The dutiful doppelgängers

Two dutiful doppelgängers:  “Female twins with picture frame,” a photograph from the NewYork World’s Fair 1939-40 records.  New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

“We especially prefer Bach,” the louder twin said while we offered introductions on our first day.

The quiet twin, the one who shared my name, nodded and straightened her cardigan.

In my memory, they have perfect childish faces, like sweet female Cupids in matching sweater sets. Their hair (same length, same style) has the texture of pre-Raphaelite maidens: long and thick and crenelated. They arrived at our college together, always together, to study violin and evidently to stroll along the campus sidewalks side-by-side in all their glorified sameness. Even the timbre of their voices was matching.  And they rarely spoke with contractions—too casual, those nasty contractions.

They weren’t the first pair of identical twins I’d ever met, but they were the first to prove to me that ethereal twin magic exists.  It was as if a fairy tale book opened up and these two twins meekly emerged wearing denim jumpers and carrying their lutes to university.  This kind of magic, as far as I know, only turns up in safe havens for the unexpected, like charismatic churches or small liberal arts schools nestled in cherry blossom groves.  And M and C, the magical-musical twins, were treasured among the safe hills of our college.  Since I last saw them strolling among the groves, I have never met two souls more connected in all things—married or otherwise.

These girls didn’t fit the grand twin narratives I have since learned from literature, like Cal and Aron in East of Eden or even Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. Instead of being faithful foils, they were dutiful doppelgängers, ever committed to mirroring one another as closely as possible. They were each other’s best copy; each choice, each outfit, and each outing was an exercise in careful preservation.

To love a sibling so dearly you preserve her through daily imitation—this is what I see when I picture the ethereal twins.  Perhaps they are more like Viola and Sebastian than I first believed.

I always felt startled by their imitation of one another.  This meant that most encounters I shared with this magical pair were weirdly uncomfortable—never for them, but for me.  Why?  An astute psychologist might diagnose me as too sensitive to their lifestyle, or even envious of their mirroring as if it were a kind of out-of-body self-revelation. Because I am relentless in my own quest for identity, the identical twin’s ability to see an apparition of herself in the shape of a womb sister is understandably attractive.   We love to inspect how we appear to the world, but mirrors in the washroom never quite tell us enough.  For the sake of investigating how we look to the rest of humanity, we glare at photographs of ourselves when our eyes are averted from the camera.  So this is what it feels like not to look ourselves in the eye, we think.  We scrutinize the lines of our face from the side and the crinkles in the back of our hair that we missed with the flat iron.  And we forget what we look like day after day—or is this just me?

But this isn’t so for identical embryos like the ethereal twins.  They will never forget what they look like.  I do envy that.  I envy it enough, anyways, to stare shamelessly at twins’ faces when they speak to one another, as if I’ll catch a glimpse of what it means to see a phantom of your own best copy.


During the first week of this school semester, I saw a new pair of twin sisters walking on campus—perfectly matched, mirror images of one another.  They surprised me.  Unlike the ethereal twins from my college memories, who often wore the trappings of their conservative Evangelical upbringing, these two twins were wildly stylish in their animal printed, headband bedazzled, messenger bag toting flair.

But they drew the same wandering eyes from strangers.  Their mere presence walking down the sidewalk attracted attention.  Stylish as they were, they still bravely carried a bit of the twin magic with them.  And I smiled wide at the strange magic—the weird envy—as I passed them by.