I still can’t really say how or when Miriam made the move from being our English au pair to being my twin brother's girlfriend. It was all done in secret, of course, during some clandestine exchange made the summer before I went away to college. Who can really say when the transition took place? One day she was standing in the foyer, shaking our hands, taking Baby June to change her “nappy,” and months later she was exchanging furtive glances with Jessie.
Perhaps they made the transition on a day in early summer when our father was away at the university, teaching a summer school history class. I can still see the lilac bushes in our front yard that June bursting with purple blossoms. And Jessie cutting the front lawn, pushing the mower with his sleeves rolled up, his dark hair falling over his eyes as he turned a corner on the edge of the lawn. Girls loved his hair—the way he pushed it out of his eyes before it fell right back over them again. Miriam, too, couldn’t have been impervious to his looks. He was of age and only three years younger than she was. I imagine she thought this as she watched him from the front windows in her tight Kelly-green tee-shirt, her jet hair sticking up slightly in back.
Maybe it started that day with Miriam bouncing Baby June in her arms and pointing to Jessie through the window as he mowed the lawn. Perhaps she hoped her rapport with our baby sister would get her even closer to my brother. Nervously, she snapped a wad of pink gum, pushing it out of her red-glossed mouth and over her tongue like it was something she wanted to spit out. I could watch her tongue curl around a gob of gum for hours. She turned to find me watching her from the stairs. Playfully, she blew a big pink bubble. It popped on her face and she let out a laugh. It’s safe to say I was smitten.
When Jessie and I were little, one of our mother’s favorite bedtime stories to tell us was the fable about Romulus and Remus, the twins who were abandoned by Amulius when he discovered their real father was Mars. The twins were thrown into the River Tiber, but were rescued by a she-wolf.
That was how I saw Miriam—the she-wolf who had come to save us.
Perhaps Jessie and Miriam had started their liaison later that day at lunchtime after Baby June was down for a nap and when Jessie came inside the house. I’m sure Miriam served him his regular ham sandwich (no cheese) and they were alone. I can picture her leaning in close to him as she put the jar of Dijon mustard on the table. She was so unlike the girls at school with their strict ponytails, pearl-buttoned sweaters, and pink-glossed mouths. So unlike our missing mother whose austere pantsuits and demand of impeccable table manners began to wear us down.
Miriam was unrefined in all the ways Jessie coveted. He loved her crass sense of humor, the ring in her nose, her lack of higher education, and her upbringing in a small cramped flat in Cricklewood London. I imagined he relished the sight of her chipped red nail polish and the large silver rings haloing her fingers, the way she carelessly licked some extra mustard off her forefinger and wiped it on her apron. Perhaps when she put his glass of lemonade on the table that day at lunch, he grabbed her hand. Possibly her fingers curled around his and she pulled him up out of the chair. They could have been toe to toe, staring into each other's eyes. Maybe her heart knocked inside her chest while she pushed the hair away from his face the way our mother used to when he was a child—curling it tenderly behind his right ear.
Meanwhile, Jessie probably barely believed it. He'd never been with a girl older than he was or one as cool as Miriam. During this dance of seduction, I imagine Miriam's guard was down. Her usual wry remarks would be useless to her now. Perhaps she thought of newborn ducks at a pond near her house back in Cricklewood and how vulnerable they looked without fluff on them yet. Perhaps this was how she felt as Jessie stared back at her. He was so young, so handsome, so dangerous to touch. I imagine neither of them knew what to do.
At birth, Jessie weighed six pounds; I weighed two. We incurred Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome—a condition caused in utero by unequally sharing our mother’s placenta. Jesse drew more nutrients from my mother than I was able to and resulted in my mother almost losing me before birth. I guess you could say I drew the short straw. Although I eventually caught up to Jessie in height, my limbs were still colt-like. I was a composite of angles—all shoulder blades and sharp kneecaps. My ribs were visible through my skin and my clavicles were like handlebars. At eighteen, the hollows of my cheekbones were so deep, they got in the way of my molars and caused me to bite the inside of my cheeks.
When I was thirteen, I would hold quarters in the hollows of my eye sockets to see how long I could go without them falling out. Sometimes I could walk around my room for up to five minutes with the coins squeezed over my eyes while not bumping into anything. When Jessie played The Wall by Pink Floyd in his room across the hall, I would wait until “Bring the Boys Back Home” came on. Once the music started, I would try to keep the coins over my eyes while pretending to be a drum major, swinging the empty cardboard tube Jessie's Pink Floyd poster had come in like a baton. I could feel myself being pulled from the middle of my chest by the snare drum, the crashing cymbals, the frenzied voices and horns as I marched back and forth across the hardwood floors until my calves burned. For the duration of the song, I felt like somebody else—somebody important, somebody complete.
One day Jessie caught me. I don't know how long he had been leaning against the doorframe watching me. When I saw him in my peripheral vision behind the quarters, I let the poster tube and the coins clatter to the floor as the music continued to play across the hall. “That was awesome!” he said, his eyes bright with enthusiasm. “How do you do that coin thing?” Some people might think he was being sarcastic, but Jessie has always been sincere, even protective, when it comes to me—his skinny, awkward twin with the dark under-eye circles and shadowy face.
Even though we are the same age—born three minutes apart—he has always treated me like a younger brother and I always saw him as older. That day when we were both thirteen, he took me into his room and played the song over and over, training me from the foot of his bed. He kept time to the music with a drumstick on the footboard until I had perfected the routine. Soon I could march the whole song while holding the coins, not bumping into anything while twirling the cardboard baton several figure eights in the air, switching hands mid-song. Soon after that, Jessie began to call me “Major.”
Romulus eventually murdered Remus and went on to become the first ruler of Rome. I know Jesse didn’t mean to almost kill me in the womb. However, sometimes I pictured him as a Roman god coming at me with a gladius, which in this case would have been my nickname.
So when Mariam brought up my nickname one evening, I wasn’t that surprised. Before it was mentioned, Miriam had been walking back and forth between the table and the stove at dinner. Her eyeliner had formed little black half-moons under her eyes. I looked at her thinking she and Jessie were up late the previous night. Maybe he had been sneaking off to her room at the end of the hall after we had all gone to bed. Baby June sat in her high chair gurgling and playing with a piece of spaghetti that Jessie had given her, saying Sgetti and giggling. Jessie's face was colored with amusement as he talked to her in a hoarse baby voice he'd adopted specifically for her. Sgetti? he kept saying, tucking a swoop of dark hair behind his ear. Sgetti?
My father walked in and slumped in his chair, looking weary and irritated. Ever since our mother left with his best friend Lance five months prior, he'd understandably been in a foul mood. His hands were fists on top of the kitchen table, his greying hair slightly askew as if he hadn’t combed it in days. White chalkboard dust decorated the outer sleeves of his dark jacket like it was something he'd forgotten to deal with or hadn't had the will to brush off. He asked Miriam in a cantankerous tone where the Parmesan cheese was. In an effort to help her (she was spooning sauce onto plates of spaghetti while the oven timer was going off), I got up and headed for the refrigerator. But she intercepted me, hooking her boot into the refrigerator door and popping it open.
“Ahhh, Major,” Jessie said, planting his face in his hands and smiling. “Always the helper.”
Jessie had a dreamy look in his eyes as he watched Miriam, reaching into the fridge. When she finally found the Parmesan, my father had already left the room. She shrugged and put the jar in the middle of the table and sat down. That was when she brought up my nickname.
“So, Jonah,” she said as she was helping herself to a heap of spaghetti, training her fiery blue eyes on me, “You've never told me why your brother calls you Major.”
I watched her shake the cheese over the top of the spaghetti, making a white mound of it before mixing it together. This should have been an easy question to answer. My brother liked the performance I gave back in seventh grade when I held coins in my eye sockets and marched to Pink Floyd like a drum major. But it sounded preposterous. Jessie was looking from me then to her as if he were considering answering the question himself. Before he could say anything, I blurted, “When we're done with dinner, we can show you.”
“Really?” Jessie said as a dent formed between his brows. “We haven’t done ‘Bring The Boys Back Home’ in years.”
“I can remember it,” I said.
But it didn’t happen. Instead, Baby June's mood turned sour and she was caught in a crying jag that wouldn’t stop. My father locked himself in his room, leaving Jessie, Miriam, and me to deal with it.
“Momma!” June screamed, jumping up and down in her pink pajamas, spaghetti sauce haloing her small open mouth as she rattled the wooden bars of her crib.
I had been picturing my mother with Lance—now an investment banker in Boston. I imagined my mother following him around his stark, impersonal apartment filled with industrial lighting and white walls as she tried to talk herself out of her guilt. “Jonah will be fine. I spent eighteen years fretting after him—he’s always been so awkward, but he’s brilliant. I do worry about him going to New York though. He’s such a daydreamer. He could look out a window for hours. It’s no wonder he wants to be a writer. And then there’s Jessie. He was gifted with those good looks. He’ll be fine. Always has been. All he needs to do is smile and the world hands him a cookie. And then June. Well, she's . . ." My scenario ended there. There was no answer she could possibly give that would serve as an acceptable excuse.
I rocked Baby June in my arms. As she fell into a pacific sleep, I walked into my room and eyed the figurine of Romulus and Remus suckling the teat of the she-wolf on my bookcase. Our father—a classics professor—had given it to our mother as a gift after we were born. I sighed. Would I make it on my own? What if I had merely been the shadow of Jessie all these years—absorbed by his strength and good looks? What if I had merely been the byproduct of him?
The next day at breakfast after my father left for work, Miriam said, “So I never got to see the reason they call you Major.”
Her red curving mouth was aimed at me as she spooned applesauce into Baby June's mouth. Jessie cleared his throat and looked at me as if to say We don't need to show her. However, I was determined to show her because somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the embarrassment of showing her how I wound up with my namesake may be the only thing that would force me to leave home and attend Yale. My brother’s nickname for me—his gladius—would be the thing that saved me.
“After breakfast,” I said.
But after breakfast, Miriam drove my mother's blue Passat to the supermarket for formula and diapers. Jessie hopped a ride with her to get cigarettes and shampoo. Upstairs, Baby June played on the floor with some of my books while I continued the project I had recently started. I had been going through my closet, dividing what I would take with me to Columbia and what I would leave behind. I pulled out my suitcase and began loading it with jeans and pajamas, my books of poetry and Dostoyevsky novels. I felt short of breath.
As I pulled down a pile of tee shirts from the top shelf in my closet, I found the shirts Miriam had pressed for me hanging on a hook inside the closet door. They were just tee shirts, but she had ironed them. I put my nose to a stiff sleeve and inhaled as if I'd smell her cinnamon and cigarette scent—the fragrance I smelled every time she was close by.
I imagined Jessie and Miriam returning from the store, but parking the car at the bottom of the road and slipping off into the woods, walking out to a fallen trunk in the cove of fir trees Jessie and I played in as kids. With a pain in my sternum, I imagined him taking her face firmly in his hands and pressing his lips to her red smile in the green light of the trees while inhaling that warm cinnamon scent. Perhaps as he slipped his tongue into her mouth, he was not only bursting with the desire to consume her entirely, but also itching more than ever, to tell someone he was sleeping with a hot English nanny. How could he not be? But I was sure he had been sworn to secrecy. On the way back to the car, as he picked pine needles from her black hair and she shook leaves from her sweater, I pictured her reminding him again: “Not a word, yeah?”
I didn’t close the suitcase. Instead, I swiped the figurine of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf and set it atop the pile of clothes.
When they got back to the house with bags of groceries, I was practicing my march back and forth across the floor while Baby June looked up at me with cheerful infant eyes and laughed, shaking a book at me. I must have looked strange marching to a tune I could only hear in my head, swinging a cardboard baton. I could no longer keep the coins in my eye sockets as my face had fleshed out since childhood, but that didn’t mean the coins couldn’t be part of the performance. With clear packing tape, I secured them above my eyebrows and decided I would pull them down over my eyes when the time came to perform. I could hear them downstairs, talking, but couldn’t make out any words—just laughter and the cadence of their voices. I heard the crumple of grocery bags and the opening and closing of the refrigerator and cupboards. In Jessie's room, I rummaged through his music for the CD. He had record albums and cassettes from when we were young still crammed into boxes next to his bed. I found the CD and queued it up on his CD player, then took Baby June in Jessie's room and waited. Not long after, I heard their voices on the stairs and Jessie called up.
“We were just waiting for you,” I said as they peeked into the room.
“What are you doing?” Jessie asked, a puzzled look flashing over the symmetry of his face.
“I'm going to show Miriam how I got my nickname.”
For a moment, Miriam was looking back at me with a mystified expression, probably due to the quarters taped to my brow. But she cracked a smile.
“Let’s see,” she said edging her way into the room past Jessie and taking a seat on the bed. “What's with the quarters on the eyebrows?”
“I used to be able to carry them in my eye sockets when I was a kid.”
She scrunched her brow and looked at Jessie who was standing in the doorframe with his arms crossed over his chest. He shrugged and smiled, as if he were acknowledging this was our normal, but there was a sheepish hunch in his shoulders.
“He could do it. It was amazing,” he said. His tone was unconvincing. It was clear he was uncomfortable.
Miriam scooped Baby June into her lap. “Well go on then. Let's see how you got to be Major.”
I queued up the music and hit play. The snare drum gradually filled the room as I moved the taped quarters down over my eyes and lifted my knees, beginning to march in place. Of course, I felt stupid, but it was too late to back down now. There was no turning back. I would have to go to Columbia now.
The quarters blocked most of my vision, but I could see around them enough to know where I should step. Instead of a cardboard tube packed with a Pink Floyd poster, I held a tube with my posters of book covers—100 Years of Solitude and Invisible Man—rolled up inside. The cymbals crashed and I lifted my knees higher. I began to swing the tube from side to side. The faces of Jessie's old friends—Randy and Aaron—loomed before me. I could see them as they were when we were young, their heads angled in laughter as they watched my routine. I could see Randy spitting out his gum into his hand because he was afraid he might choke and Aaron pumping his fist in the air. The voices in the song were culminating in their high-pitched wail as I marched back to the other end of the room, holding my head high, knowing that as soon as the song ended, I would pack the cardboard tubes with the posters inside with the rest of my books and clothes. I would pack it all. Even the quarters taped over my eyes.
As the music ended, I took the coins from my eyes. They were applauding, but Jessie's eyes weren’t laughing like they used to in the old days. Instead, they were in the midst of a disturbed squint as if he'd realized that this scenario shouldn't have been allowed to happen. Ever. A pain seized my heart. I would miss him terribly. We had never been apart for more than the week I went to a writing camp one summer and Jessie went to guitar camp. Even then, we wrote each other every day.
Baby June was laughing and bouncing on Miriam's lap. Miriam's eyes were alive with fascination as if she had just finished watching a giraffe walk on its hind legs while juggling. It was the way the kids at school would look at me when I would trip over my own feet, the way Jessie's friends regarded me the first time they met me—in disbelief that I was Jessie's twin—so quiet and bent at strange intersections.
“Bravo,” Miriam said, rising from the bed. “That's the stuff!”
I took a half-hearted bow, eyeing my open suitcase packed with folded jeans, the starched shirts, the figurine of Romulus and Remus balancing on top of the clothes. The she-wolf seemed to be looking up at me as if to say, Run, Major. Run.
Jennifer Makowsky's work has appeared in The Portland Review, Gargoyle, 2 Bridges Review, The Matador Review, Blue Earth Review, and other journals.