Behind her: a seven-year marriage, a wrenching divorce, a disastrous affair. What Elizabeth Gilbert needed was a little distance. Make that a lot of distance. So she took a deep breath, dropped everything, and got out of town. In this excerpt from her book, she discovers the pleasures of Rome; the joy of learning 10 Italian idioms a day; the amazing eyes of her language buddy, Giovanni; and the healing power of pizza.
Italy or "Say It Like You Eat It" or 36 Tales About the Pursuit of Pleasure
I wish Giovanni would kiss me.
Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and—like most Italian guys in their twenties—he still lives with his mother. These facts alone make him an unlikely romantic partner for me, given that I am a professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak. This loss upon loss has left me feeling sad and brittle and about seven-thousand years old. Purely as a matter of principle, I wouldn't inflict my sorry, busted-up old self on the lovely, unsullied Giovanni. Not to mention that I have finally arrived at that age where a woman starts to question whether the wisest way to get over therthe loss of one beautiful brown-eyed young man is indeed to promptly invite another one into her bed. This is why I have been alone for many months now. This is why, in fact, I have decided to spend this entire year in celibacy.
To which the savvy observer might inquire: "Then why did you come to Italy?"
To which I can only reply—especially when looking across the table at handsome Giovanni—"Excellent question."
Giovanni is my Tandem Exchange Partner. That sounds like an innuendo but un-fortunately is not. All it really means is that we meet a few evenings a week here in Rome to practice each other's language. We speak first in Italian, and he is patient with me; then we speak in English, and I am patient with him. I discovered Giovanni a few weeks after I arrived in Rome, thanks to that big Internet café at the Piazza Barberini, across the street from that fountain with the sculpture of that sexy merman blowing into his conch shell. He (Giovanni, that is—not the merman) had posted a flier on the bulletin board explaining that a native Italian speaker was seeking a native English speaker for conversational language practice. Right beside his appeal was another flier with the same request, word-for-word identical in every way, right down to the typeface. The only difference was the contact information. One flier listed an e-mail address for some-body named Giovanni; the other introduced somebody named Dario. But even the home phone number was the same.
Using my keen intuitive powers, I e-mailed both men at the same time, asking in Italian, "Are you perhaps brothers?"
It was Giovanni who wrote back this very provocativo message: "Even better. Twins!"
Yes—much better. Tall, dark, and handsome identical twenty-five-year-old twins, as it turned out, with those giant brown liquid-center Italian eyes that just unstitch me. ...
Anyway, by now, the middle of November, the shy, studious Giovanni and I are still merely dear buddies. As for Dario, the more razzle-dazzle, swinger brother of the two, I have introduced him to my adorable little Swedish friend Sofie, and how they've been sharing their evenings in Rome is another kind of Tandem Exchange altogether. But Giovanni and I, we only talk and eat. We have been eating and talking for many pleasant weeks now, sharing pizzas and gentle grammatical corrections, and tonight has been no exception. A lovely evening of new idioms and fresh mozzarella.
Now it is midnight and foggy, and Giovanni is walking me home to my apartment through these backstreets of Rome, which meander organically around the ancient buildings like bayou streams snaking around shadowy clumps of cypress groves. Now we are at my door. We face each other. He gives me a warm hug. This is an improvement; for the first few weeks, he would only shake my hand. I think if I were to stay in Italy for another three years, he might actually get up the juice to kiss me. On the other hand, he might just kiss me right now, tonight, right here by my door...maybe...there's still a chance.
He separates himself from the embrace.
"Good night, my dear Liz," he says.
"Buona notte, caro mio," I reply.
I walk up the stairs to my fourth-floor apartment, all alone. I let myself into my tiny little studio, all alone. I shut the door behind me. Another early bedtime in Rome. Another long night's sleep ahead of me, with nobody and nothing in my bed except a pile of Italian phrase books and dictionaries.
I am alone, I am all alone, I am completely alone.
Grasping this reality, I let go of my bag, drop to my knees, and press my forehead against the floor. There I offer up to the universe a fervent prayer of thanks.
First in English.
Then in Italian.
And then—just to get the point across—in Sanskrit.
And since I am already down there in supplication on the floor, let me hold that position as I reach back in time three years earlier to the moment where this entire story began—a moment that also found me in this exact same posture: on my knees, on a floor, praying.
Everything else about the three-years-ago scene was different, though. That time I was not in Rome but in the upstairs bathroom of the big house in the suburbs of New York that I'd recently purchased with my husband. It was a cold November, around 3 o'clock in the morning. My husband was sleeping in our bed. I was hiding in the bathroom for something like the 47th consecutive night, and, just as during all those nights before, I was sobbing. Sobbing so hard, in fact, that a great lake of tears and snot was spreading before me on the bathroom tiles, a veritable Lake Inferior (if you will) of all my shame and fear and confusion and grief.
I don't want to be married anymore.
I was trying so hard not to know this, but the truth kept insisting itself to me. I don't want to be married anymore. I don't want to live in this big house. I don't want to have a baby.
But I was supposed to want to have a baby. I was thirty-one years old. My husband and I—who had been together for eight years, married for six—had built our entire life around the common expectation that, after passing the doddering old age of thirty, I would want to settle down and have children. By then, we mutually anticipated, I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and a cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop. But I didn't—as I was appalled to be finding out—want any of these things. Instead, as my twenties had come to a close, that deadline of THIRTY had loomed over me like a death sentence and I discovered that I did not want to be pregnant. I kept waiting to want to have a baby, but it didn't happen. And I know what it feels like to want something, believe me. I well know what desire feels like. But it wasn't there. Moreover, I couldn't stop thinking about what my sister had said to me once, as she was breastfeeding her firstborn: "Having a baby is like getting a tattoo on your face. You really need to be certain it's what you want before you commit."
How could I turn back now, though? EverthingEverything was in place. This was supposed to be the year. In fact, we'd been trying to get pregnant for a few months already. But nothing had happened (aside from the fact that—in an almost sarcastic mockery of pregnancy—I was experiencing psychosomatic morning sickness, nervously throwing up my breakfast every day). And every month when I got my period I would find myself whispering furtively in the bathroom: "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for giving me one more month to live..."
I'd been attempting to convince myself that this was normal, that all women must feel this way. All women must feel this way when they're trying to get pregnant, I'd decided. ("Ambivalent" was the word I used, avoiding the much more accurate description: "utterly consumed with dread.") ...
I don't want to be married anymore.
In daylight hours, I refused that thought, but at night it would consume me. What a catastrophe. How could I be such a criminal jerk as to proceed this deep into a marriage, only to leave it? We'd only just bought this house a year ago. Hadn't I wanted this nice house? Hadn't I loved it? So why was I haunting its halls every night now, howling like Medea? Wasn't I proud of all we'd accumulated—the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit? I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life—so why did I feel like none of it resembled me? Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper and the social coordinator and the dog walker and the wife and the soon-to-be mother and—somewhere in my stolen moments—a writer...?
I don't want to be married anymore.
My husband was sleeping in the other room, in our bed. I equal parts loved him and could not stand him. I couldn't wake him to share in my distress—what would be the point? He'd already been watching me fall apart for months now, watching me behave like a madwoman (we both agreed on that word), and I only exhausted him. We both knew there was something wrong with me, and he'd been losing patience with it. We'd been fighting and crying and we were weary in that way that only a couple whose marriage is collapsing can be weary. We had the eyes of refugees. ...
This part of my story is not a happy one, I know. But I share it here because something was about to occur on that bathroom floor that would change forever the progression of my life—almost like one of those crazy astronomical super-events when a planet flips over in outer space for no reason whatsoever and its molten core shifts, relocating its poles and altering its shape radically, such that the whole mass of the planet suddenly becomes oblong instead of spherical. Something like that.
What happened was that I started to pray.
You know—like, to God.
Of course, I've had a lot of time to formulate my opinions about divinity since that night on the bathroom floor when I first spoke directly to God. In the middle of that dark November crisis, though, I was not interested in formulating views on theology. I was interested only in saving my life. I had finally noticed that I'd reached a state of hopelessness and life-threatening despair, and it occurred to me that sometimes people in this state will approach God for help. I think I'd read that in a book somewhere.
What I said to God through my gasping sobs was something like this: "Hello, God; how are you? I'm Liz. It's nice to meet you."
That's right—I was speaking to the creator of the universe as though we'd just been introduced at a cocktail party. But these are the words I always use at the beginning of a relationship. In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself from saying, "I've always been a big fan of your work..."
"I'm sorry to bother you so late at night," I continued. "But I'm in serious trouble. And I'm sorry I haven't ever spoken directly to you before, but I hope I have always expressed ample gratitude for all the blessings you've given me in my life."
This thought caused me to sob even harder. God waited me out. I pulled myself together enough to go on: "I'm not an expert at praying, as you know. But I am in desperate need of help. I don't know what to do. I need an answer. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do..."
And so the prayer narrowed itself down to that simple entreaty—Please tell me what to do, repeated again and again. I don't know how many times I begged. I only know that I begged like someone who was pleading for her life. And the crying went on forever.
Until—quite abruptly—it stopped.
Quite abruptly, I found that I was not crying anymore. I'd stopped crying, in fact, in mid-sob. My misery had been completely vacuumed out of me. I lifted my forehead off the floor and sat up in surprise, wondering if I would now see some Great Being who had taken my weeping away. But nobody was there. I was just alone. But not really alone, either. I was surrounded by something I can only describe as a little pocket of silence—a silence so rare that I didn't want to exhale, for fear of scaring it off. I was seamlessly still. I don't know when I'd ever felt such stillness.
Then I heard a voice. Please don't be alarmed—it was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice, nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I'd never heard it before. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm, and compassionate. This was what my voice would sound like if I'd only ever experienced love and certainty in my life. How can I describe the affection in that voice, as it gave me the answer that would forever seal my faith in the divine?
The voice said: Go back to bed, Liz.
It was so immediately clear this was the only thing to do. I wouldn't have accepted any other answer. I wouldn't have trusted a great booming voice that said either: You Must Divorce Your Husband! or You Must Not Divorce Your Husband! Because that's not true wisdom. True wisdom gives the only possible answer at any given moment, and, that night, going back to bed was the only possible answer. Go back to bed, said this omniscient interior voice, because you don't need to know the final answer right now, at 3 o'clock in the morning on a Thursday in November. Go back to bed, because I love you. Go back to bed, because the only thing you need to do for now is rest and take good care of yourself until you do know the answer. Go back to bed, so that, when the tempest comes, you'll be strong enough to deal with it. And the tempest is coming, dear one. Very soon. But not tonight. Therefore:
Go back to bed, Liz.
If I'd had any way of knowing that things were—as Lily Tomlin once said—going to get a whole lot worse before they got worse, I'm not sure how well I would have slept that night. But seven awful months later, I did leave my husband. When I finally made that decision, I thought the worst of it was over. This only shows how little I knew about divorce. ...
I believe that my husband and I shocked each other by how swiftly we went from being the people who knew each other best in the world to being a pair of the most mutually incomprehensible strangers who ever lived. At the bottom of that strangeness was the abysmal fact that we were both doing something the other person would never have conceived possible; he never dreamed I would actually leave him, and I never, in my wildest imagination, thought he would make it so difficult for me to go.
And then there was David.
All the complications and traumas of those ugly divorce years were multiplied by the drama of David—the guy I fell in love with as I was taking leave of my marriage. Did I say that I "fell in love" with David? What I meant to say is that I dove out of my marriage and into David's arms exactly the same way a cartoon circus performer dives off a high platform and into a small cup of water, vanishing completely. I clung to David for escape from marriage as if he were the last helicopter pulling out of Saigon. I inflicted upon him my every hope for my salvation and happiness. And, yes, I did love him. But if I could think of a stronger word than "desperately" to describe how I loved David, I would use that word here, and desperate love is always the toughest way to do it. ...
I wince now to think of what I imposed on David during those months we lived together, right after 9/11 and my separation from my husband. Imagine his surprise to discover that the happiest, most confident woman he'd ever met was actually, when you got her alone, a murky hole of bottomless grief. Once again, I couldn't stop crying. This is when he started to retreat, and that's when I saw the other side of my passionate romantic hero—the David who was solitary as a castaway, cool to the touch, in need of more personal space than a herd of American bison. ...
David's sudden emotional back-stepping probably would've been a catastrophe for me even under the best of circumstances, given that I am the planet's most affectionate life-form (something like a cross between a golden retriever and a barnacle), but this was my very worst of circumstances. I was despondent, dependent, needing more care than an armful of premature triplets. His withdrawal only made me more needy, and my neediness only advanced his withdrawals, until soon he was retreating under fire of my weeping pleas of, "Where are you going? What happened to us?"
(Dating tip: Men LOVE this.)
Oh, but it wasn't all bad, those few years...
Because God never slams a door in our face without opening a box of Girl Scout Cookies (or however the adage goes), some wonderful stuff did happen in the shadow of all that sorrow. ...
To begin with, things started to look up somewhat when I moved out of David's place in early 2002 and found an apartment of my own for the first time in my life.
I was beginning to sense that, even though my life still looked like a multi-vehicle accident on the New Jersey Turnpike during holiday traffic—I was tottering on the brink of becoming a self-governing individual. When I wasn't feeling suicidal about my divorce, or suicidal about my drama with David, I was actually feeling kind of delighted about all the little compartments of time and space that were appearing in my days, during which I could ask myself the radical new question: "What do you want to do, Liz?"
Most of the time (still so troubled from bailing out of my marriage), I didn't even dare to answer the question, but just thrilled privately to its existence. And when I finally started to answer, I did so cautiously. I would only allow myself to express little-baby-step wants. Like:
I want to go to a Yoga class.
I want to leave this party early, so I can go home and read a novel.
I want to buy myself a new pencil box.
Then there would always be that one weird answer, same every time:
I want to learn how to speak Italian.
See how Liz Gilbert's love life is today! Oprah interviews the author of Eat, Pray, Love.
Printed from Oprah.com on Tuesday, March 11, 2014
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