Poto and Cabengo

Imagine a pair of twin girls who suffered apparent seizures very soon after their birth. A doctor speculated their mental development could be retarded as a result, and their parents responded by stashing them away with a distracted and neglectful grandmother.

As a result, the two girls—née Grace and Virginia—developed their own idioglossia, an idiosyncratic language that only the two of them could understand. In their private world, they became to each other Poto and Cabengo, and shared their unique speech without any ostensible regard to their family’s disdain.

And they were happy. They giggled and twittered and shared with each other everything they knew.

I totally get it. I have a sister, who, where for not the nearly five years between us, could be my twin. At least we think so. Some people think we look alike; some think we swam in opposing gene pools. Some recognize one within the other; some can’t even believe we’re related. It’s true that we’ve never competed on any field—from our parents’ attention to boyfriend affection. She’s an incredible singer, and I have no pipes. I’m a writer, and she reads my every written word. In short, our interests and talents overlap only in the Venn intersection of mutual admiration.

And while we don’t call each other Poto and Cabengo, we do call each other a lot of other names: Rotunda and Profunda. Dolores y Maria. Rhonda and Raynelle Darlene.

If anybody were listening, they wouldn’t understand half of it. We make up languages and accents and cultures and then we act them out to the point of gasping hysteria. Our audience? Each other. (OK, maybe sometimes we “perform” for our cousins, who have to love us no matter what.) Taking on these imaginary identities and inventing these patois, which are often irreverent and vulgar, is so silly and singular that I cannot imagine our relationship without it.

Rhonda and Raynelle Darlene, circa 1990

I’m also glad it’s not my only option for communication, and that—for the most part—people besides my sister understand me when I speak. I like sharing whatever words I can, in whatever syntax, with whoever will listen. Poto and Cabengo’s private language is fascinating, but inherently limiting. Not many people would know what Cabengo means when she says, “pinit, putahtraletungay.

I like being able to say instead, “I’m hungry, so I’m going to finish the potato salad” and know that whoever happens to be sitting at the table with me will understand. More importantly, I like being able to write about the potato salad.

And I like knowing that—in addition to my sister—you, dear reader, can read it.