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The Question

December 1, 2012

“What’s it like being a twin?”

 

It is a question I am asked often. It’s inevitable, really, once I let slip that I am an identical twin. No matter how many times it is asked, though, I am always surprised at the speed at which it arrives. Occasionally, the questioner will put a “weird,” or a “really?” in between my admittance and the question, but rarely anything more. The first thing that a person wants to know about being a twin is everything.

 

It really doesn’t matter who the other person is. It can be an old spinster, a young child, or a man relaxing in his armchair after work. Their question never changes. I remember in Kindergarten, and again in grade five, when my brother and I entered a new school, most of the first week or so was answering that question. It’s asked a lot less nowadays, now that we’re much less frequently together, have different hairstyles and glasses, and don’t share clothes as much, but I’ve discovered that I seem to have lost much of my tolerance for the question when it does bubble up.

 

And unless I head it off in my response, the follow up question is always related to pseudo-scientific assumptions around ESP, or some other such nonsense. Those inane ramblings are far easier to counter, once I’ve patiently explained the reason many twins can finish each other’s sentences, or can accurately predict how their twin will act. Twins are brought up together, have the same genetic makeup, and are generally inseparable. It was rational to assume that my brother would act in the same way I would. There is nothing psychic about assuming he would do as I would.

 

For the past few years, my response to “What’s it like?” has been almost mechanical in its execution; indeed, I can remember a few fragments of a dream that involved robots and endless interrogations. If I’m feeling particularly snarky, I might answer with a question of my own: “What’s it like not being a twin.” While it is rarely helpful, I do so enjoy watching the question mouth gape about like a fish trying to breathe.

 

In fact, I remember being a bit harsher than I probably should have in Kindergarten. It was to be expected, I suppose. Children rarely have much patience at the best of times, and being asked the same question, multiple times, by teachers and fellow pupils alike, was quite annoying. Looking back on it now, I think I tossed away a few potential friendships in that first week. In the grand scheme of things, though, it mattered little. I always had my brother.

 

My responses to “What’s it like?” usually involve the phrase ‘best friend,’ because that’s exactly what my brother was: a default best friend. We shared identical interests. Laughed at the same jokes. We had the same foes, the same skills and abilities, the same demeanor and the same personalities. We had each other, and anything else was a bonus. Arguments were few and far between; after all, when you agree on everything, and your parents are sensible enough to buy things in pairs, what is there to fight about?

 

Such a boon companion comes with downsides, though. Christmas and birthdays were sombre affairs, especially once a little sister arrived, as friends and family frequently brought us gifts as a single unit. Nothing sours a child more on Christmas morning that seeing two boxes under the tree for him and his brother to share, while his sister gets two all to herself. Luckily, I disliked chocolate while my brother couldn’t get enough, so we at least each got a cake on our birthday. I’m not sure what developed first: my aversion to chocolate or the realization that not liking chocolate lead to more cake.

 

Due to the fact that we were always at each other’s side, both of us felt little pressure to develop the social skills that other children are required to learn. We would cover for each other’s missteps, blame any miscommunication on it being a “twin thing,” and generally treat ourselves as our own little insulare enclave. Any exuberance and social ease among new peers today is either a mask or the result of becoming what you wear; I’m terrible at broaching new ground in social circles. I never learned how to do it on my own!

 

Me and my brother would strike up a conversation around a topic and someone else would join in. As such, I have a petrifying fear of coming across as nosy or annoying. I had few opportunities to observe any warning signs growing up, and when I inevitably crossed the line and pissed someone off, my brother was there to shield me from my mistakes. There were no consequences, at least, none that mattered. There was no Sword of Damocles hanging above my head, threatening friendlessness if I made too many mistakes, or retreated too far into my shell.

 

I also have very few inhibitions when it comes to making a fool of myself in public. I care very little for the judgement of people I might not ever see again, and if I do, I can just blame it on my twin! (Most people, sensibly, don’t believe me, unless I have a friend to support my claims.)

 

In the end, there may be more to my snarky response that I originally thought. You wouldn’t ask a person on the street to define themselves as a whole, to do some serious reflection on exactly who and what they are, right out of the blue. Yet, for some reason, people do exactly that. Asking me “What’s it like being a twin?” is exactly like asking anyone else “What’s it like being a person?” It is impossible to answer satisfactorily without years, maybe even decades of thoughtful study. It is an extraordinarily complex question, but so many people fail to see just that.

 

It is truly infuriating. That is why I feel zero remorse when I respond with “I don’t know.” A thoughtless question deserves a thoughtless response.

 

I just hope that someday people realize that it’s also the truth.

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