by Meiko Ko
One free day Josephine was window shopping like many women did and a man came to her and said, “I know you’re Josephine.” Josephine was surprised and she looked at the man, who said, “Do you remember me? About a year ago we met on a train in Taiwan and had a pleasant chat.” He was smiling in a closed way, it was September and gradually the months receded from his face and Josephine remembered: He’d sat next to her from Zuoying to Taichung, and during the three-hour ride spoke of his life, from his wife’s mania with test tubes (she was a chemist), to his colorful house parrot Bridgette and the Volkswagen he drove in New York, which was the city they were now in. Josephine said, “I remember you. You gave me a pack of pineapple cakes, but I didn’t eat them because they were expired.”
He said, “I didn’t know that.” That cakes had come from a street vendor. At the station they’d said to keep in touch, and when he came back he’d written to her, very nice to know you on a Taiwanese train, and she’d replied, same here, the messages were loose and polite, only a few back and forth. “This city might be small, but seeing you is still rare,” he said to Josephine. They were downtown, on the street by a window display. The mannequin was clad in fishnet stockings, a cup bra set and a riding hood cape. The man’s gaze lingered. At the leather and lace that promised better sex, for people today were failing each other, they no longer understand their bodies, they’d turned inward. He looked again at Josephine, and smiled in embarrassment. Seeming to say that he’d never before seen such underwear. Autumn had arrived and the man called Fabian Lee was fully dressed, in jeans and a nut brown turtleneck and blazer, a striped scarf around his neck. He had a neat, packaged look, and it was clear that Fabian was a dresser for the world, and was dressed by it. As though to say, “You must never dislike me now.”
Clothes could oppress, if a pair of handsome pants insisted on its price, but Fabian was moderately rich. He looked fine. Decent, regular, normal, the weak September sun was shining on his delicate face. He was good-looking, more or less, not a face to put one off, not one to turn a crowd. There was something hazy about him, vague, as though no photograph could stay him. A face in beach sand, soon, a wave would come and wash it away. This displeased him. Fabian wanted more to look at him. Right now, he was before Josephine in full flesh. Cordial, pleasant. Pearly white teeth slipped through his mouth, like a child peeking from under a duvet. But the smile seemed to withdraw too, it didn’t invite a return, as though his lips were a two-way traffic. Josephine tried to smile back, but didn’t make it. That wasn’t personal. She’d considered smiling a difficult thing, how to do it so that one meant it, and one day, she lost the habit. It’d depend on who to smile to. She’d gotten along fine, unsmiling, she was an entomologist, a teacher in college, but Fabian didn’t know that. She’d managed to escape the performance of the smile, except thrice, when not smiling grew dangerous. She wondered what Fabian was smiling for. It must have been the conversation in Taiwan. It was humane and memorable, deep. Two strangers from the same city on a foreign train. These days we no longer owed anyone anything, but debts still came for us, not just from the bank, but work, school, holidays and Christmases, Halloween, loneliness and travels, a sent email, some we knew, most we didn’t. Maybe people still owed each other something. For taking a trip to Taiwan, for standing by chance outside an underwear shop. Fabian didn’t leave. He didn’t say, see you later, and walk down the street. He seemed to expect talk. He seemed not to want to talk too.
He laughed a little and said, “Are you going to buy something?”
There was no wall behind him, but he leaned, as though one built with bricks was set, behind it lived the poor and rich, to protect him. Fabian seemed like a fortunate person. Josephine said no, she wasn’t going in, she was only window shopping. Things interested her the way they were, a bra was a bra and breasts invented them. A camera took pictures and sometimes they lied. The mannequin was three-dimensional now and not alive. But if we wanted a name for a human being wearing the cup bra set, what would it be? She was plastic now, hard dead skin, but might turn into real flesh later on. If an eager customer went in to say, “I want that set on the mannequin.” Josephine wasn’t aware that the wonderful conversation in the Asian train had been a deception. That Fabian wasn’t who he seemed, a friendly man, who spoke enthusiastically about his wife Oval and pet parrot, and who gave her the packet of pineapple cakes. Mothers who’d known the world for a long time had warned their children—do not accept gifts from strangers, do not start conversations with unknown men—but the cakes had been thrusted into her hands before she could say, boo. Only recently her half mother in Berlin had told her, go travel, see the world. Be gracious, accept your gifts. It didn’t matter if the cakes were from a street vendor, or expired. If something bad came from it, deal with it. Josephine didn’t like pineapple cakes. “Thank you for the cakes again,” she said now.
She shouldn’t have, because Fabian was only seeing her as the mannequin. On the street, as a yellow cab honked, get going, a strange lust had caught him, like a butterfly settling on a vine. He said, “You’re welcome,” but in his mind he was thinking, how would that panty fit her. Would she squirm. Josephine looked educated. Had gone to school, read books. There was something special about that, a woman in a cup bra set reading a book. As though the pages were about to reveal its secrets. Josephine
had vanished. In her place was a nobody. Fabian had left, gone into the display window, where there was a bed, and a woman was spread out on it. Josephine was outside, alone, looking in, seeing the same plastic mannequin. Maybe she should call her Erica. What did you think of the name, Fabian, she wanted to say, but didn’t bother. Economics didn’t support such thoughts, displayed goods were unwanted, chances were low that anyone would buy and wear the leather cup bra set. It was confusing, superfluous, to mention Erica, the live mannequin. “I’m suspicious of plastic that comes alive,” Fabian might say. He had an ordinary mind. He’d like to step into the display window, play with a doll, and if she came alive, call her plastic. Not Erica. Not even Josephine. It’d stay nameless. Even if an urgent customer bought the set. Josephine tilted her head at Fabian, and frowned. She noticed that he was a man. He wouldn’t need the cup bra set. “Are you getting this for your wife?” she said.
No, Fabian smiled and said. Oval didn’t like wearing leather, he almost added. Though he’d like her to. That was the seed to most of his problems. It’d risk a divorce, and he didn’t like dealing with the law. The last lingering scent of the imaginary bed still clung, but Fabian had returned to 2016, on a downtown street, blinking as though he was rudely wakened. Josephine’s face appeared before him in a blur. Her frown was accusatory. The lack of smile disturbed him. It was becoming personal. Whatever she did or said would be wrong. What did she mean by mentioning Oval? Did Josephine see his lust, think him an evil fellow? Well, even if he was, that wasn’t her problem. Even if Josephine was the one on the bed, not Erica the mannequin. If she were smart, she’d say nothing. Sew up her lips for what was inevitable, her fate was to lie there with her legs opened, for his private vision, and vacuum clean the pillows after that. For if she even asked, “What is it, what do you want, do you want to have sex or something?” Fabian would shrug and say, “No, not with you.” Josephine would have to feel disgusted and vain. Vanity was ugly. A heart full of worms. No one knew how long the bad taste would last in a mouth. And it’d be her, who wanted to fuck.
But Fabian was friendly. There was nothing to indicate that he was a lecher. Only one controlled by lust. It was true, that good men knew how to subdue themselves. Or it would have to be their wives.
Oval was adamant, she’d not put on that red riding hood for him. She was the only person Fabian wanted to see in that leather, but the church forbade her from doing that. The wife had not done her job. And if she didn’t fulfill his lust, other women must do it for her. A wife must be proper, that was what wives meant to him, propriety, property, protection, but he’d like to see Josephine wear the red riding hood on the mannequin. His eyes fluttered, as a veil to guess her waistline, which must be measured, to determine the net worth and value of the goods, hidden behind the unfashionable sweater with ladybirds in the front. Which didn’t match her sweatpants, five-year-old, and the dirty canvas shoes. She looked like a bum, not a teacher in college, a plain, no make up face, but there was something distinct too, which attracted him. It could be that bent nose, from her mother in Berlin. A smack of Chinese poverty too, diluted by a Shikoku samurai and mixed with the Portuguese pirates of Malaya, but genes weren’t fair, she’d not qualify for a magazine. She wasn’t the type of woman Fabian usually went for. A wife must wear none and still be beautiful, but he liked a woman to wear her lipstick, Russian Red or Wine Galore, and if he went color blind and got enchanted, it was usually her fault after that. For some women, who sorrowed over their faces, that was because they wanted a job or promotion. Many would say they were wrong, these women wanted love. A pair of hands to caress them. Whatever the case, in Fabian’s worldview, if one did not keep up with appearances, one would be punished and ignored, because beauty was a weapon. It counted against a woman. Josephine wasn’t hideous. If she was, Fabian wouldn’t be talking to her. Not even if she was in the cup bra set.
“Have you read the little red riding hood?” Fabian said now.
“Yes. That was a classic.”
“I was just trying to remember the story.”
“There were many versions.”
“Was she eaten?”
“Yes and no,” Josephine said.
Josephine should spit on his face and walk away right now, but she didn’t.
Meiko Ko’s works have been accepted by the Blue Lyra Review, the Hayden’s Ferry Review, the AAWW, The Margins, The Literary Review, the Columbia Journal, Epiphany and elsewhere. She was long listed for the Home is Elsewhere Anthology 2017 Berlin Writing Prize. She is Chinese and lives with her Japanese family in New York City.
Image source: SpiritedMichelle via Creative Commons