Had someone caught on early and agreed to do away with him before his fingernails and toenails grew, before his misshapen parts and beautiful head beetled my stomach and scattered my guts, I’d have been glad. During my adolescence he was mild heartburn for whom there was no pink and by whom my blood was siphoned. But from the outside he was invisible. I am grudgingly grateful to sophisticated medical technologies for introducing me to Walter Martin—my brother, my parasite, my fetus fetu.
I was an only child, called Timothy by my mother, Wimps by my pops, and Squib by my peers. Portly and prone to bellyaches, I was sensitive to the whims of my crop and also to my mother, whose remedy for badgering was unwavering and excessive support. And finally to Pops, who took “Squib” personally, having understood it as referencing a gunmanship anomaly in which a bullet lacks the velocity to clear a firearm’s barrel. I assured Pops it was a rip on me, perhaps even a compliment, but he was stubborn. After exhaustive investigation into the ways of men such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Vince Lombardi, Pops fashioned himself my coach. “We’re in this together, Wimps,” he said.
Football was out because I was egg-shaped and possessed a lumbering stride. I feared teams because I was easily embarrassed. After much meditation on the subject, Pops advised me to take up martial arts.
My shape and disposition, it turned out, were no more ideal for this discipline than for any other athletic endeavor. But after a slow start, Sensei John’s direction and Pops’s barbarous tutelage instilled a work ethic in me. I shrunk to a more appealing size and became adept at snapping thin boards with the meaty undersides of my fists. This pleased Pops, who named, dated, and hung the broken boards in our kitchen. This also pleased Joan, my crush, who despite being a graceful overachiever and a six-time recipient of the Sensei John Ch’i of the Month Award, had not yet advanced beyond Sensei John’s lightly-perforated beginner’s planks. When Joan and I achieved orange belt on the same day, I asked her if she’d hang out with me outside the dojo. “Like train together?” she asked. “Exactly,” I said. Pops approved despite his better judgment, he said. “A pretty girlfriend might be a good distraction from your mother’s cajoling,” he added. “But remember, karate first, pretty girlfriend second.”
Years later when my mother died of cancer, Pops repeated the sentiment. Joan held my hand at Mom’s wake, although we’d neither discussed nor consummated what I felt was the most intimate of relationships. I believe one reason for that sad truth is that I’d developed lean, muscular proportions in my early 20s, but my belly had swollen like a beer drinker’s. This, while on a first-rate training diet. Despite my weird shape and tenuousness, Joan remained my closest friend as we climbed the rungs to black belt. She massaged me when I felt gut shot, and she agreed to go into business with me when I lost my job as Sensei John’s co-second-in-command. Sensei John had called me Squib while lecturing students and I broke a perforated board across his chin.
Shortly after Joan and I started our own dojo teaching children to become warriors, my unsightly belly literally floored me. During a demonstration of dangerous strikes performed from the horse stance, my insides tormented me and knocked my wind cold. A student ran to my aid and shouted, “Somebody call the band-aid wagon! Tim-san’s down!” When I woke squinting, staring at me from the left were the concerned faces of Pops and Joan. On my right were two doctors wearing matching expressions of awe.
“That’s probably the biggest tumor I’ve ever seen,” said the one.
“He looks like he’s about to deliver,” said the other.
“A tumor?” asked Pops.
“We’re waiting on some tests. But if it is, this will be complicated,” replied the one.
When they suggested that the cause could be the very thing that had taken my mother, Pops was crushed. But lab results and scans indicated otherwise. Taping a series of images to the hospital room window, the one doctor reported that what we were dealing with was much more complicated than a tumor.
“What’s that?” asked Pops about the images of my vitals.
“That’s a boy,” said the one.
“I need to sit down,” Joan said.
“Pretty much what we thought was Timothy’s tumor, said the one, “has grown so big that it is compressing his diaphragm and suffocating him. And the wracking pain? Try finger nails.”
“I mean,” said the other, “can you imagine opening him up to remove a tumor and discovering a perfectly shakable hand? Anyway, Timothy, let me be candid.”
He went on about how, as a fetus, I’d absorbed my conjoined twin, who then, trapped inside me, formed an umbilical structure with which he in turn absorbed life from me. For twenty-seven years, not counting the womb. Simple.
“The wild thing, though,” said the one, “is that we’re dealing with a series of parts. This here is a half-formed creature. Fully developed hands and a foot, small head, some tiny limbs and organs, and some genitalia. Mr. Martin, you might want to sit down too.”
“All entangled inside you,” said the other. “Really fascinating stuff.”
“Can’t you just remove it?” asked Joan.
“Whoa, no.” said the one. “Roe’s history. It’s been years since anyone legally performed an operation of that nature.”
“He’s right,” said the other. “Rule numero uno is a baby is a baby.”
“That’s no baby,” said Pops.
“A person’s a person,” said the other. “What I’m getting at is, you know what I mean by ‘a baby is a baby.’”
“But he’ll eventually kill me?” I asked.
“Actually, even if we could remove it, we’re not really sure what effect it would have on your heart. It’s holed up in there pretty good,” said the other. “Let’s be pumpkin positive about this. As it is, we can perform surgical procedures similar to hernia repair that will prevent further growth of the problem. And last time I checked, a deceased baby person is another matter altogether.”
“No,” I said. “Let him be.”
“What about his pains?” asked Joan.
“We’ll need to get in there and cut those nails,” said the one. “Just can’t remove them.”
“Actually,” said the other. “I checked protocol, and though a baby person’s fingernail is a baby person’s fingernail, there’s no reason we shouldn’t treat these particular fingernails any differently than we’d treat our own. That is, we’ll leave that up to you, Timothy.”
“Thank you,” I said.
After the manicure-pedicure operation, Pops, Joan, the doctors, and some nurses had gathered around to watch me shake the anesthesia. Pops and the doctors had their teeth clamped around unlit cigars, and Joan brought over a couple bubblegum cigars for us. They had baby ducks on them.
“Your mother would have been really proud of you,” said Joan. “You’re a stronghold in the press.”
“Everybody’s proud of you, Wimps,” said Pops. “Even the top brass are going on about your values. People won’t shut their traps about you and Walter.”
“Who’s Walter?” I asked.
“Walter’s your brother, Wimps,” said Pops. “You were supposed to be a Walter, but your mother wanted a Timothy. I hope you don’t mind: I’m calling your twin Walter Martin.”
“I don’t mind,” I said.
Did I mind that I’d been Timothy and not Walter? Mind that my mother wasn’t around to know she’d had twins? Mind that Walter’s heel had collapsed my right lung, limiting me physically? Not really. Because maybe my mother had a feel for this thing inside me and maybe that was part of the reason she was so good to me. Maybe being an unexceptional black belt would give me a little more time to focus on mending my insecurities so I could concentrate on Joan and even consummation. And maybe Walter would eventually suck my life dry and emerge from me a better version of me, ready and capable of doing great things.