Vanishing Twins

After years of bonding closely with other people, one woman finally goes searching for herself.

Leah Dieterich | Vanishing Twins | Soft Skull | September 2018 | 21 minutes (4,145 words)

One-eighth of all natural pregnancies begin as twins, the book said, but early in pregnancy, one twin becomes less viable and is compressed against the wall of the uterus or absorbed by the other twin.

Of course, I thought. I lost my twin.

This was after I’d read all the other books. The books about sexuality. The books about marriage. The books about love. None of them comforted me like this book did.

The story followed a pair of identical twins who were struggling to grow up without growing apart. My husband and I were struggling with that too.

I read it in one day, in every room of the house, on my stomach, on my back, on my bed, in the yard. I didn’t worry about the ants scaling my thigh, or the black widows living under the outdoor furniture.

One-eighth. I tell people this statistic when I tell them I’m writing about my search for the twin I never had. The number makes me seem less crazy.

“Suspicion is a philosophy of hope,” Adam Phillips says in Monogamy. “It makes us believe that there is something to know and something worth knowing. It makes us believe there is something rather than nothing.” He’s referring to the suspicion that one’s partner is having an affair, but the same holds true for the existence of my twin.

I’ve always preferred being in the company of one other person to being in a group. I’d thought this meant I was antisocial, but maybe it’s a desire to return to the relationship I had with another person in the womb. That pre-person—my little mirror ball of cells.

 

Maybe my twin would have danced ballet too. I stopped when I was eighteen. Maybe my twin would have kept going.

Because of ballet, I spent a lot of time looking at my reflection. In class, we crowded each other to dance in front of the skinny mirror, the single panel in the wall of mirrors that inexplicably elongated the images of our bodies. The teacher tried to spread us out but it was no use. Our only other option was to lose enough weight to look skinny in any mirror, and we tried that too.

Twelve years later, I sit in the dark behind a two-way mirror with my ad agency colleagues, watching a focus group eat hamburgers and talk about how they taste. It feels deceitful to watch people when they think they are alone with their reflection.

We like to believe that a mirror shows our truest self, but it rarely does. If you’re right up against it, with your nose touching the glass, you don’t see anything at all.

That was the way I pressed myself to Eric. And Elena. And Ethan. I was too close and could not focus.

In all the articles, twins separated at birth always seem to share incredible similarities and quirks, no matter how differently they were raised. They hold their beer cans with just their thumb and index finger; they have moles on the left side of their rib cages. Neither of them likes ketchup.

I thought if I met someone with disgustingly fast-growing cuticles who liked the smell of burned toast more than anything in the world, it would prove I’d been missing my mate.

If my twin was identical, it would have been a girl, but if it was fraternal, it could have been a boy or a girl. All this is to say I didn’t know what I was looking for.

 

Giselle got a boyfriend at the donut shop where she worked and quickly experienced all of her sexual firsts without me. This threw off the comforting symmetry that had always made our friendship seem predestined. Suddenly I felt as if I were a foot shorter than she was. At sixteen, her parents allowed her to finish high school via correspondence courses so she could spend more of her day at the dance studio. She was gone. Jumped off the seesaw while I was still on it, letting me drop with tailbone-breaking speed to the dirt below.

Ever since we met in third grade, no one at school had uttered our first names separately. They were always linked with an and. Now there was an empty space next to that and, a vacancy. Sometimes the weather in that space was mild, just the breeze of her being whisked away. Other times it rained for days.

I needed to sandbag it.

But instead of filling this void, I chose to build a structure around it. I got up at 6:30 a.m., was at school by 7:25, drank a Diet Coke, ate a Granny Smith apple for lunch, and finished my homework during study hall before driving myself to the city for ballet. This schedule was a scaffolding around my terror of being alone.

 

Was it her I wanted? Him? The acts themselves? It was difficult to pinpoint the object of my jealousy. It was easier to imitate, so I got myself a boyfriend—a popular boy I snagged by fooling around with his friend to prove I was sexually available. It was an odd way to show my interest in him, but he was a teenager, and it worked. Anyway, I was just spackling the hole Giselle had left.

My boyfriend was a soccer player who wasn’t interested in ballet or any arts, but it didn’t matter. At the time, our mutual interest of sexual exploration was enough. He became part of my schedule too. We’d fool around from two to four o’clock in one of our bedrooms while our parents were at work. After that, I’d drive thirty minutes to my ballet school, stopping midway at a Dunkin’ Donuts near the regional airport to get an iced coffee, adding skim milk and three packets of Equal. This low-cal, high-caffeine cocktail typically sufficed to keep me awake during the drive. Ballet class ran from five thirty to seven, and after that we’d rehearse for whatever performance we were working on until about eight thirty. I suppose I ate dinner when I got home, but I don’t recall. In my memory, that part of the day drops o like a cliff.

Prior to the boyfriend, before I started spending my after-school hours giving long and poorly executed blow jobs and getting urinary tract infections from sex, I would eat snacks. Having a boyfriend took the place of those snacks. I no longer needed them.

We like to believe that a mirror shows our truest self, but it rarely does. If you’re right up against it, with your nose touching the glass, you don’t see anything at all.

And I got thinner. Da was all my Russian ballet teacher said as she poked my side, indicating she was pleased with my weight loss. We were always praised when we became less and less of ourselves.

The desire to dwindle was strong. It felt religious, cleansing, a penance for some sin I couldn’t pinpoint. At the same time, I felt like a contest winner. But I knew I couldn’t have done it alone. As I held the ballet barre, legs working furiously below the serene upper body, my teacher’s bony finger acknowledging my concavity, I attributed my success to having a sexual partner, a playmate who made it easier to not nourish myself.

 

In the 1950s, my ballet teacher had been the prima ballerina of the Kirov Ballet. She was the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, as well as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, but her signature role was The Dying Swan. It is a self-contained piece, a four-minute solo accompanied by piano and cello, depicting the last uttering movements of a dying swan. There is a flickery film of her dancing this piece on YouTube.

We often did The Dying Swan at the end of class. She tried to teach us how to die, but we were too young and too American. We were never doing it right. Nyet! she’d scream, and clap her hands for the pianist to stop. She’d shout corrections in French, our only shared language, and I’d translate for my classmates. And when language failed she was physical. She pulled on our arms and slapped our butts. When I think of her now, drawing her gnarled finger up the side of my ribs, she reminds me of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” wanting to eat me, though she rarely ate anything.

 

Vanishing Twin Syndrome. That’s what the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology calls it when a fetus in a multiple pregnancy dies in utero and is partially or completely reabsorbed by the surviving fetus.

This phenomenon has likely existed forever, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s, when ultrasounds became sophisticated enough to detect twins as early as five weeks, that doctors began having the unnerving experience of viewing twin embryos one month, only to find a singleton the next.

The term vanishing twin was coined in 1980, the year I was born.

In Lawrence Wright’s book Twins: And What They Tell Us About Who We Are I read this: If the less viable twin is not consumed, it “exists in a kind of limbo, compressed by the other to a flattened, parchment-like state known as fetus papyraceus.”

Papyrus, like paper.

“Somewhere in the vicinity of twelve to fifteen percent of us—and that’s a minimum estimate—are walking around thinking we’re singletons, when in fact we’re only the big half.” That’s Wright quoting a geneticist, so of course I believe it. I believe in percentages, in pieces of pie. But I don’t like his choice of words: the big half.

I don’t want to be the big half. It sounds oafish and ugly.

And while it can’t be denied that the big half is the winner, the one who makes it out, it also means that losing someone is a consequence of growth.

 

Deadline.com: “VH1 Orders Competition Series for Identical Twins.” This headline appears in my browser. It is morning, and I’m in my office at the advertising agency. My friend Alex, who works in entertainment, has sent me this link because she knows I’m writing about my suspicion that I’ve lost a twin. Lately, everyone has been sending me these kinds of links, telling me about movies to watch and books to read, tagging me in the comments sections of news articles. It seems they’re all interested in twins now that they have someone to share their discoveries with.

I am alone in what used to be my shared office. On the other side of the room, the blinds are drawn and the desk is empty. I no longer have a partner, so there is no one to see that I’m reading this press release instead of working.

“VH1 is putting the bond between identical twins to the test with Twinning (working title), a 10-episode, hour-long competition reality series set to premiere next summer. The project, created and produced by Lighthearted Entertainment (Dating Naked), will feature 12 sets of twins going through challenges that will test their twin connection. (Reports of the incredible strength of the bond between identical twins include cases of siblings dating the same people, finishing each other’s sentences and feeling each other’s physical pain.) Through the challenges, sets of twins will be eliminated until one pair is named the twinners and walk away with the grand prize of $222,222.22.”

While I appreciate the cuteness of twinners, I’m annoyed by the grammar mistake. It should be “until one pair is named the twinner and walks away with the grand prize.”

A pair, while two people, is singular. This is the grammar I feel in my heart.

The fact that it’s called vanishing twin instead of vanished twin seems to indicate that the disappearance is perpetual, not completed, possibly not completable.

When one twin comes out and the other doesn’t, it’s over, in a certain sense. But grammatically, the vanishing twin is continually fading from existence. This makes it harder to mourn, because the disappearance never really ends.

Another friend tells me about a man she once worked with who had a pain in his ribs that wouldn’t go away. It turned out he had a cyst that needed to be removed. When they did the surgery, they found that the cyst was a teratoma—composed of bits of hair, teeth, and fetal bones—the remnant of a vanished twin. “He had his twin removed,” she said, and to underscore the reality of this unbelievable thing: “He took the day off work to have his twin removed.”

A pair, while two people, is singular. This is the grammar I feel in my heart.

I asked if she could put me in touch with him. I wanted to see if he’d ever wondered about having a twin or fantasized about it. Was the cyst a shock or did it somehow make sense? Did he ask to see what they’d removed? Did he have a scar?

“I don’t think he likes talking about it,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t have told you.”

 

“You have to meet Eric,” a ballet friend from high school told me over the phone. “You would love each other.” She was living in Colorado for the summer with her brother. Eric was their roommate.

“You’re exactly the same,” she said. “Artistic, smart, driven.” I was flattered. “You’re also both obsessed with your diets,” she said. I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment.

She built him up in such a way that I couldn’t imagine he’d be real. She told me he’d taught himself to write code during his last semester of college, even though he wasn’t a computer science major. She showed me his picture and said he’d done some modeling. He’d raced road bikes too, Tour de France–style. “He’s also the nicest person you’ll ever meet,” she said. It was too much. I didn’t believe one person could contain all these things.

A week after school ended, I flew to Denver, instead of home to Connecticut.

 

Would I know when I saw him? Would we finish each other’s sentences? Have moles in the same places?

Inside the apartment, the afternoon light was fading. We heard a key in the lock, and when the door opened, there was Eric, with his tan forearms and champagne-colored hair. Even the blue of his eyes was somehow golden.

He had my posture—straight-backed, as though he were being pulled by the crown of his head, skyward.

My friend and her brother got off the couch to hug him, and I stood up too. He extended his hand to shake mine, and the hem of his T-shirt sleeve hung away from his body near the tricep. I wanted to stick my finger between the fabric and the skin to see if I could do so without touching either.

 

There was still snow on the ground in Rocky Mountain National Park even though it was May, but we hiked in our sneakers because that was all we’d brought. Halfway up the mountain, I thought it would be fun to throw a snowball at my friend’s brother, whom I’d had a crush on in high school. I gathered a handful of snow, packed it into my palm, turned around, and threw it with all my might.

The snowball had barely left my fingertips when it hit Eric squarely in the face. He had been right behind me and had managed to turn his head at the last minute. His cheek was red and icy.

“That’s quite an arm you’ve got on you,” he said.

“I . . . don’t have great aim,” I said. “And I’m a lefty, so there was never a baseball glove that fit me in school, so . . .”

“I’m a lefty too,” he said.

The others were a few paces behind us. We kept hiking and when we got to the top, we all stood shoulder to shoulder looking down into the valley. I wanted to look at Eric’s face and was glad I had a reason to.

“Lemme see,” I said. He turned his face so I could see the red mark, but he kept his eyes on me.

 

We drank around the fire. Eric and I shotgunned beers, a trick I’d learned during my year in the Midwest. We both knew all the words to “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” and we rapped them with awkward bravado. When it got later and colder, our friends brushed their teeth and retired to the tent, while Eric and I went to his car to listen to music. He played me things I hadn’t heard: At the Drive-In, Digable Planets. We talked about our families, and while there were differences—his father was a teacher and mine a doctor; his mother went back to work (nights at a restaurant) when he was two and mine stayed home with us—there was one striking similarity: Both our parents had been married for twenty-five years. Most of our friends’ parents were divorced.

I don’t know how long we sat in the car. I was too infatuated to be tired. I wanted to touch his hand. I wanted to kiss him. But the armrest between us felt insurmountable. Eric said we should go to bed, so we quietly opened and shut his car doors. He found my hand in the darkness to lead me. His hand was warm and soft and firm and I felt a surge of relief. Hands, like kisses, could be bad, and ruin the chemistry. This is the perfect hand, I thought as we walked through the moonless night to the outhouse.

The trickle of my pee cut through the soundless air. I pulled my pants up, knowing Eric was waiting for me. The crotch of my underwear was cold. Wet with excitement.

We only had one tent for the four of us, and Eric and I lay beside our friends, who were either sleeping or pretending to. We began kissing and we did not stop, despite the siblings beside us.

We should have turned away and tried to sleep, but a magnetic energy held our bodies together as one body.

 

We spent the rest of the trip together. The siblings went about their business. My friend had to register for summer classes, and her brother was looking for a summer job. Eric was looking for a job too. Though he’d only graduated college a week ago, he couldn’t afford not to work, now that he didn’t have student loan money to cover his expenses. Luckily, it was the beginning of the first internet boom and anyone who could make a website could get a job.

One morning, Eric and I were alone in the apartment. After breakfast, he put on a collared shirt and I helped him tie his tie and wished him luck as he went off to an interview. It felt embarrassingly retro, as if I were a housewife sending my husband off to his job. But it was novel too, and I was grateful for a new role to play, now that I no longer had ballerina.

 

I was always looking for other lefties, watching people’s hands when they signed credit card slips at restaurants, threw balls, or cut with scissors. No one else in my family was left-handed, and neither were any of my friends, although this is not that surprising, since only ten percent of the population is left-handed.

“Both kinds of twins, fraternal and identical, have a higher rate of left-handedness,” Lawrence Wright says, “and some scientists . . . have suggested that left-handed singletons may be survivors of a vanished-twin pair.”

A card arrived in the mail from Eric. I opened it in my childhood bedroom and had to slow my eyes down to take in each part of the long rectangle. There was his tiny, almost illegible handwriting, and a collection of drawings he’d done in black ink and filled in with wide architectural markers. One drawing was of the Modular Man, a gestural outline of a man’s body created by the architect Le Corbusier, for scale in designs, and another was the Golden Spiral—a spiral drawn inside a rectangle whose length and height are proportionate to each other at a 3:2 ratio, the golden ratio. The math was sexy, because I didn’t fully grasp it, but also because it was rendered in muted golds and mauves, colors I was surprised a man had chosen.

I’d already sent him a card as well. Mine had a grid of squares I’d painted in watercolor. All but two were gray. We were the two matching red squares, I was trying to say. Everything else seemed drab by comparison.

Once you find someone to finish your sentences, do you stop finishing them for yourself?

The next month, Eric came to see me at my parents’ house in Connecticut, where I was living for the summer. Any reservations my mother had had when I told her I’d fallen in love with someone on my one-week trip to Colorado disappeared when she met him. “He never stops smiling,” she said.

Eric hadn’t been to many museums. He’d been to national parks; he’d been to Indian reservations. During the week we spent together in Colorado, he told me about the tiny loom his dad bought him as a kid, and the beadwork he’d done on it. He pointed to a sculpture in the corner of the apartment that he’d made in architecture school—a red sawhorse with a suspension bridge made of piano wire hanging below it.

Eric had never considered majoring in art even though he loved drawing and painting. Like mine, his parents had directed him toward something you can make money at.

We’d lain on the futon in his living room after the first time we’d had sex, while the siblings graciously slept in the bedroom. I told him that in eighth grade, I’d considered becoming a performance artist instead of a dancer, after seeing a piece by Janine Antoni on a museum field trip. I recalled my twelve-year-old self watching a video of her performance, which involved using her head to paint the entire floor of the gallery with black hair dye. There was a video screen at the entrance to the gallery where she’d done the performance and a velvet rope across the doorway to prevent people from walking on the piece. I leaned into the room, my waist on the rope, trying to take it all in. The white walls, the large black strokes covering the wood floor. I would have liked to touch them, to trace my finger along their semicircular arcs, to get down on my knees and bend my head to the floor, to feel how it might have felt to do the performance, hair heavy and dripping, butt in the air, dragging the bucket of hair dye alongside me.

I took Eric to New York City because he’d never been, and suggested we go to the Guggenheim, knowing he’d studied the Frank Lloyd Wright building in architecture school. We didn’t know anything about the exhibition that was going on, only that it featured the work of a video artist from the ’70s and ’80s called Nam June Paik. We walked up and up through the museum, curving ever so slightly to the left, spiraling skyward.

We’d seen paintings and photos in art history classes, and some sculpture too, but this kind of art was new to us. Large sculptures made of old TVs buzzed with an aurora of colors, lava lamp cubes with no stories.

“Thank you for bringing me here,” Eric said. “I came to see the building. I hadn’t even considered there would be something inside it.”

Years later, he told me that this was the moment he decided to become an artist.

 

He sat on the edge of my bed, the one I’d slept in since I was five years old, and I went to him, putting my hands on his knees and parting them, to fit my body into the V they created.

“I love you,” I said.

We’d only known each other a month. But this I love you was in my mouth, and if I was going to speak, it was the only thing that was going to come out.

“I love you too,” he said.

 

The ligature œ has a special sound, the “open-mid-front-rounded vowel,” which is something between an uh and an er. In French, you need it to make words like sœur and cœur. Sister and heart. It is taught to schoolchildren as o et e collés—o and e glued together.

I identify with this ligature. I see it and think that’s me, though I realize this is strange. Why not my initials? The monogram that graced my grade-school L.L.Bean backpack?

In French class I had cast myself as Odile, the doppelgänger. The O looking for her E.

I had found him.

 

It’s like we’re the same person. We finish each other’s sentences. This is what we’ve been taught to desire and expect of love. But there’s a question underneath that’s never addressed: once you find someone to finish your sentences, do you stop finishing them for yourself?

***

Excerpted from Vanishing Twins: A Marriage, copyright © 2018 by Leah Dieterich. Reprinted by permission of Soft Skull Press.