Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)

We are dropped into their lives initially in a University of Long Island (ULI) classroom on a warm September Thursday in 1994. Any of us may find ourselves luckily in the right place at the right time. James believes that, for him, this is one of those times….

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Just turned 29, and having decided the year before that he needed to finish college, James is back for another semester. He grabs a seat for this first meeting of his Western Civilization class. This is his second, and final, class of the day.

Moments later, he notices a tallish, attractive woman, strolling into the classroom. Briefly she makes friendly eye contact with him, and then sits at the desk directly in front of his…. and he’s really pleased she has. She strikes him as a bit older than the usual undergraduate and effortlessly chic compared to most of them.

After settling in, she turns to him, huffs that she can’t stand her dorm-mate, and introduces herself: her name is Isabelle. He sees also that her fingers are ring-less, and is incredulous as to how that can be possible. He introduces himself in return:

“I’m James. James, uh, no, not James ‘You Know Who,’” he responded awkwardly.

She turned her head slightly, fixed her gaze on him, and smiled. “Well, hello, Mr. ‘Not You Know Who.’ You are not English, so you cannot be.”

“No, I’m definitely not English,” James made clear. Trying to play it cool, he looked down again at his notebook for a moment, unsure what to say next. Finally, he voiced what seemed obvious. “And you aren’t from Patchogue?”

They chat as other students wander into the thirty desk classroom. Her accent is familiar to him, but he can’t immediately pin it down. She clears up that question for him when she explains she had arrived only a few days earlier from France; she had previously wanted to be an au pair alongside her friend, but her father wouldn’t allow that, so she is here now to study for a year instead.

As they talk, James admits that he has never been to Europe.

Born half-Irish-American, half-Italian-American in Queens, and raised mostly in suburban Suffolk County, James seems a typical young Long Islander of the 1980s and 1990s. Growing up, he had not traveled much, and what he had seen outside of New York had been almost entirely within the U.S. His biggest adventure had been just after he’d completed a two-year degree, when, at age twenty, he had ventured to a college in Alaska for an additional semester. Since then, he had worked in his family’s construction business.

Suddenly, the professor appears:

“That is all for the moment,” Isabelle smiled and remarked in a playful, subversive tone. “We must be good scholars.” She turned in her seat and faced forward.

That she catches his eye is no real surprise. After class, they head to the student center café and continue their chat. All the while, he’s dying to ask her out, but struggles to summon up the courage to do so.

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At last he hits on what he’s sure is a “can’t miss.” It doesn’t have to seem like “a date” either. He asks timidly if, since she’s new to New York, she’d be interested in joining him, and his friends Brian and Colleen, maybe for a day out in Manhattan on Saturday…. including a visit to the top of the World Trade Center? He adds that he has to check if they can make it, of course.

She replies that she’d love to….
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See related:
Russians
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

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