Last Saturday I was invited to my first ever dinner party as a pseudo-adult. A friend from my teacher training course, who is from the UK originally but married an Italian and has been here a few years, invited me and another student, J, over for some great authentic Italian food, special Carnevale pastries that snowed powdered sugar everywhere, and three bottles of wine: white, red, and prosecco. Got to love it. It was good company, good conversation, and their two little kids poking their heads out again and again, not wanting to go to bed. I can still remember being that little kid, but this was my first time on the other side. Is that a milestone of some kind?
It has occurred to me that perhaps my friend, A, invited us two specifically because she wants to set me up with J, who just happens to be tall, dark and handsome, with a lovely London accent. At the (very late) end of the night, noting my general distrust of the tram system in this city, she told him, “take good care of her getting home.” I think A would love to live vicariously a little bit through a course romance, and all the gossip that would ensue. But J has also got 11 years on me, and I really don’t think he could be less interested, as anything more than a friend. Especially because we learned something new about him.
It started with simple questions about an Italian ex-girlfriend he had mentioned a couple of times, who started him learning Italian, which is why he came here, even now after they’ve split up. Playfully nosy, we wanted to know how long they had been together, how long ago it all was. “Actually, she was my ex-wife…” he began finally, and as soon as the words came out, my heart silently broke. Hang on, I wasn’t that attached to the idea of us working on our lesson plans together, over breakfast. It’s not that at all. It was the despondence with which he said it, shedding a different light on what we assumed was just a reserved English nature. His reluctance to put that label on himself, divorced, since we’ve known him for weeks before he ever shared this much, and even now, with only two of us. Since then we haven’t mentioned it, assuming it’s privileged information not to be tossed around to our other friends, over cappuccinos at the coffee bar. When I heard the words I instantly cursed my own nosiness; this is why they say that curiosity killed the cat. Of course he didn’t have to volunteer the information if he didn’t want to, but even so, divorce is a topic you should hardly even tiptoe up to uninvited. And it certainly made those 11 years seem like 20.
Because it must be hard for him, living in Italy now, where he must “see” her everywhere, around every corner. Because I may not be divorced, or married, or engaged, or even anywhere near that, but I do know that feeling. You find out sooner or later, everyone comes here for the same reason. I’m loath to tell anyone, and I’ve avoided mentioning it to my friends here yet, because I know it’s totally irrational and crazy. Because it was only someone I saw briefly, and it was years ago now, and maybe he doesn’t even remember me. But even though I try not to, I still think about him all the time. And I’m not usually this obsessive, I don’t want to be, I don’t dare mention it out loud, I just can’t help it. I remember his scattered pieces of advice to me, and my mind always goes directly to them, applying them to current problems. I see little kids here fidgeting on escalators, saying big Italian words like zucchini in their tiny little voices, and I wonder what he was like as a child. And that’s just not normal.
The persistence of these thoughts, even though I know they’re insane, it has to mean something doesn’t it? Isn’t that love, the kind our grandparents’ generation had, writing letters across wars for years, even if there were no response? Keeping the hope alive anyway. Even so, I don’t tell people this. Because it is totally crazy.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t come to look for him. If I go to Florence, there’s a chance I might run into him, but it’s not something I’d plan on. I’m not quite that bad. But even so isn’t he part of the reason I’m here, doing this? Not just that he made me fall in love with the Italian personality, friendly and chatty and bright, but I was also so impressed with what he had chosen to do, something that really helps people, such a contrast to all my esoteric academic pursuits at the time. And here I am, having changed pace, to something that can legitimately help people. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it must be at least part his influence.
I’ve talked about masks, how we’re all slowly getting to know each other here on my course. And this is one of the things that’s coming out, little by little, each person’s love, whomever or whatever it might be, that brought them here. The story’s always the same.