The girl’s name was inconsequential, but to stave off curiosity, I’ll tell you that it was Emma B. Emma B. was apparently not fond of her last name, because she never voluntarily told anyone. Perhaps her last name was really just B. But these are not important details. If Emma were writing this, she wouldn’t even bother with her name. Instead, she would define herself in a different manner. By her favorite color (lilac), by her favorite flowers (daisies), by her favorite sound (a teakettle whistling). Maybe by her least favorite shape (trapezoid), her biggest fear (being run over), or her greatest asset (being extremely intuitive). The point is, her name wouldn’t enter into it at all.
In September, Emma B. was riding a train somewhere in Europe-- the exact location is not important—and she was on her way to Paris. Or Barcelona. Some beautiful, fanciful city, anyway. She sat quietly in her seat, her shoulder-length hair tied neatly in a bun. She wore a prim little skirt, and clutched a lilac-colored handbag. The train ride was going to be long.
Stephan had never liked his name, and he was contemplating changing it. The problem was, he couldn’t find a name that fit him. He was beginning to feel as if he’d never find a proper title. In a fit of hopelessness, he bought a book of baby names from the checkout counter at the grocery store. He figured he could read through the pamphlet on his train ride, which promised to be long and dull. He was just beginning to flip through the pages when a girl in a prim skirt sat down across from him. Stephan shifted uncomfortably, and did his best to hide what he was reading. He knew he was unreasonably embarrassed, but he didn’t want to explain himself. Explanations were always tiresome. He glanced up quickly, and was relieved to find that the girl had settled her belongings, and was looking out of the window, lost in her own thoughts.
* * *
The train had been rolling for an hour or so, and Stephan was on C names. It took him a long time to get through the pages, because for each name, he considered how he would feel if it were his—hearing people call him by it, seeing letters and bills addressed to it, signing it on birthday cards to coworkers. He practiced (silently) introducing himself with the name, getting married and being announced as Mr. and Mrs. blank. To imagine yourself with a different name is to imagine yourself with a different life entirely, so you can see why it was such lengthy a process. Stephan was trying on the name “Chuxley,” which he had never heard before. He rather liked the way it looked on his electrical bill, but he wasn’t so thrilled with how it looked on his second notice to pay the water bill. He was startled when the lady in the prim skirt broke the silence, and said (rather abruptly, and with no ado)
What’s your name?
Stephan was just practicing introducing himself as Chuxley, and he was surprised, and so he blamed that for the gross mistake he made by replying
How strange, she said. Stephan thought this rather rude, as she had yet to introduce herself, or bother with any type of usual formality. He felt annoyed at her lack of manners, but even more, he felt mortified that he had just introduced himself as Chuxley. He couldn’t very well go back and change his answer now, he decided. She had already passed judgement on his name, and that was that. He hoped that by not answering, he would make quite clear that he was not interested in idle conversation. His hopes were dashed a moment later when she said
‘Were you named for a family member?’
‘Oh. Your grandfather?’
‘How interesting.’ Stephan shrugged, seeing nothing interesting about it. Lots of people were named after family members. It wasn’t the least bit intriguing.
‘What ethnicity is it?’ He hesitated only the briefest second before replying
‘My name is English too!’ She said. She sounded very enthusiastic. Stephan couldn’t see why. He nodded, hoping he looked politely disinterested.
‘I wasn’t named for a family member though.’ Stephan huffed an irritated sigh. The girl (who we know of course as Emma B.) arched an eyebrow but fell silent.
* * *
After a time, day passed into night, and the train went on still, endlessly, it seemed. Stephan was on K, but after a few names, he decided to skip to L. something about the letter K bothered him for some reason. It just wasn’t right for him. He had been at the name game for a long time now, and he felt that it was time for a break. It’s terribly exhausting to be forever fancying yourself someone else. He carefully dog-eared the page he was reading, and finally let the book lie closed in his lap. Stephan found himself oddly lonely, now that he was back to being just himself. The car was quiet. There were few passengers, and they were either asleep or nearly so. Stephan glanced around idly. His gaze fell upon the girl across from him. She was asleep, and her hair had come loose from its neatly coiled bun. Stephan found himself wondering what her name was. It was English, she had volunteered that much. He studied her face for a while, and then opened his book of names. He decided that her delicate features bespoke of an 'A' name, but her eyes had been large and curious. He flipped to the E section, and finally settled on Elizabeth. Yes. That suited her perfectly.
His mind soon began to wander down that quiet, curious path towards sleep, and as he drifted off, he was imagining himself again as Chuxley. And as Chuxley, he was introducing his girlfriend to his coworkers at a staff party.
‘Rob, Joe, I’d like you to meet my girlfriend, Elizabeth.’ Rob and Joe widened their eyes in envy and appreciation of the lovely lady at his side; in his sleep, Stephan smiled.
When Emma B. awoke, it was the middle of the night. She stretched sleepily, and yawned. Every one else was sleeping. She hazarded a glance toward the young man sitting across from her. Chuxley Arthur was snoring softly, his book resting on his lap. She gazed at him a moment, noting the way he frowned ever so slightly, even as he slept. She wondered briefly what sort of trouble was plaguing him. Presently, she felt weariness settle over her again. She gave one last look at Mr. Arthur, and then relaxed into a gentle slumber that lasted until morning.
* * *
It was the train grinding to a halt that made Stephan wake up. He rubbed his eyes and looked around blearily. The girl across from him, Elizabeth, had also been awoken by the sudden stop.
‘Where are we?’ she asked, her voice still sounding of sleep and dreams.
‘We must be in Paris.’ Stephan looked out the window of the car, and was pleased to see the familiar streets of France’s busiest metropolis looking back at him. Elizabeth sat up a little straighter.
‘Paris! Oh how wonderful! I’ve never been to France!’ Stephan smiled slightly. Paris was indeed something to be enthused about. He wondered how it was that she hadn’t known where she was going-- she must have purchased the ticket to board the train. He didn’t let it bother him long. He gathered his few belongings, and soon they were getting off the train. As he stepped into the train station, Stephan felt the burden of his namelessness more acutely. In this beautiful city, it seemed wrong somehow not to have a proper title. He sighed, and began to walk forward.
‘Chuxley! Beg pardon, Chuxley!’ Stephan realized suddenly that he was being addressed. He turned. It was, of course, Elizabeth.
‘Chuxley,’ she said, a tad out of breath from running to catch him, ‘I’m new in the city, and I was wondering if you would be so kind as to show me around.’ Stephan frowned.
‘Just to a hotel,’ she amended hastily. He heaved a sigh. His manners kept him from saying no, but his irritation kept him from being overly polite while saying yes. He nodded his consent.
“Thank you so much! I sincerely appreciate it! It’s so kind of you to--” his severe look made her stop gushing. “Well, thank you.” He nodded.
* * *
On the way to the hotel, she naturally asked all sorts of irritating questions, most of which he managed to answer monosyllabically. He was slightly amused at her wide-eyed gasps and her obvious appreciation of the city he so loved. By the time they reached the hotel, he was feeling much less annoyed with her.
‘Well, I suppose this is it,’ she said, and for some reason, Stephan felt as though he might be lonely without her. ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Arthur.’ Stephan dipped his head in what he imagined a very distinguished nod, and began to turn down the street.
‘Mr. Arthur?’ he turned back.
‘I feel I must confess something to you. I don’t know why, but I really am quite convinced that I ought to say it.’ This all came out in a rush. Stephan’s pulse quickened. He wasn’t sure what she was about to say, but he felt that it was important. Life changing, maybe.
‘Yes?’ he said, a bit too loudly. The girl drew a deep breath.
‘I feel that I really must tell you, you don’t look a bit like a Chuxley.’ She took a deep breath and continued: ‘No, definitely not. I’m afraid it just doesn’t fit you at all. Really, you look much more like a…’
Stephan leaned forward, enthralled by the girl’s uncanny announcement.
‘…Much more like a…a Stephan, I should say.’ She exhaled, as if much relieved to have expressed the troublesome idea.
Stephan stared, open-mouthed. Suddenly, inexplicably, he felt as if everything was exactly right. He no longer felt the heart-wrenching pain that he had for so long while he couldn’t find a name. Somehow, having this slightly annoying girl tell him that he looked like a Stephan had made it so. He was indeed a Stephan. He could see it on all his bills, he could picture introducing himself, he was looking at the world as a Stephan, and everything was making perfect sense.
Except…except this girl. This girl by all rights should be extremely vexing, and instead he found rather alluring. ‘Perhaps Stephan doesn’t understand women any better than Chuxley,’ he mused silently. He looked up to see her looking back at him, biting her lip nervously, her brown eyes searching his face. Suddenly, Stephan felt happy and excited, and a bit daring.
‘Emma,’ she supplied.
‘Miss Emma,’ (Stephan silently congratulated himself on guessing so close to her real name) ‘Would you like to come get a coffee with me?’
She looked surprised, but pleased nonetheless. She nodded, and a faint pink brushed her fair cheeks. Stephan offered his arm, and she took it, and the two began down the busy Paris street.
‘By the way,’ he said, ‘My name’s Stephan.’ Without so much as a second thought, Emma replied
‘I know. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’
Arm in arm, they disappeared into the crowd, Emma swinging her lilac handbag merrily.