The Time I Was Ditched on a Train to Venice & How Bad Decisions Can Still Take You Where You Need to Go / by catherine williams


Some of my favorite photographers are people who write about their lives in a raw way. I’ve followed them for almost a decade because i followed their ups and downs and was happy to see them succeed in their journeys. It may not be conventional, but i don’t think i’m a conventional photographer or that my clients are conventional. Brene Brown said “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, vulnerability is the only way for authentic connections with others.” and that’s been true for me with my favorite artists and why I got into photography- to make true connections with people. Thus, I present a raw look into my life!

It was the end of summer of 2017 and I was walking with UN colleagues by McCarren Park, while telling a French-Portugese girl about a new dude who was convincing me to go to Italy. She laughed and said"Girl, I've been down that road with an Italian. They'll promise the world and then disappear. Be careful!" 

A year later, in my therapist's office, my therapist would say, "If he never admitted or apologized or owned up to what he ever did, why would you expect him to have changed? This is a man who consistently gaslights and apologizes but never actually owns his issues."

I sat on my therapist's couch and thought, welp. Yeah, but hindsight is 20/20. How did i end up sad for a guy that I always knew was a f***boy- that went against all of my criteria for men? The guy I thought was endearing but didn't take seriously for months as he begged me to be with him? At the time, I had been dealing with a crossroads in my 7 year relationship with someone who I loved and was family, but we had both decided to take a break, date other people, to not have any regrets and pursue life goals. We were and are still best friends who know absolutely everything about each other, but being together since I was 19 had taken a toll in all the growing up process and the bumps that youth entails. I had gone to NYC to be alone and work on myself after this relationship, yet a certain Italian came barreling into my life like a hurricane the minute I arrived in the city. How was this my first dating experience outside a 7 year relationship?

It was an age-old tale of a naive American falling for the Italian charmer, yet I was adamant that that was not me. I was above it all, I wouldn't be naive, I saw through him! Yet, there I was tip-toeing around the crazy passion he was inundating me with every single day, despite the obvious signs I chose to ignore because I was just "having fun". 

Red flags included:
-flirting with my friend so hard that he made the entire table uncomfortable the 2nd time i met him
-was actively pursuing me before he broke up with his girlfriend, which i found out later.
-had had a girlfriend of 3 years yet no photos of her anywhere
-him being so touchy feely with another one of his rude and very close girl "friends" at dinner that my friend called me afterward to ask "what the f* did i just witness?" 
-grinding hips and dancing with multiple girls during a night where I was excited to introduce him to a bunch of friends, to which they all told me "noooooo, girl, just no."
-being known as the UN group flirt
-all my friends describing him as "wildly inappropriate" and “Gross” acting
-not being able to be alone
-leering, not just looking, intensely at other girls while with me

He had a loveable energy and was the greatest friend to have, just lacked a lot of empathy and respect as a potential boyfriend, which is why it was so hard for me to entertain the thought. He would act ridiculous and I would just say, "not my problem" and be glad I wasn't emotionally attached. He was charming and he knew it, soaking up attention from all the girls who flocked around him. I was never one of those girls and I think that's what he liked about me- the chase. I later would find out it was childhood issues that made him latch to all females who gave him attention and feed off that attention. "I don't like them, I just like the attention.", he would say to explain his strange behavior. In one afternoon of actual self-reflection he would admit, "that I do this in every town I move to, latch onto girl 'friends' and have gray area relationships with them". He admittedly had "gray area" conversations with these girls, with many flirty messages. He has one girl "friend" later in Italy with whom he had discussed "being attracted to one another, yet made it clear they couldn't do anything because they had a boyfriend/girl interest(me)", yet were messaging each other all day with admittedly “gray area” flirty conversations, him telling her how dolcissima she was, and were together constantly. It was like being in high school again. He just seemed to always live in a world with no boundaries. If you're almost 30, though, you should really have a grasp on your issues by now. For him, though, sending kissy emojis, knowing you're having gray area conversations with girls, and being touchy feely with other females was fine because "only sex is cheating." (yikes) He was a boy that wanted love so badly, yet maintained no conditions for emotional intimacy with one person, so scared of being alone he was and so needing that flood of female attention constantly. It took me a long time and obviously still challenges me to realize as an empath that people’s childhood issues don't excuse toxic or weird behavior. When s*** feels weird, it's because it is. When everyone who knows him describes someone's behavior as "bizarre", it's because it is, plain and simple. There's no gaslighting that s*** away, which is actually a gender issue and tool to project women as crazy and discredit their feelings, common due to ingrained sexism. People can pull you into their own world and make you a pawn in their web of issues if you don't protect yourself with proper boundaries. 

Why, why then did I ever continue a semi-relationship with him in NYC and after? I really have no other explanation than that I felt like something beyond me was pulling me that way, as much as I struggled to believe it. When I first met him, I had thought it strange that I felt a connection immediately when I saw him. I have very high standards and don't like many men. I felt it was a form of a very special soul connection, yet so confused by this notion. I would deny this- my type was tall, older, calm, and respectful. He was not. No way is this guy a contender I would tell myself, yet wondering why I felt something so powerful and instantaneous the minute i met him and would continue to feel so powerful and beyond me. He would bike from Greenpoint to Park Slope almost daily just to sit on stoops with me or sit in the park. I let myself enjoy the light and joy he brought to my life, though, after dealing with a heavy year previously. It was very intense and timely for that moment in my life, despite wanting to be alone. As he was very animated and motivated to capture my attention, I reluctantly gave in to allow some happiness in, but never fully opening up myself. After all, despite the tremendous effort, the red flags were atrocious, this was clearly a very young, charming Italian, and I ain't no fool.

After our time in NYC, I was fine with leaving our connection as it was and didn't expect anything more. He came back to see me at the end of my internship, though, after leaving for a month and "realizing he was in love". I was charmed but also realistic and still had nothing of him but the gross behavior I had seen, so I just kept thinking of it as a fun connection that brought joy into my life. After returning to Italy, however, I was inundated with messages daily about how he loved me and would take care of me, how he was worried I would never forgive him for his gross behavior in NYC, how he imagines every day of a future with me, to please come to Italy. He would call me once or twice daily as well. Months passed of talking vaguely about "choosing an italian to have a family with", subtle to non-subtle comments about a future, saying he believed in god for having met me, poems, songs, and the most dangerously enticing rhetoric a girl could receive. Who doesn't want to be loved so passionately, after all, despite having a realist "I ain't no fool" mindset? I would respond with mild interest, care, gratitude, and respect, but also with a cold demeanor reminding him of the reasons why we would never work out. Relax, could we not just stay friends?

I had been planning a Europe trip for years to see my friends spread throughout, had recently started my wedding photography goals, and here was an Italian guy was that I had a tremendous amount of affection for, albeit with a meter-long stick, begging me to come to Europe. He offered to pay for my ticket (I didn't accept) and he was ravenous in his determination. It was so silly, I knew, but it was nice. Being in a relationship before where I did a lot of the effort, it felt satisfying for someone to put a crazy amount of effort into me. I considered the idea and had many talks beforehand about going with caution, with no expectations, and that my focus on this trip would be myself, my career goals, friends, and just enjoying time again together and maybe being open to a relationship if the issues I saw in NYC really had changed. I would never want anyone to feel used and I wanted to make my intentions clear. (Oh, naive girl.)

So, when a guy shows up in your life like a lightening bolt from the minute you saw him, when a man begs you for 6 months to come to Italy every single day, describing in depth how he will change from the disrespectful way he was in the 3 months you were together before and that he realized how he loves you so much, apparently if you are me you take the opportunity, pretend to be unattached and try to soak the opportunity as much as you can until it explodes in your face. (holy run-on sentence) I was the literal "this is fine" burning room meme. I went to Italy with low expectations for him despite his grand declarations, with many of my own travel and career plans. I was pessimistic, but still held a tiny hope that his words were true, he might magically be a different person, and something might come from this connection. Perhaps it was my empath nature fighting with my intellect- I feel things so deeply that when it's a ton of good barreling at me, it was so overwhelming that I felt i couldn't stop it. I also have a habit of putting up with s*** I shouldn't, obviously. I gave it a cautious chance. As an empath, we often have way too much empathy for everyone over our own good, often, to our own detriment. We often see and hold on to the possibility in a person, instead of the reality.

And that's how ignoring a million red flags ended up with me being abandoned on a train by myself going to a sketchy town outside of Venice. My closest family member had just been murdered 2 and a half weeks before and I finally felt well enough to get out and about instead of crying in the house, thinking about the violence that had happened to such a good soul, and worrying about my family. The night before, one of his "many many girls he could have" (in his words) became insecure when I showed up to a gathering and caused a passive aggressive scene touching his hair and awkwardly demanding to know why he's not "acting the same as always with her, because she's here(pointing to me)?" Granted, he told her to stop touching him and he talked to me about how she was obviously jealous, but he would also message her gray area stuff after acting like it hadn't happened. Multiple faces for multiple people. Bored, annoyed, but not surprised with this repetitivel, jealous girl friend f***boy scenario, after traveling all the way to Italy because he had begged me to try with him, I called out the passive aggressive comments to the girl and I closed up my affection. He wanted to ignore the situation, my boundaries, and my feelings, and pretend like that whole scene was normal, which led me to being ditched on a train going towards a sketchy town outside of Venice (I still had a great time). He didn't even so much as text to see if i had arrived safely and yet was confused when I had reserved an airbnb upon arrival back in his town instead of coming back to his place like nothing had happened. 

He would end up talking badly about this jealous girl to me, yet later message this same girl when I went to shoot a wedding out of town (on the anniversary of my best friends death), while also messaging me at the same time about how much he missed me. Head spinning, no? Who was he, really? It was the same repeated pattern from our first time together where he would have these toxic girls he kept on deck around him acting out in jealousy (which I understand, really,  because he was using them), yet him acting like everything was normal and having multiple faces. There was a difference in how he treated these girls (the “many many girls he could have") compared to just his normal girl friends. He would have a gaggle of these types of girls around him and in his messages and coming in and out of his life constantly, so needing the validation and attention. (How does he even have the energy, right?) It was a classic example of how people who don't put in the work to solve their own personal issues will revert to habits and never produce real change. And as he told me so many times that he felt so peaceful around me, it’s also a case where toxic people can use all the peace they see in you with no regard for you once you put boundaries to protect that peace.

I detail these scenarios because at the same time, in an obsession I now realize was fueled by passion and his childhood issues rather than actual love (because real love is not so fickle), he would simultaneously literally be begging me to be his girlfriend and stay with him. He would be in tears so many times begging and telling me he’d take care of me, with me calm and confused because I was open to it! I was open to it (incredibly) and was just sitting there asking for basic standards. Up until a week before I left, he would still do things like point out a foreign woman and her Italian husband who owned a B&B and say "that reminds me of us...wouldn't that be nice?" I would reply, as I always had, more calmly and with logic, that I did want to try and would consider the possibility of taking him seriously and being his girlfriend if I could trust him (silly me) as he sat there and texted his other “gray area” girls. I would look at all that had happened from NYC to Italy and the Talking Heads "Once In a Lifetime" would sound in my head, "and you may find yourself and think how did I get here? same as it ever was….". Transparency, normal boundaries with females, and trust was all I was asking for and it really shouldn't be so hard or take so long. I also was dealing with a major death in the middle of all of this, grieving and processing that while trying to still focus on my goals. I wanted to and would close the mile-long emotional distance once I saw stability, which sadly never came despite the promises.

Ironically and stupidly, I ended up falling in love anyway, even while keeping that mile-long emotional distance. He certainly has a gift for getting into people's heads and making them feel cared for, and he knows it. He also knows how to say all the right rhetoric, despite doing the opposite with his actions. I had a time afterwards where I believed his gaslighting and blamed myself for him not respecting me. It turns out that someone telling you they love you, being affectionate, talking to you about their emotions in depth, asking about you all day, talking about having a family with you, going through a trauma like a death with, and begging for a future with you for a year will affect your brain- who knew! As the equally wise f***boy lover, Selena Gomez once said, the heart wants what it wants. In the end, despite having set my clear expectations in relationships and talking about them endlessly for months, while him promising the world before committing to go to Italy, he ultimately looks at me the last week, only a few days after still having begged me to be his girlfriend, and says "I dunno, I only see sex as cheating". He would say it was "American prudeness", despite other Italians, French, and Latin Americans being equally as weirded out with how he acted with other women. A guy that begged and cried that people could change for an entire year was sitting there with no emotion shrugging his shoulders in a full circle pattern. In Chile they would say, "plop". In the US, the sad trombone effect would sound. I got suckered, while pretending I wasn't. It's a cautionary tale of how someone will ignore everything you say, lie, and waste your time to fulfill their own inner needs, fantasies, and wants. 

A summer in Europe was definitely worth it, what i felt with him was worth it, but I wish I has listened to my gut. Sometimes someone can feel like a soulmate, but it's just charm. Sometimes someone can actually be a soulmate, but not be mature or self-actualized enough to be a good person to a partner. Sometimes love mirrors and reflects who you are to yourself, but someone isn't ready to see themselves clearly and face their issues. Some people don't even know what love is or didn't experience it as a child, despite swearing they love you. Why would I fall in love with someone who would act like this and even leave me on a train? That's the even deeper question this upcoming year as I set out to be totally single and focus on myself for an entire year. 

As i'm getting older, I'm learning what love is, a task I have set out for myself for, well, obvious reasons. Photographing some of the best couples has me witnessing what real love looks like, too, and has me seeing that love and respect is really simple with the right person. Love does not feel entitled because of passion or a repeated effort of strong words, while ignoring their actions. Love does not disrespect you, in front of others or without you present. Love doesn’t have other back up options on deck. Love acknowledges errors and makes active changes. Love doesn't just enjoy the chase and get bored when they get what they want. Love has your back. Love doesn't gaslight and tell you something didn't happen that clearly did. Love doesn't abandon you during multiple hard times. Love does not stop loving or respecting you just because it's not advantageous for them. Love doesn't give you a certain deadline to make big life changes without giving you stability that you can trust in. Love doesn't act one way to your face and another way to others. And red flags should. not. be. ignored, not even for a fun time in Europe. If your friends' first reaction to someone is "agh, no, total f***boy", it's probably not something you should let into your heart, even by a reluctant mile. Trust your friend's opinions and don't play with fire. Love will feel safe, calm, reliable, and secure. 

I love and like few people and have incredibly high standards, so I'm unsure of how someone like this arrived into my life so heavily. I have certain theories about my life needing some fun, joy, laughter, and my path leading me towards Europe at that time, but only the great beyond knows. There's a great side of him for sure that I'll always love and miss dearly, and the time spent with him in NYC were some of the most alive and happiest moments of my life, but you can't depend on only certain sides or facets of unstable people that only are there when they get what they want from you, disappearing when they don't, with no acknowledgement of the actions they have done to hurt you. I badly wanted to believe in the hundreds of daily messages of adoration and love and promises, the love he promised with tears in his eyes, but the moment the time came to act on those words, actions failed to show love. I learned that people won't change, especially if they can't even identify their wrong behavior in the first place (duh). 

What other hard lessons am I learning in my tiny history of love? "When someone shows you who they are the first time, believe them." Also, words are just that- words. No matter how intense, no matter how lovely they are, no matter how persistent they are, describing everything you've ever needed, they are just words. Sometimes I berate myself for playing with fire and dealing with things one shouldn't, but I prefer to reframe this bizarre experience as "the time an fun stereotypical Italian Casanova brought a childlike joy to my life, opened my eyes to what love should and shouldn't feel like, the things that were missing in my life, gave me the chance to live in Italy, travel europe, pursue my career goals and shoot an international wedding there with wonderful Italian people". It will be a great story when I'm 80. Some people can be great and also awful at the same time- complex because of their unique issues. They can feel they love you madly, but not be able to commit to you, having patterns they still haven't resolved in themselves because of things they don't want to face. Some people self-destruct and don’t know how to take care of what they want when they get it. Some people grow up in a culture that teaches them entitlement and womanizing tendencies and it’s something they haven’t unlearnt. "To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.", as Thich Naht Han said.

And yet! And yet, despite it being a situation strong women would never find themselves in (Rhianna and Gloria Steinem would never put up with this BS), maybe falling in love with a f***boy was still an important part of my path and maybe that's okay. Perhaps it was to shake up everything i thought i knew about myself and flip that upside down. Perhaps it was a soulmate met too soon. After all, I believe many soulmates, good or bad, friends or lovers, come in many shapes and forms throughout your life to wake you up. Perhaps being intensely desired by a f***boy was a necessary side path that gave me clues towards my future. He was definitely someone that taught me how to be more selfish and have fun- something as an empath I need to learn, as I care too much for everyone before my own self. It also feels necessary to have seen life through his eyes for awhile, giving me an energy I had been missing. In the end, I wouldn't change much. Despite the juvenile behaviors, he was a "massive loving energy" that 2 different mediums 2 years prior had predicted would enter my life to "change it" when I was 27. And even if that love wasn't as genuine, it showed me qualities of love that I needed. He inspired me to live and change the way I had been living. My life wasn't the same after him, despite trying to go back to the way things were, so deep had he dug into my brain.

Some things you can't explain and sometimes life has a way of turning everything you think you know about yourself upside down. As hurtful and juvenile as he could be, the good in him was what I needed. Sometimes, life teaches you things in weird ways. I'm not sure if i'll ever find anyone that makes me feel as alive as he made me feel(or even as annoyed or crazy), but that in itself is worth it, because it taught me something. It showed me that once you think you have life and your self figured out, everything can surprise you and that in itself is hope, the only thing that keeps us going. It also showed me the importance of the boundaries and standards to look for in people you let into your heart and that passion doesn't mean love. It also gave me an opportunity to appreciate Italy. I'll be looking for that light and effort he gave me for awhile, albeit with someone hopefully more personally evolved, genuine, and with more empathy. Sometimes your life can't unfold the way it needs to without passing through "bad" decisions. This was really the straw that broke the camel's back in taking a hard look at who I let into my heart and inspired a year to really work on my self to love myself so hard that no one will ever be allowed in that doesn't do the same. I'm not suggesting to ignore red flags or fall in love with f***boys, but pay attention to where life is strongly carrying you, let it, and try to find the meaning in that, even if it's not the meaning you think it should be.

"What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”- Cheryl Strayed