Friday
Apr132012

from What Came Between Them

Addie Tsai




Exhibit A: The Polaroid

Photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are an ethics of seeing. Photographs furnish evidence. —Susan Sontag

A Polaroid, a symbol of their secret.

The apartment Tai and Yolanda kept together had a set of indoor stairs. A Polaroid of my twin, nude, was taken on those stairs, her legs spread open, her face softer than fruit.

The Polaroid of their love lies inside Tai’s briefcase. Brown leather with gold clasps. Like the one Baba took to work everyday. Like the one I snuck into as a child. The one, when I knew I’d broken it irreparably—so drawn was I to its gold combinations that I was compelled to finger the glinting wheels with my thumbs until I jammed the lock—I hid in the fetal position on the bathroom floor for hours waiting my punishment.

Waiting.

I was always awaiting the doom that was to come. Curling in a puddle on the floor did nothing save prevent my hands from moving. My hands that trembled with the dread of the inevitable. It was then my father punished me for playing with his briefcase.

Tai, my father’s friend, my surrogate uncle, my twin’s lover—or, abuser—was never convicted of his crime. He was banished from the Chinese theater group he performed in with my father—Whirlwind Drama Club—and the intimate circle of friends he and my father shared.

My father saw to this by reporting the crime to Tai’s wife over the phone.

She refused to accept it. She told Baba that if she chose to believe this, she’d have to kill herself.

My father saw to this by threatening Tai. By telling Tai he’d better make himself scarce or he would have him ruined.

My father saw to this by cutting Tai’s head out of all the group photos sealed in our family albums. By filing an inactive report at Houston Police Department. By coercing out of his daughter a promise that she would never, never contact Tai again.

This Polaroid, I think of it often. This Polaroid of my twin, a newborn flower, opening her sex in that one distilled moment to Tai, yes, but also to the future masses of men that Tai would be responsible for exposing her to.

Sometimes I imagine my sister folded into this image, the image set on fire. The film slowly melting into strange and hideous distortions.

 

The Twins Love Each Other Before They Hate Each Other

Just look at the set of their mouths. They’re different people looking at different worlds and yet they might be the same person. —Neil Selkirk (on Diane Arbus’s Identical Twins)

I don’t know now, if she and I ever had a fighting chance to love one another, to bond without melting, to become glued without snapping apart.  At first, we suffered the many little deaths together. I suppose it was only a matter of time before we became unbound, tethered to nothing but our mother’s winding rage and flight, our father’s danger, his aggressive explosions. The men that snuck their way in—merely a consequence.

When we loved one another, we’d hide underneath the blankets together and mimic the sounds of the Chinese we’d heard all our lives. As though language only served as a kind of game we’d use to mock our father’s world to one another. We’d perform my father as though he were a character, babbling the nonsense that came out of his mouth, and stifling our giggles under the thick folds of down. [1]

When you see two girls, twin girls, love one another, their giggling becomes a secret language. You want in. They sit next to each other on the bed. The more innocent one on the left holds a little boom box, she looks at the one in charge on the right, waits for the sign. The one on the right nods. The one on the left presses down the two buttons, her fragile index finger red from the pressing. They act out their favorite scenes from The Little Mermaid. The one on the right always plays the evil witch, the one on the left secure as the shimmering princess. The one on the left stops the recording just in time for the identical tears to stream down the identical cheeks, both faces pink from holding back, pointing and giggling and panting on the carpet as they roll around, knocking into each other and then coming apart.

You wonder the same thing everyone wonders—do they know I want in? The simple answer is yes. When the two girls lie in bed alone at night, they are all at once one person and two best friends having a sleep over and as erotic as two girls in love for the first time. And when the two girls lie in bed at night, giggling and talking in hushed voices, waiting for their mother to get home from dancing, they make a plan. They decide they’ll let their mother in on it, they’ll hold each other, close their eyes as though dreaming in each other’s arms, and they’ll do it for the mother who wasn’t there to hold them. It will make her so happy, one says to the other. Which one’s which doesn’t really matter. You know that, because your wanting in makes those distinctions irrelevant. And later, when the two girls run an errand for their mother, when they take the shopping cart that the mother walked home from the store and kept, they’ll come across a homeless man. He’s so charmed with these two giggling adolescent girls, the fluid way they pout and snap at one another and come back together again and then tease one another until you see the hurt slowly spread like a rash across one face and then subside into laughter again. This man watches them every day, watches them like one might watch a ballet underwater, and he tries to help them. He tries to help them because he wants in just like you do. They don’t buy much, and the girls let him help them until they catch him urinating one afternoon on their way in. The one on the right isn’t fazed in the slightest. The one on the left has stiffened up, she whispers very sternly in her sister’s ear, and the next day they take a different way to get to the grocery store. But the homeless man, he watches them still, as they furtively take out the tube of cookie dough from the plastic bag still wet. He won’t see them secretly run upstairs to their one big room in their mother’s apartment. The one on the left is always the designated spoon-stealer. She sneaks downstairs while the mother is sleeping off her marijuana crash and inches the silverware drawer open, lifting a spoon as delicately as a mouse might, and races up the carpeted stairs on the balls of her feet. The two girls rip open the tube together, feverish with transgression, and take turns spooning out the raw dough, until they’ve abandoned it, doubled over, the same hand over their one large belly split in two.

As the one on the left sits in a car watching through the window as the blades of the wind farm bleed to white, she wonders how long it will take for her sister to find the gum and saliva she accidentally spit into her sister’s ponytail. They had the same hair, the same memory of their father slicing their one part down the middle, screwing tight each half of hair into pigtails of perfect symmetry. Like them. The one on the left imagined their hair, & her twin’s hair free of spit, the wind cutting through the identical strands in the same direction. She wound up telling him. Really, it was her mouth that did it. It wasn’t enough it had let loose the pink ball with teeth marks like little knives, but when it falls, wedged there, sticking so fast, her mouth lets out an Aiya! of surprise. That expression was saved for the most extreme situations. The one on the right is aware of this fact. How could the girl know that Baba would wind up taking the blade to both of them to cut it out?

The one on the left has a dream, a dream where she kicks her way out of her mother, the womb a slippery round container she tried to maneuver inside. She has a dream that as she tries to kick her way out, she’s kicking her too, kicking the one on the right underwater, until they drown in their togetherness, while she fights for her own handful of the mother’s fluid, her own mother’s body. Her own. These are not words she will ever have the right to claim. Years later, the two twins, swimming. The one on the right is terrified of drowning. The one on the left attempts to leave her to figure it out on her own, she attempts to swim in her space, her breath, her body floating in her handful of water. The one on the right’s elbow lodged in her back so she can stay afloat, her terror now belonging to the one on the left, the one on the right’s horror-filled vision of sinking slowly to the bottom now mouthfuls of water her twin must swallow, filling her lungs, her one breath now cut up into pieces. Her body their body. Her fear their vision, that vision a cloak wrapped around them until one of them is safe from the demons, and the demons get tucked away, somewhere, inside the other.

 

The Twin Speaks About the First Man Who Comes Between Them (Also Known As Exhibit A Prior)

The moment—the moment of the Polaroid—is not the pinnacle moment.

Our story—and our separation—begins sooner than that.

It begins at the peak of our adolescence, the moment we first realize that there will come a day when we will be offered as some man’s prize.

There is a photograph involved in this memory as well, although the image signified something altogether different from the Polaroid of my sister on the stairs. This image suggests. It tells us what’s being set in place.

It tells us what’s to come.

 

My twin is thirteen. In the foreground, a kitchen bathed in light. A young man the color of coffee stands in the doorway, his arms hanging from the frame. They dangle like pendulums, muscular arms that imply danger. The man is cocky in the photo, no doubt exchanging playful banter with my mother, who’s standing behind the camera.

My twin, you almost don’t notice her at first.

But, in the photo. There. That’s the look. Of fullness. Adoration, infatuation, innocence, desire, obsession. Desperation, loneliness, an aching need to be visible.

At this moment, it’s just trickling in, like far-off wind chimes making their way through a desolate landscape. A criminal whose hidden weapons you can barely hear swish against the cloth of his pants.

In the twenty-five boxes my mother will send to me to keep for her while she moves to South Korea, nineteen of which are mostly trash, I’ll find this photo, tucked among other photos from when we were young.

Compared to a lot of her other possessions, the photo’s in amazingly pristine shape. In fact, I find its intact condition questionable.

And I’ll think back to my father’s album, Tai’s head cut out of them for any mixed company to come across in the den, if they know where to look.

If I had to choose, I prefer the heads cut out, the photos still sealed in their places.

The young man’s name—you can find it online, in the Texas Registry for Sex Offenders. It’s been there since shortly after that photo was taken, shortly after that summer when we were thirteen.

The first man that came between us was arrested for indecency with a minor, and as luck would have it, was in jail during the birth of his first child. Gabriela, the child’s mother and his fiancé, sent my sister a letter, holding her completely responsible for giving birth without the father of her child present. And there was another woman we were told of, in the background somewhere, a wife he’d just separated from, but we never knew her name or story.

As for he and my sister—as far as I know—he didn’t get as far as he would have liked. I suppose he has me to thank for it. And we have my sister’s diary to thank for it. My sister wrote of her growing attachment to him there. She tried divulging it to me. But in the end, she couldn’t get the words out. Her face had turned the color of plum wine, and through her flushing she couldn’t spit it out.

She giggled like a thirteen-year-old girl might who’d just been on a date for the first time—with a thirteen-year-old boy. Or she giggled like a thirteen-year-old girl might who’d been in a game to see who the boy would like the most. And won.

So she did the next best thing. She handed me her diary.

The diary spoke of her secret love for Gene, the 28-year-old friend of my mother who we met when we were eleven. It spoke of the stolen conversations and glances they snuck, it spoke of the love letter he sent her.

As my sister wrung her hands in jittery excitement next to me, waiting for my response, my stomach quivered. My pulse got itchy inside my puny wrists. Her giddy confession didn’t go as planned.

 

I told my brother first.

We’re at a movie theater. It’s summer in Houston and the house my mother and her second husband are renting has a broken air conditioner. It is impossible to spend a summer in Houston without air conditioning.

Each day my mother drops the three of us off at the movies where it is always cold.

The movie’s just ended. My sister goes to the bathroom. I leap at the opportunity to confess to my brother what’s happened. I don’t realize, then, what my confession will set in motion.

 

Ironically, these are the days I hate my brother. And these are the days that those I am forced to trust are also the ones who I feel most endangered by.

Elliott’s inherited the genetics of some far distant cousin of my mother—we know this because of an old black and white family reunion photograph which pictures relatives a couple of generations back—and my mother points out this mysterious, long-legged man with sandy hair standing in the back and says, That’s who you get it from. She doesn’t know his name.

Elliott’s 6’2”. He’ll grow to be tall and long and lean, with my mother’s American nose and my father’s brooding eyes. My father’s friends will find him an exotic oddity, a giant in their eyes. Tai gao ah! Too tall! His history is told by the marks on his body, jagged scars etched across the front and sides of his belly, little documents of where he’s been, documents of sadness.

 

My mother, a little drunk and again high, tells us a story. It gives clues about my brother’s strangely solitary struggle with weight. But, like all her stories, it’s unclear what’s exaggerated and what’s supposed, what is true and what’s imagined. My mother’s family in Tennessee see my brother as an exotic oddity too, apparently, but not for his height. My aunts and uncles are fascinated with my brother’s ability to obey, like a good Chinese boy. There is a story in our early past that I never understand, the story of our custody, the story of our parents’ divorce. My twin and I are sent to Taiwan to stay with my grandparents, my brother’s sent to Tennessee. My aunts and uncles watch my brother in amazement, how dutifully he eats whatever’s put in front of him without uttering a sound. So, like a circus sideshow, like an uncommon object, they keep feeding him. And feeding him. Until, as my mother puts it, he loses the ability to know when he’s full. His belly growing larger and larger.

At this moment, my brother’s fifteen, and his body reveals what he isn’t allowed to confess.

He is an overweight, sullen child who eats his way through his darkness. But it isn’t just the roundness of his face, his amorphous belly that tells us his secrets. It’s also the positioning of his face—his jaw held tightly in place, his eyes fogged over as if burning, subtle and unseen, like dissolution, like a slow chemical burn.

Just so you know, my brother tells me once years later, in a car on our way somewhere, during the first visit where we mend things between us: I am never happy. I am angry and depressed every fucking day of my life.

 

But, at this moment, at the brink of my adolescence, I hate him because he’s another Baba to fear, another man whose rage takes over me.

I hate him because when I try to hide my refusal to eat, he interrogates me late at night, questions my uneaten rice carefully tucked behind the paper towels and the Styrofoam cups in the trash. He takes on the interrogator’s suspicious voice, his body looming closer and closer to me in the dark like an animal. I know he doesn’t care if I eat or starve. He’s just taking on Baba’s words, Baba’s gestures, Baba’s violence. Another clouding of danger.

I hate him because he belly flops me against the wall for his own amusement.

But mostly I hate him for imitating my father’s violence and I hate him because he terrifies me. And I am so tired of terror.

When I tell my brother something’s going on between my sister and Gene, the muscles in his arms start to twitch. He tells me he never liked Gene anyway, that there was always something fishy about him. He tells me he doesn’t understand this man who likes to visit my mother. He tells me it grosses him out the way we hang all over him.

Then he tells me we’re going to have to tell my mother. Strangely, it hasn’t occurred to me until now. Now he has given birth to a new terror, and I come face to face with my betrayal.

I’ve told him about the diary. From this, Elliott devises a plan. He’ll sneak into her bedroom while we’re out, he’ll take the diary to our mother. She’ll be forced to handle it herself, like a real mother.

As planned, my brother goes into my sister’s room while we’re out. He confiscates the diary, brings it to my mother.

I can’t remember if the letter Gene had written her is in her diary or not, but it eventually becomes evidence.

He mailed a letter to my sister at our address, a letter meant for her alone, delivered to the house we shared with my brother, my mother, and my mother’s new husband.

It told of his feelings for her, how he had thought of her this way for two years now, how he’d been waiting for the time to be right. It told of his desire to be with her, to show her the lengths of his love.

Gene had it all planned. He’d already arranged with my mother to spend the night at our house on a particular day. My mother was willfully oblivious; she was excited for us, pleased with herself.

Her new husband, however, was less than thrilled. Mogens was our new Danish stepfather, and I knew little about him. He was a man of almost no words, wore a long, dirtied mustache the color of sand. Frightfully thin. I knew he hated television because of its endlessness. I knew the walls of the house he lived in before he moved into a new house with my mother were nicked with sword marks from his attempt to kill a rat that had snuck into his house. Gene will later tell my sister, as part of his ongoing seduction, that my mother married Mogens for the size of his penis. She denies it. That, and his well-earned salary as a Calculus professor at Southern Methodist University. And his ex-wife, a victim of madness, was probably another selling point, another man she could rescue. When he annoyed my mother, she would take him to the nearest Hooters to taunt him. He was an eccentric who’d been in the States only a few years and he found the overexposed, well-endowed breasts of American women fascinating, and not without a certain horror. My mother knew he’d stare, but not for the expected reasons. My mother loved watching him struggle through the train wreck between the exotic and the voyeuristic and the fascinated and the taboo and the misinterpreted. It was a sick pleasure she had, it did her vengeful spirit well.

Mogens didn’t like it, this strange man staying in his house. He didn’t understand it, or his wife’s ease at this 28-year-old-dark-skinned-man’s presence around her pre-pubescent daughters. However, he wasn’t one to put up a fight. After enough hysterical justifying from my mother about how overly demanding he was, how controlling, how possessive and paranoid, he quietly twirled his mustache, and resolved himself to sleep in his office that night.

 

The diary slipped its way in as an intrusion, it foiled Gene’s plan.

The diary slipped its way in, unbeknownst to its owner and the writer of its pages.

The diary was handed off like evidence of a crime scene.

Exhibit A: A girl’s diary documenting the events that led up to the crime.

Exhibit A: A step-by-step account of the seduction of a 13-year-old girl by a 28-year-old man.

I gave the diary to my brother who in turn gave it to my mother.

The keeper of the complex.[2]

 

At the time, my mother claimed she had no idea her friend was strategizing to take hold of her daughter, to clutch her virginity from inside her like the seed of an uneaten peach. My mother claimed Gene was yet another reason you couldn’t trust men; that every man she’d loved or befriended had only proven to betray her. The night my mother was to lose her daughter to an old friend, she was ready in waiting with her hostility, her high-pitched colorless shriek. She met him at the door. He saw it just as he closed his car door—the rage of the hysteric—the devil’s whiteness in her eyes, and he tried to explain. She threw her keys at him, her voice reached a volume that wasn’t audible, her face shattered and rebuilt itself, her skin stretching tight, her face losing flesh, her freckles like tiny bullet holes. He claimed, in his precious moments of self-defense, that he’d intended on telling her, but as it became clear that conversation was futile, he ducked into his car and sped off.

After reading the diary and listening to my sister’s account and my account of the night, Child Protective Services pieced together a story. And through that story, through the shadowy images between the unconscious and the real, I testified that through the haze of sleep, a few nights before the night he planned to stay, that I saw him unbutton my sister’s shirt on the couch, a bright blue shirt that came down to just above her navel, with big black buttons.

I’d like to propose a theory.

Yes, Gene was arrested for indecency with a minor.

Yes, his full name, Eugene Clarence Hartman, was filed in the Registry, where you can find him today, twenty years after it happened, under his parents’ address two blocks from where we lived at the time, the same house he lived in when it happened.

Yes, the family was told that if Gene ever tried to contact her again, he wouldn’t get a month this time, but twenty years behind bars.

My sister believed that Gene loved her, that he would leave his estranged wife, his new fiancé, and his future child, to be with her.

At some point, my sister told me she’d asked him the question.

Why me? & Why not her?

What, she wanted to know, made her more desirable between the two identical bodies and faces? What, in his eyes, made her more unique?[3]

Her twin, he said, was too goofy to be sexy. That since the year we turned eleven[4], it was she that had caught his eye.

She retold her story to me with a smirk of pride, her eyes glinting metal.

Three years after Gene was taken away for putting his mouth on my sister’s lips, for planning to defile her body, for arranging to spend the night underneath my sister’s pastel quilt, my sister and I were alone in my father’s house.

It was, again, summer.

My father was at work. That morning the heat had crept its way under my eyelid until a sty, fat and pink, ready to pop, had formed. I’d just gotten contacts. My father was convinced the contacts were the cause, that I’d go blind from the thin pieces of plastic stuck on my eyes. He never wanted us to have contacts in the first place, he said, but my sister and I were insistent—we wanted to be beautiful, untethered by plastic and glass.

We were sixteen, and imprisoned in our two-story house in the suburbs, my father’s controlling grip extending far and wide. While we chatted in my sister’s room, the phone rang. I quickly rushed to my father’s bedroom to answer it. A man’s voice, strained and muffled as if speaking through a tunnel, a train struggling through waves of fog, asked for my sister. I gave the phone to her, I could tell through her reflection that I wore an odd expression on my face.

I’m not sure what I sensed first—I’d like to pride myself on having superpowers of perception; that I knew from the tone of his voice.  Something went off in me, some kind of alarm, a danger not entirely new and foreign.

It was sealed when I watched my sister react to the voice. She could lie to almost anyone. She liked to tell me that it was easy to lie. Just believe the lie, and then you won’t know the difference, even you won’t be able to tell what’s false or true. Maybe it was the womb we shared, the connection formed between us at birth. I could always tell when my sister was lying, just as I could tell, throughout the years, when a man she introduced to me as a friend, co-worker, prospective boss, client—was more than his superficial title. Sometimes it was body language. She’d cock her head a certain way if she wanted to look particularly aloof and tantalizing. She had a certain tone in her voice, just the slightest hint of fear that she wouldn’t pull it off. Her eyes would transition back and forth from a deer caught in the light of an oncoming car to that of a powerful beast about to pounce on meat so that her children could be fed.

This time, it was the eyes. Out of their corners, there was an urgency I recognized, fueled by the same endorphins that were released when she first saw his sexualizing gaze.

Gene had come back—to continue what had been so sourly interrupted.

When she left the house, I was lying down with a scalding rag burning out the growth underneath my eyelid. What was the story she told me to cover? Was it that someone was meeting her at the pool? That she decided to take a walk in the Texan heat in the middle of July? Whatever it was, she walked out the backdoor. The little button lock clicked in finality. I could feel my stomach come apart in shreds, as if I were holding it in my hand, while knives mutilated it to pieces. Then it folded in on itself, again and again. Guilt. Panic. Shame. Responsibility. Failure. Grief. Terror. It was here that these seeds first formed inside my body. It was in this moment that I bore the weight of saving her from herself, and that my parents, following in suit (or perhaps began it), decided I should bear it, too.

Twins are inextricably tied.

I had, by the nature of our joint birth, been born into my responsibility. To leave this behind—to leave her—was akin to leaving myself. And if my twin was to suffer intense and unforgivable grievances by dishonorable people, well then, so was I.[5]

I peeled the rag off my face and ran out of the house, barefoot, the fire recently on my eyelid forgotten when my raw soles hit the scorching concrete. Feet thumping the pavement. I ran hard, but slow. Fear moves through you faster than lightning but everything in its wake slows down; it quakes like a dying heart shocked out of its skin. I ran the block to the pool, which my twin had claimed was her destination. I scanned the sunbathing housewives, the toddlers with orange flotation devices squeezing their fat little arms. I scanned the lifeguard station, the diving board. I thought I’d lost her forever and with her, a part of myself, a belief that I could protect her, that I was capable of protecting anything. And that part of myself was more prominent than even I was, more consequential.

This man was the first to set in motion that my sister would be the one—the dying one, the lost one, the violated one, the defenseless animal who never heals.

The victim.

And we never got her back.

As my feet throbbed and reddened on the burning sidewalk, the seeds started to take root in my insides. I started to recognize what had happened. I had lost her. I had failed her, and I had failed the family. My breath became shallow in my chest. It was there that I began to grieve for my sister, that I began to live my life in a constant state of grieving, always preparing for the day that I would lose her. And it was here that my heart first broke. It has never broken like that again. It never will.

As I walked back to the house, resigned, preparing my statement to my father and the rest of my family of what I had allowed to happen, I heard this loud crash behind me. My sister was screaming at me breathless, her face aglow. Didn’t I hear her? Didn’t I hear her calling my name? She was at the pool the whole time, she said, she was staring me straight in the face. Her eyes, darting again.

And so, my theory.

She told me she had walked a block and a half down until she found a black Lincoln waiting for her. She stepped in, gingerly, as casually as she could muster, but with tingling feet, throbbing chest. He told her that if he’d confessed the depths of his feelings for her, back then, things would be forever marred. Fucked up. He told her that he was in love with her. She wept. And he told her, see, this is why I didn’t tell you. But I couldn’t help myself. I came back to tell you. And then he kissed her.

That was, according to her retelling, the end of those few minutes she shared with him, their final few minutes.

It’s my theory something more than what she ultimately told me happened there. I don’t want to put any images out in the world of what might have happened. I only want to say that what unfolded for my twin after this moment must have started here, in this black Lincoln on the side of the road in a quiet suburb. Something more than a kiss, a proposition, an unbuttoning of a girl’s shirt.

 

The boys, Gene said, the boys will come.

The boys will pound the doors down with excitement.

Just you wait.

As for me—the other twin, the goofy twin, the twin who existed only to serve as the unappealing competition, the twin that acted as a tool, the twin that wasn’t chosen—I will come into the house one day, wet from a friend’s swimming pool, still in bathing suit and towel, chlorinated water dripping from my long dark hair plastered to the neck, down the back exposed by the bathing suit’s low dip.

Gene will touch me on the back, just there, where a mole has formed for years—one of the few physical marks that separates the two of us—and he will say—you know, that mole on your back—while touching it lightly—is sexy.

 

I don’t know. I’ve never seen it.

I don’t know yet how a birth mark or a certain spot on my body will pique a man’s sexual desire, and I barely know that this spot on my back, the one I itch constantly, the one I visualize as a pink or flesh-toned bump, a mosquito bite or an old chicken pox scar, is in fact a mole to begin with. I only know that it exists from the comments that others make when it’s exposed, I only know it as an occasion for my self-consciousness to emerge, pre-pubescent, undeveloped, embarrassed as I am from a mark like that, as embarrassed as I am by the one on the side of my head, or the one above my sex, my hairless, thirteen-year-old sex.

Like my memory of my eight-year-old shame, sitting on the floor of the Montessori school with the boys, believing somehow I am one of them. I am fragile, incredibly sheltered and insulated, and I don’t understand our differences. When they share their scars and bruises to demonstrate their strength and bravery, I won’t have anything like that to share. And so I’ll point out this little spot below my belly and above my sex, but I’m not aware it’s my sex yet, so I’ll pull my pants down just enough to show. I’ll be hit by a collage of expressions of shock and disgust, a teacher’s scream reverberating in that indefinable space around my eardrums.

I won’t know that space the same way again.

And so, when Gene touches that spot on my back—that man I adore but barely know, my first adolescent crush—I will grimace, I will revert into myself, I will imagine his dirty fingerprint like a little wet mark on my back, a mark of something newly dangerous, slowly becoming invisible again.

My twin—the chosen one—will have the faintest look of jealousy.

My twin has no marks, other than the freckle above her lip, but then again, that one doesn’t count. It doesn’t count because I have that one, too, on the opposite side of the mouth. But that faintest look, that slight twitch in her face, that calculated nonchalance, it will be enough.

And he’ll have a revelation. He’s got the wrong girl.

This will be the thing he will look for. This will give her what she wants, for it is in this moment that he will choose her; that he will let her be chosen.

And in this moment, the mother’s color will change in the heat. Her cheeks will be suffused with a strange orange glow. It is not a signal of danger for the mother. On the contrary. The mother will bask in it. The mother will see something of herself in this—in her body birthing these two exotic and beautiful creatures, creatures that are found as appealing as she once was—and she will step aside.

The mother in the story, after this moment, will become a different character. She will become a secondary character that plays Mother in the background while she changes each scene as needed—unnecessary props removed, new ones replaced, backdrops switched out as each new scene calls for it.

She will set it in motion.

After my mother found out about Gene, after she threw her keys at him near our front door, after she proved through feeding him her throat that she was a mother protecting her egg from prey, my mother took us out of the house. We moved in with her friend Joy for a while, and Joy’s two children. Joy had a son and a daughter. I don’t remember much about her son, but I remember her daughter’s name was Sean-Marie, that she was five, and I remember her beg, standing long and lean, her little back already arching like a rooster, to be breast-fed every night.

We were living with Joy when we filed charges against Gene for indecency with a minor.

My mother had my grandmother stay with us too for a while, the mother she loathed. And my grandmother asked, repeatedly, how my mother could let her daughter become so scandalous.

 

 

The Twin, Her Sister, & the American Mother

 

My twin, the twin born second, ten minutes after the first, the one whose hip popped when she was born, whose lower torso was scanned under the x-ray without protection, the one who was just a few pounds lighter than the first, the one the mother imagined as a boy, unnamed until birth, eventually named after the first French novel the mother read, Madame Bovary, named after the first anti-heroine who had countless lovers without emotional attachment, who eventually met her death by suicide—the mother will set in motion this child’s story, but more importantly, she will set in motion the disruption of this child’s story by imposing on this child her own story.

The mother will see something of herself in my twin’s twinge of jealousy, her desperate need to be enfolded into this man before she understands the nature of that enfolding. The mother will think back to her life as a young girl, where she was taken by her mother’s husband. She will think back to her own lovers thirty years older than her, her own tainted youth. She will think back to her countless abortions before the age of twenty, to her own mother filing for statutory rape when she finds out that her daughter’s lover comes with money, and she will think back to her testimony on the stand, to her glee at telling the judge it was consensual to keep her mother from victory. And somewhere in those places in her body where those memories were filed in their hidden drawers, she will be pleased to see her girl take it on, just as she did.

Her hot pink lips flush in the thrill.

And the other twin—Addie—named after her mother’s grandmother, the one that lived out in the country, the one she escaped her own mother to see, half named after that movie Paper Moon about the young con-artist daughter of the dead whore, the dead brothel owner—something will happen to her, too. It is in this moment that another unfolding occurs. Two disruptions. The mother. The lover. They will disrupt the balance. The other twin will, in these series of moments, become the invisible. The caretaker. The mother won’t know it, but the mother herself—she’ll feel rejected, she’ll feel scorned to think that her other twin doesn’t take to the mold. A triangle of the lost. One key out of position.

 

The Twins, Their Love, and the Man That Comes Between Them

At first, we—my twin and I—were one unit. We were, in our ways, lovers.

And then we became thirteen.

And then there was this man, this interloper, and we hungered for his attention, together.

And then he sneaks his way in, and that mysterious sex slips its way in. A dividing wall. It’s deliberate. Perhaps it’s a fantasy. Perhaps he sees these two fragile little girls, twins, perhaps he desires that fantasy, a little fucked up and a little depraved, a little exotic and a little strange, he imagines the two girls growing older and more beautiful, he sees it already, these girls will grow into a kind of beauty that will make men’s eyes burn, these girls will be unaware of their sexual power, soft and dangerous and frail, and this makes him turn, this image he builds in his mind, it hardens him and gives him a sense of purpose, these two girls who don’t have a clue, and this too arouses him, these two budding young girls that hang on his every word and gesture, their bodies taut and ripe as they cling to him, as they fight each other for more space of his chest to lay against.

And at first, we loved this man the same. We curled our fingers around his chest hair like the curlers we would clamp in each other’s hair. We waited, buzzing around him like flies, we waited for him to lounge his body on the sofa, we waited for him to settle in. And immediately we hung onto him—each body growing riper in the heat of his attention. One arm around each delicate waist, one hand grazing that pale square of skin above the hip bone that jutted out of the skin. The baby fat falling away behind his hands. And we were thirteen and my twin was dying for a way out of it, a way out of our love and our twinning, a way out of our birthright of bondage. He snuck his way in, his mysterious sex became a character in the bondage between us, and she grabbed hold. She grabbed hold of the set of keys tied around his hip and opened, for herself, a new prison, a new set of bars. And the scene, an invisible change. It appeared as though I were free. My twin, in her delight, in her fantasy fulfilled, had shackled herself to something else instead. And I was afraid of my freedom, I was afraid of my smugness of surviving, I was afraid of being a lone stalk in the wild. And so, I built up the bars around me and linked them to her cage.

 

 


[1] Cryptophasia: a peculiar phenomenon of a language developed between twins that only the two children can understand, crypto meaning secret and phasia meaning speech disorder.

[2] As a substitute, an overdeveloped Eros results, and this almost invariably leads to an unconscious incestuous relationship with the father. The intensified Eros places an abnormal emphasis on the personality of others. Jealousy of the mother and the desire to outdo her become the leitmotifs of subsequent undertakings.

As a sort of superwoman (admired involuntarily by the daughter), the mother lives out for her beforehand all that the girl might have lived for herself. She is content to cling to her mother in selfless devotion, while at the same time unconsciously striving, almost against her will, to tyrannize over her, naturally under the mask of complete loyalty and devotion. The daughter leads a shadow-existence, often visibly sucked dry by her mother, and she prolongs her mother’s life by a sort of continuous blood transfusion. [Jung]

[3] You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. [Lolita]

[4] …there must be a gap of several years, never less than ten I should say, generally thirty or forty, and as many as ninety in a few known cases, between maiden and man to enable the latter to come under a nymphet’s spell. [Lolita]

[5] Whatever’s in his bloodstream goes directly into mine. —Dead Ringers.