A Double Baby!

Some years ago, Dr. S—— asked me and my sister a question that I’d like to try to answer now. Wearing his fat, beaked face like a strap-on mask—an outside, cartoon expression of his inside bird and brain (his clucking, cuckoo manner a constant ping)—he would absently stroke our contiguous flesh while he kitty-cooed questions in our ears that we did not understand. He’d let his free hand play over us in the air, tracing the double bind of our double bond as if through some viscous liquid. In our bedroom, we-as-us splayed across the covers all the better for him to /examine/, he’d say:

»And there is no doubt that you«—pointing at my sister Lenore—»are awkwardly affixed to it«, letting his eyes, with emphasis, fall upon my side of our smashed, interlineated pair. At times like these, Lenore would play absent; the clam. Her not-remembering the answer to anything Dr. S—— might ask. Not-remembering how the Robert Blake that was our dad, for five or six of our preteen years, came into our room at night and at odd hours in the guise of some insistently unhuman bogey or man; not-remembering how the tax-auction house in Illinois that had once belonged to our namesake actor and patron saint (the R. Blake) had looked atop its fertile, bulging mound the night we moved in; and certainly not-remembering where our mother got off, or how much or how often or to what extent.

I, as was my wont, refused to say even /boo/ about any of it, instead content to suck my tongue like a thumb and demur, to blankly defer and let others (i.e., Lenore) do the talking. But these sessions were so long ago now—almost as long as it’s been since anybody’s seen my sister—and, if Dr. S—— won’t stop asking, how much longer can I keep my answer blank? So:

Late in 1978, in spite of a deep-seated suspicion held by her husband as to what she was like to her very core, my mother—lying and grunting under the hard canopy of their shared station wagon (its faux-wood panels shooting down the road in dark streaks because dad refused to pull over even though that’s what she screamed)—gave birth, in one great and wrinkled heave, to us two kids.

Even though it was a week after Dr. S—— had told her that we were conjoined, that we would never be born, there we were, rocking lumpily back and forth, leaking on the back bench seat, mewling. My father, head turning on his neck like a swivel, took us in as he drove. Watched Mom scoot us away with the bottoms of her feet as he, cheesing, named us in one breath:


Six months previous, mom had gone to jail, caught at her own mail-order sexletter scheme. My mother (Mrs. Robert Blake to us), an Osaka or indeterminate Japanese, had roped in my father with Polaroids of her ribboned parts. Though often mistaken in her home country for a child, once pregnant she became rotund, each week her stomach inching upward, threatening the buttons of her fancy housecoat that marked her belly’s climb; the seam seen on swollen fruits laced with a gaudy trim. Finally pulling the car over, dad, without leaving his seat, inspected our complicated bend:

It had to have been immediately clear, even among all the muck, that we were conjoined as awkwardly as possible; my feet to Lenore’s forehead—hers likewise to mine—our bodies together a garden hose looped and kinked. Sections obscenely bulged like a snake’s stomach struggling to digest some treat. Sections of our skin both slacked and taut. We-as-us pretzeled in painful, almost vented, pleats. Folded back plastically, we were ourselves a knot—a Gordianated blot—a crinkled kind of circle sign warning off anyone who wasn’t /us/.

It was this same shape that our dad grew to hate, forced to carry us around like some spoiled Christmas wreath, people blanching at this thing he had no choice but to call his plural kid. Eventually he converted these bad feelings into a routine, ticking off all the could-have-beens that would’ve made our condition worse: 

How a 9-year-old taken to the hospital for rupturing stomach pain was found suffering, not from exploded appendix or interior gout, but with her unfinished and unborn twin. The one, superior sibling having half-absorbed the other in utero, having kept what was left of her twin in her gut as a secret even to herself, a tumored mass of nails, hair, and head. Or the Indian girl (airlifted for surgery to Japan) born with four arms and legs. He showed us a picture; her, bright-eyed and reclined, the sprawl of extra limbs spilling out from under her shirt /in clutch/, her condition making it impossible to wear pants. The addended limbs, the vestigial version of her conjoined, incomplete twin. The extra arms and legs missing only their additional head. She-as-we, in the picture, seeming to be more than content to live attached to this unfunctioning underbody. He said:

»Headless!—yes!—headless! The extra nut as it were having failed to pass—to pass muster, you kids—there in the womb it had atrophied and shrunk, felled clean off until it left the after-body to stay sucked up at its sister’s, how can I say?—your mother would say: ‘kotsuban.’ They have a further term for it, one I won’t bother to pronounce as you’ll only forget. When the kotsuban of each fuses to the other’s to form a double wishbone, which needs a doctor to break. Think of your teething rings? Except, sometimes worse, several of them grouped or stacked. Triple and quadruple, all orbiting in sine waves around the same, shared base. Arms and legs like abbreviated shoots, coated in viscera and cartilage and paste. And yes, how disgustingly unkempt! Who said it? Bracken boscage furze and gorse? Many-limbed thickets stuck wobbly-ringed and out—rudimentary appendages!—scuttling in the air like several crabs at once… not even opposably thumbed… swollen and greased... bunches of leftover, prehensile puss…

»So just file this under ‘it could be worse,’ huh? A sister of your mother’s was negative blessed with what has been called: ‘Blunt Ischiopagus.’ A kid I’m talking here who amounted to a kind of underdone potato—two of them, I’m saying—two babies born joined except the one (the smaller one like your brother, Lenore) was almost entirely head. No proper body to speak of except as a bumpy flipper hanging from below his chin. The flipper little more than a nubbin fin—some limp buds—not a fully-functioning anything. You’ve seen tadpoles, Lenore, huh, hon? How could you stand that? Being chased around the room by your brother and his aborted bat of a head? Polydactyl and shat. Using the knuckles in his wings to waddle-cum-flap? What’s supposed to be broad, dorsal, and upper but is instead mind-bogglingly out-of-whack? Your underdone brother using stupid tubers to propel him as head? To propel himself at you, Lenore, his ugly gams gumming as you get a whiff of his breath: ‘Give us a kiss—give us a kiss—give us a kiss’…

»Are you listening? Things like this do exist! Vanishing twins and chimeras and miscarried or superfecundation twins. Or parasitic—Lenore , do you know you could be carrying your brother between your shoulder blades like a backpack? A little, useless, soon-to-die you—a real papoose? Or stuck headfirst in your side like so much lump. In you up to his neck. How would you sleep thinking about your still-born, parasitic brother’s head absently chewing out the insides of your gut?

»So look at yourselves and be glad in it—be glad not to be worse—all supernumerary body and parts; soft tissue sans the bones; ignored nerve endings that can’t be controlled by their host. You don’t know the words I’m saying, but be glad in that, too: Not to be saddled with diphallia or polycephaly or syndactyly and uterine didelphys. A clusteryuck of coccyx and metatarsus and sacroiliac. Real blastula, pubis and flaps—all misshapen ulnas and axillas—yes I called you that! Like the old doc says, posh and piff, your twisted tire of a body could be much more amazingly worse you gits!«

So. Instead of wiping us off and getting us swaddled—instead of taking us the rest of the way to the hospital then, comforting us or talking to us or generally trying to soothe our worked-up, besmattered heads (with how everything was going to be, even though it obviously wasn’t, /all right/), he made for us his eternal face:

His teeth crookedly gnashed in a blocky, comic-book grin; his tongue’s purple scrap sticking smashed, through his canines like a pipe; his insistent, squatty finger erect and in front of it all—here was our purpled pap!—making a shushing face while having some fit. Going »shut- UP!-shut-UP!-shut-UP!« like a manic clap. His other hand across his eyes a sleeping mask—like peek-a-boo—except there was going to be no waking up from his queer, vibrating head. From the foam and sweat swabbing his face it was clear (years later) how hard he was trying: To rein himself in. Like trying to stopper blown water or growing leaks in some dike. His head so full of fluid it seemed about to burst its banks. When he got this look I often imagined his head brimming with a perpetual laugh track, one that he’d have to block, every next second, just in order to exist—to not hiccup in his continuous /adult/ feed. Like we’d later learn the story of G-d, who, self-limiting and L-O-V-E, made Himself smaller and lesser so that there could be room for the rest of creation (i.e., imperfect, insolent, bald-faced us) to exist. Dad struggling with something like that except not so inherently good or great. A real biter bit, him practically whimpering in his attempt to be his own restrictor plate.

That is, in our father’s first direct address to us all asymmetrically lymphed, we couldn’t help but intuitively grasp:

That we were just another obstacle to him.

That, just because we were a two-headed brat (a double baby!), delivered like manna through our mother to this, his backseat; it didn’t mean we’d ever be fessed up to as /his/.