted to do it again. This time I made her lie on her stomach and penetrated her from behind, smelling her hair and neck, suddenly realizing that Sarah had the same body type as Jacqueline, her look-alike, a certain athletic leanness and a tinged skin tone, the difference being that the bookseller did not have Janus, the god of the two faces, tattooed on her left shoulder.
Sarah left around midnight. Before long, my mind, hitherto entertained, was again devoted to the idea that Sarah and Jacqueline were the same woman. How then to explain the tattoo? It could be one of those temporary decals that come off easily in the shower. The same was true of Jacqueline’s red hair. What about Sarah’s blood on the towel, proof of her virginity? I hadn’t noticed the stain until I returned from the bathroom, and when I washed myself I hadn’t noticed any blood on my penis. Sarah might have learned, not from her mother, obviously, but from some older classmate or a more knowledgeable neighbor, or even in a book, an ancient trick used by countless women over the centuries to prove that they were pure on their wedding night. In my late mother’s village, where the bride and groom were expected to display the tarnished sheet in public the next day, the "impure" women used nail polish to simulate the proof of deflowering.
Sick and tired of wrapping my head around stupid theories, not least because it was twenty past midnight and I had to get up early, I jumped out of bed, put on my pajamas, threw the stained towel in the laundry basket, and lo and behold, in the middle of brushing my teeth someone rang the doorbell. Maybe she had forgotten something and came back...
“I didn’t see you at Nikita’s, I was worried that you were cheating on me with another woman," Jacqueline said, with a joking face. “I can come in, can't I?” she said, without waiting for an invitation.
“I like your dress," I said, somewhat ironically.
“You really like it? It’s a wedding dress I bought in a second-hand clothing store. I just had to do a little work here and there, dye it black, et voilà!”
“Look, Jacqueline, you’ll excuse me, but I need to get up early tomorrow, I’m going to Saint Andrew’s to interview some crazy asshole who is going to form a new political party...”
“Just admit that you’re dating another woman and I promise not to set your car on fire," said Jacqueline, laughing out loud.
“Jacqueline...” I said, letting out a tired sigh.
“I’m just kidding, I’m leaving, baby boy needs his sleep... but I’ll take these gloves," she said, picking up a pair of black gloves that were on the living room table. “And look, they fit me perfectly!” she declared, triumphantly, as she put on the right glove, sticking out her tongue at me before slamming the door.
The headaches had started a month before I met Sarah. Since then, they had been intensifying to the point that on some days I couldn’t even look at the computer screen. A phone call to my friend Charles Mallory was enough for him to welcome me to his office at the MacLaren Institute. He tried to cheer me up, saying that it was probably nothing. Still, he prescribed me migraine medication and gave me a credential for a CT scan, more out of conscience than concern. A few weeks later, Charles gave me the good news and the bad news: the brain tumor was malignant but operable. He would arrange for me to have the surgery scheduled for the following month.
That same day, I met Sarah for lunch. Before I could open my mouth, Sarah asked me accusingly who was that woman she had seen entering my apartment the night we had made love, barely twenty minutes after she had left.
“I was waiting for the bus when I realized that I had forgotten my gloves. I turned back, and as I was leaving the elevator, I saw a woman with red hair, dressed as if for a funeral, entering your apartment...”
At that moment, and without knowing exactly why, I remembered the ruse Jacqueline used in her high school days to fool her mother by leaving clothes hidden in the school locker or at friends’ houses, changing outfits after she left, and changing again before she returned home. And the gloves...! They had fit Jacqueline perfectly as if they were her own...
”Listen, Sarah, or Jacqueline, or whatever your name is, I don’t know what wicked little game you’re trying to play with me... It was fun at first, I admit, but I think you’re going a little far from-”
“How dare you!” said Sarah, standing up. “I’m the one playing wicked games with you!? My mother was right, I should have listened to her and not you!”
I never saw Sarah Arbogast again. I asked about her at the bookstore, however, and a colleague told me that he hadn’t seen her since she resigned. I was also not surprised that I could not find Jacqueline at Nikita, or wherever.
The surgery went well, the tumor was removed without any problems, and the recovery went smoothly. I decided to keep my head shaved after convalescence, not only because my baldness was becoming more and more evident, but because I liked my new look. Moreover, the scar had not only not disfigured me, so to speak, but seemed to have made me more interesting in the eyes of the fair sex. I continued to be followed at the MacLaren Institute by the neurosurgeon who had operated on me and my friend Charles Mallory.
During my conversations with Charles about the Sarah/Jacqueline affair, I confided in him that I had consulted the birth records at Central Saint Paul Hospital. Sarah Arbogast had been brought into the world on an emergency basis, narrowly escaping death, having been far more fortunate than her twin sister, who was born dead. This led me to formulate two hypotheses: Sarah and Jacqueline were the same person, the latter being a projection of the former, a form of defense, a sort of shield to help her relate to me and the opposite sex, the older sister she never had manifesting through her. In short, Sarah Arbogast and Jacqueline Hyde, as Charles had christened her, referring to Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous book, were the same woman with two distinct personalities, one daytime and one nighttime, and a single body. The second hypothesis postulated that Sarah and Jacqueline were different people and the physical similarities that made them clones of each other were due to an incredible coincidence. It could also be the case that their father had impregnated two different women and they were half-sisters.
”Maybe there is a third possibility," Charles said after listening to me carefully.
The severe headaches, which would turn out to be a symptom of the brain tumor I was later diagnosed with, had started a month before I met Sarah Arbogast, a sexually repressed, introverted woman who had little outside charm. Almost immediately, Jacqueline, a wilder, unabashed version of the bookseller, comes on the scene.
“Now, there are two possibilities: Sarah Arbogast was a real person, with whom you had a somewhat dull, not to say boring, relationship, and your sick brain, perhaps the tumor afflicting it, created Jacqueline Hyde, a completely different person in every respect, a perfect corollary of poor Sarah. The opposite is more unlikely, that is, Sarah being created as a counterpoint to Jacqueline, not least because she was the first to appear in your life...”
That left what seemed to be the most logical explanation: Sarah and Jacqueline were either products of my imagination, projections of a sexual fantasy quite common among men (to be loved by two women), or contradictory expressions of the anima, the totality of my unconscious feminine psychological qualities, reflecting my relationship with the opposite sex or opposing desires for domination and submission. Bottom line: Sarah and Jacqueline were just symptoms of my tumor.
“Or your brain warning you that something was wrong. They both disappeared after the diagnosis....”
I left the MacLaren Institute with more doubts than certainties, although the theory presented by Charles made the most sense to me, even though my old friend was known for his unorthodox ideas.
What didn’t help was that the next night a neighbor rang my doorbell to inform me that my car was on fire.