On television, Gorbachev is still making promises when they swoop in from JFK. Arriving at the apartment, the pair of them, in scuffed shoes and cheap nylon, their blinking eyes, like two seagulls appraising the shoreline.
When I turn sixteen, my parents decide to have another child. It turns out to be a second girl, and for my new grandparents, she is a new beginning, unbroken, continuous. At my high school graduation, I clutch a diploma, and my sister squeezes a stuffed rabbit named Frances.
For ten years, my sister will refuse to wear clothes sewn with buttons. Her pants will either be drawstring or elastic.
“There’s two of you now,” my parents tell me. “If something happens to us, you will always have each other.”
After my sister is born, my mother begins to buy everything in pairs. When I visit, I open the refrigerator to find two gallons of milk, two heads of lettuce, two bunches of scallions, two jars of mustard. In the cupboard, there are two cans of Progresso lentil soup, side by side, pasta, red pepper flakes, brown sugar, coffee beans, all in packets of two.
On the table, stands a coffee grinder.
“For you,” my mother says and points to an identical one next to her espresso machine.
I pack away the second scarf, the second loaf of bread, the second roll of paper towels. In her room, my sister, filling in a map of the United States, alternates between two colored pencils, brown and pink.
When I test out the grinder in my Chelsea studio, I find it exceedingly noisy, as if the metal burr is gnashing away at shards of glass or wood chips. Still, I live with it for years until my mother informs me that she purchased two new coffee grinders, and I am free to throw mine away. To have confiscated mine first would have meant that just a single grinder remained between the both of us.
My parents implore me to choose a profession. It will turn me into a solid substance, firm to the touch in any climate. Like them, I will be able to cross oceans and still find ways to survive.
“Just pick one, pick something.”
I conjure up a career—usually involving a gray suit, a gleaming, black briefcase, a blow dry—but another kind of job, its wobbly, roundabout opposite tends to materialize. Its charms are inherent in what the other one lacks (summers off, say, casual Fridays). I shuttle between the two, trying one on, discarding. If I decide on one, wouldn’t I be forced to forfeit the other?
Olga is the vapid sister, Tatiana worships Evgeny Onegin, until he disappoints her. It all appears so simple.
I never have less than two boyfriends at one time in my early twenties, in my Manhattan years. One buys me my first Miles Davis, the other introduces me to La Mama. One is a Jewish book collector with a low sex drive, the other tosses me around in sheets imprinted with blues and maroons of the Philadelphia Phillies. One lives in Dusseldorf, the other in New Haven.
And so it continues until one man disappears, and I am forced to scramble for a replacement. If I don’t find one in time, the space created by his absence begins to corrode the second relationship, until it too rusts and peels itself away.
At one point, Tolstoy’s Anna dreams she has two lovers: her husband and Vronsky. They are both making love to her, and Anna is laughing and accepting their ardent kisses. She is ecstatic at this solution to her infidelity problem—she can have them both, of course, how simple it all is! She is convinced they can all be happy.
“But this dream weighted on her like a nightmare, and she woke up in terror.”