My sister was born one minute before me. Ever since, I’ve been trying to catch her. When I’m overwhelmed by the city’s taxicabs and mirrors and prophets shouting in the park, I want to close myself like an atlas and hide on a shelf in some dark hallway. But my sister laughs with cab drivers and says to the prophet, I like your hat. She says to mirrors, Looking good.
Together, we are more than two pairs of hands. We are one song played on two guitars— a song our father sang when he was our age. This tune is so rehearsed that even as we move through different parts of the world, when one of us thinks of the other, we both pause in our steps, the breath catching in our throats like wind in subway tunnels.
We had a word for milk left in the bowl after cereal, and one for the plastic leg in Papa’s closet. We had a word for our father’s belt. But writing them here would be a betrayal worse than revealing she’d cheated on the SAT. Worse than, say, printing her actual weight and bra size, or claiming she waited ten weeks for her period after a one night stand.
Like the soul, twin speak might ignite at conception. It’s why we jabbered at mirrors, and knew how long to hide from our Japanese grandmother, who frowned as she blew her harmonica in the backyard, her song a train crawling out of town. Now, it’s how I know to answer the phone before it rings. It’s why my husband thinks I’m keeping secrets.
Our twin speak had to evolve over time— even children feel shame in nonsense. We replaced our gibberish with English, but flipped the meanings of words. So, when she calls and says, Don’t be a beetle, only I know for sure whether she means: I could never love him as much as you, or, It’s not fair you’re so far away.
In Italy, my sister bathed in hot springs with strangers— local men with names like Nico and Benedetto, guys who wore tight trunks and knew how to use their tongues, could untie haltertops before girls even realized where their hands had gone.
And those village men would whisper anything to keep a sweetness warm. Their promises glistened like my twin’s moonlit skin. Who could blame her for taking what they gave? I nodded as she spoke, her voice a verse I’d never heard to a song I knew by heart.
All her life she was half a person: one arm, one leg, one kidney. She learned to run taking every other step. Strangers in supermarkets stared. Nobody could tell where this girl ended and her sister began.
On picture day in second grade, all the starch-collared kids fidgeted while the photographer barked, Stand still! Say mozzarella! So she stood as still as she could in her one lace sock, one patent leather shoe.
When the photographer’s bulb flashed, the class bully bonked her head against her sister’s. She felt the hurt twice, and heard twice the solid clop of two coconuts thumped together. The pounding pulsed in her left ear.
And later, when it came time for kissing, she took what she could get from boys as desperate as she. And every night, as she slept on her side of the bed, she dreamed of a birthday cake with only one name.
Sara Hughes lives in McDonough, Georgia. She often writes about her experience as an identical twin. Her work has been published in Rattle, Rosebud, Reed, Red Clay Review, The Oklahoma Review, West Trade Review, Review Americana, Southern Literary Review, and Arts and Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture, among others. She recently earned her PhD in English from Georgia State University, and she teaches for Mercer University.