Today, she’s Julia.
She wears old, expensive clothes, adopts a self-assured saunter and speaks Hungarian with a fluid Italian accent, because those are all things that Julia would do, if Julia were real.
Julia is a name. A set of data. Julia is a student ID card, three overdue library books and more than fifty carefully-timestamped conversations in various corners of the Internet that date back to the autumn of last year.
Julia is a fiction, but she wears Julia and her created history like a second skin, just like the others. As she moves down the street, tossing a casual glance right and left before crossing to reach her apartment building, she is Julia.
Julia is a student. Her father is Italian, but her mother’s parents were Hungarian. Julia wants to get in touch with her roots. That’s why she’s studying art and literature on a summer grant, and hosts erudite conversations in an online discussion group about the problematic subtext in Faulkner.
Julia is a construct. She is one of five such constructs hidden under the floorboards in a leaky-ceilinged prewar apartment—Julia, Sasha, Meredith, Romi and Yulka. They all have little quirks and details designed to make them feel real, but in the end, all are fiction.
Which makes coming home to a fact all the more unsettling.
He’s waiting on the step of Julia’s apartment. He’s dressed like one of Sasha’s friends, and drinking the kind of high-proof alcohol that only Yulka is supposed to be able to keep down.
But he doesn’t know any of those names, because she hasn’t seen him in almost a year. Which means he shouldn’t be able to smile at her like they just parted yesterday.
“Who are you today?” he wonders. “Do I know her?”
“Of course not,” she snaps. “Don’t be a fool. Do you want to get us killed?”
He smiles at her, dark and mirthless, over the bottle.
“You know what I want.”
“Whatever you want, you’re going to get us killed.”
“Maybe I want that, too.”
She steps over him, cold and precise. Very Julia.
“Go home. You’re drunk.”
Then she slams the door behind her, so she can almost miss the words he slurs into the bottle:
“You’re my home.”
He finds her again when she is Meredith, wearing a bright green scarf around her hair and laughing a little too loud at the jokes of the tourists who stop to admire her painting.
He doesn’t laugh. Just looms, and looks, until the unmoving shadow over her work forces her to squint up through large sunglasses and see the silhouette of him outlined against the sun.
“What the hell?”
“I didn’t know you could paint.” He’s staring at the canvas like he really can’t help himself.
“I learned.” She turns her back on him and puts the brush back to the work. “You have to go.”
“You have to be more careful.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” she snaps, and it’s too familiar, that line. She always says that, and then she always does what he says anyway. She wishes she could bite it back. Failing that, she holds her breath, hoping he won’t remark on it.
“You’re out here in the open. Anyone could see you. You think that scarf is a disguise? Christ. You’re in it now, don’t you see? They might not be able to pull you out even if you wanted them to.”
“And what,” she rolls her eyes behind the sunglasses, “you could?”
He moves closer, pressing against the back of her chair until the warm presence of him is all she can focus on. She knows exactly where he holds his hands when he stands like that; knows from long experience what it would feel like if he raised them to gather the hair off the back of her neck and press his fingertips to the pulse of her throat . . .
She sucks in her breath, but it makes no difference. It’s like he could read the daydream right on her canvas. He leaves the words behind, almost cruel in their simple truth.
“You know I could.”
The next time she sees him, she’s Yulka. That makes it a little easier, because Yulka is always very friendly with boys at first, until the inevitable screaming public breakup, so she can make no secret of the fact that she is angry with him.
“What the hell are you doing, still following me?”
“Shouldn’t you be asking the same thing of them?” He jerks a thumb toward the car that has been parked down the street since shortly after she arrived on the street.
“Don’t point!” she hisses, horrified.
“Why not? They’re already watching. What does it matter?”
“You . . .” she stops, shakes her head, and crams her fists into her pockets. She wants to grab him and shake it out of him, this need to taunt her, to follow her across the world and force her to face what she knew before she left: the span of one world is not enough to put him behind her.
(Years ago, if she’d voiced that aloud he would have said something crude about ways to put him behind her, and she would have laughed. Yulka could still laugh because it is the sort of thing Yulka would find funny, but she doesn’t want Yulka to laugh at his jokes, so she says nothing).
“Look,” he puts his hand down and gives her a kind of awkward, almost apologetic smile. “We can still leave, you know. What do you owe them anyway? We were supposed to be done with them now.”
“I know.” She hikes Yulka’s tiny, spangled bag higher on her shoulder and studies her boots. “But I want to finish this.”
He can’t figure it out. There was a time he understood everything she did; sometimes even anticipated it beforehand. But this one is beyond him, and if he can’t figure it out, she isn’t going to explain. Not here. Not as Yulka, of all people, who God knows has got her problems, but doesn’t deserve to be dragged into this.
“You’re so smart,” she says instead. “You figure it out.”
Then she crosses the street and leaves him standing there.
The car pulls away from the curb and follows her.
He finds her as Sasha by accident, stopping into a café and almost colliding with her. When he figures out Sasha works there he starts coming by regularly. That’s a pain in the ass, but on the bright side there isn’t a whole lot he can say without giving too much away to the people around them.
And he might delight in tormenting her, but he will never go that far.
Still, she has to see him there much too often. It sets her teeth on edge to have to smile at him, especially when he starts to become a regular and convention dictates that he warrants the smiles.
About a week in, he starts leaving her little messages under the coffee cups. Scraps of paper with a few words inked in cramped, tight block letters.
That guy at the next table is a jerk.
How can you stand this music?
Do you smell onions? I do.
They’re unimportant, so desperately mundane, the kind of things you’d say to a friend in passing if only they were on hand to say it to. She reads all of them, every single one, though each time he asks her about them she pretends like she doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
You’re so immature he writes that day. She makes a face and throws it out.
Sorry, he writes the next day.
She throws that one out too, but she smiles as she does.
He almost doesn’t get to meet Romi. She’s hardly ever Romi, because Romi was an early identity, meant for travelling and practice more than anything else. But one day she’s in her apartment, she’s so sick and fed up of maps and charts and tracking, that she just has to get out for a bit.
So she wiggles into the jeans, the sweatshirt and the backpack that she wore on her flight into the country. She takes a moment to pull Romi’s personality back around herself, and then heads outside with the bright-eyed wonder of somebody who does not belong, but is enjoying herself too much to feel self-conscious about it.
Romi is one hundred percent backpacking tourist, and today she almost loves her for it.
Then she turns the corner, and he’s there. He clearly didn’t expect her—the look of shock on his face is almost equal to hers. Then she starts to backtrack, but he moves forward, hands out, pleading.
“Come on. Don’t. Just . . . walk with me? I can pretend I’m showing you the city or something.”
“I’ve lived here longer than you,” she snaps.
“Well then fake it. Please.”
So she says yes. Why does she say yes? How does he do that? She’s still fuming about it as they turn down the next street and he points out this and that, chatting like she’s actually listening.
Nothing he says breaks through her reverie until she adjusts her backpack, and it catches his eye.
“Hey—you still have that thing?”
She shrugs. “Yeah? I’m wearing it. What does it matter to you?”
He looks at her with a kind of terrible sympathy, and says “Mom gave you that.”
“So?” she says. But her voice quivers.
“Well she did.”
“Is that what this is about? Trying to keep them around, however you can? Even if it means still doing . . . this? Because you know you can’t go back. Even if they were still alive, after everything we did, we could never go back.”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” she breathes, and wants to press her palms over her ears, childish though the gesture might be. But he brings that out in her, that confusion of being much too young for grown up things. Given how early their parents got them started in this game, she shouldn’t feel too young for anything.
“Look,” he says, reaching for her, “it’s not too late. We can get you out. We can go somewhere else. Anywhere else. Try to start over.”
“I don’t want to start over with you,” she snaps, and jerks out of his reach. She runs down the street and, after a long moment’s wait, he walks the other way.
This time, the car follows him.
She sees him again the next day for less than a minute. He is hanging out a window and shouting her name. Her real name.
Which must mean there's nothing left to hide.
She stumbles. Stops. Turns, halfway up the steps, and all the choices spread before her, a map of city streets, of lives that could be saved or spent, depending on what she chooses next.
He calls her name again, followed by an order: “Run!”
“Fine! Then you come too!”
But he can’t. They both see the men approach, know exactly how long it’s going to take them to reach her, and how fast they will reach him.
“Don’t you fucking tell me what to do!” she screams, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I won’t run! I won’t.”
But in the end, she does what he tells her to.
She always did.