BY LORI D’ANGELO
It started as a military operation. In order to better defend ourselves against fascism, we could send soldiers across The Great Divide.
But then private companies got involved, and that's when things got weird. Targeted ads started appearing on social media: See your dead loved ones again across The Great Divide. The Great Divide wasn't just a metaphorical term. It was a literal space bridge between our two universes. We called their universe Alt.world, and they called ours Other Earth.
To us, our world was the real universe, authentic and true. And they thought the same thing about theirs.
There were differences, of course. Each person was allowed to make his or her own decisions, and sometimes our other self did not make the same choices that we had.
There were even companies that allowed you to see The Road Not Taken and what happened if you took it. So even the Frost poem became literal.
People missed their dead husbands/wives, mothers/fathers, maybe pets the most. It started with pets. The flyers. The pop-up ads. See Sparky again!
I could see the appeal. I kind of wanted to see my dead cat Fluffy. But she had died twelve years ago. And not everything that was done in one universe could be undone in another.
People, even if they shared the same names and DNA, could be different. In one universe, maybe your husband had quit smoking like he said he would. So he didn't die of lung cancer at the age of 55. It could go the other way as well. Maybe, instead of canceling her flight, your wife boarded that plane, the one that crashed. And maybe you wanted to see her again. If the other version of her crossed from Alt.world to our world, you could. In many cases, the arrangement was mutually beneficial. A dead loved ones' bad habits could easily be forgotten after death. But, if you had to live with him for fifteen more years, then his little quirks, like never putting a new trash bag in after taking the garbage out or never recapping the toothpaste, became a little less charming. So, often, it was a win-win for both groups.
Things could get messy, of course. If you had sex with Alt.world you's husband, were you really cheating, or did it just not count? Details needed to be worked out, and contracts needed to be signed. Of course, things could go badly. So you had to sign waivers. In the event that things do not go as planned, we will not hold Happy Reunions responsible.
What started out as a way to help people heal became something more. Businesses realized that there was money to be made, not just in grief but in pleasure.
Billboards started appearing in subways and on the interstate. Spice up your sex life with alt you. Could you be what your bedroom is missing?
It wasn't just about sex either. Some wanted to seek out their other selves for spiritual or religious awakening.
Wouldn't you like to see what's possible with your other self?
I never thought of myself as a conservative before, but when it came to this, I kind of felt myself sympathizing with the Our World, Their World group. Some people thought they were a cult. Admittedly their tactics were a little militant. They stood at The Great Divide with their handmade signs and their sloppy clothes and their searing eyes chanting things like: Our Earth, Our People. Their Earth, Their People. Keep Segregation Alive.
I would be the first to admit that their messaging could use some work. Like who on earth thought it was a good idea to use the word segregation in a chant?
Some of the younger people were a little more media savvy. They had not just pamphlets but graphic novels about the dangers of inter-Earth travel.
There were some logistical issues, of course. Like if both of the planets were Earth, were you technically even leaving? And, also, how did we know that some people hadn't been doing this for years? You know how sometimes you see a friend after a long absence, and that friend seems like a totally different person? Well, what if that friend actually was a totally different person? What if it was alt. friend?
I assumed that Jason and I wouldn't be affected by interEarth travel, at least not yet anyway. We were a young couple in our late twenties. Our parents and siblings were still alive as were most of our good friends. We hadn't yet had children, or even seriously discussed the possibility of it. Our jobs were fairly satisfying, as were our social lives. At least, that's what I thought. And I believed that Jason felt the same.
Until he came home one night after work with the flyer. The flyers were red and green and blue and tie dyed looking as if the makers of them had just gotten home from a 70s psychedelic rave.
I had gotten home earlier that night, so I was making vegetarian stir fry on the wok when Jason burst in the door, his mood light and airy like the mindless pop song that was playing on the radio.
‘Hey, Lizzy,’ he said. ‘How was your day?’
‘Good,’ I said. ‘How was yours?’
This was our usual comforting after work banter. Most nights it was followed by a kiss. Other nights, it was followed by something a little more lingery.
But, that night, Jason skipped a kiss and went straight to the flyer. He pulled it out of the backpack he took with him on the train.
‘Have you seen these?’ Jason asked.
I was a little disappointed. I was hoping that tonight was going to be a lingery night not one of those let's discuss current social and political trends and then catch the evening news on MSNBC nights. ‘Yeah,’ I think, I said, hoping that Jason would notice my lack of enthusiasm for the topic and drop it.
But he either didn't notice or he chose to ignore my ambivalence. ’Everyone at work is talking about this,’ Jason said as he stole a half cooked snap pea and still didn't attempt to kiss me.
‘Hmm,’ I said, ‘is that so?’ thinking that Jason knew me well enough to know that that was my can we talk about something else instead now please signal.
‘Yeah,’ he said, continuing, ‘people are saying it could be the biggest thing since the mass production of cell phones.
‘Hmm,’ I said again, wanting to point out that a flyer and cell phones were not analogous. Instead, since I could tell that he wasn't going to drop it, I asked the question he had wanted me to ask all along, ‘what is it?’
The flyer wasn't just a flyer. It was an advertisement for a company that offered ‘life changing opportunities.’ To me, that language sounded corny and ridiculous, like something a telemarketer or televangelist would say to seal the deal and lock in your commitment. The company was called LifeSwap, like the personal security company LifeLock. In fact, I think the naming pun was meant to make you trust them, but I didn't.
LifeSwap, was, according to Jason, transformative. I was afraid to ask him how he knew. Was he in fact alt.Jason instead of my Jason, and had I just not noticed because he seemed the same to me? Jason, sensing my confusion, elaborated. ‘Mags and Matthew did it and said it was the most amazing thing they've ever done.’
Mags and Matthew were one of those annoying couples who looked alike, thought alike, and dressed alike to the point that you wondered if they were actually two separate people or if they had morphed into a unit. I dumped more hoisin sauce on Jason's stir fry than I knew he wanted just for spite and then purposely took the last Diet Coke and didn't offer to split it with him. When he opened the fridge and saw that there were no more cans, he sheepishly admitted that he had meant to tell me that we were out and ask if I could pick some up on my way home from the college where I worked as the assistant to the Assistant Dean of Student Life. It was a job that involved easy tasks, interesting interactions, and good benefits. I could do it during the day and work on my screenplays at night. I was working on one about a professor who turned into a rabbit and enjoyed his hare life so much that he didn't want to go back to teaching. Jason tried to act like he supported my work, but I think he thought that writing was just a phase I was passing through and eventually I would move on up in the world of college administration and become assistant to the provost or get a side gig selling real estate that would turn into my full-time job. ‘I can get some more Diet Coke tomorrow,’ I said, hoping that Jason would stop talking about this stupid flyer for this stupid company. But I knew he wouldn't because Jason was an adrenaline junkie. He has jumped out of planes, scaled rocks, and ate foods that came with medical warning signs. I felt like this was a test. Would I be willing to try this next thrill rush with him, or was I too tame? I imagined a future with Jason, so I caved and said, Okay, tell me more.
LifeSwap, according to their virtual reality like website, was a company that helped people to reach their greatest potential by allowing to unlock (that stupid pun again) a future that was beyond their wildest imaginings. Jason stared mesmerized at the Jetson looking couple on the computer screen as he jabbered on about how Mags and Matthew said that getting to know their other selves helped deepen their commitment to each other. ‘Isn't that what you want for us, Lizzy?’
I said I needed time to think. But Jason wouldn't let the idea go, so three days later, we were sitting in a video conference room listening to a presentation given by a woman with marshmallow white hair and green eyeliner, who I think was meant to look modern and enticing but instead looked like she was auditioning for a role in a new Frozen film. What would her cartoon character name be? Jana? Elsa and Anna were taken, but it felt like her character's name also needed to end with an a. By the end, Jason was singing the praises of LifeSwap as enthusiastically as a Mormon missionary. I was just along for the ride. In our couples’ counseling session, (why did LifeSwap use therapeutic language, I wondered, when what it seemed like it was actually selling was a fantasy, not a solution, a chance to be another you), it was determined that Alt.world Lizzy and I would change places first. Then Jason and Alt.world Jason would trade places once our cycles were complete so that each of us could experience both worlds. To me, what it seemed like they were asking us to do was participate in a modernized version of a 1970s key party: trade husband's, trade houses, trade lives for 7 to 10 business days. (Weekends were negotiable.) Jason was all for it, but I had my doubts.
Alt.world Lizzy, who went by Beth, and Alt.world Jason were married. So that at least was encouraging. If they could take it to the next level as a couple, then why couldn't we? Beth was a performance artist and feminist theorist who had made a fortune when a commercial developer had wanted to acquire the lot where her grandmother's house had once sat. In my world, the house was still a house, and no such commercial development existed. In Alt.world, Jason was a bonds trader who really wanted to spend his days writing piano solos. But he chose practicality over pursuing his dreams. Plus, he felt like he owed it to Beth, who had bought their unnaturally large house and paid for their dozens of unnecessary servants. ‘Why do you pay a man to wash your dishes,’ I asked him, ‘when you could just load them into that huge perfectly functioning dishwasher?’ Because, he explained, it's what Beth wants. Alt.world Beth seemed to get everything she wanted from fresh squeezed orange juice each morning to the best parking spot on campus each afternoon to a perfectly chilled glass of white wine made with the finest local grapes each evening. Maybe, when I met her for our debriefing in two weeks, I would ask Beth for some tips. I wasn't really comfortable doing performance art or lecturing undergrads on feminist theory, so I spent my first Monday as Beth being fake sick. As fake sick Beth, I examined her plants and her emails. Her plants were succulents. And I wondered if this was because she didn't like to care for things or if she just wanted to be trendy. From her emails, I learned that Beth was very, very popular. I thought that maybe I should check on my Jason just to make sure she was handling Hurricane Beth okay. But when I called him that afternoon, he said that he was busy.
‘Busy doing what?’ I demanded. Jason hesitated then said he was making dinner plans with Alt.world Beth, who didn't like to cook. I was in no mood to go out to dinner with Alt.world Jason, so instead I offered to cook for him.
‘Beth never cooks,’ he told me. He wasn't even sad or disappointed just resigned like he had accepted her in all her beauty and brokenness. Did my Jason feel the same about me?
The next day, I decided to embrace my inner Bethness. After all, we were both Elizabeth. So I went to the college and taught her classes and flirted with strange men, in the way that I imagined that Beth would. It was all very liberating and satisfying and strange. But, at the end of the day, I was ready to go back to being Lizzy. I texted Jason to see if he wanted to swap back. And I got no response. The next morning, Jason tried to call me at 7 a.m. But Alt.world Beth didn't get up at 7 a.m., so neither did I. He called me five more times. But I was busy eating the breakfast that my own personal Uber driver had brought me, and I wasn't about to interrupt that just to hear Jason's lame excuses. Finally he texted me: Lizzy, we need to talk. Instead of calling, I texted, About what? For a while, there was nothing. Then he finally typed: I think we should extend the swap. I wasn't in the mood to handle his request in a mature adult manner, so I turned my cell phone off and emailed Alt.world Jason to tell him that we should go out that night to a piano bar, so that I could hear him play. Okay, he emailed back, without argument, because he was used to being bossed around by a woman who looked like me.
I let Beth's Jason choose the restaurant where we went out to dinner. If Beth didn't cook, then I wouldn't either. At least not for one night. I enjoyed cooking, at least sometimes. Jason picked a steak place. I was pleased to discover that Jason was kind of his own man. Beth claimed to like matcha, which Jason and I agreed tasted like dirt, and fruit smoothies.
‘I know vegetarianism is supposed to be better for the planet, but I just can't shake the meat habit,’ Jason said as if he were a secret heroin addict.
‘I know what you mean,’ I said, as I cut into a dangerously undercooked piece of filet and felt like a criminal.
I paid for the meal with Beth's credit card. Afterward, we went to a jazz bar where Jason was like a poor man's Billy Joel. The bar didn't pay him in anything other than free drinks, but he was okay with that, and so was I. We could get whatever we wanted, and everyone thought I was Beth. An old man at the bar said he liked what I had done with my hair, and I flirted with him mercilessly. And then he told Jason he had caught himself a wild one, and we laughed and laughed, and then we started kissing and didn't stop.
A couple of days later, Other Earth Jason texted me and said he was ready to swap back. But the terms of the contract were clear. Both parties had to agree to the swap. That morning, I called my new Jason at the investment company where he worked and asked if I could have Beth's number changed. When he asked why, I said no reason, but I think he knew. ‘We should talk, Lizzy,’ he said. ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘just tell me when and where.’
Jason chose his favorite restaurant, the one where he had proposed to Beth, and I felt like a contestant on The Bachelor. Would he choose Elizabeth number one or Elizabeth number two? Dinner was pleasant, but I didn't think anything had been decided.
Afterward he asked if he could take me to the mall. I said sure thinking that he wanted to buy me some lingerie, so that we could continue our kinky courtship. Instead, he took me to the jewelry store where he held my hand and called me ‘sweetie’ and made it clear that we were a serious couple.
The salesman, sensing a live target, moved in for the kill. ‘Are you looking for an engagement ring for the lady?’ he asked.
‘No,’ Jason clarified. ‘She lost her wedding ring. It fell down a sewer grate, and we need to get a replacement.’
The salesman looked at Jason and then he looked at me as if he couldn't figure out how to peg us. Jason was wearing a suit that looked very Wall Street. Meanwhile, I was wearing a Target T-shirt and jeans. Finally, he asked Jason if there was any particular price range that he had in mind. Jason gave him a withering look.
‘She can have anything she wants.’
When the salesman attempted to clarify, Jason simply repeated ‘anything.’ The salesman attempted to show us $25,000 rings, but I brought him down a few price brackets. I couldn't see spending that kind of money on a hunk of metal even if it was considered to be precious.
After that, Jason took me to the mall food court for some Ben & Jerry's. No smoothies for us, he said. It was wedding week.
‘But we're not,’ I began.
‘What's your driver's license number and your social security number and your date of birth? he asked.
I told him, and he told me that they were the same as Beth's. But why are our phone numbers different, I asked.
Phone numbers, he said, aren't unique identifiers, and they can change over time.
I could see that he had given this a lot of thought, so I asked him, ‘Whose idea was the swap?’
‘It was Other World Jason's,’ he said. He reached out to her. And then she approached me.
‘When she approached you,’ I asked carefully as I took a bite of my waffle cone and tried not to get ice cream on my arm, ‘were you reluctant?’
‘I would have given her anything,’ he said as he wrapped his tongue around a bit of brownie. ‘But it did give me pause when I realized she was willing to trade me in so easily. So when LifeSwap reached out with the contract, I read it cover to cover, including all fifteen pages of disclosures. And it turns out that she can't come back to this life, this earth, unless we all agree, and I don't.’
‘But doesn't it feel a little wrong to you to be living off her money, in her house?’
‘Not really, he said. ‘Should it when she was willing to sign it and me away so easily?’
‘I don't know,’ I admitted.
Jason asked if I wanted to go to the cell phone store. I said I needed a few days to think about it.
He nodded. ‘I'll do whatever you want, Lizzy.’
‘Let's go home,’ I said. Wondering if home was the right word. And I went to Beth's house and slept with Beth's husband.
I wondered if, the next morning, I would feel the kind of regret that many of my students did after staying out the night before drinking and waking up embarrassed by the memory of their twilight wildness, but I didn't. I felt good. I felt happy. And I wondered if Jason felt the same.
‘Any regrets?’ I asked as I kissed him and then put on my teacher clothes to go play dress up Beth.
‘None,’ he said. ‘You?’
‘Not many,’ I admitted.
I checked my voicemail. Other World Jason had left me 47 messages. I listened to one, and it was so whiny and annoying that I deleted all the rest. This life had begun to feel real, and that life had begun to feel like a distant memory. I texted my new improved Jason and said I was ready to go to the cell phone store later if he was. He said, okay, if I was sure. While we were changing our numbers and leaving no new information about how to reach us, I asked him if he was going to quit his day job.
‘I've been thinking,’ he said, ‘that maybe I should keep it. In case we decide to have children.’
‘Oh, um, wow,’ I said.
‘Too much, too soon?’
‘Um, no, it's just.’ I felt like I could cry because I was so happy. I had a great husband, a great house, a great life, and all I had to do was swap earths to get it. ‘Maybe we could get a dog first? And,’ I hesitated before adding, ‘what about Beth?’
‘Beth,’ he said, ‘is Beth, but you, Lizzy, are my wife now.’
And just like that I became Alt.World Elizabeth. And I didn't look back.
© The Other Elizabeth, 2023, Lori D'Angelo