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