Sometimes you meet people and have no idea that they will change your life. You look back later, shaking your head at how unsuspecting you were with the arrogant wisdom of hindsight. Other times, you meet someone that immediately moves you. You register the shift on a physical level before your brain can catch up. There’s a shift inside you. The feeling of pieces fitting together in a new way. A resettling. You’ve rounded a corner on your journey and realize there’s a whole new vista, a new land to explore that you’d only before imagined.
That’s what it felt like to meet the pilot.
He was tall and he seemed to fill the whole bar. In two steps he’d gone from the back of the room to shaking my hand. Everywhere I looked, he was there. Then we were talking. I was living a montage, one scene flicking to the next so that I couldn’t see the moments in between. How did he arrive beside me? How did a look become the first word? It felt like being in a song, the inspiration of music without the mechanics of reality.
Of course I don’t remember what we talked about but I don’t think that was important. I remember only the feeling of revelation: someone like this exists.
I’d gone out for a drink with a friend in Testaccio. She’d brought along her pilot husband and he’d invited along a few coworkers and by accident my life changed. I didn’t think I’d see this British pilot, again. He was nearly 20 years older than me and I couldn’t imagine he felt the same. But this feeling was only partially about him.
I had a new knowledge settling in my stomach with a gravity that couldn’t be ignored: if there is someone in this world like this, then I must be free to meet that person.
My boyfriend and I were in a cycle of despair that consisted of the usual dismal arguing, breaking up, feeling the edges of the world start to dissolve, and deciding to stay together after all… for now. We were both miserable at this point, held together by nostalgia, by affection, by disbelief that it could possibly be failing, by genuine love that was mired in frustrated expectations and disappointment. Maybe it was just better to stick out the school year, fulfill the promises I’d made to the English school and then go back to California in June. It was definitely the end of the Italian experiment.
But the mere existence of the pilot changed all that. I had a new understanding, a new possibility. I had the courage of feeling, it can’t get worse than this. It’s easy to try to fly when you can’t fall any further.
The next day, I said it’s over … but really this time. I told our other roommate we’d broken up. His girlfriend was sitting with him at the kitchen table. “My roommate just gave us two weeks notice,” she said. “If you want, you could-” “Ok, I’m moving in,” I said. I felt there was a fire driving me. I started to run and I had to keep running toward that new land I’d glimpsed.
I’d paid no deposit as the landlord was a friend of a friend of my boyfriend. He couldn’t pay the rooms rent on his own (I couldn’t have either). “I’m going,” I said. I was told I was being selfish, irresponsible, untrustworthy. The landlord was furious and “betrayed.” But I had a singleness of purpose guiding me. “Get free” said that purpose. “In any way you can.”
It’s the same drive that had led me to Italy without a job, Italian language skills, visa or friends. But I knew I had to go or I’d always talk about, “could have” and “would have.” Once an idea is planted, you must pull it out or nurture it. There was an immense freedom in having this direction. It meant you only had to figure out where to place your feet, one step at a time, even if you could barely see the path ahead. I left everyone behind me in a mess. I had to go.
A few weeks later I went to the beach with a friend and her roommate who brought her friends along. Lying on the sand, thinking- these are my last months in Italy- this friend of my friend’s roommate said, “I’m leaving Italy actually and the problem is I have an entire roster of English students so I’m looking for someone to take them all. Do you want them?” It was like a new life was handed to me. Less work, about twice the pay. No school telling me to “be patient and wait for more work” that obviously wasn’t coming. I’d waited long enough. Opportunities were in front of me and I would take them.
I told the school I’d be quitting half their non-existent lessons. “I’m one of your few returning teachers and I have fewer lessons this year than last year when I worked for you part time. I can’t buy food. I have to take this opportunity.”
I got a lecture about responsibility. My decision was very disappointing. They thought I could be trusted.
“Trusted to do what? Trusted to do what’s best for you even when it’s blatantly obvious it’s bad for me? What about when I trusted you’d give me enough work to live on? I’m letting down the school? No, you’ve let me down.”
Yeah I didn’t say any of that. I said “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
“You signed a contract with us, saying you’d stay the year.”
But I hadn’t really signed a contract, had I? I’d signed a piece of paper. The contract between us existed only in our trust and belief in each other of which there was now none. I didn’t even legally exist in Italy. They had nothing to give me and nothing to keep me. I left.
I often wonder if it was a series of miraculous coincidences or if there really is something about changing the direction of your inner compass that sets things in motion around you. I feel like the first possibility leaves no room for miracles but the second is far too self-important. Does the changing beat of your own heart move the world around you? Or is it all just particles colliding, repelling, attracting in a random dance we can never hope to understand?
Like the coin machine giving me back the €50 that had been stolen from me on the bus, I felt like I had received a message from… Italy or… the universe or… someone or something. I needed an apartment and it appeared. I needed more work and it was given to me.
In those days, it felt like all I did was go running and lie on my bed listening to Lana del Ray sing sad songs about video games. There was a stretch of grass at the end of the Circus Maximus where Romans had thronged in the hundreds of thousands to watch chariot races. I ran around my stretch of grass in circles, dreaming, placing one foot in front of the other. My world, my life was dissolving. An imaginary world of possibilities was all I stood on. A new dream, not yet reality.
Soon enough, I stood in the doorway of my new room, looking at my things in bags, transported across town a few at a time by bus. There was a single bed. A desk. A window looking onto a wall. I felt alone and alive and tingling with change. The most surprising thing? I had some new adjectives to my name: Unfair. Irresponsible. Disappointing. Selfish.
How fucking liberating were those words?
There’s a female social training that I think all of us receive and follow to varying degrees for varying lengths of time: be perfect. Don’t upset anyone.
I did what was best for me. And everyone was upset. But I was free. What more was I capable of?
And then, he called.
He’d gotten my number from his coworker who got it from my friend. Would I like to go out for a drink or a walk or something?
“Sure,” I said. I didn’t walk.