That is printed on two signs on either side of the hotel’s bar and lounge. Bunches of paired balloons—two blue, two pink, two yellow—sway beside the arched doorway. No wonder the desk clerk at the Carson City Hilton handed me two key cards this afternoon and looked almost disapproving when I slid one back, saying I’m by myself.
Now, here in the hotel lounge, I am conspicuously single. I hitch up onto a red bar stool that matches my red skirt, and I’m immediately transfixed by all the doubles in the mirror behind the bar. Twins dressed in dots and dashes of color that are all multiplied by two. There must be an unwritten rule that twins should remain together—at least for the first evening—for the effect, I guess. A dizzying but entertaining effect. When I order a whiskey sour the beleaguered bartender brings me two. “Only one,” I say and apologize that I’m not a twin. He sighs into his mustache, a look alike for that sexy actor with a similar drooping mustache, which he knows. He says, “Who would have thought twins drink the same drink. I’ve made two of every drink ordered tonight: two Moscow Mules, two Manhattans, two martinis four olives. You get the picture.”
All sympathy, I tell him I’ll probably have two whiskey sours, but one following the other. And I admit to myself maybe three if all these pairs keep reminding me of my recent sad divorce. My ex’s travels for work led him astray when at play. Upstairs, the ice bucket in my room seemed the only detail that wasn’t a double. I’m here because I couldn’t face my first drink by myself across from the double double beds.
When the bartender returns and asks what I’m here for, if not the twin extravaganza, I tell him I’m here for a conference in the hotel across the avenue—a conference on indoor plant fertilizers. His mustache twitches as if detecting a funny smell. “Yes, it’s usually a conversation stopper,” I say and he laughs and leaves to fill another double drink order. His departure reminds me of the time I was in a different bar, my first solo trip after my divorce, and I thought the bartender was flirting with me. He pulled out his smart phone and said he wanted to show me some photos. Work out photos, I thought. Or pictures of the boat he was going to invite me to embark on. But no, he seriously flicked through twenty photos of his recent kitchen renovation, designed by his wife.
In my business, fertilizer is a word never to be spoken. My manager keeps reminding me that the phrase is “plant nutrition.” Our florist shop designs the floral displays for Boston’s luxury hotels—The Four Seasons, The Taj at the Ritz, the Mandarin—and the city’s posh and numerous charity events. Often, our floral arrangements look more architectural than real. Sometimes even sinister. I witnessed a small child crying at one Christmas rendering of a forest replete with Christmas trees made out of twigs that looked as if they were prepared for the witch’s stove in Hansel and Gretel. Our company prides itself that there is never a duplication, which is why they need my art school expertise. In my interview, as I named items they hadn’t yet used in their floral arrangements—guitars, all sizes of pipes, doll furniture—my thesis on Duchamp served me well though I did not mention his infamous urinal.
The bartender is back with a second whiskey sour. He says, “At least I can make your drink without thinking I’m seeing double.” I smile. If only my husband had had a sense of humor, though I lacked one when I learned his travelling assistant’s name was Tiffin. After my initial anger, her presence in the story made the narrative a lot shorter than the nuanced list of incompatibilities would have been.
The bartender waits for me to take a sip. I nod my approval that he did not use a bar mix.
The man who slides onto the barstool on my right says, “I’m surprised they let you in.” Or rather the two men on my right, dressed alike in striped ties and pale blue shirts. “You missing someone?” the second man says to me, delicately, as if my absent twin might have “passed on.” A witness to the sorrow of my divorce, my closest friend back home sought to console me by declaring that someone always dies first. “So, Henry’s gone,” she said. “Forget how.”
I explain my single, divorced state to Jack and Jason, who nod in simultaneous relief and understanding, and order two Maker’s Marks. About Henry’s age, they are both lawyers, though in different states. Patent work in Ohio. Estate planning in Illinois.
Two women who take the barstools to my left are dressed in identical pant suits with splashes of silver jewelry. They say hello to Jason and Jack, clearly old conference friends, and introduce themselves to me as Jolene and Betts. When I tell them I have no twin, Jolene, the twin nearest me, clucks—actually clucks—and assures me that someplace in the universe I, too, have a twin. I’m to find this comforting. She waves at the bar’s mirrors. “Don’t take your single state at face value.” Really? Is she referring to my lack of a twin or a husband? I hope his absence won’t continue to reappear. Their left hands sport slim wedding bands, so their spouses must have been abandoned at home or are in their hotel rooms hoping their children don’t have twins. Evidently, twin-ness trumps marriage, though Betts and Jolene offer that their husbands are on a hunting trip. They order two cosmos, and wave to more twins. We’re all introduced; I am explained away. The bartender winks at me. Wink. Wink.
For the next hour, I listen to old twin-friends catching up, and watch everything in the bar’s mirror. Clearly the convention wouldn’t be the same without all the mirrors and glass. Who picks these convention venues anyway? Two years ago, our Plant Nutrition convention shared a hotel with the Western Cowboy Poetry Competition. I laughed in disbelief when I saw the poster for the evening’s show announcing its $10 entrance fee. For poetry! But that evening a waiting line that looked like an extras call for a grade C Western snaked halfway down the lobby. The second day, I skipped our lecture on “Stones vs Beads for Container Bottoms” and heard enough about “cows” “coyotes” and “gals” to last a lifetime. The Dictionary of Rhyme is the cowboy bible. “The stars at night on my gal’s bare shoulders, make me forget I am getting older.” I wondered if there was an Eastern Cowboy Poetry Competition but when I googled that possibility, nothing came up.
I order a “twin” whiskey sour and tip the bartender well so he’ll remember solitary me. His lingering glance on my neckline assures me he will. I say goodnight to my new friends. Hugs even. Belatedly I realize that because they are identical twins Jolene could be Betts and Betts Jolene. Same for Jason and Jack. I promise myself to look harder tomorrow, to listen more attentively, then I retire to my double double-bed room. In the mirror, I am slim above, wide hips below, and I look my age—forty. Similar in age to Jolene/Betts and Jason/Jack. But there is only one of me. Here, and back in Boston. A cat doesn’t count.
The next day, my own convention is underway across the avenue in the Sheraton, fully booked when I made my reservation two months ago. Arriving late, I wave to my co-workers, who have garnered seats in the second row close to the water cooler. Gavin is taking notes he’ll tweet all day. The first presentation introduces “New Methods of Nourishment.” For two hours, one after another, men and women who do not look in the least agricultural, though I don’t know what that might look like, give power point presentations on – on that word-never-to-be-spoken—fertilizer. One talk in the afternoon is by the director of the Alternative Technology Museum in Wales. On the screen is a photograph of a hay bale. He calls it a “straw-bale.” He says his museum has an entire acre devoted to various methods of compost. Next on the screen is a photo of the legend that accompanies the straw-bale. He reads it to us: “A way of making top-quality compost with urine—a hygienic and under-used source of plant nutrients. A pint of urine is simply poured onto the cut face of the bale every few days. It soaks in and provokes rapid decomposition of the straw. After a few months the baler-twine is cut and the bale opened to reveal a beautiful crumbly compost. It’s like opening a treasure chest.” Then below in parentheses. “(Of course the urine can be administered in a much more direct way, and it is handy to have the bale behind a bush somewhere in the garden in case you are, as it were, caught short hoeing the carrots….)”
I started giggling at the word “provokes” and had to leave when he said “as it were.” Franny, also giggling, followed me out to the lobby where we collapsed in more laughter, wondering where on earth we’d put the hale bale in our elegant Newbury Street shop, and then conjuring up the shop’s schedule for peeing. “Just another way men have it easy,” Franny said. “Can you imagine what would happen if our customers discovered the secret to our plants’ success.”
When she asks which room I’m in and suggests a drink, I tell her about the twins convention at my hotel across the avenue, and invite her over, but she’s already made plans. Still giggling, I sneak out to see what my twins are up to. I’m curious about the closeness of twins, which seems to go far beyond the bonds of siblings or the rewards and pains of marriage.
Back across the avenue, I look around the lobby for a Twins Convention Schedule. The bartender from the night before sets two whiskey sours in front of me. We laugh and before I begin the second, he dramatically replaces it with a fresh one. “We we missed you, you,” he says. I imagine licking salt from his brush mustache, undressing for his gaze, but it turns out he isn’t the one, or two, I sleep with.
Jason and Jack arrive fresh from a lecture, relieved to report that the hypothesis about Mengele, the Nazi Angel of Death, was wrong. It had been posited that his presence and previous experiments on twins in Germany were responsible for the high rate of twin births in Candido Goidoi, Brazil. It turns out, however, that this incidence was present in birth records beginning in 1920, and also present after Mengele’s death in 1979. This question had haunted the twins conventions for years.
“Now we might actually hold one of our yearly meetings in Brazil,” Jason/Jack says.
We all order celebratory drinks. Twins have this little game they play, clinking glasses crosswise from theirs. I’m an outlier, but I get enough clinks to make me forget my singularity.
I ask to borrow Jason or Jack’s THE 47TH ANNUAL TWINS CONVENTION SCHEDULE OF EVENTS. The schedule’s photographs could have been taken by a kindlier Diane Arbus. Listed are such events as: Soul Mate or Nemesis; Aging Gracefully Together; Or Apart; To Dress Alike or Not: Ageism and Sexism; Changing Places: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Pranks; Search for a Missing Twin; Separated at Birth; Invented Languages; The Science of Telepathic Communication: The Abuse of Telepathic Communication; Criminal Misuse of Telepathic Communication; Conjoined Twins: CANCELLED; Final colloquium: Election of officers; Competition; most look-alike twins. Farewell dinner: individual twin photographs; conference photo. HAVE A GOOD YEAR and DOUBLE THE FUN.
Several of these events absolutely warrant missing my Plant Nutrition Conference, so I decide to risk being absent for the day. With an eye toward expense reimbursement, I spend eleven minutes writing a review of the sad flower arrangements at the Twins’ Convention: mostly daisies, and calla lilies, and how we might put in a bid to do their next year’s arrangements. Memo: to Gavin. Luckily my reputation for original flower installation accessories coupled with my larger reputation for being absent-minded stand me in good stead.
By my attendance at the third twin event, Betts and Jolene know to save me a seat, and this time I don’t mind sitting in the front row. We have a similar interest in the mystery of Telepathy. Betts lives in Indiana and Jolene in Idaho where Wi-Fi is spotty at best. “I have to remind Betts to take her pills every morning, and she reminds me to feed the birds,” Jolene says. “Our husbands can tell when a message comes through,” says Betts, “especially an important one like when mom choked on a chicken bone and flat out died.” Jason and Jake report similar experiences. Jake when his wife lost her left ear at Disney World and Jason when his pet raccoon got caught in the air-conditioner.
Now the speaker is explaining how the criminal justice system is beginning to use twins in undercover correctional facility assignments. “Our jails are such that going undercover is a hardship, so the twin assignment cuts the undercover time inside by half,” a warden explains. If the jails are so unpleasant, I whisper to Betts and Jolene, we should do something about all the people in them, especially the jails run for-profit. Turns out they are Republicans, so I don’t pursue this reasoning. The speaker says he is here to recruit new teams. There are a few half-hearted questions, but no volunteers. He leaves deflated and immune to his analysis of his own barbaric facilities. Jason or maybe Jack suggests that a twin team would do well to pursue some investigative journalism. Democrats.
Betts and Jolene sign up for the experiments in telepathy. Both twins are clearly relieved that the instructor has no interest in entertaining dopplegangers. “It would be like watching four fighters in the ring,” he told his audience. The next day, wearing badges I recall from doing flowers for the New England Dog Show, they tell me they have been singled out as one of the most successful teams ever evaluated. “Most are women, Betts says. I tell them, “That’s no surprise. My ex-husband wouldn’t pass a test for normal conversational engagement let alone reading someone’s mind.” Here, Jack and Jason congratulate Betts and Jolene, and declare that they can read the minds of all five of us—that it is time for a drink.
I drink late into the night with my new friends, Betts and Jolene, Jason and Jack, Willa and Waldo (fraternal twins are welcome), Trish and Calista, Frank and Louie, Kurt and David, and other pairs I won’t remember except for the Scottish kilts or leather cowboy hats. I describe the straw-bale urinal to a disbelieving audience, but I also perceive a new respect for my working life. The bartender, Luke, has made it a habit to serve me two whiskey sours—with a double wink. He lingers near us. Once he was in the running, but abundance comes in all forms. Later that night, I sink into the weight and ways of making love. In the morning, I’m not sure if I’ve slept with Jason or Jack.
At breakfast, Jason claims that dubious distinction when he cups my neck before sitting down, but dressed, they are still Jason and Jack to me, a failing on my part that I decide not to consider too carefully in view of the night’s success. There, I’ve made it past the first post-divorce—well, date.
I stay over a day for the Twins’ final gala dinner. Coincidentally, Jolene, Betts and I are all wearing crimson blouses with silver necklaces. We seem to have similar hair-dos, sort of bibbley bobs. Jolene insists that we are triplets separated at birth, and Betts agrees, so there is a photo of me, standing between them, arms around each other’s shoulders, wearing wide identical lopsided-grins. And then I am standing between Jason and Jack. They too urge me to meet up with them next year. And by now, I know for sure it was Jason, not Jack. His more acerbic sense of humor, an appreciation for The Second City troupe, his attentive hands.
Finally, I leave, but not before I have an altercation with the desk clerk who has charged me for double occupancy. My night with Jason-not-Jack notwithstanding, the badge for the Plant Nutrition Conference at the Sheraton saves me.
A half day later, I lug my suitcase into my Boston apartment and sink into the couch, my cat and briefcase on my lap. It is strange to return to a place that was never home to my ex-husband. Now he is simply gone. The cat wants to play. The plants need watering. I giggle out loud at the memory of the hay bale urinal. I pour a glass of wine, set the cat to purring, then I search through my belongings till I find the photo of us triplets: Jolene, me, and Betts. I am overcome. I think we are still happy. I have never felt so alone. I have never felt so whole.
PAMELA PAINTER is the author of four story collections, most recently Ways to Spend the Night. She is co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in Harper’s, Five Points, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and Ploughshares among others and in numerous flash fiction anthologies. She has received grants from The Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’s The John Cheever Award for Fiction.