MEETING ISABEL

On the anniversary of our wedding in Peru here’s how it all came to be…

It was February 1984 and I was coming up on a full year of living in Peru while the country was being torn apart by an ugly guerrilla war.  I had gone there on my own for three main reasons – to continue my studies of Hispanic cultures and my use of the language (I was already fluent);  to escape what I perceived as a mess made by Republicans under Reagan; and to find a wife, if that was ever going to happen.  By this time I’d had no real progress on goal # 3 and I was starting to fret.  Meanwhile in Peru, Isabel was also feeling that she may never meet the knight in shining armor of her dreams who would sweep her away (preferably without a horse). She was staying with her sister in the house of a friend who was letting her stay there for free because the two sisters barely had a nickel between them. Her sister got on her case about getting on with looking for a potential husband,  or at least a solid boyfriend, insisting to her that if she did not ever get ‘dolled up’ and out of the house, then she would never have the chance of meeting anyone.  She told her more than once that no one was going to come to this
out-of-the-way apartment just off the Pan Americana Sur highway and knock on her door looking for her.

Isabel had a little gig of making bathing suits by hand and selling them on her own.  She’d go out on occasion to collect payment for them.  There’s lots of informal ‘credit’ in Peru, because even if people work, they can’t afford cash for things on the spot.  So on this particular day in February her sister told Isabel she had just the dress for her to go out and pick up her payments.  Some of her customers were women she knew who worked in the cosmetics section of Sears at the Higuereta shopping center.  It was Isabel’s sister’s prediction that her special dress would work wonders for her as she was out and about in public. 

She grudgingly put on the dress. It was bright yellow, eye-catching and a little short and, as she was walking to the bus, and then walking to the shopping center, cars were honking their horns and guys were making catcalls – things like, “Hey, Skinny… Bag of Bones…don’t let the wind blow you away,” etc., because the taste at the time in Peru was women a little bit more ‘curvy’, not that Isabel didn’t have a curve or two. In fact, if I had a vote in the matter, I’d say, just right. Anyway, she weathered the catcalls, silently cursing her sister’s idea, and immediately saw me out in front of the shopping center. I was standing there on a stairway waiting because I had made a date with someone who seemed to have stood me up. I didn’t spot Isabel until she was making a call at a phone booth at the foot of the stairs. I had been talking to a guy on the landing and I had a long zoom lens and for some reason I took the crazy liberty of shooting her photograph without her knowing it.  I blame it on the magical yellow dress.

I guess the guy had a bit of matchmaker in him and he asked me if I wanted him to go ask the beautiful young lady who’d obviously caught my attention, to turn around so that I could take her picture while facing me. She agreed and we waved to each other. Then she went into Sears to catch up with her friends, collecting their payment, and telling them about the wild adventure she’d just had with the handsome gringo outside.  They were all excited and encouraged her to go back out and talk to me.   

We were fortunate through all this that I’d not given up on my date by then and just gone home. Twenty minutes later I was still there when Isabel came back out and saw I was still there. She was nearly as shy as I was, but thank goodness did summon up sufficient courage to walk right up to me.  She asked me what was the deal of my taking her picture. I stammered out an explanation how I was just taking her picture as a ‘memory of Peru’, one of many that I had taken in her country but that I found her especially interesting.   She thought about this a second or two, and then told me she’d like a print when I had them developed (this was the pre-digital world) and we made arrangements for getting her the photograph as soon as it was ready. I think we both saw it as the perfect excuse to reconnect.  I took her phone number and she took mine. I wrote hers down on a little piece of paper and she jotted hers down in a book of French she was carrying.  She had been learning some French phrases just in case the white knight was from France. We chatted some standing there and I explained that I was working in an academy teaching English, and she responded that she would love to take such a course, but didn’t have enough money for such frills. This seems like a small thing to notice, but this immediately impressed me favorably, because up to that time no one had been so honest about not having money.   And a LOT of people didn’t have money in Peru at the time. But everybody kind of covered up for what they didn’t have, or tried to put on phony airs, or chased me because they assumed I was a millionaire –because it was a given that all Americans were millionaires. From the outset I was moved by Isabel’s honesty and not grasping for US dollars, despite her having to endure considerable poverty in her life. I was moved by her noble character, in addition to her yellow dress, and I was hopeful that we would hit it off as we got to know each other better.  Then, like an idiot, I lost her phone number on that little piece of paper, and I had no idea how we would ever get in touch again.  I kept looking at her photo, which had turned out well, yearning to hear from her.  And then one day she called me and we made an arrangement to have our first date.

I worked until 7:30 or so and had to take a bus over to where we would be meeting in a restaurant in the Miraflores district.   Another complication arose, in that I was deathly ill with a fever, but I didn’t want to cancel.  I was dead set on making this happen.  Isabel was hungry because she had not eaten, and had had her own troubles getting to the restaurant.   But we both pushed on and met up as planned.  I tried to keep upright, but felt like falling face down at the table.  This particular white guy was even more pale that night.   I didn’t have much money either because I was earning a meager Peruvian salary as an instructor (yes, people are exploited the world over), and so out of my head with fever all we had was sparkling water at the fashionable Restaurante Haití, and then I reluctantly and apologetically had to go home.  And THAT was our first date!!! I had the sense to make a promise to call her for a real date with actual food, swearing that I would make this disaster up to her.  After this, I have no idea why Isabel would ever agree to see me again, but she did, bless her heart.  Thank the stars her sister and other ‘advisers’ didn’t persuade her to look elsewhere.   

Our second date came not long after this, and the entanglements of destiny came further into play.  As it turned out, Isabel had answered an ad for a secretarial position in a language academy, TRANSLEX.  She didn’t know it, but I was running a branch of their academy at that time in another neighborhood.  We found that out that night and I think we both perceived this as God’s quietly doing His utmost to push us together. 

And here we are today still drinking sparkling water. With way too much food now! And I’m wishing someone would yell “skinny bag of bones” at me from the cars.  We have always looked at this as Fate bringing us together across miles and other obstacles.  And as weird or spooky or distasteful as it was that I took Isabel’s picture like that all those years ago, I’m still glad I did.  Glad I have a photo of the very first time I saw my future soulmate.

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