As I wrote in an essay for CrimeReads in 2018, I’m on a mission to blur genre definitions. I read widely and indiscriminately—literary fiction, thrillers, noir, mystery, horror, poetry—and all of these streams fill my well of inspiration. YouAgain has been dubbed a psychological thriller, a novel of suspense, and a plot-driven literary novel. The New York Times Book Review called it “stunning.” I just call it a product of my heart and soul, and I hope you enjoy it.
—Debra Jo Immergut
* * *
ABBY, JANUARY 7, 2015
I saw myself last night. I drove right by myself. In a taxi, through a winter rain, coming home very late from work, on a shadowed block southwest of the Holland Tunnel. I gazed out the cab window, worn down from my day, and then suddenly she appeared, emerging from a dark doorway in silver platform sandals and a pink velvet coat.
Me. The way I used to be.
I yelped at the cabdriver. Stop! Please stop! He stopped, and I scrambled to pay him, snagging my tote loaded with unfinished paperwork from the office that I’d packed to not finish at home. And my purse holding cell phone and tampons and hair product, and in its deepest corners, a putty of crushed energy bar and compromised ibuprofen gel caps. I gathered up my bags and I leaped. It was raining, a very suspect sea stretched out between the cab and the curb, so I leaped.
The girl—this glimpse of myself—stood back there at the corner, slipping a coin into a pay phone. The mere fact of that pay phone. Extraordinary.
Then I noticed the man. He must have come out of the doorway too. Still holding the receiver in one hand, she—the girl—me, I mean, me—turned toward this young man, this tall boy, dark animated hair. He crossed to her, walking with shoulders hunched, face hidden under an umbrella, and leaned over her to allow her its benefits.
I gulped air, gawking. My hands felt numb.
They stood under the umbrella, very close together, talking. I glanced at the dented graffitied doorway, and sure, yes, that had been a nightclub and I had done my time in its pounding, dusky rooms, but hadn’t that place closed in the last millennium? Now he turned and saw the cab—my cab—just pulling away from the curb and this guy, this kid, starts to run after it down the block and gives one of those piercing fingers-in-mouth whistles—a practical skill I have always appreciated—and as he runs his umbrella—I can see it’s the five-dollar street-corner type—flips inside out in a gust and shimmers under the streetlight like a wet black lily bloom and I look at her and she’s looking at him and I know that look. Or I should say, I remember that look.
And then. She walks by me, maybe four feet away on the wide
watery sidewalk and doesn’t shift her eyes in my direction, not in the slightest. She’s looking down, and I understand why: the silver platforms, the cratered old sidewalk, a broken reef of wooden pallets. She’s picking her way through it, she’s clutching her coat—it’s buttonless and just a little tattered, the color of raspberry pudding, and not waterproof, not warm at all.
I recall precisely how it felt to wear that coat, its chill silky lin- ing, the shiver as you shrugged it over a slip dress. I remember how the wind and the water went right through it. On a raw night, that silky lining could make you feel colder than if you were wearing nothing at all.
The coat was purchased at the Salvation Army on Eighth Avenue and Twenty-Second Street. Still there, I believe.
He is holding the taxi door open. His smile is dimpled, in the shadows, his expression wryly pleased. She climbs in—I climb in!—and he abandons his blown-out umbrella in the curb, bends his lanky self into the back seat, and I can glimpse her legs and those shoes before the door shuts.
The rain taps my scalp with tiny wet fingers, and my nose is dripping. Through the cab window I see them kissing already—her hand—my hand—on his hair, and the car pulls away. And she’s gone.
I briefly consider running after her.
I quickly release that idea into the rain. By the curb, the umbrella flutters slightly, with a sheen, like a wing just plucked from a prehistoric flying insect. I pick it up. I sniff it. Don’t ask me why. It smells like a wet umbrella. Though it is clearly a bit mangled, I collapse it into my tote. Don’t ask me why.
Peer down the empty street.
Not a cab, not a taillight. Only, a few blocks down, a yellow traffic signal strung in midair, blinking stupidly.
I feel shaky and breathless, slightly dizzy and maybe a tiny bit weepy then. I saw her, it was me. Me. It was most definitely none other. I was beautiful and maybe twenty-two and now I’m gone— that was some vision, some message, and I didn’t get to understand it. The vision vanished and left me soaked and cabless. My husband would be swirling his vodka and ice in front of his laptop. My sons would be rampaging through first-person shooters in their room, flouting school-night guidelines.
And I’m here on this sidewalk, southwest of the Holland Tunnel, so drenched that my best cashmere cardigan is exuding a hint of its mountain goat origins, and my most expensive work heels, the ones I wear only on days when the boss is in the office, are ruined. I muster my interior subway map and begin walking, a bit wobbly, toward the nearest stop, three blocks away.
My name is Abigail Wilhelm Willard and I am forty-five years old. No, wrong. I am forty-six years old. Not ancient, I suppose, but old enough to forget momentarily exactly how old I am.
I work as a senior art director at the largest pharmaceutical company in North America. I live with my beloved husband, Dennis, and my sweet teenage sons, Pete and Benjamin, in a narrow Brooklyn two-story house with crusty old moldings and chipped marble mantels and a boiler due to break down this winter.
I used to be an artist, a painter of abstracts, mapping my interior life with outbursts of color—that is true. But that was in another life. This life is about my husband and my children and my work. I am known at my office for my ability to slice through bullshit and lay an idea bare and then quickly act on that idea and make it real.
I am not a flake and I don’t see things that aren’t there. My interior life pretty much stays inside.
And I have never been one to dwell on the past.
And yet. Was it not true that lately I’d been falling into an underworld, just before sleep? Plunging into a fog, where I glimpsed half-remembered shadows so unsettling, they jolted me awake again?
I remember that, when I was her, I lived on Twelfth Street in the far west of Greenwich Village. I rented a room in an apartment, a five-flight walk-up, with a balcony.
It was there, when I was her, that my life split like an atom.
The flash still blinds me. I find it hard to look. For twenty-four years, I have averted my eyes.
From the session notes of Dr. Merle Unzicker, psychotherapist
A reports a night of wildness with a young man, whom she believes is named Jamie. All she can recall, she said, was the city seen upside down, her head hanging backward over the side of his bed as it shimmied toward the wall.
How do you feel about it, in the light of day, I asked her. Like this is all I ever want out of life, she said.
ABBY, JANUARY 8, 2015
Whether to tell Dennis about her. What was the name of that tall running boy?
I stared at the side of my husband’s head, his jaw, his familiar shell-pink ear, its curves etched like grooves in my brain from so many nights lying next to him, gazing. His shaggy hair, which every summer still turns deep yellow, as if honoring the memory of his youth on a California marine base, the wild mustard and apricot orchards along the air strip, the surf days at Huntington Beach with his brothers. The five Willard boys had been transplanted from Minnesota’s frozen lakes to the dry flats south of LA, and they grew up hearty and athletic, raised by partying parents on a diet of comic books and Captain Crunch. They all slept as deep as the dead, Dennis most of all. He was the adored youngest son, the only one who had turned his sights east, who somehow wrangled a full scholarship to the graduate program at Rhode Island School of Design, the country’s loftiest art school, driven by some impulse the rest of them simply couldn’t understand.
If he hadn’t met me, at that art school, he’d probably have moved back there, to the baked streets of Tustin, I thought now, as I watched his chest rise and fall beside me. He would’ve married a fellow Californian and lived in a house with a lemon tree.
A finger of urban light trembled on the ceiling above. I was able to dredge up a Jamaican flag. That tall boy had a black-green-gold Jamaican flag over his bed. I never saw him again.
I slipped out from the envelope of warmth—my husband generated enough body heat to melt an ice floe—and padded into the hall to stare into my tote, hung on the banister at the head of the stairs. The umbrella had dripped all over my work papers and turned them halfway to pulp.
Clearly I’d been projecting. Captivated by a moment in some random couple’s life, because it so closely coincided with some deeply embedded memory I didn’t even know I still had. This was ridiculous. I gave up a cab on a rainy night for a memory I’d forgotten?
It almost made me laugh out loud, as I headed into the bathroom for a pee. The silliness of it. Hallucinating about my lost youth, the road not taken, etc.
I washed my hands. I regarded myself in the mirror. Age forty- six, wan with winter, tinge of red around the nostrils, in a blue nightgown, its cotton thinned from many washings.
That girl. That year. How it reverberates in me still, though the precise outlines of its events remain shrouded in my memory, as if half-seen through a storm of dust.
It could have been funny. Leaping out of a taxi into the freezing January rain to gawk at a young girl who looked like me.
I gazed into the mirror, and it felt not funny.
I would have given her a piece of my mind if we had been able to talk.
A piece of your mind. An odd phrase, isn’t it? A mind can’t be divided into pieces. Can it?
In my nightgown, in the rain, I threw the umbrella away, stuffing it deep in the trash can near our front steps. I shivered, looking at the metallic threads twisting under the streetlights, the row houses huddled shoulder to shoulder, faces gleaming wet, the inelegant South Brooklyn jumble, brick and vinyl-siding and brown- stone, the muffler shop and the vacant lot. At the corner of Fourth Avenue, a sopping mop of English sheepdog squatted while its owner huddled beneath the awning of the new café.
I stood there staring at it all, in my nightgown, in the rain. A wave of nausea swept through me, then receded.
No, I was not going to tell Dennis, my weary surfer of the days and the years, my hardworking partner in life, waging battles of his own to balance dreams and realities, about this so-called vision, or mistaken impression, or buried fragment reemerged on a slippery Tribeca sidewalk. Chalk it up to a very long day at the office, uncomfortable clothing, shitty weather, and not enough protein at lunch.
Forget it, I told myself, as I climbed back into bed, my gown dotted with cold drops.
I rolled over, plumped up my pillow. Set the alarm for fifteen minutes early so I could race to the deli to buy a clamshell of black- and-white cookies for Benjamin’s ninth-grade bake sale. Went to sleep.
Tried to, anyhow.
From You Again by Debra Jo Immergut. Used with the permission of the publisher, Ecco. Copyright © 2020 by Debra Jo Immergut.