Mirror | Mirror
– Memoir by Erin Barnes –
A map spread across her naked body, she had a haunting look that shook through me. The stranger’s expression in the photograph leveled me not because it was foreign but rather because it scalded me with recognition.
I always struggle to smile in photos; my face doesn’t want to bend into its accustomed curves. My constant attempt to correct this serious expression produces blundering, toothless grins. But she had a face like mine and she wore it. She didn’t bother smiling, she didn’t acquiesce. Fringed by raven curls, her intense stare burned through the camera lens. The map unfurled across her body was an ode to her wanderlust. Her message commanded attention. This woman, a long-lost cousin I had only just discovered in my mid-twenties, was named Rebecca Marshall Brewster. I later got to know Becky from afar through the pages of her secret blog. She often took to the road in her beater car with a litter box in the backseat, her copilot–a cat–freely roaming inside. She escorted to make ends meet between road trips and long washes of time-melting heroin. I lived a bland life in comparison, but I instantly felt the roots of her within me. We explicitly shared the same urge to make our lives into works of art, challenging limits until it was unsafe. It was at this moment that I understood that this intriguing muse of a woman had my DNA, but she emanated more. Discovering her was both a comfort and a warning.
In Krakow, a radiant young woman sings her last haunting notes on a stage, surrounded by a dark-cloaked choir, the entire scene tinged with greenish incandescence. Weronika’s family harbors a genetic weakness that has caused other members of her family to mysteriously perish despite seemingly perfect health. After accepting this solo singing part, Weronika tells her aunt that the audition went well… too well, she fears. In the end, her passion for music–known to possess her so fully that she performs even as pouring rain drenches her face–prompts her to chant her last spellbound notes. As her heart gives out, Weronika collapses and is instantly pronounced dead.
At the very same moment in Paris, a woman identical to Weronika is entangled with her lover when she’s struck with a sudden melancholy. She can’t identify where the feeling came from; she only feels powerfully and inexplicably overcome with grief. She is Weronika’s doppelganger, Veronique, living a separate life in a different country, yet still connected by an invisible bond. This is the chill-inducing premise for the 1991 international classic, the Double Life of Veronique directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski and starring Irène Jacob.
The Double Life doesn’t attempt to explain the mystical questions it raises. The film is sensual and evocative. Rather than discovering why one soul seems to have split into two, the film explores the feelings behind such a fantastical concept, and there’s good reason for that: in life, we don’t get an explanation.
After my grandmother Anne’s death, I was searching for explanations. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, after she’d passed, that I learned that she belonged to a small ethnic group hailing from the Carpathian Mountains: Carpatho-Rusyn. Anne had moved from the Ukraine or Poland—the boundaries were always shifting—to Downers Grove, a perfectly named Chicago suburb for which to totally lose one’s culture. She bore children with a football-watching, beer-swilling American man in an abandoned school house. My father, having successfully become the most educated member in his family, with a PhD in physics, didn’t talk much about an upbringing he had little in common with. The only clue I had to my grandmother’s Eastern European roots were the cabbage rolls she made. Food doesn’t lie.
After her death, I began exploring my newly-unearthed cultural identity. I was a creative writing graduate left to wallow in a grueling, boring job: formatting lengthy government proposals. If I missed a comma, I could lose the company a contract for tens of thousands of dollars. My favorite coping mechanism, daydreaming, was therefore a major liability; stifling my imagination coupled with the tedium of such detail-oriented work led to tainted dreams at night. Thoughts bore headings with numbered sections and pages. This life, which was correct in its responsibility, grammar and formatting, was incorrect for my soul.
My internet searches for “Carpatho-Rusyn” unearthed benign forums for staid societies dedicated to the preservation of this ethnicity. The forums, about third annual get-togethers for whatever-boring-holiday, didn’t reveal much. So, I wrote my own fantastical answers.
Birthed from black shards of Carpathian Mountains,
In towers of Transylvania,
My grandmother was born in a dusty house of vampires.
Her murdered mother had saved the secret
To cooking cabbage rolls that were so plump, so savory,
That the vampires stopped craving blood.
They stole her recipe,
They threw her into the wide cold with only a hard, dirty peasant cloak.
My little grandma walked clear across Ukraine,
Across shifting boundaries, clutter and chaos, moving earth,
And spotted a prophet. He whispered: your story will be told in English.
She boarded a bursting ship of pirates and soul shifters.
They stole her soul
Or maybe her husband did
During Sunday football and beer.
Maybe I’m cursed for saying it
But she never did tell me her story.
She only carefully rolled her cabbage rolls
And wounded me with her death
And the empty term Carpatho-Rusyn
Only filled by imagination.
Maybe someday my grandmother’s story will be told in English, but this wasn’t it. This was totally giving up on reality because sometimes, the imagination is easier.
I posted the poem on Myspace, of all places, and a girl named Becky commented. “This poem is beautiful. I’m Carpatho-Rusyn, too!”
It’s a small ethnic group. I joked, “Maybe we’re related!”
A few comments more and we’d connected the dots, realizing our grandmothers were sisters. Becky promptly shared all.
My connection to Becky was less mysterious than the invisible bond between Veronique and Weronika–we were related–but it still felt surreal. Someone had walked out of the ether looking like me. I had met a stranger I already cared about. It’s the feeling of coming home and being ripped in two at once. I felt a strange grief that I, a writer who based my identity on the lofty goals of innovation, am not unique. And there was a familial yearning, too.
The synchronicity between Becky and I was enhanced by the fact that she was more extreme in every regard. She was two years older than me. I lived in Denver, and Becky lived in the more romantic Portland. My black hair was straight; hers was curly, her soul uncontained. I went to Metro State, Denver’s Community College; she attended, and dropped out of, Reed. I liked booze; she shot heroin. I felt comfortable in subversive scenes—my first group of friends in Denver was a group of South Broadway gay strippers. Becky was in the sex work scene, escorting only to support her habit. Whereas I was developing a cute reputation in Denver for my bright cultural commentary, Becky’s writing was downright brilliant–dense, mind-blowing, and quoting large chunks of weighty text. While easily explained by genetics, these synchronicities, emerging in the ethereal package of an artsy girl draped in scarves and jewelry, felt like magic to me.
Thanks to the fact that my mother was a French professor, I had watched the Double Life of Veronique at an early age. I instantly recognized this feeling I had about Becky–surreal, uncanny, mysterious, magical–as the exact feeling I had when first watching that movie. And some days, when I think about Becky’s fate, I wonder if I cursed her in this very thought.
In the film, both Veronique and Weronika are subject to tidal sensations experienced in tandem that often feel like premonitions. If one girl burns her hand on a stove, the other yanks her hand back just in time to avoid a scald. How many of us can relate to such inexplicable feelings prompting seemingly involuntary movement? How universal is this notion of fragmented souls? After all, that was the reason I searched through my grandmother’s past: to feel whole. Furthermore, how many of us try to solve mysteries by believing in magic? By rewriting our own stories?
We all experience coincidences, synchronicities, and dualities in many forms. Synchronicities often feel like they’re the hijinks of the divine. Are they the commanding call of the occult, or just our imaginations being clever with the details we notice? Whether magic was at play or simply creative processing, I was listening to Becky.
After Weronika dies, her ghost haunts Veronique in different forms: glimmers of flickering light, a ghostly green presence hovering over scenes, and silent messages she doesn’t quite understand. Right after Weronika’s death by song, Veronique goes to her singing instructor and quits without knowing why.
I related to Becky and was touched by her writing. I was also frightened by her life’s drama, which was interstellar in its grandiosity: Passionate affairs with legendary, wild, or shady men. Doing acid with her best friend all over Portland, experiencing a fun house mirror of epiphanies. Drying out on heroin for excruciating bouts while playing Neutral Milk Hotel on her guitar. Getting high to cope with the sex work that paid her bills, but also continued to fuel her habit. It was a cruel hamster wheel to live in, yet she handled it with grace and curiosity.
As I scrolled through Becky’s blog, a peculiar presence whispered in my ear, just as Weronika’s ghost haunts Veronique. Becky and I also had careers that threatened to harm us, for what more torturous profession can one choose than writing? I often found myself shrugging off the stupid or harmful situations I put myself in, thinking, “this will make for good future memoir material.” In these moments, I’m shamefully forced to admit to myself that I often live to fuel my writing. Becky clearly did too. The message that emerged from Becky’s blog was this: if circumstances were different, this could be you.
Early on in the Double Life, Weronika spots Veronique in Krakow, on vacation from Paris and boarding a tour bus. Consider the irony of Veronique, camera in hand, unable to truly see the life altering moment happening to her: The meeting of her double. Snapping photos, Veronique unknowingly captures her double on film to be discovered later: a photo of Weronika staring at her in awe, blinded by incomprehension. Sometimes, the mirror is too bright.
I got to meet my own psychic twin when one of her cross-country road trips brought her through my home state. I already had plans to meet a friend for lunch at the new Bubba Gump Shrimp joint in the touristy part of Denver. As Becky’s visit was slightly unexpected, she joined our culturally pedestrian plans. Over cardboard bowls of mall shrimp, I sat across from this divine creature, awkwardly trying to understand her over the roar of 16th Street corporate yes men.
Several years went by. I had continued to develop my writing career and so had Becky. Both of us had stints writing for college and local papers. She continued her wanderlust, living in Alaska and even Thailand for some time. I had children with my husband.
Becky was back in the U.S. In 2014, she was living in New Orleans with a boyfriend who seemed like a good fit. I didn’t read her blog anymore. At first, it had been the vibrancy that captivated me. After a while, I read because I worried about her. Then, she seemed okay, so I stopped. She commented on pictures I posted of my children on Facebook. That was it.
Then, she died.
I found out about Becky’s death on my 34th birthday. Every once in a while, your partner goes all out and plans the most spectacular celebration; it was poignant and ironic that this year, my husband had invited friends from all corners of life. If it weren’t interspersed with tragedy, it would’ve been the best birthday ever.
Sitting sad at my own party, I was annihilated with grief, but also felt a fraud. I had barely spoken to this girl before. What crushed me was not some severed ethereal bond, just the tragedy of it all. After battling addiction for over a decade, it seemed like Becky had finally gained control. She had weaned herself off heroin by taking small amounts of Klonopin each day, which helps to soothe the physical symptoms, anxiety, and sleeplessness of withdrawal, thus staving off relapse. Becky died when she stopped taking the sedative. She was trying to get pregnant and wanted a healthy environment for her child-to-be. Without the protection of her prescription, Becky swung back into her addiction; she took a dose of heroin that would’ve been fine in the old days, but after a long period of sobriety, it killed her.
Here I was, surrounded by friends, a loving husband, children, and so much more. The poignance burned. I posted an update on Facebook honoring Becky and frankly stating that while I had barely known her in real life, her brilliance had touched me, and I still shared this special experience that made me feel like I knew her.
In the midst of my party, Becky’s own mother Nancy shared my tribute on social media, her first post after Becky’s death. I sat down and wrote her a message, holding back tears, sending my heartbroken condolences. She thanked me for my beautiful words and asked for my email address to send an invite to Becky’s memorial. She said no pressure, but “I felt like you should be invited because you knew and loved Becky.” Instantly I felt validated in my grief, and the shared sorrow of that moment rushed between us like water.
When Veronique was with the man she loved in Paris, he discovered the photographs she had taken from the tour bus on vacation in Krakow. “Look at this photo of you,” he said, pointing to the one she had captured of Weronika. Veronique looked at it. “That’s not me.” She had been wearing a different jacket. Her lover pressed, “Yes, that’s you.” Veronique took the photo prints in her hands and inexplicably crumpled them, dissolving into a puddle of impassioned mourning.
Had she just figured out she had a doppelganger? Who knows. The viewer feels that moment of anguish, regardless of understanding.
It would be narcissistic for me to view Becky’s death as my personal warning from the void. But I can still learn from it. Regardless of whether the synchronicities we shared were magic at play, the chaos of life randomly lining up into a great story, or I’m just an insufferable creative who sees meaning in everything, the lesson was powerful. Just the hint of underlying magic forced me to pay close attention to what was happening in my life. Imagine being that present to all of life’s lessons.
Years later, I sat in the bath by candlelight, recovering from a beautifully turbulent love affair that reminded me of the intense, painful romances Becky had experienced in her life. The flickering candles projected dazzling shapes onto everything in the room, so I snapped an experimental bath selfie. The resemblance was uncanny: I looked exactly like Becky. Gazing back into the camera at my own face, I felt Becky in that moment. I later found out that it was her birthday.
Becky’s mother Nancy made it to Colorado a year later, bringing with her a photo album commemorating Becky’s life.
Here was Becky as a baby, and she wasn’t serious like in her later photos. She was carefree and beaming for the camera. As I flipped through, my anxiety desperately wanted me to solve the mystery of where exactly things went wrong to create this tragedy. I found no such answers, just a happy life. My grief was slightly assuaged by this beautiful tribute to the full life she had lived in her 36 years. But the last photo in Becky’s tribute looked like a fake to me. It took almost a minute of me gazing at it, dead eyed, to even understand what the picture was. For the first few seconds, I thought the photo was of Becky in a play. It felt uncanny, unreal.
It was a photo of Becky in a casket, her boyfriend kneeling before it. The fluorescent light was too bright. I felt numb. I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t expecting to see the photo of her death, contrasted by her life. Maybe the mirror reflection was too bright. I’ve never been so blinded by a photo before.
Erin K Barnes writes about synesthesia, polyamory, and other forms of boundary-crossing in outlets such as Men’s Health, SyFy, OK Whatever, Westword, the Denver Post, and more. Barnes recently penned a travel book on quick weekend getaways in Colorado through Countryman Press/W.W. Norton. Barnes also enjoys telling other’s stories through her public relations roles for the haunted bordello, The Black Monarch Hotel, and nightlife photographer Shadows Gather. Learn more at erinkbarnes.com, or follow her on Twitter at @ErinKBarnes