I often camped across the street in the backyard with the redheaded identical twins who lived there. Nobody except their family and me could tell them apart. So Louie wore red-striped T-shirts, and Alan wore replicas with blue stripes. They were so sweet, innocent, and doted upon by their parents and siblings that sometimes I just wanted to slug ’em in the nuts to remind them that they weren’t as precious as everyone thought they were. That, and for reminding me of my mean streak and of what I didn’t have. But, ostensibly, hanging out with two of the same person worked for me because it gave me an extra minion, which made me a leader of minions. They were a couple years younger, so I played the dominant know-it-all, a dynamic I liked but didn’t get to indulge at school with peers my own age. I was careless and aggressive around the twins because I usually got away with it. They thought I was cool, and I slipped into that role whenever I could. It was my idea to set up a golf course in my backyard and use large, army-tent stakes as clubs. And it was I who missed the golf ball and accidentally walloped Louie in the forehead with my backswing. He crumpled to the grass, and his twin and I showed the usual concern. When Louie came to a few seconds later, he leaped up and wailed home. I had to face his elderly Catholic mother, who fawned over her youngest of six. She snipped at me, but when Louie ended up with only a black-and-blue brow, I was allowed back to their house for sleepovers.
We used sheets and clothespins to set up a shelter beneath a gnarled and sap-oozing elm. Exoskeletons of cicadas clung to the bark. Their shrill sound forced us to use outside voices while inside our tent as we told ghost stories.
Louie told “The Man with the Golden Arm.” It was about a thief who stole a golden arm from a grave. The offended corpse reanimated, stalked the thief, and scared him to death.
Then Alan told us about Big Red, a brave boy with flaming red hair who took a dare to go inside a haunted house. When he didn’t return, the cops searched and found Big Red mumbling in a rocking chair, his hair completely white!
I told the story of Murgatroyd. Seems a boy exactly the twins’ age was alone at home except for a poltergeist named Murgatroyd. Late that night, there were scratches on the walls and shuffles on the carpet. The boy wanted to take a warm bath to calm down, but blood ran from the faucet. The boy went to bed but heard dishes rattle and cupboard doors bang in the kitchen. The boy finally shouted, “Shut up, Murgatroyd!”
And it was silent. It was the silence that created the tension. We could project all of our fears into the silence and imagine there being any horrible thing we chose. For me, in retrospect, it was rejection and the resulting aloneness.
I liked telling that ghost story. It made me feel effective. Then we whispered in our sleeping bags until the twins simultaneously fell asleep. That left me alone, my ghost story realized. I imagine that someday, they’ll die at exactly the same moment a thousand miles apart.
I toughed it out for as long as I could, the only one awake in that tent, but the panic rose, so I yanked on my Keds and raced back across the midnight street. I felt grateful for the door left unlocked, my own bed with cool sheets, and the sound of my brother breathing in the other bed where my black mama had died. I strained to hear a rattle or thump, the creak of a rocking chair, or shuffles on the carpet.
At dawn, without awakening my family and risking ridicule, I sneaked back across the street to the tent. I was too late. The twins were already eating buttered Pop Tarts inside their house. We never got Pop Tarts; they were too pricey. Why had I left? Alan asked, or maybe it was Louie. Oh, it was no biggie, I lied. I woke with the sun and didn’t want to disturb them, so I returned home for a few minutes. I hid my weakness, my cowardly depths.
The message, of course, was that I was still brave and could continue in the role of minion leader. It worked for the twins, who wanted to believe it, but it still wasn’t enough for those who didn’t care to be persuaded. Even then, it was odd to me how every person had a different relationship with every other person and how a person despised in his own home could be beloved in another. It seemed to me that the same person should be experienced similarly across populations. Of course, I was wrong, but the chameleon in me wanted to figure out how I could make it right.
Today, I’d say that the best answer is to be authentic across populations. Still, there will always be haters; there will always be people who project their own issues and pain upon us, and we need to withstand that via greater self-acceptance and better boundaries.