A Twin-Twin Situation

Which one do you like? Craig Sanders asked his twin brother, Mark, on the plane home. They'd been to the Twin Days festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, and had just had lunch with a pair of 28-year-old legal secretaries from St. Louis.

I couldn't tell them apart, Mark said. But he thought the girl who sat across from him was the same girl who sat next to him in the car -- and he liked her.

"That's Darlene," Craig said. "Good." Because he liked Diane. He thought she was cuter.

"They look exactly the same," Mark said.

Of course, lots of people think that about Mark and Craig. They have the same sloping Nathan Lane eyebrows, the same wide nose, the same mouth, the same everything.

Well, almost: Craig has a lisp; Mark is a bit thinner. Craig's right-handed, Mark's a lefty. Craig's the leader, Mark's the follower; people call Mark Craig's shadow.

"Do you know which one you're talking to?" Craig asks, sitting in their living room. He thinks they're identical twins and constantly, considerately asks people whether they can tell them apart.

"Of course she knows," Mark says. "We don't look that much alike." He sounds irritated. Mark thinks they don't look much alike, and in his gut he thinks they're fraternal twins. They took a DNA test at Twin Days but haven't gotten the results.

Not that it matters, they say. "We don't look that much alike," Mark says again.

Their mom doesn't think they look any more alike than their five other brothers and sisters, and she didn't go out of her way to emphasize their twin-ness. She dressed Craig in blue and Mark in yellow so people could always tell them apart. "It's just like having a brother that's the same age," Mark says. Only he doesn't have nearly as much in common or spend nearly as much time with his other brothers.

Mark and Craig grew up in the Bronx playing stickball and sewer ball together or holing up in their rooms reading the same books, sometimes aloud. They were shorter than most of the people in their class because they skipped second grade. But no one really messed with them because, explains Mark, "there's safety in numbers."

"I got mugged in the bathroom in eighth grade," Craig says. "You weren't anywhere around."

They went to UCLA together, roomed together, worked together in the athletic department and then got internships together in Houston. They had one car and a one-bedroom apartment. In 1987 Craig got a job doing marketing for the Astros, and Mark started working in Rice University's sports PR department. They both worked long, late hours, going to night games and then going home.

A lot of times Craig wanted to go out and Mark wanted to stay in. Craig wanted to be with Mark, so he stayed in, too. They were like a happily married couple: best friends who lived together, who liked the same things, who thought the same way. But of course they weren't married; they were brothers, not lovers. And that, in a way, was the problem. Regular romantic relationships are hard enough. But if Craig and Mark were already a kind of couple, a girlfriend automatically became part of a triangle. Neither twin ever liked -- or even really knew -- the women his brother dated.

"I've kept secrets from Mark before," Craig admits.
"You have?" Mark asks. "Like what?"
"Relationships and feelings," Craig says. Mainly they just talked sports.

Five years after they graduated, Craig decided that Mark wasn't helping him grow socially. So in 1991 Craig struck out on his own, took a job with the Mets and moved to New York.

The twins handled the separation better than they'd expected; but still they talked on the phone every day. Mark found a new roommate: half of another pair of twins. When that roommate moved out, his twin moved in.

Four and a half years later, Craig got laid off during the baseball strike. He was sick of New York and wanted to move back to Houston, so he talked Mark into starting their own company. Twin Spin Design began building Web pages in 1996; the Astros are its biggest client.

Together again, Craig and Mark are as close as when they were kids, spending practically all of their time together. They share a home/office in West U. They have a dog named Shadow, after Mark's nickname. At the pound, they'd had a hard time deciding which animal to choose. But then they saw the sign saying that this particular Australian shepherd was found on Twin Oaks Lane.

Still, their dating life wasn't all that happening. Though Craig insists that, relatively speaking, his was better: "I've always dated more than Mark."

Sitting curled up with Shadow, Mark smirks. Craig's living in Never-Never Land.

"Mark, you know I have," Craig says. "You weren't there when I was in New York. You have to admit it."

"Okay," Mark says, grinning. Whatever Craig says.
They always thought that it would be cool to date another pair of twins, but they'd never managed to find an appropriate pair. In part, that's why they decided to go to the Twin Days festival last August. Twin Days, in case you've somehow missed it, is that big gathering that's in newspapers every year, the one where the genetically identical congregate in matching outfits and celebrate sameness.

Mark and Craig never dress alike.
"It's stupid," Mark says.
"It's dumb," Craig says.

But it's required at Twin Days. So they had to go shopping -- never one of their favorite pastimes, but especially humiliating in this case. It was very important to them that the saleswoman at Structure know that they didn't normally dress alike, that they were buying matching outfits just this once.

At the festival, they spent their first day, a Thursday, playing in the twin golf tournament.

"Mark did horribly," Craig says. "I had to carry us."
"I hit a couple," Mark says defensively.
"One or two," Craig allows. "It's 18 holes, and he's talking about two putts."

But Mark made up his strokes Saturday night when he spotted a pair of pleasant-looking blondes: "the girls," as he and Craig would call them forevermore. "I saw them first," Mark brags. "They were talking to two other twin guys; they looked like they needed rescuing. They were all over them."

"Those guys were on the prowl," Craig says.
You two weren't?
"We were," Mark admits. "But..."

The blondes introduced themselves as Diane and Darlene Nettemeier, and agreed to join Craig and Mark for brunch the next morning. At the Cracker Barrel, people stared. Oh, you're such cute couples, everyone said.

Craig and the girls hardly noticed the attention. Diane and Darlene are used to stares. They look amazingly alike and are as inseparable as Siamese twins. They go to the grocery store together; they go to friends' houses together; they commute together; they work in the same building. The longest they've been apart was one week, Diane says, and it was terrible.

But Mark was uncomfortable as the Cracker Barrel's main attraction. "I feel the stares more than they do," he says. "It bugs me more. I don't want to be put on a pedestal."

"That's the part I don't understand," Craig says, leaning over, his elbows on his knees. "We've been having it our whole life. People see us coming and say, 'double vision' or 'double trouble.' We go to the supermarket or fast food and we get it. No matter when."

It's the way their life is, Craig says; he accepts it. But it bugs Mark.

The girls had e-mails waiting for them Monday morning: Craig to Diane, Mark to Darlene. Just little notes saying they hoped they were sending stuff to the right twin and that maybe they could keep in touch. One e-mail a day turned into a dozen. Darlene and Mark signed theirs "twinserely."

Five weeks after they met, the boys went to St. Louis, Missouri, when the Astros played the Cardinals. Turns out that the girls like baseball -- a big bonus -- so they went to games, dinner and up the St. Louis Arch. Their first kisses were in Busch Stadium's parking lot before the boys left.

After three months of e-mail, Diane told Craig that a few years before, the girls had gone to a psychic who predicted they'd meet brown-haired boys, have a double wedding, and that Darlene would marry a guy named Mark.

Don't tell Mark, Diane wrote. She was afraid it'd freak him out.
But the twin bond was stronger than the boy-girl bond. Craig told. Mark didn't freak.

Diane forgave Craig, and by November she was calling him her boyfriend: a mark of sincerity, something more than Mark and Darlene's twincerity. Darlene wanted to keep up and asked Mark if she could call him her boyfriend. He said no. He wasn't ready; he needed more time. Plus he wasn't sure the long-distance relationship was going to work.

The second week of December, the boys took the girls to Vegas. The couples split up to make sure they worked together as couples, without their twins around. After that bout of privacy, Mark decided he'd like Darlene to be his girlfriend.

The girls spent New Year's week in Houston. On New Year's Eve they ate at Sabine because it's owned by twin brothers, Bill and Tom Johnson. It was the first year either girl had ever had a guy to kiss at midnight. Always, when one of them began dating a guy, he'd quickly get jealous of the time she spent with her sister. Their friends told them they'd have to marry other twins or no one.

From Houston, the girls went to Galveston, met the boys' mom and saw You've Got Mail. "It's the perfect movie for us," Craig says. They'd rather send e-mail than talk on the phone. They call once a week, but neither guy has the girls' number memorized.

"It's like talking to your relatives," Mark says. "Yeah, here's Craig, can you put Diane on?"

On the girls' last day in town, Mark and Darlene were watching a videotape of Les Mis when the hidden-message candle she bought him burned down, revealing its scrap of paper. He picked up the note that said, "I love you," read it and told her she shouldn't say it unless she meant it.

I do, she said.
He said he thought he loved her, but he wasn't sure. He needed more time. He wanted to make sure their relationship was based on love, not lust.

She said she'd wait.
"Those are powerful words," Mark says. He wanted to mean them. And besides, he knew Craig hadn't said it to Diane yet. Mark, the Shadow, wasn't the type to put pressure on his faster-moving brother.

But a month later, Mark beat Craig to the punch. In St. Louis, Mark brought Darlene a candy heart frame with a rebus inside: a picture of an eyeball, two hearts and a "U."

"I love you, too," she said. But he already knew that.
That same night, Craig said he loved Diane. Everything progressed at the same pace. "It helped both of the couples fall more in love," Craig says. "I liked Diane more because I knew how happy her sister made Mark."

"That was nice of you," Mark says. "I didn't really care." Darlene made him happy, and if she hadn't made him happy and he didn't love her, he wouldn't have gone along just because everyone else was. He wants it known that he wasn't dragged into the relationship: He and Darlene did some things (wink, wink) before Craig and Diane.

After they'd all four proclaimed their love, they visited the girls' sister and brother-in-law. The girls watched the boys play with their two-year-old nephew, Tyler, and told the guys they'd make really good fathers.

For Valentine's Day Craig sent Diane azaleas with a card: "For my forever Valentine. Let this remind you of me until we're together again."

"She named it after me," Craig says. She calls the plant Craigette.
"It died," Mark says.
"No, it did not die,"Craig says. "She nursed it back to health." It's in her kitchen window, Diane confirms. She looks at it every morning.

After "I love you," Darlene says, she figured marriage was the next step. The only obvious next step. The boys thought so, too. As couples, they'd had 30 dates together -- assuming that every day spent together counts as a date. The guys had dated girls this long before, but they'd never been engaged. Never crossed their minds.

"If this had been ten years ago..." Craig starts.
Mark interrupts: "It wouldn't have been legal."
"They would've been 18," Craig allows. But his point is, ten years ago he and Mark might not have been ready to settle down. They're 35 now. It's time.

In March they all went to the Astros' spring training in Orlando, Florida. On their way to dinner, the boys suggested they check out the view from the ninth floor. Darlene thought it was a bad idea. It was already 7:45, and they had dinner reservations at 8. She hates being late.

But Craig and Mark promised to be fast. In the dimly lit hospitality room, the boys' laptop sat in the corner. The baseball screen saver had fans cheering and bats cracking. The girls went straight to it -- just as the boys had planned.

When one of the girls touched the mouse, the screen said: "Diane and Darlene, our love is eternal." The background was covered in red hearts, as if someone dropped a plate of Valentine's candy on the page.

Like a fancy fourth-grade note, it said, "Will you marry me? Click yes or no." Diane let Darlene go first because she's the oldest. Darlene clicked yes, and Mark took her off to the corner, got down on one knee and asked the question again. She started crying.

"I did it the correct way," Mark says.
"I forgot," Craig says."I did everything without the knee -- I had knee surgery a couple years ago."

"Oh, come on," Mark says. "That is so lame. He's nauseating me."

"I was surprised that they chose twins," says Mark and Craig's mom, Lenni Sanders. "I never thought they had the same taste in women." She thinks the girls are sweet and obviously adore her sons. But she always thought Craig would choose a blonde, and Mark, a brunette.

"I think they're taking advantage of a situation," Lenni continues. The "situation" being the convenience of the four-way match: Both boys wanted to get married, both weren't dating anyone, and they found two girls they both like who are easy to get along with.

Darlene and Diane wanted to be June brides, but the boys said the ceremony had to be after baseball season. So they're getting married in St. Louis on November 13.

The girls will be each other's maid of honor. The boys will be each other's best man. The girls' father will walk them down the aisle, one twin on each arm. There will be four bridesmaids dressed in eggplant, then dinner and dancing, but that's as much as the girls will say about the ceremony. They won't describe their wedding gowns, except to say -- no surprise -- that they'll be identical.

Mark's suggesting separate honeymoons. The idea was shot down the first time, but he's going to bring it up again. He wants to spend time with his wife, and only his wife, but he knows that Darlene will be happier with her sister.

"I don't want to be known as someone who's going to be double-dating for the rest of my life," Mark says. "I'm sure that when we get them down to Houston and married, we'll do things separately."

The two couples will not share a single house. "I've seen other twins who've done that, and it's too weird," Mark says. "It's like living in a commune."

Instead, they're building their future homes on adjoining lots in Pearland. (Craig wants to rename the city Pairland.)

They're going to have one big yard with no fence in between so Shadow can run back and forth. Shadow's going to sleep on Darlene and Mark's porch. Right now he sleeps in Mark's bed. But Darlene doesn't think that's sanitary.

"She said that?" Mark asks. "Maybe that'll be our first fight."
And Craig can't help, because Diane's scared of big dogs. Mark's gonna be on his own.

For oodles of Web links, go to www.houstonpress.com.

E-mail Wendy Grossman at wendy_grossman@ houstonpress.com.


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