The heels of her brown Valentino boots clacked across the cobblestones. And though she was hidden behind the bulk of a heavy woolen coat, a hint of gold could be seen peeking from beneath a black ball cap. Her steps were so full of energy in the early morning light, but there was also a sense of fragility in each step.
It was as if she knew that every step was one more move into an uncertain future. It was as if she knew that life would never be the same.
She wandered further and further, until her steps at last stopped at the edge of the Annapolis city dock. Her gaze carried over across the water even as her mind flew back into the past.
Golden days and silver nights filled her thoughts as she looked backwards through time.
She thought of a boy sometimes. Just once in awhile.
But often she merely thought of all her plans. All the ideas, desires, and unbridled energy which had brought her to this point.
Her life had always been one without reserve. Not easy, but one where each day and each new joy was a gift happily received.
You could see that in her hazel eyes that crinkled up at the barest hint of joy. You could see it in the callouses on her hands and the way her smile was just a little bit crooked.
Her life had never been easy, but it had always been hers. A distant, if loving, father, a workaholic mother and two sisters who were aggravating enough to make you tear your hair out. Her life wasn’t always easy with this family, but they were hers.
And her name was Catherine.
Chapter 1, Insufficient History
Her reverie was abruptly broken by a shout across the pier.
“Catherine! I’m so glad I finally found you.”
Oh no, she thought. It’s Phillip. Good-intentioned, but hopeless Phil.
Planting a smile on her face, she turned to face him.
His short-cut brown hair barely rippled in the wind blowing in off the water. While his hair was stiff from the excessive amount of product he used, the sky-blue eyes set in his aristocratic features moved with concern. And pity. Catherine always hated pity.
Phil opened his mouth to speak, but Catherine laid a hand firmly on his chest and cut him off.
“Phil, I don’t care what he said. I don’t care about apologies. Some things can’t be taken back and forgotten.”
Phil shifted uncomfortably and shoved his hands down into his jeans pockets.
“Catherine, really you need to let him talk to you,” Phil said, looking down at the ground. “I don’t want to be in the middle of my friends and their fight anymore.”
“A fight needs two, Phil. And I’m done so there can’t be a fight at all.” Catherine said, taking her gaze from Phil and his uneasy shuffling, she returned to contemplating the ocean waves and the ships bobbing in the harbor.
“I’m not going to speak to Damien again,” Catherine said. “Not ever.”
Taking one hand from his pockets, Phil gently placed it on her arm.
“I know he hurt you, Cat, but this anger you feel-”
Catherine whirled at him, a new fire blazing in her eyes and she tore off her ball cap so he could see her face clearly.
Her hazel eyes shone with unshed tears.
Her face wasn’t the angular one that Shakespeare had written about. It wasn’t the stunning beauty that scorched the city of Troy. But the emotion on that face, with its crooked smile and high cheekbones, was so real and so vibrant that for a minute, Phil saw what had caused so many to fall down in front of this woman, his friend, and die at the walls of her defenses.
She was free, unbound and without limit. She required no one, even as she lived to love and give all of herself to lost causes and forgotten dreams.
Phil’s thoughts were abruptly shattered as her finger stabbed him in the chest. Hard.
“I am not angry,” She said with a dangerous calm. “If I were angry, I would scream and shout and rage like Dylan Thomas against ‘the dying of the light,’ but I’m not mad.”
Phil studied her for a moment in the following silence. It’s true, he thought, she’s not mad. Her hands weren’t trembling. There was no quiver in her lips and no give in her soul.
This was something else. Which was far more fucking scary.
Catherine stuffed her own hands into her coat pockets, fingering the beads of her Rosary. She hadn’t prayed it in years. It was almost more like a talisman at this point, a good luck charm.
So much for luck.
“I’m not mad or anything like that,” Catherine repeated. “I’m not even disappointed. I should’ve expected this.”
This being Damien telling her that she couldn’t just cross the ocean and to the Arts and Letters Institute in Rome for the next year. As if he had any right to dictate her life.
It had come as a shock when she received the letter. She had been
working for years now to get to this point. And when that letter came to her dorm at St. John’s College here in Annapolis she had thought she would hit the ceiling she was so happy.
So she did what any University girl would do. She told her best friends, Phil and Elizabeth. Then she told her boyfriend, Damien. And that’s when four years of dating, a childhood back in Indiana and every bit of history between them had ceased to matter.
Because he broke the cardinal rule.
He didn’t discuss, he didn’t even work to persuade. He dictated. And when she didn’t snap to attention, he made an ultimatum.
Him or Rome. Wait for him here in Annapolis or chase her heart’s desire.
It really wasn’t a choice. One does not dictate to her.
Phil looked at her cautiously before starting again.
“Now, Cat, I know Damien was a fricking idiot for saying what he did,” Damien explained. “But you two just have so much chemistry. So much history.”
“History doesn’t mean shit,” Catherine spat. “It. Means. Nothing.”
“It means nothing,” she whispered again more quietly.
Phil gently pulled at her arm, directing her back to college. It was a place she didn’t want to see again.
But like many things she didn’t want, it happened anyway.
Chapter 2, Home calling
“Look, Cat, let’s just head back,” Phil said, trying to pull her from the dock and back into the city proper. “It’s getting late.”
Catherine looks out one last time. The waves lapping against the concrete pillars of the dock are dark and deep by this time of night. SHe sighed.
“Okay, fine,” she said. She pulled her arm away from Phil’s hands, stuck her hands in her coat pockets and set a hard pace heading home.
About 15 minutes later they made it back to her room at St. John’s. Catherine fumbled in her pocket for her keys. Her efforts only served to bring out a tangled mass consisting of earbuds, keys and her rosary beads she cursed briefly.
Phil raised an eyebrow at seeing the Rosary beads.
“Situation got you bad enough you’re praying again, Cat?” Phil asked jokingly. Catherine glared at him before returning to try and sort through her tangled life.
“Your poor attempts to lighten things aside, Phil, I do appreciate you coming to get me. You’re a champ and you’re always there for me,” Catherine explained quietly.
She finally got her keys sorted and turned to him.
“I do realize what you’re trying to do. Really. And you’re a good friend for trying, but please. I need this time over break to be alone. Truly alone.
Phil looked at her carefully. His blue eyes crinkled up at the edges even as his frown deepened. You could almost see the future worry lines that would rest heavy on his face.
“Okay,” Phil said. “But call me when you’re ready. I’ll be around.”
Catherine slipped her key into her lock and after a moment stepped into her apartment.
“Of course, Phil.” Cat said with a slight smile. “Who else would have the patience to deal with all this?”
She executed a dramatic pose and they both shared a laugh and a hug before she closed the door.
Friendship is hard, Phil thought. And even harder when you’re friends with them both. Now, to tell Damien.
Her eyes flicked open at 4:58 a.m. the next morning. Cat glanced at her phone lying atop her crumpled bed sheets from her restless night.
Time to run, she thought with a groan.
For the past year she had gotten up at 5 a.m. three times a week to go run. It was the only time she really had when she didn’t have to think about dissertations, papers, overbearing family and every other fucking thing under the sun.
She quickly hopped out of bed and carefully dodged the piles of clothes that littered the floor. The clothes were clean, they were just...everywhere. She made her way to her dresser and started rummaging through her drawers.
“I really should start laying these clothes out the night before,” Catherine muttered to herself.
Eventually, she managed to dig out from underneath a mountain of bras and panties, a pair of navy blue Brooks running tights and a sports bra. Grabbing her Adidas sneakers, her Iphone, and putting her blonde hair in a quick ponytail, she made for the door.
She stepped out the door of her dreary apartment complex to a dark and silent city. The sun was just peeking over the horizon as she stretched, set her watch, and tightened her sneakers. It seemed like a million years ago since she last ran through the city, felt the wind whipping around her even as her lungs burned for air. It had just been two days ago.
Amazing what can change in two days.
Putting her earbuds in and setting her Iphone to shuffle she headed off with Panic! At the Disco playing loudly in her ears and silence leaking from her mind.
There were a lot of benefits to running the morning. Cooler temperatures, less catcallers, and most importantly, the capacity to be alone in the center of a city.
Catherine’s heart was racing and her lungs were burning but there was something about being utterly alone she had come to love about these early mornings.
Her feet pounded the pavement. Bum, bum, bum. Over and over again. The rhythm served a form of catharsis, emptying her mind.
There was no dissertations, no Rome and certainly no Damien. Just the ever-present bum, bum, bum of her feet on the cobbled streets.
But all good things must come to an end. And so did her morning run. Her phone interrupted her reverie with the sharp buzzing of an alarm just two blocks from her apartment. She’d finished her daily hour of running and the sun was rising over the sleeping city at last. 6:05 a.m.
She slowed her pace. First, to a jog and then to a walk, placing her hands on the back of her head to encourage her lungs to fully expand.
She gleefully sucked in air through her nose and out through her mouth.
As she walked towards the door to her apartment building, old Mr. Poiter from next door came out on his way to work. He smiled and shook his head at her red-faced exhaustion.
“Still trying to run all your problems out, eh Cat?”
“They haven’t caught up to me yet so I must be winning, right Mr. Poiter?” Cat quipped back.
Mr. Poiter just laughed and gestured for her to come on inside the building and out of the early morning air. Gratefully, Catherine headed inside and raced up the steps to the shower that awaited her.
Chapter 3, Journey first
A random Spotify playlist of the latest hits played as she stepped into the steaming shower. The noise of the latest shit helped keep her thoughts from straying too far into...dangerous territory. Damien territory. Rome territory.
Here she had just been accepted to the American Academy in Rome and she was stuck worrying about the past and about some idiot. She sighed, her breath mixing with the steam in her glass box of a shower.
It was pleasant to imagine that the water racing down her body was the past draining away. Were it so easy, she thought, her hands running through her hair like she did when she worried. What a cluster of crap.
She stepped out of the shower, wrapped in a towel and went to turn off her music playlist. Her iPhone showed she had two new messages.
She opened her phone to see a text from Professor Ian. Another from Damien. She deleted Damien’s without looking and quickly focused on prof’s message.
“Congrats on Rome and the Academy, Catherine! Swing by my office later today, I’ve got a going away present for you. Unless you’re already done with your old prof. Ciao.”
Catherine smiled and shook her head.
“Probably his last ditch effort to try and convince me to do grad work here. Ha, fat chance, prof.” Catherine muttered to herself.
Toweling herself off, she headed over to her messy, and some might say overcrowded, wardrobe. She preferred the term well-stocked.
Knowing her prof, he was already in his office at 8 a.m.. Might as well get the waterworks and his bad attempt at bribery out of the way.
She opened her closet and tried to sort through the cacophony that emerged.
Black. Definitely black today, she thought with a crooked smile.
Walking out of her apartment a mere 30 minutes later, black faux leather jacket, skinny jeans and classic black-and-white Chuck Taylor’s on, she headed for the local bus stop.
Fumbling with her earbuds, the generic Apple kind which never managed to stay in her ears somehow, she made her way down the block. The cracked sidewalk and aged brickwork around her blurred in her peripheral vision to the beat of “Arsonist’s Lullabye” by Hozier.
Finally arriving at the bus stop on Third, she leaned against the bus shelter and participated in one of her favorite games: people watching.
Player one: older woman, silvery grey hair made up in what looked like a too serious and hardass bun. Her face was lined and her hands spotted. Looked serious and dour but there was a slight smile on her face.
Which led Cat to players two and three. Player one over there seemed to be looking at two adolescent boys who were huddled up on their phones by the other side of the shelter.
No major acne yet for those two. Lucky little punks. The two were staring at their phones like they were the most essential things in the universe. Probably a video game. Or porn. You never knew what folks were into anymore. She grimaced at the thought.
Bus should be here anytime now. Catherine craned her neck around to check further down the hill. That’s when she noticed the boys were now lifting their phones a bit higher and in her direction.
Oh great. Adolescent boys are probably snapchatting me. What a time to be alive and a woman. Thinking quickly she smiled and pulled her morning issue of the Annapolis Capital Gazette from her purse.
Deliberately she made sure to take her time to fan and expand the paper in front of her face and chest so nothing was visible.
Take that you little, pervs, Cat thought, smiling to herself.
Now as long as the wind didn’t…
A sudden gust came up and ripped the paper from her hands and managed to slap her in the face with her own paper.
“Lovely,” Cat muttered as the bus pulled up.
The older lady, player one in her earlier game of people watching, got up with the achingly slow movements of the ancients and tottered towards where the bus doors would settle.
The two young boys rushed ahead almost knocking the older woman over, but one of them quickly helped steady her, and the other remembering his manners at last, decided it best to let her get on the bus first.
Cat flashed a bright grin their way as she passed and got on the bus.
Nice to know chivalry wasn’t completely dead, even if the brats had thought to get away with some quick snaps of her earlier. Thinking of the older woman, Cat decided it was best to call it even.
Plans to trip them up as they jogged to the back of the bus would have to wait. Not today. Maybe when she got back.
She grinned to herself one last time and settled in for the ride to college.
Chapter 4: Destinations and final goodbyes
It was comfortable in here. Comfortable like coming home or putting on an old pair of shoes. It was also teeming with books, loose sheaves of thesis papers and one crotchety old professor by the name of Ian Douglass.
“You call that an argument?” Professor Ian shouted at one particularly infuriating term paper. “What a ridiculous, sentimentalist piece of utter rubbish.”
It was in the midst of this tirade that Catherine peeked her head into the door of his cluttered, yet comfortable, office. She grinned at his apparent frustration.
“Yet another little freshman trying to weasel their way into your heart by writing about the Romantics?” Catherine asked as she sauntered in and dropped down on to one pile of books that seemed a bit more stable than the others.
Ian looked up from his papers with a grimace and closed his eyes. The best way to describe Professor Ian at moments like these was simple. He was a bear. A giant, six foot tall, friendly and often exasperating, bear.
“I’m half-tempted to send it back with the single word “rewrite” at the top, would serve this Richard Covington fellow right. He’d be frantic about what he could possibly have done wrong. Pretentious jackass.”
Catherine covered her mouth with her hand to stop from laughing at his apparent fury. After a few moments even Ian couldn’t keep up the charade of rage and suddenly they were both grinning like two fools.
Ian looked across his desk at Catherine with the quizzical expression he reserved for those students who knew him well.
“So, are you ready for Rome and the Institute? Are you sure I cannot convince you to stay and work for me and the department instead?
Catherine flashed a smile and ran her hand through her blonde hair.
“Now, prof. You’ve already tried to bribe me to stay a few times now. I really need to do this,” Catherine looked down for a moment. “For multiple reasons.”
An awkward silence followed. Professor Ian’s grimace returned as he realized he’d stepped into some deep shit.
“Uhh, well I’m glad you stopped by,” Ian said as he reached into his desk. “I’ve got something for you. So you don’t forget about your old prof when you go travel the world.”
Reaching into one of his desk drawers he pulled out a small bundle, wrapped in newspaper and held together by red string. The wrapping job was...sub par to say the least. Catherine glanced up from the package to Professor Ian and raised her eyebrows in mock surprise.
“I’m positively astonished at your wrapping job.” Catherine said, smiling. “You certainly do not disappoint, prof. Or excel, but that’s neither here nor there.”
With their customary ribbing of each other finished, she ripped off the newspaper and finally got to see the gift.
One black leather, gold embossed copy of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” And inside the front cover was an inscription from Prof:
May you bring the same life and vitality you have brought into my classroom to that ancient city of Rome. Also, when you become famous I expect a reference.
Ian Douglass, aka “Prof”
P.S. If another boy breaks your heart, they will find how truly “long and hard” the road to Hell is. Just saying.
Catherine looked up, unable to speak for a moment.
“Damn, prof. You went all out this time.”
Professor Ian looked at her carefully and walked around his desk to sit down on one of the many piles of books that defined his office.
“Cat, you’re one of my best students. That’s one of the reasons I recommended you for that Rome fellowship. But there was another reason too.”
“You need this trip,” Ian said, all laughter gone from his voice. “You need to get away, fall in love with yourself and to write all this emotion out. It’s the only way.”
Catherine looked back at him, carefully trying to mask her emotions. And her complete agreement.
Time to leave.