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An Underachiever's Diary (Ben Anastas)


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  I started strong, the firstborn of identical twin boys, leading my reluctant brother out into the world by seven minutes flat, give or take a moment to suspend my infant's disbelief in the delivery room. By the time he finally emerged, feetfirst, tangled in his umbilical cord and placid in the obstetrician's forceps, I had already taken my welcome smack, wailed my way into the human race, while sure hands cut my own cord, wiped me down, and bundled me in swaddling clothes. I had a name: William, chosen by my father, who had coveted it for himself since childhood. In the turmoil of the coming years my parents would consider changing my name to Guillaume, in honor of the student protests in Paris (this was 1968), and later, after a trip to Mexico, where they toured the countryside in search of armed insurrectionists and returned with the perfect dining-room set, they toyed with calling me Guillermo. My parents were still in their Anglophilic stage when we were born, and chose a fitting name for my brother: Clive. Clive narrowly escaped becoming Claude -- they were, at least, consistent -- and Chico.

In their fondest dreams, then, the universe was ruled over by the Warren Supreme Court, and following the precedent of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), they believed their children would be guaranteed an equal opportunity to grow and thrive. The recent Gideon v. Wainright (1963) ruling held that, no matter how helpless or indigent, we would always have a voice in family matters. We endured no cutesy nicknames in our formative years, and wore no matching clothes. We would be ordinary brothers, they believed, just closer, and the fact that we were twins would neither limit our development nor provide unfair advantage over the silent, solitary majority. They took smug satisfaction, however, in a line from Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, which my pregnant mother had underlined in their well-thumbed paperback edition: "Twins...develop special strength of personality from being twins: early independence of parental attention, unusual capacity for cooperative play, great loyalty and generosity toward each other." In other words, they had high hopes for us.

What's it like to be a twin? I shared wombtime with someone else, which might explain my love of open spaces, and my tendency to live in cramped ones (more on this trend later). Unlike many other people I have no problem spending hours on end -- even days in succession -- by myself. Sometimes I think I can remember what it was like to be in utero, locked inside my mother's swampy trunk, nothing to do but listen to the outside world, grow, and wait for birth, my brother there beside me like a shadow, an explanation for the darkness that would so soon come to light; I reached for life and swam, elbowed my way past him to the delivery room, only to be confused by what I found there. Why so many faces? Who turned on the bright lights? My first cry must have given voice to more than shock, or fear, or a newborn's mad confusion; perhaps to careful ears there was also a hint of sadness over what I'd left behind, and a contradictory delight; after all, I had abandoned the comforts of our sleepy home, the prodigal son, born into all the love and expectations of real life.

And then I met my counterpart, my mirror image, my five-pound-eight-ounce secret sharer. In my imagination our first moments of consciousness loom large: both swaddled now, we rest in our mother's arms, and I stare at this pretender to my title. He blinks his eyes and wriggles uncomfortably. He is small, and the nurses have left some froth above one eyebrow. His coloring is strange, like a bruise about to blossom; in a moment they will snatch him away from me, and more than my beaming, exhausted mother, or the unmasked obstetrician, or the wide-eyed attending nurses, I will remember his face, so bewildered by the predicament of life, so ungrateful. I want to console him, when language is still just a capacity deep within me; I want to touch him, even though sensation is unfamiliar; then he is gone for observation, and I am lifted from my mother's arms to discover, for the first time, how solitude is really filled with other people, and I am unoriginal, a copy made from disparate parts: some drunk idea my father had, a soft place inside my mother's arguments for equal rights, organs and fluids, fireflies and stars. Later, in the nursery, I like to think that I waited for Clive, and when they finally lowered him beside me in the bassinet my unhinged gaze, for a moment, met its weaker double, and in the course of my hand's instinctive trip from self to other, I flashed him an older brother's first thumbs-up sign.

After such a brilliant start, however, I was bound to falter. Sucking, a vital instinct in every newborn, was a problem for me. Back home now, Clive and I were each assigned a breast, mine the left, which hung a little lower with its burden, and his the right. Clive sucked happily, I am told, while I would gum my nipple, spit it out, try again without success, turn an angry color red, and howl. My parents called friends and pediatricians, met with a midwife, and consulted Dr. Spock repeatedly. They tried everything prescribed and still, feeding time was torture: I gummed and fussed until my father intervened with formula, draped in towels to protect him from the overspill. Meanwhile, Clive would smack his shiny lips, already finished with his rightful breast, and reach for mine. Soon Clive's appetite had flushed his cheeks, brightened his eyes, and started him on his way to a snowsuit of baby fat. Once I had finished dribbling formula all over my father, I would vomit. I grew skinny and turned yellow, a coloring that remained throughout my early infancy, even after I had found my appetite.

Clive's first smile was recorded during this period, a goofy, full-faced grin that followed a particularly hearty feeding. He had mastered gurgling and blowing little bubbles. My only talents, it seemed, were filling my diapers with a toxic paste indifferent to laundry detergent, and screaming at the top of my lungs.

Sadly, inexplicably, I continued to lag behind my twin brother. At three weeks he had learned to suck his thumb when he wanted to be fed, while my hands were still a mystery to me, unpredictable and vaguely threatening, like birds. I sucked my favorite pillow instead, a taste that led to a series of major suffocation scares, until my parents took my dripping only comfort away from me. At four weeks Clive's eyes stopped rolling around on their own, and focused all their helpless charm on our mother, who melted, as anyone with a heart would; when my eyes kicked in a month later, I looked right through my mother to the fuzzy blackness behind her and, later, when my eyes improved, at the large, immovable objects in our nursery: a heavy dresser filled with baby clothes and blankets; a looming wardrobe; an antique dry sink, which my parents used as a changing table and diaper-storage cabinet. The furniture frightened me. So did the telephone, which sent me into spasms when it rang, and so did our dog, Castro, a dopey yellow Labrador who was forever sniffing around my crib, sticking his nose between the wooden bars and panting at me. The same behavior made Clive's face light up. He started babbling to the dog, right on schedule, and soon he was running off at the mouth whenever he felt like it. His crib was right beside my own, and I would listen to his sweet, high voice in the stillness of our nursery. We communicated in a kind of ur-language: Clive played scales of consonants and vowels, like a musician; I answered him with long and drawn-out monosyllables. In all likelihood Clive taught me how to speak.

It was summer, our first season in the world, and a soft wind rustled the ancient maple tree outside our open windows. Cars passed by our house. So did graduate students on foot. Our parents stopped in our doorway one afternoon and listened to their children play. They were newly skeptical of many things -- religion, television, government -- but Clive's voice had a way of realigning their beliefs, lifting their spirits out of irony and bitterness, as if his existence, alone, were evidence of all the better things in life that might be possible, if they kept their vigilance. The dog came loping up the stairs to listen too. "Castro..." my father warned.

"What do you think he's saying?" my mother asked.

"'Come clean about Vietnam,'" he said. "'I didn't vote for President Johnson.'"

"I think," my mother answered, "he's talking to William." They listened. "See that?"

"God, that's a horrible sound."

"Give William time," my mother said. "He's just learning, that's all."

"They both can't be remarkable, right? Think of Kennedy and Johnson."

"Poor Jack."

"I know," my father said, and they shared a moment of silence.

"Still, I don't like that comparison," my mother argued.

"All right," my father said, "then he's Bobby. Or maybe Teddy, that handsome devil. They say he might turn out the best of all Joe's sons."

I don't know how long my parents stayed there. I don't know, really, if this conversation happened as I have written it. I know my parents well because they raised me, I know my brother because he is my opposite, I know the period and place because I lived in them completely. My parents are, if anything, candid in their recollections, and despite my other faults, I have a very good memory. You'll have to take my word for what you read here, though, and even if this story is more fiction than documentary evidence, it is closer to the truth of my childhood, perhaps, than mere reality. Narrativity scholars, footnote compilers, windbag experimentalists, listen up: I am one step ahead of you.
 
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Excerpted from An Underachiever's Diary by Ben Anastas. Copyright © 1998 by Ben Anastas. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.