Walking into a shopping mall department store alone with one thing on my mind (miniature Italian bittersweet chocolate bars at Lindt), I was mildly distracted from my mission by the sound of a man’s voice rising above the din. I glanced casually toward him while weaving through people and racks of clothing; he was young with a slight build and dark hair, one arm waving frantically overhead as he careened through the crowded store in my direction. I hastened my already brisk pace to get out of his way, but his voice grew louder instead of distant. His course had shifted with mine, and he surged toward me, calling, “Wait! Wait!”
I stopped, in case I might be the one millionth customer to enter the store that day, or possibly my belt loop had hooked a high-security item that I was unwittingly dragging toward the exit into the mall (seriously, these were my thoughts at the time). He loomed out of the garments on my left, placing a hand on my arm.
He started to gush something enthusiastically, but stopped abruptly, his face morphing from joy to puzzlement and settling into shock. “Oh my god, you’re not Caroline!” He released my arm and recoiled, apologizing profusely, but then lingered to gaze into my face with wonderment. “It’s uncanny, you look exactly like my friend Caroline, even now that I know you’re not her…” he said, shaking his head as he retreated back into the garment racks.
This happens to me with surprising frequency. I’m not always accosted, but I have been mistaken for various people’s cousin, daughter, niece, colleague, and on one really fun excursion in Chicago, a barista stared me down because he was sure I was Julie Delpy (I should be so lucky) until I placed my order in a clearly American voice. In every case, I was well met by the strangers, each wanting to share something or extend a kindness toward me. It’s strange being a doppelgänger, and I’ve never worked out a way to use my commonly arranged features to my advantage. I can be understanding of the situations, though, having made similar errors in recognition, just not with people.
For example, one rainy fall night, driving home from a 14-hour work day, my eyes scanned the roadsides as they always do for dark forms that might leap out in front of my car. As I rounded the corner onto my street, my headlights glaring off of the slick pavement, the silhouette of a small animal emerged from the right side of the road and scampered across my headlights. I had seen two kittens recently but hadn’t been able to catch them for safe keeping, and I knew the temperatures were going to plunge that night. I braked and looked around for the other kitten.
When the animal stopped and turned its head to look back, I opened my car door to call to it, but it trotted further up the street away from me. That is an ugly kitten if such a thing is even possible, I thought to myself, and it’s weird the way it scurries on those long legs. The ears were disproportionately large and the face was broad across the cheeks, but I attributed these features to water-drenched fur. The poor thing! It was cold and I had to catch it before it froze to death or something ate it. I got back into my car and rolled a few house lengths to turn into my driveway, and as I did, the kitten darted across my headlights again, back to the other side of the road and down the hill into the next door neighbor’s front yard. Perfect! I could lure it close, scoop it up in my arms, and carry it inside for warmth.
I parked my car in the driveway, slowly opened the door, and softly called to it while it studied me guardedly from the deep shadow of the neighbor’s house. I crouched down in my suit and heels, extending a hand toward it, making the classic “here kitty” call, which for the uninitiated sounds like, “Spss spss spss.” The kitten started toward me, picking up speed until it was in a dead run directly for me. It was about that time I realized that this was, in fact, not a kitten, and I catapulted to my feet as I vocalized the comprehension with an involuntary expletive. My back was against my car and I didn’t know which way to move, but the animal made a split second 90-degree turn before coming into the porch light, paws kicking out behind it, and disappeared into the woods behind my house.
I went inside, breathless and bewildered, and recounted to my husband what had just happened. My stepson walked into the room just as I was describing the animal, and they agreed it sounded like I had tried to bring a coyote pup into the house. I had never seen a coyote, but I was sure they were mistaken until a few days later when someone at work circulated an email cautioning everyone to be attentive while hiking with unleashed dogs because a large coyote was seen with pups along a hiking trail in nearby woods. These are the same woods that extended to my home. A quick Google search offered photographs that supported my family’s assertion that I was the mistaken one.
There are far worse cases of mistaken identity, and I’m lucky to have not been hurt in mine. For the most part, the experiences turned into humorous circumstances for everyone, the only possible exception being the coyote event. I will never know if it thought I was offering food from my hand or my hand for food, but while I am charitable, I have to draw the line somewhere and this is as good a place as any while I still have two hands with which to do it.
Until we meet again, be generous and kind, use caution around strangers, and keep your hands inside your vehicle at all times. Unless, of course, you see a legitimately stray animal in need of a figurative hand, or can call a local wildlife rehabilitator for wild animals in need of help.