Fiction

Isabelle


I remember distinctly the day I met Bella. I had a toothache. And it may even have been my wife’s birthday—Heather, bless you, you know I was no good with them. The afternoon was one of those clement summertime bubbles of sun and light breeze, the kind of idyllic atmosphere fit for a ballgame, or, if one is jaded or beyond 30, a gin and tonic and a muzzy, regretful reverie in the backyard shade, beneath an ash tree in my case, half a pack of cigarettes, barefoot, a panama hat, The Paris Review, a metallic bow fly dying in my lemonade, a winged cerulean corpse drowned in sugar-water—the whole thing a scene of obscenity. The static text of a bad poem—“ The Madrigal Venery”—rested in my lap, aching to be set on fire. My own notebook sat verseless, untouched, a vellum coaster for the sodden coffin of the fly, who, by the day’s end, I believe I had cried over in a drunken state (oh, but now I know it was on account of your departure that day, my dear Bella Bella, my bellflower, my belletrist’s muse, My Isabelle, Is-my-Bella!).

I never considered myself a conqueror of women, how could I? At forty-five, I was a terrible likeness to Cezanne’s rendering of Henri Gasquet, and I can consider myself now perhaps the farthest thing from Don Juan as has ever existed on terra firma, where we all occupy our own little plot of physical space in the rolling carnival. I had one partner in life, Heather, and we got along as couples will (missionary only, secundum artem), until the middle of the second decade when the marriage evolved to a point of sexless nightly routine: “How is your book? Should I set the alarm clock for six or six-thirty? How does your stomach feel? Goodnight dear.” I was never very sexually animated. Erotic impulses were not my motivation for activity, that is, until some kind of furious moxie was roused deep within me on that regular summer day when Walter would introduce us, Heather and I, to—you have her name, the wondrous sylph.

When the afternoon closed, that is to say, when I had sat long enough to really loathe myself and life in the growing shade (I blame “The Madrigal Venery” for my sudden loss of poetics), when the favonian currents scattered the atoms of day to a near eastern region and the early evening—not quite eventide, for it was still light, mind you—descended on the back lawn, then did I join Heather at the double vanity to begin those occupations antecedent to a dinner party, viz. a clean shirt and shave, fresh trousers and socks, a splash of eu de cologne, and an inspection of a pounding molar that I’ve now complained of twice in the course of 500 words, more or less. It was around 6 p.m. that Heather dutifully confronted my non-recognition of the date on which she was born however many decades before. Another faux pas by aloof Goddard. Then in this order: an apology (on my knees for show), a farcical female scorn followed precipitously by forgiveness, and a make-up: oh placated Heather, life was so easy in your house. A flower waiting for you post-shower by the misty sink, plucked from the neighbor’s garden in my bath towel, I was still your devoted husband.

Walter called, said he’d be late. My tooth hurt excessively, and I medicamented myself with some pills that promised to reduce pain. Heather prepared the food and table while I reddened my teeth with wine in the study. I had retired from my career too early in life, but I enjoyed my pension, and it was a habit of mine to occupy myself with a paper or an essay in that dusty crypt where Heather dared not tread for all our years. It was a cramped space, but if anything, I am an anti-claustrophobe, and I hadn’t ever climbed the walls, as the saying goes. I could spend a week in a black box under the earth with only my thoughts and a little air to breath, food to eat, water to drink, and if I may envision it as a hygienic experiment, some means to discard my waste. I’ve never really feared true physical confinement. On the topic of claustrophobia, there was an interesting in vivo experiment by—Oh Goddard, aloof buzzard, my friend, myself, in that isolated preprandial wine daydream of your study, how could you have known? Goddard, plumbless dunce, how could you have known then of the empyreal virgin in the a-line flower skirt and white cotton blouse on her way to your very residence, that stockingless pixie who would walk up through the parterre of your lawn and grace the steps to your door, attached at the arm to her debonair husband, your son Walter, who, in his usual sinless way, would overlook the peacock feather growing in the canthi of his father’s sable eyes as they met those of the one he loved?

I grew tired in my study (Malbec). I had met two of Walter’s “girls” on prior occasions—two nameless women from two nameless periods in the boy’s college and post-college life who he thought worthy of an introduction to his immediate ancestors. Walter was an attractive young man, as was our mailman. He (Walter) charmed the fairer sex without much effort, and was able to beguile the better looking among their ranks, which, as I learned in Walter’s case were two women who regarded Middlemarch as either a formal date in late winter or the nom de plume (my words) for a rum-based punch, the recipe for which (gasp!) she could not then recall. Walter quested after bloom and polish, quite a different path from his elder brothers who, being both married too early, had gone in, dynamically repressed, for the roughhewn hauler of laundry basket type of companion indecently resembling their mother. I was proud of my Walter, as proud as a father could be, though I did not anticipate his bringing anything more than a coquettish 7 on a scale from 1 to 10 that day. Oh but my life for BE 11 A.

I studied the little curios haunting the top of my gentleman’s desk, the bric-a-brac associated with a learned man’s profession acquired over time: a small leaden paperweight in the bust of Jung, a copper dirndled figurine, a Visconti Rembrandt roller pen (monogrammed), an El Casco small stapler, cufflink case (display only), a briar wood pipe, an ornate wooden German clock (dead cuckoo), an ancient calendar from my days of appointments, and the audible yelling of my own name, the last overheard as I sat drowsily in a state of vinous buoyancy reflecting on the chimes in the hall. Heather’s footwork, the door, voices in plural, an alien female soprano, Heather (foul, off-key contralto) calling after me a second time. I rise.

Eager, surprised, pulled out of an ill humor and smiling ridiculously into space, thus did I leave my bantam bower in search of my grown boy and his affianced flame. Such was I, affable Goddard, the first moment I encountered Bella, standing there bare-legged, a glowing peach, beneath a plastered arch in the principal corridor of my own foyer. Dad, this is Isabelle. Oh thank you Walter, thank you from the bottom of my malignant heart, you suffering son, thank you for that ciphered moment of rapture, that unforeseen tryst. I received Walter first. I gripped him tight against my body, rubbed his back from the neck to just below the waist, kissed his cheek, kissed his forehead, grabbed at his sides and held him in front of me before embracing him again with a second round of caresses—I did all of these things so that my performance of them on Bella was not without its justification in precedent. Every act was perfectly calculated during that first squeeze with his darling. My hand stopped just high enough above the superior aspect of the buttock to satisfy my urge without inspiring alarm in my lovely guest. My fingers moved up her back, where they read like brail the lace filigree of her brassiere. My warm paw came to rest with a gentle sweep on the nape of her neck where my knuckles were tickled by the felled, still-wet-from-shower cilia of her walnut hair (the scent of which I sampled). I hadn’t seen my son in such a long time, I was happy (outwardly) to see him, and if I was too liberal with my hands on the new Miss, if I got carried away in paying my respects, well, chalk it up to the enthusiasm of a loving, excited, innocent old father absorbed in a moment of ripe frisson. I know you covered for me Walter, loyal son. I know that in that car ride home when she broached the subject of old wandering hands you defended your papa, the bubbly, cuddly, wine-bibbing rubbing type. In vino deceptum.

The banal temptation incited by the postmodern god Cliché dictates that I compare her to some still-life product of the Florentine Renaissance; that I write “Venus, Venus in the garden, in the shell!” and encourage plaudits by the invocation of Sandro; that I compare her to some Late Classical muse entombed in Paestan red figure; that I harken versification (“Lo, in yon brilliant hallway niche, Bella, how statue-like I see thee stand…”); that I toil over a paragraph with the sole mission of excessive literary ornateness and affectation. I must snub these seductions. No artist on earth has ever captured the sensual pulse of live flesh, and the closest that Bella has ever come to art was in a black and white profile shot by Luc Fournal. Oh! What crumbs of cold ash when compared to Isabelle in rippling Technicolor! I exclaim these things, which is the reason for that vertical mark denotative of zeal. And I was, am, a zealous connoisseur. It was an instantaneous kind of infatuation, there in the foyer. “Presents with appropriate affect and demeanor”—my old clinician’s brain. Toes, ankles, calves, knees, beginning of thighs: sublime. Fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders: mine, mine, mine (this I repeated to myself throughout dinner, hummed even). My femme fatale, with your ambrosial bob, your sweet, celestial blue eyes, your nose, your mouth, your cheeks, your illimitable symmetry, your lithesome finish, your, oh, I’d like a taste at this moment, please.

Drinks before dinner, a gentle interrogation of the new sweetheart, a chat about expected rain, Walter’s job, the “so much in common” between Heather and Isabelle (Heather’s words), a spilled glass of wine, “Oh, Goddard!” (Heather’s words again), and other customs and procedures. So it goes. I could not avert my eyes from the infrequent open skirt opposite me, as Bella, careful though she was to press the cotton fabric to her skin during the change of position—one leg over the other and vice versa—would reveal a small window into that white satin secret, that terrifically tempting triangle vested between her upper thighs. I had never considered myself of the skirt-obsessed class: had never been that debased man repeatedly dropping his silverware at the café, as it were. Yet as I sat there in the plush divan of my old familiar haunt, my ears alert to the voices of my little clan, I found myself searching, in a possessed kind of way, for a glimpse, however slight, of that fugitive curiosity at the obscured crown of her lower extremities: that teasing recessed gem that, when brandished on the beach is but a prosaic particle in a larger standard scene, but when curtained by the cloaking fabric of a dress and revealed in the fluttering evanescence of a reckless leg-crossing, is effectual in overcoming the most iron will of man by causing him to ogle (before feigning disinterest—a passing peek is all). So was I, helpless sap, as the slightest twitch in Bella’s body (the object of my relentless peripheral vision) would cause my eyes to dart to her lap before proceeding to the far wall and then the ceiling, as though making a general inspection of the room. She didn’t catch me even once.

Heather had made a roast for her birthday. “Dinner’s ready” she said, on returning to the living room. Bella rose: a final peek! We made our way, a happy nucleus, to the dining room, that unfrequented chamber that got up dust by the week and held crystal and china captive behind glass. The table was too long for four, but as Heather and I were seated at opposite poles of the oaken, place-set earth, I was thankful for the distance between 12-o-clock-me and my remote six-o-clock mate. Walter at nine-o-clock, Isabelle at three—a mere quarter hour from the midnight patriarch who, before sitting, raised his glass to the health of his son’s girlfriend. The conversation, the table-talk, got along famously in the southern hemisphere, where my wife inveigled Isabelle with stories from Walter’s youth. She took it like a martyr, smiling at all the right breaks in Heather’s claptrap, complimenting the roast and sides, while I, alone in the arctic, succumbed to a perfect fascination with the profile of Bella’s turned head. I occupied myself with the wine bottle and for the greater part of the meal was lost in a happy little humbug’s daydream, chin resting in a hot palm, taking in the sights and sounds without committing myself to any part of the conversation. My mind wandered to thoughts on a recent article I’d read on the death penalty – a nice little invention in our state. “Engaged? No kidding!” Heather in hysterics. “Goddard, what’s the matter with you?” Goddard, stupid, shaken from ennui, looking imploringly into the smiling face of the new Bella for explanation. Eyes on Heather. Heather ecstatic. Eyes on Walter. Walter same. “Dad, we’re getting married.” It was wonderful news, I admit, to a lost polar bear drunk on old grapes at the North Pole of his table.

Dessert. Damned dark chocolate confection. The following lucid recollection: Isabelle excuses herself for the bathroom and I immediately spill wine on my shirtfront as pretext to guide her to the upstairs guest lavatory on the way to my own room for a new shirt. She locks the door, I hear her lift the seat of the commode and rest it against the tank while I rest my ear against the door. The way the urine struck the toilet water filled me with a thrill that is only explainable by a long and tortuous dialectic process that I will not marry the reader to. A creak in the floorboard beneath my fat foot. I can verily feel, like a chalky paste in the mouth, her wide eyes staring at the door and wondering what lurks beyond, as I tiptoe down the hall and hide amidst the hanging shirts of my walk-in closet. I reencounter her at the table, chewing a mouthful of the cacao fare. She wipes an index finger across the corner of her mouth. She knows. I look at myself and realize I am attired in the same disgraced shirt, the patch of red beating on the buttoned opening like a genuine telltale heart.

I reverted to the wine as though it was a kind of anchor, as panicked men will do when pressed to what their insecurities insist is a corner. Alack, the 2008 was finished, and I made a desperate show of listlessness by savoring the single molecule of red wine from the lip of my empty chalice, while peering at Bella over the bounding dome of the finger-stained glass. Confirming that she did not eye me with dubiety, I excused myself and returned to the table with another bottle form my humble basement cache. Everyone was sincerely enjoying themselves and each other, and I could tell—I am of that sensitive species of human that can detect the slightest emotion or veiled mental state in people—that Isabelle suspected nothing. It was an old creaky house, and he (me) was a happy, harmless old earthly (telluric?) soul. My mind at ease. And just as I was beginning those machinations preparatory to unsealing the bottled lightning, just as I was securing a lightness of mind by the prospect of a fresh glass, I apprehended that awful three-word death knell, that adenoidal chirp that is the forte of a pecking hen, invariably proclaimed at that precise moment when the starved tendril of the wine key is immersing itself in cork: “Enough wine Goddard.” I did not concede victory to her, but removed the stopper, poured myself a tall glassful and drank: your move dear. A tête-a-tête proposed, a spousal challenge, but she merely rolled her eyes and continued her offensive sermon on the virtues of a big church wedding. And so I returned to my little region of the planet, my brain soggy with intoxicant, my heart on fire for the glistening mademoiselle at my table who was fast-becoming my religion.

There were goodbyes in time, simple partings between the old and the young. Such wonderful news, such great news, the wedding, the preparations, we’ll help you with everything you need, money is no object, we must have a big cake, we love Walter so much, we love you both so much, etc. Another cycle of hugs. I was more conservative in the second round, and implemented that one-armed meager embrasure that the old demure church man falls into when a person insists on a hug and he is made to suffer a fool in a crowded narthex. I ached for her, yearned to rip at her blouse and lusted for her naked skin. I stood as close as could reasonably be accomplished under the circumstances and inhaled through my nose so as to pasture my hope on her pheromones and dream of future joys. I tried in vain to take a mental photograph of her face. And then they were gone. From a bay window I watched their parting, focusing on the ethereal trail of her pendulating mane as it danced in the increased breeze of the night air. How I wished to wake next to that person anywhere on earth – on a scandalous floor mattress in a bombed out Super 8 in Arkansas, for example—anything to be with that golden woman!

Later, in the still light of the bedside lamps, I laid quietly next to the life partner I’d consented to. She was reading a selection from the Oprah book club. At the time, I hadn’t experienced a single homicidal urge in my entire life’s history. I didn’t ruminate over the prospect of smothering her to death with a pillow: I simply hadn’t the thought. Oh reader, what strange new worlds I would encounter in the following months, when the theology of Isabelle would beckon me on to such abominable undertakings as…

That night, I turned to my Heather and kissed her cheek. She placed her book on the nightstand. “How is your book?” I asked. “Should I set the alarm for six or six-thirty? How does your stomach feel? Goodnight, dear, I love you.” But of course I really meant “turn out the light”, which she did. The electricity coursing through my brain was not in the least bit comfortable. I tried in vain to imagine the domestic privacies of my new found swan. My final exertion was composed of a grinding focus on the memory of that spectacular satin triangle: an image I hoped to take to my grave. In an hour or two, the Malbec had taken its course, and the magnetic fields of black space closed in on my lightning eyes.

Adam Johnson Adam Todd Johnson is an attorney in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His short stories have appeared in Euphony, Cerise Press, Glasschord Magazine, and elsewhere. The story "Isabelle" is taken from a novel in progress.