Rikki's Odyssey: Chapter 1

She was born Eroica Melodie Karras. Her parents, Alexander and Monique Karras, were university professors—Alexander taught World Civilizations and Monique taught Art History. They loved classic literature, music, and art, and as a young girl and teenager Eroica spent as many hours in concerts, art galleries and museums as many adults spend in their lifetimes. The bedtime stories her parents told her were more often than not taken from the great classics of mythology, history, and religion. She heard stories about Helen of Troy, Aphrodite, Augustus and Livia Drusilla, Abelard and Heloise, Leonardo da Vinci, Jeanne d’Arc, and other colorful figures from the past, the details of those stories adjusted appropriately for her age.
Eroica’s brother Gabriel was three years younger, and although he too was dragged around by parents bent on educating both their children in the fine arts, he tended to resist more than his sister. When they both were a little older, Eroica and Gabriel would play a game in which they would imitate their parents pompously pointing out various artifacts in some imaginary museum. On one occasion their mother overheard what was going on, opened Gabriel’s bedroom door, and demanded, “Okay, what are you guys laughing about?” They just giggled and refused to answer. Monique shook her head and shut the door.
In addition to being a tenured professor, Alexander Karras was also a successful author, having published a book on Hellenic culture and how it affected cultures in the modern world, especially that of the United States. Although his book was considered an academic work, favorable reviews in several important national publications resulted in surprisingly good sales. It also received a favorable endorsement from the National Hellenic Society. Royalties soon passed the modest advance the author had received, and they continued to trickle in even several years after the book went to print. He was interviewed on a popular NPR show and became something of a minor celebrity in his community and on the campus.
While she was still in grade school, some of Eroica’s classmates and friends liked to make fun of her name. She pointed out that she was named for Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, and if they didn’t like it, tough! By the time she was a teenager, however, one of her best high school friends started calling her Rikki, and she liked it. From then on, whenever she made a new acquaintance, she introduced herself as Rikki Karras, which did sound Greek, but since her father Alexander was of Greek ancestry, that was fine. Monique was of French heritage—her forebears were from Marseille—and their household was decorated with artifacts that suggested their southern European and Mediterranean backgrounds. Alex and Monique persisted in calling her Eroica, but by the time she was a senior in high school, they gave in and started calling her by her preferred name. On his part, her brother Gabriel was content to have his name shortened to Gabe.
One artwork that fascinated Rikki was the exquisite reproduction of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli that her father had purchased for a tidy sum. When Rikki was young and their parents’ friends were mostly fellow faculty members, it hung in the living room of their comfortable home. But as their friendships expanded beyond the ivied halls of the university, they moved the painting to a more discreet location in Alexander’s study. He still made a point, however, of correcting his friends in a friendly way when they said how much they admired the depiction of Venus. He would point out that she was actually Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Rikki overheard one conversation that aroused her curiosity. Her father was telling a friend, another historian, about some of the mythology surrounding Aphrodite. His friend chuckled and said, “That’s not quite the whole story, is it, Alex?”
Rikki decided to investigate further. She had access to the university library, which she used frequently. The librarians were accustomed to her visits, and when she approached the reference desk, Martha, a librarian who recognized her, smiled and asked, “So, Rikki, what can I help you with today?”
“I need to find out more about Aphrodite.”
“Aha. What did you have in mind?”
“Well, we have this painting at home, and I heard my father and a friend of his talking about it. It has this pretty woman standing in a shell without any clothes on.”
“You must be talking about the Birth of Venus.”
“Yes, but my father says that she’s really Aphrodite.”
Martha smiled. “I can understand why—your father is an expert on such things. Anyway, the Romans and Greeks had different names for the same gods and goddesses. If you’re really interested, I can recommend a couple of books on Greek mythology, both of which will have plenty of information about Aphrodite and the other gods. Come on with me.”
She took Rikki into the stacks, and in the mythology section she selected a couple of titles and showed them to Rikki. “This one was written fifty years before I was born,” Martha said, “and it’s a grown-up book, but it’s easy to read, and I think you’ll like it.” She showed Rikki another book that had illustrations of many of the mythological figures. Rikki checked them out, and as soon as she got home, she started reading. Both books, it turned out, were designed for someone older than she was, as Martha had said, but she found the classic study of mythology interesting and enjoyable, and it did satisfy her curiosity. She was also surprised to see how much of the artwork and statues of the male and female figures, as she had put it, “had no clothes on.”
A few days later over dinner she asked her parents, “What do you think I should study in college if I want to find out more about all those gods and goddesses?”
Monique smiled at her daughter. “You have plenty of time to think about that, darling.” She looked at her husband. “Alex, what do you think?”
He put down his fork and smiled at his daughter. “Well, I do spend some time on mythology when I’m teaching world civilizations, mostly because every major civilization in the world has had mythological figures and stories. So that would be a start. I’m sure you could also find literature classes that deal in mythology; you might consider majoring in English.”
“She might find a school that offers a classics major, if that’s what she really wants to pursue, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, of course. I imagine that classics might go along nicely with a philosophy major.”
The conversation went on for several more minutes as Rikki looked back and forth between Alex and Monique, fascinated by how a simple question had provoked what was fast becoming an intellectual sparring match between her two very bright parents. Her brother looked at her and giggled as the conversation grew slightly more heated.

As much as her parents indulged her by treating her childish questions with the same respect they offered their faculty colleagues, Rikki felt that there was more to the world that even her brilliant parents could convey to her. Whenever she went shopping with Monique, a bookstore was always one of their stops. Her bedroom was filled with purchased volumes going back to the time when she had first started reading. By the time she was a teenager, books aimed at high school age youngsters were not enough for her, and she continued to search for richer fare. During her senior year she took an AP course in World Civilizations, which earned her three college credits with which to begin her higher education experience.
During her early years in high school her mind matured much more rapidly than her body. She had fair skin, large dark, wide-set eyes and almost jet-black hair. The contours of her face had begun to mature, but the rest of her body had not yet caught up with her mind, and she came across as gangly and skinny. Boys her age didn’t interest her very much, and they when they tried to converse with her, she would often dismiss them as creatures beneath her contempt, though she always tried to be polite with her classmates. As a result, she didn’t form many friendships with boys her age, or girls, for that matter, but her doting parents made up for it. Whenever they had guests, Rikki often sat in on the cocktail hour conversations. By the time she was a senior, her figure had matured and filled out, and soon some of her parents’ faculty friends began treating her as an adult.
“She could be a movie star,” one of her father’s friends said.
“That’s kind of what I’m afraid of,” Alex responded. “To be honest, sometimes the sight of her almost takes my breath away.” He shook his head. “For some reason, boys don’t seem to have noticed her, and I have no idea why.”
“Kids her age have no idea how to deal with her,” his friend said. “She can carry on a conversation like a graduate student, and she hasn’t even started in college yet.” He paused for a moment. “Are you going to get her admitted to our cozy little campus?”
“Monique and I have discussed that at length, and we decided it would be better for her to go away. We think she needs to broaden her horizons.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Monique is thinking France, and she’s quite fluid in the language already—they often speak French around the house. She has also taken Latin, which should help her no matter where she decides to go. She’s always been interested in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, so she’ll probably want to attend a school that will allow her to build on what she already knows. I’ve taught her some Greek, so she already has a head start on that as well.”
His friend smiled. “I’m sure you’ll do the right thing—she’ll thrive wherever she happens to wind up, whether it’s Cambridge here in this country or perhaps the Cambridge across the pond.”

When it came time for college, her parents helped her select Saint Juliana University, a small, elite, liberal arts institution in the small city of Lamonte not far from the Canadian border in northern New England. The tuition was steep, but both Alex and Monique had come from prosperous families, and all four grandparents, who were still alive, were happy to pitch in with tuition costs. The campus was lovely, with old brick buildings, ivy-covered walls, a wide expanse of green in the center surrounded by the administration and classroom buildings. The dormitories consisted of about two dozen large structures that housed over half of the students and several smaller buildings scattered about the small city within easy walking distance of the campus.
Not long after she was accepted, Rikki began to wonder about the female saint for whom the college was named. It was easy to find the information she sought; she discovered that Juliana of Nicomedia was an early Christian martyr, about whom there were certain stories that may have been more mythological than factual. Nevertheless, she learned enough to know that the woman had been worthy of sainthood. By visiting the college’s website, she saw that it was not a strictly religious institution. She was satisfied with her selection, submitted her application, and looked forward to entering as a freshman with advanced standing, thanks to her completion of several AP courses besides her class in World Civilizations.
Because Monique had some special duties attending the opening of their university, Alex drove Rikki from their home in Virginia to the Saint Juliana campus. Her mother had accompanied Rikki when she made her campus visit prior to her acceptance, so both parents became familiar with the school. After checking in, Rikki and her father headed to her dorm room with her belongings. There was no sign that her roommate, who was from Ohio, had arrived. Her father lingered long enough to see that Rikki had everything she needed, hugged her, and wished her well. “I’m sure you’re going to have a wonderful time here!” he said.
“Thanks for everything, Dad. Give my love to Mom.”
Rikki’s roommate, Penelope—the first words out of her mouth were, “Please call me Penny! I hate Penelope!”—an attractive blonde with a wonderful sense of humor, arrived a few hours later. They had exchanged messages during the summer when they learned from the admissions office that they would be rooming together and hit it off from the beginning. It turned out to be the start of a deep and lasting friendship. They spent several busy hours emailing, texting, talking, and deciding on the courses they planned to sign up for.
Penny was still unsure about her plans for a major, but Rikki was determined to study the classics. “Wow, so you’re going to have to learn Latin and Greek?” Penny gushed over their first evening meal in the college dining room. They had spent the afternoon completing their course registrations.
“I took Latin in high school, and my dad taught me Greek when I told him I wanted to major in classics. In fact, he started teaching me Greek when I was much younger.”
“So, is he a teacher?”
“Yeah, both my parents are. He teaches world civilizations, but he also offers courses in ancient Greek history. His parents were born in Greece, and they spoke it at home a lot when he was growing up. I guess you could say I’m sort of following in my father’s footsteps.” She took a bite of her dinner. “What do your parents do?”
“My dad’s an architect, and my mother teaches dancing.” She smiled. “I spent a lot of time on my toes while I was growing up.”
“Are you going to keep dancing while you’re here?”
“Yeah, they have a dance club. According to the catalog, it’s supposed to be really good. I’m going to check it out.”
“You look like you could be a dancer. Did you ever do any performing in dance?”
“Yeah, the ballet school where my mom taught put on recitals twice a year, and I was always in them practically from the time I started walking.”
“Wow, that’s cool! I bet you’re in good shape. I’m going to go out for women’s soccer and lacrosse, I think.”
Penny stared at her. “You’re going to be busy, I think.”
“I always have been.”
As they left the dining room, Penny said, “I think we’re both going to like it here.”
“I hope so.”

Once classes started Rikki and Penny settled into a comfortable routine. They soon discovered that since they both liked to talk, they would have to ration their hours of chitchat in order to keep up with their courses. Penny spent most of her afternoons with the dance club, and Rikki went out for the women’s soccer team. Once they had cleaned up from their exercise, they decided to get started on their evening study so that dinner would give them a break. After that, they would save their after-dinner conversations for the time when they had finished studying. But they vowed to get to sleep early enough that they would be wide awake during their classes the next day. It was a challenge: they both liked to talk—and to listen to each other.
Their early conversations were mostly about life back home, friendships they had in high school, including those with whom they were going to keep corresponding. Penny had more of those; Rikki corresponded mainly with Gabriel and her parents. Beyond that they shared ideas about all sorts of things—movies, personalities they found interesting, and events of the day, including politics. Penny’s parents were apparently more conservative than Rikki’s, but they didn’t find themselves at odds on anything important.
Inevitably, their talks moved to more intimate areas of discussion.
One night they were talking about students with whom they had begun to become friendly. They skirted around the subject, and then Penny asked at last, “Have you met any boys you like?”
Rikki shrugged. “Oh, one or two maybe, but I haven’t found anybody who really grabs me.”
“I haven’t either, but I’ve met a couple of guys who are kind of cute.”
“I wonder what it’s going to be like here.”
“What what’s going to be like?”
“Boys, dating; you know, stuff.”
“You mean sex.”
“I guess.” Rikki turned and looked away for a moment.
Penny looked at her. “It’s sort of none of my business but …” She didn’t finish the question.
“I think I know what you want to know, and the answer is no, I haven’t.”
“Huh. I did. I had a boyfriend in high school that I really liked. I guess I was in love with him. But he’s going to college in California, so I doubt we’ll be able to keep it going.”
“He’s that guy you’ve been getting text messages from, right?”
“Yeah, we promised to do that. But I think we’re going to run out of things to say.” She looked at Rikki and smiled. “I can’t believe you’re still a virgin. Was that a religious thing?”
“No, my folks aren’t religious at all. My father was raised Greek Orthodox and my mother Catholic, so they were pretty compatible. But neither of them was really into it.” She paused. “I guess I just never had really strong feelings about any boy I went out with. A couple of them tried to get me to go along with what they wanted, but I wasn’t interested. After a while some of the guys in my school started calling me the ice queen, which was fine with me, to tell the truth.”
Penny smiled. “Well, maybe you’ll find somebody here. A couple of the guys I’ve gotten to know little bit seem really nice.” She shrugged. “I guess we’ll see.”

Because of her advanced placement thanks to her AP courses, Rikki was able to bypass several required freshman courses and plunge into courses related to her proposed major. By completing couple of extra courses she would have enough credits to graduate at the end of the fall semester of her senior year. She phoned her parents and discussed her ideas with them, and they encouraged her to follow the plan that appealed to her: a dual major in classics and philosophy.
“That’s going to require a lot of work,” Alex said, “though I’m sure you can handle it.”
“Are you really sure about that, darling?” Monique said. “You want to allow time for extracurricular activities, things you might enjoy without having to keep your nose in the books all the time.”
“I plan to play women’s soccer in the fall and women’s lacrosse in the spring,” Rikki protested. “Beyond that I don’t really have any plans to get involved in other things. They don’t have sororities here at Saint Juliana, which I like—I’ve heard things about them that I didn’t like the sound of from some of my older friends back home—and I’m not drawn to anything else that would take enough of my time to interfere with study. Besides, Mom, you know I love reading and studying. After all, it’s what I’m here for!”
“I know that, dear, but I want you to enjoy your college experience! You need to have some fun, make more friends, maybe find some boys that you might like to get to know.”
“Okay, mom, I’ll do that, but please let me make my own decisions.”
“She’ll be fine, Monique. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, and I’m sure she’ll do whatever is necessary to get the most of her experience at the c
ollege.”
“Thanks, Dad.”

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