Photo by Kleigh Balugo
“So, when in Rome, right?”
Nicole readjusted her phone that was dangling dangerously in between her ear and shoulder. With a sigh, she switched the books that were buried underneath her arm to her hand as she tried to balance herself on top of the stool she was standing on. With one final attempt, she grabbed the book she had been reaching for on the top shelf and added it to her load.
“Even thousands of miles apart, you still manage to be ever so cheesy,” she replied. She stepped off the stool and set the books down on the table behind her with a loud thud. She cracked her head from side to side and rotated her shoulder. She absolutely hated having to gather books from the top shelf.
“Well, of course I have to be cheesy,” Erika shot back over the phone. “My best friend moved halfway across the world, I need to find some kind of way to fill the void in my chest.”
Nicole rolled her eyes. “Yeah, when are you going to get over that, by the way?”
“Never. I’m forever going to hold a grudge against you for the rest of my life. Even when we’re both dead. I’ll just haunt you in the afterlife.”
Nicole laughed. Her best friend Erika had been on the phone with her for only fifteen minutes, but Nicole felt like a whole lifetime had passed. Suddenly she was back in California sitting underneath the apple tree in their high school’s courtyard, gossiping about what the latest dirt was going on inside Paradise High, making plans to eat udon at the mall across campus or driving after class with the windows down in Erika’s 1994 red Ford Mustang that her dad gave her. Upon thinking about the old memories, the corner of Nicole’s mouth quirked up.
“How’s school?” Erika asked. “And working at the bookstore? I can’t believe that it’s already been a year since we graduated and you moved halfway across the world.”
“School’s school,” she said with a shrug. “And the bookstore is absolutely amazing. I wish you could be here to see it.”
She picked up another stack from the counter and tied a rubber band around them. They were an online order someone from the local university put in that morning. Nicole had a rather annoying time scourging in the back and looking through different Italian paperbacks to find the ones she needed. Other than that, she loved it in the store. It was quiet and calm, not a lot of people walked in unless class had just been dismissed and students would wander in. Sometimes tourists would take a peek inside after dining at the local café down the street but on most days, working at the bookstore gave Nicole an absolutely sublime feeling she had never felt anywhere else in the world.
“How do you say the name again?” Erika asked. “La Fettuccini?”
Nicole snorted. “Nice. It’s pronounced La Feltrinelli. You were pretty close though.”
La Feltrinelli wasn’t that big and it wasn’t that small either. The interior was pleasant and cozy to her. There were soft brown couches pushed up against the wall and funky chairs that looked like they were at least hundreds of years old tucked away into corners. Bookshelves were lined up against each of the walls, a lamp post moderately lit the spines of beautiful paperbacks and hardcovers right in the middle of the room before the door and there were small tables here and there that accompanied the café.
There were wide windows at the very front near the door, and outside Nicole could see the buildings and people of the city of Rome. It was quiet and nice out, not like the city life where she was from in California. That was part of what she loved the most about Rome. How absolutely peaceful it was. How far away she was from all the noise that came with her hometown.
“I miss you, Nicki,” Erika’s voice suddenly turned somber. “Why’d you have to move to Rome? You got accepted into NYU, UC Irvine, and even fucking Berkeley,” she emphasized. “You could’ve stayed in Cali or gone to New York, but Rome? Seriously?”
With a sigh, Nicole moved away from the front register and pressed her phone tightly against her ear. “I told you a million times that I wanted to start fresh,” she explained. “Start over, you know? I couldn’t stay in Cali or move to New York. I don’t want to stay in a place that… hurts.”
Erika was quiet for a moment. She knew of course how badly Nicole couldn’t stay in California or go to New York There were too many memories in the places she had listed, and those were memories that came with a heavy heart. Memories that Nicole needed to leave behind.
Before Nicole moved away, a series of unfortunate events occurred that caused her to make the final decision of taking up the offer to study abroad in Europe. Unfortunate events that included a terrible breakup that she did not see coming.
Erika let out a breath. “Yeah, I know. Sorry. I just miss you. We all do. You know he does too.”
A pang hit Nicole’s heart. A while ago she thought she had gone through the heartbreak and was over it, but of course like most heartaches, they lingered inside and would come up again unexpectedly.
Other than Erika, she missed her ex Jae the most. But wasn’t it normal to miss someone who used to be by your side almost every hour of the day? Nicole promised herself not to think so much of him or the past. It would do no good where she was now. Still, after they broke up, it wouldn’t be good for her to be in the same city as him. If she stayed in California it would’ve only broken her heart even more.
“I miss you guys too,” Nicole replied in a whisper. She shook her head, the back of her head started to throb like it always did whenever she thought of home and the people there. “You know you can always call me, right?” Nicole asked. “I’m always going to be there for you. Even if I am thousands of miles apart.”
“Of course,” Erika replied. “I just have to search up what time it is in fucking Rome before I call you.” She laughed and Nicole could imagine her best friend driving down in her car as they talked. Two years ago she was Erika’s designated passenger seat princess. They would talk about nothing and everything at the same time as the day went by. She pictured Erika placing her phone in a cup holder as they talked, the thought of not being physically next to her made Nicole’s chest ache.
A beat passed, and Erika spoke once more. “I admire you a lot, Nikki. I hope you know that.”
“Admire me?” she repeated in a scoff. “For what? I literally ran away to Rome because I didn’t want to be in the same city as my ex.”
Erika laughed. “Ha-ha. No, you idiot,” she said. “I mean, you’re so comfortable being alone. I could never do that.”
The bell behind Nicole chimed and she glanced back. The grandfather clock in the corner of the room had chimed 5 pm, and the sun was beginning to set outside, peeling its light off the paint of the old and ancient Rome buildings.
She took a look outside the window and held a breath. It was beautiful outside. The bookstore was around old land-markings, cement buildings that were beginning to crumble and stoned paved roads that had rocks in the middle of the street. A little further down the road was a beautiful ocean that her little sister would’ve enjoyed swimming in. She couldn’t help but admire its glistening waves as the sun was setting in the south, making sparkles shine off the surface like diamonds on the seafloor.
All of her friends back home would’ve loved it here. Their friend Evelyn would’ve admired the architecture, its ancient markings, and its significance. Erika would’ve loved the small shops that sold hand-made jewelry while her ex Jae would’ve enjoyed just taking pictures there. Savoring the moment. Taking a moment to feel the air and the sun-kissed skies. He loved the sun like that. He was a summer person.
Her chest ached. If only things didn’t end the way they did back home. If only some things weren’t said and if only Nicole had appreciated being there in the moment.
“I didn’t want to end up alone,” she replied in a whisper. “It just… happened.” She gulped and switched her phone to her other ear.
Erika was quiet. She knew of the events that led up to her departure. Of that rainy night in December. She was there holding up her hair as she puked in the toilet after drinking her entire feelings away. She was there when Nicole had wept for hours in her bed after her bad breakup. She was there when Nicole had gotten her acceptance letter to the University of Rome.
“Nikki,” she said. “Are you happy?”
After packing up her entire life in a moment of contemplation, after hours of traveling across the world and after completely going ghost from the people that were once by her side so she wouldn’t have to face the hurt once more, Nicole has tried for so long trying to figure out what it meant to be happy. Was she happy back home if she ran away? Was she any happier where she was, dwindling in the past and trying to not look back?
“I’m still standing, aren’t I?” she replied. “And I like being alone. It gives me time to be okay with myself. That’s all I ever wanted.”
The grandfather clock in the corner of the room dinged once again, marking the half hour and Nicole jumped from her spot. “I should go now. My shift’s over and I want to go sightseeing today after I do some homework.”
“All right,” her best friend sounded disappointed. “Call me soon?”
Nicole nodded. “I promise.”
With a roll of her eyes, Nicole held up her left pinky finger even though her friend couldn’t see her. “I pinky promise.”
Nicole had gotten lost in Rome once again.
She had been in the city for more than a month, but she still needed a map to get around places. Traveling around her little block in California was not this complicated. Rome was simply… more.
The city was much more spread out than she had thought. The streets would turn into alleyways, the alleyways would turn into wide terraces with shops and restaurants, then into grand parks with large fountains.
That day she had wanted to go to the Colosseum or the Parthenon but instead, she found herself on a terrace overlooking the beach.
Nicole looked up from her map. The beach was low below her, and behind her was a fountain of some Roman god. She was pretty sure it was Apollo or Hermes. Either way, it was a statue of a naked guy.
“Now I definitely know this is not the Parthenon.”
She tucked the map into her bag and sat down. Even though she was lost, she couldn’t help but admire the garden that was around her. The winding cobblestoned streets and the gleaming white villas of the city. Around her were grapevine trellises canopy and pink flowers that were in full bloom. Bees buzzed around and birds were chirping even though the day was ending.
Despite having some worry inside, the part of Nicole that should’ve been anxious or scared that she was lost, she strangely felt comfortable as she crossed her arms on her chest and took in the scenery. She was all by herself in a foreign city, but Nicole couldn’t help the sublime feeling that ran across her chest that she traveled at all.
Her eyes went to the setting sun in the distance. She could see the faint outline of the moon slowly getting brighter and brighter and at the sight of it, her chest felt warm.
She patted herself on the back. “This is a good spot.”
As she walked on, Nicole tried hard to keep her mind away from dark places. The dull ache in her body was still there whenever she saw artifacts and things her ex and friends would’ve liked. Feeling hurt about what happened was inevitable, and there was nothing Nicole could do about it except keep moving forward.
She sat herself down at a nearby table and turned towards the view. If Nicole was honest, she did miss her friends. She missed home. A lot. But she needed to get away. She needed time for herself, even if that meant traveling over a thousand miles away to find some piece of mind.
Taking a sip of her iced coffee that she had purchased just moments before, Nicole tilted her head out towards the dying sun and closed her eyes.
The actuality of it all was that even though she felt lonely and sad at times, she liked being alone. Loved it. There was some kind of comfort in being by herself. She loved how didn’t have to update anyone where she was at every hour of the day. She loved how she could just step a foot outside and go where she wanted to go. How she could just sit down and think by herself without any distractions at her side.
“Hi,” said a voice behind her. She turned around and saw a tall figure wearing wearied jeans and a large white sweater. It was someone from her school. Simon was his name.
He pointed at the chair across from her. “Can I sit here?”
Nicole shrugged. “Go ahead.”
She had talked to Simon here and there at school. They had a few classes together and were part of the international program. He was from Northern California and was as nice from the small moments they had spoken. They didn’t have a lot in common. He liked to go to clubs at night while Nicole liked to stay inside the bookstore most of her days.
“What are you working on?” he asked her. He gestured at her open notebook and pen and wiggled his fingers at her. “Writing a love letter for your boyfriend back home?”
Nicole rolled her eyes. He had overheard her conversation one day after class with Erika on the phone about her ex that was still trying to reach her. She hadn’t talked to Jae since she moved away. She wanted to, of course. There were times when the temptation was just too hard to ignore but she refrained from doing so.
“No,” she said. “I’m working on our assignment for class, what about you?”
He held up a cup of coffee close to his face. “Went for a walk. That assignment isn’t due until Sunday.” The corner of his mouth went up. “Anyway. I was talking to some people in the program. They were talking about a party at the end of the term. You should go. It’ll be fun.”
She tilted her head to the side. “Maybe. I might go back home for break. I don’t know, though.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Going back to lover boy, aren’t you? I knew it. You two sounded like you were meant to be, after all.”
Nicole crumpled up a piece of paper from her notebook and threw it at him.
“Shut up,” she said once he started to laugh. She didn’t know how much Simon had overheard in her conversation with Erika, but he always teased her about her ex any chance that he got.
“This Jae person sounds quite the charmer,” Simon continued. He played around with the straw of his drink and eyed her. “Why’d you break up, anyway?”
Nicole shrugged. “It wasn’t meant to be. That’s all.”
Simon was quiet for a long time before he spoke. “Meant to be,” he repeated. “Do you believe that? That you’re meant to be with one specific person?”
Nicole shrugged. She felt a cold rush underneath her arms as she wrapped her cardigan around herself.
“I don’t know,” she replied. She started doodling around with her pen in between her fingers. The truth is she wasn’t really sure what it was like to date before she met Jae. He had been her only boyfriend ever back home. But what did finding “the one” actually mean? Maybe there really isn’t one person that you’re meant to be with in life. Back home Nicole was surrounded by so many people. She felt like she was meant to meet every single one of them, even if they weren’t there next to her anymore.
She exhaled slowly under her breath. “There’s no such thing as the one.” She emphasized. “There are many ‘ones’ in our lives. Maybe we’re meant to be with more than one person.” She looked at him. “You write poetry, don’t you? You should have many words of wisdom in the love department. You went on many dates after we moved in, after all.”
Simon pretended to be wounded in the chest. “Ouch. Low blow, Nicole. Really.” He smiled. “But I appreciate that you think I’m wise.”
Nicole turned her head and looked out towards the beach. The sun was now completely gone, and only stars were scattered across the dark blue of the skies. The moon was high and white with clouds covering the surface. It looked like it was about to start raining soon. As if the clouds were about to break down and cry. Cry for what though? She had no idea.
“Do you think it’s raining in Cali right now?” she asked with a tilt of her head.
“Maybe,” Simon replied after taking a sip of his drink. “We’re all underneath the same moon at the end of the day.”