Me, Myself, and My Brother

Nearly everyone who meets identical twins for the first time reasonably assumes that every surprise manifested in their likeness is the consequence of some corresponding mandate they naturally have over fun. After all, in most first meetings, twins present separately: thus the giddy astonishment when the other materializes. Yet the truth is, lookalikes do not always radiate good cheer; just as often, twins (and triplets, etc.) get snared in misconstructions, embarrassments, even hard feelings they do not willfully cause.

My brother Russ and I — he’s three minutes older, I’m a quarter inch taller (which would you rather be?) — have had as much fun as the best of them, like those other twins we knew in youth: Jim and Tim, who thought they were so clever on Dress-Up Day when they came to class in pajamas, except that Tim got suspended for donning his without briefs; Chrissy and Missy, who used to get their town fair food, drinks, and piggy rides with one ticket; and Barry and Larry, who, together, dropped the biggest poop ever recorded in the annals of New York State adolescence: a beehive as telegraphic as Marge Simpson’s (but not the same color). Now, well into adulthood, our fun continues — in part thanks to our parents, who did not name us Ken and Ben.

We, too, one-upped the town fair, and also switched classes, dates, and personalities. Russ is the left-brain businessman (after our father), I’m the right-brain writer (after our mother), and early in my career, when I was writing for a Chicago newspaper, one day he sauntered into the newsroom, where I’d instructed him to present a manuscript (of gibberish) that was due in ten minutes for the next morning’s front page. As “I” got lambasted — the sprawling newsroom suddenly so quiet, all you heard were the twenty-four international clocks — the real I entered on a cloud, the genuine article unfurling like a pardon.

This kind of calamity, sketched in folly and awe, typifies the common perception about lookalikes that they are mortals somehow blessed by their advantage of natural disguise. An individual who pretends to be another is ultimately found out; the assuming double never is.

There is the common assumption that lookalikes think the same thoughts — simultaneously — as if, though clearly of two minds, they are essentially of one: otherworldly alien types who are able, at will, to assume each other’s identity. I won my first wife’s hand after she met my brother at a party, but went home with me.

As a twin, I certainly do have fun. Yet mine is no more than a non-twin’s; at times it is just different. (Twins swap girlfriends. So do non-twins.)

The prevailing difference, then, between twin and non-twin fun is that our kind is not as apt to culminate in good cheer. Often, the seismic swell of our sameness strews tension and discomfort across the social landscape.

For me and Russ, that landscape is St. Louis, a quite livable French-German-Catholic haunt on the Mississippi River to which his first job out of college, in Chicago, and my second, in Rhode Island, delivered us both forty years ago. For five of those years we worked a quarter mile apart in the city’s little cosmopolitan sister, Clayton. Of course, the day we set foot there we promptly alienated colleagues — this in spite of the fact that our clothing clearly distinguished us: Russ’s investment-broker suits, my advertising-agency casuals. Still, rarely did either of us return to the office after lunch that we were not roundly chastised for having ignored associates the next table over. An exception: the time I’d felt that tap on my shoulder at the fast-food restaurant.

“You know, Russ,” remarked the guy in the three-piece Fioravanti, “people do all sorts of things on their lunch hour: fetch the mail, run an errand, walk the dog,...”

(My frenetic hands had no effect on him.)

“...schmooze, nap, preen, throw a few down. But I’ve never heard of anyone changing clothes.”

As I trudged back to the office, resolved from then on to keep a suit and tie handy in my cubicle, a lass leapt into my arms, intermittently kissing my face and cooing, “O Russy, O Russy, it’s been so long!”

I felt so sorry for my wife.


In our first three decades on earth, the most unfortunate thing my brother and I did against our twinness was to get married five years apart: I at twenty-three, he at twenty-eight. To compound this error, in those intervening years he’d become a playboy.

My wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with our first when, to celebrate our “last weekend of freedom,” we made reservations at one of our town’s most romantic restaurants.

Of course, this was the time of our lives, the two of us floating at the very nexus of our fledgling adulthood, when youth is still cast in innocence and love makes of the heart an oversized jumping bean and the head preternaturally dumb. With our first child soon to make three, we were in love.

On that evening, strolling hand-in-hand toward the front door of paradise, she looked, despite her resemblance to a bassinet in a dress, ravishing. She was practically Siren-like on that starry night, and the stars were aligned...

Out now into the soft blue light stepped a debutante, to whom, though it knew better, my attention diverted: for one, because she was a Siren (and alone), and for another, because she was staring, too. Approaching, she seemed earnest. Suddenly she stopped.

“Russell Vanderbeek, you not only stand me up — you get another girl pregnant!”

As her swift hard toe parted my crotch, on the other side of town my brother was gifting the final point of a tennis match to his latest love conquest.

How many other times, during those years, had I been sized up as my Other, loved or scorned for being someone I was not? How many other times had my wife also been misjudged, such that had it not been for the threaded innocence of her accusers, she might have taken to a life of filing restraining orders? How many times, in all the ensuing years, have my brother and I caused heads to turn away from the wicked and cry in exasperation? “I’m so sorry,” I called after the Siren. “I didn’t get your name.”

The next day, the first thing I did after salving my privates was phone my brother.

Who was the fetching brunette, I naturally wanted to know.

He said he needed “more information.” Huh?

He never did figure out which of the armfuls of brunettes he’d been dating at the time was the Bombshell Basher. But at least he’d narrowed her down to three or four, at which time he’d promptly tossed their phone numbers.

After that I laid low for a while, far from our common destinations, far from the mercurial hazards of our sameness, to focus on my singular fatherhood.

Ever thankful that my parents hadn’t named me Gus.