When I Was a Twin
March 24, 2012 § 2 Comments
This was originally published on drunkenboat.com, but I wanted to share it here, too.
I wrote about my twin brother’s death before it actually happened. In “The End of Being Known”, a book I wrote about sex and friendship and the riddle of why, up to that point, I had been outside an intimate relationship for 15 years, there’s a piece of writing that imagines my brother dying in the street – gay bashed, I guess you would call it – a dark and rhapsodic riff circled around the violence I always imagined was at the edge of my brother’s living.
I had to imagine my brother’s life towards the end of his life because I wasn’t in his life the way we had lived it before. He was living in a different state. He didn’t leave his house except to go to work and to the bar.
The piece about my brother’s death is near the beginning of the book to erupt the book into being. And then, at the end of the book there’s a piece to counterpoint the violence which is about somebody else: Andrew, the man I had just met online and with whom I eventually fell in love.
Both sides of that book were strokes of imagination.
And then they both came true.
How could that happen? since it was in the imagination that both men were fully realized.
As strange as it was to have love’s edict break through in that book (Andrew, the once and seemingly everlasting elusive someone to love) – the prophesy about my brother’s death was even stranger. Had I written, without knowing it, a book of secret desires – one awful one and one good one: a love wish and a death wish? Isn’t any memoir dangerous when it departs actual life and enters imagined life; when the writer forgets what must have happened and starts to follow the line of mind that personalizes the randomness, even the recklessness of living? The memoirist insists life is most authentic at the point where there’s no turning back; when, in a dazed confession, it could all be told as someone else’s life.
I was telling someone else’s life.
I was telling my brother’s life.
And every twin lives two lives – one real, one imagined – one of being alone by night and with his twin by day; the other lit by wondering what life would be like without the other one. Twins co-joined are actually hardwired that way – made to think about what a life, detached from the life, must really be like.
* * * * *
I’m the survivor because I thought like the survivor even when I didn’t voice it plain. The survivor thought kept coming and going in my living and in my writing.
I’m the survivor because I think I can feel my brother more now than I could feel him in our living.
I’m the survivor because I feel guilt not to have survived but to have always known that I would be the one who would write this sentence.
I’m the survivor because we said in a game 100 summers ago that involved trees and an American flag and a bandage and a bottle of ketchup that I would be the survivor.
I’m the survivor because my brother knew he didn’t want to be the survivor.
* * * * *
I didn’t want my brother to die, nor did I secretly wish him to die, but writing about his death before it happened is – let’s face it – an odd thing to do, even if it came partly out of the imagination and partly out of some innate understanding of how he stood – however shattered – in his own life.
While it was no secret to anybody who knew him that my brother was an active alcoholic and could die from it some day, he wasn’t – I thought he wasn’t – as close to his own ending as I’d written him down in my book. But that spell – what turned precursor – was made even worse in a way by the fact that I never showed Kevin the piece of the writing the spell made me say on the page. What I did show him – what I had to show him in the form of reading it over the phone one afternoon from an attorney’s conference room – was an essay about the weird and important sexual relationship we had when we were young and stood in the frazzled threshold of impulse and sexual (was it gay?) desire.
I had to read my brother the essay about the weird and important sex because it was being published in an anthology of erotic gay memoirs, and in order for it to be considered, the piece had to be cleared through the legal department of the publishing company. There’s some strange stipulation whereby even if a name is changed (I changed Kevin’s name to “Rex”) in a piece of “non-fiction” – you still have to get permission from the real person in case they can identify themselves in a character, even if that character lives in non-fiction.
I needed permission from my brother to tell on him.
Now that he’s dead, Rex is back to being Kevin. Writers get their people back after their people die. People revert back to the people.
I was very nervous on the phone telling my brother about the anthology because I hadn’t spoken to him in a long time (silence there, to an already dangerous mixture of the truth about the sex): “Um… look, I’ve written this piece about our incest and they want to publish it and I’m going to read it to you and ask you if it’s okay because if it isn’t, you can sue me or something.” Kevin only had to approve the “story” or it wasn’t going to see the light of print.
After I had read it to him, I was surprised by my Kevin’s reaction. My brother very casually said, “sure it’s fine, it’s a good piece, when is it coming out?”
And it didn’t occur to me at the time, but my brother’s approval may also have been a plea on his part to not discuss the back-story, relieved now that the piece was written and that he was off to one side of the potential firework-danger of strange sex going off too close to him. My brother was relieved that what I had written stopped the incest in time – painful and ambiguous still, I suppose, but no longer the central heating of the here and now.
When the anthology came out, Kevin called me every now and then to say he’d seen the book in the gay section of some bookstore somewhere (where else would it be? The general population’s casual interest in gay life abruptly stops at erotic memoir). But he didn’t live to see my own book of essays published and died never knowing I had made him dead in the middle of a summer street in the middle of a paragraph of creative non-fiction.
And in these five summers away from his final summer, I am thinking of the fragility of any family once it enters that required pact with grieving when we all try to unravel the riddle not of the death, but of the life.
All of us die, but not all of us live.
I know that my brother died of acute alcohol poisoning that took it’s last good shot at his already broken heart, but I don’t know how he managed to stand in one place for so many years or how he lived in the one room or work in the same one basement or inhabit the one mind that he lubricated with fear and resentment toward most of his people but would let break down occasionally with joy, thank God – for the people he knew who made – no matter how cluttered their lives may have been – a place for art. To be an artist.
Like so many families into which a writer is born, I don’t know if my brother really saw me as a practicing artist. I was someone who wrote poems and a couple of books of prose, but I was not the artist doing it, I was my brother’s brother doing it. I was the big mouth with a pen who should have let lying dogs sleep in the middle of the road: a memoirist, in a family of secrets and lies!
Of the many unspokennesses between us, perhaps the oddest was the conversation my brother and I never had about how serious I was about my work, about getting it published and, finally, about finding a community of writers in a world that did not begin with writers. My brother had certainly written (his only book of poems was published posthumously) but he was never really that concerned about what would happen to the writing, supported by the fact that he only sent it out occasionally.
Occasionally, though, he did let somebody help. Stephen Sondheim, of all people, had pointed my brother in the direction of J.D. McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review, who would publish a poem called “Atlantic City” – again, posthumously.
But my brother never tried to have a career, which was something I always admired about him but also something that stopped him from having some necessary ambition to have a writing life.
Still, maybe he was the real artist after all.
I don’t know, because we never talked about it. I don’t know what he thought about how real artists see themselves.
We never talked about the things I talked about with other people.
We watched movies and read books and talked about them, and we watched the family go up and down on a ride we weren’t on and talked about that.
Or we gossiped, and like anyone who gossips, neither one of us walked away from the conversations with any real sense of connection, just enough facts to get us into the next conversation. Enough talk to remember each other.
We didn’t reveal what wasn’t already public domain and we didn’t look away, when we were looking at something together.
When my brother was looking at his twin, he saw the alcoholic and the homosexual who was miraculously able to maneuver long-term relationships which had always felt to my brother as such a task of heart and mind that he spent most of his life standing outside the long-term.
I see my brother in the painting that represents long-term loneliness as someone in the arduous task of pulling an ocean liner to a shore. And when I look at that painting and see my brother alone and vulnerable under so much weight of his own creation, I shudder with the thinking that I have always been thinking when it comes to the subject of my brother and romantic love (and it’s hard for me to say this without a smug irony) that one of the things my brother saw when he was looking at his twin was the fact that he couldn’t have him. The sex I had with my brother was over, but to my mind, it was still happening somewhere in Kevin’s own time.
The twin waits for the other twin to stop thinking.
And because that unrequited something kept imperfecting the frequency, my brother and I never really there for each other when it really counted:
when my mother died and he was hospitalized afterwards;
when I broke up with my lover of many years and finally had to get sober;
when I met Andrew and was afraid to have him meet Kevin because it was the first real relationship in 15 years and I couldn’t let Andrew fall for the thing in Kevin (something softer than physical) that resembled in any way the thing in me.
Kevin had the facts about my meeting Andrew, but my brother and I weren’t in the habit of talking about our lives as they were happening. We found the language in the after-it-happened.
We found talk rummaging around in the results.
Somehow, being born together magically activated something called the “virtue” of being a twin and gave us permission not have to ask anything.
Of course we knew what the other one was thinking.
We were twins, weren’t we?
And because we were twins, how could I not know that there would be a night like this:
he picks up the guy that leads to the door
that leads to the stairs
that leads to an unmade bed in the center of the hot night of his hot death after the stranger leaves him alone with his heart just before it stops.
How could I not know that my brother was going to be dead before I was?
Richard, my ex, called soon after Kevin’s death to tell me – as though it were important somehow to know – that it felt as though a piece of me had died – not all of me, just a piece. (Which piece, I wonder?)
And for every twin whose twin is dead, there must be the nagging – or is it misplaced? – grief of not being absolutely sure who to grieve, which of the two had, in fact, died?
But I was sure.
Kevin was dead.
I was alive.
When I was a twin, Kevin was alive.