They sat there in their striped fishermen’s shirts and the shorts they had bought in the store that sold marine supplies, and they were very tan and their hair was streaked and faded by the sun and the sea. Most people thought they were brother and sister until they said they were married.
That’s from the posthumously edited and published novel The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway.
Kent and I are often mistaken for brothers. Or twins! African American strangers seem more prone to declaring us twins. All white men look alike? We both have curly hair (his black and thinning, mine is brown and graying) and beards and we’re pretty nearly the same height and of a similar build. He’s heavier, but, no, I’m not skinny.
What’s funny is that the strangers are delighted, as though they’ve surely won a prize by figuring out our relationship. A week ago we walked into CVS. The African American woman at the cash register grinned and called out, “Twins!” I thought she had such a lovely smile. And I laughed. I shook my head, saying nothing else, and laughed as I headed down an aisle.
A couple years ago when I was visiting Kent in the hospital, I accompanied him as he walked up and down the hall in his robe, pushing along the bag of intravenous fluid on its pole. An African American man visiting his family came upon us and asked if we were twins. “Here you’ve caught us in our twin outfits,” I said.
If the acquaintance is likely to be more than just strangers passing I will say something further. The young Asian woman at the produce mart asked if we were brothers and I said, “No, but we are married.” And I pointed to my wedding ring.
I’ve wondered if this happens to straight people. When I came across the passage quoted above I said to myself, yes, I guess so.
On the other hand the observation is also a foreshadowing of the young woman’s transformation in the novel. She is beautiful, we are told, but also boyish, and in a way that remains incompletely explored she has ideas about being a man, and makes efforts to transform her husband into her twin. Perhaps Hemingway was never able to explore this gender confusion to his satisfaction so did not produce a version of the novel that felt finished.