My doppelgänger has stronger thighs than I do. I know this because we are cycling on the outskirts of Berlin, and although everyone says Berlin is flat, that is a lie. There are "gentle" slopes, and my legs and lungs are burning with fatigue. However, every time my doppelgänger turns around on her bike to check on me, I force a smile, slow my breath, and pretend that my quads aren't on fire.
My doppelgänger's name is also Jessica. We were both going to be named Michelle before our respective mothers decided at the last minute that no, we were to be Jessicas.We are both half-Chinese, the same age, and have best friends named Rachel (my Rachel is a YA author, hers is a YA librarian). We are both living very far from home, an entire ocean away from the countries where we were born. We are both writers who have recently published memoirs. And we both turn red with Asian glow when we drink gin.
It's May, and I walk into my local bookstore in London to hunt for a book I read about in the Guardian. Turning: A Year in the Water is a memoir about a woman who swims in 52 lakes around Berlin to get over her heartbreak and learn how to be alone.
As soon as I buy the book, I flip to the author photo, and there she is. Jessica J Lee, the doppelgänger to me, Jessica L Pan. I can instantly tell that she is also half-Chinese and around my age. I read her book on the train and at home, underlining the passages that I love, those I wish I'd written, and the uncanny similarities between our lives. By the time I finish, most of the book is underlined.
I'm struck by Jessica's lyrical language but also by her bravery: for the most part, she swims alone, even during the coldest days in winter, taking long train rides and cycling for miles so that she can crack through the ice with a hammer and plunge into the cold water of unfamiliar lakes. I read her book and think: I used to be fearless; I'm not fearless anymore. And also: I want to swim in a lake. I want to cycle far away and walk through a forest. And I want to meet her.
Jessica J Lee is Canadian but now lives in Berlin, which is fitting: the word doppelgänger, meaning "double walker" or "ghostly spirit," originated in German language. When I finish reading her memoir, I look at her author photo again. "I will meet you, and I will swim with you," I tell the photo.
Black Swan. Adaptation. Vertigo. Anything by David Lynch. In the movies, the twin version or double of yourself always tries to kill you or replace you, but this doesn't deter me. After all, when you find out about your doppelgänger, you have to at least try to meet them. Wouldn't you?
In August, I fly from London to Berlin the day before I'm to meet Jessica. Walking to my hotel in the summer air along the quiet city streets, there's an instantaneous crackling feeling: I could become someone different here, someone more interesting or adventurous or smarter. Better.
The next morning, we meet, a bit awkwardly, outside her studio flat. Jessica J Lee has jet-black hair and green-gray eyes to my dark-brown hair and brown eyes. These are the first differences.
She shows me the purple bike she rented for me. "The guy at the bike shop said that if you were any shorter, he'd have to get a children's bike." That's because Germans are tall, and I'm 5'2". Jessica is 5'6". The second difference.