My classmates tell me stories of uncomfortable encounters with strangers. “This guy came up to me earlier and started talking about shit we did last night, like I knew him,” my friend recounts, disturbed. “I told him, ‘I’m sorry bro, I was so hammered yesterday, I don’t remember you at all.’” In crowded frat-house basements or on the bus to the intramural fields, I hear kids asking each other: “Haven’t we met before?” Even a mere wave and smile in passing from an unfamiliar face can be unsettling.
I deal with more than my fair share of these run-ins. And it’s not because I spend my weekends piss drunk — all of these supposed associations come from realms of sobriety: The classroom, the squash courts, the dining hall. No, the reason I get the sense of living a dual life is that there’s someone else on campus who looks like me — exactly like me. He’s my identical twin brother Aaron.
In high school, some of our closest friends prided themselves on being able to tell Aaron and me apart. After a less discerning classmate — often someone we’d known since kindergarten — hazarded an incorrect guess, they scoffed. “It’s so easy,” they pointed between us, “Matthew, Aaron, Matthew, Aaron,” repeating our identities for a second and third time to the heightened embarrassment of the poor kid. Under ordinary circumstances, though, even these geniuses didn’t bother to call us by our individual names. Since we were in elementary school, Aaron and I went by “Kleiner.” This one-name-fits-all solution was convenient. If only one of us was present, we would respond to our last name. And if we were together — which was most of the time at our 350-student high school — it didn’t matter which one of us turned our head, or if we both did. Chances are we could answer the question or perform the request equally well.
In my hometown, I was half a person. When someone ran into me by myself, they would ask where Aaron was, like I was hopping down the street on one leg, a body sliced down the middle from head to toe. At Yale, I feel like people are struck with the opposite impression. Loading up on tomatoes, I notice a classmate of mine on the other side of the salad bar. His eyes are as wide as my dinner plate and darting between Aaron and me, as if watching a giant man-shaped amoeba split asexually into two clones (This is, in fact, exactly how Aaron and I were formed, only it happened when we were smaller than a pea.)
Yale students, however, are patient and determined to solve puzzles. People here who know Aaron and me as a unit, though not well enough to tell who’s who, still confidently give it their best shot. They seem interested by the concept of two carbon-copied human beings, but are sensitive to our individuality. I don’t feel as much like a travelling freak show at Yale — I’m never asked questions I received regularly growing up, like “Do you ever wake up and forget which one you are?” or “Can you each please just pick one color and dress in it every day?” Only on the soccer pitch, where there’s no time to study a teammate’s face when calling for the ball, have I felt myself fully reverted to a Kleiner.
Going to college with an identical twin brother is like going to college with a best friend — a best friend who carries a full length mirror around for you all the time. From the very first days of freshman year, Aaron and I shared important information and advice with each other, (or didn’t, like when we were both fined $50 for turning in our course worksheets late) and we shared friends. During my first year, I always felt welcome in Aaron’s suite, even when he wasn’t there — to be fair, I’m pretty sure his suitemates thought I was Aaron half the time I showed up, and I didn’t correct them when I was there to ransack his room for socks or weed.
It wasn’t long, however, before I experienced some less anticipated and less fortunate consequences of sharing a campus with my doppelgänger. A coworker told me last year that she had nursed a strong hatred toward me before she realized I had a twin, because she’d once smiled at Aaron and received nothing more than a blank stare in return. I was forced to promise another group of classmates that I would throw both arms in the air and jump up and down the moment I saw any of them to prevent the brief moment of hesitation they felt about greeting someone they weren’t sure they’d ever met. I realize that, as much as I’m concerned about the impression I make for myself, I have to be just as concerned about the impression I make as Aaron.
At some point last winter, Aaron and I decided to room together this year. Neither of us explicitly proposed the idea, but we were halfway through our freshman year, and my roommate snored, and Aaron’s roommate invited friends over for loud, late-night conversations right outside their door. By February, everyone was thinking about living arrangements for the next term. Naturally, we plotted together in private. We started by considering all the possible six-person combinations of our suitemates, and within weeks, were visualizing our room decor.
Sometimes, I worry that the choices that make themselves, that allow Aaron and me to stay attached at the hip, aren’t the right ones. More often, I worry about the moment we aren’t given a choice but to separate. Probably, I should prepare myself for this likelihood by making the difficult choices now. But I’m not sure if I ever will. After all, what happens when I wake up and forget which one I am, and Aaron’s not there to remind me?
Matthew Kleiner | email@example.com .