You and your sister are five years old. You are told not to talk to strangers. Strange, you think, as strangers seem to love to talk to twins. ‘Which one’s older?’ Crouching and smiling, pantomiming comparison, swivelling their heads and darting their eyes from you to your sister and back again, scanning your bodies in a manner that anyone would otherwise find inappropriate. As if playing a game. As if, moreover, you have asked them to play.
Around this age you happen to watch a man approaching a family dog – a retriever of some common sort – while playing in the park. The dog belongs to a family that is eating on a blanket nearby. It sniffs around beneath a tree, trailing its leash through leaves. The man, smiling, approaches the dog. It pays the man no notice. The man crouches down and pets the dog. It carries on nosing the leaves. The family look over and see the man. He smiles at them politely. The family understand that all is well, smile back and carry on eating. The man pulls a stick from the leaves and stands. The dog walks a circle and sits. The man throws the stick a few metres ahead. The dog doesn’t move, panting lightly. The man retrieves the stick himself and tries again, throwing farther. The dog, as if understanding now, appears to play along. It trots through the leaves, picks up the stick, then, flatly ignoring the man, trots to its family and sits, panting heavily, pantomiming fatigue.
It is your habit in childhood to frown at strangers, smiling ones in particular. In the photos that survive adult relocation – photos of you and your sister with family, taken in a range of locations by strangers – you are always frowning. For years you believe that these photos confirm your mother’s allegations, that you were the ‘difficult’ one of the two, much harder to rear than your twin. But when you are a mother yourself you start to doubt your mother’s word choice. Finding your frown on your daughter’s face, you understand its source – not a difficult girl but a guileless one, the absence of any mask. The bulk of the photos are of you and your sister. In these you are always smiling, an arm around her shoulder and your two heads tilting in. No one ever instructed you to stand in this way, that you can recall, but from five years old until fifteen more or less the pose remains: you on the left side, she on the right, your arm outstretched to hold her, long, her right hand gripping your thumb at her neck, her left brain touching your right. Were a sculptor to craft a bust of you both this would be its form. (No photos survive, if any were taken, of either of you on your own.)
It is your sister’s habit in childhood (idem: one childhood containing two children) to smile at strangers, smiling or not, particularly when not. She is smarter than you in this regard, she understands the game; the expectation that twins like dogs will always want to engage; the preference of strangers and mothers both for girls who play along. It is both of your habit to mirror each other when finding yourselves in some new situation. Shoulder to shoulder, facing forward, neither can see the other. Nevertheless, your two faces take on precisely the same expression. Frowning brows and smiling lips, a meeting in the middle. Which one of you is older? Fetch. Together: She is / I am.
According to the hospital you were born a minute and a half before your sister. According to you a minute and a half cannot possibly make you older. Surely the surgeon could have scooped you out second, or scooped her out sooner? Does it take ninety seconds? To mop up the membrane and cut through the cord? Such an arbitrary number shouldn’t matter. But you say it so often, or sing it, in chorus, your two voices one, breathing life into sound – a minute and a half, a minute and a half – that the words become matter themselves.
You and your sister are ten years old. You visit an aunt overseas. She is a friend of your mother, in no way related, your favourite kind of auntie. In the main you dislike the other sort, your blood relations they call themselves, a phrase that calls to mind soldiers covered in blood on a battlefield. And this is in fact how they speak of it, family, of the concept in general and of each other specifically, as if family were war: violent, zero-sum and a thing to be survived. The non-relations are also survivors – of men, you conclude, overhearing – but have not become soldiers, easily angered and shockingly hostile to children. This one, childless, lives in a flat full of pillows she purchased while travelling abroad: pompoms from Morocco, mud cloths from Mali, raw silks from India, China. When speaking, she tends to laugh and gesture, making her bangles jangle. She smokes, her voice is hoarse, the laughter deep, a kind of thunder. ‘What would you like to do today?’ she asks you over breakfast, pouring, stirring champagne into orange juice with the handle of her egg spoon. ‘Something you’ve never done,’ she adds, licking the handle clean. ‘What’s something you’ve never done that you would like to do today?’ You look at your auntie. Together: ‘Me?’ She thunders laughter. ‘You and you.’ Pointing the spoon at each in turn. ‘And you.’ Gesturing to both. Jangle, jangle. ‘This is the problem with English,’ she laughs. ‘There should be two different words.’ Jangle, jangle. ‘How can you tell when someone means just one of you or both?’ You consider. Your mother says you-and-your-sister when talking to you-singular about you-plural. Have you-and-your-sister cleaned your room? Did you-and-your-sister hear me? The phrasing has never struck you as strange but yes, you see now, it is. Five syllables where one would suffice. The language is clumsy, burdensome. But your beloved auntie is wrong, you think. There should be three different words: you the somebody, you the somebodies, you the unit – the bodiless whole, greater than the sum of its two-headed parts, disembodied beyond disaggregation.