On the 14th floor of an unremarkable Chicago skyscraper, fourteen women and two men sat in small cubicles receiving phone calls from people searching for intimacy in a place free from shame. And it wasn’t all people, if you want to be specific. It was men, mostly middle-aged men, mostly professional men, mostly white men, mostly meaning that from time to time, operators received calls from these men’s sons.
Among the sixteen phone operators, a young woman sat three rows from the eastern wall in the second cubicle from the front desk. She, Sanié, wore her chemically red hair in an uncombed shag, a black T-shirt on which a dead, cartoon fish floated to the top of its tank, and loose black jeans that fit no part of her body. With a landline tucked between her shoulder and her ear, she online shopped from her cell, looking for a new walker for her baba. To her unique credit, she could multitask without pause, as though of two minds.
“Oh daddy, yes, I’d love to fuck you in space,” she said to the caller, who allegedly used to be an astronaut. She said, “I wanna see your cock float up toward me in zero gravity,” and clicked through the screens toward her checkout.
She’d already done the hard work of listening to the man’s problems for twenty minutes. That’s where the money was.
Sanié said what she said on the phone with complete abandon, knowing that were she to break character, laugh, or hesitate, the person on the other line would hang up. Ultimately, it also made it more interesting for her, the experimentation with an alternative embodiment. They’d been on the phone for a little over ten minutes. If a customer hung up shortly after calling, it meant a lower average on her call time. A lower hourly rate for her. Currently, she averaged the third longest call time in the office, a fact she was not outwardly proud of though she occasionally imagined herself at the top of the list—to improve her hourly wage.
While she told the anonymous man on the phone the planets they’d see, the aliens who might join in his fantasy, the meteors they’d narrowly avoid while leaving the ship on autopilot, an intruder claiming to be a pizza delivery man (one can imagine how clever he thought his disguise) was attempting to get past the front desk as the guard, David, repeatedly told him, “Man, you gotta have the name of whose pizza this is or you leave it with me.”
When David called up, the receptionist, Sandra, whose voice had squeaked in an off-brand Barbie imitation since the ’70s, answered. She told him no one on the floor ordered a pizza from, and she hesitated, “Steve Buscemi’s.”
Unsuccessful in his attempt, the intruder left the building and took out a slice of the sausage pie while leaning on one of the modern columns out front. The pizza was good, though cold. It was from the place on his block in Roger’s Park. He removed a strand of his oily black hair off the slice before taking a second bite.
In the meantime, Sanié took another twenty minutes with her caller, creating subplots based on Star Wars that took them out of the original fantasy and into action. “Baby, figure out a condom while I fight back these Laputians, don’t stop touching yourself!” At thirty-four minutes, she surpassed her call average. When she was done, she asked Sandra if there were calls waiting to be picked up.
“Nah, sweetie, we’ve been in a lull for the last twenty minutes or so.”
At 6:00, bored husbands would be returning from their salaried jobs. Sanié could either leave to take calls from home or else hang out for another couple hours. She opted to leave. Coming into the office was mostly a way for her to get out of her parents’ house. She said goodbyes to Sandra and then David at the downstairs desk.
As she left the building, she saw a man leaned against a column eating a pizza from the box. Putting on her headphones, she let him know he had sauce on his chin. He looked at her as she walked away then ran up, tapping her shoulder. She jumped back, said, “Fuck.”
The man’s eyes lit. “It’s you!” He spoke with the intonation of a child. “I didn’t think I was going to find you!” He was panting. The pizza box was abandoned by the column. “I had the disguise and everything,” he continued.
Sanié stopped, looked at his face. He looked Desi-ish. Someone whose family she grew up with, maybe. She asked him if she knew him, and he nodded vigorously, started talking about an encounter they’d had last week that she had no recollection of. Something about a trampoline. The circus. This is when Sanié began to feel creeped out. Knowing how quickly she needed to deescalate the situation, she asked, “Why are you here? How do you know where I work?” She moved slightly toward the building to make sure she and the man could be seen by the security cameras affixed to the columns.
“Girl, you told me last week,” he grinned, speaking in an accent that didn’t match his body but rather, likely, his friends’ growing up, “when we met.”
Sanié was not pleased to be called girl by this stranger, but she kept her gaze empty, confused.
The man hesitated. “Or I think it was you. You got a twin? Pink hair? Sweet voice? Big ass?” He talked with stiff straight hands that emphasized the parentheses of this hypothetical ass.
Sanié took two steps backward. “No twin.”
Moments like this were not meant to happen in Sanié’s world. The point of phone sex was distant intimacy. For both parties. A caller shared their kinks, their innermost fantasies. An operator made that fantasy come true. Caller came. Caller hung up. Operator got paid their hourly rate for the minutes they were on the phone. Maybe a caller became a regular client, but they never met their operators. If they met, see, then Sanié couldn’t pretend that the man or woman on the other line had a fat cock or that she was an eighteen-year-old blonde. Today’s conjured fantasy in which “Horny Astronaut” wrapped two navel oranges in a T-shirt in an effort to mimic playing with DD’s in a zero-gravity chamber would’ve been impossible.
The dude looked embarrassed. “This just doesn’t make sense, you know?”
Sanié tried to let him down easy. Some version of her had made an impact, even if it was in this man’s head, even if she had spent years working so that she would be distinguishable in most settings. “Okay, sweetie, listen,” she began, taking on her operator’s voice, “I appreciate you coming all this way to, uh, follow up with me on whatever date you think we had.” He interrupted, but she wouldn’t let him speak. Raised a finger. Changed tactics. “Most women will find it creepy if a man goes to a her place of work when she isn’t calling him back or anything, but I don’t think you’re a creep,” quieting her voice, she said “I’m gonna go now. Be well, and stay away from the hard stuff.”
But the small speech, which should have worked to throw him off guard, made him insistent. He faced her even as she turned away.
“You told me to come here. You told me to do some role play, come to your office, and find you. And now,” he hesitated, stepping back as he rethought his earlier assessment, “you’re acting like,” and his voice trailed off.
Sanié finished his sentence, “Like I don’t know you.”
Something in his eyes was earnest, she would’ve seen if she’d looked closely. Equally as puzzled as she was. Knowing where she worked? Knowing her face? Instead, she found the clarity that suited her.
“Oh shit.” She laughed. “Andrea put you up to this, didn’t she?” Sanie laughed a coughing sort of laugh, “Fuck her, wow. Okay, honestly for a second you had me going. Whatta bitch.” The puzzle solved, she began walking away. “Tell her she wins.”
The man didn’t laugh. “Who’s Andrea?”
Just then Sanié’s bus turned the corner. She waved at the man. “Don’t be too good at your job.” Smiling big, she got to the stop. The pigeons perched on building balconies seemed to laugh with her as she boarded. The man did not follow, just stared after her.
Sanié forgot about the incident on the bus. She didn’t bother texting Andrea about the prank because she knew Andrea had lost her phone three nights ago after some show at Lincoln Hall. She didn’t think twice about why anyone would prank her or why the man wouldn’t have some finish planned for the kind of nonexistent joke. She arrived home, where her mother, eternally stationed at the linoleum kitchen counter in her red flip flops and blue flannel robe, asked why she hadn’t put away her dishes after breakfast.
“It was a long day, Mama,” she said ignoring the question and not looking toward her mother’s shaking head in the kitchen, not even a glance to the white roots growing into her coarse black hair. Sanié went to her room, like a teenager. Which is what her baba, eternally stationed in the living room in slippers and a green version of her mother’s robe, yelled after her.
Her mother cooked dinner, but Sanié let her parents eat alone and told them she would clean up. When she heard them finishing, she went out to make sure each of them had their meds for the evening and cleaned up after their meal. She took a small bowl of pulao back to her room and ate in bed. She took two, mundane calls. She contemplated texting some friends to see if there was anything happening that night, but decided against it.
Her chest felt tense, as it did sometimes, like she’d been holding something ahead of her too long waiting for someone to open a door. She ate her pulao and watched bad standup for an hour and a half—nothing put her to bed quite like it. Afterward, she lay in the dark holding a violet dildo against her clit. She tried to empty her mind. Pushed the black of the room past waves of thought and breath until she came. Her sleep was dreamless, her ability to put a day into her subconscious untouched by the events of her afternoon.
The next day, Sanié decided to stay home from the office. It was an unreasonably cold April Wednesday, and the forecast called for hail. Sanié had never left the Midwest, though she once took a cruise to the Caribbean with her cousins. That was some years ago. They’d spent most of the vacation drinking artificially flavored daiquiris and telling stories about the ass-backward men her cousins dated, aspiring doctors and CEO’s and, sometimes, lawyers with mommy complexes and drinking problems and fraternity brothers or whatever the fuck. She rarely dated brown men anymore. She rarely dated any men anymore. There wasn’t much of a point. Why go out of one’s way for a relationship doomed to fail. Doomed to end with her, still in her parents’ home, still obligated.
Her parents, of course, asked her about these things, encouraged her to meet so-and-so’s son who was studying at Northwestern. She took the conversations as cues for her to leave the house, her childhood bedroom. Cues she didn’t take. She’d move but she couldn’t leave her life here—not when her parents needed her to take care of the house, make sure the bills were paid on time, manage their insurance, make sure they didn’t get scammed. She had a responsibility, she’d decided sometime after she’d had to move home from college.
She loved her family, though perhaps not in the conventional way. She didn’t know if people actually could.
She took three calls that afternoon from the desk in her bedroom—slow. Two dudes who wanted a conventionally submissive bimbo, the second of whom she persuaded to have her play a sex robot, just to shake things up and keep him on the line longer. Then one man who called weekly just to chat about his life, his job, the trip him and his family had just taken to Montauk. He was kind, if not boring. Sanié listened and asked him questions and laughed at his bad jokes. She thought of telling him he could pay a therapist, but that may not be what therapists were for and she might have been more affordable than one.
It was funny when she thought about it, that she found this job in one of Baba’s newspapers. She’d been going through listings a year and a half ago after a particularly annoying day at the health food store. A kid had flushed half a sandwich down the toilet and clogged it, and Sanié was the one to plunge it up—it wasn’t appetizing to see whole tomatoes and slices of turkey come up a pipe like that. The ad stated plainly: “WANTED: VOICE ACTRESSES AND STORYTELLERS FOR TELEPHONE SALES.” Well, Sanié had always been told she had a nice voice and had a particular love for well-placed dupes, so she called. Her parents were proud when she told them she found a new job. They took her to her favorite Thai restaurant off Argyle just to celebrate. Mama told them the latest gossip circulating the catty group of aunties she visited with, and Baba, eyeing the bowl from across the table, asked Sanié if he could taste her seafood soup. She remembered lifting her spoon to his eager mouth with a smile.
Between calls, she watched reality TV and shared an asynchronous lunch of aloo gosht with her parents. When she decided to be done for the day, she thought about going out and decided against it. Too much effort for an escape that never felt free.
On Thursday, Sanié went into the office around 2:30. She ran into Andrea, who sat two cubicles down from her, in the elevator and was reminded of the man with the pizza. When she asked about it, Andrea played it off, chuckling slightly. Had Sanié wanted to see it, she’d have noticed that the lack of knowledge felt genuine. Andrea turned to her, the blue braided into her hair catching in the light. She asked if Sanié had met the person who’d started the day before.
Sanié had not. There was a new person in the office every couple months or so. Low retention or whatever. And it made sense. The way that the operation worked. Management, tucked away in corner offices that never seemed occupied, took a significant cut of what people paid. Even if your hourly rate was as high as Sanié’s, it wasn’t enough to survive on. She still took a Sunday shift at the health food store when calls were light during the week.
Sanié and Andrea were greeted by Sandra at the front, and then each woman headed to her desk. But when Sanié turned the corner toward her cubicle, someone was in her chair. She tapped her shoulder. Said, “Hey sorry, this is my seat.”
The woman turned around in her chair slowly, with a soft, “Oh,” and Sanié blinked to be sure of her eyes. “My bad. I’m new and didn’t realize this desk was taken.”
She waved her hand, smiling a remorseful smile, pointing to the emptiness of the desk. Sanié saw that it did not look like she’d ever occupied it. The woman continued. “Do you mind if I sit here for the day? I’ll clear it out in a couple of hours. Promise.”
She smiled at Sanié with all her teeth, revealing dimples Sanié remembered she once had. Her hands were pressed into one another like a prayer. Her voice sounded like pie or a velour sweatsuit.
Sanié acquiesced, walked away. She found a desk in the fourth row from the wall that was unoccupied. She sat down, placed her bag on the desk in front of her. She still wore her coat. At her desk, at her real desk—it was her. Or, the person that looked like her was at her desk. Or, at her desk there was a mirror and none of her movements were matching up and it was good, really good, that she had walked away from her.
Her, but pink haired. Her, but soft-spoken. Her, but smiling, non-sarcastic, accommodating, fat-assed (unconfirmed, but yes). Her, but not her. Sanié sat for a moment. She thought she ought to say something but couldn’t think of anything to say. She went to the front desk, greeted Sandra and her blond pouf halfheartedly.
“Sandra,” she said, “the new girl?”
Sandra smiled. “So sweet, right!” It was not a question. Sanié agreed, met Sandra’s friendly, searching eyes.
“She,” Sanié began.
“Sanié,” Sandra interjected.
“No, that’s her name. Sanié.”
Sanié paused a moment. “Strange,” she managed.
Sandra gave Sanié a confused stare, “Is it?”
Sandra pointed out that there were multiple Rachel’s in the office, and this was true, but the equivalency felt like a stretch.
“Maybe not,” Sanié said anyway. “Will she get my calls if she’s at my desk?” she asked, finding a reason to be where she was.
Sandra frowned, unimpressed by any sense of competition in the room—this was a friendly workplace. She told Sanié the calls don’t belong to anyone, that they were a community.
Sanié saw the upset in front of her, tried to negotiate. “Yeah of course. I was just thinking I have regular clients who contact me. How will they—”
Sandra interrupted. “Don’t get short with me, please. I’m just working the desk. Your regulars, if they ask for you, will be transferred to you. Until then, we distribute calls evenly between the desks. Now if you don’t mind.” Sandra’s hands gestured to the desk around her, and Sanié was reminded of the other woman’s similar gesture.
“Alright,” Sanié said, beginning to step away, not wanting to ask how Sandra would know the difference between the two Sanié’s. She thanked Sandra and walked to her new desk. On her way, she passed the other Sanié sitting at her desk, laughing with Andrea two desks down. When they met eyes, the other Sanié smiled and gave her a wave over.
Sanié obliged. Her discomfort was palpable, but the other Sanié seemed not to notice.
“Hi hi! Andrea was just telling me that everyone is getting drinks tonight, are you coming?” This other Sanié had an eagerness to her. She smiled bright and kept her posture upright.
Andrea gave the other Sanié a warning look, while Sanié looked at Andrea in surprise. “Oh, really? I didn’t realize. I must not have gotten the text.”
Andrea shrugged, admitted that she hadn’t texted because Sanié rarely joined anymore. Sanié knew that it was true. The other Sanié remained adamant.
“Woah, why not?” she exclaimed. “You should totally come. I’m new to the city and would love to hang out with you.” She had the countenance of a cheerleader. Sanié hated to see it on her own face.
“New to the city, huh?”
A phone started ringing one desk over, and the other Sanié gasped. “That’s me! Sorry, guys!”
“Sorry about that,” Andrea said as the other Sanié left, “My phone’s been weird, you know.” Then, “Don’t you have calls or something?”
Sanié understood she was dismissed. She overheard the other Sanié’s call, her giggling voice. Artless, really. No creativity to the storyline, just “What else do you want me to do, Daddy?” They’d see how the call averages came out.
Back at her desk, the phone was silent. Sanié sat only a moment before going back to the elevator.
“I’ll be right back, Sandra.”
She entered the elevator, went to the lobby, and at the front desk, said to David, “I had someone try to deliver a pizza to me yesterday, but gave the wrong directions. Do you have the number they signed in with so I can give them a call?”
“Sure, mija,” David said, handing her a binder beneath the desk. The old man liked Sanié, who brought him coffee every Monday from the spot by the train.
Retrieving the number, Sanié thanked David and went outside to make a call.
“Hey, creep,” said Sanié when the phone picked up. Of course, he recognized her voice. Began a hopeful greeting before Sanié interrupted. “Listen, where did you say you met me? The other night?”
The voice on the other line attempted alertness though it seemed to barely flash through the haze of what Sanié imagined was a midday high. “Yeah totally,” he said, “if you want to meet again just say the word, we don’t even have to go back there.”
Sanié rolled her eyes, impatient. “No, it was not me,” she reminded him. “Where did you meet the other person?”
“Isn’t it your job to be nice to strangers on the phone, jeez.” The man who gets no ass becomes instantly macho when their pinky so much as grazes one. “We met when I was scalping tickets outside the circus. Remember? Trampolines.”
Sanié hung up. Realizing this man had no information for her. She returned upstairs, and when the doors opened on the 14th floor, the other Sanié was waiting.
“Oh hey, look at that! Long time no see.” The pink-haired, tooth-smiling woman had Sanié’s face, stood at her height, and yet it was clear that the woman vibrated on a very different frequency. “Thanks for letting me use your desk today. I felt super welcomed. The job was kind of easy! Men really just want one thing, huh?” The grin never left her face.
“Are you leaving? Didn’t the day just start?”
The other Sanié nodded enthusiastically. “I just have so many things to do today, getting settled and all. You know how it is.”
Sanié knew she had a distinct desire to cut through whatever tub of frosting had landed on her life in the form of this woman. She grabbed her unsuspecting doppelganger by the elbow and steered her to an empty corner.
“Whatever joke you’re playing has gone too far, okay. Tell me what the hell you’re doing here.” Sanié had spent years cultivating a persona to intimidate. As a teenager, she practiced snarling in the mirror. She pierced her own ears to prove that she didn’t mind pain. She was out of practice now–she called herself old and tired–but the instinct was there.
The other Sanié’s smile left as the questions tripped forward. “I don’t know what you mean, I—”
“Why are you here?” Sanié interrupted, and the other woman looked genuinely surprised at the tone, as though she didn’t see the mirror she was looking into.
“Honestly, I just needed a job. I figured since you were so successful here, you know, maybe I could just work until I landed on my feet.” The smile slowly returned, lifting the corners of the woman’s concerned eyes toward her dark eyebrows.
Sanié registered the words. Tried to follow up with a how did you know, but as Sanié began to ask, a phone started ringing. Looking back, a small red light at the desk she now occupied blinked blankly at her.
“I think your phone is ringing,” said the other woman, suddenly looking brighter-eyed and somehow, distinct. “Good timing, too! I have a lunch date.” She waved a pert goodbye and walked to the elevator. Sanié, dazed, hurried to her desk.
“Hello,” she answered, her voice demurring into a purr. All of her instinctive selves making their appearances as they needed to.
The voice on the other line was panting, and she realized she needed to cool him down for the call to last more than five minutes. She asked him logistical questions about what he wanted, who he wanted her to be. He wanted her to treat him like a baby, and so she asked about his diaper, offered to put a lolly in his butt, soothed him when he threw a tantrum. She told him to spend time with blocks and describe what he was building. It bought time. As an only child, Sanié never had younger siblings to care for, but she babysat for her parents’ friends in high school. At least she knew how to play at childcare.
When he started on a long tantrum, which seemed to revolve mainly on the injustice of the world treating him as an adult, Sanié remembered the conversation she’d been called from. The man spoke and she googled doppelgängers. She found a list of TV tropes: evil twins, selves from parallel universes, androids, illegally developed clones, impersonators. These were her options for what was happening. The man would notice if Sanié went too deep into these, so she returned to the call, trying not to think about the possibility that pink-haired Sanié could be trying to kill her and take over her life.
The man hung up abruptly after coming in his diaper twenty minutes later. Solid time, she noted.
Sanié sat at her desk, the low hum of dirty talk around her, wondering at the appearance of this doppelgänger who less than an hour ago sat in this seat. She left the thoughts unresolved. She entered the self she needed to get her work done.
In the afternoon, her mother texted her asking her to pick up parsley and mozzarella for a baked ziti her baba particularly loved. Ten minutes passed and still no calls. It wasn’t surprising. It was only 4:30, and a weekday. The good thing about this office was that she could act as though she had a day job. Her parents thought she was in sales and were happier for it. She packed up her things and headed home, wordlessly waving goodbye to Sandra and David on her way out. She averted her eyes from everything pink, keeping her eyes to the ground on the commute.
When she walked in she smelled the familiarity of pre-shredded cheese bubbling over tomato sauce in the oven, the sound of Baba’s TV humming. She often resented coming home to this apartment. Hated the furniture they’d had since she was a child. The old white wallpaper laying a border of ivy near the ceiling. But in that moment, it was comforting to be at home. She went in and sat down next to him, the pleather squelching beneath her.
“Where’s Mama?” It was a demand more than a question.
He smiled. “Salaam, bete.”
“Walaikum as-Salaam. Where’s Mama?” she repeated.
“I think next door. Miss Pettis offered her a loaf of that banana bread.”
That banana bread was infamous. The crust. The center. It would never last more than an hour in the house. Sanié smiled for the first time that day.
“You have a good day, janum?”
He hummed. His eyes stayed on the TV. Sanié let hers glaze over as a bald, white man onscreen showed them how to spatchcock a chicken.
Mama came in a few minutes later, walking straight up to the armchair, and grabbed the remote out of her husband’s hands, turning off the TV.
Sanié laid the table, as Mama tossed a salad. When Miss Pettis knocked at the door, Baba, with his walker, opened it for her with a smile. Miss Deniece Pettis, now an old lady, but once a spry babysitter, a lender of books, a keeper of calm in more tumultuous years of this household simply by the nature of her internal calm, diffused the tension Sanié had been feeling at her neck since seeing whoever that pink-haired person was at her desk.
“Hey sweetie,” said Miss Pettis, gliding up to give the twenty-two year old a swift kiss on the cheek. “You ain’t never stop by these days, where’ve you been?” Miss Pettis’s family came from Mobile to Chicago when she was thirteen.
Sanié evaded the question, returning to the kitchen to grab four glasses. “You know. Here and there, working. How’ve you been?”
Pleasantries were exchanged, the family sat together with their guest, and ziti was served. Miss Pettis led the conversation, talking about her grandkids and the block party happening next month. Sanié waited for the inevitable turn towards her.
“How’s work, Sanié?”
“Oh, you know. It is what it is.” Sanié took a large spoonful of pasta and cheese to her mouth, hoping it could end there.
“I don’t even remember what you do,” Miss Pettis said, searching. <p
“You said sales?”
Sanié hummed her affirmation.
“Ignore her, Deniece. She doesn’t like to share details,” Mama said.
“That’s not right. Who can you talk to if not your family?” said the other woman.
Anyone else, Sanié thought. And then realized she hadn’t been talking to anyone at all. “Well, a really weird thing happened today,” she said, surprising herself.
“Did it now,” said Miss Pettis.
“A girl started working with us. She looks just like me. She sat at my desk.” Sanié looked around, expectations low for any meaningful response.
“Interesting timing,” said Miss Pettis, looking toward Mama with a glint in her eye. “Khuya, doesn’t that sound just like those qareen you were telling me about just now?”
Mama chuckled into her napkin, “Could be. You’re more superstitious than me now, aren’t you?” Mama was smiling at her friend.
Sanié looked confused. “Qareen?”
“Djinn, sweetie. I shouldn’t know your culture better than you.” She laughed. “Your Mom was just telling me today about that story with your grandmother.”
Her mama waved off the concern with two swishes of her hand. “You never listen Sanié or you’d know. I’m sure I’ve told you.”
“I’m sure you’ve not,” Sanié interjected.
“Tell her, Khuya,” Miss Pettis said as Baba laughed into his napkin.
“Djinn, like genies?” Sanié asked.
Baba laughed harder.
“Don’t laugh, Baba!” insisted Sanié. “It’s your guys’ fault I don’t know anything about our culture, damn.”
“Uff Allah, Sanié, so dramatic,” Mama said. She told the room to quiet and it did. She sipped her water. “Djinn are beings made from fire that has no smoke,” she began. “They can be good or bad. You would’ve known if you hadn’t skipped your Quran lessons.”
“Okay, and what’s a qareen?”
“Everyone has a qareen. It is the shadow of yourself. A djinn spirit attached to your soul.”
“Okay, and they’re also human?”
“Nahin, of course not,” said Baba.
“Well now, Ahmed. Your wife was just telling me something different. What about your mother-in-law?”
“Amma?” asked Sanié.
Mama clarified. “Yes, well Amma says that her grandmother was visited by her djinn. It looked just like her. A qareen, there to take over her life, is what she said.”
“Well what happened? What’d she do?”
Her mother looked at her a moment, then grabbed the knife on the placemat. She pointed it straight toward Sanié. “Stabbed it in the heart.”
Baba made a gesture with his hands as if a ghost entered the room, before laughing. Ever the realist. “If you believe any of these things, of course.”
“You don’t,” his daughter asked.
“Eh, I’m sure she met some long-lost twin or some whatnot and this was a good story to tell the children” he replied.
“I believe it,” said Miss Pettis. “We don’t know about the spirits that follow us. A soul is a powerful thing. Who’s to say one of the spirits we carry with us couldn’t become real? That we don’t have to kill off some of our demons every once in awhile?”
Sanié echoed. The conversation drifted, and Sanié silently began collecting dishes. They ate slices of banana bread for dessert, and Sanié listened as her parents and their friend talked about the growing sense of doom in today’s politics, ultimately saying it’s no worse than it ever was before moving on to the need for renovations in the building.
In bed that night, Sanié tried to watch TV but was too distracted. She googled qareen, found an obscure forum in Urdu where people were reportedly sharing stories of their hauntings.
“Ridiculous,” she told herself. But as she fell asleep, the vision of the other Sanié bloomed pink at the forefront of her mind.
Sanié had not remembered her dreams in years, though sometimes she wished she would wake up screaming if only to be heard. Instead, she woke up soundlessly, first with the finches nested outside her window, then second a few hours later as the sound of the morning news filtered through the space beneath her door. Her eyes still felt heavy, but she needed to be. She debated whether it was a need.
Returning to her bed, her feet now cold, she had made up her mind not to go into work today, instead determining by some strange reasoning that she’d find a landmark on the train. Not an escape, but an adventure. And why not?
Running her hands along the map, she found her way to green, then to the conservatory at Garfield Park. When she told her mother where she was going, she was given a confused stare. “Really? For what?” to which Sanié snapped, “Am I not allowed to go anywhere besides here and work?”
No one saw the room blacken with her frustration, but they felt it. Her mother said nothing, the wrinkles at her throat reaching toward her chin. She sighed deeply, letting go of her hold on her daughter’s gaze. “Do what you want, Sanié. I’m not trying to fight you today.” She turned away, putting a piece of toast in the toaster.
Sanié she walked past her mother, not seeing her, the bag on her shoulder bumping loudly against a dining table chair too close to the door.
The L would take an hour to get there, she discovered. The last time she’d gone there was in high school, and she thought that they must have driven. She put on her headphones, stark white against her red hair. She put her library on shuffle, listening to mostly house shit, remnants from the times she spent pregaming for nights out. Taking out a small bottle of nail polish from her bag, she coated her nails in a chameleon sort of green. When the train arrived at the Garfield Park stop, she jumped out, leaving her headphones on as she entered the conservatory.
She liked the way the air felt—warm and humid, sinking into her skin. She took off her coat, draping it over her forearm as she walked past the tall banana trees toward the fern room. Inside, she heard running water, everything was green, the air heavy enough to taste. She stopped for a moment. She wondered if her parents had ever come here together. If they ever went as a family. Something there felt familiar, but memories had a way of collapsing. Maybe they’d been here, or maybe she was just recalling a one-time trip to Florida. Regardless, she felt herself unsure of how to move. Whether to go fast as though she were just on a walk or slow like there was something to see. The trees called her to pause before each fern, but the fear of seeming odd tugged her forward like a child on a parent’s shirttail. Around her, people in groups chatted as they walked, stopping by the edge of the pond in the center of the room. She would stay but she didn’t know how to stand still. She left the room and found a bench.
Her phone was in her hands, which were in her lap, folded. Her shoulders were hunched, and then she straightened them. She thought about posting a photo of the flowers in front of her then changed her mind. She got up, began walking again, found herself in a room full of tropical fruit trees. The placard in front of her told her this was a sour cherry tree. Accordingly there were bright red patches of small red berries in front of her. No one else was in the room. She plucked one off the tree, putting it in her mouth. She gagged, the taste chemical on her tongue.
“I think all of these trees are really heavily coated in pesticides,” a voice said behind her. She turned and nearly jumped when she saw the head of pink hair. She spat the mashed red fruit out onto the concrete path.
“What the fuck!” she exclaimed, the taste of the chemicals migrating to the back of her throat. “Are you following me?”
“Not intentionally, no. But it’s nice to see you here. I wouldn’t have thought you’d like a place like this.”
“A place like this,” Sanié repeated.
“You know, somewhere peaceful and quiet. There are so many beautiful things here.” The look on her counterparts face was kind—genuinely so, as though she were truly curious about the happenstance of running into her new coworker. Sanié paused. Her coat was growing hot on her arm, so she shifted it to the other one.
“Your name is Sanié,” she said after the moment.
“So is yours,” laughed the woman with the pink hair. Sanié watched as her eyes, more awake on the other woman’s face, drifted overhead to the canopy shading them. “Do you want to walk around?”
She didn’t know why she said yes, but she nodded. They found their way to a room full of cacti. The air was warm, dry. The cacti sat patient as cats in the sun.
“Wow, look at how gorgeous,” said the other Sanié, pointing to a small succulent in bloom. “Look at how it matches my hair!”
Sanié did not laugh, but she did see the comparison. The other woman’s smile reached her eyes, and Sanié tried to see if she could do the same, seeking some kind of joy somewhere to channel. She couldn’t. She felt restless, paused there only a few feet into the long room.
“How long have you been in Chicago?” she asked.
The woman’s response was nonchalant, pleasantly distracted. “Oh, as long as I can remember.”
“Well, were you born here?” Sanié was determined to know the specifics.
She received a smile in return. “Sure.”
They walked in silence, every so often pausing as pink hair swooshed down toward broad leaves to excitedly examine the perfect holes cut into giant monstera or particularly lovely flowers blooming from the fruit trees.
“Do you ever wish you were a flower?” asked the other Sanié.
“The fuck kind of question is that?” Sanié asked, her eyes tense on the soil beds beside the path.
The other woman smiled kindly. “Just trying to get to know you. Some people wish they could live different lives, you know.”
Sanié laughed, really a scoff. “Not me.”
She hesitated, her eyes looking toward a couple holding hands on a bench taking a selfie together. “I mean, sometimes, I guess.”
“Not a flower though?”
Sanié felt discomfort scratch between her shoulders. “Is that what you’d want to be?”
“Maybe. It seems peaceful. Bloom for a short while, give joy to the passersby. By November, you lay back down in the soil and get eaten by worms.”
A laugh again, now genuine but surprised at that fact. “That’s an ideal?”
“No,” the other woman replied, her voice sing song. “The ideal is to be the best version of myself, I guess. It’s nice to walk around in the snow and have good sex and eat good food, etcetera.”
The two of them walked past the couple on the bench. “Maybe for some people.”
“Not for you?” The other Sanié turned to face her, eyes questioning. She was wearing a long sleeve white shirt tucked into a gray skirt that floated beneath her knees. She looked beautiful. Sanié wore all black. She saw how messily her nails had been painted. She spoke quietly.
“It’s not like my life has been perfect.”
“So who’s would you have? What would be better?”
“I mean, it would be cool to be rich. Not famous or anything, but like enough money to go on vacations and get manicures and shit.”
“That’s it?” the other woman asked.
Sanié was surprised at the response. “What else?”
“Love? Purpose? Fulfillment?”
“I’m happy without them,” Sanié said looking at the ground and smirking.
“You don’t sound happy,” the other woman replied, something approximating kindness in her eyes.
Sanié thought at this. Was she? Happy? Sometimes, not always, but who was this woman to tell her anything about that. “You sound like a bitch.” She rose. She started walking away.
“Aw, wait,” said the other woman, jogging to catch up. “Wait, stop.” She put her hand on Sanié’s shoulder and from nowhere, Sanié felt her face get hot, her throat seize up. “I’m sorry, I was too blunt.”
“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” Sanié would not make eye contact.
“I think I’ll leave for the office soon. Do you?”
Sanié didn’t answer.
“You know, Sanié, I wonder why you stay here at all,” said the pink-haired woman, solemn for the first time in their conversation.
“I like the way the air feels,” she murmured.
The other woman continued as though she hadn’t heard her. “No one asks you to, everyone would be fine without you. Maybe you could be happy.”
When Sanié raised her gaze, the other Sanié’s pink lips were still smiling. “I should go now,” she said. “One of us has to work, right?” She stood to walk away.
Suddenly aware of the heaviness of the air, Sanié found words, “Hey, have you been sleeping around? People think I’m you, and it’s not cool.” She tried to be angry.
The other Sanié’s mouth stretched cartoonishly, its edges pulling towards her jaw. “Oh no! What a mess,” she called back, turning on her heels and continuing to walk away. “I’ll try to let them know we are not the same.”
Sanié stood near the entrance for a moment, watching as the other woman turned toward the train station. She put her coat back on slowly, barely noticing the drop in temperature as she left the greenhouse for the lobby, the dryness of the air. She waited for her bus, then boarded it, looking out the window the entire ride.
It was rare to be asked why one stays in the life they are handed, perhaps even more rare to recognize that one even has a choice. Imagine Sanié—twenty-three, having barely left the house, her only conception of herself what others have told her or seen in her. And of course, she could claim that she knew herself. She could point to the music she liked to listen to, the kind of lover that attracted her, the taste she had in clothes. What would be more difficult would be trying to answer what the lyrics of her favorite grunge songs said about the thoughts she was drawn to, or what exactly attracted her to the lank men, half-okay men, half-bad men, half-men who disappear after a few nights of rough, impersonal sex, harder to say what was covered when she bleached the roots of her hair. One might say that Sanié had only ever sought to know herself by constructing how others could see her, by shading over the parts of herself she did not want to know.
When she arrived home, her key slid noiselessly into the door, which cracked open equally silently. This had always been of benefit to Sanié, who needed the aid sneaking out for many years of her life. As the door opened, she heard her name, her parents’ voices coming from the living room.
“How would I know where she’s gone, Yasser? She talks to me as infrequently as she does you.”
Sanié paused, recognizing that she hadn’t been heard.
“You’re her mother, Khuya. How can you not find a way to relate?”
Sanié heard her mother’s voice rise, then soften. “I’ve tried! Allah knows I’ve tried.”
They were silent for a moment. Sanié still. “I know, janum. I’m sorry. We’ve both tried as we could. How she can disappear and ignore and yell like we never gave her anything, all of it is beyond me.” Sanié felt black behind her eyes, heard the hum of the TV murmuring beneath the voices.
Her mother said it in a whisper, in Urdu, a mother-tongue Sanié always recognized and turned away from until one day her tongue couldn’t form it. Do you think we’ve failed? The question felt like an admission that felt like it should never have been said.
A choking, the sense that the air was thickening. No tears, never tears. Silently, Sanié moved away from the door, pulling it closed with the smallest of clicks. She walked down the stairs of the old building toward the front entrance, her head moving in on itself.
Her parents never knew how to raise her—an American-born teenager with black nails and a cursing mouth, a rupture in what they expected of a girl. It was their misfortune to have only created one opportunity for the child they dreamed. When she failed out of school, they didn’t understand what happened. They opened the letter that came to the house saying she was on academic probation, and Baba yelled at her for not valuing the opportunities she’d been given. Mama fumed in the corner, wondering how her little gap-toothed girl who’d wanted nothing more than to be a veterinarian became a young woman with a series of shit boyfriends she’d hide from her parents and no sense of who she wanted to be.
She didn’t know where she was going but found her way to the office.
“I don’t have my badge, David.”
“No worries, mija. Go on up,” he nodded, then, calling after her. “You okay?”
She rode the elevator up, picking at the clumping nail polish at her cuticles. When she arrived she nodded to Sandra, went to her desk. It was empty. So empty she understood how another person could occupy it with no one saying a thing. No Sanié anywhere, not a pink strand in sight. She sat. Ten minutes passed and no one spoke to her. She received a call. Simple. A man who wanted to be called Daddy, who wanted to be told how she wanted to be fucked. But as she prepared to take on the character, her voice was empty, as though the person she’d been on every call before this had found a door out of her mind and exited, soundless. The call ended after six minutes. Six. She imagined a visible ticking down of her call average.
Sanié got up from her desk and went to the bathroom. She sat in the stall, pants still on, moving as though this were the moment she’d break. She heard the sink begin to run, sat still for a moment, then flushed the toilet. Walking out, she saw the familiar cascade of pink down the woman’s back. She approached the sink next to her, looking into her face doubled in the mirror. The other Sanié smiled.
“I know you’re a djinn,” said Sanié.
“Oh?” the other woman turned off the tap and walked toward the roll of paper towels near the door. She began wiping her hands.
“Yes. I am not afraid to do what needs to be done.”
“Hm.” The other Sanié laughed. “That must be new for you.” All hints of her innocence dissipated like sugar into tea. She finished wiping her hands. “I suppose the question remains of what needs to be done, then.” She smiled and left the bathroom.
Sanié looked at her face in the mirror. She saw the beginning of a long crease making its way across her forehead, saw her mother’s long straight nose bisecting her face, the black-lined eyes so brown they could be black. She left the bathroom too, returning to her desk. When she looked around, the other woman seemed to have left. Sanié knew it was time to return home. To prepare. Her life could not be dismantled this easily.
The apartment felt unfamiliar when she walked in. Her parents sat silently in front of the TV, as though they had been there since the conversation she’d overheard. She took off her boots by the entrance and walked into the room. “As-salaam-u-alaikum.”
They both looked up, wished peace upon her as well. They looked old to her in that moment, though they were both just over fifty. Their eyes were tired, bagged down toward their chins. Even their robes were somehow more faded than before. Mama’s back started to show signs of a permanent bend, a leaning over toward kitchen countertops and her husband’s chairs and the ground in prayers. Sanié never saw her pray.
“I’ll be in my room. Let me know when dinner is on the table,” she said in a voice not quite her own. She went to her room. She set down the bag she’d packed in the morning, sat fully clothed on her bed. Sanié imagined if not-her walked in. She imagined her double bringing joy to the darkly lit, near windowless space. Imagined her learning Mama’s recipes for ras gullahs and pyaaz gosht, watching the History channel with Baba, sharing his love for the documentaries on the Elizabethan era. If the other Sanié was a shadow of herself, could she not too do those things? It felt too late. Too much had happened. That part of herself existed outside of her, beyond her choices by now, surely.
Sanié remembered the question posed to her at the conservatory. “Why do you stay here at all?” She thought she’d known. Remembered feeling that she was needed. But in what universe was someone who made their parent’s feel they had failed needed in their home. She thought she’d done it for them—her one redeeming feature. And yet, she’d always known they’d rather her build a life apart from theirs, better than theirs. Could she still do that, she wondered?
That night, they ate a silent dinner together. Sanié’s mother began to ask her why she painted her nails such an awful color, but Sanié looked at her with a silencing glare. She immediately felt guilty. After ten minutes, Sanié offered to do the dishes.
“Nahin, bete. I’ll do them. I have a particular way,” Mama replied, her voice tired.
“You could show me,” she offered, trying. “It’s not fair to do it alone.”
“I’m happy to, janum.”
It was the end of the conversation. Her mother gathered the plates and rose. Sanié sat with Baba at the table silent for a moment before rising herself.
“I’m going out,” she said, as though to herself.
“Where?” asked Baba from the table.
Sanié ignored the question. Went to her room and packed her bags. On her way out, she went through the kitchen. Put her hand on Mama’s back. Mama looked around a moment but did not say anything, turning back to the dishes she was loading in the dishwasher. She grabbed a knife from the wooden holder, placing it in her bag. She would change. Of course she could change.
Leaving the building, she did not know where she was going. Her body told her it did not matter. The sun had set, the air was cool. She zipped up her coat. Walked to the train and took it south, finding herself at a dive bar in Lincoln Park near the lake. She went in, sat down at the counter, and waited.
It took fifteen minutes for her double to come and sit next to her. The other woman squeezed her forearm as she sat, giving her a smile, before raising the arm to wave over the bartender.
“You didn’t get a drink yet?”
When the bartender came over, the other Sanié asked for a menu. He obliged, smiling at her and walking away.
“I know what you are,” Sanié said to her double when he was at a distance.
“You already said that, silly.”
“You need to leave.”
“Aw, Sanié—” she began to say.
“I’m serious. I don’t want to have to kill you.” Sanié had decided she could. She imagined the weight of the knife in her bag.
“Stab me in the heart?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
“Ah, Sanié. I thought we were becoming friends.” Her eyes seemed genuinely sad. “I’m only here because you needed me, you called me.”
A pause. “I never called you,” Sanié said. “You show up wherever I am, I never ask anything of you, but you’re out here sleeping with random fuckboys like my body is just yours, my memories just yours.” There had been no preparation for this apparition, no incline before the drop of the cliff.
“Didn’t you, though? Didn’t you want another version of yourself? One to talk on the phone for you when you wanted to be somewhere else? One to talk to your parents when being in the apartment made you feel spaceless?” A cocktail menu arrived, and the double glanced at it. All the drinks were named after the zodiac.
A memory. Sanié, drunk after work at a happy hour. Asking Andrea if she ever wished someone else could come and live the boring parts of life for her. “Like a stunt double?” her coworker asked.
“Sure, and you get to have sex and eat brunch and watch TV. Sounds like a dream.”
“The Gemini please,” the other Sanié said to the bartender, flipping her hair. “I love rum,” she said to Sanié. “Anyways, you did didn’t you? Want another version of yourself?” It seemed as if the woman’s body had come into greater focus, her eyes brighter, her presence enlarged. “I only came to give you the option. Go sink into whatever you want to sink into.” She smiled, the smile flashing like a knife. A knife in her bag. Her mind too scattered to think to grab it.
Sanié’s voice was weak. “I don’t want anything else.” The cocktail arrived, a pale orange garnished with a sprig of mint. Sanié took a sip.
“Maybe that’s the issue, hm? You don’t seem to want anything. That would confuse anyone. You haven’t wanted anything since,” a pause, a raised eyebrow, “well, since that situation with Uncle Umar in high school. But there are so many things I want! Wouldn’t it just be better if I took over?”
Sanié sat horrified for a moment, then said, “And I would, what? Just walk away?”
“Maybe you’d actually start your life. Do what you said you’d do if you could escape.
Sanié’s breath stilled, her hand rested on the bar counter. She let a finger find its way to a drag of condensation that marked where the double’s glass had sat for a moment. She felt its wet. She forgot the knife.
Two days passed. Sanié sat in her room pondering the pile of clothes still left by the wardrobe. She should pack them, she thought to herself. Though, the other Sanié might find use for them. She skipped work that day. She wondered if Sandra would notice. David? Did she want them to care? She thought she did. It was a fair point that there were things she knew she have could tried to want the way she wanted the people at the office to think about where she was, even though the reality of her line of work was to be invisible. Maybe she wanted, though, to find love somewhere, to live on her own—maybe she was meant to be an artist. She would go straight to the airport. She’d book a flight to LA. Landing on the sun, she would call a friend she hadn’t seen in four years to stay on their couch. She was having the thoughts. What would she even do in another life? Wouldn’t she be the same? Or would the new place change her. Would she stop working phones? But there was nothing wrong with working a phone. Telling stories that meant something to someone even if they weren’t shared with the world. At least she could tell when she was appreciated. But she could do that from anywhere. And when she was honest, she had not been in a place to devote herself to that work either, no matter how natural it had felt to begin it.
Mama and Baba—they would be fine. The other Sanié was more loving, would be kinder to them. More patient with their expectations and wants. Sandra, David, Andrea—they’d be fine too. David liked anyone. Sandra seemed to prefer the other Sanié. Andrea—were they really even friends? The other Sanié wouldn’t stay on the phones long, regardless. Maybe she’d go into sales for real. Start a marketing gig. Whatever people who are attractive and smart enough do. The other Sanié would find love—she was be more open to love than Sanié—even unconventional love—as willing as she was to be intimate with the men Sanié spun lies for. The other Sanié would find truth in the life that Sanié built in deception. And Sanié would try to build something true elsewhere. She could, right? Because anyone could. And even if she had decided to stay, would anything change? She would be on the phones again tonight. She would be eating a silent breakfast with her parents again in the morning.
She thought she could cry, but Sanié did not cry. She had no time to pity anyone, much less herself. Sanié heard a knock at the door. She knew it was Sanié. She picked up the canvas bag by the bed, the one she packed the night before. Phone, wallet, keys. She left the keys. She grabbed a passport. The knife was still in the bag. She hesitated, seeing it there. Another knock at the door. Baba groaned. “I’ll get it, Baba.” The knife was dull, never once sharpened in twenty-five years in this building. She was still holding it when she opens the door.
“Hey there, stranger.”
Sanié gave herself another day in her world. She spent most of it watching TV with Baba and ignoring the calls from the health food store wondering why she hadn’t shown up for her shift. Mama made dal chawal for dinner, and they talked about a cousin’s wedding set for December.
She welcomed the other person into the house. “Take off your shoes. Baba, this is Sanié, she’ll be staying here for awhile,” she said to her father.
“Wow, another Sanié. Hello, bete.”
“Arrhe,” said Mama, coming in from the dining room where she’d been working on her computer. “Who’s your friend, Sanié. What a beautiful girl.” Both parents had smiles on their faces.
“I’ll be leaving now,” Sanié said to empty ears as Sanié greets her parents. She gave them kisses on each cheek.
She walked toward the door, shut it silently behind her.
Standing on the landing, she heard laughter from inside. The knife was still in her bag. The door was still unlocked. She couldn’t hear the birds or the traffic but she could see them from the hallway window. She took a step on the carpeted floor and rubbed her boot into its weave. There was not much to turn back for, her mind told her. Go, said her legs. But she didn’t. She turned around and lifted a hand to the door.
Sanié opened it, the question lingering on her smile. Grasping the knife, Sanié thrusted upwards, heartwards, wondering if it would reach the double’s or her own. When the moment passed, a plume of smoke hovered before Sanié. The single remnant of a choice dissipating into the air, inevitable.