A Short Story
to be published in the "Fairy Tale Project"
edited by Renee Alter
My Other Self
A Short Story
By Sophia Bar-Lev
The young mother gazed through the nursery window at her newborn twins, sleeping peacefully, wrapped in simple hospital blankets. The doctor who delivered them labeled them ‘identical’ while admitting that perhaps in a few days or weeks, differences might emerge, however slight, which would make it easier to tell them apart.
She had chosen a boy’s name early on. Only last week had she given consideration that it might be a girl, that is, one girl. Now there were two, complicating her situation even more. She tilted her head and studied each little face, wanting to embed each detail of their appearance deeply in her memory for only those memories would accompany her when she left the hospital.
One of the nurses came and stood beside her. “They’re beautiful,” she gushed. “We don’t often have twins, especially identical ones. They’ll be so much fun. Plenty of work no doubt, but so special.” She looked wistfully at the babies and added, “I always wanted twins myself but it never happened.” Brightening she turned towards Caroline and said, “You get plenty of rest now while you’re here,” she urged. “You’ll need lots of energy when you go home with those two.”
Caroline forced down the lump in her throat. She smiled and managed to whisper, “Thanks.”
Shuffling back to the hospital room, which she shared with another new Mom, Caroline pulled the privacy curtain around her bed, climbed in and assumed a fetal position. Burying her face in the pillow, she cried softly so her neighbor wouldn’t hear her. Only two more days, she thought to herself. I never imagined it would be so hard.
Her mind rolled back nine months. How many times had she re-visited the moment when he told her he was already married? She had loved him so and he said he loved her. Surely by spring they would be engaged, she had thought. A Christmas wedding would be nice. Bridesmaids in shiny red dresses carrying bouquets of white roses with Christmas holly tucked in. She knew exactly what she’d wanted for herself – white lace, a vintage look. She would carry red roses. If there was snow on the ground, it would be even more romantic, she had dreamed.
Then he told her the truth. Too late. A week later her pregnancy had been confirmed. He had turned white when she informed him and to his credit, he rose to the occasion by providing the finances she needed to see her through to delivery. But post-delivery was a different story. He insisted she give the baby away for adoption.
Only now there were two – identical twin girls. She called to tell him. He showed no interest. He had moved on.
Caroline rolled over in bed and stared at the greying ceiling. Jennifer and Juliana, that’s what I’ll name them, she decided impulsively. She mashed the nurse’s call button. Later that afternoon, the social worker brought the paperwork and the twins were named. The line for the father’s name was left blank so they were assigned Caroline’s family name, Winchester. Even as she signed the forms, she knew that name would be changed, maybe even their first names, but for now they were still hers and she printed the last name with bold strokes of her pen as if somehow trying to make it permanent.
The insensitive social worker then pulled another folder from her bag and said, “We might as well complete these at the same time.” She handed Caroline the necessary documentation required by the adoption agency that would seek out suitable parents for her daughters. “You’ll have to decide if you’re willing to let them be separated; you know, adopted by two different families. I recommend you agree to that because it’s not as easy to find a family who will take two new babies at once.”
“But isn’t the war almost over,” Caroline asked. “Maybe after the war…”
“The end of this war won’t necessarily make it easier,” the social worker answered abruptly. “Let them go their separate ways. It will be for the best.” She was all business.
Against her better judgment and certainly against her inner feelings, Caroline checked the box but wrote in a caveat: ‘Only if a family cannot be found who will take both of them in the first three months.’ She dreaded the thought of her babies being in foster care longer than that.
Two days later, Caroline Winchester lingered over the morning feeding, hugging her twins to her chest with copious tears streaming down her face and onto their tiny faces. The firstborn of the two opened her eyes and stared up at her mother. Though the doctor said the babies couldn’t see clearly yet, Caroline was convinced otherwise. When the younger twin did the same, she was further convinced and God help anyone who dared contradict her. For the rest of her days, she believed they remembered her face. Down deep she realized that was probably wishful thinking but she held on to the belief regardless. It gave her comfort.
In early 1945 the adoption agency had their hands full with an unusually large number of infants available for adoption. The Winchester babies were one of two sets of twins at the time; the other set being fraternal twins, a boy and a girl.
The good news was that applications were not lacking and within four weeks of their birth, Jennifer and Juliana were much in demand by prospective parents. No less than five couples had specified they wanted to adopt a girl. Only one of them was willing to take both babies. The paperwork was being expedited and it appeared that Caroline’s wish would be honored but half way through the process, it was discovered that the adopting mother had developed a tumor and needed surgery. The adoption ground to a halt. The agency agreed to wait for two weeks to see how her recovery progressed but when it became apparent that she would require a much longer convalescence, their file was closed and the babies were returned to the waiting list for prospective parents. When Jennifer and Juliana were thirteen weeks old, they were successfully placed but not together. Just one week after the time limit that Caroline had specified, Jennifer became the daughter of a local podiatrist and his wife while Juliana was joyfully welcomed into the home of a factory foreman and his wife in a city about fifty miles away. During the court proceedings to finalize the respective adoptions, Jennifer became Wendy Sue Ashton and Juliana’s name was changed to Katie Jane Edelston.
Both girls grew up in loving homes with parents who doted on them. By the time Wendy Sue was nine, her parents had explained to her that she was adopted. They knew very little about Wendy’s birth mother but chose to cast her in a positive light as someone who wanted the best for her daughter and since for some unknown reason she was incapable of providing for her baby, she chose to surrender her to a couple who could. The Ashtons wanted their only daughter – their only child - to be comfortable with her adoption and by and large, Wendy was. They included the fact that she was a twin. She thought about it now and then as a child but nothing more.
Katie Jane was not told she was adopted until much later, a decision her parents regretted in hindsight. When Katie was eighteen, she decided to join the Air Force, in part because of the educational benefits that would follow her military service. The Edelstons were a hard-working, middle class couple and Katie was well aware that if she were to have a college education, funding from outside sources was a necessity. Still unsure of exactly what she wanted to pursue with regards to a career, she concluded that four years in military would afford her the time she needed to determine her future path.
During the enlistment process, certain questions were raised concerning possible hereditary illnesses or conditions. It was at that point that the Edelstons had no choice but to explain that Katie was an adopted child and no medical records of her biological parents were available. The Air Force asked to see the documentation related to the adoption process. Mrs. Edelston retrieved a folder that had long been buried away in a file box in the attic and among the various pages there was a passing reference to a ‘multiple birth’. Katie pounced on that like a tiger on its prey.
“What does that mean?” she demanded, holding the sheet of paper in front of her mother’s face. Mrs. Edelston blanched. She gave her husband a pleading look.
Katie glared at her father who was visibly distressed. He let out a labored sigh.
“Katie, honey, calm down. We’ll tell you what we know but it’s not much,” her father said in a subdued tone. “Sit down.”
She did and crossed her arms. “I’m listening.”
“You are a twin. When you and…uh…and your sister…were born, your birth mother was not able to care for you and gave you up for adoption. I’m sure…”
“Did she give both of us away?” Katie interrupted.
“Well, I’m not entirely sure,” her father replied, “but we think so.”
Katie stood up and paced back and forth as she declared, “Great! This is just great. I’m eighteen years old and I have a twin sister that I never knew about somewhere out there.” She waved her right hand towards the front window. Turning around, she frowned at her parents and said, “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“Honey, adoption laws were very tight in the 40’s. Your birth mother had to sign a declaration that she would never try to contact you. Everything was kept secret. Even your original birth certificate was destroyed and we received a new one when your adoption became final. Frankly we never anticipated you would need to know.”
Katie was not happy and it showed. “So all those times when I was growing up that I begged you to have another baby,” she paused and shook her head, mumbling ‘geez, you didn’t even have me’. She looked up and continued, “So all those times, you never thought to just tell me the truth; that you couldn’t have children and therefore you’d adopted me?”
“Katie, Katie,” her mother intervened. “It’s not like that. We kept hoping that maybe, one day, I might get pregnant. Sometimes it happens that when a couple adopts then they have a baby of their own afterwards.” Mrs. Edelston softened her tone. “We never intended to deceive you.”
It took Katie a few days to process the information and even longer to recover from the disappointment of being rejected by the Air Force for ‘insufficient medical history.’
The morning after the rejection letter came, Katie announced to her parents that since she wasn’t going away to the Air Force, she was going to look for a job.
“What about college?” her mother asked.
“I’ll work for a year or two, save some money and think about college later,” she replied sullenly. Then she added, “I’m also going to look for my sister.”
Both parents’ eyes went wide. They looked at each other and then back at their daughter. “How are you going to go about that?” her father asked.
“I figured it out last night when I couldn’t sleep. It can’t be that hard. I’ll go to the hospital where I was born and start there.”
“But that’s in New Haven,” her mother remarked. “That’s over fifty miles away.”
“Mother, it’s not that far. I can get a bus. No big deal.”
“I’ll drive you, Katie,” her father offered quietly. “I don’t like the idea of you going off by yourself to New Haven. If you want to find your sister, I’ll help you.”
Katie stared at her father for a few moments. Her hostile attitude slowly faded and three minutes later, she gave her Dad a sideways smile and said, “Thanks, Dad. I’d like that.”
Katie had been right. It wasn’t that hard, though it certainly could have been. As it turn out, Katie and her father drove to New Haven early on a Tuesday morning and went straight to the hospital. Informed by a sympathetic receptionist that only birth mothers can access birth records, not their children, she nevertheless encouraged them with an idea that paid off. “Why don’t you go to City Hall,” she advised, “and ask to see the birth records for 1945. Those are public documents.”
She wrote down the address and told them to ask for Shirley. “She’s a friend of mine,” the kindly woman said. “I’ll call her to let her know you’re on your way.” Katie thanked her and taking her father’s arm, they walked out the front door and back to their car.
Minutes later, they parked opposite the imposing City Hall, crossed the street and entered through the main door. Checking the directory, they made their way to the third floor where public records were archived.
Shirley was waiting for them behind the long counter in the Archive Hall. A thick folder was open in front of her. She looked up as Mr. Edeston held the door open and Katie walked in. Shirley stared.
“Are you…are you the Edelstons?” she asked slowly, consternation written all over her face.
Katie frowned at the unusual greeting and her father look askance at the woman.
“Yes, I’m Katie Edelston and this is my father,” Katie replied. “Are you Shirley? Sorry I don’t know your last name.”
“Yes,” she said with obvious anxiety. “Here is a folder for you to look at. I’ll be right back.” She shoved the folder towards them and hastily retreated behind a long row of shelves overflowing with years of civic records.
“That was bizarre,” Katie remarked to her father after Shirley disappeared. He nodded in agreement. “Let’s see what’s in here,” he urged her.
They had only perused four pages before they heard footsteps approaching. Shirley rounded the corner of the long shelving units. A young woman followed her.
“I’m sorry for my…..” Shirley began but never finished her apology. Katie wasn’t listening anyway. Her eyes were glued to the young woman who was staring back at Katie with a look of disbelief. Mr. Edelston turned white, Katie’s knees buckled. She grabbed onto the counter to steady herself.
“This is Wendy…” Shirley tried again and gave up. She slipped quietly away.
Wendy took a step forward until she was directly in front of Katie. They continued to stare at each other for a couple more minutes. Wendy was the first to find her voice.
“What’s your name?” she asked slowly.
“Katie, Katie Jane Edelston.”
“I’m Wendy Sue Ashton.”
“You…you must be my….” Katie began.
“Twin,” Wendy finished the sentence. “Your sister. We’re identical.”
“Oh, my gosh,” Katie suddenly squealed. “Oh my gosh, you…you look exactly like me, like I’m looking at myself in the mirror. Oh my gosh!” She choked up. Mr. Edelston was as shocked as the twins. It took several minutes for the girls to recover from the initial encounter.
Shirley returned with the general manager of the department, a Mr. Howard Lemson. When he rounded the corner and took his first look at the two young women, his jaw dropped. Their hair, their eyes, their facial features, their height, everything about them was absolutely identical. They were even dressed similarly; they were both wearing denim skirts and white tops. Wendy had on a white V neck lightweight sweater and Katie was wearing a white crew neck knit top. Mr. Lemson, declared that in his thirty-four years of working in the department, never had he seen anything like this. He gave Wendy the rest of the day off and ordered her to go spend time with her long lost sister.
As it turned out, Wendy had started working part time at City Hall just a month earlier and had been assigned to the Archive Hall. Had she been on another floor in a different department, she told Katie, they might not have found each other for several more weeks or even months.
Wendy, whose parents had told her as much as they knew about her background, had already done some checking of her own at City Hall and had discovered she had a twin sister. Having no idea where she might be, Wendy who was raised in a devout home had prayed that she might be reunited with her twin.
The girls spent the rest of the day catching up on each other’s lives, discovering how many ideas, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams they had in common and re-visiting their initial astonishment off and on during their prolonged conversation.
As the afternoon rolled into evening, Mr. Edelston reluctantly suggested that he and Katie had best be driving back. Wendy and Katie, emotionally spent, prolonged the good-byes as long as possible, promising to see each other again very soon. Wendy stood on the steps of the City Hall watching as Katie and her father crossed the street to their car.
Katie was giving Wendy a final wave through the open window as the car pulled out of the parking space when Wendy suddenly rushed toward the curb and shouted across the street: “I almost forgot. Our mother named us Jennifer and Juliana. I’m Jennifer!” Katie’s face lit up as she shouted back, “Love you, Jennifer!”
“You, too, Juliana,” Wendy called as the car turned right at the corner and disappeared.