Tuesday, November 15, 2011


I have a long piece of plywood set up on three sawhorses.

I found a hardware/lumber store through the yellow pages not too far from the apartment and though I am not supposed to buy anything until I pay Geoffrey back, this desk seems so crucial I think it transcends the obligation temporarily.

I have pictured the desk here for months, ever since I knew I was coming back to this apartment. I knew this room with the dark salmon-colored walls and the parquet floors.

When I lived here before – or sort of lived here – this room had a large four-poster bed in it, a color TV at its foot and a nightstand for the ashtray. Geoffrey’s father, Arthur, spent his evenings after work lying on top of the bed, sitting up in his clothes, legs outstretched, smoking and watching TV.

Sometimes Geoffrey and I sat with him. Geoffrey liked his father, was always energetic and talkative with him. Arthur was a small, dapper man, who didn’t talk or emote much.

When I knew I was coming back I knew that Arthur didn’t live there anymore. “Please get ride of the four-poster bed,” I asked Geoffrey, “before I come,” because that room was going to be my room. Where I would write, and I saw the plywood desk I would set up under the windows.

“Really? It’s a beautiful bed,” Geoffrey said. We were talking by phone, me in London, he in the apartment he had never left. I loathed even the idea of that big elaborate bed that took up all the space in the room. I wanted the space to be almost empty, a studio.

We’d be living in the apartment together, crazy-in-love lovers, years older than the first time we had tried it.

And there had just been a Japanese girl living in the room with the four-poster bed, a Parsons student who had answered an ad, needing a room to rent, and she’d moved in and become his girlfriend, but he had asked her to leave because now I was coming, and though her name was still part of his everyday life, a name that kept coming up, he had asked her to go to make room for me and she, Geoffrey said, was happy to take the four-poster with her.

“Can you get me a futon?” I asked from London, imagining the clean light lines of thick cotton fabric and pale pine wood.

When I entered the room for the first time there it was – just the single futon bed with a navy blue cover and the long low chest of drawers that Arthur’s TV used to sit on.

I brought one oversize suitcase from my four years away. I unpacked the little gifts and mementos from London, knick knacks I’d collected, and laid them out purposefully across the surface of the bureau – the paperback of Whitman poetry Julian had given me for Christmas, the little black metal car from somewhere, the condom Lisa and I had bought from a vending machine the one time we went out to a pub.

I scattered these things across the surface so that I could appear as someone with a life, someone with friends, a woman not alone. I wanted Geoffrey to see these things and know that I had a lot that he was not part of. And it comforted me to think of the people I’d left behind, all of them who came to my going-away party. I liked looking at my collection of memorabilia.

I took the expensive mass-produced Paloma Picasso silver brooch from Tiffany’s that Geoffrey had sent me and pinned it to the navy blue cover of the futon where it looked very good.

Geoffrey had said I would need my own bed. The Japanese girl, though she usually slept with him in his room as I would, always had her own room, “so that it doesn’t just become routine,” he said, “so there’s somewhere else to go,” and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to manage this intricate dance that he and the Japanese girl had managed so effortlessly.

I bought the lumber and the sawhorses one afternoon when Geoffrey wasn’t home. I had to. That’s what the space underneath the windows was for.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


The man who picked me up somewhere in California, when I was still going down, before I had turned left to head across to New York, drove a cramped sporty sedan. He had cans of soda in the car and offered me one. He had dark hair and was a little older than me. Not a hippy. But he would do. He could be my boyfriend maybe.

“Why are you out hitchhiking by yourself?” he asked.

“Because none of my friends have any guts,” I said, giving him the answer that sounded best to me. I imagined my imaginary normal friends back in some imaginary homeland, a place where I talked on the phone a lot and raced around in cars with other kids.

Sandi was short and round with thick braces on her teeth. Cynthia was tall and heavy-boned with long red hair who wore a purple thick polyester dress at least once a week.

These were the two girls who liked me the most and came at lunch time to where I was sequestered in a wooden carroll in the school library, the place where I ate the thick liverwurst sandwiches my mother packed in a brown paper bag.

The cafeteria where everyone else ate I didn’t know how to walk into, didn’t know where to sit, who with. I pictured a noisy circus where everyone else had figured out their place, but I had come too late, that must be the reason, not arriving until tenth grade, but the reason didn’t hold water. Dino was a handsome easy boy who got absorbed quickly, and Nancy with her tidy long hair, arriving this year, knew just what to do too.

“Well, it does take guts,” said the man in the car with the soda, and he let me off at the side of the road, another possibility ending, because each ride was maybe the one that would give me a new road to follow, would be a man who would scoop me out of my life, fix it, or a group of kids who would love and absorb me into their life-on-the-go, their sleeping bags on the beach with guitars and a fire.

I get out of the car with the man who hadn’t been what I’d been looking for, but he had been a man alone, a man who had his own car, who drove freely wherever he wanted. If he had fallen love with me I would have stayed.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


My aunt from Budapest sent me the photocopy of a short letter she had received from a man who had just heard of my father’s – her brother’s – death.

The letter is written on stationery printed with the man’s name at the top in a fine delicate script. The guy is a baron and he has modestly drawn a line through his name and title as if we are not supposed to notice it.

The man writes two paragraphs – more than good manners demands – about how he will miss my father, of the great work they did together, the conferences they organized.

I read the letter, thinking how much my father would have loved reading it, would have soaked up every word – especially the crossed out aristocratic title. I don’t remember anyone speaking of him so highly.

I was looking recently at color photographs taken during those conferences, held in Hungary and Belgium, that my father had organized and been so proud of. I remembered thinking that in all the photos he was alone, never in conversation. I looked at him so closely in those photographs, confident I could read his every expression, not trusting that he was doing anything more than trying to make a good impression on somebody.

He had talked to me of these conferences with great excitement. When I visited Hungary in the late nineties he showed me the beautiful villa they had rented, and I had listened with only restlessness. What were these co-called conferences, anyway? Who came to them? Did they really accomplish anything? I didn’t think so.

My father was proud that he was working with a bonafide baron, and he mentioned too with almost equal satisfaction the name of an English banker he was working with. I realized with embarrassment it was the same sleazy man I had met once at a disgustingly sleazy London dinner party, but I said nothing. 

During the same visit my father and I had the kind of shouting fight that only lovers have, and the words that came hurtling out of my father’s mouth at the peak of our exchange were, “You have never cared about my work.”

No, I never did. It was always an abstraction, a disguise my father could hide behind, the disguise of the gentleman, the man of letters.

But who are you really, I wanted to know.

Days before I was due to leave I accidentally broke a window in his apartment, sending shattered glass into the courtyard below, minutes before his secretary was due to arrive for her weekly bout of dictation.

My father hustled me out of the apartment with a broom as he ushered in the young woman with a smile. It made me furious! Tell her we just broke a fucking window and we have to clean it up, I wanted to scream. It’s okay to be normal, to have something go wrong in front of someone else.

And then here today was the baron, writing more than he needed to, acknowledging the foundation, describing a conference that would be held in a couple of weeks, saying my father would be missed. For a moment I felt a tug pulling at me to sink beneath the waves and believe the nice baron’s words, believe that my father was just who he said he was.

I am glad he wrote, that these kind words exist for a man none of whose three daughters attended his funeral. Although the letter did not lull me for more than an instant, it is an unexpected part of the collage, a finishing touch to a picture that will never be finished.

Sunday, November 06, 2011


The ceiling slopes sharply on both sides so that really I can only walk upright down the center of the room. I stoop to open the cupboard doors that line the short walls. I have painted the doors bright sunshine yellow. It was my idea. They were white before, my mother’s color.

The floor is covered in beige wall-to-wall carpet. It was added to the house while we were away for five years. My father made a lot of changes to the house while we were away and now it looks a little more like other people’s houses, a little more grand. Like the carpeting. We never had wall-to-wall before, just the dark wide boards with the old square nails. There is a softness to the carpet, a sense of comfort that seems foreign.

I like it here in this attic room at the top of the house. One of the new things is the set of narrow French doors my father put in at the bottom of the steep carpeted stairs, so I can close them and I feel like I have my own apartment up here.

In the morning, dressing for school, I use the French doors as my full-length mirror. They don’t work very well, with all those panes of glass framed in white wood. Sometimes I go into my mother’s room where she has an old square mirror framed in wood, propped against a wall. I can only see my bottom half with that mirror.

I wear the pink cotton shirt that used to be a dress two years ago, but I cut off the bottom. Or I wear the beige knit top, a body suit that snaps at the crotch, a little too affected an item for a hippy, but I like how I look. Or I wear the bright orange, colorfully striped hotpants body suit as a shirt with jeans. This one has no snap at the crotch. I have to unzip and pull the whole thing down to go to the bathroom. But it looks great.

I wore the hotpant suit with white cork-soled sandals, my first high heels, three years ago when we still lived in England. I’d worn them to catch the train with friends for a day in London. I was 14, and I heard a little boy refer to me, talking to his mother, as “that lady.” No one had ever referred to me as a lady or a grown-up of any kind before.

In the attic room I am alone except for the male DJ’s on the radio. I have a Panasonic stereo – a turntable/radio and two separate speakers. The stereo sits on the floor and when I enter the room I walk over and flick the radio on with my toe and the neon-green dial lights up.

This stereo is the kind of thing that other kids in my high school class have -- the girls who have a different pair of corduroys to wear every day, the boys who jump into their own cars to get home. I have this stereo with its two separate speakers because my father bought it for an apartment he lived in for a year near Washington DC, the year after he quit the London job and tried to be a consultant. When he left that apartment the stereo was one of the things that came back with him, and it was extra, so I got it. I actually got my own stereo.

It’s the kind of thing I could show to a friend if they came to visit, like the two rectangular cushions – a dull peagreen and black tweed – left over from the couch we had when I was little, the one I lay down on when I had an earache, lay down holding a little cushion against my ear that my mother had warmed in the oven.

Now I have those cushions on the floor, a place where I could sit with other people and listen to music and pass a joint maybe. But I don’t know anyone to invite. At school I do not speak. I watch and listen as it all happens around me and I feel I have no place there. Which is not right, is not how it should be and this empty room reminds me of my failure all the time.

I should have more records too, a big casual collection that shows how much I know about music. But one record costs more than I make on a Saturday babysitting. Last summer I bought three used records for 50 cents. I didn’t know the singers, but at least they added bulk.

I listen to the deep voices of the men on the radio, talking about the music. And I listen to the words of the songs, the melodies, the wistfulness, the guitar picking, the stories of being on the road with always a beautiful, fierce, wild, mysterious woman. Like Suzanne who takes you down to her place by the river…

I ask my mother for a guitar and she finds one second hand and for lessons she drives me once a week to the Y in White Plains where I sit in the back of the crowded room and wonder how how how did other people live different lives – how do you get out of the attic room, the VW station wagon with your mother who doesn’t notice that the rain has stopped and the windshield wipers are still going, shrieking against the dry glass?

Blowing in the Wind is the best of the easy songs – only 3 simple chords. I buy the Simon and Garfunkel songbook and try, but music like what I hear on the radio is a universe away, another thing that only other people can do -- though I can walk by the side of the road, sometimes even hitchhike, and carry the guitar in its black case and just like I am supposed to.

“See me!” says the guitar wrapped in its black case. “Fall in love with me. Pick me up. Take me somewhere. Make it so I can talk to you and laugh and have sex, make it all happen. Please. You out there, boy with a pony tail, pick me up.”