It was a revelation to find that she and Simon had a lot more in common than their passion for climbing mountains. Realizing their attraction to each other had much to do with the pull of shared values and dreams only added to the magnetism. Lilly’s parents said a healthy assault of adolescent hormones played the expected roll, but Lilly knew it was different. Simon was not someone who found birch trees ‘eerie’; so they kept their connection private. She’d learned the adults in her world, whether teachers, parents, relatives or friends, had a predictable way of judging and constricting her pursuit of happiness. She had no interest in hearing that sixteen was too young for a serious relationship (which it wasn’t) or that Simon wasn’t interested in ‘the real Lilly’ (which he was). If she wanted to breathe freely in his world someday, she was going to have to take those breaths very quietly in her own for the moment.
They began to discuss incorporating her future with his, and the more Lilly thought about that life the more committed she became. Simon was part of her and that made her something more. She was developing a view reaching far beyond her own horizon; and with Simon, Lilly was never lonely. By the time he’d accepted the invitation of friends to climb with them in Europe the summer of her junior year in high-school, they’d both decided their dreams were inextricably joined. That’s when they hatched their plan to spend the two months he’d be away in Europe together.
“Clearly, at the age of sixteen, I’m not going to be released into the arms of my lover unchaperoned for two months of blissful adventure,” Lilly laughed when she and Simon first talked about his trip. “Even I can appreciate the challenges to that plan;” but she was hooked.
That meant they had to come up with a different arrangement; one that appeared to steer a safe passage through the temptations waiting to ambush a young American girl alone for the first time in Europe; something that would keep them together and on their own all summer; a plan that appeared to satisfy the conditions imposed on her freedom. Lilly found it with amazing ease, which led her to believe it was meant to be.
An English professor at a friend’s boarding school unwittingly provided the means to her end. He and his wife led a tour of students to Europe every summer to visit the birthplaces of authors he championed. Lilly was instantly intrigued. The tour would have attracted her under any circumstance, but once she met professor Penn and his wife and learned of their flexible approach to the itinerary, her ideas for a summer in Europe with Simon took clear shape.
“We offer numerous opportunities along the way for side trips on one’s own to visit family and friends” the professor told Lilly’s parents. Her parents paid no attention to the side trips as she had no family or friends in Europe. She honed in on them with laser-like precision. She would have one very special friend in Europe. Most importantly, she sensed that these guides sported different attitudes from her current teachers.
“I like the fact that your wife will be there” Lilly’s mother said, smiling happily at the professor. “A single girl away from home for so long needs guidance” she added. Lilly knew her mother meant control. Remembering that first meeting with the professor, Lilly shuddered to think of the responsibility heaped on poor Mrs. Penn; but naturally at that time the professor’s wife appeared to offer just the cover Lilly sought. Her sympathies understandably lay with her own needs and not her chaperone’s.
Most of the rest of the school year was spent in planning those side trips to ‘visit family and friends’. Coordinating them with every stop Simon had along his route became an all-consuming exercise that often threatened Lilly’s homework and daily concentration in class. When final touches were put on her parallel but very different itinerary to the Penns’, her hopes for the future finally took off. It would start with this wonderful summer with Simon and continue on into life together after. They’d thought of every possible contingency and maneuvered every obstacle out of their way. Or so they thought.
Simon left in early June for the French Alps to start training with his friends. Lilly had three weeks after school to organize her immunization shots, passport and packing. Nothing could have equaled her excitement preparing for that trip. She knew that once she’d evaded her adult jailers at home and reached Simon in France nothing would separate them again. Their last phone conversation before she left was less than satisfactory as the call kept being dropped. No matter; they’d soon be together on a mountain top and talking would be unnecessary.
Lilly was still on her pre-summer high the day she opened the New York Times sports section to follow the progress of her favorite baseball team. The electric jolt she got and the odd way the words in the headline article jumped out and burned her were unforgettable. ‘Fall in French Alps Leaves Young American Climber Near Death’. How did she know it was her young American climber? How could she not know? Still she sat staring out her window rather than at the headline. She looked down at it again and saw the print had the same searing quality, so she turned the paper over on her desk for relief and looked out the window for a while. Finally she risked turning the paper back to brave a look at the body of the article. She eased the paper in half and creased it carefully to stall for time. She glanced down and found the headline was not only still there but enlarged by her folding of the sports section. There was nowhere else to look.
By Sidney S. Stark