On no particular Sunday everybody in the world slipped and fell into someone else’s life. Witlox Tuzkapan was the first to realize it, so he went across the street and down the road to where he used to live and knocked on the window. The keys in his pocket didn’t fit the lock.
“Um, hello?” he asked uncertainly when a matronly housewife opened his front door. She looked as bewildered as him, staring incomprehensively at the cat cradled in her arms, his cat, before waving him into the living room.
“I’d just need some underpants and socks and a change of pants, I suppose,” he said politely, suddenly unsure of himself and why he was there. He felt like he was in somebody else’s house. She put down the cat, which scampered away from him, and busied herself in his bedroom collecting a few of his things.
“Do you need a toothbrush?” she called out.
“Oh, no,” he replied, “I expect there’s one at…at home,” he said.
She returned and handed him a bag.
“Well,” she said, and managed an uncertain smile but was unable to continue. “Yes,” she said finally. “I suppose it will take some getting used to.”
“He likes niblets,” Witlox said as if remembering, looking at the cat. Then he left.
Outside his front gate he paused and watched other people tapping on front doors and peering in through windows up and down his pretty suburban street. Then he walked back to the unfamiliar house, unlocked the front door with the keys in his pocket, and stepped inside. Sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea was a beautiful young woman he didn’t know.
“Hello,” he said. “My name’s Witlox.”
“Tea?” she asked, smiling over the rim of the cup at him. They talked and drank, and found some cookies in a jar. Then they explored the house. At the bedroom doorway she took his hand and asked, “Would you like to make love?”
And afterwards they felt much better. They held each other in the shower then padded naked into the bedroom and tried on clothes from the closets and wardrobe. He felt almost embarrassed because the clothes were expensive, tailored, and stylish, but it intrigued and excited him in a childish sort of way. When he’d settled on a casual combination and studied himself in the mirror, he was pleased. He smiled to himself wryly, acknowledging that he could so easily realise an idea of himself, a potential, with a simple change of clothes. She swished and purred beside him in layered tops and a short skirt. She had beautiful legs.
A polite black man knocked on the door wearing somebody else’s old tee shirt and baggy jeans. He picked up a laptop and mumbled something about the central heating, but otherwise they were undisturbed. They made love again that evening after dinner, and afterwards he stroked her neck and felt quite happy.
“Is there someone else?” he asked, when he saw a shadow cross her face. The question seemed so bizarre they both laughed.
“No,” she replied, and stroked a band of whiter skin on one of her fingers where a ring had been. “I don’t think so. Perhaps a memory.”
When she was asleep in his arms Witlox struggled to remember if there was anything wrong and what he might have forgotten, but the last fragments of doubt slipped away and dissolved in the fragrance of her hair. He woke the next morning alone. He shaved and showered then put on a dark charcoal suit and tie. He padded downstairs and took two cups of freshly brewed coffee into the living room. She looked up from a computer, brow furrowed but happy, and waved a hand at an open document on the screen.
“It’s what I do, apparently,’ she shrugged, and kissed him warmly.
They drank the coffee and scrolled curiously through the document, which was an annotated draft of a book manuscript. Witlox finished his coffee, then searched around for a briefcase and car keys in the study and considered what to do. He drove a sleek black sedan downtown, following a saved route on the vehicle’s dashboard computer. He passed bemused pedestrians moving uncertainly along the sidewalks, and parked in the underground garage of a prestigious law firm where the GPS directions stopped. The electronic key card in his briefcase opened the door to a wide corner office overlooking a park.
“Good morning, sir,” said a secretary, smiling hesitantly. “The partners are waiting. I think.”
She paused, and her expression asked him if he knew what he was doing.
“No,” he offered quietly.
He drank coffee and heard three case reports succinct in their manipulative and calculated ambition, and listened to a quarterly accounts overview that was breath-taking in its bloody self-interest and greed, though tempered by the fact that the person reading it seemed as unconvinced as he himself felt. Then he motioned for a pause, removed his jacket, and loosened his tie. He smiled.
“Ok,” he said simply, “I can’t do this. Who can we help?”
They spent the rest of the day excitedly reviewing a series of possible pro bono, legal aid, class action, and civil litigation depositions. They worked harmoniously, and looked to Witlox for direction and points of arbitration.
In his office at lunchtime the phone rang on his private line. An old woman, her voice frail and senile, admonished him gently that he hadn’t visited her in the nursing home for ages. He initially spluttered in shock, but hid it.
“Please,” she implored him.
“Of course I’ll come,” Witlox said to the nurse as he wrote down the address, and when he put down the receiver he felt a pain in his chest and exhaled slowly. Then he focused his thoughts, pressed home on the office telephone’s speed dial, and said, “Hi,” with real warmth when she picked up the phone.
“I’ll be back a little later,” Witlox said. “I have to see someone,” and he explained.
“A publisher called and I’m meeting him for coffee, but I’ll be here when you get home,” she said.
He promised to bring pizza and a bottle of wine home with him, and smiled when she snickered happily in reply. After work he drove to the nursing home, where a kind matron checked a clipboard and led him quietly to a wide, sunny, and pleasant room.
“Don’t be concerned,” she said gently, while opening the door and gesturing to a small frail woman in the bed beside the window. “Wilma won’t understand who you are, or who you aren’t. Her son rarely visited, apparently.”
Witlox thanked her, touched by her compassion, then moved a chair and sat beside the bed. He took the old woman’s fragile, thin fingers in his hand.
“I’ve bought you some flowers,” he said hesitantly, then scratched his ear and stared at his shoes before looking up again. She was smiling at him.
“Thank you, my dear,” she said, and squeezed his hand gently. “They’re lovely.”
After a pause she said, “You look well.”
“I guess so,” he replied, then a thought occurred to him and he asked, “Have you been here long?”
“No,” she answered a touch uncertainly, and glanced around the room. “At least I don’t think so.”
They sat quietly for a moment and watched the evening shadows lengthen and play against the far wall.
“How are you?” she asked. “How is work?”
Witlox grinned mischievously. “Today was a good day.”
He thought of the girl suddenly and said, “I’ve met someone.”
“That’s nice,” she said warmly. “Are you happy?”
“Yes,” he said. “But I’m not sure I know what I’m doing.”
“Why should you?” she asked, but saw the concern on his face and gripped his hand more firmly.
“Don’t be scared,” she said quietly.
Witlox nodded and looked out the window, then brushed a lock of hair tenderly from her forehead.
“I’m glad I came,” he said.
“And I,” she replied. “I’m an old and sick woman. I won’t be here long.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I should have come to see you so much sooner.”
“But you’re here now,” she said, “and that’s all that matters.”
Then he stood up, kissed her cheek lightly and said goodbye.
In the corridor outside her room Witlox broke into tears suddenly, but felt that he had done something important and was not sad. He thanked the nurse, inquired after the woman’s needs, and bought pizza, wine, and flowers on the way home. She met him at the door with a tender smile. They ate, got tipsy, and made love, making it up as they went along.
The first few days were joyous and unclouded by shadows or doubt. Witlox embraced them, and her, with zest, humour, and passion. But at unexpected moments in the following weeks he also struggled to dispel the single glittering strand of fear that wound its way through his thoughts.
“Whose life am I living?” he whispered to himself in the bathroom one night when confusion suddenly gripped him, “and where is he?” An even more difficult thought, which he had trouble clarifying, was “Am I still me?” and he struggled to understand who he could be if he wasn’t who he saw in the mirror. If he stopped behaving as or believing in who he was then who was he?
“Is it you?” he asked himself.
He prodded and pulled at the skin of his face in the mirror. He grimaced and scowled, stuck out his tongue, and rolled his eyes.
“Charming,” she commented playfully, watching him from the bedroom.
“I don’t…” he began haltingly. Then he looked at her and shrugged when he realised he didn’t know how the sentence ended. When he turned back to switch off the light he glimpsed his reflection in the mirror. For a brief moment it looked like a window, and in the night sky behind the image of him there were clouds moving across the whole of the moon, and the glint of a blade. She patted the bed beside her.
“Give yourself to me, Witlox,” she said seriously. “I love you.” So he surrendered completely and embraced her, because it was easier, and because he believed her. (…)
© andrew wheeler