The Other Karen by Adrienne Clarke

Karen was standing at the kitchen sink washing Emerson’s orange juice glass when the Other Karen came back. The early morning light was just beginning to filter through the glass patio doors, casting the room in a delicate rosy glow. Emerson sat at the kitchen table reading the paper, a slant of sunlight dividing his face in light and shadow. The soapy glass slipped from her hand and crashed to the floor, scattering shards of crystal in every direction.

Karen bent down to collect the larger pieces of broken glass and saw the Other Karen through patio door. She stood outside on the balcony her back towards the kitchen. The Other Karen’s stillness was just as she remembered. Karen was incapable of such stillness; a dancer, her hands and feet were constantly in motion. Even standing at the kitchen sink she was flexing the soles of her feet so she stood on demi pointe. The stiffness of the Other Karen’s posture marked her as other more strongly than if the word was emblazoned in scarlet on the back of her white sweater; the same sweater Karen wore.

“Did you hear what I said?”

Karen shifted her gaze to Emerson, who put down his paper, a slow deliberate motion. Her throat constricted as though she’d swallowed a piece of the broken glass in her hand.

“You should have been more careful; now the set is ruined.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” She fetched the broom and dustpan from the hall closet, careful not to look in the direction of the patio, and swept up the rest of the glass. A jagged shard cut her finger and a small bead of crimson blossomed on its white tip. She glanced at Emerson and licked it away. A drop of blood was nothing, nothing at all.

***

Karen left the apartment first to wait for the bus. She taught ballet and jazz four days a week at the Swan dance studio downtown. Emerson could have dropped her off on his way to the ad agency where he worked as an accounts rep, but that would have meant taking a different route with more traffic and the possibility of being late. Emerson detested lateness. “It’s a blatant show of disrespect,” he told her the first and last time she was late for one of their dates.

Inside the bus shelter Karen wrapped her arms around her body to stop herself from shivering. The morning’s early promise of sun had given way to a dull grey sky, and the damp November air seeped into Karen’s bones. It’s going to snow, she thought.  The bus jerked to a stop in front of the shelter and Karen climbed on, aware of a new ache in her limbs. She took her usual seat near the front. It was her habit to exchange a few words with the bus driver whose name was Joe. “Quiet this morning.”

Joe glanced at her in his rearview mirror. “Maybe everyone decided to take a holiday.”

“Maybe,” she said. “It’s a good day for curling up on the sofa.”

“But not us; hard at work we are.”

Karen smiled at the word “us.” She found the bus driver’s presence comforting, and wondered if he felt the same about her. After so many mornings together he would notice, surely, if she didn’t turn up one day?

***

The studio was dark and quiet when she let herself in. The other dance teachers wouldn’t arrive until the afternoon. Karen liked having time alone at the barre to warm up before her first class. Most of the daytime students were preschoolers; little girls whose mothers wanted them to take ballet so they could see them dressed up in leotards and gauzy pink skirts. Karen loved watching the girls’ bodies respond to the music; damp, chubby hands grasping the barre for support as they struggled to find their balance on tiny legs thrown of kilter by round, baby tummies.

Karen flicked on the lights and gasped when she saw her reflection in the mirrored walls. For one wild moment she thought someone else was in the studio, but of course it was her; she smiled at her reflection which smiled back, her small features contorted by the too-wide grin. The real Karen, not the Other Karen.

***

“Are you married yet, Miss Karen?” One of her ballet girls asked.

“Not yet, soon though. Two weeks from tomorrow.”

“Are you going to wear a princess dress?”

Karen thought of the simple champagne-coloured gown she’d ordered online from J. Crew. It hung in her closest, pristine in its protective covering. She hadn’t even tried it on.  “I’m going to wear a dress, but it won’t be as fancy as a princess dress.”

“Will you have a crown?”

“No, Jessie; just a few flowers.”

“Oh,” Jessie said unimpressed.

“Okay girls, it’s time to practice our crocodile mouths. Everyone stand still with their feet together; now open them like this.” She opened her feet in first position, and closed them again. “That’s right, just like that. Good crocodiles.”

***

When class ended Karen was sorry to see the girls go. The spell of the music broken, they ran to the change-room to find their mothers who were waiting with juice boxes and NutriGrain bars. Ten minutes later the studio was empty and Karen felt a stirring of unease. Why had she come back? The last time she saw the Other Karen was ten years ago. Lonely among the throngs of students whose easy laughter filled the corridors of her university residence she was grateful when a boy in her English class invited her to a party. He wasn’t particularly good-looking, or even that friendly, but it was enough that he remembered her name.

His name was Evan. She agreed to meet him in front of the bleachers on the soccer field behind his residence. She wondered briefly why he didn’t offer to pick her up, but told herself things were different at university. If she closed her eyes she could still see his face as he walked towards her on the deserted field; his expression oddly blank. Still, she would have let him come if it hadn’t been for the Other Karen. She sat in the front row of the bleachers, a few feet away from where Karen stood waiting. She was perfectly still, her hands folded neatly on her lap as if she too were expecting someone. Karen felt the Other Karen’s eyes on her, and when she turned around their twin gazes met and held. Moments later she was running across the field leaving Evan staring after her.

The first time she saw the Other Karen was after Kelly Smythe’s sixth birthday party. The last guest to leave, Mr. Smythe took her into the kitchen to wait for her mother. When he asked if she wanted to see an antique doll house he kept in the attic, the Other Karen slipped between them, no more than a shadow, and Karen suddenly saw something dark and strange in Mr. Smythes’s smiling face.

After that she caught only glimpses of the Other Karen; the outline of her body misty and insubstantial. Once she saw her in the middle of the train tracks behind her parents’ house where she used to play freeze tag, and another time in profile through the window of a strange car. The man inside had eyes that glittered like hot tar in the sunlight when he offered her a ride home from a party. Each time the Other Karen’s visage filled her with a heady combination of dread and relief.

***

At ten-fifteen her cell phone rang making her jump even though she knew who it was.

“What are you doing,” Emerson asked.

“Nothing. Class just finished.”

“Are you going out?”

“Now?” she asked confused.

“I meant at lunchtime. Are you going out?”

“I don’t think so.” The silence on the other end made Karen wonder if he’d put the phone down.

“What does that mean?” he said finally. “Either you’re going out or you’re not.”

“Sorry, I meant that I’m not going out.”

“It’s fine, Karen. If you were going out, I’d just like to know that’s all. Is that too much to ask?”

“No, of course not,” she said automatically.

“What are you wearing tonight?”

“Tonight?”

“We’re having dinner at Marin and Tom’s; a kind of pre-wedding party. I told you about it ages ago. Don’t tell me you forgot.”

Karen turned over Emerson’s recent reminders and admonishments in her mind, searching for some mention of dinner with his boss. “No, I didn’t forget. I just….”

“Wear the black sheath dress with the jet beads I got you, and the red pumps; you know the ones I mean?”

Karen hated those shoes; they dug into the calluses on her toes, and the high heels made her clumsy, stealing her dancer’s grace. Emerson bought them for her; he thought they made the muscles in her calves less noticeable. “I know the ones you mean.”

“Good. I’ll see you at home then.”

“Okay, bye.”

“Tell me you love me,” Emerson said his voice half-way between jest and seriousness.

“I love you.”

***

Her eleven o’clock class was a private student named Willow, whose long graceful limbs would have earned her the name if it hadn’t already been bestowed. Together they practiced pirouettes. Karen went first, lifting her leg with careful precision as she moved across the polished hardwood floor. Willow watched Karen perform the movement with hungry, eager eyes; and when it was her turn she performed the turns beautifully, the long line of her neck lifting towards the ceiling. The movement mastered, Willow leaned against the barre, impatient to move on. But Karen moved across the floor spinning faster and faster; the clip holding her hair back came undone and the black strands flew out in all directions. She caught sight of herself in the mirrors, her small body spinning crazily; any moment her balance would shift and she would fall to the floor her limbs splayed. But she didn’t stop until she saw the Other Karen’s static reflection in the glass. She sat at the back of the studio in one of the hard backed chairs reserved for parents. Karen stopped in mid-pirouette and grasped hold of the barre for support. “I’m sorry,” she said to Willow who watched her with wide, frightened eyes. “Let’s move on.”

***

“You must be so excited,” Marin greeted Karen embracing her so lightly their bodies barely touched.

Karen drew away wobbling a little in her high heels, and Emerson put his hand on her arm to steady her. “We both are,” he said.

Marin smiled, her pointed chin bobbing up and down like a hungry bird. “I remember how it was when Tom and I got married. The endless planning! So many details to take care of before the big day. When it was over I hardly knew what to do with myself!”

Emerson looked at Karen. “I think we have everything well in hand.”

“Yes,” Karen agreed.

They followed Marin into the kitchen that resembled a giant checkerboard with its black cabinets and gleaming white marble surfaces. Tom stood at the sink dropping frozen pieces of peach and strawberry into a pitcher of sangria. “Well if it isn’t the almost newlyweds,” he said heartily. “So glad you could join us.”

Karen had only met Tom twice before, but his outgoing easy manner made her feel as though she’d known him much longer. Emerson often complained that Tom wasn’t creative enough to head up an ad agency, but Karen guessed his seemingly unfailing cheerfulness was what brought in clients. He looked like the kind of man who would be comfortable anywhere. His casual khaki pants and red polo shirt made Emerson look stiff and overdressed in his black designer suit.

Karen watched Emerson’s face for a sign. “Thank you for inviting us.”

“Long overdue,” Tom said smiling contently into the full pitcher. “You and Emerson are far too private for your own good. Best cure for that is marriage, eh Marin,” he said glancing at his wife affectionately.

Marin pursed thin lips in a gesture of mock hurt. “How I envy you, Karen. Still in the flowers and romance stage.”

Karen murmured something and looked longingly at the glass of sangria on the table. As if reading her thoughts Tom handed out the drinks and raised his glass in a toast. “To Emerson and Karen, and their upcoming wedding. We wish you every happiness.”

Emerson grinned. “Thanks, Tom.” To Karen he said, “Don’t drink the whole thing. You know how you get.”

Karen didn’t know, but she smiled and took a dainty sip of the fruity drink.

“Come into the living room and see what we’ve done,” Marin said flapping her arms excitedly. “It took absolutely forever to clear out the workman, but it was all worth it. And the money! We might have been better off knocking down the entire house and starting from scratch. Oh Tom, don’t look at me like that. You know it’s perfect and I love it. Don’t I tell everyone how much I love it?”

Ensconced in the crème brûlée perfection of Marin’s new living room sofa, Karen listened to Marin describe the agonies of finding the precise shade of biscuit paint for the walls, while Emerson drifted across the room to admire Tom’s new flat screen.

Marin leaned towards Karen and whispered conspiratorially, “He absolutely had to have it. I swear it’s the only thing he cared about. I might have done the whole house in blue toile and wouldn’t have made a peep so long as he got that thing.”

Karen looked at Emerson, who appeared entranced by Tom’s explanation of high definition picture quality. She took a large a gulp of sangria. “Men are so crazy for technology,” she said thinking it was the kind of thing women said to one another.

“So true!” Marin chirped. “Tom’s obsessed, just obsessed with his Blackberry.” She went on to discuss Tom’s other odd habits, and her futile attempts to change them, while Karen made sympathetic noises, increasingly aware of a ravenous hunger. The alcohol sloshed around in her empty stomach, and her head was filled with butterflies.

Marin paused during a story about Tom losing his iPod on their Caribbean cruise. “I guess I better get dinner organized.”

Karen nearly gasped with relief. “Can I do anything?”

Marin rose from the sofa brushing imaginary lint off her black wool pants. “No, just stay where you are. We’re practically all set.”

Karen leaned back against the sofa. If she stood up she feared she might faint.

“All right over there?” Tom said. “Marin’s not boring you with all her reno stories?”

“Not at all,” Karen said quickly. “It’s all very interesting…”

Marin fluttered back into the room. “Dinner is served.”

Karen sprung up from the sofa knocking over her glass; two swollen red cherries spilled onto the pale hardwood like huge droplets of blood. “I’m so sorry,” she said to Emerson before shifting her gaze to Tom. “I’m clumsy today.”

“It’s fine,” Marin said retrieving the spilled cherries with a cocktail napkin. “That’s why we put in hardwood floor. No worries about carpet stains.”

Emerson took Karen’s arm and steered her towards the dining room that looked like the inside of a meringue. At the far end of the room was a set of white French glass doors. “I think someone’s had too much to drink.”

“I haven’t,” Karen stammered. “It was just one glass…”

Tom laughed, but his voice had a nervous edge to it. “Relax, Emerson. We’re all friends here, and it is Friday night.”

“You don’t know how she gets. It’s downright embarrassing.”

Pretending not to hear this last, Tom and Marin disappeared into the kitchen. Karen sat down at the dining room table and tried to catch Emerson’s gaze, but he refused to look at her. Tom and Marin returned each carrying a platter of sushi rolls.

“Hope you like sushi.” Marin arranged the peacock shaped platters on the creamy white tablecloth. “Tom and I took a Japanese cooking class together, but he’s hopeless at rolling. His pieces were so messy I ended up redoing them.”

“It looks wonderful,” Karen said wishing she were alone so she could stuff the brightly colored rolls into her mouth.

Emerson gave her an irritated glance. “I haven’t had sushi in ages. Karen’s idea of exotic cuisine is Loblaw’s frozen pad thai.”

Tom and Marin exchanged embarrassed glances. “Well I wasn’t much of a cook when Tom and I got married, was I dear?”

“I wouldn’t say that, but you’ve definitely improved with age.”

Emerson gave a tiny frown like a small boy receiving a reprimand. He picked up his chopsticks and expertly lifted a piece of California roll to his mouth. “This is wonderful, Marin; it’s as good as anything I had in Japan.”

Marin clapped her childlike hands together. “Do you think so? The really difficult bit is…..”

Her appetite gone, Karen looked up and saw the shadowy outline of the Other Karen through the glass doors. She forced her gaze back to the globules of seafood on her plate. The overpowering smell of seaweed made her suddenly nauseous.

“Are you all right, Karen?” Marin’s berry stained lips pursed in concern. “You’re as white as the tablecloth.”

“Could I please have some water?” Her voice sounded small and faraway in her own ears.

“Of course,” Marin said rising from the table.

“Please, don’t get up. Karen’s fine, aren’t you Karen?” Emerson looked at her, his eyes black with fury.

Marin twisted the long string of turquoise beads she wore around her neck. “Really it’s no trouble; I meant to put water on the table anyway.”

She saw the Other Karen clearly now. Her face was pressed against the glass; her breath frosting the door like a jagged piece of lace.

Marin returned from the kitchen carrying a tall pitcher of ice water. “Anyone else like anything while I’m up?” she asked, her voice over bright.

“Why do you keep looking at those doors?” Emerson’s voice was low and quiet.

Karen poured herself a glass of water and took a sip. “I’m not looking at anything.”

The Other Karen tapped on the windows, gentle but insistent. She wants me to let her in, Karen realized, but Emerson’s dark gaze held her fast.

“Emerson,” Marin said, her hostess smile restored. “Tell us about your new marketing campaign. The one with all the funny looking children.”

Emerson brought his hand down on the table causing the sushi to tremble. “Karen, will you please stop staring at the damn doors.”

Marin and Tom spoke in hushed, soothing tones to Emerson, but Karen was only dimly aware of their words. The Other Karen’s porcelain skin had turned red and raw; blossoms of blue and purple ringed her eyes and a trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth. No longer silent, the Other Karen screamed through the window, her blackened eyes bulging with the effort. Karen rose from her seat.

“Sit down, Karen!” Emerson grabbed her wrist but she shook him off and walked slowly towards the doors.

The Other Karen was beating on the glass now, tears streaming down her bruised cheeks.  She and the Other Karen were face to face, separated only by a pane of glass. The Other Karen stopped screaming and pressed her lips against the glass. Karen leaned forward until her lips were level with the Other Karen’s; they stayed that way for moment, and then Karen undid the latch and flung open the door.

The Other Karen strode into the room and disappeared into the pale interior of Marin’s living room.

“Karen, what’s the matter with you? Come back and sit down this minute.”

But Karen stayed at the window letting the wet snow kiss her hot skin.

“Karen did you hear what I said?”

But she did not hear him; would not hear him ever again.

______________________________________________________________________________

A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, Adrienne Clarke has previously published short stories in The Storyteller, Beginnings Magazine, A Fly in Amber, New Plains Review, and in the e-zines Grim Graffiti, Les Bonnes Fees, and The Altruist. Her story “Falling” was awarded second place in the 2007 Alice Monroe short fiction contest. In addition to writing short stories her first YA novel To Dance in Liradon is currently in circulation with Salkind Literary Agency.

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