It’s Okay to Look: An Excerpt.

Note: I’ve been writing less in the blogosphere–here and in other places where I used to be a more frequent contributor–in part because I’ve started working on a novel. I haven’t tried a novel in several years now. In graduate school (which ended five years ago, next month[!]), I dealt mostly in long-form short stories. Then I wrote the pregnancy/motherhood memoir I began here (no word yet on that, except a bunch of rejections and one pending evaluation). So my fiction’s a bit rusty.

Even so, I found time to write a piece of flash fiction for a contest late last year and something about the characters haunted me. Typically, when that happens, they’re demanding to be fully realized. They want more of my attention. Sometimes, I ignore them in favor of other pursuits. Right now, I’m in the mood to entertain them.

The thing is: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Just a writer, no other supplemental career necessary. It’s what I do well. Everything else is a serious struggle. And so no matter how many projects I finish and polish, without anyone ever taking the chance to publish, I have to keep trying to write that project that cannot be denied. Maybe this one’s it. Maybe not, but I’m greatly enjoying the process.

This is an excerpt from the middle of the book. (I’m writing non-linearly, as bits of the plot and characters come to me.) Some context: it’s supposed to be in the voice of a precocious seven-year-old conjoined twin. Feel free to weigh in.

P.S. When I was trying to figure out a title for this, I found an article on the subject of intimate bonds, chronicling two conjoined sisters, with an interesting last line. I borrowed it.

*  *  *

In our bedroom, where all our secret things happen, under the cotton eaves of pink and rotating, stencil-shaped light, Mommy has tucked us in, read us three stories, and left us to find our own way in the night.

She never waits till we sleep, just up and goes when her own eyes grow heavy and her words come out in yawns.

The stars on the walls look nothing like the ones outside, with their perfect pointy sides and the sameness of their shapes. I watch the real ones every night, under the slip of our shades, when the sky is clear of clouds and rain and everyone, even Raydi, is gone.

Tonight, I catch Raydi before she goes.

— You think Mommy loves us?

She grunts, rolls us to the edge of our bed, reaches over the side. We always leave our Raggedy Anns sleeping under us. We tell them they’re in the bottom bunk; they’re too dumb to know they’re on the floor. She wakes them, yanks them up to us, smushes them together. She always, always tries to make them stick.

— How you know?

— She feed us yum-yums.

— Almost anybody’ll give a kid a treat if they ask nice.

Raydi makes a serious face as the dolls drop to the ground, separate, like they always do.

— Glue, she mumbles.

— I’m not gluing my doll to yours. You always ask that. I always say no.

She looks sad, pushes the bald side of her head to mine, starts to hum. She smells like stale cookies, yard-grass, Mama’s Queen Helene lotion. I guess I do, too.

I hate it when she’s sad. Feels too much like I’m sad. And then, before too long, I am. But my doll is nicer, cleaner. Its eyes are still where the should be, black and gleaming; in them, I can see small pieces of my face. Just mine, so that when I play with her, I don’t hear the schoolkids calling me TwoFace or the church kids calling me Legion.

Raydi’s Raggedy Ann really is raggedy. She plucked its eyes off first, said she liked the cool smooth feel of them in her mouth. When she swallowed the first one, I swore I felt it going down, winding through our bodies, lodging itself in our poop.

Mommy said it was just my overactive imagination.

— You’re seven, she said. When you’re seven, very little is real.

I know she’s wrong whenever I see the dolls, mine all factory-fresh, with chalky skin and a triangle nose of red thread, then Raydi’s with its Sharpie-blackened face and cotton gushing out of its side, where she used our safety scissors to stab it over and over.

— We do that, you and me? she said after, and I must’ve looked scared because she clapped her hand on my shoulder.

— Mommy says no.

— The hospital, it fix?

— Maybe, I whispered.

We weren’t supposed to know that hospitals fix. We thought they were where the stork dropped off babies, where grandpas go to die, where you get colored casts for the schoolkids to write on and then, if you’re lucky, they’ll like you.

But kids like us, people tell us things we shouldn’t know, say words we shouldn’t hear, show us quiet, wriggling things in the wet grass at the edge of the schoolyard, by the far fence, where the honeysuckle grows.

And so we saw it, the book with the pictures of babies like us, grown together at the head or the trunk of the body. Ms. Marjorie, the school librarian, pulled us aside weeks ago, after story hour, and showed it to us. It was a book about a black man with small, kind eyes. Mousy eyes, Raydi called them, beady but bright. He’s a doctor who became famous for splitting up twins like us. Sometimes they live, two bodies apart, and you can barely even notice they were ever followed around with cameras, gawked at in grocery stores, pitied in shows on TV.

But sometimes, something else happens. The second baby can’t live without the first. Once they come apart, the one steals all the air and blood from the other. The one is swaddled and carried home, the other dropped down in a casket.

When we asked Mommy about the man and the hospitals he works in, fixing, always fixing glued children like us, we took her the book as proof. I thought she wouldn’t believe us, that she couldn’t have known there was a man like this, that it was possible for me and Raydi to be split and normal and fine.

— Mommy, we said, there’s someone who could fix us!

We waited and waited, while she looked up and her eyes turned swirly and hard like marbles. We waited, while she scribbled stuff down in the book she always carries, till she took a sip of tea, pulled the purple ribbon into the fold of her pages and closed the cover, till she pushed the book onto the edge of the table.

She stood and loomed over us, a tree giving creepy, cold shade. Raydi beamed when she got her kiss, a blossom of lipstick pressed to her cheek. But when Mommy kissed me, I got goosebumps. Fear snuck up and took over, like just before Jason Tynes and his other fifth-grade friends, took up rocks and hurled them at us as we ran toward home.

— Sweeties, she said, not unkindly, you don’t need to be fixed.

One response to “It’s Okay to Look: An Excerpt.”

  1. I am amazed at how uncomfortable reading this makes me. It’s as if I am actually gawking at a set of conjoined twins throughout. If you’re like Chris Rock, then making certain people unnerved is a clue you’re headed in the right direction.

    I’m curious as to why one sister’s speech is less developed than the others. And I wonder how they’re conjoined and why they haven’t been separated. And I want to “fix” them as badly as I want to agree with their mother’s retort that they don’t need fixing. It’s making me sympathetic and self-aware in a way I wouldn’t have expected.

    What drew you to the characters? Are you in them anywhere?

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