THE IMPOSTER

Cynthia Singerman

I would look back years later and see she was the same person the entire time. There was

nothing that should have shocked me. She was one of those people who could make you feel so

good, hitting that vein, letting the drugs stream in, pure light. It’s magic, especially when you run

cold. I know because I run sad. You can see it in my eyes.

            This morning I woke to rain pelting the windows. There was this disassociation—when I

first heard the drumming in my dreams before I rose to greet the gray morning. As I sip my cup

of coffee and cream I see it in the stack of mail I left on the counter the night before. The

unlikely invitation.

            I pick up the envelope, feeling the weight of it. The heavy, bone-colored paper, the

embossed ebony letters, the swirling calligraphy announcing the time and date of Eve’s holiday

soiree, at her parents’ Park Avenue penthouse. She’ll be home for Christmas, but I haven’t heard

from her in forever. It was all so long ago, it hardly seems real, but I know it happened. Eve

happened.

            We met in an art class. Watercolors. My painting was simple—one lone cactus against a

pale pink sky. In my heart, no sunrise compares to a desert sunrise. But I’m biased because it’s

the first sunrise I really remember, and our origin impressions are stamped into our minds with

such authority.

            In this class, I was focused intently on my sky, because you have to blend the brush to the

paper just so to avoid a streaky mess. The pink was muted, a soft morning blush, I thought,

fiddling with my one long feather earring. In the other ear was a turquoise stud. I have always

abhorred anything symmetrical.

            I look up to see a young woman staring at me, tall with dark brown eyes, wearing a

chunky gold necklace sparkling above her breasts. Her nails are painted Big Apple Red, like the

city where we lived. I didn’t live there, there. I lived in Brooklyn. Before Brooklyn was cool. Or

maybe that was when it was cool. In New York, everything is a blur, everything past tense.

            “Oh my God. You’re so good.” She waves her arm, and her Cartier Love bracelet catches

the light. Not my style, but she has style.

            My painting is good because I am good at painting. I am good at a number of things,

although never great. I was too much of a drifter to be great. I liked to wander, I liked my space,

and to be truly great, you have to put in a little more effort than I was willing to give. The only

thing I put that much effort into was my appearance—scarves, flea-market jewelry, thrift-store

finds. I work in a clothing store in Soho and babysit for my rich boss. Her kids are cute and sad,

like me. I did odd jobs here and there—helped stylists who shopped at the store, babysat for the

rich friends of my rich boss. House sat because I was good with plants. I saved this one lady’s fig

tree by repotting it, and she tipped me two hundred bucks. Life was not bad.

            But when I met Eve I was lonely. The loneliness can really eat you alive if you let it.

There is no one to talk to, no one who wants to listen. You ride the train to work every day,

ignoring the people ignoring you, not thinking about the stinking armpits of the man standing

over you, leering, begging you to smile.

            “You’re so pretty,” she sidles up beside me, lightly touching my wrist. “I love your jewelry.”

            It’s her enthusiasm I find charming. It’s her compliments I find seductive. We are drawn

to each other, the predator and the prey. It’s not her fault though. When you see yourself in

shadows, the uncertainty, this lack of clarity consistently puts you in danger.

            I take her to these loft parties in Koreatown. The building was an old factory in the

Garment District. All the other floors were filled with tiny women working. But a guy I knew

lived there with no furniture, just a massive space with a piano and a mattress. The place would

be packed with people, beats booming. Everything fluid. Everyone young. Sometimes we saw

celebrities. We did drugs until dawn and I started sleeping at Eve’s.

            “This is so cool,” she used to say. “You are so cool.”

            I wasn’t that cool. I care too much to be cool. I’m just open. I used to be anyway. I’ve

learned my lesson. Eve helped me with that. I can spot an Eve from a mile away.

            We always meet after work for drinks. “You’re my favorite,” she always says. “My

favorite person.” And who didn’t want to be someone’s favorite? I became accustomed to it,

comfortable. I assumed it would always be that way.

            One night I am late to meet her at Luna Park. It was supposed to rain and the evening is

heavy and thick. I am late because I was with Augie, the man I won’t leave, who won’t leave his wife. My high heel snaps, and I begin to cry. I cry and cry and feel myself falling deeper into

something despairingly dark. I panic—my breath slipping away in the hot, humid summer air—

and the thought of getting on the subway, sinking into the underground seems impossible.

            “I’ll come get you,” Eve said, and I wait in a crappy diner, the kind that have almost all

closed down now. I am relieved, but afraid. Afraid of letting her see this naked, grotesque

version of myself. She arrives in a flowered sundress, her nails pearl pink and perfect. I glance at

my own nails, ragged and bitten and bloody.

            I hesitate, briefly. Tell me. Trust me. And I believe her. And I tell her. I tell her

everything. It’s begun to rain, sheets fiercely pelting the sidewalk outside. She listens. She looks

at me and I am not afraid anymore.

            “You can go to my mother’s therapist,” Eve says. “My treat.” She waves away my

protests. “Please, my mother has him and the plastic surgeon on speed dial. It’s fine.”

            I laughed, believing it was fine. Fabricating this idea that everything would be fine if Eve

was there.

            I spent a summer at her parents’ vacation home in Newport. Every morning I would do

the cliff walk with her mother while Eve rolled her eyes. Her mother was tall and wore crisp

white shorts that never got dirty, small gold jewelry she never took off. Some days Eve would

get bored and leave for a few days. I would eat dinner with her mother and father, in my denim

cutoffs and Hanes undershirt, with my nose ring and skin marked with ink, wondering why I

came.

            “What do your parents do, Sarah?” her father asked, always polite. We were eating

lobster and I never ate it again. It’s a shame because lobster is so delicious, but the taste of it, the

smell of it, reminds me always of some kind of rejection by the very person who entrapped me.

            “They’re dead,” I answered. My mother might be alive somewhere, but that was neither

here nor there. For me, she did not exist.

            “Sometimes I can’t breathe here,” Eve tells me when she returned. “Can you forgive

me?”

            I did. I always forgave her, until I didn’t.

            We had five good years before it fell apart. I didn’t want it to, but sometimes you stand

on the sidelines and watch a house burn because you can’t go back inside. You’ll vanish in the

flames and never make it out alive.

            Eve was dating this guy named Jarrett. Jarrett Janson. Everyone called him JJ. He did this

thing when he laughed. He would wipe his eyes and fan his face if something struck him as

extremely funny. I thought it was kind of sweet, mostly because every once in a while I would do

it too. When things were that funny. Things weren’t usually that funny though.

            Eve hated it. She pretty much hated everything he did. And yet they dated for years. I

don’t think she liked the idea of being alone. I mentioned this to her once, about a month after

they broke up, when she’d started seeing Vance. Eve didn’t like it. I also suspected Vance had

been around before her breakup with JJ. When I asked her, Eve didn’t like that either. Her eyes

turned to little black beads in the middle of her tan face. She was always tan because she spent

Saturday mornings getting sprayed in one of those showers at the salon. I never went. The stalls

creep me out.

            “Vance and I just happened.” She always drew out the ends of her words, like a valley

girl. “Like you and Augie, happened.”

            After that conversation, she didn’t return my calls for two weeks. I saw on Facebook she

was spending a lot of time with our friend Roxy. She had a new profile picture with the two of

them on beach cruisers. I guess they had gone on a girls’ trip to L.A. I scrolled through the

photos of them wearing matching camo yoga outfits. Artful cocktails arranged in a grainy

filtered light, French straw baskets slung casually over bare arms.

            “You’re not mad, are you?” Eve asked when she finally called. “I told you about this trip

with Roxy.”

            Had she told me? I couldn’t remember then. Eve was good at that, twisting the truth into

an indiscernible maze. You could walk through miles of pathways, surrounded by encompassing

green shrubbery and never know which way you were going. Get so turned around, you could

never find your way back.

            Being left out, being left behind was a long, slow paper cut across my skin, soaked in

rubbing alcohol. Oh, how it stung and burned. I pressed the phone to my ear with a hard, cold

lump in my stomach, waiting and wondering when I would be back in Eve’s good graces.

            “I feel like she’s slipping away,” I told my new therapist. I hadn’t been to therapy in

years, not since Augie and I broke up. Augie had eyes the color of the sky on a clear day. I think

of him and my right eyelid pulses. “I feel like she doesn’t like me anymore.”

            “Well.” My new therapist crosses and recrosses her legs. She wears ceramic earrings

painted primary colors—a red, blue, and yellow swirling design. I wonder if she bought them at

a craft fair, same with the knitted scarf around her neck. The longer I sit there, the more my rage

rises and rises. I realize I probably should have told the therapist about my moods that whip

around and around. The anger—it coats everything with an opaque layer of paint. Everything I

know, everything I should keep close doesn’t matter. I cannot see clearly, I never could. But it’s

easier than the sadness.

            I stare at the clock in her office, in the shape of an owl. Its tail swings as the minutes tick

by.

            “Sometimes we’re more invested in relationships than other people. They mean more to

us, than we do to them.”

            I wait for her to elaborate. The owl’s tail swings and swings, the ticking is the only sound

in the silence. She smiles and I realize she is finished.

            “So, what are you saying?” My jaw clicks and I shift my legs, sweaty and sticky on her

leather couch. I pick at an embroidered pillow and I can see her frown.

            “We can never really know why people behave as they do. You just have to find

acceptance. Have you tried meditating?”

            I feel cheated. Nothing she says is outrageously offensive, but I feel worse than before

the appointment, so I don’t go back. Instead I download a meditation app that I use twice. I join a

running club. It helps with my anger. The weeks tick by like the therapist’s owl clock, and Eve

and I don’t see each other. We don’t talk.

            I text her over and over, asking her to meet me for happy hour, to drink cheap champagne

and snack on Marcona almonds and a sweaty cheese plate. I check my phone every thirty

minutes to see if she responds. She never does and I think about what the new therapist said

about acceptance and I suppose it’s true, but it still rips you apart. My running club meets twice a

week, and sometimes by the end my cheeks are wet and salty from sweat or tears, but I’m not

sure which. It rains one night and we all still meet. I haven’t run in the rain in years, and when I

get home, I spend such a long time in the shower, my skin is wrinkly and pink like a baby’s.

Except I’m not a baby, I’m a grown woman who lives alone.

            I did see her again, to retrieve my favorite vintage dress long left at her apartment.

            “Oh right.” She blinks a few times. “I think I gave it away in my last closet clean out. I

didn’t know where it came from.” She shrugs. “You’re not mad, are you?”

            I regret I could not answer her honestly. I regret I walked three blocks and sat on a

stranger’s stoop and cried. I regret I still tried after that.

            I plan my birthday party in the park. It’s a beautiful day and the sun shines a soft golden

light and the breeze lifts our hair from the backs of our necks. Eve arrives very late and gets very

drunk. She takes a cupcake and licks off the frosting and asks people if they want to eat the cake.

Everyone shakes their heads no and exchanges glances. Vance shows up eventually and he

pretends to teach her how to play football.

            “Is this how?” she holds the football, clomping across the grass like a deranged ostrich. “I

got it!”

            We probably say three words to each other. I sit with my other friends and try to ignore

her. Try to ignore the river of wild, wet rapids in my chest. A sensation I cannot tame, this

overflowing rush of loss when someone is still there, but already gone.

            Two months go by. Eve invites me to dinner at an overpriced Mediterranean restaurant. I

want to say no, but I cannot. She still wields this power over me. I owe her is what I think.

            The chef has overcompensated with garlic and onion and my stomach puffs out in a

distended gassy balloon. Eve is dressed not in yoga clothes for once, but in all black, sleek and

skinny with a fresh blowout. I just got over the flu and my scalp smells. I look how I feel, with

bluish-green crescent moons under my eyes. I want to scratch my head because it itches from

days of dander, but I resist. It will gross Eve out. Everything does. She cleans her seat with some

kind of Lysol wipe. I briefly close my eyes, waiting and wondering why she wanted to see me

after all this time.

            “I have big news.” She sucks in her cheeks, emphasizing their boniness. I hate her then. I

used to be thinner, but I can’t think about that. I can’t play her game. It makes me crazy. It makes

me hate myself.

            “What is it?” I fantasize about her choking on the olives she’s chewed on for most of the

meal. My skin crawls and I imagine peeling it off in long pink slabs. Like when you were young,

when you had a bad sunburn after the day at the beach. Eating frozen vanilla custard dipped in a

chocolate shell. I haven’t seen my mother since I was six but this memory comes to me, of her in

a red-and-pink bikini and a straw hat. She smells like cigarettes and roses. She smokes her

Parliaments and watches me lick my ice cream cone. Her hair is the color of strawberries.

            “I’m moving away,” Eve tells me. She’s taken a better job on the West Coast. “I’m going

to miss you so much. So much!”

            I wonder if she’s lying. I miss her. Or rather, the way she used to be. I don’t miss this.

This terrible dinner that keeps me up all night with a stomachache. I fall asleep to the sound of

raindrops on my bathroom skylight. Next week Eve will be three thousand miles away.

            That night seems so far away as I remember all those days, all those nights together, all

gone now. Toasting each other with overflowing champagne glasses, conversations, emails and

texts detailing every second of our lives all sucked away by the vortex of time, of truth.

            When we were twenty-five we threw her first big party together, a boozy brunch in the

new apartment I helped her furnish. I went with her to pick out her couch. We spent the day

wandering through the showroom, sinking into cloud-like cushions, drinking the free Perrier they

brought us. She bought one that day, six thousand dollars for a sofa. She had her parents’ money,

but she made her own money. That was the one thing you could always say about Eve: She

worked hard.

            For the party I brought over cantaloupe and smoked salmon. Fresh bagels, the dough still

steaming, and cream cheese. I blew a chunk of my paycheck at Zabars just to impress her.

            “Melon is disgusting,” she says. “It gets mealy.”

            “Only when it’s not good melon,” I argue. I want to cry. A terrible lump, like a red

burning coal in my chest. I want to kick the ceramic tile with my black boots. I want to throw all

the Waterford glasses against the wall. A tantrum. That’s how badly I crave her approval.

            She eats the salmon, but not the bagels. She doesn’t eat carbs or dairy. “You’re so thin

she whines. I think it’s a compliment. But it was always a competition with her. I was never sure

who was winning, but now I know who was keeping score.

            “You’re a racehorse,” my father told me once. “Stay in your lane and go as fast as you

can.” He paused, swigging his Miller Light. The football game droned loudly from the television.

The air-conditioning was broken, so we positioned the cheap Kmart fans we had around the

room. “And keep your motherfucking blinders on.”

            He died of liver failure when he was fifty. I’m amazed he lived that long. Years of booze

and pills can really take you down fast, tumbleweeds across the dry, cracked earth. He wasn’t a

terrible guy. He raised me all alone instead of sending me away. And yet, I didn’t go to the

funeral. I was long gone by then, working two jobs in the city. But I imagined my father petrified

in death, morphing into one of the saguaros on the red rocks with its arms stretched out in

greeting, toward the sky. Toward heaven.

            My father would correct my grammar. I would answer the one telephone, the landline in

the kitchen, saying, “this is her.”

            “This is she.” He’d scream it with so much force the veins would throb in his forehead.

My father was very educated. He’d gone to boarding school and then to New Haven. He taught

me to play chess and do puzzles. He loved puzzles, almost as much as he loved whiskey and

Xanax. It wasn’t his fault really. He had a disease, like Eve. They say you’re drawn to the same

kind of person over and over again. And our experiences are, therefore, never random, but

predestined only because of how we are conditioned from a young age. It’s almost impossible to

break these instilled patterns, or even recognize them for that matter. I only know because I felt

the need to change, or at least to understand why I was living my life on repeat, even when I had

traveled so far from where I started.

            My mother drove me to Arizona in her convertible and handed me my blue duffel bag.

“Be a good girl,” she said. “Be good for your daddy.”

            She drove away and a heat haze slowly rose from the blistering asphalt of the interstate.

            My dad looked me up and down and took me inside, fixed me a boiled hot dog and a can

of baked beans. He came from money once, but I’m not sure what happened because by the time

I came into the picture, he didn’t speak to his family, and I never had any desire to look for them.

            I told Eve all this. She was the only one I ever told. When we sat on her rooftop,

invincible and high. When the sky swirled above us with purple haze from the bright lights of the

city, casting diamonds on the black water below. We could touch the moon if we wanted to,

drinking cold white wine and smoking cigarettes down to the nubs that burned our fingers.

            “Do you always want to be here?” Eve asked me. “Do you ever think about going

home?”

            “What is home?”

            I didn’t know if I needed an answer. Home for her was family, friends, a sprawling

summer house on a sparkling ocean, where the grass was always cut and the flowers always

bloomed. I came from nothing. Nowhere. Dry desert sands underneath an unforgiving sun. The

kind of sun that bakes you until you break in half. Worn and weathered. This place, this city with

its grit and grime was my home now. I felt her stare at me in the dark, the way she stared at me

the first time we met, with a penetrating and fierce evaluation.

            “They’re not my real parents, you know.” She spoke away from me, staring out. “I’m

adopted. They were my parents’ best friends before my father killed my mother.”

            The secret opened a door between us. She drew me in, but only for a moment. My throat

dry and tight, searching, failing to find the words. I failed her that night. And she never wanted to

talk about it again. The door swung shut and locked. She revealed too much, and maybe I

reminded her of someone she did not want to be. Someone flawed and scarred. Maybe I am a

mirror.

            The last party she threw before she moved was an elegant affair at Vance’s aunt’s

brownstone.

            “I want to make a toast,” she sniffed. She sobbed. “To my best friends, all of whom I love

so much.” So much. It was all so much.

            I watched her crying, the long blue tears running down her cheeks, and I felt nothing in

my chest. Where my heart should have tugged and twisted, it remained cold and unmoving, like

a frozen stone. Her face did mimic that of someone in pain. No, you couldn’t deny it. But I knew

her too well, this imposter. This shape-shifter. Playing everyone for a fool. I knew all the tricks. I

knew all the traps.

            I try to drink my coffee carefully but I still manage to spill, dripping across the invitation,

staining it with brown dribbles. I close my eyes for just a moment and when I open them, my

gaze falls to the framed watercolor on the wall, the pink sky. The green cactus. It’s raining harder

now.

            On my way to the bathroom, I toss the invitation in the trash. Sometimes people mean

more to us than we do to them. Sometimes it’s the other way around and we never know it, I

think.

© 2015 Cogswell College •  191 Baypointe Parkway, San Jose, CA 95134 800.264.7955 • www.cogswell.edu