The walls of our home were a canary yellow when we moved in. Mom said that was a depressing color and promptly painted them beige. The yellow had been a stir-crazy yellow anyway, peeling away from the corners and window frames like claws. I mean, did the people who lived here first never take a tenth grade literature class? The Yellow Wallpaper haunted me for weeks.
Rachel first saw the ghost living in her bedroom long before we knew the history of our house. The consecutive deaths of children in the two families who had lived there before us, which we learned of only after moving, made for welcome, if uneasy, corroboration. At fourteen, when we relocated a half hour south of Orlando, to a new home void of trauma or history, our mom finally confessed. She told us all about the strange deaths of the children in the yellow-walled home with blue shutters, and Rachel and I, unsurprised and finally validated, did our best to find their obituaries online. Their virtual tombstones proved difficult to unearth. Turns out the magnolia tree in our backyard that Rachel and I spent hours climbing was actually planted as a memoriam for one of the kids. We turned it into a wishing tree, tying different colored ribbons on its branches whenever one of us wanted something. One time Rachel made a wish that our dog would live forever.
“There was a girl in my bed, Mom. I’m not lying! I saw her!” Rachel’s eyes widened, dilated pupils gaping like wormholes. Even at a young age, my sister was quite the actress. And I mean that literally, as well. She had done a few commercials by that time, including a bit for Disney World where she wore a princess dress and got pampered for the day. I was jealous that Rachel found success acting, though I never liked to admit it. It made me feel like any attention I received was akin to a participation ribbon, and that everyone around us knew Rachel was the special one. I didn’t necessarily blame Rachel for that feeling, it wasn’t her fault, but it festered.
Our mother, unwilling to pay for a babysitter, dragged me to that Disney World commercial shoot where I watched through a gift shop window as my sister flounced around in a sparkling gold dress, adults doting on her every whim. My mom bought me a soft pretzel as consolation. Then it rained.
I had dipped my toe in the swimming pool of acting possibilities, cringed away from the deep end, and eventually wrapped a towel around myself and abandoned the profession all-together. The audition process was too scary to me. Meeting new people, telling them my name, opening myself up to the inevitable rejection that always seemed to follow my best efforts. I couldn’t fake a laugh to save my life. I couldn’t cry on command. I could barely remember my agent’s name. No, I was better at the pep-talks, at running Rachel’s lines with her, at noticing the stray lock of hair and pinning it behind her ear right before call-time.
Rachel’s very first gig had been for the local Friendly’s, a job she earned based on her adorable curly hair and larger-than-life almond eyes. We both had acting agents by the time we were two. Before we moved to Orlando from Los Angeles, while my parents were still together, our mom had worked as a set dresser and our dad as a prop master and gun manager. He said his favorite experience with guns on a set was on Miller’s Crossing where he played a gangster shooting a Thompson submachine at a couple of guys holed up in a bar. The plot twist—he also played one of the men in the bar shooting back. My parents knew the acting industry better than they knew each other.
They had met while working on the 1993 film The Cemetery Club, falling for each other while constructing the fake world of three Pittsburgh women who met at the gravestones of their dead husbands to discuss their half-empty lives over Jewish deli meats. My parents’ marriage ultimately derailed in 2008, while our dad was working on The Great Buck Howard, and the divorce was legally recognized by the time he got his job on Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Even if it they both eventually left the industry, involving us in their world had been as natural as blinking. Our mother wanted to be an actress as a kid but eventually slotted herself into the more attainable role of set dresser, hiding her dreams behind the scenes. We were a new chance to “make it.” Rachel could fill a room with fake laughter. Rachel could cry on command. Rachel could remember our agent’s name and any script you gave her. She had all the makings of someone who could make it.
And so maybe because she was such a good actress, when Rachel first mentioned seeing a ghost, I flat-out thought she was lying. She had been sleeping on the floor of my room for a few months now, ever since she had accidentally bumped the wall while making her bed, and an unmistakable knock from inside the wall came in return. At first, I protested her encroachment. At twelve years old, we had just gotten our own rooms and I didn’t want to share again. But saying no to Rachel never really meant no. She took “no” to mean “convince me,” and somehow I always ended up convinced. She slept on my floor for years, the socket of her empty room but a reminder that our house, and the people who filled it, were full themselves of things others couldn’t see.
When I decided to believe that the strangeness I had sometimes felt in our home wasn’t a faulty air conditioning duct, but a presence neither of us really understood, our home itself began to feel like a movie set. Rachel and I were the stars. Feeling haunted was exciting, not scary, and every sighting was another scene in the script. Rachel remained worried and perpetually nervous. She complained about bugs we couldn’t find and threats we couldn’t feel. Scribbling away at our homework at the kitchen table, our mom cooking dinner at the stove, Rachel would sometimes shiver and say, “Did you hear that? What was that?”
I hadn’t heard anything but the sizzle of oil and the scratch of pencils, but Rachel would shake her head like a pinball was rolling around in there, knocking down any remaining walls of logic and reason.
“I didn’t hear anything,” I’d say.
Rachel’s scattered eyes would return to our homework, and though I couldn’t hear whatever she was worried about, I could make out “lucky,” mumbled under her breath.
Years after Rachel saw her ghost, I finally saw mine. Our home stopped being a fake movie set when I saw the ghost open the back door and scurry through the living room. The ghost I saw was large, like a full-grown man. Dark. Sad. Unseen by anyone else. That limp sliver of doubt that had periodically flipped on in the corner of my head was switched off. It was real.
“I saw a man today,” I told Rachel that night. She was on an air mattress on my bedroom floor, curled around her teddy bear. “But no one else was home.”
“I always see a girl,” she whispered back, sitting up to look me in the eyes.
“Did Mom believe you?” Rachel asked. I shook my head, though the truth was, I didn’t tell Mom. I didn’t tell anybody, just Rachel. Because I knew Rachel would believe me the first time I told her, unlike the first time she told me. I wasn’t convinced anyone else could see these ghosts. I wasn’t sure I wanted anybody else to see them. This shared vision confirmed the bond I so desperately wanted, needed, us to have. It proved that we were connected in ways others aren’t. It proved that we were both special.
Until I saw the ghost, I was only Rachel’s shadow. On sets, the directors would use me as her stand-in while she was in hair and makeup. I would stand in the dark as they adjusted the lighting, and I would be removed as soon as Rachel was ready to fill her spotlight. But with our ghosts, we were equal.
We were twins.
No, we were. Literally.
Our father jokes that if he hadn’t been there to witness both of us popping out of our mother’s belly like Whack-a-moles he wouldn’t have believed it himself. The doctors snatched her out first. I followed less than a minute later, like an under-study to her entrance onto earth. Growing up, the color of our hair, the color of our eyes, even our differing heights made people blink rapidly when confronted with the dubious word “twin.”
“We’re fraternal,” we would assure them simultaneously. Rachel’s freckles used to dance across her nose when she laughed at people’s shocked reactions, whereas the edges of my eyes would curl into little daggers ready to defend.
When we selected different colleges, the embryo of our identity split again into two new beings. How do you feel whole when no one knows you’re only half of a pair? I decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania to study English, and Rachel went to the University of California Los Angeles to pursue her acting career. Now, as a twenty year old trying desperately to find my footing in an unstable world, I have only one shadow. And she makes my same mistakes.
I don’t know how to be just myself. I’ve never had to find out if “just myself” is enough. The special part about me has always been my twinship. In high school it was never, I’m hanging out with Rachel and Sophia. It was always, I’m hanging with the twins.
We pitched the shadows Rachel and I mutually cast like tents in every social sphere we camped in. I was happy to inhabit them, and even with my feeling of always coming second, I was glad to hold my ground in darkness. But now I feel like a guardian angel gaffer has played a trick on me, setting up open-faced lights all around, refracting my identity into confused rays.
I called Rachel and told her about this experimental nonfiction writing class I was taking and how I was hellbent on writing about her, not admitting that this was because writing about her would help me write about me.
I said, “I’m coming to LA.”
She responded, “Okay. When?”
So, I flew 2,392 miles to spend 26 hours in Los Angeles, to be my twin sister’s second shadow again. I lived her life for one day by unpinning my normal routine from its connection to my feet and trying to walk in her shoes instead. My plan was to eat what she normally ate, go to her job, talk to her friends, walk the roads unfamiliar to my feet but newly natural to her soles. I don’t think I expected to find anything per say. It was important for me to see how Rachel was “just Rachel” at college; if she too struggled with being just herself. Rachel and I had shared a womb, then a room, then a hallway, and now it felt like all we shared was a last name and the random bit of good news, like when Rachel got a call a year ago to audition for a reboot of a popular movie from when we were kids. Our separation has deeply affected me, and in some strange (and possibly selfish) way I wanted to see how deeply it affected her.
At midnight, only a few hours after I had landed in hazy Los Angeles, shrugging the memory of crisp Philadelphia air from my shoulders like flakes of fallen snow, I woke up to stifled sniffles. I pointlessly squinted in the dark of Rachel’s bedroom, groping for my glasses in a fog.
I heard a shaky breath, then another quiet sniffle.
“Rachel, talk to me.” I couldn’t see her shake her head, but I heard the scrape of her chin against her rough covers and knew she wasn’t going to start talking. “Rachel, breathe, it’s okay. Deep breath. Again. Again. And another one. Keep breathing… Now tell me what’s up.”
“I just get so worried, Sophia. Nothing is happening. Nothing is wrong. But… I feel so sad. It’s like I can’t breathe… I, I can’t wake up and not feel like something bad is going to happen.” Her sigh passed through the air between us, softly hitting the top of my forehead. I grabbed that sigh from the air and tried to swallow it, tried to really feel what it was like to be worrying about absolutely nothing. The air inside my lungs turned heavy and hot, simultaneously rising to my head and sinking into my gut. Even though she didn’t say it, I knew Rachel’s agent not re-signing her for the following year worried and scared her. This knowledge amalgamated like pressurized sand within my throat, dropping with the weight of new diamonds into my stomach. The grounding I used to feel from being Rachel’s shadow wobbled like Philippe Petit strung between the twin towers, as Rachel’s own identity, as actress, as dreamer, as someone special, flailed in 104 stories worth of wind.
“It’s okay, Rachel. It’s okay. Everything will be okay. We’ll figure it out. You’re not going to be sad forever.” I cast the words like skipping stones, hoping one of them would penetrate the inky air between us and land securely in her heart. Rachel used to wake up in the middle of the night a lot, screaming and crying and panicking about myself or my mother dying. I remember my mom telling me, years later, about her agony at not being able to really promise a four year old that she wasn’t going to die one day. She could only tell her, it’s okay, it will all be okay. Sixteen years later, I realized not much had changed. Except I was the one wrapping a security blanket of words around her body instead of sitting up in the bed across the room, just waiting for the noise to stop. Whether or not this blanket of words actually provided any warmth was doubtful to me.
Rachel’s head wilted. “Try and get some sleep,” I said.
As I slouched back down, my eyes caught on a picture frame at the foot of Rachel’s bed that I recognized from our old home, though Rachel had since replaced the picture of our dad with one of my mom, herself, and me. I remember the day we took the photo. It was the day Rachel and I got our second round of headshots. She was angry that we had to wear matching pink dresses and would have preferred wearing something completely different from me. Perhaps jeans and a black shirt. I was secretly delighted.
If she eats breakfast, Rachel will typically enjoy a bagel. When this whole idea popped into my head—to be my twin sister for the day—I didn’t necessarily realize the weight of some of the more mundane aspects of someone’s life. Her breakfast decisions weren’t the kernel I thought would lead me to understanding her new life and her new being, but as I sat in UCLA Hillel, eating an everything bagel with melted butter and her normal coffee order from Starbucks, I tried remembering the last time I ate a bagel for breakfast, or the last time I ate breakfast for that matter. I thought about the bagels we ate after Grandma’s funeral; Rachel’s chocolate chip one weeping butter at the rate of her tears. Grandma was our biggest supporter. We could have said we wanted to run for President—as a Republican—and she would have made the pins. I thought about the blueberry bagels our old Basset Hound, Madison, would steal out of Grandma’s purple purse. “Bad dog!” Grandma would yell, her purple nails snatching at any scrap of bagel not yet devoured. “Good girls,” she’d say, when we could successfully wrestle the dough from Madison’s maws. Rachel would toss the bagel back to our dog when Grandma wasn’t looking.
My days of waking up and immediately devouring a meal like Madison have long-since stopped, and with no sister or mother around to force me to eat, I choose every morning not to do it. Rachel confessed to the same carby sin on most normal days. The eating disorder I had starved to its bare bones reared its ugly head within my stomach. Like a rock-climber, it threatened to crawl up again through my throat, making chewing and swallowing exceedingly more difficult. Rachel asked me last year if I had an eating disorder and I lied to her face. I never thought to ask her the same question.
My sister is porous, and traps every drop of spit that flies off other people’s lips. I am water-resistant, and sometimes wish I could absorb more than just myself. For my literary experiment, I didn’t just go through the motions of Rachel’s day, but tried to embody her mindset. When her boyfriend didn’t respond to her good morning text, instead of brushing it off, and quite frankly, not caring, as I would have in that same position, I truly tried to conjure the same anger and hurt she felt. As an aspiring actress, her emotions are anything but internalized. This was another challenge I had to meet, because as an aspiring writer, my emotions only show on pieces of paper hidden deep in my notebooks. If I wanted to truly live Rachel’s life for a day, that meant living through the emotions she wears like bangles all up and down her arms. That meant giving in to the feelings I normally water down with coffee and satirical jokes. That meant actively empathizing with emotions I don’t understand.
Rachel ultimately selected The University of Los Angeles because of its location. If you want to be an actress, you go to LA, and Rachel’s pilgrimage back to our place of birth seemed only right. For as long as I can remember, Rachel claimed she wanted to be an actress, and upon moving to LA, getting an agent, and starting school, this dream finally seemed attainable in a way it didn’t in Florida. Not being re-signed by her agent in LA put a damper on this feeling of attainability. Balancing a full schedule of classes and multiple auditions a week would strain anybody’s shoulders, and when she was forced to lighten her load or be crushed completely, she couldn’t bear to part with an education. Rachel was understandably left to question what kind of dream she had created for herself. She’s spent her entire life putting on other people’s personas like snake skins, shedding them only to feel naked without the security of a character. Her talent to portray anything—a Disney princess, a little girl dying of cancer, a girl whose family sees ghosts (I’m not kidding, she booked a part in a horror movie—Cassadaga—where her fake family is haunted by ghosts), was truly astounding. But I wondered what happened to the girl underneath? When you grow up wanting more than anything to make a living by being someone else, are you really equipped to value yourself? Will you ever think that “just yourself” is enough?
Absorbing Rachel’s endless worries wasn’t easy. Does my boss actually hate me? My mom hasn’t texted me back yet. Is she okay? Did I just miss my meeting? Did I even have a meeting? Why can’t I calm down? It was scary. It actually terrified me to force myself to feel so intensely on just a normal day. I found myself overwhelmed by the prospect of opening myself like a bag ready to catch other people’s sadness, joys, and stresses. It’s so much easier to constantly ignore the chaos swirling around me, not attempt to piece it together like a puzzle I’ve never had the patience for.
Feelings are exhausting! I wrote in my notebook at 1:30 pm after the sight of a lost dog poster almost brought Rachel to tears. The ink from the dot of the exclamation mark bled to the next page. We were walking on campus in casual silence. I didn’t look twice at the poster, but Rachel let out a whimper eerily similar to that of a puppy’s and said through her frown, “That poor dog.” Her eyes didn’t regain their full luster for another couple of hours, and I knew not to bring up the word “dog,” lest she be reminded of the missing one she’d never met.
Our day had started at about eight o’clock. Her alarm clock was that annoying blare iPhones default to when you don’t customize the sound. We both raised our groggy heads and instead of reaching for her phone to turn the noise off, her hand slipped into the small pocket of her backpack. Fishing around for a few seconds before producing the small purple pouch us women know and love, she popped a pill into her open palm, threw it in her mouth, and dry swallowed. She then promptly hit her phone with a defiant whack, and dove back to her pillow, not yet ready to face the day. This left me in a bit of a pickle. I didn’t want my first task being my twin sister to be less than genuine, but I normally take my birth control at 9:30 at night, not eight o’clock in the morning. Realizing if I didn’t put an end to my internal monologue about how to identically perform Rachel’s pill ritual, I would fail to get an identical amount of sleep as Rachel, I grabbed an Advil, dry swallowed, and went back to sleep.
I figured pregnancy was where I should draw the line.
Half an hour later, her phone started squawking again. We both wake up angry. And we stay angry until we get our coffee. So it came as no surprise to me that at hearing her final alarm, Rachel rolled over in bed, groaned, and stood up with all the energy of a two-day old sack of laundry. I did the same. The only mention of the night before came from a dried goop of a tear in the corner of Rachel’s eye.
Rachel’s apartment in Los Angeles is shared by herself and three roommates, two of whom have their own rooms, leaving Rachel (the girl who comes from the lowest tax bracket by at least two stratospheres) to share a room with a girl named Sydney, who can blissfully sleep through anything, including our midnight conversation.
Rachel’s bedside table, a small and rickety thing I was worried would topple over if so much as another memory were added to the collection, was covered in knick-knacks from home. There was a vase of flowers with an apology card from her boyfriend stuck proudly in the center. A picture of our grandfather and Rachel at my mother’s second wedding. The contours of Rachel’s sentimentality slithered throughout the room, taking shape as the dreamcatcher we shared as kids above her bed and Polaroid pictures from high school pinned on the wall. My room back in Philly pales in comparison. The only picture I have on my nightstand is of a pug that isn’t even mine.
Snatching a hoodie from the rack, Rachel slipped it over her head, tossing a second hoodie to me with the words Nothing Sacred scrawled in Gothic font across the front. Nothing Sacred was a TV show my mom had worked on back in the day that won a Peabody Award for its “honest portrayal of the complexity of faith in the modern era.” I know from Rachel’s copious Instagram shots that it’s one of her favorite items of apparel. We both kept on the leggings that we went to sleep in. She tore a hand through her tangled hair. “I don’t brush my hair.”
Laughing, I retort, “I don’t even own a brush.” It’s nice to see that some things, like our chronically knotted locks, never change.
“I don’t put makeup on either.” She gave me a glance out of the corner of her eye as she plopped back down on her bed, done getting ready for the day. I nodded my head and attempted her plop method on the air mattress she had set up for me the night before. We both cracked up as I bounced and half-toppled half-ass flopped onto the floor, nearly taking out the nightstand with me. In the two years Rachel spent sleeping on an air mattress in my room, she never once missed.
“I normally sit and watch an episode or two of Modern Family on Friday mornings. I don’t want to do it in the living room today because I don’t really want to talk to Jackie so let’s just watch on my computer.”
We laughed our way through episode six of season five, where Haley and Alex have to share a room after their widowed grandfather crashes at their house, before leaving for work.
The show reminded me of the one our dad worked on for a while, The Middle, starring nobody in particular, with its stupid humor and easy punchlines. “There’s a picture of me on the refrigerator on the set of The Middle,” Rachel once bragged to our friends. Our dad said he used to sneak photos of the two of us onto the set, though I only ever saw snapshots of Rachel when I stayed up to try and catch a glimpse of my face on TV.
“Actually, I have to go to work today, maybe I should try to look a little bit more presentable.” Goosebumps dotted Rachel’s arms as she quickly changed out of her hoodie, replacing it with a t-shirt and jean jacket. She kept the leggings. The jean jacket was also my mother’s. If you unflip the collar you see the words, “Stop drooling, Amy. Love, Luke Perry,” in Luke Perry’s handwriting. My mom was a badass—but that’s an entirely different story.
As Rachel and I left her room and ventured into her kitchen, backpacks slung over our right shoulders, the smell of Sydney’s perfume and plastic lifted from the air, replaced by the scent of a berry-flavored Juul pod.
“Oh, we have to do Italian homework today.”
“Bellissimo!” I say.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
Hopping up onto the limited counter space she has, I grabbed a lock of my hair and began twirling it between my fingers. It’s a nervous habit I acquired years and years ago.
“Hey Sophia. I don’t twirl my hair.” Her eyebrows arched in that familiar way that only happens when she knows she’s right, and I let out a sigh of defeat, dropping the curl.
“No, you rub your eyebrows when you get anxious or nervous.” I take my middle finger and my thumb, and to my absolute chagrin, drag them across my eyebrows in the opposite direction the hair naturally grows. It was a habit Rachel used to have in high school. I took a wild guess it was still around.
She nodded and looked down at her feet, swinging them gently. “I try not to do that as much anymore. I try to just breathe when I get anxious. Or go on walks.” Her face had fallen in a way I couldn’t explain. Rachel’s always had this adorable round face, which made her acting career slightly easier. She was a fifteen-year-old being cast as a twelve-year-old, so directors got the exact look they wanted but didn’t have to deal with younger acting brats (let alone their bratty mothers). But in the stale light of her kitchen that morning, her face seemed more angular. Older. I mean, she was older, but it was more than that. It was like life had taken a chisel and lightly tapped at her cheeks just enough for only those closest to her to notice.
The week before my visit, Rachel had called me on the phone in an absolute panic, a louder version of the tizzy she was in last night. She was rambling about how she was worried about her grades and her schoolwork piling up. She was worried about her friends and her relationships. She was worried about everything. She sounded on the verge of crumbling. I didn’t really know what to say. I told her to take a walk, to move her body, to walk through the city and feel her legs carrying her, supporting her, walking somewhere. To imagine that the buildings she was passing were physical representations of the emotions she was feeling, and that eventually they would all be behind her if she kept walking.
I know I can’t bleach out the stain of her dark anxiety, but I feel obligated to try. The sad truth that gums at my throat like a teething dog, choking me almost enough to quiet my confession, is that I don’t understand why Rachel is like this. I don’t get how someone can create sadness from the air in their lungs and anxiety out of the warm heat in their belly, but Rachel can do it, and she does it every day. I know it’s real, but when I try to understand, it feels like a performance, an act I can memorize but not embody. I am stuck in a mezzanine watching her, and every seat closer to the stage is already taken by people who can better understand. By people who can relate.
“I’ve only ever wanted to be an actor,” she said to me when I asked about her agent (or ex-agent). There was a grief in this sentence that could not be quieted with reassurance or compliments. I didn’t really know what else to say, but by the time she hung up, she’d calmed down slightly. I figured that was enough for the moment.
It was an unusually chilly day for Los Angeles, and as we walked across campus, I put my hands in my pockets as the breeze nipped at the tips of my fingers. UCLA’s campus is much larger than Penn’s, and in my opinion, exceedingly more confusing. Rachel showed me an overview of the place on a map in an attempt to help me understand why we walked all the way around the tip of Westwood instead of straight through it. She insisted that unless I could fly over buildings we had to take the long way. Though I didn’t mind the walk, I still have a sneaking suspicion there’s a better route.
“Welcome to Hillel!” A larger boy with the beginnings of a mustache shouted as we walked through the heavy wooden doors to the foyer of UCLA’s Hillel. (Which has a full-blown cafe inside. Not to sound ungrateful because Penn Hillel does some great work, but I can’t get an iced vanilla latte while learning about my Jewish identity there.)
I wouldn’t call Rachel’s job the most intellectually taxing or stimulating thing I’ve ever done. She sat me down in front of her computer, gave me her login, and basically said “have fun.” In the couple of hours I sat there, eager for some drama to continue my experiment, I buzzed exactly two people into the nearly-empty building. During the rest of my time, I organized the clutter behind her desk.
“You realize I’m still collecting the paycheck for this, right?” Rachel laughed.
I didn’t feel as if I needed compensation for sitting in a swivel chair, periodically looking at some security screens, and scrolling through Rachel’s Instagram feed that boasts nothing but dog pictures, travel photography, news headlines, and Tasty videos from Buzzfeed. After organizing her space, I watched a video about how to make a vegetarian sushi roll, knowing full-well that Rachel would never go through the trouble of buying sushi ingredients, let alone steaming her own rice.
Rachel’s boss, a 24-year-old rock-climber who Rachel insisted looked like my own roommate’s long-lost brother, padded down the hall and with a “Boo!” jumped in front of “our” desk. I gasped and nearly flew off my very professional swivel chair. Rachel rolled her eyes. “Hello Pazooky.”
“Got you, Rachel,” he winked at me, fully embracing my experiment.
At one in the afternoon, Rachel’s shift was over. We clocked out, swiped the crumbs off the counter into the garbage (or more accurately, onto the floor when no one was looking), snapped on our jackets, and set off to the other side of campus to work on Italian. The walk was beautiful. A deep gray unusual for L.A. was hugging every corner of the sky. Rachel explained to me that she always does her online Italian homework at the Powell building.
“This building was in that show Dear White People. It was the fake Ivy League school. I think this building has actually been used to depict Harvard in more movies than Harvard has been used.” Rachel tossed these facts into the space between us nonchalantly, like it was no big deal. To me, it was a big deal. Seeing a building at my twin sister’s public university that depicted a fake Ivy League school while I was away from my real Ivy League school. The collision of this constructed world with my real one rocketed shards of irony like light beams into my body, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“That’s so cool!” I enthused, doing a 360 degree turn to take it all in. I could see why this building would be in high demand. It really was beautiful, romantic even. I would have lived just about anywhere if it meant getting out of Florida, and I love the city of Philly, but Los Angeles is something else. There were actual mountains in the background of my view from the perch of Powell.
Much of Rachel’s day was cannonballing from one appointment or meeting into another. We grabbed a quick lunch that would put Penn’s dining plan to shame before heading towards the doctor’s office. Tired of walking by the time her doctor’s appointment was over, we took our time getting home. The doctor wouldn’t let me in the room with them, so I sat in the waiting area like a child (another failed attempt at being the perfect shadow). With no book to read and no desire to go on my phone, I counted the number of Cartier rings I saw on people’s fingers as they checked in. I got to four before Rachel returned.
The main stretch of sidewalk we took back was lined with fraternity houses, decorated with leftover Christmas lights like slings. Students clad in designer visors and thousand dollar bags too small to fit their expensive laptops swarmed the grassy patches in the growing heat, like a hive of spoiled bees. The hole on the inside seam of my leggings itched as we walked through the crowd.
We gutted a belated birthday package our mother had sent both of us while I was in LA. It contained scones from the bakery she now works at and heartfelt (bordering on sappy) children’s books she used to read us with personalized and hand-written notes in the pages. When we were little we always shared one copy of a book, but now that geography demanded we couldn’t share, our mom had to send us our own. After packing my book safely away in my duffel bag, Rachel asked, “Will you help me tape my audition?”
Normally Rachel would go to a professional to get a taping for an audition, but she didn’t seem to care enough about this one to go through that hassle, and my stomach started to bubble nervously seeing as I am A.) not a professional and B.) not even close.
“I can’t promise I’ll do a great job,” I admitted nervously.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s just a public service announcement thing to stop college students from doing drugs, so it’s simple. I can do it in like ten minutes. Mainly improv.”
“I could do it instead, since I’m supposed to be you.”
Rachel gave me a deadpan look. We both laughed. “Honestly, you probably could. It’s not like this is hard stuff.” Rachel sped a brush through her tangled hair and tossed on a plain t-shirt with no writing across the front. This was not the level of enthusiasm she used to have for her “dream.” This was not the same little girl in a Disney princess dress looking more like a cupcake than a child.
Do you know how many ribbons Rachel had tied to our wishing tree? Ribbons devoted to wishing she’d become a famous actress? Do you know how many ribbons I devoted to wishing Rachel would become a famous actress? Probably the same amount.
Rachel had always loved acting because she had always loved winning. I saw an echo of that competitive spark when I took her phone and pressed record. Rachel tore through her slate as she had done a million times, saying her full name, her height, her (then) agent, what part she was auditioning for. She turned in a full circle, allowing the casting directors full knowledge of what she looks like on camera. Next she sat down on her bed, asking me to sit wherever I could in order to get a tight shot of her waist up. I ended up perching on the corner of her bed frame and leaning most of my upper body off the edge into the air, holding myself with what little core strength I’d retained from years of competitive gymnastics. I held my breath as I recorded, scared the video would come out shaky. I didn’t want my unprofessionalism to cost her the job.
Tears welled in Rachel’s eyes as she slipped into the persona of a reformed drug addict, grateful for her rehabilitation, yet guilty for her addiction. It was startling to see how quickly Rachel’s face could fall. Words slipped from her tongue like loose thumbtacks, pricking my arms and stinging my skin. Though the lines were all improvisation, she sounded sure and steady as she promoted the infomercial’s cause. After a convincing conclusion, she flicked her eyes at me as if to signal “cut” and I stopped the recording. Rachel’s eyes were dry within a few seconds, and she had emailed the recording and her slate to her agent before I could even regain my full balance on the bed.
When I said goodbye to Rachel at three thirty in the morning the Saturday after my experiment, she was wearing the same face she had on the first time we saw our ghosts together. It was a face that, ten years ago, made me want to fold her up and put her in my pocket for safe-keeping. You know that song that goes, “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, save it for a rainy day”? When I was little I pictured Rachel to be the falling star from that song.
About a decade ago, we were on the couch in our living room, watching a Jack Hanna two-hour special when the bathroom door creaked open. Two shadows, one tall and one short, darted from behind the door. Rachel and I didn’t say anything. We just turned the TV on louder, closed the gap between us on the couch, and continued to breathe. But not before I saw her face. It wasn’t fear I saw, it was a vexed immobility. A kind of resignation.
I like to think that our ghosts taught me how to listen to Rachel even when I couldn’t relate to her. Which is why, now, as Rachel spends her days lounging under invisible dark clouds amid LA’s picturesque blue skies, I believe she feels like she’s drowning in imperceptible rain. I can’t see inside her brain to inspect the lack of Serotonin, but I trust that it exists. I have to thank our ghosts for that lesson in empathy.
“What did the ghosts mean to you?” I asked her, scared that this haunting experience meant nothing to her while it meant so much to me.
“Did it make you feel, I don’t know, special?” I prodded her. She paused.
Rachel said she never feels special, so seeing ghosts made her feel no more special than the perfectly un-special person she already felt she was. I felt like someone had taken a hair-tie and snapped it against the inside of my eyelids, and as she continued, I had to blink away the sting. “I didn’t care if anyone believed me… ”
Rachel didn’t need someone to validate what she was seeing and feeling in our house in order to believe it. She knew that within invisibility there are pockets of truth.
“The ghosts always scared me,” she said. “I never thought they were a good thing.” Chills tripped down my back as I realized I agreed with Rachel’s intuition as she spoke of the paranoia she felt when walking into her room, the loneliness in the house we shared, and I wondered if all those years ago, even after I gave into believing what I didn’t always see, I still wasn’t truly listening.
My sister and I were born in 1999, just months before our father started work on How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Stashed away somewhere is Who-money from the set of that film, and when I was small I used to carry it around with us, pretending I could exchange it in any store for anything Rachel or I could possibly want.
My childhood home was littered with this kind of movie paraphernalia. A random bit of fake money from Money For Nothing with John Cusack. An original script from Meet the Fockers. A stolen jacket from 90210. A Styrofoam meteorite from an Austin Powers film. A letter written by my mom and read by Robert Redford in The Last Castle containing the fake story of how his daughter forgave him and loved him despite his mistakes. A signed football from Steve Young. Continuity photos from JFK of John Candy and Oliver Stone. Scarves that hung like vines in our room from Criss Cross with Goldie Hawn. I liked these collections of real things from fake stories. But our mother leaving Los Angeles and moving us to the soggy state of Florida was a very real part of our story, where we grew up and apart from dear old dad.
It’s real that my childhood home sits newly full of a family and kids, the wall with our growing heights covered and cleaned; Rachel and I the new ghosts to those new kids, with the interior walls and outside shutters re-painted that canary yellow.
But what makes our father’s gun, wielded in his role as a police officer in Stephen King’s Golden Years, any less scary than his real ones? What makes Rachel’s lost tooth in Tooth Fairy 2 any less real than the one she lost a week before filming? What makes my mother’s fear of the snakes on the set of The Craft any less real than her fear of real snakes?
It was real that Rachel grew up acting. And it was real that Rachel grew up not just acting, but acting like everything was okay.
It’s real that my only acting experience is faking the life of my real sister, whom I really love.
But when does a fake emotion become a real one? And how will I ever be able to tell the difference between Rachel’s real smile and her fake one?