Lunula | Creative Nonfiction
A soccer mom at Mountain Mikes wants to give me the lowdown on being a twin. I don’t know which player she belongs to, whether she’s a Honey Badger or from one of three other teams scheduled for the Tuesday five p.m. award ceremony. She wears acrylic nails and pins her hair back with black sunglasses. Her nose peels at the bridge from too many hours under the mid-October sun.
“You were once one in the womb, like a flower that split,” she tells me, fingers pinched in the shape of a flower bulb. “One in the womb.”
Her voice is familiar. I might have heard it booming across the soccer field. I can imagine her squatting over her Raiders lawn chair, a hand shading her eyes as she tracks the ball in relation to her daughter. Tonight, though, her daughter is not a priority.
“Do you feel her pain? Can you read her thoughts?” She asks.
I don’t know where my twin is right now—probably scavenging for scraps among the stacks of closed pizza boxes. I’m pinned between two folding tables of soft drinks and sheet cake. I think I’m smiling, although it has become a fixed, startled thing. Soccer Mom carries a square of vanilla cake on a napkin and the two mash together when she says “one” and “womb.” Maybe she feels I don’t fully appreciate my circumstances because her voice keeps getting louder. The wadded napkin in her hand leaves a dollop of frosting on my knuckle when she points to my chest.
“You once shared that heart. Have you ever considered that?”
I was thirteen then. I am twenty-four now and I’m still being asked about my sister’s pain. Perhaps I’m being punished for never answering Soccer Mom’s questions because the list goes on:
“Would you switch classes on test day?”
“Which of you is better at ___?”
“Have you ever traded boyfriends?” (That’s a two-for-one.)
“Can your mother tell you apart?”
“Which twin is the evil one?”
All these questions branch from the same curious assumption that Meg and I are the same person. Not sisters, not even clones. We are the image of unity. Similar to a pair of parentheses, our only intrigue exists in relation to each other. You rarely see an open parenthesis without its closing pair, unless by some marring accident that left it twinless. This can be traced back to the origin, the single most damning evidence against our individuality. The womb.
When Mom was pregnant with Meg and me, she was given a book about raising twins. There was a chapter about twins in the womb, specifically what could go wrong in the womb: conjoinment, vanishing twin syndrome, situs inversus, parasitic twins, etc. It was illustrated, even. She slipped the book into the drawer at her nightstand and never opened it again. The anxiety those images produced probably seeped into us anyway because we were born three weeks too early. I imagine the scene that followed our birth looked nothing short of monstrous: Mom and our purpling bodies on her chest, a pair of coughed-out lungs.
The liminality of the womb lends to imagination. Whatever boundary exists between being and being an individual is still soft, unformed. The line between twins of the same placenta is not definitive. Somewhere in the dark—among the amalgamation of blood, water, and tissue—two brains, two hearts, two bodies divide from the same strand of DNA. At what point are those hearts allowed to be separate from each other?
Meg and I are mirror-image twins. Meaning: monozygotic identical twins with inverted physical traits, a pair of parentheses. I’m left-handed, she’s right-handed. Our hair parts on opposite sides. If we had any birthmarks, they’d appear as reflections to each other. We knew another pair of mirror twins in high school who’d been trained to be uniform again; the left-handed twin wrote with her right hand and each girl parted her hair down the middle to avoid any mirroring. I suppose Meg and I took our route to its logical extreme.
The first secret I kept from Meg was my sexuality. And it didn’t even work—she rooted me out anyway. I watched Glee with her on Tuesday nights but refused any conversation on the subject. We watched Rachel and Quinn’s “friendship” unfold to a medley of love songs on YouTube. Secretly, I devised a guidebook about what it meant to be Meg’s mirror. If she was gay, then I’d be the straight one. I assumed Mom and Dad were capable of accepting one lesbian in the household, but two was excessive. I was a willing martyr; I played my role. But beginning sophomore year of high school, Meg refused to cooperate.
“I’ve never had much interest in dating men,” Meg says casually.
The soggy remains of my Subway sandwich collapse to the floor, my mouth still hanging. We are three hours into a home track meet with three hours remaining. She looks expectedly at our teammate, Allie, while tearing at the artificial turf with her hands. I’m too stunned to do anything but gawk at her too, hoping, for the first time in my life, to have gained the power of telepathy (anything for those words to have not been spoken aloud). Allie, Meg, and I have already scratched out of our portion of the competition, leaving the remainder of our time somewhat unknown. I’d hoped to spend it doing homework, but as Allie fixes Meg and me with a stare, I begin to think of exit strategies instead.
When it comes to deviance from the norm, there is no room for individuality. This is true for all marginalized communities and has little to do with being a twin; however, being attracted to women when you have an identical sister who is also attracted to women has a certain Freudian ring to it. A little nuance is a lot to ask from a school of teenagers. At fifteen, I only wanted to be invisible, but Meg could barely conceal her mood on a moment-to-moment basis. During one particular marching band practice, she’d discovered a tick at the base of her neck and devolved into tears. While her face turned purple, I pushed her into a portable restroom trailer and held the door shut until she stopped crying.
I watch Allie, fearing whatever nightmare rumors she might concoct from a label like ‘Twin Dykes.’ She lifts an In-N-Out fry from the paper boat, dunks it into a pool of ketchup, and pops it into her mouth.
“I thought I was like that too once,” she admits.
Meg tosses her head back and laughs, overdoing it. Allie shrugs casually and changes the subject to something less dangerous—men she’s dated, wants to date, used to date—but I’m no longer listening. I turn to glare at Meg, wishing for the second time this evening for the ability to telepathically slap her, but she is pretending to be invested in this new conversation. I pinch her upper arm where the skin is softest until she pulls away.
After that, the rules changed. When we got home, I pointed a finger at my twin and demanded that someone censor her. Mom, probably more shocked than anything, took my side.
“Your sister’s right,” I heard her tell Meg, “You can’t expect people to know the difference between you two.”
The thought that someone might see her with another woman and think that she was me tore me up inside. I told Meg she could come out in college. We would separate, then she could be whatever she wanted to be. I didn’t want her dragging me out with her. But we never went to separate colleges—we stayed together and transplanted our lives to Chico. Although I never again asked her to stay in the closet for me, I think part of her internalized the request. During those four years, she never looked for someone. Never dated. She looked to me and followed close behind.
John Lennard calls a pair of parentheses lunulae or little moons. Robert Grant Williams refers to them as containers of dead text, a useless appendage (57; 59). A natural conflict arrives when you surround throwaway information with parentheses—essentially drawing a box around it—so that which is meant to contain ‘dead text’ becomes an intimate address to the reader. E.E. Cummings played with this concept by using the parentheses to establish intimacy in his poetry, a technique most apparent in “i carry your heart (i carry it in].”
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling). (1-4)
The poem is split into two parts: everything inside the parentheses and everything outside of them. But even in a poem celebrating the complete containment of love, there is tension caused by the presence of parentheses. Codependency develops between the two parts as neither the parentheticals nor the non-parentheticals can stand alone. The line “i am never without it” nests between two closed parentheses, isolated from the preceding and following clauses. Roi Tartakovsky notes that the parentheses have a curious “in-between-ness” about them, or “semantic fuzziness” (1). The parentheses, similar to a pair of twins, are not the symbol of harmony but of contradiction.
All of this is to say that if Soccer Mom were to find me today at Giant Eagle, comparing prices on two near-identical jars of peanut butter, I would not hide in the bathroom as I did last time. I would look into her somewhat burned face and tell her the truth. You’re right, I do feel her pain, and she feels mine. We’re constantly inflicting each other with it.
After six months in Pittsburgh, I spend a week with Meg at her duplex in Chico. It will be the last winter we spend in our college town—come June, Meg will relocate to the Bay Area to teach middle school. We fight constantly, which isn’t unusual, but my return to Pittsburgh hangs in the air, making our time precious and the close of every argument a waste. I’d bought her two books for Christmas at a used bookstore in Squirrel Hill, though I hand them over early and unwrapped. The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff and Lucky by Alice Sebold. She’ll finish Wolff before Christmas, but the memoir will have already been forgotten.
“I didn’t get you anything,” she says. I’m not surprised—we’ve never been the gift-giving type—in fact, I wouldn’t have gotten her anything either if Mom didn’t insist that we start acting like adults and surprise people with gifts.
“Just give me one of your shirts and we’ll be even.” I’m half-joking, we’ve always been unreasonably possessive over our clothes.
She blinks. “I’ll buy you anything you want.”
“Bitch, that yellow one there. Hanging over the closet. I want that.”
She smiles uncomfortably. “You know that won’t fit you.”
For the next three hours, we fight over what exactly she meant by that.
“We’re identical,” I tell her. She apologizes again. “What are you even apologizing for? You haven’t said anything yet.”
She winces, “I don’t want to ruin the evening. Let’s drop it.”
We don’t ‘drop things’ in this family. My sisters and I hated other families: the screech of silverware on plates, the detached silence, everybody sucking on their differences like pieces of butterscotch; a family of strangers. Better to tear it all off the shelves, out of the cabinets, and see your world shattered and bare on the tile, ready for reassembling. Forget an evening, it can take a month before your world is back to normal.
“Just tell the truth.” I pull the blouse over my head and straighten it over my waist. It fits differently than I expected.
I tell her, “See? It fits.”
“Right,” she nods, “Identical.”
I tug the shirt off and my hair catches in the collar button. “Jesus, just tell me what you’re thinking.”
“Well, we’re not identical,” she snaps, “We’re not, really, anymore.”
The list begins: She runs more than I do. She eats less. She wears a size small. She doesn’t like the way I can devour a pint of ice cream over a movie. I remind myself not to take it personally, to remove my sense of worth from her perception. Her cheeks are hollow, her eyes dull—she’s hurting. She doesn’t really believe what she’s telling me.
“You always said you liked the way you look,” Meg finishes. “So, it doesn’t matter what I think.”
She’s right. I felt lucky that I grew up without the shame that seemed to haunt the other girls. I always assumed I shared that feeling. I told my sisters once I could live with being five pounds heavier or lighter and that, likely, I fluctuated between the two often. I didn’t know at the time that my twin was eyeing me, thinking, heavier.
“You wanted the truth,” Meg tells me. “Do you forgive me?”
After that night, I began seeing my body through her eyes. I scanned pictures of us together, obsessed with finding differences between us. Even after she apologized, her words came back to me again and again, attaching shame to a part of me that had never been there before. Our difference in weight is subtle—almost identical, even—and yet, she got to me.
I’m ashamed to admit now just how deeply I wanted her to deem me thin. To simply say, “Yes, we’re identical in every way—right up to the thigh gap.” Instead, she pointed to her running schedule.
Meg would never shame another person’s body that way. She would think it small and ignorant to force anyone into an idealized shape or size. Had I been anyone else, there would have been no contest, no judgment, no hurt. Everything she shared with me that night, she’d been telling herself in the mirror. I finally got a taste of the shame I’d been projecting on her all my life.
I’d convinced myself that my censorship of her was self-preserving, if not mutually beneficial. Instead, I tormented her.
In his critical essay “Within, Aside, and Too Much,” Jeff Scheible compares the parentheses to a laugh track for being simultaneously acknowledged and ignored:
The sound of pre-recorded laughter, coming from the position of the audience — structured into the soundtrack of the television program—interrupts or displaces the principal flow of the program. But at the same time, its very interruption becomes integral to a show’s flow, in a manner similar to the function of a parenthetical in a written sentence. (84)
There is something about this interruption I’m failing to understand—the fact that we use parentheses to say the things that, maybe, shouldn’t be said. The parentheses are in an interesting position between being important and insignificant, spoken and unsaid, acknowledged and ignored.
Two years have passed since that argument in her duplex. In that time, Meg has left our college town to teach sixth grade in Pittsburg, CA. She has apologized for most of the painful bits and I have too. The fact that I wanted her to tell me we were identical confuses us still, considering the amount of energy I’ve expended to distance myself from her and convince others that we are individuals. I moved across the country and brought three suitcases with me, the rest either stayed behind or went to Goodwill. Yet, our arguments always trace back to that moment in our old duplex. I have to accept that there are aspects about me that Meg will not claim for herself. Not because she can’t, but because she doesn’t want to.
I spent months collecting self-help books about twinhood, hoping to understand my conflict with Meg. I read One and the Same by Abigail Pogrebin and The Same but Different by Joan Friedman, themselves struggling to differentiate from each other. By the time Nancy Segal’s Indivisible by Two ambled onto my hold shelf at the library, I abandoned it there along with a CD of Billy Joel’s greatest hits. These books showcased twins of every kind—old, young, independent, codependent, addicts, some already grieving the loss of their twin—and yet, somehow, I felt underrepresented. I yearned for a first-hand account from a pair of twin lesbians raised outside the Silicon Valley, who currently reside in identically named cities over two thousand miles apart. Where are my people? I wanted to yell from across the militant aisles of the Squirrel Hill Library.
If I were to separate my identity into parts, there would be no question. There is no shortage of representation for white women in media, positive lesbian content is scarce but not impossible to find, and the rate of multiple births is ever climbing in the United States, with over 131 thousand twin births in 2016. I know I’m not unique, and to quote a friend from high school, I am perhaps the least unique person alive. “There are literally two of you,” she once told me, “And with the last name Smith.”
When I first told Meg that I was leaving for Pittsburgh, she asked me what I expected her to do now. She was graduating college too. How was she supposed to get a job, find an apartment, make a living, without me? We tended to tag-team our life. Whenever I found a job, I made sure she was hired shortly after. I brought home my friends and made them ours.
She tells me now, “I had no idea who I was before you left. I had no plan, except that I’d follow you.”
Sam Smith received her MFA from Chatham University, where she acted as Managing Editor Fellow for The Fourth River. She is currently a reader for IDK Magazine and the Development Coordinator for Rainbow Writers. Her experience as an identical twin has inspired her to investigate identity through writing.