The child is mesmerized. Tapping his toes and shuffling his small sandaled feet in a kind of awkward dance, he swirls and twirls, not in front of the camera, but in front of the window in the shiny black oven door. It’s just the right height for a two--year--old. Wyatt is bare chested and wears a floppy hat on the back of his head. A string of colorful Mardi Gras beads swings around his neck. But what has really caught his attention, what has made this moment magical, are the shimmering sequins on his pink tutu. With every twist and turn, slivers of light briefly illuminate the face of the little boy entranced by his own image.
“This is one of Wyatt’s favorite pastimes—-dancing in front of the window of the stove,” says the disembodied voice behind the video camera. “He’s got his new skirt on and his bohemian chain and his hat and he’s going at it. . . . Wave to the camera, Wy.”
Maybe Wyatt doesn’t hear his father. Maybe he’s only half--listening, but for whatever reason he ignores him and instead sways back and forth, his eyes never leaving his own twinkling reflection. Finally, the little boy does what he’s asked—-sort of. He twists his head around slightly and gazes shyly up at his father, then lets out a small squeal of delight. It is a child’s expression of intense happiness, but Wayne Maines wants something else.
“Show me your muscles, Wy. Can I see your muscles?” he prompts the son.
Suddenly Wyatt seems self--conscious. His eyes slide slowly from his father’s face and settle on something—-or nothing—-on the other side of the kitchen, just out of camera range. He hesitates, not sure what to do, then, ignoring his father again, turns back to the oven window and strikes a pose. It’s a halfhearted pose, really: With his two little fists propped under his chin, he flexes his nonexistent muscles. He knows he’s not giving his father what he wants, but he also can’t seem to break the spell of his reflection.
“Show me your muscles. Over here. Show them to me.”
Wayne is getting frustrated.
“Show Daddy your muscles, like this. Over here. Wyatt. Show me your muscles.”
At last, the appeals have their desired effect. Wyatt turns again toward his father, hands still under his chin, arms still against his sides, and looks up at him. But that’s it. That’s all Wayne Maines is going to get. With a look of part defiance, part apology, the little boy turns back to the oven window.
“All right. That’s enough,” the disappointed father says and clicks the camera off.
Before love, before loss, before we ever yearn to be something we are not, we are bodies breathing in space—-“turbulent, fleshy, sensual,” Walt Whitman once wrote. We are inescapably physical, drawn to the inescapably human. But if we are defined by our own bodies, we are entwined by the bodies of others. An upright, moving human being is endlessly more fascinating to an infant than any rattle or plaything. At six months, babies can barely babble, but they can tell the difference between a male and a female. When a feverish infant rests its head on its mother’s chest, her body cools to compensate and brings the child’s temperature down. Place the ear of a preemie against its mother’s heart and the baby’s irregular heartbeat finds its right rhythm.
As we grow and mature and become self--conscious, we are taught that appearances—-who we are on the outside—-aren’t nearly as important as who we are on the inside. And yet beauty beguiles us. Human beings are unconsciously drawn to the symmetrical and the aesthetic. We are, in short, uncompromisingly physical, even self--absorbed. The philosopher and psychologist William James once wrote that man’s “most palpable selfishness” is “bodily selfishness; and his most palpable self is the body.” But man does not love his body because he identifies himself with it; rather, “He identifies himself with this body because he loves it.”
And if he does not love his body, what then? How can you occupy a physical space, be a body in space, and yet be alienated from it at the same time?
There are dozens of videos of Wyatt Maines and his identical twin brother, Jonas, in the first years of their lives, growing up in the Adirondacks of New York and then in rural Maine. Adopted at birth, they are the only children of Kelly and Wayne Maines, and they are lavished with love and attention, the video camera catching everything from the ordinary to the momentous. They splash at each other in the bathtub, plop in rain puddles together, and unwrap presents side by side on Christmas morning. Kelly never wanted the boys to fight over their presents. Anything one gets, the other gets, too, right down to the candles on their shared birthday cake. When they turn one year old there are two candles, one for each boy. When they turn two, four candles. Kelly also believed in exposing them to traditional playthings as well as atypical toys. So at birthdays and Christmases both receive big yellow dump trucks, roller--skating Barbie dolls, and motorized Dalmatian puppies.
In the beginning, with their bowl--cut hairstyles, dungarees, and flannel shirts, it was virtually impossible to tell them apart, except that
Wyatt’s face was ever so slightly rounder. But there were differences, and Kelly and Wayne noticed them soon enough. Wyatt was the one who every morning, in his diaper and with a pacifier in his mouth, stood next to his mother in front of the TV and imitated her Pilates moves. Usually he’d do the exercises while holding a Barbie doll, often giving it a shake so its long blond hair swished this way and that, sparkling in the morning sunlight. At other times, he’d unsnap his onesie, letting the sides hang down, as if it were a kind of skirt.
Kelly and Wayne could tell Wyatt was moodier than Jonas; he would occasionally lash out at his brother as if frustrated just by his presence. There was something else, too. At night, when she bathed the boys, Kelly would catch Wyatt staring into the long mirror hanging on the inside of the bathroom door. As she pulled off Jonas’s clothes and plunked him into the tub, she’d notice Wyatt standing naked and transfixed in front of the mirror. What did the two--year--old see? Himself? His identical twin brother? It was impossible to know, and impossible to ask Wyatt, of course. But often it seemed as if the little boy was puzzled by his reflection, unsure of the image staring back. There was some inscrutable pain behind his eyes. He seemed tense and anxious, as if his heart was in knots and he didn’t know how to untie them.
We are all born with traits, characteristics, and physical markers that allow others to identify us, to say, “He’s a boy” or “She’s a girl.” None of us, however, is born with a sense of self. By the age of two, children recognize themselves in a mirror, but so do chimpanzees and dolphins. Even the humble roundworm can distinguish its body from the rest of its environment via a single neuron. But of our “who--ness” or “what--ness”—-our essence—-there is no single place in the brain, no clump of gray matter, no nexus of electrical activity we can point to and say, Aha, here it is, here is my self, here is my soul.
All those questions about who and what we are: They were still in the future when Kelly and Wayne first brought their boys home from the hospital. The parents looked on their identical twin sons as wholly unexpected gifts. Unable to have biological children, they felt they were living out their own version of the American dream, courtesy of two perfect little specimens of male Homo sapiens. Wayne, in particular, yearned for the day when he could buy his boys their first hunting rifles, their first fishing rods, their first baseball gloves. That was the way it had always been done in his family, and he would continue the tradition.
Who we are is inseparable not only from who we think we are, but from who others think we are. We are touched and loved, we are appreciated or dismissed, praised or scorned, comforted or wounded. But before all else, we are seen. We are identified by others through the contours and colors and movements of our bodies. In his 1903 treatise The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois, the African American author and intellectual, wrote about a double consciousness, a two--ness, of the “Negro” race, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” He believed the history of African Americans in the United States was the history of a kind of “strife,—-this longing to attain self--conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. . . . He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows.”
Dignity, self--respect, the right to be treated as an equal, that’s what everyone wants. But Du Bois knew that those who are alienated from the community of man because of color (or, one might add, because of sexual orientation or gender) have a much harder path, because the alienated, the differentiated, the misfits of society must bear the burden of a single unspoken question on the lips of even the most polite members of society:
“What does it feel like to be a problem?”
Beginnings But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height. . . . The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
—-1 Samuel 16:7
At six months in utero, Wyatt and Jonas Maines are fully formed. In a sonogram performed in a medical office near Northville, New York, on the afternoon of July 7, 1997, one of them is hunched over, the individual vertebrae visible in the shadow of the fetus’s arched spine. The imaging technician uses an arrow to point out the head, then the trunk, then the legs. A tiny hand hovers in space, relaxed in the amniotic fluid, its minuscule fingers moving ever so slightly, as if practicing a piano piece. Forty--five seconds into the video, the technician points to the vaguely outlined shadow of one of the twin’s genitalia and types onto the screen “Still a boy!!!” It’s the tech being funny, of course. Both fetuses emerged from a single egg, they have the exact same DNA, and they’re identical male twins. How could one of them not still be a boy?
By the time Wayne and Kelly finally held their newborn sons in their arms three months later, the couple had been married five years. For three of those years Kelly suffered through multiple miscarriages as well as months of tedious and painful fertility treatments. Everything changed in early 1997, though, when she got a phone call from her cousin Sarah, a sixteen--year--old she barely knew. The teenager said she was “in trouble” and didn’t want to have an abortion. But she was also too young to raise a child on her own. Would Wayne and Kelly consider a private adoption?
Kelly’s own upbringing in the Midwest was anything but traditional. The roots of her family, as much as she knew them, began on the limestone bluffs on the north bank of the Ohio River in the town of Madison, Indiana. Founded in 1809, about halfway between Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, Madison had its heyday as a river town in the mid--nineteenth century. It was also an important first stop on the Underground Railroad and as early as the 1820s was home to a thriving community of free blacks. In 1958 it was the fictional location for author James Jones’s quaint Midwestern hometown when Hollywood filmed his autobiographical novel, Some Came Running, there. According to legend, the star of the film, Frank Sinatra, was so worried about being stuck in a “hick” town during shooting he persuaded his buddy Dean Martin to take a supporting role.
Kelly’s grandfather was a paddleboat captain in Madison at a time when steamboats still plied the waters, delivering goods to towns up and down the Ohio. He took his first wife there, but divorced her to marry Kelly’s grandmother, the oldest of nine and barely a teenager when her own father abandoned the family. A short time later she began working in a glove factory to help support her mother and siblings, and at age nineteen married Kelly’s grandfather, partly out of love, partly as an escape from the drudgery of caring for so many children. The couple soon moved to Indianapolis, where Kelly’s grandfather got a job with the Mayflower Moving Company, and Kelly’s grandmother raised three girls and a boy. Her grandparents were both of German descent and their values and mannerisms reflected their heritage. They were matter--of--fact, honest to a fault, and no--nonsense. Kelly grew up learning expressions such as “There are no pockets in a shroud,” meaning you can’t take your money with you, and “It beats hens pecking on a rock,” used when she saw something she could barely believe.
None of the women in the family cottoned to the popular notion that men were superior, or that “ladies” should follow certain rules or behave in socially acceptable sorts of ways. Which may be why Kelly and others in her family could be so frank about their origins, saying they’d come into the world in what some people once called the “bastard way.” For Kelly and her relatives, it was just the way it was. Roxanne, her biological mother, told Kelly her father was likely a one--night--stand. Kelly was only two in 1963 when Roxanne asked her sister Donna to adopt her baby girl.
For Donna, a woman with a quick mind and aspirations of a career, life was largely one of frustration. Under other circumstances she would likely have become a doctor or lawyer. When she was growing up, college was not something many parents wanted, or cared about, for their daughters. Donna worked for a time at a travel agency and, years later, after the kids were out of the house, enrolled in nursing school and earned straight As. If you want something bad enough and work hard at it, you can get it—-that was a lesson Kelly learned from Donna. Motherhood was not the role that fit Donna best. Still, despite the fact she already had a daughter, she took in Roxanne’s baby girl. “I’m like the second dog you get when the first one is driving you crazy,” Kelly would say, laughing. The house was always clean and there was always food on the table. Dinner was at five o’clock sharp and you’d better be there on time.
Donna loved her children—-two boys eventually joined the two girls—-but she also worked long hours and didn’t have much time, or energy, for affection. It didn’t seem to matter to Kelly and her siblings. They knew they had a place to lay their heads every night, and for the most part that was enough. When Kelly was in her twenties and thirties Roxanne would occasionally call and apologize for giving her up for adoption, but Kelly, without rancor and in all honesty, told her she didn’t need to say she was sorry. She’d done the right thing, Kelly told her. The children Roxanne had tried to raise all had difficult lives at best.
Kelly left home at seventeen, the summer before her senior year of high school. She surfed couches for a while in Indiana and lived for a bit with her grandmother, where she graduated from high school early. But she had no idea what to do next. Like her mother before her, Kelly didn’t think college was possible. Kelly ended up living for a time with her father, whom Donna had divorced when Kelly was eleven. She made a few friends, worked different jobs, and generally had a good time. For the next few years she traveled around the country, earning her way as she went, ending up in California when she was in her early twenties. Kelly kept thinking there was more she wanted from her life than simply working blue--collar jobs and living paycheck to paycheck.
She picked up her education where she’d left off and began to take a few courses at Golden West, a community college in Huntington Beach. She wasn’t in a rush, until one Saturday night, the boyfriend of one of Kelly’s friends hatched a plan to steal some drugs from a local dealer. Afterward, when Kelly learned what he’d done, she was furious. It was a watershed moment for the twenty--four--year--old. Sharing an apartment, working low--earning jobs, partying on the weekends—-she’d never thought of this as her life, really. It was always a stage, a phase, something she knew she’d grow out of. And she did. Fast.
The meandering was over. She needed to think beyond the present and plan for the future. Concentrating on her college courses, she received enough credits for an associate’s degree in art from Golden West, though she never formally graduated. A short time later she followed up on an ad for a full--time position at an environmental consulting firm. During her interview she admitted she had no experience in cartography—-
a prerequisite—-but, she added, there was nothing she couldn’t draw. She got the job and before long was pulling down $30,000 a year.
The firm had a small branch in Chicago, and eventually Kelly found herself at another crossroads. She could go on for her bachelor’s degree in Southern California, or she could move back to the Midwest and be nearer to her family without giving up her job. There was so much she’d already learned from her colleagues, not only about the environmental business, but about what it meant to be a professional. The decision was made: She would head east.
Not long after the move, her bosses, recognizing her intelligence and capabilities, asked her to learn more about underwater wells and waste management. That’s what led her to attend a five--day educational enhancement event in Findlay, Ohio, in July 1989—-and to Wayne Maines.
The seminar was held at the local community college and was taught by a former fireman who had been badly burned years earlier in a chemical fire. The days were excruciatingly long and included donning full hazmat suits. There were only about a dozen students taking the course, and at the end of each day they stumbled, exhausted, into the nearest watering hole to kick back, cool off, and relax. On one of those evenings, Kelly and Wayne, who was director of the Institute for Safety and Health Training (now the Safety and Health Extension) at West Virginia University, found themselves playing pool and talking late into the night about business, politics, and the course they were taking. They were both products of small towns, and they felt unusually comfortable with each other. She liked that he was talkative, sweet natured, and self--assured. He liked her blue eyes, her easy laughter, and her honesty. By the end of the week, when Wayne headed back to West Virginia and Kelly to Chicago, they agreed to get together again as soon as possible. Thus began a year of weekend traveling for both of them, at the end of which Kelly moved into a two--bedroom duplex in Morgantown, West Virginia, with Wayne.
There was no mistaking Wayne Maines for anything but pure American boy. He was born in 1958 and grew up in the village of Hagaman, New York, about forty miles northwest of Albany.
According to the 1840 state Gazetteer, Hagaman’s Mills (the name it was founded under in the late 1700s) was home to one church, one tavern, one store, one gristmill, one sawmill, one carpet factory, and “about 25 dwelling houses.” Today the village is slightly more populated—-about twelve hundred people sprinkled over a mile--and--a--half slice of land—-but the habits and values remain old--fashioned and rural. Not until Wayne was five did the Maines family have running water. They had a well for freshwater and an outhouse. In the winter their heat came courtesy of a kerosene stove. Wayne’s bedroom was above the living room, and the grate on his floor looked directly down onto the stove and the television right next to it. All Wayne had to do was make a subtle adjustment to the TV’s position before he went to bed and he could lie on the floor of his room and peek through the heating grate to watch Rowan & Martin’s Laugh--In, without his parents knowing.
Wayne’s father, Bill, worked in a carpet mill in Amsterdam, New York, and later commuted thirty miles each way to Saratoga for a job at General Foods. He also liked to frequent the local taverns and racetracks. Tall and slender, Bill Maines briefly played semipro baseball but a heart attack at age forty--four curtailed his ability to work full--time for the rest of his life.
Wayne’s mother, Betty, worked different jobs over the years to keep the family fed. She cleaned an upscale beauty shop on weekends, waited tables, and sold Avon products. For a couple of years she worked the second shift at a leather mill that made Spalding footballs. Every day after school, on his way home, Wayne would take a path that dipped behind the factory where his mother would have just begun the second shift. Usually he’d call up to her and ask, “Mom, what do you want me to fix for dinner?” More often than not she’d yell back that she’d already made something and left it on the counter. All he needed to do, she said, was put it in the oven and fix a vegetable for himself, his brother, and his sister. The conversation always ended the same way, with Betty Maines smiling down at Wayne and saying, “I love you. See you in the morning.”
As a product of small--town America, Wayne grew up with small--town values, especially devotion to family and respect for country. For Wayne, the lessons learned from his father were simple and, he figured, sturdy enough to last a lifetime: Make your first punch count, don’t ever quit on your team, never point a gun at someone unless you’re prepared to use it, try to return things in better condition than when you borrowed them (cleaned, oiled, and tuned up), and never, ever drink while playing cards.
While growing up, for several summers Wayne worked as a barker for a traveling carnival along with his brother, Bill, and toured up and down the Northeast. At one stop in Huntington, New York, when he was fifteen, Wayne was working a game booth beside a ride called the Zipper. A simple cable on an oval boom pulled about a dozen cars around the largely vertical ride. One night, a bolt attached to the door of one of
the cars came loose, and as the boom whipped the cars up, the door with the loose bolt blew open and two teenage girls were flung from their seats. Hearing the screams, Wayne rushed to try and catch one of the girls as her body sailed through the air, but she hit the ground hard and broke her neck, dead on impact. The other teenager landed in a sand pit and was badly injured but survived.
Wayne had seen death before. He was a hunter. But he’d never witnessed someone killed in an accident, and especially someone so young and in such a senseless way. He’d always felt he had control over the world immediately around him, and when he didn’t like something or felt it wasn’t right for him, he was able to change it or move on. But the helplessness he felt in not being able to do anything for that girl was new to him. He knew he couldn’t have run faster or gotten to her any sooner. Sometimes things happened and there was no questioning why or what if. Still, for many years afterward he couldn’t get the image of that girl’s mangled body out of his mind.
Wayne’s only identity crisis occurred when he graduated from high school and enlisted in the air force. Joining the military was an honorable tradition in the Maines family. It was also practical. No one in the family had a college degree. In the air force he could learn a trade, so he signed up to be trained as a dental assistant. While stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, Wayne worked for an oral surgeon. The man was an officer, voluble and opinionated. He was also a snob. One day he stopped in the hallway where Wayne and several other technicians and nurses were hanging out on break. The doctor said he had a question for Wayne.
“Who’s the vice president of the United States?”
Wayne paused, embarrassed, then told the doctor he didn’t know. The surgeon turned to the physician beside him and said, loud enough for everyone to hear: “See, I told you so.”
Told him what? Wayne wondered. That he was some kind of dumbass who probably didn’t even know the name of the vice president of the United States? Well, he didn’t. So what? He didn’t know what the two doctors had been talking about before they’d stopped, and at nineteen years old he was too young—-and too low in rank—-to ask. But he probably blushed down to his boots. He was humiliated in front of a half dozen people for no other reason than for some arrogant surgeon’s amusement. At that moment Wayne promised himself he’d never again be caught in a position where someone could make fun of him because of something he didn’t know. He’d always felt confident being a good ole boy from a blue--collar family. The Maineses never tried to make themselves appear to be something they weren’t. But Wayne was no longer satisfied just being a kid from rural upstate New York. Before his four--year hitch in the air force was up, he’d decided when he got out he would enroll in college on the GI Bill.
Pragmatic, like the woman he would later marry, Wayne first studied for his associate’s degree at a community college near home, then made a huge leap into the unknown when he applied to, and was accepted at, Cornell University. He was in his midtwenties, and it wasn’t easy being older than everyone else in college, or being just about the only promilitary conservative on a liberal Ivy League campus in the 1980s, but by the time Wayne was awarded his bachelor of science degree in natural resources in 1985, he was ready for more. Five years later, he’d earned a master’s degree and doctorate, both in safety management, from West Virginia University. That’s where he was living when he met and fell in love with his future wife.
Not quite three years later, Wayne and Kelly were married in Bloomington, Indiana, in a small ceremony at the Fourwinds Lakeside Inn. Kelly wore a white tea--length dress and a wide--brimmed hat. Wayne wore a tuxedo. He was so relaxed the day of the wedding he played a round of golf and took a nap beforehand. They honeymooned in Georgia, first at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where they camped out at the headwaters of the Suwannee and St. Mary’s rivers, then spent a few days on Jekyll Island before finishing their trip in Savannah. When they returned, they briefly settled back into life in West Virginia, then decided to move to Northville, New York, to be closer to Wayne’s parents and the rural life he loved.
Kelly hadn’t seen her cousin Sarah since she was a baby. She was the daughter of Kelly’s cousin Janis, whose mother, Donna, raised Kelly and Janis under the same roof. When a teenage Janis got pregnant (Sarah was her second child), the pattern of family dysfunction looked to be a harsh hereditary burden. Like Roxanne, Janis had multiple husbands and boyfriends and didn’t raise her own children. Sarah was brought up by her biological father and grandmother in Montana and later, as a teenager, lived with her mother in Tennessee. She was smart and artistic, but also stubborn and reckless. Still, she imagined going to college, perhaps even becoming a veterinarian. Getting pregnant at sixteen had not been part of the plan, but dashed expectations were a familiar family trope.
Wayne and Kelly had transformed their lives through sheer force of will, and both had already achieved more than their parents had. They’d been willing to accept the risks that came from moving outside their cultural comfort zones, not to mention others’ expectations. So if Sarah’s unexpected phone call gave them the chance to have a family, well, then, they would take it. Maybe there was a kind of cosmic logic to Kelly not being able to bear children of her own. Maybe this was a balancing of the scales. She’d been ready to move on with her life when the fertility treatments didn’t work. Then came Sarah’s phone call. Kelly believed in fate. Maybe she was the right person at the right time to usher a child into the world who otherwise would have been set adrift in a family with a legacy of chaos.
It didn’t take long for Wayne and Kelly to decide they wanted the baby. Part of Kelly also identified with Sarah, and she knew better than anyone the importance of getting the teenager and her unborn baby out of her family’s toxic environment as soon as possible. So when it was clear Sarah would bear their child, Kelly and Wayne asked her to come live with them until it was time to give birth. She was four months pregnant when she moved into the house in Northville in April 1997. Kelly and Wayne wanted to make sure Sarah was comfortable and had the right food and medical attention, but Kelly also wanted to help Sarah get her life together. She encouraged her to apply for her driver’s license and study for a general education diploma.
By this time, Wayne was commuting fifty miles every day to a job as the corporate director of health, safety, and training at a chemical company in Schenectady, and he often daydreamed about the baby that was soon to be his. A sonogram had revealed it was going to be a boy, and Wayne imagined all the things he’d be doing with his first male child—-playing catch, shooting baskets, firing deer rifles.
That’s pretty much what Wayne was thinking about when his cellphone rang one spring afternoon as he was driving home from work. It was Kelly, and she was shouting. He could hear Sarah yelling in the background. Oh my God, what’s wrong? he immediately thought.
“It’s two! It’s two!”
“Twins!” Kelly screamed. “We’re having twins!”
It almost seemed too good to be true. Kelly, who’d had multiple miscarriages, had always wanted two children, and now they were getting their instant family. After the initial shock and wonderment wore off, Wayne thought: Oh, no, two college freshmen at the same time! He was thrilled about having a baby, even two babies, but he also knew all the concerns about being an expectant father had just doubled. As a safety expert, he didn’t like surprises. He liked plans, analyzing a situation, and assessing all the risks and consequences. Now everything had to be rethought.
For months they had been preparing for one infant. How much harder, Wayne wondered, would it be to take care of two? Everything was swirling around in his head as he found himself swept up in a kind of giddy anxiety. He took a deep breath and pushed the worries to the back of his mind. By the time Wayne reached home and embraced Kelly, he was smiling, thinking not about the added expenses but about the double joy: two baseball gloves, two basketballs, two rifles for his two baby boys!
Copyright © 2015 by Amy Ellis Nutt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.