It was one of those rare mornings when everything was perfect. Morning light, cold and white, shone through the blinds, casting bright and wide strips on his skin and mine. I didn’t usually wake up before him. I didn’t see the point - I wasn’t a person who knew what to do with an early morning. That day too, I decided to stay in bed. Just look around. There wasn’t much in the bedroom, white walls, a dresser, no decor. Still, I hardly ever go to look at it all in such detail. Usually I was rushing out of bed, stumbling on one foot as I tried to put on socks and walk to the closet at the same time. But I had the day off, and he did too, and I decided we would do absolutely nothing with it.
His eyes fluttered open, closed again, shied away from the light. He rested his head on my chest, his hair soft and warm on my neck. My arms wrapped around his back and rubbed circles. I hoped he wouldn’t suddenly spring to life and suggest we go out and do something. I wanted to stay still as long as possible. Thankfully, he just layed there too. For once, we were on the same page.
We were breathing on each other, something either disgusting and annoying or else wonderfully intimate, depending on who’s doing the breathing. My air tickled his hair, and his absorbed into my shirt. I liked the feeling. I liked the spots of heat where our bodies intersected.
This is how it should always be. This is how I always imagined it. Maybe from now on, it will be like this. Maybe what happened last night, what I thought I knew for certain, was just another one of my delusions, some frenzied panic-thought, a rash decision I didn’t act upon with good reason. I would never have second thoughts if it was always like this.
I wake up slowly, like an old computer booting up. He, however, sits up and is good to go. That day, as usual, he popped up suddenly, his weight lifting from my chest.
“I’m kinda hungry,” he said. “Do you want breakfast?”
Men are weird about their food. Wake up and it’s the first thing they think about.
“Sure,” I answered. I wasn’t ready to leave the morning and its stillness, but the moment was already ruined.
We were lucky to live right by the beach. What a dream, right? One of those lovely things that comes together. We had to budget in all other areas though. Hence the lack of decor, the stacks of instant ramen noodles in our cabinets. Sometimes I worried we consumed too much sodium,
but he was studying to be a doctor and he never said anything about it, so I figured we would be alright. He put the kettle to boil water for our ramen, roast chicken flavor for the day’s breakfast.
“I wonder what’s the difference between roast chicken flavor and normal chicken,” I asked, inspecting the styrofoam cup that held the noodles.
“Dunno.” He poured boiling water in.
“Let’s go sit on the porch.”
The porch was the best part of the house, a deck tacked on in the back, the side facing the ocean. There were two wooden chairs too, high legged ones that raised you above the railing, let you stare directly at the waves. We sat and slurped our noodles. The only reminders of last night’s storm were puddles on the deck, overturned flowerpots, tiny craters left on sand by raindrops A flowery cigar smoke wafted in — our neighbors, an elderly couple that spoke to no one, just polluted the communal air every morning and evening. Their smoking coincided with the tide.
It was a grey day, a day-after-the-storm. The clouds wove together, one grey mass over grey waters. The grass ripled atop the dunes, fresh and nervous. No one was out yet, the sands stretching blank and infinite both directions.
A hacking cough followed another wave of cigar smoke.
“I’m worried about the neighbors,” I said.
“Do you hear how they’re coughing? It’s gotta be some respiratory disease. What if it’s a virus? What if their germs spread to us?”
“It’s not a virus. It’s emphysema. A smoker’s cough. You know how many cigars they go through.”
“How can you tell? Is there an audible difference between emphysema and infections?”
“Just trust me.”
Being a medical student gave one such confidence. I envied that. Even if he misquoted his textbooks, he sounded so sure of every off-hand diagnosis. It was blind reassurance, but I was a hypochondriac and to me, any reassurance sounded blind, really. There was a chance I’d die from something totally preventable because he told me not to worry about it, but at least I wouldn’t be afraid in my last moments.
“Do you wanna go dip our feet in the water?” I asked.
I loved this weather. It was a chilly day, the sun hidden, the sand cold, no good for swimming but perfect for standing and watching the waves beat down again and again, the ocean like some massive, perpetually flushing toilet.
I took my styrofoam noodle cup with me. Only the broth was left. I sipped it, gold, warm, salty, liquid fool’s gold. We stood near the water’s edge, toes digging into the sludge, the wet sand. The waves, green with seaweed, licked our ankles.
“I don’t think there’s a difference,” I said.
“Between roast chicken and normal chicken ramen. They taste exactly the same.”
“There has to be a difference. Why would they package them different?”
I didn’t reply. Why couldn’t he just let me have my comment? Why did he have to argue the point? Objectively he was smarter than me, he was right most of the time, but some things didn’t deserve a debate. It was a familiar annoyance, the same mosquito biting in the same place. I wished I’d stayed in bed longer.
The broth was gone from my cup, only the vegetables and tidbits of noodles remained at the bottom. I frowned into the styrofoam, wondering how I would get them out. Just my fingers? That’s grotesque. I flipped the cup over, smacking the bottom to loosen the debris straight into my mouth. When I put the cup down, he was crouching beside me. I assumed he was inspecting something in the tide. Then he pulled out a teeny box.
“Oh my God.” He was really doing this.
“Will you marry me?” His eyes turned to me, big and bright, expectant, like a kid looking for approval after making Mom watch him do a cartwheel.
“Um. Yes.” What else do you say in a situation like that?
The ring fit, thankfully. Slid like something familiar onto my finger. We spent the morning combing up and down the beach, collecting sea shells into my empty noodle cup. I kept worrying the ring would fall off my finger, get lost in the water.
I had to call my sister first. We were twins, nosy about every detail of each other’s lives. She was excited for me.
“Oh my God, yes, finally. I’ve been waiting on y’all! Where are you gonna have the wedding?”
“Girl, I don’t know,” I answered into the phone. “I only got proposed to, like, two hours ago.”
“I’m coming down to see y’all soon.”
“Don’t you have work?” I asked. She was Miss-Bigshot-Lawyer up in the city.
“I can afford a break. I’ve been wanting to see the beach for a while anyway.”
She was exceptional at keeping promises and that weekend her car was parked by my house.
People told me they envy having a twin sister. It’s like being able to see yourself, outside of yourself. It was like seeing me outside of me, but an alternate version of me, where I still worked out, where a high-pressure-high-paying job made my muscles tight, my step springy, my face animated and angry. She challenged me to a race within five minutes of arrival. She always won, but somehow was still under the impression her muscled runners legs were equally matched with my beach bum flab.
“Dude, you’re not even trying,” she whined after I melodramatically collapsed on the sand. She was paces ahead of me.
“I am giving this race my all.”
“No you’re not.”
And suddenly we were twelve years old again, racing in the backyard. Then, we actually were evenly matched, and speedier than the kids at school, the kind of speed you didn’t need to train for. My sister did track. I didn’t see the point. I didn’t have to outrun everyone by a lot, just a little. I didn’t need a coach for that, I could just do it.
That may’ve been the wrong way to look at it. Our parents certainly thought so, after my sister got a track scholarship and I got student loans. Her college led her to law school, I dropped out of mine. She moved to the city and met her husband Jim at a rival firm, a Montague vs Capulet scenario of forbidden lawyer love. I came to the coast through dubious jobs here and there. Having a med student boyfriend-turned-fiancee was my only saving grace.
I was glad she didn’t bring Jim along. Seeing the two of them together made me feel weird. It wasn’t jealousy -- their life was just so different from mine. I didn’t want the big important career, the fancy apartment -- I was sure of that. But they so thoroughly enjoyed it all that it made me question things.
We had the usual for dinner -- ramen. I forfeited the last non-roast chicken cup to my sister. She was the guest of honor after all.
“So, how have y’all been?” she asked. “Anything new and exciting?”
“Not really,” he answered for me. “Other than the engagement. Oh, and there was a crazy storm last week too.” He chuckled.
And then it all came back. That storm last week, it rolled in unannounced, a fat vortex of black clouds drifting from the right, trudging heavy through the sky, draping a black sheet over a pink evening. The wind picked up, the dune grases shivered, the folded umbrellas swirled nervously around their tables. A few warning raindrops fell, hard, making their own puddles on the ground. And the thunder! It made our house shake, my heart lose its steady rhythm. I spied on the black skies all night, the lightning spidering out every second. It was like fireworks, like gunshots, brighter than anything, illuminating horrible shapes through the clouds.
I thought I would die that night, I honestly did. I was shivering by the windowsill, praying to anyone who’d listen, reviewing my life and asking for a second chance to do it all right. I cried, softly. My rain comes without thunder, my tears are followed by no wailing. So I couldn’t really be mad at him. He didn’t know how much I needed to be comforted, reassured I wouldn’t die. But it didn’t matter. I knew I couldn’t ask. I know he’d bring out logic, facts, his medical tone explaining my anxiety in scientific terms. He wouldn’t understand that I just needed to be held, a scared child desiring love and safety. If I died, I’d die alone.
That made me mad. I was about to marry someone who would never make me feel safe in the scariest of times. But he didn’t know, and neither did my sister. I was mad over dinner, but I couldn’t say anything. I wasn’t one to start arguments over week-ago occurrences.
But I did want out of that house. I suggested my sister and I go down to the beach. I showed her the nearly-empty box of cigarettes I’d hidden in my pocket and she smiled a devilish smile, a genetic copy of my own.
She’d briefly picked up smoking in law school, but quit soon after. On the books, I too was a recovered addict. But I had an old special-occasion stash in my closet, and what better way to burn the cancer-incense than for an engagement party?
She agreed to break her six-years-clean streak, just this once. I wasn’t a bad influence, per se. How could I be? She was the older twin. I just did what I did, and sometimes she also decided to partake.
The engagement party took place on a beach towel a few feet from the shore. We wore nice clothes for the celebration. Well, I wore my nicest clothes, she had on her regular wear.
We savored our last bits of tobacco for who-knows-how-long. We didn’t want the men in our life to know.
“Mann, you’re living the life,” she said. She stubbed her cigarette out on the sand.
“Yeah, it’s alright.”
“Alright? Are you kidding me? You eat ramen noodles for every meal and still look like that, you live on the beach, and now you’re also getting married?”
“I would give anything to eat a meal that’s not ramen noodles.”
She leaned back with her palms to the ground, slanting her eyes like some predatory cat.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Fuck twin telepathy.
“Do you not want to marry him?”
“I do. I think I do. I don’t really know. I didn’t think we’d get this far. I thought he’d just be another temporary crutch, but then he moved in and --”
“Why did you let him move in if you weren’t sure?”
“I thought he’d leave after like two weeks once he saw how I lived.”
“And now he’s going to be in your house forever. He’s gonna die right there in that bed.”
The sun was slipping down, smearing red and orange hues behind her, like a paintbrush dragging pigment. The waves rippled with a peachy sheen, sparkling as if they were under cellophane. It was so achingly beautiful, just like that every night. Out here, you felt the changes, the tides, the cycles of life, the way everything rolls in and out and back over and over, beats against the shore, travels down the current. You understood how temporary everything really was, the tourists who came for a week with babies and wrapped sandwiches, the sandcastles washed away in minutes, the footprints lifted by next morning. I’d never planned to live on the beach forever. It was lovely, but just for now. But I didn’t think I’d settle there. I didn’t know where I would settle, or if I ever would. The only permanent thing until then, really, had been my sister. She was the only one there from the beginning.
“I can’t talk to him the way I talk to you,” I said.
“Girl, don’t be stupid. We shared a womb. You’re not gonna be able to talk to anyone the way you talk to me.”
“Do you and Jim talk about stuff? Like real stuff?”
“No, of course not. I have you to talk about interesting stuff with. I don’t need anyone else.”
“We talk, like, once a week. Doesn’t it get lonely the other days?”
“I have work. I have things around the house. I don’t really think about things too deeply anymore. It’s kind of a relief.”
That sounded nice. All I did was think about things. Maybe this marriage thing too, the storm thing, all of it, maybe it was me thinking too much. I loved him, right? We could have a wonderful little marriage. I closed my eyes, I let the images play on the back of my eyelids like a movie projector. Me walking down the aisle, us honeymooning somewhere nice, us in that beach house at forty, fifty, wearing slippers and drinking nasty old-people-coffee. Maybe doing some Sudoku. It was cute. But something stabbed me in the lower half of my stomach, a dull pain, a butter knife, a longing, a half-formed desire. A little voice whispering so, that’s it?
“It’s just so so so fucking beautiful, all of it.” I stretched my arms towards the water. It seemed on fire, glowing absolutely golden in the evening sun, enough to scald the eyeballs, handsome enough to break your heart.
“It is. And it’s all yours.”
I closed my eyes again. “I’m just so scared of wasting it. I’m so scared of making the wrong choice, but I’m even more scared of making no choice at all.”
“Well, I think you already made your choice. Now you just embrace it. Live it. And all the other options will start to dissolve. That’s what happened with me and law school. I gave up all the other stuff, and I regretted it at first. But then I fell in love with it. It’s my everything. And everything else just doesn’t matter at all. There’s no other option I would ever consider.”
Maybe she was right. This was my life, and it was a good one. It wasn’t something to run away from, something to opt out of. It wasn’t an option at all -- there wasn’t anything else to choose from.
I decided not to tell her about the storm. It would make me sound ungrateful. And really, it was kind of silly. I decided to chill out, calm down, embrace it all, the here and now, stop making alternate strategies and plan B’s.
I hugged my sister. “Thank you.”
I would be grateful, glad, exalted every day. That was for certain. We trudged back home, kicking up sand beneath the stars, which twinkled so excellently after night fell. I put her to sleep on the couch.
I woke up to another pale white morning, a beautiful day to spend a few more minutes in bed. He was already up, buttoning the cuffs on his shirt. He noticed I was awake.
“Hey, you should get up. We should do something today,” he said.
I felt a familiar irritation bubble up in my stomach.