Truth was the only thing we had left, the only thing that could possibly hold us together and for once, I wanted us to all carry the same truth and not some warped version of the truth we used to console ourselves. J held my gaze and after a long pause she said, “Fine. Nothing but the truth.” She held her hand out, the palm upturned and it looked so soft and naked that I held her hand between both of mine and our hands were soft together.
She came into the alcove and we both stared at our mother who shared our eyes but didn’t. Her body stiffened and her chin jutted forward. “I’m not sick,” she said, and kept repeating those three words so softly we could barely hear her. I didn’t know what to say and even though she stayed silent I knew J was thinking, “But she’s our mother.”
I closed the door slowly, our mother’s voice seeping into the dark oak and stopping there.
J collapsed against me and I held her or we held each other. All I know is that we stayed standing. “She was never our mother,” I murmured into J’s hair.
I’m not sure how long we stood there but I do know that where we stood was honest.
We went north in a cab, back to my neighborhood, and I knew why she was here. The same shit, all of it happening again, and this time J a part of it, not somebody pushing back against it. For so long that had been our thing. For so long, that had been what made us the same, twins or not.
I don’t believe in unconditional love.
Mothers get to leave and mothers get to come back, and they get to destroy you each time. Yeah. They also get to speak. But there comes a time when you get to speak, too.
I rode up front and listened to the radio and looked out at the lake. I thought it again: I don’t believe in unconditional love.
I paid when we got to my building. On the sidewalk, the three of us gathered in front of my door. Before I put the key in the lock, another wave of that same anger came back. I turned.
“This is my house,” I said. “So it’s different.”
“I know that,” she said. “And I—”
“No, listen,” I said. “In here, in my home, we talk about what’s true. You can make up your stories out there. You can live your fantasies. In here, we talk about what’s true.”
I could see she didn’t know what I meant.
I turned to J. “She’s sick,” I said. I opened the door, went into my alcove, looked back at them both. “You know it, I know it.”
J looked back, the wind in her hair. She didn’t move an inch.
“I know she is,” J said.
Mom looked at J. “I’m not sick,” she said. She laughed an awkward, incredulous snort-laugh and the feeling of that time a decade ago flowed back into me. She used that laugh a lot last time.
Here is the thing about other people’s fantasies. You can play along with them for as long as you want. You can. It makes them happy, usually. But when you’re playing in somebody else’s, that means you’re not playing in yours. That means you’re not you.
I don’t believe in unconditional love. Why? Because you only get one life.
“You heard my rules,” I said. I had said them to my mother, but really they were for J. “Are you two coming in or not?”
“Sweetheart,” she said calmly. “It’s time to go. We need to find the others.”
“What others?” I stammered. I could feel myself blinking uncontrollably, struggling to bring into focus a face I hadn’t seen for nearly a decade. “Who?”
“The others who know what you…” her eyes flickered, caught in a momentary panic. “What happened.”
Her brow furrowed, curling the corners lips into a miniature smile.
“You’ll feel better if you stop running away from it.”
We teach our children, someone wrote, one thing only. Annie Dillard. As we were taught by our parents, she wrote. That thing? To wake up.
Imagine another world, crawling with mothers. A planet overrun by swarms of mothers in hats with numbers on them, an endless catalog from which to choose. Oh, yes, number 246 looks good. Those cheeks! Such shoulders on which to rest my poor helpless head!
Mine, though – ours, rather – was thin, mean, defeated and embittered, mean, and now, suddenly, here. Things would soon change.
But please indulge a momentary pause. Her eyes, which are my eyes too, are looking at me, pleading. Hello, mom. And rest assured we’ll move forward soon enough, the story will go, as they say, on. But moments fold, don’t they? Still? And if indeed there’s any slight advantage that this medium of language might still have, surely it has to do with time.
It is not the moment I’d have chosen. Were I to do it over again, I’d stop it all with Michaela, the original Michaela, who I knew too briefly and lost too quickly and mourned incompletely. Barring that, some moment with J back in Ohio, when neither father nor mom were anywhere nearby, when we were screaming reflections racing through the woods.
Split the seams and hear the barely audible pops. Slip myself inside. The moment seems. She is there. She is a face I know by photograph and memory. A collage. She looks…artificial. Like, what is she doing in this third dimension? Why isn’t she forty, still? What has become of her turtleneck sweater and perm?
My god, the way she looks at me now. One lesson only.
Today the artificial heart is a reality.
And it looks nothing like what Charles Lindbergh designed years after he flew across the Atlantic. I noted that his drawing was dated today, 50 years ago.
There was a commotion behind us. Two elderly staff members asked us and everyone else to please head to the exit. It was closing time.
“Fuck,” J said, her phone in one hand, a charger in another. “This is going to die. We have to meet her here.”
J rolled her eyes at me. Not angry, but almost hurt that I didn’t already know. That I couldn’t read her mind on this.
Of course I knew who we were meeting. But I needed to hear her say it. I needed anybody else to say it.
We walked down the museum’s visitor center and I found an outlet near the ground behind a display of anatomical drawings fashioned into discount postcards. At three for $1.99, they were a steal.
“Here,” I said, crouching down. She handed me her phone and I plugged it into the wall. It’s blank screen flickered on. It was coming back to life.
J stopped a passing guard. “Excuse me, what time is it exactly.”
The guard made a show of looking at an imaginary watch on his official-looking guard jacket sleeves. “It’s time for you two to get on, then.”
“Can we just have a few minutes?” J asked. “I need just need to charge. We’re not from around here.”
The guard nodded toward me. “What’s his problem.”
J turned to me. “He’s just shaken up. He was downtown during the attack. Don’t worry, officer.”
The guard certainly liked being called officer. “OK. Five minutes. While I clear the museum. After that you two are out.”
“OMG thank you,” J said.
Groups of people made their way past the visitor center and toward the exit. The guard looked at us once more before walking out of the visitor center, shaking his head.
She turned to me in triumph.
“Who, exactly, are we meeting?”
“You already know,” she said.
“Yeah I know. We’re meeting Michaela.”
“No,” she cried. “What is wrong with you.”
“You said she didn’t want us to be late,” I said. ” That would would imply two things.”
I decided to use my fingers for effect. “One, that she is who we are going to meet. Two, that she is not fond of tardy visitors.”
“How many times do we have to do this? Here,” she said, holding out her hand, “give me the letter.”
“Not Mom’s. Give me Michaela’s letter. The one you sent me the picture of.”
“Trust me Stephen.”
She never called me Stephen. I opened my bag but the letter wasn’t there. I must have forgotten to grab it after the explosion.
“It’s at the office.”
“Oh no,” she said, unfolding a piece of paper. “Is it like this one?”
I grabbed it from her and recognized the words, the looping letters. It was a photocopy of my letter. “How did you get this?”
“You gave it to me before you moved to Chicago,” she said, looking directly at me. “She’s gone Stephen.”
“There is no Michaela. There hasn’t been for years. You can keep fooling yourself into thinking you’ve stumbled upon a letter, or an earring, or anything else but it doesn’t change the truth.”
She put her arms around me. “You need to let go.”
I felt another hand grip my shoulder.
There have been many moments in my life, especially in the past few years, when I wanted to hook myself up to a device that might keep my heart beating. Some days, I am so weary it is a struggle to breathe. I am exhausted—the tedium of my job, this life I’m pretending to live in a city that only wants to chew me up, the cruelty of everything, my mother, and how far her shadow casts even when I have no idea where she is.
As we stood in the museum, dark and cold and cavernous, my whole body was heavy in a way it had never been before. J grabbed my elbow, squeezing lightly, and it’s like she was trying to take some of the heaviness away from me. We walked slowly toward a display of scalpels, glinting as they lay beneath the glass, still so sharp the slender blades practically hummed.
I pointed to the scalpel on the end of the display. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? It takes so little to cut a person open.”
J stared at her feet. “You’ve changed.”
We continued walking. “So have you.” When we reached the artificial heart, an intricate structure of glass and steel like the building I worked in, we both leaned against the glass like little kids, our foreheads leaving oily prints on the surface of the case.
“I came here because she’s back and I don’t want her to be back and I don’t want to deal with her being back alone.”
“This is an amazing artifact. The vision it took to make something so beautiful, so necessary, I admire it.”
J sighed, her shoulders slumping like she was now feeling all of my unbearable weight of being. ”Please,” she whispered.
I reached for J’s hand, marveled at how our hands, how nearly everything about us was replicated so exactly. “You’re never alone,” I said.
It was a comforting lie for both of us and she was kind enough not to mention the uncomfortable truth, that when she needed me most, I had disappeared and left her as neatly cut open as a chest cavity, wide and bloody, waiting for the pulse of a new heart.
I knew right away. I didn’t know how, or why, or what we would find when we got there, or if she’d be waiting for us, but I knew.
“Come on,” I said, handing her phone back to her. “Red line.”
We walked to Jackson in silence. Of course I had questions, more than I could think to ask, but a new flume of feeling had come up through me when I saw the destination on the map, a cold and hollow anger that was too familiar to discount and way too painful to call a mood. I was so mad—so mad at so many things. J wasn’t immune, and now this new confidence only added to it. She had braced herself against the world with the kind of self-assurance that always seemed fake to me, whenever I saw it on a person walking by. Maybe that was just because I didn’t know how to find it for myself.
We didn’t talk for the trip. The closest we came to even making eye contact was when I leaned over to hand her my CTA card over the turnstile. On the train, we sat side by side, down at the waists of a sea of high school kids who were laughing and playing on their way home from school. J looked at them blankly and I wondered what she was thinking. My thought: sometimes I hear laughter and I can’t make sense of it.
We got off at Clark & Division and I led her up LaSalle to the museum. We were going to see an exhibit.
How was I so sure? I’d been to this place, The Museum of Surgical Science, seven goddamn times since I’d been in Chicago, that was how. The first time was just because it was the type of place that you could never see when you lived in Dayton, and in those early weeks, the only way I could make Chicago make sense was to seek out what a tourist might call its “blah blah cultural treasures.”
But that was just the first time.
I came for the quirk of it all. I kept coming back for the fake heart.
Don’t you know? Charles Lindbergh flew around the world and all that, yeah. But he also invented a device. Later, when he was older.
For his sister, who was sick.
A machine. A piece of technology that could keep blood pumping in people whose hearts had stopped.