ABOUT THE AUTHOR
You are my sister …
You are my face; you are me …
I waited for you
You are mine
You are mine
You are mine
I REMEMBER WHAT was playing when the car slammed into us. It was Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Like most pieces of classical music I’ve ever heard, it started out pretty slow, then sped up, then peaked, then slowed down again. My sister, Isabelle, asked Dad to put her orchestra practice CD in his SUV’s new, super-fancy, twelve-disk player. Isabelle unbuckled her seat belt, leaned over, and handed the CD to Dad from the backseat. Isabelle wanted to hear the music as the “Maestro” had intended it, she said, before she and her friends butchered it at Morrison High’s spring orchestra concert.
The car ride was a quiet one because our parents had announced two weeks earlier that they were separating. They had even stopped wearing their wedding rings. We were all still living under the same roof, until Dad could find a place of his own and move out.
“You want us to wait for you, or do you want to get a bite with your friends?” Mom lowered the volume on The Firebird to ask Isabelle.
“If we’d left fifteen minutes earlier, we would have missed all this traffic.” Dad sounded irritated.
Even though he had sworn that nothing was going to change, that he would still “accompany” Mom to our school activities whenever he could, I was thinking that the four of us wouldn’t be eating together that much from now on, so I hoped Isabelle would choose us over her friends, at least for the night.
“Can Ron come with?” Isabelle asked.
Ron Johnson was a relatively new friend. I didn’t know much about him, except that he didn’t run around with Isabelle’s music crowd. He liked pilot whales, bird-watching, rock climbing, and all types of other outdoorsy things. He was a nature geek, like Isabelle.
“Sure he can come,” Dad said. He had calmed down a bit and was adjusting his muscular build in the driver’s seat. His voice was cool, but his hands weren’t. He was looking over the long line of cars ahead of us. They were packed so closely together that their lights seemed to merge. There was nowhere for him to go.
At first it seemed like a mirage, some type of optical illusion, like when water distorts light and the light gets misdirected. Suddenly the traffic began moving forward, then a red minivan sped up, crossed the middle lane, and slammed into the back door, on Isabelle’s side.
I remember Isabelle trying to face me, her long thin braids, which were the same length as mine—our only concession to twindom—grazing her shoulders, then covering her face like a shield. She raised both her hands to her eyes at the same moment that Mom started screaming.
“Vire! Turn! Vire!” Mom shouted in the mix of English and Haitian Creole that she and Dad sometimes spoke, especially when they were anxious or angry.
But even as the cars around us tried to scurry out of the way and Dad did his best to follow their lead, there was still nowhere to turn. On one side of us was a concrete wall protecting a gated community from the street. Dad tried to steer the car as close to the wall as possible and as Mom’s and my doors dragged against the wall, the tension created fireworks-like sparks. The scraping was loud, too, like thousands of fingernails against as many blackboards. I remember thinking that even if we made it out of this okay, between all the screeching and Mom’s screaming, and the other cars on the street honking, we’d all be deaf for a long time.
The red minivan rammed into Isabelle’s door one more time.
“Turn the other way. Lòt kote a!” Mom yelled, then began coughing as the smell of burning tires filled the inside of the car.
And here I am prolonging this so I can spend a little more time in this part of my life, in Dad’s SUV, on an ordinary Friday evening heading to a concert where my sister was supposed to play.
In this part of my life, my sister, Isabelle, and I are identical twins, as identical as two drops of water, my grandparents liked to say, even though it’s not completely true. Yes, we are both tall, five feet and eleven inches, like our dad. But Isabelle and I each have a small dot of a birthmark, on opposite sides, behind our ears. We are different in other ways, too. Even though I like to draw and think of myself as an artist—a future one anyway—I’d rather swim a hundred laps at high noon in the Miami sun than play the flute or the piano.
Before the second, bigger crash, I remember Isabelle saying, “The flute. The flute.”
At first I thought it was because she was worried about the flute, but as Dad’s car swerved closer and closer to the wall, the black leather flute case shot up from Isabelle’s lap to her face, then bounced off her chin, pushing her head into the side window. The side window cracked, and I like to think that it was the impact of the red minivan, and not Isabelle’s head, that shattered the glass. Still, the flute case bounced back and struck the other side of Isabelle’s face, before pounding into her ribs.
People say that things like this happen in slow motion, as though you suddenly become an astronaut in the antigravity chamber of your own life. This wasn’t true for me. Things were speeding up instead, and I did my best to slow them down in my mind.
Mom was still screaming our names, taking turns calling Isabelle and me by both our proper names and our nicknames: Isabelle, Giselle, Iz, Giz, Izzie, Gizzie. She then called Dad (“David! David! David!”), shouting his name over and over again.
Isabelle didn’t need to call my name. Not because of the twin telepathy thing people always talk about, but because we were holding hands. We were holding hands the tightest we have ever held hands in our entire lives. We were holding hands just as we had been holding hands on the day we were born. We had shared the same amniotic sac, and during Mom’s C-section, the doctor told our parents that he would need to untwine our fingers to separate us. We were born holding hands. And now, even as our heads bobbed and our bodies flopped—mine strapped behind the seat belt and Isabelle’s loose and unprotected—we screamed for our parents, who were screaming for us, but we wouldn’t let go.
Our parents, too, were being thrown around up front behind their seat belts. The backs of their heads emerged, then disappeared, their faces striking the air bags, Mom’s petite, reed-thin body and Dad’s muscular one trying to stay upright.
Then it happened. The ultimate crash. The light that we couldn’t escape hammered into us, mashing in Isabelle’s air bag–less door.
My sister was still holding my hand, but now our hands were wet and sticky, and hot. I heard Isabelle moan, then gasp, as though exasperated. “We’
re going to be late,” she said, while gasping for breath.
We’re late, we’re late, for a very important date, I thought, as though we had fallen deep down into a series of rabbit holes. No time to say hello, goodbye, we’re late.
I don’t know if Isabelle actually said anything about us being late. Maybe she was just thinking it. Maybe I was just thinking it.
Then there was an eerie silence, pierced by sirens, then honks and beeps, like birds chirping, but unfamiliar birds, or just one, a golden firebird, glowing at a distance, tempting you to touch it, knowing you never could.
In the version of the Russian folktale my sister loves—the one that inspired the centerpiece of the school orchestra’s spring concert that night—a king orders his three sons to capture the shimmering firebird that had been stealing the king’s golden apples. But when the youngest son tries to capture the bird, all he ends up with is a single feather. Though bright enough to light several rooms, the feather isn’t good enough for the king, who would settle for nothing but the bird itself. The king’s youngest son then goes on a quest that leads not only to him capturing the firebird, but meeting a protective grey wolf and a beautiful princess. On his way to the happy ending, the prince gets killed by his brothers. The grey wolf then brings the prince back to life with a secret potion called the Water of Life, and the happy ending is restored.
I wish it could be the same for my parents and my sister.
I wish it could be the same for me.
The secret potion.
The water of life.
All of it.
When I wake up, I am in an ambulance. My whole body feels heavy, but not in pain. I don’t know if I’ve been given painkillers or if I’m just in shock.
I have an oxygen mask on my face and a brace around my neck. I can’t speak to the faces floating in and out of my view, as a piercing light is beamed into my eyes. I can hear static over a radio and try to capture a word here and there. They mostly talk in letters and shorthand. I remember ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) and BP (Blood Pressure). Because one is thought to be too long and the other too low.
I wonder where my parents are. Are they also in ambulances, with their own acronyms being shouted over their heads?
There are moments during the ambulance ride—which I am prolonging here, too—moments when I’m not even there, when I can’t hear the sirens or feel the hard board beneath my body. These are brief moments of silence, like they demand at assemblies, or after something horrible has happened.
Should I be praying? I ask myself.
Our parents have always been religious, but Isabelle and I have often stood, as Isabelle likes to say, on the margins between belief and disbelief. Our faith is a mishmash of many things. We believe in family, in music and art, but we mostly believe in each other. We love our minister, though, Pastor Ben. He was the one who christened us. We also like the church youth choir. Isabelle plays the flute for them and I sing alto with my best friend, Tina. We like the church building’s high, gabled ceilings. We like the dark burgundy cushioned pews. We love Mom’s cloche hats and Dad’s Sunday morning black and navy suits. We love how we all sit together in our favorite mid-row pew. Will we still sit together after our parents separate?
Whatever is after this world, I pray that there’s room for the four of us to always sit together. In the afterworld, let there be music for Isabelle and drawing pencils and pads for me. Let there be fellow army vet pals for Dad and clients for him to defend—even though I don’t think there’ll be people needing political asylum in heaven. Let there be yoga classes for Mom and news anchors’ faces for her to transform with makeup. Let there be Haitian food, rice and beans and fried pork, griyo, and pumpkin soup, especially on January 1, when we celebrate Haitian Independence Day by drinking bowl after bowl.
If there is a heaven, it should be like all the places you love or the places you’ve never been but wish you’d visited while you were still alive. For Isabelle, that would be some of the music capitals of the world but mostly New Orleans, where she would listen to live jazz, twenty-four hours a day.
For me, heaven would be the Louvre, where I would see the Mona Lisa in person. It would also be Haiti, where Mom and Dad were born and fell in love and where Isabelle and I sometimes spend summers with Dad’s parents, Grandma Régine and Grandpa Marcus. Grandma Régine and Grandpa Marcus promised to have a big party for Isabelle and me at their house, at the beginning of this coming summer, for our seventeenth birthday.
These are the things I want to shout inside the ambulance. These are the things I don’t want to forget. I want to hold on to this ambulance ride for as long as I can, because maybe that’s all I have left.
WE’RE LATE, WE’RE late, for a very important date. No time to say hello, goodbye, we’re late, we’re late.
My eyes ache when they pull me out of the ambulance. Dozens of new faces are staring down at me, countless hands transferring me from the flat board to a gurney. Voices drown out one another as my jeans and gold-sequined blouse are clipped off with scissors. My skin feels way too hot, like it’s melting, falling away.
More injuries are listed than I have operating body parts:
Depressed skull fracture
Cerebral and lung contusions
Intracranial pressure and edema
Unstable pelvic fracture
And on and on …
That’s when I realize they’re not just talking about me, but about both of us. They’re also talking about Isabelle.
In a situation like mine, a lot of people say that they see a bright light, then levitate towards it, away from their bodies. Then their lives flash before their eyes, until they meet a comforting angel, their own firebird, or grey wolf, or beautiful princess, or dead relative who encourages them to float back into their skin and remain among the living. The bright light I see is my sister. She is still sitting next to me in our father’s SUV. And because she doesn’t have her phone with her (why doesn’t she have her phone with her?), she’s listening to the music the old-school way, on a CD, the music that she and her friends are about to play. She’s looking out the window, daydreaming perhaps about a flawless performance or a kiss from chocolate-skinned Ron Johnson. Though the kiss might have been hard to manage with all of us there. Or maybe she’s thinking about our parents’ separation, how we might not be together, all four of us, as a family anymore. Or maybe she’s worried that some strangers might soon invade our little unit, in a few weeks, months: our parents’ future girlfriends and boyfriends, the stepsiblings we’d never allow ourselves to love.
With our parents’ coming separation, our little fortress was crumbling, and sitting in that car, we all knew it. But there’s something about music, when you feel it deeply, when you understand it so well, the way Isabelle understands it, there is something about it that makes scary things seem to disappear. If only for a little while.
Even while looking out the window, Isabelle might not have seen the car coming at us. Before that, I’d been looking out the window, too, but I was only seeing things on my side of the car, things that were different from what she was seeing. I wasn’t examining any greater truths. I was looking at headlights and fidgeting drivers. I saw a lady turn around and yell at three young boys crammed in the back of her compact hybrid car. The boys were wearing soccer uniforms. They looked like they were the same age, but they were black and white and brown. The brown woman, maybe not the mother of all of them, looked tired. The boys kept passing a soccer ball back and forth behind her, and this seemed to be making her even more tired each time she took her eyes off the traffic and turned around and told them to stop.
I saw a man inhale a whole hamburger, then wash it down with sixteen ounces of Coke. I saw an older woman smoke three cigarettes in a row. I wanted to point these things out to Isabelle and my parents as they sat in the stalled traffic with me, lost in their own thoughts. But after a while the music gave us all a way out of speaking to
each other. Silence was always our best form of agreement.
In being silent, we were also being considerate of Isabelle. She was in “preparation mode” as Mom and Dad liked to say, and usually I would have made a joke about her little high school orchestra not being the New York Philharmonic and us not being on our way to Carnegie Hall, but this time I said nothing. After all, we were late. Late to an important date.
I can only get myself so far back in my memory and even then with so many gaps in between. It is as if my memory has become the inside of our father’s car, Stravinsky, the flute box, the red light shattering through glass, and the voice that says over and over again, urgently at first, then in a lulling whisper, “I think we’re going to be late.”
Later, I’m thinking I’m still inside Dad’s car, still moving. But I am alone in a small white room with a large glass window panel overlooking a brightly lit hallway, where people walk by with their heads bowed.
I actually feel pain now, too much to pinpoint, too massive, too everywhere. But worse than the pain is my mind’s racing, like the feet of the people rushing back and forth, as if towards or away from some greater danger elsewhere.
Outside my room, the occasional doctor and nurse dash towards beeps and screams and “codes.” And already I have a new vocabulary. How do I even know that a code’s bells and whistles and alarms mean that someone might be dying? Maybe it’s because I heard it being shouted a bunch of times in the ambulance. Had it been shouted at Isabelle? Did we both code at some point? Did Mom and Dad code?
That mind speak, that connection people think only twins have, can also apply to other people who love each other deeply. Soon after our parents announced they were separating, Isabelle and I could still hear Mom’s sobs a few minutes after watching her drive away from the house, on her way to a yoga class.
I hope I can ask questions when someone finally comes to pay attention to me in this little white room. The silver lining might be that I must not be so bad if I am being left alone. The worse you are, the more people crowd around you, right?