Strangers come up to Shelley and me and ask if we’re sisters. Shelley has light brown hair with more curls than she’d like, and only a hint of gray. Her nose is a little ski jump, and her skin is so dry it needs to be moisturized every night. My straight dark hair has become more salt than pepper, my nose is what my Latin teacher called “aquiline”, and my skin exudes olive oil. I like to think of myself as much taller than Shelley, and she thinks of me as much thinner, but we’re probably off a bit on those scores. Our friends and family don’t tell us we look alike.
But strangers do. We’ll be checking out at the Stop and Shop and the cashier will smile at us and say, “You two must be sisters.”
“No,” we’ll say.
“You’re kidding,” she’ll go on, “I even thought you might be twins!”
“Sorry,” we say.
We can’t count the elevator rides we’ve had with strangers announcing that we’re sisters. We were in a crowded elevator in Manhattan when an Asian man and his family got in. No sooner had the doors closed, than he pointed to us, smiling, “Twins!” “No,” we said. “Sisters!” “Not even,” we apologized. “But you must be related!” the rest of the people in the elevator nodded in agreement.
We collect these episodes like my parents collected matchbooks. We talk about the time we were eating Krispy Kremes in Grand Central Station and a woman came over with her two young daughters and said, “Look girls, twins, just like you!” When we corrected her, she marched off with her kids, whispering something about not talking to strangers. Then there was the time in a shop in Hawaii when in order to buy Shelley’s hula shirt we had to lie to the sales clerk, and tell her yes, we were sisters, and yes, we were just trying to pretend we weren’t, or we’d never have gotten out of the store. One of the strangest episodes was when Shelley walked alone into my brother Carmen’s office for the first time, and his secretary looked up and said, “You must be Carmen’s sister. I’d know you anywhere, you look just like him!”
When we first heard these comments, we thought them odd, but over the years, they became disconcerting. Why do people feel the need to declare that we’re sisters? And why does it make us uncomfortable when they do?
We’ve talked about what might cause the confusion. Our style of dress is Cape Cod Lesbian comfort, but I’m not accused of being sisters when I’m out with other Lesbian friends. People say that after a while, dog owners start to look like their dogs, but even though Shelley looks a lot like our golden retriever, no one accuses them of being sisters.
After being together for thirty-five years, Shelley and I got married last year. On our honeymoon to Niagara Falls, we stopped in a CVS in a rough section of Buffalo. The cashier was a large, rather gruff woman, who surprised us when she smiled and asked if we were related. I was ready to give her our standard denial, when I heard Shelley say for the first time in our lives, “Well, actually, we are. We just got married.”
“I knew it!” the happy cashier replied. “As soon as they get married, couples start to look like each other. Wait a few years. People will think you’re twins!”