Kathleen Ryan met Ryan Kathleen in line at the kind of coffee shop where the barista asks for a first name to distinguish your cup from others. That’s so funny, Kathleen Ryan said to Ryan Kathleen as their cups lined up in the area where drinks are picked up. The names were written in black marker. It spells my name, she said. Huh, Ryan Kathleen said. It spells my name too, but if it were written on something official. Kathleen comma Ryan, he said.
I’m Ryan, he said.
I’m Kathleen, she said.
They laughed and took their drinks outside. They sat together on a bench and looked at the city. It was winter and cold and the cups warmed their hands. Each expressed a love for the city in the winter, the way the smells were muted and the hard gray lines of buildings pressed against a similarly colored sky, obscuring the borders. Their relationship started with a deep affection for gray scales.
When Ryan Kathleen moved into Kathleen Ryan’s apartment after a few months of dating, it started to get confusing for their friends. Ryan Kathleen’s close friends called him by his surname. Acquaintances regularly called him by his Christian name. For Kathleen Ryan, it was the opposite. Her closest friends called her Kathleen, and because there were two other Kathleens at her job, her coworkers attempted to simplify things through calling each Kathleen by her surname. In person, this wasn’t an issue. One could address either Kathleen Ryan or Ryan Kathleen in whatever way felt natural simply through adjusting one’s posture in the direction of whom he or she was addressing.
The phone made things more complicated.
Work colleagues of Kathleen Ryan would call looking for “Ryan,” and Ryan Kathleen, having answered the phone would assume it was an acquaintance looking for him. When Ryan’s acquaintances would call, they would ask for “Kathleen” and if Kathleen Ryan had answered the phone, she would assume it was a coworker looking for her. Neither Kathleen Ryan nor Ryan Kathleen was especially good at recognizing voices on the phone, and so they would often claim to be the other accidentally and enter a conversation before the person on the other line would make the correction. It was occasionally embarrassing, but something they often laughed about.
At first it only affected acquaintances and people distant enough to not immediately recognize the person on the other line, but as the relationship continued and Kathleen Ryan and Ryan Kathleen’s mannerisms and tones converged it became much more difficult for even their best friends to tell the difference between their voices. They were both heavy smokers, whose voices had deepened and taken on many of the qualities shared by those who inhale multiple packs a day.
As their experiences and social lives merged it was sometimes minutes or entire conversations before the person on the other end realized their mistake. There were few questions Ryan Kathleen couldn’t answer that Kathleen Ryan’s friends or colleagues could ask and few questions Kathleen Ryan couldn’t answer that could be asked by Ryan Kathleen’s same. They came to the mutual decision to stop making the distinction on the phone altogether. As far as the phone was concerned, they were the same person. Neither friends nor acquaintances noticed, except for to recognize that they no longer had to deal with the annoying apologies and shuffling when they had falsely identified the person they had meant to call. It made things easier.
Ryan Kathleen had a slight build for a grown man. He had never been to the gym and his hummingbird metabolism kept his body lean. His bones were sharp against his skin, threatening to burst through at the angles. Kathleen Ryan was the opposite, a gym rat made of muscle. Her bones pressed against her skin in the absence of fat and all the curves natural to a woman her age had melted away with obsessive work and manic dieting. Her breasts were less than a handful and were usually buried under fashionable layers. Ryan Kathleen and Kathleen Ryan were roughly the same height and shared a similar sense of style. It was not rare for Ryan Kathleen to pick a colorful shirt out of Kathleen Ryan’s drawer in their bedroom and wear it because it complimented his pants. The wide necks of women’s shirts exposed the smooth skin of his shoulders and neck in a way that turned Kathleen Ryan on. Likewise, she wore his jeans, which were skinny and slim-hipped. He would often smell the jeans after she had worn them all day, and sometimes then wear them himself without washing them.
Kathleen Ryan began encouraging Ryan Kathleen to grow his hair long. She had always loved long hair on men, and when she revealed this to him he promised that he wouldn’t cut his hair until she asked. In return he asked her to cut her hair short. A teacher he had had a crush on in high school wore her hair in a pixie cut and he had never gotten it out of his head. He didn’t tell her about the teacher, but she agreed. When she cut her hair short something didn’t look right. The way her long hair framed her face was lost. She didn’t seem like herself anymore. She told him that she hated it and he agreed that the other way was better. He forgot all about the teacher. In the meantime his hair had grown long and unruly. She encouraged him to trim it, to keep it nice. He trimmed his hair as hers was growing out, so each was the same length. They agreed it would be funny if they each dyed their hair a sheenless, gunmetal black. We look like twins, she said. He laughed.
Like speech patterns and tones, bodily mannerisms between the two had merged over the years. They moved in almost identical matters. Ryan Kathleen stood hipshot in relaxation. Kathleen Ryan chewed her knuckles when nervous. Friends who had been tricked over the phone were now being tricked in person. Ryan Kathleen would attend social events alone, where people would mistake him for his girlfriend. He rarely corrected them. Kathleen Ryan had similar experiences.
When they had friends over now, those friends grew frustrated because they couldn’t tell the difference between the two. Dinner parties extended into hyperlong awkward silences that were broken by Kathleen Ryan and Ryan Kathleen saying the same thing at the same time. The guests sighed in exasperation and eventually let themselves out, unsure who to address and by what name. What complicated things was that Ryan Kathleen answered to the names “Ryan” and “Kathleen.” Kathleen Ryan also answered to both names. When these friends appealed to shared memories and old times, Kathleen Ryan and Ryan Kathleen made no distinctions between memories they had told each other about and memories each had experienced on their own. They responded to the appeal to memory by addressing each memory as if they had individually experienced it.
As friends began to abandon the couple, they came to a decision. They would have a public break-up, but privately they would continue their life of merged identities. Each went to the job they felt like going to. They attended the parties they felt like going to individually. At those parties they absorbed complaints about the other and listened to their friends express concern about the way the two had become one. All conveyed their relief that whatever that weird experiment was was over. Neither Kathleen Ryan nor Ryan Kathleen was offended by these assertions. After returning from whatever event each had attended that evening, or from their individual jobs during the day, each would explain to the other in perfect detail everything that happened. They no longer laughed about their deceptions. Its perfection as a means for continued progress became necessary to their way of life.
In the winter of their fifth year together snow rolled over the city and was stomped into a slush, dirtied gray by boots and cars. The clouds hung like thick sheets of ice across the sky, canopying the city and its buildings in monochrome. Ryan Kathleen answered the phone that was ringing in the living room with his normal voice, the same voice as Kathleen Ryan. His voice was laid thick with concern that elevated into despair. The call was bad news from home, though whose home was vague. Home had become a collaborative noun. Kathleen Ryan looked in the mirror and saw her boyfriend. He was moving independently of her, leaning in close to examine a pimple that swelled on his jawline. She reached up to her own jaw and touched the pimple. She felt as though she hadn’t looked in a mirror in years. Down her arms were trails of stuttering red scabs, like a Morse code of self-harm. An anxious childhood habit making a comeback. She frowned at herself but the reflection did not react. The voice from the living room was getting louder, calling her name. His own name. Ryan, he said. It was breaking with sobs. She calmly moved to the living room and saw herself. His lips reflected her frown. She fingered the pimple on her jaw. He gave her the phone. Scabs dotted the inside of his arm, their redness near black against his pale skin. Big white flakes the size of coins floated down outside the window.
Giving her the phone was against policy.
She stared at him staring at her staring at him. They stared at each other and themselves, faces wiped of expression. She wanted to ask him about his arms. The voice on the phone was getting noisier. It called their name. Kathleen, it said. Goddamnit Kathleen.
Hello, she said. Kathleen, the voice said. Who is this, she said. What, the voice said. The voice was her father. Or Ryan’s father. The voice was one of their fathers. I don’t have time for this, her father said. Time for what, she said. She couldn’t tell if this was Ryan Kathleen’s father or Kathleen Ryan’s father. There was nothing in the voice to distinguish it. She was sure that if she were having this conversation in person she wouldn’t be able to tell either. A memory like a coiled snake reached up and bit her. Either her father or Ryan’s father holding her head under the bathwater when she was a child. When he was a child. Legs thrashing. Kathleen, the voice said. Yes, Kathleen said. It’s your brother, the voice said. He’s sick. No he’s not, Kathleen said. What, the voice said. It’s not my brother, Kathleen said.
But who knew.