Archives For The Ghost Series

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.

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.

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.

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.