I came into this world in parts, jumbled together with my brother, housed in a box, and imported from Asia. My parents had to put it all together: arms times two plus ten and ten digits and head to the neck to the 26 minus seven vertebrae because some were missing. My father built us into the house, installing his Frigidaire in my chest because I kept on overheating and a coffee drip in my brother to keep his circulation warm and steady. Then he sat there and waited until the room got cold, while my mother stared numbly from the kitchen.
And this is my first memory: the fog of my father’s breath as he whispered to her nervously, Don’t worry, all beginnings are made of math. My mother joked that if she knew it was going to be so complicated, she wouldn’t have adopted us in the first place. My brother was half of me, or maybe I was half of him. But we were too young to know how words and numbers worked.
* * *
It is the year of the serpent. We are four. What are three things you find on the bathroom floor, my mother asks. A wad of hair, a string of floss, and me, kneeling under the sink and staring at my reflection in the tiles. They glisten white and opal like the stretch marks on my mother’s thighs. She is leaning over the sink flossing her teeth and telling us stories about how we were born. My brother is sitting on the edge of the bathtub, sucking on a popsicle, his lips turning blue. He turns and offers me a bite. His feet are dangling under the running water as it fills the tub.
She says she knew us only as creatures of the sea, washed up from the Pacific after a tropical storm. She found us feeling around the beach in front of her hotel, damp and shriveled and blind. My father bundled us in towels and cleaned all the sand and film from our hair in a water basin. Our eyes were sealed shut with crust and salt and he massaged them until their seal broke and our blood turned warm. This is my first memory: my mother hovering over us clutching a wet washcloth and examining our bodies as we writhed about in the sink; my father on the edge of the bed, leafing through the bills in his wallet.
We stay in the bath till our skin prunes. My brother has fingers that are browned and spindly that he sucks on in threes when he is tired. Tonight he is a giant shark with teeth as long as my entire body and a fin as sharp as his shoulder blades. I hide in the lather and stay especially still so that I won’t be ripped apart. He approaches slowly from the corner of the tub, eyeing the pink of my belly, and then pounces, pulling me underwater by a fistful of hair. Water rushes through my nose and I breathe it in until it feels like my face is being crushed. I feel his hand on the top of my head, pushing me deeper into the tub. He knows it hurts but sometimes there isn’t enough room for both of us. I can hear my mother shout, though it seems like she is miles away. She says: Paul, let go! Don’t do that to your sister.
Paul: I never call him that. I change his name in phases, because he needs a name that will evolve with him. Paul: I mutter it in my sleep sometimes, sounding out all the vowels. Or that’s what he tells me.
He lets go and I surface. The soap stings my eyes when I open them. He is fetal underwater, pushed up against the porcelain, and can hold his breath for much longer than I can. I wonder how long he is going to stay down there. His face looks big and distorted through the water, and it seems as though we are of a different species. I nudge him and speak to the top of his head: I’m getting out now.
He can hear me but he doesn’t respond. I say: Polliwog, I’m getting out now. I’m getting out now and you don’t even care. He stays underwater because he knows he can. I want him to know that there are things that I can do too.
I’m the small one, and my mother lifts me from the bath with a towel as if I am weightless and carries me to bed. My limbs are soft and slippery and do not want to stay in place, and she hooks a finger in my mouth to keep me still. My brother slinks under the sheets next to me; his body is eely and creeps all over the mattress, nibbling at my toes while I try to sleep. I turn my back to him.
He says: I’m cold.
He says: I was just joking.
He says: The water was too shallow without you.
I face him and we lie side by side in crescent moons. I ask him to tell me where he thinks we came from and he speaks to me in code, whispering in a tongue that is long and blue and amphibious, that only I can understand: we come from each other.
* * *
It’s a game, he and I together as one. We get lunch at the school cafeteria. My brother has grown his hair out long so that I can braid it like mine. It is black and fine, like the tassels on the living-room couch that we hide our vitamins under before school. We sit together on the benches, sharing the same tray, the same braids. The boys sitting across from us make fun of his hair. They lean into the table and call him a girl; they tell him that he wants to be his sister. I laugh and say: Shylie, you really do look girlish. The boys laugh at the name Shylie, and he looks down and takes large, angry bites of his sandwich until it is gone. There is a dab of mayonnaise on his cheek. I want to tell him, but I don’t.
That night he cut his hair off in front of the bathroom mirror, then crawled into bed next to me and pulled at my scalp until a big chunk came out. My pillowcase was wet with tears and snot and blood the next morning.
Paul told me to call him Jarktho that week. I said it was too long and called him Jark. My parents though it was jerk and scolded me, so I shut myself in my room all day and wrote mean things about them on pieces of notebook paper. Paul snuck me cookies upstairs and said I looked better with less hair. He said maybe we could walk to the video store later and get some strawberry suckers.
Midnight: he creeps into my room and we go into the closet with flashlights and the candy. I dare him, three times, to stick his entire share in his mouth at once. I’ll give him all of mine if he can do it. That’s easy, he says.
The wrappers are waxy and loud and one by one peel off to the smell of strawberry jam. One, three, six, seven, swollen like a blister. I laugh. Saliva is oozing out the sides of his mouth, dyeing his chin pink. He laughs, then coughs, and all of the candies spill out onto the floor like pomegranate seeds. I imagine that he is made of strawberry suckers, that his stomach is lined with them, and I bend over to inspect them, looking for something that tells me what he is, looking for something that looks like me. He keeps coughing, tells me he thinks he swallowed one and it hurts. I tell him not to worry, that it’s just sugar, but he has a stomachache and starts crying. He curls up in the corner and closes his eyes. His face is pink and sticky in the morning. We hide the unwrapped candies under the couch.
* * *
It is one of our first trips to the museum. We are nine. I feel like I know this place. So does my brother, but he seems to remember more than I do, as if he is older. The cashier thinks so, too, and he won’t sell my brother a children’s ticket because he is taller. I announce: But we are twins! And he thinks I am lying. My father leafs through a wad of bills, muttering: This is an outrage. He takes us to see the Native Americans, and we walk through the cavernous hallways looking for them until my feet swell up in my shoes.
We end up in Korea, in 1953, the armistice of the war. And we walk down the hallway, back in time to 1952, 1951, 1950; from South Korea to the North, and it is as if we are entering a jungle. There are nets and helmets hanging from the ceiling and tall grass pasted to the walls. We pass a room with a video screen in it, projecting a line of soldiers trailing through a field with prisoners. I watch them in black and white as we pass.
My father stops in front of a photograph of naked children running down a street. They look like me, but thinner. The air is thick and black in the background and scattered with soldiers. I can’t make out their faces.
My father says: This is where you came from.
I stare at the photograph. It takes up the entire wall. My brother gets up close. The children are life-sized; they are about his height.
Before we can get a good look, my mother pulls us away. Don’t tell them that, she says. Is that what you want them to think?
I sit cross-legged on the floor and lean my head on one arm. My brother collapses next to me in a tired heap. Our parents are arguing; they leave us to the ground. It’s better that way.
He says: Do you think we really came from that place?
I think about it: No.
* * *
The last time I saw my brother was in the car. My parents were driving us back from a bird park that my brother didn’t want to go to. Most of the birds had migrated south already, but my mother pointed out all of the different kinds of feathers, nests, and eggshells they left behind. On the way home the backseat was swallowing my brother up as he sank into sleep against the window, his head vibrating in rhythm with the movement of the car. He was 15 and his upper lip had just begun to sprout tiny black hairs. Everyone said it was because he was a late bloomer, but I knew it was because he was too much like me.
And this is my last memory: the color red and the bottom of my brother’s feet. His chest is leaking out onto Route 20 and he has spilled out of the car in pieces, his limbs mixing with its mangled parts on the road. The door is jammed open and I step out, crunching plastic under my feet. He is splayed out next to the yellow lines, his body scuffed up like a bumper. I kneel down next to him, picking up a shard of metal, and poke his arm with it. His eyes remain shut. I want to say his name, but I don’t know what to call him, so I whisper in his ear: we are machines.
The air has turned off and everything is still. There is a pressure in my chest. I am hot and water-logged, but I have no pores to sweat it from so it all leaks out through my eyes.
* * *
This is the first time we met: I brought him soft-serve from the hospital cafeteria and left it on the side of his bed even though I knew it would just sit there and melt. It was two weeks after he was wheeled into the hospital, after the doctor asked me to give him a blood transfusion, after my blood was drawn and tested, after he informed my parents that I was written in a different genetic code, that we were not related. Were we aware of this?
He swallowed and held out a clipboard, saying he could show us the test results. I took it from him and tried to make sense of it, but as I studied them, the words and numbers blurred and rearranged themselves, erasing and rewriting my memory, my brother, me.
I excused myself while my parents talked to the doctor and went to the bathroom, where I found myself leaning over the sink trying to gag. I inspected my face to find any hint of my brother, but it was the same as always, only with no origin, no likeness to anything else. Paul: I repeated his name over and over in my head until the letters and sounds jumbled together and made no sense, until that part of me was lost and I was by myself for the first time, sitting in silence, except for a drip. It was like the one in my brother’s chest, only closer and more real. I glanced up and saw that there was water dripping from the basin. I arched and twisted my back to touch it until I turned into pipes and porcelain.
* * *
I sit by his bed with the melting ice cream and fiddle with the IV feeding into his wrist. His face is made of tubes and plastic. He shivers in his sleep as I touch his forearm. I pull off the blankets and open his robe to look at his chest. He is brand new, put together in parts. There are lines of stitches climbing up his torso like branches, swaying and expanding and contracting with every breath. I trace them with the tip of my finger, a living thing.
His eyes open and my arm curls back. He looks down at his sutures.
He jokes: I am Route 20. His voice cracks. I am silent.
What did they put in me? he asks.
You lost a lot of blood.
You needed a transfusion.
He looks at my arm. Were you the one that . . .?
I try to explain, but the words get stuck in my throat like a wad of hair.
I say: It’s like you’re starting over from the beginning, like we’re starting over from the beginning, the very beginning.
He doesn’t know what I mean.
I say: I couldn’t give you my blood.
I say: You’re not my brother and I’m not your sister.
* * *
Four months later my brother started watching television, and we pretended that nothing had happened, but it wasn’t the same. He made friends at school who he drives around with every afternoon until it gets dark. At night he slinks downstairs into the cellar after our parents have gone to bed to watch the late programs.
It is Monday. The television sits old and outdated in the basement near the laundry machines because we never used to watch it. And here he has found his place, among the lint and dryer sheets and damp, dirty laundry. The smell of rotting wood stings my nose as I creep down the stairs to visit him in the middle of the night.
He is sitting in a pile of old linens, close to the screen because there is no remote control. He makes room and I sit next to him and watch. The sound is scratchy, and the voice fills the air with history. I am not interested in the documentary; I am interested in the piece of metal sticking out of his eyebrow.
There is something on your face, I say, and touch it.
It’s a piercing. He is nonchalant; he is fixed on the television.
Where did you get it?
At that place near the warehouse. I think I’m going to get a bunch more.
I like it.
I wish he would look at me. I say: Where do you think we came from? He doesn’t respond. I say: Come on, where do you think we came from?
He is irritated. He says: I don’t know.
I stare at him, waiting, until he turns to me. He has been watching television for hours and sees everything in black and white, in 13 channels. He says: My mother popped me out like a blackhead and then fell asleep and left me behind. It was 31 years after the Korean War and I was left in that village until the back of my skull became flat as a rice paddy . . .
I sink deeper in the linens.
. . . and I don’t know where you came from.
My eyes wander around the room. He has filled it with things that are his and his alone. They are illuminated by the light from the screen. He likes to collect medieval weaponry and mouth insults while pretending to jab me with daggers, swords, words: sharp and deep and ancient.
You made that up, I say quietly.
So, what’s the difference?
He turns to face the television and I sit and watch it with him until my eyes dull.
* * *
We are 17, and my mother has sent us out to pick up her dry cleaning. Paul drives because I like to look out the window. It is two weeks after Christmas and the snow is getting dirty and we are back on Route 20. I drive on this road almost every day without thinking about the past, but today I feel like remembering. My brother does not want to have a conversation; he turns the radio on. He likes to listen to talk. I am used to this by now. My eyes are lazy and drift to the window. The ground outside is brown and frozen and patched with snow. We are near the site of the crash, and we pass a small house with a nativity scene in the front yard. The figures are made of translucent plastic that has been stained and faded by the weather, and they look cheap. I imagine them as real people, always stuck in the same pose, the same moment. And I wonder why anyone would ever celebrate such a thing.
I tell Paul to look. I want him to see the same things that I see in it, so that we can talk about it and reflect together. I watch him from the corner of my eye because I want to see his reaction. The metal rings in his ear tremble slightly as we drive over the gravel, weighing him down on the right. He glances in my direction to see it while we drive by, but his eyes travel to my low cut shirt, to the bra strap taut against my shoulder, to the pink flesh peaking out. And he is curious and disgusted and shameful all at once. I cross my arms over my chest, hoping he doesn’t know that I saw, as he averts his eyes to look at the nativity scene. But we have already passed it, and in just three seconds this place has changed, and I will always remember Route 20 as the street where my brother looked down my shirt for the first time. I shift uncomfortably in my seat. Maybe this is all that relationships are: the rewriting of memories and histories so that we can evolve with each other and not dwell on the past.
* * *
It is April and everything is thawing. It is apparently our birthday. This is how he celebrates: 18 piercings and a new television. At night I visit him and watch, but I usually fall asleep before the program is over. Tonight I will stay up the whole night so that the night becomes an extension of the day and tomorrow will still be my birthday. We are sitting in a pile of old linens that have been stacked here since we were young. The hair on his legs makes my thigh shiver, and we are not related.
When I think he’s not looking I inch closer to him until our arms are barely touching. He makes me nervous. I keep my eyes fixed on the television until the picture is blurred and I see everything in pixels, and I turn to him long after he has leaned back and fallen asleep. It is dark except for the light from the screen, which casts shadows over his face in all the right places, dividing him into fragments. I study each of his parts, understanding him piece by piece. And I want to lie down next to him, but I don’t, because I feel that some parts of us are still related.
I nudge him to see if he will wake, but he remains still, and I huddle over his body so that I can go deeper. His face is made of constellations; it is filled with metal and made of holes that are as deep as the fingers that I want to use to spread them open with, so that I can peer in and look inside his head. These holes are wounds from the war, when he escaped and swam across the ocean to be here with me. They are bites from fish trying to gnaw at him underwater. They are places he puts things that he doesn’t want to forget. And the pieces of metal are screws to keep his bones in place, so that he doesn’t fall apart every morning when he tries to stand up. He shudders and mumbles something in his sleep and I wait. When he is especially still, I close my eyes and pass my palm over the studs in his face, reading him in Braille, mapping him over and over until he becomes a familiar place. I feel my own face: my mouth, my nose, my ears. I have holes too. Maybe this is what we share.
I stay up until it is light out. When he wakes, I roll to my side and pretend to sleep, staring at the cracks in the cement floor. And it feels as though I am outside, lying on the pavement in the middle of the street. There are no cars, and it is cold. My nose, my toes are numb, and I feel as if they aren’t there. The gravel is poking holes through my skin, my lungs, and all I can hear is air deflating: miss miss.