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The Mark of Cain

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

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and he, Caleb, 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.

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I worry about the day when he leaves me, torn apart on our bed, 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.

Sometimes they switch places for days at a time. They think I don’t know.

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 fifteen, immediately forgave their father his trespasses—the drinking, his meaty fists against their young bodies, the way he rid them of their mother. With each passing year, the brothers rewrote their past until they had beatified their father’s memory. They each have a tattoo of their father’s likeness on their back. The ink, Caleb told me on our first date, was mixed with their father’s ashes so 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 Jacob and I make love, there is a sorrowful kindness to his touch. I never worry about being left asunder.

Gay, who's earned all manner of critical, New York Times bestseller-list, and Twitter acclaim following her novel An Untamed State and essay collection Bad Feminist, is starting 2017 off with a bang via a new short story collection. The women in its pages range from a wife who pretends not to notice when her husband and his twin brother switch places, to two sisters abducted as children, and a Black engineer navigating her white male–dominated field, and promises to be a "wry, beautiful, haunting vision of modern America." (Grove Press, 3 January)

‘Difficult Women’ is out now.

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 me 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.

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