Vanishing Twins, page 1
Copyright © 2018 by Leah Dieterich
All rights reserved
First Soft Skull edition: 2018
This is a work of nonfiction. However, some names and identifying details of individuals have been changed to protect their privacy, correspondence has been shortened for clarity, and dialogue has been reconstructed from memory.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Dieterich, Leah, author.
Title: Vanishing twins : a marriage / Leah Dieterich.
Description: First Soft Skull edition. | New York : Soft Skull Press, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2018022961| ISBN 9781593762919 (pbk. ; alk. paper) | ISBN 9781593763060 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Dieterich, Leah. | Gender identity. | Open marriage—United States. | Non-monogamous relationships—United States. | Married people—Sexual behavior.
Classification: LCC HQ980.5.U5 D54 2018 | DDC 305.30973—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018022961
Published by Soft Skull Press
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New York, NY 10001
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During my ballerina years, I danced mainly in the corps de ballet. This is the term for the group of dancers who are not soloists. The literal translation is the body of the ballet, and as such, all the dancers in the corps move together, like synchronized swimmers. They are one body. But not even a body. They are a backdrop for the principal dancers. Just scenery.
In high school I was given the option of studying French or Spanish. I chose French because it was the language of ballet. Pas de deux, rond de jambe, plié, jeté. I’d been saying these phrases for years, but until I started taking French, they’d just been the names of steps. I didn’t know what the individual words meant.
We all took pseudonyms, at the behest of our teacher. These were our French-class selves, the people we became when we spoke that language.
My best friend was also a dancer and renamed herself Giselle, after the main character in the ballet of the same name. Giselle goes mad after being cheated on by her lover and dies of a weak heart. In the afterlife, she is taken in by a group of female ghosts called the Wilis, who force the man who betrayed her to dance himself to death.
Because my best friend chose a ballet character, I did too. In school, as in dance, she was so self-assured, so effortless. I studied her movements, like learning choreography, and hoped that when I repeated them they would appear to be my own.
My French alter ego became Odile, a character from Swan Lake. Odile is the Black Swan, the villainous doppelgänger of the White Swan, Odette, who is really a princess turned into a swan by Odile’s sorcerer father. In the ballet, both roles are danced by the same ballerina. I always dreamed that someday I’d get to play them both.
In 101 Stories of the Great Ballets, George Balanchine calls Giselle the archetype of a romantic ballet. “To be romantic about something is to see what you are and to wish for something entirely different,” he writes. In Giselle, the Wilis wear billows of white tulle, so they seem “part of the world and yet also above it.” The ghostly spirit, the sylph, was ballet’s symbol for romantic love—“the girl who is so beautiful, so light, so pure that she is unattainable: touch her, and she vanishes.”
One-eighth of all natural pregnancies begin as twins, the book said, but early in pregnancy, one twin becomes less viable and is compressed against the wall of the uterus or absorbed by the other twin.
Of course, I thought. I lost my twin.
This was after I’d read all the other books. The books about sexuality. The books about marriage. The books about love. None of them comforted me like this book did.
The story followed a pair of identical twins who were struggling to grow up without growing apart. My husband and I were struggling with that too.
I read it in one day, in every room of the house, on my stomach, on my back, on my bed, in the yard. I didn’t worry about the ants scaling my thigh, or the black widows living under the outdoor furniture.
One-eighth. I tell people this statistic when I tell them I’m writing about my search for the twin I never had. The number makes me seem less crazy.
“Suspicion is a philosophy of hope,” Adam Phillips says in Monogamy. “It makes us believe that there is something to know and something worth knowing. It makes us believe there is something rather than nothing.” He’s referring to the suspicion that one’s partner is having an affair, but the same holds true for the existence of my twin.
I’ve always preferred being in the company of one other person to being in a group. I’d thought this meant I was antisocial, but maybe it’s a desire to return to the relationship I had with another person in the womb. That pre-person—my little mirror ball of cells.
Maybe my twin would have danced ballet too. I stopped when I was eighteen. Maybe my twin would have kept going.
Because of ballet, I spent a lot of time looking at my reflection. In class, we crowded each other to dance in front of the skinny mirror, the single panel in the wall of mirrors that inexplicably elongated the images of our bodies. The teacher tried to spread us out but it was no use. Our only other option was to lose enough weight to look skinny in any mirror, and we tried that too.
Twelve years later, I sit in the dark behind a two-way mirror with my ad agency colleagues, watching a focus group eat hamburgers and talk about how they taste. It feels deceitful to watch people when they think they are alone with their reflection.
We like to believe that a mirror shows our truest self, but it rarely does. If you’re right up against it, with your nose touching the glass, you don’t see anything at all.
That was the way I pressed myself to Eric. And Elena. And Ethan. I was too close and could not focus.
In all the articles, twins separated at birth always seem to share incredible similarities and quirks, no matter how differently they were raised. They hold their beer cans with just their thumb and index finger; they have moles on the left side of their rib cages. Neither of them likes ketchup.
I thought if I met someone with disgustingly fast-growing cuticles who liked the smell of burned toast more than anything in the world, it would prove I’d been missing my mate.
If my twin was identical, it would have been a girl, but if it was fraternal, it could have been a boy or a girl. All this is to say I didn’t know what I was looking for.
Giselle got a boyfriend at the donut shop where she worked and quickly experienced all of her sexual firsts without me. This threw off the comforting symmetry that had always made our friendship seem predestined. Suddenly I felt as if I were a foot shorter than she was. At sixteen, her parents allowed her to finish high school via correspondence courses so she could spend more of her day at the dance studio. She was gone. Jumped off the seesaw while I was still on it, letting me drop with tailbone-breaking speed to the dirt below.
Ever since we met in third grade, no one at school had uttered our first names separately. They were always linked with an and. Now there was an empty space next to that and, a vacancy. Sometimes the weather in that space was mild, just the breeze of her being whisked away. Other times it rained for days.
I needed to sandbag it.
But instead of filling this void, I chose to build a structure around it. I got up at 6:30 a.m., was at school by 7:25, drank a Diet Coke, ate a Granny Smith apple for lunch, and finished my homework during study hall before driving mys
Was it her I wanted? Him? The acts themselves? It was difficult to pinpoint the object of my jealousy. It was easier to imitate, so I got myself a boyfriend—a popular boy I snagged by fooling around with his friend to prove I was sexually available. It was an odd way to show my interest in him, but he was a teenager, and it worked. Anyway, I was just spackling the hole Giselle had left.
My boyfriend was a soccer player who wasn’t interested in ballet or any arts, but it didn’t matter. At the time, our mutual interest of sexual exploration was enough. He became part of my schedule too. We’d fool around from two to four o’clock in one of our bedrooms while our parents were at work. After that, I’d drive thirty minutes to my ballet school, stopping midway at a Dunkin’ Donuts near the regional airport to get an iced coffee, adding skim milk and three packets of Equal. This low-cal, high-caffeine cocktail typically sufficed to keep me awake during the drive. Ballet class ran from five thirty to seven, and after that we’d rehearse for whatever performance we were working on until about eight thirty. I suppose I ate dinner when I got home, but I don’t recall. In my memory, that part of the day drops off like a cliff.
Prior to the boyfriend, before I started spending my after-school hours giving long and poorly executed blow jobs and getting urinary tract infections from sex, I would eat snacks. Having a boyfriend took the place of those snacks. I no longer needed them.
And I got thinner. Da was all my Russian ballet teacher said as she poked my side, indicating she was pleased with my weight loss. We were always praised when we became less and less of ourselves.
The desire to dwindle was strong. It felt religious, cleansing, a penance for some sin I couldn’t pinpoint. At the same time, I felt like a contest winner. But I knew I couldn’t have done it alone. As I held the ballet barre, legs working furiously below the serene upper body, my teacher’s bony finger acknowledging my concavity, I attributed my success to having a sexual partner, a playmate who made it easier to not nourish myself.
In the 1950s, my ballet teacher had been the prima ballerina of the Kirov Ballet. She was the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, as well as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, but her signature role was The Dying Swan. It is a self-contained piece, a four-minute solo accompanied by piano and cello, depicting the last fluttering movements of a dying swan. There is a flickery film of her dancing this piece on YouTube.
We often did The Dying Swan at the end of class. She tried to teach us how to die, but we were too young and too American. We were never doing it right. Nyet! she’d scream, and clap her hands for the pianist to stop. She’d shout corrections in French, our only shared language, and I’d translate for my classmates. And when language failed she was physical. She pulled on our arms and slapped our butts. When I think of her now, drawing her gnarled finger up the side of my ribs, she reminds me of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” wanting to eat me, though she rarely ate anything.
Vanishing Twin Syndrome. That’s what the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology calls it when a fetus in a multiple pregnancy dies in utero and is partially or completely reabsorbed by the surviving fetus.
This phenomenon has likely existed forever, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s, when ultrasounds became sophisticated enough to detect twins as early as five weeks, that doctors began having the unnerving experience of viewing twin embryos one month, only to find a singleton the next.
The term vanishing twin was coined in 1980, the year I was born.
In Lawrence Wright’s book Twins: And What They Tell Us About Who We Are I read this: If the less viable twin is not consumed, it “exists in a kind of limbo, compressed by the other to a flattened, parchment-like state known as fetus papyraceus.”
Papyrus, like paper.
“Somewhere in the vicinity of twelve to fifteen percent of us—and that’s a minimum estimate—are walking around thinking we’re singletons, when in fact we’re only the big half.” That’s Wright quoting a geneticist, so of course I believe it. I believe in percentages, in pieces of pie. But I don’t like his choice of words: the big half.
I don’t want to be the big half. It sounds oafish and ugly.
And while it can’t be denied that the big half is the winner, the one who makes it out, it also means that losing someone is a consequence of growth.
Deadline.com: “VH1 Orders Competition Series for Identical Twins.” This headline appears in my browser. It is morning, and I’m in my office at the advertising agency. My friend Alex, who works in entertainment, has sent me this link because she knows I’m writing about my suspicion that I’ve lost a twin. Lately, everyone has been sending me these kinds of links, telling me about movies to watch and books to read, tagging me in the comments sections of news articles. It seems they’re all interested in twins now that they have someone to share their discoveries with.
I am alone in what used to be my shared office. On the other side of the room, the blinds are drawn and the desk is empty. I no longer have a partner, so there is no one to see that I’m reading this press release instead of working.
“VH1 is putting the bond between identical twins to the test with Twinning (working title), a 10-episode, hour-long competition reality series set to premiere next summer. The project, created and produced by Lighthearted Entertainment (Dating Naked), will feature 12 sets of twins going through challenges that will test their twin connection. (Reports of the incredible strength of the bond between identical twins include cases of siblings dating the same people, finishing each other’s sentences and feeling each other’s physical pain.) Through the challenges, sets of twins will be eliminated until one pair is named the twinners and walk away with the grand prize of $222,222.22.”
While I appreciate the cuteness of twinners, I’m annoyed by the grammar mistake. It should be “until one pair is named the twinner and walks away with the grand prize.”
A pair, while two people, is singular. This is the grammar I feel in my heart.
The fact that it’s called vanishing twin instead of vanished twin seems to indicate that the disappearance is perpetual, not completed, possibly not completable.
When one twin comes out and the other doesn’t, it’s over, in a certain sense. But grammatically, the vanishing twin is continually fading from existence. This makes it harder to mourn, because the disappearance never really ends.
Another friend tells me about a man she once worked with who had a pain in his ribs that wouldn’t go away. It turned out he had a cyst that needed to be removed. When they did the surgery, they found that the cyst was a teratoma—composed of bits of hair, teeth, and fetal bones—the remnant of a vanished twin. “He had his twin removed,” she said, and to underscore the reality of this unbelievable thing: “He took the day off work to have his twin removed.”
I asked if she could put me in touch with him. I wanted to see if he’d ever wondered about having a twin or fantasized about it. Was the cyst a shock or did it somehow make sense? Did he ask to see what they’d removed? Did he have a scar?
“I don’t think he likes talking about it,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t have told you.”
I’d never pictured myself going to college, and certainly not in the Midwest. I’d always thought I’d move to New York when I grew up. I’d be a dancer. I’d wait tables. I’d ride the subway and stare at the ads in the train cars.
In Indiana, the ads were antiabortion billboards. There were Greek letters on houses, and sweatshirts and sweatpants embroidered with I-N-D-I-A-N-A. I never understood why people needed their clothes to remind them where they were.
I’d gotten offers to dance at Ballet Florida and Cincinnati Ballet, places I wanted to live even less than Indiana. I hadn’t gotten any offers from companies in New York. Indiana University was my backup plan, one of the only schools in the country that had a ballet major. I figured I’d go there for a year and then reaudition for comp
I met Alex the first afternoon after my parents moved me into the dorm. I had wandered out of my room toward the elevator, thinking I’d take a walk around campus to see where my classes were, or go to the ballet studio and work out. I knew I needed to be in top shape for the first day of class, and taking even a few days off made me feel stiffer, less coordinated.
As I approached the elevator, Alex was there, waiting to go down. I noticed her body. It was lean and athletic, and she had thick hair, like mine. I always liked girls with thick hair; I felt I had more in common with them than girls with thin hair—hair that could be put up into a bun with only one or two bobby pins, instead of the half a pack I needed to get mine to stay in place. Alex seemed like more of a jock than I was, though. She had her key on a red and white IU lanyard hanging out of her back pocket, the same way the basketball players in my high school had done. “Hi,” I said, initiating conversation. My mother had told me not to be aloof.
“I’m Alex,” she said. “Wanna go to this ice cream social?” She laughed as she pointed to a flyer taped to the wall.
“Sure,” I said, happy to have someone to follow.
The beds in the dorms were called extra-long twins, a longer version of the twin bed. In America we call the smallest bed a twin, whereas in England they call it a single. Calling it a single makes a lot more sense, since it’s a bed for one person. Calling it a twin assumes there should be two identical beds. And often there are. Married couples on sitcoms were shown sleeping in them until the early 1960s. Even Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz—who were married in real life—slept like brother and sister in their twin beds on TV.