(From left) Jorge Enrique Bernal Castro, William Cañas Velasco, Carlos Alberto Bernal Castro and Wilber Cañas Velasco
By SUSAN DOMINUS
They were two pretty young women in search of pork ribs for a barbecue later that day, a Saturday in the summer of 2013. Janeth Páez suggested that they stop by a grocery store not far from where her friend Laura Vega Garzón lived in northern Bogotá. Janeth’s boyfriend’s cousin, William, a sweet young man with a thick country accent, worked behind the butcher counter there, expertly filleting beef and cutting pigs’ feet that his customers liked to boil with beans. Janeth was sure he would give her and Laura a cut rate on the ribs.
As Laura walked into the grocery store, catching up with Janeth, she was surprised to spot someone she knew. Behind the butcher counter was a colleague from her job at Strycon, an engineering firm. She gave him a big wave. He hardly acknowledged her. ‘‘That’s Jorge!’’ she told Janeth. ‘‘He works in my office.’’ He was a well-liked 24-year-old who worked a few floors up from her, designing pipes for oil transport, so she was surprised to see him waiting on customers in the shop.
‘‘Oh, no, that’s William,’’ Janeth said. William was a hard worker and rarely left that butcher counter, except to sleep. He definitely did not work at Strycon.
‘‘No, it’s Jorge — I know him,’’ Laura said. But he was not smiling back at her, which was strange. A few minutes later, he came out from behind the counter to say a quick hello, embracing Janeth. Janeth introduced him to Laura as William.
Laura was baffled: Why was Jorge pretending to be someone else? Maybe, she thought, he was embarrassed to be seen moonlighting this way — the bloodied apron, the white cap. Janeth insisted she was mistaken, but Laura was not convinced. It was almost easier for her to believe that Jorge was playacting as someone else, rather than that there could be two people who looked so much alike. It was not just their similar coloring or the high cheekbones. It was their frame, the texture of their hair, the set of their mouth and dozens of other details that Laura could not have readily identified but that she knew all added up to a rare likeness.
The following Monday at Strycon, Laura told Jorge about her funny misunderstanding with his double at the butcher counter. Jorge laughed and told her that he did have a twin, named Carlos, but that they looked nothing like each other.
At that moment, Jorge had before him sufficient evidence to suggest that his life was not what he thought it was, that his family was not what he thought it was. But there is a saying that Carlos, a man of many sayings, sometimes applied to Jorge: ‘‘The blindest man is the one who does not want to see.’’
The Photo, The Truth
After six months, Janeth left Strycon for another job, but even then, whenever she and her boyfriend ran into William, she wondered if she should have told Jorge about his double. That question tugged at her until finally, on Sept. 9, 2014, a slow day at her new job, Janeth texted Laura an image of William to show Jorge.
Laura went upstairs to piping to get Jorge’s reaction to the photo. Jorge, smiling, took a look at her phone. He swore. ‘‘That’s me!’’ he said. He stared at the image.
William was wearing a yellow Colombian soccer jersey, practically a national uniform on the day of big matches. Jorge often wore one just like it, which made it all the more apparent just how thoroughly the young man in the photo looked like him. A friend was walking by Jorge’s desk, and Jorge flagged him down for a second opinion.
‘‘Tell me what you think of this photo,’’ he told his friend, handing him the phone.
You look fine, the friend said.
‘‘Except it’s not me,’’ Jorge said. He could not stop staring at Laura’s phone.
Jorge gave up on getting any work done. He sat down with Laura in the office kitchen so they could talk. Maybe his father, who was never more than an occasional visitor to their home, had another child he never mentioned. Jorge started flipping through more of William’s Facebook images, now on his own phone. Uneasily, he noted one of William in a butcher’s smock, looking just the way Jorge did on the rare days he had to wear a lab coat. He glanced at a picture of William holding a shot glass, a friend by his side.
Jorge moved to his desktop computer so he could see the images more closely. He clicked once more on the photo of William and the friend holding shot glasses. Now that the image was large, he could examine what he had failed, incredibly, to notice when he looked at the photo on his phone. He leaned in close, his nose practically touching the screen. The man’s hair was slicked up like a rooster’s crown, and the shirt was all wrong. But there was the full lower lip and thick brown hair that Jorge knew well. The buttons on the man’s shirt were straining slightly at the hint of a potbelly, in a way that was intimately familiar. Jorge felt a rush of confusion, and then his stomach dropped. The friend sitting next to his double had a face that Jorge knew better than his own: It was the face of his fraternal twin brother, Carlos.
Jorge And Carlos
After work that day, Jorge walked as usual to the small university he attended at night, staring all the while at the images on his phone. After class, he took a bus home, where he planned to tell Carlos about the day’s events.
Growing up, Carlos was the twin who aced the homework and Jorge the twin who copied it. Now they were each doing well; Carlos worked at an accounting firm during the day and was also completing a degree at night. The small but comfortable two-bedroom duplex they shared in a middle-class neighborhood was already a step up from their childhood home. Their mother, a housekeeper, raised them and their older sister, Diana, in one small room of a house in Bogotá that their grandmother owned. They never considered themselves deprived; they crammed a television and a refrigerator into that room, and the public schools in their neighborhood were good. But they had more now — Jorge could travel to soccer matches, Carlos could go clubbing — and it pained all three siblings that their mother, who died of stomach cancer four years earlier, had not lived long enough that they could give her a better life.
As he rode the bus home, Jorge tried to decide what, exactly, he would say to Carlos. He had already told Diana about the photos. ‘‘Just don’t tease Carlos about it,’’ she said.
At home, Jorge found his brother on the phone, as usual, with a woman. Jorge told him to hang up.
‘‘Stop annoying me,’’ Carlos told him. This was their dynamic: Carlos bristling, and Jorge, pestering, joking and darting around him, never letting up. The angrier Carlos would get, the funnier it all was to Jorge.
Finally, Carlos finished his call. Jorge decided he would try to keep the mood light. He opened with a question: ‘‘What would you say if I told you I had an identical twin?’’ Carlos did not look amused.
Jorge tried again: ‘‘Do you believe in telenovelas?’’
Carlos was losing patience. If Jorge had something to tell him, he should just come out with it. Jorge sat Carlos down in front of the laptop in his bedroom and started clicking on photos, showing him the one of William in the Colombia jersey and others at the butcher shop. Carlos laughed alongside him, giddy with the strangeness of the similarity. Then Jorge clicked on the photo of William alongside Carlos’s double, shot glasses in hand.
Unlike Jorge, whose first reaction to the photo was to lean in and stare, Carlos snapped back as if something had pushed him, hard, in the chest. ‘‘Who are they?’’ he asked. He was furious.
Jorge told him everything he learned from Janeth and Laura that day.The young men in the photo were raised on a remote farm in Santander, a mostly rural region to the north, whose locals were caricatured by other Colombians for their hot tempers and attachment to their guns. According to Facebook, they were born, as were Jorge and Carlos, in late December 1988.
Perhaps, Jorge said, there had been some kind of a mix-up at the hospital — a nurse who accidentally swapped one baby from one set of identical twins with a baby from another pair. He did not say what that would mean: that either he or Carlos was born to another mother. That they were probably not twins at all — not even biologically related. Nor did either of them acknowledge what both knew: If someone had been accidentally placed in their family, it was almost certainly Carlos.
That Carlos never looked liked Jorge and Diana was obvious. His siblings shared their mother’s more delicate frame, her high cheekbones, her eyes. Carlos was taller, solidly built, with a wider nose and a heavier brow. The contrast was not merely physical: Carlos had always felt like an outlier in his family, although he preferred to think of himself as independent. As a child, Carlos had no interest in joining the elaborate games of make-believe that his mother and siblings played, the funny voices they each put on, playacting for hours. Since their mother died, he checked in with Diana far less often than Jorge did. He was the only one in his family who cared about fashion, and God knows he was the only one who could dance. Carlos and Jorge had always assumed that Carlos took after their father, but they did not know him well enough to be sure.
Carlos’s sense of distance, however, had not diminished his attachment to his mother. He had always adored her; she was strong if not exactly tough — when he and Jorge fought, she would hit them with a fluffy house slipper, which inevitably made them laugh, possibly her intended result. As meager as her resources had been, she made sure that each child could go to a good school and instilled in them the sense of a limitless future. Carlos credited her with all he had achieved so far.
As a teenager, William spent countless hours hacking at sugar cane with a machete, while Carlos flirted with girls at an excellent school.
Sitting beside Jorge in his bedroom, Carlos shut the laptop and fell silent. He headed into his room and closed the door. Jorge followed him, saying things that Carlos knew were meant to make him feel better — no matter what, even if one of us was exchanged, we’re still brothers — but that made him feel only more isolated. ‘‘Look,’’ he told Jorge, ‘‘let’s just drop it.’’ He told Jorge never to bother him with the subject again.
That night, Carlos barely slept. He couldn’t make sense of any of it. How could his mother not have been the one to carry him — to create him? He had grieved for her once; now he grieved again, as if losing her a second time. He felt unmoored, powerless, alone.
Down the hall, Jorge slept like a child.
William and Wilber
The next day, soon after William opened the butcher shop, his cousin Brian — Janeth’s boyfriend — arrived for his 12-hour shift. William, who had quickly been promoted to manager of the shop, was happy to hire Brian, a part-time student. He felt closer, in many ways, to Brian than he did to his fraternal twin brother, Wilber. Brian grew up in Bogotá, and when William first arrived in the capital in 2009, the two cousins spent long days baking and selling corn cakes on the street, in the rain, in the heat, passing the time making their customers and themselves laugh. William and Wilber could never spend that many hours together without getting on each other’s nerves. When Wilber later worked for William at the butcher shop, it irked William that his brother was always cleaning up when he should have been waiting on customers and that he resisted William’s authority; Wilber was moody, William thought, and could never take a joke.
As Brian and William set up the shop, Brian explained that the previous evening, Janeth showed him photos that were very confusing, of young men who looked just like Wilber and William. William was amused, intrigued. He remembered that Janeth had shown him that photo of his double months back. But this coincidence sounded even stranger. He texted Janeth and asked to see the photos. As soon as the first one arrived, William let out a scream — ‘‘Ahiii!’’ — and then laughed.
Maybe, Janeth suggested to William by text, either he or his brother had been sick and was brought from Santander to a hospital in Bogotá. William got in touch with an aunt, who told him that, yes, he had been sent to a hospital in Bogotá right after he was born. He and Wilber were delivered at just 28 weeks, and William had digestive problems. The aunt said he was treated at the Materno Infantil in the city.
He passed this along to Janeth, who said that she would try to find out from Jorge where he was born. If Jorge was delivered at the Materno Infantil, Janeth texted, it would be clear: There must have been a swap.
Until that moment, William, like Janeth, had been caught up in the fun and suspense of piecing together the information. But now a wave of anxiety swept over him. He had always looked different from his family and wanted different things — a life bigger than the farm. But he never considered the possibility that he might actually be different — that he might not be theirs. He looked around at the butcher shop; he could barely take in the oblivious customers, the hunks of bloodied flesh, his concerned cousin. He walked out of the store, heading upstairs to his third-floor apartment in the same building. From there, he compulsively texted Janeth to see if she had any information about the name of the hospital where Jorge was born.
A few minutes later, William stumbled back into the shop and showed Brian a text from Janeth. Jorge and Carlos were, in fact, delivered at Materno Infantil. ‘‘Confirmed,’’ William said. Then he sat on a bench in the back of the shop and broke into heaving sobs. Every thought tumbled into another equally painful one. He had been snatched from his rightful place. He was a missing person no one had known to miss. How would he tell his mother? She had six children, but he was the one who sent her money. He was the one who worried about her when she was sick and who tried, when he was young, to cheer her up if she was blue, smothering her with hugs and kisses and biting her gently on her ears to make her laugh. The news, he knew, would break her heart; it was already breaking his.
William had spoken to his mother harshly only once, a few years earlier. He had just finished serving in the military and had served well, winning, among 92 soldiers in his platoon, a top prize that guaranteed him a scholarship to petty-officer training, a leadership track that would provide him with an education and a significant jump in status. It turned out, however, that the military could not give him the scholarship after all; his parents had taken him out of school when he was 12, and he did not have the equivalent of a high-school diploma. ‘‘You should have let me go to school,’’ he yelled at his mother when he was home in Santander. The closest high school was a five-hour walk away, so the family would have needed money to house him, plus money for uniforms and entrance fees, while also incurring the cost of losing his labor on the farm. Even still, William felt that his mother should have found a way, been resourceful, fought with everything she had. He would have fought for it himself, but at 12, what could he have done?
As he wept on the bench, he was experiencing the first wash of feelings that he would be able to articulate only in time: his sense of his mother’s guilt and worry; the lost opportunity to grow up going to school in Bogotá, instead of working in the fields, hauling crops; his grief over how different he had always felt from the rest of his family, a family who loved him but nonetheless teased him for not quite fitting in. Brian, stunned, sitting beside him on the bench, did not know what to say. There was no ready language for a situation like this. After about 10 minutes, to Brian’s relief, William stopped crying and stood up. William knew how to work, so that is what he would do. They went back inside and started cleaning the counter, putting away utensils, waiting for their next customers.
Eventually, William texted Wilber, who was working at a different butcher shop that day, and told him he needed to come right away. When Wilber arrived later that afternoon, William said he had to show him something and clicked, on his phone, on a photo of Jorge and Carlos. Immediately, Wilber saw, with total clarity, what it took everyone else hours to grasp.
‘‘So we were swapped,’’ Wilber said, shrugging, annoyed by the sense of momentousness William seemed to want to attach to the photo. ‘‘I don’t care who they are. You’re my brother, and you’ll be my brother until the day I die.’’
Face To Face
Every so often, sometimes within hours of conception but usually several days later, the forces that bind newly dividing cells, holding them into one coherent mass, somehow give way. Instead of clinging together in a cluster that will form one person months later and eventually one self, those dividing cells split into two independent entities, each with its own furiously dividing cells. They are separate but the same, with every nucleus of every cell carrying identical DNA. Identical twins start their lives as fluke accidents, a wondrous result of a systemic glitch.
The formation of fraternal twins is far more mundane. Two separate sperm meet two different eggs, creating a litter of two. Fraternal twins are no more genetically alike than any other two siblings, their only trick one of simultaneity: They are conceived and born at roughly the same time.
The four young men in Bogotá had each been raised as a fraternal twin, an identity in and of itself. Now, they realized, they were each an identical twin, part of a matched pair. Even before the four brothers met, each was already, unknowingly, aligning himself with the sibling with whom he shared a womb. Carlos and Wilber were cautious, convinced that no one should pursue the matter any further — who knew what trouble these people could bring. William and Jorge, however, were open to the possibility of an encounter. Within hours of the revelation, Janeth had arranged for William and Jorge to meet in a public square at 9 that evening, soon after William closed up the butcher shop.
Wilber, initially averse to meeting the other brothers, felt increasingly curious as he looked at the pictures; he wanted to go, too. Around 3 p.m., William spoke to Jorge for the first time and asked if he could invite Wilber, along with Brian and Janeth. He was relieved when Jorge said yes. Both noticed that their voices did not sound alike. William’s was huskier, and of course there was the Santander accent. William also called Jorge ‘‘sir,’’ a formality typical of people from the countryside. Jorge thought he liked this person’s voice; he sounded not just nice, but good.
Across town, Jorge was also feeling jittery. He had asked his brother to go with him, but Carlos had a date he was not willing to cancel. When Jorge ran into a friend from the university, he spontaneously asked him to join him for moral support.
At the appointed time, Jorge stood in the square, looking around. His palms were damp, and he could hardly breathe from the sensation of pressure he felt in his stomach. Within minutes, a group started walking toward him. There was William — with Jorge’s face, walking just as Jorge did, with that roll and the funny spread of his feet.
Brian filmed the encounter on his phone. With the sound turned off, the nervous chatter muted, the video captures Jorge and William engaging in what looks like some kind of a highly choreographed, ritualized pantomime. William stares at Jorge, as Jorge looks off to the side; then William turns his head away, as if intuitively giving Jorge the chance to stare at his face, which he does, looking him up and down. The two stare directly at each other — there’s a moment of eye contact that is shockingly intimate, and an exchange of smiles — and then they each look quickly away. As they keep stealing glimpses of each other, they look the way lovers might when they are on the brink of confessing, for the first time, to a mutual infatuation.
Jorge pulls himself together, looks at William a bit more appraisingly; Jorge is chewing gum, and his jaw is working hard. He puts his hand on his cheek, pressing his own flesh: Yes, this is me. That person over there, that is him. William is quiet, shifting his weight so that he appears to be swaying from side to side. (‘‘It was like staring through a mirror, and on the other side of the mirror, there’s a parallel universe,’’ Jorge would say later.)
The First Meeting
William (left) and Jorge (right), identical twins accidentally separated at birth, meet for the first time in a public square. A friend filmed the meeting on his phone.
By Brian David Mateus Hernandez on Publish Date July 9, 2015.
It was easier, clearly, for Jorge to turn his gaze to Wilber, the double of Carlos. Jorge stares at Wilber and shakes his head. Wilber had seen the photos of Carlos, who wore glasses. ‘‘All I need are the glasses!’’ Wilber said. He let out a high-pitched giggle, and Jorge felt that pressure in his chest again: That was Carlos’s laugh.
Having seen how much William looked like Jorge, Wilber was now eager to meet Carlos. Jorge called ahead to say they were coming, and the group piled into two taxis, heading over to Jorge and Carlos’s apartment.
Around 10, Carlos heard the doorbell ring. He walked to the door and then stood there, paralyzed: He could barely bring himself to answer. He knew it was Jorge and those men from the photos. Those people were not just strangers; they were stranger than strangers, players in a story about his life over which he had little control.
‘‘Open the door!’’ Jorge commanded. Carlos heard a giggle: It was his own, but it was not coming from him, or maybe it was.
‘‘I don’t want to,’’ Carlos said. ‘‘I’m scared.’’ The moments ticked by, then two, with Carlos laughing nervously on one side, Wilber laughing on the other. ‘‘Carlos, open it!’’ Jorge told him again. You cannot block the sun with one finger, their mother used to say.
Carlos opened the door, and the group filed in, like
a procession from a dream. There was Jorge, and there was his double — it was Jorge in a strange sweater; Jorge, only quiet; Jorge without the cool confidence. There was some woman, and some other guy. And then there he was — Carlos was staring at himself, an altered version of himself, a funny photocopy, a joke, a nightmare.
Carlos looked at Wilber, his mirror image. They took a quick peek at each other — they both shouted ‘‘Ay!’’ and turned their backs, covering their eyes, each turning red. Wilber started speaking, but Carlos was having a hard time catching what he was saying. Instead of rolling his R’s, Wilber spoke with hard D’s. The speech impediment! Carlos had one as a child but overcame it with speech therapy.
All four started comparing notes, quizzing one another, finding out which essential qualities the identical twins shared. Who were the crybabies of the family? Carlos and Wilber! Who had sweet temperaments? Jorge and William! Who were more organized? Carlos and Wilber! Who were the girl-chasers? Carlos and Wilber! Who were the strongest? Jorge and William!
Even still, while Jorge was seeing sameness with every glance he stole at William, Carlos was seeking differences between him and his country double. ‘‘Look at our hands,’’ Carlos said. ‘‘They’re not the same.’’ Wilber’s were bigger, more swollen, marked with scars from countless quarrels with the knives of the butcher shop and the machetes he used in the fields growing up. Carlos, by contrast, frequently got manicures; his nails, as is not uncommon among male professionals in Colombia, were covered in clear gloss.
William asked Jorge about Jorge’s biological mother: How was she? Where was she? Watching William’s face carefully, Jorge told him that their mother died of cancer four years before. He showed him a photo of her as a young woman: long hair clipped back, beautiful eyes set in a kind, serious face. Staring at the photo, William was struck with a new blow of grief; he did not speak for several minutes.
For most of the evening, the energy in the apartment was positive and giddy. The young men were enjoying themselves, reveling in the hilarious, specific similarities that were easier to spot than the differences. But for each of them, poised and waiting on the other side of the door was a profound feeling of loss: lost time with parents and siblings, lost opportunities, lost years, lost creation myths. Jorge seemed determined to make sure those feelings were kept at bay, at least for the time being. ‘‘All that has happened,’’ he said to the group, ‘‘is that our families have gotten bigger.’’ Someone called out: ‘‘Favorite soccer team?’’ All four shouted the name of a popular Colombian club team: ‘‘Atletico Nacional!’’
Around midnight, the visitors left, promising to meet again soon. Jorge and Carlos stared at each other in the empty living room. Everything was the same; everything was different. ‘‘So what do we do?’’ Carlos asked. Jorge saw that Carlos had started to cry. Carlos walked over to Jorge to wrap him in a close hug. ‘‘I want to be your brother,’’ he said.