It is this happiness, I suppose (which is really a few months old by now), that gets me to thinking upon my return to Rome that I need to do something about David. That maybe it's time for us to end our story forever. We were already separated, that was official, but there was still a window of hope left open that perhaps someday (maybe after my travels, maybe after a year apart) we could give things another try. We loved each other. That was never the question. It's just that we couldn't figure out how to stop making each other desperately, shriekingly, soul-punishingly miserable.
Last spring David had offered this crazy solution to our woes, only half in jest: "What if we just acknowledged that we have a bad relationship, and we stuck it out, anyway? What if we admitted that we make each other nuts, we fight constantly and hardly ever have sex, but we can't live without each other, so we deal with it? And then we could spend our lives together--in misery, but happy to not be apart."
Let it be a testimony to how desperately I love this guy that I have spent the last ten months giving that offer serious consideration.
The other alternative in the backs of our minds, of course, was that one of us might change. He might become more open and affectionate, not withholding himself from anyone who loves him on the fear that she will eat his soul. Or I might learn how to . . . stop trying to eat his soul.
So many times I had wished with David that I could behave more like my mother does in her marriage--independent, strong, self-sufficient. A self-feeder. Able to exist without regular doses of romance or flattery from my solitary farmer of a father. Able to cheerfully plant gardens of daisies among the inexplicable stone walls of silence that my dad sometimes builds up around himself. My dad is quite simply my favorite person in the world, but he is a bit of an odd case. An ex-boyfriend of mine once described him this way: "Your father only has one foot on this earth. And really, really long legs . . ."
What I grew up watching in my household was a mother who would receive her husband's love and affection whenever he thought to offer it, but would then step aside and take care of herself whenever he drifted off into his own peculiar universe of low- grade oblivious neglect. This is how it looked to me, anyway, taking into account that nobody (and especially not the children) ever knows the secrets of a marriage. What I believed I grew up seeing was a mother who asked nothing of anybody. This was my mom, after all--a woman who had taught herself how to swim as an adolescent, alone in a cold Minnesota lake, with a book she'd borrowed from the local library entitled How to Swim. To my eye, there was nothing this woman could not do on her own.
But then I'd had a revelatory conversation with my mother, not long before I'd left for Rome. She'd come into New York to have one last lunch with me, and she'd asked me frankly--breaking all the rules of communication in our family's history--what had happened between me and David. Further disregarding the Gilbert Family Standard Communications Rule-book, I actually told her. I told her everything. I told her how much I loved David, but how lonely and heartsick it made me to be with this person who was always disappearing from the room, from the bed, from the planet.
"He sounds kind of like your father," she said. A brave and generous admission.
"The problem is," I said, "I'm not like my mother. I'm not as tough as you, Mom. There's a constant level of closeness that I really need from the person I love. I wish I could be more like you, then I could have this love story with David. But it just destroys me to not be able to count on that affection when I need it."
Then my mother shocked me. She said, "All those things that you want from your relationship, Liz? I have always wanted those things, too."
In that moment, it was as if my strong mother reached across the table, opened her fist and finally showed me the handful of bullets she'd had to bite over the decades in order to stay happily married (and she is happily married, all considerations weighed) to my father. I had never seen this side of her before, not ever. I had never imagined what she might have wanted, what she might have been missing, what she might have decided not to fight for in the larger scheme of things. Seeing all this, I could feel my worldview start to make a radical shift.
If even she wants what I want, then . . .?
Continuing with this unprecedented string of intimacies, my mother said, "You have to understand how little I was raised to expect that I deserved in life, honey. Remember--I come from a different time and place than you do."
I closed my eyes and saw my mother, ten years old on the family farm in Minnesota, working like a hired hand, raising her younger brothers, wearing the clothes of her older sister, saving dimes to get herself out of there . . .
"And you have to understand how much I love your father," she concluded.
My mother has made choices in her life, as we all must, and she is at peace with them. I can see her peace. She did not cop out on herself. The benefits of her choices are massive-- a long, stable marriage to a man she still calls her best friend; a family that has extended now into grandchildren who adore her; a certainty in her own strength. Maybe some things were sacrificed, and my dad made his sacrifices, too--but who amongst us lives without sacrifice?
And the question now for me is, What are my choices to be? What do I believe that I
deserve in this life? Where can I accept sacrifice, and where can I not? It has been so hard for me to imagine living a life without David in it. Even just to imagine that there will never be another road trip with my favorite traveling companion, that I will never again pull up at his curb with the windows down and Springsteen playing on the radio, a lifetime supply of banter and snacks between us, and an ocean destination looming down the highway. But how can I accept that bliss when it comes with this dark underside-- bone-crushing isolation, corrosive insecurity, insidious resentment and, of course, the complete dismantling of self that inevitably occurs when David ceases to giveth, and commences to taketh away. I can't do it anymore. Something about my recent joy in Naples has made me certain that I not only can find happiness without David, but must. No matter how much I love him (and I do love him, in stupid excess), I have to say goodbye to this person now. And I have to make it stick.
So I write him an e-mail.
It's November. We haven't had any communication since July. I'd asked him not to get in touch with me while I was traveling, knowing that my attachment to him was so strong it would be impossible for me to focus on my journey if I were also tracking his. But now I'm entering his life again with this e-mail.
I tell him that I hope he's well, and I report that I am well. I make a few jokes. We always were good with the jokes. Then I explain that I think we need to put an end to this relationship for good. That maybe it's time to admit that it will never happen, that it should never happen. The note isn't overly dramatic. Lord knows we've had enough drama together already. I keep it short and simple. But there's one more thing I need to add. Holding my breath, I type, "If you want to look for another partner in your life, of course you have nothing but my blessings." My hands are shaking. I sign off with love, trying to keep as cheerful a tone as possible.
I feel like I just got hit in the chest with a stick.
I don't sleep much that night, imagining him reading my words. I run back to the Internet cafe a few times throughout the next day, looking for a response. I'm trying to ignore the part of me that is dying to find that he has replied: "COME BACK! DON'T GO! I'LL CHANGE!" I'm trying to disregard the girl in me who would happily drop this whole grand idea of traveling around the world in simple exchange for the keys to David's apartment. But around ten o'clock that night, I finally get my answer. A wonderfully written e-mail, of course. David always wrote wonderfully. He agrees that, yes, it's time we really said good-bye forever. He's been thinking along the same lines himself, he says. He couldn't be more gracious in his response, and he shares his own feelings of loss and regret with that high tenderness he was sometimes so achingly capable of reaching. He hopes that I know how much he adores me, beyond even his ability to find words to express it. "But we are not what the other one needs," he says. Still, he is certain that I will find great love in my life someday. He's sure of it. After all, he says, "beauty attracts beauty."
Which is a lovely thing to say, truly. Which is just about the loveliest thing that the love of your life could ever possibly say, when he's not saying, "COME BACK! DON'T GO! I'LL CHANGE!"
I sit there staring at the computer screen in silence for a long, sad time. It's all for the best, I know it is. I'm choosing happiness over suffering, I know I am. I'm making space for the unknown future to fill up my life with yet-to-come surprises. I know all this. But still . . . It's David. Lost to me now.
I drop my face in my hands for a longer and even sadder time. Finally I look up, only to see that one of the Albanian women who work at the Internet cafe has paused from her night-shift mopping of the floor to lean against the wall and watch me. We hold our tired gazes on each other for a moment. Then I give her a grim shake of my head and say aloud, "This blows ass." She nods sympathetically. She doesn't understand, but of course, in her way, she understands completely.
My cell phone rings.
It's Giovanni. He sounds confused. He says he's been waiting for me for over an hour in the Piazza Fiume, which is where we always meet on Thursday nights for language exchange. He's bewildered, because normally he's the one who's late or who forgets to show up for our appointments, but he got there right on time tonight for once and he was pretty sure--didn't we have a date?
I'd forgotten. I tell him where I am. He says he'll come pick me up in his car. I'm not in the mood for seeing anybody, but it's too hard to explain this over the telefonino, given our limited language skills. I go wait outside in the cold for him. A few minutes later, his little red car pulls up and I climb in. He asks me in slangy Italian what's up. I open my mouth to answer and collapse into tears. I mean--wailing. I mean--that terrible, ragged breed of bawling my friend Sally calls "double-pumpin' it," when you have to inhale two desperate gasps of oxygen with every sob. I never even saw this griefquake coming, got totally blindsided by it.
Poor Giovanni! He asks in halting English if he did something wrong. Am I mad at him, maybe? Did he hurt my feelings? I can't answer, but only shake my head and keep howling. I'm so mortified with myself and so sorry for dear Giovanni, trapped here in this car with this sobbing, incoherent old woman who is totally a pezzi--in pieces.
I finally manage to rasp out an assurance that my distress has nothing to do with him. I choke forth an apology for being such a mess. Giovanni takes charge of the situation in a manner far beyond his years. He says, "Do not apologize for crying. Without this emotion, we are only robots." He gives me some tissues from a box in the back of the car. He says, "Let's drive."
He's right--the front of this Internet cafe is far too public and brightly lit a place to fall apart. He drives for a bit, then pulls the car over in the center of the Piazza della Repubblica, one of Rome's more noble open spaces. He parks in front of that gorgeous ountain with the bodacious naked nymphs cavorting so pornographically with their phallic flock of stiff-necked giant swans. This fountain was built fairly recently, by Roman standards. According to my guidebook, the women who modeled for the nymphs were a pair of sisters, two popular burlesque dancers of their day. They gained a fair bit of notoriety when the ountain was completed; the church tried for months to prevent the thing from being unveiled because it was too sexy. The sisters lived well into old age, and even as late as the 1920s these two dignified old ladies could be seen walking together every day into the piazza to have a look at "their" fountain. And every year, once a year, for as long as he lived, the French sculptor who had captured them in marble during their prime would come to Rome and take the sisters out to lunch, where they would reminisce together about the days when they were all so young and beautiful and wild.
So Giovanni parks there, and waits for me to get a hold of myself. All I can do is press the heels of my palms against my eyes, trying to push the tears back in. We have never once had a personal conversation, me and Giovanni. All these months, all these dinners together, all we have ever talked about is philosophy and art and culture and politics and food. We know nothing of each other's private lives. He does not even know that I am divorced or that I have left love behind in America. I do not know a thing about him except that he wants to be a writer and that he was born in Naples. My crying, though, is about to force a whole new level of conversation between these two people. I wish it wouldn't. Not under these dreadful circumstances.
He says, "I'm sorry, but I don't understand. Did you lose something today?" But I'm still having trouble figuring out how to talk. Giovanni smiles and says encouragingly, "Parla come magni." He knows this is one of my favorite expressions in Roman dialect. It means, "Speak the way you eat," or, in my personal translation: "Say it like you eat it." It's a reminder--when you're making a big deal out of explaining something, when you're searching for the right words--to keep your language as simple and direct as Roman food. Don't make a big production out of it. Just lay it on the table.
I take a deep breath and offer a heavily abridged (yet somehow totally complete) Italian- language version of my situation: "It's about a love story, Giovanni. I had to say good-bye to someone today."
Then my hands are slapped over my eyes again, tears spraying through my clamped fingers. Bless his heart, Giovanni doesn't try to put a reassuring arm around me, nor does he express the slightest discomfort about my explosion of sadness. Instead, he just sits through my tears in silence, until I've calmed down. At which point he speaks with perfect empathy, choosing each word with care (as his English teacher, I was so proud of him that night!), saying slowly and clearly and kindly: "I understand, Liz. I have been there."