(Photo: Patrisha McLean)
(Photo: Patrisha McLean)

It is maybe 20 years ago, and I am planted in front of the massive glass funnel at the New England Aquarium in Boston, hypnotized. I am most fascinated by the sea turtles, seeming to be from another age and in the jumble of circling marine creatures as solitary and elusive as the Waldo figurines in the Where’s Waldo toy tubes.

I am also fascinated by the humans in wetsuits and tanks who are strangely in there too. How happy and free they look. But covered head to toe in technical gear and freed from land and air, they seem as exotic as astronauts visiting the moon. I could never do that.

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As soon as my divorce was final, I decamped to Trieste, Italy.

The easternmost city in Italy had beckoned ever since my newspaper reporter days in San Francisco. Trieste was the name of my North Beach neighborhood cafe, perched on a hilltop, dark and cozy, walls papered with photos of Beat generation poets, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti customers still. I drank in the romantic atmosphere as eagerly as the cappuccino.

Trieste means “sad.” This fact hit me on my first day in the actual city of Trieste because in the vast piazza that seemed to merge with the Adriatic Sea and was swept by a trademark Bora wind, I was sadder than I think I ever was in my life.

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In the uber-stressful days of hammering out a divorce settlement, the alternative of a legal separation was floated.

I dismissed this out of hand. I wanted, needed, to be unbound.

Hours after I signed the divorce settlement with my lawyer I was at Primo, giddily clinking champagne glasses with Deborah Joy Corey, my rock during the five crazy months since I left my marital home.

The next morning just before heading to the Rockland courthouse for the divorce ruling, I took a selfie. The smile on my face is as sunny as my yellow sweater, on which is affixed a butterfly pin that was a divorce gift from an Aussie friend, and another rock of support.

But just days later, sitting in an elegant cafe on Piazza Grande in Trieste, with couples cooing, groups of friends laughing, children kicking a ball around a statue, what filled my mind and soul with dread was one thought: “Now, I am completely alone.”

I was afraid. No, terrified. For 29 years, someone else made all the decisions. I didn’t see, let alone pay, bills; there was staff to clear the snow off the front house steps, haul away the garbage, come and get me if my car broke down. When I crossed the street, my husband’s guiding hand was on my elbow.

I kicked myself for not agreeing to the legal separation. Why was I so insistent on being all on my own? Why did I think I could do it all on my own?

In the first months of going from Mrs. to Ms. I did indeed make mistakes. I chose a divorce lawyer who was cold as ice because I thought he would be tough with my adversary, but he was nastier to me than to him. I entrusted the money from my divorce settlement to a man who talked in an avuncular way about “Team Patrisha” but turned out to be slippery. I entered into contract for a series of houses that would never have felt like home. I got taken by souk merchants in Fez, Morocco.

Every one of these times, I canvassed opinions of those around me for my decision.

But then I decided to listen to my own instincts, and trust them.

All on my own, I changed investment firms to an all-women team who explained the financial statements to me; I changed lawyers from the one 21/2 hours away in Biddeford to one in my own town of Camden who is tough on my adversary but kind to me; I found, negotiated and bought a house that I am as madly in love with as the day I first stepped across the threshold. I don’t shop when I cannot speak the language of the shopkeeper.

Not quite a year ago I decided I was going to become a scuba diver.

I got certified at the Blue Angel resort in Cozumel, received my advanced certification in Egypt on a ship in the middle of the Red Sea, and now at Buddy Dive on Bonaire, I passed the exam to dive with Nitrox (safer, but more technical, than the air in normal tanks).

The Caribbean island of Bonaire, part of the Netherlands and just off Venezuela, is “the home of diving freedom” because it is ringed by coral so you can dive directly from the shore instead of relying on boat schedules.

The most wondrous thing I see scuba diving there is a sea horse, and a bright orange one at that. It’s tail curls like a fiddlehead around a coral frond and its oversized head that really is like a horse’s nods with the current.

The strangest thing I see is a scuba diver whose wetsuit is stretched by his big belly being moved along at a depth of about 30 feet by a huge motor in his outstretched arms. No swimming or even kicking needed.

After four days straight of scuba diving, I decide I want to explore the various shore diving sites without cumbersome gear.

I pack my snorkel equipment into my cute little blue rental car (I never would have rented and driven a car in a foreign land when I was married), drive past wild donkeys and pink flamingos, and park on the beach at Salt Pier. Across the road are Cargill’s massive holding basins of water dyed pink and lavender and coral from the salt-making process, and huge, blinding-white, pointed salt hills.

I wade past the surf, put on my fins and mask, and in the strip of astonishing turquoise before the bottom dips hundreds of feet, I see a large sea turtle rooting in the sugar-white sand. Then another, then a baby one, and suddenly I am swimming with a dozen of these mystical creatures.

When they ascend vertically from the seabed to break the waterline and gulp in air, they seem as though they are flying, propelled by broad scaly flippers turned as graceful as butterfly wings. I swim with them and I am actually laughing as much as it is possible to laugh underwater and not lose your snorkel. 

I am flying. I am free. It is the best feeling in the world.