Five Minutes of Intimacy, or Selling Oranges by Words

I. Twin Studies

We could have been twins, my brother and I, except he waited 14 months to join me in this world. In my first memory of him, or the first memory in which I recognize him as separate from me, we are riding a toy train at a zoo. I sense his body next to mine, its boyish warmth and smallness, and I remember the narrow void that kept me from seeing through his eyes. As we grew older and apart, as even the closest brothers do—he became a painter, I, a writer, his hair dark like brushed charcoal, mine green and blonde like beaten brass—our voices stayed indistinguishable. He is leaner and works without glasses on stage. But I think that if I was riding the One train downtown approaching Times Square where the tracks dip to pass the Two, and another train did happen alongside at that precise intersection, and I looked out the window and saw him, his own life on a brief parallel, I might mistake him for myself.

Yesterday, I returned to a favorite photo of mine, a portrait of Josef Mengele. He has a babyfat face, a rakish smile, hair combed back along his broad forehead. Despite the fact that I know about Mengele’s experiments on twins at Auschwitz, I want to believe that the evil I feel when I meet his photographic gaze would persist even in ignorance. That there is such a thing as evil prior to history that exists in the characters of men, because then I might believe that there are people born good, too.

At Auschwitz, Mengele used twins to establish controls for medical experiments. One twin would be infected with typhus, the blood of the other transfused to study its healing properties. One eye would be treated with dye to change blue to brown to green. One would be sewn to the other, a monstrous attempt to conjoin what had been separated in the womb. And if one twin died during these experiments, the other would be murdered, both dissected in the name of science.

What is it that turns one copy from the other, that creates the impossibility of exchange? If two people share the same genetic code, how do they become irreconcilable, exclusive, somehow broken apart from each other?

On our high school debate team, I was the boss, the scientist, the monster. I coerced my brother to join, to play the game that I loved. And to make him a competitor, I terrorized him, taught him how to use fear to persuade. One afternoon I screamed at him to toughen him, to make him as strong as me, I told myself, until he cried and punched me hard enough to bruise and left the classroom. Two years later, he attended a Halloween tournament wearing a paper mask of my face. Where I had been, he would be.

We watched The Parent Trap enough times to memorize the slapstick pranks and plot twists that drew Annie and Hallie together. Lindsay One meet Lindsay Two. Playing your own twin must be close to feeling the presence of an almost-twin, a closeness that is, for the most part, imagined and crafted. Last summer, we joked about reenacting the ear-piercing scene, California-girl Hallie poking posh Annie’s virgin lobe with a searing needle. On the count of two. We would wear Lindsay wigs, recite the lines, and he would inflict that cosmetic injury on my body. Another mark to tell us apart.

In Wally Lamb’s Oprah-book-club-bestseller I Know This Much Is True, Thomas and Dominick Birdsey are identical twins whose lives are fractured by schizophrenia. Thomas amputates his hand in a public library to protest the Gulf War, and Dominick spends most of the novel trying to free him from a maximum-security psychiatric facility. Dominick misses the crucial board hearing after falling off a ladder, and Thomas is stuck. In the hospital, Dominick thinks, “when I went off that roof, something else busted up besides my foot and my leg and my ankle. Something that all the surgery and physical therapy in the world aren’t going to fix. . .I don’t want to keep fighting any more.” I imagine that Mengele would have taken great pleasure in Dominick’s predicament.

When you see a different you walking the earth, self-love becomes a perverse but absolutely true love for another. Your intimacy with your almost-twin is illusory, flimsy like a loose tooth about to fall onto your pillow. A piece of you will be missing, but will you notice? The agony of intimacy is terrible in its uncertainty. Where do you think you might be losing it? It is soothing in its absence.

The most frightening moment for me in any book is one sentence towards the end of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing. Billy’s brother Boyd and a young Mexican girl have left town in the night: “He rode north again to Namiquipa but could find no one who owned to know the girl and he rode as far west as La Norteña and the watershed and he grew thin and gaunted in his travels and pale with the dust of the road but he never saw them again.” He never saw them again.

II. The Tangerine Hawker

Whenever my debate partner and I would face an inexperienced judge in the back of the room, a bus driver or biology teacher or mom, he would begin his speech with a fable:

“There is a Chinese proverb about a tangerine hawker. This tangerine hawker would stand in the market calling out, ‘my tangerines are so golden and bright, sweet and fragrant, buy my tangerines,’ and all the servants of the great houses would buy armfuls of his fruit. When they returned they would leave the tangerines in porcelain bowls to scent the dressing rooms of their mistresses. The fruit, however, was rotten under the skin. When you peeled that perfumed rind in a curling ribbon with your fingernail, its black and slimy guts would spill out. But the hawker had left the market before morning for the next village, his tangerines strapped in a basket on his back. Our opponents are like that tangerine hawker. They speak in elegant phrases but sell you rotten fruit.”

Selling oranges by words may lead to riches, but it will guarantee loneliness.

III. Mayan Astrology

The first time she told me about Mayan astrology, we were sitting at a booth in 1020. That bar for me will always glow in dusky green, pool felt, library lamps, the smudged green glass of Rolling Rock and whiskey bottles. She was a Marxist, paranoid, a mystic.

According to horoscope.com, “Mayan astrology is a variation of Mesoamerican astrology, one of the most forward-thinking kinds of astrology of its time. The Mayan calendar, or Tzolk’in, is comprised of 20 Day Signs and 13 Galactic Numbers, making a 260-day calendar ‘year.’ One’s Mayan Day Sign defines his or her personality.”

The Mayan Oracle: A Galactic Language of Light by Ariel Spilsbury and Michael Bryner was her guide. She told me that my sign was White Crystal Wind:

“Think back to a time when someone looked deeply into your eyes, acknowledging your beingness with their full presence. Remember how wonderful and intimate that felt. When you want to be intimate with someone, become equally open, aware, and present.”

Before she graduated we met in The Heights, a bar that burned down, and drank frozen margaritas. I saw her the next winter in Times Square. We drank Belgian beer. She went back to Belgium and quit drinking around the time that I fell off a cliff in Utah. That summer she visited me at my old high school track where I was walking slowly, with a cane. She picked up barbecued pork sandwiches and we talked while my pug slept under my wheelchair. Last summer we went to Spain.

IV. Causalgia

After a traumatic injury, a patient can develop causalgia; complex regional pain syndrome; reflex sympathetic dystrophy; reflex neuromusculardystrophy; chronic, systemic, disabling—a mysterious spreading inflammation that moves from wounded tissue through the body. When they cut the cast off my foot, I could barely feel the touch of fingertips on my insole. I lay on a metal bed while the nurse pressed an x-ray plate against my arch. The doctor said, “have you ever heard of avascular necrosis?” My heart stopped before he finished. “You don’t have it.”

But my foot was numb and tingling over the malleolus, the bony ball around which my tissue swelled, cool and dense. My physical therapist warned me that if I didn’t wake up my nerves, I could develop causalgia. I had to restore the networks of feeling that had been broken or else the anaesthesia could wander. She told me to rub my foot with textures—the bristling spines of a hairbrush, a dishrag, the rubber buttons on a TV remote, my fingernails. At first, I felt my foot like the flesh of a close friend—I was intimate with its curving, wrinkled skin, veins bluing under the surface like a rivers on a faded map. But I could not feel my own touch.  In the days that followed, I began to recognize the organ at the end of my leg, to believe it belonged to me. During those days I came to know the touch in both the hand and the foot, the giver and the receiver. 

The intimacy we have with our own limbs is an illusion. Like our almost-twins, we have forgotten the agony of losing ourselves again and again in the nighttime, in the daydream, the buzzing cramp, in trauma. All preludes to the absolute loss of ourselves in death. Yet we tell ourselves that we feel ourselves, that our touch brings us into being. That we know ourselves in our histories, in our futures, through the horoscope of physical love. 

V. He Quit Me

Warren Zevon wrote the song “She Quit Me” for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, recorded by Leslie Miller as “He Quit Me” to better fit the plot and her voice. In the original:

    It wasn’t the queen of diamonds that I drew first
    Instead I got the ace of spades reversed
    She quit me
    She up and quit me, man—yeah 

A dark horoscope. Fortune fallen, a lover left, the grinning sorrow of losing favor with fate. When Leslie Miller sings “he quit me,” a woman expresses the same sentiments towards her man—but in the context of Midnight Cowboy, a movie about a male prostitute and his pimp who share a profound friendship, a brotherhood, an almost-twinning broken apart in their unbreachable differences, I imagine Zevon singing “he quit me,” imagine Jon Voight’s Joe Buck (“Where’s that Joe Buck? Where’s that Joe Buck?”) singing to Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo:

    He quit me
    He up and left me, man—yeah

Intimacy between friends becomes vital only in the threat of its loss. Loyalty undone. Intimacy between brothers becomes meaningful only in the threat of its contusion. Blood broken. The intimacy between twins becomes the limit of the world: its loss as its only reality. So we call it back to daylight, touch and poke and puncture, rub back into consciousness. Seek to read the future in a gaze unraveling along a different track, in the glimpse of evil that promises the possibility of goodness. In the horoscope that determines our future before our past. A way of reading that suggests we might become intimate with ourselves again if only we believed in a different story about who we were. I am living under the sign of white crystal wind; I am the tangerine hawker; I am the almost-twin. I never saw them again.