Thursday, January 31, 2008


Don’t be fresh. It was scary when my mother said that. It was a threat. I knew not to go any further. I never understood what I was saying that she didn’t like, but I knew not to take whatever it was I was pursuing any further.

Don’t talk back. I never understood that one either. These phrases would shoot out of nowhere like bullets stopping me, forcing me down, before I was done.

The miniature house with the dull green carpeting, not our house, a rented one, none of it really feeling like ours. It was too small to be real. It was a tiny house, but with four bedrooms, a living room big enough only for a two-seat couch and one armchair, inches apart. There was never much reason to be in that strange little room. My father stayed in his room when he was home – reading there, doing his bills at the desk by the window. All the furniture came with the house, like a hotel.

We stayed there five years, longer than what that house was really capable of. It was a place for a weekend, or for a couple, but we lived there. In the dining room where you could only just get around the dining room table.

It was into this house that my father brought, during the last two months of our stay there, two large new pieces of furniture, both went into the dining room. He replaced the rectangular table that had come with the house with a polished wood table with thick carved legs and a glass top. The table came with six matching chairs, with high backs and soft green velvet seats. He placed against the wall a tall armoire – that’s what he called it – a wide cabinet that reached almost to the ceiling with glass doors on top that each closed with a little key and below three wooden doors each also with a key. Behind all these doors were shelves.

These two pieces of furniture gobbled up the almost non-existent space of the dining room.

My father said they were my mother’s birthday present, but I knew they weren’t. They were his birthday present and they didn’t fit in the room. It was so obvious and transparent. I knew my father didn’t like my mother, that he tried hard to be away from her as much as possible, that she just made him angry. She made me angry too. Why did she keep doing – mostly saying – those things that instantly set his teeth on edge?

I am quiet when one comes out of her mouth, tense now but superior because I know better than to say something so combustible. I sit to my father’s right at the dining room table, she at his left, getting up to bring things from the kitchen – not much, nothing fancy, though we like it – mashed potatoes, roast beef maybe or pork chops. And this is only on weekends. We eat together like this only for Saturday and Sunday lunch. The rest of the week my father is away and my mother and I and my two little sisters eat in the kitchen.

I clamp down when the words zing out, when my father tenses and pretends not to hear. “I am reading an excellent book,” he beings, leaving my mother’s question unanswered because it was only asked to irritate. “Yeah?” I say, minimal but not non-existent. That would cause too much attention.

Or if the zing has gone in deeper, my father tenses and says something in a low warning voice without looking at her. “Now, Joan –“ and she will say it again like someone driving with a blindfold on – while I pass the potatoes down to my sisters, wanting to be far far away with people who are young and hip and cool, in my own apartment somewhere in a city.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I always go first to the kitchen these days. It used to be my room in the attic, but these days it’s the kitchen and it’s high school and it’s just me in there, sitting at the head of the small rectangular table – unpolished wood -- , my back to the swinging door and facing so I can look out the window. My mother stands at the counter, almost out of sight, making sandwiches, the radio plays classical music and somber announcements and the floor is dark brown. The stove is electric and there’s a small round fan just above it, built into the wall. You lean up and over the stove to pull the string of little metal balls to get the fan going or to stop it.

My mother and I don’t talk much, just maybe a few practical things – dress warm, it’s going to go down to 25 today – mostly, I am quiet. I am not a quiet person, like my sister. I am talkative, but something has come over me the last few years – a gag or something – and it makes it hard to say anything.

The only things that come easy to say is when my mother is in a good mood and I am making jokes to make her and my sisters laugh – I can do that. I can be a good clown. I don’t do it when my father is home. When he is home I mostly strain to get away. I stay up in my attic room – out of his sight as much as possible, because if he sees me he starts to talk to me and it is always about something I want to get away from. His questions are always about how well I am doing, as if he is asking questions and watching me at the same time, checking me as if if he didn’t watch me closely I will disintegrate into the wrong kind of person, a failure like my mother, which I am afraid is happening anyway. Either his conversations are mini-exams that I can’t help but fail, or they are requests for help: help with yard work or paper work, or (unspoken) help with my mother who irritates and makes life hard for him.

I never say no when he asks. I am afraid of him. I have never said no, so it’s not like I know what would happen, but I know he’d be mad and I’d be at fault. So I have to keep my end of the bargain and say yes. My yeses though are unenthusiastic. I also feel sorry for him.

Last night I overheard a man say how every generation complains about kids today.

My parents banded together and refused to allow me to wear my beautifully patched and tattered jeans into the city when that was the whole point of going, to walk around with Cyndi attracting attention in my favorite clothes, the ones who told you who I really was.

I didn’t smuggle my jeans out of the house. I didn’t think of that. I obeyed.

Both my parents scared me. Their anger was terrifying. I did what I could to keep them quiet.

I hitchhiked across the country by myself the summer I was sixteen and did not tell them. They wouldn’t have allowed me, I knew that. So I suggested to them that I visit my grandmother in British Columbia and travel by Greyhound. They bought me a month-long pass. It cost $150. It pained me that they should have to spend all that money on me. I wanted to get on the road like all the hippies I saw standing by the inter-states, holding signs, in their lovely worn-out jeans and lovely long hair. I wanted to be standing with them instead of looking from the passenger seat of our green VW station wagon.

So I had the ticket and I started by bus, wondering how I’d get out there on the big highways. It seemed harder now that I was this close.

I did it though. I did get out on the highway, though it was comforting knowing the ticket was in my back pocket, until it wasn’t. I knew before it happened that I would lose it. I hadn’t been careful and I’d noticed I wasn’t being careful and sure enough about fifty miles from my grandmother’s ranch – after I’d found out that sleeping in a bus station isn’t as fun as it looks and that they come around and ask you to move – the ticket is gone and I know I will have to get rides not only to the ranch but all the way back to New York because I cannot tell anyone that I have lost something worth $150. I couldn’t bear my parents to have to find that money again. It’s too painful. I know we don’t have enough money anymore. We used to have more, but even then I never felt rich.

I always felt poor with my mother. Even in fancy stores or restaurants because I could always feel how awkward and out of place she felt – just being with other people, but especially if we were someplace fancy. She liked being outdoors best where she could look at plants and point out birds. My father liked the fancy restaurants, the pretending of great wealth, the flourish, the luxury.

But there wasn’t much of that anymore. Not much money. I knew not to ask for anything. If I wanted something, to do without or find a way of getting it myself.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


It was a crowded cafeteria in a bus station in British Columbia, late in the day.

I was sitting by myself. I had a small back pack. I had jeans on and a short yellow top and a red bandana holding my long dark hair back. I was sixteen. I was going West to spend two weeks with my grandmother who lived out on a wild ranch. My parents had bought me a bus ticket, an expensive one that let me take as many rides as I wanted for a month. But I didn’t want to use it much. I wanted to hitchhike, travel like the hippies, be on the road. Greyhound buses weren’t very cool.

“May I join you?” I looked up, interested by the English accent. I’d lived in England for five years. The voice came from an older man. He had grey hair and a navy blue suit jacket on. He looked like a professor.

“Sure,” I said. “Are you English?” I knew my question was an invitation.

Of course he was English and of course he asked me if he could give me a lift and of course I said yes.

“Back home in England I have an MG,” he said. “This station wagon is just a rental.” When he got out to get gas I looked in the glove compartment and saw the registration with his wife’s name on it.

When night came he drove to a hotel, a huge fancy hotel. The Banff Springs Hotel. It’s a famous place though I’d never heard of it. “Let me go in first and see if they have a room,” he said. When he came back a few minutes later he said he had rented us a room. “I’ll go in first. Wait a bit and then come in after me,” he said. I knew he wanted to hide me.

Inside, it looked just like a hotel my father would love, rich and old. I went up to the room, not like a Holiday Inn, more like something out of an English manor house. A double bed.

I was a virgin, but I didn’t want to be and I was hoping this road trip would bring me home accomplished. I hoped that someone would stumble upon me on the road, like me, fuck me and get me out of this sticky childhood that was refusing to let me go. This hotel room was sort of what I wanted, though this old man was not. Still, he was better than nothing.

I went into the bathroom to undress and came out in my nightgown, white cotton lace with blue ribbons, a pretty one I liked. I had my period. I wasn’t sure what people did when they had their period, as far as sex went.

He was standing, naked by then. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, half apologetically, spreading open his arms a little.

“Oh, no,” I said casually. The important thing was to pretend this had all happened to me a thousand times before.

He held me in bed. He didn’t take my nightgown off. He felt me. He said, “Oh, you have your period!” He said it sweetly, as if this delighted him in a gentle way.

He put his hand over my breast. “A breast shouldn’t be too large,” he said. “It should fit under a champagne glass.”

And when he heard I was a virgin, he held me tight, as if this was a precious thing.

At one point he came. I remember only the small amount of white cream that spurted.

In the morning he ordered breakfast to be brought to the room. We ate by the window – tea and toast. He went out to check on his car and returned, saying, that unfortunately his car was having problems and he would have to drop me off back on the highway. The car, he said, could be driven, but only very slowly. I pretended to believe him.

He drove me, slowly, back out to Highway One, the main highway that cuts east-west across Canada. We didn’t talk much.

He said he would call me. He gave me his number. He said he would meet me in British Columbia and we would walk on the beach and find driftwood.

I called the number from my grandmother’s house but got no answer.

Wall to Wall

The house stood on a hill that overlooked the road. There was something a little forlorn and raw about it, nothing like the smooth suburban houses my friends lived in. Our house was different the way we were different, the way my parents weren’t American and my father didn’t come home at night.

The hill was short and steep. The house was white with dark green shutters. There were no shutters in the very beginning. They came a little later, my mother’s addition and there was never any question about what color they would be. Shutters were dark green. Houses, rooms and sheets were white.

My mother washed the clothes in the basement and hung them up to dry behind the house and down a wide path that she told me used to be a road, long long ago before there were cars. It was overgrown now. The line for drying the clothes was on a pole that twirled. If you kept going on the overgrown road you came to the neighbors, but I only went that way once or twice.

Everything was rough about our house. You could get splinters from the floorboards. My mother liked the floorboards because, she said, they were wide and only old houses had wide floorboards.

My mother planted our Christmas trees on the slope that led down to the road. She planted other things there, always at random. Dark plants. I don’t remember color there.

Across the street an old man called Old Tony lived in what my mother called a hot dog wagon. It was a dark green truck. Not a pick-up truck, but the kind with a sliding door on the side. There where no windows except up front, the windshield.

I visited Old Tony. Sometimes with my mother, sometimes by myself. When I went by myself he opened a can of beer by punching two triangles in it. One triangle for him, one for me, and then some bread with sliced cucumbers. We ate outside. He had some kind of table in the woods next to his truck. Once, he got up to pee and I watched him, not thinking much about it. “You can touch it if you want,” Old Tony said. I reached out my forefinger and touched his penis. I hadn’t thought about touching it, but he seemed to want me to. I rubbed my taut finger back and forth once, twice and then stepped back. I didn’t like how it felt, the skin loose, the penis like a branch underneath.

There were lots of dark woods back there. Edgar Lane curved through those woods, a dirt road, no pavement, with old houses here and there along it – one had burnt down a long time ago. You could just see the stone chimney and bits of house, an overgrown place that you could tell had once been a garden. My mother liked to walk through and around that house. I hung back. I didn’t like these journeys in the past and sometimes into forbidden places that she like to take, into orchards where threatening signs hung “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” or, as we drove by, stopping the car to go look into an old closed one-room schoolhouse that smelled of old books.

I didn’t feel safe with my mother. I felt safe with my father, felt that whatever came he would be up to the fight.

We left the house on the hill for a couple of years, came back for a year, left again. When we came back the second time after being gone five years I was fourteen. There were two sisters, and my father had re-made the house. He had always loved the place. Had bought it despite my mother’s protests, a story he told Fred just last year when we visited him in Hungary, an old man now, sitting in a distinguished old-world room, lined with books, telling Fred how Joan didn’t want to buy such a rundown place, but it was such a bargain, she could not be listened to.

$10,000, two acres, 1960, his first house in America after living in first a trailer with my mother which – I’ve seen a picture – was really a camper – and then a rented apartment on Warburten Avenue in Yonkers. Now – a whole house in a place called Westchester County – you could commute to the city and still have trees.

While we’d been gone my father had added an asphalt driveway that led up the hill, delivering you to the back of the house. Before the driveway my parents had parked the yellow Rambler perpendicular to the road in a cleared rectangle at the bottom of the hill. Now you drove up this smooth driveway and when you got to the top my father had put a white garage, then a flagstone walkway to the front door covered by a white trellis that roses were supposed to clamber over, then there was a front porch, a new wing – not big – but enough to hold an impressive front door, a screened-in porch.

And he’d carpeted much of the house in a beige low-pile carpet, wall-to-wall in the living room, the new front hall, up the stairs, up into the attic that was my room. A much more standard house, now standing with its back to the road.

I knew my father liked it much better now.

There was also a freestanding bright red Franklin stove in the small living room. My mother had always wanted a fireplace and this was my father’s response.

When we came back it was the same house, but different.

My mother made wastepaper baskets for each room with brown paper bags, this in the first days as we waited for trunks to arrive from England.

My father went to work and came home in the evenings now and slept downstairs in the new little wing he had added that during the day was a front hall with a yellow couch and at night became his bedroom, the couch opening into a bed, the coat closet his suit closet, the new bathroom his bathroom, and narrow sets of French doors added so that the front hall could be closed off from the living room, the living room from the stairs, the stairs leading up to the attic from the rest of the house.

My mother, in the very beginning, had made a darkroom in the room that was now my little sister’s. She didn’t think about darkrooms anymore and when my father would sometimes say things like, “You used to make such nice pictures,” she would look angry and irritated, and I’d get angry too, I didn’t know why – there just seemed something so off and phony about his words, and he spoke like he was talking to a child, using one of the childish words of my family vocabulary – “pic-chies” instead of “pictures” – we had many such words – mixes between baby words and Hungarianized English.

In the end the house got sold before its time, when the debts scare the hell out of my father and he sold the place, sold it all, a place he still thinks about, has a framed photo on the wall in Budapest.

Monday, January 14, 2008


The kitchen had a brown floor that looked more or less like linoleum. It had a smooth finish. My mother said a few times that it was special, made out of cork or pieces of cork or something, and I was glad it was special and not cheap, but special, maybe better than what other people had. Something I could be proud of, though it was just a dark brown kitchen floor.

I ate breakfast there before school, my mother always ahead of the rest of the house in the morning, calling up the stairs to wake me in the winter darkness, then dressed and busy in the kitchen when I got that far, toasting toast, boiling eggs, making sandwiches for me and my two younger sisters who got later buses.

I sat while she stayed standing and moving. I sat at the head of the rectangular unfinished wood table, facing a window that looked out onto a bumpy sloping small lawn. It was a view I had known as a very small child. We had lived here when I was very small, and then we’d moved away for two years, returned for one, then gone away again for five. So although I knew the house from when I was little, I hadn’t lived here the whole time. So living here was like looking at something and then closing your eyes, and then opening them and the thing you are looking at has changed a little though it’s still obviously the same, and you are a teenager instead of a first-grader.

So I sat and looked out the kitchen window. My mother used to point out this same window to cardinals in the snow when I was little. “Look! A cardinal!” she’d say with real excitement, as if we were seeing something very very rare.

My father is in the living room as I eat my soft boiled egg and two pieces of toast, one plain and one with jam. He is listening to WQXR, “the classical music station of the New York Times,” on the big stereo that he bought when I was in second grade and we lived in Virginia. He had showed it to me with pride then, leading me down to a room I hardly ever went into – his study or something – pointing out the brand new Fisher speakers.

We still have that same stereo all these years later. It sits inside the big piece of fancy furniture that stands against one wall in the living room. It has glass doors in the top half and polished dark wood doors on the bottom. It’s my father’s piece of furniture. He bought it. He loves it. He keeps his folded shirts from the dry cleaners in it. And the turntable. On the top shelves behind the glass doors he keeps decorative things like the pretty little antique enameled pill box that his Swiss girlfriend Helga gave him. It says on it “I am yours while life endures” and my father keeps the two gnarled little gall stones that they took out of his gall bladder when we were in London inside of it. There are other things on those shelves – foreign things he got on his travels – because when I was little it felt like my father was always on business trips.

Now he never goes on business trips. While I eat breakfast, while my mother stands at the counter making thick liverwurst sandwiches on rye bread with lettuce, while classical music plays or the somber tones of the very serious radio announcer talk about something, my father gets dressed, slowly, almost like he is in a slow dance. From the kitchen I cannot see him, but often when I walk from the stairs to the kitchen I pass him in his underwear, buttoning his white shirt carefully, as if performing a ritual, choosing a tie, throwing his head back as he flips one end of the tie over the other, then pulls the knot snugly around his neck.

I grab the brown paper bag and shoot down to the bottom of the driveway. I have done my homework. I always do my homework. I am not a good girl, but I am not a bad one either, and it doesn’t occur to me not to follow the rules of homework. I give it cursory attention up there in my attic bedroom, but I do the assignments, and when Cyndi, my best friend though it’s not so great, asks if she can copy part of my autobiography for a college essay, I am shocked – such a thing would never have occurred to me -- but give it to her.

When Agnes my little sister reads the autobiography about eight years later – after I’ve been to college and then LA for three years and am living back on the Upper West Side and it’s her turn to be a senior and write her autobiography, when she has morphed from my cute baby sister to a pretty teenager with black-rimmed eyes and multiple earrings – she says, “Oh, Bim, it’s so literary.”

For a long time I thought me and my sisters were pretty interchangeable. I don't think so anymore. We are not interchangeable. We are very separate.