At the grocery store I saw my dead grandparents—not them, exactly, but their near doppelgängers: a short, smiling lady with red-framed glasses and large hips; a stringy woman with woe-is-me eyes; a little guy with a goatee and lively hands; a beefy bald man with a suspicious grin. Two were examining produce, one tapped his feet at the deli counter, and I passed the last one, my cheerful almost–Grandma Kay, in the baking aisle. Then, at the pasta sauce, I saw my ex.
At first I thought he was another lookalike. My ex wasn’t dead, but he’d moved across the country long ago, after we’d split. We hadn’t kept in touch. But it was him all right. He had a little less hair, a little more belly, which aroused in me a new sympathy and, through that, the old attraction. He perused the glass jars for the perfect red sauce. He’d always been particular about pasta sauce. I liked to buy whatever was on sale.
Once, so soulmated were we the banalities of marriage seemed an insult, but we married anyway: we would show the world what a true marriage could be. We loved each other’s families, cozied up with the other’s friends, shared, in every way, a life. The way people do. Until they don’t.
I also needed pasta sauce, so I reached for a plain marinara with a yellow price-cut label. “You!” he said, whirling around.
“You!” I said back. “What are you doing here?”
Divorce had changed all my relationships. People I thought were my friends weren’t and people I’d barely liked showed me kindness. The worst part was wondering what, if anything, my husband had told the haters. Maybe I was a monster. Now I remembered the unsteadiness of those days, the persistent questions I was afraid to ask.
I’d become obsessed with the idea that my ex had mimicked my worst, most embarrassing behavior to some of these people. He did great impressions, including a spot-on impression of me: he’d scrunch his face into a mean little ball and say, “I’m not mad. I’m just thinking.” In the early days, that bit was practically a seduction. But his impressions turned crueler, and so did I. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Seeing him brought back the old distrust. He still hadn’t answered my question about which friends he was visiting. “So?” I said.
“Do we have to do this?”
“It’s just weird,” I said. “To see you after all this time. Especially after—”
“Your grandparent doppelgängers. All four!”
That wasn’t what I was going to say. I’d almost forgotten them.
“So weird, right?” I said. “But sort of cool.”
“Should we talk to them?”
“Why not? They’re part of something amazing. Wouldn’t you want to know?”
“I wouldn’t want to be compared to a dead person, no.”
“Well, that’s the difference between you and me. I wouldn’t mind being compared to a dead person if it was part of something amazing.” You know something amazing? I wanted to scream. Your evasiveness. Your self-regard. Your pickiness. Your—I tried to come up with another flaw but then lookalike Grandpa Reuben ambled into the aisle, softening me.
“But try getting you to eat this,” I said lightly, holding up my sale pasta sauce.
“I’d eat it,” he said. “I just wouldn’t buy it.”
“Why are you buying pasta sauce?”
“I’m making lasagna.”
“Not this again.” Grandpa Reuben came closer, followed by lookalike Grandpa Jake. Their counterparts had barely tolerated each other. Grandpa Reuben joined us at the pasta sauce with his black plastic basket. Grandpa Jake rolled his cart right past with a friendly nod. Then Grandpa Reuben chose the exact kind of pasta sauce I’d chosen. I felt vindicated, and therefore generous. “Well, it was nice to see you,” I said. “Regardless of whom you’re here for.”
“Stop saying whom,” he said. I saw the look creeping over him: he was about to say “whom,” repeatedly, aping my ugliest face and voice.
Along came smiley Grandma Kay. I couldn’t help but smile. “Whom cares what I say?” I said.
We both laughed while Grandma Kay smilingly passed us by. “Where’s Esther?” asked my ex. On cue, at the far end of the aisle, Grandma Esther appeared, with her woe-is-me eyes. Just like mine. But I wasn’t feeling so woeful now.