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Separation Anxiety

They fit, though not neatly, like a woman holding a too-large child in her lap, and I’m mortified each time I have to ask Reba to move so I can reach the gearshift. The lack of freedom, of privacy, the sharing of the most intimate bodily functions, these facts of conjoined life for some reason had never repelled me, but so much for my enlightened state. Squished in the car with the Schappells, I’m suffused with . . . what? Embarrassment? Shame? Disgust? Something more than the early spring sun is making me sweat.

“Hey, girls, how ya doing? I seen you on TV,” a smiling woman calls out when we finally arrive at the restaurant they’d chosen (Lori’s directions were vague, to Reba’s annoyance). And that’s about the most attention they get during lunch at the Old Country Buffet. It’s not always that way; strangers sometimes follow them or start snapping their picture. “I always say, ‘If you want to follow us, fine, but if you have something to do, go do it,’ ” Lori says. “If people talk to us, I answer them, if the questions aren’t too stupid.”

Over macaroni and cheese and fried fish, with Lori standing and facing me across the table and Reba looking out into the restaurant, her plate in her lap, the sisters have the kind of exchange I witness many times: Reba bossily correcting something Lori says, and Lori cheerfully conceding the point. “If I mess up something, she does come in and save me, because she’s better with the words—analogies and stuff.”

Perhaps because they’re so irrevocably together, their likes and dislikes, their habits, their demeanors are that much more polarized. Or maybe it’s that being so irrevocably one, they fetishize being two. Over the course of the day, I learn that Reba’s book smart, Lori’s street smart; Reba’s butch, Lori’s fem; Lori’s the homemaker, Reba’s the career woman; Reba’s the tightwad, Lori’s the spendthrift (who likes nothing better than walking through a mall).

Both are adamant that being conjoined does not limit them in any way, doesn’t define their existence. I believe it, and I don’t. One moment I’m thinking, Hey, this is just another disability to be overcome, and the next, I’m crushed. Their apartment smells faintly of urine, because Reba’s Chihuahua is trained to pee on pads by the bathroom—it’s too much of an effort for the Schappells to get down the elevator to take him out. But then when Lori shows me pictures of a man she dated in community college and says, “Oh, gross,” and is talking about her eighties hair, I’m with her. Being conjoined is who she is, like my being a woman, perhaps; it’s not something she can conceive of changing or even wanting to change. What she can change is that odious feathered hair.

Lori says that while at least one of the men she’s dated was interested in her merely as spectacle—“He calls his friends and goes, ‘We’re gonna be here and we’re gonna be there’ ”—most can get beyond Reba (who’s indifferent to romance). “When I’m out on a date, it’s just me and him,” Lori says, absently picking a piece of lint off Reba’s shirt. “She doesn’t butt in. We start talking, and he totally forgets she’s there.” And when I get up the guts to ask about it, she says, “Making out is no problem. The other stuff he doesn’t get till I’m married.”

Later, Lori smiles when I spot a copy of The Ultimate Wedding Planning Guide on one of the many stacks of papers in their living room. In the past, she’s expressed sadness that she hasn’t found anyone to settle down with, but all she’ll say now is that she has a boyfriend she met at one of Reba’s gigs.

What gets Reba going is her career. She tells me she sang at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan a few months ago, that she spends her days listening to “demos,” that she’s in negotiations to record the country tune she sang in a 1999 A&E documentary (“Fear of Being Alone,” which she did not choose because of the allusion to conjoinedness in the title—didn’t I know the song’s about a man and a woman?), that she’s considering two acting roles but has to check the scripts first (“I don’t do nudity”), and so on. I know they’d had a part as conjoined twins considering separation in the TV series Nip/Tuck, and that Reba had sung “Fear of Being Alone” over the credits of the conjoined-twins spoof Stuck on You, but to hear them tell it, the career is Reba’s and Reba’s alone and has nothing at all to do with their distinctive bodies.