After a strenuous night on the town—think snorts, tarts, water sports—I was just drifting off into a dream when Mater burst into my room.
That’s what Pater insisted we call her. He had a soft spot for Queen Victoria.
—Don’t we all. But, when you say she burst into your room, you mean she entered without knocking?
That was my fault. In my hurry to get to bed, I’d left the light on and the door open.
“Don John, get up!”
I hardly recognized the apparition looming over me. Not only was she dressed in a shapeless peignoir but her hair was in curlers and her face without paint. Apart from an earthquake, I could think of only one contingency serious enough to induce her to appear in such an unfinished state.
“Frater fell off the wagon again?”
“Worse than that. Alix just called in tears to tell me he’s left her for an elephant.”
—Did she say—?
She did and, though she wasn’t known for her sense of humor, I could only conclude she was pulling my leg.
“A pink elephant, you mean.”
With a start of impatience, she yanked the covers off me.
“You know as well as I do Alix doesn’t make things up, so get your clothes on and come with me.”
While I was double-knotting my shoelaces, she changed her peignoir for a mink coat and tied a kerchief over her curlers. This enabled her to pass muster down in the lobby, first with Mr. Buzzard, the concierge, and then with Mr. Rabbit, the uniformed doorman. (I reproduce Pater’s preferred pronunciations.)
“Will you be wanting the limo, madam?” Mr. Rabbit said, with a deep bow.
“Not this morning, Anatole. I trust your common-law wife and six little bastards are all well?”
“Couldn’t be better, madam, thanks to your latest donation of caviar past its use-by date.”
Across the street in the park, to which she led me at an urgent clip, the rising sun was beginning to disperse the ground fog that obscured, here and there, furtive figures among the trees.
“Where are we going?”
“Alix said we’d find him at the petting zoo.”
And, sure enough, under the glare of a sodium lamp, there was Frater, rapt before an enclosure in which the zoo’s latest acquisition, a six-ton elephant named Gisella, stood flicking gadflies away with her tail above a steaming pile of dung.
“You’ve got company,” she alerted Frater with a twitch of her trunk.
I was startled, when he turned to confront us, by his uncanny resemblance to me.
—I thought he was your twin.
My identical twin, yes.
—Then why would you find it surprising he resembled you?
Because, till then, in public, his MO had always been to mope about with his head down and his hands in his pockets, like some shiftless loser. People introduced to us would have a hard time believing he was my brother, let alone my twin.
—And you found him transformed now?
Into the picture of virility. He could have been my own reflection, fresh from the nearest mirror.
“I take it Alix has been blabbing again,” he greeted us. “She never could keep that yap of hers shut.”
Mater wasn’t about to allow his defiant tone to force her onto the defensive.
“What have you gone and done now?” she demanded. “What madness is this?”
“Yeah, out with it,” I said. “Like Dumbo here, we’re all ears.”
He bristled at my choice of a comparison. “I’ll thank you to watch how you talk about my fiancée.”
“Chill, bubbeleh.” Gisella nuzzled him with her trunk. “As nobody knows better than you, I have a thick hide, but, even if I didn’t—even if my hide was as thin as India paper—you’d owe your family—or should I say my prospective in-laws—an explanation.”
“Well, all right,” he said grudgingly. “But only to please you, and not because I feel under any obligation to justify myself.”
He offered her, while he collected his thoughts, the tribute of a peanut.
“As far back as I can remember,” he began abruptly, “I was never comfortable in my own skin. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, but I knew I was badly out of kilter. Then, one day, in a children’s book, I came across a picture of an elephant, and everything fell into place. In a flash, I realized I wasn’t a human being but an elephant trapped in the body of one.”
—Excuse me for interrupting, but can this really have been news to you? Because I was under the impression identical twins are highly attuned to one another.
None more so than the two of us.
—Then how is it you hadn’t long since picked up on this dysphoria of his?
How could I have picked up on it when, anytime the conversation turned to elephants, he’d pretend to be disgusted by them? Not to speak of his teddy bear Trootootoo that he drowned in the bathtub, because he claimed it looked too much like an elephant. As he confessed to me in front of Gisella, he did all this to throw me off the scent.
“You were the last person I’d have trusted with my secret—you and your unrelenting mockery—even though I knew you were wrestling with your own identity at the time.”
“Me? Don’t be ridiculous. From the day I was born, I never doubted I was destined to lead the free world.”
He turned gravely to Mater. “You won’t like to hear this, but once, when we were twelve or thirteen, I spotted him trying on one of your corsets.”
“Now that I think of it,” Mater rounded on me, “I often had the feeling my unmentionables were being monkeyed with in those days.”
“Then somebody else must have been doing the monkeying,” I said, “because I was religious about putting things back in their place.”
—What? It’s true? You had a fling with cross-dressing?
And so what if I did? What’s the big deal?
—I didn’t say I disapproved.
And I don’t give a rap if you do. The experiment was so far behind me anyway I saw no point in keeping from Mater that, at thirteen, the only way I could come close to satisfying my powerful urge to get with a girl—short of rape, that is—was to turn myself into a facsimile of one.
“It was a phase,” I stressed to her, “and it didn’t last long—just till Pater—who must have guessed something was up—procured me visiting privileges at a select massage parlor.”
Here Gisella, who’d yet to get over her resentment at having been poached like King Kong out of her native habitat, couldn’t resist rebuking me.
“You should be ashamed of yourself for resolving your personal crisis at the expense of trafficked Slovenian minors.”
“Some good could still come of it,” Frater pointed out, “if he’s at least learned from his experience to be more empathetic.”
I assured him any caballero convinced he was a caballera could always count on me to defend his right to take a leak standing up in the powder room.
“Only, by your own admission,” I reminded him, “you’re conflicted about your species, not your gender—and I find that beyond the pale.”
“Don’t forget, too, you have three beautiful children as well as a devoted wife,” Mater piled on. “How can you think of turning your back on them for this—this—”
“Try to understand,” he pleaded with her. “Since Gisella accepted me, my depression has lifted. I’ve quit smoking and drinking. I’ve given up meat for hay. I’ve even stopped abusing myself and catching it in my hat! You’re my mother, for God’s sake—don’t you want me to be fulfilled?”
“Oh I’ll go mad if I have to listen to another word of this!”
Clutching her head, she fled to a nearby bench. I sat down next to her and waited while she struggled to regain control of herself. The last of the fog had cleared out from under the trees and, with it, the last of the muggers. In her enclosure, Gisella, with Frater’s loving assistance, was cleaning and flossing her tushes.
“He’s right, you know,” Mater said finally. “As his mother, I should welcome her with open arms, and I would—I wouldn’t hesitate … but for that honker! A hippo would be fine. Even an ape I could live with. But I’m sorry, I can’t help it, I draw the line at one of them.”
Stephen Baily has published short fiction in some fifty journals. He's also the author of ten plays and three novels, including "Markus Klyner, MD, FBI" (Fellow Traveler Press). He lives in France.