1. Aida AIDA
THE DETECTIVE WANTED TO KNOW if Aida was the sort of girl who would run away from home. He’d asked to talk to me alone in the living room. My parents stood around the kitchen with the lady cop and the other detective, an old man who looked to be on his last days of the job.
I sat in the middle of the sofa, my thighs parting the cushions. The detective sat on the armchair our mother recently had reupholstered with a fleur-de-lis print because the cat had clawed through the previous paisley. The old-man detective was telling my parents Aida would walk through that front door any minute now. She probably just got distracted, wandered off with some friends. Our mother wasn’t crying yet but she was close.
He looked young to be a detective. He wore jeans with a flannel shirt under a tweed blazer even though it was August. He wanted to know if Aida ever talked about leaving, like she had plans beyond this place, something else waiting for her somewhere.
I shook my head. I didn’t tell him that since we were eleven, Aida and I kept a shoebox in the back of our closet under some long-forgotten stuffed animals that we called our Runaway Fund. The first year or two, we added every extra dollar we came across, and when our piles of bills became thick and messy, we took them to the bank and traded them for twenties. We planned to run away and join a group of travelers, sleep under bridges beside other refugee kids, and form orphan families like you see in movies and Friday night TV specials. Those were the days before we understood how much our parents needed us. Aida insisted on taking the cat with us. Andromeda was fat but could fit in her backpack. Aida had lied to our parents and said she found the cat alone one day by the river behind the soccer field, but she’d really bought her at the pet shop with some of our runaway savings. I didn’t mind. The cat always loved her more than me though.
“Does she have a boyfriend? Somebody special?”
She didn’t. Neither did I. Our parents told us boys were a big waste of time, and we kept busy with other things. School. Sports. Jobs. Painting classes for Aida and piano lessons for me. Our parents said just because we were girls who lived in a small town didn’t mean we had to be small-town girls.
“Did she have any secrets?”
“Not from me.”
“Even twins keep secrets from each other.”
He made me tell him all over again what happened even though I’d gone through it several times in the kitchen while the old-man detective took notes and the lady cop leaned against the refrigerator, arms folded across her blockish breasts. The young detective said he’d keep whatever I told him in the strictest confidence. “If there’s something you left out because your parents were around, now is the time to tell me, Salma.”
“There’s nothing,” I said, and repeated all I’d already told them. How Aida was coming off her summer job as a gift wrapper at the children’s department store at the bottom end of Elm Avenue while I was sweeping and cleaning the counters before closing at the coffee shop on the top end, where I worked the pastry case. We had this routine: whoever finished her shift first would call to say they were on their way to the other. Or we’d meet halfway at our designated third bench on the sidewalk in front of Memorial Park and we’d walk home together. That night, a little after seven, Aida had called and said, “Sal, I’ll come to you.” When she didn’t show up, I took my purse and walked across the intersection to the park. I sat on our bench for a few minutes before walking the park periphery to see if maybe she’d run into some kids from school. Aida was friendly with everyone. Even the dropouts most everyone in town avoided though they hung around the bus station and liquor store, and you couldn’t walk through the park without getting a whiff of their weed. Aida had a smile for everyone. People liked her. Sometimes I got the impression they just tolerated me because we were a package deal.
I called her phone but she didn’t answer, then I tried our parents to see if they’d heard from her. It started from there. The calling around. Probably for the first time ever, the town employed that emergency phone chain, where each person is assigned five others to call, to see if anyone had seen Aida. Around here you can’t get a haircut without it being blasted over the gossip wires, but nobody knew where she was. This is a town where nothing terrible ever happens. There are perverts and creeps like anywhere else but never an abduction or a murder. The worst violent crime this town ever saw beyond an occasional housewife wandering the supermarket with a broken nose or split lip was back in 1979, when one sophomore girl stabbed another with a pencil in the high school cafeteria.
The old-man detective reminded us we had the good fortune of living in one of the safest towns on the East Coast.
“This isn’t some third world country,” he told our mother. “The likelihood that your daughter was kidnapped is extremely remote.”
He told our parents it was common for teenagers to test boundaries. If he only had a dollar for every time a parent called looking for a kid who it turned out had just taken off to a rock concert at the Meadowlands or hopped in a car with some friends and headed down the shore. And it’d been only four hours, he emphasized. Aida couldn’t have gotten very far. Our mother argued that four hours could take her to Boston, to Washington, DC, so far into Pennsylvania that she might as well be in another country. Four hours was enough to disappear into nearby New York City, her dark pretty face bleeding into millions of others.
But the old detective insisted, “Four hours is nothing, ma’am. You’ll see. You’ll see.”
Our mother and father arrived late to parenthood. Our mother was a spoiled Colombian diplomat’s daughter who spent her childhood in Egypt, India, Japan, and Italy. She never went to university but was a dinner party scholar, a favorite guest, and indulged her international friendships for two decades of prolonged escapades in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, London, Marrakech, and Barcelona. She had many boyfriends, was engaged three or four times but never married. She was a painter for a while, then a photographer, and an antiques dealer. She sometimes worked in boutiques or found a man to support her, though she never wanted to be tied down. She was thirty-eight when she met our father in a Heathrow airport bar. He was a shy history professor from Marseille who’d written three books on the Marranos of the sixteenth century. She thought he was boring and lonely yet stable, tender, and adulating; everything she needed at that particular moment in her life. They married and tried to have a baby immediately, but our mother had several disappointments until she received the good news of twin girls at the age of forty-four. We were born during our father’s sabbatical year in Córdoba. Our mother said those prior broken seeds had been Aida and me but neither of us was ready for our debut.
“You were waiting for each other,” she told us. “You insisted on being born together.”
Our father never liked when she talked that way. He said she was going to make us think we had no identity outside our little pair. Our mother insisted this was the beautiful part of twinship. We were bound to each other. We were more than sisters. We could feel each other’s pain and longing, and this meant we’d never be alone in our suffering. When Aida was sick, I’d become sick soon after. Our father blamed it on practical things like the fact that Aida and I shared a bedroom, a bathroom, and ate every meal together. Of course we’d pass our germs around, be each other’s great infector. But our mother said it was because we were one body split in two. We’d once shared flesh and blood. Our hearts were once one meaty pulp. Our father would scold our mother for her mystical nonsense, and our mother would shoot back that he was always dismissing her; just because she didn’t have fancy degrees like he did didn’t make her an idiot. She’d cry and it would turn into the song of the night, with our mother locking herself into the bathroom and our father calling through the door, “Pilar, don’t be like that. I just want them to know that if anything should ever happen, they can live without each other.”
He wanted us to be individuals while our mother fought for our bond. We knew we held a privileged intimacy as twins, but Aida and I were never exclusive or reclusive. We had other friends and interests away from each other, yet it only made our attachment stronger, and we’d run into each other’s arms at the end of each day, reporting every detail of our hours apart.
Ours was a brown Tudor house on a slight hill of a quiet block lined with oaks. Aida and I lived in what used to be the attic. It was a full-floor room with slanted ceilings and strange pockets of walls, so we each had niches for our beds, desks, bookshelves, and dressers, with a small beanbag area in the center. There was an empty guest room downstairs that either of us could have moved into, but we didn’t want to be separated, even as Aida’s heavy metal posters took over her half of the walls and she started to make fun of my babyish animal ones. We liked living up there even though it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. We couldn’t hear our parents’ late-night fights once we turned on our stereo. Every now and then we’d lower the volume just to check in, see how far into it they were so we could gauge how long before we’d have to go downstairs to help them make up.
Aida and I considered ourselves their marriage counselors. It was like each of our parents had an only child; I was my father’s daughter, and Aida belonged to our mother. When the fights became so bad we weren’t sure they could make it back to each other on their own, Aida and I would assume our roles. I’d find our father alone in his study hunched over his desk or slumped in the leather reading chair staring out the window at nothing. Aida would go to their room, where our mother was always on the bed lying fetal in her nightgown. Aida would tell me that our mother would often ask her who she loved best, and Aida would declare her devotion to our mother and say that if our parents ever split, Aida and our mother would run off together to Paris or Hong Kong. Aida would always tell me this part laughing because we both knew she would never leave me and I would never leave our father. That was our trick. That’s how we kept our family together.
Fliers of Aida’s face went up on every telephone pole and shop window in town. Though the detectives briefly tried the idea that she’d run away, it was a missing person case. The police searched the town. The detectives made rounds of the homes of all Aida’s friends. They focused on the boys, especially the ones with cars. But Aida wouldn’t have gotten into a car with someone she didn’t know. Our mother was mugged in Munich in the seventies and sexually assaulted behind a bar in Mallorca in the eighties. She raised us on terror stories of vulnerable wandering women being jumped by aggressive, predatory men. We were each other’s bodyguards, but when alone, which was hardly ever, we were both cautious and sensible, even in this stale suburban oasis. If held at gunpoint, Aida would have run. She had long muscular legs, not at all knock-kneed like me, and the track coach was always trying to get her to join the team. Aida was a brave girl. Much braver than me. She would have screamed. She would have put up a fight. She would not have simply vanished.
A group of local volunteers quickly formed to comb the grass of Memorial Park, hunt for witnesses, go to every apartment and storefront with a view of the avenue and back alleys. The story made it into the evening news and morning papers and a tip line was set up for people to phone in. Our parents didn’t leave the kitchen. Our mother waited, an eye on the front door, for Aida to show up in yesterday’s clothes. Several people called and said they’d seen her the night before just as the summer sky began to blacken. She was in cutoff shorts, brown leather boots, and a white peasant blouse that had belonged to our mother. They’d seen her at the bottom of Elm, and someone else had seen her further up, approaching the park. She was alone. But someone else saw her talking to two young guys. Someone saw her later on. A girl in cutoff shorts and brown boots walking along the far side of the park across from the Protestant church. But she was in a blue shirt, not a white one. That girl, however, was me.
Aida and I hadn’t dressed alike since we were little girls and our mother got her fix buying identical dresses to solicit the compliments of strangers. But the day Aida disappeared, we’d both put on our cutoffs, jeans we were now too tall for so we took scissors to them and made them shorts, though every time we wore them our mother warned we’d grown so much they were pushing obscene. We’d also both put on our brown gaucho boots, sent to us from one of our mother’s friends from her bohemian days in Argentina. We were both running late for work that day, and that’s why neither of us decided to go back upstairs to change.
One of the volunteers found Aida’s purse by the Vietnam Veterans’ monument in the middle of the park. Her wallet was inside, though emptied, along with her phone, the battery removed. Our mother wanted to take the bag home, but the police needed it for their investigation. The only other things they found were her lip gloss and a pack of cigarettes, which was strange because Aida didn’t smoke. Chesterfields, our father’s brand, probably swiped from the carton he kept on top of the fridge. The box was almost empty. I would have known if she’d been smoking, and our parents wouldn’t have particularly minded. They were liberal about those sorts of things; the benefit of having older parents. They served us wine at dinner and spoke to us like colleagues most of the time, asking our opinions on books or art or world events. They’d trained us to be bored by kids our own age and to prefer their company over anyone else’s. We had no idea how sheltered we really were.
In the days that followed, there were more sightings of Aida. Somebody saw her cashing a check at the bank. Somebody saw her cutting through the woods along the train tracks. Somebody saw her by the river behind the soccer field. Her long dark hair. Her tan bare legs in those same frayed shorts, though this time she was wearing sandals. And each time our parents would have to tell them it wasn’t Aida they’d seen. It was her twin.
Three different people called to say they’d seen her, the girl whose photo they recognized from TV and the papers, hitchhiking on a service road off the turnpike near the New York State border. Someone else had seen her at a rest stop a few miles down. A woman had even said she’d talked to Aida at a gas station in Ringwood and only realized it was her after she caught the news later that night. She’d asked Aida where she was headed, and Aida had said north, to Buffalo.
Aida didn’t know anybody in Buffalo, and she’d never take off. Not like that. She worried about everybody else too much. When we were little, she would say good night to every stuffed animal in our room before falling asleep, without skipping a single one so she wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. She wouldn’t leave the house without letting everyone know where she was going. I’d joke that she had separation anxiety and she’d say, “No, it’s just love, you moron.” Even so, after I heard the bit about Buffalo, I went up to our room and knelt on the closet floor until I found our old shoebox under the dusty pile of plush animals. It was empty, but I knew she couldn’t have taken our money with her. Two years earlier we’d used the savings to buy our parents an anniversary gift of a sterling silver frame for their wedding picture. We’d depleted the funds but started adding money to the box again. Not much. Just dollars here and there whenever we had some to spare. We didn’t think of it as our Runaway Fund anymore but as our Petty Cash. Maybe she’d used it for something and had forgotten to replenish it.
Andromeda the cat found me on the floor and curled into my lap. In Aida’s absence, she yowled around the house like she did before she got spayed. She slept in Aida’s bed next to her pillow as if Aida were still there, nestled under the covers. She purred against my knee, and I ran my hand over her back, but she stiffened and looked up at me, hissing and showing her teeth before running off, and I knew she, too, had mistaken me for my sister.
Aida and I turned sixteen a month before she disappeared. The other girls in town had lavish Sweet Sixteen parties in hotel ballrooms or in rented backyard tents. Aida and I didn’t like those sorts of parties. We went when invited and sometimes danced, though Aida always got asked more than me. We were identical, with our father’s bony nose and our mother’s black eyes and wavy hair, and, as our parents called us, tall, dark, and Sephardic all over. But people only confused us from a distance. Aida was the prettier one. Maybe it had to do with her easy way. Her trusting smile. I’ve always been the skeptical one. Aida said this made me come off as guarded, aloof. It made boys afraid to get near.
We were both virgins, but she was ahead of me by her first kiss. She’d had it right there in our house during a party our parents hosted when our mother’s jewelry collection got picked up by a fancy department store in the city. She could call herself a real designer now, not just a suburban hobbyist selling her chokers and cuffs at craft bazaars. One of her friends brought her stepson who’d just failed out of his first semester of college. Our father was trying to talk some wisdom into the kid, whose name was Marlon, and inspire him to go back. Later, Aida arrived at Marlon’s side with a tray of crudités. For a virgin, I’d teased her, she had her moves. She brought him up to our attic cave, and he’d gotten past her lips to her bra before our mother noticed she was gone from the party and found the two of them unzipped on our beanbags. A minor scandal ensued. Our mother called him a degenerate pedophile in front of the whole party, and his stepmother said Aida was too loose for her own good. After all the guests had left, our mother sat Aida and me down at the kitchen table and warned us that the world was full of losers like Marlon who’d come along and steal our potential if we weren’t careful, while our father just looked on from the doorway, eyes watery for reasons I will never know.
Neither of us was ever interested in the boys at school though. Sometimes we’d have innocuous crushes, like Aida’s on the gas station attendant up on Hawthorne Avenue or mine on the head lifeguard at the town pool, boys who were just out of reach. Our parents had always told us we were better than the local boys: suburban slugs who, at best, would peak in their varsity years and come back to this town to be coaches or commuters. We, on the other hand, were sophisticated nomads, elegant immigrants, international transplants who spoke many languages. We had our mother’s inherited Spanish, Italian, and quasi-British private school inflections, and our father’s French and even a bit of his father’s Turkish. The fact that we’d settled here was incidental, temporary, even though Aida and I had been here all our lives.
“You’re not like them,” our mother would say every time we were tempted to compare ourselves, asking for money to buy the latest fashionable jeans or shoes. “Don’t ever think you are.”
For our sixteenth birthday our parents took us to the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. It was a warm July night. During the intermission we went out to the fountain so our father could smoke a cigarette, and Aida and our mother drifted up toward the opera to look at the hanging Chagalls. I stayed with our father. I asked him to let me have a smoke too, like I always did, because it made him laugh, though he never gave in. But that night, even though we were supposed to be celebrating, he was somber.
“I don’t want you to pick up any of my bad habits, Salma.”
Sometimes our father put things out there, like he wanted me to push him to say more, but I wasn’t in the mood. Not on this night.
I’d always been his confidant like Aida was our mother’s. For a while now, he and our mother had been doing well, hardly any fights. Aida said the Angry Years were behind us. The crying, the oversensitivity, the accusations, the hysteria. Aida said our mother was too romantic for our father. He didn’t appreciate her capricious moods and found them unnecessary. Aida said it had nothing to do with our father’s affair, but something deeper between them and that our mother was too progressive to get hung up on infidelity. She’d found out the usual way when the girl, one of our father’s students, called our house and told her she was in love with her husband and that he wanted to leave his wife and daughters for her.
I’d had my suspicions since the day our father was promoted to chair of his department and our mother decided this was our father’s way of undermining her intelligence yet again. She’d locked herself into their bedroom, but instead of pleading to her through the door, our father went out to the backyard to smoke, and when I arrived at his side he looked at me and said, “Can I tell you something, baby?”
He only called me baby. Never Aida, whom he called darling.
“I don’t love your mother anymore.”
“Yes, you do.”
He shook his head. “No, I don’t.”
I never told Aida. She thought she had our parents all figured out. When we later discovered love notes in his briefcase from his college girl, Aida said it was probably just a crush gone wrong. It would pass, she said, our parents were too old to leave each other and start new lives. They’d eventually accept this marriage was the best they could do. I let her have her theory. But I knew my father truly loved that college girl, even if just for a moment, and even if it had nothing to do with who she was but who she wasn’t.
It was the end of the summer. Another week until I started eleventh grade and our father was due to go back to the university for the fall semester. Our mother said I didn’t have to go to school anymore. I could be homeschooled, work with tutors, and spend my days in the house with her. Watching. Waiting. She hardly ate. She drank sometimes. Just a bit to wash down her Valium, which she hadn’t taken in over a decade but one of her Manhattan friends showed up with a vintage vial for the rough nights. Our father didn’t try to stop her. He was drinking and smoking more than usual too, as if with Aida gone we’d become short-circuited versions of ourselves.
I wasn’t sleeping so much as entering a semiconscious space where I’d talk to my sister. Our mother believed someone was keeping Aida prisoner. In a shed. A garage. A basement. In a wooden box under a bed. I tried to picture her in her darkness. I knew wherever she was she’d be able to hear me speak to her in my mind. Our mother used to buy us books on telepathy. She said it was one of our special twin gifts. We’d play “read my thoughts” games in our bedroom every night. We learned to speak to each other silently from across a room and know what the other was thinking. In seventh grade, when Aida got a concussion from falling off her bike after skipping breakfast and dinner the night before, I knew it before the neighbor from across the street spotted her hitting the curb. I’d felt her fainting, her fall, the impact of the sidewalk hitting her cheek, the sting of broken skin and warm fresh blood.
I waited for the pain. Something to tell me what was happening to Aida. I tried to feel her. I wanted to make our bodies one again. Remember that her veins were once my veins and her heart was my heart and her brain was my brain and her pain was mine. I waited for the sensations. I wanted them to hit me, and within them I’d be able to know the story of her disappearance. I’d know who stole her. What they were doing to her. How they were punishing her.
I knew she was alive. Otherwise something in me would have signaled her death. If she’d been hurt or tortured or even killed, my body would have turned on itself. One of my limbs would have blackened with necrosis. My fingers and toes would have contorted, or my skin would have burned over with boils and cysts. I didn’t dare consider the possibility that I could be like the starfish, a self-healing amputee capable of regeneration.
I heard the phone ring downstairs. Aida and I had our own line in our room, but it hardly ever rang. The family line never quit until night, when the calls cooled and our house fell into a cemetery silence. I heard footsteps and knew it was our father. Our mother hadn’t been up to our room since the day Aida went missing, when she searched her dresser and desk for a diary, photographs, or letters. I think our mother was hoping Aida wasn’t as good as we all thought she was. She foraged for evidence, anything that would give her a suspicion, a place to look. I watched her rummage through Aida’s drawers and even accuse me of hiding things, but I told her, just like I’d told the detective, Aida didn’t have a secret life beyond the one we had together under those lopsided attic walls.
Our father pushed the door open. I never bothered closing it all the way. His eyes avoided Aida’s half of the room, and he settled on the edge of my bed. I was lying above the covers with my day clothes on even though it was close to midnight. I thought he was just coming in to check on me, since I hadn’t bothered saying good night.
He wouldn’t look at me, his chin trembling.
“They found her shirt.” He folded over and cried into his hands.
I sat up and put my arms around his shoulders as he choked on his breath.
Later I’d hear her shirt was ripped almost in half and was found stuffed into a bush behind the high school parking lot. I, however, took this as a good sign. A sign that Aida was real again, not the lost girl in danger of becoming a legend, the girl the townspeople were starting to get tired of hearing about because it made them scared and nobody likes to feel scared. A ripped shirt meant she’d resisted. But it also meant she was up against someone brutal. The high school parking lot meant she’d been close to us that first night. So close we might have even passed by her when I went out with our father in his car to retrace her steps and mine and go to every familiar place. The school grounds were empty that night. I’d stood out by the bleachers and called her name. I’d felt a lurch inside my chest but around me there was only silence, wet grass, a high moon. On the ride home our father had driven extra slowly while I stuck my head out the open window hoping to see her walking on the sidewalk or under the streetlights, making her way home.
“We moved out here because we thought it would be safer for you girls,” our father had said as if to both of us, as if Aida were curled up in the back seat.
We took a long time to get out of the car after we pulled into the driveway. Our father turned off the headlights and kept his fingers tight around the wheel. I wanted to tell my father it would be okay. We’d walk into the house and find Aida sprawled across the sofa just like last night when we sat around together watching dumb sitcoms. I wanted to tell him Aida had probably gone off with other friends. I didn’t mind that she’d forgotten about me. My feelings weren’t hurt. I wanted to tell him we shouldn’t be mad at her for making us all worry like this. I wanted to tell him nothing had changed, everything was just as it was the day before, Aida guiding our family like the skipper of a ship through choppy waters, reminding us all to hold on to one another.
I didn’t go back to school right away and never went back to my job at the coffee shop. Our friends came by less and less, and I understood it was because there was no news. Our father went to work, but I spent the days in the house with our mother. I followed the homeschool program and did my assignments with more attention than I’d ever given my studies before. Aida was always the better student. It took some of the pressure off. When I wasn’t studying, our mother and I orbited each other with few interactions. Sometimes I’d suggest we do something together. Go to a midday movie or watch a program on TV. Sometimes I’d bring up a book I knew she’d read just to give her the chance to talk about anything other than Aida, but she never took me up on any of it. She spent most afternoons in a haze, drifting from bed to kitchen to sofa to bed, taking long baths in the evenings when I thought she might drown herself accidentally or on purpose. The people in town were still holding candlelight vigils at Memorial Park every Friday night in Aida’s honor, but our mother never went. I went twice with our father, but we agreed turning Aida into a saint wasn’t going to bring her home any faster.
The vigils continued though, and the volunteers kept searching the wooded areas around town, the shrubbery along the highway, the vacant buildings and abandoned lots next to the railroad tracks. The reporters kept the story in the news, and when her shirt was found, the TV stations wanted a statement from our parents, but they were too broken down to talk so our next-door neighbor whose dog once tried to eat Andromeda spoke on their behalf. The police wouldn’t let me do it because they didn’t want whoever had Aida to see me and know there were two of us out there.
Sometimes people brought us food. Casseroles, lasagnas, hero sandwiches. The church ladies dropped Mass cards for Aida in our mailbox. The department store where she worked set up a fund in Aida’s name to help send some kid to art school, and there was a community initiative to raise money to contribute to the reward my parents had already publicly offered for Aida’s safe return or information about her disappearance. Our father said we should be grateful to live in such a supportive and generous town, but our mother resented it. She hated that she was the one—the mother who’d lost the daughter. She hated that her life, which she’d curated so meticulously, had become something else. Her Aida was no longer her Aida but a story that belonged to all of them now. But our father didn’t want us to come off as unappreciative, so he took me aside and told me I was in charge of writing thank-you notes and, on every note, I was to sign our mother’s name.
Aida and I had a plan. After high school, we’d go to college in Manhattan. I’d go to one of the universities and study history, and she’d go to one of the art schools. We’d share an apartment and get jobs near each other so we could see each other for lunch or meet after work like we did here in town. We’d make extra money by signing up for twin research studies like we always wanted to do though our father never let us. We’d never live apart. We’d have to meet and marry men who could get along like brothers and tolerate our bond with good humor. If not, we’d be happy to live as a twosome forever. We’d move back in with our parents and look after them in their old age. It wouldn’t be so bad.
Our mother liked to think she raised us to live in a bigger world, but Aida and I only wanted a world together. Our father tried to undo this attachment early on by sending us to separate summer camps, but Aida and I protested until they finally let us go to one in New Hampshire together. It didn’t become a trend though. Aida and I figured out quickly that our absence had led our parents to the brink of divorce. When we returned, our father was sleeping in the guest room. I urged him to offer endless bargain apologies, for what, I had no idea, and Aida encouraged our mother to forgive, and after she was done forgiving, to forgive some more.
I often wondered how our parents survived six years alone together before our birth when they had so little in common.
“It’s just love,” Aida would say, as if that explained everything.
She always had more answers than I did about why things were the way they were, so one day I asked her if she would love me this much if I wasn’t her twin, and she didn’t hesitate before telling me, “It’s only because you’re my twin that I love you this way.”
The night our mother caught her on our beanbag with Marlon, Aida told me that being kissed for the first time was like being stabbed in the chest. I said that didn’t sound very nice, but she assured me it was; the feeling of being breathless and ripped apart followed by a beautiful hot internal gush. In the early days of her disappearance, our mother’s suspicions had gone straight to Marlon. His father and stepmother lived a few towns over, and he hadn’t yet gone back to school. The police looked into it. Marlon admitted that after their encounter he and Aida had called each other a few times, which I never knew, but he insisted they’d never seen each other again. He had a solid alibi for the night Aida disappeared in his stepmother, who said he’d been home watching television with her. As the months passed, our mother became obsessed with him, regularly phoning his stepmother to call her a liar and Marlon a monster until the lady filed a complaint and the police told our mother she had to stop harassing them or else.
Every now and then we’d get word of another sighting. Someone saw Aida in Texas the same day she was also seen in Seattle. There was a spotting in the next town over, down the shore, up in the Ramapo mountains, and out by the reservoir. The police followed these leads, but it all pointed to nothing. Even as the reward money increased, there was no solid theory for what might have happened to her. The locals started worrying maybe there was a serial killer on the loose, but that would suggest Aida was murdered—and there was no body. The reporters liked to say that for the missing girl’s family the worst part was not knowing, but our mother always said not knowing preserved hope that Aida would soon come home, and hope is never the worst thing. Our mother warned the police and detectives not to use words like homicide in our house. Aida was alive. She might be half-dead, broken apart, mutilated, and, of course, she would never be the same, but Aida was alive, and unless the police could present her cadaver as proof, we were not allowed to think otherwise.
At dinner our mother pushed her food around her plate. We didn’t bother nagging her to eat anymore. Her hunger strike was for Aida, who she was sure was being starved in some psychopath’s home dungeon. Sometimes she had visions. She saw Aida chained to a radiator crying out for help. She saw her bound and gagged in the back of a van, being driven down some interstate far from us. She saw Aida drugged, captive in a dingy den, man after man forcing himself onto her.
Our mother never left home in case Aida returned after escaping her captor, running to our house, where she’d find the door unlocked, our mother waiting with arms open. Even at night, our mother insisted on keeping the door ajar. Our father told her it was dangerous, but she said she feared nothing now. Everything she loved had already been taken from her.
A few days into December we got the call that a hiker up in Greenwood Lake found Aida’s boots. They were ruined from months of rain and snow, but the police took them for analysis. Just like with her purse, there were no discernable fingerprints, but Aida’s blood was found in trace amounts. It could have been from before. A cut. A picked-over bug bite that left a smudge of blood on the leather. After all, our mother offered, Aida had that terrible habit of scratching an itch until it became an open sore. Or, the blood could have come after.
I slept with my identical pair of boots for weeks after that. I held them into my chest and closed my eyes waiting for images to burn across my mind, but they never came. I spent hours in bed staring at Aida’s half of the room, still afraid to cry because I told myself you only cry for the dead.
That Christmas passed like any other day. The year before, Aida and I had helped our mother with the cooking while our father fumbled with the fireplace and played old French records, but this year there was no music and the three of us ate reheated food delivered by the townspeople. Our parents floated around the house avoiding each other while I divided my time between them, then alone upstairs in our room with Andromeda. Days earlier, a documentary-style crime show called asking if they could do a one-hour special on Aida’s disappearance with family interviews and all. They assured us it wouldn’t be tacky or macabre and said that in a few cases, their shows had helped witnesses to come forward with information about the disappeared. Our father had agreed, but when he told our mother I could hear all the way in the attic as she cried out, “What do they want from me? There’s nothing left for them to take!”
Our father thought publicity would be good for Aida’s case. The campaign to bring her home as if she were a POW was down to its final embers, and the detectives had recently come by to warn our parents with weak well-meaning smiles that there was a good chance we might never know what happened to her. They encouraged us to join a support group and gave us a list of networks for families of missing people. But our mother insisted that because Aida was alive, that kind of publicity would force whoever had her to cause her more harm or finish her off out of fear of being caught. She didn’t trust the media, believing their stories on Aida were meant to sell papers rather than to find her. She regularly accused the detectives of incompetence, calling them village sleuths who never investigated more than a stolen bicycle and who secretly wanted to abandon Aida’s case because it tarnished the town’s safe image. She considered all the neighbors suspects. Every man who’d ever met Aida was a potential kidnapper or rapist, and every woman, a jealous sadist. It was a community conspiracy. It was because we were outsiders. It was because Aida was so perfect that people wanted to hurt her. It was because we never belonged here that they wanted to hurt us. Our father didn’t disagree with her anymore. I wondered if it was because he’d given up trying to reason or if it was because he was starting to believe her.
I celebrated our seventeenth birthday twice. Our mother was finally willing to leave the house for hours at a time, so she took me to dinner at a Thai restaurant in town. For dessert, the waiter brought me a mango mousse with a candle jammed into its gooey surface. I smiled at our mother. I knew she was making an effort. She held my hand as I blew out the candle. It was strange to see her thin finger free of her wedding band.
When we walked back to the car, a group of kids driving fast down Elm shouted, “Hi, Aida!” They did this sometimes when they saw me around, whether it was a sincere error in recognition or just to torment us, I never knew. Our mother pretended not to hear them. She was getting stronger about these things.
That weekend I also celebrated with our father. He took me to Mostly Mozart again, and this time, he offered me a cigarette by the fountain. He’d moved out two months earlier. He swore to our mother it wasn’t for another woman but because he just needed to be on his own, to discover who he really was. Our mother turned to him with a stare that was somehow vacant while containing the sum of her life.
“If you don’t know who you are by now, my love, not even God can help you.”
He rented a small dark studio near the university. It had an interior view, a Murphy bed, and a kitchen with no stove. It was all he could afford as long as he was still paying the mortgage on our house in the suburbs, and there was no way, as long as Aida remained unfound, that our mother would let him sell it.
He admitted to me that he’d been planning to leave our home since long before we lost Aida. He loved us, he said, but he always felt a misfit among us, out of place, as if he’d made a wrong turn somewhere. He said there was a time when he thought he and our mother would grow closer from the pain of Aida being gone but he was tired of trying and tired of hoping.
“You understand, baby,” he said, and I was embarrassed to tell him I didn’t.
“You’re all grown up now. Only another year and you’ll be off to college. There will be new beginnings for all of us.”
We still didn’t know how to talk about Aida. I asked him, because I knew he would tell me the truth, if he thought we’d ever find her or at least know what happened to her.
“No. I don’t.”
Just like our mother couldn’t go on without Aida, I knew the only way our father could hold on to her was by letting her go.
Later that summer, some teenagers getting high up on Bear Mountain came across what they thought was a deer carcass and started poking around until they spotted a human skull. When the forensics results came back conclusive, the newspapers decided, as if they were the judges of such things, that our family could get closure now, find some peace in knowing the search was over, and Aida’s broken, abandoned body could finally be laid to rest. The community held a big public memorial at the same spot in the park where they’d held all their vigils, but our mother insisted Aida’s funeral service be kept private. And so, we sat on a single pew before the altar watching a priest who never knew her bless my sister’s pine casket, the four of us together in an otherwise empty church for the first time since our tandem baptism, though our family was far from religious and, if anything, Aida and I were raised to believe in only what is visible.
A few days before Aida’s remains were found, I walked slowly through the park on my way home from school the way I often did in a sort of meditation, whispering her name with each footstep, wondering what would become of us, what would become of me, all those empty years spread out ahead of us in which we were supposed to go on living without her. Across the brick path, I saw a pair of kids chasing pigeons and I thought of my sister, the way she would have walked over to them and explained with her boundless patience that it was wrong to scare helpless animals, they belonged to nature just as much as two-legged wingless folk did and had the right to live without fear of unreasonable human violence. And then I heard her call my name, loud, with laughter just beneath it, the way she would call to me when we’d meet each other halfway after work, her airy voice rushing through the mosaic of dried leaves on the wilting grass, shaking the naked branches overhead, then departing just as quickly as it came, leaving the park and every breath of life within it entombed in stillness. Anybody else would have called it the wind, but me, I knew it was something else.