I’m now a few months into my third year of living in an apartment by myself, but as far as the US Postal Service is concerned, I’ve long been shacked up with a roommate. It’s an insistence that is starting to creep me out.
I spent two years living uptown in a one-bedroom place, my first solo setup after an obligatory few years in Brooklyn. I now live in a studio downtown. I have less space, which is depressing when I think about how little real estate the dollar buys, but it also means my place is less empty, which helps keep me away from depressing reminders of how few possessions I can afford.
When I moved uptown, I was greeted by a bill from an insurance company with which I did not have a policy. I stared at the numbers, charges for treatment I hadn’t received, before a closer examination uncovered the mystery: that bill wasn’t for me. Instead, it had been mailed to someone at my address with a first and last name that, at quick glance, was much like mine, but with initials inversed.
I tried to find the guy’s name online, but it was of no use. He wasn’t even on Facebook, which immediately made me suspicious that I was in the middle of a terrorist plot. So I stuffed the bill into the envelope, re-sealed it with tape, wrote “wrong address” on the envelope, and stuck it in my mailbox, so it jutted outside enough that the mailman would have to see it and realize it needed to be re-sent.
Well, the mailman got the hint that I didn’t want this particular parcel, but the larger message was lost on his colleagues at the post office. I continued to get mail for this inverse doppelganger of mine (let’s call him PS), even as I continued to stick it back sideways into the crack of my mailbox and leave little notes for the mail carrier, saying that PS does not live here anymore (assuming he ever did, although the prior residents could have been plagued by this mix-up, too).
All the while, I continued to be fooled by the closeness of our names. I’ll blame it on the weariness of a long work day, as well as the lightheadedness that sometimes came with climbing six flights of steps to my slightly bigger, depressingly empty apartment (it took six months for me to get a couch). So again and again, I’d receive strange bills — healthcare, car insurance, the occasional credit card statement — that I’d empty-mindedly tear open, only to stuff back and tape up.
This went on for two years, and the mail would get pretty personal sometimes, too. Once, I got a DVD of wedding photos, with a long note from what seemed to be an estranged family member. I didn’t know what to do with this. To send it back could crush them — they were very adamant that he keep it — but to hold on would prevent reconciliation. Plagued by indecision, I held on to the DVD and card for so long that I ended up losing it somewhere in a sea of papers and my own mail. Hopefully I didn’t destroy a family.
When I moved downtown in June, I requested that the post office forward mail addressed to my name to my new apartment. I don’t know why I did it, because all I receive is bills and the various utility companies and banks have somehow managed to master the technology of automatic payment despite their inability to stop basic service interruptions, but I guess one gets lonely without some physical correspondence, even if it’s just one-way.
So here I am, in my new apartment, still living alone (by choice, and happily, more or less) and still receiving various charges for my air conditioning, internet, gas (though this one perplexes me, as I haven’t used the stove once), and whichever items I may have recklessly placed on my credit card that month. I thought I had left PS behind — until last week, when a flurry of letters with his name on them hit my mailbox.
Once again, and I excuse this because I was not expecting mail not directed toward me, I misread the name on the envelope and ripped it open, only to go through the same confusion and realization as I had two years prior. And once the mix-up dawned on me, I was even more bewildered.
By that point, my forwarding request with the post office had expired, and besides, I only asked the good old USPS to forward mail with my name. Yet here were these envelopes, with address forwarding request stickers attached. What the? My mind raced.
It didn’t take long for imagination to take over; fantasy often takes first crack at explaining mysteries — just look at religion. This seemed like the beginning of the Harry Potter series, when all the letters find their way to young Harry’s miserable aunt and uncle’s house, until he is finally allowed to read and comprehend his invitation to Hogwarts. Was I supposed to be reading into these bills? Have they been trying to reveal my true identity, as a late-blooming wizard, for the past two years?
I imagine this PS as my alternate universe self, an adventurer who lives life to its breaking point, traveling endlessly and waking to sunrises over ever-changing horizons. He is free of any concept of any permanent home; no mailbox could ever serve as a contact point, because he never returns to the same place.
This vision feels like my shadow, looming large when I come home, each and every day, to rifle through the never-necessary mail, a step in the mindless routine of the workday malaise. Maybe it’s like Fight Club, in which I envision a better, freer version of myself in order to save myself. Except that instead of a nihilist basement brawler/terrorist, all I have to work with is a jumbled name on an envelope and some outrageously high payments for a colonoscopy that I’m glad have nothing to do with me.
Perhaps this is a sort of Field of Dreams situation, where I have to chase down a ghost. Not just google a name, but go all out: hire a private investigator, jump in a car and follow the clues, wherever they may take me, even if it’s to Fenway Park with a disgruntled James Earl Jones. Will I find a long lost brother? The key to riches? A first hint on what will become the wild goose chase that finally helps me understand my place and purpose in this psychotic, mixed up world?
This all sounds insane, I know. Our post offices are near bankruptcy, and the mail sorters are probably just overworked, glazing over names, confused by the initials inversion, just as I have been on many an occasion. Yes, it’s weird that the letters are being forwarded along, but Russell Brand just sang “I am the Walrus” at the Olympics Closing Ceremonies, so stranger things have happened. I probably shouldn’t read into this, or take my lessons from anagrams and mail mysteries.
There also exists the possibility that PS is a tragic figure. All I know about him is that he seems to have had a real run of health issues, and some sort of family trauma. His lack of social media presence — read: absence from civilized society — only makes it more seemingly possible that he is ill, on the run, banished, or worse. He clearly has little need to hold on to his identity, and with it, a past life. Perhaps he exists as a warning to me, a friendly ghost that spooks one out of entering a haunted house.
Still, I can’t help but think I shouldn’t be home to pick up either my mail, or that ghost’s; maybe the answer I’m searching for is everywhere else.
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