Book excerpt

Her

A Memoir

Christa Parravani

Picador

Chapter 1

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 twenty-eight 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.

Cara’s reflection became a warning. I would become her on the other side of our looking glass if I wasn’t careful. It wasn’t only her likeness I craved. For me, her self-destruction was contagious. I mimicked it to try to bring her back. To be nearer to her, I tore apart my life just as she’d shredded her own.

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

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.

During the closest years of our lives, Cara liked to fasten bobby pins into my hair and admire the updos she invented. We administered weekly sisterly beautification, little animals that we were. We applied honey face masks, avocado hair glazes, and salt scrubs. We performed on each other the tedious process of individual split end removal with a pair of haircutting shears. She called me her “raven sister with the sexy beehive.” I called her “my messy, unmatching flower goddess.” Of course, there were other names, the cruel and loving ones we give our siblings. Cara took her nicknames for me with her when she died: pumpkinseed, digger, shave, and newt.

I am the sole historian left to record our lives. It’s difficult to know if my memories are true without her. We mixed our memories up. Our lives were a jumble. I can remember being where I never was, in places I never saw: my sister’s marital chamber on her wedding night, the filthy hotel rooms of her drug buys, sitting at her writing desk as she tapped away at her keyboard.

It wasn’t uncommon for us to remember something that had happened to our twin. It can seem that I was the one who kissed Chad Taylor in the parking lot of our junior high school, his whale of a tongue bobbing back and forth in my mouth, his hands heavy as bricks on my hips.

But it was Cara who kissed him. She ran back home and spared no detail. I felt that kiss myself: my first kiss. My sister spun her tale until I knew it, too, until it was mine as much as it was hers. Nothing could happen to one without it happening to the other.

I could tell the story either way: me kissing Chad or Cara kissing him. Cara claimed what was mine, just as I took what was hers. We shared everything until there was nothing of our single selves left. It was my task in grieving her to unravel the tight, prickly braid of memory rope we’d woven—to unwind and unwind and unwind until I was able to take my strand and lay it out beside the length that was hers.


In October 2001, something terrible happened to my sister, something truly terrible, a capstone to some bad things in our lives that had gone before. That October, my sister was raped in the woods while she was out walking her dog. One of the consequences of the rape was that she was afraid to be alone. She needed me with her all the time. She asked if I would stay with her in Massachusetts, though she knew I had photography classes to attend in New York City. In my graduate studies my only assignment was to photograph, which made it relatively simple to accommodate Cara. I selected her as my subject.

I suggested she model for pictures, and in exchange I helped her cook and clean, and I kept her company. She’d feared going outside since the early autumn attack. She shut herself in. Mom bought Cara a treadmill that November, hoping to encourage her to stay active. Cara rolled the treadmill in front of her television set and walked loops like a hamster on a wheel. She quit the stationary machine by the new year: she was ready to brave the forest and followed me outdoors, where we took our photographs.

I spent all my free time with her, away from friends and away from my husband. I spent time with Cara from behind the camera and then in front of it with her.

Cara refused to dress, so I made adjustments for the pictures that allowed for this. We wore identical long black cloaks. Cara buttoned hers over her nightshirt and pants, painted red lipstick on her mouth, pinked her cheeks. I copied her makeup, became her duplicate. We looked like old-fashioned harlots wearing long blank faces, in our long black coats. It was the middle of a harsh winter. I had a vision: identicals in the snow. I used the doppelgänger in the literary Gothic sense: landscapes were to describe the psychological state of the characters of our novel. It was easier for me to think of us as characters than to grapple with the truth of our new reality. I wanted Poe’s warring sisters, forever lost, women written with hysterical vapor. I wanted the fraction of history we owned.

We trekked over fields covered by feet of snow, so frozen on top that our feet didn’t break through the crust. We drove together on Sunday afternoons and looked for bleak ruined landscapes, bickering.

“Have you noticed everyone in New England looks like a pilgrim?” Cara stared at a teenage girl making her way down an avenue, hauling a bag of schoolbooks. The girl stopped to rest against a building. She caught Cara’s gaze, rolled her eyes, and pulled a pack of cigarettes from her knapsack, lighting one up and taking a shallow drag.

“Um, no,” I answered.

“Well, just look at these people. They’re all fat and red-faced and white and wearing big belts. It looks like the Mayflower just pulled up to port.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I looked through the windshield at the round-faced blonde in low-waisted blue jeans puffing on her cigarette and tried to imagine her in a bonnet.


In the summers we switched our black coats to white. I designed the white coats with precision.

Once, I set up a shot in a field of Queen Anne’s lace. We dressed surrounded by flowers. Cara slipped both arms into her coat sleeves and fastened each of the buttons of the coat’s toothy linen lapel up to her neck.

“Who the hell wears a coat in the summer?” Cara fussed with the hood, smiled. “I do, I guess.” She pulled at the coat’s skirt and swished it back and forth in the tall grass, like a girl admiring the costume she’s given for playtime dress-up.

Cara stood at the back of the frame. I positioned her to my right, four paces behind, and crossed her hands gingerly over the middle of her waist. I pulled the hood of the coat up over her head, protecting my sweet twin from the horseflies buzzing around us. I looked down at my skirt and found a walking stick making its way to my hands, and flicked it off. A moth nested in my hair and frantically flapped its wings. Bees swarmed our skirts. Mosquitoes ravaged our legs. Light poured over our shoulders—we were backlit, sun blazing. I’d brought us to the hottest part of heaven.

I completed my photography project with Cara over five years, finishing in 2006. I called the pictures Kindred; we were even closer than kin.

Sometimes Cara didn’t want to have her picture taken. She’d beg not to go out—there were always reasons: She’d had a nightmare and hadn’t slept well. The zit blazing red on her chin was a crusty eyesore. She was waiting for an important phone call. It seemed to me that there was really ever only one reason: Cara was jealous that I still had the mind to work and she didn’t. If she couldn’t work, neither should I.

“The time we use to take your pictures, I could be writing.” Cara would pace her living room as I packed the camera bag, my signal that I was ready to go. “Has it even crossed your mind that I work, too?” This argument happened nearly every time we planned to photograph. She’d wait to speak up until she was fully outfitted in her coat and lipstick.

“You haven’t written a word in months,” I’d argue back, dressed exactly as she was. We looked like Victorian misfits sounding off, spitfires. “You have nothing but free time and waste it trolling the Internet.” This line of interrogation usually brought on tears for both of us.

“What do you even know about me anymore?” she asked.

She was right. I didn’t recognize her. I felt like a woman stumbling through a pitch-black room looking for a hidden light switch. “I can’t stay here with you unless you let me take your picture,” I said, scaring her that I’d really leave. “I’ll fail school.”

It was true enough that I’d have to make other plans to work, but really I was falling in love with the pictures we made. The tension between us as we stood together in a meadow, the forest, or by the seaside was palpable. I was desperate to keep going, to keep shooting to see what we could make.

We eventually reached a compromise: Cara would write about each of the images, in whatever way she saw fit. I waited anxiously for each of her installments.

I contacted her therapist to ask whether taking part in the photography project was a good idea for Cara. Her therapist never answered my calls. I know it’s against doctor-patient confidentiality for a doctor to discuss ongoing treatment without patient consent, but I tried nonetheless. Cara wouldn’t agree to allow me to talk to Dr. Ferrini. She feared we’d compare notes and catch her overmedicating with antianxiety prescriptions. My culpability went beyond taking the pictures; I had a secret relationship with her doctor’s answering machine. The phone would ring and the machine would pick up.

“Hello, you’ve reached Marjorie Ferrini. I’m unable to answer your call. If this is an emergency, please call emergency services. If not, leave a message and I will return your call promptly.”

“Um, Dr. Ferrini?” I would say to the rolling tape. “This is Christa Parravani, Cara Parravani’s sister. I’m calling because Cara is taking too many of the pills you’ve prescribed for her. She orders extra pills on the Internet.” I left this message at least ten times over five years. There was never a reply.

After my sister died I saw her in my pictures as well as in my mirror. Was this a punishment for having used her as a model? I manipulated her for stacks of exposed film. I had gotten her to pose when she didn’t want to. I’d asked until she cried and gave in. This was a shame I suffered after she died. Hadn’t I killed her with my camera?

Wrinkles came early for Cara. By twenty-eight, she’d lived hard years. Crow’s-feet and frown lines had begun to etch her skin, though not deeply enough for anyone other than her twin to notice. Her chain smoking, heroin slamming, X dropping, and poor diet aged her beyond me. The age lines starting on Cara’s neck in the photographs began deepening on me in the mirror after she’d died. Her hair, which swirled on her shoulders in brassy Revlon-toned auburn waves, was now my own. I’d dye mine to match hers; when I grew tired of Cara’s hair, I colored mine black again. Round and round went the cycle of bleach and darken. My hair dried to the texture of hay: chemical burned, brittle, broken. My stylist gave me a trim and demanded I stop.


I was the smaller of the identicals. One twin always has a rounder face. I was the one with the narrow face. We were called the girls. Mom called us her “ladies.” Cara called me her. One twin goes and the other must follow. The big temptation after my sister died was to overdose or shoot myself. I got ready to die. I starved. I lied, and I swallowed pills. I wet my marital bed. I cut my arms with a knife. I divorced. I refused sleep out of fear of dreaming of Cara. I allowed any man who wanted me to fuck my body of bones so I wouldn’t have to be by myself. I lived alone in a house I filled with my sister’s furniture. I crashed cars, and I quit my job. I checked myself into mental hospitals. I scared our mother. I turned myself into Cara. I wanted to chase my sister into the afterlife. I saved myself at the brink of our two worlds. I cheated my own death. What one twin gets, the other must have. I declined my piece of our whole. I became a woman who owns half a story: I lived.

I spent years in the shroud of her white tattered scarf from Nepal; I wore her wedding rings and her favorite dresses. I slept in them until they tore. So be it. I love her, like I love no one else. I am in love with Cara. If I couldn’t die with her, I could write my sister back to life. I learned another language: posthumous twin talk. I began to communicate with my sister by writing. When I write, I feel my sister come as close as I’ll allow.

Cara had begun her own memoir. No one can finish it. I can take pieces, like she took pieces of me. I searched the files on her computer and found poems, recollections of our youth, and the short prose pieces she wrote to accompany my photographs. With my findings, I’ve patched together our tale.


Once upon a time we were one snake, with one head, one body and two sharp teeth. Once you cut a snake in half it grows another head. Once it grows another head, it heals, becomes two snakes. Once upon a time there was only one of us. When your body is a mirror, there is no word for individual. Is there one word for two snakes? Twin. Snakes shed their skin. Once I was tough. I had all of our sharp teeth and all of the scales.

I am Cara. What I am makes me us. Us makes me her. Christa is me. Us, me, her, we. I am, without her, half of her.

I am breathing another girl’s breath. It’s the reality of never being alone, even in death, I imagine, that will never end. I will always be her body, breath, blood, legs, voice. Christa will walk for me. I will speak for her.

We wore the same outfits as little girls but in different colors. My dresses were blue, with ballooned shoulders and bows. Sister wore pink and was smaller than I. Women, we are the same size. Still, if I were to draw a picture of us, I would be great big, and holding her like a baby.

Her face is prettier than mine. We look exactly alike.

I have always wanted a twin.” People say that. People want someone just like them, who thinks like they think and who will understand them even when they don’t understand themselves. People think having a twin means never being lonely.

Nothing is lonelier than being separated.

“We are lucky,” we answer back. But we are not. We are worried. “Cut yourself in half,” we tell people. “See how that feels and you will stop wanting a twin.”

People ask questions. “Do you know what the other is thinking? Do you have ESP? Do you dream the same dreams when you sleep?” I answer yes. I say, “I think what she thinks.” It’s easier than telling the truth. Now we are conflicting languages, snake-spit Babel. Sister explains me with her camera. I tell on her with my words, and I also tell on myself.

Once upon a time there was a story with no present, no past, no future. The story was written in our same blood.


Cara’s dying meant there was a strong chance I would soon join her. I researched our situation and read somewhere that 50 percent of twins follow their identical twin into death within two years. That statistic did not discriminate among cancer, suicide, or accident. The second twin goes by illness or the intolerable pain of loneliness. Flip a coin: those were my chances of survival.

Certainly we’d talked about what we’d do if one of us died before the other. The answer was always suicide and our plans were the plots of girls who never suspected they’d really lose the other. We’d schemed since grade school about how we’d seal our pact: in the case of illness we’d hold a bedside vigil and ingest a dose of cyanide. In the case of an accident, the injured twin was not allowed to die until she stumbled to a pay phone and called the other. The unharmed twin would take her life by whatever means she possessed: Drano, phone cord, knife, swan dive from a cliff.


Copyright © 2013 by Christa Parravani
Christa Parravani is a writer and photographer. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally, and are represented by the Michael Foley Gallery in New York City and the Kopeikin gallery in Los Angeles. She has taught photography at Dartmouth College, Columbia University and UMass, Amherst. She earned her MFA in Visual Art from Columbia University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers Newark. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Anthony Swofford (Jarhead) and their daughter.