Jorie (& Jamie)

An exclusive short story by Joyce Carol Oates

Which one am I, people used to try to guess. But no longer.

Are you Jamie, or are you Jorie? they would ask smiling. As if we had a choice which we could be. As if there is something to make you smile, just seeing twin little girls.

I hate talking about this! My Mom, she isn't to blame. I used to hate Jorie but I don't now. Nobody's to blame but especially not my Mom. I want to see my Mom now . . . OK, if I tell you how it was can I see my Mom? I hate people lying to me, I don't trust anybody any more, like at school my teacher saw me crying and the nurse told me she would keep any secret, she promised, then right away I told her about Jorie she was on the phone, and everything changed after that. I hate how everybody treats me like a young kid when I am thirteen years old.

No we are not identical twins. We are what is called "fraternal" twins. ("Fraternal" meaning brothers, boys. Like there is no clinical term for twin sisters like us.)

Are you Jamie, or are you Jorie? Daddy would ask teasing and pretending not to know. But that was a long time ago when we were little and you could mix us up, before Jorie began to change.

First it was the back bedroom which anyway she shared with me who was her twin sister people said was the "normal" one. Just to have a place for her that was set off from the place for us. Because the house is small, and there were four of us. And then when the screams and kicking were too loud and the neighbours called to complain and too much damage was inflicted it was the clothes closet in the hall with everything taken out, and then the cellar, not the whole cellar but the storage room where water leaked sometimes, after a heavy rain, and the light bulb swung on a chain Mom removed out of a fear that Jorie would leap up and seize the bulb in her teeth, bite the glass and swallow it.

Neurological impairment were the words we came to learn frontal lobes, cerebral cortex just naming these scared me dyslexia, attention deficit disorder. Just the sounds, the syllables as in a foreign language. And I said to Mom, will it happen to me, too, I'm like Jorie aren't I, I'm Jorie's twin aren't I, I was crying saying to Mom how scared I was, don't lock me in the cellar with her, Mom, you won't Mom, will you? and Mom hugged me, and my little brother Calvin, we were both crying and Mom hugged and kissed us and her face was wet with tears saying, Oh never.

Can I see my Mom now? When can I see my Mom?

I miss my Mom. I hate it here, I'm so lonely.

The beds smell here. The mattresses! Kids my age, you'd think they wouldn't be wetting the bed! Bad as Jorie. But Jorie meant to be bad, wetting the bed, and that's different.

At first it was just the bedroom when Mom gave Jorie her medication so she'd sleep. The door didn't lock so Mom tied a cord around the knob and I helped her fix it on both sides tied tight and sometimes we'd push a heavy table against it and mostly that worked if Jorie didn't fly into a rage and push out. Because in her rages she's strong. You'd be scared of her, too. She scratches, and she bites. These marks on my arm, see? Mom said to say it was just cat scratches which was what I told the nurse but she examined them, she said, These are teeth-bites, human. Right away the nurse saw, there was a look in her face like she was scared, herself. And I knew there was danger, and I tried not to cry. But I was weak, I gave in. I hate myself for giving in!

It wasn't Mom anyway, it was me. That's what I told before but nobody would believe me. It was me.

The back bedroom was where we slept anyway. There was nothing wrong with making Jorie stay in there sometimes so Mom could have some peace, she said. She'd take one of Jorie's tranquillisers herself, she was so nervous. The pills didn't always work with Jorie so Mom would take them. There was nothing wrong with that room till Jorie trashed it. Smashed the window with her bare fist, bled all over the window sill, the rug, the bed. My bed, too! And she was laughing, like it didn't hurt her at all. Like she didn't feel anything, and Mom almost fainted. I hate seeing blood, it makes me go weak and sick but Jorie just laughed waving her hands and splattering blood where she could. Jam-ie! Jam-ie! she shouted at me laughing and running at me like it was a game of tag, smearing her bloody hands on me.

And she'd wet the bed, our bed, in the night. How many times she did this I don't know. When Daddy was still with us he'd make a face, crinkle his nose and walk away saying Bad! Bad girls like there was no difference between us. But Mom always knew.

You wouldn't expect a girl of ten, eleven, twelve years old to wet the bed, you'd know she was doing it on purpose. More than once Jorie did this giggling to wake me, and torment me. And when Mom came stumbling and groggy Jorie said in this hateful singsong voice It wasn't me it was Jam-ie! Jamie went pee-pee in the bed! Shame-shame Jame-Jame! like she was five years old.

I knew: Jorie was not to be judged by normal standards. We all knew, even Calvin. And yet.

Sometimes I hated her, wished she'd never been born. Or that she wasn't my twin. So that people look at her, and look at me. And think Is she crazy too? She must be!

One thing about Jorie, she never lies. Maybe she doesn't know how. Maybe that part of the brain that lets you tell lies is part of her brain that is damaged. I never lie, either.

''Spells", Mom called them. "Spells" was Mom's word for everything from Jorie spitting out her food and gagging like it was some reflex, like she couldn't help it, when she was little, to the way she was this past year screaming at us like she hated us so veins stood out in her forehead and her eyes bulged like a wild animal's that has been trapped and is dangerous. "Spells" were when Jorie's face went dead-white and she fell to the floor kicking, thrashing, convulsing (epileptoid these convulsions were called though Jorie was never diagnosed with actual epilepsy). Mom would know that Jorie hadn't swallowed her pills only pretended to, when these "spells" came on.

Mom wanted to believe that there was "good" Jorie and there was "bad" Jorie and it was "spells" that were the cause for her being bad, and would pass. Like a spell of lousy weather. A spell of lousy luck. Mom would say Honey c'mon! Please honey c'mon snap out of it like it was something Jorie could shake off like a dog shaking water off its fur.

Well, sometimes this did seem to be so. When we were younger, I think. Jorie wasn't so sick then, maybe. She'd be "acting up" to get her way, trying to get Daddy's attention, teasing Mom, taking my toys, snatching food out of my fingers she didn't even want but threw on the floor. If anybody was around like visitors (Mom used to have visitors then), Jorie would clown and squeal and act up to get attention, she was jealous if anybody talked to me for just a minute and nudged me aside or pulled my hair. Jam-ie! Ug-ly! She'd be biting her lower lip and laughing and her dark-honey eyes sly and so beautiful you wanted Jorie to be good, and to be well, you wanted to think she was just playing a little rough, she didn't mean it. You'd forgive Jorie anything, she was so pretty.

Obsessive-compulsive. Non-verbal learning disability. Hyperactivity. Mild autism. These are words they gave us. Scary words that made Mom cry. Pressing her hands over her ears.

A beautiful angel child everyone believed her, when she was little. And this was true. I am not beautiful but am an ordinary girl. When we were little I cried when Jorie cried like a single skin enclosed us but Jorie could not be trusted, she'd kiss and cuddle and wrap her snaky arms around my neck then (for instance) bite my ear, and wouldn't let go when I screamed in pain, or (for instance) she would get me to tell her some little thing and go running to Mom with it, shouting, laughing, repeating it so the words were nonsense, but so loud, Mom had to rush her into the bathroom, try to quiet her down, later it would be the closet, and later still the storage room in the cellar. The neighbours will call the police. Jorie, no!

Mom loves me, and Mom loves Calvin, but Mom would love Jorie best if Jorie got over her "spells". Everybody could love Jorie best. (Even me.) We wonder, does Jorie know this? Wants to break my heart Mom would say. So exhausted sometimes she would lie down on the sofa saying What did I do to deserve this, how is this my fault. After Daddy left a few years ago. It is not my fault. I know! Mom would say. It is nobody's fault. To Calvin and me she would say It isn't your sister's fault, you know that don't you and Calvin and I would say Yes Mom.

At first Daddy wouldn't believe how bad Jorie could be, Jorie hid her badness from him. She was his angel, so pretty and sly-eyed like she was winking, teasing, playing a game with just Daddy alone. Angel-baby Daddy called her, then seeing me watching, my thumb in my mouth, Daddy would say quickly, You too, Jamie. You're Daddy's angel-baby, too. But Daddy was gone a lot. Daddy did not know.

It got so that Mom could not take us to the playground, or would have to go to different playgrounds in different parts of the city, for there was the danger of Jorie hitting other children, taking away their toys or sneaking up to scare them like she was hunting them, it was a game to make her squeal with laughter. The other mothers tried to be nice to Jorie but it was no use. You could see they felt sorry for Mom and for me who was the twin sister of the strange little girl who could not be trusted for five minutes not to misbehave, they felt sorry for Calvin in his baby buggy but finally they did not want us anywhere near. They took their children away from the swings, the teeter-totter, the monkey bars, the sand boxes. They took their children away from the wading pools. As if these places were contaminated. As if Jorie, squealing and screeching and jabbering in her high-pitched way at (for instance) some little girl's left-behind doll in the sand like it was an actual baby, could contaminate an entire playground, an entire park. In the beginning Mom would plead Please forgive me, I am so sorry. I guess you can see that my daughter is . . . is not . . . well. But later Mom could say nothing for the other mothers fled from us, and at this time there was trouble at school, even in the special class that Jorie was in. And Daddy was gone more and more, and Mom was on the telephone a lot, and crying, or trying not to cry.

Almost it's worse when your Mom is trying not to cry than when she's crying. Because when she's trying not to, you think you can help her not to cry, somehow. You can hug her, or kiss her, you can cuddle against her. But if she's crying it's too late, like a window that has been smashed. And so you start crying, too.

Jorie laughed at Mom, at such times. Jorie called me Silly-baby ugly-Jamie and pinched me like I was to blame for Mom's weakness. Jorie has always had an instinct for weakness in others, even adults. Even her teachers. Jorie is scornful of weakness, especially she hates Mom when Mom is weak and so Jorie provokes Mom into becoming angry with her, carrying her kicking and screaming with laughter down into the cellar, Mom panting, red-faced, her arms wrapped tight around Jorie's arms to hold her, for if Jorie refuses to take her medication, Jorie will only get worse, her skin burning with fever, it's only a matter of time until Jorie lapses into one of her spells, thrashing and convulsing. And sometimes these seem deliberate, and sometimes not.

It started that way. Just to have some peace in the house. Just for a while. So Mom could rest. So Calvin could nap. So I could do my homework. It wasn't more than an hour, or two hours. Later it might be longer. Four hours. Five. Because the house was so peaceful without Jorie. Your sister is safe. Under lock and key, and safe Mom told Calvin and me, trying to smile but her eyes were scared.

Because the quiet of the house was so good! Because when you have such quiet you want it to go on, and on. And Mom knew this, and was scared of what this could mean.

You could not hear Jorie in the cellar, with the doors closed. The neighbours could not hear. And maybe the TV on, or the radio in the kitchen. So quiet! You could hear airplanes taking off and landing (our house is near Newark airport) and children shouting in the neighbourhood, dogs barking, cars and trucks passing and sometimes sirens, but inside the house it was quiet, peaceful like a dream.

My heart was not beating fast and anxious and there was not the strain between my shoulder blades I felt when I sensed Jorie behind me. In the kitchen, I helped Mom make meals. We laughed and joked together like normal people. There was not the risk of Jorie rushing into the kitchen, humming and chattering to herself, smirking at us or ignoring us, rummaging through the refrigerator, dropping and breaking things. There was not the risk of Jorie turning the TV up loud in the other room, high as it could go. Of Jorie teasing Calvin till he cried, then laughing at Cal-vin Cal-vin bab-by bab-by so Mom would have to intervene. There was not the risk of some neighbour telephoning us, or pounding on the front door because Jorie had slipped out without Mom knowing and had been throwing stones at children playing up the block, or tormenting somebody's dog, or frightening somebody by peering in her window, or running in front of cars passing on the street, seeing how close she could come to being hit. There was not the risk of one of Jorie's spells ruining our dinner-time together, Jorie making gagging noises because she didn't like the food, or suddenly collapsing out of her chair on to the floor, kicking, thrashing, choking, "convulsing".

And you wouldn't know was this real, or pretend. Was Jorie truly sick from not taking her pills, or was Jorie playing one of her games.

Like a dream the house was, without Jorie.

Four hours, or five. Maybe six.

If Mom had to take Calvin or me to the doctor, maybe it would be longer.

Or Mom might take us to the mall. Riding the escalators. Staring at the big sparkling fountain lighted for Christmas, and into the store windows. Maybe Mom would take us to a movie. And maybe for a snack at Taco Bell afterward. We loved Taco Bell. We didn't forget Jorie, she was not neglected. We would bring food back for her. But this was the quiet time.

And when Mom unlocked the storage room door, and Jorie came out walking like she was half-asleep, she would be quiet, too. Blinking and rubbing her eyes. Because the ordinary light would hurt her eyes, there was no light in the storage room. Because Jorie would need to be hugged by Mom, and would consent to be hugged, and kissed as she would never at any other time. Mom-my do-you love-me Jorie would ask like a little girl and Mom would say Honey yes. Mommy loves you a lot. In the beginning Jorie would throw herself against the door, pound and kick till she was bruised, bleeding, but after a while she would give up and lie down, probably she slept because it was so dark there was nothing to see. She'd be weak from not eating which made her quiet, too. And grateful to be fed.

Mom said Now will you be good, Jorie? and Jorie said Yes, Mommy. I will be good. And so Jorie was, for a while.

Daddy went away. I can remember Daddy but Jorie can't. She says she can't. Sometimes she can't remember yesterday, or a few minutes ago. One of the doctors told Mom that Jorie's brain is wired different from other people so now I can (almost) see thin filaments like in a light bulb inside Jorie's head and some of these are broken and snagged together. I feel sorry for Jorie who can't remember Daddy except to know that he's gone. Jorie says I don't give a damn for anybody's Daddy they can all go to hell. She laughs, and sniffs, and wipes her nose with the back of her hand in that way that drives Mom crazy. I don't tell Jorie that Daddy used to rock her in his arms and whisper in her ear because he loved her best. I could tell Jorie Daddy loved me best! and maybe she would believe it.

In kindergarten Jorie began to act strange. She never wanted to go to school as I did. She'd throw a tantrum, make herself feverish and sick to her stomach and Mom would have to keep her home. Always Jorie had been different from me. She was the lively twin. I knew people called her the "pretty" twin. It would seem that Jorie was the "smart" twin too except she could not sit still and concentrate for more than a few minutes, sometimes seconds. You could feel the heat lifting from her skin. You could see her eyes jerking and rolling. It was easier for Jorie to break a doll than to play with it. It was easier for Jorie to tear all the pages out of a book than to read it. There was no use buying a little computer for Jorie and Jamie because Jorie would crack the screen with her head or break into the back and tear out the wires. At first Dad went with Mom to the clinics, to take Jorie to be examined. After a while Mom took Jorie by herself. There were many "tests". There were "brain scans". There were doctors, therapists, dieticians, special teachers. Daddy was gone away from home a lot. I missed Daddy, but Jorie hummed and chattered to herself not needing Daddy so when he did come home, Jorie looked right through him like he wasn't there. Hey: Angel-Baby? Jorie? Daddy was hurt I could see. He loved Calvin and me but not like he loved Jorie who walked past him with this look on her beautiful feverish face like she was in another world, not even Daddy could enter. And once Daddy saw Jorie in one of her spells, maybe he hadn't believed Mom what these could be like, poor Daddy backed off staring at Jorie quaking and gagging and falling to the floor to thrash and "convulse" like she was dying . . .

The more Daddy was gone, "travelling", "on business", as Mom told us, the crazier Jorie behaved. Suspended from school, expelled from school, had to be bussed to a special school for "disturbed learning disability children" and eventually suspended from that school, too. She'd pick up dog shit outside and bring it into the house to throw it around laughing wildly at the looks on our faces. She stopped sleeping through the night, any night. At 4am she'd be out in the kitchen rummaging through the refrigerator eating anything she could find, for sure Mom couldn't keep ice cream very long in the freezer, Jorie would eat it out of the containers with her fingers, walk away and leave the freezer door wide open. She'd wander into the living room and turn on the TV loud and so if Daddy happened to be home, he was furious, disgusted, and blamed Mom that she couldn't control Jorie.

Saying to Mom, I am trying. You want too much. This is nobody's fault. This is not my fault. I have to support you. I have to support this household. Her medical costs. I never asked for this. You smoked when you were pregnant with the girls, no I'm not blaming you and I know you didn't smoke for the full nine months but you did smoke, there must have been damage done. Don't raise your voice with me, I'm not from people who raise their voices and live in pigsties like this. I said God damn you don't raise your voice with me -

Jorie and I were ten when Daddy moved out.

There was a confused time then. Mom on the telephone. Or sometimes Mom talking to herself. Groggy from Jorie's pills she'd taken to calm her nerves. Or worn out from crying. Saying You can't! You can't leave me. Mom was desperate, pleading. Mom's voice like something hurt, dying. What have I done to deserve this, I love you, I want to love you, but I love her, too, I love my children, what can I do, you can't leave us, I used to be a happy person, I want to be a happy person again, I'm only thirty-one, that isn't old!

At the clinic in another city. Where they tested Jorie, again. And there were the ugly words again. Neurological impairment. Frontal lobes, cerebral cortex. Autism. A woman doctor told Mom this is your child, you can learn to live with a disabled child. Mom asked how long would this be and the doctor did not understand, how long? how many years? and Mom tried to explain she has two other children, she has Jorie's twin sister and Calvin who is five years younger and he too has mild dyslexia, a slight speech impediment, he's a quiet boy, very shy, withdrawn, she was concerned that Jorie's presence in the household was making Calvin worse, she was concerned that Jorie might physically injure her little brother, and the doctor interrupted to say that Mom would have to oversee Jorie, protect her little brother, maybe when Jorie is an adolescent maybe then if she is considered "dangerous" she might be institutionalised, and right away Mom said no, I will never put my daughter in an institution, I will not give up. I will not.

Leaving the clinic, Jorie jumped down a flight of concrete steps, fell and twisted her ankle, sprained it. Shrieking with pain which was rare for Jorie.

In the cellar, in the night. Do you hear her?

Jamie! she is crying. Jam-ie! Help me.

It was not Mom's fault, Jorie spat out her pills. Jorie would not use the pot to pee in. Jorie would not eat her food. Screaming and throwing herself against the wall, bloodying her nose and mouth like a Hallowe'en pumpkin. I felt so bad to see Jorie's face swollen, it was like my own face, contorted and ugly. If you are a twin you want your twin to be beautiful like an angel. If you are not beautiful yourself you want your twin to be beautiful. We were fearful that somebody would come and take our Mom from us, Mom was not well, migraine headaches, so dizzy she couldn't walk across the room without stumbling, on the sofa with one of her strong-smelling bottles, smoking, the cigarette ash would fall into the cushions and we couldn't wake her, beating out the smouldering little flames with our fists. Mom! Mommy! Wake up.

Mom said there are people who believe that a child like Jorie is a punishment that the mother must deserve. Mom said that Daddy and his family blamed her. Would have nothing to do with her. I love my daughter. I don't wish to harm my little girl. I know she can't help it. This is just to get some rest. Some peace. To protect the others. For a little while. But in the night, in the cellar, if Jorie continued to rage and could not be let out, Mom said there came her own heartbeat, her deranged and murderous heart she dared not free to do injury upon others. That would be evil. True evil.

It was not what they say. Mom left food for Jorie. Mom did.

If Mom forgot, I took food to Jorie. Sometimes she was so weak, she couldn't fight me. Wouldn't wish to fight me. I shared what I ate with Jorie, my sister. I would not let her starve to death and neither would my Mom. But Mom was sick sometimes, too. Calvin and me, we stayed home from school to take care of her.

Mom has a college degree, or almost. She dropped out to get married she says, she wanted her twin girl-babies. She didn't want an abortion. She was in love, she loved Daddy and wanted to marry him and now Daddy has "severed all ties" with her. It is because of Jorie but Jorie is not to blame, Jorie can't help herself. Yes but if Jorie took her pills. If Jorie went to therapy. If Jorie did not bite, kick, scream, rage. Throw herself into convulsions. Mom says I don't hate my daughter, I don't want to hate my daughter. Because I love my daughter.

It's a lie, what they say about Mom. In the papers. What the neighbours say. If Jorie weighed only fifty-nine pounds, it was because she refused to eat. Or she ate, and made herself sick and vomited it up. Jorie I said Please eat this I was shining the flashlight on to the plate, I squatted there beside her till I saw her begin to eat. Then Mom called down to me. Jamie! Get back up here, lock that door. Jorie grabbed my arm, grinned and sank her teeth into my wrist. That fast, I could not believe it.

No. My Mom did not do that. I was the one.

No! My Mom did not know about that. Calvin and me, we were responsible.

Because - why? Mom was so tired, and had to sleep. And Jorie would not let her sleep. In May it began. What Mom calls evil in Jorie. So we - I guess that was when - we locked her in the storage room almost all the time.

I don't know! But it was me, not my Mom.

I love my Mom, I would do anything for her. She isn't like people say. Calvin and me, we belong together, too. We don't want some "new home". We don't want some "foster family". We want each other, and we want Mom. And we want Jorie too, when Jorie is well.

No, I would not lie for my Mom. I am not lying. I am telling the truth.

Jorie will tell the truth, when she is well enough. They won't let me see her yet. They say she is "malnourished" - "mute". They say that she is "traumatised". She wouldn't look at me, the last time I saw her. Her eyes were strange and blurred like they were sleeping. I whispered Jorie c'mon! Jorie wake up! but she would not.

The school nurse asked why I was crying, why I was so nervous, what were the bite marks on my wrist, she would keep my secrets if I had secrets she promised. But she lied.

I know, it's better for Jorie now. It's better for all of us.

Mom said Thank God. It's over, thank God.

But in the jail Mom is on "suicide watch". I want to see my Mom, and so does Calvin. Today. Right now!

You promised.

The Ontario Review Inc

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, In the name of the law