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February 11, 2014 Fiction

The Aquarist

Jacques Debrot

The Aquarist photo

It’s not unheard of now for people to be replaced by look-alikes.  Troubled people, mostly.  Unhappy people.  On the night that John’s wife Claire disappears, the two of them had been arguing.  John is usually not someone who is easily upset.  He does not enjoy fighting.  He is more likely to withdraw into himself and become quiet and a little melancholy. But lately he and Claire had not been getting along.  It seemed they could not stop hurting each other.  And of course it only aggravated matters that, at the aquarium where John works, the marine life is mysteriously dying.  A pair of hammerhead sharks had perished a few months before this.  And then a pod of jellyfish.  And just that afternoon, a beluga whale had inexplicably died.  Which is why, when John comes home, he is in an awful mood.  Impatient and irritable.  And then inevitably one thing leads to another and he and Claire are fighting.  But this quarrel is the worst by far.  And when John returns to their apartment after storming out hours earlier, Claire has already slid down into some bottomless crack in the earth.  Some parallel universe.


John does not hate the look-alike.  What he feels mainly in fact is simply dismay at the way she pops in and out of his life.  For example, John will be watching television and then suddenly, like a vision in a dream, a woman who looks exactly like Claire will show up in a car commercial speeding down a winding mountain road in a red sedan.  Or maybe John will spot the look-alike in a crowd, say, or in a movie theater, or on a city bus that’s just started to pull away.  It could happen five, ten times a day.  But then for weeks after that, the look-alike will fail to materialize.  And John will begin to believe that she is not coming back.  But then he will return home late from work, say.  And perhaps he will be a little drunk.  Or maybe he has just had another sad, exhausting day.  And he will stumble into the bedroom.  And lying there, asleep in his bed, will be the look-alike.  And sometimes she will even be wearing Claire’s pajamas.  The pair with horse heads printed on them or the other pair with little martini glasses.  And because John will not want to wake the look-alike up, he will leave the room quietly and, trying not to make any noise, he will throw an old bed sheet across the narrow couch in the den where he used to sleep after he and Claire had been fighting. And after that, after John has undressed and hung his work clothes up on a book shelf and after he has turned off the light, he will lie on the couch.  And then he will hold his breath.  And he will listen for any sound coming from the next room.  But everything will be silent.  And then, more than a little while after that, if he is very tired, John will eventually fall asleep.


At the support group meetings that John attends in the basement of a Unitarian church not far from where he lives, he will try to explain how much simpler it would be if Claire had died.  How freaked out he is by the look-alike’s apparitions. But unfortunately John is more comfortable with the animals he looks after at the aquarium than he is with other human beings.  So when it is his turn, he will rise to his feet.  And as he starts to speak everything will come out a little jumbled.  And then John will stare up at the ceiling like an idiot and try to gather his thoughts.  And in the end he will finally manage to blurt out something more or less coherent.  And after that he will sit down, a big burly man with an over-large flat head like an Easter Island statue, his frame too massive for the mismatched chairs that have been herded into a semicircle in the wood-paneled basement.  And for a moment or two everyone will feel slightly embarrassed for him. The middle-aged woman in a business suit whose husband disappeared in a plane over the Gulf of Mexico. The gay gun shop owner.  The paunchy grandfather with gold sunglasses and pork chop sideburns. But they have problems of their own of course and as soon as the next person begins to address the group, John will have become invisible again.


Since Claire’s disappearance, John has begun to settle into a routine.  Most nights after work, he will climb into his car, a beige Cougar permanently suffused by a vague algae smell.  On the seat beside him will be a grim stack of Missing Person flyers.  And he will drive aimlessly around the city and then he will park in some strange neighborhood and pass the flyers out to passersby or post them randomly to lampposts and pay phones and the sides of haunted-looking, abandoned buildings spray painted with graffiti. SOMEBODY . . . SOMEWHERE . . . KNOWS SOMETHING, the flyers say.  And right below the urgent, uppercase text is a photograph of Claire, a petite, pretty woman in her thirties.  And she is wearing a black turtleneck and her blonde hair is gathered up into a complicated chignon.  And she is looking just a little to the side and smiling.  But it is a sad smile.  Like someone who is trying to smile but does not have any real control over what her face is actually doing.


At the aquarium, the fish continue to die for no apparent reason.  But, like everyone else, John feels powerless to prevent it.  Every day he and his only friend, a marine biologist whose hand was bitten off a decade earlier by a bull shark, will meet in the aquarium’s dingy cafeteria for lunch and discuss the latest developments.  Neither of them is much of a talker, though, so they eat mainly in silence, the biologist’s prosthetic hand resting flat on the table between them like a brick.  And the plastic fingers will be scuffed and a little dirty and there will be chips where he must have banged the hand, accidentally or on purpose, against something very hard.  And sometimes, in the middle of one of their strangely reserved discussions, John will suddenly spot the look-alike at another table.  One second the chair will empty and the next she will be sitting there as if she had beamed down from outer space.  But she won’t acknowledge John.  Maybe she will pretend that he is not there and hold a book or magazine up in front of her face and try to blend into the background like a decorator crab attaching plants and shell fragments to its carapace.  But John will immediately see through her pose,   And he might even feel a little sorry for her.  Because after all it cannot be much of a life, following him around the city, spying on him at work.


The reason John knows that Claire is still alive is that she will sometimes call him on the phone.  And even as John picks up the receiver and places it against his ear, he will somehow always know that it is her.  And he will ask her, Where are you? But the connection will be bad, and John will only be able to make out a few isolated words through the static.  Other times he will hear what sounds like sobbing, though he cannot be sure.  But he will feel the phone turning cold in his hand.  And he will be overcome by a strange sensation of gravitylessness, as if he’s a passenger in a jetliner plummeting in flames from a great height.  And then, after the line goes dead, John will go outside and stand on the small balcony of his apartment to clear his head.  And because it is winter there will be a cloudy, pale white moon in the sky and a few icy stars.  And John will light a cigarette and look up at the sky, which seems exceptionally large and empty at this time of year.  He will be thinking the whole time about Claire, of course.  Who knows for how long.  And then, as if he has somehow mentally summoned her, the door will open behind him and he will hear Claire’s voice asking him if he’s alright.  But it will only be the look-alike, of course.  And she will say, You must be freezing out there.  And even though everything will seem unreal to John, as if his apartment were just a stage set and the walls were made out of cardboard, he will put his cigarette out and go back inside.  And perhaps the look-alike will make them coffee and she and John will sit together in the kitchen for a little while.  And she will seem to be studying him.  And John will suddenly ask her, Where do you come from?

     And the look-alike will give him a suspicious look.  And she will say, Are you mad at me? Is that why you’re acting so strangely?

     Of course not, John will say.  I’m just trying to understand why you’re here.

     Why I’m with you?

     I mean, I want to know who you are.

     But that’s a very strange question, the look-alike will say.  And then she will glance down thoughtfully at her mug and then back at John and the steam from her coffee will make a little shred of fog on the window glass.


And perhaps the next morning John will find the look-alike in bed with him when he wakes up.  And the room will still be dark and shadowy because John is an early riser.  And for a brief moment, never more than a couple of seconds, there will be a kind of unfocused, acid halo surrounding the look-alike, like the afterimage of a camera flash.  And then it will be gone.  And John will touch the look-alike’s naked back, and the slender ladder of her spine, plainly visible under her pale skin, and the blue Celtic tattoo at the base of her long neck.


And by this time the sunlight will have started to flicker like static at the edges of the drawn curtains.  And, although he knows better, perhaps John will have started to mull over all the things he would say to Claire if she were lying beside him now, instead of the look-alike.  And he might even start to tell her, but then he won’t be able to continue because, of course, she isn’t Claire.  And the look-alike will seem oblivious, at first, to his confusion.  But then she will turn to him abruptly and tell him, It’s ok.

     And John will say, Is it?  And his eyes will suddenly become wet and he will feel his throat begin to constrict. And the look-alike, who seems to love him a little more than the real Claire did, will wait for John to collect himself.  And then John will tell her, I wish I could believe you.  And he will mean it.  But the words will come out strangely, as if they were separate wooden blocks that John is trying unsuccessfully to lay out in a perfect row.


And then maybe the look-alike will start to disappear until she is only a faint, amoeba-like cloud of vapor floating vaguely in the air.  And John’s hand will pass completely through her body. And then she will be gone.

     But it will be alright because a few hours later John is back at work in the invertebrates exhibit.  And a woman, approximately Claire’s age, but heavier, perhaps, than Claire, or maybe a little taller, enters the building with two children, a girl and a boy.  Outside it is very cold and a heavy snow has been falling steadily all day. And because of the inclement weather these are the first visitors John has seen since he arrived at work.  And the children—neither of whom is older than eight or nine—press their foreheads against the cold Plexiglass tank and stare intently into the murky water.  And because the tank appears to be empty, John is suddenly afraid that all of the octopi have died too.  But they are just very shy, fortunately.  And so after a few minutes go by, the little boy, maybe, catches a glimpse of one of the huge animals unfurling itself slowly from behind an artificial rock crevice.  And the four of them—the woman, the two children, and John—watch the octopus emerge from its hiding place.  And while this is happening, Claire’s face suddenly floats into view and slowly eclipses the other woman’s face.  And then the two faces fade in and out for a few seconds, like the bleached out double image on a distorted television picture. And then the woman turns to John and tells him that she loves and misses him. And after she says this, she changes back into the person she had been before.  And John has the strange feeling that he is half-there and half not-there, as if a hole had opened up in the world and everything was slowly leaking its substance away.  But the feeling quickly passes.  And when John comes back to himself, the children are pointing at the octopus, which has begun to retreat again into the narrow crevice at the rear of the tank.  And the last thing that John sees before it vanishes completely is a long purple tentacle bristling with obscene-looking suction cups, like hundreds of surprised, toothless mouths.  

image: Heather Reynolds