Charles River: on parallel but divergent trauma as a twin
This isn't an essay about rape. I can't write about my sister's rape. I am not trying to write about mine. I wish I could write about power, abuse, the mind and worldview of someone who believes they are powerless.
This is an essay about a river in Boston. He asked, "have you ever had sex with a man?" but I didn't understand. I am not going to write about that. I'm going to write about anything else.
People ask if we have twinspeak. I have a vague memory of Mom telling us :: did we have it? Did you understand me when I snarled :: even then I didn’t have the language to say :: the violence of the unspoken. Our twinspeak is built out of cold water and ice :: the frozen layers of the river forefully stilled (we are never
By the time Meaghan and I left the wine bar, it had gotten cold. I’d had two glasses of a sparkling white I’d never heard of and she’d had Cabernet. It was too loud to talk and we had to sit across from each other, squeezed between two overeager parties dressed in business casual. The waitress mostly forgot about us unless we reached out. Too young and unnoticed, we sank towards not being in a way we have always been trained. It was not okay to speak out loud here. We drank and were quiet with each other, comfortable in our usual sadnesses.
The wind blew freely across Boston Common and the lamps dotting the paths were beckoningly bright as we walked down Tremont Street. “I’m freezing and need some food!” Meaghan crescendoed.
“But, the movie—“We were going to see Call Me by Your Name the first night it showed in Boston.
Her arms were crossed on her chest tightly. “I should have brought my jacket. I really didn’t think it would be this cold. I always forget about how cold it ends up getting.” It was only a few days before our Christmas Eve birthday. The residual snow, gaslit lamps and cobblestone streets of Boston heightened the seasonal chill. She shivered.
Her face formed that taut expression I always called her I’m-gonna-beat-you-up face. We laughed and grabbed some pizza and garlic knots.
At seventeen, we left the house. The options were clear: a federal service academy or enlistment. Any way we could be gone, in the water alone and away. For me, wispy boychild who my parents saw as “redeemable” and therefore still somewhat supported, the process of applying to and gaining admittance to the US Merchant Marine Academy was a possibility. They did not think the same of Meaghan, called her a dumb girl when she messed up her applications and the SATs we were not allowed to study for. Called the Marines too dangerous for a slut like her. She was forced to enlist in the Coast Guard. Seventeen year old girl, alone. She was strong willed and balked against authority. She stood out, her loud eyes and smirking mouth. She was too powerful. In the Coast Guard, my sister was raped.
Meaghan was actually delighted to escape and had been counting down the days. On the evenings we were both in our alarmed rooms with the doors shut, we would sneak under the pretense of going to the bathroom and whisper under the door crack to each other: one more month, three more weeks, fifteen days, single digits. I couldn’t imagine surviving in the house without her. This world was all we knew, or I did. She always knew it wasn’t real, that authority and the constraints of our abuse. I fell towards unrealistic fantasy, but she always knew a real life existed.
It was March when she left for bootcamp. I was sitting at the end of a hallway staring at the wall, a unique punishment for being too untrustworthy to sit in the dark of my empty bedroom during the day. I had nothing but my body, and when I used it I was called a devious animal. While sitting in the room with a bed, a dresser with no clothes, and nothing else, I had masturbated onto the single piece of spare cloth in the room: my eyeglasses cleaner. It was made clear that nothing about me was natural, but soon I would be gone.
“You’re never going to see her again," they said.
I was never going to see her again. I believed them.
I don’t remember if I was allowed to get up to give her a hug. I know that I was crying. I sat in that folding chair every day for months. Nobody in the house spoke about my sister after she had left. The cold metal in the morning, the black cushion of the seat and back. Throughout the days the light changed slowly but evenly. I didn’t think of anything but static, my fantasy future life. I remembered her by counting down each night.
Elio was seventeen and he cried :: because of a man. A dream, idyllic Italian summers :: calm reflecting pools. Nobody’s life :: cruel ponds, rapids, ocean waves inside of :: between us. We love making men cry, our secret power :: small revenges seventeen :: seventeen :: seventeen.
I do think of it as the beginning of our lives but then boy girl twins :: were raped.
D. enjoyed, as he put it to his upperclass friends, “helping.” Helping boys. Boys he thought were gay but confused. Younger boys with wide eyes and smooth faces.
I was the third or fourth member of the crew team he had “helped” during his tenure as the captain. J., C., Me. Someone else. None of us identified as gay then and none of do now. I knew it wasn’t me he wanted when there were still two feet between us on the quilted bed. I couldn’t focus on the small television. Winona Ryder’s voice mixed with my brain static inside of me, sloshing.
I felt drawn to him and his power. I moved towards him, that pulsing and his body. Perhaps some decisions we make were always inevitable. Maybe they’re made for us.
J. asked me to become the novice coxswain because I was the smallest Plebe in First Company. He had wandered the halls during morning inspection when we all stood outside our doors at attention or parade rest, depending on who had walked through the doorway from the ladderwell: Attention On Deck was called for officers, midshipmen officers like the Company or Platoon Commanders, or any First Classman who had made it to their senior year of school. J., however, was a lowly Third Classman and only one year ahead of us. It seemed like he was so much older and more important, but maybe that was because he had to shave every day, had a growing crown of white skin on the crown of his head, and was built like a forty year old man. Or maybe that was because for me, the difference between being nobody or being somebody was indefinable—a year in school, a body that moved a certain way, an attitude or way of looking across the water. So no, we didn’t call Attention On Deck, and we stood at Parade Rest when he came over and told us to cut it out and relax a bit.
“You, what’s your name?” and he pointed at me with his stub finger. I had no idea who he was but I figured it mattered. My wide eyes. “You’re the perfect size.”
The first poem I remember writing was about my twin sister and water. She has always been stronger than me. In my memory, she wandered into the pond where our father took us to feed the ducks. In the poem, her bright face shone under afternoon sun with the mallard’s green wings. The white reflection of the water rippled from her legs, her smallness failed to pull her foot from the mud, the world disappeared her shoe. Meaghan, her girl foot in a soaking wet sock, and the ducks swam away from the violence of the water taking from her. It was pure violence how the ripples spread, and we all laughed about it. The two of us and our father laughed.
What happens when we never call things what they are? Nothing to see, it’s just water moving. The rapids, white foam and static. I have no way to know if she remembers it the same way and that is just as violent as any crash a man has made on us. A pond, a river. Ripples, currents. There is no such thing as “worse” because water erodes.
We ran into Boston Common with the garlic knots and Meaghan called Jason even though he wasn’t her boyfriend yet. I climbed a tree, laughing at her and myself looking down on her. Her voice was loud, coarse, throat-damaged gravelly and she laughed across the empty night of the park. Couples holding hands floated away from us but we didn’t notice them. I was in one of the funks I have when I wish I felt joy but I only feel white noise. I don’t know how Meaghan felt, but I think she was lonely because of her divorce, our birthday and Christmas. This time of year was always strange to us. It wasn’t snowing but it had the stillness of that falling. Some shadow people walked dogs that didn’t bark and floated away from us. When she felt bad my masculine twin acted strong. I laughed again because I was so unhappy and wanted the moment to mean as much as it could, but Meaghan’s voice was too loud. It distracted me from my desperate thoughts. I climbed down from the tree.
I couldn’t resist the Parkman Bandstand when I saw it. It was a pagoda decorated with white lights that caught my eye. I’ve always loved pagodas, the wooden beams and thatched roofs, the cracks in the deck planks. In movies people fall over in love under pagodas. I fell dramatically on the tiles, hearing her talking on the phone, wanting to be alone and for this to be a moment in a poem. Life is not a poem. I was not alone. Meaghan laughed across the park. Another memory, rippling violently. Us there, together. Life is not as beautiful as it could be, but it’s more beautiful in its own ways. I took a snapchat story of the lights because I wanted to remember it forever.
The Head of the Charles is a coxswain’s race because of the river’s curves. It’s all in the steering: cutting the best lines in the water, passing the other boats at strategic times.
There are six bridges and only one ideal arch in each. Passing through the wrong arch or misjudging the amount of time your shell needs to pass through, how much time you think and the other coxswains think it takes—it’s a game of power.
If I misjudged how much time it took for my crew to move their bodies, my body, the weight of their oars and fiberglass shell between here and there under the cement and brick, through the graffiti from BU and Harvard crews and the echoing snap of their oarlocks and my voice calling
focus ten on timing one two
the ratio three four that’s it five hear it six the echo seven together eight moving nine
one more ten.
If you get that timing wrong and there’s another boat under the bridge you just lost a whole minute. You just lost the race. Weigh Enough.
Our memory :: the ocean, where the rivers end :: it was ruined, we were ruined :: the dark of a bedroom with the curtains drawn and the small volume of whispers :: our hands moving imperceptibly in sign language letters, spelling out each word :: sand on the floor and static, static :: your brown eyes and wide pupils :: the smell of water from the tap and our dry mouths
(if we’re ever separated, you know—)
the words spoken and unspoken :: our twinspeak in the stones :: nobody needs to know as long as we can open their mouths :: our currents and imperceptible finger movements :: ethereal words and cold night washing over :: you (if we’re separated, if they separate us—)
you whispered in the dark and didn’t care if they heard you speaking
(—we will find each other.)
The coxswain resides in a position of power in the crew shell. In the four man boat, he will sit tucked into the bow, his legs encased by fiberglass so just his head appears above the gunnel. Small in stature, hidden, slitted eyes darting down the course, he pulls the wires controlling the rudder of the boat. He sets the direction and decides what lines to cut in the river, demands more or less speed from the rowers, uses his voice to command them.
The rowers, lost in the physical stress of propelling the boat forward, find themselves entranced by him. His voice projected through a microphone and speakers. His being as he becomes during the race.
From the decisive push away from the dock, the coxswain becomes something other than a small person steering a boat. He becomes powerful, trance-inducing. The coxswain, in the adrenaline rush of other bodies, becomes a god.
The night before the race, D. invited me to his room. When I asked him, he took his shirt off and looked bemused, eyes downturned at me even from underneath my body. I was seventeen and drunk off the two screwdrivers he had given me. He was twenty-three. Because he had asked me to, I came to his room in the Mariner’s House we were staying in for the Head of the Charles Regatta. Beetlejuice was on TV. I was excited for my first Head of the Charles. I was enamored but unable to speak to him. D. laughed at how drunk I had gotten.
I didn’t know what to do with the ideas I in my body when he pressed his mouth against mine, wet. I never much liked the taste of vodka. His tongue made me think of beef. It was dark, there was nothing else to do and I wanted. So badly, I wanted to be someone. Longing has no words and no realistic way to inhabit a breath. His breath was hot on my face and I didn’t like the way it stuck to my cheeks.
“That was my first kiss,” I whispered. I can’t remember what he said, but of course he knew. “This is so strange.”
I put my hands in his underwear to hold his scrotum. We were on top of the covers, so he must have been cold. It didn’t occur to me whether he was erect or not. The skin was taut and I traced my fingers along the ghost ridges of him. I used to feel my own body that way when I was a child. The scrotum clinging to itself. He laughed, and when he tried to touch me I giggled, then pushed him away. I was ticklish and didn’t know yet how to relax, how to let someone. How to give parts of me away.
“I just never thought that I was gay. Or could be. You know?”
I felt more like an observer than a true inhabitant of that body. The things I wanted from D. had nothing to do with our physical forms.
“Well, are you hard?”
I was. But what could that mean?
“Then you are.”
He made that much simple, and I liked being explained. Just being cold on top of the covers with him, I decided to believe him.
After the movie, with the rush of people we didn’t know or care about on the escalator out of the theater—
“I can’t help thinking of you.”
*********************** “But it isn’t me, that’s not my story or how things happened.”
“I know, but you deserved it. To be. To be loved like that. And those parents.”
“You did too.”
“No, no. But I had to do that for you—“
“It’s still not our story…”
“Joey, just let me have this one moment. Let this be mine for once. Everything has always been yours.”
Back in the cold, the grey snow on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street shined under the streetlights. We walked through the North End towards the Coast Guard base. The cobblestones and squat buildings. It felt like we were in Italy when I squinted and swayed. Meaghan was drunk still. She talked for a few minutes about misunderstandings, and I wanted to say something to heal her but I couldn’t. Things don’t mean the same to different people, even for us.
I said, “I know,” pressing my lips against my teeth.
our memory :: it was raining :: we always woke up early, before Dad :: we waited in silence for the day :: an eternity, and we were restless children. *******************************
your idea :: always bolder :: I couldn’t feel past the thick air of the house :: you cut right through it even then, when we were so young. we dressed in our rain gear and grabbed umbrellas :: carefully, sneakily lifted the overhead garage door :: slipped under. the sky ripped open onto us :: the rain did not stop or ease :: it poured harder and harder.
we danced and danced :: infinite, that time before morning, and it was ours together. we believed that the two of us would never leave the pounding wet of that grey dawn and we believed in the ways that we could always have each other. (we don’t have to say each other’s names. it’s not worth talking sometimes.
there is no need for words. let’s just walk in silence, cold,
drunk and alone together.)
Almost at the end of the race, the crew reaches the most difficult stretch: a long, uneventful run culminating in a 180 degree turn. The coxswain calls out the strokes, keeps the rowers engaged and focused, but they become tired. Coming into the apex of the turn, the rudder is not enough. At a crucial point he calls out
five hard on starboard in two one, two
and the force of the starboard oars against the water one
turns the vessel imperceptibly two
more than before three
until the entire shell has turned four enough, he calls out even pressure.
The rowers focus together again, and the shell is propelled click over a few strokes click through the final bridge of the race, into the last stretch to the finishing line. Now, the race isn’t about power. It is about endurance. The coxswain, the port rowers, the starboard rowers come together. The finish line is reached whether they can control the vessel or not.
The Charles River keeps flowing.
The day after we saw Call Me By Your Name we did not talk about the fight. We moved away from the pond years ago and there’s no going back. We used to fight even more often and it always felt like the end of the world. She sobered up and drove fast and reckless away from Boston and we didn’t have to talk. Now when we fight, we know how the water works to smooth over everything.
We drove back down into the city the next day, her for school and me to amble around in the name of art, nostalgia, shame. When all we ever knew was the constant struggle to keep both our heads above water we couldn’t stay mad about misunderstanding. I walked along the Charles River melodramatically listening to the movie soundtrack. I have to laugh at myself.
I stood at the section between the River Street and Western Avenue Bridges for a few moments. This was always the easiest part of the Head of the Charles for me because the river is wide, multiple arches are safe to pass through, it’s early enough in the race for the crew to be easily focused, and the water is as still as it can be. My crew was in my control, the oars slicing were in my control, that wildly turning river was tame. I’d call a power ten. Coming up on the stern—even with—passing—pulling ahead.
Today there are no boats; too late in the morning and too cold to row outside. The water was as still as ever although uncontrollable currents slid just below the surface. I started crying as the piano notes of Une Barque Sur L’ocean opened towards waves. There weren’t even birds, and I imagined being a swan rising above the surface with my long neck. Two swans, one above and one below the surface, taking turns at who gets to breathe or drown. It was a terrible day and the dead vegetation was ugly against the grey sky, so I was not at all pleased. And yet it was so beautiful to recognize how beautiful it was to be in pain.
Then I turned away. It was so ridiculous: the fight, the movie, standing like that next to a river because I wanted to turn everything into a poem. All of it. Anyway, that’s just what it meant for us to be alive.