Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tearing Down the House of Gemini

By Steve Bartholomew

Night of needles, night of flux.

The way he held it up by the plunger, that dainty stem of anti-future, wagging it like a clinical scepter. Made whatever qualms I'd had feel superstitious in the face of such ceremony. I stared into the thin shaft of amber, hypnotized by the dim light trapped there. By now our relationship did not admit quibbles of risk or the weighing of moments and so just like that he slipped the stainless sliver into the flesh of my arm.

No doctoral sting, just a thick crest of veinous cold. My last human thought vaguely questioned the implications of a process that looked as innocuous as an inoculation. Then he grinned a hijacker's grin and sent me across the event horizon.

Between rapture and rupture is a wash of inner crisis, an implosion of senses exquisite and near death.

I felt unlatched from the waves of tear-streaked air, throwing off the body heat of a locomotive. My language collapsed but here was the world finally unfiltered, a ruckus of streamers and vibrating flyspecks. Arm in arm we danced along the curb, shimmer-eyed and bloated with void. A mad tarantella among swirling trash.

I love you, man, I said.

"Love me? Hell, you are me, now."

Science holds that identical twins share more than just physical attributes, that we have in common an annoying percentage of non-physical traits. Essentially, they say, our personalities overlap. This much, I can tell you, is true. But what studies don't show is that sometimes we also end up sharing responsibility for each other's actions. I am in prison for much of my life not because my identity was mistaken for my twin's, but because it was displaced by his. I do not bother trying to convince anyone of this. When I scream that they are holding the wrong guy, I do so in silence.

This is a story of misguided loyalty, of counterfeit oaths in mingled blood. Maybe I should apologize in advance for there not being a moral. You see, some twins compete for dominance, their wills so at odds that they are unable to occupy the same airspace. But that was never a chapter in our story. I embraced and then clung to my twin until I didn't know where I ended and he began.

Oh, the cliché of being separated at birth, in this case a tale so undramatic as to be remarkable only in its banality. I could labor on about the depressive baggage of a fractured home life, or how an imperfect childhood eroded my moral footings, but the truth is I'd have to exaggerate the facts or fabricate new ones to make that part of my story worth listening to. Growing up, I never suspected I had a twin wandering the world. How could I have known? I suppose there is an ill-fated sensibility lurking within certain parent-child conversations, the sort of unpacked distaste that makes avoiding seem like sparing. Like not telling a kid he has a cancer gene. I can't blame my parents for hoping I'd remain oblivious.

It wasn't until I was a teenager, adrift and alone on the streets, that I met him. Or I should say, he met me. Because he found me as if he'd been searching for me all along, and maybe he had. Had I known he existed, there‘s no telling whether I'd have watched out for him or looked for him. I was not exactly a contemplative boy.

He crept up behind me at s party one night, a party that until then had seemed no different from the hundreds before. Cheap beer and red cups, small pipes of brass, some of glass, and the kegger Barbies not quite bored enough to talk to me. He covered my eyes with a mirror, saying, "Guess who?" and in the space of a sharp inhale it seemed I'd always known him. That face, like looking at an enchanted version of myself. Here were my dull, familiar features suddenly razorblade sharp and radioactive, doused in discovery. In his eyes, the dilated sparkle of a split-second life. This had to be the joy of wholeness making my heart do a jungle war beat. "You‘ll never be alone again," he swore, breathless in his first litany. What he meant was: You will forever be alone, but I'll keep you from caring much.

We'd never let anyone see us together, because we thought that made us seem mysterious, or at least artful. He taught me to lace up my secrets as tight as his combat boots. But no one could tell which of us they were talking to anyway. Back then, they‘d tell me I was getting too skinny sometimes, but they were really talking to him.

He was a frantic pulse of aimless ambition, a beehive of schemes. From a distance you could mistake his churning for frightening productivity, an antic bustle evoking Fred Flintstone stuck on a freeway cloverleaf. "You've been sleeping away your pathetic life," he'd say, and then his favorite mantra: "Time for sleep when you're dead."

Early on, he caught me cringing once or twice at the details of our next mission, some slick-mitted come-up or an iffy gambit where the risk towered over the pay. Those times, he'd berate me with a look, saying, "Think how I feel. Finding out my identical twin's a sister." If I argued, it was s side-windowed murmur on the way there. Living in his shadow, I forgot what the sun felt like. It no longer felt important to think of who I'd been before we met.

We started peddling the very thing that had brought us together, a temporary gig, this way to feed a growing habit. We met a scattered tribe, a hundred human wisps and a hundred more, flamboyant in their shab. They spoke in voices as ousted as my own, and their vision reached right to the surface of a moment. You're one of us, they seemed to say, a scion of dispossession. I learned to consider the world in terms of exploitable weaknesses, ways to bleed off the excess. My impression was that they liked me, or were at least enough like me for it not to matter. Here was my first taste of the solicitude of others, an answer to my long-denied need for inclusion.

I had a small circle of once-a-month friends from before, the workaday knowing of others that takes years to settle in. But I could gauge the dwindling of our commonality by the elongation of their looks. Unafflicted friends just don't stare at each other. After a while we stopped visiting them. They're yawners, he would say, memorabilia of a former life, and they definitely do not get us.

His friends had the ulterior wavelength of plots about them, the folk you're ambivalent about until they betray you, after which you find yourself pretending to overlook their trespass because you've already invested so much energy in tolerating them that you no longer question whether they're worth knowing. And you're so convinced their company is better than none at all that you find yourself longing for the assault on your patience. I often mistook stage presence for sincerity.

Girls found him more intriguing than me, mainly the ones whose natures, you only later realize, rival antifreeze in both sweetness and toxicity. I projected my instinct for companionship onto flash-bang relationships where the connection runs as deep as sweat and expectations only rise to the level of what the other person is probably lying about. Sometimes breaking up meant coming home to find out most of my possessions had also left me for someone else. Other times it simply meant that I'd gone to jail for a week or a month longer than she was willing to wait. He insisted this was the price of having so much fun.

The passage of time was another sensibility we jettisoned. The meaning of "last week," or "the day after tomorrow" became abstract, a fact we found distinguishing. He told me these were only concepts needed by those poor nappers chained to death anchors like jobs and sleep. Sometimes a holiday would surface, the odd day that rang in the fog--a birthday or the get-together of a life left ashore.

A gray afternoon of biting wind and strikingly empty streets. We were driving slow along a thoroughfare abandoned by traffic. I pulled over in a sudden trance of dread, a blunt pulse wedging up into my throat. I turned his face toward me and stared into the baggies beneath his eyes.

Oh no, I said. My family. It's Christmas, I think. It must be, because everything's closed. I'm supposed to--

"Go fall asleep in your mashed potatoes again? You ain’t doing nothing else, way you are.  When'd you sleep last?"

I tried to remember when or where but could find neither among the blur of recent past events.

"Besides," he continued, "they don't feel like my family."

Well, I should at least call.

"And what, tell them the truth? Or maybe another song and dance. Some heartstring ditty about a sick friend. Either way you‘re grinching up Christmas, dig? Later, man. You can always figure out something to tell them later. There’s not one thing you can do about it now."

The grim sense in this let me fasten to my circumstance its own causation, a condition as blameless as weather, incorrigible as leukemia.

Another day, further along the selfsame road.

Oh, my little boy, I cried out, swerving. Jesus, the radio just said it's Thursday and I remember saying I'd go see my son on Thursday. Was it today? It's been...

His eyes were beetles crawling through my skull. "Too long? Right-o. Told his mom you wouldn't show up like this again. Remember that? Face it, better off staying clear."

Our exchanges merged into a soliloquy, a script ghost-written by an unreliable narrator.

When we got out of prison--the first year of many we'd spend together behind bars--Skinny Me decided the smart bet was to stop dealing and start stealing. A lowering of place on the foodless chain for sure, so as a small concession to conceit he affixed on me like a romantic bumper sticker the title of Professional Thief. A term connoting integrity, or at least purpose, because he knew I would respect a decent pretense even if no one else did. He said that if we only burglarized houses left vacant by people who'd died, the homeowners wouldn‘t complain. "After all," he said, "liberating items from the dead is more like recycling than stealing, anyway. No victim, no crime, man. Who's to say you ain't an early archeologist?"

I shrugged and said, Okay. He handed me the obituaries and the yellow pages. 

"And if the junk in them storage units mattered so god awful much," he said, "they wouldn‘t of left it piled around, boxed up. Can't tell me nobody'd even know what‘s missing. Besides, whole joint's insured."

Together we wormed past fences and any fear of getting caught. We practiced slithering like an art form and admired beauty to a degree commensurate with its resale value. Finally, even the crookedest antique storeowner shook her bewigged head and said, "Look, man."

"It ain't a lie if no one says otherwise," Skinny Me declared, his twiggish arm outstretched in a grand gesture of offering. "For all you know, them cars are abandoned. You don't see nobody sayin’ different, do ya?"

But they got papers in the glovebox, I said. With names on them, and pictures. Personal shi--

“No. They definitely don't. Not if you quit tryin’ to read every bit of trash like a nosey parker. Think of it like you're a motivated valet."

If I gave you a number, my guess as to how many cars, you might think I am embellishing for effect. Twenty, maybe twenty-five. Picture that many, if you would. A small parking lot to you, or maybe a fleet. A good night for us. Now smear that math across years.

"You want what they got--them beautiful sleepers? You ain't gonna find it in their cars, dig? Find it in their mailbox."

But doesn't that ruin their—

"What? Accounts and such? Credit? Digital monopoly money, man. Zeroes and ones on a screen somewhere. F.D.I.E., or whatever, they pick up the check. Hell, the whole checkbook. It's called wealth redistribution, man. What you have here is your basic socialist missionary, like Robin Hood with much looser pants."

What if I went legit? I asked either of us. I could get a job doing... I don't know. Go back to fixing cars instead of stealing them. I can--

"Do what, work an eight hour shift? You can’t stay awake two hours on your own." He showed me my reflection in a spoon. "This face gets arrested, not hired. Besides, this here's all you're good at. You want to quit? How bout quit half-assing and be what you are. You're the villain. Take some goddamn pride in it."

His truths felt more coherent than mine. Reality had become something easier matched to fictions.

Since we'd never been seen in the act, went his reasoning, we must be invisible, too. When a man shot me twice in the back with a rifle as we were speeding away in his truck, Skinny Me took the wheel and whispered through loosening teeth, "Now they gone and done it. Now we need to pack heat, too." 

I frightened some people, hurt others, and took from them all. Some we felt deserved it. Others, even we knew, did not.

When we came to prison for our fourth time, we arrived with twenty-two years to serve. Serve as what? I wondered. A chance for us to bond even deeper, he figured. Not much else to consider, since we had long since grafted our souls together. It took a couple years of walking the yard with him, and as him, to begin asking the questions for which Skinny Me never had an answer. I began to ponder my own edges, what defined me and how I felt about that. I held my own sanity to the light, doing so in a way particular to the self-obliterated.

Nothing like tedium and a poor view to help your attention fold in on itself. I had to learn the ugliness of overdue honesty, the discomfort of introspection. Something almost spiritual in the unstrung marionette rummaging through his crumpled form for substance. I could feel Skinny Me growing desperate, that familiar pitching, like some rabid thing, starved and scratching to be let back in. "we've been sewn together so long," he cried, "you won't even find the stitches."

Maybe I could wait a little longer, I thought. I might have another run in me. But what if I'm stuck looking at the world through his peephole? I could try cutting him away. But what about the holes that will leave? Sometimes it's less frightening to go on wondering how weak you are than to find out you don't like the answer. And what if I fail? "You only succeed at destroying," he hissed. I might find nothing more than a different version of him, and I will have made these incisions for nothing. Or I can go on clinging to his reality. There is bound to be some way to justify all this ruin, anywhere else to hang the blame.

The first cut bled through my every thought.

It turns out the little badger called conscience is as strident as it is patient, regurgitating the chewed up bits of memories I hate most.

That moment arrived nine years ago. I made vows. Chemical chastity. And poverty, or at least the acceptance of it, if that's all I can earn. I set one overarching goal: to be someone who wants what a person should want. And now I am durably alone with questions no less unanswerable.

Who is this person I experience everything as, the one I call just me? If I am solely the man who sits here writing, the mere thinker of these thoughts, episodic and genuinely detached from my twin, then I am no more a robber than you, no more inclined to cause suffering than any among you. That person lets himself feel as if he could even belong among you. But if I am someone who lives in terms of my own narrative, which I seem to be--well, isn‘t my history the architecture of my being? If it is true that we are what we remember, then I am by definition mostly Skinny Me.

I make no claims of being in any way undeserving of my fate. Whether or not I am at a fundamental remove from Skinny Me, my Being renatured in ways more existential than the ponderable pounds I’ve gained, I recognize the balance between deeds and comeuppance, karma and gavels. I am finely attuned to consequence now.

But there is nothing redemptive here. I am a societal deposit accruing no interest. When I emerge from my concrete chrysalis as a resolute moth, moralized and afraid of heights--what then? I can't equate twinlessness in and of itself with stoning for any of what I‘ve done. Salvation has the ring of fraud, a mental hat-trick to keep from acknowledging how actual people feel about me. I‘ve been the scourge for a long time. That feels like owing what I'm not allowed to give, because this alone can't serve as recompense, not in any real sense. So, world, do we shake hands when this is all done, wipe our bloody noses and say we're square?

These are admissions I could live without making. But living with myself is another matter. Even though the shape of my life's trajectory is simply that of someone I no longer conceive of as me--Skinny or otherwise--I own it. Because it turns out that the opposite of an alter ego is not ego, it's humility. Pride at the expense of transparency is just a prettier ski mask.

I struggle with the concept of forgiveness. Maybe because as a child I was indoctrinated with what I believe to be a flawed version of it--in essence, permission to trespass again. Not something I would expect from others, or consider for myself. But looked at from a different, single-cheeked perspective, forgiving myself even incrementally for yesterday is the only way to progress toward being mindful today.

One of my dearest friends teaches meditation. She has an instinctive wisdom that is not unlike a lighthouse. She knows I sometimes overthink and clutter things up like e child who knows too many words. The simplest insights are the hardest for me to grasp, but the most transformative. She has worked patiently to convince me that forgiving myself isn't absolution, it's simply accepting who I am in this moment as being of value, and moving forward. Set aside the heart-stones of shame, she says to me. Particle entanglement was easier for me to picture, at first. Because prison is an engine of despair that leaks bitter sludge onto you, and whose exhaust tastes of worthlessness. Prison would have you be your own cell.

So how do I get there from here? Forgiving is a dicey business that feels unnatural to begin with. Self-forgiving has the added layer of being incredibly difficult even while, or maybe because of, feeling like an easy way out. I've been conditioned by another dogma, that of the retributive justice model, which says that my prior acts are predicates of my being. On paper, I am a thief, a drug dealer and manufacturer; I am an extortionist and kidnapper. I am an attempted murderer. In the narrow mind of the law, these categorical tags are less mutable than gender, more predictive than IQ and of more interest than even my name, since the law prefers my serial number anyway. Legally, I am no more than, and will never be less than, my rap sheet. It's no small thing to break with such an ingrained species of thinking and say that there is a difference between a person and his worst acts--that I can choose to forgive one and not the other.

Buddhist scholar Noah Levine says that hurt people hurt people. This was a radical axiom to me, the idea that the grief I caused arose from the suffering I chose to drag around inside myself. The truth in these four words resonated outward. Because we're all raised to believe we are blessed, or maybe cursed, at birth with free will, right? That we (which must mean what, our souls?) have ultimate control over our brains and therefore, our sense of self should be defined by our actions. Whether that is true or not is for people smarter than me to argue about, but taken to its logical conclusion, such a strict view sneaks of a bleak world, doesn't it? One in which people must be choosing to be depressed, where bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are alternative lifestyles, and suicide occurs as s mode of self-expression.

I am not comparing myself in terms of culpability to the mentally ill. But any lucid observer would describe the mental state I call Skinny Me as pathological. Thankfully, that state doesn't exist anymore. I realize I no longer have to identify with the misery that birthed him, that kept him skinnily fed for so long.

Before being executed for his crimes, Michael Ross wrote candidly about the unsummoned urges to harm women that would overcome his volition, even his reveries, whenever he was not medicated. He was born with the brain of a rapist. Whether or not one believes what he wrote, one would be foolish to dismiss the possibility that sometimes a person can be held behaviorally hostage by a damaged, faulty--or in my case, polluted--brain. Any organ will malfunction if mistreated or structurally unsound--the only difference with the brain is that it happens to be the one that decides how we relate to the world. A frightening reminder of how illusory our sense of selfiness really is.

After these years of observing my mind from a safe distance, I can say with certainty that I don't have the brain of someone who lies, steals, or hurts people, including myself. And so, I don't.

A side effect of honesty is gratitude. Not everyone severs his twin. Of those who do, many suffer diminished faculties in one way or another. I am grateful for the ability to regret meaningfully, because otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here clearing away the brush, so to speak. I am grateful to be heard, and for that I must thank you. 

I don't know what it is to reminisce for the experiential content. My memories are mostly cautionary. I would leave them buried, but silent decay doesn't seem to honor the spirit of regret. And dragging the waters is all I can do. Owning my cast is the closest I can come to making amends for it, since I don't even know To Whom  It May Concern. Maybe that‘s you.

The modern incarnation of justice only allows for absence and suffering as payment, neither of which ever gets at the principle of the debt. Maybe a great swath of unlivable life, of time voided, is the only compensation my former community wants from me.

This isn't unreasonable--the spokesman of society perceives me, not my twin, as the author of my actions, and their retributive impulse is strong. I can remember times when I sought comfort, or at least solace, in vengeance. Maybe the vendetta urge answers to a societal need, one slaked only by some metric of suffering. I wish it worked cut so neatly. But the truth is that this grand theory of subtraction, where the taking cycles endlessly, seems to be a zero-sum game, at least for you and me.

So what became of my twin? Skinny Me gave me a flawed identity in exchange for my life. Not a good idea to turn your back on someone like that. I keep one eye peeled for him and re-banish him every day. I keep my mental fist clenched. He still circles me but we no longer trade tirades. His orbit has drifted him beyond eyesight, but I still feel a tiny wobble once in a while, a distant tug reminding me. I found out the path between disgrace and grace is long, forked and mostly unnoticed. Whether I even arrive is maybe a matter best decided by others. I am content to be on my way,

I don’t talk much about Skinny Me. Not out of shame, because in prison you lose a proper sense of what you should be ashamed of--but to deprive him of precious airtime. I've held a few of his secrets to the light for the first time here to deny him the last of his shadows. And it seems like healing isn't something you're supposed to do in the dark.

Fortification is something my twin can respect. He notes my vigilance, but is not overly impressed. I know this because faceless and foreign though he may be in my memories, Skinny Me still stalks my dreams in combat boots.

Steven Bartholomew 987300
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

To view Steve's art, click here


Here is a video clip of a stunningly beautiful reading of
an excerpt from Steve’s essay by Katherine Hervey

Katherin Hervey is a multimedia producer, college instructor and restorative justice facilitator for incarcerated populations. She is also a former Los Angeles Public Defender. As a multimedia producer she was the Publisher and Editor-In-Chief of Shades of Contradiction, a nationally distributed not-for-profit arts and culture magazine dedicated to promoting critical thinking and creative action; and co-founded Raw Love Productions, a multi-media production company focusing on visual storytelling. Alongside her partner Massimo Bardetti, she is currently producing THE PRISON WITHIN, an interactive web-based documentary exposing the failure of the U.S. justice system to restore justice through the stories of those most impacted.

Katherin first met Steve as in instructor for University Beyond Bars inside the WA Monroe Correctional Complex, and continued filming him as a character in THE PRISON WITHIN. She chose this piece, "Tearing Down the House of Gemini" because it showcases Steve Bartholomew's emotional depth - his willingness to dig deep within himself and reflect what he discovers through the creative process.

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1 comment:

Freedomlover said...

I love this astounding work.