matching sets, new dolls, and abel and cain
When I was five, I used to cover my face with my hands in the shower and wonder if I could drown in the water that collected in my palms. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to die— it was a matter of progression, of moving onto the next thing. If I was even able to die from it. How long it would take my people to notice that I never left the bathroom. How I would finally be able to figure out what happened in the afterlife. Then, after I thought about it long enough to get bored with it, I would shrug and go back to playing Interview, which was where I pretended to be a reporter and could report on whatever I felt like reporting. It was best to play it in the shower because nobody could hear you talking to yourself and you were already standing most of the time, so all you needed was a microphone. My personal preference was Biblical events— Noah’s Ark, Lot’s wife, the Resurrection but never the Crucifixion. I was a child and nothing ever happened except for in books or on the news, and there was always a Bible around. Breaking news, Daniel has survived a pit of lions. More at 11.
I could be in a motel. I could be at someone’s house. I could be in the stall of a campground’s showers. Wherever I was, my sibling came with me— we traveled as a set in the same way that so many young children do, living salt and pepper shakers. And whenever I put my hands over my face in a parody of drowning, they would come and hammer on the door and tell me to hurry up. Like they had a second sense for it. Like they knew what I was doing.
They caught me at it once before I switched to playing Interview. We were in a shitty motel located somewhere in the eastern Columbia Plateau and I had snuck a plastic bag into the bathroom to fill with water, to see if I could hold my breath on penalty of death. I was too young to be allowed to lock the door, so when they barged in because I was taking too long, they growled— a growl! I had never heard a sound like it from a living human and I doubt I ever will again— and pulled my hands from my face.
“What the fuck are you doing?” they hissed. It was real quiet— the angry kind of quiet, hot and small like a low blue flame. They were eight years old and really into using ‘fuck’ as often as they used punctuation.
“I’m just going under water,” I had said, naked and ashamed like Eve in the garden, knowing she just did something she wasn’t supposed to.
“That can fucking kill you, you know. You could fucking die.” Their eyes were almost black.
“But I wasn’t gonna die. I’m not dumb.”
“If you weren’t fucking dumb then you wouldn’t have fucking done it!” They pulled the plastic bag out of my hands. I hadn’t finished rinsing my hair. Soap was getting into my eyes.
“But I wasn’t gonna die.”
They stood there, long sleeves wet up to their elbows, one foot in the bathtub and half a head of wet hair, flushed with anger. “But you could’ve. And I don’t want you going anywhere I can’t. Fucking promise me you won’t.” It wasn’t a question. “Promise.”
“Fine,” I said.
“Fuckin’ fine,” they said, and that was that. And I still haven’t broken that promise— it just got washed out like shampoo. It just got a bit faded.
Christmas, 2013— I was eight, they were eleven. Molly, the World War II American Girl Doll, came neatly wrapped in a layer of foil-coated paper over the plastic packaging with tidy braids and glasses and a plaid sweater— a brand new doll, which was absolutely vital because it meant, in a misguided, childish way, that my parents loved me more than my sibling.
My sibling had an American Girl Doll too (Felicity), but she was a hand-me-down from a family friend and had the eyelashes on one eye cut off, so you had to close it manually. American Girls have never been cheap, something I was always aware of even though I couldn’t really wrap my head around poverty at that age, and so it was a clear sign to both of us that I was the favorite. And my sibling resented me for it.
The funny thing is that even though I loved Molly with all my heart, I thought Felicity was the prettier one, even with her hack job lashes. She was a ginger— this immediately made her the cooler doll in my mind. They didn’t care about that, though. They cared that our parents shelled out approximately a hundred dollars for one of my presents, even though we had just gotten off food stamps and my mother was out of work and the landlords were cutting us slack on the rent because they didn’t want to kick us out. I was too little to understand. All I knew is that I had an expensive doll and my sibling didn’t, and that made them mad because our parents rarely spent money on things like that but they did for me.
Maybe it would’ve been less messy if our dynamic had been different. Tragically, the cycle of competition isn’t easy for a 7 year old and an 11 year old to see— much less break— and so the dolls doomed us to the merry-go-round. One of us always had to be the better one, and Molly put me a hundred bucks ahead, something that made it almost impossible for them to ever take the lead.
I wasn’t even mad when they cut off some of my hair or broke my nose or carved an ‘X’ into the skin of my flat chest or pushed me onto the ground so hard I got a concussion and a black eye. None of that mattered— I had a new doll to lick my wounds, and they didn’t. Besides, there was no bruise that went unreturned between us.
It was always competitive between us. It was household knowledge who had better grades and who looked prettier and who had more people ask them out and who had more friends, not because we wanted to be reminded, but more because our mother wouldn’t stop reminding us. Human nature is something that enjoys competition, but not to that degree. Especially when you’re both children who just want Mama to love them. We figured out a system, though— they would stick to what they were good at, and I would stick to what I was good at, and hopefully we would both just get praised for the good things and have our faults ignored. Nothing has ever worked that way, tragically, but it was good enough for us, so everything fell in line to the polarity in our relationship.
Here lies the dichotomy. They drew and I wrote so whatever art we had couldn’t be compared; they were the pretty one, I was the smart one; they’re the moon and dark and insane and yin and Snow White and dogs and red and emotional and pepper and whatever, I’m the sun and light and sane and yang and Rose Red and cats and blue and logical and salt and etcetera. We look like opposites, too. Nobody ever thinks we’re siblings unless we tell them or unless they know one of us very well, well enough to pick out the habits of each other that we’ve picked up.
It’s always been like this. It’s always going to be like this. Our mother could be dead and buried for decades, and we would still be twin primes, orbiting around each other and waiting for a new contest.
They came home for a day last week and we went out to a busier neighborhood to dig through the shops over there. I was only halfway to myself that day. Nobody could tell because I’ve gotten real good at not showing anything— in our endless dance, I was the sane one and they were the crazy one, which means that I had to get good at not showing to keep the balance. But there we were, moving through the city, and I was floating four feet behind our bodies like a deflating balloon. I don’t mind it. You see a surprising amount of things when you’re not looking with your eyes.
You know, there’s hardly any familiarity that shows up between us to the casual viewer. There’s a hint of relation if you look for it, hidden in the jawline and the narrowness and the strut, but most people don’t look and therefore don’t see us as an us. We avoid touching, our sentence structures are entirely different, our discussion is superficial. How could anyone tell? Halfway to despair, I realize we’ve diverged— the orbit has faded into nothing, like we’ve been surgically separated. I indulge in the beat of mania that comes with the knowledge that if we’ve come apart, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever been truly alone, and it’s heavier than a physical object could ever be— so heavy I’m almost crushed, but I keep drifting after myself.
But there, then, is a flash of the knowing, the sameness we once shared— a look is exchanged. Do you remember what it was like? Do you remember what they did to you? Do you remember the motels and the open wounds and the festering? Do you remember how I was the only one who believed you? Do you know that nobody will ever understand except for me?— and then it’s gone, and we’re back to being acquaintances.
I guess we’re both good at hiding things— much better than I thought. The neverending line is still between us. It’s just buried so people don’t pull on it. So we don’t get bothered. But it’s still there, and there’s an entire world in knowing that it’s still there.
“Cherry, Cherry, so contrary,” they say, laying on my bedroom floor. They’re only in the city because they have an ultrasound for their endometriosis early tomorrow morning. They’re only on my floor because it used to be their floor and because I’m in my (our) room and I’m (we’re) bored. I don’t know where my (our) parents are, but that’s par for the course.
“I don’t think it’s contrary to say that the makeup industry wants you to feel ugly so you’ll keep buying their products,” I say. I’m throwing whatever’s on the floor into a laundry basket. Some of it is definitely clean, but the floor is enough of a biohazard to warrant a wash.
They stretch their hands across the laminate in some aborted feline gesture. “Well, everyone else disagrees with you so it’s technically contrary. Don’t you know? It’s hashtag empowering.” Nose wrinkling, they withdraw. “Why the hell is your floor so sticky right there?”
“Don’t worry about it.” It could be anything from hair gel to a bodily fluid that never got washed off. I try not to think about it.
“Rotted,” they say, rolling over onto the pile of blankets that constitutes my bed. “And you don’t even have a mattress.”
“And I don’t even have a mattress.”
“Cherry, Cherry, not a lady,” they sing-song to me. Cherry— they started calling me Cherry when I went ginger at age 13, short for Cherry Cola and you will never do anything that I haven’t already done, you will never be anything that I haven’t already been, you will always be the shiny new baby when I am around, you will never escape the shadow and the context that I have left behind.
Fully inside the nook my bed is in, they flick through the various odds and ends I have hidden behind my amp— pens, an assortment of cords, a rosary, a roll of tape, whatever books I’m halfway through.
“Bible, Bible pamphlets, East of Eden… I’m sensing a theme,” they say. The place where I am sleeping used to be the place where they slept. It’s creating some sort of temporal discord in me.
“What, sororicide?” I don’t know when I’ve ever used this many socks, but there seems to be enough to clothe an army on the floor.
“Sure. We can do Abel and Cain. Ooh, a Black Opium sample,” they say, holding up the transparent tube.
“I think we both know I’m Cain in this situation,” I say. They’ve got my second favorite pocket knife in hand— not opening it, but just rolling it between their hands, looking at it. I cut open my thumb with it once while trying to whittle a stick down. It probably would’ve benefitted from stitches but I superglued it shut and called it quits. My own special mark of Cain, I guess.
“I tried to kill you multiple times,” they say. “I slammed your head in the car door and I held your head under the ocean and I pushed you out of trees. I think that makes me Cain. You did nothing but bear it, and I hated you for it.”
I think for a beat. “No. No, I tried to kill you a couple times, too. Remember? With the knife first, then the tooth thing and then that 2 x 4 with the nail in it.”
“Oh yeah,” they say. “I guess we’re both Cain, then.”
“Cool. Let’s kill each other and go fuck ourselves over forever and ever,” I say, and we both laugh— at them with a pocketknife in hand, at me holding broken scissors pointy side out, at the notion of murdering each other itself.
Foolish of us to have even thought. How could either of us go somewhere without the other on their heels?