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 navigate 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.