Voices above the surface.
Eight hours to remove the parasite’s internal organs . . . amputate . . .
Who’s speaking? Talking about?
Nervous system disorganized . . . chaotic . . .
Circles of pink light. Spreading fast.
No paralysis in the autosite . . .
Bitter. Smell? Taste?
Four hours to suture . . .
Metal clangs. Water runs. Where?
Earlier separation . . . much simpler . . .
Murmuring, mumbling, laughing.
Twelve years old . . . quite late . . . psychological adjustment . . .
Voice, very close: “Daman. Are you awake? Can you wake up? Your father is here.”
No moving. Eyes closed. Cold cocoon. Sleep.
Later? Daddyji’s voice: “Daman. Daman. Wake up now. Everything went fine. It’s all over. All you have to do now is rest and recover.”
What does it mean? Remembering. Today is the operation. Separation. Amputation. Something.
But Kalki’s still here. I feel him, the weight of him, on my belly. He can’t move either, but he’s here.
I hear a whisper. It’s me: “When will it happen?”
Laughter. Daddyji’s voice: “It’s already happened. It’s over. It’s done. You’re fine.”
Whisper: “But--Kalki? I feel him.”
Daddyji’s voice, harder now: “No. It’s gone. You’re normal now. Open your eyes and look.”
White ceiling pocked with little holes.
A cold hand slides under my neck, lifts my head. Blue walls, white sheets, silver metal things.
Daddyji. My body, flat and bandaged.
I can’t see Kalki, but of course he’s there. Where else would he be?
We were born not one or two, but one and a half. Born with “twin reversed arterial perfusion.” Our one heart was inside my body, making me the pump twin. His tiny lower torso and legs protruded from my abdomen, his vestigial head buried inside me. You can still see that ghostly head on the X-rays. His shoulders and arms never developed. When people asked me how it felt to have someone else’s head inside me, I never knew how to answer. What does it feel like for you not to have a head inside your torso? “Normal”? There’s your answer.
But Kalki wasn’t dead--oh, no! I could always feel his life, our heart pumping blood through his little body. I felt his temperature fluctuations, his tiny toes stretching and flexing. He twitched constantly, even in his sleep. You know how you can use a ticking clock to simulate a mother’s heart beat, to reassure an infant or a puppy? That’s how his constant tiny movements were to me--reassuring, comforting, like rocking in a cradle.
He smelled like life. Strange to say, I suppose, but the smell of life is piss and shit. (The dead produce neither.) He always wore a diaper, of course--he dribbled and dripped constantly--but his closeness to my nose meant that I always smelled him. I don’t remember ever thinking that he smelled bad, I guess because the smell was always with me. It was just Kalki’s smell, my brother’s smell. Later, when I got older and more interested in our penises, I noticed that his sometimes got hard. I tried a few times to make him come, but that never happened. His smell was always babyish, never adolescent.
The doctors always called him the parasite. It annoyed me that they didn’t use his name. After all, they called me Daman, not the autosite. Mamaji used his name and so did I, but no one else ever did.
Greg, my supervisor, looks worried. He shuffles through the papers on his desk. I know he’s been arguing with some jackass in the Human Resources Office. Greg’s a good guy, he’s on my side, but he’s wearing out. He says, “Now, Daman, about this request you filed with HRO, this Request for Reasonable Accommodation. Why do you need this software? What’s it called again? Yeah, this Dragon Naturally Speaking with PDF converter? Christ, Daman, it’s two thousand dollars!”
I feel sorry for him. It’s been a bad year, budgets tight all around. He’s had to cut back a lot, no training for anyone this year, no conferences. He even had to lay off our legal intern last week--our first intern from Harvard--and that really stung. She was great; we were all sorry to see her go.
But I give it a shot in my brightest talking-to-the-boss voice: “Well, it’ll help me create contracts, dictate briefs, and so on. It even does email. Huge legal vocabulary and . . . and it also formats legal citations.” I’m running out of bullshit, but I push out a few more buzz-words: “Let’s see . . . builds templates . . . um, transcribes . . .”
Greg’s worry lines deepen and his mouth tightens, so I stop talking. He sighs. “Yeah, I know all that. You attached the marketing blurb to your request.” He leans forward and puts his forearms on his desk, hands clasped. “Daman, we’ve got to talk about you, not the product. Why do you--you specifically--need this thing? We’ve got to have a documented disability. We need to prove that you can’t do your job under the current conditions.”
I scoot my chair back a little. My face feels warm. How do I explain this? “Well, it’s just that I’m having a hard time getting close enough to my computer to use the keyboard.”
Greg raises his eyebrows. “I don’t understand. We bought you screen magnifier software last year. Have your eyes gotten worse?”
“No, no, that screen magnifier is great. It isn’t that. It’s not my . . . vision.”
“So what is it then?”
Silence. He stares at me. I know I should make eye contact, but I’m looking out the window.
Silence. He says, “Daman, I can’t help you unless you help me.”
I look back at him, but my eyes drop to his desk. “Well, it’s my . . . arms, I guess. They aren’t long
enough to reach the keyboard when I’m sitting. I . . . uh, need the voice-activated software because I can’t reach the keyboard.”
His forehead softens. “Oh, I get it. Sounds like tendonitis or bursitis or something. You know, there are other solutions--cheaper ones.” He smiles. “You could put your laptop on top of a filing cabinet and stand up to use it. Or we could get you a reclining desk chair.”
“No . . . no. The chair’s not the problem.” I’m running out of excuses.
He thinks for a minute, then says, “Can you show me? Show me on my computer.” He stands up and walks a few steps away from his desk.
Yeah, I can show him, but I’m starting to get a dragging feeling, like this won’t work either. I sit down at his desk, face his computer, and adjust his chair so I’m comfortable.
“But you’re--what?--a good twenty inches away from the desk! You can’t get any closer?”
I look at his computer screen. There’s nothing on it, just a bouncing tetrahedron, one of those default screen savers. He’s a conscientious guy; he wouldn’t leave sensitive documents up on the screen during an employee conference. I say, “It’s hard to explain, Greg. I just can’t. If I get any closer, I feel claustrophobic--like I’m suffocating.”
I stand up, and we return to our chairs. Greg looks brighter. “A phobia, you say? Interesting. How about a therapist? We could probably get a referral today if we--“
Kalki kicks; I interrupt. “No. No therapist. This isn’t something I can get rid of.” Today, at least, I’m sure. As if I haven’t already thought about seeing a therapist a million times. As if a million times I haven’t already cursed Kalki for being born. Daddyji, for arranging the separation--or not arranging it much earlier, at our birth, before I knew Kalki. Mamaji, for giving birth to us, for teaching me to love my brother.
Myself, for not being able to live without him, even years after he’s gone.
Greg begins again, reassuring me--never say never, even the worst cases, blah, blah.
I interrupt again: “Greg, no. I can’t get rid of it.” Silence. “No therapist. I just can’t.”
We stare at each other for a minute. My face feels really hot now. His face clenches, like a fist. I
hate to do this to him. I hate to do this to myself. But Kalki . . . .
Greg’s eyes close for a second, then open. His mouth tightens. There’s a long pause before he says, very evenly, “Well, Daman. I’m sorry. I don’t think we can help you.”
Mamaji was a devout Hindu. She wanted Kalki and me to have the appropriate ceremonies, but there were problems. During the Jatakarma, when new babies are welcomed into the world, Daddyji was supposed to drop ghee and honey onto our tongues. Then he was supposed to pierce our earlobes--so we’d have good memories--and whisper the names of God into our ears. But Kalki had neither tongue nor ears, so Daddyji was stymied. Also embarrassed, and he hated that.
But the ritual worked for me. I have a good memory. I remember Kalki all the time.
During the Namakarana, the naming ceremony, Daddyji named me Daman, “the controller,”
because I was the pump twin. Kalki’s name, “destroyer of sins,” was Mamaji’s choice.
Maybe Daddyji should have thought more about the meaning of Kalki’s name before deciding on the operation.
Daddyji saw these traditional ceremonies as a waste of time and money. He didn’t see Kalki as a person. Kalki was just an ugly thing sticking out of me, an excrescence like a wart or a mole. After we were born, Daddyji never made love to Mamaji again--no more children. He just worked harder than ever, staying away from home as much as possible. Kalki and I were left to the care of Mamaji and the private tutors that came to our house to spare us the ordeal of going to school and being taunted by the other boys.
But Mamaji’s guru said that God doesn’t make mistakes. So Mamaji bathed and clothed Kalki until I got old enough to care for him. She trimmed his tiny toenails. She put warm socks on his little feet in cold weather. She never knew that he didn’t like wearing socks--he’d kick and kick until I secretly removed them, then he’d settle down again. She made me promise that I’d always treat him like a brother, not like a wart.
When Mamaji died during our tenth year, Daddyji made some changes. He was determined that we would not continue to shame him.
Many conjoined twins come from India and Italy, places that begin with I. Isn’t that strange? Look at it: I is the most solitary letter in the alphabet, so different from H. If Kalki and I had been born conjoined but equal, like Chang and Eng, we would have been an H. But we were born a Y. And now I’m just an I.
Just I. But it always feels like we.
Anyway, some of those other conjoined twins earned big money by exhibiting themselves. There were even some fakes, usually Anglo actors in makeup who attached rubber “twins” to their bodies. Daddyji has always had a healthy respect for money, but not money earned that way. He’s an educated man. He didn’t want ignorant fools throwing rocks at Kalki and me or (perhaps, in his mind, even worse) praying to us because they thought we were a manifestation of Vishnu. He had been outraged by the persistent approaches of an “entertainment entrepreneur” who wanted to buy us to display in a circus.
That was the last straw. His sons in a freak show! So he sent us to live with our aunt in Boston.
But he didn’t intend for Kalki to stay long. He didn’t want a pariah or a god or a monstrosity for a son; he wanted an engineer or a lawyer or a professor. One normal son, not two abnormal ones.
I did try to keep my promise to Mamaji. But Daddyji was stronger. He was our father, after all. I still wonder if there was any way I could have prevented the separation. We were only twelve.
Kalki and I do the best we can with what we have left.
But every night, before sleep, we rewrite the past. We win the argument with Daddyji. Or kill him. Or run away from home. Sometimes we go with the freak-show guy. Sometimes we go to Tibet, become monks. Or to the beach at Orissa, hide out in the ruined Gopalpur temple. Make occasional appearances as Vishnu.
I protect Kalki. We stay together.
At first, Mona was okay with the bedroom rules. Maybe they seemed weird enough to be interesting, or maybe she thought they were exotic, like my dark body next to her light one.
But after a while she started to complain. “Too many don’ts, Daman. Don’t touch my stomach! Don’t unbutton my shirt! It’s always got to be doggie style--I get tired of that! You never spoon me or hold me close. You’ve told me a million times that your scar doesn’t hurt, so what’s the deal?”
She knows I had major abdominal surgery as a child. (I tell everyone it was Crohn’s.) So I trot out the old “You know I don’t want you to see my huge ugly scar. I’m really self-conscious about it in bed.”
But it’s not working this time. Her voice is impatient, not sympathetic. “Daman, I love you. I don’t give a shit about your scar. Everybody has scars. I hate tippy-toeing around it in bed, always having to avoid it. I hate the way it keeps coming between us.”
I laugh at the literalness of her objection, and, after a moment, she laughs with me.
She leans in to kiss me, leaving the usual space between our bodies, and says, “Okay, okay. How about something simpler: we’ll do it in the dark. We’ll leave the lights off. I’ll keep my eyes closed. I’ll wear a blindfold. We’ll buy a whole wardrobe of blindfolds for me to wear in bed. How does that sound, me in a blindfold and nothing else? You get to pick a different one each night: the fluffy black marabou blindfold, the red leather blindfold with Xs over the eyes, the black lace blindfold, the metallic blue satin blindfold with the fringe, the −.”
Her eyes are closed; she’s pretending to be blindfolded. Kalki relaxes, I relax. I kiss her; she relaxes. I love kissing her. I haven’t ever felt this close to anyone else—except Kalki, of course.
I’ve never told anyone about Kalki. But Mona and I are planning to get married. Shouldn’t she know?
I try to anticipate her possible reactions to the knowledge, try to anticipate how each response might affect us. What if she got interested in him, wanted to know more, welcomed him to the family, treated him like a brother? Or like another husband? What if she just blew him off, thinking (like Daddyji) that he was a wart? Or if she laughed at his fantasies--his and mine--of running away together?
I don’t like any of the possible reactions I can imagine her having. I need to think carefully about exposing him.
Now I’m annoyed. She’s changing the rules after the game’s begun. She’s known from the beginning that I don’t drive, that I’m not going to drive. One of our reasons for staying in Boston instead of moving to the suburbs was the public transportation system. Anyway, a lot of people don’t drive here. Parking spaces are rare and hugely expensive. Driving during rush hour is hair-raising and blood-pressure-raising. Auto insurance premiums are sky-high. Auto theft is a recreational sport in East Boston and plenty of other places. So I’m definitely not alone in not driving.
Mona and I discussed all this before we got married, and she was fine with it. When we wanted to get out of town on a weekend, she drove. She liked having her own car, didn’t mind maintaining and garaging it.
But now: “Daman, I’ll need you to drive me to the doctor during the last trimester. I probably won’t be able to get my big belly behind the wheel. And of course you’ll drive me to the hospital for the birth.”
“No, I won’t. We’ll call a taxi. Plenty of pregnant women get to the hospital that way. I’ve even heard of women who drove themselves to the hospital while they were in labor.”
She stares at me like I’m crazy. Then she shakes her head like she’s shaking my words out of it. Her face and voice get hard (like Daddyji’s). “Daman, please try to focus on the big picture, not on a specific example. There will be errands that need to be done by car, not by subway or bus. When I’ve got the baby, I won’t be able to do them.”
“So we’ll hire a nanny with a car. It won’t be a big deal; I can get some referrals today from Jack.
He and Melissa have used driving nannies for all their kids.”
“Daman, stop it! You keep offering solutions to every problem except the one I’m talking about.
You have to learn to drive!”
Kalki stiffens, his toes curling with apprehension. He hates being compressed; the steering wheel would make him feel like a prisoner. I say, “I’ve got to go. We’ll talk about this later.”
“Right. As usual.” The sarcasm is automatic, not heartfelt. She looks tired and distracted. I don’t kiss her good-bye, but she doesn’t look like she misses it.
I don’t either.
“Daman, would you please take him for a minute? I need to duck into this restroom.”
I take Jason, bending his legs up in front of him so they don’t hang down onto my stomach. He’s ten months old now. He’s not really heavy for his age--only about twenty pounds--but he’s definitely going to be tall. Already he’s over thirty inches long and growing fast. I wish we’d brought the stroller inside the mall with us, but Mona said we’d just be a few minutes.
At first, I couldn’t get enough of holding Jason. It was like Kalki had returned to me. His tiny toes
spreading out like a fan. The constant motion, twitching and fluttering, even in sleep. The smell of his dirty diapers--it was almost like being boys again together, back home, with Mamaji still there. Mona was amazed that I never complained about diaper-changing, that I was happy to do it all. The feeding was a different matter--Kalki hadn’t needed that. But as soon as Mona finished feeding Jason, I wanted him back.
It came to an end one night when I was changing Jason on our bed. I was exploring his little body, comparing him to Kalki, comparing his diaper smells to Kalki’s. I didn’t know Mona had come into the room and was watching us until she said, “Uh . . . Daman, what are you doing?”
I jumped when she spoke, and my answer was louder than it should have been. “Nothing! Just changing him!” I fastened the diaper roughly, startling Jason and making him cry. She picked him up off the bed and gave me a strange look. I don’t know what she thought I had been doing. She didn’t say anything, just stared at me for a minute before taking the baby away.
Since that time, she’s always been the one to change him.
And now that he’s older, he doesn’t want me to keep him close all the time. He doesn’t like me to keep his legs bent. He wants to dangle them, to stretch them out.
But I don’t want his feet kicking my stomach. That’s Kalki’s space.
I won’t be able to hold him much longer. I’ll need to make sure that we always have the stroller
Jason is really squirming now. I sit down on one of the wooden benches that surround the palm trees inside the mall and set him on my thighs. He stands up and lunges to embrace my neck with his arms, pushing one foot hard into my solar plexus. I feel Kalki gasp with pain and quickly thrust Jason away, holding him at arm’s length on my knees. When Mona returns, he’s crying.
Again, she says nothing as she takes him from me.
She and I talk less and less these days.
As far back as I can remember, I thought I could understand Kalki. I had this idea that when he straightened his left knee and stretched apart his left toes like opening a fan, it meant he was cold and wanted to be covered up. And when he straightened his right knee and stretched out his right toes, he was too hot and wanted to be uncovered. Whether I was reading his signals correctly--whether these were really signals at all--I responded as I thought he wished, covering or uncovering him. Then his body would relax, and his legs calm down. I remember wondering if he would get too hot when the cats slept in bed with us during our first winter in Boston.
As boys in India, we had known only feral street cats, teeming with scabs and fleas, who spent their lives scrounging for a bare subsistence--fighting to the death over the rotting fish eyes discarded in the city’s household garbage, accompanying their rape-matings with blood-curdling yowls, and spitting ferociously at any human who dared to approach them. So when Bua Shanti, our father’s sister in Boston, introduced us to her indoor tribe of cats and kittens, we were initially fearful and even a little disgusted. Many of our neighbors in Bangalore had seen cats as vermin, no better than rats. But these well-cared-for animals were so different from the feral cats we had known that we soon lost our fear.
Kalki especially liked it when some of the kittens slept in our bed during the cold nights of that first winter in Boston. They burrowed under the blankets to nestle against us, and he rubbed his little feet on their dry, woolly fur. He never kicked or showed any impatience with them. I know he couldn’t hear them purring and chirping, but he always seemed to relax into sleep when they made these quiet noises.
His favorite kittens were Bali and Punit, who were often in our bed. They licked each other (sometimes pretty roughly), wrestled, kicked against each other’s bellies, and bit each other on the back of the neck. When they got tired, they slept, curled up together in a ball with their heads, tails, and feet tucked inside.
At the time, I thought I was afraid that the kittens’ tiny thorn-like claws might hurt Kalki. But maybe I was just jealous of his attention to them. The following spring, when Kalki and I were twelve years old, I began shutting the cats and kittens out of our room at night. I don’t know if Kalki missed them.
That first year in Boston, Daddyji had arranged for us to settle in with our aunt, then have the surgery and recover from it before beginning school in our new life--or, rather, in my new life. He wanted me to have a fresh start.
But I was lonely. Daddyji would continue to live in India (although he promised to be with us for the operation). I would probably never see my tutors or Mamaji’s guru again. And Mamaji was dead.
All I had left was my brother.
I didn’t really understand what was coming. Daddyji had explained the surgery to me, of course, and I nodded my agreement, as he expected.
But how could I imagine life without Kalki? If you can feel, smell, and love someone, how is it possible for that person not to exist?
Of course, Daddyji doesn’t understand my self-imposed isolation. For a long time, his letters, calls, emails, and videos have been full of urgent paternal advice on doing my duty, living up to my responsibilities, and so on. He hasn’t been harsh or judgmental--well, no more than usual. I think he really has tried to understand why I’ve given up on my family and career.
But his urgency is lessening. When I made my usual Sunday call yesterday, his second wife spoke to me for a few minutes before putting him on the phone. “Daman, you know your father would never complain about his health.” (Right; he’d see that as a sign of weakness.) “But he’s having some real problems now with his high blood pressure and diabetes.” (Ironic--he always joked that his big belly was a sign of prosperity.) “I know you were counting on us flying out to see you this year as usual, but I suspect his traveling days are over. You know you have a standing invitation to visit us any time, for any length of time. And if you wanted to return to India to live” (she means now that my career and marriage have failed) “our house is quite big enough to give you all the privacy and space you need. Would you consider coming to us? If not to live, then to visit? Soon? It might be the last time you see him, Daman.”
My voice sounds sympathetic, reassuring. “Of course, Radha. I understand completely. I’ll see what I can arrange.” She knows perfectly well this isn’t going to happen, although she’ll never understand why. Airplane travel is agonizing for Kalki, just like car travel. The travel time from Boston to Bangalore by air would be over twenty hours. And once we were there, we’d have to endure the same daily irritation of making excuses for what others perceive as our--my eccentric behavior.
Kalki and I are happy at home.
Her voice is subdued. “Okay, Daman. Here’s your father now.”
His voice sounds old, with an irritating whiny undertone that it didn’t used to have. “Daman, I heard what she told you, and it’s all bullshit! I plan to be around forever.” He laughs, then coughs. “But if it takes a big lie to get you out here, all right: I’m on the way out. That’s what they think, Radha and your brothers.” (Half-brothers--I have only one real brother.) “They all think I’m going to die soon, but at least I won’t die alone, like you.”
I smiled. That’s not going to happen.