The day had finally arrived. Waking up to the morning light streaming against the blinds in her bedroom window, Kate groaned. It was the first day of class…and suddenly Kate didn’t feel ready for it. She’d waited impatiently these last weeks and now, now she wanted nothing more than to throw the covers back over her head and hide away from the truth of what was coming.
But she couldn’t, and she knew better than to pretend otherwise. So, despite these baser instincts, Kate pulled her body from the comfort of her bed and headed toward the bathroom. Her first class, Romantic Literature, started at 9:00 am. It was barely 7:00 am now, but she wasn’t about to launch this new venture blurry eyed and unkempt. And she most certainly would not be late.
Looking bright in a khaki skirt and loosely flowing green top, Kate pulled into the campus parking lot. It was 8:40 am. She’d hoped the extra time would calm her nerves: she was here, she was ready, she could breathe, breathe! She hadn’t been this nervous her first day on the job at Banner Investment Company as a junior analyst, a position which should have brought her to her knees—she’d seen grown men weep there more often than she cared to remember.
When the dashboard clock read 8:50 am, Kate shut off her car. Quickly snatching up her book-bag and locking up the doors, she hustled over to McCallister Hall, the Language and Arts building. She was looking for room RW307. Her eyes scanned the doors narrowly marching up and down the hallway before her: M209-M221….
The room’s alphanumeric notation served as its geographical coordinates; Kate figured that out quickly. What she couldn’t figure out though, was how to decode this location. Panic clawing up her throat, precious minutes were spent as she trailed aimlessly up and down corridor after unending corridor, gaining further stairwells, alcoves, foyers…all to no avail. It was going on 8:57 am when her hand snaked out, gripping onto the shirtsleeve of a fellow student passing by. Hyperventilation hadn’t been far off when her voice, an unfortunate squeak, pleaded for assistance.
She was looking for the Right Wing quadrant on the 3rd floor, they explained casually.
The second hand had just ticked past 8:58 am when Kate finally, finally spied the room. Hurrying to the door, her fingers closed around its brass knob; her grip was shaky, sweaty, unsure. Fighting down an overwhelming urge to cry, she tugged it open….
Certainly, not the best possible beginning to her college career but, hell, at least she’d made it. She had a minute and a half to spare—time enough for discrete prayer.
“Good morning—and welcome to Romantic Literature.” Delivered a touch dramatically, these were the opening words to the class, spoken smartly by the instructor, a middle-aged woman with fair complexion.
Kate tried not to look as harried as she felt.
“I’m very excited to spend the next sixteen weeks with all of you, exploring what is arguably the greatest era of British writing, indeed some of the most renowned works of literature period,” the schoolteacher practically gushed. It came out perhaps girlish. Nerdy.
Kate felt her shoulders relax a little. This wouldn’t be so bad. She loved to read and she’d been told at orientation this was a highly coveted class.
“I should warn, however, that this class is as tough as it is worthwhile. A 400 level unit, it’s considered an upper division course,” the instructor continued unabashed. She didn’t sound girlish now. Militant maybe. The shift in tone was startling. “As such, the academia is specific and structured to be rigorous, demanding, exacting….”
The words tolled an ominous bell in Kate.
“I don’t say this to intimidate, rather encourage commitment. To be here, you’ve taken certain required prerequisite classes—they’ve prepared you for this caliber of study: research, analysis, critical thinking. You’ll incorporate what you’ve already learned and take it even further, deeper in here.”
Prerequisite classes? Yeah, maybe…like five or six years ago! It was Kate’s advisor who suggested taking the class, having reviewed Kate’s previous collegiate curriculum. The woman may have been overly hopeful.
The instructor kept right on talking: “On that note, we have got a lot of ground to cover if I expect to leave a solid impression upon you of what the Age of Romanticism did for revolutionizing art—from expression to teaching and evolution of thought. Let’s get right down to it, huh?” she asked rhetorically.
“I won’t bother going over what’s written on the course syllabus. You each received one and should have spent the last couple days familiarizing yourselves with the subject matter. Likewise, I assume you’ve all come to class having completed the week’s reading assignment,” she said to no one in particular. Kate gulped. She’d skimmed over the syllabus, given it a perfunctory glance—but reading assignments? She hadn’t counted on that being due already, five minutes into the first day.
The rest of the class seemed coolly unaffected by this piece of news.
Grabbing a dry-erase marker off her desk, the instructor (scrambling, Kate looked up her name in the course directory…Denise Marlow) turned her back momentarily on the class to write down the following excerpt:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lost,
But being too happy in thine happiness—
That thou, light-winged Dryad
Of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
“Who wrote this?” she asked then, facing the students once more. She didn’t offer title or context, seeming to think the question were as simple as all that.
“Keats. John Keats,” one of the students supplied.
Apparently it was.
“And the name of the poem?” she queried smilingly.
“Ode to a Nightingale,” one of the female students supplied. “It’s one of my favorite pieces,” she added. Kiss-ass.
“Exactly! Now, here’s for a tough one,” Marlow said, which to Kate sounded absurd. She’d never heard of this man before, much less his poetry—isn’t that would the prof had dubbed it? “What is the piece about?”
From the corner of her eye, Kate watched the class, seemingly as a whole, wrestle with this question. Sinking a little lower in her seat, she prayed one of them would figure it out though, and soon, before the teacher decided to starting calling out on people.
“Is it about his fear of growing old?”
“Perhaps he’s talking about the freedom of animals versus the toils of human emotion?”
“Is he contemplating suicide?”
Kate listened with ever-deepening anxiety as these theories were tossed out, back and forth, from students who, unlike her, seemed to know what the hell was going on.
“These are all great guesses, and in their own way each one is, at least partially, correct. The answer is much broader, more abstract than such a definite idea,” Ms. Marlow said then. She was leaning back against her desk, the pose casual yet forceful. This was a woman who knew her effect on a crowd.
“No, no,” she said, “this poem is principally about the concept of escapism.” Moving off her desk, she went back to the whiteboard to scrawl this word across its width. “This idea, which we’ll touch on in more detail a little later on, brings us to our first lecture: Understanding the Fundamental Precepts Born in Romanticism.”
Kate felt like she was going to be sick.
The rest of the class past in a whirl of terms and vocabulary Kate didn’t even bother comprehending. Hell, she could hardly hear over the rush of blood beating against her eardrums. She’d made a horrible mistake.
At long last, a timer sitting on the edge of Ms. Marlow’s desk went off—the chirping sound apparently announcing the end of the class. Smiling almost apologetically, as if she couldn’t imagine any student actually wanting to exit this ‘stimulating exercise’, she nonetheless dismissed the class, calling out last-minute homework instructions as she did so.
Kate nodded absently as she rounded the door, exiting into the hallway with such a sense of relief it’s a wonder her legs didn’t collapse on her. Trudging down to the main entrance, her eyes sought out the polished double-doors, standing tall and proud at one end of the hall, beyond which lay the outside world. Kate didn’t allow herself to think past breaching this man-made enclosure. She needed the fresh air.
She hadn’t intended to get in her car, but that’s where she found herself moments later. She had another class—pottery—starting in less than an hour but Kate couldn’t have cared less. She turned the key in the ignition with purpose.
Pulling out of the parking lot, Kate wasn’t sure where she was going, but, twenty minutes later, as the city limits of Whestleigh came into view, she only knew she couldn’t go home. To sit in that house with nothing to do, stewing about the fact that she was skipping her first day of school was simply not an option. That thought firmly in mind, she turned left onto 4th Avenue, in the opposite direction of Eveleth St. She still had only the vaguest idea as to the town’s outline, but she was aware that a corner of it hugged against a small body of water—Packham Lake.
That’s where she wanted to go. Gripping the steering wheel harder, she pressed down on the gas pedal. She wasn’t entirely sure why she was determined to go there now. Perhaps it reminded her of home, but if that were the case Kate wasn’t ready to admit it, even after the horrendous morning she’d just had.
Her eyes flicking every now and then to the side of the road, Kate tried to find a designation marker for the lake; she wasn’t sure how far she had to go yet, or if there was a visitor’s section where she could park.
Wait—what was that? Peering her neck around a clearing in the surrounding trees, Kate saw a glimpse of shimmering water. Immediately ahead, off to the right, a gravel road appeared. Turning down its length, Kate pulled over, stopping the car where the lane dead-ended. Sure enough, right before her eyes was a small stretch of grass leading to a sliver of sand before dropping into the mouth of glinting water.
Getting out, Kate saw a quaint bench standing a little off the way, shielded from the sun by a Dogwood tree. Feeling her pulse quiet already, Kate went to sit down upon it. The view was breathtaking. Packham Lake was far from large, she could see the other side of the shoreline easily. Ignoring a pang of envy that she hadn’t thought to bring a bathing suit with her, Kate leaned against the slat-board backing of the chair. Whatever. She’d save that for another day.
Closing her eyes, Kate took a deep breath. This had been the right decision. She just needed peace and quiet.
“Class over for the day already?” The question came from somewhere behind Kate. Eyes popping back open, her body jerked at the unexpected sound. Scratch peace and quiet.
Craning her neck to the right, Kate saw none other than Madame Penny standing there, less than three feet from her. God, that woman moved with stealth. Kate hadn’t heard so much as a thing.
“If I’d known that college would take up so little of my time,” Penny went on to say, moving to take a seat beside Kate, “I’d have enrolled a long time ago.” In her usual fashion, Madame Penny had on a billowing Mexican skirt of a muted coral color, paired with a thick black belt and a blue embroidered peasant top. Her hair, however, she’d left down today. Kate hadn’t realized how long, or just how curly, it was. It reached halfway down her back, the dark hued ringlets adding a romantic air to her getup.
“I ditched,” Kate supplied, her lips forming a hard line over the admission.
“You? Why Kate, I wouldn’t have pegged you for the sort,” Madame Penny said conversationally.
“How did you—? Where did you come from?” Kate asked, her surprise giving way to suspicion. “Is this part of your psychic gift?” she demanded rudely, and then, “were you following me?”
Madame Penny laughed, seemingly unfazed by her accusation. “No. I didn’t receive any extrasensory vibrations as to your whereabouts, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Then how did you know where I was?” Kate asked.
Penny shrugged. “I didn’t.”
Kate sighed. “I’m sorry. I just, I came here to get some alone time,” she said by way of explanation, hoping the other woman would get the hint.
“Are you sure about that?” Penny asked quizzically. Not a hint would be taken today, it seemed.
Kate’s head tilted a little at her words. “What?”
“Everyone has intuition—a sixth sense that guides them despite accounts of reason or rationale. Are you sure you didn’t come here, to this very spot, because, well perhaps you did want to be found?” she asked. Kate assumed she meant that to be a clarifying question, but she hadn’t a clue what those cryptic words implied.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” she said, half exasperated already.
“This bench you’re sitting on, this view you’re taking in…it’s on my property,” Penny informed her.
Kate’s eyes bugged out of her head. Startled into standing up, Kate sputtered, “Your property? Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—I thought this was public land. I guess,” shaking her head, Kate wasn’t sure what she guessed. “I’m sorry.”
Pulling her back down to the bench, Penny waved away Kate’s apology. “Relax. If I haven’t said it before, let me do so now: you’re welcome here, always. Whenever you want, whyever you want. Call it an open invitation, okay?” Pause. “It’s a pretty fantastic piece of land, huh? It’s a blessing to share with others.”
Kate blew out her breath. “It’s beautiful,” she agreed, subdued now.
Madame Penny settled back more firmly against the seat. She didn’t look at Kate and Kate didn’t look at her. Instead, both of their attention remained on the gently swaying water ahead of them. The silence was broken only by the internal struggle waging war inside Kate’s head.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Kate finally whispered out loud, her eyes still stubbornly set forward.
“I thought we already covered that—” Madame Penny said, her head swiveling to take in Kate’s strained expression.
“No, I mean, what am I doing in here?” Kate asked, her voice cracking under the pressure of this statement. Her hands gestured wildly on either side of her person. “In Connecticut? In Whestleigh? What am I doing, going back to school? I’m not ready for this. Who the hell knows what escapism means anyway? Do you? I mean, what was I thinking? My old alma mater would hardly recognize me now. I graduated summa cum laude, did you know that? It means nothing now. I mean nothing now and, stupid fool that I am, I wanted it that way, didn’t I? What’s wrong with me?” She asked, her voice rising steadily over the words. Madame Penny didn’t attempt to answer these questions. She had a feeling young Kate wasn’t quite through.
“I had a great job you know,” she continued, turning now to lock gazes with Penny. “A beautiful home furnished with ridiculously expensive artwork—it was like a freaking museum. Cold like one too,” she rambled on more-or-less nonsensically. “Do you know, if I hadn’t left Minneapolis I’d be getting ready for my bachelorette party this weekend which, by the way, would have been totally lame. My social circle doesn’t abide by anything as gauche as overindulging in alcohol or opening ogling at men. But-but, I’d be getting ready to walk down the aisle. We were supposed to be married on September 20th—a little more than two weeks from now.”
Her eyes were fierce, almost burning despite the fine layer of film coating them. “I would be getting married. Instead, I’m back in the dating pool with men like Simon Yates, who can barely hold their liquor and whew!—it sucks. God he sang karaoke,” she spat, the memory of that night playing out in her mind with a vengeance.
Kate turned her gaze back to the water once again. Madame Penny followed suit. “What am I doing here?” Kate repeated dully. “Have I just made the biggest mistake of my life?”
“Wait a minute,” Madame Penny interrupted then, playing catch up to Kate’s overload of information sharing, “you went out with Simon Yates? Why didn’t I know about this?”
Kate’s head rotated mechanically at the words. “That’s what you’re choosing to comment upon? After everything I’ve just said…that’s what you want to talk about, my ill-forged date?” she asked incredulously.
Madame Penny shrugged her shoulders. “Well I could have saved you the headache if you’d bothered to disclose the details of this little rendezvous earlier. You don’t share well.”
“Focus please,” Kate pleaded. “I’m sharing now.”
With a tilt of her head, Madame Penny conceded to the truth of these words, and their loaded implication. They were getting there.
“Fine, but be clear here,” Madame Penny said then, her voice suddenly sharp in concentration, “because after listening to all that I’m not sure I understand: are you upset because you’ve started a new life here and it’s strange and uncomfortable, mysterious…and that’s scary? Or are you upset because you think it was a mistake defecting from your old life, and you want a return to what, even in the midst of nostalgia, you couldn’t help defining as a ‘cold’ and ‘lame’ existence?”
Kate breathed in and out slowly. “I used to know all the answers in my life. I’d managed to convince myself I liked that predictability, that level of steadfastness. But I actually hated it, I felt suffocated by its sameness.”
“Sometimes it seems easier to resort to the safety of what is familiar then to confront the fathoms of that unknown,” Madame Penny supplied innocuously, the language emphatically impartial, careful to say neither one thing nor another.
“A defense mechanism?” Kate considered slowly. She sounded a little more in control of her emotions at the description.
“You tell me?” Madame Penny demanded.
“Simon Yates is kind of a slob,” Kate said.
Madame Penny didn’t so much as blink an eye at this swift change of topic. “I’d say ‘told ya so’ but you never gave me the opportunity.”
“I’m going to hear about this for awhile, aren’t I?” Kate asked amusedly.
“He took me to this bar called Hooker Station,” Kate said.
Madame Penny made a face. “Gross.”
“No, what’s gross is my Romantic Literature class,” Kate said. “I totally bombed. On the first day. How is that even possible?”
Madame Penny chewed on her bottom lip. “Yeah, no offense, but I thought you were supposed to be super smart or something.”
Kate laughed. “Yeah, me too. I’m accustomed to financing, economics, statistics…that sort of thing. I guess dead poets never ranked very high on the priority list,” she admitted.
“I always say, there’s a sense of liberation in failing—or thinking one has failed. It reminds that there are things yet to accomplish,” Madame Penny said, in that way she has of talking like a fortune cookie. Kate wondered if that wasn’t a by-product of her profession.
“If that’s the case, and the last few weeks are anything to go by, I’ve got a lot left to prove,” Kate said on a laugh.
Penny remained silent.
“I don’t want to go back,” Kate said, the weight of that verdict pulsing against her veins. “It’s just, I didn’t know how hard it would be…beginning all over again. I feel so alone and lost.”
“You are neither of those things,” Madame Penny assured her quietly.
Kate took a deep breath. “I’m not sure how I ended up here,” she said, her gaze taking a panoramic view of the surrounding scenery. Again, Penny wasn’t sure to which Kate was referring: the town of Whestleigh or this spot of land specifically. She figured it didn’t much matter.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision,” Kate went on. “I didn’t plan it. I just sort of stopped here, somehow.” Pausing, as though weighing the consequences of her next words, she nonetheless continued, “I’m glad I did though. I needed this.”
A beat of silence passed and then: “Thank you.”
“For what?” Madame Penny asked sincerely.
“For reminding me,” Kate said cryptically.
“No thanks necessary,” Penny said easily. “You found this place—one way or another.” She sent Kate a mischievous look. “Maybe there’s a bit of psychic in you yet.”
The atmosphere changed after that, becoming almost languid, hushed, measured between Kate and Penny. It was as if, but unspoken mutual agreement, they decided to let the subject rest for now. The next minutes saw the girls spent in a state of mindless gossip, punctuated here-and-there by stretches of silent lethargy. When they spoke, if they spoke, it was offhand, deliberately easy. It was comfortable, untroubled, it was the peace and quiet Kate had needed all along. That’s probably why she was so completely caught off guard for Madame Penny’s well-timed question: “So, you said you don’t have any more classes today?” The words were prosaic, remembered.
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, I’m done for the day,” Kate said lazily.
“Well all right then.” Penny sounded the words out slowly, the beginnings of a smile playing out over her mouth. And suddenly, without warning, that woman rose to her feet. “Get up!” she all but demanded. Her voice maintained the same unhurried drawl, only now it was enhanced with a certain conviction, the sound of which was not lost on Kate.
“What?” Kate asked. The quiet lull of the water slapping against the shoreline had almost put her to sleep.
“Get up,” Madame Penny insisted, reaching for Kate’s hands, more-or-less pealing her off the bench.
“But-but…” Kate began.
“You’ve had a rough couple of days, right?” Madame Penny reiterated.
“Don’t remind me,” Kate pouted.
“No, instead I’m going to help you forget all about it.”
“Huh?” Kate asked with more than a hint of skepticism.
“We are having a girl’s night. Here. Now,” Madame Penny told her in no uncertain terms.