audio: Isabel
audio of Jennifer Juneau's story, Isabel

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Isabel B. was simply exquisite. While reading Boccaccio’s interpretation of Helen in Famous Women, I pictured only Isabel. Not just the physical attributes, but the grandeur of his analysis. To describe Isabel’s beauty is the antithesis of Boccaccio’s account of Helen: where Helen’s bright eyes were full of happiness, Isabel’s black eyes were saturated in sorrow. Where he depicted the pleasant serenity of Helen’s entire face and her charming changes of expression, Isabel’s was profoundly unemotional. I saw a mysterious woman pained by something I could never understand. A dreamer, I felt compelled to help her, become the chivalrous knight women in fiction waited for. I never initiated a romantic relationship with any of my students, but that made no difference. She didn’t behave like the typical smitten schoolgirl—Isabel wasn’t interested. I couldn’t even fantasize about her. Every time I created a scenario in my mind with the two of us together, her eyes undoubtedly fastened onto my reverie.

It was my last semester teaching English literature at a university in northern Italy. Three times a week for three months Isabel sat in the back of my class without uttering a word. She never raised her hand to speak, and I never called on her. She exceeded most of the students in age by ten years, she was thirty-two, nine years younger than me. She was the only native speaker of English and I felt my words fall into the clutches of her scrutiny. I turned on the most intellectual English vocabulary I knew. Was my pronunciation correct? Was I fluent enough to convey the lesson to the class? I glanced her way for clues. I’d even try to impress her with a rhetoric full of Americanisms. Her gaze never shifted from the notebook on her desk. I didn’t understand why I was desperate for her approval until it hit me—I, the one voted by his colleagues least likely to commit to one woman and get married, was in love. Soon I discovered wherever love goes, his evil twin misery follows. One morning, elated over my awakening, I noticed the diamond wedding band on her left ring finger and had to face the ugly truth. Hoping I was mistaken, I requested her file in the admissions office and found her application to the university with a summary about herself and why she had come abroad. She was a poet. Apparently she had lived in many cities before settling here. Her husband was a financial genius who made an obscene income. I was familiar with where she lived. It was a wealthy area in the hills. Did her husband travel often for business? Was she lonely? A woman accustomed to a lifestyle with a rich man would never think twice about me. With the modest salary I shoved into my savings each month, what did I have to offer? If I trashed all my lectures and instead professed my unremitting attraction to her, would she give up her six, or seven-room house, which was indicative to the area in which she lived, for my two-room flat? Besides, we had nothing in common. She was a poet in the twenty-first century marching ahead, and I, fixed in literature of the past—would she be willing to meet in the middle?

After a long day of grading research papers in my cramped office I went home. I saved Isabel’s paper for last. I wanted to be as comfortable as possible and couldn’t wait to delve into it. Reading her paper will be the key, I thought, since I couldn’t obtain any of her poetry anywhere, to see what makes her tick. She had written it on the evolution of language in verse from Old English to the present. At first, egocentrically, I thought she was reaching for me by compromising our contrasting loves of literature, then concluded she had chosen a topic of interest solely for herself as a poet. I took my time. I poured myself a glass of wine, lit a cigarette and traded my beloved Puccini for Wagner (I was in a mood) and set it thrashing in the background. I scanned the table of contents. It was flawless. Her introduction was polished and concise. Succinctness mattered to me, although I wasn’t sure if my assessment at that point was accurate or if I was biased. As I read further, I froze. Was she mocking me? The rest of her paper was written entirely in iambic pentameter with open couplets. I was certain I explained to my class the guidelines for writing a research paper. Was she not paying attention? or was she screwing with me. Easygoing as I was, nothing a student ever said or did in my career as a professor peeved me until this. Isabel! The pace of my heart accelerated, I knew I’d have to meet with her in my office to discuss it. I couldn’t accept her paper the way it was written, and I surely couldn’t fail her. She’d have to rewrite it the right way. In private we’d sit and I’d offer her my undivided attention. Something would have to click between us. I’d make her love me too.

I rummaged through papers in my briefcase for the student roster and fidgeted at the keyboard of my computer to write her an e-mail. First: Dear Isabel, I perused your research paper with great enthusiasm and found it quite stimulating. Unfortunately, a minor problem has surfaced. Please visit my office at your earliest convenience so we may examine it together. No way. Then: Dear Isabel, Your paper was absolutely insightful. Although I enjoyed it more than the others, I regret that you must rewrite it. If you stop by my office at your earliest convenience, I would be more than happy to take the time and go over it with you. What mawkish idiot had love reduced me to? Finally: Dear Isabel, There is a problem concerning your paper. You need to see me during my office hours. That was that. I checked the message in the “mail sent” folder inside my computer several times that evening to make sure I didn’t inadvertently sign my name, “Love, Professor X—”

She wore a frumpy floral print dress fit for an old lady. The color was unflattering against her artificially tanned skin and hid her ballerina-perfect figure. I didn’t remember her being so round. She wasn’t beautiful up close. Her eyes were close together and beady, caked with make-up—blue clumping mascara and a sparkling rose-colored eye shadow. Her lips imitated thick wax in an orange-red lipstick. I don’t usually notice this kind of detail on a woman, but the tackiness of this cheap rip off of the goddess I knew was pronounced. Besides, I have teenage sisters.

When she looked at me she was glowing. It was the first time I ever saw her smile and that moment I knew she returned my feelings. I scoffed in the face of unrequited love. The look of sorrow I longed for had vanished from her entirely and she was transformed into a giddy schoolgirl. She hung on my every criticism, nodding her head while batting her eyelashes frantically. She repeated how sorry she was that the paper was stupidly written. Where did the supreme demeanor go? I was no longer interested. My phone rang and I was relieved it would bring an abrupt end to our meeting. But the phone rang incessantly, even after I picked up the receiver. Isabel must have left. When I looked up, I was alone in a dark cold room. In a dark cold bed. It was morning.

My office hours came and suddenly I had nothing to do. Except of course sit and wait for Isabel. I reflected briefly on my dream. Isabel hadn’t replied to my e-mail so I didn’t know what time (or if) she’d arrive. I was hoping she’d come last, so we wouldn’t be rushed. I’d be distracted if I knew students conjugated outside my office waiting to see me.

She came first. When she entered I was floored. It was the first time I looked into her eyes and noticed they were pale green. They were so light they looked almost invisible against a backdrop of olive skin. Naturally beautiful, she hadn’t a trace of make-up on. Sable curls cascaded past her shoulders to the middle of her back. Her figure was stunning. Above all, she didn’t deviate from the superior air that possessed her. I sensed her impatience and that I was wasting her time. Her aura grabbed hold of my insides and twisted them into knots. I couldn’t speak. She spoke first, arrogantly defending her paper. She covered all angles of her research. She spoke rapidly and I loved the way her eyes blinked at the start of each sentence. I managed to tell her it was only an issue of form and handed her A Manual for Research Papers in English Literature. She looked at it for a minute and rolled her eyes. Then the almond-shaped green of them fell upon Boccaccio’s Famous Women that sat on my desk. Convinced that our tête-à-tête would take a tactical turn, I asked her if she read it. This would leave the door wide open for conversation. The version I owned was written in Latin and Italian and she said, “Very funny,” and left my office. Her perfume lingered in the air. But dreams also take place in daytime. They are called daydreams. So alone I sat, waiting. Then a single knock came, but it was student X then Y then Z rolling in one after the other and suddenly, there went the morning. Isabel never showed up.

My head spun with Isabel. I craved her. I had predicated who the last student to visit me would be and became apprehensive. It was Katrina H. Katrina had been flirtatious the entire semester and I never thought about getting involved with her, but ego-raped over my non-existent meeting with Isabel, Katrina would have to be the drug to mask the ache. I knew she’d be easy. A teacher could tell. Each semester there would be one in class who was an open book. The one who’d sit in the front row with the alluring look in her eye, asserting that she was interested beyond the text. The one who would repeatedly visit your office even when it wasn’t your office hours and chat about topics unrelated to class. I was not exactly innocent. Of course I wanted my students to excel, so when I reciprocated mildly to flirtations, they’d respond by striving harder. Katrina was the classic example, although at times her persistence was more obvious than most. She would stay after class every day to ask unnecessary questions. She’d be the last to visit during my office hours and stay long. Often she’d bring me little surprises, a cappuccino, wild flowers, or, what I favored most, copies of literary journals containing Italian translations. She’d sit close to me and lavish me with compliments. I’d posit myself as far back as possible from her and act friendly but serious, and patiently wait for her to finish talking. I didn’t want to discourage a student in any way. But I didn’t want to lead one on either.

Katrina was the quintessential blond, blue-eyed girl. I grew used to her visits. I grew used to her. She was intellectual, well-spoken and offered keen insight into our discussions. As a matter of fact, she was the top student in my class. I started seeing her and we were together until the semester ended. We slept together constantly. Everywhere. But each time I was with Katrina, I was lonelier for Isabel. What was she doing each moment? Writing a poem? Making love to her husband? I imagined what it must be like in bed with her. Her husband must have made love to her every night. I would have. When I spent time with Katrina I pictured Isabel with every emotion that Katrina projected. Would Isabel have reacted angrily to the same situation? What would Isabel’s opinion have been? Would this, or that, make Isabel laugh? One thing I never discussed with Katrina was another student, but I was dying to ask her if she noticed Isabel’s aloofness. Katrina was intuitive and I trusted she would give me an accurate assessment.

I knew Isabel was graduating in June that year. My days with her were numbered and I had to reach her somehow and Katrina was the only one who had something on her. Our relationship had died off, but we remained friends. So I took a chance and asked if she knew her. “Isabel?” she said. “The blonde who sat in the front?” “Actually,” I told her, “no. The raven haired goddess who sat in the back.” O.K, so I worded it slightly different, but she told me that she had heard from a medical student, who had an internship at the university hospital, that a woman, perhaps her name was Isabel, or Iris, or something with an “I”, had a nervous breakdown and almost drowned. It was speculative whether or not she tried to commit suicide, but Katrina discounted it. She heard this woman was happy and led a privileged life. “Perhaps it was a rumor,” Katrina surmised, “and now she is probably fine.” Probably. But I wanted to know for sure. Sensing that it wasn’t a good idea to press her further, I let Katrina continue. She heard from her friend that this woman was a foreigner, and had family in Spokane and may have moved back there. “Didn’t she have a husband?” I asked. Katrina threw me an impish look, “Husband? I’m not sure, why? Why are you so interested in her?” I dropped the subject. I believed Katrina had Isabel confused with somebody else.

It was summer and I’d be moving on as visiting professor at another university south. Instead of enjoying my break, I tortured myself over Isabel. I envisioned her on the brink of that so-called breakdown and imagined I was the one who rescued her from her fate with my confessions of longing and love. I drove myself crazy looking for her and was thwarted by unlisted phone numbers, invalid e-mail addresses and a wrong home address. There was no Isabel B. listed in Spokane either. I searched the internet, I made telephone calls. I exhausted myself for months searching all ends of the earth for her. Nobody had heard of her. I had no appetite. I was losing weight. Insomnia invaded my life. Whenever it rained, it was Isabel grief-stricken. When the sun shined, it was Isabel wrapping me with her warmth. When it was violently storming, I got slapped with one of her poems. I knew I had to come to terms with the fact that I would never see her again. Reluctantly, I resigned myself to letting go.

It was time to pursue a new life. I became adamant about settling down. Every woman I dated became a candidate for a wife. At that point, what did it matter? As long as she was honest, intelligent and loved me. I’d marry her. Tolerate her quirks. Bask in her strengths. She didn’t have to be perfect. We’d have scores of children and my life would fall into place, a mundane routine as it should be. I’d get up, continue to earn a modest living and return at night and pass time with my family. We’d grow old together through holidays, little league baseball games, ballet and graduation ceremonies. Relish in weddings and grandchildren. Weather deaths.

And so the rest of my life began: I retired one evening to my study, with the same kind of wine and the same opera I played when I graded Isabel’s paper. I sat at my desk and wrote diligently as a naughty schoolboy five thousand times in a notebook, something I would return to time after time throughout my life: There is no such thing as Isabel B.