Claudia was more than a pretty face. There was something about her, some heedless enthusiasm and appreciation for life that drew me in. She loved being alive and was thrilled by everything she saw. As we walked, she would tell me about the history of the city and its people, but in ways that I found more familiar than I would expect. It wasn’t the empty patina of recorded history, but the first-hand anecdotes of a seasoned traveler.
She said I was lucky to have met her, and I agreed. As we nestled near the fireplace where I was staying, she said I should come back next year, to meet her again, in the same place. I asked her about tomorrow. “I won’t be able to see you tomorrow,” she explained quietly. I didn’t understand, said that I would be graduating next year, that this trip to Rome was just a vacation to broaden my education. The way she bit her lip and looked away convinced me to promise her a return visit.
The next morning I couldn’t find her. I prowled the book stores and the museums and the places of art and culture where our meandering discussions led me to believe she’d be interested in going. I gave up, went back to the States.
Convincing my parents that another trip to Rome would be valuable to me, I flew out again the next year. As promised, Claudia was there in the bookstore, on the anniversary of our meeting. She was wearing exactly the same clothes she’d worn on the day we traveled. She hadn’t even cleaned out a bit of wine stain from her sleeve. I thought it an absurd affectation.
“Stay until tomorrow,” I pleaded with her, and she shook her head. “I can’t. Wanting to doesn’t change anything, I just can’t,” she explained.
I got angry. It was ridiculous! We were happy together. Why couldn’t she stay.
“I’ll be waking up at 6,” she said. “Walk with me then. You’ll know.”
I got up the next morning. Claudia was already awake, puzzling over the coffee maker I’d brought with me. I showed her how to make coffee, and we drank in silence.
“Outside,” she explained. “I have a spot. I’ll take you there.” I followed, still furious at her stubbornness.
At 7:30 am, Rome time, she stood under the arch of the Colosseum. “At this time next year,” she said, “you can see me again.” And at 7:32 am, she vanished like a ghost into the air.
Another year came. My income was poor, and my parents needed much convincing to sponsor a third trip. But I had to know.
At 7:32 am, Rome time, Claudia slipped into existence in the exact spot where I’d left her. I had a thousand questions.
“I have one day, this cold December day,” she explained finally, after the brief period of panic and chaos left me. “Every morning I advance one year. The last several weeks have been amazing to watch. Rome changes so much now.”
I asked her how old she was. She fished a coin from her pocket and showed it to me. To a collector, it would have been worth a fortune. But no collector would have taken a Roman coin that looked recently minted. “I have been traveling thus since I was a child,” she said softly.
“Does anyone else know?” I remember asking. She shook her head, smiled sadly. “Nobody alive today.”
Since then, my life has had a purpose. My next three trips to Rome were paid for with my own funds. I explained the plan - short airline trips to the States - and she listened calmly. She seemed willing to try it, but somehow she didn’t seem enthusiastic.
“It’s because within a season, you’ll be gone,” she finally confessed, after some probing. “I’ll watch you age. Any children I bear will be born centuries after their father has passed away. And this America… it would be such a new place.”
I confessed that I didn’t have any other ideas.
“Come to Rome, for as long as you wish,” she offered. “I’ll meet you every year, in the same place. We will tell each other stories of the worlds in which we live.”
I promise, Claudia. I’ll come to the Eternal City. I’ll see you again. In a hundred years, remember me to the next young man who passed through your life so fleetingly.