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The Loss of a Twin

Cara and Christa Parravani

Christa Parravani made this photo of herself and her twin, Cara (left).

The following is an excerpt from “Her: A Memoir,” which explores a young woman’s battle with depression and identity following the drug overdose death of her identical twin. “Her: A Memoir” was named a best book for 2013 by Amazon and the Wall Street Journal. 

I used to be an identical twin. I was Cara Parravani’s twin. 

I forgot who I was after my sister died. I tried to remind myself with a trinity mantra. I whispered my mantra to the woman who stared back at me in my morning mirror: I’m twinless. I’m a photographer. I’m Christa. 

I saw my sister when I tried to see myself. We were 28 when Cara overdosed: we had the dark hair we were born with; we had angular faces and we fancied red lipstick; we had knobby knees, slightly crooked eyeteeth, and fingernails bitten down until they bled. We had a touch of scoliosis: grade school nurses pulled us into their offices for yearly back checks. Cara had a steppage gait that caused her right foot to drag a little behind her left, an injury she sustained during a car accident in college. My stride is steady, but my posture is horrible; Cara stood straight as a pin — her shoulders were proud and strong and she held them back. I slouched. She said I went round like a little worried pill bug; I’d roll up into a ball tight as a fist. We both flinched at the smallest sounds: slamming doors, quick gestures, and laughter if the pitch was too high. We had looks and fears in common. 

I gazed at myself in the mirror after she died and there she was. Her rusty brown eyes, frightened and curious as a doe’s. In the mirror I’d smile at myself and see her grinning back. She was a beauty. And her square waist, narrow hips, and round breasts were now mine. I’d imagine all of my sister’s regality and blemishes as part of my reflection: I saw Cara’s weak chin, her cherry lips pricked into a bow, lipstick smudged at the corners of her mouth. I’d hold out my arms and turn them, exposing my bare forearms. I’d see each one tattooed with a flower from my wrist to my elbow. The stems of the flowers started at my pulse and grew up to the crook of my arm, blossomed. Cara had gotten these tattoos after many tough years, images that decorated and repelled. She had wanted to make sure she was rough enough around the edges, that she seemed impervious to danger, but the part of her that needed to be dainty and female selected flowers to mar her body. She designed a garden to conceal the evidence of her addiction. Her right forearm she marked with an iris. Its rich purple petals became the target for the puncture of heroin-filled needles. Her left arm she’d drawn up with a tulip. Tulips had been our grandmother Josephine’s favorite flower, and the tattoo was meant to pay tribute. Near the end, Cara had run out of good veins. Her tulip’s soft petals became blighted with track marks. Both of her flowers were drained of ink, which had been slowly replaced by scars. 

My reflection was her and it wasn’t her. I was myself but I was my sister. I was hallucinating Cara — this isn’t a metaphor. I learned through reading articles on twin loss that this delusion — that one is looking upon their dead twin when really they are looking at themselves — is a common experience among identical twinless twins. It is impossible for surviving twins to differentiate their living body from their twin’s; they become a breathing memorial for their lost half. 

On my face I saw the thin scar our mother’s carelessly long fingernail had made on the apple of my sister’s cheeks. 

I remember the origins of all our scars. 

We were three years old when Cara got scratched, on the way home from a petting zoo. The three of us — Mom, Cara, and I — rode unbuckled in the hard-shelled covered carriage of my uncle’s pickup. Mom held us close as the truck bumped along. We were almost home when Uncle jammed the brakes to avoid an animal in the road. The truck stopped so short and fast that the three of us slid forward. I stayed under Mom’s arm but Cara catapulted toward the metal hatchback door. Mom grabbed for her quickly and missed; Mom’s fingernail sliced straight as a surgeon’s scalpel into Cara’s cheek. 

The scar that remained was ordinary — it healed as harmless as a paper cut, but in a dotted line. It was difficult to see unless the light hit it in such a way that the scar would gleam, like a row of flat stones set out to dry in the sunshine after a downpour.

Christa Parravani signature

Christa Parravani is an assistant professor of English in the Creative Writing Program, where she specializes in memoir and essay writing, 20th century women’s fiction and visual art and literature. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University-Newark and an MFA in visual art from Columbia University.

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