Monday, 17 Jun 2019

On Bodies That Split

Rebecca Klein

Emma and I stand side-by-side in our shared bathroom, naked in front of the mirror. She has gained weight since I last saw her four months ago. Her hips are rounder, her face fuller.

“You look good, Em. Healthy,” I say.

Emma shrugs. “You’re too skinny. You look weak, look at your ribs and your chest. It’s gross,” she says back.

My eyes fall over the ridges in my sternum, the little indent that’s now visible. My ribs are crooked, the misalignment obvious without enough fat to hide it. Emma’s body is smooth and straight, a little round where her belly starts. She has no misalignment to cover.

“Don’t tell me I look gross,” I say to her.

“Even your face, it’s sunken in. Look at my cheeks compared to yours,” she remarks.

I am quiet for a moment; I scan the purple rings under my eyes, remembering the way my cheeks were not too long ago, full and hungry. My body has traveled a long way since then. Medication has taken away my appetite. When I stare at my sister’s reflection in the mirror, I don’t compare our bodies. Instead, I see myself. Her reflection is me and my reflection is her. Our faces are mirror images, and for a second I think back: we were four years old and I ran into a mirror while trying to hug her. I reach up and touch my forehead, remembering the concussion.

“I look just like you. Everyone says we look more alike now than we ever have,” I say.

Emma turns toward me, her face changing now that I am no longer staring at her reflection.

“We’re identical twins. People will always think we look alike,” she says.

I nod, still staring at the crooked indent at the top of my ribs. A few months ago the doctor told me it might have always been there. He said I probably only noticed it now without the extra weight. I didn’t believe him. There was pain radiating under my sternum, down my arms, and up into my neck. I could feel lumps growing under skin that bruised and scarred for no reason. Yet Emma looked and felt fine.

We were supposed to be as close to the same as two people could possibly be. Even our parents had trouble telling us apart at first–they painted Emma’s big toe red so that when they were confused all they had to do was pull off a sock. That was over twenty years ago. Our bodies were changing in other ways now, and this difference was new.

“I saw you like four months ago, Rebecca. What happened? What’s that little hole in your chest?” she asks me.

“I don’t know, it’s nothing,” I say back.

“You should get it checked out. Call the doctor tomorrow. It wasn’t there when you visited me at school.”

“I already went, he said it was nothing.”

“Then go see someone else!” I hear a quiet sadness in her voice, a sense of worry. She tries to hide it with annoyance—her sterile way of caring for me.

Turning, I notice a slight hunch in her shoulders. She’s been slouching like every other person in the world. I want to tell her it looks bad, that she looks lazy and that her body will pay for it in thirty years. I want to tell her that our spines will look different if she keeps slouching. I want to ask her if that’s what she wants. But I don’t say anything. I’ve said it before, and I know she spends a lot of time sitting and studying. She wants to become a doctor one day.

“I’m going to bed, make sure all the lights are turned off. Go eat something, please,” she says to me.

“I’m not hungry right now,” I tell her.

Emma shrugs and leaves the bathroom, which connects our two bedrooms. Her door closes with a click. Earlier today, when I picked her up from the airport, we were wearing the same outfit—a funny coincidence that happens nearly every time we are together. Upon seeing each other in baggage claim, we smiled and rolled our eyes, a silent of course we’re matching passing through us. Although we have never liked to match, it’s often inevitable. Everyone around us stopped to stare, and after four months without her I felt like myself again.

The feeling was startling yet expected. We have grown used to living far from each other, and I now don’t realize her absence until we are together. The feeling was a gentle reminder, though, of the first time we separated. We were sixteen and spending the summer apart, I in Northern Michigan at music camp and she in the North Cascades living on a glacier. I will never forget the moment I stepped on the airplane without her—­­it was my first time traveling away from her. My heart beat fast and heavy, as though I were sprinting with food in my stomach. A horrible feeling rippled over my skin and through my body, like the egg in our mother’s belly was splitting all over again. Except this time we weren’t a cluster of cells with the same DNA. We were two human beings with our own nerve endings and dependencies and intertwined lives. This was a deliberate and slow rip, and I cried heavy and silent tears that flight. I could barely breathe.

“Peanut butter! You should eat a lot of peanut butter,” she yells through the closed door.

“Tomorrow! I’ll eat a peanut butter sandwich. I promise,” I yell back.

I face the mirror again and press my thumb into the indent. It’s hard. I am pressing into bone. I close my eyes and press harder. I imagine melting the bone into something soft and malleable. I want to take my rib cage out of my body like a doctor and mold it with my hands like an artist, making it the right shape. I would let it dry and harden like clay and then put it back into place, the right place, when I was finished. It would no longer be a cage that trapped my nerves. It would no longer be another defect that my sister doesn’t share. I shake my head at the thought and open my eyes. I stare at my face. With no one to compare my reflection to, I see Emma staring back at me.

“Go to sleep! Turn off the light!” Emma yells again.

“Okay! Just a minute!” I yell back.

“I love you, goodnight!”

“Love you too, see you tomorrow!” There’s no real reason to yell; it’s just a door that separates us. But we are together again, and there is excitement that comes with being together.

I turn off the bathroom light and walk into my bedroom. The walls and carpet are two shades of bright orange, a ridiculous combination but Emma’s favorite color. Neither of us lives at home anymore, but we used to share this room, not long ago. Two identical twin beds stood next to each other in the middle of the room, mine on the left and hers on the right. I never slept in her bed, but I would lie with her at night before falling asleep. We would read together or talk or bounce a tennis ball on the wall in front of us for the other one to catch and toss back. There is an orange bookshelf now where our shared dresser used to be; it was large and held our clothes, which we never differentiated, folded neatly inside. My closet is messy now, overcrowded with clothing I don’t need. The waste makes me cringe. There are piles of sheet music and instruments stacked near the wall, in the spot her bed used to be. We needed space, we had said to our parents when we were sixteen. It was time, they had agreed.

Now my bed sits pressed against the wall by the corner window, which is open tonight. It is June and we are home for the summer from college. The air conditioner is broken, but I don’t mind; it’s not too hot yet. Soon it will be, though. The air will turn heavy and there will be no breeze. The summer before we left for our first year of college, when the air conditioner last broke, Emma and I fled to the mountains, all the way to New Hampshire. We grew up hiking along the Appalachian Trail together, and it’s a sort of refuge for us now, a constellation of places we can go when we need to get away. One morning in July we had agreed it was hot, much too hot to stay in one place. We checked the weather forecast, as if it meant anything, and threw our gear in the Subaru. We didn’t even have to say where we were going. It was instinct—we would drive north until we reached the mountains.

My body was stronger then, and the weight on my back didn’t bother me. We spent a week sleeping next to each other in a small tent, letting tree roots coil in our shoulders while we lay awake talking about how incredible it was to be on our own. Pain was temporary then; my sore body would burn and then relax without pills or injections. We were aching together, our thighs swollen with lactic acid and our toes red with blisters. All we needed was a little coaxing to wake up in the morning, to stretch our calves against a tree, to rub our noses with sunscreen. Pain is good, we said, as long as someone else is there. Pain means we have used our bodies; pain means we have accomplished something great. In the mountains we needed each other. We would never go into the mountains alone, we agreed, but college would be different. There would be pain, we knew, but it would be the kind of pain that spurred growth. In the fall we would head to schools five-hundred miles apart, and this we knew was for the best.

We wanted distance and true independence—that first summer we spent apart, two years prior, had turned into the best summer of my life. My sick panic on the airplane to Michigan had subsided and then morphed into excitement with the first friend I made on my own. I soon realized I didn’t need Emma by my side. We have now grown up as we have grown apart, and our split, once partial and mended with phone calls and texts, is now more permanent. Though I still have to look twice at windows that hold my passing reflection, there is less of something missing when she is not by my side.

Tonight I put on my pajamas and lie in bed, in a room all to myself, and I could be anywhere in the world. My body aches, but I resist the temptation to press against my ribs. It will only make it worse, I know, so I rub my temples instead. Sweat dots my forehead; it is hotter tonight than I thought, and I toss my blanket to the floor. I want the air conditioner to be fixed. I want to pack up the Subaru and run away to the mountains. I want to sleep in a tent next to my sister, curled up in a sleeping bag wet with morning dew. I want Emma to become a doctor one day. I want her to find a cure for the pain that twists inside of me. I want her to fix my body. I want to ask her if she’d be afraid to see me in the operating room, to open my lifeless body with a scalpel, to peer inside my chest and see my nerves and organs and blood vessels all swollen with pain.

“Would you try, Emma? Would you try to fix me?” I whisper.

I want to throw a tennis ball at the wall in front of me, the wall that separates our bedrooms. But Emma is surely sleeping by now, and I don’t want to wake her.

Rebecca Klein is a student at Oberlin College and Conservatory studying Guitar Performance and Creative Writing with a minor in Anthropology. At Oberlin, she has worked as both a Writing Associate and Student Accessibility Advocate. She is passionate about nonfiction storytelling, disability advocacy, and merging creative mediums.