Fiction

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.

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Fiction

My Body, Broken for You.

Note: I wrote this in December ’11 for a contest I didn’t win. It’s strange that fiction was my grad school discipline; all I’ve written since then has been creative nonfiction. I haven’t given up on fiction, but I think the work it takes to perfect it through revision is work I’m not always successful at seeing through to the end. Anyway, after a couple of rejections and no-response-to-submissions, I’ve just decided to post it here. Let me know if you think it has potential.

My Body, Broken For You

Once, just after their father left, I wished they would just slide out of me, like so many of the other eggs before them.

Perhaps that caused it.

They were fully split for a time, identical but separate, two girls already playing pranks, daring the ultrasound techs to tell them apart. One darted here then wriggled left, and the other followed so close behind we’d all have to wait a half-hour to distinguish one’s vitals from the other’s.

But three weeks after I squeezed my eyes shut and hoped to find them floating among my fifth forceful pee in an hour, they had fused, clinging to one another for the love I’d denied them, clinging so tightly they’d joined at their hips.

When they were tugged out of me one month early, I peered over the surgeon’s partition and spotted one wriggling thing, a tiny, too-wide, creature that looked for all the world like a Hindu talisman I’d passed in the window of a rug shop once. I didn’t know it then, but later, when I’d stopped fearing them, I would look up that Sanskrit idol and find that I was thinking of Kali: six-armed black goddess of change and of death.

That was my daughters.

They were covered with thin, furry pelts they would shed in the month that they would’ve been full-term. Viv didn’t cry for two full minutes. Nadia was born with a veil.

A resident gasped before he caught himself. An intern fled, retching, from the operating room. My obstetrician apologized, looking slightly green himself.

It was good that their father left me when he did. If he couldn’t bring himself to settle into co-parenting when the idea was purely conceptual and when we both thought I was carrying a single fetus we’d assumed would ripen into something more cherubic than grotesque, he did not have the constitution for this.

They were not fun, upbeat girls–and they can’t be faulted. They’d come home on more than one occasion, each year of grade school, with bloodied welts where some uglier, pretty-faced, one-headed child had stricken them with stones. Once, when they were nine, Viv veered toward a van where a man promised them fame and five hundred dollars, while Nadia, who knew better, asked him the name of his circus. Before they were seven, seven doctors begrudged them their hope for successful separation.

And they were saddled with me as their single mother.

The girls found it impossible to hold their heads high, because I couldn’t. Everyone seemed to blame me for their condition, especially them.

They wanted answers. Why had I carried them all those months, knowing the quality of life they would have? Why, when I saw Viv’s one listless eye, had I not seen fit to correct even that? Why was Nadia brilliant, when Viv could barely concentrate on a passage of literature long enough to grasp its basic meaning? Why did they feel so unworthy of more than anyone’s sidelong glance? How could they live, knowing they might spend many years, graying and shriveling with age, without ever knowing the full flush of romantic love?

There seemed no end to their injustices. And they wanted it known that they blamed me.

I could never bring myself to tell them the truth: I’d kept them because I thought they’d never be able to leave me. I’d kept them because their every infant embrace felt like a Ferris wheel and my heart missed the joy of a carnival.

It was their father who found them the doctor, long after they’d stopped hugging me, long after they’d vowed to move someplace remote and live like queens in a village who’d believe them to be deities.

I would not have given my consent to the surgery, had I not believed they’d kill me in my sleep if I didn’t.

Here in the waiting room, I have been sitting across from their father and his new West Indian wife. She is speaking patois to her own teenage daughter, who glances at me before sucking her teeth and snickering.

We have been here for twelve hours, pining for news of a successfully reconstructed pancreas, of the lengthening and shortening of intestines, of two fully functional diaphragms.

I try not to stare too long at the girls’ stepsister, as I imagine them strutting on either side of her through a mall. I force a smile at the pep in their gait, their chins buoyed by the confidence that no one there knows what they were. Their sister is, for once, at ease being seen with them.

They would’ve been seventeen soon, but often, I imagine them at forty, sharing a chair, still conjoined, ’round a campfire.

They have husbands and undamaged children.

They are telling ghost stories and their laughter swirls with the embers.

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