twins
Pic Courtesy: planetpixelemporium.com

It was an open casket funeral. I sat at the far end of the funeral parlor without approaching the casket.  I didn’t want to see Karen. I don’t think I’d like to be reminded of how I’d look dead myself.  Laid out in that awful manner – stiff and cold. You see, I’m her identical twin.

She lay there in a pretty lilac dress, the one mom had got her for Christmas last year. Almost serene, notwithstanding her horrific last moments. Thankfully, mom hadn’t dressed her up in that frumpy red dress that she’d so loathed. She’d once joked that she wouldn’t want to be ‘caught dead in that dress’….how inappropriate to bring that up now.

The mourners begin to trickle in, looking sepulchral. I acknowledge them with a slight tilt of my head. They in turn give me sad smiles. I can see mom at the head of the casket, looking deathly pale, too exhausted to even weep. Dad stood by the entrance receiving the mourners, utterly devastated, but holding out much better than mom.

And me, how was I faring? Hard to say given how things had panned out.

***

Karen and I were born on the very day that hurricane Bob struck New York and battered the Tri State area, including Jersey City, where we lived. Technically, I was older – born a full 7 minutes before Karen, perhaps the only advantage I’d ever had over her in our entire life. We shared a complex bond. We lived life as a team, and not as individuals.It was totally cool, like having your best friend every minute beside you from the day you were born.There were times when dad would get all muddled up and ask ,’ Which one are you, now?’I guess, Mom was the only one who had no trouble telling us apart.

Physical similarities apart, we were as much alike as day and night. Karen was the creative one, while I was the analytical one. She was witty as hell and popular, while I was the bashful brooder. She was the ‘cool’ twin and I, the ‘nerdy’ one. Leader and follower.  Dominant and submissive. You do get the gist, don’t you?

As kids, we were inseparable, completing each other’s sentences, reading each other’s minds, falling sick together and driving people crazy, pretending to be each other. Even for the brief periods that we were apart, she was a constant in my thoughts, a silent partner.  Every decision, however trivial, I’d pause to consider, ‘How would this affect ‘us’?’

Once while I was away with dad, I had a strange feeling that Karen wasn’t alright. A frantic call later I was proved right. She’d been in an accident. A  really mean fender-bender but she managed to get away with just a bruise or two. She’d always been reckless with cars.Nevertheless,that was how freaky this ‘twin business’ was.

But life isn’t always a breezy romp for a twin, especially if you happen to be the submissive one. Agreed, it was great to have someone back you up when you picked up a fight at school, even if you were in the wrong and all of the other cute stuff , but it was also pretty  maddening. I’m talking about identical gifts and dresses for all the  birthdays, picnics and family photographs! And that lousy feeling of not being ‘unique’ and always having someone who looked and acted exactly like you.Having no privacy, even in your thoughts,   Or walking down school halls and not being called by your own name – It was often, ‘ Hey you!’ or ‘Twin’ , or ‘ Nerdy Twin’. It hurt.

There was briefly a phase when I wanted desperately not to look like Karen. I grew my hair long while Karen sported a pixie cut. Karen was all plaids and checks while I went all pastels and pinks. But it all came down to this – we were two of a kind. Unfair though it was, I had to learn to live with that. Secretly, I longed to be able to figure my life out myself without always having the shadow of a ‘twin’ lingering by.

It got worse when we started college. In a way, it was nice that for the first time in our lives we were in separate social circles. But we still hung on to each other doggedly, more out of habit than choice. There was comfort in familiarity. More awkwardness crept in as Karen began seeing people. She was a hopeless romantic and a chronic bed-hopper. I detested every single boyfriend of hers. They were all jerks of the highest order! I hated the way they looked at me, smiled at me and at times leered at me -‘ I’m Lucy, not Karen, for God’s sake!’ I wanted to scream at the creeps. I often wondered if she chose them purposefully.

There was this one time, we met a guy. One look at him and we both went ‘Isn’t he gorgeous?’.  It was the first time that we’d been attracted to the same guy. Surprisingly, we weren’t embarrassed in the least bit. We cut a deal – ‘Whoever gets him, gets him. No hard feelings.

Obviously, she ended up getting him.Guys preferred her over me. It was a no-brainer, really. She was funny, sexy and smart. Sometimes, too smart for her own good. I was simply a lacklustre version of Karen -Her photocopy in black and white. Sans all the vibrant colours. They were a couple for many weeks before it fizzled out. Her flings usually came with an expiry date.

***

I sense a change in the atmosphere of the funeral parlour. I look up and see him walk over to the casket. Jason Miles. My heart skips a beat as he  directs a wan smile at me.

***

It was in our final year of graduation that I first met Jason Miles .He was our new Chemistry professor. I guess I loved him from the moment he walked into the class with his just-out-of-bed look. I remember thinking that he was too young to be a professor, with his fresh-faced look and boyish charms. In his first class, he’d tried his best to sound confident amidst thirty five pairs of inquisitive eyes. He’d almost succeeded but lost his cool, when he got his notes all mixed up. He stood there  all flustered, for a few awkward seconds trying to gather his wits, but gave up and rushed out of the classroom excusing himself.The entire class tittered and Karen mimicked his lispy voice. She could really be mean when she chose to be.  I wanted to yell at her to cut it out, but settled on  ‘accidentally’ spilling coffee on her favourite t shirt later, during  break. Underhand, I know, but she’d earned it.

Jason settled down pretty well after that. The class soon warmed up to him. And I was content gazing at him from afar, my eyes following every tilt of his head and every wave of his hand, hanging on to every word of his. It was exciting when you find a little bit of yourself in someone, like I did in Jason. He was a loner, just like me. The class left him alone out of pity. There’s no fun in flogging a dead mule, is there? But there was this raw vulnerability about him that touched a nerve in me. He was genuine; I could say that for sure. And handsome in an unorthodox way. I loved the feeling in my gut every time he gave one of his rare, crooked smiles. I could totally imagine us together, exploring new places, losing ourselves in quaint bookshops and crying over mushy movies. I also knew Karen would have had one of her laughing fits if she heard me right now.

She didn’t take too long to figure it out. She could easily see the attraction I saw in him. She caught me off guard one afternoon. I was doodling on a piece of paper, lost in a faraway world, when she gave me a hard poke in the ribs.

’Oww. That hurt!’

‘ Luce! Look at you! You are literally drooling all over. For god’s sake, why don’t you ask him out?’

I stared at her open-mouthed. Had she figured out who my crush was? And as if I had just mouthed the question aloud, she threw back her head and laughed daintily. It was amazing how effortlessly beautiful she could look.Made me wonder if  looked that good when I laughed. I  was her twin after all, right?

‘It’s that geeky professor dude, right? What did you think I was, dumb?’

It was maddening to have your mind read just like that. It didn’t matter so much when we were kids, but really wasn’t so funny anymore.

Anyhow, I asked Jason out on the last day of college. He was officially not my teacher anymore. It was the boldest thing I’d ever done, putting myself out there like that, knowing that I stood a pretty good chance of being rejected or worse still, reported. And Karen would have made a field day out of it. So when Jason agreed to go out for dinner, I was more relieved than thrilled.

Trying to look good for someone you really care about is one of the hardest things to do. I didn’t want him to think that I was trying too hard, neither did I want him to think that I was frivolous. I decided to not go for the overkill. I chose a pair of my best fitting jeans and a cashmere sweater, borrowed from Karen. I got a bit bold and went for a no make-up look.

‘You look like you’re going to church.’ was Karen’s verdict.

Despite my church-going attire and stilted conversation over pizzas at Lombardi’s , it turned out to be a pretty amazing evening. A stroll down Times square was followed by ice-cream. It was so easy, being with him.  And before I knew it, I was falling, no hurtling, into love for the very first time and it was the scariest feeling ever. Like taking a dive from a really high springboard, into the unknown depths of a dark,cold pool. A welcome free-fall. You cleave the water and come up gasping and panting for breath feeling heady yet sick , cold outside yet warm inside, all at once.

I just hoped that he felt the same way about me.

We were silent on the drive back home. He was singing along to Lionel Richie, while I secretly worried if my breath smelt.

‘Mints?’ He asked smiling. ‘There must me some in the dashboard.’

‘Oh God. Was I so obvious’, I wondered.

We found Karen on the phone outside my place. She finished her call and was all smiles as we drove up.

‘Somebody’s back early. Planning on staying the night, Jason?’ She crooned. Jason went red. I was mortified. Jason broke the uncomfortable pause saying, ‘Is there a coffee place nearby where we could all hang out for a bit?’

Twenty minutes later, at the cafe, I watched a garrulous Karen chatting Jason up,  about the time  we got stoned at a friend’s party and were hauled over by a cop as we drove back home wasted.

‘The pervert let us go easy. But not before he gave us both a thorough, yet completely unnecessary pat down search! ’ she giggled.

Definitely, not one of the stories that I wanted Jason to hear about on our first date. I sighed.

Later that night as Jason dropped us back home, almost timidly, he asked me if I’d consider accompanying him to the Science conference in Boston in September. September was months away. So he did intend to continue seeing me. My heart did a double flip. He then surprised me further saying  ’ Your twin is quite something, isn’t she?’

‘How about a movie tomorrow?’ he asked.

And even as I smiled and nodded, he added, ‘If you want, you could bring Karen along too, it’ll be fun! And thanks for a great evening!’

A quick hug later he was gone. I never really got the kiss that I’d been hoping for. I should have known that it was a sign.

I almost walked into Karen as I opened the door to get back in.

‘ No kissy for my sweet sissy. Isn’t he such a pussy!’, she sang in a falsetto voice.

’ So says the hussy.’ I muttered and stormed off as Karen glowered.

The movie outing the next day turned out to be fun. It was followed by a slew of outings – dinners, karaoke nights,  brunches in fancy restaurants, crazy cab rides and Broadway shows. Except that it was always Jason, myself and Karen. Doesn’t sound all that romantic now, does it? Nevertheless I was blissfully over the moon. I was no more the cynic. I was a believer, of Love, in Love. I fervently hoped that my head would take charge of my smitten, wayward heart. But, the girl in me was besotted. She stuttered and blushed, giggled and sighed, fretted and fussed.

As long as I believed that all Jason cared about was me, I was okay carrying on with this masquerade. It didn’t matter that Karen was often around. In a way, I felt bad for her.  I’d found a great guy while she was still drifting aimlessly. I let her tag along. But it did bother me a bit when at times Karen put on her charming best on display and stole my thunder. Jason, the perfect gentleman always, went out of his way to ensure that she never felt singled out. He accepted Karen as a part of the package.

Then, in the spring of my twenty second year, after 2 months of dating, we planned our first weekend away. A  Victorian style Lodge at Poconos. Misty mountains and lush forests all around. It would be a perfect romantic getaway.

‘Awww… your first getaway together!’ gushed Karen as we dined at Timothy’s.

‘After all, the birthday girl does need some pampering, right?’ joked Jason.

Karen put on a mock-hurt look. ‘ Noooo… you can’t take her away on our birthday!! All these years we’ve never been apart on our birthday!’

‘Oh, come on Karen…’ I began.

Jason stopped me midway. ‘Luce, she’s right. I can’t keep you guys apart on your birthday. It won’t be fair. Why don’t we take Karen along? I’m sure we could get another room for her. ‘’

And just like that, my perfect weekend getaway was ruined. It did suck big time being the ‘submissive’ twin.

A  quaint Victorian style cottage, with beautiful murals on the walls and breathtaking views of the Delaware river, was where I got my heart broken, when I saw Jason and Karen kissing by the poolside.

They say that love, like fortune favours the bold. She was bold. I wasn’t. She was ruthless. I wasn’t. A few months back I was falling in love. Now I was just falling apart.

I guessed it wouldn’t be me accompanying Jason to the seminar in Boston, after all.

****

The mourners walk over to the casket, say farewells and are almost instinctively drawn towards me. They offer me their choicest words of condolence.

I hear the words ‘freak accident’, ‘reckless with cars’, ‘Poor girl’, ‘so full of life’, ‘so hard on her twin’ floating around, like bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. A puzzle undecipherable to no one but me.

***

I replay the scene for the zillionth time in my mind, frame by frame. A sultry, summer afternoon.  A Shopping trip . Karen’s perfunctory apology for hooking up with Jason right after my break up with him. My gracious acceptance of it all. I even bring up our old mantra – ‘Whoever gets him, gets him. No hard feelings.’ We have a good laugh. We drive back home in Dad’s SUV, Karen at the wheel.

Just as we pull into our steep driveway, she remarks, ’Luce, please don’t take this too hard.’

‘What?’ I ask weakly, already knowing what she was about to say next.

‘The fact that he chose me over you.’

Hearing it put like that, so bluntly, something bubbles up deep within me. Self-pity? Hate? Rage?

Her phone rings. A Lionel Richie ringtone. No guesses who the caller was. I turn away.

I watch her walk down the steep slope of our driveway towards our mailbox with that expression of being in love writ large upon her perfect face, laughing into the phone. I could imagine Jason at the other end of the phone with a similar expression on his. That vicious feeling in the pit of my stomach gnaws at me again. I see hazy visions of a wedding, cute babies and a happy home in the suburbs. Were they figments of my crazed mind or was I unconsciously tapping into Karen’s thoughts just as she’d read mine, so often before? I could no longer be sure. I break into a cold sweat. My hand involuntarily reaches out and releases the hand brake of the SUV. In a flash I jump out and watch, as 4000 pounds of solid metal hurtles noiselessly down the slope of the driveway, right onto my blissfully unaware twin still on the phone, pinning her to the gate. I see her phone being flung high up in the air. I see the life slip out of my twin’s eyes. I collapse in a dead faint.

A  ‘freak accident’. That is what it ever would be.

***

The mourners are leaving. Jason walks over to me. I can see that he’s crying. We clasp hands. I feel my skin tingling at his very touch. I melt into his arms, sobbing. Perhaps, I was wrong – I’d been the dominant twin all along.

***

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