The Mark of Cain

by Roxane Gay

My husband is not a kind man and with him, I am not a good person.

When we make love, Caleb takes me apart piece by piece, pulling my bones from their sockets, slowly peeling muscle from skin, splaying me on our bed, dissected and waiting for him to put me back together again.

Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night and he is kneeling over me, his fingers tracing my neck. I place my hands over his, the rough skin, the swollen knuckles. I squeeze.

I wear heavy eyeliner and dark lipstick because my husband once said that he always wants me to look the way I did the night we met in a bar, drunk and numb looking for trouble before it found us. He can't stand to see me any other way, he said. He wasn't being nostalgic.

I worry about the day when he leaves me, splayed on our bed, dissected, waiting for him to put me back together again.

My husband has an identical twin, Jacob. Sometimes they switch places for days at a time. They think I don't know. I am the kind of woman who doesn't mind indulging the deception.

My husbands have a father who was neither a good father nor a kind man. When he died, shot in the head by a woman he had beaten one time too many, Jacob and Caleb, then 15, immediately forgave their father his trespasses. With each passing year, they rewrote their past until they had beatified their father's memory. They each have a tattoo of their father's likeness on their backs. The ink, Caleb told me on our first date, was mixed with their father's ashes so that he would always be with them.

It is nearly impossible to tell Caleb and Jacob apart. They have the same physique, the same haircut, the same mannerisms. Neither of them snores. They are both left-handed. They have dark hair, blue eyes, long sharp faces, high cheekbones. My husbands work together at the architecture firm they started, so whether it is Caleb or Jacob who comes home, they have the same story to tell me about their day. I married Caleb but I prefer Jacob's company. When we make love Jacob too takes me apart piece by piece, pulling my bones from their sockets, slowly peeling muscle from skin, splaying me on our bed, dissected and waiting for him to put me back together again. But with him, there is a sorrowful kindness to his touch. I never worry about being left asunder.

Jacob has a girlfriend, Cassie who is really Caleb's girlfriend. She is unaware of the distinction. The four of us are at dinner. Jacob, pretending to be Caleb, and I are holding hands. Caleb, pretending to be Jacob, and Cassie are holding hands. There is a light in his eyes that isn't there when he looks at me. My husbands are finishing each other's sentences, regaling Cassie and I with stories about a particularly difficult client. Jacob orders another bottle of wine, and we continue to drink and talk and practice being normal. His arm is heavy across my shoulders and every once in a while, he leans in and brushes his wet lips against the spot on my neck that makes my back arch sharply. Then he smiles at his brother and his brother smiles back. This is when they are at their best—when they are together, sharing the same moment. There is safety, for them, in the number two.

Cassie is a graduate student in museum studies. Caleb told me this in bed after she and Jacob first started dating. He told me about how Cassie plans to curate modern art exhibits, how she has a unique aesthetic, how he thinks she may be the one for Jacob but what he's really telling me is that she's the one for him. I lay next to Caleb, let him talk, traced his father's image with my fingernails. I told him I was happy for Jacob but I was really happy for him.

When it's time to settle the check, Cassie and I go to the bathroom and we eye each other in the mirror as we freshen our lipstick. "It must be hard being married to a twin," she says. I start to think that she may be smarter than I thought. I say, "It's like being married to two men."

Jacob takes me home while Caleb takes Cassie to Jacob's house, five houses down from ours. In the middle of the night, they will switch places and I will know because Caleb will smell like another woman. Cassie won't notice because she is the kind of woman who doesn't pay attention to details. On the drive home, I trace Jacob's knuckles and the tiny scars on his fingers. I tell him how I wish every night could be like this night. He nods and says, "Let's go for a drive." I lean back in my seat, kick off my heels. Jacob takes me to the site of a project he's working on, and we take the construction elevator to the top floor, his arms wrapped tightly around me as the hoist slowly creaks upward. There's no ceiling yet on the top floor, so when we get out of the elevator, it is disorienting, seeing the city sprawling around us and nothing keeping us from falling into it.

I hold on to Jacob to steady myself and then I laugh and pull him into a slow waltz, staring up into the night sky. When we stop, the world keeps spinning, so we drop to the concrete floor and sit with our knees pulled against our chests. What I want to say is that I know who he is and that I would choose him, I would always forever choose him, but I also know that his first love is his brother so I say nothing. I pull my shirt over my head and slide out of my skirt and I lay back on the cold floor, gritty with dirt and sawdust. I reach for Jacob and sigh when he lies on top of me, spreading my legs with his. I grab his chin and look into his eyes hoping that he sees that I truly see him. Then I'm tearing off his shirt, pulling him against me, opening myself to him the way he wants me to. I tell him the only true thing I can. I say, "I love you."

When Caleb drinks too much, where too much is anything more than one drink, he forgets the new history he and his brother have collated from their memories of their father. After he and Jacob have switched places, Caleb climbs into bed reeking of wine and cigarette smoke. He barks at me to wake up. I pull the sheets over my head because I am thinking about Jacob and the freedom of tall buildings, and falling into stars while the husband I love most is moving over and in me. Caleb pulls the sheets away, turns on the lights. I sit up, shivering.

He starts telling me a story about he and his brother sitting in the back seat of their father's Cadillac while the old man got a blowjob from a woman who was not their mother, and how their father had that woman give his sons blowjobs as well. As he tells me this story, his voice grows coarser. His features become less recognizable. Caleb grabs me by my waist, straddles me, and slaps my face. "Don't ever do something like that," he says. "Don't be a fucking whore." Then he's flipping me onto my stomach, his unkind hand planted against my skull, holding me to the bed, treating me like the whore he doesn't want me to be. I think about Caleb's cock, slick with Jacob's seed. I think about how much I hate and therefore love the husband I'm with. I come immoderately. This time, I think, he will not put me back together. Caleb falls asleep lying on top of me. His body is heavy and damp, his smell unfamiliar. The construction of bones beneath my cheeks burns slowly, slowly, deeply.

In the morning, Caleb and I avoid making eye contact. He showers, pretends he's going to work, goes to his brother's house, sends Jacob back to me. I am at my dressing table, trying to mask the angry purple bruise spreading across my face. Jacob stands in the doorway and smiles so kindly that I become nauseous. "What are you doing?" he asks. Then he notices the arc of broken blood vessels beneath my eye. His hands clench into tight fists as he approaches me. When he places soft kisses along the edges of the hurt, my face starts to ache more deeply than it ever did beneath Caleb's fist. "I'm so sorry," Jacob says, shouldering the burden of his brother's sins.

When I miss my period twice in a row, it is Jacob who finds me in the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the bathtub, wrapped in a bath towel, holding the pregnancy test in one hand. He falls to his knees, folds his hands over my thighs. He smiles, pulls my towel open leaving me naked and rests his face against my breasts. I run my fingers through his hair, gently massaging his scalp. I imagine the two of us packing a small suitcase, buying a cheap car, driving west on I-80 until we reach something better. I say, "Do you think your brother will be happy?" He says, "I don't give a damn what my brother thinks." For a while, I allow myself to believe him.

I am six months pregnant when Caleb goes to a doctor's appointment with me. He is moody, almost indifferent, only there because Jacob had a meeting he had to attend. These days, I mostly see Caleb late at night, when he steals back to his own home, when he is angry and needs something only I can give. He sits in the chair with the hard plastic arms next to the exam table, arms crossed tightly across his chest. As the doctor glides the sonogram wand across the lower round of my belly, she turns a knob on the machine. "Do you hear that?" she asks. The room is silent but for the identical flutters of two heartbeats.

Roxane Gay's work appears or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, decomP, Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, elimae, DIAGRAM, The Northville Review and many others. She is the associate editor of PANK. You can find her online at where she keeps a boring blog.