What We Tell Ourselves


By Barbara Harroun

            We remember the before, when it was just us in the dark, and the after, when it was not just us, and we waited until it would be us again.
            It was us in the crib. We slept sometimes with our lips pressed against one another to share the same breath. We sucked each other’s thumbs, not our own. There is a photograph our mother took of this, arms pretzeled, side by side on the couch sucking away, eyes wide, looking right at our mother behind the lens, and while we know it to be true, others need convincing.
            When it was not just us, we could simply think and in thinking we knew what the other thought. We could look at one another and cock our heads a fraction of an inch. We told ourselves stories in this way. We learned a language of raised eyebrows, compressed lips, and eyes—where they looked, who they looked at, how they looked at them. All without calling attention to ourselves. We saw the world with the same eyes, because we were from the same egg. We did not like it when our mother ate asparagus before nursing us. We liked the smell of our father, diesel fuel and motor oil. We remember the sunlight through the high window, how it fell in a column we wished we could climb. When we were old enough, the sunlight inspired us to take turns climbing one another, up and over the crib.
            We could not be alone, even later when we wanted to be alone more than anything. Even in sleep, even if mother took one of us to the bank and our father took one of us to the garage where he worked. Our parents wanted us to be independent, to dress as individuals, explore separate interests. They gave us our own rooms when we turned six, and in the mornings we met at the breakfast table in the same outfit. We were the mirror and the reflection. We each thought the other’s face was our own. Our mother knew who had the thinner upper lip or four more freckles fanned out on the right cheekbone, but we thought the other face was ours. It was. After two months, they let us share our room again. My mother wanted to talk about what could not be explained, or perhaps what would be explained someday in the study of genetics, but our father simply wanted to let us be.
            We had the same friends. In high school we took the same classes, although we registered at different times with different counselors, unaware of the other’s schedule. We were pretty in the same way. Our hair was auburn, threaded with burnished copper. We brushed it with effort and vigor because it was so thick. Wet, our heads felt weighted. Our eyes were green-blue, our eyebrows were Brooke Shield-thick, and even when eyebrows were waxed thin and arched all over the world, we kept ours thick. Our noses were small, the nostrils slightly too thick, and perhaps one of us had a narrower bridge. Perhaps.
            We liked to close the door to our room and listen to "Kasey Kasem’s Top 40" or K100 sugar pop. Our voice was strong and clear. In choir, we often soloed together. We did not know what we wanted to do, beyond singing, beyond the right now. Junior year, our solo during “Silent Night” made our Chemistry teacher, Mr. Ellis, a prune of a man, cry. He sat in the second row, alone, sobbing without sound, his fist pressed to his mouth, eyes squinched shut. We could not look away. We would never be like him. This was not comfort, just fact. When we left the center stage, and the heat of the  spotlight, we held hands, our fingers braiding against that poor man’s winter.
            Paul Gesondert transferred mid-year, right after Christmas break. He stood in front of the choir, but his face was curtained by his long hair. The bottom half was dyed black, but the top half was orangey-blonde. He wore a Ramones t-shirt over a long underwear shirt that was ripped at the elbows. The skin was dry and chalky there. His jeans were brand-new and there were creases running down the center of his legs, like he was divided. He wore Converse sneakers and there was a hole in the right shoe where his naked big toe stuck out. It was January, but he didn’t have socks on.
            He sang tenor. His voice made us lean in, look closely at him, something resonating and aching that only stopped when he flipped his hair back in a head-banging swoop. His voice was like watching glass blown—molten, then shaped into a rich color we could hold up to the sun. His nose was crooked and the tip seemed to point at his left ear lobe. His eyes were too small and too close together and ordinary brown when they were open. The lower half of his face was movie star handsome. His lips were full, his teeth were white and even, and his chin was perfect. We thought it would fit snuggly in the hollow of our palm, like an egg in a cup. He kept his hands in his pockets until Ms. Cabella handed him the sheet music and then we saw his long fingers, his palm large and open. We stood on tiptoes to see them, and then we looked at one another and hooked our pinkies together. We claimed him. We were sixteen, and while later research would show this rarely happens, that identical twins are unique individuals, we were never logicians. We did not yet seek out our differences, though later we claimed each one, compiling them as evidence that never entirely reassured us.

            He was different in choir than he was in American History. In American History he sat in the back of the room and stretched his legs out, tilted his head back and closed his eyes. He kept his arms crossed, unless he raised his hand to openly dispute Mrs. Halihan. He would lean forward and cough “Bullshit” or “Blatant lie” or “Check your facts, fatso.” We didn’t see his behavior as cruelty then, only open rebellion. In choir, he sang earnestly, his arms relaxed by his sides and he sang like he was alone. He was not self-conscious, but in History he was. He will brilliant and pompous and class discussion became a table-tennis match between him and Halihan, until she became so frustrated she would resort to name-calling. “Belligerent rabble-rouser” and “degenerate punk” and our favorite “no-good so-and-so.” Paul would be sent to the office, and word was Mrs. Halihan wanted him gone, but her class was a graduation requirement and she was the only one who taught it. We learned about Paul in History. He wore Hanes boxer shorts, covered his notebook in black ink, swirls and curlicues and question marks and small snippets of phrases like “Chad said so” or “Listen and sleep” and “Eggs like moonlight.” We studied the way he tossed his hair, the motion of his head from left to right. We watched as his roots grew out.
            He was befriended by Sam Stanley, the only boy in school who had studied violin since he was two, and wore Goth boots and shaved the back of his head, but grew his bangs out long and rimmed his eyes with black liner. We never saw them talking to one another. They just walked the halls together. But we were happy for Paul, because Sam was a sweet, sad boy underneath his costume, and we remembered him in first grade, at the talent show, so nervous to play his song that he peed himself on the stage. His mother made him perform anyway, and we understood what he was up against then. Our mother was flawed, but his mother frightened us. We were glad that he was rebelling against her so fluently now. Sam provided us with a way to Paul, a safe bridge who made the terrifying simple.
            And it was simple. Simple enough that we shook our heads at one another in dumb wonder. We had a car. A 1978 canary yellow Pinto. We walked up to them before lunch. Asked if they wanted to go eat with us, at home. We did not work after school like some kids, so we didn’t eat out. Babysitting money was spent on necessities like  make-up, music, items of clothing our mother refused to purchase. There were leftovers; lentil stew and cornbread. We shrugged in unison to say, “Gross. But free.” Sam smiled eagerly, but Paul was muted and cool. They followed us through the commons, through the parking lot. We sat in the front, and they sat in the back, folded into the low bucket seats. We even maneuvered the car together. Maybe one of us was behind the wheel, but the other always shifted the stick. We had a tape deck, but we were suddenly embarrassed by the mix tape we’d made from Sunday night’s Top Forty that was in it, so we turned the radio to the local college station instead. Sam talked steadily, but we were only listening for Paul.
            As we came close to our house, large, sided-in, crappy-looking shingles that were peeling off, the fallow garden and the half-assed landscaping of our master-gardener-artist-nutritionist-feminist-scholar mother, we questioned what we were doing. We were basically cutting open our ribcages and inviting Paul in. Our house was not a hang out. Mother said it was a sanctuary, and thus it was important to be selective about who we invited to cross the threshold. She encouraged visitors, but only the ones she approved of. 
            Mother was home, and she was happy to see Sam, commented on his gender-bender eyes (“Fabulous, Sam. I mean that,” she murmured, kissing him on the cheek.) and she regarded Paul in that way she had. Detached, analytical, as though reading a text for another one of the grad classes she was taking.
            “You. I haven’t met you before. I am Cynthia. Cynthia Montgomery-Stark.” Then she placed her palms together in prayer position and bowed, whispering, “Namaste.” She had recently shaved her own hair close to the scalp, enthralled with the idea of becoming a Buddhist monk. She was in a grey flannel phase, her shirts and pants baggy and androgynous. Even so she was strikingly feminine. Her eyes large and the same green-blue we had inherited. Her cheekbones were pronounced, and once a stranger asked if he could touch them. We had heard the story many times, and each time she laughed in the same way, delighted with herself.
            She told us to make ourselves at home, and said there was some great goat cheese if any of us was interested. She stated, “Its tang brings out the nuttiness of the lentils and the denseness of the cornbread. Seriously, it elevates a meager meal to a flat-out feast.” We groaned, and she shrugged, saying, “Your loss, loves.”
            “Cool," Paul said.
            Mother turned and reassessed him, then focused a small smile at him. We watched as he smiled back at her, and his was a whole new face. Open, beautiful, utterly happy. We held each other back, gripped hands because we wanted very much to kiss him all over his face. We saw ourselves doing it: one on the right side and the other raining kisses upon the left.
            Over lunch, he unspooled for us. His voice lost the ironic edge we had grown used to in History. He was straight-edge. No alcohol. No drugs. No meat or eggs or diary, he said as he helped himself to the cornbread made dense by eggs, sour cream, and milk. No sex, he smirked and Sam snorted. Which is not to say he hadn’t done all of that before. A lot of that. Enough to go to rehab twice. To be hospitalized even against his will, his father pushing his face against the wall, his arm pinned against his back and used to steer him into the back seat of a cab. He was from Houston, and his drawl was like real maple syrup to us, the only sweetener mother kept in the house. We always wanted more than we were allotted. We heard what he was saying, but we didn’t really listen. His parents were divorced. He lived with his father, a history professor. He said not a word about his mother. He loved the Ramones and said simply that they’d saved his life. He was aware of how clichéd that was, but “clichés were clichés for a reason,” he said, staring into the belly of his empty bowl. “The reason being that they’re usually true.”
            That afternoon, we entered Vintage Vinyl for the first time, and asked Robin, the stringy haired storeowner, if she had any Ramones. The lenses of her glasses  were thick, dirty and extremely scratched, and we wondered how she could see in the dimness of the store. She clapped her hands and walked past us, bringing a cool rush of patchouli in the wake of her gauzy, hippy skirt. We heard the bells of her anklet although we could not see them. Her obese, bearded “old man” watched her walk away. We were distracted by the pipes, the bongs, the vibrators, cock rings and anal beads under the glass.
            Her husband saw us looking and asked if we saw anything we liked. “You two,” he said without threat, “could make me into a sandwich and I wouldn’t complain a bit.” 
            Robin returned, and placed the Rocket to Russia in a flat paper bag. At home, we drew it out like contraband. We listened to the Ramones until we loved them, until we knew every word.
            Sam and Paul would find us, and we fell into a routine of lunch. Our house, or sack lunches in the park. Never Sam’s house for good reason. Our mother was a freak, Sam commented, but a good person, whereas his mom was horrid, though she painted a nice face on every morning. Paul took us to his house, just once as a group, and the house was naked, no photographs on the walls and smell of new carpet. The refrigerator was full of bologna, American cheese, and Yoo-hoo. Wonder Bread on the counter, Oreos and Funyans in the cupboard. Frozen pizza and a giant tub of Neapolitan ice cream in the freezer. We ate ice cream for lunch, and we spooned the soft, frozen sweetness into our mouths and looked at Paul, waiting for him to talk some more.  And then Sam looked at Paul, and Paul looked at Sam, and then there was an imperceptible nod to one another, and they asked, simultaneously, “Do you want to go to ironic prom with us?”
            In the past we had gone to dances, placed our heads on football player’s shoulders and inhaled their musky cologne. We had kissed separate boys before, to do it, not because we particularly liked one certain, specific boy. We had been felt up after drinking Purple Passion at a bonfire with two boys from a town twenty-seven miles away. Farm boys. Cousins, with the same manners, whose rough, callused hands were exciting, but did not pry.
            We wanted and did not want to go. We did not have a curtain to pull between us. We did not know if we could love him together. One of us would have to dance with Sam, or maybe we could take turns dancing with Paul. But we nodded in unison, our mouths full of wheat berry bread and bean sprouts.
            Our friends complained they never saw us.  Sarah Protsky was especially hurt and told us so. We made an effort, but it wasn’t enough, and one night her father told us she wasn’t home, but we knew she was. We heard her plainly say, “Tell them I’m not here.” We went to the movies with Sam and Paul, and at the movies we planned it so we bookended Paul. Adventures in Babysitting. And in the dark, we both took Paul’s hands, so there was no real doubt, and he let us, and he knew without us having to say something awkward. At some point Sam left and he did not come back. We were relieved. We did not look ahead. We were in the now, our stomachs full of longing and fake buttered popcorn, the fizz of a shared Pepsi. We did not think of Sam’s hurt and how he went to bed with it, woke up with it, lived with it in that terrible house.

            We went back to Paul’s house and into his room. It was not what we were expecting. There were books everywhere, and he had to move them off his bed. He did not toss them, but stacked them with reverence, and parked them sturdily on his desk. One wall was a collage of words, photographs, reproductions of paintings, all meshed together and we would lay on his bed and make sense of it while he slept. We thought he was a puzzle we could put together.  Diane Arbus’ photographs pressed against poetry by Frank Stafford. Billie Holliday crooning and Allen Ginsberg leaping. The Ramones and ten chimpanzees vamping, and smiling dogs and cars with chrome fins.
            He had a scrawny chest that we found lovely. A tuft of hair between his nonexistent pectoral muscles and  nipples. We loved the hollow of his collarbone, and spent time tracing the hollow with the knuckle of our index finger. He had a fine line of it beginning below his stomach, a path to the below. His naked feet shocked us the most, the hair on each long toe, the curve of his arches. We wrapped our fingers around his ankles, warmed our hands on his thickly matted calves. His ass, when tensed, was two distinct muscles. Every part of him was wondrous to us, and we were not afraid, not even when we saw his penis. We thought we would be, that we would giggle or not know where to look, but we were deep into Paul and so it was simply another revelation. It listed to the left. When he kissed one of us, his hand reached up and held the other gently by the nape of the neck. And sometimes we forgot there was one of him and two of us, but mostly we remembered. And it was a loneliness we had not known. So we kept our eyes shut, and each of us tried to forget the other, but it was impossible. Impossible and lonely, even as we dove into who we wanted all along.
            We avoided Sam. Pretended we did not see him. He was kind enough to do the same for us. He had not found the words yet, the barbed ones, or his mother’s voice, which had been there all along. We would hear it, but not yet.
            Paul took us to the prom. Our dresses were the same, but at the last minute one of us added a giant, glittering sunflower pin to our yellow, cascading dress, and the other cut off the spaghetti straps. One chignoned her hair and the other brushed it to cover her naked back. Paul wore tux pants, and a jacket, with his Ramones t-shirt and his Converse sneakers. He brought us wrist corsages, but they were each different. One was yellow roses and baby’s breath, the other a calla lily with small, yellow flowers. He was mindful when determining which corsage went on each wrist, his neat, even teeth biting his lower lip. And we understood that he saw us differently. He knew differences our mother did not know, and this thought made us drop our heads, our faces hot with shame, but not regret. For once our mother was adamant about getting pictures, proud that we were bucking the system, thinking outside of the box. Our father shook Paul’s hand morosely and then went back to watching television, splitting peanuts, tossing them in his mouth. We thought then of staying home, but Paul put his arms around us, and it was clear he intended to go. This was before. We were the before. Over the summer, we would become a story he would tell. And he, too, became a story we told ourselves.
            Prom was a ballroom at the university made glittery by a series of disco balls. A voice announced us, and we proceeded down a red carpet. He put his hand in the crook of our arms, flipped his hair and escorted us. We did not see his face, but photographs would show us a smirk we had not seen before.
            It was quiet in the way the world goes quiet, submerged in a bathtub. The path ended at the dance floor, full of flashing sequins, deep v’s of cleavage, and ruffled shirts that threatened to swallow us up, and as if on cue, “Alone” by Heart started up. He looked at us. Choosing.

Barbara Harroun is Associate Faculty at Western Illinois University where she teaches composition and creative writing. She has an MFA from Purdue University. Her work has appeared in Buffalo Carp, Sycamore Review, issues of Another Chicago Magazine, Friends Journal and is forthcoming in the i70 Review and the anthology Prairie Gold. She lives with her family in Macomb, IL.