Do you know that when you're bombed, you sometimes tell lies about yourself? These lies can be innocuous little bits of rubbish that are forgotten by all the moment after they're uttered. For example, "I read that article" or "I know that painting" or simply "I totally know what you're talking about". But sometimes you tell significant ones, like, "my book's being published" or "I have feelings for you, too." In 2000, when I was studying abroad, I told a guy named Itay, a fellow student in the Bologna program, that I was a zero-generation French Canadian. Now, my grandfather's father's family is French Canadian, but clearly that puts us back multiple generations. I frequently lied about how many people I slept with. I did this, frankly, because the number was so low for someone in their twenties. I never felt bad about this lie, and I'm sure it's not terribly uncommon. I lied about things like where I'd lived, because saying "Minnesota, and a year abroad" sounded less exciting and cosmopolitan than I fashioned myself. I'd usually throw in Colorado and New York as previous domiciles, because I'd been to both states several times and figured: what the hell. Before I was in college I lied about being a student at the University of Minnesota. I didn't realize it then, but I was trying to achieve status. I was trying to gain prestige. I was aspiring. (Do you know aspire comes from the Latin aspirare, literally, to breathe upon. Incidentally, in my last year of college I decided to take Intro to Russian and learned that the Russian word for graduate student is aspirant.)
If I can, I'd like to return, briefly, to the year in Italy. When I was living in Europe I thought: wow, I am not making the most of this experience. And, although in some respect this was tragic, I'd like to focus on how it was nonetheless undoubtedly true. I would say I was unprepared for certain aspects of living in a foreign country (social skills, level of independence), but the truth is I was unprepared for the whole enterprise. My ego was so frightfully fragile that with each failed attempt at success, each awkward romance or even with each slightly difficult interaction with a shop-keeper, I retracted. My language skills were above average (simply the truth) but in the face of a challenge--a real challenge--I realized quite unexpectedly and disappointingly that I was timorous, fearful, shy (note to the reader: all these words mean the same thing). I was never a rigorous academic or fanatical student and now that the courses were being taught in Italian, I had the perfect excuse to stop going to lectures altogether. I didn't really relate to my colleagues, the other American students, and I felt equally intimidated by their home institutions, their lack of inhibition and aggressive intelligence, so I passed on social engagements or if I attended, I took frequent smoke breaks and quietly got drunk in the corner.
The grocery store on my residential block was named, delightfully, PAM, and it had an entire wall of wine bottles. These went for the equivalent of approximately two to four dollars. At some point each day, I got the courage to wander out of the apartment, walk to PAM, pick up a bottle of Est!Est!Est! and a bottle of San Giovese, along with a bag of crackers and a block of Pecorino Sorrentino (which in the ten years hence I have yet to find in the U S of A). On the walk back, I often picked up a pack of Camel Lights from a machine on the side of an abandoned building, and then (nota bene: you're never supposed to say "and then") after this herculean effort, I returned to the apartment and called it a damn day. I'd set up shop on the balcony, unscrew the first cork with a Gauloises corkscrew I'd picked up ??? and pour a glass of wine into a pink or green coffee mug (no wine glasses in the pre-furnished apartment). I'd light a cigarette and look out across the parking lot (the balcony overlooked a parking lot) and watch the sun make its descent. I drank until it was evening, and then I drank until it was night, and sometimes, I drank until it was very early.
My therapist says, if you're competitive, why didn't you join the fray? I say, sometimes competitive people hide. Recently, though, I've been wondering if maybe it's normal. Maybe being normally competitive, predictably bitchy, is being a regualr person--nothing extraordinary. Maybe I'm just a person with feelings and desires, regrets and nostalgia. One of those desires is to be a better person, less neurotic and image-obsessed. Now that I'm older, now that I live in Philadelphia, I feel less interested in status and prestige. Philadelphia has one of the poorest collections of people you'll ever meet. Poor is a relative term, but if you take a walk or a drive through north Philadelphia, it won't seem relative. I think about how I can be less introspective and actually make somebody's life qualitatively, if not quantitatively, better. I have this theory that if we all did something for someone with less than us--and I mean that at every level of socioeconomic status--the world would be a different place. At any rate, I get out of the apartment more. I work at a college and volunteer at two charter schools. I'm taking a class on urban education (Jonathan Kozol is a good starting point). The truth is, I sometimes miss the self-created desert island. I miss the smoke filling my lungs and the wine filling my body. I miss the longing and pining and phone-dialing. I miss the weird thoughts; the fears and epiphanies. And I miss the sheer feeling of oneness that infatuation creates (infatuation? yes, infatuation. caroline knapp knew all too well). But it's easier to miss the island than to live there (is this a cliche? I don't know). And when I remember it honestly, it was a really lonely time. I don't have time to be lonely now. There's too much to be done, to much to do. My therapist tells me, see, you aren't a competitive bitch. I say, thank you, but that has yet to be seen.