Archives For May 2013

Apartments Stay Copyright

I couldn’t wait to get on the plane.

I knew I would not return to New York for a very long time – if ever. The moment I knew I was leaving for Italy, I made up my mind never to come back to New York. There were too many bad memories for me here. Too many ghosts. Every once in a while, even after the divorce and my bankruptcy were final, I still had that creeping feeling that The Ghost might find me or that our paths would cross. Then what?  Leaving the country altogether would illiminate that possibility, even if it did seem extreme.  I knew that I could be completely free and truly breathe and sleep easy once I got on that plane.

I announced my new job and plans to leave New York to the girls at work when I retuned from the job fair in May. They were all really supportive. Some were sad to see me go because we had formed friendships outside of work. Some were sad on a professional level, as I was, because our tight team would be broken up. And others, I suspected, were upset with me for “selling out” and leaving a system that desperately needed good teachers to continue the work we started.  There were grade changes for some of the teachers that year and tensions were building among the staff because of governmental changes to the New York City Curriculum and State Standards. The New York City School System was in flux. Looking back, I think I may have gotten out just in time. There was a farewell dinner for me in June… lots of food and drink and laughter. The women who helped me become a teacher were so important to me; they nurtured me, befriended me and trained me to be a true professional. I felt like the baby leaving the nest, though I truly had earned my wings by then. I was ready to fly.

The movers came and packed my belongings in July. There were thirty boxes of books and teaching resources and clothes. I had no trouble deciding what to bring with me. In fact, I packed like I knew I would not be coming home. I packed old journals, pictures and books a plenty. The day I left for the airport in late August, I had only three suitcases which I bought on sale at T.J. Max for under four hundred dollars. I filled them with my top favorite outfits, readying myself for life in Milan. A few weeks earlier, I cashed in my teacher’s pension money, gave it all to my mother except for one thousand dollars which I took to hold me over until I received my first paycheck. Knowing that I signed a three year contract, I had to resign from the New York City teaching system as they only allowed a leave of absence for one year. I had received my permanent NY State teaching certificate a few years before, so I knew I could always teach again if I ever returned to The States. But that wasn’t my plan.

I was delivered by Lincoln Town Car to John F. Kennedy Airport on August 19th, 2005. I just turned thirty six years old.

I remember the drive to the airport like it was yesterday. I remember saying goodbye to the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway, good bye Southern State Parkway, Goodbye asshole drivers, goodbye dumb people with obnoxious bumper stickers, goodbye bad Long Island and New York accents, goodbye, goodbye goodbye. Goodbye trees, goodbye humid New York air, goodbye mother who turned me away, goodbye brother who didn’t care, goodbye goodbye goodbye. Goodbye scary ex-husband, goodbye bankruptcy, goodbye bad credit, goodbye goodbye goodbye. And then the tears started to fall. I’ll miss my mother, and bad Long Island accents and the brother I wish I had and the lovers I never met and the life I didn’t have in my home town. I thought of Frank Sinatra singing “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere….” and the tears came some more. I hadn’t made it here – I had failed at marriage, at being a good daughter, good sister, good aunt, good friend. I had no talents to speak of and was incapable of exploring new relationships with men I was interested in.  I know I projected an air of confidence and positivity but inside I felt a failure in so many ways. I knew with confidence that starting over in another country would give me the clean slate I so desperately wanted.

Pulling into the airport I remember the glow of it. The glow of the white beams above me, the light from the skylights above shining into the pristine cathedral-like terminal from clear blue skies and sunshine. I loved it. I loved being in the airport. I checked in for my flight with quivering hands and lips on the verge of tears.  I checked my bags and found a big surprise waiting for me. Annie, MaryEllen and Gina, three of my closest friends from work waiting with hugs and kisses to say goodbye to me. I was so excited and beyond touched that they sneakily found out my flight and terminal number and met me there. We had our final laughs and hugs and said goodbye and I cried some more. I was moved, really moved that they came to see me off.  Then off I went onto the security line, fitting in last waves and air-blown kisses. I placed my shoes, coin purse and cell phone in the tray on the belt, and crossed into the terminal.  Alone.  Waiting for my eight our flight to board and take me to my new life. My stomach was doing a dance and cramping up. I was getting nervous and excited all at once.  What will it be like? What if no one is waiting for me at the airport? What if I hate it there? I signed a three year contract! Three years.  What was I thinking!  I want my mommy…. I went to the magazine shop in the Duty Free and bought some junk-food magazines, things like People and Us, just to get my mind off my anxiety. I was not going to let myself have an anxiety attack after having gotten over that years ago…

Then we boarded. The seatbelt safety speech. The low dings that happen on the plane to signal the crew to belt up themselves and prepare for takeoff. And the roar of the engines. My heart was pounding. I looked out the window. The sun had just sunk into the city and New York had that golden pink summertime night glow. The lights from the buildings were twinkling as the plane rushed up the tarmac. And finally…. lift… we were in the air, hovering above New York and I thought of the R.E.M song Leaving New York’s Never Easy…. and it wasn’t. It was hard. My heart hurt. I couldn’t understand that feeling because I wanted to leave so badly. But it was hurting now and I felt a tug that went from my heart to my throat to and way back down to my stomach, then straight down to my legs. And we were up in the air and New York was a tiny speck on the coast of a land mass. Then there was water, then clouds then darkness. I watched three movies in a row and ate horrible plane food and did not sleep. My eyes burned on the flight from being that dry after you cry dry, combined with the air conditioning that circulates on the plane. I wondered where all the people around me were going after they landed? To work, like me? On holiday? Back home? To visit family? Were they escaping something? Starting something? It was interesting to me and I made stories about the strange faces around me as I observed them.

I landed in Milan’s Linate Airport. It was a small 1950’s throwback airport located just outside the city’s center. I was greeted by Day Jones and was thrilled to see his familiar smile. He greeted me with the famous Italian kiss… two cheeks, two air kisses, and escorted me to the car where Claudio, the do everything guy from the school, drove me up to the school just south of the center of Milan. The school was literally located in the middle of riso (rice) fields. It was hot and humid. I checked in at the school, meeting the lovely secretary, Tina, who gave me my apartment keys and instructions for how to open the door. You might laugh while reading this, but the key was a skeleton key half the length of my forearm. The instruction was to turn the key three or four times before it would unlock. Well, I’ll spare you the details here… it took a lot more than three or four turns. In fact, one of the senior staff members on the orientation committee who delivered me to the Via Mose apartment even had trouble opening it. Anyway, I got in and was shocked at the size of the place. It was HUGE. It was dated- circa 1960’s grandmother’s apartment. It was a two bedroom, with a large common space and a big kitchen- bigger than the one in my mother’s house and a bathroom complete with bathtub/shower, toilet, bidet and a washing machine. The entire apartment had the same cold floor that was black, brown and white speckles. I’d come to find later that this was typical of older Italian apartments. No carpeting anywhere. It was spotless but the orange couch and green chair in the living room looked like they’d seen better days. My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. Apparently, she was delayed because she was traveling from Hawaii. She missed one of her connections on the way and was expected later that evening. So I chose my room which had a large armoire and french doors leading to one of the two balconies in the apartment. The other was off the common area. The balcony was large enough to have at least two chairs but they were empty. So, I plopped myself on the squeaky thin mattress in my room and thought I’m home.

The plan was to allow new teachers to get settled and rest for a few hours then meet at the school later to go into Milan for our first Pizza Dinner. I was a vegan for three years before I arrived in Milan and was worried about the cheese. I figured I’d have a salad and not make a big deal about it. On the way out, I met my upstairs neighbor, Juliet, a smiley Pennsylvania native with very wholesome looks. She sounded smart when she spoke- you know, the way some people do- and I’d come to later learn she was a graduate of Yale. This impressed me. Everyone was smiles and big hellos when we arrived at the pizza place. It was a full- on restaurant complete with white table cloths and tables pushed together into u-shaped formation, set for some of the staff and all the new teachers at the school. I felt shy and a little nervous when we walked in… so many new faces… Everyone checked out the new people as they entered. It was obvious we were all sizing each other up- who would be cool to sit with, who looks friendly… such a strange set of circumstances! I felt intimidated and nervous and stayed close to Juliet who was pleasant and open and also thought the whole scene was slightly bizarre.

We were seated at the table and the smells were getting to me now. As soon as we entered the restaurant we were hit with the smell of pizzas being cooked in the wood-burning brick oven. There was wine on the table- red and white- not in bottles but in clear chubby glass pitchers. There were glass bottles of water being passed around and people were already passing around plates of grilled vegetables and olives drowning in glistening olive oil. Prego! the waiter announced stretching out his hand to show us to our seats. The social nervousness I was feeling was mixed with my breath being taken away by my surroundings. The waiters were dressed in black pants and crisp white shits with black vests and black ties. It wasn’t fancy – just the opposite- it all seemed very homey. Because we were such a large group, We were never handed menus. The antipasti, which included grilled eggplant, zucchini and roasted red peppers was accompanied by wine. There were prepackaged long, skinny breadsticks standing up in stout clear glasses at every third place setting. There was small talk in English filling the room mixed with the waitstaff calling out to each other in Italian which made me giggle. Little to myself. It sounded nothing like the Brooklyn Italian I’d heard spoken by friends family members in New York, that’s for sure. It was musical Italian. Delicious to my ears. Just as delicious as the simple glistening vegetables being served. When the pizzas came out my mouth immediately began to salivate. Little pizzas that looked nothing like New York pizza- it was smaller and paler in color and there were all kinds- pizza margherita which was what we would call a plain pizza, garnished with a sprig of fresh basil, pizza al funghi which was a mushroom pizza, pizza diavolo a spicy pepperoni pizza and pizza quatro formaggio a four cheese pizza, and finally pizza ortolana a vegetarian pizza with a few slices of the same thinly sliced zucchini and eggplant that we were served for antipasti. I took a slice of ortolana and bit into heaven. Goodbye veganism… And ciao Italia!!

Just as we were moving on to dessert, in walked Julie, my roommate and April, Juliet’s roommate. They had met at the job fair where they were hired and were happy to see each other. Juliet and I were sitting in an awkward spot, slightly too far away to say proper hellos, but we all waved and smiled cheerily at each other. Eventually the evening wound down and we carpooled back to our respective apartments. Julie and I spoke briefly when we got to the apartment. We caught up on all the basics- this wholesome cheery midwesterner with the big bright smile and bouncy blond hair and crystal blue eyes was from Minnesota. I’d never met anyone from Minnesota. I had no idea what to think. But she seemed nice enough.

I don’t remember much else about our first conversation that night but I remember very clearly what it was like going to bed that night. I remembered lying on the squeaky thin mattress trying to get comfortable. I was exhilarated by the discomfort and newness all at once. I looked out the open French doors, out over the balcony, and from my bed on that hot summer night I could see the ceramic roof tiles of the buildings out beyond our apartment building. The sky looked different to me. Italian. I could not believe I was in that little bed, with a girl from Minnesota in the next room in our Italian apartment. I was in Italy. Italia.

I was home.

I made three moves within a year.   It was difficult for me to leave the cottage.  It had been my liberation and prison at once.  I began painting there.  I grew flowers and hid from the world there.  I forced myself to spend time with myself in that  shingled oasis.  I faced my demons in that cottage and came out alive.  I shed my old skin, opened brave new eyes and set out on a fresh, new start.

I moved in with Dawn, my closest and dearest friend for about six months in her apartment in Cedarhurst, Long Island.  I moved in with Dawn so we could be together, split expenses, and really so I could keep an eye on her during the very tense living situation she was in.  Her little girl did not understand what was happening to her parents.  It was a good idea for a while, but eventually I felt I was crowding her life and somehow making things more confusing for her and her daughter.  Also, very simply, I was probably sticking my nose where it did not belong.  I was feeling a bit stronger now and did not like the way her soon to be ex-husband was treating her.  There were many late nights that summer when we stayed up talking in the dark, the only light coming from the moon and the street lights just below the window.  We sat on the living room floor surrounded by her daughter’s toys.  We talked for hours about past lovers, art, books and the book she was writing.  I became her editor.  Long stretches of the day were spent with her writing in one room and me editing in another.  We met in the kitchen taking breaks and got ready for her daughter’s return home from pre-school.  Times when it was just the two of us were spent talking about the day I would get her published and how we would both be wildly successful in the literary world.  I did send sample pages to publishing houses – big ones – naming myself as her editor and agent.  I don’t know who I thought I was back then but I was raw and so confident in her ability as a writer.  Dawn and I were always so close.  We were very powerful together during those years.  Psychically so.  One night, we were talking about one of her former romantic flames whom she had not seen or heard from in at least ten years.  She knew through others that he had move out of the state but confessed to me she felt he was close.   We talked through the night about her fond and not so fond memories.  I was filled with the knowing that we could find him.  It was as though a magnet were drawing us to him.  The next day we got in the car, I began driving, and less that an hour later we found him.  Through the entire car ride I asked questions about his routines, where his old stops were after work…. and as she spoke I drove, turning the car, stopping, going….  Somehow we were in a parking lot, she went into the store and they walked right into each other in the frozen food aisle.  They had not seen each other in over ten years.  It was like finding a needle in a haystack.  Totally impossible, completely incredible and if we weren’t both there to witness these events unfurl, I am sure neither one of us would believe the other.  We have gone in and out of each others lives for various reasons over the years, always at crucial moments.  I am happy to say we are still close now.  Perhaps closer than ever.  We are true sisters.

While living with Dawn, I began speaking to and visiting my mother on occasion.  It seemed silly that she should be in that big house all alone.  She asked me many times to move back home with her, but I was anxious about it.  Honestly I did not know if I could trust her.  How could she ever begin to understand what I had gone through?  How could I let her mother me again?  Eventually I moved in with her again so I could save money to finally divorce Tommy.  I was getting to the point where I was wanting to date again and felt there was no way I could while still being married, even though I had not seen his face in nearly four years.  Dawn needed her space and I needed to heal the relationship with my mother.

One of the things my therapist suggested (before he dumped me) was to treat myself to “dates”.  Small, affordable outings that would please me and bring back my sense of independence.  Solo adventures.  After our last session, I think it was a few months after, I began doing just that.  In an effort to earn extra cash, I signed up to teach a Saturday morning program at school which ended around noon.  Since I was commuting into The Bronx, I decided to explore Manhattan instead returning home immediately.  I bought a small map of Manhattan in an effort to manhattannavigate the subway lines and decided the first place I would visit was The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I took the time to walk from Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street all the way up Madison Avenue to 82nd street and 5th Avenue.  I loved those walks.  I’d pass the cafes and shops and daydream of days when I would be able to afford the designer shoes, handbags and dresses that adorned the windows.  I’d people watch as I strolled up Madison Avenue – watching well groomed, well adorned ladies with their little dogs and alongside them, homeless people setting up camp alongside garbage dumpsters just slightly out of view.  How could the world be so weird and wonderful and cruel?  I continued on my walk, wide-eyed and aware of just about everything and everyone around me.

Growing up on Long Island, my visits to Manhattan, or “The City” as we called it,  were reserved for yearly attendance to see The Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall and very special family dinners.  Reintroducing myself to Manhattan, on my terms, allowed me for those few hours on Saturdays to feel like a wide eyed tourist; amazed by the architecture, people, rushing taxis and smells of everything from urine to hot dogs to fresh coffee brewing.  And even as I got lost in the streets of Manhattan, wandering aimlessly and discovering the things I loved, I could not help but look around at the countless faces and eyes expecting to suddenly see Tommy, my estranged husband.  It had been years since I’d seen him but I remember his words to me, You’ll always be looking over your shoulder.  one day I’ll be there.  I’ll find you”.  In a city of eight million people, could he really find me?  Does he know where I am, what I’m doing?  I tried to push these thoughts aside, brush them off as crazy.  I needed this time to myself.  This was my time.  He was in the past.  I needed to put him in the past for good. 

It was my routine on those Saturday Dates with Myself, that I would walk my way up from Penn Station to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Sometimes I would walk up the East Side of Manhattan – Straight up Madison Avenue to 79th Street and then to the entrance of the Met.  Sometimes I would go up the Westside of Manhattan – up Broadway, to Lincoln Center.  I’d buy myself a new pen or notebook at the now defunked Lincoln Stationers and stop at the Lincoln Center Cinemas where I could lose myself in an arthouse film or foreign film with English subtitles.  Then I would get myself something to eat at Ollie’s Noodles or Sushi Dan.  I’d stroll along the shops and cafes on Columbus, dreaming of another life.  I became familiar with the shops and eateries on the Upper West Side and especially with the giant Barnes and Noble Bookstore just directly across from Lincoln Center.  It too has since been turned into a clothing store, but in those days I would sit around for hours reading and finding incredible new books and classics I had been meaning to read.  I loved those Saturdays.  They really did restart me and get me feeling more confident.

*     *     *

One of those Saturdays, when we were finished with our students and waiting to receive our paychecks, another teacher approached me. Heather was a teacher in the 5th grade and also working the saturday program.  She began with some small talk then asked me what my plans were for the following school year.  I told her I wanted to leave our little school in The Bronx because of all the governmental changes happening in education at the time.  No Child Left Behind, George W. Bush’s pet project, was turning education into a big mess. Reading and math “programs” were purchased.  We had to account for the exact time we would be teaching a specific lesson and what page number we would be working on with the class – and when auditors came to check on us, we needed show that we were on schedule.  We were beginning to feel the effects already in our school and it was a presidential election year.   I swore, jokingly, that I would leave the country if Bush was re-elected.   I could feel the collective grass-roots atmosphere of our school beginning to shift and change.  Teachers were beginning to feel defeated.   Fighting the good fight was turning into following orders and collecting a paycheck.  I did not want that to happen to me.  I told Heather I was unsure of my plans but that I had started applying to surrounding suburban districts with no luck.  She announced, “Oh I’m going to teach in London and I’m going to marry a British guy.”  London?! Marry??  My eyes widened, as it was something I never expected to hear from her.  I didn’t know her well then, just some friendly chatting around school, and I was taken aback by her confidence and determination. She laughed a little and explained to me that she had worked in Australia, and though she did not have a position secured in London, it was still early and she did not anticipate any difficulty in finding a job.  She then asked me the magic question… Would you be interested in doing this?   I immediately could not begin to conceive of how this could work for me… How could I leave New York?  How would I get there?  I don’t even have a credit card!  Could I live in another country? What about my friends, my stuff my life??  Truth was, I didn’t have very much stuff, since I had left it all behind the night I left Tommy.  Heather gave me the information I needed to begin the process.  There would be an agency I needed to register with, attend a job fair (in Bethesda, Maryland) where I would be interviewed, etc.  I remember sitting down in front of the computer that night feeling overwhelmed and deciding not to bother.  Crazy idea, after all.  Crazy.  Who goes to another country for work?  But Heather called.  She stayed on the phone with me until I was registered.  She called me every day giving me tips to improve my application, letting me know about openings, and pushing me.  I was so scared and suspicious of the whole process.  I think Heather must have sensed this.  She continued to stay on top of me.  Calling, checking in, not letting up. Eventually the months rolled by.  I was able to save enough money for a divorce and bankruptcy to free me from the debt that Tommy had accrued in my name.  I found out from one of his family members where he was living, had Tommy subpoenaed with Divorce Papers.

By March I was officially divorced.

By May I was at the Job Fair in Bethesda.   It was an odd setup.  The three day conference was held at a hotel.  There were lots of other candidates there some older, some younger than my thirty one years.  Most of them came from various cities along the east coast to interview  with the headmasters and directors of International and American schools located in cities scattered across Europe, Asia, The Middle East and Africa.  On the first day, I received a folder in which schools who wanted to interview me placed a note requesting an appointment.  When I checked my folder, it was stuffed full.  I was in total shock.  After writing in all my interview requests, I realized I had a full day ahead of me.  I had four interviews all scheduled before 11:00am:  Morocco, Dusseldorf, Moscow, Milan, Turkey. I don’t know which schools wanted to interview me in the afternoon but I do remember my appointment card was full.  In the morning I interviewed with the guy from Morocco who spend more than half our allotted interview time telling me how I would have to wear a Burka and it would not be an easy life on my own as a single woman.  I felt like reminding him that I lived in New York – if any place is not easy to be a single woman, it’s New York!  But I thanked him, decided I had no idea if it would be difficult in Morocco but that I would like to continue interviewing before making a decision.  Mr. Dusseldorf talked about the beauty of Germany and the stability of his school but warned me of massive tax deductions that might make life difficult for me there.  The gentleman from Moscow warned that winters would be difficult but spoke more about the curriculum which sounded interesting.   When I got to the Milan school, the gentleman who interviewed me spoke very seriously about my training, teaching philosophy and asked what I hoped to find in a new school.  He asked why I was looking for an overseas experience and explained his program to me.  It sounded interesting.  Like a good fit.  He offered to call a teacher at his school so I could ask her questions about living in Italy.  But I wanted to go to Amsterdam.  I had no interest in Italy whatsoever.  I spoke to Mary anyway, for about twenty minutes, and all I remember about that conversation was how she and her husband grew their own beautiful tomatoes in their back yard.  The Lower School Head, Mr. Day Jones, finally offered me a contract, to which I hesitated in signing. He said to me Did you ever see the movie Under The Tuscan Sun?  Yes! I replied, I love that movie!  You’re life is going to be just like that movie… what do I need to do to convince you that you should sign this contract?  I need to call my mother.  Ok.  you have twenty minutes.  Go call your mother.  If you don’t come back in twenty minutes, I’m giving the job to someone else.  I ran out the door, ran down to the lobby and called my mother on Long Island.  She yelled into the phone to take the job in Milano!  Don’t be crazy!  Go to Milano!  She was thrilled.  I didn’t even know where Milan was on the map.  Embarassing!

I signed the contract less than twenty minutes later.  Day gave me my first Italian kiss – one peck on both cheeks, and congratulated me.

Three months later, in August 2005 I was on an Alitalia flight direct to Milan, Italy.

My life would never be the same again.

map_of_italy

I had been physically separated from my husband for a little over three years.

The bruises on my body had long since healed and I had worked with a therapist to clear away the stains of emotional abuse I’d suffered during my time with Tommy.  I was making good progress, no longer feeling the need to take medication to control panic attacks which had subsided and became almost non-existant.  It was a good thing, too, because at one of our therapy sessions my doctor mentioned he would no longer be able to continue therapy with me.  He announced at our last session that he was moving to Florida for retirement and was very sorry.  There was another doctor he recommended but I was feeling a little let down and shocked by his announcement.  There would be no more sessions. I was on my own. Dumped by my therapist.

 

I was beginning to outgrow the cottage in Brewster.  I felt as though the walls were closing in on me.  I had hoped it would be my safe place.  My solace.  It slowly turned into a self-imposed prison cell.  I was thirty two years old and instead of feeling the need to plant roots, I was feeling the itch to move on.  I knew I had to change my financial situation in order to finally rid myself of this invisible noose I called marriage.  I hadn’t seen Tommy in nearly three years at this point.  When a friend suggested I start dating, it simply didn’t feel right.  I would have to begin with a lie, telling a potential romantic partner that I was divorced or, even more embarrassing, telling them that I was unable to obtain a divorce for financial reasons (and because I did not know the whereabouts of my estranged husband).  Too much complicated business to have to explain to some poor unsuspecting soul.  It felt easier to stay single for a while.  Besides, I could not imagine allowing someone into my life yet.  I wasn’t getting any younger and my desperation to have children was no longer foremost on my mind but hovered somewhere behind me.  Friends around me were beginning to move in with serious boyfriends or marry and begin families.  I wanted to be a supportive participant of those conversations about plans and color choices for dresses and layettes but something inside me was frustrated beyond articulation.  Why did they get to have these neat little lives?  With Families that supported them, stood by them and loved them?  Why did my mother turn away from me for so long?  Why did I have virtually no relationship with my brother?  Why didn’t I have any long-standing friends in my life?  How could I have wound up with such a poor choice for a husband? What was wrong with me?  I could no longer imagine myself sharing a life with anyone.  I especially could not imagine raising a child.

*     *     *     *     *

I’ve always been an enthusiastic watcher of talk shows.  As a child of the 70′sI grew up watching The Dick Cavitt Show, The Dinah Shore Show and my personal favorite, The Mike Douglas Show long before Phil Donahue, Oprah and Dr. Phil hit the scene.  In fact, as little girl, I would pretend I was famous and being interviewed by Mike Douglas. The Magic of Believing Anyway, this one particular day I was watching T.V. and I came across an old interview with Phyllis Diller, the comedienne and star of many movies and variety shows, on one of the old talk shows.  I think it was Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett.  They were discussing a book.  Apparently this book had changed Phyllis Diller’s life and led her on a path of success and wealth.  She spoke about it so eloquently about how there were techniques and tools she used throughout her career to stay on a particular path.  She was clear to remark that the book did not discuss God, or religion, that it simply focused on the individual and their ability to achieve whatever it is they wanted simply through a system of self improvement and belief in one’s path.  Johnny was intrigued.  So was I.  I was certainly no big fan of Phyllis Dillers, but I knew she was in show business and she was sitting across from Johnny Carson discussing her lengthy successful career.  The book was called The Magic Of Believing by Claude M. Bristol.  I decided in that moment that I had to get this book.  It was just what I needed to get on with my life.  I got up, got in the car, drove to the nearest bookstore and bought the book.  I came home and began reading.  As was my habit, I underlined things, made notes in the margins and reread.  I read the whole book in one sitting, well into the night.  When I was done, I flipped to certain parts and read them again, and again.  Just when I thought I understaood something, I read it again.  It spoke to me.  The book, though somewhat antiquated in its use of language, used examples of bits and pieces of the Magic of Believing in people’s lives – everyone from J.D. Rockefeller to Angela Lansbury was quoted in the book as having applied the principals discussed in the book; having a clear focus, using visualization techniques, positive thinking, language and putting a plan into action.  Sounds basic and perhaps the same as countless other self-help books but this one spoke to me.  Loud and clear.  It was also one of the grandaddies of self help books.  Countless others use the principles put forth in Bristol’s book.  I felt as though I had the ticket to a life in my hands.  A great life.  One I would be excited about participating in.

No more hiding.  No more surviving.  I was ready to live.

 

 

I continued with medication and therapy sessions for quite some time.

I think it was two years with the same therapist.  All during that time, I was painting.  My inability to keep my mind steady showed in my Pink_House_by_happycurlgirlpaintings.  I was not formally trained as a painter, and almost immediately recognized I had no talent for it.  It felt good to do it, to smell the paints, feel the brush in my hands and do something that resulted in a product.  Something tangible.  The conversations I had with Dawn, my soulmate and artistic advisor over the phone, helped me to begin experimenting with the medium, though I see them now as feeble attempts at art.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, these paintings were not conscious in terms of how I chose my subject matter.  I took inspiration from the neighborhood surrounding the cottage where I was living (pink house) and the cover of an LL Bean catalogue.  My skies were unnaturally curved, the light was all wrong on both but I was so proud of the white picket fence I made surrounding the black house.  I remember using a matchbook cover to make the lines straight and as even as possible.  It took two weekend sessions for me to complete the fence alone. The third painting here shows a mountain top from an odd perspective.  I can’t help but feel now, that I want to see what’s on the other side.  Is it more land or the ocean?  Maybe another house?  I have no idea what I was thinking then or why I created that image, but it seems I could not see beyond the trees literally and metaphorically.  Looking these paintings now, I notice the solitary stance of the houses, the emptiness of them and the unnatural stillness that hovers over the trees and houses.  I suppose this is what I was feeling at the time, but could not articulate that.  I was painting my solitude and fear.  I see that now.

 

There were numerous incidents with my estranged husband that left me vulnerable and bruised internally.  There was the time I left work to find my car was not where I had parked it.  I went to the precinct which was next to my school building to report it stolen and they informed me it had not been stolen.  The car had been towed for over $1,500 in parking tickets and other violations I did not know about – obviously from Tommy’s misuse of my car.  I had to borrow money from a colleague to get my car back the next day – almost $3,000 because it was impounded by the city and there were other fees.  Another time, there were papers I received from New York State Motor Vehicles Department informing me that I needed to pay to re-register my boat.  Well, yes, the boat was registered to me but with all that happened, I completely forgot about it.  I went to look for the boat one weekend.  On the drive down to Long Island I remember thinking that if Tommy were to see me driving into town he would probably kill me.  I was prepared to die.  I thought to myself, Things are so complicated and difficult for me now.  I can’t possibly get myself out of these messes alone; money, cars, boats, the endless abyss of loneliness and crippling fear – If you’re going to take me this way Lord, let it be quick and leave my body in a state that my mother can still bury me in one piece.   I parked, walked up and down the slips where boats were docked but my boat was no longer at the slip where we had kept it the season before.  I walked to the red dock house and asked the Dock Master where it might be.  He simply said “It’s your fucking boat, don’t you know where it is?  It’s kinda hard to lose a boat”.  Embarrassed and angry at once I told him my story.  He simply said “Yeah, I know who you fucking are.  I recognize you.  Go ask Tommy where his boat is.  I don’t know where your boat is.  Get the fuck off my property”.   I ripped the registration papers into a million pieces and left.  To this day, I have never found that boat.

*     *     *

I juggled my two lives fairly well.  I was the devoted professional teacher by day and the tortured scared victim in the lonely walls of my little cottage.  The high of having my own place, of having survived my husband’s insanity quickly evaporated and left me feeling paranoid, scared and alone.  There were days that melted into nights and then into new days again without a moment of sleep.  There were endless cigarettes and sporadic eating and overeating.   There were dreams I daydreamed while lying on my bed ignoring the sunlight just outside my door.  And there were the day long phone conversations with my closest friend Dawn, the only person who knew absolutely all of this at the time.  She talked me through it and listened.  We laughed, we cried we talked about her writing and my fears.  We talked on the phone so much that we killed batteries in cordless phones and got neck aches and red hot burning ears that lasted long after our conversations ended.  We ate meals together over the phone and I painted while she read me her latest pieces of writing.  There were many important relationships with friends I had during that time but Dawn was different.  I told her every minuscule detail of my day, which is a good thing because I have since forgotten (blocked out?) so much. She knows all my warts.  All my successes.  Our bond was intense and immeasurable.  Thank God, it still is.

*     *     *

One day, I was home alone in the cottage. It was sunny Saturday afternoon when the phone rang.  It was Tommy.

I never thought he would find me but somehow he did.  My heart pounded furiously in my chest at the first sound of his voice.  My face grew red, ears were burning.  My chest grew hot with fear.  My mind was swirling with disbelief and confusion.  Surprise, I found you, triumph in his voice.  He told me he would never pay to divorce me.  He said he would find me or my mother and one of us would pay for my leaving him.  He called me a variety of names and threatened me.  Of course I was shaking – was he near the cottage, in the driveway?  How did he get my number?  Why couldn’t he just leave me alone?  If he knows the phone number does he know where I live? – I told him I couldn’t afford to pay for a divorce.  He asked where I was living, what I was doing but I did not tell him.  I asked for his contact information so I could serve him his divorce papers when I did get the money to divorce him. He refused to give me an address, a phone number, anything.  He told me I would always have to look over my shoulder and wonder where he was.  He said he could appear at any moment and destroy me.  I believed him.

When he hung up, I ran around the cottage, peering out each window carefully to see if I saw any sign of him.  I tried to calm myself, took a Klonopin and sat down on the corner of the bed.  I could not relax, so I took another pill.  I was scared to call anyone, thinking maybe the phone line was tapped.  Then it occurred to me that maybe someone I knew gave him my phone number.  Who would do that?  When?  How?  I was becoming delusional.  My thoughts were running in circles and twisting into themselves. How could he still turn me inside out?  Over the phone no less?  Why was I allowing him to have this power over me?  

That’s when it hit me.  I would have to face my fears and begin dealing with things. Fight the dragon. Slay the dragon. If I survived his beatings and the words he spat at me, then I would have to make a real life for myself and stop hiding in my little cottage.  No more hiding.  No more fear. Cars, boats, credit issues, divorces… all these were changeable.  I had my life.  I had my life.

That’s when I decided to grab life by the balls and turn things around.

Black_House_by_happycurlgirlmountain_view_by_happycurlgirl

I was now a full-fledged teacher in an elementary school.

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I was well into my second full year in the classroom.  About mid-year, still living in that little cottage in Brewster miles from The City, when I decided to take a drive to Woodstock, New York.  It was just over the Hudson River and just slightly north of where I was living.  I was born in August of 1969, the same month and year of the famed Woodstock Concert on Max Yazgur’s Farm named for the sleepy farm town where it took place.  I had grown up with my older brother playing all kinds of music but I was mostly drawn to the sounds of the hippie era.  I was now in the position of having a car and plenty of extra time on my hands.  So, one beautiful fall Sunday, I studied a map, and began on the ninety minute drive to the hippie town I’d always wanted to visit.

I remember the drive was simple enough. I drove with very little traffic, the sun beaming through the dash window warming my face and skin.  I was feeling good.  Alive.  I remember thinking as I drove, that I might buy some vegetables from a farm stand, get an ice cream and walk around the town I’d heard so much about.  I arrived.  It was quaint – filled with jewelry shops, cafes and art shops.  Not as hippie as I thought it might be, but cute and worth exploring.  I pulled my little black Nissan over into a parking space just off the main road of the town’s center, turned the ignition off and opened the door.  It was as though my foot were stuck in cement.  I couldn’t move.  My skin became ice cold and I began sweating.  My heart was pounding.  I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of fear and paranoia.  I felt as though passers by were staring at me.  Tommy might somehow know where I was and kill me.  I was in full throttle panic mode.  Heart pounding so rapidly now, I could hear it in my burning ears. Barely able to breathe, I slammed the door shut, buckled my safety belt, and turned the engine on.  I began driving back down the road which led me to this town, back onto the highway and back to my cottage.  Back to safety.  When I was home again, lying on my bed, I could not relax.  Could not keep still.  I bounced up off the bed and paced the floor furiously, mad at myself for ruining what could have been a much needed afternoon retreat.  I pounded my thighs as I paced, walking from the bedroom to the kitchen and back again.  The sun was setting outside.  The dogs on the lawn were barking and I could hear the distant sounds of wild turkeys gobbling in the woods beyond the stone fence.  My loneliness and seclusion had overwhelmed me and life was continuing just outside my door.  I felt like a failure.  Defeated.

The next day was work and routine again.  I smiled and laughed and worked with kids.  I ate lunch with my teacher friends Helen, Tricia, Taly, Patty, Eva and Evelinda.  We laughed complained, planned and got on with our day.  As the end of the day grew closer, when everyone was looking forward to punching out at the time clock and getting home, I felt that pounding feeling in my chest again.  My days went on like this for a few weeks. I had suffered from insomnia since leaving my husband, and it was finally beginning to take its toll.  Still unable to write, I would paint well into the wee hours of the morning and chain smoke cigarettes – my new vice – and wait for the sun to rise so I could get ready for work.  Oddly, the paintings I made during this time were of calm blue skies, stately homes and white picket fences.  Perhaps my subconscious was recording what I wanted – safety, security and calm.  My body was a mess, my mid flooded with fear, thoughts of paranoia that Tommy would somehow find me and kill me finally.  The only place I felt safe was at work.  I was smart enough to know that suicide was not the way out of this – that there might be a way to deal with my confusion – but thoughts of suicide were constant and tempting.  On the last night my husband beat me, he kept repeating No one loves you, no one cares about you – you are nothing and no one…I believed him when the words spilled from his lips that night and now felt his words were truer than I was able to admit. Way down deep in my core I believed his words to be true

Two months after that horrible Sunday in Woodstock I finally looked into the book of providers sent to me by my health insurance company.  I searched for psychiatrists and found one in Riverdale, not far from where I was working in The Bronx.  I began sessions with a doctor whose name I can no longer remember.  He asked me why I was there and I told him I wasn’t sure.  He began asking me about work and my living situation… eventually I began telling him about Woodstock and what I had experienced recently, which led him to ask about my husband and my marriage.  That’s when I started crying.  For the first time in two years I cried.  The tears came and could not stop.  He told me what happened in Woodstock was a panic attack and introduced the idea of taking medication to balance me and keep me calm so I could get through my days and weekends relatively peacefully. I was prescribed a low dose of Paxil to take daily and Klonopin to take if I felt an attack coming on. I was against taking the pills but he assured me that it would only be temporary and that I would need to continue therapy while I was taking the meds. And so it went.

It took a few weeks for the medication to really have an effect on me.  In fact, I noticed some weight gain before I noticed a feeling of calm that the Dr. had promised.  I had a few more panic attacks – all on the weekends – when I first began taking the medication.  After a few months I wasn’t having them as frequently and was now looking forward to my therapy sessions.  I was beginning to trust this doctor and certainly became more reflective about why I behaved in certain ways, why I was attracting the wrong male figures in my life and how I could begin to overcome my insecurities.  I continued to see him mostly once a week, then twice a week for a time, then every other week as I felt there was some improvement.  It was through therapy that I realized what I was calling “autopilot” was actually a defense mechanism manifestation due to the major trauma I suffered as a result of my being the victim of abuse by my now estranged husband.  The physical abuse had occurred on isolated occasions, but it was the repeated, daily mental and emotional abuse that I was fighting.  Although my professional life was taking off and I felt I was making progress with therapy, I was completely insecure and unable to complete simple tasks without feeling nervous and paranoid.

No one knew how much I suffered when I closed the cottage door.  To the outside world I was a normal, happy person.  But his words, like an endless loop tape in my head played on you’re nobody, nothing, no one cares about you…

imagesTime marched on.

Less than three months after leaving my husband, just two years after our wedding day, I moved into my own apartment in Brewster, NY.  It was a two room cottage on a country road littered with stone fences and mile-long gravel covered driveways.  There were trees – pines, oaks and maples – taller than any I had known on Long Island.  My little cottage sat on a ten-acre parcel of land.  The landlord lived in the main house just fifty yards behind the cottage.  His two bear-like dogs, one a sandy colored Labrador and the other a black Rottweiler, roamed the grounds chased squirrels and lounged on the grass at the foot of my front porch.  When inside the cottage only the chirping birds and the occasional whoosh of passing cars on the road beyond the stone fence could be heard.  It was a safe haven, a retreat from the chaos of my former life and I knew I would feel at peace there.  Eventually.

Just two weeks after moving into the cottage, I was offered a student teaching post at a school in The Bronx, some thirty miles from my new home.  I was partnered with an experienced First Grade teacher named Helen.  I quickly came to learn that Helen was well respected by her professional peers for her structured classroom management skills and her firm but loving way with students.  She welcomed me into her classroom and taught me everything I didn’t learn in my graduate studies about what it really meant to be an effective teacher of children.  We worked hard and spent every moment outside of class time planning and preparing for the next session.  Most of the teachers in the surrounding classrooms gathered together in Helen’s room for lunch, checking in about what lessons went well, which copies needed to be made and how we would divide up the preparation of specific subject areas.  We laughed much and shared stories about our students.  I began to fall in love with my new profession and the women who supported my development as a teacher.  Helen invited me to her home after school one day and over drinks I began telling her the story of my former husband and how I escaped from my former life.  Helen did not judge me, or think less of me when I revealed my brutal history.  She simply offered me another drink and looked into my eyes and said, “When you met me, you met God”.  Many years later when I reminded her of this, she did not remember having said it but it was something I never forgot.  The thing is, when angels come into your life, and many have come into mine, they do not always know the impact they are having.

My six week student teaching experience was coming to an end.  I was called into the Principal’s office and offered a Guided Reading position for the Lower School (grades one through four) which began the day after my student teaching position had ended.  It was now six months after I left my husband, with nothing but the tee-shirt and boxer shorts I was wearing – not even shoes on my feet – and here I was with a full-time job in my new profession and friends who made me feel like I was part of their family.  I woke up each morning grateful for another sunrise, another day of work, and another dollar earned.  I was blessed in ways I could not have imagined just a few months before.

When I was not working I felt the need to somehow document my emotions.  I attempted keeping a journal but after a few lame attempts, found words were unable to capture what I was needing to express.  I made all kinds of excuses to myself – the book was all wrong, the pen was the wrong color or thickness, I did not have a comfortable place to write, and worst of all, I could not form a clear sentence.  Then one day, on the phone with my good friend Dawn whom I had met in the bookstore so many years before, she suggested I try painting.  Dawn, who had always been a writer and artist, explained how I could begin by buying just a few acrylic paints in primary colors, a few basic brushes and paper or cheap pre-stretched canvas to begin with and get a feel for the medium.  My next paycheck quickly vanished into the till of a local art store and I began experimenting with mixing colors and simply brushing them onto the canvas.  I was surprised by how the texture, smell and feel of the brush in my hand had the power to let my mind escape into a new artistic experience.  I wasn’t any good, but man, was I having fun.  I began living in a new rhythm of long drives to work, shuffling from grade level to grade level trying to teach kids to read, then the long drive home, and sleepless nights fogged by chain smoking cigarettes and playing with paints.  Weekends were spent getting errands out of the way in the early morning and losing myself in paint and cigarettes, cigarettes and paint.  There were marathon phone calls to Dawn that lasted hours but I never shed a tear.  I sat staring out the window and watched the leaves on the trees turn color and fall to the ground.  I waited expectantly for new buds to bloom on the once dead branches and was altogether unable to articulate my understanding that time was moving forward.  It took almost a year for me to begin to understand the gravity of what I had been through and where I now found myself.

I was living in seclusion, delving deeper and deeper into solitary confinement.  What I perceived to be my haven was actually becoming a self-induced sentence to aloneness and fear.  The strange thing was that I was excelling at my profession.  I was like a robot at work and an indefinable mass when I was alone in that cottage.  The one thing I had hoped for in my auto-pilot state was to have my own classroom.  I felt ready for the professional challenge and was offered a second grade classroom for the following school year.  I was looking forward to spending lazy days in the cottage painting and smoking and generally doing as I pleased.

As we all know, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray. As it turned out I could teach, but could not do.  Not for a long while, anyway.