I met my ex’s new girlfriend for the second time on a mild Saturday evening at the end of an otherwise brutal winter, at a mutual friend’s housewarming party. The first time we were introduced to each other, at a house concert in South Jersey, we found ourselves exchanging notes by the end of the night on our favorite cities to transit through on our ways to the distant corners of the world where our families are from, hers in Central Europe, mine in East Africa. We commiserated about the inadequacies of our accents when speaking French, Spanish and German—it turned out we both had learned all of those languages over the courses of our educations. We even traded Africa anecdotes, as I am from Southern Africa, and she spends several months out of the year in East Africa for her work, more time than even I spend back home these days. Under different circumstances, my ex’s girlfriend and I would likely have become swift friends—we have far more than merely a man in common, and in another life we might even have counted ourselves among those in each other’s most private circles.
But we are in this life, and my graciousness only extends so much. About as much, I imagine, as her tolerance for this particular pantomime of civility: pantomime because the nature of my interest in her is not what it appears, imagined because I am not sure how much she knows about me, and even less sure that she would still be speaking to me as openly as she now does if she knew as much as I know. The fact that he and I were I seeing each other never came to light while it was happening, at least as far as his world was concerned, and it would not be conjecture to imagine this shroud over that brief chapter in our lives has remained. I wanted daylight then as much as I want it now. He expressly does not. Perhaps putting myself in front of she who has never lived a day in the shadows is as good as being seen gets.
At this particular party she and I do not sustain conversation for extended periods of time, and this is what makes me believe that maybe she does know that I am not the mere friend he tells her I am, or at least has come to know more between the first and second parties than she knew before. Rather, we speak for short sprints, only as part of a group, and then break apart; come back again a half-hour later, with a different cluster in a different room, speak briefly, and then break apart again. In this way we move in lockstep up and down the house over the course of the evening, close enough to gain incremental appreciation for each other but far enough to avoid too open a reckoning with the fact of how strangely similar we are—that, save for one critical dimension, we turn out to be nearly mirror images of each other.
I sometimes imagine her in the apartment I once dreamt would become Ours but is now Theirs, the apartment that is four trolley stops away from my own. The porcelain tiling and granite countertops of the newly-remodeled kitchen, the faded Persian rugs adorning the brightly stained hardwood floors of the studio’s blended living and sleeping area; the outdoor patio, closed in by the other two buildings on either side of the apartment, paved in redbrick, furnished with a coterie of mismatched lawn chairs in different colors and styles, strung criss-cross with slack lines of incandescent light bulbs painted in primary shades. I picture her playing hostess at his summer soirées—the ones I used to go to as his Friend, and then stayed behind after, because I was not merely his Friend—people playing guitar, singing and laughing into the balmy night, while she leans her head on his shoulder, while he kisses her hair. Her body instead of my own, but with arms as round and hips as wide as mine, sashaying across the kitchen with authority, her smile meeting his eye across the length of the apartment, catching the gleams of the light fixtures above the writing desk; her hand brushing his arm, soft grip, soft release, as she glides through the living room, past the muslin curtain parting the room in two, to the bed.
But today in this life lived I will instead fall asleep at day’s end alongside my evening’s books and writing work, spread pages forming new creases under my weight. Around the corner from me, she will fall asleep alongside him, enfolding him inside the weight of her. Yet his greeting kiss to me, when I first arrived at our mutual friend’s party, slightly too long and familiar, told me in secret that I might still live quietly inside of him, more alive than I had known but remaining even more insistently hidden from view; and for this small truth I have found myself wildly and perversely glad, privately victorious in a place otherwise bound by the barbed wire of the unspeakable. Glad my invisibility might still be his shadow, that he might smart in the same dark places his shame stung me. Happy, that my stain has unwittingly tainted his dream of a portrait-perfect life, a life in which the only thing that mattered is that his She look like her.
Michelle Chikaonda is a nonfiction writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the Literary Award for Narrative Nonfiction of the Tucson Festival of Books, the Stephen J. Meringoff Award for Nonfiction of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers, and the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is currently published in The Globe and Mail, Hobart, The Curated Body, and the Oracle Fine Arts Review of the University of South Alabama, an essay for which she received a Pushcart nomination.