It was the beginning of autumn in Perugia. The sun was cooling down, and the days were definitely getting shorter. There was more rain than before. I moved from my pensione into a small, dank room rented out by an Italian family. Classes were done, it was time to study for exams. In the past four months I’d been to maybe six classes and was clueless about the material. For a grind, this was torture. My practice had always been to munch through assigned reading and lecture notes on a daily basis. But here I was now — up shit’s creek, because this was pre-internet and I’d lost touch with students who might lend out their notes or tutor me. I literally didn’t know where to begin or what to read.
How I addressed the situation? No idea. Twenty years later, driving on the NY Thruway, my car went into a skid and spun around to face oncoming traffic, in this case an 18 wheeler. In the split second it took for me to get the car turned so it was facing the right way (and on the shoulder) my mind went blank — I have no idea what I did. That was the way it was in Perugia. I put myself in study mode and don’t remember anything except that the weather was wet, I had to deal with a giant spider that had taken up residence in my cold little room, and I had a very strange rash, or string of blotches that started on my abdomen and began creeping up toward my neck and down toward my thighs and knees. I took exams in a daze; these included orals, which meant no bullshitting, you either knew the answers or you didn’t. But my rash was getting worse — red marks now visible on my face. I guess it was vanity that sent me to the doctor.
In Italy the source of many maladies is “fegato,” or liver. I was told right away my problem was the fegato, it was serious, I had to take gamma globulin shots every day, and stop drinking alcohol. Well, no way was I going to stop a glass or two (or maybe three or four) of wine. The shots were awful. Not only did they hurt, but they produced an instant nauseating taste at the back of the throat that was very hard to tolerate. Furthermore, in Italy at the time, you didn’t go to the doctor for shots. You bought ampules from the pharmacy, and then had to find someone — the pharmacist or a nurse at a Red Cross station — to administer them. As I discovered, this proved a little tricky since the shots were intramuscular and I had to bare my buttocks each time. If I had a male doing the honors, it seemed like there was a whole lot of pinchin’ goin’ on. So I was happy to go to Red Cross where, most often, the nurses were nuns.
To complicate matters even further, once exams were over I embarked on a road trip to Sicily with a friend. This meant searching for a nun once a day so I could pull down my pants for the dreaded shot. It also meant a lot of drinking and I began to feel very ill indeed. A normal person would have refused booze in any form once they realized how sick it made them feel. But I wasn’t normal, I was a budding alcoholic and the minute a little wine crossed my lips, I had to have more. We cut the trip short because I was so unwell. Back in Perugia, I learned that I’d passed exams — a miracle. The next semester was about to start, but I had the sense to know there was something really wrong with me and I’d better go home.
My life changed after that. I was diagnosed with hepatitis A, which was traced to the Yellow Fever shot I’d had for the trip to Pakistan I never took. I was quarantined to my bedroom for a month. In the spring I transferred to Barnard College where I became an art history major. I took tons of classes at the School of Visual Arts. I moved into an apartment up near Columbia so I didn’t have to be under my parents’ constant scrutiny, and went back to being a grind. I also continued my incipient career as a drunk. And then, a year later, destiny came a knocking at my door and once again my life changed completely.
To be continued…