One of my favorite party tricks is pulling out a picture on my phone — it’s a composite of two faces lined up at the nose to create a full face, kind of like a “before/after” plastic surgery image, except there’s no noticeable difference.
“Which one is me?” I’ll ask. They’ll take the phone and glance back and forth between both faces. It’s a moment that feels both delicious and dangerous. They’ll say something like, “Isn’t it both of you?” Then I get to explain that the woman on the left is me. And the woman on the right is my husband’s ex-girlfriend.
On my very first date with Drew, he was up front with me that he worked with his ex — she was a singer and he was her manager. He knew the situation was sensitive, but it was also clear that there wasn’t any alternative; Monica was Drew’s job and they were bound to each other in complicated ways, ones that were both financial and logistical. Even their visas — Drew’s British, Monica’s Norwegian — came as a package.
Less than 24 hours after I met Drew, I Googled Monica for the first time. I braced myself, but when the results came up, they weren’t exactly what I expected. Sure, she was beautiful, and an intimidatingly successful pop star, but… did she also kind of look like me?
I kept this thought close. I didn’t think about bringing it up with friends, and definitely not with Drew; the concept was strange, if not completely batshit. Eventually I tested out my theory and showed some photos of Monica to a friend, careful not to reveal how I really felt about them. She observed silently, carefully considering each new image like a painting in a museum. “You know,” she finally said. “She kind of looks like you.” There it was, proof I wasn’t going crazy, and I practically exploded with relief.
I wouldn’t meet Monica for another eight months, but once I did, I immediately knew she wasn’t a threat to my relationship. This question had popped into my head every few weeks, despite Drew’s affirmations that he could never think about Monica “that way” again. At that first meeting outside our apartment, Drew and Monica acted more like old friends than exes — no anger, no jealousy.
I searched her face with laser focus, trying to make mental match-ups of each area. We definitely weren’t copies of each other — she was brunette and I was blonde, for one — but I could see hints of sameness, I just wasn’t sure where: the nose? Eyes? Chin? Did she also see the resemblance? Was she simultaneously thinking I was her doppelgänger?
The situation came to a head one night backstage at a music festival. I had been picking at my cuticles. Monica showed me her own: also picked at and nasty.
“You do this too?” I asked.
“Yeah, and of course you do — because we’re the same person,” she said, emphasizing her words like, Hello, is this not the most obvious thing in the world?
Once the acknowledgement was out there, things felt so much easier. Lighter. Safer. Was it bizarre that Drew was dating a girl that looked kind of like his ex? Yeah, but, whatever, life is weird!
That’s not to say that it was easy for Drew to admit. The first time I asked him if he thought Monica and I looked alike, his answer was firm: “You look nothing alike.” And then it was, “Welllll, maybe in certain pictures and lighting, but not in person.” He was finally forced to reckon with the similarities one day when he was in the studio with Monica and she held up a selfie. “Is this Leonora or me?” she asked. “That’s Leo, for sure,” he said. “THAT’S ME!” she roared.
He struggled as Monica and I grew closer, and sometimes asked why I’d want to be friends with her at all. It was tough to explain, because it wasn’t a “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” thing. The pull, even to me, was shadowy.
My relationship with Monica was at turns disorienting and intoxicating. At one point, she dyed her hair blonde, and we went from resembling each other to being nearly indistinguishable. When I showed my mother a picture of newly blonde Monica, she said, “Oh that’s a nice picture of you.” People started coming up to me after Monica’s shows to tell me how much they loved “my” music.
Whenever things like this happened, I’d cycle between feeling really special and feeling worthless, unable to figure out why. I couldn’t stop wondering: Why had the universe brought us together? I almost felt like Monica had lived this parallel life to mine — she had my face, got to date my boyfriend, and had my dream job. What if Monica and I were actually the same person, but something happened in our childhoods where our souls got split, and Drew was the thread that tied us back together?
Curiosity drove me so far as to compare my DNA test results with Monica’s, only to find that we are not first, second, or even distant cousins. I was disappointed, like a genetic link would have justified my obsession. Instead, I had to grapple with the fact that Monica had been a vehicle for some of my deepest insecurities. The validation she received was so undeniable. It came from people holding their hands up to touch hers during concerts. Girls singing along. Tattoos of her lyrics. Literal fans. Seeing myself in her brought a sense of self-worth. But one that was fleeting, artificial.
I would often feel a sense of crushing mediocrity — for being so much less cool, so much less everything. I came to see that even though I was in a romantic relationship more validating than any I’d ever had, it couldn’t solve all my issues: I was really struggling with seeing my own worth, which was unearthed by comparing myself to my new favorite musician.
Now I realize that so much of “Monica” the singer is an illusion, a persona — a damn good one, but one that isn’t quite real. Ironically, Monica’s now among my best friends. She’s become one of the few people I can be my real self around, maybe because I never felt like I could pretend to be anyone other than who I really am around her — insecurities and all. We’re invested in each others’ lives, not just because she and Drew are essentially business partners, but because we’ve all melded into the type of friends you count on as family: the people you text in emergencies, the ones you ask to be in your weddings.
I’m not sure if Monica knows how much our relationship has haunted me. But you never know — maybe this whole time Monica’s looked at me and thought, She’s everything I want to be.