Bob stares at the blue blaze marking a thin pine to his right. He left his trail map in the car but remembers a blue loop extending from the red loop he’s been hiking and wonders whether or not he should take a chance.
It’s all Laura’s fault he’s even in this predicament. “How do you know he was Joe?” she asked, as if this were a viable question.
“Of course he was Joe. He was Joe and I was Bob.”
“But how do you know?”
That’s when Bob told Laura he needed potato chips and without thinking found himself at Timber Park, just outside town, his map still in the car. He shifts to his other foot and leaves the red-blazed trail, on a whim decides to see what this blue-blazed trail might offer, what questions it might answer. He forages through overgrown foliage, decides that the trail shouldn’t be this thick, but then spots another blue blaze ahead and knows he’s at least going the right way. When the trail turns sharply to avoid a cliff, he catches his breath, stunned by the beauty of steep, forbidding stone.
Bob remembers telling Laura about Joe over pizza years ago on their second date. “It’s not uncommon for only one twin to be miscarried,” he explained while pouring wine. “Its tissue sometimes melts back into the placenta.” A small stain bloomed over Laura’s upper lip, and Bob fought the urge to kiss her. “Sometimes its tissue melts into the mother’s body. I think Joe’s melted into mine,” he continued.
Laura smiled, the wine-stain spreading across her face. “I wondered about that dimple on your leg,” she teased, “I bet it belongs to Joe.”
Bob pauses and touches his leg.
Ahead, the trail splits. How odd, Bob thinks, then turns left on a whim, watching for rocks and roots. He’s known about Joe since he was a child, he realizes, and always felt a bond between them, a kind of ache actually, like a part of his own self was missing. When Laura told him all those years ago the dimple on his leg might have belonged to Joe, he knew she was teasing, but he also felt the truth of what she said. He realizes he must have wanted to explore this truth earlier today, which is why he mentioned to Laura that his parents had named both him and Joe while they were still in their mother’s womb. He just didn’t expect this exploration to hurl him towards overgrown foliage on some poorly- marked, blue-blazed trail.
The trail turns sharply to avoid a cliff. Bob’s stunned again by the beauty but then stops and retraces his steps. These are the same forbidding stones he saw just moments earlier. Okay, he thinks, I may have looped but I’ve got water, I’ll find my way. He recognizes a small patch of wildflowers and climbing ivy and can’t decide if he’s comforted or disturbed by their familiarity.
Earlier today, after Bob mentioned to Laura that his parents had named both him and Joe before the miscarriage, after he mentioned that unimportant piece of family history really just in passing, just on a whim, that’s when Laura asked her question. “How do you know he was Joe?” she asked. At first Bob was confused. Then, he understood.
The trail splits again, the same split, but he won’t be fooled this time, won’t fall victim to his whims, so he turns deliberately to the right and wades through overgrown brambles, stopping once to drink from his water bottle. He notices the angle of the sun and feels assured he’s descending in the right direction and will find the parking lot before dusk.
“How do you know he was Joe?” Laura asked, just this morning. How did he know? That’s what gets him. If his parents named both him and Joe while they were still in their mother’s womb, and if one of them died while they were still in their mother’s womb, how could anyone know which of them died and which survived? He’s sure Laura was teasing, like she was teasing about the dimple on his leg, but he can’t shake the truth of her question. What if he died and Joe survived? Does that mean, somehow, he’s dead? Or does that mean all this time, all these years, he’s always been Joe? Not just a dimple on his leg but all of him, the hair under his armpits, the problems he has sleeping, his addiction to potato chips, the way his brain processes blazes on a trail?
He wipes sweat from his forehead and doesn’t want to look ahead. He knows the trail will turn sharply to avoid a cliff, once again. He knows he’ll be stunned by the beauty of forbidding stone, once again, but he also knows how the panic will feel, the loop in the woods. The sun will plummet, the parking lot will edge itself in shadow, and he knows he’ll remember the sound of Laura’s gently teasing voice but that he’ll still be alone on this forever-looping trail, like he’s always been alone, since he was born alone. And even though he also knows he’ll never be alone again, not really, he recognizes a small patch of wildflowers and realizes he’ll never know again—if he ever knew, really—the truth of his name or the whims of his discrete self or the specifics of his location in the woods at dusk.