“Love between siblings can be strong, but our love is indestructible.”
(reading time: approx. 10 minutes)
(text & photos: Alexander Rodshtein; support proofreading: Natalie M.)
“The fact that we always slept in the same bed when we were children shows how strong the connection between us was. At night, you could hear her breathing, in the morning you might brush a strand of her hair out of your face. When I looked at my sister, there was always a familiar feeling. She was my number one.
Even in our teens, we would chat under the covers of her bed before falling asleep. We would talk about foster ponies, swimming lessons, men or ice hockey.
‘They can’t let us down once again tomorrow,’ Nath said one night. ‘I’ll never let Nick get away with that.’
‘Who knows if he’ll even play for Biel next season?’
Nath laughed, but in the darkness, I saw only the outline of her blue-green eyes, which resembled mine. ‘If he leaves, we won’t have a good looking guy on the team. He really is sexy as hell.’
‘You don’t even like long hair.’
‘Not true, when did I say that?’
The fact that I’ve now spent half my life without my twin sister is sometimes hard to believe. It seems like yesterday and then it seems like forever. But you know, it’s supposed to be about life and appreciating it. I leave it up to you whether you want to mention Nath’s surprising death or not. It would certainly be important for others to know that she is no longer alive. I don’t want to suppress our time together just to avoid the pain. I like to browse through the letters we wrote each other during school hours, when we couldn’t wait to fool around during breaks or slip off school grounds for a smoke. We tested the limits, we rebelled, I identified with the punk scene and at times wore a ‘pimp jacket’ as my father called it. That was perhaps our biggest trademark: That Nath and I began to orient ourselves to adult life at the beginning of puberty. We often had relationships with men who were three to five years older than us. We thought we were cool. We thought we were invulnerable.”
“She started smoking at thirteen, maybe it was a need for love. I drag on the cigarette, I look for love.
I remember the first time clearly: 1993. We were walking through the underpass of the Biel train station when Nath took out a cigarette and lit it in a skillful movement. Without thinking, I stopped and pushed her roughly on the shoulder.
‘Do you smoke?”, I asked loudly.
Nath grinned, her eyes radiating youthful recklessness. ‘Yes, I’m having a smoke now.’
‘That’s ugly, really ugly, Nath!’ My protective instinct kicked in; I wanted to stop Nath from doing anything stupid. Even during exams at school, I always worried about her first, not myself.
‘Look around, lots of people smoke and it didn’t kill them,’ she replied firmly.
‘Are you crazy, it’s addictive, stop that shit.’
Nath took another drag, her dark blonde hair falling forward as she did so, hiding the black spiral earrings I envied. Nath remained stubborn, and it was clear to me that I could not stop her. As much as I wished it for her at that moment.
But is it surprising that I also started smoking a few weeks later?
Our parents certainly suspected we were smoking, though we tried to be smart about it. The fact that we regularly took care of two foster ponies came in handy. Nath had realized that the intense smell of horses on our clothes masked the smell of cigarettes. And we told the teachers that we had put on a perfume that smelled like smoke. Someone replied that we smelled like an old train station buffet.
Finally, three years later, on our sixteenth birthday, we stepped in front of our parents and said, ‘From today on, we smoke.’
And from that point on, we did so officially.
You might think that our home had been a place full of insecurity, that because of a difficult teenage childhood we were pushing limits more than others were. But the opposite was true, we had a strong family bond, even though I must confess that our parents had drawn a difficult lot with Nath and me. You can’t underestimate that we both stuck together unconditionally, making us strong and quick-witted.”
“For our 14th birthday, our grandmother gave us condoms.
‘It doesn’t help forbidding you things, you’ll do it anyway,’ she said.
Two of her daughters had become mothers at 16; she knew what she was talking about. Since she lived right in Biel, half an hour’s drive from our parents’ house, we stayed overnight with her every now and then. Our father would sometimes call her at 8 p.m. to ask if we were home. Our grandmother always reassured him and said we were already at the door. In reality, we stayed out in the discos until midnight, where we could get in without showing an ID because we already looked older than 16. Our grandmother even paid for the cab so that we could get back to her house safely.
As for men, Nath often got boyfriends faster and easier than I did. She was charismatic, direct, and fearless. At a hockey game, she hooked up with one of the drummers in the stands, while I had only managed to pick up his nondescript buddy. It was loud and heated in that stadium, so it fit the picture that Nath was making out passionately.
Suddenly she looked to me and my companion.
‘Don’t you want to try it too?’ she called out to us in a nice way. My shyness regarding this matter disappointed me. But I didn’t say that out loud.
There are many stories with men from our youth.
When we were 12, we met two boys at the French fry stand at the swimming pool. When they accompanied us to the bicycles in the evening, with their backpacks casually slung over their shoulders, and we faced each other to say goodbye, we were helpless for an embarrassing second. Nath took the initiative, approached her guy and gave him a gentle kiss on the lips. That gave me courage and I kissed my counterpart. It was our first kiss, and we had experienced this moment together. Later in bed, Nath and I talked, laughed and gossiped about it before falling asleep.
Maybe now you can better understand why it was natural for us to share a bed. Because we shared our whole lives.”
“That we were separated from each other for days, happened only a few times in our lives. I remember a riding camp without Nath. When she came by on the third day with our parents, and we recognized each other on the front lawn, we ran toward each other, hugged tightly, and gave each other a kiss on the mouth. Nath read in my eyes what I was about to say.
‘I don’t want to stay here any longer,’ I said in a determined tone to my parents. My father raised his eyebrows, my mother shrugged her shoulders, as if they had both guessed this already. That they simply accepted my decision like that was not evident.
Our parents were strict. We were only allowed to put on makeup on the nights we went out. We always had to be home earlier than our friends, and the fact that our father always called my grandmother when we stayed over made it clear how important this was to him. However, he was the parent whose opinion we could change more easily. We went to him when we had to ask for permission. With our mother, on the other hand, a no remained a no. She rarely gave us a kiss on the cheek or said that she was proud of us, if there was a moment to be proud of. The more Nath and I rebelled, the more our parents countered, and vice versa. Perhaps they secretly wished that we were model students like our three years older sister, who had to watch over us regularly. Unlike us, she was shy, well-behaved and hard-working. We also had little in common visually: she was brown-haired, we were blond. As far as boys were concerned, Nath and I seemed to be precocious, while our sister took her time. She didn’t like the fact that she had to take us to the swimming pool, because we made her look ridiculous in front of her friends, poked her or tousled her hair when she tried to reprimand us. She realized early on that we didn’t take orders from anyone.
I also let my parents know what I thought of rules. I regularly took off for a few hours, rode around on my moped, and returned at some point. I wanted to be an adult, not to be told what to do, while defying like a child. Nath was more reserved in this regard. She was fearless and direct, but accepted rules more easily than I did. That didn’t stop her from accompanying me sometimes though.
One Saturday afternoon, we packed our backpacks, drove to Bern without telling anyone, and strolled through the stores. When it got dark, we went to the train station, but didn’t think of returning home.
‘Are we going to sit here all night?”, Nath asked me.
‘Don’t know, I don’t care where we sleep,’ I replied.
At one point, the railroad police stood in front of us and took us to their office. We gave him the names of two friends, but they weren’t fooled as we couldn’t give their mother’s name. So, our father picked us up an hour later, relieved. He did not reprimand us.”
“Around fifteen, I had my sides shaved and styled the rest into a mohawk, which I wore for several months. I had a beige suede jacket and Dr. Martens boots – with black laces, mind you, because the white ones were considered the trademark of the right-wing extremists who proclaimed their ideologies mainly on the other side of the river.
In my room there were posters of Ramones and Nirvana with Kurt Cobain. I was into punk and saw myself as an anarchist. Lawless. I resisted the rules of society, maybe it was mainly the rules of my parents. Everything disgusted me, studying for school, the stuffiness of the teachers, capitalism with its hypocritical do-gooder slogans. Maybe I wanted to be different, to set myself apart from everyone – even from Nath – and thus show that I wasn’t in anyone’s shadow.
Nath preferred to listen to rap and also had some posters hanging on the walls. But what connected us above all was the Biel ice hockey club. Since we were thirteen, our mother took us to every home game. Nath and I would cheer for the team from the standing room, while our mother stayed in the seated area. When we had a smoke, we would sit down for a minute so she couldn’t see us. But I hardly think she didn’t notice smoke rising from between the crowd in the stands … where we should have been visible.
We had even been given the phone numbers of some of the players. An acquaintance worked in the management of the club and we could persuade her to give us the numbers. As a result, we had the idea to call one of our idolized players at 6 o’clock on some Sunday mornings. Sometimes one of them would respond with a sleepy voice, after which we would hang up without saying a word.
‘Shit, that was really him,’ Nath said, grinning so hard that her cheeks reddened.
‘He did go to bed yesterday in the end,’ I replied with a laugh.
There were unpleasant sides as well. Our mother would know little of that, because she never accompanied us to the away games. We traveled by coach as a fan community to places all over Switzerland. Thurgau in eastern Switzerland was known to have a particularly large number of hooligans. It was a nerve-wracking game, an important one at that, and we lost. Irritated and angry, we left the stadium and passed a group of fans from the opposite side. I could tell by the look on Nath’s face that she wouldn’t be able to control herself. Her hair disheveled and greasy, her expression showing massive disappointment.
‘Fuck you, assholes,’ Nath shouted at the group of men, giving them the middle finger. That’s right I thought, and at the same time that this was very dangerous. I felt the urge to run away. The group broke away from the others, swearing, and came toward us – a dozen men, some long-haired, some shaven – whereupon Nath and I sprinted off, the group following us. Heels thudding on the ground, we dashed past turning people, across the parking lot, to the coach, inside through the open door, which our driver closed immediately and we only got to see their fists on the windows and their angular, angry faces.”
“I imagine sometimes that this coincidence would never have happened. That Nath would not have been born, that I would have been given her big room, and that I would never have thought of sharing all my joys and sorrows with a second person within these four walls. Would I have become a well-behaved, good girl? Would I have experienced even a fraction of what I was able to experience together with Nath? Would I have had the courage to test boundaries? How would my last vacation in Italy with my parents have gone? Would my gaze also have wandered to the two men leaning against the railing in that amusement park? Because there would have been no one standing next to me, nudging me and whispering, ‘Look at those picture-perfect machos.’
And they probably wouldn’t have reacted if there hadn’t been two of us.
We were 16 years old. Angelo was in his early 20s, vain, handsome, with long, dark blond hair and body-hugging clothes. At that time, I was into that kind of thing. One night at a disco, he climbed on stage, pulled off his shirt, danced as if in ecstasy, and beckoned us to join him. But embarrassed, Nath and I left the building.
Nath’s guy was named Nino. Also in his early 20s, a seasonal worker on the construction site. But she didn’t know what to do with him, so a few days later she chatted up a man named Roberto at the hotel pool, ‘Won’t you come over to me and my sister?’
Soon, she was with Roberto and dropped Nino. Angelo, Roberto, Nina & Nath … as a foursome we spent the evenings on the beach or in the disco. Once we had to sleep by the pool because the hotel porter was not there anymore to open the door. It was the time when Nath and I stopped biting nails. We were tired of having to hide our fingers.
Our grandmother shared a room with us during this vacation. She knew about everything. Our parents, who were staying in another hotel, did not. For three weeks we enjoyed the time with Angelo and Roberto, then it was time to say goodbye. Nath could be relentless, she could get on the plane, leave the time behind without shedding a tear.
My parting with Angelo was more emotional. I sat on a park bench and told him I was sorry. He was sitting on the ground with his head in my lap, crying. For another six months I talked to him regularly on the phone. Then I met the man in Switzerland by whom I would become pregnant.
For a long time, only Nath and my grandmother knew. I would become a mother at the age of seventeen. My grandmother never got to see my son though, she peacefully fell asleep after the first trimester. My twin sister was only able to witness his first five years. Then she was gone too, so suddenly. I was left behind, tamed and by now responsible by the birth of a child who means everything to me.
Sometimes I can hardly believe it. All these crazy stories could have come from a book I just read aloud. A book that is now closed. It took time for me to allow myself to go to ice hockey games again; to cheer for the team like Nath and I did back then. There are certainly many things that I have since forgotten. That’s why I always want to remind myself of the experiences. Maybe I’ve forgotten what Nath’s voice sounded like, how she laughed profusely or threw nasty words at the hooligans. But the way her lips tasted when we kissed on the mouth when we hadn’t seen each other for a few hours … I won’t forget that. You might be wondering now what Nath’s lips tasted like? When I think about it, one word comes to mind above all: home.”
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