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Her breath brushes back and forth across my cheek as I lie awake. I wiggle my toes and look down at my feet- the only feet in the bed. I realize how unusual this might look to a stranger- two feet, two arms, two heads- but it’s all I’ve ever known.
I can’t imagine a life without Sarah- I won’t have to, either. In June of 1991, we were the first conjoined twins born in our small town of Orange City, Iowa. That week, we were on the front page of almost every newspaper within the state. Mom always called Sarah and me her little superstars because we rarely saw the sun those first few years of our lives. There always seemed to be someone walking by while we were playing in the sandbox that would stare or a magazine that would call and ask for an interview. The constant attention was tiresome and, eventually, my parents decided we would be better off avoiding social interaction with most people for a while, making ourselves prisoners of our own home.
By the time we were twelve, doctors had made it clear to my parents that their little superstars would never be separated and that was perfectly all right with Sarah and me. We depended on each other like best friends and Sarah knew everything about me. She knew my emotions and she was willing to listen during all my conflicts, but Sarah and I were different.
As one blunt magazine put it, I must have gotten the “lucky part of the wishbone.” To an outsider we look like a normal person with an extra head- and that’s Sarah. Her side of our body never fully developed- including her brain. Sarah’s words seem to trip over themselves and she has always had trouble reading and learning the rules of punctuation and grammar. She never learned how to write because early on, our teachers decided that since I could write, there was no need to teach Sarah as well. I didn’t see it that way, though. At times I wonder, what if it had been me? What if I had been the one that sat patiently during the endless hours of school while Sarah struggled through her math homework or a five-page English paper? Some nights, Sarah would cry, but even before I heard her, I would feel her heart beat faster. The pain of guilt and helplessness would build inside me as I ached for my twin. Then my heart would join with hers as we cried together. I’d hold her hand- my hand- our hand, and the rhythm of our hearts would slow until our eyes closed and our minds released.
Sarah always felt my emotions before I even knew they existed, but this morning she slept soundly while I tried to keep my anxious heart quiet. I mimicked her slow, constant breaths as I began to think. I envisioned what life would be like without Sarah. I could make decisions without having to consult anyone else. I wouldn’t have to stand out; I could choose to blend in. And maybe I would be asked on a date. I could be Rachel. Not Rachel and Sarah. I tried not to let my mind stray to this place- a place full of dissatisfaction and anger. Once I entered, there was no way to leave without feeling guilty for wanting something so wrong. Sarah didn’t look away when I needed help, but I always imagined a life without her. The high-pitched beeping from my alarm brought me back to our room and I propped us up on one arm, rising slowly as not to jolt Sarah awake. Her eyes flickered open and I took that as my cue to get up and start getting ready. As I put on the neatly folded outfit that had been prepared for this day weeks ago, I knew she was watching my shaky motions and clammy hands.
Sarah understood emotions, but not the reasons for them. Explanations had no significance to her. She didn’t realize the importance of the interview at St. William’s College this afternoon and she didn’t need to. She knew I was scared, but she never asked any questions. Instead, Sarah knew how to comfort me.
I held my hair back and Sarah slipped the hair binder around the small pony. Then we did the same for her. “I love you, Rachel,” she said slowly; drawing out the vowels and putting emphasis in all the wrong places.
I never noticed these sorts of things when we were young, but I see how the faces of people change when they first meet her. They look at her as if she is a child. Pretending to listen to her talk, but I know they’re concentrating on the noises her voice makes. Sarah never acted like she noticed, but I knew. I knew it hurt her- it hurt me too. By now, we’ve almost become immune to it. We wait for the face, the stare. Then once it’s over, we put it in the back of our minds with all the other memories of moments like this. A horn beeped outside and I knew Mom was growing impatient.
My mind began to wander during the car ride that I would have thought lasted days if I had not been watching the glowing clock on the dash board. The muscles in my body began to loosen as the feeling of calmness ran through me. Being forever connected externally, Sarah and I threw our parents into a cycle of doctor visits and debt. As soon as we received an opportunity for a full scholarship at St. William’s, there were no other schools on our minds. We never expected to be able to go to college; it was always a fantasy. I knew this was our only chance at an education past high school. When the campus entered my vision I felt my heart triple its speed. I knew that as soon as we stepped out of the car, we’d be walking down the red carpet- all eyes and fingers pointed in our direction.
“Good luck, my little superstars,” Mom said, leaning back to look at us. I pushed a half-smile onto my face and I glanced in Sarah’s direction. Her eyes were slightly squinted and her chin pushed upward- she was ready. Taking a deep breath, we crawled out of the car.
Perhaps if I had been “Rachel” instead of “Rachel and Sarah” I wouldn’t be where I am today. I remember the big man asking the last question. He must have grown out of his suit years ago and it seemed that the air conditioned room was a rainforest by the way he was perspiring.
“Are you sure, in your condition, you can handle the stresses of college?”
The counselor had been drilling me with questions for what seemed like hours, each one getting harder and more personal. This one was the worst. The truth in his words pushed me to the ground like a childhood bully, hoping to see us fail. “Rachel?” he asked again. My brain was empty and no words came to my mouth. I looked down as the tears began to form.
From the corner of my watering eye I saw Sarah lift her head from where she had been dozing in a trance throughout the interview. She reached over and held my hand- her hand- our hand. Then she turned her head forward and said without caution, “We take care of each other.” In that moment, neither the counselor nor I noticed how Sarah’s words ran together. Her words were the truth. Her voice was strong; we were strong. And that strength answered every question. As we walked out of that room, we stepped towards our future- hands entwined, two hearts with one beat.