The woman on the platform peered at me through glasses that reminded me more of a bathroom’s glass bricks than eyewear. Faintly visible dark splotches were centered behind them—I assumed they were her eyes, but the glass was opaque enough that a positive identification was impossible. Equally unclear, so to speak, was any obvious benefit the glasses could provide her. If they were functionally impenetrable from the outside, how much different could they be from the inside? On the other hand, they did seem capable of rendering me both visible and identifiable as a male. Or might she have been guessing my gender since nobody else was nearby? Regardless, I was now faced with a momentous and unexpectedly ambiguous decision: how to respond.
As has become common these days, Josephine and I had a website to thank for our having met. She had listed herself on a site called “Brides to Be” which I discovered upon typing “marriage minded” into my computer’s Google search bar. Her name caught my interest at once. In my opinion Napoleon and Josephine ranked as one of history’s great love stories. Surely a modern day Josephine would be regal and irresistibly fetching. And why not a match for me?
Although most people of my acquaintance would be surprised to hear it, I have numerous Napoleonic qualities. For one thing, I am short (yes, that is something everyone would acknowledge).
For another, I have megalomanic tendencies. So powerful, in fact, are those urges that I felt dangerously incapable of suppressing them. For the good of mankind, I had years ago decided to remove to someplace remote, accessible only with difficulty, far away from any seats of real power that might give me access to levers of conquest. Which is another similarity I have with Napoleon. Granted, his exile to Elba was enforced by the State, whereas my exile to Manila was self imposed, but exile is exile and that’s fine by me.
As homage to the origin of my interest, the enduring history of Napoleon and Josephine, I ended all of my correspondence with Josephine “To Destiny”.
There was a Helen I’d thought about contacting, but my dedication to selflessness for the good of humanity prevented it. Helen of Troy, of course, is another monumental love story, and in truth I can’t say the association failed to capture my attention. But the calamity involved was just too much. My conscience could not abide even the slightest risk of whatever the modern equivalent of launching a thousand ships would be. The economic boon from having to construct such a juggernaut was a counterbalancing thought, but in the end I knew it was the wrong way to go. A short term economic stimulus followed by multinational warfare? Let’s just not go there.
Josephine, then, became my focus. Had there been a Juliet, or still more unlikely, a Cleopatra, I might not have courted Josephine so exclusively, but she was the sole iconic romance I found, discounting Helen for reasons already given.
I’d arrived early at the bus station. On her profile, Josephine had confessed too little technical knowledge to be able to post a picture, and I just didn’t have one of myself, so all we knew of one another’s appearance is what we’d shared in our correspondence. It was important, I knew, for me to be on hand to greet her. One or two of the things I’d said about myself were, well, embellishments, and I would need to help her understand why they were more accurate than her impression upon meeting me might lead her to believe.
Isn’t an obsession with denotation the province of feeble minds? Emerson said something along those lines, I’m sure. The poet, and I consider myself especially lettered that way, understands that connotation permits a truer communication of what is meant, replacing rigid and sterile definition with the nuance of a soul’s tender expression. By one measure I stand 5 foot 2 inches tall. But the measure of my heart knows no such confinement. Josephine had said she wished to meet a tall man, and so I knew that my expansive feelings would more accurately convey my stature than a ruler’s limited capacity. Six foot two is what I’d told her, realizing that ten feet tall, which honestly I felt still more accurate, would be a bit over the top even for the poet inside me.
Ideally, her mate would have a full head of hair and a figure kept lean and strong through regular and strenuous physical exertion. The reason for this latter specification was cause for much sleeplessness on my part. Her desire for intimacy, she said in one of her letters, was scandalously vast and a lesser specimen would be unequal to her appetites.
A literalist would say my pate did not satisfy the full head of hair requirement, but the locks on either side and on the back of my head were full and, if I stopped having them cut, potentially flowing. Besides, inside me is a lion not with hair, but with a regal mane. And if my mane sprang from lion, my loins, inflamed only by the uncorrupted depth of my love, would befit a tiger. The asthma that I’d had since childhood did compromise my stamina in some trivial respects, but the passion of my heart—yes, I think heart is the correct organ—could satisfy Aphrodite herself. No better way to describe myself, I felt confident, existed.
There was also the danger, given Manila’s sparse population, overabundance of men and shortage of women, that if I were not at the station to meet my Josephine, some opportunistic local might seize the opportunity to usurp my place as her betrothed. I had read her self-description so often that I knew it by heart. The local population, almost entirely Mormon, was sworn to uphold a standard of honesty so pristine that angels would be as likely to prevaricate. But I was sure one look at Josephine would arouse even the most devoted ascetic. In the moment’s swoon one of these strapping young Saints might be tempted to say or do anything. Her body type? Athletic. Hair and eye color? Blond and blue. She had been runner up at the 4H beauty pageant in her home town of Lula. And although she had confided in me her yawning carnal hunger, she had also assured me of her pre-marital chastity. No suitor’s hands, she declared, had been permitted access to her private, exquisitely sensitive regions. Other appendages, it goes without saying, were similarly denied. No lips, furthermore, had enjoyed more than a peck on her smooth and flawless cheek. Such an innocent, asking a chance stranger if he might be the man, the Walter, she’d come to wed, would be impossible to resist. No, it was essential that I arrive early enough to protect our covenant.
The bus was idling in the shade under the depot’s single canopy. It had pulled in just minutes after I stepped out of my car to wait. No child on Christmas Eve has ever been more alive with excitement than was I at the prospect of sweeping Josephine into an ever-after of glorious happiness. We would drive straight from the station to the JP, exchange our vows, then make haste to our marital bed. All was in readiness. The curtains were drawn. Candles were set on every flat surface awaiting the kiss of fire, as was I my Josephine’s. A bottle of Cold Duck, which I’d yesterday driven to Green River to buy, was on ice at bedside. Strains of Peter Nero were playing from my iPod. It was a love nest perfect in its seductive allure. With one last tug on my inhaler I was ready for our meeting.
A minute, as the Bard said, hath many hours. I was in ecstasy when the bus door finally opened. Then, nothing. For what seemed an eternity nobody emerged. At last there was movement and…somebody else appeared. It was a woman, to be sure, but not my Josephine. Besides wearing impenetrable glasses that made her eyes nearly invisible, she was roughly the shape of a very large butternut squash. She weighed 200 pounds if she weighed a pound, and the buttons down the front of her shift seemed all but overmatched in their errand of preserving passersby from the spectacle of what lay beneath the straining fabric. Inanimate though buttons may be, I thought them heroes and gave silent thanks for the apparent stoutness of their anchor points. She had wrestled an oblong, heavy looking trunk onto the ground in front of her and stood, panting and perspiring, on the last step, hesitating before exiting entirely.
My agitation grew with each passing second. This barge of a woman was preventing my Josephine from leaving the bus. In my mind’s eye I could see her standing in the aisle, waiting demurely, nervously I was sure. I imagined her wearing white cotton gloves, her hands clasped in front of her as she waited. Her polite sensibilities would prevent her saying anything, but I knew she must be stifling an urge to push this oblivious obstacle roughly out of the way.
At long last the woman hefted her trunk to the side and stepped onto the receiving platform. I held my breath. At any moment I would for the first time see my sweet betrothed, my Josephine.
Our first kiss, I decided, would begin gently. Passion, though, would overwhelm us and the urgency of our mutual disrobing would likely inflict damage a tailor would sometime later be called to repair.
No matter—any collateral harm would be a trifle. Bathed in the glow of our surrounding candles, warmed from our bedside bubbly and gazing into one another’s eyes, we would couple in a magnificent crescendo of feral exaltation. Endless waves of pleasure would carry us to sleep, then to awaken and rejoin our dance of conjugal bliss.
Leaving her trunk where it lay, the strange woman approached. Again, her behavior annoyed me. She couldn’t know I wished to see behind her, eager for my first glimpse of Josephine, but her ignorance of my purpose did little to soothe me. Any minute now the stranger would ask me for directions or if I knew so-and-so. I would summon all of my patience, respond politely and send her on her way. Meanwhile I was becoming just a little cross. What could be taking Josephine such a long time to disembark?
“You him?” The strange woman’s voice startled me. I could not imagine what she meant and withheld a sharp retort only with difficulty.
“I beg your pardon. Him who?”
“My man, for pity’s sake! Are you Walter or not?”
All oxygen was suddenly sucked from the planet. An icy foreboding crept over me as it dawned on me that this woman, this caricature, indeed this fraud, might in fact be Josephine. My mind raced and I recalled in vivid detail what she had told me of herself. If this was athletic her chosen sport would be sumo wrestling. If her hair could be called blond it was thanks to the magic of peroxide, a magic that had not visited her roots in quite some time by the look of things. Blue eyes? It was anyone’s guess what pigment was behind her glasses. They could be burnt orange or paisley and no one would be the wiser.
Abandoning my calm façade I once again made use of my inhaler. Reason began to grapple with my astonishment. Yes, the Josephine I’d come to meet, the love vixen of my dreams, was not this Josephine. And yet, I acknowledged sheepishly to myself, I had engaged in dissembling as pronounced as hers. Possibly worse. I take that back—not worse. Still, here she stood, having journeyed from Lula to Manila to share a life with me. Was she the perfect woman I’d pictured these many months? No. But was I the Adonis I’d drawn of myself? Also no. And here in the desert a stone’s throw from Flaming Gorge, mates were in short supply. I could not deny the good I’d done by making my residence here, but good works do not insulate one from loneliness. I was, it is true, painfully lonely. As I began to reconcile myself to the reality of my Josephine, my betrothed, I found a sense of relief, serenity, replacing my agitation. How foolish I had been to expect so much. How mean to so heartlessly disparage her, even just to myself, when first she appeared. We would, I told myself, make this work.
“Yes. Yes, Josephine, I am your Walter.”
Josephine drew near enough that we were all but touching. She pulled her glasses to the end of her nose, incidentally revealing cloudy blue eyes, and examined me closely from head to toe. Without increasing the distance between us she circled around me, slowly. Returning to stand in front of me once more I could see from her expression that she was satisfied.
“Hmmph,” she grunted, exhaling sharply. With that she turned on her heel, collected her trunk and, struggling with its weight, re-boarded the bus.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thomas Walker is a native of Salt Lake City, Utah. He is inspired by politics and public policy, as well as by humor, love and passion. This is his first fiction submission. Previously, he has been published in the Cornell Quarterly, the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Providence Journal, USA Today and Esquire.