Saturday, December 16, 2006


I think of lying on my back in my crib in the dark, in the middle of the night. It felt like the middle of the night because it felt like the whole world was asleep and I was the only person awake. I am in my crib with its pale wooden bars. My crib is in the smallest room of the apartment, a place where my father has his desk and his tall grey metal filing cabinet. I am awake. I can see the room around me, dark with shadow. There is a small man suspended up above me, somewhere near the ceiling. His face is stern and unsmiling. He is staring hard at me. I know that I must look back at him and I must not move. If I move I will die. I can hardly breathe.

So what. Maybe it's nothing.

But that feeling of being pinned down, of having no choice. I associate that feeling with my father.

I used to be so angry with him. I remember the day it started. My father and I are walking in the vast park near our house. We went there every weekend, he and I. My mother and my two younger sister stayed home. Nobody questioned this arrangement. Everybody knew my parents didn't want to go for a walk together, and my sisters were too young. I had been going for these long weekend walks with my father since I was three, but now that I was twelve they seemed too young for walks. I was the better choice. My father and I were like a matched set. No one thought to separate us.

We drove the few mintues to the entrance to the park and began to walk along the narrow paved road that wove through the woods and then out into open fields. We never saw other people there.

We walked side by side, my father talking and swinging his walking stick. He liked to carry a walking stick as an accessory. He didn't need one. My father was talking and talking, and then he asked me some sort of question and I didn't feel like answering it. For the first time, it felt like some huge effort to bother to answer. I shrugged. "Now, come on," my father said impatiently. He didn't like rudeness. I could see I was making him angry. I felt he was right to be angry. I just didn't feel like answering him anymore. I couldn't even think of a nice way to fake it.

From then on, for decades, it was like that most of the time, a vast surging anger that left me mute. I never could put my fury into words, which made me think there was something very wrong with me. He seemed able to put everything into words. I didn't even know what it was that came over me when I was with my father as we drove into the city on Saturday nights when we would both dress up and go to the opera, stepping into the crowded lobby, climbing the staircases -- everything in sheathed in red velvet with chandaliers sparkling in bright light and always crowds of people and the buzz of conversation, everyone dressed up, and I feel confident being there with my father, confident that he can navigagte a place like this in a way that my mother just can't. But afterwards, back in the car, I can't talk to him, cannot tell him anything, can only stare out my window and wonder what is wrong with me as he continues to talk like he always has.

And I flash on the old man he is now in his Budapest apartment. I don't think any of these things are on his mind. He washes his mind with a few glasses of wine each day, a scotch and soda when he can. He is getting lost in some nice fog of old age. I imagine. I don't know.


I wonder if I will tell my mother. I think about it. For a moment I imagined that my telling her might make her sick, might make her die.

A few weeks ago I wrote to her and said that for a few weeks I wouldn't call her. I'd be in touch by mail. I haven't written for a couple of weeks now because suddenly there is too much to say. A cheerful little card with a robin on it would be so false I can't bear to send anything. So I know she's thinking, wondering, probably worrying, waiting to hear from me no matter how independent she is.

I keep finding more shreds of evidence, all circumstantial, nothing that proves anything, but the shreds are everywhere.

I thought of the time in England. I was ten or eleven or twelve. I remember the nightgown I was wearing then, a pink one with no sleeves, not one I liked very much. It was plain and straight, something standard my mother had picked up. I had learned that on cold nights I could lie on my stomach, my arms stretched out beneath me, my hands pressing just a little in the place you don't talk about, and it felt good in a strange, wild way. I remember bringing it up with my father. It felt like playing with fire. I wanted to see if he knew about things like this. I told him that when it's cold at night I lie on my stomach with my arms underneath. That's all I said. I left out the unmentionable part. I wanted to see if he'd get it, or give some sign that he knew what I was really talking about. He didn't. The moment passed.

I think of the time in the taxi. I was eleven and my father and I were returning from a few days spent in Switzerland. I had never been with him on a trip like that before. I'd flown by myself to meet him in Geneva. The first night we stayed in a fancy hotel. I had my own room, my father had his and they both connected into the bathroom. I saw a bidet in there as my father was giving me a tour of our suite. "What's that?" I asked. "It's where ladies wash their wee-wee's," he said. "Oh," I said, embarrassed.

The next day we took a train into the mountains. My father was very excited to show me the place he'd been going to and telling me about for the last year. It was a tall modern skyscraper right on the mountainside, surrounded by snow. My father said he wanted to buy an apartment there. In the evening we had dinner downstairs in the fancy restaurant and a woman joined us. My father said to call her Aunt Helga. I could tell that he liked her alot. He kept running his finger down her nose and saying her nose was like a ski-jump. She smiled and laughed. She had short blonde hair. She wore make-up and jewelry and pretty clothes. She was the opposite of my mother. I had alwyas known that my father liked women like this. Even when he was getting along with my mother, at best it was like she was his sister. He never looked in love with my mother and she never looked that way with him.

My father dropped me off at a hairdresser the next day and spoke to them in French. The lady there washed my hair, cut it a little and then divided my hair into two ponytails which she wrapped in special black velvet bands. When my father came to pick me up he bought several sets of the black velvet bands for me to take back to boarding school.

On the taxi home from the airport I am with my dad. We are talking back and forth in a way we never have before. Something about this trip has given me a kind of confidence, a new language, and I am making grown-up jokes with my dad and he is laughing and joking back just like I was a grown-up like him. I call him "Mickey" just like Helga did. I am surprising myself how slick I am.

And then I stop. Maybe it's calling him by that name. Something makes me pull back and not let this go any further. Something in me smells danger, like I'm in a go-cart hurtling downhill without brakes.

These are a couple of the many many scenes that have been passing through the last few days. Other ones were coming through last week.

The words "molest" and "abuse" say so little. They are words easy to dismiss as overused. But it all makes so much sense. I have no proof except that it feels like I have found a missing piece.

I thought of the time, again, still in the English house, on a Saturday morning when my father decided I had blackheads in my ears and they had to be removed. My mother seemed in agreement. The operation happened in his room, me lying on my back on his single bed with its dark green silk cover. He is leaning over me, squeezing these fucking blackheads. It hurts and I am yelling and he will not stop. Blackheads are hideous. He must remove them. His daughter must not have such blemishes. He keeps going until he is satisfied.

It all fits. My mother letting things like this happen. It must have helped to have a daughter to pick up the slack. to absorb the husband's attention, a husband she didn't really want to have much to do with, a husband she was incapable of being close to. It must have soothed something to give him the little girl to play with. The little girl clearly liked him better anyway and he clearly liked her better too. So, good. Let them go off together, leave her alone. It made the home tolerable.


I think the drive will take about twenty minutes, that I'll make that right onto Apple Lane, a road I have passed for years, and then the left will be right there and then the second driveway on the right.

I turn onto Apple Lane, expecting a little development, a few make-believe roads and cul-de-sacs, but Apple Lane has higher aspriations. It starts climbing a mountain. The left I am supposed to take comes after a couple of miles, not yards. I have left the town behind below me and I am on a steep road climbing up. The trees are all grey and leafless. The sky too is grey.

Perhaps I've missed my way, but no, there is the driveway he said would be there. There's a small building off to the right, separate from the main house. I stop the car and look over at the quick notes I made last week while I was on the phone. Yes, he said there'd be a separate building. This must be it.

I step out of the car and lok out across a Catskills expanse. I feel way up high. It is beautiful. It is not often that I get up into the mountains I live so close to.

I open the door and walk in and he comes to greet me. "Stan?" I ask, extending my hand. He nods and smiles. I look at him. So this is Stan. It's been a couple of years since I've come to talk to a therapist. I'm not sure I want to be here. No, I do want to be here, but still.

He looks like this: a little bit like one of the seven dwarves, a type I am generally comfortable with. Comfortable looking. A cardigan. Sweatpants, socks, and a little round knitted cap on the back of his grey head.

He asks me gently to leave my shoes by my coat and I step into a room that feels made of wood. There's a desk in the corner and windows on both sides of the corner. He sits at the desk, turned in my direction, and gestures towards an armchair nearby.

I imagine my friend Jane sitting there. She told me she's been going to see Stan off and on for twenty-five years. I have chosen him for this reason alone.

I sit in the chair and pause before I leap into conversation. I look around the room. I want to see where I am. There's a fire -- real or fake, I can't tell -- in the corner opposite Stan's big desk by the windows. I cross my legs under me and somehow we get talking. Perhaps he says, "What brings you here?"

His voice is calm and deep. He looks trustworthy and I want to trust him. He doesn't smile. His face is serious. He's paying attention. He's sitting cross-legged now too as if my doing so has given him permission, and we sit there like two old yogi's. I had guessed from the prayer flags outside that he's into something or other and this confirms it.

I tell him lots of stories, mostly from the past, a little from the present. I talk alot. It's easy to talk. There's alot to say.

I wind around to the punchline.

"I have all this evidence," I say, "all this evidence that points to my father fucking me, but no memory in the center that proves it, just a blank space."

I feel like a cliche. I wish there were better words for this.

But it's like a door swung open a few days ago and opened up into a chasm I feel I'm hanging over now. Suddenly the strings of memories that have kept me company all these decades look very different -- there is a harshness I never saw before, a barrenness, and the romantic father doesn't seem so romantic. He seems like a monster, a lost and forgotten monster, unaware of his own demons.

Stan asks if I would mind standing up. He says that part of the way he works is to get a sense of a person's physicality.

I stand up about five feet from him. I put my hands in my pockets. I don't put on a defiant show like I might have ordinarily. This is a place I want to be very honest. I look down at the floor.

"Your legs are long," says Stan and I want to kill him. I flash on the boy thirty years ago who asked if I was a dancer. I hated him. I was wearing a leotard and jeans and my hair was in a tight ponytail. I knew I looked like a dancer that day, but it made me furious that he would fall for my disguise.

I feel Stan's gaze on me. "What are you feeling?" he asks.

"I have this feeling of 'unjustness,'" I say, struggling to put it into words, "like I'm being taken advantage of." And I do, like he's over there at his desk on some private trip and my body is supposed to be part of it.

I look towards the armchair. "Sure, go ahead," he says and I sit down. "You grew up too fast," says Stan and then he adds gently, "You don't have to do anything here that you don't want to."

It sounds nice, but it's not that easy. I am so used to doing things I don't want to do.

I like the room though. I like the wood and the mountains beyond the window. I can't see anything from where I sit except mountain and it feels like I'm in a special, privileged place.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


I thought I'd do it last year, buy a bunch of small things -- like a box of Sucrets, like a pack of Stim-u-dents -- little things that my father used to like when he lived here, little things that don't exist in Hungary where he lives now. I got the idea to send him a box of things like that for Christmas.

I bought one thing for it, one of those round metal tins of small European-looking candies. These were orange flavored and they were right by the register at Deisings where I'd gone for a buttered hard roll to eat on the bus into Manhattan. It was only October and I felt good getting a running start on my father's Christmas present. I never got any further and sometime in February or March I put the candies out on the counter for the workshop. I think Fred at most of them during the week. Now it's Christmas time again. I have just in the last few days begun to let the feeling in, and the idea of this Christmas package to Budapest is floating around as I walk through Eckerds, but I still put it off.

My father never wrote his Christmas cards til after Christmas. It was one of his private rituals each year to go into his office ? there was always a room wherever we were living that held his desk ? and write his cards. I don't know who he sent them to ? people related to his work, I think, mostly -- or what he said to them. My mother, my two sisters and I were not included. I only know what his cards looked like because he showed them to me each year with pride. I never liked them. They were always black and white, an etching or something very serious and adult with his name printed by a printer inside. And he enjoyed telling me that Christmas cards did not have to be sent before Christmas as long as they arrived by January 6.

Last year this theory bought me some time, but then I never got the package out.

I imagined this morning taking a few hours to just focus on it, get it done and out, but the idea went up in my mind like a lazy firework, dying down just as quickly as it went up.

It's a good idea, this Christmas package of little things, but that's all.

Natvar used to say often how he hated good ideas. He meant that he hated people who didn't follow through on their good ideas. He hated it if I suggested a solution to one of our many problems. To him my suggestions were empty words. So worked hard to make everything I thought might help happen. I considered it a spiritual discipline. I honestly thought if I made myself do things I didn't want to do I would be a better person.

I think of sending my aunt and/or my father ? who live together ? a $20 bill. It's not huge in Hungary either, but it's enough, say, for two people to go out for a pretty good dinner. They could do something with twenty bucks and they seem like they would welcome it. But maybe the cash will get stolen before it gets to them. Maybe my father -- if I send it to him -- will lose it on his desk or forget he ever received it. I'm told he's done that. So maybe I should send it to my aunt who would
never lose or misplace a $20 bill. But should I say it's for her, or for him, or for both of them? They are not very friendly. They live together out of necessity. Kind of like my mother and father did. I loathe the idea of joining all the womenfolk and treating my father like a child, but lost money doesn't appeal either.

In Hungary, out in a small, historic town called Eger, we said good-bye to my cousin Laci with whom we had just spent a meaningful twenty-four hours. Out on the street Laci introduced us to his cousin, Andras, a young, dark, good-looking man dressed neatly in black. Andras was driving back to Budapest and would give us a ride. I had never heard of Andras, but it seemed we were distantly related.

He didn't speak much English and seemed to prefer to drive in silence. His car was tiny. I sat in the front, Fred in the back. Andras did say that when he was a little boy my parents sent him a box of colored pencils. It startled and pleased me. He said his little girl, Angela, was turning one that weekend. I vowed to myself to send her some colored pencils. Or crayons. Or paints. Andras would get the reference. I would send her something every year because after several hours I came to like Andras very much even though our words had been few.

But as I walk into town this morning, I think how a one-year-old isn't ready for even crayons yet. So maybe a teddy bear? Or something for the parents? Or the little woolen booties I got for Chantal's baby except that she never let me know when or if the baby was born. Are those booties big enough for a one-year-old?

I remain in present limbo.


This morning I called Betty McDonald again. Betty McDonald is a wild jazz violinist who lives down the road from me and is well known in the Hudson Valley. She performs a lot with different bands here and there. I heard her once and I could tell that she could just go wherever the music feels like taking her.

Last year I was flipping through the bins of sheet music at the annual library book giveaway when everything is for free. There was a short grey-haired woman next to me also going through the music. We said a few things to each other, found out that we both played violin. Then the woman said she lived locally and did some teaching and if I ever wanted to come round to call her. When I asked she said her name was Betty McDonald.

My first reaction was not to believe that she was offering me a lesson. She was just being nice, I thought, as I thanked her and moved away. A few minutes later though I realized that Betty McDonald had just offered me a violin lesson and I went back and really thanked her and said I would call.

My favorite part of our lesson was when she played a tape of music over her stereo system and asked me just to play along with whatever came to mind. And when I left she said, "Go outside sometimes, into the garden or the woods, and just start playing anything, any notes at all."

I never did. I stayed with the regular violin teacher I had then, a nice big quiet guy who never gave me a hard time, was always patient and willing to work with whatever I came with. I always left my lessons with Ryan excited to play more and to practice and I could see that I was making progress even if it was glacial.

Though I did complain about Ryan sometimes. Ryan is so laid back that sometimes I think he's going to fall over. He broke his violin about six months ago and hasn't repaired it yet. No problem, he plays his viola instead. He rarely thinks ahead to have new music ready for me. I find myself hunting for more things to play. I left him three messages a couple weeks ago about scheduling before he got around to calling me back. He talks a lot during our sessions. Maybe that's the thing I'm really tired of

My friend Henny is also friends with Betty. "God, Betty was so happy to meet you!" Henny told me last year. "She was so excited. She thought you were so brave to be taking up the violin. She really liked you." "Why don't you call Betty," says Fred. "Remember how she liked you?" I hadn't paid much attention to Henny's enthusiastic report. It's hard for me to think of anything about me and the violin except that I am still very much in the beginner phase and surely I should be doing better, and surely any music teacher must dread spending an hour with someone who plays as badly as me.

I called Betty and made an appointment to see her. On the morning of the day I was supposed to go see her -- this was last week -- I cancelled. I'd been feeling sick off and on for a few days and that morning I woke up convinced I was too sick to go. I called her right away, at 8:30 in the morning -- before I'd even had my tea -- and cancelled. As the day wore on I didn't feel so bad. Maybe I could have done that lesson, I kept thinking.

Every time over the next few days that I thought about calling Betty I backed off. Did I really want to have a lesson with her? Maybe I should quit violin. It's too hard. Maybe I should start guitar.

When I called her this morning I felt strong. I want something that can lead me out of my pasture, out into land I do not know, and I think Betty can do that. It's scary. But in my strong moments it feels important and I am glad I chose violin as my instrument because if it were something else I wouldn't be able to go to Betty McDonald who I think is a musician the way we are writers.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

She Doesn't Try

I stood next to my father. He was sitting in the armchair in the corner of his room. It was our house in England. We had moved there in the summer. Then I'd gone away to school and now I was home again because it was almost Christmas and it feels like we have always lived here.

It is morning. My father stopped me on the landing just outside the bathroom. He said, "Your rport card came yesterday. It was not too good. And it was not too bad. We will talk about it after breakfast."

So I am in his room and the door is closed and we are by ourselves as we often are. Sometimes it's like my mother and sisters live in one world and me and my father live in another.

He is holding my report card in his hands. It's my first one from this new school here in Engliand. It is a long white piece of paper. Each subject is in its own rectangel on the paper. The teachers have written comments in the different rectangels.

I didn't know they were going to do this.

My father starts at the top. It's Math. They call it "Maths" here. The teachers says that I am careless and that I don't try and she gives me a low mark. My father reads each word out loud, slowly. I want to cry but I make myself not cry. I had thought I was trying. I hadn't thought about it.

The piece of paper says I came #22 out of 24 girls. I didn't know they were counting like that.

School was easy before I came to this school.

In this school my classroom is in a set of three classrooms that are in their own building apart from the rest of the school. We are in a wooden building, long and low. Each classroom has its own door to the outside and a set of steps. Everyone calls this building -- this set of three classrooms -- "the huts." Inside you can walk from one end to the other, from one classroom to the next, opening and closing the doors that separate each of the three rooms.

In the beginning I was in the first classroom, the youngest class in the whole school. Everything there was easy and it felt like playtime, not school. After a few days they said I could go be part of the next class, so I went through the door and I was with a different group of girls. They were older than me and they wrote with pens that had ink in them, not pencils.

My father just keeps going, reading how badly I have done and I can't not cry. I have to cry. It gushes out. It feels very bad, all these people saying I am messy and careless and I don't try. "Trying." I never thought about trying. I thought I did everything they wanted. I didn't know they were going to do this. I thought everything was fine. Nobody told me.

I hate this. That I am crying and my father keeps reading and he won't stop.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Kripananda was tall and thin and in about her sixties. Her hair was grey and she wore it in a tight old-lady-slash-hippy bun, utterly unadorned. She was a swami -- a monk -- and so she always wore the red or the orange, or sometimes it was a pale salmon color. Usually a sari, or sometimes a punjabi with the long tunic top. She had a high voice. Whenever you passed her she'd at least smile. If she knew you she'd say something teasing. She was a bit like an old -- though youthful -- schoolmarm. Utterly respectable, appropriate, playful but never out of order. And everyone looked up to her.

After all, she'd been the one who'd hung out with Gurumayi when Gurumayi was still a teenager. Kripananda had been Gurumayi's official English teacher, designated as such by Baba. I couldn't imagine being that close to the gurus -- first to Baba that he would ask you to teach English to the future guru, and then to Gurumayi, knowing her when she was just a kid, long before she became the one up in the elevated chair being bowed down to.

Kripananda had also published books. She was considered a scholarly expert on the Kundalini. She'd translated Jnaneshwari, a thick piece of scripture, a thick paperback that I tried to absorb by reading a few lines every night as if it were cod liver oil. I actually liked the book. There were moments of warmth and inspiration there, but it still wasn't the kind of thing you just sat down and read on your day off.

I admired Kirpananda also because it was known that, no matter what, she got up every morning at 3 a.m. to meditate. Now, I did that too. But I was a low-life, a regular member of the ashram. I wasn't one of those people who rushed around with pagers and bulging day books, who had so muich extra seva that they couldn't go to bed til after midnight and therefore were not expected to get up for meditation or for the Guru Gita chant at 5:30. You didn't see the big-wigs at early morning meditation or at the Guru Gita. You saw the ordinary people. The ones who slept three to a room and showed up for their dish-washing shifts.

I figured there was a special dispensation for these people/ I figured once you got to be like them other rules applied. It wasn't that you never saw swamis or other important figures at the early morning practices, it's just that, to me, they were noticeably absent most of the time, except at big celebrations or events when they all sat, and were encouraged to sit, up front, near the guru's chair where she could often speak with them directly.

But Kripananda, it was known, refused any seva that kept her up past 9 p.m. I didn't see anyone else doing that though it seemed like it should be normal.

Gurumayi once said in a talk that she sometimes walked past Kripa's room at 3 or 4 in the morinng and that there was a glow emanating from it.

When Kripananda gave a talk in a program -- when she stood at the lectern and spoke into the microphone, usually during one of the weekend Intensives, attended by hundreds of people, I found her talks dull. They were dry renditions of traditional information about meditation and breath, stuff I'd heard a hundred times. But I took it to be her loyalty to Baba's words, that she passed things on just as they'd been taught to her, without adornment. Her qualifications and talents as a teacher were never questioned.

Once in my first or second year at the ashram I was asked to speak in a small program and someone brought me over to Swami Kripananda's room to go over what I would say. I felt awed and respectful as I stepped into her carpeted, orderly room. She turned from where she was sitting at her desk with a smile and offered me a candy from a closed jar. When lifted the lid a cloth-covered toy snake sprang out, and Kripananda doubled over with giggles. Her room was filled with toy snakes, snakes made of stone and wood, all gifts she said. The snake is the emblem of the Kundalini. Kripananda was said to be the most popular swami across the world. Years later, when I sat next to her at her computer in the same room I'd first enetered, I saw the many emails she received every day from people all over the world.

One day suddenly she appeared in public with a new haircut. The tight bun was gone. Instead it was a more glamorous, shapely cut. We took it to mean that Gurumayi wanted her to appear more worldly, less old-fashioned. It seemed part of the ashram's overall development to never get stuck in any one place.

In India I was once in her room and she said how it was impossible to keep up one's normal standards of cleanliness because of all the dust. It surprised me. That you could have an excuse for not being absolutely dust-free.

At the very end, in my final week or two in the ashram, after we had been working together closely for a few months, I heard Kripananda wasn't feeling well and would be missing some important chant or something. I called her, just to say hello, to see if she needed anything. The kind of call you make. It felt strange to treat her as a normal person who might need something. Naive even. But I called her anyway. She was surprised to hear from me. And touched, I think. As if people didn't usually do that. Not all the fancy people who were almost always around her.


Natvar sits at the white marble table. It is a round table, about four inches thick, polished smooth, but not shiny. The smooth white surface is shot through with black veins. It sits like a coin on the black wrought iron stand with curved legs. Nothing actually attaches the marble table to its support. It just sits on top. But it is so heavy that it never moves or wobbles. In the spring we lift the white marble coin -- all four of us -- and carry it out through the sliding glass doors, out onto the roof terrace, the terra cotta tiles surrounded by flower beds. And in the fall we carry it back inside.

Right now we are inside. We are all seated around the table in our regular places. As always, I sit across from Natvar. On one side of Natvar sits Mark. Mark is a young man with a bright boyish face who once danced with Merce Cunningham. He is going prematurely bald now. His eyes are round and blue. He is dressed up today in nice pants, a pressed shirt and a vest. He drinks his coffee from the blue and white cup and saucer. We are all having coffee. It is about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and our first client will be here in about thirty minutes.

Natvar has just gotten up from his afternoon nap and is still dressed only in his silk robe, tied carelessly. It is a dark burgundy color with a paisley pattern. Natvar is about ten years older than Mark, is also going bald, but where Mark is blonde and pink, Natvar is dark -- dark eyes, dark hair, pale olive skin. They are lovers, Mark and Natvar. They share the main bedroom that leads off the living room.

We pretend to our clients that they are half-brothers.

On the other side of Natvar sits his seven-year-old blonde daughter, Ariadne. She wears a pink terrycloth bathrobe that we bought her for Christmas. It was pretty much the most expensive bathrobe in all of Greece, but Natvar insists. He must have the best. And his daughter must have the best. Then comes Mark. Then me and Meredyth.

Meredyth sits next to Ariadne because they get along. They share the second bedroom, the one with two twin beds. Meredyth is in her early twenties. She has short straight brown hair and light freckles. She has a pretty, American face. She is dressed in a pressed white blouse and a navy blue skirt. She will be in the kitchen, cooking dinner while Natvar sees his clients in the living room. So she is not wearing her best clothes -- not the high heels that hurt -- but clothes that are presentable. She looks like a well-behaved young woman.

And I sit between Mark and Meredyth. Mark is sometimes my ally. Sometimes he is like my brother. Sometimes he and I are like the two leaders under Natvar. We're more sophisticated than Meredyth and sometimes psychically leave her behind.

But these things shift. Sometimes Mark and I are aligned. Other times Mark joins Natvar and everyone against me. Sometimes me and Meredyth line up as the two women, though we don't come together as easily as Mark and I can do.

Today I sit across from Natvar. We all drink the strong coffee that Mark has made. He always makes the coffee because Natvar says he makes it best. The coffee is in the blue and white china pitcher. The cups match. The sugar bowl and creamer do too. Natvar saw this set once in the home of a wealthy client and insisted we buy the same. It came from Bloomingdales. I couldn't udnerstand it. That was when we were living in the loft on W. 29th St., the one we had renovated ourselves. Every penny counted. We could hardly pay the electric bill, but Natvar insisted on this coffee set. We brought it with us to Greece where it makes us look rich.We live here now because the cops want to arrest Natvar back in the States for beating his wife and now kidnapping his daughter.

I am dressed carefully -- in stockings and heels. I am wearing a skirt that was a hand-me-down from a famous Manhattan client and a blouse I shoplifted from Barneys.

I am the one who will open the door when the client knocks. I will smile effusively, welcome them in, lead them across the shiny parquet floor into the tiny room off the kitchen that is our office and waiting room and my bedroom at night.

"So I think we should prepare a presentation for that man we met last week," Natvar is saying. "The one who runs the private school. We could do yoga classes there. Marta and Mark could teach them. Do you think you could put that together, Marta?" Natvar looks at me. He is leaning back in his chair. "Or is it too much for you," he adds. "You bloody people, you tie me down." Now he is looking out the glass doors, out over the verandah, off into the distance as if he didn't belong in this cage.

"Oh, I can do that," I say, my back straight. "I'll have something ready by dinner time."

"That's my girl," says Natvar.


This is where I am. In a single bed – a metal bedstead that is light enough for me to pull away from the wall when I make it in the morning with a thin mattress on springs -- in the corner of a room. There are three other beds in the room, two of them in a row beside me, and one at the foot of my bed at a right angle to our row. The older girl sleeps in that bed. She's the head of our dorm and we have to do what she says. There is a wooden chair at the foot of each bed and I see that each girl puts her clothes there at night, ready for the nest day, so I do too.

We wear the same thing every day – a brown uniform, except mine didn't come in the mail yet when school started so I had to come without it. I kept waiting at home for my uniform to come, but it didn't and I had to come without all the things this school had said you had to bring. My mother said it didn't matter, that she'd send everything as soon as it came and I should forget about it. But I look completely wrong here in my clothes that do not match.

There is one window in our room with a chest of drawers underneath it. We are up at the top of the school, up on the third floor. There are three ways to get up from the ground floor of the school to the second floor. My favorite is the wide sweeping staircase that leads, curving, up from the front hall by the front door. From the top of the big staircase you go up a short narrow staircase that is enclosed within two walls. You feel like you're going up into an attic and that brings you to our floor where the wooden floors aren't glossy like they are downstairs. The floors here are dark and they creak, and the corridors between the scattered rooms – each a different size and shape – that hold the beds of the other girls, are dark even in the daytime.

After dinner we play in the big hall downstairs – a huge hall with a polished floor where you can run and nobody asks you to be quiet. Then they bring us up here.

There is a sink in every room and in the morning you are supposed to wash at the sink from the waist up and you take a bath twice each week. You do it at a particular time on a particular day and you have to know when and which number bathroom you are scheduled for and you have to clean the tub when you're done. The bathrooms are on the same corridor that our rooms are on, rooms just big enough to hold a white tub that you climb up into and stop up with a round stopper on a long silver chain. You do it all by yourself. You are always by yourself here. I mean, not by yourself. Just by yourself on the inside.
I am so relieved when my brown clothes come and I can look the same as the other girls. The head girl of my dorm shows me how to put up the collar of my beige shirt, slip the tie around my neck, pulling one end down longer than the other and then flipping the longer, wider end over twice – one, two. Then you pull the long end up and back down through the knot which is a special kind of knot because when you hold the bottom tie down and push up on the knot it slides up to your neck and you bring your collar back down so that it covers the part that is around your neck and it looks just like what men wear.
On Sundays everybody sits at their desk after Mass and breakfast. It's letter-writing time. Sister sits up front at the teacher's narrow wooden desk, facing us, raised up on a platform. She's one of the old nuns. She reads. Everybody has a letter-writing kit. Some are made of leather with a zipper and inside are envelops and notepaper and stamps, everything in its tidy compartment. I don't have one. I never knew about them before. My mother just gave me a pad of paper, a box of envelopes and some stamps. I write first a letter to my two parents and my two sisters. I cover one side of the paper, then I turn it over and cover the other side and then I'm done. I have learned how to address an envelope, putting each line a little to the right of the line above it so it slopes, like a poem. There is still a lot of time left before lunch so I write a letter to my grandparents in Budapest, then one to my grandmother in British Columbia. If there's still time I do one for one of my aunts or uncles. I don't know these relatives very well. I have only seen them once or twice in my life, but there's nobody else to write to. And sometimes they write back which is wonderful, to get a letter. It's like winning the lottery to get a letter here.

I am writing with this new pen that my teacher said I had to get. It has ink in it. You fill it from the white china cup that sits in the upper right corner of your desk. Some girls have pens that you fill by lifting a flimsy metal lever on the side. That's the kind I have. Other girls fill their pens by squeezing them. Our ink is blue. I've seen writing in black ink and it looks very adult and special. When I am grown up I will only write in black ink.

You have to write a special way here. You have to hold your pen so the nib – that's what they call the metal tip of the pen – is at a particular angle. I copy from sheets of perfect handwriting that are enclosed in clear plastic sleeves. We have the same ones to copy from every week. I try to get one of the ones that is a poem that rhymes. "How large unto the tiny fly must little things appear, a rosebud like a featherbed, its prickle like a spear." I copy the letters, the words, trying to make them as perfect and beautiful as the samples. I do think that the handwriting in the samples is very beautiful and I would like to write that way, but mine never looks quite the same. Sister George can do it perfectly. She is a stern, masculine nun. She sits up front while we copy our handwriting and she reads a book called The Hobbit to us. It is about a small furry man who lives underground called Bilbo Baggins. I write in my grey notebook and at the end of the class you turn it in. Sister George returns your book at the next class and you open it up to see how you've done. She puts a number in red in the margin. A 10 is perfect. I usually get something like a seven or a 6-plus. Sometimes she writes "careless" in the margin which I don't think is fair because I tried really hard. She has taken a pencil and drawn a line through my letters to show how they are not all facing the same direction as they should be. In perfect writing they all slant at the same angle. Sister George's penciled lines slant at different angles, one going one way, the next going another so that the lines almost cross as if they were fighting each other instead of swimming along in exactly the same way.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Small Talk

I call Sam. His wife answers. I have never met her though I know her name is Sandy. Sam has been complaining loudly about her lately. I ignore it when he says stuff like, "She's trying to kill me." He doesn't say it with a smile. He seems to mean it. He says things about his wife like you'd expect Archie Bunker to say, or the kind of things I used to expect from middle-aged people who'd gotten themselves into dead-end marriages. I used to think all marriages were dead-end. I never wanted to do anything that would last very long. I couldn't imagine something being interesting for any length of time. I loathed and feared the term "settling down." I even wrote about it in 12th grade.

Sam seems to be someone who "settled down." I remember him saying once to someone who had called in on the hotline, "Well, if you want to marry her, make sure her kids like you because a woman won't ever choose the guy over the kids."

Sam is pragmatic. He likes to go to happy hours where the drinks are cheap. Pretty much everything in his world boils down to money. He said a week or two ago to someone else who called in, "Well, you say you want security, well, that means money, right?" Like it was a no-brainer.

He calls his wife "the wife." He calls his daughter "the daughter." His son "the son." He smokes. He drives some kind of pick-up. He's kind of handsome. He wears jeans and tee-shirts. He has thick black hair and a fresh healthy-looking face. Boyish.

I call him tonight because I got invited to a group lunch to celebrate Rick who's retiring. I called the organizer of the lunch this morning to say I couldn't make it and she said she'd reschedule the lunch and asked me to call Sam to find out when he can make it, then call her back etc. etc. I found myself knee-deep in group miasma, but still wanting to see if I could swim to shore.

So I called Sam tonight and when his wife answered I didn't say, "Hi, Sandy." I just said who I was so she wouldn't think I was some girlfriend and if I could talk to Sam.

He got on the phone. "I'm outside," he called into the phone. "I just started a fire." I wasn't sure what he meant but I didn't ask.
We said what we had to say about when we could maybe do this group lunch thing and then Sam said, "I don't like that new guy on our shift."

A new guy, fresh out of the training, had just been put on our shift the week before. He was a nice guy, but we didn't need another person. There was barely enough to do as it was and Sam has been on the verge of quitting for the last couple months anyway.

Last week I'd said to him, "Well, maybe you and I could switch off. You come in one week and I'll come in the other."

"Yeah," he'd said. "But I like working with you."

Which scared me a little. I didn't want things to get that personal.

On the phone when Sam says he doesn't like the new guy I say, "But he's a nice man." The new guy is a nice man. A bit of a good boy. A little docile, but very sweet and someone I tried last week to make feel welcome, as if he appeared to me fragile, feelings easy to hurt.

"Yeah, he's nice," Sam answers, "but he's no fun."

I laugh. It is a little true.

I wonder if I should let myself be friends with Sam. It scares me a little. But I do like joshing around with him. There were a few months there where Sam, Rick and I enjoyed working together. I was the new kid on the block and I found myself often just sitting with these two guys when the phones were quiet and just talking about nothing important -- just movies or food. And I enjoyed it so much.

I remember once my father telling me what small talk was. I was about ten. A man and his wife had visited us for lunch and then my father and I drove them to the train station. Afterwards my father spoke of the two people scornfully. "Did you notice the silly things she was saying?" my father said as we drove home. "That's called small talk."

I didn't want to ever make such a mistake, but as I grew up it seemed like everything I thought of to say was small. Small talk. And I kept quiet.

Sitting with Sam and Rick was new for me. Chewing the fat. Shooting the breeze.


The shag carpet is lime-green and white. It is hideous. It covers the floor in the living room, the bedroom, the closet, the bathroom. A temporary boyfriend pulled it up one weekend when he visited, just the part in the bathroom. He came just for two days and could not abide shag carpeting in the bathroom and ripped it out. "Come on, Marta," he said. "You can't have this stuff in here."

What about the squares of mirror pasted to the wall in the bedroom?

I posed there for Gary, another temporary boyfriend. It was his idea. But then he said, "Too cheesecake," and I never saw the photos. It was nice to be asked to pose nude, but nor surprising that I wasn't good at it. Sometimes people called me beautiful, but it seemed to be a particular kind that didn't stand up to every test.

These were the two temporary boyfriends who visited the shag carpet place. They had a couple of weekends each. They were futile attempts to fill the ache that clawed inside of me.

There were two saltwater fish tanks in the living room, each set up on a wooden base and placed away from the walls, at angles in the middle of the room.

There was a brown Salvation Army couch, an oval shaped coffee table with a plastic laminate top ? the fake-wood kind. Of course, there was a color TV on a stand with a shelf underneath that held the Beta Max. There were windows, narrow ones with glass slats. To look out you opened the slats. There was nothing to see out the windows. The greenery surrounding us was too dense to look at. It was southern California. It was Los Angeles. It was Fountain Avenue. West Hollywood. It was 1978. I am twenty-one and none of this is mine. I am in someone else's life because I can't find mine.

The mustard-yellow linoleum floor n the dark kitchen is sticky with oil from the plug-in fryer. I wash our dishes after dinner, but that's all. There are fleas in the green and white shag carpet. I don't notice them. My sister tells me about them when she visits.

On the coffee table is a long ceramic pipe in shades of blue, fashioned to look like a wizard with a long beard. Jeffrey bought it with delight in San Francisco. I didn't share his delight, but I use the pipe every day. It is standard procedure. Jeffrey gets high when he wakes up, around noon. I wait til evening. I have never liked getting high in the day time. It's too hot here. There's too much sun. It's awful being high in traffic in Los Angeles because it deosn't last and then there I am, high and dry, with a headache and the sun hasn't started to come down yet.

We never make the bed. Jeffrey has never made one and I have stopped. I never made the bed I shared with Jeffrey. I crawl into old sheets under an electric blanket. That's his too. An electric blanket. It's all his. The Selectric typewriter on the desk. The desk. The cat. The fish. I get up in the morning early because I go to work. I dress in the narrow space beside the bed. I have to be there by 9. The offices change, but the changes don't matter much. I still have to be there by 9 and not move til 5. I sit at my desk, desperate to leave, and then, when the time comes, the only place to go is the living room where the TV is
on. Situation comedies with laugh tracks. Pot smoke. Jeffrey cooking in front of the TV, sitting on the couch, mixing a bowl full of raw eggs and chocolate for mousse, smoking from the blue wizard pipe, getting up to put chicken in the oven. This is his territory: dinner and I better not trespass.

I get high. Maybe I go for a walk. I like walks. I like being outside even if it is Los Angeles.

I can make it to about 9 o'clock. Then I pick up a book, go into the bedroom away from the television, sit on the bed, lean against the mirrored wall, but I can't even read. I am drawn into sleep like by a huge iron magnet and Jeffrey passes through on his way to the bathroom and says scornfully, "You're not reading, you're sleeping. Again." Oh my god, another day for the garbage can. I am nothing. I am no one. How can he love me? One day he will stop.

Depressed. It's a word I learned early on from Jeffrey who majored in Psychology. He tosses out that word like it's worth something, like it's a little jewel only he has access to, and h offers it to me, an explanation. His sister backs him up. She's getting her PhD. in Psychology so she's not only his ally but an expert.

Marta's depression. It's a topic of conversation. What's to be done about it? Because it's a real drag. Not fair to Jeffrey for one thing. My car is orange and white. It's a Ford Pinto, the kind that explode. My key ring has a large plastic fried egg on it. It came with the car and smells faintly of perfume. Before getting to the office in the early morning I stop at the supermarket for potato chips because Jeffrey has suggested that I stop eating sugar. Sugar is supposed to make you
depressed an potato chips don't have any sugar. I eat them fast fast fast while I drive, wishing I could stop.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Summer 1974

I remember my father watching the Watergate hearings. It must have been before they bought the little SONY portable TV because he watched up in my room which was the attic of the house where the old TV worked best. The TV sat on the floor and some old couch cushions were also on the floor. I can see my father sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, his legs stretched out at the end of his day in some Manhattan office, watching hungrily what to me appeared deadly dull.

It was the summer of my 17th year and I was headed to Europe. I had just graduated high school, an event that meant almost nothing except relief that I wouldn't have to ever go back there.

My father, a Hungarian, had signed me up for a program that summer aimed at the offspring of Hungarians who were growing up in other countries. The program promised to teach us the language and inculcate us with Hungarian culture and return us home with a heightened awareness of our ethnic background.

Whatever. I liked the idea of going to Europe alone. I had a real backpack now thanks to my almost useless high school boyfriend Ted who had taken me hiking and camping and taught me what equipment to get. So now I had a real backpack, the essential accessory for any traveler. I looked forward to being away from everyone who knew me and to being able to present myself as a woman on the road.

I had read about the Icelandic Air flights to Luxembourg, the hippy flight where you could smoke grass in the back seats. I didn't tell my father that part, but it was the cheapest flight available so this wish was granted.

From Luxembourg the plan was to get a Eurail Pass, go to England to visit two or three friends, then backtrack to Hungary for my program. On one of my day trips into Manhattan with Cyndi, who was not a girl I deeply loved, but a girl who wanted my friendship and was the only person I knew equally interested in solo day trips to Manhattan, I got an International Students card which I had read was also another essential part of hippy European travel.

I envisioned a rolicking trip complete with lots of drugs and friends made on the road. There weren't really any friends at home here after three years of high school and there hadn't, consequently, been many drugs either. Certainly not enough, and it wasn't the first time that I had thought a trip might cure all that.

It hadn't worked very well the year before when I had managed to hitchhike by myself across the country without my parents finding out. I had returned still friendless with some marijuana seeds that someone had given me, which I tresured as if they were currency, and I placed them between damp paper towels the way the book said, not sure what exactly I'd do with real plants. I kept the seeds up in my attic room until they went moldy, but it had felt so good having them up there, as if I were a member of something.

No hippy made friends with me on the flight. In Luxembourg a man yelled at me for leaning my pack up against his car. It was the first time I'd met anyone who didn't want things touching their car.

I rode the train west to Belgium and sat in the lounge of the overnight ferry to England. Three men were there together. I sat off to the side, hoping they would notice me. One had a pony tail. They brought me into their conversation. I answered their questions as I always did in situations like this -- truthfully but also guardedly, always protecting myself. Let no one think I needed anything. My enjoyment of sitting in this bar with these men was in direct proportion to how much I could hold their attention. Usually, things like this petered out quickly. A few wisecracks and it was over. But somehow me and these three men kept going.

Before we landed they asked if I would carry their cocaine through customs. This was the kind of life I'd been looking for. Of course, I said yes. What? Say no? Ruin my repuation? No way. I was a fearless, careless girl, like any decent heroine. Looking back, I'd say it was a pound or two of white powder wrapped in clear plastic that I slipped into my underwear in the ladies room.

Through customs, they offered to give me ride to London. They were getting a taxi, a bulky black English taxi. It was a two or three hour ride. I sat in the back seat, kissing the one with the pony tail. "Come with us to the hotel," they all urged, but I had a train to catch. My friends were expecting me. "No," I said. "Let me out at Waterloo Station," and they did.

Phone Thoughts

On the phone my mother describes to me how Carlos, a man who lives next door to her in a small white house that my sister owns, how he raked up her leaves in the backyard for her, but how he left them in twelve small piles and said he'd come back with a big garbage bag to carry them into the woods. "I told him how I usually do it," my mother says, "that it would just take a few minutes."

"You mean with a sheet?" I ask.

"Yes," says my mother, and I realize that I must have learned this from her for this is how I carry piles of leaves into the woods.

My mother continues. It is already dark and Carlos has not returned and now she's stuck with twelve piles of leaves and I can tell she wants to finish the job herself.

My mother lives in a small white house. On my walk this afternoon in the woods with Tamar who is a beautiful black dog I imagined writing the story of my mother's move into this house and how she lived there and what she did. And I'd leave the story -- typed and stapled -- in the house so that the next person who lives there will know the history, or some of it, of the place.

I lived in the little white house next door to my mother for six months, and I was remembering what it was like when I first looked at it and walked through its three rooms: the squalor, the children, the cockatiel crouching in his dirty cage, the toilet leaning to one side. Carlos who lives there now knows nothing of that past.

I was talking to Catherine today on the phone and she was saying how different it feels to live in a place that you own instead of rent. She just moved a week ago into a house she bought.

And I thought of when I moved into the small white house. I felt so powerful, like I had my own small kingdom for the first time. Today I was trying to remember that time, who I was then.

I didn't stay long, but my mother is still there. When we talk on the phone we usually cover these topics: what she is making for dinner, the people she works for, news from my sisters and father.

I talk very little when I am with anyone in my family.

"You're so private," my mother once said.

I just never feel so at ease with either of my parents or my two sisters. It has been that way for a very long time.

When I call my mother I ask her questions and I imagine her there in her small living room at the small table by the window where she eats just outside her kitchen. I imagine my mother sitting there with her white hair pinned up. I can imagine her routines pretty easily. She t ells me about her cat and about the little girl she takes care of and then I ask her if she's heard from my father. Last time I spoke with her I didn't ask about my sisters. It's almost as if I have a choice: whether to ask about my father or my sisters. I don't usually ask about both.

It is easier to ask about my dad because my two sisters used to be my friends and now we aren't friends. It used to be that my sisters and me and my mother were friends together. But I have broken off with my sisters and hear their news via my mother. And sometimes I get curious to hear their news. But I feel awkward asking because it is like bringing out into the foreground the fact that I am not much in touch with them myself.

I was wiping the stove with a sponge the other day and thinking how it's so strange, this thing with my sisters, how for years I really did pursue them as my friends and now I don't like them much.

I was much more different from them than I knew.

And when Fred was talking at the beginning of the workshop I was thinking about my own relationship to writing and the workshops, and I was thinking how that the core thorn that always needled me as I struggled all the time to have a life I liked was that I yearned for this thing called being an artist and how I loathed myself for wanting it and not being it and when Fred said something about how individual art is, I thought about my own process of writing during the last eight years that I've been part of the workshops, the time in my life when finally I have found a way not just to write but to keep writing -- I think I understood Tatiana when she said she writes, but somehow "it dies in the middle."

Anyway, all of this stuff makes me different from my sisters.

It's like way back when I was twenty-three and I was discovering yoga and meditation and mantras and gurus for the first time -- I thought my friends would embrace it as enthusiastically as I was. They didn't. Except my sisters did. And we went through yoga together for years -- well, except for the seven or so years when I broke with them, which is another story, but proves the point again that no story is striaghtforward.

Anyway, now that I have found a way into my writing world, my sisters can't follow.

As I sponged the stove I was thinking how I feel like the person I am now, the one who is not friends with my sisters, was there all along but she had no allies. I do not think my sisters have the kind of deep interest in this work -- this art, this process -- that I do. And though it feels strange to be going down a track that leads so far from them, I like it. It feels very real and solid and exciting.

Setting Up The Blog

A man came and sat beside me at the next computer in the coffee shop. When I got up to make a phone call he was standing nearby, about to return to his stool, and our eyes met. We smiled as if just by having sat next to each other for a few minutes we had an alliance.

I returned from the phone booth and got back to my screen where I picked up my notebook and resumed typing. My eyes looked down into my lap where my notebook lay open. My hands and fingers moved across the keyboard of their own accord. I was going as fast as I could and I can go pretty fast. I had paid for an hour and at the bottom of the screen it said I had 25 minutes left and you could watch the seconds count down.

While I typed my story about visiting the Budapest apartment I listened while the man next to me opened his cell phone and began to talk. He was calling an airline to confirm his flight, leaving November 6 from Newark, flying to Rio. "Brazil," I heard him say into the phone as if the person at the other end had asked where Rio was. He spoke very clearly without trying to muffle his voice. "And do I arrive in Rio on the 6th or the 7th?" he asked. "I'm now going to patch in my secretary who has details to pass on to you," he continued. "Please hold on." He pulled the phone away from his ear, dialed, brought in the secretary.

When he needed someone to repeat themselves he said, "I beg your pardon." He was ready to pay, but the person at the other end said something. Mel was surprised. (Yes, his name I had learned was Mel Thompson. Thompson with a P.) "You mean, I'm here with my credit card ready to pay you a couple thousand dollars and you don't want it?" He laughed a fake little laugh and paused. "And who does that benefit?" he asked politely, condescendingly, a little like a person playing at being a grown-up for the first time.

Finally he said, "All right. I will call you tomorrow and you'll take the payment then, but the price you just quoted won't change?" He seemed satisfied. He wrote down the confirmation number. He was put on hold again by Continental and used the idle time to say to his secretary that he had received an email from someone in Lebanon. "Now what did I do to deserve that?" he said, but you could tell he loved it.

The call was finally over. I had kept typing throughout, only getting distracted a few times to the point of having to pause, find my place, re-focus.

I finish the story and look at the screen, searching for what to do next. I am in an unfamiliar program. I see a button that says "edit." That looks good. I hit it and everything disappears. It's gone. My half hour of typing has gone up in smoke.

"Oh no!" I cry out. I look up and meet Mel's eyes. "I lost it!"

"Oh no!" he says. "That's terrible. But you type so fast," he went on, "it's like aerobics the way you type," and then, "It looks like that's your own material you're working on."

"Yes, it is."

"So you probably have it memorized," he says.

I'm ready to end the conversation. I just needed someone to share that moment of despair, but now he's talking crazy -- why on earth would he think I had my stuff memorized?

My eyes have gone back down to my notebook and my fingers have started flying. Mel and I each go back into our own worlds.

I am aware of him as he stands to go. "Good luck," I hear him say. I don't look up. I could have. I wished I had. But I stayed in Budapest and replied simply, "Good luck to you too."

A minute or two later I found my original piece of typing and realized with relief that I didn't have to redo it all. But Mel wasn't there to tell.

An hour or two later I was in a different internet cafe and I got online just for one minute to Google Mel Thompson. Well, maybe he's the one who writes self-help religious books. I don't know. I was hoping for a photograph of a tall man, dressed well in a button-down shirt, with pale coffee colored skin about thirty-five years old.