by Laureen Vonnegut
When I think back on the day I met the twins, I can replay the details over and over in my head like a movie. I bet if I asked Dahlia for her version, the details would be completely different. Memory is distorted by retelling and I’ve gone over that day so many times – God knows what sort of facts I’ve concocted. I’d like to ask Dahlia, but I won’t.
We don’t talk about anything from the past…it’s as if our childhood never existed.
I was twelve years old, new kid in the neighborhood, and my mother thought she’d do me a favor by introducing me to a friend. A neighborly lunch. She did not account for two girls next door, let alone twins and the effect twins have on young boys. I was so intrigued by the two of them I couldn’t keep quiet. I asked them a million questions: ‘Do you have the same dreams?’ ‘Can you read each other’s minds?’ ‘If I pinch one, can the other feel it?’ They frowned at me with duplicate frowns, with identical muscles moving in their foreheads. I zoomed in on their eyebrows and even the hairs sprouted from the same pores.
My mother sized up their mother as soon as she walked through the doorway to our house, while Chloe took her time, darting glances in my mother’s direction and squinting her eyes when my mother spoke. Our mothers were both modern opinionated women and they would have been great friends if they hadn’t both been alpha females. The twins’ mother was a cool intellectual and she had no time for my mother’s catty comments, her jokes about the neighbors, her put downs of the local fashion. The first time the twins called their mother Chloe instead of Mother or Mom, my mother’s nostrils flared in resentment. I knew they would never be friends.
From that afternoon on, my mother wore full battle gear whenever she was around Chloe: polished nails, blood red lipstick, coiffed shiny locks, and tight skirts that showed off her shapely calves. My mother was ‘racy’. Coco. She loved her men and she loved her vodka. And she loved me – she was jealous as hell.
My mother arranged for two weeks in Saint Petersburg the winter I met the twins. She wore a white fur coat with a hood and drank shots of vodka every night. She flirted with the waiters, the maitre d’, the chef. She poured me a vodka and when I told her I didn’t like it, she mixed it with orange juice and ice and handed it back to me. I became boisterous and joked with her as if she were one of the twins. She laughed hoarsely and told the waiter I was a bad boy. When we went to bed, she clutched my arm, called me Pumpkin, saying she couldn’t sleep alone. I leaned over and threw up.
A year or so after I met the twins, one chilly autumn day – the kind of day that as an adult saps your strength and makes you shiver, but as a child energizes you and you run and leap and shout – we collapsed on the lawn. We sat panting and watched the twins’ father, Val, raking the red and yellow leaves into a pile to burn for a bonfire party that evening.
Dahlia lay back with a piece of flat grass between her thumbs making a shrill whistle. Hetta sat perfectly still with her tongue sticking straight out into the air, drying a tiny white canker sore. Chloe had told her to rinse her mouth with hot salt water, but those twins were rebels and didn’t like anyone telling them what to do. Hetta felt me looking at her and opened her eyes wide. We gazed at each other and she slowly withdrew her tongue back into her chapped lips, between her even white teeth. I felt a tug in my groin and inhaled sharply – my first erotic memory.
Hetta asked, ‘When was the first time you knew there was no Santa Claus?’
She was always asking these types of questions that made people stop and think and chuckle. The twins were raised with no religion, no belief in Christmas, yet they still had Santa.
Val gathered the leaves into one huge pile, singing an old show tune. My mother said she didn’t trust a man who knew all the words to West Side Story. But I noticed it didn’t stop her from standing too close to him and touching his arm with her red fingernails. Val tossed the leaves in the air and struck a pose. Neither of the twins looked at him. He was always in the spotlight, even if he was alone.
It had occurred to me that even though he was tall and old and handled the rake with dexterity, he was still a child himself. He didn’t belong in the adult category, yet he was too old to be one of us.
‘The only reason we had Santa was because Dad liked to dress up as a fat man and say hohoho to impress all his friends sitting in the living room sipping bourbon and mocking us,’ Dahlia said loud enough for Val to hear her.
He walked over and sat on the grass and swatted at Dahlia’s feet with the rake. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it.’
‘I am not saying that we didn’t enjoy it at the time, but I am stating why you did it, which had nothing to do with us.’
Val stood up angrily. ‘I don’t know where you learned to read minds…we should put you in a circus and make some money off you.’
Dahlia’s animosity toward her father was just getting started at that point. Those two were just too much alike and when we dislike a quality in someone that we have ourselves, we detest them for it.
‘I live in a circus,’ Dahlia taunted.
He turned and strode back to the house. Stuck to the back of his pants was a stick, straight up and down the middle of his ass, with a red leaf attached to the top, waving with each indignant step. Dahlia started laughing so hard she couldn’t speak. She pointed and we looked and laughed, rolling around on the grass. He threw us a disappointed look before slamming the door.
I liked Val. Maybe it was because I didn’t have a father. At least they had one and even if he wasn’t around much, he tried to be with them when he was there. My father sent my mother bank deposits two times a year. He had another family, a real family that lived in the same house as him and shared dinners and family squabbles.
There was a tinkling of a bell and a muffled thump in Val’s pile of leaves. Hetta, who had been facing the pile, jumped up and stared with her eyes wide, a clear white circling the warm brown center. She looked up into the sky and I followed her gaze. A bright sky, unblemished except for a few white wisps streaked across the center and a hawk circling above.
‘It fell from the sky.’ Hetta’s face was drained of color under her summer tan.
‘What fell from the sky?’
‘I don’t know. You heard it too.’
We stared at the pile. The leaves shifted and something cried softly.
‘Oh God, it’s alive,’ said Dahlia.
Hetta backed away. ‘It’s from outer space.’
The twins held onto each others arms. I grabbed the rake and moved some of the leaves away. There was a yelp and a small animal ran out of the pile and under a low patio table. There we found a curly-haired black dog with a white patch over one eye. It wore a collar that jingled faintly as it cowered, shaking, its eyes moving back and forth, tail thumping the ground.
Hetta looked up. ‘That dog fell from the sky.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ I said.
‘I saw it. It dropped down. Where do you think it came from? The tree?’
We looked back at the leaves and up. There wasn’t a tree branch growing over the pile. Anyway, how would a small dog get into the tree? Hetta crawled under the table and held out her hand to the dog. It growled and flattened against the stone wall. She murmured to it in a low voice and it sniffed her carefully before sticking out its pink tongue and anointing her with its saliva. ‘We’ve never had a dog before.’
‘It’s not your dog,’ I pointed out. ‘It has a collar.’
They both glanced sideways at me and then ignored my comment. After a few moments the dog sidled over and took refuge in Hetta’s lap. Dahlia slid under the table and the two of them stroked the dog. She held up her hand and it was smudged with blood.
‘It’s hurt,’ she said.
Chloe walked out of the house carrying one of those thick books written by someone foreign. She was never without one of them tucked under her arm or held up to shade the sun. She was dressed in tight black trousers with a sheer blouse, a large stone at her throat and deep pink lipstick. She looked great, but not right for a bonfire party. It was something I’d noticed before: when they threw parties, she wore an outfit that was out of place. When I look back on it now, it must have been a rebellion against Val and his hordes of jovial friends. She bent over and looked under the table. She tossed the book on the ground and crawled under there with the twins, not caring about the knees of her tight black trousers.
The three Carter women huddled under the table with the little black dog for a long time. I lay on my stomach across the table and hung my head upside down to watch them. They looked so cozy under there, and happy, as if all they needed in the world was themselves and a table to huddle under.
Eventually the puppy forgot his recent trauma and began to frolic and roll onto his back. Chloe inspected the puppy’s wounds and shook her head. She crawled out from under the table and looked up at the sky. It looked the same, wispy clouds in a brilliant blue.
‘There’s the culprit,’ she said and pointed at the hawk circling above us.
‘It’s a hawk. This little guy was its dinner.’
We watched the bird circle above us. It made me dizzy to watch it. I imagined I was the puppy, caught in the hawk’s sharp talons, struggling in the sky, the trees and houses specks below me.
‘We can keep him, can’t we?’ Hetta asked.
‘He’s someone’s pet.’
Dahlia tilted her head back. ‘But the hawk could have come from anywhere.’
We all looked back at the sky as if it held the dog’s address.
‘We need to clean his wounds.’ Chloe examined his scraped paw and the cut on his mouth that made him look like a blood-sucking vampire dog, then she went into the house for some antiseptic.
We sat cross-legged in a circle with the puppy in the middle. The puppy sniffed a few times at his wounds, tried half-heartedly to lick them and then forgot about them. He loped around and climbed onto our legs and peed on Hetta’s shoe. She didn’t mind, she laughed and threw the shoe into the middle of the lawn.
‘We’ll name him Bird,’ Hetta declared.
‘You can’t name a dog Bird,’ I said.
Dahlia took Hetta’s hand in hers and they both looked at me. ‘His name is Bird,’ Dahlia said defiantly.
‘Where’s the collar?’ I asked.
The twins looked at each other and shrugged.
‘The collar with the bell?’
I pinched one of them on the arm and the other one grabbed her arm as if she were in pain. I fell in love – again. It happened often with those two. Each day I fell in love over and over. As an only child it seemed so perfect to get two instead of one. If only I could have predicted that the two great shames of my life would be connected to those twins.
‘You can’t tell anyone.’
‘Who the hell would I tell?’
Dahlia held out her clenched fist and dropped the collar and bell into the palm of my hand. I examined the bell. It had writing on it. Muffin. On the back was an address. I squinted at it, it sounded familiar.
‘Isn’t this where –’
Hetta grabbed the collar from me. ‘You can’t tell.’
Dahlia dug into the dirt in front of us with her nails, scraping at the leaves and soil. The puppy joined in and when she had a small hole, Hetta dropped in the collar. They piled the dirt back in and pounded it down with the heels of their hands and sprinkled leaves over the top.
‘Promise us,’ Dahlia said.
‘Jesus Christ, I promise.’
‘Seal it.’ Hetta grabbed my arm. ‘In honor of Bird.’
We all looked at each other.
‘Stick out your tongues,’ I ordered.
The twins stuck out their tongues at me. Goddamn it, even their tongues were the same. I leaned into the circle and we all touched tongues, waggling them around like tiny eels.
‘In honor of Bird,’ I said.
‘In honor of Bird,’ they repeated in unison and smiled happily.
The hawk circled above and later on I would recall this as one of those pure bliss moments that only comes along a few times in life.
Once I was introduced to those twins, I held every girl and woman I met up to their image. I wonder if this is what happens to pedophiles – they get stuck with their adolescent sexual desires and never grow beyond them, even though their bodies age and their hair falls out.
In my pubescent mind, I had it all figured out that I could have sex with both the twins. I saw no obstacle in this: first Dahlia – she was more adventurous – and then Hetta later, when she was ready. I would wait forever for her. She was the one I loved. Dahlia refused to see me after the death. I hung around their house, swinging on the tire under the oak tree or sitting on the edge of their lawn, tears bouncing down my cheeks. I could still cry then.
My guilt ate away at me. I never told anyone what I had said to Hetta before she ran in front of that truck. The only other person I’ve ever said I love you to was Dahlia, when she told me she was pregnant – and then I slapped her. I had never realized that the childhood memory of Hetta slapping me, after my first ever declaration of love, was so fresh in my mind after all those years.
And so attached to the words I love you.
That’s the first shame of my life and no one ever knew what happened that night. How can a boy tell someone that seconds after he confessed his love, the girl ran straight into the middle of the street and killed herself? They called it an accident. It wasn’t a goddamn accident. I killed her by uttering three words. She turned around and looked at me and darted straight into those two blinding headlights. Brakes howling, the driver screaming at her and the odor of burning rubber that I still smell in my dreams.
The night of Hetta’s death I sat on the grass, in the no man’s land, between my house and theirs. The crickets were loud, screeching, and I welcomed the noise, it helped to block out the replay of Hetta that reverberated in my mind. I watched her bedroom window and rocked back and forth without blinking. Dahlia’s guilt could only rival mine. She would blame herself for leaving Hetta alone with me. She would blame herself for the extra bond that opened between us when Hetta was sick. She would see herself as the ultimate murderer.
I must have fallen asleep because I was awakened by something in the garden. The night was lit by a perfect half-moon. The noise started again and I swept my eyes through the shadowed garden seeing nothing. Then I saw her. She was under the massive oak tree in their garden, doing something to the swings. I moved into a crouch position and crawled toward her so that if she did anything dangerous to herself, I would be there.
I saw from her ghostly glow that she was naked. It looked so natural in Chloe’s garden, as if it were grown for nudity. Even with the blow of Hetta’s death, I felt myself grow so hard that the urge to throw off my clothes and shove myself deep into Dahlia was nearly uncontrollable. But then I saw her methodically sawing the rope off the swing seats. Her skin shifted under the moonlight and I saw how vulnerable human bodies are. No thorns or fur or armor. Her skin was so thin I could nearly see her blood and bones. I wanted desperately to protect her.
When the second swing fell to the ground, she stood for a moment and then went to the tree and climbed it. She straddled the big branch that ran horizontal out from the trunk and began to chisel at it with a tool. She seemed to be digging a hole and when she finished, she plucked off some moss and shoved it into the hole. Then she swung her legs behind her and lowered herself down onto the tree limb, wrapping her arms around it. She didn’t cry or make a noise. She just lay there motionless. I stood and started toward her, but her naked vulnerability and distrust of my own primitive urges held me back, so I sat quietly and watched over her.
After an hour or so, she sat up and climbed back down and drifted over the lawn to the house and up to her room where she turned off the light. I know I shouldn’t have, but I did. I climbed her tree and pulled out the moss from inside the hole. Inside were two tiny stones. I held them up to the moon and could see through them. I put one back inside and took the other one. It felt as though I had a part of Hetta in my hand.
I meant to tell Dahlia next time I spoke to her. How was I to know it would be an eternity?
On the morning of Hetta’s funeral, I kept watch on Dahlia’s bedroom window and saw her move from one side to the other, pausing in the middle to gaze outside. I knew she would try to kill herself. I watched until there was no more movement in her room and I ran into the house. It was quiet inside, I don’t know where her parents were. I found her in Hetta’s room, in Hetta’s closet. She was held up by a belt and her face was purple. When I released her, her arms and legs convulsed like we did when we choked each other for fun, but this time her eyes did not open. They took her away to the hospital where no one could see her and that was my last visit with her, unconscious and nearly dead.
Chloe withdrew when Hetta died. Physically she was there, she removed the lacquer from the floor and repainted walls, but when I spoke to her, she looked through me, puzzled, as if I were something she had forgotten about and couldn’t quite remember. I’d see her staring at a fencepost or the door for an hour or so, no expression on her face, in a trance.
I tried to engage her by going to the library and checking out books with foreign names, anything French, Spanish or Russian. I left the books around her house to see if she would pick them up or start to read them, but she left them untouched.
I never regretted our affair. At the age of seventeen I was in love with all of them, all those Carter women in one way or another. Chloe was the leader of the pack at that time. Those twins adored her. When I first had sex with Chloe, it was as though I had sex with all of them at once, it was that powerful. As an adult, when I look back on the situation, it must have driven Chloe mad to see the twins growing up so beautiful and sexy, just as it will drive me mad when Lorna reaches puberty and all I want to do is protect her from boys like me.
After Hetta’s death, I turned into a monster fueled by whiskey and drugs, vicious to my own mother straight through to her death. She died four years later in a quick bout of cancer and I swore I would never leave the house. I vowed to live there forever, wishing I had been a better son, one who her made her tea with two sugars and milk, and took her glass bottles to the recycling plant when the box was full. Instead, I drank and smoked and whored, flaunting it all in her worn face while she was still alive.
This downhill spiral stopped when I saw Dahlia at Chloe’s funeral. She saved my life just as I saved hers so many years ago. I knew she would never say no if I proposed – she didn’t. Dahlia had changed, she never did go back to the girl I used to know before Hetta died. I guess I never went back either. It was a case of needing something so badly and then when I got it, it wasn’t at all what I had imagined.
I used to worry that Dahlia would run off again like she did before. I was so impressed that she could just make a decision, leave everything behind and start a new life. What an admirable talent. I wish I could do the same, but the guilt will never leave me, even if I run as far as Timbuktu.
I tried to love Dahlia and I think I had her fooled, but Hetta lived between us all those years. Hetta had been the glue that kept the three of us together, smoothing out arguments and laughing away our petty grievances. Hetta was the one I lived my life for and the one I saw in my future. Hetta was the one I loved. Dahlia always seemed so tight inside, as if she were going to split in two. The only way to tell them apart was to tease them. Dahlia would spit right back, but Hetta, she’d get a little flustered and sometimes she’d blush.
I don’t know why Hetta charged in front of that truck. I’ve replayed the scenario a million times in my head and in my nightmares. I hear the words from my lips – I love you. I feel the slap of her smooth hand on my cheek and I hear the sounds of her feet crushing the dry leaves as she runs out onto the road.
The other shame of my life is Lorna. Not Lorna herself, but her conception – Can a man rape his own wife? What I did to Dahlia because she wasn’t Hetta. She could never be Hetta. It’s because of Lorna that life righted itself, so it can’t be too bad, can it?
When Dahlia died in the earthquake I felt the guilt all over again. Every time I lay down in my bed, Hetta’s face in the headlights appeared before me. If I started to drift off, her slap would fling me out of my bed. If Madeline the nanny hadn’t been around, I don’t know how Lorna would have eaten or made it to school. She took charge of the household as though she had been preparing to her whole life. I see so much of the twins in Lorna that sometimes I feel they are living inside her.
Laureen Vonnegut is an American writer living between Romania and Mexico.
June 2011 her novel, TWIN LIES, was released by Skorpion Press. Her previous novel, OASIS, was launched in New York by literary press Counterpoint/ Perseus Books.
In the United States she has had over a dozen short stories published in five different states. In the UK, she has had a short story in the VIRAGO anthology: THE NERVE – BOOK OF WRITING WOMEN and two excerpts from her novel HANDS DO LIE. In addition to a short story in STAPLE magazine and a script, CROTCH PIT, published in EM3 magazine, she was shortlisted for the Ian St James Award.
Currently she is workshopping her theater play, THE PORCINI TEST.