Every Twin Dreams Alone
I haven’t been to that church—any
church—in years. I used to go all the time,
every Sunday, my twin brother Dan and I, in
Ma and Nana’s tow. Dan and I would sit between them, Ma on my left, Nana on Dan’s right.
Dan’s funeral is being held in that church, so that today, St. Patrick’s Church in Brooklyn is not packed with sinners but with mourners. Dan and I had been christened there, had our first communion there, had told confession there. And today our quartet has been realigned, so here we sit, Ma, me, Nana and then Susan. Susan is . . . was Dan’s girlfriend. Uncomfortably aware of her presence, I’d insisted that Nana sit next to me instead. Now, I’m leaning back in the seat trying to make myself comfortable when something occurs to me.
“What? What is it?” my mother asks when she notices me turning around to scan the rows of faces behind us.
“Is he coming?” I ask.
She looks at me briefly, then looks away.
“I called him, and he said he’d be here,” she says.
She’s wearing a black hat with matching netting. I look at her, or rather, keep looking at her veiled profile and issue a sigh.
As if on cue, my father appears, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Hi Anna,” he whispers to Ma.
“Um, Mike . . . we were just . . . hi,” Ma stammers.
I stare at him. I haven’t seen him since he relocated to Texas with his new family nearly four years ago. I recognize him but I don’t. He’s wearing his army dress uniform and a hesitant smile. A dress uniform coat is draped over his arm. The beard I remember is gone, and there are slivers of silver in his neatly combed black hair. The last time we’d seen each other was four years earlier, when I was sixteen. His eyes, the corners of which are threaded with a web of fine lines, widen at seeing me.
My mother’s and my grandmother’s hands, both of which are resting in mine, tighten their grip, so I know Nana has seen him too. I can’t breathe.
There is a sort of hesitation as he moves toward me and puts a hand on my shoulder. He smells of toothpaste and aftershave. I think I detect a sweet-liquor smell, a familiar scent of his, under his minty breath, but I can’t be sure.
“Hi, Son,” he says.
There is something wrong with my mouth. It opens, closes, opens again. I try to form words but my tongue and throat refuse to cooperate. Rendered mute, I finally give up. I look away from my father, look down. He moves on, says hi to Nana.
“Lia,” he says nodding to her.
“Mike,” she responds.
Her tone is not curt but it’s not exactly warm either. I doubt he knows who Susan is, but he nods toward her too, then settles in next to Ma.
We’re all in the right front pew. Despite its blood-red velvet cushioning, the bench is as hard and as wooden as I’d remembered it. The carpet is still the same color as the cushions, and the stained glass windows depict the same scenes. Some things are different though. There is a closed coffin housing my brother’s body in front of the altar. It is draped in a white cloth, a pall. On the pall is a red rosary like the one Nana is holding. By the way the coffin rests on its stand, flanked by two bleeding heart floral arrangements―white carnations and roses arranged in the shape of a heart―it looks as though it’s hovering in front of the altar.
The army had pushed Ma for a military burial, saying that Dan deserved it since he’d died in combat, and that they’d pay for a Catholic funeral, yes, but not as much if it were military.
But my mother would have none of it. Her ex-husband is a soldier. The military had claimed her father’s and now her son’s life. It was bad enough the armed forces had ushered them into the afterlife: she was not about to have them further orchestrate another part of it. All the same, the church is filled with quite a few people in military uniform. They all make their way to the front pew to express their condolences and pay their respect, Sir-ing and Ma’am-ing us all the while. The array of well-wishers is dizzying. We nod appreciatively at neighbors, relatives, former teachers and classmates, and Nana’s friends, who are mostly older women who attend mass three times a week like she does.
The day before, during the vigil at the funeral home, well-wishers had come up to us then too, offering us their mass cards and their hands. I’d made my way up to the casket and looked in, forced my eyes to Dan’s face. His head was resting on the silken, ivory-colored lining we’d picked for the coffin’s insides. His eyes were closed and his blond curls tamed into a military bristle cut.
Before I’d ever seen myself, I’d seen my brother. As a baby, I must have imagined that he was my reflection, that his face was my own. But when I saw him in his coffin it was no longer an assumption I could make. He looked like carved up blond wood. Even under the carefully applied makeup I could make out a crosscut matrix of shrapnel scars on one side of his face. They disappeared into his shirt’s collar. I understand the trail only ends at his thigh. With trembling fingers, gently, I’d touched the purple pits on his cheek. He was bereft of warmth and I couldn't believe how soft his skin felt. So today, I’m grateful that the casket is closed. I can’t handle seeing myself look so still again, so bleached of life, because I, more than anyone else, know that he’s gone.
At the time I didn’t know what to make of it, but one day, with no warning, shattered fragments of something that only I could feel began to fall all around me, tumbling down, showering me in a flurry, to drop to my feet. There was a moment of pure pain. Everything slowed. I shivered then, my skin prickling as a cold sweat came over me. I know now that that was the moment he died.
Today, at the church, I find myself looking over at my mother from time to time. She holds herself very still and says nothing. She looks out through her meshing, but she doesn’t seem to be seeing anything. She grips a white handkerchief that she’s produced from the black purse at her side. Her face is tearless, and she does not seem to be using the handkerchief. The hand that she’s left resting in mine feels too warm and heavy. Now and then I sense my father looking at me, and I let myself look at him too. On a day like today, seeing him again had left me shaken, but I’m beginning to recover. I surprise myself by being glad that he’s here. The panicky, dry lump that seeing him had put in my throat has disappeared. I think about how he made our front pew feel a little less empty. I manage a wan smile at him.
I look over at Susan as well. She is crying softly and easily, but her puffy red eyes don’t reassure me the way I was hoping that they would. Nana’s cloud of white hair is also under a black hat and she clutches a rosary to herself as though it were an amulet. The beads that move past her fingers are a tally of the silent prayers moving past her lips. Even as her mouth and fingers are in motion her face is unreadable, fogged over in pain and resignation. It’s the same resignation that I read in Ma’s torpor. I want to crawl out of my skin and under the pew. I sit tight lipped and stiff, tugging at my tie, Danny’s tie actually, through the order of Christian burial, impatient for the litany to be over with.
I only relax when Nana starts rubbing my back in slow circles. She has stopped praying but still clutches the amulet as she soothes me with her free hand. I wouldn’t usually do what I did next and I haven’t done it in years. The anticlimax of seeing Dad, the way the scent of incense and carnations blends together to create a heady elixir, and just being there all combine to give me a headache. But as Nana rubs my back, there is a sudden lull in the pain. All at once, I feel exhausted and find myself resting my head on her shoulder and looping my arm with hers.
It’s something I haven’t done since I was a child, but without missing a beat Nana says what she’d said so many times before. “Il mio piccolo agnello,” she whispers into my hair, “my little lamb,” and plants a kiss on the top of my head. Affection for the twinless twin, the one left behind. The gesture hurts me as it moves me. It’s a kindness I can hardly bear. I sit there, unpaired, sundered, but I deserve the pain that I’m in. Nana’s kiss, her calling me her pet name for Dan and me feel pure. I do not.
Dan is in a casket, wearing a semblance of our face and my suit. He had been an excellent swimmer and a little broader in the shoulders, but we were more or less the same size, so no one noticed the switch, the magic trick. When Ma had asked for one of his suits, I’d given her the one I’d worn to high school graduation instead. A charcoal-black suit along with a white shirt of mine. The tie he was wearing was my favorite, red silk with a grid pattern. And his black wingtips and socks were also mine. Clothes of the living. Presto chango.
I was wearing the suit he’d worn to graduation, along with his shirt, his socks and his shoes to his service. I smell his cologne on his clothes and I breathe him in with my mouth open. He envelops me in a soft suffocation. It was this kind of switch, where I’d somehow tried to be him, which has brought us here today. I should be the one whose casket the priest was sprinkling holy water on.
~ ~ ~
After the funeral mass and all bundled against the cold, we exit the church and begin the hour-long drive from the church in Brooklyn to the Long Island cemetery. When we arrive, the cold February air cuts in between our coats and our scarves and our shoes. We blow on our hands and hunch our shoulders as we sit huddled together and seated on metal folding chairs around the grave.
The priest, a tall, bespectacled man with white hair, leads us in an almost atonal voice in scripture reading and short prayers. The heat from our breath escapes us in clouds. As the service ends, it begins to snow, slowly at first, then quickly, fat flakes falling unchecked, bold and heavy. I look on as Dan’s body, prey to the sky, is folded under the snow.
We bury Dan in our family plot next to Grandpa. Although he never did get the chance to be our Grandpa, I’d taken to calling him Grandpa Carlo anyway. He’d gone across the water to the war in Vietnam and had never come back to be either father or grandfather. But now, he and Dan will be together in the same black corridor of sleep.
As the grave’s mouth stands open, waiting patiently, taking Dan as he is lowered in along with the hemorrhaging ivory snowflakes, it feels as if he is being submerged. And something about the way in which the snow encircles us in the gray afternoon light reminds me of my dreams. I begin to feel disarranged again, like I might fall in with him, disperse along with the snow even. I want to stop the snow from falling over him, to bend and veer it so that the sky will shed itself everywhere but on that rectangle of earth. Instead, I only inch away from the hole slowly, walking backwards a bit as I do.
And when the priest is finished, everyone leaves. Well, everyone except my mother. I leave when almost everyone else does, just kind of slink off really. I’m eager to get away from that acreage of death. I walk away from Dan and make the trip from graveside to my car, all the while telling myself to think of the snow and earth as encasing and swaddling him. That they are forming a kind of protective end-of-life caul and that no one can hurt him anymore.
That moment of stillness in the church had been brief, and when it had passed my headache had returned. After the burial all I want to do is drive back home and soften my roaring headache with some aspirin and a hot shower. It’s over, I tell myself. The worst of it is over. By some miracle, I’d gotten through the day. I’d survived it and I can leave now, I think as I stride over the field of buried bodies to get to my car. But before I can make my escape, my father comes over to me as I’m sitting in my car. He must have seen me leave, and when he raps on the driver’s side window to get my attention, he makes me jump. I roll down the window.
“She’s, well . . . she’s still out there. She won’t leave, says she’s not ready. Talk to her?” my dad says. There he is standing next to me, next to the car he’d helped to buy, peering into it.
“Why did you run off like that? I was hoping we’d get a chance to talk,” he says awkwardly, bending at the waist to talk to me.
“I . . . you’re right, we should try and catch up. Keep in touch,” I manage nervously.
I never really know what to say to him. When we were children he barely seemed to notice Dan and me, unless it was to yell at us, which he usually began to do as soon as he came through the door from work.
“Dave! What did I tell you about leaving your bike lying around? Go get it!” “Dan, stop running in the house!” “You’re too close to the TV!”
Dan and I were seven when my parents finally ended their marriage. My father has since remarried. Save for her soft Texan twang, with her almond-shaped eyes, brown hair like a soft sheet down her back, and her dimples, his new wife could be my mother’s sister. I also know that I have a younger sister but I don’t really know her.
I study him, take him in. I see a lean, handsome, uniformed man in front of me. I think about what he’s just told me about Ma, the concern his words display, the woman that looks like Ma, the little girl that looks a little like me. I think about how I look like him.
Now, promising to call before his flight leaves, I walk back to the grave site and slump into a chair next to my mother’s. I’d been able to leave, but she hadn’t, staying with Dan as the snow falls. Presently, Ma asks me a question.
“When you two were younger you had this secret language. Remember that?” my mother says, patting my thigh.
I can’t bring myself to look at her, so it’s just as well that she’s looking out at Dan’s filled in grave which has a light layer of snow on it and not at me.
“No,” I lie.
I cross my arms, uncross them. Sighing, I lean back in my chair.
“You two, you would jabber away at each other. It was kind of weird.”
“Thought you said it was sweet?”
“Well, yeah, weird and sweet,” she says, twisting the same white handkerchief around in black gloved hands.
“Ma, why are you doing this to yourself? It’s freezing out here: let me drive you back.”
She and I are the only ones at the plot. Now Ma is asking me another question.
“The inscription. I meant to ask you, where’d you get it? You know, what made you think of it? I like it,” Ma said.
“Yeah. Head in the Clouds, it was the last movie we saw together.”
The movie’s tag line had read, “Three Lives. One destiny.” After he’d been deployed to Iraq, Dan had come home for Thanksgiving and he and I had gone to see a movie. I’d wanted to see National Treasure, or maybe even Resident Evil 2, but I hadn’t seen him in quite some time, and he had a crush on one of the movie’s actresses, Charlize Theron, so he didn’t have to insist that we see his movie instead. Well, I’d assumed it was about a crush. But as I watched, Theron’s character was blithe and unconcerned when war came, only to be, years later, a spy for the resistance. In the darkened theater, and out of the corner of my eye, I’d watched Dan’s face, to see if anything showed―excitement, fear, sadness―but nothing came clear. That Thanksgiving visit turned out to be the last time I would see him.
One night in January, a little over a month after that last visit, Dan and six members of his squad had been on patrol in the Nineveh Province in Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade shrieked out of nowhere and hit their Humvee. Dan and two of his squad members were killed instantly.
The words etched in Dan’s tombstone read, Daniel Beaumont, b. 1986 d. 2006. On the morning of his final day, he came to his death clear eyed, brave, unknowing. And when the snow melts, spring has come. There is an end to war. One flower, blessed, unique, will flower no more.
Ma is silent for awhile so that the only thing I can hear is our breath meeting the winter air. When she speaks again her voice is soft and wavering. I realize she’s crying.
“You two look . . . looked alike. You know even I had trouble telling you two apart at first. But you two were not . . . at the end there, not so close.”
Now I’m crying too. I turn to her, hold down the hands that are fluttering in her lap like black, disoriented birds and place mine over them to make them listen.
“What’s that?” she says, lifting her veil to better look at me. As she does, the layer of snow that had gathered in a powdered patina on her hat bounces off.
“I . . .” I clear my throat, try again. “I said ‘I should be the dead one,’” I repeat.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she says with sudden energy.
She stands up now, her own tears forgotten, the handkerchief falling off her lap to her feet like one of the snow flakes. As she kisses my cheek her hat grazes it lightly.
“You’re just upset is all. Don’t talk like that. I don't want to hear you talk like that.”
She kisses my forehead, kisses away the talk, the words she won't hear, tries to kiss away my tears. I try to stifle them, but the more I try, the healthier my weeping becomes, until at last I’m crying in earnest, my tears coming in wrenching, violent sobs.
~ ~ ~
Dan and I had been identical twins, one fertilized egg that split in half and multiplied. We’d lain coiled and huddled together, our world a growing globe in our mother’s center. Layering into skin and tissue and bone, we shared heartbeat after heartbeat, a call and answer, and later, other things: clothes, toys, secrets. I don’t remember our twin speak: Ma says it sounded like bent and bitten-off song lyrics, like someone warbling underwater. Yet I do remember speaking to each other in tongues, enjoying the confused looks it made others exchange.
As children, we’d been close. Yet as a twin you are a you that is, and is not, you. We begged comparison, begged the world outside to intrude.
“David is the smart one. Dan is the athlete,” we heard.
If Dan got a “B” on a book report, I had to get an “A,” and if I tried out for the swim team, then he had to be its captain. It was never my birthday, never his graduation.
And each one unfolding into his own pattern. I took to math, Dan to rescuing and caring for animals. Through the years he’d owned, adopted, or given away hamsters, fish, ferrets, birds, cats, and dogs. And I’ve always loved the absolutes of math, the order of plugging numbers into formulas to bring forth tidy columns of fresh numbers.
As we grew up, we moved in opposite directions of each other and I was the one left keeping score. The comparisons? The shared spotlight? They uncurled something inside of me, moved me and shaped me in ways they didn’t move Dan. He never really cared what others said about him and the comparisons stopped bothering Dan. When he’d met Susan, I was still keeping score, and felt that he’d somehow bested me. And I didn’t like to think of him as belonging to her, to think of a part of him that was unknown to me.
One day, we are driving to our home in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, having just dropped Susan off at her home when I tell him I don’t know what he sees in her.
“What? She’s sweet. She likes me,” he says over the tick, tick, tick of the car’s signal light as he makes a right turn. “She gets me.”
“She’s bossy,” I say from the passenger seat of our blue Honda Civic, a joint present from our parents on our sixteenth birthday.
It’s December, a few weeks before Christmas. Our high school graduation is six months away and Dan and Susan are a couple, spending more and more time together. My brother and I went to Xaverian High School, an all-boys school. Susan went to its sister school, Fontbonne Hall Academy. Both schools are in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, only twenty city blocks or so away from each other. And although Dan and Susan are both seniors, they’d only met when Susan began babysitting for the Ricci’s, the couple that lives next door to us.
I’d asked Dan once why a girl from Fontbonne was babysitting, was even working for that matter. After all, it was an exclusive girl’s school, with most of its students hailing from moneyed, privileged backgrounds. He told me that Susan’s mother was a paralegal, her father a postal worker, that she was in Fontbonne on a scholarship and that Susan babysat to help pay for school.
Susan is the first of Dan’s girlfriends that Ma likes. One girl that Dan had brought home wore too much eye makeup for Ma’s liking and another’s skirt was too short. Susan wore neither makeup nor short skirts. Nana likes her too, because, according to her, Susan is a nice Italian girl.
I’m giving Dan a hard time, but Susan is pretty. You’d notice her hair first. It was straight and jet-black hair, and she styled it into a blunt bob. She parted it with a neat line down the middle and her bow-shaped lips were usually lacquered in something shiny and pink. A rumor is floating around both our campuses that she’d attempted suicide. One of the rumors says that she’d slit her wrists, another that she’d swallowed pills, then used a bottle of alcohol as a chaser.
At times, I would study her face, trying to imagine what could bring her to the end of her tether. I’d try to catch a glimpse of her wrists when she came over to the house, which she did when she was done babysitting the Ricci children, Jason and Rebecca, or on a day like today when Dan and I had given her a ride home from school.
When she had seated herself next to Dan in the passenger seat, I found myself looking at her forearms from the back seat. But each time I looked at Susan, I was never able to discern anything broken in her eyes or to ever get a good enough look at her wrists.
I’d dated since Dan and I had been allowed to at sixteen, but they’d all amounted to just dates. I’d even done some heavy petting after I’d been involved in what I thought was an exclusive relationship with Rachel Foster, a beautiful red-headed twelfth grader. She too went to Fontbonne and had a winsome smile and bangs. After we’d been going out for several months I found out that she was also seeing other boys from my high school.
Thinking about Rachel unsettles me. I think, there is something wrong with me, who I am is wrong. That somehow I was with Rachel because I deserved a Rachel and Daniel was with Susan because he deserved a Susan. I think these thoughts so quickly I don’t know that I’m thinking them. My synapses sizzle and fire and my thoughts move so fast they never reach my lips, just settle in my chest and my belly. So, instead of saying to Dan, I feel regret when I think about Rachel and envy what I think about you and Susan, one day I say to Dan, “I don't know what you see in her. Why do you let her push you around like that? ‘Get me a slice of pizza, Dan.’ ‘Get my books.’ What is it? Is it . . .you know?”
He shoots me a sharp look.
“Would you stop? Come on.”
"Come on what? Don’t tell me you haven’t copped a feel yet.”
“That’s really none of your business,” he says.
“Is that a ‘no?’ Because it sounds like a ‘no.’”
“Seriously? Oh Jeeze, Dave. If you’re gonna eat in the car at least don’t toss your empty bottle just anywhere. It’s not like you help take care of the car or anything.”
“‘That’s none of your business.’ ‘It’s not like you help take care of the car or anything,’” I repeat as I ball up my sandwich wrapper and toss it in his direction.
“Hey! I’m driving here! What exactly is wrong with you?”
I want him to say, I know you’re jealous but Susan has a friend or two you might like. We could double date sometime. But he doesn’t. Instead, he reaches over to click on the radio, bringing the voices in it crackling to life. I’m chewing and swallowing a Snickers bar without really tasting it. I’m not really listening to the radio, until a woman with a bracing yet delicate voice begins to sing, “I was born when I met you, now I'm dying to forget you, and that is what I know.”
“I know what you mean,” I mumble between bites.
We drive past other motorists, churches, office buildings, restaurants, a bar, and a Kinkos and say nothing more to each other the rest of the way home.
~ ~ ~
It’s about 9 o’clock on a Saturday night and I’m at the kitchen table, settling in for an all-night study session. After a family dinner of chicken parmesan, Dan had gone to his room, Ma had gone to her room to take a nap before her night shift as an ob/gyn nurse, and Nana had turned in early. I have an exam in my advanced placement algebra class that Monday. My advanced calculus text book is open in front of me, and I’ve just graphed coordinates for a graph as I sip a cup of coffee from the pot I’ve just brewed.
Tonight, Susan had come over from babysitting the neighbor’s children so Dan could give her a ride home. I’m sitting Indian style in one of our kitchen chairs when Susan comes into the kitchen. She says hi to me and helps herself to a cup. I expect her to leave the kitchen after that and find Dan, who I assume is waiting to take her home, but she surprises me. She lingers.
“So, let me ask you something. Can I ask you something?” she says to me.
With her question I look up to see her gesturing toward me with her mug.
Since my talk with Dan in the car, I’d warmed up to her more. She really had, at one point, introduced me to one of her girlfriends, a petite brunette named Simone and the four of us had double dated a few times. I don’t know that Simone and I hit it off, but we got along well enough. The last time the four of us went out we’d used fake ID’s to get into a club in the village. The girls took turns dancing with Dan and me, and between the two of them, Simone was the better dancer. Her movements were sure and knowing as she spun to the club’s rhythmic, driving music. I loved her energy. But it was Susan that dizzied me. As we danced it soon became clear that she’d anointed herself, possibly the veins at her wrists, with the scent of roses. The fragrance warmed as she did, rising up through the air around her like a scented nimbus. I could not wait for my turn to dance with her again so that I could breathe her in. And not once did I think to check her wrists for mutilation.
Tonight, in the kitchen, I answer Susan’s question with a question.
“Ask me what?” I say, holding a pencil in mid-air.
“How come you’re always looking at my hands?” Susan says.
I bristle. She’s sipping her coffee as she watches me. I just sit there.
“Your hands?” I tilt my head.
Our eyes meet but don’t hold.
“Yes, my hands. I always see you looking at them. How come you’re always looking at them?” She crosses her legs at the ankles and leans back against the sink.
I shift in my chair and scoff, forcing a chuckle.
“I do not look at your hands, okay?” I say, dropping my pencil onto my notebook.
“Well, it’s true,” she says, not looking at me now but down into her cup. She’s running a finger around its rim.
“No it isn’t.”
“What you’ve heard, I mean. It’s true. I know that you’ve heard, okay? And I’m just saying, cause, I can tell that you’ve been wondering. So I’m telling you that it’s true. What you heard about me. I did try to kill myself by cutting my wrists.”
Disarmed by the nakedness of her confession, I grow silent again and do not speak.
“Listen,” she says. “I didn’t mean to weird you out. It’s just that I get tired of being stared at all the time. Tired of all the gossip.”
She looks at me, watching closely for my reaction.
“Why?” I wonder out loud.
“Well, at the time it seemed like a good idea,” she says.
I’m suddenly aware of a figure standing at the doorway. I notice it first, then, sensing it, Susan, her back to the person, turns to see who’s there. It’s Dan. I wonder how long he’s been standing there, how much he’s heard. If he has heard anything, he doesn’t let on, only says, “Hey you,” to Susan as he crosses the kitchen to give her a kiss.
“Hey, yourself,” Susan says.
Dan grabs a mug, pours himself some coffee, then opens a cabinet door to get the sugar bowl. My feet tingle. I’d been sitting on them the entire time. I take them from under me, plant them back on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor to get the blood flowing again. Dan opens the cutlery drawer.
“You two are awful quiet,” he says, his spoon clinking against his cup as he stands next to Susan and looks at us. I’m twirling my pencil.
“I was just coming to find you,” Susan says, looking at him. She runs a finger around the rim of her mug again.
I look down at my text book. The numbers and equations co-mingle on the page. My graphs disconnect, lose their direction, and nothing equals nothing.
That night I dream I see shapes and symbols being etched into Susan’s skin by an unseen hand. To read them I get close, closer to her, until I am kneeling before her. I see that the shapes and symbols are ones I’ve never seen before. I lift my face to hers. Her gaze flickers and her eyes fix on something past me. Her lips are full yet pale. They are moving but her voice is soft and I can’t make out her words. Her eyes focus on me then and she touches my shoulder. Come, rise, she beckons.
And then the writing on her skin goes too deep and there is a ripping and a rending. I feel moisture and look down and there is a bright gray liquid growing under her. I clamber up clumsily and slip on it. She speaks and silver splinters are a line from her mouth, and now her lips have no color and she has no color. I lean my ear to her lips to hear her words, and her breath is rose sweet and cool against my ear. And just as a susurrus string of words is coming clear, she’s gone. She’s melted away into ashes over my pillow and she’s gone. I wake up, my thoughts as sticky as shining saliva. It is snowing outside and the cold has crept into my room. I press my face into my pillow but it is indifferent and smells only of warm cotton. I fling it to the floor.
~ ~ ~
It is October. It’s been over a year since Dan’s enlistment in the Army and his subsequent deployment to Iraq and over a year since our high school graduation. He’d enlisted right after graduation. He didn’t want to be talked out of it so he didn’t tell anyone that he was going to enlist, not even me, just delivered himself to the recruiter’s office one day. When the four of us, Ma, Nana, Susan, and I had flown out to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for Dan’s graduation from boot camp, we’d seen him in his green uniform, his hair shaved under his army cover. He was bulkier too and tanned. Stronger. Samson in reverse. Seeing him in his army garb made it too real.
Since he left, I’ve started classes at New York University, Susan at Hunter College. Ma is still working at the hospital, and Nana is still teaching Italian three times a week at the Italian Language School in Manhattan. And her hair has grayed more, as if the flour that she uses to cook with had gotten caught in her hair.
Even as I miss Dan deeply, I’m glad he’s gone. At my new school I am just Dave, not Dave n’ Dan. There, no one knows that I have a twin brother. Although Susan has stopped babysitting for the children next door, she still comes over to the house sometimes to say hi. I often find myself remembering the night in the kitchen, holding onto the memory. Susan, Simone and I have even hung out a few times, gone to the movies, a few parties and a theme park together.
When Dan leaves, I’m conscious of his empty side of our room, of how there’s no one making soft sleeping sounds in the bed across from mine. I’ve never slept alone for so long before. He was the keeper of my sleep and when he left it came loose and insomnia was an infection spilling into my blood. I get up out of bed at night and haunt our house looking for sleep. I work on my English papers and exponential functions, fix myself bowls of cereal and cold milk or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eat them in the living room by the glow of whatever show I’ve settled on after channel surfing.
When Dan deploys to Iraq with his unit he sends me e-mails saying that it is a “hot and evil place,” or that he can’t sleep for thinking about the woman whose husband dragged her to the gates of their base and set her ablaze as he screams that the soldiers could flirt with her now. How on nights like those he’d get up and clean his weapon. Ma and Nana send him care packages like they’re going out of style. They’d even Fed-Exed him homemade lasagna, brownies and a chocolate birthday cake.
One night when Susan comes over to visit I give her a ride home and in the car I smell the air around her. No roses this time but there is the faint smell of something, a sweet fruit that could well be strawberries. I make a left onto her street, guiding the car onto the curb in front of her house and brake it. When she turns her body toward me, to say goodnight I suppose, I lean into her, bring my face very close to hers and kiss her experimentally on the lips, small and soft. She resists and breaks the kiss. She pulls back, saying nothing, and looks at me quietly.
“I’m sorry,” I say, my voice a croak.
She’s still staring at me. She puts a hand on the door handle and is opening it, is about to get out, when, almost as an afterthought she reaches over and hesitantly returns the kiss. When we break the kiss, neither of us speaks. Avoiding my eyes, Susan opens the passenger door and slides out of the car, closing the door behind her. Then she’s gone.
That night I’m wired and get little sleep. I lie awake most of the night wondering what Susan was thinking. The next day I’m unable to dislodge images of her from my mind.
I see Susan later that week and most every day after that. I pick her up from Hunters’ College campus in my car and we head to the Brooklyn Promenade and sit and talk or to the botanic gardens or other places off our beaten paths where we won’t run into anyone we know. Once, when we have gone to Central Park and are swinging back and forth next to each other on some swings, I ask her if all she sees is him when she looks at me.
“No,” she says, pausing and then stops swinging.
“So, are we together because I’m here and he’s not?” I persist, gripping the chain link sides of the swing.
She twists the swing sideways to look at me.
“No, it’s not like that.”
“Then what is it like? Because sometimes I think you’re only with me so you won’t feel so lonely for Dan.”
“I like you. You and he look alike but you’re nothing alike: there’s no confusing you. It’s more than just about missing Dan,” she says, bumping my swing with hers, making the threaded metal links complain against each other.
“So who’s the better kisser?” I venture at last.
She doesn’t respond, only rolls her eyes and pushes her swing back and forth again.
“No, I wanna know.”
“Why are you with me?”
I look down. Beneath us the grass has been worn away from repeated foot tracks to reveal dirt.
Her eyes are on me as she sits still on the swing, resting her hands in her lap.
I meet her gaze.
“Because I’ve always liked you, always wanted you.”
She waves her hand dismissively, but I tell by the small smile that appears on her lips that she likes what she’s heard.
“I wish I’d met you first,” she offers, but I’m not sure I believe her.
Sometimes we’d find a spot to park the car and make out. Soon, emboldened and frustrated by just petting, we have sex.
The night we do, for the first time in a long time, I sleep all the way through the night. When I do, I swim upward through a dream where I’m alone. There is one body, one breath, and one heart beating. A winds moans, blows inside and outside of me. It flows through me. Cells and nerves dissolve, my flesh and my muscles soften and tear like paper. I become formless and shapeless. And then the wind kicks up anew, gusting in to set what’s left of me loose. I’m blown into a million points and travel into the air. They float and swirl, then vanish and burn off only to materialize into fine points. The points become a form, a mutation of me. I am newly erected. I am forms fenced in with my skin and flesh, a form curled and tensed inside another form. I tip toward my center. I look like me and only the floor beneath me knows. It dips under our weight as it does the math and cannot solve me.
I surface from the dream. I am in my bed in my room once more, my head and husk heavy with the collections of the journey. Yet, the next day, I feel as if even a gentle wind could open me as the dream rattles around in my head like pebbles.
That weekend, in the back seat of my car, Susan and I are at it again. Soon it’s a ritual and my day is distilled, whittled down to that time when I get to be with Susan. A feeling of desperation and resentment has come awake in me. I’m getting what I want but am tortured by the thought of her with Dan. I would imagine them together and it would take everything in me to see straight.
“Break it off with him,” I tell her. “Tell him that he can’t expect you to wait for him forever.”
“And while I’m at it, I’ll tell him I’m sleeping with his brother.”
And with that she shuts me up.
When I’m lying still with Susan there’s no space between us. I listen to the beating of her heart, to the beating of mine, to our breathing. Our limbs fit together and the heat of our touching bodies calms me. It calms her too. As we’re lying entwined after sex one day she tells me about her suicide attempt. She was fourteen and was having a bad time. She’d transferred schools a year earlier and still hadn’t made any friends. And she only left her house to go to school. After failing another midterm she decided she was a burden to her parents and didn’t deserve to live. She penned a note and then sliced both wrists. She lay still on the red and wet bathroom floor for a long time before her mother found her. It was only after that her mother told her that she too had made her own attempt as a teenager.
I think I know what that’s like. How something can sit submerged inside someone, quiet and wild. Until one day it begins to burn them slowly, from the inside out, so they smolder and fall apart at the slightest touch. And when there’s nothing left but ashes to ashes, dust to dust, this seems right somehow. There is absolution from having cut yourself free. Being led right up to it under a power not your own affords you clemency.
Sleeping with Susan gets me to sleep, deep and sound, but it also ratchets up the bad dreams or brutti sogni as Nana would call them. One night I would dream Dan or Susan hunched over cold, gray metal. They would be cleaning a thousand shapes that had been written on its surface in a liquid the color of old ivory but that looked dark in the night. Or Dan or I, someone with our face, is left lying in a place open to the sky to be swallowed by a bright dust storm. Some nights I can’t tell if it’s Dan or me tasting Susan’s body with our fingers, which one of us is inscribing our desires on her. And when I dream, mostly, my skeleton rattles, rickety from carrying extra organs and more sinew.
Time passes. Susan and I carry on for almost four months and when Dan gets leave for Thanksgiving, we break it off altogether. But that was hardly enough. All my lust and deceit and years of envy had somehow borne a dark, strange killing power, and in the moment of his death, in that moment of utter pain, my life had ended too.
It is now August, and we’d laid Dan to rest in February of that year. I’m at the hospital visiting Susan and her newborn, baby Nolan.
“He’s beautiful. Handsome little guy,” the nurse says to me about baby Nolan.
The nurse has just given Nolan his shots and he’s sleeping so soundly you’d never know that he’s just gotten an injection in his foot. The nurse has just brought the baby back into the room. She’d wheeled him in, in one of those see-through, moving bassinet-type things that look almost like incubators without their covers.
I can’t take my eyes off of him. He’s swaddled in a white blanket with yellow ducks on it and is wearing a small, purple woolen hat. I’m taking in his closed eyes, which never stop moving beneath his lids. I take in his nose and his lips, the round line of his jaw.
Susan is sitting up in bed now. She’s wearing a white hospital gown and the covers are on her legs. She’s not nearly as out of it as she’d been that morning. The drugs and the tiredness from the strain of labor are wearing off. She only smiles at the nurse’s comment and runs her fingers through her dark hair. When she does, I notice the hospital wrist band with her name on it, the braceleted words.
“He’s a real trooper,” the nurse continues.
Her hand caresses his cap, his little head. “He did so good.”
While looking at me she adds, “He looks just like you.”
My glance over at Susan is a knee jerk reaction. Her eyes jump toward mine and jump away just as quickly. She tries to keep smiling and the effort shows. She brings her knees up to her chest and hugs them.
I jam my hands into my jeans pockets.
“I’m not, uh, I’m not the father,” I manage, groping for the words.
What I should say is that I don’t know if I’m the father and that I never will.
Dan and I were from the same round purse of cells, shared the same DNA, so any blood test to determine paternity would be fruitless. Given the time that Nolan was born, and when Dan came home that last time, the baby could be either his or mine. So, in a way, both Dan and I are Nolan’s father. Our tether whipping and stretching beyond anything.
“I’m sorry. I just assumed,” the nurse says. “Would you like to hold him?”
I chuckle uneasily.
“Um, maybe later. I’ll hold him later,” I mutter, my skin prickling.
I don’t chance a glance in Susan’s direction again, or the nurse’s either.
“Excuse me,” I say.
I’m near the window, and the nurse and Nolan’s bassinet are near the door, almost blocking it. Almost. I bump my leg against the bassinet on wheels as I try to squeeze past it on my way out the door. Nolan stirs, his eyes threaten to open as he fusses, and then he settles into his sleep again. And even though I’m out the door, and have started down the corridor, I’m still in the room, can still see Susan with her legs pulled up to her chest and the nurse’s eyes taking in our tight, stretched smiles and my flight. I can see Nolan sleeping, an entire world playing itself out behind his eyes.
When Dan died I’d stopped dreaming so heavily, stopped killing him in my dreams. Now, in my bad dreams I see a deep dark purple split running from temple to thigh, snaking its way down his body, down ours. It’s a wound that will never scab, a rend that will never heal. It’s a sharp cold blade twisting in my gut, this lifetime of never knowing who fathered Nolan or if the killing arms of my dreams reached past its boundaries to pull Dan into it.