House of Wax

Saturday, January 15, 2022

He had asked her to have drinks in the wax-figure-themed bar attached to the movie theater, though they’re not seeing a movie and though, she will discover, he does not drink. He lives in the same building, on the thirteenth floor, he told her in their early messages, and still manages to be twenty-five minutes late. She orders a bourbon, neat. It had been her father’s drink, something he’d let her and her brother taste when they were twelve, laughing as they gagged and clawed at their burning tongues. The burn is what she seeks now, and she savors it on her tongue before it creeps down her throat and warms everything in its path.

Above the banquette bench behind her is a glass display case with two severed wax heads, both larger than her own. One is a man with a bald head and bulbous nose, blonde handlebar mustache and muttonchop sideburns that nestle beneath fat, rosy cheeks. The head with him belongs to a woman with long, graying hair, drooping jowls, and sunken black eyes. They are posed in a proximity that implies intimacy, the suggestion of a life together. Even when she ceases looking, she is aware of these heads above her head, their jagged exposed necks that would drip blood onto her if they weren’t made of wax, that would drip wax down the back of her exposed neck if they melted. She can feel the sweet scald on her skin, and releases her dark curls from their ponytail, letting them tumble across her shoulders.  

Her date is sweating when he arrives. “The Q train,” he blames without further explanation, perhaps forgetting he’d said he lived upstairs, possibly neglecting to mention he was commuting from somewhere else. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, and her body automatically recoils and presses back against the wooden booth. “I normally sit on the booth side,” he tells her. But he doesn’t ask her to move, and she does not offer. He eyes her bourbon, half empty, and goes to the bar without another word, where she can assess him openly as he waits for the bartender. He has an underbite that wasn’t visible in his photos and is at least fifty pounds heavier, one of the more convincing catfish experiences she’s had. Some women would protest that it’s not about his looks, it’s about the deception, but for her it is definitely about his looks. He is pasty, the kind of pale that hints at basement videogaming and summers at computer camp playing Dungeons and Dragons, and for the second time that evening, she questions how she got here.

She has only one organizing principle for the men she swipes right on: they cannot resemble her or her brother at all. She wished the dating app had the same filter options as the cryo-bank website she’d briefly visited and then abandoned after turning thirty-five the prior year, where she could leave the boxes for blue eyes and black hair and curly texture unchecked. Instead, she quickly swipes left on men with those features, choosing everyone else and agreeing to dates with the ones who match her and don’t ask probing questions in their messages before meeting. She wants to date the men who want to fuck her, not the ones who want to know her.

She uses her real first name, the one that was once her middle name, changed legally to become her first in college, but she makes up a last name and an email address that matches so she remains un-Google-able. For pictures, she alternates between two: a full-body shot with her face in profile, mysterious and shrouded in shadow, that has been her primary picture for years and a newer one that attracted her date tonight, where she is facing the camera, no makeup, hair pulled tightly back. Looking at her phone, she stares at the image until the colors and image blur, until all she sees are the pixels that formed her, until it no longer looks like her twin.

Her date returns to the table with nothing for her and what he announces is a tonic water for himself. “I’m sober,” he says. She hears the flat vowels of the upstate New York accent she detests and adds to her mental pros and cons list for him another check in the cons column. But he also has the softest looking hair she’s ever seen, straight, thick, nearly to his shoulders, the color of a baby deer, and cartoonish long and thick eyelashes that contribute to his doe-like appearance and she suddenly longs to feel them flutter against her face. She remembers how she and her brother would blink their eyelashes against their parents’ faces as children. Butterfly kisses, they called them. She decides then that she will go upstairs and fuck her date tonight, but because of his deception or his looks, will not go out with him again.

“So, tell me about where you grew up,” he suggests, his eyes darting around the bar as he sips tonic water and sucks on the lemon that was wedged on the rim of his glass. She wonders if he’s looking at the heads above her head, or at any of the other wax faces that all seem to be watching them, the only two people seated at a table on this cold Wednesday night. She inhales a hint of buttered popcorn, or perhaps she’s just imagining it, wishing they were silently watching a screen next door, licking butter and salt from their fingers as the surround sound blared. The lighting in the bar is a golden red, crimson pillar candles on their table, lantern lights against garnet velvet drapes making it feel like they’re inside a body. She tips the pillar slightly, and a pool of red wax forms on the scratched wood table surface. She dips her fingertip into it as it cools; she has always loved the silky feel of liquid on its way to becoming solid. When it dries and she peels it off, her index finger is stained scarlet. Her date says nothing as he waits for her to answer.

She has a different story she tells each of her dates when they ask about her childhood. Once, she’d had a basic script she didn’t deviate from: mother, father, brother, New Jersey suburbs, everyone got along, so banal it wasn’t worth saying more. Most men nodded and accepted this, waiting for the opportunity either to tell her about their own families or to let the conversation move back to the surface: careers, neighborhoods, pop culture. She’d learned that men typically wanted you to know and accept them and were not as concerned with knowing you. But as she passed thirty-five and the number of dates she had been on crept into the thousands, her scripted story bored even her. She began crafting new childhoods for herself to suit each date.

For the ginger-haired yoga instructor who raved about his communal loft, intermittent fasting, colonics, and later, his exploration into the intricacies of tantric sex, she invented more siblings, seven of them. She used phrases like intentional living and purposeful mindset and told him about the organic olive oil her family harvested every year on their farm in Ojai and how her parents were pioneers in the sustainable clothing industry in the early nineties. He was both impressed and desperate to one-up her, countering that the real work in sustainable clothing was still to be done, to which she nodded and sipped from her kombucha mojito.

To the Wall Street bro, whose thinning hair was so blond it nearly registered as white, who told her three times on their first date that he was a Mayflower descendant, she said she was from Scarsdale, somewhere she had never been that was comfortably far enough from his Greenwich hometown. When he found a way to drop New Haven into the conversation, she feigned ignorance and said she never made the trek down from Cambridge. His lips pressed together in response. He mentioned a few boarding school lacrosse buddies—of course he played lacrosse at boarding school—who also grew up in Scarsdale. Did she know them? She gave what she hoped was a patronizing smile, the kind she was accustomed to seeing from men like him and tossed her expensively blown-out dark waves over her shoulder. Her parents did not believe in American secondary schools, she said, and she, of course, had been educated in Europe.

She sensed that the overly sensitive, self-destructive songwriter would have compassion for a more troubled history. As he slammed tequila shots and let his locs fall into his eyes, she told him she had taken off from a strict religious home in Texas at sixteen and used her babysitting money to make it to Seattle, where she panhandled and busked to put a roof over her head some nights. He rubbed her back with his thumb and made supportive murmurs when she said she did not speak to her family, the only part of her story that was true. He perked up when she told him her favorite song to perform was “Let Love Rule.” She had noted in their messaging how many times he’d referenced Lenny Kravitz. She sang a few bars of it, so softly he had to lean in, her lip grazing his ear and when he pulled back, there were tears in his eyes. He offered her his leather jacket, which smelled like male sweat and something unexpectedly sweet like vanilla that made her tear up before she could stop herself.

The twenty-five-year-old tech mogul from Singapore, the fifty-year-old divorced white dad who repaired air conditioners in Queens, the tattooed Korean American hipster marketing exec from Ohio. They all receive a backstory that she creates to align with their own. She rarely makes an effort to remember their names. She fucks some of the guys—okay, most of the guys—the kind of sex you can only have with people who don’t know you, sex a convenient deterrent to intimacy. They allow her to pull back into herself at the same time she pulls them into her. She gives only her body, and they accept it. Sometimes this continues for weeks, sometimes for months if the sex is really good, until she eventually ghosts them and blocks their numbers in her phone. The more intense, the more adventurous their fucking is, the less they demand emotionally and the longer she can stick around. 

She lets them do what they want: the yoga instructor who didn’t want either of them to come because it would be so much better if they both went right up to the brink and then backed off; when he finally agreed it was time, they were both disappointed. The Wall Street bro who wanted to be dominated and belittled, and had a closet of whips and gags and a script of insults he couldn’t get off without; the tortured songwriter who wanted it missionary style in the dark—but only in public places with his own music playing from the tinny speaker in his phone. None of them ever sees her apartment. She always goes to their neighborhoods and homes; she can sleep on their sex sheets for a few hours but never on her own, and who has time to trek to the basement laundry room after every hookup? And she cannot take the chance of running into them near her apartment when it’s over. She limits these encounters to twice a week. Anything more than that exhausts her.

When her date repeats his question about her life before she moved to Brooklyn, she is stumped. She cannot remember anything he has told her in their messaging about his work or his hobbies or his history beyond the story that his ex has the dog they adopted together, and he does not miss her or the dog, yet another red flag he waves. Their joint deceptions have brought them together, yet she cannot figure out now how to out-deceive him. Since she has already vowed not to see him again after this night, the only thing she can think to do to regain some sense of control is to shock him with the truth. The immediate longing that follows this idea, to hear it out loud after decades unspoken, floods her body and propels her forward past her lingering doubts.

“I had a twin brother,” she tells her date, who still does not look directly at her as she continues. “When we were nineteen, he kidnapped his girlfriend and killed our parents.”

At this, he stops sucking on the lemon and looks at her face, gaze fixated somewhere near her mouth.

“Did he try to kill himself after?” her date asks, and she is startled, not at his lack of reaction to this confession, not because of the violence or directness of his question, but because it was the exact thought she’d had when the police had shown up at her dorm, seven hours away from her family, with her resident advisor that early Thursday morning to break the news that both her parents were dead.

“And my brother,” she’d asked them without the inflection of a question, meaning, he’s dead too, right. But the police officer, whom she will forever remember for his watery eyes and the crust of crumbs in the patch of hair beneath his bottom lip, like he’d been in the middle of eating toast when he got the call that he needed to upend a teenager’s world, said her brother was missing, and that he hated to tell her this, but they suspected he might have been involved, as though she hadn’t known the second she was told of her parents’ deaths that her brother was the cause.

She drags herself out of the memory to study her date. There is a mole on the front of his neck with the kind of uneven borders and ombré coloring that begs to be examined by a dermatologist. It is shaped like a pineapple. “No,” she finally says. “Police found him sitting alone in our car in the elementary school parking lot the next afternoon.”

“And his girlfriend?” Her date takes the sucked lemon rind carcass with its veiny white remains and rolls it up slowly in a cocktail napkin like it’s a tiny, swaddled baby. She waits for his attention to return to her before answering.

“He tied her to the post of his twin bed with our mother’s Hermès scarves and left her there,” she replies, specific details that were withheld from the transcripts in the aftermath.

That was how the police knew immediately her twin was the one responsible. His girlfriend, who had once been her friend too in high school, was able to bite through one of the scarves by dawn, enough to loosen it and slip her slim wrist out. Her brother’s Swiss Army knife from his Boy Scout years was in the bedside table and his girlfriend sliced easily through the remaining expensive fabric. Her own first thought upon hearing that detail was how upset her mother would be at the ruined scarf, one of her few luxuries. Her second thought was, oh, her mother. Her brother’s girlfriend ran next door and rang the bell until Mr. Fox answered the door in his striped, old-man pajamas and found her brother’s shaking girlfriend, who had been in his fourth-grade class a decade earlier. She herself and her brother had been in that same class as well. Mr. Fox told the Star Ledger he remembered her as a ten-year-old for her beautiful penmanship; her brother, he added, had been such a nice boy.

And he was. He had been the kinder twin, the more thoughtful, the one who found the person sitting alone at lunch and joined them, the one who refused to kill spiders, the one who offered to share: food, toys, homework, friends. She, forced into having the same birthday, the same classes, the same car, had never wanted to share anything. He allowed her to take his Halloween candy—gave it to her, with a smile—and always let her pick the movies and TV shows they watched, the games they played, the music they listened to. He followed the lead she had established at their birth without question or hesitation.

She wants to tell her date these things about her brother, that he wasn’t always someone capable of this most extreme violence, that once he’d been the boy who held her hand when the school nurse pulled gravel out of her scraped knee, that he was the one to cry as though it pained him when the nurse flushed her wound. That he had eaten her lima beans and given her his ice cream sandwich that night and had changed the bandage for her before bed even though he was afraid of the smell of dried blood.

Her date is studying her; she can feel the heat in her cheeks as he stares. It’s as though he is already inside of her and her instinct is to clench every opening shut, but she isn’t sure if she wants to force him out or lock him in. She looks everywhere but at him, unintentionally summoning a waiter, from whom she orders a second bourbon. She finishes the last sips of her first in a large gulp.

“What was his favorite color?” her date asks.

“Excuse me?”

He tips his drink back again instead of clarifying, crunching on ice cubes, the grinding of teeth and ice and the slurp of saliva more grating even than his nonsensical question. She narrows her eyes but her mind floats into her memories, already searching for an answer in what he wore or what he drew or what he chose. He was a child who let others—her, their parents, his girlfriends—make his choices for him. His childhood bedroom, once their shared nursery, had been a panoply of happy colors, yellow, green, purple, orange. Once they reached middle school and she no longer wanted to share a room with him, though he would have gladly continued, their father painted their shared room the same beige as the guest room she moved into, always wanting the same for them both, and her brother had never redecorated over the years as she had. Her room had gone from goth to romantic to bohemian, but his bed still had the black, white, and beige duvet their mother had chosen for him when he was ten, on the night he tied up his girlfriend on top of it.

His girlfriend told police that as he’d made careful knots in the scarves, he had been manic, ranting about wanting to burn the house down, saying there were hidden cameras watching him and pointing wildly at the corners of the room. They would never be safe while the house was still alive. He was keeping her restrained so he could save her, he said, save them both. She tried to reason with him that it was the disorder talking and not him, that if he burned the house down with her tied up, she would die too, and she knew he didn’t want that. His girlfriend didn’t know yet about his parents, didn’t know they were just down the hall, already gone. He didn’t want to hurt her, she insisted afterward, had taken care to make sure she wasn’t in physical pain. He was sick, his girlfriend pleaded with the police.

The last time she saw her own twin in person was at his sentencing hearing, where he was wearing a cinematically orange jumpsuit. The photograph of him captured that day, with swollen eyes and wet cheeks, would appear next to his senior-year yearbook photo in every major newspaper in the country and be the lasting image most people had of him. He insisted on pleading guilty and accepted a plea deal against the advice of his lawyer, who wanted to go to trial and argue that his late schizoaffective disorder diagnosis, along with doctors’ inability to get him the right combination of medication, rendered her twin legally incapable of murder. But her brother refused any suggestions of a not-guilty plea, telling his lawyers and later the judge that he was guilty and should be confined as a criminal to a prison cell, ideally for the rest of his life. He wept during his allocution about what he had done to their parents, his voice sounding so much like the tender boy who had once cried harder for her pain than his own.    

She has no answer for her date, who waits with a barely concealed smile. His interest in her brother is unnerving, but since she has never told a stranger this story before, she does not know what to expect. Perhaps this is normal. She attempts to change the subject.

“What kind of work did you say you do?” If he is bothered by her refusal to answer his question, his face does not reveal it.

“I work in SaaS,” he says, with no further elaboration. “Tell me, who was born first, you or your twin?”

She wonders if she visibly winces or if it’s just an internal reaction. Her date, once again, divulges nothing in his own face. “I was,” she tells him.

“And were you also the biggest?”

“Y-yes,” she stumbles.

“The one who walked first? Talked first?”

“Why are you asking these questions?” she says, her throat almost swallowing the last word.

“That sounds like a yes,” he says. Her date continues nodding, a parody of a wise man for whom nothing is a surprise, as though her entire twinned history is completely expected. Nothing about this feels right, and she wishes for the simplicity of the easy-to-manipulate Wall Street bro or the kindness of the songwriter. Over her date’s shoulder is a thin, pointy male wax head who is making better eye contact with her than her date is. Get out now, the wax man seems to be warning her.

She looks for something in her date’s face to explain his pointed line of questioning, how he seems to anticipate her answers, and for the first time, she wonders if he somehow knew who she was before tonight. She searches for some hint of recognition in him, or of him. She hates her date then and wants to leave, but there is also part of her that still wants to understand what is going on here, as well as something about being seen for the only time in her adult life that keeps her pinned to her seat.

“Why do you think he did it?” her date asks, the question police tried to ask delicately, then insistently in the days following the murders; the question reporters screamed at her when she returned to her parents’ home to pack up their things and when she walked into the courthouse at her brother’s sentencing; the question neighbors and classmates and teachers emailed her for weeks, months after the murders; the question that was as unanswerable as the one that plagued her every moment of every day, no matter what she drank or who she fucked to blot it out: how do you keep living when your other half takes from you everyone you love?

“He was sick,” she says, her voice breaking so she has to cough to cover it up, repeating what her brother’s girlfriend said all those years ago, an insufficient answer but the closest approximation to encompassing what led him to that irreversible moment that changed the trajectory of both of their lives. Even now, she wants to protect her twin as much as she wants to blame him, but she needs to protect also what she has hidden from the world all this time. That she blames herself for what happened, because if anyone should have seen or understood or helped her brother, it was her, and instead of doing any of those things, she fled to the safety and anonymity of the school her twin hadn’t gotten into, hours from anyone they knew.

“Was he ever violent with you?” her date asks, and now she feels especially violated by his questions and glares at him. There is no way she can tell him or anyone about the year leading up to the murders. The bouts of mania, worst at night, when her brother would bang his fists on her bedroom door, warning her they were being surveilled by government operatives, leaving craters in the wood and splinters in his knuckles. The barrage of phone calls when she left for school, her dorm phone ringing so insistently that her roommate transferred to another floor, leaving her alone in the double room to answer or ignore the 2 a.m. rants. The way her family ignored the symptoms initially, first writing them off as elevated and extreme stress, then suspecting and testing for drug use, before finally acknowledging that something else, something beyond anyone’s control, was taking over his life. The way she had distanced herself, first in embarrassment, then in fear, then in shame. The last time she saw him before that night, his calmness tricking her into thinking the medication had started working, when he had gripped her hand in his and tried to pull her with him off a fifth-floor banquet room balcony at their parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary party, breaking two of her fingers when he refused to let go as she hurtled her body backward toward safety.

Her date is waiting for an answer that she will never give him. “No,” she lies, “he was never violent with me.”

If her date expected a different answer, his face does not betray that she has failed him. “What happened to him on the first anniversary of the murders?” he asks, his voice measured and low, gently coaxing, and as he finally makes direct eye contact with her, she can see that he has known exactly who she was this entire time, in spite of using her middle name and fake last name, in spite of the regular work she does to scrub her adult identity from the Internet. She now understands that this encounter was precisely orchestrated after some feat of reverse Google image-searching after she made the error of uploading her face and putting herself into his orbit with one quick swipe. And yet, she feels compelled to answer him, to tell a story her twin no longer can.

“An altercation, they said, something about blunt force trauma and found unresponsive . . . the details were never clear.”

“You didn’t ask questions?” her date asks, with his eyes now narrowing, and he no longer looks like a deer but something else entirely, something cold and calculating and predatory. She is repulsed by what had initially drawn her to him: he is nothing like her brother.

All of the men, all of the dates. She’d thought none of them could possibly remind her of him, of his dark curls and the surprising blue of his dark eyes against pale, freckled skin so like her own. But each man had, in their subtle or not subtle way, taken her back to some beloved childhood version of her twin. The yoga guru’s easy warmth and passion for improving the world. The Wall Street bro’s fierce love for his family, calling his parents every evening and referring to his sister as his best friend. The musician with his soulfulness and empathy, his desire to carry her pain. 

She realizes that she’d hoped that maybe she could love her date, in spite of the catfishing, in spite of the lack of physical attraction, in spite of the targeted line of questioning, because there was nothing in him that reminded her of her twin. Maybe she could close her eyes and she would no longer miss the timbre of her brother’s laugh or search for the specific scent of grass he had carried throughout their childhood. Maybe next to this man she would finally be able to sleep, really sleep, without the rage and shame churning in her stomach all night. Maybe he would somehow obliterate every memory of goodness that she’d ever had and every memory of horror that she’d ever had and replace them all with something else, something detached, something deranged, something that didn’t make her wake up every single morning wishing she was the one who was gone.

Her date is waiting for her to tell him more about her brother’s death, his expression somewhere between hostile and eager, but once she sees him for who he isn’t, she cannot stand to sit across from him any longer, and she ends the date the only way she has ever known how.

“Well, should we get out of here?” she asks him.

A flicker of disappointment before his face returns to blankness. He pushes back his chair and rises. “My thoughts exactly.”

“Should we go upstairs?” she asks.

“I don’t think so,” he says. He pulls out a nylon wallet from his back pocket, the kind that fastens with Velcro, as he places a five-dollar bill on the table.

He drains the last of his club soda in a final gulp. The glass makes a resolute bang as he returns it to the table. “Goodbye, Manda,” he says, and before her head can register the wrongness of him knowing to call her that, her heart swells because of being addressed by a name that once was used by all of the people who loved her and that she hasn’t heard since she changed it in those immediate months following the murders. That girl, Amanda of Amanda and Liam, Manda and Lee as kids, had ceased to exist with the last email her brother sent to her now-defunct ‘MandaPanda86’ Hotmail address the week before he was murdered or killed in self-defense or died by suicide, and she would never know because she had never questioned the prison’s findings, nor had she opened any of the dozens of his emails that arrived throughout the year of his incarceration. By the time she thought she might want to save the emails to read at a later date, she’d lost the password and the recovery information along with her twin’s last words to her.

“If you ever make it back to Stockbridge Drive, say hi to my parents for me,” her date says with a wink that stops her breath, and before lumbering away, he allows her one last, long look at his face, his face that is suddenly malleable through her tears and morphs into that of an intense, sullen child with sandy brown hair who lived with his parents in the house across the street from theirs, a younger kid who was known for torturing insects and breaking other kids’ toys. Creepy Chris, they called him, she remembers with a cringe. He’d seemed always to be watching them from his driveway. How could this man across from her, this sociopath questioning her about her brother for nearly an hour, be the child her twin had once comforted after he fell off his bike, ripping up the skin on his knees and twisting his ankle so her brother had to carry him home, even though everyone else was unnerved by this strange boy? Had he sought her out? Had he been searching for her all this time, or was it unlucky serendipity that placed her on his radar? But she can ask him nothing because he is gone, and she is left open-mouthed and crying in the blood-red room.

He’d lied about his name as well, and she opens the app that connected them to scan his profile and their messages for clues she’d missed, but there is nothing, no trace of “Craig,” as he’d called himself, nor of them ever having matched. Their message thread gone too, evaporated into the ether as though it had never been there at all. No ex-girlfriend, no ex-dog, no red flags. The only evidence that any of this even happened is the five-dollar bill on the table, which she quickly pockets, the swaddled lemon rind, and his empty glass. She picks up the glass, smelling the rim and inside: nothing, not even the faintest note of citrus. When a tear drips off her chin and lands on the edge of the glass, she immediately licks it, ashamed and repelled by the jolt of connection she feels having tasted this salt from her body mixed with the dried saliva of his. She unwraps the lemon rind and contemplates sucking its veins as he had, then chewing until she has fully consumed them.

The waiter discreetly places the check in front of her, accepting the credit card she had put on the table earlier and walking away almost before she has registered his presence. She turns away from him and focuses her gaze upward in an attempt to stop the tears from falling down her cheeks and only then notices the small display case hanging above the one she’d studied before her date arrived. In it are two wax baby heads of identical size, both with navy-blue eyes and sparse strands of fine black hair and twin dimples in each cheek, the only discernible difference between them in their wax lips. The baby on the left, plump lips lifted into a coy smile, the baby on the right, lips flattened into each other, the slightest curvature downward. And even though there is nothing physical to indicate this, the same way she can’t really know if these four wax heads are meant to be a family, she is sure as she stares into that case that the frowning baby is the girl.

“Emilee?” The waiter returns, holding the billfold and reading from her credit card before he hands it back to her, speaking the name her date never had. The tip of his middle finger brushes against hers, creating a small spark in the dry heat of the red bar, the zing causing her to jump and shocking her back into focus. She wipes her eyes.

“Sorry about that,” the waiter says, “it’s this carpeting.” He points down at the maroon rug beneath their feet with a nervous laugh and she looks at him, really sees him now, his warm brown eyes and his crooked right incisor, the hint of evening stubble softening his sharp jawline. When her brother was anxious when they were growing up, he laughed in the same self-conscious way, and she wants to cover the waiter’s hand with hers and tell him not to worry. She wants to ask him what it is like working here, surrounded by replicas, by first dates that never become second dates, by deceptions and catfishing, by people who drink to forget or drink to feel or drink because they don’t know what else to do, and she wants to ask about the childhood that landed him here, standing across from her, static electricity crackling between them. She imagines the origin story she will create just for him. She pushes the shriveled lemon rind out of reach.

“It’s okay,” she tells him. “And you can call me Lee.”

Saturday, January 15, 2022