Note: This story won the STORY CUBES prize, August 2013.
The underlined words were the “required” words to be included in a 3000 word piece of fiction. The topic was open, but the nine words, chosen by the STORY CUBE editors, had to be woven smoothly into the narrative. It was fun to write.
Sleeping Like Pretzels
“How come you’re acting so funny, Bob?” asked Libby Poole as I began to nuzzle her neck like a sheep. She smelled of strawberry shower gel. We were stretched out on the single bed in Libby’s dorm room.
“Am I acting funny?” I asked, answering in a natural tone of voice to my brother’s name.
I couldn’t imagine what I was doing that seemed strange. I continued to nuzzle.
“Oh, I get it, “ said Libby, with a soft laugh, “You must have read one of those magazine articles. About what women want.”
“Right, “ I said, making a mental note to ask my twin brother if he ever nuzzled Libby’s neck.
Bob and I had both been pretty crazy about Libby Poole since the Orientation Week picnic, where she had found an injured turtle on the banks of the Otter River.
“We gotta take care of this poor animal,” she said, in a mournful tone, to whoever passed by. Most of the freshmen must have nodded compassionately at the beautiful young woman cradling the bleeding creature, but they walked on by towards the games area without stopping.
“Look at this turtle,” she said in a pitiful tone when we approached. “ It must have caught its leg on a fishhook.”
Bob and I glanced at the animal, took one look at Libby, and quickly introduced ourselves.
“Hi, I’m Brett,” I said, “and this is Bob.”
Libby looked at us and her eyebrows started to rise up like two question marks.
When we offered to take the turtle to the Wildlife Center, Libby’s face broke into a smile.
While Bob ran back to the dorm to borrow a bike, I kept Libby and the turtle company, filling my baseball cap with water and pouring it over the turtle’s shell, now baking in the September sun.
When he got back, Bob started to poke holes in a cardboard box with a plastic spoon.
“You guys are terrific,” said Libby, afterwards. She made a point of telling us that she lived in Battell, second floor.
“Come by some time!”
At first Bob and I each urged the other to pursue her.
“Your call, Bob, ” I said, avoiding looking him in the eye.
“No, no, go ahead, Brett, ” he answered, but I knew he didn’t mean it.
Bob and I had been born within minutes of each other, chewed the same pacifier, shared the same cubby in pre-school. All through elementary school, we had slept together entwined like little pretzels.
“Sleep separately, boys, “ Mother would say after she kissed us each goodnight. “You’ll sleep better.”
And we’d start out that way, but at the first clap of thunder, the first weird shadow, Bob would whisper, “Brett” at the same time that I would whisper, “Bob”. We’d grab each other, hold our breaths, and fall asleep listening to the comforting tick-tock of the big red Clifford the Dog alarm clock on the night table.
In the morning, our parents would find us locked together like Legos, the red and blue Spider Man sheets knotted around us, the pillows on the floor.
Most people could not tell us apart. We regularly fooled our teachers. We were dressed identically until the day Mother left.
Libby Poole was the first girl to ever get under both our skins, at the same time, completely and deeply. We’d had girlfriends in high school, but never the same girlfriend.
“She’s just a really decent person,” Bob said to me one night. We were coming back from lacrosse practice, walking across the bridge from the gym.
“She’s not stuck up or snotty,” I added. “She’s somebody you can trust.”
“Yeah, and she’s beautiful,” muttered Bob, quietly as if saying a prayer.
“It was great to hear her sing last night,” I said. She’d had a solo.
“Ummm, “ answered Bob, as if he were daydreaming. I knew what he was thinking. Because I always know what Bob is thinking. Out of all the ideas floating around the planet, I can always hone in on Bob’s thoughts.
“Her voice sounds like …..” I wasn’t able to complete my sentence before Bob interrupted me.
“Oh, for god’s sake, Brett.”
“But it’s true, right?”
We both knew who Libby reminded us of. Mother had had the same mid-western cadence to her voice, the same perky vowels, the identical way of saying “Shure” for ‘sure.”
Increasingly, our lives started to revolve around Libby Poole.
It all happened naturally without planning it.
By the end of the fall semester, it felt as if Libby were part of our mouths. She could have been the little membrane between our toes.
As the first Vermont snows started to fall and the Green Mountains turned white, Bob was thinking ahead.
“Maybe, for spring break, I should invite her to come home to Connecticut with me. I mean, with us?”
“That’ll be a hard sell. She’s already talking about someplace warm. Belize or Costa Rica. Even Florida.”
“Really?” he asked. “When did she bring that up?”
“The other night.”
A few days later, we were jogging out towards the Otter Creek, which was just starting to freeze. Bob had gotten to spend the previous night with Libby. We’d worked out a good schedule.
“You know, Bob “ I said, “maybe we should tell Libby the truth.”
“No way, “ he replied. “She’d be disgusted with us. And we’d lose her.”
“Maybe she’d find it cool, “ I countered, but we both knew I was merely spewing wishful thinking. Like that time I told Bob that Mother would come back.
“Dad won’t let her go far,” I had said with false confidence, as we hugged each other in the dark bedroom, the red clock with Clifford the Dog on it ticking like a bomb in the night.
Libby Poole went with both of us to the Carnival Dance, although of course she thought that I had no date and had spent the evening playing billiards in the Rec Center. Bob and I switched in the men’s room, then switched back later in the night, twice.
“You’re indefatigable, “ whispered Libby, pulling me closer to her under the quilt.
“Not really,” I said with complete honesty.
“Are you sure you’re not some kind of alien, with super-human powers?”
“Not that I know of, “ I replied, “I’m just a regular guy.”
“No, you’re not. You’re a twin. That’s pretty special, “ said Libby, unaware of just how special it was.
As the semester progressed I couldn’t let go of the idea that Libby should know she had two men in her life, not one. Bob continued to feel that it was best to keep Libby in the dark.
“We could tell her slowly. Like maybe asking her how she feels about threesomes,” I suggested.
“She’s from Wisconsin, for god’s sake,” protested Bob.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” But we both knew what it meant.
And in fact, Libby would have none of it.
“You know the other day, Bob, when you asked about, you know…threesomes, “ she said to me with a gulp. “ I don’t judge people who do. But it’s just not my kind of thing.”
“I understand what you mean, “ I answered.
“Not that I haven’t looked at, say, Brett, “ she said with a laugh.
I caught myself just before I said something stupid.
“Well, I mean, he’s the spittin’ image of you. How could I not imagine, you know…?” Libby continued. She said “spittin’ image”, with just a bit of a twang.
“Right,” I said, feeling ridiculously flattered, in spite of everything.
“Brett’s looked at you, too,” I said, quite truthfully.
“Really? I guess you two don’t have a lot of secrets from each other, huh?”
“Nope, not too many. I mean, we don’t look through the keyhole when we’re on the john, or anything weird like that.”
“Yeah,” agreed Libby, “That would be weird.”
The semester worn on. Snow, more snow, a slight thaw. More snow.
“We gotta just tell her the truth, about our switches. We gotta do it quick, like taking off a band aid, ” I would say periodically.
“It will scar her for life, “ Bob protested.
During February and March, each of us took long walks with Libby across a white world. The Battell hallways smelled of wet wool and boots.
Talking about spring became an obsession. Bob was planning the sleeping arrangements for when we brought Libby home.
“Should we give her the daybed in the study?” he had asked.
“I guess so, “ I said, “ And we can sleep in our regular twin beds and ….um…pay her visits, right?”
Bob nodded. We both grew silent, each thinking about the daybed in the study.
We were ten years old. We had gone to a church picnic. Mother spent that day scurrying around cheerfully with the other churchwomen, serving potato salad, occasionally bursting into song, “Don’t Hide Your Light”. Dad and the other men played baseball. Reverend Pelton had a trick knee, he said, so he didn’t play. He just sat on a webbed lawn chair, being waited on by the church ladies.
The day had been perfect for us kids. We played tag and Frisbee and nobody fussed over how many hotdogs we ate. When night came, we knew there would be marshmallows and fireworks. At one point, as dusk settled in, we were chasing each other towards the back end of the picnic area. Just as we rounded the shadowy area behind the bandstand, Bob and I stopped in our tracks. We could make out the shapes of Mother and Dad, facing each other like two warriors. Dad was shouting.
He was talking about playing with fire and people getting hurt. We thought he was worried about the firecrackers. We feared that he would keep us from even holding innocent sparklers by the tail. We stopped and listened.
Mother gasped when she realized we were right there, but Dad continued to shout. He reached out and shook Mother hard by the elbows, then abruptly let go so she lost balance. He spit on the ground and turned away.
That night, Mother slept, for the first time, on the daybed in the study.
Soon afterwards, Mother ran off with Reverend Pelton. Dad started spending long hours down in the basement, the radio full of static, an empty six-pack on the floor.
First Presbyterian got a new minister, but Dad had long since stopped attending. He let us sleep late on Sunday mornings, watching cartoons and letting soggy bowls of cereal accumulate on the coffee table, until Grandma moved in.
Towards the end of the long cold winter, talk about Spring Break reached a frenzy. Libby seemed to have a wistful look on her face as we passed a little clothing shop down in Frog Hollow. The sign in the window said…”Here comes the sun!!” The mannequins were wearing flip flops even as we trudged through six inches of slush.
“Are you thinking about someplace warm and tropical?” I ventured.
“Of course, “she answered. “But I’m sure Connecticut will be, well, interesting
The next day, I made Bob an offer.
“I think you should just take her to Florida. You know, by yourself, “ I stated.
“What the hell, Brett? And what about you?”
“I’ll go home to Dad and Grandma. I’ll let you have Libby all to yourself,” I replied.
“But that doesn’t seem fair,” answered Bob.
“It’s fair to Libby. I’d rather see her happy on some beach with just you, than miserable in Connecticut with both of us.”
The old Sunday School story about the baby and King Solomon kept playing in my head.
Two women argue over a baby and the King’s solution is to slice the baby in two. The real mother prefers to see the baby go with the false mother than suffer such a fate.
Bob’s face darkened as he read my thoughts.
He ran towards me and tackled me hard, pushing me into a snow bank. We both started to roll around, pounding each other, sliding back and forth on the icy surface like two large hockey pucks.
Finally, out of breath and frightened of our own strength, we stopped.
Bob looked at me and said, “Are you saying that you care more about Libby than I do?”
“Not at all, “ I said, but neither of us believed me. We helped each other up and limped back to the dorms.
Libby never did come to Connecticut. She broke up with Bob right before exams. Only later did we learn that she went to Jost Van Dyke for spring break with a really rich senior who drove a BMW.
When we came back after spring break, Bob and I started jogging even more furiously, up and around the College and out along the road leading to Cornwall.
At night we took to sleeping, once again, like pretzels, in a small twin bed, alternating between our single rooms.
At the beginning of junior year, we found a big red Clifford the Dog clock on the Internet. A vintage item. We tossed a coin. We ended up hanging the clock in Bob’s room, with the understanding that the following year, the clock would hang in my room.
Sometimes one of us had a hook-up with a girl. On those nights, the date-less one got to sleep in the room with Clifford. The red glow was kind of comforting, even then.