I wake up almost expecting a hangover which is not surprising because the only other time I had got knocked out like this was when I had downed the smuggled Double Black .I cannot believe I actually thought of that absolutely blasphemous analogy. But the sermon had been boring! I can be forgiven for sleeping through it, can’t I? The vacant look of most of the other members of the congregation and my good mother’s nodding head makes me feel sufficiently redeemed.
The Reverend has outdone even his own benchmark of boredom this eighth of March. The tripe talk about submission, obedience, and discipline has disappointed even my orthodox mother.
“’Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come’”, Mother quotes, quite unnecessarily, on our drive home and adds; “forbearance, endurance and such, are not these virtues too?” Mother sighs then gives me her usual beaming compliment,” you drive exactly like a man.”
The remark has its customary effect; it sings and burns me as if mother had smacked me with a wet towel. I switch gears without a remark.
“There”, mother continues,” only dad could switch gears like that. My grandfather used to say that the footwork is what differentiates the man from the woman.”
Grandfather is no better than the Reverend, then!
Like most times I abstain from remarking anything; patriarchy, to me, who, at sixteen has mastered the art of driving like a man, is not the immediate roaring issue. I’m on the lookout for a stray policeman stopping us and booking charges for underage driving. Not a possibility; policemen rarely patrol these streets (precisely the reason we are on it) and extraordinarily tall for my age, I, definitely don’t look anything like sixteen.
What is sixteen? Only a number. Like other numbers, four for example or ten or fifteen; numbers like questions leading to other questions – many and infinite.
I slip the car smoothly into the garage. Mother climbs out, her saree, I find in mute admiration, is still immaculate and unwrinkled despite hours of sitting. I can never keep mine that way. My cotton trousers and the purple kurti are nothing like their morning iron board stiffness.
The house is the same yawning emptiness even though it’s almost a year now. I realise with a sinking despair it will always be that – a yawning emptiness. No amount of prayer, and hearing Sunday masses, that only rub in the truth, will ever restore its earlier fullness.
Houses like this, occupied, as they are, by two people, cannot be expected to make you feel packed and full. Full houses required father, whom I had never known, and my brother I had always known.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Yet God, in my opinion, had been somewhat unfair, having as He did, a penchant for the souls of the men of my family because grandfather, who was more fun, died faster than grandma who continues to hound us when she makes her dreaded visits.
I must change into my home clothes; I’m glad mother will not serve dinner otherwise. She is fussy like that especially after my younger twin collapsed one morning in the kitchen, bleeding into a slow death .I slip on his t-shirt. It is looser than ever. My twin brother, born a few minutes after me, had always been the bigger one. Knowing, perhaps, what little time he had, he crammed the last years of his life with all the food he could find. And later all the booze he purloined from the liquor cabinet. Was it the drink that got him in the end? I don’t think so. I have been dousing myself with them these past few years; I have not even managed a headache, forget death. I fling my kurti into the laundry basket. It does not need a wash. I hope the washing machine will soften the fabric; the rough cotton causes my skin to itch.
This room, supposed to be ours, continues to be his. I have never thought of it as mine. Mother, with her fixation for clearing out the dead (grandma insists she got dad’s stuff out of the house faster than the day’s garbage), has not insisted I empty out his things. Emptying the room would be losing fifteen years of us.
The walls are shelves he and I made with the wood we had got from our timber mills. Not a bit of the wood is visible behind the stacks of book scattered in no particular order. I , with my passion for library sciences , had plans to help arrange it this summer .If not mother with her pet peeve for the “unnecessary” is bound to cast it out. Torn copies of Das Capital lie open in the different stacks. I pull out our copy of Twelfth Night and stare at the list of the dramatis personae remembering all our role play: Sebastian and Viola. With my Sebastian gone I don’t know if I can play Viola again. Nor can I play all the games I’m too old to play anyway: the matchbox -tram he and I pushed all around the house under mother’s long sticks, the ones with which mother deftly hoisted her wet clothes to dry inside the house on rainy days; the book cricket he always beat me at unlike the soccer games I always won. Except for his shoes and the extra large pants I can pretty much fit into all his things. After he died I’m yet to know how to wrap my soul.
A sob rises in my throat. It gags me. But I will not cry.
“’Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’”.
I look around the room there are only the many things of his here to comfort me. Can I ever make a claim to them alone? Can these things fill all that vacuum fissuring like tectonic plates within me? I don’t know. Soon I will cave in and fall within the dark chasm searching, looking for him; looking for us. Like I have been seeking this past year.
What is sixteen? Only a number like other numbers -four for example:
“We are not twins,” he had giggled.
“Of course we are,” I had insisted, twisting my face by scrunching up my nose. I still did not seem to look anything like him. Then I knew why. I jumped off the precarious stool and ran up the stairs. He, always ready for any mischief I might lead him into, rushed after me
We could sniff each other’s thoughts like smoking ghee and caramelising sugar. He knew where I was headed. We took down mother’s knitting basket from where it stood. After that it was all a lot of fun till mother returned from the mill to find long hair spilling out of her knitting basket as though waiting for her to spin them into memories, thick and luscious, which I could have held on to after I turned fifteen .
What is fifteen? Only a number like other numbers- seven for example:
I never grew my hair after that though grandma insisted I must; because otherwise, she argued in her whiny voice, I would look exactly like my twin brother. Wouldn’t that trouble me? Not at all! To prove which I did exactly that; got to look more and more like him.
Imagine grandmother’s horror when she took “him”, her preferred grandson, shopping, dressed up in the new pair of jeans she had got him for his seventh birthday leaving behind a “she”, dressed in a fluffy pink dress which had not prickled at all, only to find the he was a she, and the her at home was the grandson, because grandsons in shopping malls don’t go rushing into ladies’ washroom when they must pee.
I do not like ten because that’s when he grew fat causing mother to get him bigger pants into which I could not fit. A chronically poor eater, I could never compete with that.
Size, when you are identical, does not matter especially the many ways I was willing to compensate for not expanding like him. So we invited only the boys, and not the girls he abhorred, for our soccer games. His friends did not mind playing with me because I was faster than all of them and practically ambidextrous at ten.
Ambidextrous at ten: the ability to use, in this case, your right and left foot while playing football.
Ambidextrous at sixteen: the inability to live without your twin.
Fifteen. We could feel our thoughts like thorns and roses: the ache of mother who would not speak about father and a reminiscing grandma who will restore memories like the refreshing of flowers, letting them turn red and grim like death.
Was that when he smuggled up mother’s scotch wanting to share mother’s desire to forget and hide her secreted grief
Was that when I took to it too, needing to match him shot for shot?
We could feel our thoughts like thorns and roses: the surging blood rising red and raging into his panicking brain, shattering it with that stabbing pain that caused him to first haplessly hold on to the countertop, then slip and fall on to the floor gasping for water, leaving the bulls eye he always cooked on both sides undone and raw on the other side – raw, like loss.
I can feel his pain. It cramps me like it cramped him, rendering me immobile as though I’m caught in a prison made of thorns. After the blood and the piercing pain there is only futility, insurmountable; and the quest that seems interminable and long.
At sixteen there are questions that spin dizzying curves baffling me with incomplete circles of grief and loss.
I can ask mother, who has placed my meagre meal at my place opposite hers at our long dining table where she sits patiently, having perhaps downed her second scotch.
I do not. Neither do I, who am taken by surprise, touch the scotch she has poured for me. I finish my meal watching mother write in her gratitude journal. Mother is the kind of person who feels gratitude for everything.
The sink has to be plugged and unplugged to clean the few dishes.
I ask mother, rather sourly, what she is so thankful for. She pushes the journal to me. I’m taken aback a second time. She rarely discloses the contents of this journal.
The date reads, “8th March…
“You walk into the dining room. The long table will no longer serve feasts nor give you the succour you look for. You will not be held and rocked with the knowledge another, flesh of your flesh, shares your loss more complex in ways you refuse to accept like the proffered scotch you had been smuggling. You have understood, perhaps, that it does not ease your pain but leaves you cold and shivering despite the initial warmth it burns you with.
Trust in the lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.’
But your understanding is now a vacuum without him you leaned on, for all your every days: to walk, to talk and to sit stiffly like you do now leaving your food untouched. You had been content and complete living, as you did, in his shadow: wearing his clothes, playing his games, reading his books and driving like him, your mirror.
Reflections can lie. Yet you believed it as truth and did what you could get closest to doing at four.
What is four? Not a mere number. It is the time you looked into the mirror seeking him, causing wrath to bubble into actions that screamed with protest.
Protest . Like the hair you wore short and pixyish because grandmother would not get you the pants you wanted, only the pinks you abhorred and burnt to cinders –grey and dull, your favourite colour.
Like other favourites- Twelfth Night for example; or football. So clever with the ball that the boys never imagined a girl could play it better than them; not for long. For the chasms soon grew wider and wider bringing with them the slow dawning that the shadow was never to be the shelf.
Ten followed by eleven; the terrible years you will never forgive yourself for. A hunger less eating; food not for sustenance but to fill that bottomless pit, otherwise, you were sure, you would fall into abysses from whose pits you can never return. Then the obsession over a body you could not understand. The abyss, far from filling grew deeper; new worries conflating the old in the form of a body that would not stop bloating. In this case, however, unlike the other, there was a way out. Starvation. Anorexia. You thought you had found the answers.
More numbers. Twelve. Thirteen. Hope gleamed like spots of white and bright blue on a full moon night .You clung on fervently praying.
‘What is impossible with men is possible with God.’
Only a miracle can bring forth what you desired and desired. More prayer. More fasting. Every season turned into Lent; the resurrection, you were hoping for, would happen, you were sure. Two more years; you thought your prayers were being heard. You thought you could soon end your self-imposed charade; the shadow would before long become the self. You imagined you had achieved the impossible though there were changes that pointed out otherwise. You would not believe the alterations but took to driving, as illegal then as it is now, to prove your hopes were not for nothing.
Then it inevitably came, crushing you with its blood and its pain turning you into a person sour and angry.
Fifteen, the year you lost the battle. After which there has only been bitterness and desolation. There are also new favourites now: reckless drinking and the more restrained driving .If only you can manoeuvre everything like the way you handle the car?
Did you think none will understand your struggle battling as you have done; chopping off your hair, burning the clichéd pinks, playing soccer or pretending to be the male twin you never had?
You commence to wash the dishes plugging the sink with the stopper, letting the water drip down slowly like identity you must unplug- Wilhelmina by birth, Will by preference.
Wilhelmina, or Will as you have insisted we call you. Will who had to die when your body chose Wilhelmina.
Something stays afloat. It’s transparent water. Like you.”
I push the journal back to mother and do not look at her.
Mother wipes the condensed moisture on her glass with a tissue, “If you can lay bare your struggle there’s a way.”
I look at mother who has always known and has hinted so in the past hoping perhaps I will as she has said lay bare my struggle. I try, “‘so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’”
Mother encircles her fingers in mine, “And the same Lord created you and it is His will that you find and embrace both, or the one that is your choice.”
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