My mother calls me while I am on the bus and says, your sister just died in a car accident. They tell me after that I immediately fainted, right at the feet of a five year old boy. My mother, still on the phone, holds her calm and directs the bystanders to the nearest hospital, where I am given a clean bill of health and no concussion when I wake up two hours later.
What my mother didn’t say was, your twin just died in a car accident. Perhaps she knew that somehow made it worse.
There is an old Chinese story about a monkey king who had immeasurable powers, who lived forever and ruled both monkeys and kings indiscriminately. For an entire year when we are seven, our parents take turns telling us the story before bed, picking up where they left off the night before. Elise and I act out the story in the daytime, taking turns playing the role. Some days she is the monkey king and I am a monkey. Some days I am the monkey king and she is a king. It does not matter who is who; the story continues on.
Elise and I were born six minutes apart, her first, on a snowy November evening before my parents were ready. They went out for Italian and came back with two daughters.
The thing about being twins is that half the time, I don’t know where I end and Elise starts. We share socks and friends and every strand of DNA. In eighth grade, I learn the biology of identical twins, how a single zygote splits into two, how Elise and I are really meant to be one person. So it makes sense, that sometimes it seems like I am more her than myself.
After she dies, it’s like she’s taken some of me, too. Like when the driver slammed into her, she was borrowing some of me. My body betrays me by ignoring all this, by continuing to pump air into my lungs and move blood through my veins, by keeping me alive. My body does not know Elise is gone—if it did, the membranes of my cells would implode on themselves, my neurons would forget how to fire, and all my organs would cease to work the moment Elise’s did.
Everything I know about myself, I know from her. I know that we have dark hair and small hands and our eyes twitch when we lie and that when we’re nervous we hum under our breath. When we are the monkey king, Elise stands on the highest surface she can find and screams all the songs. My father says, this is how I know the difference between the two of you. Joelle does not sing.
My father calls us Elise and Joelle, whichever name he’s feeling. EliseandJoelle. He has always had only one daughter.
By the time Elise dies, her hair is shorter and has one section dyed red, on a dare, and her nails are painted a different color than mine, and she’s doing better in calculus than I am. None of this matters.
I try to explain this to our friend Bethany one time. It’s like you guys are the same person, she says, and then adds, I know you guys are so different, but I—I feel the same around either of you.
What she means, what she cannot explain but what I know is true, is that Elise is more outgoing and confident and I am more passionate and Elise is okay with uncertainty and I am never late; we are different in all these ways but we are still Elise and Joelle. This does not offend me. I have never wanted to be an individual.
The monkey king ruled for centuries happily, until the god of fate called him up to heaven. There, he was arrogant and proud, and believed he could outrun destiny. He made it to the corners of the universe and carved his name on the gold pillars there, but when he returned, all he saw was lines of blood running down the fingers of the god of fate. The moral here is that some things you cannot outrun.
Elise says that is a mean trick to play on someone. We are 10. I am the god of fate and she is the monkey king. What, she says, puffing her cheeks up in a bad imitation of him, was I supposed to do? Go past the corners of the universe? How would I have known that there was something there?
In this game, I am gleeful; I have won. Why not, I reply. The afternoon sun hits us in the eyes and we lie on the carpet of the living room. Why not run past the corners of the universe? To pay for his arrogance, the monkey king is cast under a heap of stone for 500 years. I think this is preferable to the price Elise paid. At least he can still sing.
The first day is the worst. My father looks at me blankly over the marble counter of the kitchen and without a word, locks himself in his room. Later, I hear him screaming. The sound wraps itself around the house like a vise.
My mother hugs me as tightly as she can, her thin arms suddenly strong. I am so glad I have you, she says, which does not make it better. We do not eat.
When I wake up, the next morning there is an aching hole in my side and my head feels fuzzy, like someone has been playing around in my brain while I was unconscious. Like Elise dipped her fingers into my head and spun everything around. Even now, she is inside me. I cannot outrun this.
Our friends come over and pile up on the bed on top of the comforter and we lay in a heap, and it all feels wrong, because Elise is not there.
I say, what are we doing in biology now?
We’re on evolution, Bethany says. I know that evolution is change over time. Like dinosaurs becoming birds. Or fish becoming humans. Or Elise becoming nothing.
I hate evolution, I say. Bethany reaches for my hand. What else can she do?
Everyone asks me, how are you doing, and I say, alright. I figure, being alive and breathing are accomplishments. What no one asks me anymore is, how is Elise doing. The right answer here is she’s dead but I am convinced she can’t be, because I am still walking and down to every last nucleotide I am Elise. Sometimes I want to point to myself and say, she’s right here.
What does it mean to have been a twin? This I cannot answer. At night time, I pull the curtains back on my eyelids and dissect myself in the darkness, prod my ribcage with my short fingers. Elise, I call in my head, Elise, are you there? Some nights, when I am too tired to distinguish between us anymore, I swear she is.
I hear my mother pacing the living room in the middle of the night, breathing hard. Elise, tangled up in my bloodstream, floats through my dreams, laughs while I am asleep. I am never sure if it’s her in the dream or just me. It does not matter.
I wake up covered in sweat. I have stopped looking in mirrors, because Elise looks back at me. My teachers make an active effort to call me Joelle, but only because there is no confusion anymore. For one long, horrible, awful day, I think about being dramatic and doing cocaine, but Elise stops me. I stop myself. I cannot tell the difference anymore.
My father leaves his bed and goes back to work. He cries almost every morning at breakfast. My mother began planning a funeral, but in the end there is no ceremony. This is fine to me. How do you have a funeral when the dead girl is sitting in the first row?
I have stopped doing homework, but no one seems ready to say anything to me. The three of us float around in a sort of limbo without Elise. But not completely. Her pictures are left up. The first week I reach up to take down a framed photo of her, aged nine, posing in front of the gorilla exhibit at the zoo, ready to tear it up and never look at it again, when I realize it’s a picture of me. The anger disappears as quickly as it comes. I hold the frame to my chest and cry.
The oldest part of our brain is called the reptilian brain, evolved hundreds of millions of years ago before we were even human. This is the part of my brain that reminds my heart to beat and my eyes to blink, the part that listens to some ancient evolution and not me. The monkey king had the reptilian brain, and so did Elise, and so do I. This is the part of myself that wakes me up every morning, even on mornings where I am convinced I should not be woken up.
When I wake up I am forced to look at myself, and more and more I cannot stand that. I do not know how to tell my parents this. I make an appointment at an expensive salon in the city and pay an exorbitant amount of money to bleach my hair blonde. My mother just blinks at me when I get home. My father does not notice.
In biology I learn there is a type of evolution in which nothing changes. Where thousands of years of pressure create a species that is exactly the same as the one before. I think this is what has happened here. A 17-year-old girl was hit by a tiny black car three blocks from her home and died on impact from blunt force trauma, wasn’t even taken to the hospital because there was nothing they could do, but it’s almost like it never happened. I eat and whine and write essays with no conclusion and when the sun hits me the right way, when people think I cannot hear, they say, can’t you see how they were twins? I am a walking billboard, a broadcaster’s voice: don’t you remember Elise? I do not know if my parents hate me or love me more for this.
By the third week, we have a routine. I wake up before my parents, my mother goes to the gym every day, my father’s face goes sallow. My mother draws her eyebrows on black. I wash my damaged hair with the recommended shampoo. It does not help.
At dinner, we sit around the marble island, say useless things. I have a bio test next week.
Are you ready, my mother says without heart.
I think so, I say. I will get a C on this test, but it will be waived due to family tragedy.
Don’t worry, she says, you’ve always got this, Elise—
Her mouth stops in the shape of my dead twin’s name, her words floating untethered in the air. I want to reach out, grab the name, hold it to my chest. I want to be Elise. My father scrapes back his chair and gets up, leaves the table without a sound.
I’m sorry, she says finally. She seems smaller.
It’s okay, I say.
The Chinese have a saying about pain, how it hurts so much your guts are spilling out. This is how it feels, but not just my guts. My heart and lungs and every single blood vessel, too. But I cannot say this to my mother.
I find Bethany after school and we walk home together.
Do I remind you of Elise? I ask.
Yes, she says. Of course.
I don’t know how to say what I want, so I just do. Does that make it worse? I ask.
Yes, she says, and no. She is not looking at me; her eyes are fixed on the ground. Sometimes I look at you and I see Elise, like a shadow, she says, but most of the time I look at you and I see Joelle and none of it matters.
I realize she is not looking at me because she is crying. I reach out and squeeze her hand and the space between us seems smaller.
It doesn’t feel like Elise is dead, I say.
You know, she says finally, you’re not as bad at calculus as you say you are.
We are almost to my street. In this moment, the world feels empty. No monkeys or kings or twins to be found. Just me and Bethany and an inane conversation about math.
You only think you’re bad at calculus, she says, compared to Elise.
Yeah, I say, I know.
The road curves on itself, deposits us at the head of my block. Bethany and I keep walking, backpacks stuffed with loose paper, hand in hand. One step after the other. What other way is there to go?
The days pass, as days do. I had thought, for a second, that maybe the universe would stop for us. The universe, as it turns out, does not stop. The god of fate threads his fingers through our futures and does not pause the tape.
Bethany and I take the bus to a new thrift shop in Rye. I stand among piles of discarded clothes and think, this is the first place I have been that Elise has not. This is the first place I am only Joelle. It feels like learning to breathe again. Like I am patching up my fallen organs.
I get my roots touched up. Angelic, my stylist says, before asking me for another ridiculous amount of money, and I choose to believe him.
I raise my hand in calculus and my teacher calls on me. Joelle, she says smoothly, without thinking. As if it isn’t even a question.
On a Saturday seven months after Elise dies, my mother suggests we go into the city and wander the Met. We walk to the train station and take the Metro-North into Grand Central, then take the 5 train up. She pays the full suggested donation for New York residents, which I have never seen anyone do. The cashier hands us two tickets.
We walk through the Renaissance wing with Jesus on the cross. My mother turns away from them. Too much darkness, she says. We look at stone statues from Mesopotamia, so worn that I cannot decipher what they are. I buy a croissant from a cafe.
We enter the Asian wing and stand in front of a set of painted scrolls from ancient China. Do you recognize these? my mother asks.
There is one of the monkey king. We are the only ones in the room. Here, the monkey king has just been released from his rock prison, his eyes to the heavens. Oh!, the translated caption reads, and to think, I was so safe there, I almost preferred it. But look: now that I am free, I can paint again! Goodbye, prison. Goodbye, safe haven.
The next scroll is a sunset, the monkey king in the corner, casting his colors again. I think I am about to cry, but I do not. His story ends well, I know. He will go on a journey with a monk and a pig and another character who I have never figured out what exactly he is, and he will face demons and robbers, and he will never be safe again, but he will make it.
I think of Elise, of our names jumbled together, EliseandJoelle, of living with her and for her. I think of mitosis, of cells dividing to create exact copies of themselves. I imagine myself as the first macromolecule case of mitosis—but it would not be Elise. It would just be me, again.
I turn to my mother. I can never be a twin again, I say, I can’t bring Elise back.
Her face falls. Oh, honey, she says.
I can live, not as a twin, I say. People do that. Right? Right?
Right, she says.
In the glass I can almost see my reflection. Hair lighter than Elise’s. Half a centimeter shorter. Not as good at calculus. No, I think. My name is Joelle. I have blonde hair. I am 165 centimeters tall. I am good at biology.
When I get home, the back doors are thrown open just in time for the sunset. I walk through the house and into the yard. On this night, the sky is alight with purples and reds, a gift of the monkey king. On this night, Elise, me, we are splashed across the sky like an afterthought.
I turn to see my mother coming through the doors.
What are you doing, Joelle, she asks.
Missing Elise, I say, honestly. Gently.
She, too, is staring at the sky, the end of another day. Me too, she says.
And like this, we go on.