by E. A. Schreiber
Taking a leave of absence from her doctoral program was never on Chloe Amden’s radar. Neither was running away from a future she had been building for years, but that didn’t stop either from becoming her reality. Like the tides in her new coastal hideout, her life seems filled with the ebb and flow of change, though nothing seems capable of washing away the bitter taste left in her mouth from her days in university.
Surely new faces and a change of pace could help her gather her thoughts. Leaving the city for Boothbay Harbor, the lure of salty ocean air and anonymity was enough to justify taking a job at a local boat shop. True to form, as soon as things become comfortable, Chloe finds herself facing new opportunities at a local school. With a substitute position and a circle of friends she never anticipated, Chloe’s newfound support system has the potential to help her navigate this uncharted territory. Then again, a mysterious English teacher and her friendship might just be Chloe’s undoing.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Five years ago, alone in my apartment, I wanted to watch a movie with characters who resonated with my experiences as a gay woman. I didn't want a heartbreaking coming out story, I wanted to watch women who knew who they were navigate the challenges of changing careers, finding their place, and falling in love. That was the moment Breaking Even was born. My goal was always to develop characters I would want to surround myself with. As they came to life on paper, I began to love them each for who they are. It's my hope that the readers will too as they journey with Chloe and the strong women surrounding her as she finds her own place, hoping she breaks even."
Lex’s Reviews - I honestly missed when it happened, but all of a sudden I was sucked into the story. Characters were actually talking about deep, important things. And the big change that happed was the Chloe/Madeleine attraction started to heat up. It’s a very slow burn...
As evening settled in around her, she gave in to fatigue. Collapsing on the reading chair they’d just packed in the back of the moving truck, Chloe took some time to regroup. Hannah was in the apartment, probably feigning exhaustion, a heap on the floor.
It had been a long day. Moving out of a third-floor apartment didn’t make for a relaxing weekend. All things considered, it could have been much worse—like last year when they moved Hannah and her seemingly endless supply of belongings from a second-floor walk-up to the industrial loft she currently occupied. Talk about a gauntlet of scraped forearms, tight corners, and endless stairways.
That’s what you get for having a lawyer for a best friend—a pantsuit collection to rival HRC’s and enough law textbooks to fill six bookshelves top to bottom. They had to have weighed a ton or more. She shuddered at the memory of the aches and pains they’d caused.
Hannah had no room to complain about the quantity of things she’d helped Chloe move today. Hannah’s things had not only filled the largest rental truck, they also flowed over into Chloe’s Jeep for the trip across Baltimore. In contrast, Chloe’s belongings hadn’t even filled the smallest U-Haul.
No, the most draining aspect of this move was not the physicality of it; it was the emotional toll it was taking on both of them. Together they had navigated their fair share of challenges since undergrad, but Chloe had assumed they’d moved past that stage in their lives, that maybe things would settle down as they each transitioned into their chosen fields. That hope had evaporated rapidly. Chloe could see in Hannah’s face every time she didn’t bring it up that she knew Chloe was truly struggling.
A slight breeze rattled her neighbor’s chain-link fence, reminding her that kicking back in a full moving truck in downtown Amherst might not be the most prudent thing to do. Then again, she had proven this year that prudence was not her forte. After three years here, she was escaping under the cover of darkness, departing for a leave of absence, thanks in part to the efforts of a faculty member she had once idolized.
Time and space, that’s what she needed. There was plenty of both in Maine.
The sound of an old-fashioned car horn blared its way into Chloe’s consciousness. The warmth of the covers tempted her to remain motionless, but the alarm on her phone would not be ignored. Grudgingly reaching out from under the blankets, she silenced it. Seven thirty felt incredibly early from the vantage point of a cozy bed. Realistically she didn’t have to wake up this early; the shop didn’t open until nine. But ever since college, when she’d discovered her potential for productivity in the morning, she developed the annoying habit of setting ridiculously early alarms. While it helped her finish papers and get readings done on time, she had much less to prep for when heading to a retail job. As she set the device back on her nightstand, it vibrated. Curious, she reached out from her cocoon one more time and checked to see what had come in.
A text from Nora. Chloe stared at the notification on her lock screen, blinking twice to make sure it was really there. She felt the familiar tug of guilt. She couldn’t bring herself to deal with it, not this early in the morning. Really, though, responding later would be fine. That’s what she would do.
She rolled over and pulled the covers closer still. Staying in bed meant sleeping, which meant not thinking. With her eyes resolutely shut, she told herself in two minutes she would get up.
Another blaring car horn roused her from sleep and she groaned loudly. This time when she checked the clock, she knew she couldn’t possibly allow herself to drift off again. In her head she calculated the amount of time she needed to shower, make breakfast, change, and be out the door in time for work… She had at most a half hour.
Ten minutes later, toweling dry, Chloe began searching for chinos and a T-shirt. Finally finding some wrinkle-free pants, she dressed, made a bowl of instant oatmeal to eat on the way, grabbed her keys, and headed out the door.
The roads were still wet from rains that had fallen sometime last night. It must have been quite the storm; the ditches were nearly overflowing. The sky held promise now, though—no signs of any more storm clouds. There was virtually no traffic, which was helpful, considering she was cutting it rather close. Having a ten-minute commute was great but leaving twelve minutes before she needed to be at work was less than ideal. Driving a little too fast, she made it to the harbor on time, barely. Jacob wouldn’t be upset or surprised about that.
Before meeting Jacob, she had imagined all lawyers as stern, unfeeling, corporate types. Not Hannah, of course, but retired ones like him she always envisioned the same way, out of laziness and maybe a touch of social conditioning. Jacob had blasted away any and all stereotypes she harbored. Finding him entirely approachable and generally wonderful, Chloe easily fell into friendship with the older man, appreciating his mellow demeanor and quirky humor. She was grateful not only that she found a job in his store when she desperately needed one, but that she also somehow managed to find a good friend in the process.
Pulling into the parking lot, she wolfed down the last few bites of her breakfast and dropped the dish unceremoniously on the passenger’s seat. The street was quiet as she stepped out of her Jeep and headed toward the back door. The sun, cresting the tops of the nearby buildings, had lost its biting heat from earlier in the summer. The stillness that had gripped the town through much of August, when it was too hot to move or breathe, had loosened its grasp. She could almost feel change moving in; the weather was finally beginning to reveal traces of the onset of fall. She loved to watch the mellowing of summer as it gave way to the cooler dawning of autumn.
Chloe’s focus shifted to the Boatery, situated between the town hardware store and the Moosehead Café on the corner of one of the older streets in town. Boothbay was a tourist town. The streets bore the unmistakable signs of tourism, but the town retained its character and charm thanks to the variety of historic buildings dotting the streets. Ever-faithful year-round residents kept the town alive during the harsh winters when the flocks of tourists returned home.
Chloe returned her attention to the Boatery and headed to the back door. A gust of wind ushered her in, rustling her honey-colored hair. Catching a glimpse of her reflection on the door, she realized that the short cut she had been sporting in May now resembled a shaggy mane, long enough for strands from the front to fall into her eyes. Capturing the rogue hairs between her fingers, she brushed them back into place.
Hanging her coat on the wall-mounted hooks, Chloe stepped in front of the small mirror Jacob had hung nearby. Though her face was still framed by the remnants of a tapered fade, the longer hair on the top which she liked to style was now nearly too long to control. While her mom was always shocked that someone with Chloe’s feminine face might be misgendered, Chloe knew her athletic, six-foot frame and close-cropped hairstyle did not register immediately as feminine and wasn’t bothered by it. She wondered if Pink had the same problem.
Hannah had teased her that out in the country she might be able to embrace her inner woodswoman, and she realized she was beginning to look a bit more rugged than usual. It was always a challenge finding hair stylists who were comfortable cutting masculine styles on female customers, and she had yet to find a barber or hair salon in the area where she was confident that the stylist would cut her hair the way she liked it. She might have to dig out her clippers and trim it herself while she continued her search. She could at the very least maintain the cut until a professional could touch it up properly.
Thinking of Hannah, Chloe was pretty sure that it was this week that she was starting at the new firm. They had texted last night, but that had primarily been about the best method to cook asparagus. The discussion had begun with a picture from Hannah of her dismantled steamer captioned “help.”
Chloe shook her head. Considering how incredibly intelligent the woman was, it was impressive how flummoxed Hannah could get in a kitchen. And how resistant she was to admitting it. That was certainly one thing that hadn’t changed since their time rooming together as undergrads. Chloe had let her continue to delude herself last night while she coached her through the subtle art of steaming vegetables. She smiled. Though they were currently separated by more than five hundred miles, they still relied on one another for the most basic of tasks. Yes, she was definitely overdue for an actual call.
Noting her arrival, Jacob, who was reading from Anna Karenina, greeted her with a flourish, bowing his head. He nodded toward an ominous stack of boxes in the back corner, then returned to his reading.
“Jacob, how’d you know I’d rather unpack deliveries all morning than read even a chapter of Tolstoy?” Chloe called out.
“It’s a gift, dorogaya. Thank me later.”
“Seriously? Russian?” she called back to her boss. She could hear the chuckle emanating from somewhere deep in his chest as she made her way toward the boxes. She reminded herself to fact check Jacob’s Russian, assuming “dorogaya” was a real word, to see what he had called her. While he was well read and very intelligent, he had a penchant for fabricating details to add a splash of color to his conversations.
She headed for the latest delivery, ready to ease her way into the morning. Receiving inventory was mind-numbingly boring and required little to no mental alertness. The most difficult chore of the entire operation was managing to use the box cutter without slicing the packaging that encased the products—she checked the packing list—in this case, pairs of snowshoes. That and avoiding cardboard cuts. The bastard cousin of a paper cut, these had become the bane of her sporting goods existence.
She liked Jacob’s choice of snowshoe. Incredibly lightweight, they were made entirely from recycled materials. The ergonomically designed packaging was environmentally conscious, too, which Chloe appreciated. The minimalist design eliminated excess packaging materials, which was great, but it was a pain in the ass to unpack.
Then again she knew to expect nothing less. After all, Jacob was a passionate hipster from way back. His enthusiasm was generally contagious, at least after eight in the morning when Chloe was fully human.
Jacob’s ownership of the Boatery was about as unplanned as Chloe’s employment there was. Experiencing a strong sense of wanderlust, he’d retired from practicing law and traveled the country. Finding himself in Boothbay, he’d come into the store and apparently never left. That was fifteen years ago. Jacob had fully assimilated. No customers ever guessed he was originally from Raleigh. Or what his previous profession had been, for that matter. Or that she was a physicist. Talk about some highly educated sporting good rental clerks.
Soft music began playing on the stereo system, drifting through the store. The sound instantly lifted Chloe’s mood. Jacob liked music, but it was really Chloe’s presence that reminded him to play the mix CDs she had brought in for him to sample. Chuckling to herself, she stretched to relieve the kink in her back and decided that a little John Legend in the morning was never a bad thing.
* * *
Around twelve thirty Jacob left his desk at the front of the store to find her.
“What sounds good for lunch today?” he asked.
“Whatever you want. I’m assuming you realized I didn’t pack anything,” Chloe answered, excited by the prospect of any sort of lunch.
“When you barely manage to stumble in on time, I generally assume your preparation for work is minimal. You’re pretty easy to read.”
Smiling sheepishly, Chloe shrugged in a what-can-I-say manner.
“I’ll head out and see what tickles my fancy and bring us back something. Can you handle this baby on your own?” Jacob’s question was all for show; they both knew full well they might get all of two customers while he was out.
“If you see smoke, come running. Otherwise, I think we’re all set.”
Jacob nodded and started out the door into the afternoon sunlight. Chloe’s gaze followed him along the street toward one of the many cross streets. There sat the post office and Montino’s, one of the local pizzerias and one of the town’s best-kept secrets. On her first day on the job, Jacob had invited Chloe to join him for lunch. Instead of going to one of the many trendy little tourist cafés and cute shops, he had walked them to Montino’s. Chloe had pegged Jacob as a thoroughly healthful eater upon meeting him. Setting the tone for their friendship, Jacob had surprised her by striding into the comfortable pizza shop and insisting she try the pizza special.
After a forty-minute absence, Jacob returned.
“Reuben or tomato mozzarella,” he announced as he tossed their lunches gently on the counter.
“I’ll take the tomato,” said Chloe as she gathered up the food to take to the benches out front. “I hope you told Susan hello for me while you wooed her,” she added, bringing the hint of a blush to his face. His flirting with the owner of the café was adorable and highly predictable.
Outside, the slight breeze brought with it whispers of the autumn that would soon descend upon the coast. An opaque smattering of clouds muted the blue of the sky, casting shadows throughout the town. Though this kind of weather was perfect for a midday jaunt along the coast or up one of the nearby creeks in a kayak, most of the college and high school students were back in school and many of the tourists had left with the close of the weekend.
As they enjoyed their lunch, Jacob mentioned a climate change panel that had been on the news that morning. As usual the two of them ended up despairing about the pseudo-science that contributed to the overall scientific ineptitude of the country. As a scientist, it was maddening to Chloe to see so much ignorance.
“I wish I could sit down with some of these climate change deniers. I really want to understand what goes on in their heads.”
“Darling, it comes down to ignorance and refusing to listen to reasoning. And I doubt a display of your temper would do anyone much good.” Jacob tilted his head slightly, raising one eyebrow at her, waiting for the objection Chloe couldn’t contain.
As Chloe began to rebuff his claim that she would lose her temper, he continued, “I vividly remember hearing your dulcet tones one day while talking with Andrew while you two were on break.” Clearing his throat, he went on, “And I quote, ‘As a fairly informed person who occasionally thinks thoughts about the world, I’m warning you if you don’t shut up right now I will rip my own arm off and beat you with it.’ End quote.”
Chloe’s laughter escaped against her will. “Come on, first of all, it was funny. Second, we both know he was purposely trying to get me going. It was only fair to warn him what was coming.”
“Right. Well, in the interest of your remaining limbs I say we don’t encourage any interventions with true deniers out there. Leave that to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.”
“Hey, maybe I could work with them to spread some science around!”
“I suppose that is an option, but uprooting and starting over in show business is a long shot,” Jacob countered. He wasn’t the slightest bit worried about her actually pursuing a YouTube career, but for a minute the idea intrigued her.
Giving up hope of Internet stardom, Chloe went on, “At this point, as long as I’ve still got all my limbs I think I might find a carpentry apprenticeship. Tool belts, work boots, using my brain and my hands, it makes sense. If not, then I’ll hope to someday become manager here and by the time I’m seventy I might have my student loans paid off.”
“Oh, that’s reasonable. Abandon academia entirely in favor of perpetual splinters.” At this, Jacob smacked Chloe lightly on the head and returned to eating his Reuben. He thought she was kidding. And she was—for the most part. She had secretly been considering the possibility of staying on with Jacob at the Boatery indefinitely. Three months into her escape from UMass the sense of direction she longed to find was still eluding her. Her grad program would not wait forever. In fact, the university was only going to wait nine more months.
Jacob’s penetrating stare broke her concentration. “Listen up. I am more than happy to keep you in my employ for now. Your work is decent and your company tolerable.” Try as he might he couldn’t keep the serious tone going.
Chloe nodded her head solemnly as he continued. “But you are not going to cruise this life riding the coattails of my retirement. You know you wouldn’t be happy doing this; it isn’t stimulating enough. You want to talk about wormholes or how fast Justin Bieber would fall if you dropped him from a building in a cat suit or something.”
“I can’t believe you read my master’s thesis, Jacob. You really do care!” Chloe nudged his arm as another deep laugh rumbled out.
“Anyway, aside from your strange love of ridiculous physics problems and quantum particles, we both know you want something that inspires you. And even though it terrifies you, you know you want to create some change. To top it off, we both know you are capable of anything. Well, anything except diplomacy. Beating people over the head with the bluntness of your arguments isn’t always the answer.”
“I can be diplomatic. You never see it, though, since it’s always your hard head that I’m trying to beat the truth into,” Chloe countered, shaking her head in mock exasperation. They teased each other easily as if they had known each other for years, not months. Jacob was always patient with her, a gift owed partially to his temperament and partially to wisdom born of experience. He had recognized early on that she wasn’t always the most forthcoming of people, especially when it came to her emotional status.
“Well, if you can get me to see the truth, you obviously have what it takes to get some high school kids to see it as well.”
“Impressive how you always manage to bring it back to this. If nothing else you’re,” Chloe paused, exaggerating the effort involved with choosing the right word, “persistent. And that’s putting a positive spin on it.”
Jacob had come to the conclusion that the most logical progression for Chloe would be to try her hand teaching high school. She had gotten certified and considered teaching as a career early on in her undergraduate days, though that had been eclipsed by her immersion in experimental particle physics while in graduate school. This past year, though, had done a number on her confidence. While she had regained control of her personal life to some extent, her professional life was an entirely different story. While it was a saving grace, her leave of absence left limited time to figure it all out. She could hardly believe that it had already been three months since she left UMass.
“This job is not the least bit stimulating for you, and while your customer service skills are great, you are contributing nothing to society here.”
Chloe interrupted. “Well, thanks for that. Talk about your picker-upper.”
A glimpse of exasperation flitted across the older man’s face, immediately replaced by a tender, almost fatherly affection.
“You are gifted, charismatic, and passionate. According to my calculations those are some of the most critical elements in teaching,” he offered gently. He added, “Even if you don’t pursue it long-term, while you’re here why not use your brain a little? You might even impact a student or two.” Chloe sat with his words for a moment, trying them on for size. Though still undecided, she was warmed by his appraisal.
“Thank you. I really do appreciate your help, you know.” Chloe paused, thinking, then carried on, “Honestly, I don’t know how I’ll relate to high school kids. I wanted to pursue higher-level physics. I don’t want to kid myself with unrealistic expectations again. That didn’t exactly play out as planned.”
“Nothing ever does, but alas, you landed here with a wizened sage to guide you.”
“Wizened sage, withered eccentric. Potato, potahto, I guess.”
“I’ll take that sass as a sign that you know I’m right.” Jacob bowed in a gesture of supreme smugness, a contented smile playing on his lips. “In all seriousness, I’m glad you’ve put your résumé out there and are going to get the chance to substitute. You have sincere motivations, ones that I think will serve to sustain you. I know you are going to surprise yourself.”
Chloe let the reassurance Jacob provided sweep over her, knowing his words were genuine and hoping they were right. They lapsed into quiet thought for several moments, and then Jacob offered another bit of advice.
“If all else fails, Chloe, remember this…”
“Lay it on me.”
“If life gives you lemons, throw them at people. I’ll be in the back room starting inventory. You man the register.” And with that, Jacob headed inside, leaving Chloe’s laughter behind him.
* * *
“Your phone’s ringing!” Jacob called from inside the office. It was nearly four o’clock and the sun was beginning its slow descent toward what promised to be an enjoyable summer dusk. Chloe assumed the call was from her mother and jogged in to answer. The number didn’t register in her contacts.
“Hello, this is Chloe Amden.”
“Hi, Ms. Amden. This is Maryanne Pruzzi from Wiscasset High School. I’m calling to see if you are available to substitute for us this Thursday—tomorrow—in the physics classroom. On your application you had indicated a high level of comfort with physics, is that correct?”
Chloe was so surprised to be receiving this call, she answered quickly, her nerves clearly showing. “Oh yes! I have my master’s in physics and am certified to teach!”
“Well, that sounds wonderful, honey. Are you available tomorrow?”
“Oh yes, yes. I’m free.”
“Well, then, classes start at seven forty a.m. Most substitutes come in around seven fifteen or so to get their pass and get set up in the classroom. You can park around back by the gym. Those doors will be locked that early, but you can head around to the main office. The doors there will be unlocked and I’ll be here to show you to your classroom. As long as your fingerprints are on file, you should receive your check within two weeks. Our pay rate is one hundred and fifteen dollars for the day. Do you have any questions?”
“Only one. What grades will I be working with?”
“Oh yes, Mrs. Flore teaches two junior/senior combined classes. The one is an AP-level physics class, the other is Regents-level physics. Mrs. Flore also has a study hall with juniors and seniors. Anything else, Miss Amden?”
Chloe was so startled by this sudden change of events she was drawing a complete blank on the questions she should be asking.
“No, I think that’s all I have.”
“Lovely. I will see you tomorrow. Have a nice day.”
“Thank you, you too.” With that, Chloe ended the call, cocking her head to one side, losing herself in thought. As understanding began to set in, Jacob’s voice entered her consciousness.
“You accepted pretty quickly for someone not wanting to teach.” Despite his gentle teasing, his support was too genuine for Chloe to be annoyed. “Looks like you’ll be needing Thursday off,” he said cheerfully as he came out of the office.
“Apparently I will. Is that okay? I guess I should have asked before I said yes. That’s what normal employees do, right?” she responded, raising her eyebrows at him with mock concern.
“I suppose so. Are you excited? I’m tickled pink. Now you can start doing something about this pipe dream so we can move on with our lives,” he joked back. She knew full well he was as invested in listening to her and helping her through this transitional period as he would have been for his own child.
“Excited, nervous, anxious, terrified, completely overwhelmed…” Her voice trailed off. After a moment she continued, “I’m not processing it completely yet. I’m sure everything will hit me when I pull in the parking lot. I haven’t been in a high school classroom since junior year student teaching. Thank God I don’t have to plan a lesson.”
“True. Don’t get too worked up about the nitty-gritty. You’ll most likely be watching some video from the 1960s. Best practice your stern, quiet-down face for the kiddies. Maybe they’ll think you mean business—for the first five minutes, anyway.”
“Hey, I’m intimidating! I can control a classroom!” Chloe balked. It may have been four years since she last did this, but she was older now. She didn’t want to be thought of as a joke.
“High school kids are tough. Don’t be a total pushover and you’ll be fine,” Jacob replied. “Assuming you can get there on time,” he added. With the satisfaction she saw on his face, Chloe realized he had only said what he had to get a rise out of her. And as she usually did when her father baited her, she had given him exactly the reaction he’d wanted.
“Funny. Wait until I come back here traumatized. I blame you. It was your half-baked idea in the first place for me to get into this.”
“The burdens I bear are mine and mine alone.” Jacob sighed, leaning on the counter for support from his figurative troubles. His flair for the dramatic was just genuine enough to be endearing.
“The heaviest burdens go to the strongest of men,” Chloe returned sarcastically, bowing with a grand sweep of her arm as she headed for the back of the store to continue unpacking the newest shipment, several cartons of beginner ski poles.
* * *
When five thirty came around, Chloe was seven poles away from completing the shipment. Jacob called out to tell her that it was time to “skedaddle,” and she returned to the front of the store. After locking up, she walked out with him. Not wanting to let the beautiful day go to waste, she decided to drive over to the point at Barrett Park to take a run along the trail that ran parallel to the beach.
Rifling through the contents of her Jeep, she located her bag with a change of clothes and sneakers. She kept a spare set of shorts and T-shirt handy for days like today when she could sneak in some extra workout time.
There were only three other cars when Chloe pulled into the well-maintained parking lot near the point. Noticing one man and his dog walking down toward the beach on the east end, she wondered who else might be out today. With the breeze off the coast, the air was cooler here, tempering the brightness of the sun. There were easily three hours of good daylight left. Grabbing her water bottle and pocketknife, she went into the bathroom to change. She was glad she had packed her long-sleeved shirt. It never hurt to have clothing options in the often unpredictable weather in Maine.
* * *
Emerging from the bathroom, Chloe inhaled deeply, wanting to memorize everything about the evening. The light wind was soft, dancing on her skin. The tide was lapping calmly on the rocky shore, bringing with it the cool air from the sea. Rays of light filled the horizon with shades of gold and orange, pink and purple, mixing and swirling as if painted on the breeze.
Stepping on the grass to stretch, Chloe shook out her long legs, waking them up from the lazy day at work. If she didn’t loosen up first, her knee would ache later. After tearing her cartilage in college, she couldn’t do much without a warm-up. The trail she was going to take was an easy, flat one, winding between the rocky shoreline and the forest. The path, made of fine gravel, had few potholes so she needn’t worry too much about her footing.
This late in the summer there wouldn’t be very many tourists either. The beaches had pretty much emptied out by now. She set out, gravel crunching under her feet in time with her breathing. In the pocket of her shorts her cell phone bumped rhythmically against her leg, reminding her of the early morning text from Nora. She pushed the thought away. She was being a coward, but the situation was too complicated for her to face at the moment. She was becoming adept at avoiding dealing with it, but that wouldn’t last forever. After all, Nora and Elaine were central to the entire mess and to her current lack of direction.
Chloe blocked those thoughts, deciding to add Nora to her list of burned bridges, even though, in all fairness, she had to concede that Nora had never been malicious. Merely young. All the more reason to step back and give her time to grow up and learn from Chloe’s mistakes. That was the best decision. Keep running.
She shifted her focus to her physical run rather than her metaphorical one, stretching long legs in front of her with each stride. The air felt so good on her skin, cooling her as she started to sweat in earnest.
And then there was the scenery… Each time she passed one of the old wooden docks or a picturesque vintage fishing vessel she became a little bit more enamored with the area. Even when the ocean wasn’t visible from the path, the sound of water lapping against the boats and the creaking docks reminded her of its magic.
The tourists came to Boothbay to enjoy the obvious beauty of the area, the lush greenery, untamed forests, and rocky beaches. But she loved the feel of the place most. It oozed history.
If only she could feel as strongly about her own direction as she did about this region.
Increasing her speed each time a disquieting idea clawed at the edges of her consciousness, Chloe managed to leave most of her negative thoughts behind. When she reached the oldest marina in Lewis Cove, she turned around. She swatted the fourth black fly of the night; her patience was wearing thin. It was definitely time to head back.
As she drove back to her apartment, the calmness that had enveloped her while running evaporated and was replaced by new thoughts. Hopping out of her Jeep and walking up the front steps to her portion of the old colonial house, Chloe shivered in the cooling evening air. She was so glad to have found the first-floor apartment. The original wood floors and abundance of natural lighting were wonderful perks, though Chloe would have signed the lease without either after meeting her landlord. Joanne, a retired state trooper, lived in the second-floor apartment and had her own separate entrance. Chloe had minimal worries about the house, its upkeep, or her own safety, though she admittedly never saw her landlord. The rent was affordable too.
The flickering light of fireflies danced on the horizon. Throughout her entire childhood fireflies had been the guardians of summer nights. The little beacons of light conjured memories of family and friends and even better weather. Thinking back to easier summers, Chloe continued inside. Walking through the door, she lobbed her backpack onto the floor, locked the door behind her, and settled in for the evening.
Once she sat on the couch, she allowed herself to start trying to process the phone call she’d gotten earlier in the day from Maryanne Pruzzi. It was simply an opportunity to substitute teach, nothing to get too thrilled over. Being a high school substitute was a far cry from a sustainable career. She didn’t even know if she would like it or, God help her, be good at it. Either way, there was no going back now. The nervous excitement she was feeling was better than the hollow nothingness that had preceded it.
She went to the closet to get her guitar. She had missed jamming while in grad school and was now trying to get back to it; it had been a fixture in her college days. Her fingers became reacquainted with the feel of the smooth neck in her hands, the vibration of the strings, and soon the chords began to resonate within her. Once she had played the rust off, she moved on to an Ed Sheeran favorite of hers. Playing from memory, she started to relax again. Good music, no matter how poorly she might play it, never failed to help her mellow out.
Unaware of how much time had passed, Chloe stood finally, unfolded her body, and stretched enthusiastically. Her shoulder sometimes ached after playing. And then there was the crunching in her knee. Her meniscus wouldn’t ever be the same from the damage inflicted over the course of her college career.
At six feet tall, Chloe was naturally athletic. Whereas Hannah, with her long blond hair and curves, presented as distinctly feminine, Chloe was a study in angles, lean muscle, and androgyny. Her toned arms and legs, the product of a workout routine she’d perfected in college, gave her the appearance that she had had when she was still playing, thin and muscular.
If only she were still playing. She’d never aspired to a career in basketball, but playing meant having a goal that was singular and simple—winning a game, winning a championship. Personal goals were much more difficult to discern and articulate. There wasn’t a clear-cut path to long-term “be happy” goals the way there was to improving on the court.
By the same token, winning championships did little in the way of fostering a rewarding and workable life. The last time she checked student loans couldn’t be paid off with layups and sweat. Her academic career had always been much more linear, undergrad, graduate school, select a lab and advisor, publish, then get a tenure-track position. Walking away from familiar, previously established protocols meant answering questions about herself that she wasn’t sure she was prepared for.
Rather than continuing down that rabbit hole, Chloe directed her attention to getting ready for her first subbing job. Truthfully, all she needed to do was prepare for a simple day as a substitute without placing too much importance on succeeding at the job. The problem was it felt much more important. Despite the fact that it was a one-day gig, she still wanted it to be a positive experience—for herself and for the students. That meant she needed to take a step back from the experiments she’d been working on at the CERN Hadron collider exploring the fundamental building blocks of matter and reorient herself to the basic physics principles she was sure to find in the lesson plans waiting for her. Running away from academia didn’t mean she also forgot everything from her education. Rifling through her old textbooks, she pulled out her introductory book from freshman year and her notebook from student teaching and started reviewing. Sticking with the basics was the best plan. After she felt like she could pass as a reasonably well-informed physicist again, she called it a night.