In 1965, when I was four, my parents met another couple, got along well, and within a few months traded partners. This was in Canberra, where my father, an Australian diplomat, had just brought us home from a posting in Washington. The other couple were American but diplomats, too, finishing a post in Canberra before returning to the United States. Both men were in their early thirties, tall, slim, and ambitious; both women were smart and good-looking. Both couples had two little girls the same ages, and the younger girls shared a birthday and almost the same name. This was my counterpart, Jenny, and me. The two families had so much in common, people said: They must meet.
The couples fascinated each other at once, I am told, and for the next months we were together constantly for picnics, outings, dinners. My father’s and Paul’s cars raced from Canberra, and we’d park in glades of eucalypts and spread out big plaid blankets. After lunch my sister and I and the other two girls would be sent to play, to find a koala or kangaroo, and we’d wander into the heat and buzzing stillness with sticks, hitting peeled trunks, prodding for snakes, as our parents murmured and laughed and lounged on blankets and clinked their beers or glasses of wine.
Later, I’d be put in a bath with Jenny. We had the same birthday, but she was a year older, and we looked alike enough to be sisters — little girls with wavy hair and bright staring eyes, although mine were blue and hers were brown. I see us in the bath gazing at each other over sudsy water, our wrinkled pink feet pressed together and pushing, as music and smoke drift under the door. We don’t know that soon she’ll live with my father and I’ll live with hers, that for seven years we’ll shadow each other around the globe, that the split will form everything about us: that we will grow up as each other’s antipode.
The literal meaning of antipodes: two bodies pressed together, foot to foot.
In less than a year it was done. My mother, sister, and I would follow Paul to Washington, and my father would soon resume his diplomatic path with Helen and her girls: like continents splitting and sliding apart, each with its own living creatures. Pictures show the last hours Maggy and I spent with our father. The three of us pose by Lake Burley Griffin, where he kneels like a suitor and clasps one of us in each arm, earnest hope straining his thin face, while I cover my mouth and giggle. Then we left and flew to Washington. We didn’t see or speak to him for seven years. Letters traveled over the oceans.
In 1973, we all landed on the same continent for the first time since the split. We were back in Washington, and the other family had been posted to New York, so Maggy and I could take the Amtrak north to see our father, and Patricia and Jenny could take it south to see theirs. Most often we went to my father’s Upper East Side apartment when the girls were there. Jenny and I slept in twin beds in her pink room; Maggy and Patricia, in her yellow room beside us. Daddy and Helen slept at the other end of the apartment in the master bedroom, which was silken and civilized and looked over Fifth Avenue with its leashed poodles and gated trees. Between that master bedroom and us ran a very long, narrow carpeted hallway through which you could pace silently, stealthy. Photos show its wallpaper patterned like a garden trellis, but I remember it as bamboo, a jungle, and am sure that outside the photos’ frames the wallpaper twines and transforms.
One of the first nights at our deep end of the hall, Jenny and I lay side by side in the dark, hot after handstands and wrestling. Her window opened onto a sooty space between buildings, and faint sounds of cars and distant voices floated in, her radio playing between us. She was twelve, I was eleven.
When you were young and your heart was an open book . . .
She sighed and stretched her arms, lifted a leg free of the sheets, and pointed her toes into the darkness. Then she turned to me and whispered, "So, who do you think did it first?"
Because this was the point. The split could not have been simultaneous and fair; things like that can’t happen. One of our fathers had been ready to leave his own girls if he had to, and the other must have had less choice. One of our mothers had chosen a new man and won him, and the other woman must have lost. And whoever had won, whoever had lost, whoever had been easily left: That would determine who Jenny and I were, what each of us was worth.