Editor’s Note: This is the winning entry for our 2012 Writing Contest for the category of writer age 18 and older. Enjoy.
When Rick ended it forever, just six months before the wedding, Amanda couldn’t have cared less.
Yes, there was the non-refundable catering deposit to consider. True, the invitations they ordered three weeks ago had just been delivered, their elegant, gold-embossed script announcing the happy event. The dress would be a problem, to be sure.
Yet those were only fleeting thoughts in Amanda’s mind as she took in the sweeping panorama from her balcony with a fierce determination to finally enjoy the trip. She turned as she heard Rick take a breath, ready to deliver a lengthy speech in his authoritative management consultant voice – the one he used with clients who paid exorbitant rates for his services – about how they had made a mistake, how it was better to admit it now and move on.
Rick prepared himself for tears. He prepared himself for pleading. He had, undoubtedly, already done a dry-run of his speech. Perhaps he’d even drafted a well-organized PowerPoint presentation, like the ones he delighted in creating for his clients.
What he wasn’t prepared for was Amanda’s indifference.
“Okay, Rick. Reception can find you a taxi for Bari, where you can catch a train back to Rome,” Amanda said as she entered the room from the balcony, rummaging through her purse. “I almost forgot, your return ticket to New York.” She shoved it into his hands. “When I’m back, I’ll arrange to pick up my things from the apartment.”
She stifled a sigh of relief at the thought of vacating the pretentious, sterile apartment they shared – the one expressly designed to impress others.
Making eye contact when she handed him the ticket was a mistake. Rick looked like the spoiled kid he often was, angered his speech hadn’t received the reception he expected. Rick didn’t do well outside his comfort zone. This trip had demonstrated that rather clearly.
“Goodbye, Rick,” Amanda said in a clipped tone as she turned and stepped back out onto the balcony. A moment later she heard the hotel door slam.
Not a moment too soon, she thought as a smile played on her lips. The sun was slipping low in the late afternoon sky and casting its golden light off the Sasso Caveoso. A magical city of caves.
Amanda had long dreamed of visiting the southern Italian town of Matera. Now, thanks to Rick’s unexpected announcement, she had three days to explore it in peace and blessed solitude, to allow its magic to envelop her.
Amanda barely suppressed a smile as she laced up her stylish walking shoes and left the hotel, treading carefully on the slippery cobblestones. The climb was steep, the stairs well worn from the footsteps of generations of residents. Amanda stopped occasionally to catch her breath and admire the view.
Two years ago, when she was thirty-two and nursing a broken heart after a slew of disastrous romances, Rick was hired as a consultant at the firm where she worked. He was brash and confident. Her friends and colleagues encouraged her to return his attentions and, following their advice, she eventually did.
At first she’d been happy, but that quickly changed. Soon she noticed that Rick never abandoned his winning presentation voice or the sports references he favored, they were the same ones he used at work, at dinner parties, even in bed.
She scrimped and saved to invite him on a pre-wedding trip, then listened to his endless complaints in Rome and Naples about the lack of organization, the slow service, the way those cities could never hold a candle to New York.
Amanda walked up the steps to the Duomo, stopping every few moments to catch her breath at the views of the Sasso Caveoso below. She peered at the cave homes haphazardly constructed on top of one another, amazed that the steps she tread on formed the roof of someone else’s cave. The whole town was a harmonious jumble of construction, like the card houses she constructed as a child.
She made her way to the pedestrian Piazza Pascoli, where she stopped for an espresso and quickly abandoned her book, preferring to observe the children playing street soccer, young couples walking hand in hand, and old men standing in clusters, hands gesticulating wildly, fully engrossed in their conversation. In a small town like this, these same men must have gathered together in the same way for almost a century. How could their conversations and arguments still be so passionate?
Amanda felt pleasure as the late afternoon sun warmed her face and shoulders. She sipped her coffee and smiled at the empty seat beside hers.
The handsome young waiter handed Amanda the bill. Pointing to her book, he spoke to her in heavily accented English. “You like Carlo Levi? Are you English or American?”
“American,” she answered, meeting his dark eyes framed by impossibly long eyelashes.
“You’re a long way from home.”
Amanda noted the flirtatious smile of a young man accustomed to female attention. “I’m running away. It seemed a good place to get lost.” She met his smile and paid her bill, tipping like a New Yorker.
He grinned at her generosity. “Grazie, Signorina. Stay as long as you want. Beautiful women are always welcome here.”
Amanda slipped her book into her purse and walked away, casting a last look over her shoulder at the young man who was carefully observing her departure. His gaze did not drop as her eyes met his.
Could she really stay here, Amanda wondered, make a clean break? Not just the wedding, but her life, too? Her mind clung stubbornly to the idea. Returning to market more useless products to unsuspecting consumers long ceased to interest her. Maybe she could find a little cave apartment to rent, find work at a local language school. Start over.
Amanda walked through the caves until she reached the Santa Lucia alle Malve cave church. She allowed her eyes to adjust to the dark interior before she looked at the 12th and 13th century frescoes adorning the cave walls.
Amanda stopped short before the image of Santa Lucia draped in oranges, reds and blues, her chalice raised. Her soulful eyes, arched eyebrow, and delicate face glowed in the candlelight. Amanda felt inexplicably drawn to the image. Her heart beat faster as she stood alone before the painting, observing the effect of the candlelight on the cave wall fresco.
Her solace was soon shattered as a large tour group squeezed into the dark cave. Judging by the accents, a senior tour group from England. They clomped into the silence in their sturdy walking shoes. Spider webs of varicose veins showed beneath the hems of inexplicable Capri pants. The Italian sun had not been kind to their pale skin. Amanda observed the army of beet red faces, sweating brows and peeling shoulders as the northern visitors swarmed around her. She backed up to avoid being enveloped by the crowd.
Amanda heard the voice of the Italian guide hushing the group. She heard the sing-song cadence of his accented English as he explained the cave church’s origins in the 8th century. She moved to nearby frescoes to examine them, but her ears perked up when she heard the guide turning his attention to the fresco.
“Here we see the 3rd century saint Santa Lucia – Saint Lucy. When she refused to enter into an arranged marriage with a pagan, she was denounced as a Christian. Before she was beheaded, her eyes were gouged out.” Amanda turned to see him indicating the chalice she had just been examining a few moments before. “Traditionally, Santa Lucia is depicted holding a chalice that contains her eyes.” Despite the groans and snickers emerging from the group, Amanda inched closer, eager to join them, eager to see better. “Today, Santa Lucia is the patron saint of her native Siracusa. She is also the patron saint of the blind and those suffering from impaired vision.”
She ignored the sounds around her. She stood transfixed before the fresco, examining every detail. The group drifted away to other frescoes and eventually they followed their guide out of the church.
The silence was a relief and she stood motionless before the image of Santa Lucia for a long time before turning her gaze from the fresco and opening her wallet. Dropping coins into the offering box, Amanda lit a candle. She extracted her plane ticket from her purse. Holding it over the flickering flame, she watched the fire devour the paper, transforming it into ashes that fluttered down onto the cave floor.
As the bright light cast a glow over Santa Lucia’s lovely face, Amanda noticed a slight smile she hadn’t seen before. When she blinked, it was gone.
Amanda turned and left the church, shading her eyes as she emerged from the dark cave when she was momentarily blinded by the bright sunlight. Taking a deep breath, Amanda smiled before walking down the steps and into Matera’s fading rays of golden sunlight.
About the author:
Kimberly Sullivan grew up in Boston and upstate New York. She studied government and history at Cornell University and earned her MBA at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. For the past 13 years, she’s lived with her husband and children in beautiful Rome, Italy, where she works for the United Nations on issues of natural resource management. In her free time, she loves to write women’s fiction – both short stories and novels – and she says she’s lucky to belong to a fabulous and supportive writing group in Rome.