In Boston, I met the stranger I had loved all along

By Jessie Stephens

New EnglandCredit: Mark Conlan

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It’s a warm autumn morning in Boston, and my twin sister and I are sitting side by side in a cafe, watching a man across the street. He is approaching our mother. She has her hands clasped behind her back. She keeps glancing at us, and we wave, pulling faces because we know she is nervous.

The man is wearing a blue checked shirt and jeans. He has Mum’s nose. He is the height of our uncles. And he has the hairline of our brothers. We know that his name is Andrew. And mum is seeing him for the first time since she gave birth to him exactly 37 years, two months and 21 hours ago.

Andrew is our brother. And we are about to meet him.

Jessie Stephens, third from left, with her mother and siblings.Credit: Courtesy Jessie Stephens

The first time I visited Boston, five years prior to sitting in that cafe, I experienced a sense of coming home. Perhaps this was because, for 24 years, home had been my identical twin, Clare. I had never – not even in utero – known life without her. And then in 2014, she moved abroad with her boyfriend, who was accepted into Berklee College of Music, in Boston. Towards the end of that year, I arrived. We walked the Freedom Trail, which tells the story of the American Revolution. We visited Boston Common, the oldest public park in the United States. And we wandered through historic cemeteries, including the one where E. E. Cummings, the poet, novelist and playwright, happens to be buried. It was Cummings who wrote “love is a place”.

Love is a place.

It is possible, looking back now, that we passed our brother Andrew on the street. He was studying at a law school, walking distance from the bar where Clare worked. While we had known for years that our mum had a baby when she was 22 who was adopted, we had always presumed he lived in Australia. It never crossed our mother’s mind as she visited New England – comprised of six northeastern states in the US – several times in the years since his birth, that he might be here. She was drawn to these states though. So were we.

This would not be the only coincidence. My mother named her son, born on July 2, 1982, James – a name that was not shared with his adoptive parents. Then, a few weeks later, the couple were driving through a Sydney tunnel deciding what to call their new baby boy.

“James,” they agreed.

By the time they exited the tunnel, they had changed their minds. He would be Andrew. Andrew James.

While my mother’s early 20s were marked by birthing a child she knew she could not keep, mine were marked by depression. Depression is a difficult story to tell. There is no real beginning, middle or end, but rather disparate scenes. I am hiding under my bed, feeling for a moment invisible. I have lost the ability to write. Not just an essay, but an email to the lecturer explaining why I can’t write the essay. I don’t sleep. I am medicated. It makes me vomit and faint. I travel overseas but my mind doesn’t come with me – it is stuck somewhere else.

Boston Common was one of the places Jessie Stephens visited with her twin sister, Clare. Credit: Getty Images

I re-read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, as many women in their 20s tend to do. The novel is semi-autobiographical and traces Esther’s descent into a deep depression. The book, as it happens, is set largely in Boston, where Plath grew up. Her metaphor of the bell jar remains one of the most powerful for capturing the suffocation of mental illness. In 1961 she wrote the words “because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air”.

New England, while literally, her backdrop, also served as a symbolic one. It represented postwar prosperity, and the promise of a white picket fence built around a two-storey home that looks eerily like the ones either side of it. It is the place of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Housewives smile, untouched by the feminist revolution brewing. John F. Kennedy, from Brookline Massachusetts, all white teeth and combed hair, not far from where Plath grew up, becomes President of the United States. Soon, he will be assassinated.

It is a place that tells you, in Plath’s own words, one ought to be having “the time of [her] life”. It is a place that looks aspirational, while turning the people inside it mad. There is a claustrophobia to New England, despite its sprawling green lawns.

A fishing village in Martha’s Vineyard.Credit: iStock

There was another book I read during that period. It is called Darkness Visible by William Styron, published in 1989. Styron describes the sensation of depression better than perhaps any writer before or after him. The book begins in Paris, where he is struck by what feels almost like an illness, and then we follow his fall into a deep, immobilising depression back home in Connecticut, New England. Upon a visit to Martha’s Vineyard, he writes: “I was on Martha’s Vineyard, where I’ve spent a good part of each year since the 1960s, during that exceptionally beautiful summer. But I had begun to respond indifferently to the island’s pleasures. I felt a kind of numbness, an enervation, but more particularly an odd fragility as if my body had actually become frail, hypersensitive and somehow disjointed and clumsy, lacking normal coordination.”

When I read Plath and Styron, Cummings and Yates, I failed to identify the pattern of New England. The subject of place seemed rather irrelevant. These texts were explorations of one’s inner self, and I felt drawn to them because they articulated experiences I felt unable to. Despair doesn’t feel so lonely when you learn that it has been felt by people very different to you, 16,000 kilometres away. A part of myself, I suppose, existed in New England. I just didn’t know that was, quite literally, the case.

A cafe in a fashionable corner of Boston.Credit: iStock

When we sit across from Andrew for the first time, in a Boston cafe, I feel as though I have known him my whole life. Just as when you stare at your own baby and see a kaleidoscope of familiar faces and expressions, Andrew’s was a face I recognised. His voice reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld, and he is articulate and funny in the way so many of the best Americans are. That surprises me. My brother is very American. But Massachusetts, as we’ve discussed with him since, is a different country to say, Texas. They have the lowest rate of gun deaths. They vote Democrat.

Separated by many oceans, we discover that day that we have landed at much the same place when it comes to religion and politics. He too lost himself at the same age I did, struggling with depression and a sense of identity. In Boston, he met his now wife, Lisa, and they moved to Rhode Island, a place I know best from Family Guy. Everyone I’ve met from there sounds like Peter Griffin.

Six months after we met in Boston, Andrew and Lisa came to Australia and met the extended family. Then, COVID. In 2022, my twin sister and I, along with our partners, stayed with them in their idyllic home in Rhode Island. We met their daughter, Annabelle, and spent the 4th of July with the neighbours. Then the seven of us ferried to Martha’s Vineyard, an island just south of Cape Cod. Critically, it is where Jaws was filmed. And Jaws 2. On a beach walk, where I’m sure a monster shark was lurking only metres away, my partner proposed.

A year later, we would have our first child. And there lies another coincidence. As the due date grew closer, it crossed my mind that she might be born on the same day as Andrew, my mother’s first child. And on the evening of July 2nd, on Andrew’s birthday, baby Luna was born.

Among the books that helped Jessie Stephens process life and location were, clockwise from main, The Bell Jar, Olive Kitteridge, I Have Some Questions For You, The Paper Palace and Revolutionary Road. 

It has not been possible this year to visit Andrew, who has since had a second baby. But for years I’ve visited New England through some of my favourite novels. There’s Olive Kitteridge set in Maine. The Paper Palace set in Cape Cod – the same place Johann Hari went to completely unplug for his non-fiction book, Stolen Focus. Most recently I devoured I Have Some Questions For You, set in a New Hampshire boarding school. Some of my favourite films bring me there; Good Willing Hunting, Dead Poets Society, and Spotlight.

When Cummings wrote “love is a place”, he did not mean it literally. And yet, not far from his grave, on a quiet street in Boston, two strangers who loved each other already would meet for the first time.

From that moment, love would be forever attached to this place.

Jessie Stephens’ latest novel, Something Bad is Going to Happen, is published by Pan Macmillan.

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