We have known each other for a long time, since we were four years old and living on the same block of brownstones in Brooklyn, going to ballet lessons at the Albee School of Dance, where our teacher Nana made odd, mime-like faces that were never quite comforting. I do not remember much of being four, and I don’t remember her specifically at all—she is a whisper in the background. She must have been there, of course. It wouldn’t just have been me trying to find pieces of matzoh bread in between the books on the shelf in her house, where her grandmother had hidden them, and she would have been there in ballet when I took the yellow tutu just to please Nana. I cried about it later. We all had to pick them together, and no one had wanted yellow—there had been a little heap of crinkly, glittery yellow lying disconsolate and cast aside, and Nana had cried, “Oh look, girls! Look at these pretty yellow ones. Who would like a pretty yellow one?.”
I know that she, Anne, took pink, because that’s what she is wearing in the videotape of our ballet recital. She was one of three girls chosen to dance at the barre, next to the teacher, and she does cute little plies. I was not chosen. The camera pans by me twice. The first time I try to do an arabesque and lose my balance, and the second time the girl next to me picks her nose. I don’t seem to realize where I am, that I’m performing, because I say something to myself, toss my head, and make an odd gesture with my hands. I used to like the word ‘exclaim’ as a child, I am told, and that is what I’m doing—exclaiming to myself. I look happy and excited—also oddly inward.
When I’m five I move away. Our families keep in touch, and visit occasionally We jump from being eight years old to thirteen between two of these visits, and when we see each other again we both gape and I curl down in my coat, because it is so strange to see her with all her features stretched, shifted into a whirl of in-between. I think she is beautiful, and I am envious of her breasts, which seem enormous to me. She has contained them tightly in a sports bra, under a loose shirt. We walk to a park in the neighborhood and it is cold, so I push my hands into my pockets. I am wearing a scratchy old men’s coat, and it won’t button high enough in front to keep out the chill. We talk about the stone dolphin in the middle of the sandbox—in the playground we used to go to. I almost want to climb on it again, but then I think of how cold the metal will be—it will burn my palms.
In the park there is a group of boys a few years older than us, who have baggy jeans and sloping backs and sprawled legs. They are lounging on one of the benches, and one of them calls out, “Yo Anne!” and she shifts, chameleonlike, before my eyes. Her back gets straighter, her weight sinks in to her hips, and she reaches up and runs her fingers carefully and lazily through her hair. We walk up to the boys and they are leaning forward a little bit, smiling, talking in quick, hazy syllables. She introduces me with an easy flick of her arm, and I smile and want to disappear. I feel gangly, both too thick and too thin, and I’m praying that they will see nothing about me, leave me as I am. They ask Anne if she wants to smoke, and she smiles and takes some weed and some paper, a slow palm to palm with the tallest boy, who has thick eyebrows and a face sprinkled with acne. Their voices all have a harsh exciting Brooklyn twang that wraps deliciously and brutally around certain words—“cocksucker,” “pussy,” “bitch.”
“Have you ever rolled a joint?” she asks me, looking at me with an expression that I’ve never seen before on her—it is both appraising and somehow blank. I shake my head no, and blush. I am mortified.
“I’ll show you,” she says, and touches my arm, and explains things very carefully and in great detail. I don’t hear any of it—I just watch her run her tongue along the paper. On the way home we talk about drugs, and she tells me that her boyfriend says you should never have sex on E. That it would be so perfect, so amazing, that you could never stand to fuck someone again without the drug. I am quiet, absorbing that.
“I would probably be all weird, anyway,” she says, and laughs to herself. “I’d be all—“ and she swings her hips around randomly, spastically. And I’m amazed at her picturing herself, that way—watching herself. My body is a piece of confusion—it feels like a blush all the time. Afterward we go back home and tell our parents we went to the park, and I’m bright-eyed, squirming with the secret. I can’t read her face at all.
I go home again. I don’t roll joints. Our families drift apart, and we don’t see each other again for another five years, when, for no reason at all, we run in to each other in a shop in the city, where we are both trying on dresses.
“Anne?” I say, after we’ve stared for a while. And then she smiles and nods and hugs me with a lax ease, as if it was perfectly obvious we would see each other. I write my phone number on her receipt, and she calls me that afternoon.
We meet at a deli, and I exclaim about how crazy it is, our running into each other, until Anne shrugs. I adjust myself, chill out, and suddenly remember this about being with her—gauging how I ought to feel off of her, the trial and error of reading her carefully, listening. I order soup and we share the little saltines out of their plastic bag. We talk about our lives, and she tells me as she crumples her napkin into little squares that she is searching, searching, that she doesn’t know whether or not she is in love, that things are complicated
“I just, I mistake admiration for love,” she tells me. “I always want to turn respect into something sexual. And then I get tired of people.” Her voice is oddly laconic. She looks out the window at someone walking by, and then opens my wallet and takes out my driver’s license, laying it flat next to hers on the table.
“We’re twins,” she says, and I look down and it’s true. From upside down our features are exactly parallel—it’s like some weird rune. I keep staring until our faces don’t seem like faces anymore, just jumbles of line and color, until she touches me on the shoulder and leads me out the door.
We walk along Canal Street, running our hands along cheap leather handbags, and we wander through an art supplies store—me self-conscious, pretending to examine several different aquamarine pastels. Once we’re out the door again she shows me a tiny little paintbrush she stole, and flicks it on my palm.
Everything about it is astonishing, as though she had conjured up its perfect little hairs herself. I giggle, and clutch my coat, and feel like withering into one of the potholes in the street; it has never actually occurred to me to steal anything, ever. All of her moments are beautiful, complex, I think—they should all be photographs, conveying something of great importance, something lingering behind the ambiguity of her expressions. This is where we’re not twins, I decide, thinking about snapshots of myself smiling woodenly next to the Grand Canyon. I wonder what she is doing, stretching out her time in my company for as long as possible.
She gets a call, and puts one hand to her ear so she can hear it. “That’s Dan—who I was telling you about. Let’s go over there—you can meet him. I want you to meet him.”
What she is really looking for, she says, is beauty, beauty and truth, and something else, which she indicates by tossing her hands.
Dan, who she may or may not love, is short and thick, with tattoos on his arms. He is charming. He and Anne hug and rock each other, laughing about something or other—“Anne, if you decide you want back with men, you know where to come,” he tells her. It is not what I had expected. I am quiet, shy, although I’m handed a beer and smile along—I watch a water stain on the ceiling that is stretching out slowly, like a blossom.
And this is where things electrify for me, where my senses sharpen, maybe even where I begin to exist in all of this. Anne laughs and runs her hand down my arm, and then wraps her arm around my waist, and Dan’s gaze gets a little more intent. He stares from her to me, me to her, and her fingers twine themselves around my hipbone.
“You’re a beautiful girl,” Dan tells me, and then he smiles, winks, runs his fingers down my jaw line in a practiced way, and kisses my mouth. “Is this one of those girls from college? Daphne, Jane, Liz, what else?” He is smiling at Anne, looking sly.
Anne laughs and pulls me aside, pushing Dan mockingly against the wall. I watch them, the pair of them, and wonder. They have hooks, I think suddenly, hooks planted way into each other, and what they like to do is yank. Their gazes are sharp.
We talk for a polite interval, and then Anne threads her arm around me again, and it is time to leave. I hug Dan goodbye, and as I close the door I realize that it’s not quite hooks after all. It’s as if they are both handling fighting cocks, pushing the birds together, and then wiping away their blood, smoothing down their feathers, cooing to them softly—and at last tossing them aside with light flicks of the wrist.
We’re outside again, and I listen to Anne, and the whole city seems illuminated, as if for some celestial event. I think about the two of them, and how oddly beautiful they are with each other. How poisonous.
“No, don’t go!” she tells me when we get to my building, and so we sit on the stoop, and she touches my hand to her hair and wraps her arm around me again. “I want to know what you think of me. What do you think of me?” she asks, and then she kisses me, slowly and gracefully, so that I seem both unbreakably solid and dissipate as air at the same time, When we open our eyes, two men in leather jackets leaving the next building are standing and staring, so we both sit up, smoothing against each other.
I look at her again, and think about the bloody birds, whose feathers would shrink, red-stained even to their smooth central quills. I tell her I need to leave, and I walk up the stairs and into the apartment, where I pour myself a glass of water from the tap. I can hear someone singing, somewhere a little bit far-off. I start to cry. This is me, I think, this is me this is me this is me. I build walls, fortresses around myself—layers and layers of calcified shell, that become rougher, whiter, more ordinary, as they thicken. I can feel her touch growing fainter and fainter.