First, they did things the usual way. Rita and Lila met other conjoined twins at the conventions and dated them rigorously. Most were unattractive and clumsy, but Rita and Lila were determined, or rather Rita was determined so Lila had to get her game face on. The high point for Rita was when they dated the Cole twins for nearly a year. Jake and Russ Cole did not even share a liver; it was common knowledge in the community that they could have been successfully detached. At one time, law had mandated such things, but since the two-child policies had gone into effect, conjoining provided a potential loophole. Mrs. Cole, however, had no other child. When people asked why she had never pursued separation for her boys, she smiled numbly and said, “They could never run in opposite directions this way.” It had to be a joke, Lila thought, though Mrs. Cole didn’t seem the joking kind.
The Cole brothers possessed considerably more mobility than most in the community, and when Lila and Rita dated them, they were able to have what Rita proudly extolled as “normal sex.” At first, Jake and Russ took turns at the girls’ vagina, but Rita said that was creepy; she didn’t like looking up at Jake patiently waiting his turn while Russ breaknecked through his climax. “Everybody has to be simultaneously involved,” she said patiently, like an ambassador. “The way singletons do it.” It had been at Rita’s suggestion that Jake “visit the back door” so that each penis could be occupied. When Lila protested, Rita laughed at her. “You wouldn’t even know it was happening if we hadn’t told you,” she mocked. “I’m the one who feels like I’m giving birth out of my ass, and you don’t see me having a sniveling fit about it.” Lila couldn’t argue—still, since Jake took to fucking their ass so eagerly that Lila rarely saw the face of her own boyfriend anymore, she couldn’t help but feel that somehow Rita and Russ were on a romantic date, involving vaginas and regular date-things, whereas she was getting ass-raped by an invisible stranger. At first Jake had been sweet and attentive, Russ the wilder of the Cole boys and hence a natural pairing for Rita, but by the end Russ and Jake were both Rita’s boyfriends and would just push Lila’s torso to the side during sex, sometimes pinching her nipples hard and chortling, and other times not even bothering to undress her above the waist. While Rita bellowed, “Yes, harder,” Lila sobbed unabashedly into the Cole brothers’ greasy boy-pillowcases or crumb-ridden carpets.
Eventually, of course, Russ and Jake pronounced her a “downer” and moved on—last Lila and Rita had heard, they were dating a woman in a wheelchair who, Rita said, probably couldn’t feel it either when they screwed her, but wasn’t such a baby about it.
Soon after, Lila began to fantasize about how wonderful it would be not to have feeling in any of the parts of her body she shared with Rita. If she were unable to control their left leg, for example, Rita would be crippled: permanently bound to the inanimate albatross of Lila’s dead leg. In early childhood, the girls had been part of a study on the effects of new conjoinment configurations on the spine. The layperson’s term for Lila and Rita was “Cartoon Multiples,” because of old cartoons that featured characters (usually animals or imaginary creatures like dragons) who shared a set of legs and genitalia, but then, above the reproductive organs, branched off into two distinct torsos each with a reasonable—if awkward—range of mobility. As part of the medical study, Rita had had her “inner” arm amputated; it was undersized and without much use anyway, and its removal allowed the doctors to put both girls in back braces in an attempt to reshape their spines to best accommodate their physical manifestation. Lila had been born with only one arm. The reshaping of their spines brought their bodies as close to one another as possible, for maximum spinal straightness—to this end, both girls had lived in complex back apparatuses nearly until their teens. The mission, though, had been accomplished: they were a shining success story, and for awhile had starred in numerous medical documentaries, until their parents grew fed up that they received no compensation and put an end to it. The fact was, they were lucky to be able to walk. Still, Lila thought wistfully of the non-conjoined multiples she met at conventions—quadruplets, even octuplets—and how they could choose to part for the afternoon, to attend different panels or to meet friends or lovers separate from their siblings. Lila could only speculate on what it might be like to talk with a friend without Rita being present, or to hide her journal somewhere no one would see her put it. Some conjoined twins seemed truly like one person, which might be almost as sweet as being able to hide a diary or go on a date alone with a boy. But Rita was a whirlwind of passions and angers, Lila forever sucked into her dangerous vortex. When the doctor said Lila had a weak heart, it surprised her not at all, since living attached to Rita was like running a perpetual marathon. As if compensation for her severed, gimpy arm, Rita’s own heart was unflawed.
Clyde just came right up to Rita one day in the Food-o-Rama, sauntering past the people in their actual line, and said, “I been watching you for awhile now. You’re as pretty as a real girl. How come you two don’t look nothing alike? You got it rough, honey—I know no girl as pretty as you’d be standing next to this dog on purpose.”
Rita and Lila looked so much alike as toddlers that their parents had written down which side each girl occupied, and taped the chart around various rooms of their house for the convenience of guests, arrows pointing at the appropriate head heralding “LILA!” and “RITA!” Hence, at first even Lila laughed, mistaking Clyde for a wit; the man whose groceries the girls were bagging chuckled too. Clyde edged further into the space the grocery-buying-man occupied, a grin hanging loopy on his face. He looked like a cross between Howdy Doody and an outlaw, and the combination pleased Rita, even as it slowly dawned on her that he didn’t get the joke they all believed he had made. For some reason this made her laugh all the harder and she said, “Wanna take me out after my shift later?”
“Well, what’re we supposed to do with her?” Clyde asked, pointing at Lila.
“Brilliant,” Lila muttered under her breath. “You’ve snagged a real quantum physicist this time, Reet. Oh, don’t mind me—we’ll just unzip this costume and I’ll step on out . . .”
“She’s such a pain in my ass,” Rita drawled. “She has to come too, but you don’t have to buy her anything to eat.”
“Oh, do I ever wish it was your ass,” Lila said.
“Christ,” Clyde said, “does Ugly over here always talk so much?”
Rita shrugged her delicate shoulders, but still they banged into Lila’s on the way down. “Well,” she suggested, dropping her voice. “We can always go to your place. Then we can just gag her and tie her up and she won’t bother anybody.”
“You two,” the grocery-buying-man said happily. He was one of their best customers—and they had many regulars who came in several times a week just to be stunned by how much more quickly (twice, actually) four arms can accomplish a task than two. “You’re so funny! The way you talk to each other. I just love it!”
Clyde, however, just winked at Rita as he sauntered away. “Deal.”
Rita was on fire, and it was all Clyde’s fault. No matter what else she was doing—bagging at Food-o-Rama, showering, screen-surfing with their parents—all she could think of was the next time she and Clyde would be able to do it. That, and of course The Problem Of Lila.
When they were little, the frenzy of newly passed laws had encouraged everyone to act as though Rita and Lila were only one person. This hadn’t troubled the girls, exactly, or at least it hadn’t Rita, since they had not realized, precisely, that there was any other way in which they might be treated. They were what their Conjoinment Coach referred to as “wholly symbiotic.” Coach told them the parable of Adam and Eve discovering shame and covering up with fig leaves, and explained that all multiples—especially conjoined twins—were often “delayed” in their discovery of shame, and that shame was the crucial ingredient in humanity. This had been pivotal in the case decreeing conjoined twins to count only as one person on the census, allowing their parents to pursue a further pregnancy, although it had since been proven that the missing ingredient of shame was acquired by adulthood, and so each twin was still permitted a separate vote and could marry separate spouses. Until discovering shame, however, one could not be truly regarded as human. As they approached adolescence, Rita watched with fascination and horror as Lila began exhibiting burgeoning signs of her humanity: trying to keep a diary and insisting Rita not read it (which was of course futile) and, when they had diarrhea and stank up the bathroom, seeming pained to have Rita present, though the shit belonged to both of them. Lila had even protested at first that it was “perverted” for poor Jake Cole to go up her shirt and touch her boobs because Rita and Russ were watching! When Lila spoke to their Conjoinment Coach about these things, Rita had to pretend that Lila’s issues were rational. She would nod and say, “I know, I know, but we don’t have a choice—we have to make the best of what we’ve been given, don’t we? It isn’t as though we can do things any other way.” Coach had to grant them this, and as soon as their eighteenth birthday passed and their parents could no longer force the issue, Rita refused to attend sessions, afraid she might slip up and reveal that shame was not in her repertoire.
Even though surgical separation was no longer mandatory, it was still the norm, and the courts were known to step in when disagreements arose. There had been that case of Maisy B., out in the Oaklands. Maisy B. petitioned the Supreme Court for the right to euthanize her sister, presenting evidence of her own intellectual superiority and More Meaningful Goals, and arguing for the importance of prioritizing her survival above that of her “parasitic twin,” as the media said, despite the fact that both women were in their twenties and bore no resemblance to the correct medical usage of the term. Still, those sisters shared a heart; they had already exceeded their life expectancy and a choice had to be made. Once Maisy B. was granted her own body, she dropped out of med school and was now leading an Altogether Less Meaningful life as a reality screen actress, which hurt the case as a precedent for petitions by other conjoined twins. Still, Rita sometimes had nightmares of being targeted, Lila presenting Rita’s lack of shame as evidence for putting her down like a dog.
“Twins have ESP, right?” Clyde said when Rita confided this fear, weepy and post-coital. “Probably she really is cooking that shit up behind your back and you can read her mind so you’re on to her.” This didn’t seem like something Lila would do, but Clyde argued that you never knew about people. At school, Lila had always scored higher than Rita on tests, and she still liked to read, not caring if her screen light kept Rita awake at night. Maybe Lila would convince some panel of judges that she, too, could be a doctor instead of a grocery-bagging freak show at the Food-o-Rama.
Clyde mostly said these things after they’d sedated Lila with three Klonopin and fucked fast as jackrabbits, because sooner or later, even though the girls had different stomachs and intestines, the Klonopin would cross over into Rita’s blood too and she would pass out, usually on the drive home. They’d tried everything before the Klonopins: putting pillowcases over Lila’s head and covering her with blankets to pretend she wasn’t there, and once even wrapping an Ace bandage all the way around her arms and torso to keep her utterly still before gagging her with a facecloth—still, Clyde couldn’t forget her presence, and sometimes he’d go soft thinking about “her ugliness” and the yuck-factor of her existence. Lila fought them before dates, and Clyde would have to bring his truck round the back of the Food-o-Rama so they could smack Lila around until they could wrangle her upper half into the back seat, where Rita would roll on top of her and press her flat so she couldn’t scream for help out the windows.
This was grueling work. Rita and Clyde sometimes ended up so exhausted by the time they’d subdued Lila that they were scarcely in the mood for intercourse anymore. Rita’s muscles ached the next day, and Clyde said, “It’s too much to ask of a man, baby, just too much.”
“Just ignore her,” Rita begged. She grabbed herself between the legs, smacking Lila’s hands away as she thrashed, blindfolded and gagged, beside them. “This is mine—I’m the one who can give consent! She can’t stop me from having a life!”
“Easy for you to say,” Clyde said. “She may not be able to send your ass to prison without going herself, but what if she charges me with kidnapping or some shit?”
The Klonopin was Rita’s idea of compromise. Clyde had been skeptical, but amazingly Lila acquiesced without protest, holding out her hand and swallowing the moment they got in the truck.
“We could give her anything,” Clyde whispered incredulously, Lila’s mouth gaping with sleep, his soft cock just beginning to slide out of Rita’s vagina. Rita glowed. When Lila was sedated, their cunt truly, truly felt like hers alone. Rita had never had her own toys. Lila always put her fingers and mouth on everything, curious and longing. Their vagina felt like a plush teddy bear she didn’t have to share. She and Clyde shaved her pubic hair retro, like Clyde said all the women in black market pornography did. Those actresses were all wrinkly or dead by now, but Rita’s plump, youthful vagina looked fresh and pink like a hairless mouse. Lila screamed when she saw it, but by then they were home on the toilet and there was nothing she could do.
“We could give her arsenic,” Clyde said, his fingers circling Rita’s furthest-from-Lila breast. “We could give her battery acid.”
“You’re an idiot,” Rita said. “I’d die then too. What’s the matter with you?”
“We could cut off her head,” Clyde said. “I could steal an ax.”
Rita repeated song lyrics in her head to drown him out. She was aware of the fact that being a slave to the penis of a man who thought that stealing—rather than purchasing—an ax would be the perfect way to cover up a crime involving: a) copious amounts of blood and b) a decapitated torso attached to the body of his girlfriend, would not bode well for her should Lila attempt to petition for Rita’s extinction. She might be proven not only shameless but mentally challenged.
“She’s harmless, really,” Rita said, though she didn’t believe it. Lila’s unhappiness was a virus, a gaping maw of need. “We’ve already got a great solution that makes everyone happy. Lila’s always been an insomniac, and now she gets great sleep!”
“Man,” Clyde said, “this is bullshit. We never even get to go bowling or nothing.”
He was heading down the same escape route as the Brothers Cole, and there was nothing Rita could say to assuage him. Lila ruined everything. Rita began to cry, and Clyde kissed her face, his whiskers making her feel she had bugs crawling over her skin. “Don’t worry,” he cajoled. “We’ll figure out a way to get rid of her.”
“I’m trapped,” Rita whimpered. “Save yourself, Clyde, I won’t hold it against you.”
But he didn’t let go of her. “Baby,” he promised, and Rita’s brain sparked back to life. “Baby.”
Lila kept waking to bruises on her legs. Clyde went a little crazy when he came, Rita explained, shrugging her off. “He likes smacking my ass and thigh when he comes, and sometimes he doesn’t aim right and whacks you instead.”
“This doesn’t look like a slap,” Lila said, inspecting the latest bruise, purple outside and yellow inside, like a plum.
“Okay, Maisy B.,” Rita scoffed. “I didn’t realize you were some kind of doctor who specialized in distinguishing different kinds of bruises.”
“You’d better tell me what that oaf is doing to my legs,” Lila said. “Or I’m not taking the Klonopin. I’ll tell the media all the stuff Clyde’s done to me. I’ll tell Dad, too.”
“Oooh,” Rita said, smacking her in the head. “Dad. I’m scared.”
“You’re the one who felt it when he’d spank us,” Lila mocked. “Wah, wah, Daddy stop please I’ll be good, wah wah!”
“Yeah, well, I’m a little big to spank now.”
“Don’t count on it,” Lila warned. Then she flicked on her Read-It again and ignored Rita, even when Rita whacked her again. She read the words aloud, and Rita had to put the pillow over her head to fall asleep.
The pregnancy made every hour of the news circuits. The first Cartoon Twins to reproduce, Lila and Rita saw diagrams of their reproductive system being broadcast with annotated explanations of where the fetus lived in the cramped space of their shared uterus, just below where their bodies diverged. Jake and Russ Cole, who had lived in Thailand ever since relocating to star in the reality show, Siam, even heard about it and instant-signed Rita. Rita typed the symbols for Where are you? and the Cole brothers texted back with real words: On location. Gr8 porn wrk here, u shld cum. Bring baby.
“Who is that?” Lila asked, pawing at the Messenger in Lila’s hands. “If we get one more reporter over here I’m going to kill you, I swear to god.”
“It’s no one,” Rita said, snapping the Messenger shut. “I thought you were always the one who wanted some fucking privacy.”
“That’s all over now.” Lila rubbed their growing bump. “If you think I’m ever leaving you alone with this baby, you’ve got another thing coming. You’d probably leave it on the ground to get humped and peed on by stray dogs.”
“I’m the mother,” Rita said. “I’m the one who gave consent. I’m the one who did fertility treatments. The court will rule in my favor. A baby has a right to one mother. I’m going to marry Clyde and have a normal family. They’re going to cut you off me like a wart.”
“Go ahead, keep dreaming. Your fertility treatments were shot into my legs too while I was drugged, dumb ass.” And Lila continued crocheting their baby’s blanket, humming a lullaby that Rita eerily didn’t recognize.
The last time the girls saw Clyde, they got into his truck without any protest from Lila. Their baby bump was too big to fit comfortably in the cab anymore, and Rita struggled to keep the annoyance off her face, knowing Lila would put her hands over it to shield the baby from the dashboard in case of sudden stops, so she didn’t have to. Clyde prattled on, but it was painful to listen. Pregnancy had made Rita hornier than ever, but the doctors classified their cramped womb as being high risk for a miscarriage and had them on “pelvic rest,” which precluded sex and walking too quickly up or down stairs. Clyde wanted his cock sucked constantly, and suddenly Rita was envious that Lila just got to sit there reading or signing while she did all the work. When she and Lila were little, they’d had an elaborate code involving men’s names, to communicate without their parents’ understanding. Clyde’s penis was in accordance with a type they had once denoted as “Wendel,” which meant something pale, watery and repulsive. Wendel could refer to humans, animals, even food under the right circumstances. Redheads like Clyde were notoriously Wendel. How was it that Rita had never noticed Clyde’s essential Wendel-ness before?
“I heard you can make a bundle if you sign up with one of them breast-milk co-ops,” Clyde was saying, squeezing Rita’s knee. They had to sit with Lila in the middle, of course, but he reached right over Lila, his arm smacking the protrusion of their belly like it was nothing. “People are paying a good buck for that tittie yogurt and tittie ice cream. He squeezed Rita’s left breast. “Moo! Moo!”
Rita forced herself to laugh.
“His DNA is bound to be recessive,” Lila said, turning her face from Clyde. “All the laws of evolution would point in that direction. I think the baby is reasonably safe.”
“Quiet down, Dead Man Walking.” Clyde chortled. “That verdict’s coming in any day now.”
Rita involuntarily straightened her torso, inching it closer to Lila’s. Lila said nothing, but her hand slipped off their baby, brushing away the invisible imprint of Clyde’s meat paw on Rita’s knee.
For a short while, their story inspired a rash of rape accusations from others in the conjoined community. Their story, it seemed, was not so unique, only just unique enough to be marketable. Rita’s memoir, A Vagina of My Own, became a Read-It bestseller. It told the harrowing story of one conjoined twin’s gradual acquisition of shame, resulting—unfortunately after years of helping men rape her sister—in her painful emergence into full Humanity. With Lila’s help, Rita was granted amnesty after testifying against Clyde, who got three years at a Rape Farm for his crimes. The Cole brothers, of course, could have stood trial too, along with several others, but Russ and Jake had some sweet gigs lined up for Rita and Lila in Southeast Asia as soon as the baby was born, and Lila had always wanted to travel. Their tickets were already purchased when one morning, Rita woke feeling clammy and weak, to find Lila dead beside her on the bed they’d shared since girlhood. Lila’s heart, the doctors said, had finally given way under the strain of pregnancy. Rita was barely alive by the time they got her to the operating theater and performed surgery, too quickly even for the cameras to arrive before Lila’s corpse was separated from Rita’s body, their daughter removed in an emergency C-section. The baby was a slightly underweight three pounder, though nothing to worry about compared with Rita and Lila’s own low birth weight twenty-two years before.
Their old Conjoinment Coach had retired, but Rita’s new Coach said it was normal that Rita was having a hard time going into stores and restaurants alone. As years passed, her daughter gave her someone to talk to, although she found Baby Lila strangely alien, unable to understand elemental things like the nature of Wendel. Her daughter’s mannerisms struck her as too polite, formal, nothing like the no-boundaries banter Rita had enjoyed with the Real Lila. Talking with her twin had been, she now realized, more like looking into a mirror and hearing all your own self-loathing thoughts vocalized aloud, and having a target upon which to redirect them. What a comfort that had been. Privacy, it seemed, meant little more than having to keep your ugly thoughts a secret, which was a horrible chore, tiring and hard to acclimate to. For Baby Lila’s sake, Rita tried. The Cole brothers couldn’t find her very lucrative work now that she was a singleton with a strange, deformed curve in her spine, but she and Baby Lila did visit them twice in Thailand, and Rita’s vagina and anus were infinitely easier to access without Real Lila in the way, which was a couple weeks’ worth of flimsy consolation. Once, Clyde wrote from prison, You stupid bitch I will kill you when I get out of here and take that baby away from your freak show ass, and Rita knew she should notify the authorities but she didn’t bother, merely added a clause to her will in which she made sure to name her parents Baby Lila’s legal guardians should any harm befall her.
Rita waited. Alone with her own perilously strong heart, she waited night after night for the voice in her head to summon her home.