Cynthia Burke
Kate was a buoy at sea, completely helpless to the random waves that had repeatedly crashed into her that summer. First, her belongings, including her ticket home, were taken. Her parents were poor and scraping funds together to get her back to the States. Oatmeal, cigarettes and beers passed the time. Now odd jobs were all that kept her from hunger.
"Don't blow smoke directly in my face," Kate muttered through clinched teeth. The instructor leered at the buttons on her dress, desperately trying to find the right words to remove the red garment entirely. "The boys really need to work on their figure drawing," he said, sweat beading on his lip. She did not know Jeremy stood around the corner, watching.
"But this is a room full of teenage boys from the Catholic school around the corner," Kate protested. This odd job paid better than most at the hostel, but as a novice, filling in for Brunella, she was ill-prepared to do much more than become the subject in her red dress.
Insisting the bright, vast room ringed with stained glass windows and fresco-covered walls did not yield the inspiration a nude might, the red dress tangled and twisted in the instructor's words until it fell to the floor. Kate watched as the boys articulated their fantasies onto her charcoal form. Some emphasized the breasts, others the legs. Intrigued, she noticed the boy with the curly black hair chose to sketch the pool of red, covered then by the instructor's shoe prints.
Jeremy, hidden, witnessed the entire spectacle. Frozen to his core, he was uncertain if he should rush to Kate's aide. But everyone was captive to their own moment in that old monastery-turned-youth-hostel. Belching smoke, the instructor seemed the only sated actor in the drama of it all.
A longing washed over Jeremy, and his face flushed. Kate was the red-headed, American that arrived in Dublin months earlier, and who followed him around like a puppy. Only days before he had sworn to his friends that she should "piss off" and leave him to focus on his true calling: chatting-up the hoards of female backpackers that flooded the halls in the heat of summer.
On hiatus from France and his military service, Jeremy had the rare talent of wit in multiple languages. He and Kate were among the 'residents' of the hostel—a grab-bag of international misfits who called the hostel home. Some were laying low waiting for visas to clear, others were just escaping the monotony of the real world. But Kate attached to Jeremy immediately after all her belongings disappeared. His swagger, as if he owned the chaotic den, drew Kate to him, and gave her the sense of home she so desperately desired.
Tears began to well in Kate's eyes. Her back, rigid with pinched muscles, did nothing but remind her exactly how low she had sunk. It's just a job, she thought. Just like making breakfast at the hostel and cleaning up after bar time at McGrath's around the corner. But there was nothing ordinary about how vulnerable, cold, and alone she felt at that moment. Nothing will ever be the same, she thought, as her mind wandered back to Jeremy.
Home had become an illusive fantasy. When everything collapses, the soul can yearn for a sense of place so completely that all one can do is to struggle to belong—belong to someone. Jeremy had become that someone to Kate, and in the process, home was found in his smile and his jokes. Every morning she made his breakfast. In the evenings she followed him to the pub, and after everyone returned to the hostel, she did not even mind watching him disappear with the new Swedish backpacker. She was his.
"Focus, Kate. Keep your back turned." The instructor's directions jolted Jeremy from his daydream.
Never had Jeremy seen Kate look so sad. It was so unlike the anticipatory smile that seemed to be plastered on her face whenever he looked her way. The room was silent now as the instructor lit yet another cigarette. Jeremy found himself wanting one too. He had news that suddenly seemed repulsive.
The class began to wrap up and Kate scrambled for her red dress, dirty now from the floor. All the young men watched as Kate regained her composure and walked to the back of the room. Pictures of her moment of desperation were everywhere as the instructor walked about critiquing the work.
"Jeremy?" Kate spied him with a stricken look around the corner. Jeremy grabbed her hand and spoke: "That was very brave, Kate." The sun had set and the windows now reflected the interior. She could see in the mirror of the window Jeremy's smile and she was home.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small package. "This arrived for you today." Not ever wanting to leave that moment, Kate hesitantly opened the envelope. When she looked down, she saw in her hand the plane ticket back to Illinois.
Cynthia Burke is a historian by training and a computer geek by living, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and Antithesis Common.