Saturday, April 19, 2014

Uncle.

I love to write short-stories, the darker the better. The aspects of ourselves that we try so desperately to hide from others are what interest me the most, with the frailties and the secrets that are just under the surface of our "Hail fellow, well met" world pulling me in. 

Here is a short-story I wrote a few years ago. It was long-listed for the 2011 Vanderbilt-Exile Short Fiction Award.
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UNCLE

There are few worlds smaller for two people to be stuffed into than the one shared by twins. From conception on you are given the keys to a tiny space, a cosy place, scarcely bigger than two fists. Ruefully you remember how often you balked at that space, attempting time and again to shrug off Jillie’s suffocating hold and find some footing on your own (and no one can deny that she did hold on too tight). In recent years the space had felt even smaller, true, it had become tighter, more cramped, with feet accidentally stepped on and elbows shoved in awkward places. But still cosy at least some of the time, still fine, still with enough oxygen for two as long as each person paced their breath. What you did not anticipate, what you never could have expected, is that it would be Jillie (Jillie!) who would finally refuse to share.

Ever since you can remember, Jillie was the weaker one, the twin who would give up on games or contests whenever the going got tough. Whether it was Snakes and Ladders, hopscotch, or later on, grabbing the attention of a coveted boy, Jillie would often walk away in the middle of the competition, not willing to stick it out until the end. Despite knowing that your twin typically forfeited any game, despite expecting it, each time she simply gave up you felt furious. Why did she have to act this way? Why couldn’t she actually let there be a true winner for once? After all, who wants to keep winning by default only?

As you got older, you began to suspect that Jillie’s tendency to give up early was less about caring which twin won or lost and more about trying to protect your sameness at all costs. While you kept coming up with contest after contest to try and showcase your differences to the world, Jillie would make sure to bow out before a true winner or loser could be declared, as what points to being different more than having one person end up on top, with the other underneath?

Knowing that Jillie could always be counted on to say uncle before things got out of control meant something else, too. It meant that you could let your reckless, wild side run unchecked, with nothing off-limits. Convince Jillie that you both compete in a strip-poker game with the boys’ floor on a Saturday night in the dorm? Check. Agree to go against each other for round after round of tequila shots? Check. Anything and everything was a possibility, as long as there was Jillie to step on the brakes.

Put in that context, who could blame you for the whole dieting thing? After all, it was just meant to be one more attempt of yours to show the world that you and Jillie actually weren’t the same person residing in two identical bodies. Having gained at least two thirds of the dreaded Freshman Fifteen during your first semester at university, you made it your New Year’s resolution to start January right by losing weight, a decision you announced during a floor meeting over giant bottles of Mountain Dew and boxes of double cheese pizza. A new year, a new you! A few of the other girls nodded their heads at the idea, but it was only your roommate who actually put her piece of pizza down and tossed her own hat into the ring. Unfortunately for you, your roommate was Jillie, the mirror image you were so desperately trying to distinguish yourself from, if only by losing the donut that had started to grow around your middle. And so it began.

The diet started innocently enough. After spending an entire afternoon reading up on nutrition, vitamins, and the food pyramid, you decided to draw up a meal plan for you and Jillie to follow. The plan was well-rounded and included the right portions of grains, fruits, proteins, and vegetables, with even a daily allowance made for a small treat. Less fried foods, more salads. Less take-out and more stir-fries from the wok lady in the cafeteria. You were so proud of the plan that you had it laminated and then stuck it to the bulletin board above your bed.

For the first two weeks Jillie dutifully followed you each morning into the cafeteria and poured a bowl of dry, high fibre cereal identical to yours from the cereal station, before also grabbing a piece of fruit and a small carton of milk. As always, you waited until Jillie had sat down before grabbing a chair yourself, making sure to sit at the same table but always with a few friends in between you. You weren’t clones, after all!

After the third week, something changed, but not in the way you expected. While it was true that Jillie stopped following your carefully laminated diet, it was not in order to go back to scarfing down pancakes or Pop-Tarts each morning. No. Instead, she beat you at your own game, filling her tray with one small orange and one black coffee, but nothing else. No Shreddies, no Raisin Bran, no small carton of milk, nothing with any heft to it at all. And for lunch it was more of the same. Rather than order a well-balanced veggies and cheese sandwich on multigrain bread from the sandwich lady, she ordered one piece of rye toast, unbuttered, and another small black coffee. Where were the fruits and vegetables? Where were the sources of protein? And why was Jillie so hell-bent on losing weight when it was your damn idea in the first place? You tried to ignore your sister as she picked apart her measly slice of toast and scattered the crumbs around her plate, concentrating instead on the fact that you knew what you were doing, that extreme diets didn’t work, and that it was gradual change in the long term that made the difference. As Jillie held her mug of black coffee but didn’t so much as sip it, you took a giant bite of your sandwich in defiance. The food pyramid! The food pyramid, dammit!

Looking back, you don’t remember when exactly Jillie stopped following you down to the cafeteria for meals, you just know that she did. One day she was there, a few steps behind (always a few steps behind), and the next day she was not. When a few of your friends commented on her absence, you felt that familiar wave of irritation lap at you. Why did people always ask you about Jillie’s whereabouts? Why were you expected to be your sister’s keeper? After a few days of being a no-show, however, everyone stopped asking. Mid-terms were coming, so it became assumed that Jillie was just doing what many other over-conscientious students did, eating whatever she could on the sly, for fear that she would fall behind in her studying if she took actual breaks for meals.

Except that as far as you knew, she wasn’t. She wasn’t eating on the sly, unless drinking paper cup after paper cup of lukewarm black coffee from the dorm machine or nibbling on handfuls of Arrowroot Cookies like some overgrown baby counted. As January became February, you were pleased with the six pounds you had managed to lose by sensible eating and decided to splurge on frozen yoghurt sundaes with friends to celebrate. You didn’t bother inviting Jillie to come with you. By this point she refused to go anywhere with anyone, unless it was to attend her classes, and even those your teacher’s pet sister had begun skipping. When Reading Week veered its welcomed head, she refused to join you on a road-trip with some floor-mates to spend a few days in Montreal, insisting instead on remaining at the dorm in order to catch up on a few essays.

You returned from your trip actually eager to get back to your dorm room to share all of your experiences with Jillie. You hadn’t felt like this for a while, you hadn’t had a chance too. In the past, Jillie had held so closely onto your shadow that she never gave you time to miss her. Except this time you did. You missed her and it was a good feeling. It didn’t take long for your happy bubble to burst, however. Probably within thirty seconds of opening your door and stepping into the room. There your sister sat at her desk, a textbook lying open in front of her. While this was all typical, what was not typical was what she was doing. As you stood by the door, you watched as your sister silently ran her fingers through her hair and pulled out handful after handful of the stuff. Golden-brown threads, so much like your own but a bit longer, coming out of her scalp with no more effort than blades of grass pulled from the dirt. Jillie shook the strands free from her fingers and dumped them in the middle of her desk, before resuming the task once more. In front of her was a not-insignificant nest of hair, enough for a robin to lay her eggs in.

“Jillie? What the hell?” you finally asked, taking a few steps forward. It was only then that you realized how much hair your sister actually had lost, her shiny-pink scalp now visible all over her head. You put a hand to your own thick hair, and the difference made you panic.

At the sound of your voice, Jillie stopped the self-grooming. She moved her fingers away from her head and swept the collected hair into her palm, before dumping its contents into a waste basket. Clean-up done, she turned her attention to her textbook.

“Jillie? Have you lost it or something? What’s going on?”

She turned her head to look at you with your very own blue eyes. “Lost it? What do you mean?”

“Lost it, gone crazy, wacko, totally insane.” You noticed that your own fingers were now tugging at your head of hair and you pulled them away.

Jillie blinked at you, that familiar blink. “You mean the hair?” She shrugged. “I guess I’ve been stressed by exams and assignments, especially that one for Biology. Stress can cause hair loss.”

You looked at your twin, now ever-so-slightly not identical to you, with her shedding hair and what you noticed with growing alarm was her much skinnier frame, and you decided to shove down the doubt and to take her explanation at face value. And so you did, you took it, so shiny and polished, and offered it up to anyone who stopped you in the hall in the days to come.

“Is Jillie okay?’ they asked, eyes wide with concern. “Is she like…sick or something?”

You smiled politely to each and every one of them and shared the explanation. “She’s fine. It’s just stress.”

Just stress, you told your mother over the phone when she asked for the tenth time why your sister refused to return her calls or even send her an email. Just stress, you told Jillie’s boyfriend of three years when he drove all the way from your hometown one night and started banging on your dorm room door, demanding to see your twin in person. Just stress, you told yourself as you sat in each of her exams for her, attempting your best Jillie impersonation, all the while aware that in so doing you had just broken the one promise you had made to yourself years ago. You were not Jillie, you would never be Jillie. But it was all just stress, and stress would pass.

It was the last week of term and you found yourself sitting in front of your now skeletal sister, a box of donuts balanced on your lap. You grabbed a Walnut Crunch, Jillie’s favourite, and took a huge bite.

“Hmmm, this is delicious! Do you want one?” You held out the box to her, you held out all of you for her to grab onto, but she stuffed her hands into her oversized hoodie and shook her head.

“Just one?” you pleaded, pushing the box even closer. “Even just a bite?”

“No.”

“Jillie, you won, okay? You won. Enough already!”

Your twin looked up, her cheekbones smiling sharply at you but her eyes vacant. “Won? Won what?”

“You know, the weight loss thing. The diet. You were better at it than I was, okay? So you won. So fine. You can start eating, okay?”

Jillie stared at you, then grabbed a donut. You felt something in you loosen as she took a bite, then another. You felt something in you tighten once more as she stuffed almost an entire donut in her mouth at once, then reached for one more. Within a matter of minutes she had eaten half the box.

You again reached out to her, but she was already gone, running down the hallway to the bathroom as fast as her skinny legs could take her.

The summer was spent staying as far away from home as possible, as home had become a battleground. On one side was your sister, seemingly so fragile with her bird-bones, yet suddenly such a fierce competitor. On the other side stood your parents, bewildered and frightened by the child they no longer knew, thrown into a war that they would have never chosen. While you found yourself allying with your parents in their desire for Jillie to eat already, dammit, just eat, feeling your sister’s accusing gaze baring down on you at mealtime was just too much to take. So you spent more and more time with your high school friends, the ones who knew you from before, when you were part of Jillie-and-Jacqueline. While it was true that just a few months ago having people identify you as one half of a whole would have made you cringe, now you craved it. And, as June became July and July gave way to August, you found yourself time and again looking through the photo album from your early childhood, the one filled with pictures in which you couldn’t tell who was who, you and your sister being so indistinguishable.

It was September and you were both back at university, Jillie insisting on enrolling in her second year despite her increasingly emaciated appearance. You were roommates again, but this time you were living in a new residence. To your disbelief, everyone on your floor could instantly tell the two of you apart. Perhaps even more disorienting, it seemed that many of your new dorm-mates could not believe that you were sisters, let alone identical twins.

“Yes,” you found yourself repeating ad nauseam. “We are twins.”

In the early weeks of classes you found yourself willingly donning the role of your sister’s caretaker. You brought her Styrofoam bowls filled with clear broth from the cafeteria, a few packets of butter snuck into the liquid before Jillie drunk it. You sat next to her as she nibbled her Arrowroot Cookies, feeling a sense of relief at each half-biscuit consumed. You nagged at her to shower, you gently pinned up what was left of her hair into a somewhat stylish bun. And when she let you, you took her hand in your own, to try and still the trembling.

If you had your way, this was how it would be for the rest of the term, perhaps this was how it would be forever. Jillie straddling the line between existence and not, but at least never toppling over, with your ever-vigilant self by her side. But this wasn’t how life worked, this wasn’t how it was meant to be. And, as you lay in your bunk at night just listening (always just listening) for your sister’s next breath, you knew that neither of you could stay in this no-man’s land for much longer. It was a place meant for brief respite, not for permanent residency.

And then that day came, that day when Jillie went to a second year Biology class and fainted out of her chair and ended up in hospital. The first of many hospitalizations, it would turn out, as the years passed and you finished your Bachelor’s degree on your own and eventually found solace in your marriage (a new twin-ship, except with more room to breathe). And while you would continue to visit your sister, to stay in touch with your sister, you would remain aware that the world you once shared as two could no longer exist, as she has become locked in a competition in which a winner and a loser could never be declared. Stalemate.      

             



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