Pretty Woman

The strange tale of a man and his Chinese bride that has Dallas talking

A few minutes later, the saleswoman emerged laughing. His date had on no panties. "Can someone go to Marshall Fields and get her some underwear?" Isenberg asked.

When the woman emerged from the dressing room, she looked at herself in the mirror and burst into tears. "She looked so beautiful," Isenberg says. After a fast dash through a hair salon, his date had turned into Pretty Woman.

The fantasy didn't last. Though dinner at the restaurant was fabulous, Isenberg says that when they went to a jazz bar, someone slipped him a "mickey." He passed out and ended up getting carted to his hotel room in a luggage cart.

Ralph Isenberg says he's fighting to keep his family together.
Mark Graham
Ralph Isenberg says he's fighting to keep his family together.
Isenberg took this photo of Nicole and posted it on his 
Web site.
Isenberg took this photo of Nicole and posted it on his Web site.

Through the Internet, Isenberg met a few women who became friends. There were a few sexual relationships. But Isenberg tried to save them, too, giving one woman the tuition for nursing school and another funds for an operation.

Every night for over a year, he'd call Alan to confess and obsess about his marriage, his guilt and his fears. "Everything he did with the ladies and the money had nothing to do with sex," Alan says. "It was about cuddling and touching and embracing."

When Isenberg met Nicole, the one-hour massage turned into a three-hour massage. "I started opening up," Isenberg says. "I told her my whole life history. She didn't understand a blooming word of it."

He returned to the bathhouse two or three times and requested Nicole. Then he invited her for a meal. "Was I paying for the company at this point?" Isenberg says. "Yes. I'm not going to lie to you. But it wasn't equivalent as far as time."

On their first real date, Isenberg took her bungee-jumping, something he'd never done. "She allowed me to be a kid." Soon Isenberg was enrolling her in community college to learn English, taking her to fine restaurants, flying off for the weekend.

But Nicole continued working at the bathhouse. She confided to Isenberg that her American dream had turned into a nightmare. She'd come to the United States seeking political asylum on two grounds: persecution because she practiced Falun Gong and health problems from an intrauterine device imposed by Chinese authorities after the birth of her first daughter, in keeping with the country's "one child" policy. More than anything, Nicole wanted freedom from government-imposed rules controlling her mind and body.

While waiting for approval, Nicole said she'd worked for slave wages as a waitress in six different restaurants. After she married a chef who was a naturalized citizen, Nicole withdrew the asylum petition and submitted an "immediate relative" application for permanent residency. It was simpler and also included her daughter. But immigration was backlogged, and Nicole still hadn't gotten the interview for the immediate relative petition.

Meanwhile, her marriage was disintegrating, Nicole claimed, because her husband was a drinker and a gambler. To her shame, Nicole had taken classes in massage only to end up working at a bathhouse to survive.

Isenberg says Nicole told him she provided massages but not sex. "And I believe her," he says. In December 2002, Isenberg insisted she quit her job. He'd take care of her from now on.

Beauty and the Beast

They arrived at the Stones' house in Rockwall in evening wear, dropping by on the way to a high-society wedding. Isenberg had on a tux, and Nicole wore a red strapless cocktail dress. Sally felt uncomfortable. But Isenberg was insistent on integrating Nicole into the life he'd once led with Mary.

Mary, who had no clue what was going on, had learned of the affair through a family member. Angry and humiliated by Ralph's behavior, Mary filed for divorce and moved to Minnesota to live near one of their daughters. But the division of their estate was swift and amicable considering the circumstances and the size of their assets.

The Stones couldn't help but worry about Isenberg. Was it a mid-life crisis? Male menopause? They feared that Nicole was exploiting their friend, a feeling reinforced by Isenberg calling Sally from expensive shops.

"I'm here picking out clothes for Nicole, and it's fun," he'd say. "We're closing the store down." Her doubts grew when Isenberg called from the Rolex shop where Nicole picked out a watch. Then it was a silver Mercedes.

Far from feeling used, Isenberg was having the time of his life. Even before news of their relationship leaked out, Isenberg had taken Nicole to see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the bow of the ferry they re-enacted the "flying" scene between Titanic's Jack and Rose. "That was so cool," Isenberg says. "She'd seen the movie in Chinese. She made me feel alive."

At Ellis, Isenberg bought Nicole a spot on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor next to the one he'd purchased to honor his parents. Isenberg equated Nicole's struggle with that earlier wave of immigrants fleeing religious persecution.

The Stones and other friends had to agree that Isenberg seemed happier than he'd been in years--energetic and full of life. Even his hypochondria diminished. As they got to know Nicole, her affection for Isenberg was evident. Soon he was talking about getting married immediately after their divorces were finalized.

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