Double Jeopardy

Alice Lowe

Judy and Julie were identical twins. At times I thought I could tell them apart by one’s squinty right eye (Judy? Julie?), the dusting of freckles on the bridge of the other’s nose, small but distinctive gestures. Sometimes I wasn’t sure. I wondered if the differences were just imagined, if they were trading identities back and forth to fool everyone.

They showed up one day in the middle of the school year when I was a sophomore and they were juniors. No one knew where they’d come from, but their arrival reverberated through the halls—and through me—like an electric shock. They were a year older than their grade level peers. Rumor had it they’d been in juvenile hall. Rumor had it that their little sister, a curly blonde pint-sized replica, was actually the daughter of one of them. We never knew the truth, but their street smarts set them apart and their carefree, danger-tinged, abandon drew us to them, boys and girls alike, as to a forbidden treat, a wrapped package marked, “Do not open ‘til Xmas.” They wore tight skirts and sweaters, and their tawny curls in a spiky tough-girl style of the time. I think it was called “stacked.”

They had an air of worldly sophistication, and I, unformed and searching, revered them. I existed in their periphery, my wayward streak having planted me on the margin of the fast crowd, and I wanted them to notice and like me. In their company I assumed an air of casual bravado, cool and cynical. Smoking in the bathrooms, ditching classes, sneaking off campus at lunch, shoplifting after school—it was worth the risk. Once, passing a cigarette back and forth in a toilet cubicle, fanning the air after each exhalation, Judy—or was it Julie?—asked me if I was still a virgin. When I admitted I was, she said, “How sweet—saving it for someone special?” I was relieved that my innocence was accepted as an endearing idiosyncrasy.

These weren’t the carefree fictional fifties of “Happy Days”—at least not for working class kids in my world—our lives slanted more toward “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” Having been rejected by the smart set, I flirted with trouble, choosing not to see where it might lead. Judy and Julie were marginal students and teased me about my good grades, but I sensed some admiration in their gentle jibes. Was it possible that they might envy me? Still, I kept my studious side under wraps.

One day an older boy I didn’t know—a dropout with a slicked-back ducktail and a chopped 50-something, candy-apple-red Chevy, I think his name was Gary—drove up as we were leaving school and offered us a ride. There were four of them and three of us, Julie (or it might have been Judy), another girl, and me. We got in the car, and the driver peeled off, heading east to the outskirts of town. Windows down, music blasting—Bill Haley & the Comets, maybe, or Little Richard—bottles of lukewarm Coors opened with a church key and passed around. I sat on some guy’s lap in the back seat, board-rigid, eyes on the road as the other couple in back started making out.

“You’re a quiet cutie,” he said, and pulled me closer. We came to a long straightaway, and Gary floored the gas. He had one arm around Julie (I think), the other one juggling the wheel and a beer. Every time the car squealed around a bend or lurched toward the shoulder, I knew we were going to crash. My stomach roiled with fear, and I had a heart-in-mouth epiphany—I’m not ready for this! I was out of my league. I couldn’t keep up with them, didn’t want to. My entreaty to the god who is said to protect drunks and fools was a heartfelt Please … get me out of here! I closed my eyes and clenched my jaw. After what seemed an eternity we were back in town and they dropped me off at my corner. I dashed home and buried myself in the safety and comfort of schoolwork and chores, the family mealtime that I usually found claustrophobic.

I must have scored some points, because there followed a flurry of invitations from the twins and others who used to ignore me: come for a ride, there’s a party, let’s hang out. I hadn’t resolved to repent and reform, but I wasn’t sure how far I wanted to teeter on this precipice. I bought time with the excuse that never failed: “I’m grounded,” while I grappled with my ambivalence.

Julie and Judy vanished as suddenly as they’d appeared. After they’d missed school for a week someone stopped by the trailer park where they lived and learned that the family had cleared out without notice. Rumor had it that one or the other was pregnant; that there were warrants out for their arrest; that their mother had skipped out on the rent. We never knew the truth. No one heard from them again.

I wonder if some people are put into our lives as prototypes, personas to try on and wear for a bit, like costumes to twirl around in, see how they fit, how they feel. The twins were a black-sequined, low-cut party dress, more trashy than classy, heels so high they were an accident waiting to happen. And so alluring. “Double the danger, double the fun,” a twist on the old Doublemint gum commercial. I felt both relief—saved by the bell!—and a bit of a letdown after the high of proximity to danger. I knew myself better now, but I wasn’t ready to make a complete turnaround. I managed to steer a middle course until it wore thin or I grew up and plotted my own path; I don’t remember which came first.

Author Portrait

Alice Lowe reads and writes in San Diego, California, about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Permafrost, Upstreet, Hippocampus, Tinge, Switchback, Prime Number, Phoebe, and Hobart. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. Work on Virginia Woolf includes two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London, Virginia Woolf as Memoirst in 2015 and Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction in 2010.

 

View the website of Alice Lowe