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Nick walked in long strides through the heavy rainfall that drowned the city.  His combat boots slapped puddles in the parking lot, carrying him through the wide rivers that the gutters had become.  His designer jeans were soaked from the knees down, and his pompadour glistened with pomade and beads of water.  He walked swiftly past the college library and stopped before his classroom door, which had a yellow paper sign taped to it.  The paper sagged and bled ink onto the door.  It read that class had been cancelled due to flooding.  Nick had expected as much; because just a handful of students were there, armed with battered and bent umbrellas, and ponchos improvised from trash bags.

He turned to look at the liquid crystal curtains that ran off of the eaves of the walkway and splashed into the muddy grass beside it.  He breathed into his nose the sweet, thick smell of clean that city dwellers relish in poor weather, and especially in places like Orange County where it often rains but twice a year.  Behind the waterfalls swayed palm trees in the gale, their fronds swept back like hair against a background of gray, burgeoning clouds.  Nick tasted the air on his tongue and smiled.  He took a cigarette from a metal case with an etching of a bee on the cover and lit it with his Zippo (clink).  The warmth of the little fire licked his nose.  He puffed twice and snapped the lighter shut (clanck).

Nick reflected on the meaning of rain on a guy’s birthday, because daydreams often gave him pause.  A fantasy of ill fortune like a Shakespearean tragedy played out in his mind.  He did not consider himself superstitious, but the irony of a deluge on his birthday (and during a drought, no less) was impossible to ignore.  He blew smoke at the ribbons of water before him and watched how it swirled around the streams, curling upward against the raindrops.  He felt heat coming from inside his jacket and shivered, zipped it up.  Then with a chuckle and a sigh, he walked back to his beat-up Japanese car and drove back to the 405 freeway.

“Fuck school,” he said, signalling to merge into the confused traffic.  “I should’a been a bartender.”

Nick was twenty-five that day, and he felt a quarter century old.  His grandma Beautrice had been right when she snapped her fingers in his face and cried, “It goes by just – like – that!”  Friends had moved, and friends were married, giving birth, serving tours of duty, getting masters degrees in worthless subjects…  Several of them had entered the real estate game after high school and now owned houses of their own.

Nick had gone to school to learn, and secretly believed college would guarantee a nice salary, though he worried that his love of knowledge made him just another pauper in the land of the successful illiterate.  Even so, he felt proud, and only regretted that California respected capital gains above all else.  He chain-smoked when outdoors, and laughed cynically at spandex-clad joggers.  He spoke easily among strangers, and knew the best people in cities all over California.  Nick would not have changed a thing.  He felt that he could not change and remain content.  In that awareness, he rested.

And today was his birthday, so with the last class of the week cancelled and college loan money in his wallet, he made up his mind to celebrate.  He called everyone he knew, but all of his friends had work or school that night, so he called girls.

Kaitlyn had got a boyfriend.  Donna’s phone was off.  The other Donna would have loved to go, but she had given up dating for Lent, which was not in June.  He should not have said what he’d said last time, he decided.

Eh, fuck ‘er.

He also thought to call Jennifer in Los Angeles but decided not to.  She was too unstable for a birthday.  She could show up with lots of expensive balloons and a hired celebrity, or something.  With options limited for the night, he figured to party alone, and he intended to start right away.

He turned off the 405 to get new clothes to go out in, parked at the mall, and found his favorite store.  The blue jeans they sold hung perfectly on his hips, and he could never find another place that had them like that.

“Hello,” said a passionless teenage girl.  “Can I help you find anything?”

“Not right now, thanks.”

“Just let me know if I can help you find anything,” she smiled.

“Uh-huh,” said Nick.

You can always tell a bullshit smile when there’s no crow’s feet, he thought.  Very pretty, though.

The new fashions tended towards thirty years ago, as all Los Angeles fashions do, with only enough alterations to make clothing cheaper to produce and seem innovative at the same time.  Nick preferred used, vintage clothing; but he was out to spend money, and if there were nothing but cheap modern rags for sale, then he would buy some, by God.

He tried on cigarette pants and Italian belts, square-toed loafers and mock-eighties style shirts.  He tried on collared shirts with metallic ties, leisure jackets, cotton suits, wool vests and knit sweaters, but nothing flipped his lid.  Nick looked better in what he was wearing.

Leaving the dressing room for the last time, he opened the door on another man’s face and almost toppled him over.  Then, upon seeing him, Nick gasped.

Wolfgang Krautfrog, as he was called by his friends, was half German, half French, and happened to look precisely like Nick in every way.  In the corner of the men’s department they circled each other, gaping and smiling and making small sounds of exclamation such as long-separated friends are like to make when reunited, though neither had ever seen the other before.

Quoi la. . .?”

“The fuck?  Hah!”

Wolfgang had come to Orange County to practice psychological pharmacology, and moonlighted as a freelance journalist.  He had left Germany a homosexual and had taken up women during his first year in Los Angeles.  When Long Beach boys balked at his female exploits, he shrugged and laughed the blame onto the girls in Huntington.  The gay community’s hostile reaction to this shocked and disappointed him, and Wolfgang therefore dated mostly females in Southern California.  He made good money, and lived in a town home too large for his liking, but his friends from Europe visited him often.  He typically wore shorts and tank-tops since coming to America, but he had spilled a cup of coffee onto a stack of high-fashion jeans in the very store he and Nick were now in, and had had to buy them all.  To justify the outrageous expense, he wore a pair of them every day, these same jeans that Nick was now wearing.  They had the same combat boots on, which were common at any Army-Navy store, but that they wore the same vintage sweater was unfathomable.  All in all, with their hair cropped at the same tight length and their chins squared with the same natural angles, Wolfgang stood in awe, just as Nick did.

“We’re – I mean – we’re not, but. . .”

“Well!” said Wolfgang.

They laughed and shook hands.

“Do I look like you, or do you look like me?” Nick coughed.

“My image!” said Wolfgang.

“What the fuck?  This is –” Nick scratched his head.  “This is amazing.”

Wolfgang made a sound like a small kiss.

Ouai,” he said.  Whey, it sounded like.

“Jesus Christ.”

They talked, stunned, and Nick invited him to have a drink at the tiny, ritzy bar there in the mall, and Wolfgang readily went.  Nick expected that they would order twin drinks, but this proved false.  Wolfgang ordered Ketel One and soda, and Nick called him a pussy.  They were immediate friends.  Just the same, their conversation only felt natural after the second round.

“So, you’re French, I guess.”

“No.  I am German.  I just speak French.”

“Oh,” said Nick.  “That’s fucked-up.  A kraut that speaks frog?  Ha-ha!”

Wolfgang smiled.

“It’s common in Europe.  My friends sometimes call me Krautfrog, as you say.”

Nick chuckled, but he didn’t think it was very funny.

“I think I’ll call you Wolfgang.”

“But that is not really right, you see.”

Nick listened.  His bar napkin stuck to his elbow.

“My name is Voolf-gong.”

“Volfgang.”

“Voolf-gong.”

“Volfgong.”

Ouai.”

“Way,” agreed Nick.

They laughed in such a similar manner that people turned.

Before long, the subject of Nick’s birthday came up.  They had a toast, and Wolfgang said something quick in a language neither French nor German that went un-translated, and they soon found themselves in a cab on their way downtown to spend their time, money, and sobriety elsewhere.

An upstairs bar and grill called Hurricanes had the best view of Main St. in Huntington, so they went there.  The sun was inches over the Pacific, and oil tankers made oblong silhouettes on the horizon behind rows of palm trees along Pacific Coast Highway.  Even the stoplight at Sixth St. looked beautiful above the cluster of SUVs, luxury cars, bicycles, and foot traffic that made up Main and Walnut.

The bartender whom greeted them had a playing card’s worth of cleavage, and freckles more than pale skin, and she was the first to call them twins.

“Twins!” she said.

And without flinching, twitching, or pausing, they put her on.

“This is my brother, Wolf,” said Nick.

“Hi.”

She flashed her eyes and smiled at the handsome pair, and just like that, the ridiculousness began.

Within a month they had bedded four brunettes, three blondes, and one redhead, the redhead being the bartender, herself.  Nick learned to fake a very slight accent from time to time, and to deny having one when girls asked.  Wolf would say things in French to him, and he would respond in a handful of ways that he had learned:

Ouai, ouai, s’il vous plait,” which he liked because it rhymed;

Tu point du cul!” which never failed to make them laugh, because he was calling Wolf an ass whisker, and;

J’ne sais pas,” because Nick often had no idea what Wolf was saying.

The set-up was flawless.  They looked too identical to be lying and, after all, they spoke French.  Girls fell at their feet on general principle, because no young woman with her wits about her would turn down laughing, sexy, fashionable, French twin brothers, and when at last they tired of the game, their yawning apathy only attracted more women.  By then, Nick had learned enough French to actually communicate with his brother, and they said unspeakable things when less than perfect young ladies accosted them.

“Like a toad, no?”

“Hah!  Like a bus, really.”

“She talks a lot.”

“She’s a clown.”

“Get rid of her.”

“It’s your turn!”

“Fuck that, I’m too drunk.”

Huntington Beach was their throne room, and Hurricanes, their throne.  Nick’s friends and acquaintances were shocked, of course, to discover that he had a twin, and some were doubtful about his dubious European heritage, but the likeness dispelled every cynicism, and even the most dumbfounded of his compatriots could not question their validity.

Enter, Stephanie.

Stephanie stood just taller than five feet, with long, brick-colored hair like a curtain, and notorious breasts that left her lovers wondering, are they, or aren’t they?  She had a heart-shaped face with noble cheekbones and a button nose tipped with pink, and her genuine smile bespoke a good nature.  Her dark eyes stabbed sensual innocence through the sad, materialistic atmosphere that characterized Huntington in those more modern years, and unlike some innocent, beautiful women, she lacked the power to dispel gloom with a laugh or smile.

Stephanie loved love, loved it truly, and it was this trait, coupled with an irreversible naïveté, that caused her to trust well-turned pickup lines, and gave her reason to cry each Sunday morning upon waking in her plush bed, alone, alone, alone.  It was also this that led her to other women’s beds, where her innate wantonness found gentle and caressing recourse.

On the day Stephanie met Wolf and Nick, she was teetering from two glasses of champagne she’d indulged in, more drunk than she’d been in months, and at that time Nick was ready to sock his faux brother like an inmate.

Putain!”

Arrete ca!”

Fucker.”

“Stop it; elle est tres joli, non?”

“Go fuck yourself, Wolf.”

Stephanie was a high school psychologist.  She professionally intervened.

“Hey.  What’s the problem?”

They were in bed, the three of them, before midnight, but at dawn Stephanie woke up with only Nick.

“Good morning, sunshine,” she cooed, coiling around him.

Nick felt soft warmth on his skin and reclined into the mattress.

“Augh,” he said.  “What day is it?”

Stephanie initiated more.  More was good.  Two cigarettes and some time later, they stood naked in the kitchen, drinking mimosas and frying eggs that ended up, oddly enough, in the garbage.

“So what were you two fighting over, yesterday?”

Nick groaned like an old house.

“We settled that last night.”

“No, we came here.  We didn’t talk about it at all.”

“Yes, we did,” said Nick.  “You wouldn’t let it go.”

“But nobody told me anything,” she said.  “Not in English, anyway.”

“Forget that.  That’s nothing.”

Stephanie shifted.  She sensed the embryo of something more gestating on his tongue.

Nick stood apart from her and grasped the sink with one hand.  He held his champagne glass away from him as though it were someone else’s cigar.  His eyes fixated on the orange drink, squeezing it for anything that would help him with words.  Then, as simply as if he were spitting, Nick fucked everything up.

“Wolf grabbed my dick last night,” he said.

Stephanie showed no expression.  She turned without meeting his eyes, and said clinically, “Oh.  Well, that’s not necessarily evil, or anything.  Was that the first time?  How do you feel about that?”

But Nick had nothing to say in that vein, and hung his head.

“That isn’t the first time, I take it.  Do you think your brother’s in love with you?”

“He isn’t my brother.”

“No –” Stephanie cooed like a whispering owl, “of course he is, even if you have a disagreement, or – ”

“No,” said Nick. “He isn’t.  Do you see?  I met him last June on my birthday.  I met him while I was shopping for jeans.”

Stephanie, whom had drawn close, now slipped slowly away, receding into the small kitchen to examine him at a distance like a cornered animal.  She took up the champagne they were mixing with orange juice and drank from the bottle.

“You mean you’re – not related?  You met him at a birthday party – and – and you lied to me, to get me into bed?”

Nick nodded gravely.  Yes.

Stephanie drank the remainder of the bottle, vanished into her room, and instantly emerged dressed, thundering to the door.

“Wait, Steph,” he said, but she cut him short without turning as she searched her purse for keys.

“No, you wait,” she said.  “You wait.  You come here with your accent and your identical, twin brother and have an amazing night – at least, I thought – and then wake up and tell me he grabbed your fucking dick, but that’s OK because it’s not incest?  Fuck!  That you’re actually not twins?  What the fuck is the matter with you?”

She threw the front door open, impaling the knob into the drywall.

“No, that’s –”

“You know, I have eyes, Nick.  I have fucking eyes.  He’s not your twin?  Oh, my God.”

And with that, she left, the door flung open to the morning light, leaving Nick standing with a champagne glass in one hand, and his dick in the other, which he had unconsciously gripped at some point in the debacle.  It seemed hilarious dangling from him when he released it.

Stephanie went to the bar with the express intent to get drunk without crying.  This former goal she accomplished by lunchtime, but failed in the latter before she got there.

After drinking alone for a couple hours, Stephanie discovered Wolf at the bar’s alternate balcony in the mid-afternoon.  Her manicured hand on his shoulder went unnoticed while he laughed with the barfly seated beside him.  Wolfgang had not spoken to Nick since the night before, and was heavily buzzed.  When he turned and saw her, he exclaimed and hugged her close, bringing her to stand with him where they watched people walking down Main.

“Hello!  Want a shot?  There are some coming.”

His warm and delighted reception assured her that his brother had gone mad, and, abandoning Nick to the obscurity of the afternoon, she partied the day gone with beer, foolishness, and Wolfgang, who by now had quite an audience of new acquaintances.

“We didn’t know Nick had a brother, you know,” they said.

“Or that he was French?”

“German, actually.”

“German!”

“Yeah, I thought Nick was from Santa Monica.”

Stephanie’s day had taken a turn.  She drove the morning’s complications willingly and effortlessly from her mind, and drank with Wolf and his new friends with neither care nor abandon.  It was not until night had fallen and the others had gone that their drunkenness caused them to talk like lovers, rather than strangers.  They spoke easily and without pretense.

“Were you married in Europe?”

“No,” said Wolf.

“What was her name?”

“Alex.”

“That’s a pretty name,” said Stephanie.  “What happened?”

“Well, we were boring after a long time; and I wanted to come to Orange County.”

“Oh,” she said.  “So that’s why you didn’t marry her?”

“No,” laughed Wolf, smiling around his mug.  “We couldn’t get married.  Alex is a Catholic.”

Stephanie frowned diagonally at him.

“And you’re…”

He swallowed beer and wiped his mouth, and spoke behind his sleeve.  At length, he mumbled.

“I’m gay.”

Stephanie’s face became a mask, hard, opaque, and impenetrable.

“Alex is a man.”

Her expressions melted into each other, mirroring her thoughts.  Images led to images, one disbelief into another, and in her present condition nothing would do but that she believed everything and nothing at once.  The result left her shaken and speechless, and Wolfgang knew better than to let her stew.

“I started dating women in America,” he said.  “After Alex, I discovered how American men feel about it when you date women.  That’s been very hard for me.”

Stephanie stared as if at any moment he could transform into a toaster.

“So you like women, now?  Just like that?”

His shoulders fell.  He sighed.

“I liked women before.  I like men more, I guess, but I like women.  Sometimes more.  It’s not this complicated in Germany.  People don’t ask questions this way.”

Stephanie bit her lip, nodded, and then, inexplicably, laughed.

“Is that funny?” said Wolf, coming to stand off his stool.

“Only because I understand,” she said.

“Oh.  You’ve been to Germany?”

“No,” laughed Stephanie, her face flushed.  “Last night was the first time in a while I’ve slept with a man.  I’ve been with girls for a long time, now.”

Wolf chuckled deep in his chest.  Could irony be complete without the solidarity of non-fiction?  How many times had he found himself in a frank, honest place with no one but actors all around?  But then, everyone felt that way, didn’t they?  He felt sure most people did.

Stephanie told him about the disappointments of her life: her men, mostly, and that her women were too like them outside of the bedroom to make a partner.  She wept twice in the telling, though briefly, and Wolf let her tears come and go without trying to make her smile.  They had everything in common; everything, as unlikely as it was, and they were together in her bed that night without making love, perhaps because each was as wasted as the other.

Nick began to leave flowers on her doorstep, sometimes, with choice phrases from her favorite poet attached.  Owing to her emotionally indulgent nature, they began to see each other again.  They had lunch, then lunches, then the occasional dinner, and then weekends, during which sex was notably absent.

Wolfgang saw Stephanie, as well, though their relationship had changed without his consent.  Where before he had been a lover and a friend, he had slipped into the habitual role of confidant and friendly counselor, and it pained him dearly.  He felt the division particularly sharp upon finding Nick’s bouquet at her door one morning when he came to take her to breakfast, and, with a shudder like it were human, tossed it into the hedges by the door, but not before noting the author of the poem attached.

Nick and Wolf had widened very much apart by this time, having not spoken for weeks, though Wolfgang had certainly called him.  He attributed Nick’s silence to a sudden homophobia, rightly deciding that it was his own hands that had frightened him away in the hours following their consummate lovemaking.  Americans, he thought, were very much enamored of boundaries, and when those lines were crossed, had swift and severe finitudes with which do dispatch anything colored gray, and he felt great disappointment in it.

Nick, himself, had managed through perseverance and sincerity to date Stephanie from time to time, and because he sweetly made her feel like royalty wherever they went, she began to dote on him, too, though the problem of sexual stagnancy began to set in as she spent her time in the evenings with Wolfgang more and more.

She and Wolfgang went out together and made a game of pigeonholing the appearances of men and women around them.

“See, I like her,” Stephanie said once.

“She’s cute.  A little Orange County, though.”

“What do you mean?” she giggled, slapping his arm.

“Well, nothing – except that her brown hair is attacking her blonde hair, and she thinks sneakers go with dinner dresses.”

Closing times saw them leaving together, and most mornings saw her waking alone, because he worked early. Wolfgang and Stephanie became better friends than either of them had ever had.

Nevertheless, Stephanie entertained a deeper romance with Nick, who for an unknown and un-discussed reason, refused to bed her, and in all other ways charmed her more naturally than Wolfgang, whom she considered her best friend.

Nick surprised her at work with a song he sang amidst her coworkers one day, and they swooned and envied her, one and all.  Nick and Stephanie discussed philosophy and religion, politics and literature, modern art and traveling, and Stephanie found herself in love with a man whom lived in two bodies.

Then, one night after a round of tequila, she let it slip to Wolf that she had fallen in love with Nick.  Wolfgang acted non-plussed, but his young, impetuous ingenuity went violently to work.

The next night, Wolf went to Nick’s home and used the hidden key, which he had once been well-used to, and crept inside.  Nick slept soundly in his bedroom at the rear of the house, and Wolf easily stole away with Nick’s cell phone, and replaced the key in its hiding place where he had found it.

Stephanie called the next day, and Wolfgang answered the phone as if he were Nick, himself.

“Hi, honey.”

“Hey, Steph.  Did you sleep well?”

“Better, yeah, thanks.  But I can’t talk right now.  You wanna meet me at the café, tonight?”

He went to meet her, affecting Nick’s particularities with impeccable precision and ease.  He doubled the cuffs in his jeans as Nick did, and smoked in chains as Nick did, and said to her all of the things he imagined a would-be poet like Nick would say to a girl he loved, which was easy, because he did.  Stephanie had a wonderful time.  They slept together, and when she pressed against him with her lips and with her body, he rolled over and pretended to sleep, knowing her dissatisfaction well.  She had told him of her concerns regarding her sexual tension with Nick, and Wolf wanted her to experience them.

The next morning, Nick rang her doorbell, and Wolfgang answered.

Nick’s mouth gaped.  “What?” he hiccupped.

“Whadd’re you doing here?” said Wolfgang.

“Fuck you!” said Nick, approaching the door.

“Now’s not the time,” Wolf countered.

Their eyes locked, and their faces retold an old lovers’ tale, staring each other down, Nick’s features stretched and white, eyes bulging and brows twitching, with Wolfgang standing slightly above him inside the door, looking down with all the indignity and righteousness of a Roman senator.  Nick stopped at the threshold, nose-to-nose with Wolfgang, and they breathed each other’s air for a mere second before Wolf shut the door on him.  Nick beat upon it with his fists, yelling for Stephanie to talk to him as they threw clothes over themselves and fled out the backyard.

They slid through the alley and down a narrow, disused old street flanked by rustic, beach-city houses.  Sand choked the gutters and muddied the potholes, because the road was too narrow to sweep.  They heard Nick’s shouting fading away over the rooftops behind them.  Like a blameless force of nature, Wolfgang said nothing, and not until they reached Palm Ave. did Stephanie talk to him.

“I – I never knew he could be like that.  I knew Wolfgang was a tense guy, but I never thought he would be the kind of guy to beat on my door and scream in the street.”  She paused too long, laughed anxiously, and then said, “That’s the sort of thing you would do, Nick.”

They kicked loose gravel along old asphalt downtown streets as they walked.  On the sidewalk, masons’ stamps bore the years they laid the concrete: Smith and Sons, 1923; Bottel Co. ’72; Mathieson Const. 1936.  It made Wolf feel old and young at the same time.  Those men’s working days were long over; and his had just begun.  But nothing really mattered.

“Wolfgang’s in love with you,” said Wolfgang.  “He’s not himself.”

She sighed.  Her head hung low.  Wolfgang stared at the round M shape her hairline made at the nape of her neck.  Flakes of skin clung to wisps of her hair above a sterling silver necklace.  He kissed her there, making her jerk her head up and laugh.

Later that day, Wolfgang called her from Nick’s phone and left frightening, delusional messages.  Stephanie did not mention them, but he could tell by her countenance that she had checked her voicemail.  He tried to call her again the following day, but Nick had disconnected his service.  The same day, Stephanie got a call from a number she did not recognize, and let it ring.  She checked the message afterward, and found that it was Nick, speaking in a low, dire tone.  Nick swore his devotion to her, and urgently pleaded that his twin brother was not only an alien from Germany to whom he was not related, but was also masquerading as he, himself, in her home.

The stalking continued.  Nick continued to leave flowers and poems on her doorstep, along with other such small messages and piles of cigarette butts, until Stephanie finally moved in with Wolfgang.  Nick found himself without recourse, and the matter was settled without bloodshed or policemen.  Nick the chain-smoking American dropped out of school and disappeared for some time, and Nick the French-German doppelganger married Stephanie within the year, never to be called Wolfgang in those parts again.

The affair had another bizarre consequence, also: Wolfgang having obtained a driver’s license, social security card, passport, and even birth certificate, Huntington Beach possessed two Nicks for a while.  Rumors circulated of a man who was in the drunk tank and the bar simultaneously, and of a man who both surfed the south side of the pier and shouted angrily down at himself from it.  Several witnesses saw him standing stately on the corner of Main and Olive as he passed himself slowly in a car, making threatening faces.  But Nick Krautfrog moved away with Stephanie to Las Vegas at last, and the debacle faded into nothing but urban legend.

Wolf continued to abstain from relations with men, although with some confusion, and maintained a happy marriage in spite of his sexual proclivities.  When his past relentlessly pricked his mind and made him wonder about himself, he consoled himself with the mantra: “She loves me,” and disallowed his self any further thought on the subject.

Nick the American quit smoking, began writing books that he did not publish, and eventually wound up pouring drinks at Hurricanes, where he remains to this day.  Having completed therapy to the satisfaction of his doctors, Nick thinks Wolfgang Krautfrog to be an apparition, believes he never had any brother to speak of, and that Stephanie moved on from their passion just as he, himself, needed to.  In the end he renounced belief in both Wolfgang and Stephanie, for she was certainly nowhere to be seen, having vanished without a sign.  In the end, Nick was cornered intellectually by his therapist, whom forced him to admit that one could not truly love a ghost; and therefore, he could never have loved Stephanie.

Even so, it was years before the loss of his cell phone ceased to trouble him, as he had always habitually – religiously, even – kept it at the end of a wallet chain, attached to a belt he almost never removed from his jeans.

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Fifteen

Fifteen

Stephanie and her husband Nick had just celebrated their fifteenth wedding anniversary when it occurred to her over a bowl of chili that she might cheat on him.  Their love had been the easy, enduring kind of love that depends on a domestic history for its flavor.  This kind of love matures like an investment after many decades; but it holds little passion for youth, youth which continually worries about other investments.  This was what Stephanie thought about over her chili, though in different words.  Feminine philosophies swirled in the eddies of steam from her bowl.  She ate them.

What if Nick cheats on me after another fifteen, twenty, thirty years, she thought.  Or worse, what if he already has?

Ask him.

He wouldn’t tell me if he had – I wouldn’t tell him if I had.

But he loves you.

But Nick loves me!  I can’t do that to him!

Nick doesn’t need to know.  Nothing would change…

The thought caused her to stop eating.  Her spoon became an ornament in her hand.  What if nothing changed?  She saw her marriage stretching flat and expansive before her, an arid, dependable hardpan desert cracked by the noon sun where nothing of consequence could live.  Stephanie rebuked herself, and ate a cold spoonful.

Their marriage had everything a marriage was supposed to have, and the suburban evidences to prove it.  Their living room had memories of family friends and holidays under its paint, and the mesmeric mud of matrimony ground into the carpet.  Their kitchen sink did not work properly because Nick had repaired it, and because the ever-sentimental Stephanie insisted that the knobs stay reversed.  The bathrooms were decorated with black and white photos taken by John, their son.  Their bedroom had antediluvian dents in the drywall from their lovemaking.  Their tiny backyard had a flourishing garden that annually sprouted fruits and blossoms, though it grew unattended and fraught with weeds and dandelions.  Their marriage thrived in much the same way.

Even so, Stephanie could not shake the conviction that she had never known True Love.  She’d been taught by her mother and grandmother, by her elementary and Sunday school teachers, and by her childhood reading as well as adult that True Love was an undeniable, omnipotent force that bound the universe together and could not be ignored.

Nick had never felt to her like an omnipotent force, let alone like anyone that held the universe together.  In fact, the circumstances around their meeting had been tumultuous and vague, the stuff of unlikely weather and violent revolutions, rather than having the fated clarity of True Love.  Remarkable rumors had even circulated about Nick before their marriage, the sort of talk no one would take seriously, vague whispers about him being a liar and a con (a Satanist able to appear two places at once, even) but she had defended him to the last and taken his name at the altar.  Nevertheless, these were not the omens that predicated True Love.  True Love had seemingly escaped her.

But, Georgio

Stephanie had met him recently.

William Georgio had only the money he carried.  He had no car.  He had friends in every major city and lived rent-free on a floor of his own in a woman’s house he had no relations with, and perpetually smelled like gasoline.  He also made Stephanie stutter over things she’d said a thousand times before.  He dressed like a teenager on the cutting edge of five-dollar fashion, and the anachronistic audacity of a grown man in torn blue jeans drove Stephanie mad.  Worse still and of course, Georgio was gorgeous.

Stephanie washed out her chili bowl in the faulty sink, left her kitchen, and went on foot to meet the man, but not before checking her appearance one more time in the mirror at the front door.  Her make-up was too thick and her hair too contrived (too “done,” she thought) and she really needed to buy one of those bras with plastic transparent straps.  Her diet was not working.  She should not have eaten.  She frowned at her image in abject disgust before leaving.

Her footfalls clopped out question marks in the early afternoon, and the presence of mysteries invigorated her.

Why am I going?  I should go home.

Fuck “should.”

I love my husband!  Why am I doing this?

There’s obviously a reason.

It can’t be a good reason.  I wouldn’t be so confused.

You’re confused because there’s a good reason, Stephanie.

Who is this person walking away from her husband?  Who is this woman walking away from her family?  Augh!  I don’t know who I am right now.

She clicked her tongue with a sharp sound that echoed once down the street.

Steph, you know who you are.  Don’t be retarded.

You don’t really know who you are.

“Fuck off,” she told herself, and went on down the sidewalk, minutes away from what her excitement demanded of her.

Meanwhile, Georgio sat at the bar examining the black engine grime under his fingernails and the white crescents formed at the cuticles.  He had lately learned that the white crescents were called lunulae, or something, after the moon.  He wondered if there was a word for the permanent black arcs under his nails.  He had read somewhere that English was the most expansive language in the world.  He wondered if any of the ten-million ‘ologies had made a name for a man like him, and if he were actually anything like it if they had.  He doubted it.  There were words, though.

Georgio could be called a pariah except that no society had ever kicked him out.  People had called him a misogynist before, but far from hating women, he couldn’t part from them.  He’d been called a lady-killer before, but lots of people were called that.  Could he be an egotist?  Maybe, but he thought that he mostly hated himself.  Arrogant, then…  Yes, but that’s an adjective.  Nothing would fit.

“’Nother beer?”  Asked the bartender.

“Whiskey on the rocks, Johnny.  Please.”

A familiar drink from a familiar old bartender made him smile.  Few things in life were as delightfully dependable.  He reflected with painful certainty that the nature of things was to pass away, and felt queer comfort that this applied not only to the good things, but all things.  Bad things.  Were he the son of the Devil, himself, his passing was a baptism and an antiseptic.  Not whiskey, though.  He could order another, and another, and another.  Whiskey endured like religions.  Whiskey endured even religions.

But what of this Stephanie woman: family; kid; church-going (he thought)?  She gave the impression that she’d rather die than have a really good time.

Rather die than have too much freedom, you mean.

Yeah.  But she’s meeting me here!

She’s a fucking girl scout.

Girl scout goes drinkin’ while hubby’s at work?

When else?  You think her life revolves around family?

Yeah.  I do.

She can’t be herself and her family all at the same time.

You’ll exploit that.

You bet your ass I will.

You’re a horror of a man.

I am not.  I’m a liberator.

Arrogant!  You’re a selfish child.

Fuck you.

Georgio did not consider himself a Lothario, a lover, or even a good date.  He considered himself a motorcycle mechanic, and a good one.  He had a professional name for himself among those he worked for, a name that meant efficiency, solidarity, and care.  He also considered himself an expensive private sector price tag.  He charged exorbitant amounts of money to keep his volume down, but still found the bulk of his time taken up in helping out pals.  He therefore thought himself a good person, and as many women as he had wooed, none would say different.

When Stephanie entered, Georgio was the only one looking away from the door.

“Can I get you something?”

“Mimosa, please.”

The heads swiveled back to their original positions.  When the drink was brought to her this time, only Georgio was looking.

“I didn’t really think you’d come,” he said to her.

Neither did I.

“Of course.  Why wouldn’t I?”

“I dunno,” Georgio said.  “I thought everyone was afraid of meeting.”

Clever liar!

“Not everybody,” said Stephanie.  Her barstool screeched on the tile as she scooted it back.  She had the distinct feeling that in a smaller world, everything was happening according to plan.

Whose plan?

Your plan.

Not mine.

The bartender set her drink before her.  She drank from it.  Napkins suggested love letters in her inflamed imagination.  Swizzle sticks in a cup behind the bar made her think of. . .

You know what you’re thinking.

Know what?  No, I don’t!

Yes, you do.  Don’t kid yourself.

“I’ll be right back,” she said.  “I need to wash my hands.  I spilled perfume on them earlier.”

Georgio watched the clock with almost as much apathy as the clock itself, its plodding movements creating hours and minutes as much as they measured them.  He had decided once that time moved in bubbles – faster bubbles, slower bubbles, the kind of sphere one moves around in at a party, and the kind one feels like a dull pressure during a bad movie.  The pyramids were laughing at civilization, sure, but not at the stupid plastic clock on the wall.  Then he noticed that the clock was fifteen minutes fast.  Bar time.  He chuckled at the perfect insult of it.  Where was Stephanie?

She’s been in there forever.

She hasn’t left.  She’s not going anywhere without you.

Hmph.  Slow bubble.

“Slow bubble,” he murmured.

“What?” said the bartender.

“Oh, nothing.”

Stephanie returned with her hair in a high ponytail that swished jauntily with her steps.  She looked ten years younger.  Fifteen.

“Let’s go to the balcony,” she said.  “I want to smoke.”

“I didn’t know you smoked.”

She doesn’t.

“There’s a lot you don’t think,” she said, stealing an olive from behind the bar and popping it into her mouth.  She went to the door to the balcony.  Her mind spooled anxiety.

A lot you don’t know about meis what you meant to say.

Maybe he didn’t catch it.

He caught itNow he really thinks you’re dumb.

Stephanie slipped on a doormat stepping out.  Georgio followed her with a tight-lipped smile.

She’s a mess, he thought.

Once on the large beachfront balcony they stayed there, trusting their orders to the cocktail waitress and smoking like the condemned.  Stephanie drank with something like abandon, but in such a small quantity that Georgio was amazed when she began to slur.  Georgio himself drank incessantly and without much effect.  They watched the sun sink like a shining quarter into the Pacific as though it were the largest wishing well in the world, and by the time the stars came out, they were speaking as naturally to each other as they did to themselves.

“Don’t girls sleep with girls more than men sleep with men, anyway?” said Georgio.

“I don’t think so.  You’ve never had anything with a boy, before?  Even playing doctor as a kid or something?  I think everyone does.”

He balked.

“Eh, no.  Actually, I never played ‘doctor’ with anyone.”

Stephanie smiled.  Her cheeks beamed like freckled cherries below her eyes.

“Well,” she laughed, “somebody might have, um, missed out.”

That’s a strange innuendo, he thought.

She’s a strange woman.

She’s a sexy woman.

She’s a strange woman.

“I don’t think I’ve missed out on much,” he said.  “I make pretty sure I don’t miss out on anything.”

Stephanie’s smile lingered on her face.  It looked forgotten.  The motionless curve of her lips made him picture telephone lines in a ghost town.

“Do you think you’re missing anything?” he said to her.

The smile flew away.  She finished her drink with a twitch that seemed beyond her control, and she eyed the marble counter before them while fumbling in her purse for a cigarette.  Georgio produced one and lit it in his mouth before passing it to her.  Stephanie’s eyes looked up beneath her Irish brows before darting away.  She would not accept it.  He placed it burning in the ashtray, where it stayed.

“I haven’t missed out on anything worth doing,” she said.  Her tone had noticeably dropped.

Georgio nodded and sipped his whiskey.  Stephanie took up the cigarette, breathing smoke deeply and holding it before sighing it out in a way that suggested more remained in her body.

“How would you know it if you had?” he said.

Wow, you’re really going for it.

You bet your ass.  Life’s fuckin’ short.

Stephanie shook the question off with a shrug that needed her whole body.  Wisps of hair fell into her eyes and she tucked them behind an ear.

“Well how does anyone know what they’ve missed out on?  I mean, how does anyone know?  If you haven’t done it how can you know what it is?  You know?”

Georgio smiled.  He could remember a time when he could have said something like that.  That was a long time ago.

“I do just about everything I get a chance to,” he said.  “There aren’t many opportunities to experience something that I pass up.  Life’s too fuckin’ short, right?”

She stared at the dark ocean horizon with an open-mouthed grin.  She wanted to convey that she was thinking.  It gave Georgio the distinct impression that she was doing it for effect.  It bothered him, but also gave him time to glance several times at her body.  He didn’t mind that at all.

“Well, that’s kind of — slutty, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t say I did the same things over and over again,” he smirked, blowing smoke over the short balcony wall.  “New experiences.  I mean new experiences.”

She pulled a corner of her mouth up.

“But isn’t every woman a ‘new’ experience?”

Uh-oh.  Answer that and stay fashionable.

They aren’t usually new experiences, though.  Fuck, I wish they were.

They are, though.  They are.

You know?  I don’t agree with myself all the time.

“What?” said Stephanie.

“I haven’t said anything yet.”

“Oh.  Well?  Aren’t they?”

He sighed hopelessly.

“Well. . .  You’d think every woman was a new experience, but-”

She glared.  Her eyes seemed to glow, suddenly.

“Look,” she said, “I’m going to the bar to get myself another drink.  I think I’m gonna need it for whatever chauvinist bullshit you’re about to say.”

He smiled happily and walked in a small circle around the balcony.  Other women were present in various states of sultry dress, and more than one made eyes at him.  He made eyes, too, but only out of habit and a queer kind of respect.  In his opinion, the sexiest women America had to offer were in Huntington Beach, and Stephanie looked better than all those present, but he made eyes anyway, and did not wonder why.

Georgio had been dating someone on-and-off since high school more than ten years ago.  She had once said that she would not marry him unless he was financially secure, and since he didn’t believe in financial security, never thought it dependable for even the richest of the rich, this was unlikely.  Nevertheless, the long-term nature of their relationship had caused them to smolder smokelessly like coals for each other.  Georgio felt this heat in every relationship he had, and felt estranged from his dates because of it, but there was never any difference between that girl and all the others, except that he’d known her longer.  Even the women on the balcony now were much the same.  The overheard conversations were the same, and their flirtations were the same; nothing but their appearance differed, and even so they dressed and styled their hair very similarly.  Georgio groaned and people heard him.  It was a loud groan.

Stephanie found him pensive and detached upon her return.  She’d had to wait in line to get her drink this time, and in so doing had completely forgotten what they were talking about.  She’d heard two barflies talking about a man sentenced to fifteen years in prison for flying a teenager to Costa Rica and taking porn photos of her.  Good! she thought, but the barflies were agreeing that it was a long time to spend in jail for photographs.  What had stuck in her mind was that they mentioned the convict’s wife.  She imagined her at home, alone, watching television and getting fat, trying to stop thinking so much about conjugal visits and photographs.  Georgio looked as if he’d been thinking about something even darker than that.

“What do you think you would do if your wife cheated on you?” she said.

Georgio stepped away and bugged his eyes.

“Whoa, where’d that come from?”

“Just a question,” she said.  Then more seriously, “You’re not married, are you?”

He sported with her.  He made no expression.

“You’re not.  Okay.  Well – what would you do?”

He stamped his feet.  He liked to stand, and he liked to wear nice shoes with blue jeans on dates, but nice shoes never had any good cushion on them and his heels always ended up numb.

“I’d tell her to fuck herself,” he said.  “Obviously.”

Stephanie looked through him at nothing.

“Obviously,” she said, and quickly added: “But is that right?  I mean, this is the person you’ve committed your life to.”

“Yeah!  But so has she, right?”

“Yeees,” she drawled, “but what if?”

People inside were singing Happy Birthday.  Others on the patio were watching the street level where police had a young woman seated on the curb.  She was gorgeous.  They were speaking to her as calmly as though they were words on a computer screen.  Georgio watched the interaction between the cops and the girl with a mechanic’s apathy, but the sight made Stephanie tense as a tightrope.  Sometimes an engine needs to expel its exhaust, he thought, looking at the girl.  He wondered what Stephanie was thinking.

“I’d leave her.  I’d kick her out.  Isn’t that so obvious?  Askin’ me what I’d do with a cheating wife ain’t no real question at all.”

“That’s right,” said a middle-aged man near the door.

Georgio looked at her and shrugged.  See?

“I dunno,” said Stephanie, watching the cops.  “I mean, let’s say you married for love; like, let’s say you get married ‘cause you truly love somebody.  And you love the way they talk and move and breathe, screw up, and everything.”

He deflated slightly, then stood up straighter.  The night had gotten brisk, and fog rolled onshore in clouds of moist tumbleweeds down Main St. and onto the balcony.  It failed to obscure anything that mattered.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “is that supposed to change anything?  Doesn’t everyone marry because they’re in love?  I mean, it might be love of money, or love of not-being-a-single-mom, or anything, but it’s still love, right?”

She looked down.  The counter sparkled in mica-tinged marble patterns of spots and irregular cubes.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “If my husband cheated on me, and if he was that great, I’d try to be happy for him.”

Below them the handcuffed woman on the curb was led to the backseat of a squad car before their eyes.  Georgio watched her ass move.  The handcuffs were a nice touch.

“Um-” he said.  “Yeah. . .  I don’t think-”

“No!  Really,” she insisted.  “Isn’t love supposed to be selfless?”

“You’re full of shit.  You would freak out.  You wouldn’t even be happy for him.  Do you have a Jesus complex or something?  Your cheatin’ husband wouldn’t even stop to crucify you.  He’d just go on with his new girl and you’d be all alone.  What, then?  You’d sit around, all alone, thinking how great he is and how you hope he’s happy?”

Stephanie nodded.  “You’re right, I see your point, I’m just saying-”

“You’re just saying?  Come on,” said Georgio.  “You know you’d be a wreck, scrambling around, breaking dishes, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.  You’d be a total mess.”

She settled into her chair, her spine bowing and her hands gripping the counter.  Her mouth made a diagonal frown and her eyes looked out over the black ocean.  She looked genuinely in thought this time, he noticed.

“I just think that that’s what true love would do,” she said.  “Love loves.  You know?  Isn’t that what Sleeping Beauty would do if Prince Charming ran off with Snow White?”

“Listen, Steph,” Georgio said.  “I think you’re right.  That’s what true love would do.  But you know what?  Nobody operates on true love and nothing else.  Some people were raised in a bad way, or something, and they live in love and hate.  Or fear.  Or jealousy.  People have a lot more than just love in them.”

They were quiet for a while after that, Stephanie swinging her leg absent-mindedly and Georgio standing beside her, shuffling his feet, and when the silence was too much to bear, she spoke.

“I don’t know what to do, then,” she said.

“About what?”

“About anything.  Everything.  If I can’t base my life on love, I don’t know what to do.  Nothing else makes any sense to me.”

“You think love makes sense?”  Georgio threw back his head and laughed a natural, happy laugh.  “You think it makes sense?  Nothing makes sense, but least of all love.  I mean, love does what it wants.  Don’t you think it’s just as random when it shoves people together as anything else is that tears people apart?”

She sniffed and wiped her nose.  She swallowed.  “I th-”  She choked on her words.  “I think love has a kind of rule or something it follows.  Something solid.”

“Why?” said Georgio.  “If you always fall in love with guys because of some kind of rule or something, well – then you don’t get it.”

She was going to cry, maybe.  She egged him on, anyhow.

“I don’t get what?” she said.

He smiled at her, open-mouthed and with deep wrinkles in the corners of his eyes.  “Love’s everywhere!” he said.  “It’s not a rule you follow.  It’s a decision some part of you makes when you aren’t looking.  There’s no math or science or history to it, it’s as simple as a spark plug: apply gas, and spark, and you get bang.  That’s all.”

She blinked.  Her lashes made her eyes appear and disappear in slow-motion.  Her chest expanded, and Georgio waited to see it fall, but it did not.

“That’s all,” he said again.

She stood up.  It seemed the thing to do.

“My husband would disagree.”

Georgio rolled his eyes.

“You’re married.”

“Yeah,” she said, stepping off her stool with grave resolve, “but I married for love.”

And then she embraced him with every body part she could.  His mouth burned on hers with heat she could not remember feeling before.  She helplessly imagined herself with a white veil lifted away from her.  Georgio wondered as their tongues met, was he really a liberator?  Was he anything more than a bachelor out for strange tail?  And then, what was the difference?  Nothing made sense but to kiss, and to hold, and to feel the silk of her hair against his neck when she laid her head on his chest.

Above them the wind swept clouds out of the face of the face of the setting sun, and below them cars struggled to get out of each other’s way.  Georgio felt guilt and jealousy at once, and for the same reason: Stephanie had a husband.  But hat kind of deterrent was that for taking a lover?  Was anyone a possession someone else could feel jealousy for?  And if so, didn’t that make a married person as simple as a nice watch or a fancy car?  Except cars came with keys.  Even then, thought Georgio, they could be hotwired.

“I didn’t hotwire you,” he said suddenly.

“Yeah,” said Stephanie against his shirt, “you kinda did.”

The traffic on Main braided around and into and away from itself, and in time dwindled until headlights snapped on like lightning bugs and the weeknight began putting the city to sleep.  She went with him when he asked her to.  The stairs to outside presented a minor problem for her, as she had had four mimosas, more than she’d had to drink in all the previous month.  The evening air tasted good on her tongue as they walked to his apartment.

She imagined she could feel Georgio’s front door watching her enter.  The shabby carpet beneath her feet felt condemning and angry, and without any premeditation, a passionate rage released itself in her like poison, a racing, violent fire she was sure had not been there before.  She checked it, in favor of her husband and for love of her family, but found that it was not these people she hated.  Yet hate and mutiny charged her, and beneath the weight of them she buckled and broke.  Exhilaration poured into her chest like crisp, cold water and put out the flame, and she found herself at Georgio’s refrigerator.

“There’s nothing to drink,” she said.

“It’s in the freezer.”

She opened it.  He had vodka there.  As she poured it, she marveled at herself.  How could she be doing this?  Twenty-year-olds did this sort of thing.  Everything was backwards.  Everything was wrong.  Wasn’t everything wrong?  Wasn’t everything backwards?

Georgio came behind her and circled her waist with his enormous, calloused hands.  He pulled her blouse over her head and put her arms behind her.  She found herself bound.  He removed her belt and slipped it over her head.  He led her to the bedroom on a leash.  She made confused excitement, giggling in small burbles like a child.  Georgio locked eyes with the staid portrait of his grandfather in the living room as he passed.  He bared his teeth at it and touched the point of an incisor with the tip of his tongue.  Stephanie did not notice.

Once in the dark bedroom, he flung her to the bed and mounted her.

“Oh my God,” she said.

“Shut up,” said Billy Georgio.

His hands went under her waist and she felt herself lifted, shoved to the wall so that her head rested against it.  She felt him feel between the mattress and the wall, fumbling with his hands.  She smelled gasoline on him in a sharp pungent tang at once earthy and unnatural.  The belt around her neck tugged.  He had knotted it short to the bed frame.  With her head tied down and her arms uncomfortably beneath her, she passively complained to him.

“It gets worse,” Georgio said.

Cold metal on her skin just below her breastbone sobered her a little, and she tested her bonds.  With her throat constrained, she could not move at all.

“Bill,” she said.

She heard the snipping of fabric.  Her bra sprang open.  He laid the halves aside like a coroner performing an autopsy, and she felt him lick the underside of her breast in a slow, straight line, starting at the bottom and sliding his tongue over the oblong curve and across her areole, and finally climbing his tongue up her nipple in several steady moments.  She held her breath.  Then, without warning, she felt hot, sharp pain.  He bit her, hard, over and over, deep, bruising her neck and shoulders, her breasts, her stomach, as she cried out in startled shrieks, her frantic words indiscernible and blended with excitement and passion, fear and agony.  Then the bed was unburdened with him.  She saw his silhouette against the dim light of the open bedroom door move away into the room.

All was quiet and dark for some time.  She waited for what would come, her body stinging from wounds that throbbed in one unanimous pulse in her drunkenness.  She felt light-headed.  Her throat hurt.  The silence deeply troubled her.

“Georgio?” she asked.

He did not answer.  A police siren wailed by through the open window.  She heard movement on the carpet.

“Billy?”

“You’re a sexy fucking bitch all tied up, you know that?” he said.

She smiled.

Then there was a flash, and another, both of which she felt more than saw, and realized that her eyes were closed.  The flash that followed lit the room in baby blue for a split moment, and she began to see.  He was taking pictures.

“Hey!” she said.  “What the fuck?  Oh, my God put that fucking camera down.  Oh my God.  Untie me.  Bill!”

She felt the mattress accept his weight beside her, and the small screen of his digital camera blinded her to all else.  The image before her turned her into an animal, writhing and drooling like a drugged in-patient.

He watched her eyes grow large beneath her lashes like hard-boiled eggs in the electric television-blue light from the camera, and changed the picture with a button.  All three snapshots were the same: Stephanie on her back, chest bared and bruised with bites, love marks up and down her body like the tops of screws in a machine, baring all her bleached teeth in a wet smile that contrasted sharply with brick-red lipstick that smeared around her mouth in a faded doughnut as though a clown had made love to her.  The flah had made her makeup opaque above her natural skin.  She looked like a mask could be pulled off of her at the neck like in a Scooby Doo cartoon.  In the first two shots, her eyes were sensually closed.  In the third, she was biting her lower lip and looking lasciviously at the camera.  The third image pushed her over the precipice of lust.  She began mewing like a cat.

“Mmng,” she growled, crawling, the sheets whispering under her high heels.  “Take these off – I want you inside me.”

“What?” said Billy Georgio.

She giggled.

“I said I want you inside me.”

The bed lightened again.  Se saw his silhouette in the doorway, the block of the camera in his hand.

“Shut up,” he said.  “I’m printing these out.  I’m going to give them to your husband at the police station tomorrow.”

She said nothing.  Then she chattered incoherently.

“Your husband was there on Main St. tonight arresting that girl.  Don’t deny it, I could tell.  And I’m giving these to him.”

She began to kick, as though that would free her, but the more she kicked the more the belt constricted her throat, and she lay back, weeping, crying.

“Wha-ha-why?” she said, her hands clenching and unclenching beneath her.  “Why would you do that?  I don’t understand!”

“After tomorrow,” Georgio said, “you’re free.  I’m doing this for you.”

“You’re not doing this for me!” she said.  “You’re doing this to me!  Why are you doing this to me?  I love my husband!  I love my family!  Don’t do this to me!”

“I’m doing this for you,” said Georgio.  “After tomorrow, you’re free to find your true love.  After tomorrow, you’re unchained.  You’ll feel like a million bucks.”

She saw his silhouette disappear from the doorway.  Her wails of sorrow filled the small apartment.  She thrashed a moment, then lay still, sobbing and retching.  She made vomiting sounds that bore no other action.  Her flesh revolted as she heard the computer print the photos in his living room.  It took an interminably torturous amount of time, and she counted the sheets by the sound, one, two, three.  She heard the computer turning off, and his hand on the knob of the front door.

“Stay as long as you like,” he said, “and help yourself to the liquor.”

Then she heard the door shut.  Stephanie screamed.

Georgio walked back to the bar.  It was only midnight, and he felt sure she’d untangle her hands in a matter of minutes.  He threw the papers in his hand away at the first garbage bin he saw, and sighed.

You’re crazy, he thought.

Maybe.  She’s better off.

You had her, you know.  She was hot.

She’s a child.  I’m not going there.

When Georgio arrived back at his place with a short young Asian girl he’d successfully wooed before closing time, his apartment was trashed.  Everything looked broken but the portrait of his grandfather in the living room, which glared down at the mess with as much apathy as ever, the long, Slavic nose pointing like a yardstick beneath the glowering eyes like an accusing finger.

“Oh, fuck!” said the girl, her ponytail swinging between her tiny shoulder blades.

“Yeah,” said Georgio, “looks like I’ve been burglarized.  Sure looks that way.  Tough luck.”

She turned to him, stunned and alert.  He took her waist in his hands and walked her backwards to the kitchen, where two empty glasses sat on the counter beside a decanter of vodka.  He let her go to the open freezer to fetch ice cubes, which made satisfying plinks falling into the glasses.

“Expecting company?” she said.

Georgio chuckled.  Life had a strange way of not surprising him.  He could intimate what women would say much of the time, and this allowed him time to formulate the perfect response.

“I keep these out on a Friday night,” he said.  “The left one’s for the past, and the right one’s for tomorrow.”

She smiled, looked up at him, and raised her glass.

“You’re so full of shit,” she said.

“Here’s to the past,” said Georgio.

She smirked at him darkly.  “Here’s to you, tomorrow.”

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