David and I met because he was performing in a play based on short stories I’d written. He was playing a character I had invented, which is somewhat telling. In desperate love, it’s always like this, isn’t it? In desperate love, we always invent the characters of our partners, demanding that they be what we need of them, and then feeling devastated when they refuse to perform the role we created in the first place.
But, oh, we had such a great time together during those early months when he was still my romantic hero and I was still his living dream. It was excitement and compatibility like I’d never imagined. We invented our own language. We went on day trips and road trips. We hiked to the top of things, swam to the bottom of other things, planned the journeys across the world we would take together. We had more fun waiting in line together at the Department of Motor Vehicles than most couples have on their honey-moons. We gave each other the same nickname, so there would be no separation between us. We made goals, vows, promises and dinner together. He read books to me, and he did my laundry. (The first time that happened, I called Susan to report the marvel in astonishment, like I’d just seen a camel using a pay phone. I said, “A man just did my laundry! And he even hand-washed my delicates!” And she repeated: “Oh my God, baby, you are in so much trouble.”)
The first summer of Liz and David looked like the falling-in-love montage of every romantic movie you’ve ever seen, right down to the splashing in the surf and the running hand-in-hand through the golden meadows at twilight. At this time I was still thinking my divorce might actually proceed gracefully, though I was giving my husband the summer off from talking about it so we could both cool down. Anyway, it was so easy not to think about all that loss in the midst of such happiness. Then that summer (otherwise known as “the reprieve”) ended.
On September 9, 2001, I met with my husband face-to-face for the last time, not realizing that every future meeting would necessitate lawyers between us, to mediate. We had dinner in a restaurant. I tried to talk about our separation, but all we did was fight. He let me know that I was a liar and a traitor and that he hated me and would never speak to me again. Two mornings later I woke up after a troubled night’s sleep to find that hijacked airplanes were crashing into the two tallest buildings of my city, as everything invincible that had once stood together now became a smoldering avalanche of ruin. I called my husband to make sure he was safe and we wept together over this disaster, but I did not go to him. During that week, when everyone in New York City dropped animosity in deference to the larger tragedy at hand, I still did not go back to my husband. Which is how we both knew it was very, very over.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that I did not sleep again for the next four months.
I thought I had fallen to bits before, but now (in harmony with the apparent collapse of the entire world) my life really turned to smash. 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 could not 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 and dependent, needing more care than an armful of premature infant 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.)
The fact is, I had become addicted to David (in my defense, he had fostered this, being something of a “man-fatale”), and now that his attention was wavering, I was suffering the easily foreseeable consequences. Addiction is the hallmark of every infatuation-based love story. It all begins when the object of your adoration bestows upon you a heady, hallucinogenic dose of something you never even dared to admit that you wanted—an emotional speedball, perhaps, of thunderous love and roiling excitement. Soon you start craving that intense attention, with the hungry obsession of any junkie. When the drug is withheld, you promptly turn sick, crazy and depleted (not to mention resentful of the dealer who encouraged this addiction in the first place but who now refuses to pony up the good stuff anymore—despite the fact that you know he has it hidden somewhere, goddamn it, because he used to give it to you for free). Next stage finds you skinny and shaking in a corner, certain only that you would sell your soul or rob your neighbors just to have that thing even one more time. Meanwhile, the object of your adoration has now become repulsed by you. He looks at you like you’re someone he’s never met before, much less someone he once loved with high passion. The irony is, you can hardly blame him. I mean, check yourself out. You’re a pathetic mess, unrecognizable even to your own eyes.
So that’s it. You have now reached infatuation’s final destination—the complete and merciless devaluation of self.
The fact that I can even write calmly about this today is mighty evidence of time’s healing powers, because I didn’t take it well as it was happening. To be losing David right after the failure of my marriage, and right after the terrorizing of my city, and right during the worst ugliness of divorce (a life experience my friend Brian has compared to “having a really bad car accident every single day for about two years”) . . . well, this was simply too much.
David and I continued to have our bouts of fun and compatibility during the days, but at night, in his bed, I became the only survivor of a nuclear winter as he visibly retreated from me, more every day, as though I were infectious. I came to fear nighttime like it was a torturer’s cellar. I would lie there beside David’s beautiful, inaccessible sleeping body and I would spin into a panic of loneliness and meticulously detailed suicidal thoughts. Every part of my body pained me. I felt like I was some kind of primitive springloaded machine, placed under far more tension than it had ever been built to sustain, about to blast apart at great danger to anyone standing nearby. I imagined my body parts flying off my torso in order to escape the volcanic core of unhappiness that had become: me. Most mornings, David would wake to find me sleeping fitfully on the floor beside his bed, huddled on a pile of bathroom towels, like a dog.
“What happened now?” he would ask—another man thoroughly exhausted by me.
I think I lost something like thirty pounds during that time.
Oh, but it wasn’t all bad, those few years . . .
Because God never slams a door in your face without opening a box of Girl Scout cookies (or however the old adage goes), some wonderful things did happen to me in the shadow of all that sorrow. For one thing, I finally started learning Italian. Also, I found an Indian Guru. Lastly, I was invited by an elderly medicine man to come and live with him in Indonesia.
I’ll explain in sequence.
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 couldn’t afford it, since I was still paying for that big house in the suburbs which nobody was living in anymore and which my husband was forbidding me to sell, and I was still trying to stay on top of all my legal and counseling fees . . . but it was vital to my survival to have a One Bedroom of my own. I saw the apartment almost as a sanatorium, a hospice clinic for my own recovery. I painted the walls in the warmest colors I could find and bought myself flowers every week, as if I were visiting myself in the hospital. My sister gave me a hot water bottle as a housewarming gift (so I wouldn’t have to be all alone in a c
old bed) and I slept with the thing laid against my heart every night, as though nursing a sports injury.
David and I had broken up for good. Or maybe we hadn’t. It’s hard to remember now how many times we broke up and joined up over those months. But there emerged a pattern: I would separate from David, get my strength and confidence back, and then (attracted as always by my strength and confidence) his passion for me would rekindle. Respectfully, soberly and intelligently, we would discuss “trying again,” always with some sane new plan for minimizing our apparent incompatibilities. We were so committed to solving this thing. Because how could two people who were so in love not end up happily ever after? It had to work. Didn’t it? Reunited with fresh hopes, we’d share a few deliriously happy days together. Or sometimes even weeks. But eventually David would retreat from me once more and I would cling to him (or I would cling to him and he would retreat—we never could figure out how it got triggered) and I’d end up destroyed all over again. And he’d end up gone.
David was catnip and kryptonite to me.
But during those periods when we were separated, as hard as it was, I was practicing living alone. And this experience was bringing a nascent interior shift. 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 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.
For years, I’d wished I could speak Italian—a language I find more beautiful than roses—but I could never make the practical justification for studying it. Why not just bone up on the French or Russian I’d already studied years ago? Or learn to speak Spanish, the better to help me communicate with millions of my fellow Americans? What was I going to do with Italian? It’s not like I was going to move there. It would be more practical to learn how to play the accordion.
But why must everything always have a practical application? I’d been such a diligent soldier for years—working, producing, never missing a deadline, taking care of my loved ones, my gums and my credit record, voting, etc. Is this lifetime supposed to be only about duty? In this dark period of loss, did I need any justification for learning Italian other than that it was the only thing I could imagine bringing me any pleasure right now? And it wasn’t that outrageous a goal, anyway, to want to study a language. It’s not like I was saying, at age thirty-two, “I want to become the principal ballerina for the New York City Ballet.” Studying a language is something you can actually do. So I signed up for classes at one of those continuing education places (otherwise known as Night School for Divorced Ladies). My friends thought this was hilarious. My friend Nick asked, “Why are you studying Italian? So that—just in case Italy ever invades Ethiopia again, and is actually successful this time—you can brag about knowing a language that’s spoken in two whole countries?”
But I loved it. Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me. I would slosh home through the rain after class, draw a hot bath, and lie there in the bubbles reading the Italian dictionary aloud to myself, taking my mind off my divorce pressures and my heartache. The words made me laugh in delight. I started referring to my cell phone as il mio telefonino (“my teensy little telephone”). I became one of those annoying people who always say Ciao! Only I was extra annoying, since I would always explain where the word ciao comes from. (If you must know, it’s an abbreviation of a phrase used by medieval Venetians as an intimate salutation: Sono il suo schiavo! Meaning: “I am your slave!”) Just speaking these words made me feel sexy and happy. My divorce lawyer told me not to worry; she said she had one client (Korean by heritage) who, after a yucky divorce, legally changed her name to something Italian, just to feel sexy and happy again.
Maybe I would move to Italy, after all . . .
The other notable thing that was happening during that time was the newfound adventure of spiritual discipline. Aided and abetted, of course, by the introduction into my life of an actual living Indian Guru—for whom I will always have David to thank. I’d been introduced to my Guru the first night I ever went to David’s apartment. I kind of fell in love with them both at the same time. I walked into David’s apartment and saw this picture on his dresser of a radiantly beautiful Indian woman and I asked, “Who’s that?”
He said, “That is my spiritual teacher.”
My heart skipped a beat and then flat-out tripped over itself and fell on its face. Then my heart stood up, brushed itself off, took a deep breath and announced: “I want a spiritual teacher.” I literally mean that it was my heart who said this, speaking through my mouth. I felt this weird division in myself, and my mind stepped out of my body for a moment, spun around to face my heart in astonishment and silently asked, “You DO?”
“Yes,” replied my heart. “I do.”
Then my mind asked my heart, a tad sarcastically: “Since WHEN?”
But I already knew the answer: Since that night on the bathroom floor.
My God, but I wanted a spiritual teacher. I immediately began constructing a fantasy of what it would be like to have one. I imagined that this radiantly beautiful Indian woman would come to my apartment a few evenings a week and we would sit and drink tea and talk about divinity, and she would give me reading assignments and explain the significance of the strange sensations I was feeling during meditation . . .
All this fantasy was quickly swept away when David told me about the international status of this woman, about her tens of thousands of students—many of whom have never met her face-to-face. Still, he said, there was a gathering here in New York City every Tuesday night of the Guru’s devotees who came together as a group to meditate and chant. David said, “If you’re not too freaked out by the idea of being in a room with several hundred people chanting God’s name in Sanskrit, you can come sometime.”
I joined him the following Tuesday night. Far from being freaked out by these regular-looking people singing to God, I instead felt my soul rise diaphanous in the wake of that chanting. I walked home that night feeling like the air could move through me, like I was clean linen fluttering on a clothes-line, like New York itself had become a city made of rice paper—and I was light enough to run across every rooftop. I started going to the chants every Tuesday. Then I started meditating every morning on the ancient Sanskrit mantra the Guru gives to all her students (the regal Om Namah Shivaya, meaning, “I honor the divinity that resides within me”). Then I listened to the Guru speak in person for the first time, and her words gave me chill bumps over my whole body, even across the skin of my face. And when I heard she had an Ashram in India, I knew I must take myself there as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, though, I had to go on this trip to Indonesia.
Which happened, again, because of a magazine assignment. Just when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself for being broke and lonely and caged up in Divorce Internment Camp, an editor from a women’s magazine asked if she could pay to send me to Bali to write a story about Yoga vacations. In return I asked her a series of questions, mostly along the line of Is a bean green? and Does James Brown get down? When I got to Bali (which is,
to be brief, a very nice place) the teacher who was running the Yoga retreat asked us, “While you’re all here, is there anybody who would like to go visit a ninth-generation Balinese medicine man?” (another question too obvious to even answer), and so we all went over to his house one night.
The medicine man, as it turned out, was a small, merry-eyed, russet-colored old guy with a mostly toothless mouth, whose resemblance in every way to the Star Wars character Yoda cannot be exaggerated. His name was Ketut Liyer. He spoke a scattered and thoroughly entertaining kind of English, but there was a translator available for when he got stuck on a word.
Our Yoga teacher had told us in advance that we could each bring one question or problem to the medicine man, and he would try to help us with our troubles. I’d been thinking for days of what to ask him. My initial ideas were so lame. Will you make my husband give me a divorce? Will you make David be sexually attracted to me again? I was rightly ashamed of myself for these thoughts: who travels all the way around the world to meet an ancient medicine man in Indonesia, only to ask him to intercede in boy trouble?
So when the old man asked me in person what I really wanted, I found other, truer words.
“I want to have a lasting experience of God,” I told him. “Sometimes I feel like I understand the divinity of this world, but then I lose it because I get distracted by my petty desires and fears. I want to be with God all the time. But I don’t want to be a monk, or totally give up worldly pleasures. I guess what I want to learn is how to live in this world and enjoy its delights, but also devote myself to God.”
Eat, Pray, Love Page 3