Editor’s Note: The author is the Featured Student Writer for the 15th anniversary issue. She is the first recipient of the Talbot Arts and Delmarva Review Talbot County High School Mentorship Scholarship award.
Author’s Note: “As an only child, siblinghood has always been a mystery. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a person who looked similar to you, who shared a predetermined, yet unique bond with you. E Duo Unum was an extension of my questions. For the brother who suffers the loss of his twin in this story, his grieving is especially intense. How do you deal with being a walking reminder of your loss?”
E Duo Unum
HE’LL DESCRIBE IT AS A FREE FALL, later, when people ask. The innocent question will hang in the air. By then, he will have swallowed a jumble of words, never finding one quite like the rancid, bitter taste that still lingers, seeping its way into half- hearted kisses, favorite foods, and even his blood whenever he bites too hard on the spongy inside of his mouth. Desperate to give it a name, he finally hit on the phrase: free fall. A free fall, he chants, and feels the same dizzying, disorienting pull of gravity. He welcomes it.
He takes long showers now, hoping to scrub away the uninvited memories and to delay the inevitable rendezvous with his mirror. The tiles reflect his sobs, echoing them until it sounds like a hundred wailing boys wrapping around him. He shuts off the water to mute their cries, but the heavy steam still whispers. He steps from the shower, water pooling in his protruding collarbones. He turns to face the matching sink, empty now. He stares at the abandoned electric toothbrush—a red version of his blue one, white toothpaste crusted along its edges. The room seems deathly still without its usual buzzing harmony of early mornings and bedtime routines.
His eyes finally meet themselves in the mirror, yet they do not belong to him. When he crinkles his eyes, he sees the eyes of lazy summers and inside jokes. When he widens them, they become portals to another time and place, where mischievous boys are sneaking out to go meet pretty girls and then, tiptoeing back, folding themselves into beds that cramp their lanky frames.
Last summer, on one of their excursions, he and his brother discovered the water tower in town. They were drawn to the forbidden, ballooning dome that proudly displayed the town’s name. Soon, their climb became a ritual. They would race to the top, their arms and legs stretching toward that crested crown. That’s when they were eagles, their chests puffed to the sky, their legs dangling off a ledge of clouds.
The mirror is unwavering in its reflection. He sees those same eyes staring back, the pair that fell in love with that shining jewel of a dome, the pair that tried to be like an eagle’s. Once bright eyes now locked beneath closed lids, turned to glass inside a pale, waxy jail.
His fist cuts through the steamy air, striking those eyes and smashing them into glittery fragments. The jagged pieces arrange themselves into a kaleidoscope of lidless eyes that haunts him from broken fragments. He glances at the vanity that has been left untouched since the day his brother ended their race to the top. Had he even tried to stop the unforgiving earth? He feels the rest of his fall—he’s felt it over and over—but never the moment of impact.
When he’s falling, he hopelessly tries to grab onto his own memories. His vision blurs with old photographs and scrapbooks until he cannot remember who is who. He somersaults through the air, chasing his brother. They cling to each other, two halves briefly coming whole. They tumble not as Geminis or twin flames or cooing toddlers in matching pajamas, but as one. One young man, now desperate for his family to see them both again.
He shakes the memory. It doesn’t belong to him, and he is tired of them nettling his mind, a cruelness of their biologies, his own memories now eclipsed by the endlessly looping free fall. As he reaches for the door, he wonders if his mother will notice the broken mirror or the purple bruises collecting in the grooves of his knuckles. He knows she won’t.
He stands at the bottom of the stairs, silently watching his family in the kitchen.
At first, whenever he would speak or walk into a room, he could feel their stupid hope. In the beginning, he was happy he could briefly alter reality as if he were born for such a role. But the burden pressed down on him like the unrelenting demand of gravity. His mother started holding his face and murmuring sighs into his hair. At first, it made him sick to pretend, but after a while, it wasn’t so hard to slip into someone else’s place. Or to let someone slip into his. But with every comfort he accepted, every warm reminiscence, he felt himself fading. In his place, someone new and different: out of two smiling babies, with rubber ducks and bibs in a neatly framed fridge photograph, emerges one.
He barely flinches in the kitchen when his mother calls him by the wrong name. He doesn’t care that his mother only cooks his favorite meal. He shovels up every bite of that red, bloody steak, and almost has to stop himself from licking the plate. He almost craves it now, breathing life into his brother in a way no one else can. He is special. They are special.
He’s felt his brother’s free fall and now his own, his limbs splayed toward a mass of sky. He’s cycled through all stages of grief twice, and now he fears for the end. He asks his brother: Did you even brace yourself against the crunch of your bones? Did you lie there covering your heart until the rest of the world faded? Did you have time to spit the dirt out of your mouth and crawl away?
There’s only one thing left for him to do. He lets himself fuse with his brother’s lost self, their destinies intertwined, and spirits bowed like swans. He’s making room for two, the way only a twin could. He savors the weight of their body as they near the bottom. But he’s learned to control it now. He slows their descent, hovering before touching onto the pillowy ground. Now, he understands how easy it is to fall, to succumb to gravity.
That’s what he’ll say when people ask.
Maxine Poe-Jensen, a senior at St. Michaels High School, is the 2022 recipient of the Delmarva Review Youth Writing Mentorship and Scholarship Award. The joint initiative is funded by a grant from Talbot Arts and supported by Talbot County Schools. The awarded student collaborates with one of the review’s editors to finalize the original prose for publication. The high school scholarship and mentoring initiative encourages outstanding writing among students in regional schools. Maxine is from Easton, Maryland.
Delmarva Review publishes compelling fiction, nonfiction, and poetry selected from thousands of submissions annually. Designed to encourage outstanding new writing, the literary journal is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Financial support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org
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Letters to Editor
Julie Susman says
Wilson Wyatt says
All of us at the Delmarva Review congratulate Maxine Poe-Jensen for reaching out as a student to aspire to new heights with her writing. Wishing her and other students the aspiration and perseverance to continue their drive toward the best new writing. It will open a lifetime of opportunities.
Bill Peak says
Great piece of writing. What an extraordinary talent at such an early age! Lots to look forward to from this young woman.