Sunday, June 17, 2012


Yesterday in the car – we are on a two-hour road trip to Westchester, Tamar in the back seat – Fred, searching his iPhone for the date of some election says, “I think it's September 13th,” and my impulse is to say, “Oh, that's Jeffrey's birthday,” but I don't say it because that wouldn't be much fun for him to hear, I imagine, why would he want to know an old boyfriend's birthday, or that I am remembering it? 

A few weeks ago I thought seriously for about 15 minutes of calling the old boyfriend and suggesting a short visit when I was next in the city, just because he is probably there, and when I look at certain bits of the past he looms large, that boy, now old middle-aged guy, looking at 60.

He was a wiry boy then with the long wild dark frizzy curls I demanded from a dream boyfriend. He was the opposite of the clean white high-school boys who were still virgins too. His studio apartment was an parent-free pile of houseplants and record albums, a TV, a phone, a waterbed and an electric typewriter, a bong and a tiny kitchen where he made me something called Chocolate Chess pie. He seemed confident, his movements jerky, he wore tortoiseshell glasses like I did for movies and TV.

And from that collegey beginning we had a phase in Manhattan within the penthouse walls of his family's extra apartment, walls painted a dark salmon, rooms with furniture, a mixture of things chosen by someone who never lived in the place and scraps left from Jeffrey's unglamorous childhood. In that apartment things were harder. The doors slammed. I stood on the balcony, wishing I had the nerve to jump, not knowing how else to bear the stab of that postcard propped on the bureau from the woman he'd met in screenwriting class, and when we had burned pretty much every fire we could think of, and he was set to leave for Los Angeles to become a director he asks if I'd like to come, and then says he'd only waited this long because I was still in school. I had not known this, had thought he was just going to go to L.A. and have his big successful life and me, what would I do, I had no idea, somehow be a wrter though that seemed so much something only Jeffrey and the people who had been born differently from me could do. So when he asks, I say yes – a mix of oh, he must love me and now I have an adventure too. And after a month's drive across the country in an old Mercedes with a black cat, a collection of his meticulously engineered mix-tapes and the joints rolled tightly by his sister we began the California phase – the white stucco cottage, the green shag rug, the fish tanks, the palm trees, and that too became too hard and there were no sidewalks to run to for comfort in L.A., just cars and heat until that too escalated so high and I was jettisoned back to N.Y. as if by an explosion of despair and good fortune.

And years go by in which he plays no role, where others take over the center stage of how I wake up in the morning, how I go to sleep and how I do everything else in between, and when that escalates and blows, it's him I reach back out to, him, certain that the connection that feels as strong as ever to us both will have the rosy fairytale ending it was supposed to.

And this chapter plays out again in N.Y. It only takes 6 months this time. And that was almost 20 years ago. There's been a couple of visits where I expected connection and found none, and a short phone conversation two years ago when I hung up mid-sentence.

Once in awhile, though, I still think to do a live check-in, like a scientist or an anthropologist, examining a speciman.

Friday, June 15, 2012


When I smell pine needles on a hot sunny day I am in British Columbia, my mother’s place. British Columbia is her place. I don’t think anyone else has ever heard of it. Just like Hungary is my father’s place. These are our places. They belong to our family.

The Ranch was a wild place with a barn and a couple of corrals where once I watched with everyone else while men grabbed and sat on animals, laughing and branding them, a pond where you always had to pull the leeches off you after you swam in it, and acres and acres of woods and open pastures. It was my aunt’s place, my mother’s sister, a woman with dark gray hair cut short like a man, a wrinkled face that didn’t smile much, a cigarette and a smoker’s voice. She wore men’s clothes. No one on the ranch made things easy. When I was six I slept in a tent with my cousins, all older than me, all kids who had been growing up together, kids I didn’t know at all. They talked with glee about the snakes outside in the dark and I was too scared go out and pee and just wet my sleeping bag. When I was twelve I watched three boy cousins shoot a chicken for fun and smash its head with a rock.

But when I smell pine needles on a hot day I think of that land. I told this to my sister many years ago when we were still speaking and she surprised me. “Yes,” she agreed. “That’s what it smelled like there.” She remembered it that way too.

On the bus drive in this morning I asked myself, “If Mum died tomorrow would you go to her funeral?” The only thing stopping me is that my two sisters would be there. Right now the answer is no. I wouldn’t go, but I know that could change. Death is a powerful event and it changes the landscape. Slowly. I am learning this.

I was lying on the floor of my office yesterday afternoon, taking a stealth nap, when the thought that I no longer had a father scared me intensely. As if something had fallen away, some kind of foundation stone, the kind you take for granted.

When he died last August it didn’t feel like a momentous event. I didn’t cry, or mourn, or regret our lack of contact. I knew that even if I’d been at his side the way he would have liked, contact would have been nonexistent. My father was far away, had always been, even when he was in the room. To talk with him you had to make sure you were far away too.

I have been thinking about him more though lately. He is easier to be with now. I bite into a piece of dark chocolate flavored with espresso and think, “Dad would have liked this.” I don’t have to fight him off anymore. I took his old watch to the jeweler the other day. I wanted them to make it shiny again, the way I remembered it, and I wanted to know what kind of watch it was. I wanted it to be a fancy and expensive one – the kind of thing that made me angry when he was alive – the way he could never buy the cheap version of anything – now makes me proud and affectionate. Though I know if I had to go meet him for dinner tonight everything would be as impossible as ever –each of us disappointed in the other.

At lunch the other day I sat with two men I knew only slightly. Kurt used to be the football commissioner for some state and looks the part. I’ve talked with him about what it’s like to referee a football game and I can easily imagine him with a whistle around his neck, calling the shots on the field. And Rick, whom I’ve always thought of as a casual aging hippy, his hair still long and dark, his body skinny and wiry.

“Back in the 70s,” Rick says, “we were all shooting heroin. And then AIDS came. We didn’t know you could get AIDS from needles. We thought you had to be gay.”  And I am relieved to be sitting with someone who can talk about shooting heroin instead of light therapy or chakra cleansing. I listen and encourage him to keep talking. He tells us about working in a hospice. “You’d see people come in – young and vital – they didn’t even look sick – and you’d watch their bodies just shut down, day by day,” he said, his face still holding the surprise and shock of seeing this. “Suddenly they couldn’t talk no more, couldn’t hear. I had to quit after a couple of months,” he said. “I couldn’t take it.”

And Kurt nods. “My wife died a while back,” he says. “When she got really sick in the hospital I asked her what she wanted to do, and she said, ‘Come home.’ So I took care of her at home – the last thing in the world I ever wanted to do, nurse someone like that.”

“Oh, Christ, I’m like a little girl,” I hear Rick murmur, and I turn to see him wiping his eyes and laughing gently at himself. “But you did it, Kurt, and, you know,” Rick says, “it’s just not so scary after that.”

Friday, June 08, 2012


All I really wanna do
Is baby be friends with you…

So wailed Bob Dylan as I listened, very closely, not doing anything else, lying on the piece of the el-shaped silvery crushed-velvet couch that only had one arm rest on the narrow screened-in porch with the stone floor, listening to Bob Dylan as if he were talking to me, as if he were narrating the movie I wanted to be in -- really wanted to be in -- wanting to be wrapped in that voice and the arms that went with it, somewhere that had nothing to do with this screened-in porch that was my father’s territory, a sort of office he had created with his heavy desk in the corner, a desk that looked like it came from another time in history, something perhaps my parents had rescued from a sale in Columbia county. I could see it had that gummy sheen -- my mother must have stained it -- back when she did things like that. I was a little girl then and it seemed that she would always be staining bits of old wooden furniture, as if that were part of who she was. But she didn’t do that anymore or develop pictures in a darkroom or sell clumps of myrtle, their roots lightly wrapped in newspaper, clumps pulled up from our woods and sold to people who came in cars, having read the ad.

My father’s grey filing cabinet stood next to the crushed-velvet couch, the filing cabinet completely his, as was the couch – silver and crushed velvet, something prettier, more modern than my mother ever would have chosen. It came from that apartment he had lived in by himself near Washington DC and had furnished with a Panasonic turntable and speakers, white china with a tasteful green-and-gold pattern around the edges of the cups and plates, and the el-shaped couch, part of which was crowded into the living room now, part of which was banished to the screened-in porch. I lay on the couch in summer afternoons and listened to my records – not many of them, they were expensive – looking out through the mesh of the screens, listening to Bob describe love affairs and cities and foreign countries and complicated feelings, sometimes Leonard Cohen – men who lived out there in some kind of land I wanted to be part of.

It’s why I hitchhiked across the country – thinking if I just got out of here, away from my high school and my mother’s station wagon, away from everything, if I went out there and stuck out my thumb, then maybe they would stop for me and let me in, welcome me, make it easy, let me into the song.

Most of the trip wasn’t like that and I came back feeling like I had failed again, though now at least I had some marijuana seeds someone had given me in the back seat of a car where a purple copy of Be Here Now had been tossed, seeds I could sprout in secret between damp paper towels, and I had been in bed with a man – an old man, but still better than going to a dance in a gym with a shy high school boy, I had more materials to make believe with but I knew it wasn’t real yet, not at all.