I Studied Abroad in Italy to Get Back at My Boyfriend, Part 1 (Culture Shock: Food)

Overlooking the sea in Cinque Terre on my 21st birthday


Me in Florence, 2000

I studied abroad in Italy in the summer of 2000 to get back at my boyfriend. Yep. Besides shaving my head and getting a tattoo one time after a bad breakup, this was definitely the most un-me thing I ever did. Thank goodness. I changed during my three months there. I grew up. I got stronger physically and emotionally. My man actually didn’t recognize me when I came home. I learned to scream “Va via” (“go away”) at groping men. I learned that I was not a city girl after all. As every traveler learns on her first trip abroad, I learned what I loved about home.

My boyfriend in summer 2000 was future Mr. Okayest. What horrible thing do you think he did to make me leave the country out of spite? Forget my birthday? Ask to go on a “break”? Cheat on me? No, dear readers, it was nothing so lurid. He simply took an internship in another state. I thought he and I would come home from college that summer to be together, and, instead, he (smartly) got an excellent internship. So, out of spite, I thought, “Well, if he’s not coming home, then neither am I. He’s going to leave the state? I’m going to leave the country!” And that is how a ridiculous homebody like me leaves the country.

During the summer of 2000 (“estate duemila”), Italia was a place without air conditioning, computers, and cell phones. I lived in Florence (Firenze), which was a bustling city of nearly half a million, with Gucci, Prada, and Tiffany stores in between each ancient monument and art museum. This was a bustling metropolis, yet somehow it was stuck in time, too, in the most deliciously relaxed way. It was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Homeowners couldn’t even change the paint color on their shutters without permission from the town government. It was one of the fashion centers of the world, but I was just there in my Birkenstocks.

Me in Florence, 2000

My trip to Italy was only 14 years ago, but it seems like another lifetime ago. The summer of 2000 was before the Euro: Italy still used lire. It was before the smoking ban: everyone, from my bank teller to my ice cream man, dropped ashes into my money and food. It was before the iPod: I actually brought a walkman and cassette tapes with me. [Insert sheepish grin here. Embarrassment is not resulting from being so old that I had a walkman and cassette tapes. Instead, embarrassment is caused by being raised by a musician who listens only to quality vinyl.]

I didn’t read about anything before I left. I was a smart/dumb 20-year-old. What I knew about Florence was from my two art history classes. What I knew about Italy was from “The Godfather”. What little Italian language I knew was probably food words or things my future father-in-law had said. There was no Wikipedia to peruse before leaving. I got a travel guidebook at the used bookstore and that was that.

There was no cell phone to take with me. I bought phone cards at the corner markets and called my boyfriend from the nearest payphone. He said it sounded like I was at a racetrack, which was somewhat accurate, since the traffic was crazy enough to knock one of my friend’s shoes off her feet. There was not much internet either. My parents did not have email yet, but of course my boyfriend did. It didn’t matter much because there were only a couple of internet cafes I could use – at exorbitant rates. What I am trying to tell you young whipper-snappers is: back then, when you left, you were gone.

If I remember correctly, I spent a whole summer in Italy for less than three grand. That included airfare. My parents said they supported my decision (although they were completely shocked) if I would handle all the finances myself. I visited the student aid office about a hundred times, and worked out all the details and kinks. I always had a job during college. I had some savings. I borrowed some from a generous aunt and uncle, and I added the rest of the cost to my already-generous student loans. In the late 90s, student loan rates were at a Clinton-inspired record low, so I figured I wouldn’t mind paying for Italy when I was 34 years old. I was right.

Arriving in Italy was a complete shock for this Southern country girl. I wasn’t sure if I was more shocked by city life or by Italian life. Both were a major change for a girl who grew up on a mountain in Virginia and went to college in a rural town whose only claim to fame involved turkeys. Suddenly, I was breathing exhaust fumes and not understanding a word anyone said.

My bedroom in my homestay

My bedroom in my homestay

Our study abroad group was broken up into groups of twos and threes for homestays. I lived with a very formal family who had Sicilian accents that made their Italian even more impossible to understand. We were expected to dress for dinner, not ever be barefoot, and eat whatever was prepared, even if it was fried octopus. As a lactose-intolerant Mormon who doesn’t like chocolate, I will also add that I must have seemed very rude when I declined pretty much every coffee drink ever made.

A Room with a View - MY view

A Room with a View – MY view

Their fancy apartment was on the second floor, but, in Europe, that means about 300 steps. They did not have air conditioning, but neither did anyone else. Even the most famous of paintings were sweating in the Uffizi without air conditioning. We were there during the summer, in a major heat wave. The weather felt a lot like it did at home: hot and sticky. At least something felt like home!

Half our meals were at our homestay, and half our meals were on our own. I learned a few things very quickly about how Italians do food. First, they don’t hurry. The first phrase I had to learn and use was “Il conto, per favore” (“The check, please”). If you don’t ask for the check, the waiter will let you sit there all day. Does your American self bristle at the thought? Well, don’t, because Italians think it’s rude to bring you a check before you have finished relaxing. (I now bristle when American waiters shoo me away from their table with an early check. I mean, I felt that way before kids. Now I don’t really go to restaurants.)

Next, I learned that pasta is just a first course. And it’s not a big portion at all- maybe just a few bites of homemade noodles. Do you think those Italians stay slim with an Olive-Garden-situation? I don’t think so. Same with bread. I never saw a single breadbasket in all of Italy. If we got any bread at all, it would be a tiny hard-as-a-rock little thing sitting beside your plate.

Italy train0010 Oh, and then there’s the fruit. If you reach for a peach at the corner fruit stand, the grocer might actually smack your hand away. Only the seller selects and hands you your fruit. “Why would I want to sell dirty fruit?” Also, they only sell things in season, so you don’t need to worry about picking over the selection to be sure you get something ripe.

I also learned that Italians don’t drink. Water. Italians don’t drink water. We were always so thirsty – and everyone, from the shopkeeper to the homestay mama to the waiter, snickered and giggled about the amount of water we consumed. You don’t really see Italians carrying around a water bottle. And, if you don’t want sparkling water, you better be sure you specify that you want ”still” water. We thought we were in heaven when we found 1-liter bottles of “still” water in the grocery store, but we looked ridiculous carrying them around Italy. (They were maybe the size of a Big Gulp from home, so it didn’t seem weird to us.)

Typical tiny Italian breakfast

So, not only was I thirsty, but I was starving. I was starving in Italy! I was in one of the world’s most beloved culinary meccas, and I was starving all the time. I was used to big, American portions. I was used to a lot of fat and a lot of calories. I was a meat and potatoes girl who was completely out of her element in the world of fresh food. Besides, I was walking over eight miles a day to and from class and meals (and clubs), and burning more calories than I ever had. I lost quite a bit of weight that wasn’t mine to lose.

I was constantly in awe of the beauty of the colors, the food, the people, and the art. I felt alive with all that beauty. But I surprised myself by feeling a little deadened inside from being away from all that was familiar, and being away from the people who loved me. I realized that I was indeed an introvert. I was an introverted country girl in a big city in another country where no one knew me, and everything was so beautiful it hurt. My heart hurt to see all these beautiful things without the mother who used to tell me that “You’re my piece of blue Italian sky” because she never got to travel… and my heart hurt to see all those beautiful things without the man I was to marry. I wanted to go home, and come back with the people I loved.


My view, walking home over the Arno River


Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I will scare you with: I Studied Abroad in Italy to Get Back at my Boyfriend, Part 2 (Culture Shock: Men).


Guest Post: One Adopted and Brown, Then One Birthed and White

This article is the fouth in a series of guest posts. I have invited a few select friends and family members to contribute to my blog. I have chosen them based on two things: 1) I personally go to them for help; and 2) I am fascinated by their unique parenting challenges, because I want to hear how they make “okayest” work for them.

 Allow me to introduce you to my college friend Claire*. We lost touch after college, but found our way back together when we realized that both of us had our first child around the same time – and both those children happened to be “brown”, adopted, and male. We both went on to birth white children. Here in this blog post, she has the guts to say many of the things that are in my heart. It is good to have a friend with a trans-racial family. Here is Claire’s point of view:

I have two kids, both boys. One is almost four, and the other is almost two. The first and oldest is adopted and brown. The second and younger is birthed and white. There is a long version of how my husband and I ended up here, but I have a short version too. Essentially, my first post-college career was foster care social work, which led me to wanting to adopt through foster care and not have bio kids. My husband, Jim, knew this because we’ve known each other since always. He was totally up for adopting, though he did want one birth child so we could have a variety of experiences. After five years of marriage, we became foster parents. Our son, Nicholas, was placed with us as a baby, and we adopted him when he was a toddler (shortest version ever of the hardest 15 months of all of our lives). Shortly before the adoption was finalized, Jim convinced me that Nicholas needed a sibling close in age and whom we could raise from infanthood. And we were lucky, or whatever you want to call it, and became pregnant right away. Our son Alexander was born six days before Nicholas turned two. That’s how we ended up with our two sons. And yes, we do expect to foster and hopefully adopt again, though we want to parent a teen next. Our son Nicholas also has special needs, while Alexander does not. All of this about fostering and special needs kids is its own topic, however, and I’m here today to write about how parenting adopted and brown versus birthed and white. Nicholas is Cherokee, Korean, black, white, and Hispanic. Alexander is European white bread.

1. What goes on in my head around this topic?

On an everyday basis, I think a lot about books for my kids. I like to spend time thinking about the things I can actually control, and for me for right now that means deciding which books they borrow from the library or own. We read a lot at our house, and I like having books that align with the subjects Nicholas is learning about in preschool. For money and shopping week that meant books about going to stores, for October that mean autumn and Halloween books, and last week that meant books about different types of houses and house-building. The trouble has been that most books do not include people of color, and I’ve had to search to find the racially-inclusive books that I want in our home. I have found some good ones: Gabe’s Grocery List by Jenck; Fall by Roca; and Wonderful Houses Around the World by Komatsu. We also end up with a lot of books about animals because I just cannot buy another book with an all-white cast of characters due to how many we already own. I love having the opportunity to show Nicholas people in books who look like him, and I’m excited that Alexander is also being exposed to more racially diverse books.

In terms of books I’ve read, my favorite book on parenting in a multi-ethnic family is “Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. The book discusses the ways that multi-ethnic kids are objectified, and it provided me with useful ways to handle those situations. It helped me think and talk about things that were already on my mind, and it gave me more to ponder too.

I also think a lot about how the world sees my kids, in terms of the opportunities that are available (or not) to them because of race and racism. There’s so much to say here, I’m not even sure how to begin. I think about things that people talk about often, like hiring practices when my boys look for jobs someday. And I also mean things that I haven’t heard people talk about, like when Nicholas is older and makes new friends who are people of color, and those friends then learn he was adopted by white parents. What about when he is dating and eventually looking for a mate? What will those people and their families think of me and our mostly white family? Will he be seen as “other” because his identity is that of a multi-ethnic person in a mostly white family? What will they think of us white people? The stuff about employment opportunities and such bothers me of course, but I spend more time thinking/worrying about the implications for Nicholas’ identity and his personal relationships with everyone he’ll bump into in life. I have none of these worries for Alexander.

I sometimes think about Bruce Springsteen’s song “American Skin (41 shots)” and it gives me the chills and sometimes tears. I don’t want to talk about the particulars and the politics of the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo in 1999, but the lines that speak of a mother sending her son out into the world are hard for me to stomach. This is the verse that’s really hard for me, “Lena gets her son ready for school/ She says “on these streets, Charles/ You’ve got to understand the rules/ If an officer stops you/ Promise me you’ll always be polite,/ that you’ll never ever run away/ Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”” I would not have the same reaction to those words if I, as a white woman, only had a white child. I often think about my boys when I interact with authority figures, and I know that Alexander will be privileged in interactions with authority figures while Nicholas will not be.

2. What do we talk about with Nicholas and Alexander?

We have always talked to Nicholas about being adopted. And he was aware of his coming brother when I was pregnant with Alexander. Because of hard things about the situation and events that took place, Nicholas doesn’t yet know details that relate to foster care and his birth family. We have a good deal of contact with his aunt, whom both Nicholas and Alexander refer to as their aunt because we’ve encouraged them to do so. But other than that, Nicholas knows only that he came to us when a social worker brought him to our house. The story goes like this, “When you were a tiny baby, you needed a family and so Diane brought you to our house. She drove her car into our driveway, and Dad went out and took you and the carseat out of her car. He carried you into the house, and then we held you. You were so little that you needed to eat a lot in the middle of the night, so we would feed you and then change your diaper, and then put you back to bed. When you were older and almost ready to walk we went to the judge together and the judge said we were a family forever. That was when you were adopted and we knew that we could stay together forever.” Nicholas knows that story and loves to hear it, particularly the part about us feeding and holding him at night. He seems to find comfort in hearing about the care we gave him as wee one. He also knows that Alexander grew in my belly and then came out when he was big enough and strong enough. While I was pregnant, we had talked a lot about what it means to be a family and have a younger sibling. Nicholas understood more than we had guessed. When Jim first brought Nicholas (who was still a week away from turning two) to visit Alexander and me in the hospital, he was already protective of his little brother. He’d seen Alexander fuss and cry when the nurses came in to do all their checking. When another nurse entered the room, Nicholas pushed the bassinet on wheels away from the nurse, shook his chubby little pointer finger at her, and said, “No, no, no!” He did not want anyone else coming near his baby. And so Jim and I witnessed the first of many, many moments that have displayed the boys’ strong bond. On the one hand, sometimes it is odd to think of our boys as having two different birthmothers when they’re clearly so connected. On the other hand, it does make sense because it isn’t blood that makes relationships; it’s all the choices we make to love, protect, and serve one another.

Right around the time he turned three, Nicholas seemed to notice skin color for the first time. He and I were at the pool at the local recreation center, and he saw a boy with dark skin. I should say that we live in a state that is 80% white, with the other 20% being a fairly even mix of people who are black, Asian, Hispanic, and multi-ethnic. Our town’s demographics reflect that of the state in general. At the pool that day, everyone other than Nicholas appeared to be white. Then the boy with dark skin arrived. Nicholas soon noticed the boy’s father (a very dark skinned black man) and mother (an extremely pale skinned white woman). Nicholas was fascinated by the family and clearly had a lot of questions, but one of his challenges is an expressive language delay so unfortunately he didn’t have the language to express his ideas. We have learned Sign to enable Nicholas to communicate, however, so I gave him the language (in oral English and in Sign) to be able to communicate about skin color. I gave him the words for skin, dark, light, and brown. At the pool we had some conversation about the skin color of that family and our family, and that conversation ended up continuing for weeks. Mostly he wanted to review the concept that people have different colors of skin and that this variation, even within families, is fine and good. We still talk about skin color, of course, but Nicholas has moved on somewhat from his fixation on skin color and now has questions about eye color. Most people in our immediate and extended family have blue or blue-green eyes, and Nicholas has very dark brown eyes. He wants to know why he has dark eyes but pretty much everyone else has light eyes, and so I point to his birth aunt and also Jim’s sister-in-law who have brown eyes because we want him to feel like he fits. He also wants to know why Buzz Lightyear has blue eyes, Jessie has green eyes, and Woody has brown eyes even though they all have light skin. Preschoolers have so many questions and notice so many details! We work with an adoption/attachment therapist regularly, and she’s helping us traverse this complicated ground of having differences because of adoption. Being an individual and being unique is important, but so is fitting in and feeling like you belong. Alexander looks like Jim and me, especially like me, but Nicholas of course does not. It will probably always be easy for Alexander to feel like he fits. One of our main strategies, based in the work we do with our therapist, is to focus on the behavioral ways that we’re all alike. Nicholas is the one who has my temperament and interests, so we have no trouble identifying many similarities in those areas.

3. What’s it like to interact with strangers?

I very much like talking about adoption and foster care, but much of that conversation is not appropriate to have in front of young children because of the topics it encompasses (e.g., teen pregnancy, abuse and neglect, and choices about contact with birth family). Additionally, these aren’t topics I want to discuss with strangers! Anytime Nicholas is with me in public, which is pretty much all the time, people ask a lot of personal questions and objectify him because he’s obviously adopted and because he’s multi-ethnic. They act as if he is not right there, and they act as if he isn’t a person at all.

First, there’s the way people love to ask questions about adoption or make observations because we have one adopted and one non-adopted child. Here’s a common one, “I’ve heard of so many people who adopted and then ended up getting pregnant!” This is still completely offensive even to me as a person who hasn’t struggled with fertility challenges; a whole lot of assumptions about extremely personal things are wrapped up in this comment. It ignores the science that says you don’t actually magically become pregnant because you’ve “relaxed” (as people love to tell me) after adopting. Plus, it assumes that I wouldn’t have wanted to adopt Nicholas if I could just have had Alexander by birth first! In response, I always say something like, “Hmm, I have heard of that happening too, but I don’t think fertility is usually affected by adoption. And in our case we were really excited to adopt, and that was our primary goal. Alexander came along later because we found it so special to know Nicholas as an infant, and we wanted to be sure we could have that experience again.” Primarily, I want my kids to hear me, but I want to tell those nosy folks a thing or two as well.

Another topic on strangers’ minds is Nicholas’ ethnicity. One common question is, “Where did you get him?” This is framed in a way that sounds like someone is asking me where I acquired a pack of gum or maybe a pair of shoes. “Get him?” Is that really a way to talk about a person? Jim once told a woman in a store that we found him in a vending machine, and he told another woman, “You see, there’s this thing about a sperm and an egg…” but then she walked away. And there was also that time he told someone, “Earth.” Jim tells me that if they ask a stupid question, they will receive a stupid answer. Sometimes I wish I could be that sassy, but most of the time I just smile and walk away in response to those crazy questions.

“Where is he from?” is the same question but packaged slightly better. I always say, “He’s from here.” I mean, what are you even asking??? He was born in the capital of the state in which we live, so answering “here” seems like a good enough answer for a complete stranger. Okay, okay, I know what they’re asking: they want to know about his ethnicity and what country we adopted him from. It’s just none of their business so I mostly refuse to provide information. This is Nicholas’ story to tell, not mine. And I can’t imagine him wanting me to tell strangers all of this stuff. Another good comment along the same lines is, “He’s so exotic!” Oh, or the one we received at the hospital the other day when we were checking Nicholas in for surgery: “Are you his legal guardians?” Nope, I did not hear that one asked of the other families around us who had kids with matching skin color. And of course every person at the playground, grocery store, library, post office, etc. loves to ask me about our boys, “Are they both yours?”

But my favorite question ever was, “Are you his personal trainer?” Nicholas and I were at the pool together, and since we are different colors clearly I could not be his mother. Therefore, I must be his personal trainer. Because three-year-olds have personal trainers?! I would bet any amount of money (by which I mean up to $50 because I’m cheap like that) on the side that says I would never have been asked that question had I been with my white son.

Raising an adopted and brown child is different from raising a birthed and white one. We’re raising them together though, and I know that Alexander will benefit from the experience of having a more ethnically diverse family and seeing racism first-hand. I hope and pray that Nicholas ends up understanding that we’ve worked hard to do the best we can to protect him from being objectified by strangers, and we’ve tried to create a world in which he sees and knows people who look more like him than we do. Whatever happens, I know they have each other.

* Names have been changed.

How a Good Girl Accidentally Got a Tattoo and Shaved Her Head One Time

Tattoos and shaved heads are gateway drugs to saloon life in the 1800s.

Tattoos and shaved heads are gateway drugs to saloon life in the 1800s.

Well, my “What little-known fact about me should be made into a blog post?” blog post has backfired. The ONE AND ONLY fact that I didn’t want to write about was the one that won the poll, with a whopping 42% of the vote. Ugh. Did my subconscious throw that one into the poll at the last minute or what?! Thanks a lot to those of you who voted for it, she says with a sneer.

The winning “little-known fact” was “I shaved my head and got a tattoo after a bad breakup at 18 (not Future Mr. Okayest).”

This little incident (i.e., defining moment) happened almost half my life ago. It will be very difficult to write, mostly out of concerns about respecting The Ex, as well as his family, whom I love very much. I have only ever loved two men in my life: one was The Ex and one is Mr. Okayest.

I have to use past tense on The Ex because…. he passed away. And, if I were to tell you that he died of a drug overdose, it would necessitate the fact that I use no identifying details about him.

We were high school sweethearts in a tiny high school- yes, the same high school where Mr. Okayest also attended. The Ex and I were opposites. “She’s a good girl, loved her mama,” to quote Tom Petty. We were seriously and deeply in love, drawn together by a love of good music, and perhaps from being old souls. He had some serious issues in his life, and I was a source of strength for him.

We dated for two years, and we were going to get married. He proposed. I had a ring and everything. We were going to play Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” at our wedding. “It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well.” We didn’t feel like teenagers, though. We felt like no one understood us – although that is probably just the most mundane thing to feel, since every teenager probably feels that way. Anyway, I think we really would have gotten married if the drugs hadn’t gotten in the way. And marrying him would not have been the best thing for me, no matter how much I loved him.

I really was a good girl. (I still am, ha!) I was a strong LDS girl. I went to church class (“Seminary”) every morning at 6:00 for one hour before school. I went to the hardest high school ever invented by man and had hours of homework every night. (Seriously, college was super easy.) I did every bit of homework. I got straight A’s. I had perfect attendance most of the time. I never drank or smoked or dabbled. I didn’t even drink caffeine back then! Nonetheless, I was a paradox, possibly because I myself was raised by a Mormon Good Girl and a Musician Bad Boy.

Things were starting to fall apart for The Ex before I left for college, but, when I did leave, he spiraled out of control. (Dang, I am reading that in my head with the VH1 “Behind the Music” guy’s voice. Sorry.) I am not extrapolating here. He told me that he couldn’t handle life without me. As an 18-year-old, it’s hard to understand how unhealthy codependence really is. And it’s hard to understand addiction, and all the devastating things in a person’s life that can lead to addiction. And it’s hard to understand that addiction – more specifically, controlling someone else’s addiction – isn’t actually the responsibility of said 18-year-old. (Perhaps that explains my choice of major: Psychology.)

I won’t go into specifics about the drugs, or The Ex, or the demise, out of respect for him and his family. Some of it can be summed up in the first two lines of Tom Petty’s “Listen to Her Heart”. (Go look it up if you can’t sing it off the top of your head. And then stop being friends with me.)

Our relationship ended during my freshman year of college because HE broke up with ME. Can you believe that? The addict is the one who was the break-up-er and the Good Girl is the break-up-ee? Probably like most teen girls, I believed I could “fix” him. A Bachelor’s degree in Psychology taught me that I was wrong – although you would think that the break-up would have been the deciding factor there. In retrospect, I now believe that he meant what he said: he broke up with me because he loved me and he wanted to spare me the ride on which he was stuck. It was a kind and selfless act, because he was giving me the gift I couldn’t give myself: the chance at a happy, normal, and healthy life. I would have ridden that ride with him forever, but he didn’t want that for me. I love him for that.

But, at the time, I couldn’t see past the pain, of course. It was the worst time of my short little life. To say I was devastated is an understatement. I cried so hard for so long that I burst blood vessels in my eyes and had some seriously zombie-fied eyes (before that was a trend). His family came all the way to my college to console me. Everything seemed so dramatic and so final. Mick Jagger once said something about how it’s hard to be a teenager because they just feel everything so much harder. Seriously, growing up is about putting on some sort of emotional blunting device. As my best friend once said, “Eventually we all put on some khakis and go get a job at The Gap.” (And she once wore a Barbie doll head on a dog collar around her neck.)

I was homesick. I was heartsick. My whole future seemed blacked out. I hated myself. I hated him. I wanted to hurt myself, but seeing as how I’m not a “cutter” or a drinker or a dabbler, I decided the best course of action would be to get a tattoo.

For a Mormon Good Girl, this is not a good choice. We believe our bodies are temples to our souls. We are borrowing these bodies as vessels for our spirits. Harming them or disfiguring them is just not a good idea – it is considered disrespectful to the parents and the God who gave you that body on loan. “While it may not be a sin, it’s a mistake.” I did it anyway.

I took a good friend with me. She had graduated from that same small school that The Ex, Future Mr. Okayest, and I had attended together, and then she had gone to the same (huge) college. She understood the depths of my teenage maudlin heart. We were freshmen, so we had no cars, and our college was in a rural area. This meant that, in order to permanently disfigure our bodies, we would have to really work at it. I think we used a combination of public bus routes and large amounts of walking to get to the “downtown” area where we could find a Gruff Old Tattoo Man.

I wasn’t even scared. I picked a part of my body that could hide a tattoo in a one-piece bathing suit, and that wouldn’t stretch out during pregnancy. (Despite my heartbroken state, I still knew I would have children someday.) (Oh, and I guess I picked well, because an 80-pound twin pregnancy hasn’t marred that tattoo.) Gruff Old Tattoo Man started that needle. I was holding my friend’s hand, and it didn’t even hurt as much as I expected. Nonetheless, my body decided that that moment would be the best time to faint for the first time.

Hey, it wasn’t my fault, okay? A teenager, away from home for the first time, drowning in the depths of her sorrow, doesn’t exactly remember to eat much in the days leading up to a hike to the tattoo shop, okay?

I remember that The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” was playing on Gruff Old Tattoo Man’s radio. She’s walking down the street, blind to every eye she meets. I felt like I was in a tunnel, and I got sweaty, and that was that. They revived me and we finished the tattoo. Her arms are wicked and her legs are long.

That tattoo got showed off a good bit in the next few years, but after I got married and became more buttoned down (buttoned up?), it’s been for Mr. Okayest’s eyes only. I should not have gotten a tattoo, that’s true, but I have made peace with marring my body. I see it as a scar. It’s a scar from a very painful time in my life. It’s a sign of what I did to survive – same as the scars on my throat, abdomen, and wrists that  saved my life during the birth of the twins. Of course we would rather not have the scars in the first place, but who gets through life completely (literally) smoothly? And who regrets scars that save one’s life? It may sound overly dramatic to compare a tattoo to a life-saving port in my carotid artery, but I didn’t cut myself, start drinking, or turn to any of The Ex’s vices. I dealt.

But, to get back to 1997, I wasn’t quite finished with my breakup transformation. I marched my long-blonde-haired head to the nearest cheapo hair cutter, and chopped that beautiful stuff off. I think I can actually  say that I shaved my head. I probably had about an inch of non-flattering hair left. Since I am 5’9” and slender now, we can safely assume that I was 5’9” and skinny back then….so that is probably why my uncle told me I looked like a Q-Tip after that little haircut.

I couldn’t have explained it then, but now I understand that I did it because I felt unattractive. I wanted to be unattractive. I wanted to keep guys away. I wanted to wallow in my sorrow. However, having a shaved head and a tattoo eventually backfired: I cultivated quite a confident attitude that seemed to attract some (yucky) guys. No matter, though. I could just use my army-surplus boots to kick them away.

Anyway, after the tattoo and the haircut and the fainting and the zombie-eyes, I wasn’t doing too well. I eventually asked my grandparents pick me up and take me to their home in the mountains. They lived an hour from the nearest grocery store or hospital, so it seemed like the ideal place to hole up and heal. Their house in the woods had no air conditioning or cable, and this was before the age of internet and cell phones, so no one would bother me there. I was a good student, and college was easy for me, so missing a week or more of school didn’t hurt me. My grandparents let me sleep for days. It was a shocking act of compassion for the hardworking grandfather who yelled at vacationing grandkids for being lazy if they slept past 7AM. I guess they took one look at my broken skinny Q-Tip self and knew that I needed to hide for long while. I don’t remember what they said or did or fed to me, but they must have gotten me on my feet. I do remember that my grandma let me read her binders of old love letters from the 1940s, and I loved that. They fattened me up and took me back to school when I was ready.

I somewhat righted myself, and, while still getting good grades, I befriended some (yucky) boyfriends and probably kicked some other (yucky) boyfriends with my boots. My college roommate got sick of me and traded me. I don’t think that I was her type. (I mean, come on, she wore real eyeliner every day. I, on the other hand, didn’t shave and brought my record player to college. Yep.) Getting traded, however, was the best thing that ever happened to me. My New Roomie had also gotten traded, probably because she also was blonde, skinny, and a Chucks-wearer – but I do think she shaved.

New Roomie helped me feel not so bad about my hair-growing-out phase.

New Roomie helped me feel not so bad about my hair-growing-out phase.

New Roomie and I were a match made in heaven. She is still one of my very closest friends and favorite people in the whole world. I think God gave her to me to save me that year. She taught me to have fun again. She taught me to see beauty again, and I don’t care how cheesy that sounds! She would open the tiny window of our 8×10 cinderblock cell, and say, “Just look at that beautiful lake. Hear the ducks?” Also, she would type a paper with a gummy bear stuck to her forehead for no reason, other than to make me smile. I had found a kindred spirit. She helped me heal.

Then I got mono. This time, my mother picked me up and took me home to heal. I was home for a looooong time. I remember very little from this time, but I do remember being tired enough to have to rest my cheek on the sink counter every time I peed. I couldn’t even sit up long enough to pee.

Then, somehow, miraculously, it was finally spring. My mother took me back to college, and I would weakly walk to class with New Roomie, and I felt the warm sun on my shoulders. It felt like the first spring I had ever seen. Those daffodils were the first daffodils I had ever really seen. I felt like I could breathe again. I felt like I had finally finally survived the breakup. The Ex and I had finally made the breakup “stick” and we were no longer communicating. I could see my future, and it was sunny.

Springtime. Mono is ending, my hair is growing out, and I feel like a new woman!

Springtime. Mono is ending, my hair is growing out, and I feel like a new woman!

I went home that summer as a new woman. I had a best friend: New Roomie. I had righted myself emotionally and spiritually. I was back to church. I was taking charge of my spiritual life and feeling stronger than ever. I finally understood that The Ex had done me a kindness by letting me go. I had kicked the last of the (yucky) guys to the curb. I was ready to wait for my future husband, whomever that would be.

Enter Mr. Okayest. He deserves his own blog post. I will simply say here, in this blog post about someone else, that I fell in love with Mr. Okayest that summer I turned 19 – the summer that I was my strongest, truest self. He had been there all along, waiting.

Mr. Okayest and I had been married for seven years when The Ex found me online. I immediately told Mr. Okayest about the contact, and told him that I would be writing back. He was “okayest” with it. I was completely transparent with him: I promised to show him all the correspondence, but I needed closure with The Ex. I needed to know he was okay. I still cared about him. We wrote to each other just a handful of times. His last ten years had been filled with so much pain and addiction. It hurt to hear. But he was genuinely happy for me, and that I had married one of his friends from our tiny school. I am so thankful we got to apologize to each other and share what we had meant to each other.

Two months later, I got the call that he had died. He overdosed while in rehab. That last contact with him had been a gift from above. Mr. Okayest and my parents went to the funeral services with me. My tattoo scar was in attendance, and so was my regrown very long hair. My mom held one hand and my husband held my other hand as pictures of me and The Ex flashed on the slideshow. Even ten years later, I knew that he had loved me. He had set me free and given me a normal life. I will always love him for that.

Thus, the story about shaving my head and getting a tattoo is really the story of a remarkable man who lost his life to addiction. He was my first love.


(This blog post is brought to you by Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album.)