I hope Nicole is okay. I hope the weight of being this age at this time doesn’t crush her. I hope her life is easy (much easier than mine) and that she is ascending. Because me, her doppelgänger, was descending, and quickly.
“You look really familiar,” people tell me when I’m in public. The longer I live within city limits, the more often I hear this. Whereas at first I assumed it was something white people said to black people because they think we all look the same, I now realize that might not be the only reason.
“You look really familiar?” people ask, as if trying to not get into trouble, as if there is more to their question that they haven’t figured out yet. It is an open-ended question, a run-on sentence kind of encounter without a period in sight.
It usually goes something like this: a tilt of the head, followed by a slow creep toward me. My hand is out, ready for the handshake, but there is apprehension, as if touching my skin will wipe something off on them. They’re not exactly disgusted, more trying to figure out just what I am. A ghost, maybe? Or some kind of unidentified walking object. A UWO in all black and pink lipstick. They say, “Hello. You look really familiar,” and at first I would say, “Oh, really?” But now I just say, “I know. I hear that a lot,” because it steers the conversation someplace else, anyplace else, instead of reminding me of her, Nicole, that other girl.
What does it mean to look familiar? I used to think it meant you were special.
In late 2008, right as Barack Obama became the first black President of the United States, people began to say I looked like Michelle Obama. I understood it, even if it wasn’t true. We are both tall, both athletic, both milk chocolatey in skin tone. But the similarities generally end there. To look familiar is to also look new. It is that thing where you learn a word and you begin to see it everywhere, begin to hear it in all conversations. I did not mind this phenomenon: Michelle Obama, a strong, confident, beautiful, successful black woman, was a divine doppelgänger I could get behind. It was largely older white men who made this connection. If they were over the age of 50, they made a point of grabbing my attention.
“Do you know who you look like?” they’d ask, licking their lips.
“Michelle Obama?” I began to ask by late October 2008.
“Yes!” they’d exclaim. “How did you know?”
It was easy, I thought. Michelle became the woman, the filler for their past wants and desires. Michelle, too, became the challenge to their prejudices. She was the exception and then the obsession. They saw her nowhere and then they saw her everywhere. Michelle was something they missed out on in the past. Michelle was something they’d be reminded of forever in the future.
What does it mean to look familiar? I now understand it means you’re not the person other people want to see. You’re the thing they settle with and the thing that’s good enough but not great.
Two years ago, I got a little too drunk. On the roof of Soho House, a private club for “creatives” who must use the word creatives in quotation marks, I drank glasses of rosé as if they were going out of style. Earlier that evening I’d connected with a group of older black poets who lived in Hyde Park and loved each other and wore the sort of loose and flowing clothing favored by artists and thinkers and people who didn’t spend the majority of their 20s in nightclubs like me.
In the face of confusion and doubt I have a tendency to spend money, on books and cheap clothing and especially flowers. I love things that have a set in stone end life. A book forever has an end. Cheap clothes rip and tear. Their seams burst open before I’ve ever worn them. Flowers wilt and die. Sometimes they dry up and take on a new life, a relic of the past, a changed thing to love, more delicate than anything before it. Practical purchases only make sense when the cash flow is steady. But when money is sporadic and so are my feelings, I fall into patterns of frivolous spending.
The poets’ presence was a welcome break from the easy disintegration and endings of my life at the moment. We talked about Chicago politics and the city’s endemic violence and a little bit about our goals and aspirations. Mine were simple: to overcome the trauma of months before that seemed to have crippled me mentally as much as physically, to write full-time without the eternal struggle or the hunger, to be happy in what I have known and with what I did not know. Theirs were less dramatic, things about good health and focus and peace.
We stumbled off the elevators of the club and into the lobby. My new friends began to say their goodbyes when a short man touched my arm. I spun around and he gripped me in a deep bear hug, surprising for someone of his size. His embrace was warm and, what’s that word again? Familiar? But eventually he began to pull away, as if in the middle of the hug he understood I wasn’t who he thought I was, even if he could not see my face. Maybe the skin on my back was too slick with the oils I like to envelop my body in.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” he said.
“It’s okay,” I replied.
“I thought you were my friend Nicole,” he said. “Nikki. I could tell it wasn’t her because you’re wearing a perfume and she doesn’t.”
Growing up, other girls were obsessed with clothes, but I was obsessed with scents. In my mind, I could transform myself into someone else, someone better with a spritz. It was a method of control, a method of transformation that slipped through different scents, invoking nostalgia, memory, pleasure, possibility.
“Wow, you look JUST like her,” he said again.
“Yeah, I hear that a lot,” I replied.
“I’m serious!” he said.
“People always say that,” I began, “but then when I ask them for like, a picture of their friend, their phone doesn’t work or there’s no data signal or their Facebook won’t work.” I rolled my eyes and began to walk away, but he grabbed me again.
“No wait!” he cried as he pulled out his phone, only to find the battery was dead.
“You look like her!” he said again.
“I’m sure I do…” I said sarcastically.
“Give me your email address!” he replied.
“Your email, your email. I promise you. I will send you her picture.” And I did, because I was curious, because it probably meant nothing, because I didn’t expect much of anything.
But a week later, at 11 in the morning when I was still in bed, I got an email.
I hope you didn’t think I forgot about you, it said. I looked you up, it said. I had to make sure that I wasn’t crazy, it said. You two could be twins, it said.
In the email was a young black woman, mid-20s, who looked just like me. Well, not just. But in her eyes and hair and limbs was a version of me from an alternate universe. Her hair hit at shoulder length, was relaxed and straight, had a shine that glossed even from a blurry photograph. Her smile was wide and open and happy. Her eyes were dark brown like mine. They crinkled too when she was truly happy, looking more like a wince or a hard stare then a sign of joy. But she was a little bit thinner. Her face, just a little bit sleeker. Her limbs, just a little bit smoother and more elegant.
I used to be a dancer, used to revel in slick lines elongated across stages, body moving as if in possession of a something higher than myself. My limbs spoke an unknowable language deep within me, one I struggle to capture as a writer blocked by the barrier of my mind and my hands and my pen.
Her elegance seemed natural, not hard-won on dance floors, not masking ugly feet worn ragged from dancing, or hands blistered and cracked from the push and pull of myself on other people, on floors, on props meant to delight the eyes. Her elegance glowed proud. The photos were from her law school graduation. I was reminded of the woman I didn’t become.
In 2005, as I entered college, I told my parents I wanted to study English as it could be applied to a number of different careers. They said my argumentative mind, my rush of ideas and thoughts, and my need to speak truth to the world meant that I would become a lawyer. I would be the accomplishment of the dreams they saw from their individual humble beginnings in the dirty South with dirt floors to skid row in Chicago to tiny apartments in the hood to a house in the suburbs. But deep down, I knew this could instead be a chance to pursue my burgeoning goals of becoming a writer. English would be the opportunity to learn how to break down, tear apart, dissect, investigate, question. It would help me be the writer I wanted to become, the writer I felt was inside of me but was unable to bring out.
He didn’t tell me her last name, but he didn’t need to. I had his name and I found him online and slowly, through clicks and searches and a little impatience, I found her too. I found her with her partner, a tall man with thick hair and warm eyes. He liked to wrap his arm around her waist in photos. In real life I hated that feeling, but there it seemed like something right, like a missing piece of the puzzle of my life. Is my aversion to what’s normal and right what leads me to be lacking so much? I found her on vacations where her swimsuits fit just right, or she looked more like a loving local than a hapless tourist.
I saw her and for the next couple of days, I kept looking at her. I checked in on my phone while riding the bus and at my desk in my office on my laptop. I checked in as soon as I woke up, grabbing for the cell phone I always leave next to my me in my bed, and before I went to sleep. If today were two years ago, I would check in on her right now. I hadn’t yet emailed the man back, afraid of what to say. But on a night when I was up late again, riddled with insomnia, fueled by doubts of my future (one that didn’t have a full-time job, a full-time career, a full-time love), I replied:
What kind of law did she study? Where is she working? How old is she? How tall is she? Where is she from? What is she like? What else can you tell me? Anything? I hit send.
Everything? I hit send again.
I wasn’t mad or afraid or even curious. More than anything, I needed to make sure she was real. If she was a figurative person, I could escape her. If she was a flesh and blood thing, I would be reminded of this woman living a better, stronger, more secure life than the one I had. In my mind, her life would hold more value than my own.
He didn’t respond. Would you? Could you? A day or two later, I forgot she even existed, at least for a moment. My life didn’t get dramatically better, only less unstable. Or maybe I began to obsess over something else. I can’t think of what that thing would be right now, but it must have been important. It must have been enough. Or maybe it was nothing too big at all.
A doppelgänger only exists so long as you want it to exist. When I live outside of myself, she is real. When I am unsure of myself, she is someone to check in on, someone to think about, someone to get angry about. But that feeling is less and less of me, because I have accomplished things, big and small. I have written words, long stories, weird anecdotes. I have gone places warm and rich and surreal and better, if only in my mind. I have moved on, I have kept moving, I have.
“You look really familiar?” people still say.
“Do you know a Nikki?” I ask.
“No,” they’ll sometimes say now. “I think I’m familiar with who you are.”
Britt Julious is an essayist, critic and journalist based in Chicago. She currently writes the local music column for the Chicago Tribune, serves as a music critic for Chicago Magazine, and is a staff writer for Vice magazine’s THUMP. She regularly contributes to Vice, The Guardian, Esquire, and Pitchfork. In 2014, Buzzfeed named her one of the “21 Most Amazing Role Models for Ambitious Twentysomething” and in 2012, the Chicago Reader named her the “Best Local Writer Who Excels at Social Media.” More important than that, she is now cited on Beyoncé’s wikipedia page, which is the real award.