Restaurant menu on easlIn Italy, my girlfriend gets in touch with her past as well as her future. Where does that leave me?

“WTF am I doing with my life? Seriously!” My girlfriend grumbled as she angrily dumped a pile of clinical trials paperwork on the kitchen table. She had once again come home from work in a less than positive mood. “Ma vai vai, e che cazzo!” she yelled as her mobile started ringing, her boss calling again. “It’s 7.30 pm!” she shouted, ignoring the call. ” You know what Alessandro is doing now? Liver transplants in Sweden. And Stefano? He’s the new head of transplants at Cleveland Clinic in the US. Cleveland Clinic! The world’s best hospital!” Frankie paced up and down the kitchen, reading emails on her phone and finally listening to the voice message her boss had left. “Seriously.” She thundered, gesturing wildly and muttering in indecipherable Italian. She started calling him back as she stormed off to the bedroom and slammed the door.

This wasn’t the first night that Frankie had returned from work deeply upset. She’d been discontented with work ever since she’d finished her PhD and become a double Doctor. Unfortunately, comparing herself to her old uni friends wasn’t helping the situation. They had all finished their surgical training in Italy with absolute clarity about their career paths and determination to achieve their goals. Meanwhile, Frankie was nursing her beloved father through a terminal illness and struggling with her overwhelming grief after his death. Adding to her stress levels, Frankie’s mother couldn’t deal with the news that Frankie was gay, making life in Italy feel like an increasingly claustrophobic prison cell.

So Frankie fled to Australia, a country her father had loved passionately. Growing up, she had heard stories about his adventures in this strange land and longed to see the place for herself. Enchanted by the freedom of life here, she learnt English and embarked on her PhD in cancer therapies. Now Frankie felt like her friends had forged ahead while she’d gone around in a rather large circle and she had absolutely no idea what to do next. Registering as a Doctor in Australia had begun to resemble an obstacle course without end and she’d had enough of her workaholic boss and his endless demands on her time.

Frankie finally emerged from the bedroom and danced down the hallway with a huge smile on her face. She grabbed me and danced me around the kitchen. “So I have to go to a stupid conference for two days. But I fly business class. To Roma!” she yelled, laughing happily as she twirled me around the room. “You WANT to go to Rome?” I asked, surprised at how enthusiastically she was embracing the idea. “You mean because of Mama? I’m not going to see her,” she responded coldly. “But you were right the other night.” She was referring to a fight we had about her being partially in the closet. “I’m not even out in Italy.  It’s time for me to tell my friends who I really am. It’s time to go back.”

It was clear that I wasn’t included in this holiday plan so I tried to hide my disappointment by appearing supportive. “Well, things happen for a reason. The universe always gives us what we need.” I blurted out, trying to sound Zen. Frankie burst out laughing. “You sound like a drunken smurf,” she giggled. Realising I wasn’t laughing, she moved towards me and took me in her arms. “I’m sorry baby. I wish you were coming with me but I need to do this alone.” I hugged her tight, not wanting her to see the tears of disappointment in my eyes. “I know.” I finally answered. “It’s ok. I’m super excited about all of the presents I’m going to get!”

Midnight. Several weeks later. I was flying up the freeway to the airport, with Frankie frantically reading emails on her phone and Hugo the puppy sulking in the back seat. I was feeling equally sulky. I’d been waiting for the romantic moment Frankie presented me with my plane ticket but that moment never arrived. Now that we were late for her flight, it was clear. I wasn’t going to Italy. “You’ll be gone for two weeks. Work will survive without you.” I snapped angrily. Realising that I was picking a fight, I tried an abrupt backtrack. “Give me attention!” I demanded playfully. “Awww, I just gave you lots of attention…” Frankie said sexily, leaning over to kiss my neck. “Want me to give you some more while you drive?” Breaking into a smile as I remembered our long goodbye earlier in the evening, I giggled happily. “Yes please!”

At the airport drop off, Frankie promptly burst into tears. “This isn’t right. You should be coming with me. This is all wrong.” I wanted to say “I agree, take me with you” but I stopped myself.  Instead, I pulled her in and held her until her crying subsided. “I’m here,” I said reassuringly, secretly praying that she wasn’t going to endure any of the pain she experienced on her last trip home. That trip four years ago has become known as her Epifania. Unforgiving about Frankie’s relocation to Australia, her mother had no intention of letting her beloved daughter leave her again. On the morning of Frankie’s flight back to Australia, her rather unstable mother barricaded herself in her bedroom and refused to come out. She dramatically yelled that if Frankie left now, she would never again be welcome to return. In a moment of clarity, Frankie realized that she was done. Done playing the dutiful Italian daughter, done being cast as the black sheep for being gay and done feeling guilty about moving to Australia.  So she called her Aunt to help and they dragged her mother out of her room and into a therapist’s office. Frankie then took off to Rome and boarded her flight back home. She had barely mentioned her mother ever since.

Day one. Rome. Frankie stayed up till dawn, talking with her best friend from medical school. “Baby!!” She shrieked excitedly down the phone later that day. “I told her! I told her I have a girlfriend. Guess what she said??” It was my experience with Frankie that the only person who thought Frankie was in the closet was Frankie. “A blind man running for a bus can see that she’s gay,” laughed our friend Erin when I told her Frankie was finally coming out. “What did she say?” I asked hopefully. “She said that she guessed that I was gay. Can you believe it?” She asked excitedly, joy radiating down the phone line. The next few days passed in a frenzy of food-related functions with friends and exciting late-night phone calls to me. Her friends, it turned out, had either already guessed or were perfectly comfortable with Frankie’s sexuality and Frankie couldn’t have been happier. I couldn’t have been happier either. Wanting to share as much of her trip with me as possible, she took me on romantic Viber strolls around Rome, showing me her favourite cafes, shops and architecture. Grateful for all of my support, she even endured an afternoon full of handbag shopping.

A few days later and Frankie was back in her hometown, in sight of her mother’s epic meltdown. Choosing to stay with her best friend from childhood, the pressure was starting to take its toll. After the joy and romance of Rome, Frankie was once again a mass of nervous energy, struggling to contain her anger and deal with her guilt. “Fuck this!” she yelled angrily during one particularly tense phone call. “I’m hiding in the house because I’m scared I’ll run into someone who’ll tell my mum I’m here. What the fuck?” Since the trauma of her last trip to Italy, Frankie had spent time in therapy dealing with her feelings around her relationship with her mother. She was now much stronger than the wounded woman who fled back to Australia vowing never again to return. “Baby, why don’t you go and see her?”I asked softly. “I can’t!” she shot back. “Yes, you can. You’re strong enough now. Set your boundaries and stay in control. You’ve got this.” After a long silence, Frankie finally responded. “Time to stop running,” she whispered nervously. “Yes, sweetheart. Time to stop running.”

So that afternoon we took the short walk to her mother’s apartment. Frankie stood frozen in front of the intercom, her hand refusing to move. “Angel, you’ve got this.” I prompted gently. Frankie slowly moved her hand and rang the buzzer. We waited but there was no answer. Sensing her desire to run, I gently prompted her again. “Just wait, sweetheart. ” Finally a warm, elderly female voice crackled through the intercom. “Pronto,” she said. A shocked Frankie nervously replied. “Mama it’s me.” A buzzer sounded and Frankie opened the door, walked into the building and promptly lost her phone reception.

Half an hour later Frankie called me. “Baby meet mama. Mama, this is Alex.” Her mum was a short, round, sweet looking woman with a beautiful, soft smile. She didn’t say hello to me but put her arm around Frankie’s waist and lay her head on her chest. “I love you.” she said in heavily accented English. “She learnt how to say that in English for me,” said Frankie, her voice cracking with emotion. Tears started rolling down Frankie’s face as they held each other, her mother repeating the words. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

Four days later a relieved and peaceful Frankie reluctantly headed back to Rome for the conference. She called me quickly before heading out to dinner. “Baby… Today just confirmed how much I hate my job. Seriously. I can’t do this anymore. Anyway, remember that Italian Doctor I met at the Singapore conference? He’s here and he’s taking me out for dinner. I love you.” The next afternoon she rang me again. “Baby, I’m heading up to Cremona with Paolo, the Doctor. He wants me to go see his hospital, his breast unit. It sounds amazing. Anyway, we’re jumping on a train now. I love you…” It was beautiful to finally hear Frankie sounding excited and engaged about work. Maybe this trip to Italy was exactly what she needed to find her way again. “Have fun sweetheart, I love you!” I said happily and headed off to sleep. Eight hours later my phone rang. It was an over-excited Frankie, talking so fast her words were tumbling over themselves. “Baby! I met the head of surgery! He and Paolo showed me around the unit. The research equipment they have is state of the art and it’s just for the breast unit. And baby… They offered me a job! My perfect job! It’s in surgery and research for breast cancer. I can’t believe it…” I couldn’t believe it either. A job? In Italy? “Baby I’m sorry but I have to go. I’ve got to go back to Rome to catch my flight. I love you. I’ll  call you from the plane.” With that, Frankie hung up the phone.

Seven hours later I received a Viber message. “I migliori anni della nostra vita. These are the best years of our lives.” Tears streamed down my face as I read her message. I sat there staring at my phone, not knowing what to say.

I started to type my reply.

“I can’t move to Italy with you. I’m sorry but I can’t.”