I am standing at the foot of the bed in front of Jenny. She’s leaning back casually, nearly naked, waiting for something to happen. It’s our first date. I hold my hands out in front of my face. I turn them front to palm, palm to front, front to palm. I smile in the dark as I flex them open and closed and then open again. These steady, strong hands. We belong here; we don’t belong anywhere else. But then Old Peg rumbles in my head, “You don’t know anything, Petra, you half-witted, you asinine, you suckling pig. We’re disgusting; grow up. We smell; take a bath. Use soap this time and honestly, when was the last time you washed our hair?”
My parasitic twin yammers on at the back of my head, my damp curls caught in her mouth. She’s not much more than a mangled face peeking out from my strategically grown mullet. Her nose is not so much a nose as a small piece of overworked plasticene, rubbery with the unfulfilled promise of nostrils. One of her eyes shimmers, milky with blind opalescence and the other, squinty and hazy blue, rolls around and around ceaselessly as though in a perpetual state of coming-to. Her deviated mouth, revealing a cluster of baby teeth on one side, and a tongue; white and scabby like a sun-soaked maggot.
I can sometimes smell her breath if I turn too quickly. If I happen to accidentally roll onto my back while sleeping and momentarily suffocate her against the pillow, she screams me awake and I have to change the pillowcase she has burbled into, tacky and warm with her sputum—smelling of halitosis and hair oils.
From the foot of the bed, I get down on my knees and look up at Jenny, who I am this close to going down on. I’ve managed to keep Peg from her all night, never turning, keeping my hair strong and steady at the back. There is only a soft glow, a spectre from the streetlights outside. This method of concealment, although rehearsed often, has never been put into action until tonight. Curious, warm, aren’t you going to invite me up Jenny?
As we kiss, I pull her into my chest. Jenny sucks in a breath just as a warm breeze slips in through the open window and wafts through my hair. Old Peg’s rancid breath mingles with the air. Jenny lurches her head back, looks down at me on my knees and says, “What is that smell?” Once you smell it, you can’t not smell it. I abandon all boldness and shoot off a flimsy smile.
Old Peg can’t talk; she can gurgle and whine like a colicky baby, but I’m the only one who hears it. She does, however, make herself perfectly understood when she grates bitter, unyielding humiliations into my skull so loud and probing, I can’t help but reel back onto my heels.
It’s a miracle I managed to bring someone home. Peg typically seizes my confidence before my dates even begin, but tonight she’s relaxed. She might even be in a bit of a good mood, all things considered. She even helped me recall some vital details about the plague, a topic I awkwardly turned to when Jenny mentioned she had a fear of vermin.
If we ever disagree, Old Peg and I, and we invariably do, she always wins. And not because of the volume she dials up in my head, but because of this: if my head is tilted back just a little (like it is now, as I’m staring mournfully at my was-going-to-be lover), she can open her mouth wide enough to bite the folded skin at the back of my neck. The packed-up bunch of teeth in her mouth are ill-proportioned and they sink into my tough skin like drumming fingers, a rolling gnaw that ends with her sharpest tooth, her one and only canine. Because of this, I do as I’m told, and right now Peg is about to tell me to shut my mouth about the smell, just shut my goddamned idiot mouth. But I like Jenny. I hold my stupid grin and say as coolly as possible, “I guess I should tell you about something.”
Jenny gives me a little smile, “What?” and slowly draws the word out. She’s afraid to ask but is asking anyway.
Peg clamps down on my neck skin. I flinch and quickly smack my hand over the back of my head. I cover her nose holes until she lets go, and when she does I am inundated with curses. “You asshole, you could have killed me!” I ignore her, stand up, and take a seat on the bed beside Jenny, who is nervously biting her lip. I tell her the basics:
We were born together, much to our dismay. I can’t speak to the state of our parents, but I have a hazy recollection of unmitigated frustration on Peg’s part. She has the gift of boundless memory, being able to recall the smallest detail of our lives that she has no choice but to share with me.
Our clinical diagnosis is rather fancy, almost highbrow when compared to what our old-world counterparts got: “The Two-Headed Boy of Bengal” or “Poor Edward and his Demon Head.” We had Craniopagus Parasiticus bestowed upon us. A parasitic head. We didn’t like the way that sounded at all so we agreed that, because of her grizzled appearance and the way she fit me like a rivet, she would be called Old Peg. By we, I mean certainly not my parents, who refused to call her anything but a gestational disaster.
Jenny frowns, perplexed. I know she does not understand, but I try to stay positive. I’m on a roll now; she’s still here, she’s got her hand on my knee. I feel like she might be able to handle this. I break into a sweat, my mouth dries up, and Peg is doing her best, begrudging but hopeful, to help me out, correcting me when I use the wrong words.
I always fancied her a kind of feral child, surviving in the thicket of my dark hair with almost no social development, quick to temper, and with no capacity for external communication. Old Peg doesn’t like this because, in addition to her incredible capacity to remember everything, she also has the exquisite talent of being able to assimilate what I learn. She retains things that I had long forgotten. And so, if I happen to stumble on the names of, say, the wolf-nursed pioneers of Rome, she is quick to jump in, “Romulus and Remus, you idiot, Romulus and Remus.”
Old Peg shares her inexhaustible library of knowledge, while I make things beautiful with my hands. Each of us possesses qualities the other does not have; together we make up the properties of a rather desirable person. Were I alone, I imagine I wouldn’t be capable of more than carelessly hammering together scraps of wood. But it is Old Peg’s aesthetic that works with my hands, that has made me a rather successful carpenter and bookbinding hobbyist. Unfortunately for Peg, I have nothing to offer her but the use of my hands to create her vision and my mouth to articulate her purpose. The work is made up of her guts, but I get the glory.
She agonizes over the fact that I control our body. She can’t feel anything I do. She can dish out an orchestra of insults without feeling the sting their issue has caused. Contrary to this, I have the great burden of not only feeling Old Peg’s anguish, which I feel regularly, but her physical pain as well. Earlier today, I happened to absentmindedly smack my head on the edge of a cabinet door. Peg acutely felt the shock of it against her good eye, but I felt the pain doubly, like a funhouse of mirrors—a slightly warped echo of the original. Because of this, it’s difficult to have a good day. Peg is never really happy, so even a good day for me feels a bit off. Sort of like tonight.
Jenny. Sweet, beautiful, could-be-mine Jenny is still frowning. I stare at her earnestly, eagerly, and like a fool, wait until she collects herself. She smiles awkwardly, sits up straight, takes my hands in hers. “Let me see it.”
I flinch, waiting for the barrage of insults to come slamming into my head from Peg. It. Even I’m insulted. But there’s nothing from Peg, just the doubled-up hurt she and I both feel together.
I turn my back to Jenny and part my hair tentatively to reveal the face of my squinting, drooling sister. Because she’s a nice enough person, I know Jenny is trying not to overreact, but there’s really no preparing a person for this. When she finally speaks, she speaks clumsily, ruins everything. “O wow, it’s like an abscess.”
I can tell from the heat on the back of my head that Peg is blushing; she’s embarrassed and I, too, begin to the feel the heat blaze across my face. But I am angry. Without hesitation, I want to protect her. I brush my hair back over her face, keep her safe. For all of Old Peg’s cruelty and bitterness she is equal parts generous and patient. She is, after all, just a person who, without consent, must follow me wherever I go. And although I carry her around, she carries me too. Without Old Peg, I am not Petra. I turn around quickly and look at Jenny with different eyes.
Sweet, beautiful, stupid, get-out-of-our-house Jenny.
Jenny dresses quickly as I sit on the bed and stare at my hands again. These hands. These steady, strong hands.
I sigh and Peg says nothing as I turn on the table lamp beside the bed and flop down on my side. I part my hair again and put a clip in it to keep it parted. I can feel her breathe easier. In front of me, just beside the bed, is a full-length mirror. Behind me, on Peg’s side, is another full-length mirror. In this way, we can see one another in the reflections. I smile reassuringly; she struggles and then successfully focuses her good eye on me. I apologize. She does her equivalent of a shrug: she closes her eyes for a moment. A lengthy blink. She knows that I could have let it slide, I could have ignored Jenny and we would have had sex, and Peg would have waited stoically for it to be over. It’s happened before, in our twenties when I resented her, wore a lot of hats. I have a lot of scars on my neck from those days.
But things change as you get older; you begin to see the value in things you love, in spite of everything. Old Peg knows it’s been awhile and so tries to soothe me by humming quietly in my head. She sounds like Cloris Leachman. She has the voice of a grandmother.
She will live and die with me, only ever mourning—never having felt the inexorable grief one feels after having achieved the peak of orgasm only to understand that the body must relent and terminate the crescendo. And because of this, because I must feel both of us together, I mourn doubly when the final shudders of pleasure leave my body, and I find myself cold and bleary-eyed, turning my face to blink at the grimy dust glued to the sluggish ceiling fan above our bed. Peg continues humming softly as I reach behind me and stroke her face gently. It’s almost kind of us to do this for one another.
She asks, “What does it feels like?” I have her call up a memory of us as children. It’s the simplest thing I can think of. Inside we’re talking:
“Do you remember the sparkler Mom and Dad gave us?”
We remember when the dying flashes from that sparkler began to sputter out, leaving my vision spotted with ghosts. Overstimulated from the glints of the flinty stick, my eyes attempted to recover and in doing so, distracted me from the loss of excitement; the thrill of something so fleeting, so ambrosial, dying—burning out as I stood there helplessly, like an idiot, blinking over and over, watching it fizzle out in front of me.