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August 3rd, 2016.

Today is also my 47th birthday. Today is also my first full day the first full day of the two years I have committed to living  in Shanghai, China.

Just four weeks ago, I was supposed to move into my lover’s house.  If you told me that would never happen, I would have told you you were crazy.  Four weeks ago I was an exhausted teacher happy for the year to have ended and looking forward to unpacking my things and blending them with his.  He had proposed the idea early on in our relationship.  I was thrilled and excited.  It had been planned for months.  After my mother died in January, we agreed that I should start bringing carloads of my stuff up to his place on the weekends.  So I did.  Every Friday night I raced home, threw as many boxes as I could fit into my car and press my foot to the gas pedal, cruising my usual 80 mph most of the way from my place in Stamford along the I95 corridor to his place in Providence.  All my books and kitchen things had been moved up to his place in Providence, RI.  I was hopeful, and excited for this new chapter.  You know what they say about the best laid plans….

So today, despite all my plans, I am sitting in a staff room in Shanghai,  China.  I am leaving in ten minutes to have dinner with strangers, sho so far, have been lovely and open and warm.

The most impressive thing that happened today is that it rained for about an hour and the city was flooded.  People were crossing the street barefoot.  Cars and vans were stopped in the middle of the street or trying to trudge on through the water.  I went into a store to get a sim card for my phone and when I came out, the streets were bone dry again.  Crazy shit. Today is my birthday and it was my first day in China.

I wonder what tomorrow will be like.

 

It’s the Fabergé Organics Shampoo principle:  I tell two friends, then they’ll tell two friends and so on, and so on….Being a child of the ’70’s I grew up watching commercials like this: 

I mean, this is marketing genius!  A modestly dressed woman with shiny long brown hair and friendly smile speaking to me as though she were my friend.  She tells me about this great shampoo, then asks me to tell just two other friends.  It’s shampoo, for chrissakes. They just want you to make sure you buy the right one – the original – and that you tell people about it so they’ll buy more of it.  Perfect.

So now, ignore my hair and yours.  Go tell two friends about this blog, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on….

Or, you could just go buy the shampoo.  I hear it’s still available somewhere.

Up until this point, The Ghost didn’t hold an honest job for longer than a few months at a time.

But this is a story about the good times.  Some of the best in fact.  This is the story of salty skin, a party boat, blue eyes filled with tears and two lovers learning the intimacy of their union.  If only for a little, wonderful while.

There was one job The Ghost kept for three consecutive years – excluding about two to three months a year due to wicked weather in the winter months.  It was on a fishing boat that did daily charter trips.  They were called party boats because they were also used occasionally on weekend nights for one to three hour booze cruises.  There were a half dozen boats going out of this particular town near our home.  There were usually two three hour day trips; one was very early leaving at five in the morning, and the next left at nine am.  The trips were three hours long and this meant The Ghost would have to work two shifts daily.   The Ghost did some asking around and decided to pursue one particular boat for employment.  Not having any previous experience with boating or fishing, The Ghost won the captain over with his charm – and he could be very charming.  I guess the captain could see that he was enthusiastic and strong and the rest would take care of itself.

The Ghost loved being near the water.  He loved being on a boat, and he knew a thing or two about cooking fish.  The pay was good but he soon found out it was grueling work.  This position taught him discipline; for getting up early, getting there on time (the boat would leave without him, otherwise) and a whole lot about weather and aquatic life.  I had to drive him to the dock every morning because he had his license revoked a few years previously but I didn’t mind.  So in this way, we were partners.  It was his job, but it was our life together and we were a team.  He was drinking less and really loving the physicality of the job.  He was getting healthier due to the regimented schedule and even lost a few pounds because he was getting more physically fit.  I was enjoying watching his child like enthusiasm and growing interest in fishing.  He became fluent in the language of line and tackle and developed an intuitive sense of when they would have big “hits” (this meant that fish were biting the bait on the hooks) just by looking out the window and gauging the weather.  His skin was soaked with sun and salt at the end of his long days.  His blue eyes began to sparkle with joy.

The Ghost loved coming  back to the dock with lots of happy fishermen whose buckets were full of the fresh catch of the day.  When his boat went out from that particular inlet on the south shore of Long Island, they would find mostly fluke, flounder, porgy and blackfish.  A little further out into ocean waters, they would get striped bass and further out on full day trips, they would find big stripped bass and blue fish.  Ocean fishing was a favorite of The Ghost’s.  He loved the action of the rougher waters and the constant hits on the customers’ lines.  Every day on the water was different and I think that’s why he loved this job so much.  The Ghost was also very much a people person.  He was outgoing and could find a way to start a conversation and connect to anyone.  He made lots of friends while working on the party boat.  He would chat with the guys who worked on the neighboring boats and occasionally he would also make a connection with one of the customers who would request trips based on when The Ghost was working.  There were days when he would have a beer with the Captain and other deck hands after a trip – but only one.  The Captain, a quiet man in his mid thirties who rarely looked you in the eye, gave the impression he had seen too much and wanted to see much less.  He never took off his hat, a broken down dirty army green hat that his brown waves curled up against.  He had a beard like the Gorton’s Fisherman minus the mustache and pipe.  The Captain was against drunkenness and drug use.  He made it clear from the start that would not be tolerated. The Ghost heeded this warning.  He was particularly serious about not doing any drugs because after a few trips on the boat, realized he would need to be completely clear headed.  The Ghost use to say to me, “The sea can take us at any time – it’s stronger than we can imagine.”

One particular benefit of this job for both of us, was the increased time we were able to spend together.  He was home and finished with work and cleaned up by about three o’clock in the afternoon.  I was usually home by four o’clock in the afternoon if I worked the early shift and opened the bookstore where I was the manager.  So, we often had time to go to the beach, cook dinner together and have long romantic summer evenings. There even came a point when he would voluntarily do laundry or clean up around the house and even have dinner ready for me by the time I got home on my late nights.  He really did make an effort and those were the days when I couldn’t wait to get home to him and be wrapped in his arms.

As I said, these were some of the best times we spent together.  We were very much in love.   I was driving him to the docks early in the morning and though it was only a ten minute drive each way, it was still four hours before I had to be at work myself.  I didn’t mind.  Things were going well for us both.  There was money coming in and we seemed to be focused on the same goals in terms of our life together.  Our days off were by far the best.  We would try to coordinate them so we would be off together.  After his first two months on the party boat, The Ghost was converted into a full fledged angler.  We went to the local West Marine shop to buy matching overall surf fishing waders in hunter green; giant rubber overalls that were a stiff onesie from boot to shoulder strap.  The top of the smallest pair came up to my chest (me being all of 5’1″), while his came up to his waist.  We bought shiny new surf poles, a giant tackle box and and all the accessories.  The Ghost would spend nights organizing the goodies in his tackle box, re-stringing his pole and teaching me how to do the same.  Each day he learned something new from the captain and enthusiastically share the information with me at night.  The Ghost began reading The Fisherman Magazine, and listening to the Fishing Report on AM radio.  I think something about this experience replaced his childhood pigeon coop passion.  He was able to do this on his own terms and because he was a man now, no one was able to get in his way.  Eventually, he got into his own way, but like I said, this story is about the good times.

Things went on like this for a while and The Ghost reach a point, if just for a while, of calm and happiness.  We also began to explore our spirituality together and decided to return to church.  We attended services on Sunday, taking communion tougher and eventually both volunteered for the parish San Genaro feast.  I worked in the kitchen with the ladies making acres of sausage and peppers, while he chummed up to the guys and ran the concessions selling tickets for rides, soda, fries and beer.  We were becoming a part of the community and growing closer by the day.

Our union was so stormy, like the sea itself.  There were so many ups and downs, mostly due to his chemical excesses, and my inability to cope with them.  Interestingly, it was the days of fishing together when I felt closest to The Ghost.  We had those ridiculous waders on, in the moments just before the sun rose in the horizon before us, together in our purpose but silent.  There was communication without words – the pass of a hook,  him re-baiting my hook and throwing out some chum to lure the fish before I reached the bait bucket or tugging on my line to see if I’d got a hit.  We’d steal moment to hold hands and kiss while our poles were nestled in the white pole holders buried deep in the sand.  I remember clearly one time I caught him looking at me with tears in his big blue eyes.  He stood there with a ribbon of pink and orange dancing in the sky behind him, looking at me with his head turned away from his pole and said nothing.  In that moment, I knew how happy he was, and how he couldn’t say it in words.  “I know,” I said.  “Me too.”

 Fishing Wisdom I learned from those very beautiful days:

Some things take time and patience, but the stillness of the wait can stop your heart with its beauty.

While you’re waiting, don’t concentrate on what hasn’t come along; appreciate the beauty of what is before you now.

Any experience requires all your senses.  Be glad you have them.

It can get rough out there, but there may be hidden treasures in rough waters.

The best catch might come in the darkest wee hours when the rest of the world is sleeping.

Anything that hooks you could make your day or might potentially be bad news.

I still can’t tell the difference between a Fluke and a Flounder.  Either way, you probably shouldn’t trust a fish that has both eyes on the same side of it’s face specifically so it can hide on the ocean floor- camouflaged- and still see everything that’s going on.

Fishing… well, it’s never really about the fish.

I close my eyes.

February 17, 2015 — 2 Comments

I close my eyes.

I close the door to  Via Sant’Orsola No.1 and turn right.  My feet begin to walk.  I am wearing the red patent leather flats I bought in the shop on the little street behind the Duomo.  What was it called? I can’t remember.  They are making a click clack sound on the damp cobblestones as I approach Via San Maurilio. I turn to my left and consider the church on the corner for a moment.  Yellow with white florid details.  Paint chipping.  There is grass in front.  An old man walks his bouncy brown dog.  My eyes move back to my shoes and up my bare legs and I see the hem of my skirt which stops exactly mid-calf.  It is pale yellow cotton with little red and white flowers.  I have a small red handbag on my left forearm.  With both hands I turn up the crisp white color of my sleeveless blouse.   The old man with the dog nods approvingly in my direction.  The morning sun is pouring through spaces between the buildings.  I spot Ale through the window of the bar.  He is behind the counter making cappuccino for the lawyer with the blue pinstripe suit.  He has a red handkerchief in his left lapel.  His hand is waving in the air as he leans against the bar, no doubt telling Ale about his latest case.   Ale sees me through the window.  He smiles and waves.  I smile and wave.  I smell the warm buttery brioche (that’s what Italians call croissant) but I keep walking.  A Vespa purrs behind me.  I step to my right so it can pass.  The street is narrow and bumpy.  Cobblestones.  The Vespa shoots past carrying a handsome young man wearing a pair of dark sunglasses and a perfectly pressed beige Armani suit.  I read the blue street sign on the side of the building as he passes.  Via Santa Marta.  I stop walking and say this to myself several times before I continue on my way.  Buongiorno, signora!  I look to my left and am greeted by a smile and wave from the man hosing down the concrete.  I smile, I wave and continue my walk.  I hear the dinging of the trams passing on the main road just ahead.  Now the shop owners are out unlocking and opening their steel gates and preparing for their customers.  It is morning in Milano.

At this point I feel the tears falling from my eyes.  And just when I think I can’t take anymore, I close my eyes tighter and walk one block further.  I turn another corner. The sun is brighter now.  Right here from my grey chair.

I close my eyes.

Billsta on the Balcony

February 16, 2015 — 2 Comments

I originally brought Billsta home to my mother’s house from Ikea about five years ago.  My mother needed a small breakfast table and it was the perfect size for her small kitchen.  I remember putting it together by following one of those wordless direction pamphlets that comes with everything from there.   It was simple enough because there were only three parts to put together: the smooth round 27 1/2″ melamine table top, the 40″ base and the four piece foot stand. I fished out the correct screws and had it put together in a few minutes with very little effort.  The chairs that match have short rounded backs and I really like the way my body fits perfectly in them.   Billsta is of a sturdy Swedish design that didn’t look prone to wobbling, which I loved.  I smoothed my hand across the surface in sweet satisfaction.  there would be no splintering or splitting.  For years my mother had a table in her kitchen that wobbled as soon as someone sat down.  All through meals it would wobble and that became the norm.  But Billsta would never wobble.  Swedish engineering made sure of that.

We sold my mother’s house in the spring of last year, and by June I moved to a new apartment on the thirteenth floor.  I had the movers put Billsta on the west facing balcony.  It was summer when I moved in and I thought it would be the perfect place to have my tea or coffee in the morning.  Billsta looked much smaller in my place than it had at my mother’s house.  It looked great on the balcony and left plenty of room for a recliner and end table that I had my eye on, but still haven’t purchased.  I used Billsta often, sipping tea and occasionally coffee.   Resting my mug on its smooth melamine surface.  The balcony is high enough and far away from neighbors that I didn’t feel awkward shuffling out in my bathrobe with my hair a mess to execute my morning ritual;  tea in my mug, feet propped up on the second chair, and the morning light dancing on the glass of the downtown buildings now pink, then orange then settling nicely into a cheery yellow.  Billsta and I were getting along very nicely.

I brought the chairs inside the first time it rained.  They have these little round beige cushions on them, and I didn’t want them to get wet and squishy.  I brought them inside again when I was traveling in the summer months.  I brought them in yet again when I started teaching in the fall because I didn’t want an unexpected rain to ruin them.  I found other uses for the chairs, like standing on one when I needed to store something at the top of my closet, or when cleaning the top shelf of my tall bookcases.  I even sat on one as I read a book one afternoon.  Billsta stayed outside.  I even thought of bringing Billsta inside for dinner.  You should know that Billsta looks unimposing, but is actually heavy and I just didn’t want to be weighed down by it.  I thought it would just get in my way and invade my space. I have no real need for Billsta in my immediate living space.  It’s well suited on the balcony.

It is now mid-February and for the past few days I’ve been writing on my laptop occasionally looking out the glass doors at Billsta.  It’s been out there on the balcony all these months withstanding sun, rain, wind and more recently, snow. I’ve only now just noticed that all this time Billsta looked so dependable and solid out there on the balcony.  But now I see it moved from the place I originally had it.  It’s closer to the railing now.  In fact, one of the feet of the base is under the black iron railing tucked into the four inch space between the concrete and the bottom of the iron railing.  I have a feeling Billsta is distancing itself away from me.  Did Billsta feel so neglected that it slowly made its way to the edge?

I  walk across the room now and upon closer inspection, I see Billsta’s  smooth melamine surface is warped.  It is slightly slanted now – not much – just enough from me to notice its disappointed frown.  There is some water resting there.  Looking like a stain of tears.  The table in it’s dying has come to life. Billsta has given up on me but still stands strong.  In the cold, gray afternoon, with the still white sky, I realize there has been no one resting their teacup on Billsta.  No one running their hands across its once smooth malamine surface.  I haven’t been there to appreciate Billsta as it was meant to be enjoyed.  it’s become a dirty, cold, warped shell of a table.  Damaged from neglect and disuse.

And now, it seems, I have a decision to make.

The Ghost never gave me anything he didn’t take back and sell.  There was one gift he gave me that he never knew about.  At first, neither did I.

I forgave him as he beat me on the last night I’d ever seen him.  That was July 4th, 1999.  With each blow I asked God to forgive him.  I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.  I could tell his pain was worse than mine, in fact I was numb to his blows.

I knew his story.  He told me about how his childhood was stolen from him.  He told me about the pigeon coop.  How he use to train pigeons and built a coop for them on the roof of his building with the help of his stepfather.  Dick is what he called him.  I never found out if that was his real name – short for Richard – or just what he called him.  Dick did what all pedophiles do; gained this nine year old boy’s trust  – seduced him as it were – with the lure of pigeons.  Building a coop and teaching the young, blue eyed boy all about bird flight training.  These were not “street rat” pigeons, mind you, but flights, tiplets… those are the only names I remembered from what he told me.  There are a whole group of bird flyers and trainers all over NYC, the outer boroughs – and the world.  Apparently flying pigeons is a thing.

The Ghost grew up in The Bronx.  In his neighborhood it was not uncommon for there to be coops on the rooftops of buildings.  He told me how he used to run up to the roof every day after school to clean the coop and feed the pigeons.  He spoke about it with such pride.  He use to compete with the other kids on the buildings across the street and a few blocks down.  He’d brag about how he had the cleanest coop and the nicest birds.  One day while he was up there cleaning the coop, Dick came up to have a chat with him.  He stood there with his Brill Creamed hair, thin lips and his pen protector holding always exactly three Bic pens.  He smelled of Old Spice and Doublemint gum.  The Ghost always got a strange feeling when he was around Dick.  He told me something about Dick creeped him out and gave him the chills.  The instincts of a child are powerful.

So, he endured sexual abuse by his stepfather.  Of course he told his mother immediately.  She just stared at him and then told him to stop telling lies.   Accused her golden haired blue-eyed cherub of lying.  Lying and trying to ruin her happiness.  Again.  She’d blamed him for everything since he was three.  He was the bad one and Mickey was the good one.  It had always felt that way, at least.  The Ghost was always trying to win back her love, but his attempts were futile at best.

She blamed him for everything.  You see, when The Ghost was three years old, his mother told him to draw a bath for his brother and himself.  Bathing together was not uncommon, as the boys were only a year apart.  Irish twins, everyone called them.  Proud to take on this big boy job, he marched into the bathroom plugged up the tub with the rubber stopper, and turned one of the handles.  He couldn’t reach the  second handle but he turned the one closest to him.  The one with the letter “H” on it.  He’s seen his mommy do this many times.  She had tossed her finger under the tap but he wasn’t sure why, but he did that to.  The tub began to fill and he gave the Mr. Bubble bottle a squeeze.  He watched the bubbles grow a bit.  He left the bathroom and went to find his brother, Mickey.

Mickey, short for Michael, was in their room.  The Ghost announced it was time for their bath, and as the boys undressed the Ghost pulling his shirt of his head, Mickey shouted, “Last one in is a rotten egg!”  and ran out of the room.  The Ghost wanted to be first in the tub.  He fumbled with is shirt, but got it off.  He started looking for his Popeye doll to bring to the tub.  In the background he could hear the tub filling and his mother talking on the phone in the kitchen.  She was cooking dinner.  Irish stew.  Mickey’s favorite.  The smells were wafting through the small Bronx apartment.  The Ghost was getting hungry.  He found his Popeye doll and turned toward their bedroom door.  Before he could get to the bathroom he heard his brother screaming.  A scary sound unlike any he’d heard before.  The Ghost froze.  He peered out the bedroom door and saw his mother running.  He walked slowly toward the bathroom, the dark wood floorboards creaking under his feet and stopped when he reached threshold of the bathroom.  His mother was screaming “Why did you do this?  Why him?  This is all your fault!”  She cradled Mickey’s shivering body, fell on the floor and rocked her scalded baby in her arms.  Mickey was screaming and crying.  His wrinkled red body was shiny from the water and he had Mr. Bubbles shiny foam bubbles in his hair.  It all happened so fast.  All The Ghost could see was the bright red wrinkled skin on the right side of Mickey’s face and neck.  He looked like a monster from one of the comic books at the corner store.  He’d later learn the monster’s name “Creature from the Black Lagoon”.  It scared him.  That wasn’t Mickey?  What was wrong with him?  I was looking for Popeye.  What happened?  Mommy, what did I do?

Mickey never healed completely.  They were able to do a skin graft, but he spent his life feeling self-conscious and fought off stares all through his adolescence.  Eventually he married and had children of his own.  He grew up hating his brother.  Resenting what he had done to him.  He blamed The Ghost for his disfigurement.  So did their mother.  By the time The Ghost encountered Dick, there was no one to listen.  No one to help.  No one who believed him.

It was the beginning of the end and this child was doomed to a life of mistrust and misfortune.

When he told me this story, I knew The Ghost had given me a gift but I could not identify it at the time.  It took some time for me to come to this realization, but I came to understand that the gift he gave me was gratitude.  Because of his story, I was able to truly appreciate my happy childhood.

It was my happy childhood that saved me when The Ghost’s damaged childhood came to visit him in the form of drugs, alcohol and the abuse he inflicted on my body.  There came a time when I could no longer take his blows.  I could no longer let his words penetrate my spirit.  For years I would tell my story saying I had no choice but to leave.  I had no choice because he beat me out of our home.  The truth is, I knew I could not take one more moment in his presence.  The love was gone long before that night.  I don’t know what made me stay.  If I stayed I knew he would kill me and I wasn’t ready to be dead.

So I left with nothing but the clothes on my back – not even shoes on my feet – and the gift he didn’t even know he had given me.

It’s been quite a long time since I’ve written a legitimate blog post here.  Over a year, in fact.  And, it’s been quite a year, indeed.  I survived my fourteenth year of teaching, after a year away and having dipped my feet into the world of art gallery sales, traveled to Costa Rica, drove cross-country on a whim and fulfilled my dream of flying a plane – not just in a plane but actually logging my first legitimate hour of flight towards my pilot’s license.  Those who know me intimately will know that flying is a dream I buried many years ago.  Back to the days of The Ghost I call husband. Long before I knew The Ghost, I read Beryl Markham’s West With The Night and wanted to one day fly a plane.  I was obsessed with Amelia Earhart and the accomplishments she made as an aviator – and having the wanderlust myself, travel was always on my mind.  Taking the yoke and flying myself was something I knew I had to do and always hovered in the back of my mind.  So, one day, while I was living with The Ghost, I drove up to Republic Airport and signed myself up for flight classes, leaving my 50% deposit of $600 for flight school.  I was to start the following weekend, sue to my work schedule.  When I came home, excited to share my news, The Ghost did not share my enthusiasm.  His face turned sour and he said to get my money back because there was no way he would allow it.  For some reason, which I still don’t understand, I listened to him.  We weren’t even married and I listened to him.  I went back the next morning and got my money back, cancelled my classes and drove back to The Ghost.

I was a tender twenty five years of age when I crushed my own dreams of flight.  I can’t really blame The Ghost.  After all, I didn’t put up a fight, I just listened to him.  Perhaps some part of me knew, very deep down, that it wasn’t the right time.  Perhaps I was afraid to fulfill a dream.  Perhaps I wanted someone to tame my wild ambition.  I don’t know what the reasons were at the time, but I complied.  I do remember being very disappointed in myself for listening to him, but if I am completely honest with myself, I must say that I probably did not want to be allowed to fly.  When I finally did leave, a time I’ve written about here), I remember feeling that I was given a second chance at life.  He wanted to kill me that night, that’s the account Aidan relayed to me.  He told me The Ghost had a plan to kill me my tying my feet to cinder blocks and throwing me off our boat.  He wanted me dead.  Dead. He was high enough, and strong enough to do it.   When he was beating me that last night I’d ever see him, with every punch he’d thrown at my head, my face, my stomach, I knew that if I survived that night, my life would finally begin.  That I could live again.

As I’ve accounted here, I was in a fog for a long time after that night.  Not just for a few hours or days, but really for a few years.  It wasn’t until the divorce was final, some four years later that I felt some sense of relief.  Release.  Even then, I felt the eerie sensation that I would always need to look over my shoulder as long as I lived in New York because there was always the chance that he would find me and finish what he started.  Though I forgave him the minute I left the house, I knew I would never sleep a full night peacefully as long as I lived in New York.  And I didn’t.

The Ghost visited me every night as I put my head down on the pillow.  I could see his face next to mine in the bed or feel the curve of his body behind me as I drifted off to sleep.  A sensation which jolted me awake and refused to let me find peace in slumber.  I worked.  Made new friends.  Found moments of  joy with the children I worked with but my heart pounded a few beats too fast when I returned home and had to face the darkness.  Though we were physically parted, The Ghost had entered my mind and taken up residence there.

The divorce was finalized and I set my sights on living in Europe.  I got a teaching job in Italy and moved.  Movers came to my mother’s house and took my things. I got on a plane.  The next chapter was beginning.  I don’t think I ever told anyone this, but even after I got to Italy, I would look out the window of my apartment, onto the streets of the small town outside of Milan, on the tram, bus, or at the street markets expecting to see The Ghost.  He couldn’t make his way up to Putnam County, New York and I expected to see him on the streets of Opera, in the Commune di Milano?  Completely irrational, but totally true.  No, it didn’t take too long for to feel safe again, but because I could not change my name back to my maiden name before leaving the country (it would have complicated my paperwork upon entry to Italy), I kept The Ghost’s name.  It became a part of me.  It’s how I was known professionally, and by kids.  Upon leaving him, I recreated a new identity around this name, shedding any old identity and leaving it far behind in the damp, small town where I left him on Long Island.  Like a butterfly I spread my wings and became a re-entered the world.  Beautiful and alive.

I found love in Italy and for a short time, The Ghost was out of my mind.  He hovered close, but for the most part I was able to enjoy a new romance that was pure, and good and wonderful.  With Andrea, I learned what kindness and gentleness from a man could be like.  He was humble and vulnerable in ways The Ghost never knew.  He struggled with sharing that which ultimately ended our union.  After that, I knew his role in my life was to teach me men can be good and kind and that I could be loved.

Through the years, and moves, and jobs and lovers,  I have reinvented myself.  I’ve only recently come to realize that through my reinventions I have been searching for my most authentic true self.  I have been on a journey to discover my purpose in this world.  Why have I been though what  I have, why I lived where I have, why the people who have left marks on my heart and furthered me along my path have come, gone or stayed.

I’ve come to realize, that flying a plane became the ultimate metaphor for taking control of my life.  When I grabbed the yoke this summer, I took back my life.

So, The Ghost I call Husband gave me my name.  I have been through so many changes that my name is now very much mine and has a completely new meaning to me.  It defines me, tells about where I’ve been and now truly is my identity more than ever.  And here I write, inventing Maria McCabe.

As an American living in Italy, I suppose I thought about the prospect of meeting a handsome Italian man who would sweep me off my feet but I certainly wasn’t counting on that happening.  I had seen Under the Tuscan Sun and read the book many years before.  Those were things that happened in books and movies, not to me.  Everything about the way my life had gone up to this point, particularly my romantic life, was telling me an Italian romance did not seem possible.  And then I met Andrea.

Sweet, handsome Andrea.  In my last post I described our first encounter.  The first broken Italian/English conversation in the Irish Pub.  The subsequent invitation and trip to Portofino on the Ligurian coast.  Romance is always dulled by reality.  This romance was no different. We left for Portofino after work on a Friday night.  Andrea picked me up in his VW Bug, and we drove down through Genoa toward the Ligurian coast lined with s-curves.  He took me up and up the windy coastal road to the sleepy sea-side town that was mostly boarded up and closed for the off-season.  It was late October, and though the days were sunny and warm, the temperature dropped at night, leaving this black shimmering coastline for the natives and new romances like ours.

The moon shone on the water that night night giving everything that deep midnight-blue soaked glow.  It would have taken a tough lot not to feel romantic that evening.  All was perfect.  So up we climbed in Andrea’s VW, until we hit a point where we could see sleepy Portofino below us.  There were a few sailboats still tucked into their slips and lights on the u-shaped path around the cove showing the presence of no one.  The palm trees glowed in the lights from below.  We held hands, and commented now and then on how beautiful it was, eerie and beautiful all at once, as we drove up the and up the steep one lane road in the dark, getting closer and closer to the stars when Andrea pulled the car over.  He let go of my hand.  He got out of the car without saying a word, popping open the trunk.  So up we climbed in Andrea’s VW, until we hit a point where we could see sleepy Portofino below us.  There were a few sailboats still tucked into their slips and lights on the u-shaped path around the cove showing the presence of no one.  The palm trees glowed in the lights from below.  As he walked toward the back of the car, all I could think was here it comes – he’s going to get the ropes and shovel now.  This is how I will die, in Portofino at the hands of a man I hardly know, the headlines will read “American Teacher Found Dead in the Hills Above Portofino”.  My heart was pounding.  I looked in the rear view mirror, and in the little space between the opening of the trunk and the top of the backseat, I could see he was holding the trunk  up high with one hand and bent over at the waist.  Was he digging my grave?  With one hand?  Getting an axe to chop me up in pieces?  What’s wrong? So I opened the door in an attempt to get out, and he told me to stay in the car, but he sounded funny. Like, strange funny.  Was he a werewolf??  Maybe that was it!  I tend to get the strangest thoughts at the oddest moments and this was no different.  I stayed in the car out of fear and because though he voice was odd, he had a serious commanding tone, so I suppose I was obeying him to some extent.  When he return to the car, he was sweating and smelled of vomit. Turned out my handsome Italian – the same man I thought might chop me up and bury me in the hills of Portofino – was struck with a case of motion sickness from all the s-curves.  I tried to comfort him, but he gently pushed my hand away saying we should go to our hotel in Rapallo.  He apologized a few times on the way but was mostly quiet.  I didn’t say much for the thirty minute drive.  I was sorry for him, but feeling a little hurt that he pushed my hand away.  He would’t let me comfort him and i was selfishly hurt by that.  Under the circumstances, I tried to push that thought away, telling myself I was being ridiculous.  Of course he doesn’t want to be touched he’s just been sick, I told myself.  When we got to the hotel, we checked in, Andrea took a shower and felt much better.  We went to bed quietly, as though we had a thousand times before, but it was our first night sleeping in the same bed and I was nervous.  I was hoping for a night of romance, which was not to be.  He didn’t hold me or say anything.  We just went to sleep on each of our sides of the bed.  It was painful for me.  I cried silently.  And then fell asleep.

I was up first.  I went directly to the bathroom to shower and get myself dressed.  When I emerged from the bathroom, ready for the day, he was still sleeping.  I tidied up my side of the room, opened the balcony door and was met with a perfect view of the beach.  It was early, before the shops opened and there were just one or two people walking in the street below.  I could hear the early morning sounds I loved about Italy; the sound of rolling metal as shop owners opened their taparelli, old men greeting each other with “Buongiorno” or “Ciao”!  I soaked it up, breathing in the air.  And, that coupled with the smells of fresh cappuccino and just baked brioche wafting in the air… I was hungry.  Not so unusual for me.  I sat there on the balcony for a few minutes, simply absorbing it all.  When I re-entered the room, he was in the shower.  Knowing he was getting ready to have a day with me was a relief.  It meant he was sick last night only and today was a new day.

We had our brioche and cappuccino up in Portofino, drove back down the coast and ate an amazing lunch of fritto di mare a variety of lightly fried fish, calamari, prawns, langostini and various other shellfish served with wedges of lemon and a bottle of white wine.  We walked on the beach at La Spezia and kissed in the sand.  Things were back to normal and I was feeling the magic of this very romantic day.  The next day was just as lovely, and it being Sunday, there was an open market in Santa Margherita which we decided to stop into on our way back up to Milan.  We stopped, looked around at a few things, and when I wasn’t looking He bought me a silver and turquoise bracelet to remember our weekend away.  He gave it to me before we got in the car to leave.  I still have it and think of him whenever I wear it.

 

*   *   *

That weekend away together was the real beginning of our relationship.  I learned a lot that weekend without realizing it.  I learned about him, and of course me.  I remember feeling beautiful.  Beautiful and feminine.  I felt beautiful because Italy does that to women.  The old men always gave me compliments on the way I was dressed, or my “beautiful smile”.  The young ones always looked and smiled too.  My favorite was when I would be walking down the street, with a friend or alone, and an older man would tip his hat and smile.  Such old world congeniality.  Very different from walking in the streets of New York where anonymity it king. We had quite a romance, Andrea and I .  We were together much more frequently after out weekend in Portofino.  He showed me secret places in Milan he like to go for drinks or aperativo.  My friends really liked him because he was low-key and was able to make conversation with anyone without being arrogant or too opinionated.  He was amused by me and the way I got along with my friends.  On weekends we’s steal away on his Harley, into the vineyards of surrounding towns stopping for drinks.  Once we had such a romantic day I remember the ride home on the Harley very clearly.  We had been riding all day, stopping for drinks and lunch, then riding nonstop.  The sun was going down and the sky was filled with ribbons of pink and orange.  We were close to Milan, riding through some riso fields, when he suddenly pulled over and took off my helmet.  He kissed me wildly and we embraced.  He began pulling at my clothing and making love to me right there in the middle of the riso field.  On the road just beyond the fields we could see cars passing, but they were not close enough to see us.  We made love right there under God’s setting sun and for the first time, I truly felt loved and filled with passion.  I remember while it was happening, thinking I am in Italy making love to the man of my dreams right here in a riso field.  I live here.  This is my life.  This….. is my life and I am so happy. 

And we really were.  Until just a few months later.  Andrea would tell me something that would change everything in our relationship and was more that I could really bare to hear. But for now, things were going well and we were happy.  So very happy.

Duomo di Milano

Duomo di Milano

I had three loves in Milan; The City itself, the incomparable food, and its people.  Particularly Andrea (italian for Andrew), who taught me I could be loved and touched tenderly in body and soul.

Milan was by far my first true love.  The Duomo, the city’s Cathedral and home to the Madonina – a golden statue of The Blessed Virgin at the highest point of the cathedral’s spires – was the heart of the city.  Italians called out to her.  There were songs written about her.  The Duomo became my True North on my internal map of the city.  In the months and hears ahead, it would become a meeting point for social gatherings and the place I would go to light a candle, say a prayer and ask questions of God and the Universe.  Sitting atop its many spires were thousands of Saints, full size, standing proudly looking over the city in every direction.   They seemed to stand in ceremony, protecting – nay, hailing –  the Madonina who stands high above, guiding and sanctifying all she sees in her crowned, golden splendor. And on a quiet morning, before it is filled with the contrast of the graffitied taparelli and the urine stained walls of cobblestone side streets, the magnificence of the rising sun’s pink and orange glow on The Duomo’s white marbled exterior could not be obscured.  I never got tired of that vision.  Oh yes, I fell in love with Milan.

Those first few weeks in MIlan were not wasted on me.  I knew what was happening to me – traveling to another country, landing an exciting new job, and physically leaving behind the dark, fear-filled days I had with my ex-husband – was a rebirth.  I was literally given a second chance at life.  I knew if I had stayed with Tommy I would have eventually died at his hands.  But that was all behind me now and I was literally taking small steps down Milanese streets with my eyes wide open and breathing new air.  By the time I landed in Milan, it had been five years since I saw his face.  I will admit, there was a moment every now and again, when I thought he might somehow find me in Italy and finish what he started.  I would get a chill and have to verbally remind myself that I was in fact beginning a new life in Italy.  And I had no plans to return to The States.

The first month of school was the same as it is in any school.  There was lots of buzz, and excitement and the butterflies invaded my stomach again as they did every September.  There were new faces of students and colleagues and parents.  There were new books and pencils to be sharpened and markers to be put out.  Though that year, the notebooks and paper were a different size.  The pencils even looked different.  Instead of American markers like Crayola, we had Giotto markers.  My classroom overlooked the only golf course in the area, and just beyond I could see the riso, or rice fields, instead of the 52nd Precinct on Webster Avenue.  My students had Italian, French, Spanish and Arabic accents instead of Hispanic/Bronx accents.  When they returned from the weekends, my students in Milan would tell me of day trips they took to Lugano, Switzerland, Venice, or Lake Cuomo.  A stark contrast from my Bronx kids who visited their fathers in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossening, NY, or stayed in the house playing video games.  My colleagues and students from The Bronx never left my thoughts as I prepared my Italian classroom and I questioned my decision to take this job in Italy.  Was I a sell-out?  Would these kids need me the way my Bronx kids did?  Would my colleagues in Italy even come close to comparing with my teammates and friends from P.S. 20?  Those were questions I would reflect on often.  It took years before I came to peaceful terms with myself on this.  The truth is, I made a connection in Milan that was completely intangible.

I was very well supported in those early days by colleagues who also left their homes and friends and schools to join in this new professional and life opportunity.  We were expatriates now.  Expats, for short. For many of my colleagues, Milan was one in a string of places they had moved to, knowing it would not be the last.  Their journeys originated from small towns and cities all over the U.S. like Los Angeles, St. Paul, Portland, Lancaster County, PA, Wilmington S.C.,  and Chicago.  We all wound up in the same city, in the same school for very different reasons.  But the one thing we had in common is that we all left something behind us in exchange for the mysterious something coming ahead of us.  People, places and things.  Some of us were seeking new experiences.  Some of us running from old ones.  Some of us somewhere in the middle.  I think I was one of those.  The interesting thing is that none of us had regrets about doing it.  It seems that the more I got to know expats, the more I realized we were the ones living our lives with the volume turned all the way up.

And so it went.  Our school’s staff had a yearly tradition.  After the first paycheck, and in Europe workers get paid once a month instead of weekly or bi-weekly, everyone goes out for dinner for a really nice meal.  This sounded like a great way to celebrate the first month of school and get to know more of the various staff members.  When the evening finally arrived, we carpooled with those who had been living in Milan long enough to battle the bureaucracy and get cars and Italian drivers licenses – no small task I can assure you.  We drove down a series of narrow two lane roads until we turned down a long dirt road, arriving at a cascina, or farmhouse, which my American eyes thought looked dilapidated on the outside.  We got out of the car, walked into the pitch black night along the dirt path and entered the cascina.  As soon as the heavy wooden doors opened, the soft glow of lit candles and sounds of clinking glasses and laughter poured out.  I could smell the butter-heavy smells of grilling meat.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the flames from the brick oven readying itself for pizzas.  We were led to a private room, to our table,  which was really a series of long wooden tables forming a U-shape, covered in crisp white linens and already set with flatware, wine, water and prosecco glasses that glowed in the golden candlelight. As we made our way to our seats, one of our servers was making his way over to begin pouring a glass of prosecco.  When all nineteen of us were seated, we made a collective toast to the new year, “Cin-cin!” (pronounced chin-chin).  It was all very festive and being Americans we all began chatting politely and began the process of getting to know each other with the common first questions:  So, how’s your class going?  Are you feeling overwhelmed?  Are you homesick?  Where are you from?  Will your family and friends come visit you?  Where are you living now?  How ‘s your Italian coming along? and on like this.  Without noticing it, thee was suddenly large serving platters of grilled red peppers, impossibly paper-thin grilled zucchini and eggplant, artichokes and olives all gleaming with olive oil.  There were also plates of sliced salumi, and prosciutto ham and some small slices of bread to mop up the olive oil.  This was the antipasti.  I put a slice of eggplant on my fork.  When it touched my lips, I remember thinking this didn’t taste like any eggplant I’d ever tasted before.  It was completely tender and practically melted in my mouth. Not salty or tough.  Delicious!  There were many more little dishes that suddenly appeared before us.  The servers keeping our wine glasses filled with impeccable red wine.  At one point I looked around the room and time stood still.  The Cascina‘s walls were exposed red and white brick, mostly white, which glowed golden in the candlelight.  Everyone around the table – teachers, school secretaries, administrators – looked so shiny and beautiful to me.  It might have been the wine skewing my perspective but I was in love with everyone in the room at that moment.  I had only been making casual conversation, small talk really, with some of the people around me up to that point.  And then came out the small dishes of risotto al formaggio. This Northern Italian classic, just a dollop on a small white dish, was placed before me.  The aroma of the rice, indistinguishable from the intermixing of a buttery mix of melted gorgonzola and other cheeses was so fresh, so delicate it practically walked off the plate and onto my fork.  I savored the aroma for a moment and with eyes closed, I gently pressed a forkful into my mouth.  My tastebuds danced.  I had never tasted anything like it in my life.  I turned to look at the girl sitting next to me, her name was April, and she was having the same reaction as I.  Tears welled up in my eyes at the same moment they did in hers.  She grabbed my hand under the table and we both spoke about how it was so delicious and how beautiful and special this night was.  It was that moment that our friendship was born.  It sounds silly and made up but that’s exactly how it happened.  I was overwhelmed.  Everyone looked so beautiful, the table, the china, the flatware, the food… the glow of the candlelight, the brick walls covered with antique farm equipment.  It was all overwhelming.  I was living in Italy.  Not there for a visit, but this was my home. Home.  And it wasn’t the risotto, but it was the risotto. There was more to eat that night: fresh hand made ravioli stuffed with ricotta and herbs and slathered with butter, grilled meats and sausage, fish, and for dessert pana cotta.  That was the beginning of never having a bad meal again. Not as long as I lived in Italy, anyway. A year later, an eighty year old woman would teach me the secrets of making risotto.  That was a lesson I would carry with me always.

So you see, I was surrounded by and falling very deeply with Milano, and the food of Italy.  There was one more thing I fell in love with.  Most surprisingly.  Completely.  Not a thing at all.  A person.  And here’s how that happened.

There was a girl just a few years younger than me who had been at the school for a year or two.  Her name was Melodi.  She had a naturally friendly and bubbly personality.  She had the uncanny ability to make a connection to anyone she spoke with. She was funny and people loved being around her.  The second weekend of October is a national holiday in Milan so everyone is traveling for the long weekend.  A bunch of people went to Prague for the four day weekend.  I was not particularly close enough to anyone so I was not invited to come along.  I was also low on cash, having come to Italy with almost no money at all and was conserving my Euros.  Melodi, being nice and not wanting to see anyone feel lonely, invited me out for a pizza.  I was touched that she would, and met her at a place called Yummy Yummy.  It was a small out of the way place near her apartment in the Porta Romana section of the city.  It seemed strangely funny because it was a pizza place run by a Chinese family who immigrated to Italy to open, of all things, a pizza place.  It would become one of my favorites because the pizzas were incredible.  Anyway, we ate pizza and started telling our stories and got along so well, that Melodi said, she wasn’t sure if I’d be interested but there was an Irish Pub down the block if I wanted to grab a beer.  Of course I did!  From her description it sounded like a small cramped Irish pub, which reminded me a bit of New York.  So when the pizzas were done, we headed over to Pogue Mahone’s which was at the end of that block.  We bellied up to two prime stools at the center of the bar and I ordered my Guinness and she her Blonde and began talking.  I loved seeing the Irish flag and pictures of Irish “stuff” all around.  By the time we ordered our second beer, I noticed the two guys sitting next two us were looking in our direction.  It seemed obvious to me that they were checking out Melodi being the bubbly blonde hair blue eyed girl from South Carolina with the southern accent that she was.  And one of them was in fact interested in her.  Giuseppe, or Beppe, which is what his friend was calling him.  I looked at the friend and noticed he was extremely good looking – way out of my league.  But while Beppe was talking to Melodi, Andrea leaned over and started talking to me.  In Italian.  I don’t know why or how, but I understood him.  He introduced himself and I responded.  In Italian!  I could not believe what was happening. I told him (in Italian) that I did not speak Italian well.  He told me I had a beautiful smile and laugh, which made me blush a little.  He asked where I was from and when I told him New York, his eyes lit up.  I had already noticed that telling people I was from New York (which was the truth) carried with it a certain cool factor.  Italians love New York – well, Europeans do- and the questions almost always followed, Why would you move to Milano when everyone in Milano wants to live in New York!? Anyway, Andrea was so handsome, and he smelled like… well I can’t describe that.  It was his natural odor that I was responding too.  He smelled clean but like clean skin.  Clean hair.  I would find out later that he was a rock climber, so his body was fit.  He was Milanese, so he was shorter than an American man, but still taller than me.  As was the fashion, his hair was buzzed short, almost bald, which I found extremely sexy.  We spoke for a bit and there was another beer, and another and I found myself wanting to kiss him.  He offered to drive me home, as I lived just on the outskirts of the city, whereas Meodi lived just a few blocks away.  I turned to Melodi who was roughing it with Beppe and announced Andrea was driving me home.  She pulled me aside and said, “Oh no he’s not!  Same rules apply here, my dear, you cannot go home with a stranger! You can give him your number but you don’t know if he’s crazy!”.  This was very disappointing news to me. So I told him no, but he kept insisting.  I said no, and he asked for my number.  I think maybe I did not have a cell phone connected yet, so I gave him my email address, and I took his.  We said goodnight, there was no kissing, but the next day I remember thinking how completely gorgeous he was – and how torturous it was that I had to wait to get to work before I could check for his email.  Sure enough, in very broken English, his email was there.  It was adorably written.  Very polite.  He said how nice it was to meet me, how he kept thinking about my laugh and smile and how he would love to show me all his favorite laces in Italy…. Florence, Venice, Melegnano where he lives…. and did I want to go out for an a

perativo with him?  So I wrote back saying yes, and we made arrangements.

I was so nervous on our first date.  I thought maybe he was drunk at the Pub and maybe would not be interested in me.  I was worried about communicating with him because of our language barrier.  I remembered he tried to say a few things in English, but it was clear that my very limited Italian was much better than his English.  Anyway, he picked me up in his navy blue VW Beetle.  We went into Milan for drinks and food.  We talked and there was a lot of drawing on napkins and acting things out to communicate!  It was so much fun that first night.  One thing was undeniable, we were very attracted to each other, because there was lots of smiling and flirting too.  When we got back into the car so he could drive me home, I had trouble pulling the safety belt over my shoulder.  He leaned over to help me and that’s when it happened.  He surprised me with a kiss that lasted quite some time.  We sat in the car, making out like teenagers.  At one point I had to stop and remind myself where I was – I was living in Italy and this beautiful man starting talking to me in a bar and now we’ve just had a date and I’m kissing him.  I wanted to scream, it was all so exciting.

After that date, he emailed me again to tell me how much fun he had and how he wanted me to go to Portofino with him the following weekend.  Portofino?  for the weekend? With a man I’d only been out with once?  That was too crazy, even for me!  I consulted with the girls at work, and one older woman said to me, “Maria, you’re 35 years old, living in Italy and a handsome Italian man has offered to take you to romantic Portofino for the weekend.  Are you crazy, of COURSE you should GO!”  But I said, “What if he’s crazy and chops me up in little pieces?”  And she said, “You’ll be chopped up in little pieces in Portofino… just GO!”

And so I did.

Portofino

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.