Things got eerie a few days later when Seattle Jesse answered the one question I had sent him: “What’s your story?” He too had studied creative writing in college, though where I focused on fiction and journalism, his emphasis was on song lyrics. He sent me links to music from his various projects. One, a band called Grey Waves, was how I had dreamed a friend and I sounded in high school when we would stay up until morning in his smoky apartment recording onto a four-track cassette, improvising and experimenting with guitar pedals and effects—except this Jesse Hughey’s music was good. For the last couple years, he’d been supporting himself as a freelance writer and photographer.
It turned out that our full names were identical: Jesse Thomas Hughey.
I imagined him as a version of me in a parallel universe where I focused on creative pursuits in my 20s, untethered by the need to buy diapers and child care and health insurance. In the real world, the course of my last two decades was steered by two choices I’d made at 19. Twenty-one years ago, I asked my first college girlfriend to marry me and just weeks later embraced the accidental pregnancy that produced a strange and wonderful child. That child became a young woman with such astonishing talent and disarming kindness that I accepted her own monumental late-teen decision: to attend a ludicrously expensive art college. She was joined by an equally brilliant and thoughtful brother, who was now considering out-of-state pre-med programs, each costlier than the last. Now here I was with their stepmother trying to add a third to the brood.
At 31, this other Jesse Thomas Hughey looked, at least from my vantage, open to any possibility, whereas my 40th birthday coincided with the decision to have another child, essentially eliminating the possibility of any drastic mid-career, midlife risks I’d have been inclined to take otherwise. These hypothetical adventures that I pictured myself embarking on in my 40s but was unlikely to hazard when I was pushing 60 included—but were not limited to—quitting my day job, selling our home and using the money to travel, moving to another country, and buying a motorcycle.
Being a father was far and away the most meaningful thing I’d done with my life, and I was pretty good at it. Still, I envied the younger, childless Jesse.
A few days later, I called him. The longer we talked, the more similarities popped up. We listened to many of the same bands—both of us were Radiohead and Thom Yorke fanatics. Both of us were the oldest of three, with near-identical age gaps between siblings, and our birthdays fell on the same day of the month, though a month apart. He’d worked for a coffee shop and bean-roasting franchise, making at least three Jesse Hugheys who had done long stints in the food industry. And both our wives worked in healthcare.
Seattle Jesse was now the creative director on what he referred to as a “startup screenplay,” overseeing the narrative arc on a sci-fi series about superhuman protagonists who help create the internet. My cross-country doppelganger just happened to be conceiving a TV series about connecting people.
A half-hour later, we said our goodbyes. I sat and reflected, wondering if our parallel paths would cross again, if we were linked in some strange cosmic manner. I almost offered to buy him a drink if he ever came to Dallas but didn’t. I wondered what he left unsaid. Two days before the conversation, my wife found out she was pregnant, but I didn’t mention it, nor did I ask him if he and his wife planned to have kids, or if she happened to be expecting too.
That night, as Emily and I batted baby names back and forth yet again, my ambivalence about having another kid slowly gave way to excitement about being a dad for the third time. Eventually, we found out we were having a boy. We decided to name him after Emily’s father, Malcolm. He deserved the honor, though no more than my father (Mark) or a few other family members whose names we considered recycling. Malcolm Hughey was simply a cool-sounding name.
In the end, we had ruled out Junior, but not because my name had determined my path. It hadn’t. My choices and reactions to life’s circumstances—falling in love, becoming a dad before I was out of my teens, dropping music dreams to focus on a writing career that had turned out to be fulfilling if not enriching, parental pride, heartbreak, falling in love again, becoming a dad once more—were what made me who I am.