I still have the wallet-sized fake photograph of me and my twin sister, Kaci. This was pre-photoshop* but it looks pretty good. Catherine is wearing a fuzzy sweater and holding the cat. Kaci (excuse the spelling…) is wearing a denim skirt and has her arm slung around Catherine. If you look at the full-size photograph, you can see something is off. There is a thin line separating the two girls, where two different photos were cut, put together and re-photographed. But in the wallet-sized photo, you can’t see the seam.
Starting at a new school in grade 8 with only a handful of kids from my elementary school, I was conscious, for the first time in my life, of the chance to be Somebody Different. I can’t say why I decided to be two different people – I must have been reading Sweet Valley High. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Kaci had been sent to a Very Strict Private School, because she was such a bad influence. She was Sweet Valley High’s Jessica to my Elizabeth. I’m sure it speaks volumes that I chose to make myself the boring twin. My new classmates loved the stories about my wild twin. My old friends were in on the joke. Then Kaci and Catherine started swapping schools. It was a total revelation that I could claim to be somebody else and really feel like I was somebody else. I performed my Catherine days dutifully, but I looked forward to being fearless, noisy, gum-cracking Kaci. Everybody liked her better – of course they did! I went to the grade 8 mixer dance as Kaci. A boy told me I was prettier than my sister.
I was thirteen and hadn’t planned for the long term. The charade fell apart by Halloween. Ha ha, just kidding, your new best friend doesn’t exist! Plot twist! I was half-heartedly ostracized for a while, because I was a liar and had done it all “for attention,” that most heinous of crimes among young adolescents. It had started to get exhausting, anyway, and mostly I was relieved to be rid of Kaci.
Looking back, I think that Kaci was my gateway drug; she got me hooked on self-reinvention. Everything that followed, all those “bad teen” clichés, were just about trying on new skins. When I was old enough to travel by myself, I learned it was more thrilling (and less exhausting) to change my context than myself, and I started to write fiction instead of telling lies, but at fourteen my options seemed limited. I wanted to shock myself, but I didn’t want to shock the people who loved me. I was the old Catherine by day, cheating at scrabble but on time for dinner, and my own terrible twin by night, puking tequila all over the lawn. My life split into two, then three, night and day started to blur, and I had secrets from everybody.
One of the worst things about adolescence is that here you are, brimming with power, energy, physical strength and desire, at your boldest and most ready for adventure, but you are just supposed to go to school. You are supposed to follow this shitty script just when you’re starting to feel like a star. You are supposed to hold yourself back, wait until you’re older.
One of the best things about adolescence is that, most of the time, if you’re lucky, you can shrug off the consequences of your mistakes, start over, remake yourself. That’s not always true, of course. But if you’re going to majorly screw up, there’s no better time of life in which to do so. It’s easier to start over at seventeen than at thirty-seven, in my experience, and people are generally forgiving.
My New Friends told me, “You’re such a princess, you’re so innocent!” I played to the caricature, wide-eyed and corruptible, but I was never sure what I’d done to earn this moniker in the first place, since I was into all the same shit they were. I think it had to do with having two parents and soft edges, or being nice to the cat. I told my New Friends I was grounded when I was going to The Wrong Man’s apartment. The Wrong Man whispered in my ear, “I can see right through you.” I pretended to believe it, because it pleased him to think so and I was all about pleasing him, but I knew that however transparent my fake self might appear, he could never in a million years pick out the real, original girl from this hall of mirrors, this host of girls who looked the same but weren’t.
Eventually my fake lives and selves collided and some very messy years followed. It seemed such an interesting thing to be doing, making this terrible mess! When it stopped being interesting and became simply ugly, I knew what to do. I studied hard – really hard – for the provincial exams. I got a spot at the local university. Then I cut my hair short and went to Scotland.
A few years ago, I was talking with some friends about another friend who was having a baby. One of them said, “Everybody is having babies these days! All we talk about is having babies!” We all had babies too, and we all talked about whether or not we would have more babies. I said, “Just wait – in ten years we’ll be talking about who is getting divorced!” I sort of meant it to be a joke, but nobody laughed, and in retrospect I guess it wasn’t very funny. I couldn’t help wondering, then, which among us would still be married in ten years. The statistical odds just sat there silently, nodding in a knowing sort of way. The most plausible plot twists are starting to look kind of grim.
The question used to be, Who should I be? It felt like a choice, but maybe it was a trick. Now we ask ourselves things like What should I make for dinner? and How are we going to pay for all this? And that’s only so long as we are lucky. We know that one day, any day, we could be asking, How can I bear this? or How long have I got? We avoid the shadows, seek out the sun, watch our children grow and hope that they will do better than we have done, because even when life is so full, it feels like so much has been squandered.
Still, the possibility of becoming somebody else is always there, even as we get older and our skin hardens around us and there are bills to be paid. Behind the questions about dinner and money and the right school district, other questions are lurking and some days they press their way outward and refuse to be set aside: Is this it, then? Is this how it’s going to be? Is this who I turned out to be, after all that? Life cocks an eyebrow and says, Isn’t that up to you? Which seems not quite fair. But then, as we love to tell our children, nobody ever said life was fair, though it’s safe to say it’s stranger than fiction.
*I just googled it and in fact photoshop was …released? created? … in 1990, one year after my twin experiment.