The woman in the picture is lying on an unmade bed. She’s smiling, and she means it. I may be the only one who actually knows the difference, but I always do. I’ve been a connoisseur of her emotions since our birth, just as she has been an authority on mine. She’s smiling because there’s a man in the room, the one behind the camera, the one responsible for her tousled hair. Is it sex hair?
I delete the image from my computer. Why did he send it to me? Does she know I’ve seen it? Does she know about us?
The woman’s name is Mara. She looks like me, with about an inch more leg and subtly sharper features. In fact, everything about her is sharper, from the planes of her face to her sense of humor. She is I, acerbic. I am she, pacified.”Hey, you two twins?” is a question we expect and even appreciate unless asked by a man, at a bar, looking to fulfill a tired wet dream. We’ve been hearing the same sexually charged question our entire lives.
On principle, Mara and I revile men who perceive us as interchangeable, indistinguishable, ideal candidates for a ménage a trois. We already share so much the same genes, many of the same mannerisms, an often-debilitating preoccupation with the other’s well-being sex is the one thing we have to ourselves. When we talk about it, and we rarely do, the conversations are vague and brief. Sex is not supposed to be borrowed or lent, mimed or mirrored. If a man is truly interested, he should want only one of us.
We’ve spent a lifetime cultivating distinctions to make this easier on everyone. I am the traveler, the New Yorker, the night owl with minimal willpower and a preference for all things beer. She is the responsible Austin homeowner, the whiskey-drinking screenwriter, the early riser destined for success.
Our tastes converge when it comes to men: we prefer them to be bad for us. But we like different types of men who exhibit different types of badness. I have a penchant for defective Ken dolls pretty men with pretty eyelashes who harbor psychological malfunctions that are beyond repair. Mara favors successful doctors, lawyers, filmmakers or musicians, all craftsmen in the art of deep thought but incapable of casual conversation. They are creative, handsome in quirky ways, and bound to invisible, retractable leashes commanded by parents, kids and ex-wives.
Mara and I do not pursue the same men, and we refuse the advances of any man eager to pursue both of us. We are also to steer clear of anyone who’s ever been interested in our other half. These are the unwritten, unspoken rules of our relationship that until now have remained unbroken.
It’s early fall, and already frigid outside. I am painfully, physically lonely. I have a cold. I’ve taken medicine, something over-the-counter. I’m supposed to have drinks with Bill, and am afraid my itinerant cough will indicate weakness. He likes her, my sister, because she’s never shown weakness, only indifference in his company.
Bill is a forty-year-old actor/writer/producer/editor (his description, in that order) and, for the past decade, a family friend. He is not brilliant or socially inept, nor is he pretty or broken in the right places. But he’s in town, and he’s called me. I look forward to the attention.
I put on the fitted, dark denim jeans that my sister and I both own. Paired with a black wool tank top and black boots, it is a “Mara outfit.” Simple. Powerful. Classic. I examine myself in the mirror. At six feet (with shoes), I have a presence. I assume he wants her for her presence. I return to the mirror. My hair is dried straight like hers. My makeup is barely perceptible, the way she wears it.
Tonight, I will play half of myself, the other half, my tougher half.
Half an hour later, I’m sitting at my local bar, a dark-paneled Irish pub, a Soho dive that’s not really a dive because it’s in Soho. I’m playing with a matchbook and debating a cigarette. Bill is late. I’ve been sitting alone for no more than ten or fifteen minutes, but it’s enough time to make me feel unimportant, insignificant, in need of a drink. He would be early if he were meeting her.
When Bill walks into the bar, he immediately stands out amongst the self-consciously disheveled men and fashionably mismatched women. Although tonight he’s left his hat at home, Bill is the archetypal cowboy: tall, at least six-four, sturdy and tan.
He likes my sister. He’s always liked my sister. She thinks he’s arrogant and self-righteous. She knows she can do better. Perhaps this is why he likes her. Why he’s always remembered her name and not mine. Why he continues to call her even though she rarely returns his calls. She never says yes when he asks for a date, even if she is flattered. And I don’t know that she is.
I might not be either, if his affections were directed solely at me.
I notice that Bill wears jeans the way God meant for men to wear jeans — on the waist, fitted but not tight, ass discernible beneath the worn denim. His scuffed brown boots are perhaps the only pair in the room that has actually seen dirt. Under the yellow lighting, Bill’s face reveals scars I’ve never noticed before, the physical remnants of bar fights, street fights, and parking-lot altercations. I study them as he talks about writing, work, women and money. He buys the drinks, and I listen. His chivalry is being offered in exchange for my silence.
I can say with reasonable confidence that we eat dinner. Maybe we get pizza from an Italian restaurant around the corner. Perhaps I switch from beer to red wine. I’m drunker than normal after three or four drinks.
Bill opens the cab door for me. He opens the door to his apartment. I can say with reasonable confidence that it is an apartment and not a hotel. Is he staying at a friend’s place? It’s dark inside. We are standing, then there are kisses. Desperate kisses. I am lying on the living room floor. He’s on top of me. My jeans are unbuttoned and unzipped.
He may be looking at me, but all I see are the deep shadows of his face. He may be saying something, but all I hear is the hum of the refrigerator, car horns, the occasional siren. I am immersed in blue-black visuals and white noise. Everything is in slow motion.
My wool tank top is pushed up, exposing the scar from an infected belly button ring my sister removed with our grandpa’s pliers. Bill’s hands are warm. They’re confidently moving under my back, over my stomach, my ribs, up and down my legs. And then they stop. He stops.
Bill silently tugs at the bottom of my shirt, covering my bare flesh in one movement, and stands up.”You should go now,” he says. His tone is abrupt.
Stunned, I feel around the floor for my coat. I stand tentatively and stagger to the door. Bill is behind me, but I can’t look at him, and I don’t want him looking at me. If he’s saying goodbye, I’m not listening. As the elevator opens, I hear his apartment door click shut.
Then I’m alone, outside, in an unfamiliar part of town, looking for a cab. I close my eyes on the ride back to my apartment. I want to call my sister and cry, but I’m too ashamed. He never saw her in me. He couldn’t even pretend to for one night.
In the morning, there’s a carpet burn on my back, a bruise on my right hip and another one on my left thigh. I’m in my bed, fully dressed. The phone rings. I know it’s my sister. I always know when it’s my sister. I don’t answer. Instead, I stay in bed, pull the comforter up around me, and try to piece together as much of the previous evening as I can. I close my eyes. I remember kisses, the kind that reveal visceral sexual anxiety: I may not kiss or be kissed for another three months, six months, ten years. I may not touch or be touched by another man for the rest of my life. I imagine how I must have looked drunk, disheveled, pathetic.
The images come in flashes, each one more nausea-inducing than the one before. I try to block them out, but they keep appearing. Then my cellphone rings. It’s my sister again. She knows something is wrong and will alternately call my cell and my home phone until I pick up. She’s been doing this ever since I moved away. I pull myself out of bed, unplug my home phone, and turn off the cell. I’m not ready to talk to her yet.
You should go now, he said. You should go.
“Embarrassed” is not an adequate descriptor for how I feel. Embarrassed is making out with a colleague at a work party. Embarrassed is spitting on a new boyfriend in your sleep because you’re dreaming about biting into a piece of raw meat (sorry, Jim). Just to be clear, Bill and I didn’t have sex. Still, I would re-enact the scalding shower scene from Silkwood to cleanse myself of this new history if I could.
I’m not confident that I would have agreed to meet Bill if I were an only child. I’m not even confident I like the man. I went out with him playing a character I know better than myself but am unable to accurately render. Having returned home fully clothed but out of costume, I remain the perennially weaker half, the youngest (albeit by four minutes) sibling, the newborn who came out feet first, the twin Bill will never want.
I cannot tell my sister about this. She will be disgusted, and humiliated on my behalf. She will unleash this humiliation at their next encounter, hurling invectives in my defense that will only make him want her more. I do not want to be defended. It will only exacerbate my shame.
When I was twenty and living in Texas, I was seduced by one of my older sister’s friends. He said he’d liked me for years. I was naïve enough to believe him. When he dropped me off at my apartment the next morning, I was euphoric with the prospect of new romance. “I’ll call you later,” he said, before kissing me goodbye. I never heard from him again.
A few weeks later, Mara and I were at my father’s house. The phone rang and she answered. “Fuck you, you motherfucker!” she screamed. “Fuck you for hurting my sister! Never call here again!” I knew who it was before she slammed down the receiver. He’d called my father looking for my older sister’s new number, and instead got Satan’s wrath.
I will definitely not tell Mara about Bill.
A few months after the Bill incident, he sends me that email. It’s the first communication we’ve had since he was in New York. The innocuous subject line reads: Hank. The note is brief and insipid: “Thought you’d enjoy this. Take care, —B.” The attached photo is rife with innuendo I will spend the next year trying to decipher.
The picture is of my sister. She’s in his house, or what I assume to be his house. A familiar pair of cowboy boots rests in the corner. She’s reclining on his bed. The flannel sheets are predictably plaid. Her hair is unruly. Her shirt is oversized and not something I recognize from her closet. She’s smiling and playing with a bulldog, presumably Hank. I vaguely recall Bill mentioning a dog, and I vaguely recall slurring interest.
What the hell is she doing there? Does she know about us? She can’t know about us, or she wouldn’t be there. But I thought she hated him. Why would he send me this? Maybe he just wants me to see the dog. Or maybe he wants me to know that he’s won the game I’d hoped he wasn’t playing.
If this is true, Mara unwittingly broke a rule she never would have knowingly broken. And I’m responsible. I feel guilty, dirty and disgusting. I hit delete and leave work early. I cower home, unplug the land line, turn off my cell, turn off the lights, close the shades and crawl into bed.
Almost two years later, I’m reading my sister this piece. I always read her things I’ve written, and she’s always eager to listen, especially when they’re about her. Before we get to the part about Bill, I crack. I tell her about his New York visit, the cold medicine, the drinks, the apartment, and the desperate kisses. She gasps, then cackles.”I can’t believe you never told me,” she says. We talk almost every day. There are very few things about my life that she doesn’t know.
“Are you mad?” I ask.
“No, I mean gross, but why would I be?”
“I saw the picture. Of you, on his bed, with his dog,” I say.
“Was I on his bed? Oh, that was at his boathouse. It’s a fucking shack on water,” she says, laughing.”It’s disgusting.”
“So nothing happened?”
“I’m so glad I’ve never screwed around with him and never will!” she screeches. A “no” would have sufficed.
“Just promise me you won’t say anything to him,” I say.
She’s still laughing. “It’s going to be very difficult.”
A few months ago, I meet a young man with tattoos snaking over his arms, his neck, his torso, and his legs. Ink covers his entire body except for his hands. They are bare aside from eight letters one on the knuckle of each forefinger, beginning with the letter H on his right pinky and ending with the letter D on his left. When he nervously clenches his fists, the letters come together. They read H—A—L—F D—E—A—D Half dead. I know what that means even before I learned that the man lost his identical twin brother to a drug overdose. And I understand the weight of these particular words better than anyone else in the room.
The weight isn’t merely desolation I don’t wish to imagine. It is more complex. It has to do with the silent realities of sharing a life and a face with someone else. To be an identical twin is to exist as a fraction, to exist as an incomplete whole.
I am relieved to learn that Mara didn’t have sex with Bill, and I no longer crave his approval. But I’m still ashamed that I tried to earn his affection. He’s still courting her, even though she gives him nothing. He still doesn’t want me, even though I offered him everything while acting like her. And I wouldn’t have wanted him if he’d wanted both of us in the first place.
“I met a man the other night,” Mara tells me after my Bill confession.
“He was perfect. Smart, attractive, genuinely sweet.”
“Was he with his boyfriend?” I ask.
“No,” she says, annoyed.
“So what happened?”
“Nothing,” she explains.”I sat there talking to him all night, knowing that he didn’t like me but that he would love you.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
“I just know.”
I want my sister to be happy, but I’m also quietly relieved. It’s my turn for a relationship. She had the last one, and only one of us can be in a relationship at a time. This is how it works, how it’s always worked. Our love lives and sex lives are inextricable. If I am dating someone, she is single. If she is getting laid on a regular basis, I am in the midst of a sexual nuclear winter.
It seems at birth we were allotted a single ration of intangible things — the capacity for happiness being primary on the list — that most people do not have to share. So we live in perpetual opposition. If we ever do manage to find lovers at the same time, we will be bound together, a sexless, sexually charged foursome with three sets of genes.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Essays in 2003.