Shira Fischer was beside herself. Somewhere, likely not too far away, there was another woman pretending to be Shira Fischer.
She—the real, let me be clear, Shira Fischer—had lost her wallet a week (or so) ago. Unfortunately, this in and of itself was not an unusual event. Indeed, Shira lost her wallet, sometimes her whole purse, on at least a monthly basis. It usually happened that the wallet was somewhere mildly unexpected in her apartment—say, in the drawer with the cellophane—but occasionally it would turn up at work or even be handed to her by the barista at her favorite café, who would laugh and tell her she'd left it there yesterday. Once, a cabbie returned it to her after she'd left it in his back seat, and from this she'd developed a sort of belief that things would turn out for the best, at least where her wallet was concerned.
It was true that she was a scattered person. A little frazzled, her mom would say. Not quite together, an ex-boyfriend had told her. But this, this was an outrage. That someone else had the gall, the temerity, not only to abscond with her wallet but to emulate her very self. It defied every notion of propriety, not to mention identity.
As best she could recall, or, more accurately, imagine—for Shira's memory was quite subpar, owing to extensive early experimentation with mushrooms and other hallucinogens on a freaky kibbutz in Israel when she was sixteen (thank you, Temple Shalom for sponsoring that mystical journey to the Holy Land)—she had been riding the subway on Friday morning and her wallet had been with her, at least at the start of the trip when she had to buy a new fare card. Friday night and Saturday were Shabbat, which she tried to observe once a month (on a weekend when she didn't have a date or plans with friends) in order to keep her mother and her Jewish guilt off her back, so she hadn't needed her wallet then. Sunday she slept late, went for a walk, did something else she couldn't remember, watched a couple of television shows, and went to bed. And Monday, when she went to get a coffee on the way to work, she realized the wallet was gone. Her normal ransacking of living and work space ensued. Enough spare change was discovered to cover a couple days of coffee—which alleviated the initial stress—but no wallet. Oh well. It would turn up. The wheel of karma or something. However, by Wednesday its absence was not only annoying and inconvenient, but strange things were also starting to happen.
First there were the flowers, a big bouquet, delivered to her apartment with a note that read: "Thanks for everything! You're great!" (She'd saved the note as evidence, though by now she suspected that the bubbly handwriting belonged to the florist, not the imposter Shira Fischer.) Then there was a card in the mail from Amnesty International, reading: "Donation made by Shira Fischer. In the name of: Shira Fischer. Together we can accomplish the impossible." One part of her appreciated the gesture—she'd been meaning to donate for years, really—but the other part of her found it strange. Very strange.
She began to sense that her wallet was not misplaced in some kitchen drawer or lurking in one of the piles of dirty clothes that littered her bedroom floor—like a haphazard range of mountains—waiting to be run through her washing machine. She'd given up searching her closets and shelves—only after turning over the tired cushions of her couch five or six times and reaching into the far recesses of her pantry, among the boxes of quinoa and bags of dried beans, promises of healthy eating that had been overgrown by a layer of potato chips and ramen noodles. She stopped trying to retrace her steps and had admitted that it was gone, and most likely, gone into the wrong hands. Which raised the question of what to do. Practicality was not Shira Fischer's strong suit, nor was decisive action, but even she realized that this was not a situation that was likely to fix itself. So she took a deep breath, wished she had money for a fortifying joint or even just a shot of whiskey, and called her mother. Cradling the phone uncomfortably between ear and shoulder, she noted on the back of last month's electric bill all her mother's advice—something she had never in her 38 years done before. The advice ranged from the basic—"call the credit card companies and cancel your accounts; go to the bank and tell them what's happened"—to the hyperbolic—"call 911 and report the theft!" With many stops in between—"your father knows a good lawyer and your Aunt Ruth used to date a detective. I'll call them for you." Alongside these tidbits, her mother snuck in the offer, which was really more of a threat, that she would come and visit Shira and help her get through all of this.
The notes from the call spilled over several pages and Shira shuffled through them somewhat despondently on the couch. The coffee table in front of her held mostly empty cereal bowls, tea mugs, and glasses with an inch or so of liquid in them. She picked up a few and sniffed gingerly—just water. Too bad. What a lot to do, and no clear place to start. It was Sunday; the banks would be closed and though she was fairly certain that the police would be open, as it were, it seemed logical to start with the credit cards. This meant she had to dig through the litter of papers on her desk to discover the numbers to call. She padded to her bedroom, shoved the pile of laundry from the top of the desk to the floor, where it formed a new set of foothills, and sorted through the wads of paper for a credit card bill. Then, back in the living room, there was the wait on the line, with the wretched hold music, then the halting attempt to articulate what had happened: Was it stolen? Lost? What had really occurred? Every card had, of course, been fully maxed out and beyond; Shira shrieked into the phone the first time she was told this, and the operator had to yell over her about fraud protection and explain how Shira wouldn't be responsible for the charges if she sent the credit card company a police report and then ask her, please, never to scream like that again.
The list of things to do was piling up: she had closed all her credit accounts, but that still left the police, the bank, getting a new license. She couldn't think of anything else in her wallet that she needed to replace; she could just kiss that Starbucks punch card goodbye, which was sad, because she was only one punch away from a free latte. It seemed overwhelming enough that she might need to call her mother again, might have to let her come up and take care of this. Shira took a deep breath. No. She would do this on her own. Leaving the mess of papers behind her, she went into the bathroom, took a Xanax and a Lunesta, and went to sleep.
The next morning, she called into work and briefly explained the situation, concluding with her need to spend the morning at the police station and the bank. "Okay," her supervisor said, sounding shockingly devoid of sympathy. "Count it as a personal day. That means you've got one left."
Shira had never exactly liked her job at Aztech software, where she worked in marketing, spending all day on the phone or in boring meetings with clients who had unpronounceable names. She loathed her little cubicle at work, its tan walls dispiritingly blank owing to the company's policy against "personal items" in the workplace, but she'd stuck with it for years because of the paycheck—albeit paltry, in her opinion—and the fact that it was a lot of work—really, a lot—to find a new job. As she listened to her supervisor's voice over the phone line, she could hear the clicking of computer keys in the background, the sickening grind of her daily life, and she thought for a second of just telling the supervisor to take her job and shove it, but then she realized her frustrating, if not totally desperate situation: wallet-less, credit card-less, cash-less (except for a handful of spare change she'd found in her fruitless searching). She guessed she should keep her job.
After hanging up, she walked to the police station; it was early spring and the sky was sharply blue, the tree branches just beginning to chance it with a bud or two. From inside her apartment, it had looked reasonably warm, but now that she was outside, Shira realized it was actually freezing. She always meant to check the weather before she left, but it never worked out that way, and the Boston climate had a habit of looking one way and then feeling another. She could almost hear her mother's voice scolding her to go back and get a jacket—you'll catch your death of cold! —but Shira just picked up her pace a little bit.
At the police station—trying to stay calm; she'd smoked weed last week, but there was no chance they'd make her take a drug test, right? —she gave what she thought was a clear and concise statement of the facts to the clean-cut deputy behind the desk. He nodded a lot and kept trying to cut her off, but she forged ahead until he finally bellowed over her, "Ma'am. To get started I'll need some identification. Then I'll take your statement."
Shira blinked a few times, realized she'd been gabbling like a maniac—the police did that to her; she'd had a couple of trippy encounters with the fuzz in college. "I. Well. As I was trying to say, my identification has been taken. Stolen. My license? In my wallet?" Her voice tilted up inadvertently into a question, squeezed by the policeman's exasperated frown.
"Do you have a passport at home?" He paused, perhaps waiting for affirmation, which was not immediately forthcoming. "If not, we'll take a birth certificate and sworn testimony of other individuals who know you and can identify themselves satisfactorily."
Shira opened her mouth in disbelief. She thought she understood what he was saying; she'd just never been forced to realize how tenuous, how tender, identity was—how peculiar—the need to and the means by which one might prove who one was. "I'll look for my passport," she said and abruptly stood to flee the station.
As she walked home, she wracked her brain for where her passport might be. She'd gone to Jamaica last winter and was fairly certain that she couldn't have made that trip without a passport (though she couldn't remember handing it over at customs or, come to think of it, much else from that trip) and so she rooted through her apartment, which was now an utterly hopeless and barely habitable pile of rubble, a battered war zone. "Somewhere, somewhere," she muttered as a mantra, trying to stave off images of her parents driving up to prove her identity, the volumes of photo albums they'd bring to the police station, on the mistaken idea that they had to recreate her entire history to establish who she was, the baby pictures and that awful shot of her at her Bat Mitzvah, big bangs and that terrible flouncy dress. She'd rather die. It was awfully hard to keep focused with all these images in her head: fragments of the sunny beach in Jamaica, an image of her mother clutching the faux leather photo album, the bleak plastic chairs in the police department.
Her apartment was now a complete catastrophe. She pulled her suitcases out of the closet: nothing. She flipped through the piles of books in her living room—she'd meant to get shelves, but just hadn't had time. She ransacked the pantry once again, spilling a bag of rice flour everywhere—no great loss—but at least finding a baggie that had an Oxycontin in it (at least that's what it looked like) that she must have stashed at some point. With her fingernail, she chipped off the pill's coating, the better to feel the effects immediately, and swallowed it. She felt a brief stab of guilt—she'd promised herself as a New Year's resolution not to do any more drugs (since she was rapidly approaching middle age) but this wasn't really an illegal drug and besides, this was an exceptional circumstance. She straightened her shoulders, waiting for the pill to kick in, and headed back to her bedroom to dig through the laundry once more. At last, she found the passport, which was inexcusably located in a shoe box containing a pair of red pumps that she never, ever wore, said pumps being a gift from her mother, who had no fashion sense, and ran back to the station to file the report. The officer looked at her sternly as if discerning the pill at work behind the veneer of Shira's appearance. "Be careful with that passport, ma'am. You'll need it to get a license and probably at the bank as well. If you lose that too, you'll be in a heap of trouble." She nodded, clutching the passport and a copy of the police report to her chest and, feeling like some Ellis Island immigrant, tottered out of the police station to the bank.
At the bank, Shira waited in line for a teller, only to have to see a manager, for whom she waited, growing increasingly colder in the air-conditioned lobby—why banks felt the need to run air conditioning long before summer had even started was beyond her. Just another way they mismanaged her money, she thought. The manager came, ushered her into a small office. "I've come to close my accounts, checking and savings, and get new ones." She put the police report on the manager's desk. "I'm a victim of identity theft." She couldn't decide if she liked how that sounded: was it dramatic or pathetic? Maybe she just needed to practice the line more.
The manager picked up the sheet and clucked his tongue. "We see a lot of this." He turned to his computer. "Name and social?" He typed them in, paused. "I'm sorry. It looks as if someone else has already been in and withdrawn everything from them."
He looked at the monitor again. "Yes. At ten this morning. All the money withdrawn."
"How could that happen?"
He shrugged. "If this person stole your wallet and has your license, well, as long as she looks a bit like you, it is unfortunately not hard to do. And it's especially easy for them to use your debit card and access your accounts if your PIN is easy to guess, or if you keep your account numbers in your wallet. Both of which we always advise against."
Shira flushed. Her PIN was her birthday, which she'd always thought was fine: how would anyone guess that? But, of course, it was on her license. Moreover, she was fairly certain—as certain as she could be about the location of anything in her life—that at least one check or one deposit slip with her account number was crammed into her wallet.
"Oh God. What can I do?"
The manager spread his hands. "We'll tell the police. They can take it from there. Look at the security tape, maybe take other steps." He opened a desk drawer, extracted a card. "Here's a number to call about fraud. It'll tell you about possible recovery options." His look and tone told her not to hope for much. "I'll get a confirmation of the account closure and a final statement out to you in today's mail." She took the card, the police report, and her passport, and walked out, feeling even more like a refugee, someone fleeing a natural disaster.
The light was slanting towards evening as she made it back to her apartment building, stopping in the entryway to check her mailbox. An envelope had been crammed in around the edge, clearly not by the letter carrier. No stamp, just her name. She walked up to her apartment and tore it open. It read:
"Dear Shira, That wasn't kind to cut off our credit. I was having a nice time. That's why I had to go to the bank. Yours, Shira."
The note was typewritten, a computer printout, but the signature was in blue ink and looked unbelievably like Shira's own—the thief must have been practicing. This was too much. Shira let loose a string of profanity. It was bad enough to take the money, but to send notes as well? To sign it as Shira? In her rage, she almost tore the notes to little bits, but she fought off the urge to shove it into her blender, and added it to her ever-growing pile of documents. Then she went to the kitchen, poured herself the last liquor in the house (the wretchedly sweet dregs of a bottle of Kahlua) and sank into the couch, letting a depressed stupor settle over her. Her apartment was a mess of paper. She had no energy to get up, none even to reach for the remote. So she sat there until she fell asleep.
The next morning, she took another personal day from work. "And that's it," said her supervisor.
"But I'm a victim of identity theft." The phrase now had weight to it, as if it should carry with it certain rights and privileges: extra days off work or a check from the government.
"Still. That's all the personal days you have this year."
Shit. It was only April. Shira walked to the DMV with her passport and police report in hand. It would have been faster to take the subway, but that's where this whole mess had started, she thought. She tried to walk quickly, efficiently, but found that she kept slowing down, as if burdened by the unfairness of it all. The injustice. What would this woman, this criminal, do next? How could she, Shira, be any more inconvenienced?
At the end of the long line at the DMV, Shira offered her documents and story to a semi-interested clerk. They snapped a new picture and she was so listless, so uncaring that she didn't ask to see it before they put it on her license. At this point, who cared about flyaway hair and puffy eyes? The clerk handed her a temporary paper copy. "Your license will come in the mail in about two weeks. Don't lose this one. And just a tip, you might want to change your social security number."
Great. Another thing to do. Shira walked home, trying to capture a feeling of success, that she had taken a step towards regaining her identity. But two things at her apartment quickly washed away this feeling. She had barely gathered her mail and stepped into her living room when there was a knock on her door. She peeped through. A police officer stood outside. She felt a rush of joy sweep through—they'd found her! The thief had been captured! She yanked the door wide open.
"Ma'am. Are you Shira Fischer?"
"Yes, I am."
"I'm here to serve you with a summons for the following misdemeanors. Public drunkness, public nudity, indecent behavior."
The world swam before her and she put out a hand on the doorframe to steady herself. "What?"
"Last night, we had a call about a woman and two men, the woman fitting your description, creating a disturbance. When the officer arrived on the scene, the woman and one man fled, and the other man was passed out. Eyewitness accounts link you to the scene, as well as these." He held out an array of cards, the now defunct credit cards as well as a picture identification card that she used to get into her office building. All with her name on them, all coming, presumably, from her stolen wallet.
"But. But." She spluttered, feeling as if she might faint. She stepped backwards and reached for the police report on her couch. "I've been a victim of identity theft." The officer took the report, read it. She held up her temporary license. "I've just been to get this." She felt her chin quiver, her eyes get blurry. "She took all my money." And then she was crying as the officer handed back the police report.
"This is a difficult situation," he said, but he seemed to mean it more for himself than for her. "Nonetheless, I have to serve you with the summons and inform you that you are required to come to the courthouse on the specified date, or risk being charged with failure to appear."
"But I don't have any more personal days," Shira wailed. The cop had already turned away. "And I'm not her. I mean, she's not me." She called to his back.
Shira sank slowly to the floor of her living room. It couldn't get any worse. For a few minutes she let the tears run down her face, the sobs come blubbing up, until she was hiccupping and snot was running from her nose. That was better. She rubbed her face on her t-shirt sleeve, then swiped her hand across the coffee table, clearing its surface of votive candle stubs, tea mugs, magazines, feeling a rare surge of organizational energy. It was time to get down to business. She carefully laid out what was left of her life. Her passport and temporary license, proof of who she was. The police report on the identity theft. The summons to appear in court. The small card from the bank with the number of the fraud help line. (God, did she need help.) The notes from the other Shira, the thief, including the ones from the florist and Amnesty International, constituting, she thought, some sort of evidence, some manner of profile.
With a bit of trepidation, she then paged through today's mail. As promised, there was something from the bank, and she tore open the envelope. It was, as the manager had said, a letter confirming that her accounts were closed. There was also a statement detailing her debit card's activity during the last hours of its life. To wit: it had purchased a lot of alcohol, and possibly some food, at liquor stores and fancy restaurants, whose names she recognized from magazines—not places she would ever go to, not even on a splurge night. There were purchases at department stores, clothes and shoes, (and she in last year's fashions). There were overdraft fees and then the money was funneled from her savings to her checking in large cash withdrawals—probably to purchase drugs that had long since been snorted or smoked—until some limit kicked in and then the card went back to purchasing booze. That Shira Fischer had been having a damn good time.
She put the account statement on the coffee table between the summons and the notes and forced a few deep breaths. This was far, far beyond acceptable. It had reached the point where she couldn't even call her mother; how would she explain the summons for public indecency? The thought flashed across her mind that even now, a newspaper somewhere in the city was publishing a notice of these purported misdemeanors. But even that paled next to the debit card's oracular print out. That thief was doing everything fun, all the things that Shira tried to keep herself from doing—shopping, drinking, drugs—in her attempt at a responsible adult life. It wasn't fair. If the thief wanted to do it with her own money, fine, Shira wasn't going to stop her (she might even be jealous of her). But to take Shira's money—and Shira's name—spend it thusly and then send taunting notes, not to mention get her in trouble with the law? That was the height of unfairness. If this woman wanted to be Shira Fischer, she had to take the whole Megillah: the lousy job, the personal neuroses, the (seemingly permanent) single status, the nagging mother, the dandruff. Everything.
A knock on the door interrupted her reverie. "Not the police, not the police," she thought as she walked to the peephole, a mark of how bad things had gotten. It was a delivery man, holding a small package. She opened the door.
Warily, she nodded. She was learning that it was not always good to admit to being Shira Fischer these days. He handed her a clipboard; she signed and took the package.
Inside, she opened it and took out a lovely, lightweight—perfect for early spring—suede jacket. She thought her mother must have sent it to cheer her up and seized the enclosed note, which read:
"Dear Shira: I thought you could use a little pick-me-up gift. Sorry about last night. Isn't the jacket great? I got one for myself too, so we can be twins! Xxoo Shira."
She dropped the jacket to the floor, let the note fall too, not even bothering to add it to the growing pile of evidence on the coffee table. The woman had good taste—her taste! —in clothes. And she was out there, fully identified as Shira Fischer, maybe even watching her—the real Shira Fischer—studying her gestures, learning her speech patterns, following her daily habits. She had just turned to pull the blinds against this terrible intrusion when the thought struck her: someday soon, perhaps tomorrow, she'd come home and her key wouldn't fit the lock. The door would be answered by the new Shira Fischer, who would take a seat on the couch and casually flip through the channels. How easy it would be for her to step into this place, just show the license to the locksmith, make up some cockamamie story about losing her keys, and she'd be fully ensconced in Shira's life, ready to run what was left of it into the ground.
Shira stomped over to the coffee table, gave it a violent kick, which failed to produce the dramatic splash of paper and wood that she'd been hoping for. So she upended it with her hands and shouted, "Good luck!" She kicked the piles of paper on the floor. "You can have this lousy life. This crummy apartment. My stupid job. Everything about me. Take it."
Her chest was heaving, and she felt like she might cry again, so she took a couple of deep breaths, forcing herself to be rational. This was it. She had no one left but her mother. She scrunched her eyes shut and thought about calling her parents, thought about how her mom would drive up from New Jersey, take her back, feed her brisket and chicken soup even though Shira was a vegetarian. That was the only thing she could do. She'd leave her job, the apartment, move back in to her old room, rebuild her life.
Outside, it was a brilliant spring day—the light spilled in through her windows. She looked at the wreckage on the floor, trying to find the phone, but she saw the suede jacket first. It really was lovely. Faun, she thought the color was, maybe wheat. A good color, neutral. It could work for spring or fall. She picked it up, let her arms slip through the sleeves. Perfect. Just tight enough on her to feel like someone was hugging her. She stepped across the papers to look in the mirror by the door. It looked good. The suede felt buttery, rich, under her fingers. It was an expensive coat. But hadn't she earned it? Hadn't she worked hard for months and months, years, even? Hadn't she behaved herself and diligently put money in her savings account and not gone out with friends on week nights and even dated that really boring boy her mother had set her up with? She was done with that. She buttoned the jacket around her, a second skin, a suit of armor, looked in the mirror again. She was Shira Fischer, make no mistake about it.
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