Hadriel Alighieri had worked as the professor’s assistant for a few semesters. He graded papers, directed projects, and assisted students with research and internships. Professor Aziz held up his end of the bargain, and did not inquire about the goddess.
And so, between the two of them they formed a bond of master and apprentice, the professor and his pupil; Abdul-Karim Aziz had taken Hadriel Alighieri under his wing and groomed him to one day become his replacement.
For the professor, it was his duty as dictated in the Qur’an: “Help each other to goodness and heedfulness.” For Hadriel Alighieri, it was an opportunity to make a living, and not squander the generosity and guidance of Uncle Mauricio Maravilla-Fuentes, and Professor Abdul-Karim Aziz.
He had embarked on a new path and established a new life. The past hidden behind a veil that shrouded his heart. Hadriel Alighieri had committed to the endeavor of becoming a professor in his own right when destiny conspired with love to remind him that first and foremost, he was a romantic.
Despite his elusiveness, he had garnered the attention of women at the university. Drawn to his quiet confidence and intellectual disposition, they speculated among them who would be the one to capture his heart. For they had learned—from Professor Abdul-Karim Aziz—of Hadriel’s poetic disposition and musical inclination, which added to the appeal. Though he was thin, he had grown a few inches shy of two meters, and the stubble on his cheeks and chin framed his lips in such a way that accentuated their natural hue.
He seldom recognized the signs of seduction. Always the gentleman, Hadriel Alighieri refrained from presuming the motives of the women who invited him for a drink, or dinner, or to their homes. They speculated about his sexual orientation to console their wounded pride, but their interest never waned.
When Hadriel Alighieri met Celeste Williams she was eighteen, and dating a student he knew from study groups that he had befriended. She did not attend the university, but had come to the campus on that day to meet Nathan Moore for lunch. Hadriel Alighieri and Nathan were seated on a bench when Celeste Williams had arrived. Her misty grey eyes glanced at Hadriel Alighieri before she turned her attention to Nathan. She spoke softly, almost a whisper as she offered her hand. Hadriel noted her slender fingers, her fragile wrist, and tender skin an alluring mien of dark chocolate.
"Nathan's told me a lot about you." She raised her free hand to her lips, to hide her lovely smile—she did that often before her confidence grew—but nothing could veil her grey, hypnotic, almond shaped eyes.
Hadriel Alighieri fell into them, without her knowledge, and without her permission. They possessed tranquility about them, and swirled with a hint of silver. He found comfort in that realm, and dared not escape. Even years later, he tried, for the sake of her happiness, to flee, but gravity existed solely to prevent him from doing so.
He studied her in silence, forgetting to breathe. And stole a glance of her slender neck and shoulders and swaying hips. At that precise moment, Hadriel Alighieri believed that he had endured heartbreak just to experience that instant where even time stood still to admire her beauty, and to permit him to once again feel passion.
When he met her again, a few nights later, she arrived alone at the rear of Nathan’s parents house where the two had discussed Nathan’s academic ambitions. From there, the pages of time turned quickly. Nathan often declared that he loved Celeste Williams, but his actions revealed a very different story when Hadriel Alighieri ran into him on a date with another woman.
Nathan’s blue eyes and light brown hair appeared darker in the evening. His slim, two-meter frame stretched out from the bench opposite Hadriel as he leaned back with his arms crossed.
"Okay, so here's the thing." Nathan had said before he inhaled deeply. "I'm in love with a stripper."
"What?" Hadriel laughed. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to laugh, but what?"
"Just hear me out," he said.
"I'm listening." Oh, this has got to be good.
"I'm dating two girls, well, technically three, but the third—Amanda— isn’t important. She strips too, but I just use her for the money."
"Okay, go on." Hadriel leaned back.
Nathan clarified that the two main girls had been Cassandra Jones, and Celeste Williams. Cassandra was the stripper, but they had a history together. He believed that despite her vocation, she was the perfect girl. “She knows how to have fun."
"I bet she does!" Hadriel interrupted.
"No, that's not what I mean.”
He and Cassandra enjoyed each other's company. Their conversations flowed naturally, filled with laughter and reflection. Their shared insight revealed how much they had in common. She had become his best friend in the absence of Hadriel’s sister. Cassandra was a few years his senior, but was ready to settle down. Nathan believed that because of her experience she knew what she wanted. Whereas with Celeste Williams, he worried that she would soon become curious about the world.
"I see, and tell me more about Celeste Williams." Hadriel asked.
Nathan Moore regarded Celeste Williams as a silent dove. He found comfort in her presence, but found her quiet nature to be a bore. She wasn’t much for conversation, and in the presence of company she seldom interacted with others.
Despite Nathan’s confession of being in love with another woman, Celeste Williams had been the innocent one. She had been a virgin until Nathan came along, yet he liked that she was pure. Nathan had preferred her purity to Cassandra's experience. He had said that Celeste Williams remained young enough to be molded into the perfect woman.
"So, she's not perfect now?" Asked Hadriel.
"No, not like Cassandra." Nathan said.
"So let me get this straight. You're in love with Cassandra because, by your own account, she possesses every quality you want in a woman, and you have everything in common. But you're reluctant to commit to her because you were Celeste Williams’ first, am I correct?"
"Is this some noble gesture on your part, to stay with her simply because you were her first?"
"I wouldn't say noble, but she did say that she only wanted to be with one guy, and that's a stark contrast to Cassandra given what she does for a living."
"I see. Well, if you had never met Celeste Williams, or if you weren't her first, would you still have any reason to be apprehensive about Cassandra based on everything you know about her?"
"Then, as Spock would say, the best decision is the logical one. You share a bond with Cassandra that you don't have with Celeste Williams, and we both know that to find someone with whom you connect on every level is rare. My advice is to hold on to that, because that kind of connection, that kind of foundation to build upon is hard to find. You say you're in love with Cassandra, and let me tell you, that feeling with someone who fits you perfectly, only comes around, maybe once."
"It's not that simple, though." He pled.
"I don’t know." Nathan shrugged. “It’s just not.”
Regrettably, Hadriel Alighieri played a major role in perpetuating Nathan’s behavior, and he did so out of loyalty to his friend. He adhered to "the guy code," where men foolishly cover for one another in confidence.
The string of women that waltzed in, and out of Nathan's life grew extensive. Between them, Hadriel Alighieri had often expressed his dissatisfaction with Nathan’s numerous affairs, but he wouldn't compromise their friendship, or Nathan’s happiness by divulging his unscrupulous behavior. And he certainly wasn't willing to take part in breaking Celeste Williams’ heart; at least, not yet.
Celeste Williams—on the other hand—hadn’t many friends, because in those days Nathan demanded most of her attention, and the few friends she remained close with had fallen away, eclipsed by Nathan’s distrust of their influence.
In light of his cynicism, Hadriel Alighieri’s optimistic nature was a relief and without realizing, he guided her with the gentle astuteness of a trusted confidant. By Christmas, their connection solidified, and their delicate friendship inspired her to begin writing music of her own after two years of prosaic script.
She decided to pursue her academic ambitions, and enrolled in a nearby junior college to acquire the credits she needed to advance her studies. Her limbo of happiness at the prospect of being her family's first college graduate was short-lived when Nathan insisted she focus on becoming a homemaker.
Hadriel was surprised that she conceded so easily. Celeste Williams behaved like what Nathan told her she was, his girl, under the direction of his interests. She became the delicate flower permitted to only blossom in his presence. And he chose to behave like what he believed was the role of a man: domineering, ambitious, and the focal point of her purpose.
Hadriel Alighieri sympathized with Celeste Williams and though he never identified her with Sophia Paula, he wondered about where she may have been. He remembered her then, his lost heartbeat, and his best friend. He had wanted to reach out to her, but he decided against it for the sake of her happiness.
La Señora Keila stopped in to visit Uncle Mauricio Maravilla-Fuentes, who announced his retirement and plan to return to Santa Lucia. It was then that Hadriel Alighieri heard that Sophia Paula was dating a man named Joshua Abrams whom she met at university.
“You should call her.” La Señora Keila urged.
He dared not interject himself into her life for fear of creating any confusion.
Instead, Hadriel Alighieri focused on the friendship that he developed with Celeste Williams. Nurturing her budding presence in a world that might never fully appreciate her, because he liked her for who she was, and came to love her for what she could be in a fever of indistinct delights.
Celeste Williams had done more than merely walk into Hadriel’s life. Akin to an ocean breeze guiding waves to the shore she lingered into his thoughts. He often sought futilely to push away such fanciful fantasies, similar to a whisper trying to force the coastal winds to retreat. To no avail, and so he surrendered to destiny, torn at his core.
Cassandra Jones remained in the picture, as did Amanda, and whilst Hadriel Alighieri continued on his quest for love with countless conversations and various dates, he watched Nathan juggle the precarious task of leading a double-life.
On the one hand, he understood Nathan’s apprehensiveness about ending things with Cassandra, because it is difficult for the heart to set free someone whose breath coincides with it's beat. However, that didn't excuse the presence of Amanda, and the fourth young lady that lingered into the picture by mid-September.
Online chat rooms had been all the rage prior to the rise of social networking sites. Time was oft wasted away in a virtual chat room exchanging messages with a faceless stranger, whose call sign revealed more of their personality that embellished profile descriptions sought to conceal.
Hadriel sat before the glowing screen of Nathan’s laptop when an Instant Message interrupted his session by a user, named: DRK_N_LVLY_81.
Nathan sat across the room conversing on the phone with Amanda about a new gadget for his home entertainment system. He appealed to her vanity with empty flattery to coax her into paying for it when Hadriel motioned to the laptop that a message required his attention. When he stood over Hadriel’s shoulder to read the message, Hadriel heard Amanda's muffled voice echo from the receiver. Nathan smirked. He motioned for the laptop and told Amanda to give him a minute to use the bathroom.
After he arranged a meet and greet with the faceless stranger, Nathan Moore ended the phone call with Amanda, and asked Hadriel to accompany him on his endeavor. Hadriel Alighieri failed to realize it then, but that would become a pattern of behavior that peppered the landscape of their lives for the next two years.
They navigated through the city to a popular restaurant chain for drinks, and evening appetizers when Nathan flipped open his cell phone. He called Celeste Williams. After briefly inquiring about her day, and revealing only partial information about his afternoon, he informed her that they headed out for drinks, and that he'd call her when they returned home. That had become the standard practice to ensure she wouldn't call during his clandestine encounters. Thus avoiding the awkward interruption of not answering her call in the presence of another woman, and also preemptively avoiding any suspicions on her end for not having her calls returned.
Hadriel stared out into the night. He thought of Sophia Paula, and wondered how she was doing. He'd heard that she and Joshua had split, and then resumed their relationship, and she was happy. According to La Señora Keila, Sophia Paula truly cared for Joshua Abrams and Joshua Abrams cared for her, and Hadriel Alighieri convinced himself that everything was as it should be.