As we meandered the many titles of Blockbuster Video Diane stopped to ask me a question. Not much over five feet with short brown hair and an easygoing manner she had the kind of eyes that held nothing back. Our significant height difference meant she had to look up to me when she spoke.
“Hey Ricardo, are you a hugger?”
I knew what she was really asking. People don’t ask that question out of the blue, in a Blockbuster Video, in Florence, Italy to somebody they just met weeks before.
It was my Junior year of college and I was in Florence for a study abroad program at the Dante Alighieri Institute to learn the Italian language. The topic of study was irrelevant, I was studying abroad for the adventure, the self-discovery, and hopefully, all kinds of stories I would be able to write home about. The kinds of hilarious country hopping, language confusion stories I’ve been hearing from teachers and peers since my Freshman year of high school.
The kinds of stories I didn’t yet have.
Everybody in my language school was a relative stranger. There were some students from my school, Arizona State University, but most came from around the world.
Some of us were given fifth-floor walkups to live in. Others, like myself, were given apartments in dedicated complexes. Our courtyard becoming the General Assembly of collegiate musings. British, American, and Mexican students trading stereotypes with the occasional polish or Hungarian student passing through the mix.
Regardless of where we lived, a dozen or so beginners were all piled into the same frigid Renaissance era classroom with 20-foot ceilings for four hours of language class every weekday.
We stumbled our way through the language, laughing and joking in English while our instructor Maria, who knew as much English as we did Italian, looked on baffled.
During our daily 15 minute morning coffee break we found out where our classmates were from, where they were living, and how we should spend our time there.
We tentatively planned our future days while subsequently digging into each other’s backgrounds, subtly, or not so subtly, figuring out who we would be friends with, whom we would want to travel with. A half dozen of us almost immediately planned a trip to a neighboring town.
The adventure was beginning.
I had spent years thinking about my study abroad experience, positioning it as no less than the formidable catalyst of independence and adulthood that it was supposed to be, that I needed it to be.
I fantasized about the eye opening experiences, the foreign cultures, but most of all I focused on who I would be when I got back. Who I wanted to be. Such pressure made me overeager almost to the point of fanatical. I wanted to visit a new Italian city every weekend. I insisted on reading books only about Italy. I detailed my experiences moment by moment in my journal every single day.
While I probably wouldn’t have been able to verbalize it then, I was seeking some sort metamorphosis that I could feel and name. That desire for change made me unintentionally inflexible. I did not understand what would be required of me to acquire such change, specifically emotionally.
Nobody knew me in Florence and that excited me. My college life had gotten off to a rough and somewhat delayed start. I wanted to try again. To use my anonymity to my advantage, to try and truly be who I was always trying to become. That’s one of the reasons I introduced myself as Ricardo.
It was common practice to be given an Italianized version of your name in your High School Italian class. It was not common practice to carry that over to Italy and introduce yourself as such. Since everybody was new to each other, nobody seemed to care that until the day they met me my name had been Richard. But Ricardo was just their baseline introduction to me. For the most part they all went along with it.
It was the same when it came to alcohol. Sure I told people I had never had a drink before but none of them knew me in the states. It was merely a tiny footnote under whatever beer they first saw me drinking.
I was free to drink outside the realm of the anticipation of my peers back home. Letting go of the mantle of teetotaling back home in America would have felt overwhelming, while in Italy it felt seamless. I could establish my own rules for this Italian version of myself.
All the while I continued journaling daily, recording all of my important thoughts and newly resurfaced memories, tracking realizations for review upon my return home.
I was on a daily exploration of my inner and outer self and because of that, every human interaction carried more weight.
Every adult I encountered I was hoping for a mentor, a part-time parent on demand. Every guy I met I was hoping for a brotherly connection, every girl an instant recognition of how much I had to offer, regardless of how many other girls had seen me only as a friend.
As the weeks passed I came to understand that most people were not on the exploration of their inner and outer self. Most people were there to have fun.
That resulted in me perching myself and my emotional inflexibility on a precarious moral high ground.
I was having a kind of second puberty while feeling like everybody else was embracing a liberated confidence I longed for. With so many new emotions coming to the forefront my first attempt at dealing with them was often clumsy.
This led to conflicts, not large ones mind you, but petty ones, sometimes just in my own head and heart. I would judge my roommates for staying up late and playing drinking games in the echo chamber that was our kitchen. I would become abrupt with girls I met who didn’t return my flirtations.
It was easier in those days to cross my arms than it was to open them wide. The personal decisions of my peers quickly altered the ways in which I thought and behaved. Every slight shift in wind dramatically changing the course of my own ship.
The magnifying lens of my own insecurity made lifestyles out of step with my own feel hypocritical. I don’t remember what it was that Diane had said or done, but by the time we arrived in that Blockbuster after a day of Tuscan travels I know I was judging her for something. Most likely it was her drinking habits.
While I was no longer abstaining I still judged people for drinking to excess. My ex-girlfriend’s recent 21st birthday back in Arizona had ended with her huddled over a toilet. It was an event that vibrated a private rage within me well into my time in Italy. It was something I couldn’t explain with any sort of rationality, certainly not to Diane who might have had a similar end to a recent night.
I was still many years away from understanding the concept of transference. I couldn’t reconcile somebody I liked and was impressed by engaging in an activity that, to my juvenile mind, seemed reckless and immature.
The study abroad experience was challenging and enchanting, but those extremes meant my internal monologue swung wildly and regularly from elation to terror, rapture to confusion. There was probably nothing in the world I needed every single day more than a hug—somebody to hold me close and whisper “This is hard isn’t it?”
So when Diane, with those open-hearted eyes looked up at me and said
“Hey Ricardo, are you a hugger?”
I knew she meant she needed a hug.
And the Richard, the Ricardo of today, would not only understand that but be able to reciprocate the sentiment, unafraid of vulnerability or consequence, and wrap that emotionally hedging human up in a life-affirming moment of security. Perhaps I would even be so bold to say “I need one too.” But instead, I acted as if I didn’t understand the context.
Looking away towards the back of the store I replied, “With my friends, I am,” and walked to another aisle. I knew it was a shitty thing to say and I did it anyway.
Looking back now I see how tightly interwoven pride and desperation were for me. While I told myself I was excited and open to new experiences, I tried too hard to control them. I did not understand that being open to the good meant being open to the uncomfortable.
I replay that moment in Blockbuster Video over and over in my head. I don’t recall a fight or a fallout. It was simply a reaction to something Diane probably wasn’t even aware of. While I managed to forge plenty of trivial animosities while abroad, whatever I directed at Diane quickly passed. She was smart and witty and incredibly rational. All things I craved.
Sitting next to each other in class for the next four months we ended up good friends. It seemed we all found solace by swapping stories with strangers in this new world, about who we were in the old. I certainly did.
We lost touch after college for all the reasons people do. But I still think about Blockbuster.
I don’t recall ever apologizing for that moment. I also don’t remember when it became a ball bearing on my heart, a cringe-worthy snippet of film that has not degraded in over a decade. I wish that 20-year-old would have taken just one more moment to contemplate his words before he spoke. I wish he had opened his arms.
Before I left Italy, Diane gave me her copy of The Great Gatsby which, at that point, I had never read. On the second page, she inscribed it.
That’s what I love about this story. It’s about the person you never thought could influence you, whose way of life you didn’t respect, and how you come to realize he’s changed you. Everyone we meet, whether we like them or not, can teach us something about our own lives. It’s not until they’ve come and gone from our lives that we see it, but it’s there.
Fitzgerald was right. As was Diane.
It just took me a while to realize it.
Photo credit: Getty Images