It’s 8:30 on Wednesday morning. I woke up around 6:30 but didn’t get out of bed until 7:30. What have I been doing for the past hour? I do what I always do on the mornings I am behind on my blog, I try to unearth something to write about. I promised to write a memoir piece. I should write about my marriage. I really don’t want to write about my marriage. But I will.
My husband and I were in a relationship on and off for three years before we married. I met his family only once or twice before the marriage. But still I found them peculiar. I was never around them long enough to understand them. My husband assured this. I never questioned why. They were country-dwellers and he fancied himself cosmopolitan. He often worked abroad, was rarely in Italy full-time. It was easy to set himself apart from them.
My husband and I met one evening while I was walking down the street in Turin. My boyfriend had broken up with me the previous year, while we were living in South Africa, and I had been so devastated I didn’t date anyone for a year. I moved back to the States. I moved in with my grandparents who lived in a small city outside of Chicago. I sat in a chair in their backyard and stared into space for hours. No one could reach me. I was unreachable. I avoided calls from my ex-boyfriend. I took a medical leave from my masters program and became, quite unintentionally, very thin. My grandparents kept taking me to church. They thought it would calm me down. It had the opposite affect; it made me more agitated.
My grandparents. On hot summer days, they would put me in the back of their cornflower blue 80s-model Buick Oldsmobile and drive me to church services where people sang far too loud into cheap microphones and the minister’s brand of biblical ‘logic’ was, for the even marginally educated, unreasonable. There would be lots of music and sometimes, dancing. And I would think, my God, this is horrible. I would go home and go to sleep and basically not get up for days. In the real world there’s a term for this. It’s called ‘nervous breakdown’. I was having one. I didn’t get it at the time. After all when a person is going crazy, they’re never aware of it in process. I just thought I needed to stop taking phone calls from my ex-boyfriend, who, at least in my mind, was romancing half of Johannesburg. I thought I just needed to forget about him. I thought I just needed sleep.
A year after this debacle, fast-forward. I got back to a somewhat normal weight and stopped being dragged around to various churches. I went to Italy where my ex-boyfriend was from. I met my husband one evening in Turin. I was still very upset about my ex, whose family I had just seen that day. He was still in South Africa. They were ringing their hands, attempting to stage a boycott of the new woman he was with, hoping his new relationship, like a storm, would blow over.
That morning I received an invitation from Elisabetta, my ex-boyfriend’s older sister. Formidable and astute, very little got by Elisabetta. She was often quiet but in the most political of ways and defended the family with the instinct of a lioness. Elisabetta’s secretary called me that morning and I was summoned to her office, in a lovely seventeenth century building not far from her and her husband’s apartment, the apartment where we used to spend our Christmases, looking out over the snow-covered Alps. These were the days when my boyfriend and I were happiest. Mischief-making, holding hands under the dinner table over four course meals, me standing beside him on the balcony while he smoked and taught his nieces the rude Mandarin sayings he’d picked up in Shanghai. We laughed a lot. He traveled to China once a month for work and left me alone in the apartment with his father whom I loved like my own father. Signore. He was wonderful to me. He drove me to the seaside for weekend excursions and worried over me while his son was away. We all had lovely times together. I went to birthday parties for all of the children. How happy was I? I was ridiculously happy.
But then something happened to change everything, and there was no turning back.
By summoning me to her office, a year after the break-up, Elisabetta was attempting to regain control of a circumstance which had gone terribly awry. She sat with me for a few moments. She updated me on the social events of the family. And then she did something entirely unexpected, she picked up the phone and called her brother in Johannesburg. She spoke to him for a moment and then, getting down to business, she handed me the phone. When I left her office I was crying. I cried all day. That evening I was walking down the street and a man wearing a tailored suit walked up to me. He asked me to dinner. Two weeks later he was talking to me about marriage.
Have you ever had a feeling you are about to do something very wrong? You know it. But you don’t have the courage to stop yourself. You’re afraid of what might happen if you don’t just go along with it. You talk yourself into it. It seems, in a rational way, like the logical thing to do. I was well aware of the fact that I could not handle another soul-crushing summons from Elisabetta. I had to go on my own way. I never get headaches. But the morning after my wedding I woke up with a horrible one. The headache lasted for exactly six months. I was in constant need of pain relievers. The morning of the wedding, I actually canceled but my husband talked me into going through with it.
By the time I filed for divorce, four years had passed. The headache had morphed into all sorts of problems. I hated the small Italian city we lived in. The people there were ignorant. While I could walk the streets of Turin with ease, there I couldn’t walk to a cafe to write without being harassed by men in cars who opened their doors and tried to coerce me into them. I kept being mistaken for a Nigerian prostitute. I’ve never seen a prostitute carrying a laptop. Nor have I ever seen one wearing glasses. But from their perspectives, I guessed, there was a first time for everything.
My husband’s father refused to attend the wedding. He wouldn’t eat with me at family celebrations. I wasn’t even allowed at the dinner table. I remember the first time I saw him outside the house one night. He was walking the dog. I told him good evening in crisp, well-practiced Italian. He responded by turning to talk to the dog. It was pretty clear. The dog was worthy of a greeting. I was not. When we visited my in-laws for the holidays my husband was left out of every celebration because he had married me.
When two people marry, it is generally because they want to build a family together. I wanted this but I did not want to bring a child into a family where the child wouldn’t be accepted. The idea was, in the end, unthinkable. When one moves abroad, one can better appreciate the importance of family. Even now, sitting here in Berlin, I can appreciate those terrible church services on those hot summer afternoons with my grandparents. Because I recognize how much they loved me. They didn’t exactly know what to do for me, but they did their best.
When you become more established in life and in who you are as a person, you understand what truly feels right, and you know what doesn’t. I knew early on that I needed to make a u-turn. It took me years to do so. There are times when a u-turn isn’t easy.
My husband and I eventually left Italy. We moved to Belgium. I tried to reconcile things there too. But beyond the family who wouldn’t accept me, it wasn’t right between us. I suffered under the weight of what to do next. The suffering ended when I made up my mind to leave.
Two years later, I’m headache-free. I’m single but you know what? For the first time in a very long time, I can honestly say it: I’m happy.