Mind Tricks

You know when you see someone who looks just like someone you used to know, but only if that person had been frozen in time? The mind plays tricks; we know this, but that doesn’t make it seem less real.

For the past ten years or so I’ve seen a girl around town who reminds me of my friend Michele, who died in 1997 a year after we graduated from college. I met Michele our freshman year, when she was already sick with Thalassemia a rare, inherited disease I happened to know a lot about because one my two cousins died of it when he was sixteen.

There are a few different forms of Thalassemia, but both Michele and my cousin Harry had the type known as Cooley’s Anemia. Cooley’s Anemia typically affects people of Mediterranean descent and is the gravest version of Thalassemia because the hemoglobin is completely devoid of beta protein and the only antidote is regular blood transfusions. The transfusions lead to an excess of iron in the blood, and an early death due to organ failure is likely.

I didn’t know the girl’s name, but my heart skipped every time I saw her and it would take a minute to re-locate myself in real time. One minute I’d be in Upstate New York, but then I’d see the mountains and be back in Montana.

Michele would be about ten years older than her twin, yet I’ve had the unique opportunity to watch her doppelgänger age over the years, and would get all tangled up in rewind, fast-forward, and pause before realizing that five, eight, twelve or fifteen years have passed.

Usually you see a ghost like this one time—a fleeting glance on a bus, a bike, or in a bar. This is different; this girl has haunted me.

The sightings seemed to come in spurts; for days or weeks I’d see her everywhere, then it would be years before another glimpse. I would talk myself out it, thinking I’d imagined it, but then she’d appear again.

If you took measurements of this girl she’d be a carbon copy of Michele. I’m not just talking about height and weight, waist and inseam measurements; I’m talking thickness of hair, spacing of eyes, width of teeth. I’m talking style and mannerisms—a utterly eerie uniformity.

In February 2011 I was waitressing when one of my coworkers came to tell me I had a single customer seated in a cozy nook we called the fireplace section. Four people could fit there, but it was dark, dreary and slow in town that night, so one was better than nothing. When I turned the corner to greet my customer there she was—Michele’s twin.

I’d been in close proximity to her before, but had never found the nerve to say, “You look exactly like my dead friend,” which, as her waitress, was exactly what I said. I didn’t barge out of the gate with it, but waited for additional, unnecessary confirmation of the resemblance.

I heard her soft-spoken voice and watched her long, thin fingers point at items on the menu. I catalogued her jeans, boots, scarf, sweater, bag—all things Michele would wear. I told my coworkers about it, and by the time the girl was through her appetizer and a glass of bubbly I located the nerve to tell her about the similarity that had spun in my head for a decade. It’s hard to know where to start with something like that, so I just lurched into it and she couldn’t have been more gracious. I only had a handful of customers that night, and spent a lot of time chatting it up with Michele’s twin, who finally had a name: Nicole.

Nicole told me she’d vacate the fireplace section if I needed the table, but the restaurant never filled up and I told her to relax and take her time. She had three courses and three glasses of wine in about as many hours, and we had a lot of time to get acquainted. It turns out Nicole and I have a lot in common.

Our families are both from New York. We’d both followed guys to Oregon, moved to California, and returned to Montana alone. We both laughed about it. There was camaraderie between us, and every time I had a minute we’d pick up our conversation where we’d left off, like old friends.

Nicole’s leisurely night out wasn’t cheap, and she had a panicked look on her face when I came back to pick up her payment. “I don’t know where my wallet is,” she said. I’ve been walking around all day but haven’t used it; I hope I just left it at my house. I’ll go get it and be right back.”

There was a moment. A moment where I knew I should take something as a guarantee of her return, but it felt awkward not to trust this girl. She told me she’d walk the twenty minutes home and then back to the restaurant. “I shouldn’t drive after three glasses of wine,” she said, and it would’ve been irresponsible for me to suggest otherwise, so I said all I could: “No problem.” There was plenty of time before the restaurant closed.

An hour later I was done eating my staff meal and having my own glass of wine—starting to worry that I’d be paying her fifty dollar tab plus tipping the bartender and cooks out of my own scant tips for the evening— when she called the restaurant. She’d looked everywhere, but her wallet was definitely missing. She said she would go to the bank and get me the money on Monday. The music blared for the after dinner crowd, and I could hardly hear as she gave me two different phone numbers. She said something about switching plans, something about one phone being pre-paid, and I jotted two numbers on a scrap of paper.

I had everything or nothing to be nervous about, but I’ve always fallen into the camp of believing (at least once) that people do what they say they’re going to do.

When I hadn’t heard from Nicole by Wednesday I located the scrap of paper with both of her phone numbers and—big surprise—both numbers had been disconnected. For a week I called and texted her numbers, and with each call I got more frustrated. It wasn’t the sixty dollars; it was, of course, the principle. I’d been duped. I didn’t think she’d come into the restaurant looking to scam a meal. She’d certainly charmed me, but I’d opened the door for the connection. I was the one who said, “You look like my dead friend,” so if anyone was being charming…..

In mid-March Lucky and I were hiking with some friends. We were three gals and three dogs hiking along, when another dog, who’d been crouched in the tall grass below the trail, jumped up and took a big chunk out of Luck’s butt.


The other dog’s owner and I exchanged numbers, and though we had a few dicey moments about who was going to pay the vet bill, but his wife took one look at the damage and wrote me a check for the full amount.

We handled the experience like adults. I was grateful both for the civility with which the dog bite incident was handled and for not having another strike against human frailty.

I worked at the restaurant on St. Patrick’s day, but before meeting up with some friends I needed to go home to give Lucky his pain medication and antibiotic. I grabbed my coat from the staff area and instead of going out the front door, where I might have run into someone and gotten distracted, I exited through the kitchen into the alley. Who did I run into when I stepped into the alley? Of course, Nicole. If Lucky hadn’t been bit, if he hadn’t needed his meds, if it hadn’t been a holiday, if I hadn’t gone into the alley…I’d have missed her.

Part of me wanted to walk her directly to the nearest ATM so she could pay me in full right then and there. I thought about taking whatever cash she had on her, or maybe holding her pretty scarf as collateral. But I couldn’t. “I am SO sorry,” she said. “I lost your number and changed phones. The AT&T phone I had from California wasn’t working here and then I lost my charger for the other phone….I’m so sorry. I know it’s not a good excuse.”

I just didn’t have it in me to get all Gestapo on Michele’s twin, so we exchanged numbers again. Again. And what do you know: the same thing happened. Again. Well, not exactly. We had one exchange, then she told me she had to leave town and would call me when she got back, but she never did.

Now I was pissed. You know how the adage goes: fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Ick. I’d trusted this girl based on nothing but her uncanny resemblance to a dear friend who I miss a lot. Nicole was shiesty, but it wasn’t her fault that I’d trusted her. I had to take some accountability.

But here’s the thing: I was a little worried about this girl. Either my judge of character had completely missed the mark, or this girl had some pretty serious drama going on in her life. Maybe both.

But here’s the other thing: I really had been duped. I decided it could just become a funny story and I’d write off the loss on my taxes as a “bad debt.” {that’s legit, right?}

I never expected to see her again.

Last weekend my friend and I were crossing the main drag downtown during First Friday, which is always busy, but the regular crowds were amplified by the art walk falling during the Festival of the Book, which is like Mardi Gras for book nerds.

My friend and I were deep in conversation and crossing a street that felt much more Manhattan than Missoula when my head spun around. The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them, “Oh. My. God.” I couldn’t remember her name or I would have shouted it, but instead just repeated myself—“Oh. My. God.” People turned to see what I was OMG-ing, and Nicole finally looked at what everyone was looking at, saw my face, and ran back to my side of the street.

I expected her to go the other way, and wasn’t sure if I’d run after her or not, but she said, “Jaime! I’m so happy to see you!” I was speechless, but she looked into my eyes, put her hands on mine and said, “I am so sorry. Really. So Sorry.” Really? “Look,” she said, “Give me your number. I’ll call you right now and you’ll have mine. I’ll call you this time. I promise. I’m in grad school now…I’m not going anywhere this time.”

It took her two days, but she called, then it took me three days to call her back. She followed up with a voicemail explaining that she has a research position at the university and gets paid November 1. As soon as she gets paid she’ll pay me for her dinner and, she said, give me a generous tip to thank me for my patience.

Patience? I suppose I have been patient, though it felt more like surrender.

I sent her a text: Hi Nicole, thx for your message the other day. Very Sweet. Give me a call when you get paid.

She responded with: I will absolutely be in touch with you as soon as I am paid! Thank you so much again for your patience and kindness!

It will be interesting to see what happens November 1. I think she’ll pay me, but I’ve thought that before. For some bizarre reason I almost feel guilty taking Nicole’s money, though I know there’s no rational thought to back that up, except that she reminds me of my dead friend and, you know, there’s nothing more logical than basing your reality on ghosts.

I’ve been thinking maybe Nicole and I could use the money to go out to eat together. I’m pretty sure she has a story and I know I’d love to hear it.

{From left to right: Jaime, Kate, Michele @ Belhurst Castle, Geneva, NY, Fall 1993}