I tried to re-assemble my life but nothing seemed to fit. The Fendi bag that Giovanni’s mother had given me stood out like a sore thumb among my dancer friends’ canvas totes. I felt like this new man and new life required me to look the part, and looking the part made me act the part and acting turned into being, so in some way I was becoming another person even before I had the chance to decide who she was or if I was even comfortable in her skin. Certain people in my life picked up on this immediately, and they didn’t like it. My fresh-out-of-Berkeley-sister came to stay for a weekend and left after a horrible fight broke out between the three of us over her not wearing shoes on the streets of New York, a fight, which cast me smack dab between two people I loved and sought respect from. She could tell, even before I could, that I was playing a part I had no idea I was playing.
I was growing increasingly depressed, even if I didn’t know it. How could I? I was in a relationship with a man who loved me and who I was absolutely, one hundred and fifty percent sure, would never cheat on me, despite the reputation of his countrymen.
Rage issues notwithstanding, Giovanni had a soft, sweet and sentimental side. Certain American staples like John Wayne and “Rhapsody in Blue” could move him to tears. He also had a childlike enthusiasm for anything food-related. As a one-time anorexic with a complicated relationship with the stuff, I reveled in his enthusiasm even if I couldn’t share it.
We had moved to a beautiful apartment with a view of the river and I – we – never had to worry about money. I loved his parents and was on the phone with them twice a week. Plus, there were trips to Italy. But thinking back, I realize I had never processed the loss of one life and the embracing of another. I had not mourned the end of my life as a dancer, a life I had lived and a dream I had nurtured since I was thirteen. I didn’t realize it then, but it was my dream and my passion, even if I had been broke and starving during much of it. I missed the endorphin rush of a dance class. This, too, contributed to my mood, the feeling that I was walking around with a gauze curtain between me and the rest of the world.
That’s partially why I welcomed Giovanni’s jumping out of bed on a Saturday morning to announce we needed to go out and buy a roast. He got me out of my depression—even if he was the main cause of it.
I finally got a job. I started working for a company that created a medical search software on CD-ROM. I was temping there, and they offered it to me. I didn’t know anything about computers and wanted nothing to do with them. My dream job at the time was working for Salvatore Ferragamo, but he wouldn’t have me. It was a start-up that housed itself in a former fur factory, a big, open space with computers and wires everywhere, and there was a new kind of energy in the air. Mind you, I didn’t use the word “energy” in those days, but what I noticed was that everyone was young and creative and weird and had a great capacity for fun. The job itself was secondary. I hated sales and had a tough time getting excited enough about search software to discuss it with people, but the company kept me on, eventually promoting me to international sales coordinator.
I started getting stomachaches when my key would turn in the lock, and I’d walk into the apartment to find Giovanni in his underwear watching television. There was a gulf opening up between my home life and my work life that even in my disconnected state I was having a hard time reconciling. I started writing. It was my escape, my secret life, and I started doing it because I listened to the feelings I was having upon hearing my co-worker talk about his screenplay. I wanted a fucking screenplay. I wrote poems. I was working on a novel about a dancer who goes to Italy and ends up a bored housewife. I started seeing a shrink. I did the last one in secret, knowing Giovanni would not approve. He thought therapy was a load of crap. “Is this a movement towards life or towards death?” my Upper West Side therapist would ask in his nasal tone as I lay prone on the couch.
How do you find the voice to break up with someone to whom you’ve never articulated your real voice in the first place?
You have an affair with a co-worker. Or two. You avoid all associations with home life and drink heavily and spend weekends fucking in the company beach house. This went on for a summer. I was with the least likely co-worker in a sea of unlikely co-workers. Tom was sweet and five years younger and Midwestern. Oh, and a computer programmer. He’d pick me up right in front of my building, and we’d drive down to the Jersey Shore in his Volkswagen Rabbit and share a bedroom and pretend like we were a couple for the weekend.
Giovanni begged for sex, but I couldn’t give it. He used reasoning: we needed to do it or we’d drift apart. I couldn’t tell him that we’d already drifted apart and that I’d lost the will to discuss the relationship because whenever I tried, he would get angry. I was done. But three years, three apartments, two continents and one tentative engagement later, I could not find the courage to broach the subject with him. I realize now that I was afraid of him. The very reasons I had shut down and moved on to another man were the reasons I could not utter those words. I felt tremendous guilt. It was guilt over having not spoken up earlier, at having said yes to getting up and getting that glass of water. It was guilt over putting the idea of a boyfriend over the boyfriend himself. It was guilt over having been on my own fucking train, but not having the guts to say so.
I couldn’t stand myself and yet I loved myself at the same time. Clandestine sex made me feel powerful and so, oddly enough, the one area where I should have felt guilty I did not.
In retrospect, I think it felt like payback for Giovanni’s punching the walls and screaming and breaking my grandmother’s silver candlesticks by slamming them onto the floor (who knew those things were filled with sand?). His cluelessness made me both angry at and deeply sad for him. He didn’t even consider the possibility that I was seeing someone else or that I would leave. That’s why it was so impossible to do it.
I caught a break. My company’s London office was short-staffed, so I was being sent there to pick up the slack. It’s funny how memory works. I can remember certain moments in our life together with perfect clarity.
The night – or day – when I told Giovanni I wanted to end the relationship I do not remember at all. I can’t even recall where it took place. I know this: no plates broke and no voices were raised. We weren’t in a Fellini movie. It may have been the most real we’d ever been. Then I got on a plane.
I was buying myself time. My stuff was still in my place – our place – but I had said I was done, so therefore I was, right? I was confused. I was guilty over not being sad enough. I wanted a room of my own, but I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of re-claiming my life. I was a destabilized region made vulnerable to a new and forceful ideology.
That came in the form of my boss, who was waiting for me in London along with his wife, who happened to be Italian. Greg was Jewish from Long Island. What he didn’t have in height or looks he more than made up for in his ability to sell—anything to anyone. We three shared the cramped Notting Hill flat that the company rented in a post-college sort of situation: she cooked us delicious Southern Italian meals, he and I took the Tube to and from work together. Sometimes we three would smoke pot and watch bad British television. Other times we’d go to Leicester Square to see movies and eat Chinese food. I was their child and their roommate. I devoured her risotto while they bickered. I wondered if they would have been better or worse without me there, if they – he – orchestrated the arguments for my benefit. As much as I liked her, when dragged into their drama, I ended up siding with him. Was I predisposed to distancing myself from her because she was Italian?
In any case, I fucked her husband after a trade show in the south of France. And then I fell in love with him.
I went back to New York after being abroad for six weeks. Armed with this new romance, I had the motivation to move out of Giovanni’s and my apartment and into a studio apartment I had found. I had been planning this for months, imagining the day, the mood, the furniture I’d take. I was hopped up on adrenaline. I yanked paintings down, furiously wrapped ceramics in newspaper. I de-assembled the Conran’s desk. While this was going on, Giovanni lay in bed crying. The disintegration of our life together was happening right in front of him, and he had no choice but to believe it. I was sadder for him than I was for us, but I couldn’t slow down.
The Italians use the word storia which translates to “story” and also “history” to mean “romance” or “relationship”. Giovanni would translate it directly as he so often did with certain words and phrases and refer to “our story.” He would tell our story, the one involving the kidnapping in the dead of night – he would refer to this because it was as much a part of who we were as a couple as the things we did together on a regular basis. And now our story was over. Thinking of it that way made it even more resonant, more tragic, more old-world. We were not “broken up” so much as we, the “we” we knew for three years, had parted ways at the fork in the road and were no longer sharing the trip together.
I settled into my new place. Beyond leaving the safety and solidity of a life metaphorically built on cobblestones and recipes passed down from five generations, I was leaving the quiet West Village for the busier streets of Chelsea. The apartment felt small, maybe because it was, and for a few weeks or months I didn’t have my footing. But slowly, after Greg’s and my doomed and stormy relationship came to its rightful end, I found some crumbs that led me down a new path. I quit my job and started bartending. I went back to the novel and eventually became a script reader for a small production company. I made a clear decision to finally become the woman I wanted to be – like the ones I’d met when I was with Giovanni and envied: women who lived free, creative lives and who had friends with free, creative lives. And I did it with a foundation of knowing that not only had I loved and been loved, but I had shared a life with someone in the most intimate way possible. It may sound odd, but this confirmation of my very humanity fortified me to move forward in my life.
To have built a nest and then fled it—was it a checkmark in my book of life the way some people check off marriage and kids? Maybe.
Or maybe despite the illusion of control over my life, I actually made the bravest choice I could have made that night in Genoa. I jumped into a void. And here I was jumping into another. And it all felt right somehow, another part of my story, though less something I’d written than one laid out for me, that I had a small hand in. As I assembled the Conran’s desk and put some water on the stove to make pasta, I was finally home.