By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
When the mail came, Bruce and James divided the world. James took the international post to one room, and Bruce, the domestic to another. One built a pile of pictures, the other, a pile of checks, and in this way, they separated supply from demand and the women from the men.
"We import and export everything else," Bruce was saying. "Why can't relationships be one more item?"
Then he found a fat check for $752.34, which meant that some old boy had bought El Maximo, the package deal. Bruce shouted out the news, and just to share, James came shuffling in with a sample of the new stock -- a photo of some faraway female in a thong bikini. She was perhaps half James' age, but she was grinning, and they were leering, and both parties looked open for business.
"There's not enough bikinis," Bruce grumbled, though it seemed to his visitor the catalog was full of them. That's only the front page, he said, and to prove his point, the former accountant turned to his adding machine.
"Let's say we get 50 girls a day (clackety-clack) times 25 mail days a month (clackety-clack), times every three months that we publish (clackety-clack). That's 3,750 girls minimum, every three months! And the swimsuits, I only get 50."
He seemed to think it was quite sad. He tells the women that full-body photos are better than face shots, but the shame of it is, some women don't obey. This makes his job rather difficult -- kind of like trying to trade horses that won't open their mouths.
"We're in sales," said Bruce, simply. "Girls in bikinis sell."
On the evening news in early July, the television screen was suddenly engorged with the image of an obese man, his hair carefully tended, his gold chain sparkling and his lower lip still pouting, even when he was trying to be sweet.
"It's just an unfortunate human circumstance," he said.
This was in reference to the busted marriage of Svetlana Kravchenko. According to the Harris County Sheriff's Department, her picture appeared in the catalog of Club Prima, one of Bruce's competitors. The owner couldn't confirm this -- he files his women by their numbers, not their names -- but possibly Kravchenko's desires were as simple as those expressed by MS-310, a buxom blond in the current catalog: "I want have husband from U.S.A."
Following a correspondence, Kravchenko arrived from the Ukraine with her two young daughters in January 1994. Whether Manuel Castaneda kissed her then is unknown, but according to the sheriff's department, the Galveston emergency-room doctor did begin beating her. Allegedly, Kravchenko's new husband also showed nude photos of her to his acquaintances and offered her to them for sex; injected her with testosterone to make her sexually aggressive; masturbated in front of her children; and after she protested, stabbed her around the eyes with a fork.
"Goddang, it's disgusting," said Castaneda's lawyer. He was talking about what he believes is a foreigner's plot for a green card.
Whatever the case, the romance was a real sweetheart of a deal, and several days after Castaneda's arrest in late June, the television news crews were still buzzing over it. Bruce had little time on the air, but he managed to say that mail-order clients aren't all losers who can't get a date. It's just that "they have a problem meeting the type of person they feel comfortable with," he said, which was his delicate way of saying that American women will no longer accept their natural roles as mothers and homemakers. "They are so belligerent, angry, selfish and confused," he writes in his catalog, and it's they who are to blame for the disintegration of the family, and thus, for everything from declining morality to the national deficit.
In short, the females have become feminists, and the mail-order bride business has been reborn to serve a different product to a different kind of customer. In the last century, its patrons were pioneers, men who sent off for women because there simply weren't any women around. Now, the men are typically divorced, Bruce said. "They might have pooch bellies, might be losing hair," and because their countrywomen have gone to pot, they buy the addresses of the most beautiful women from the world's most depressed regions. Two thousand men a year, by one estimate, are finding life partners this way.
"Don't delay," reads Bruce's catalog. "Generally the lady you meet will be younger, prettier and more appreciative. Imagine all of these traits in a woman, without the attitude!"
The case of Svetlana Kravchenko did not reflect the industry broadly, Bruce told the TV reporter, and it did not seem to have affected him deeply. "An unfortunate human circumstance," he had called it. He might have said the same thing about his own broken marriage.
Any time you're in the mail-order business, you deal with a lot of strange people," said vice president James Smith. He doesn't give out T.L.C.'s address and was surprised to receive a visitor.