We are publishing “I Am Not There” by Kalina Panayotova, the first-prize winner in the fiction category of the annual Filitsa Sofianou-Mullen Creative Writing Competition.
Martin’s sister disappeared when they were 21. She came to the island on a work and travel program and never made her way back. It was the year of Syrian immigrants entering Europe. Same-sex marriage became a right in the US. The Antarctic ice kept melting. It was also the year China scrapped its one-child policy.
Maria and Martin were identical. Except one was a girl, and the other a boy. A difference so rare in the world, even in the world of identical twins, that people sometimes referred to them as “chosen.” Mimi had a diamond-shaped birthmark on her right shoulder, and Martin had the same one on his left. They both had big brown eyes and soft blond hair, curled at the ends. They fell asleep together. They ate together. Only together. They played together, dressed – undressed together, pissed together. Everything. Together.
The first time the twins separated was when Maria flew to the States. It was an experiment. She had proposed it. And one day she didn’t pick up the phone. One day she just vanished.
Martin reached for the pack of Camels. It’s what he did first thing in the morning. Only after he realized he was not home. He felt Adriana’s warm body next to him. She had stretched across the bed and her luscious black hair contrasted with the pillow unnaturally, as if it was a wig. Martin touched a lock that had white hair in it and twirled it between his fingers. Last night was bad. Drinking. Drinking. Smoking. Her.
He looked around. The whole room was painted in pale pink. Even the ceiling.
It became stranger when a basement smell hit him. Mold and moss. Martin thought he saw a leak on the walls. A vibration passed through the room and he felt Jose Cuervo resurrecting along his gullet. He quickly started putting on his jeans, careful not to rattle the keys and coins in his pockets. The body on the bed moved. He grabbed his shirt and shoes. Before he left, he hesitated and went back to her. With one smooth motion Martin laid the white sheet over the girl’s bare body. Martin will later come back to this moment, over and over again.
He walked the distance between the theater and his home in Edgartown – noting and scrutinizing every person he met on his way. Each one, the possible kidnapper of his sister. He bought a bottle of water from the store and drank it. To be hydrated meant Mimi was too. He believed that. They always felt the same way.
The Lamppost was one of the few bars on the island that worked year-round. Adriana used to work with his sister there and it’s where Maria was last spotted. The two women were friends and The Lamppost was the first place Martin went after he arrived. The bar was spacious and smelled of wood and alcohol. He ordered a beer and strolled around.
Folks seemed somewhat familiar. Maria stood right next to him saying, “That guy pushed me on my way to the bathroom. That guy bought me a Mudslide. That guy wouldn’t take no for an answer, the bouncer had to kick him out. The blond bartender was always nice to me. The other one upstairs played nice, but something about him rubbed me the wrong way. That chubby blond woman complained to the manager – supposedly I was being rude and didn’t bring her the right cocktail. Whatever. But that skinny one by the James Dean poster. That’s a real cunt!”
A girl stood in front of him frozen, as if somebody pulled the plug on her. He saw the exact moment she realized who he was.
“Martin, right?” Adriana had asked. That’s when they met for the first time.
These were the kind of questions the police detective asked:
“Did she go out a lot?”
“Did she have a lot of boyfriends?”
“Did she drink alcohol?”
“We hear she did some modeling?”
It was difficult for Martin to contain himself. This suggestiveness hurled at Mimi even in her disappearance. But she wasn’t dead. At least not yet. He knew it. He felt her.
“What does modeling have to do with anything?”
“Maybe she wanted to start a new life,’’ the detective kept saying.
He brought Martin to her apartment. Maria’s room was not spacious. She had prepaid until the end of the month and her things remained as she left them. Two wooden chairs, a bed, her clothes, a mirror and a dressing table, on which her things scattered: hairbrush, sunglasses, perfume. He could smell her smell. Martin remembered when they were little and it was time to fall asleep how they’d stare at each other, nose to nose, breathing in each other’s breaths. He felt her breath now swooshing around his neck.
He touched her things, Maria guided him. He slid his hand under the bed and under the mattress. He hugged her pillow and removed the cover. She always put on two covers. He removed the second one and unbuttoned it, feeling through the stuffing. That’s where the police found her passport and her savings. What that meant, gagged him.
“If she’s missing, we’ll find her.”
“If?” Martin asked.
“Everyone has the right to disappear.”
Even Martin couldn’t ignore the vibrant nature of the Vineyard. Late summer caked the hills with scarlets and yellows and deep auburns. Blue and bloody purple waters raised against the rocks. With the clutter of tourists gone jobs were harder to find, but still there if you weren’t picky. Martin preferred night shifts but would do whatever was available. Driving. Dish-washing. Cleaning. All the same to him. Like the thousands of Brazilians that lived there, he became a part of the unseen workers, the machinery who made the island function.
The closest thing Martin got to a friend on the island was Detective Ambrose. At first, he wanted to keep him as near as possible for any type of information that could lead him to Mimi. Vice versa, Martin was sure. The detective never stopped looking into Maria’s case. Ambrose used to work for the Boston Police years ago. He interrogated you without your knowledge. He was like your uncle from the countryside, unthreatening and overly friendly. Even now, whenever they talked, Martin felt the man dissected each word he uttered, always testing, sniffing out inconsistencies. His understanding of Martin and Maria’s connection was a surprise to say the least.
They went on Ambrose’s boat from time to time, killing beers, time, and fish. Not so
much talking, but just observing the water. Martin sometimes wondered if it was where his sister hid, a mermaid dancing with the fishes.
“Sometimes I ask myself wouldn’t it be better if we found out she was dead. Instead of this constant unknown. Unknown filled with all sorts of horrors.”
“Hey. You are looking at this the wrong way.” Ambrose said and gulped his beer. “She is alive. You say you know that. You will always know, right? So, the best thing you could do for her… feel good. Feel happy.”
Adriana had recognized him as Maria’s twin the first time he went to the bar. They spoke a couple of times since, and it was awkward sometimes. The resemblance between the twins was not always easy to digest. He could tell she cared about Maria. That she was hurt.
Adriana’s hair was long and black. She had hunched shoulders and usually Martin found that unattractive, but this posture on her looked good. It was where her power resided. He couldn’t fully explain it. He hesitated if he should go and say hi. But Martin needed a distraction and an experience with a friend of Mimi seemed like a good idea.
“Can we talk? Get you a drink or anything?”
“Can’t drink while working. Boss will fire me if he sees.”
He felt uncomfortable to insist.
“Wait, after my shift is over?”
Martin ordered a shot of Jose Cuervo and went outside for a cigarette.
Nothing worked after midnight on the island and he and Adriana walked toward her place. She took out a plastic bottle from her bag and gulped.
“Don’t you trust me?”
“No,” he laughed.
“That’s me.” Adriana pointed to the smallest house he’s ever seen. It looked like a cupcake.
“So that’s where Hansel and Gretel have been all this` time?”
“I know, and it’s even worse inside.”
She looked at him. A direct stare, emotional. Was she asking? He wasn’t sure. Martin went inside with her.
He sat on the couch and Adriana stood in front of him. Suddenly he recognized Maria’s expression on Adriana’s face.
But people mimic friends all the time.
Then Adriana’s face paled. And paled. Until her skin tone bleached down to his own skin-tone. Her eyes changed color. The pupils dilated until the whole eye became black. And then the outer circle lit to a lighter shade. Adriana’s high cheekbones sunk back. And her lips shrunk into Mimi’s smile.
Martin suppressed a shriek. What he said to her exactly, he will never remember, but they went upstairs.
It was daunting to have a conversation with Adriana, trying to exorcize Mimi from underneath her. Chunks of her trembled into shapes of Maria’s body. One rapid move turned her limbs into rubbery appendages and another one adjusted the shape and position of her arms. It was a sight so alien that a sense of wonder almost overcame his fear.
The pulsing crossbreed of the two women poured him and herself another shot of tequila. It seemed like two-three-four things were happening at once.
“Yes,” Martin heard himself say. He drank the shot. He looked at the floor. Dumbstruck. Probably some cables inside his brain were messed up and overheated.
When he got close to Adriana, Martin thought Maria was trying to touch him. He felt so close to his sister. Like there was a ring of soft jelly he had to go through and reach her.
Adriana kissed him. She moved her slippery tongue inside his mouth. He didn’t pull away and she slid her hand in his pants.
The movements of the two women’s bodies were not in unison. He was making love to Adriana, but he was seeing Maria. And he didn’t feel like he was desecrating her. He now held in his hands Maria’s bony shoulders and saw her small chest, and he recognized her navel, which was different than his. It was their secret. And finally, there was Maria. The whole of her.
“Where are you,” he asked her.
She just smiled and held him.
“Are you on the island?”
Martin conjured all his power of concentration, of psychic energy, all the power of his love – to try and communicate. To hold that moment alive.
But Maria never spoke. She just seemed happy to be with him. The way she would look if he had met her at the airport upon her arrival.
Martin didn’t allow himself to philosophize much about what happened. He knew now, more than ever, that his knowledge of the world was zero. The brain can’t correlate and connect all the world’s pieces. But what he experienced that night he believed true. He remembered something Ambrose told him once: Ultimately, we all live on an island amidst countless oceans.
Martin ate with a maniacal discipline. He still couldn’t get used to the island food, so he made a note, put an alarm even, to eat something each hour, since he realized how thin he was. And there hasn’t been a time in their lives when he and Maria varied in weight. He believed if he gained, she would too, no matter where she was. He felt sick and bloated after finishing his box of fried fish, which finally made him stop.