Sunday, November 17, 2013


Rumi is a small tabby cat who lives with my friend Suzanne. He is young and solemn and though we have met several times he was not too sure of me during our short time together last night and this morning. He clearly enjoys running water, leaping to the edge of the tub during my shower, and later to the kitchen sink. 

I like Suzanne’s apartment, so different from any other I have known. It is on the ground floor. You enter from the street through a flimsy wooden door into a linoleum-floored hallway that leads you past and under the stairs to another flimsy wooden door, this one surrounded by a flurry of winter coats and boots. I let myself in and lock the door behind me – no bolt, just a little brass disc to turn as if this were a bathroom door.

Rumi greets me, small lonely cat.

Suzanne’s kitchen is as large as a house kitchen, larger than my kitchen at home. It has a back door that opens out into a long tangled rectangle of overgrown grass. 

I close the blinds, and the ones at the other end of the apartment that look out onto the sidewalk. There are iron bars, but mostly there is only trust protecting this place. Suzanne has lived on this block for about 10 years, about half of that in this apartment, and I remind myself that there has never been any trouble. 

When I first walked down 4th Avenue outside the subway station of Bay Ridge I felt out of my element. 4th Avenue is definitely the city before anyone takes an interest in it. 

The newspapers outside the small dusty shops are in an Asian script. Small shopfront churches with “Iglesia” on their signs stand next to a beat-up laundromat, a store selling tires, a corner store with plastic jugs of detergent piled up in the window. They look like they have been there for years, with no one buying. The only sparkly store is the huge Rite Aid that looks like every other Rite Aid.

I thought this morning how normal and real people look here – the women getting soft and overweight after childbirth while a man with scabby sores around his ankles, just visible above his pant cuffs, sweeps the cigarette butts out of a round metal manhole cover, pressing his broom over and over the ridges to pull the butts out. 

Some scrawny man goes up to him to chew the fat as I pass. They know each other. I feel like this neighborhood is real life and I have started to like it, sometimes preferring it to the prettier parts of town where everyone is 30 and dressed well even if they are not. 

This afternoon I will visit with Ruth whom I have not seen for years. We met in 1975, college freshmen, and she was my first friend and most enjoyable friend since childhood, since the wasteland of friendship that was my teen years.

I was 17 and knew only the world of my family. Ruth was Jewish and from Philadelphia and showed me a million things I had not known before: you can make curtains out of sheets, modern dance, art museums, bagels, discount stores, Joni Mitchell, Yiddish.

I look at the young faces on the subway platform. They were not born when I was the 20-year-old on the platform. I do not feel old, and do not worry about age and yet it is a source of astonishment to think that, say, most people are younger than me now.

All day long I play along the line of age, feeling sometimes young and sometimes old – really feeling neither, grateful that there is still a spring in my step, learning not to take these things for granted, that they disappear on you.

Thinking as I put the little container of almond milk back in Suzanne’s refrigerator how one day I won’t come here anymore, one time will be the last time and this will become a memory. I heard myself speaking in the future about how I used to stay in my friend’s Bay Ridge apartment every month, something that is routine for me now.

Sometimes, standing at the kitchen sink at home, something I have done countless times, I think there will be a last time that I stand here, and it is hard though not impossible to imagine.

I have thought recently how endless my life in Armonk seemed – 10th, 11th, 12th grades, how it seemed a place and an experience impossible to escape – and it was only 3 years. 

Monday, October 07, 2013


My father sometimes spread his overcoat across his shoulders, without putting his arms into the sleeves, to walk outside, stylish walking stick in hand, to take in the strong fragrances of the earth, to cast his appreciative eye along the line of hills or mountains, trees or fields, wherever we happened to be living at the time. For he liked to walk in the country, along roads, before sitting down to a good meal and then perhaps returning to the city. Like a character in a Tolstoy novel.

When my father read he held a Mont Blanc pen or pencil in his right hand, marking the words or phrases or paragraphs that struck him. Every book and newspaper article was marked. As a child I looked at what he had underlined and could see no reason for any of it. Once I asked him why he marked what he did, and he just raised his eyebrows and smiled, enjoying that he had mystified me.

Sometimes now I look at an old book of his and there are his markings, random. They still provide little clue to his mind.

Since his death two years ago I have taken to wearing his watch for two reasons – because it’s a watch purchased by a man with expensive tastes and because my child’s heart still clings to his, despite all my adult knowledge.

My father told me once or twice amongst all the many stories he told me that have blended into a cloudy mix of having a girlfriend who was a countess. She must have had a title of some sort. My father had a weakness for titles. A pretty woman with wealth and a title would have been irresistible. He took her to some posh hotel in the Alps for a weekend, not telling her of course that he had no money to pay for any of it. But he had his weekend and his countess and his fancy hotel, and stayed behind to wash dishes or perhaps he ran out on the bill. I don’t know. But my father liked the rich life and my mother did not and my father went bankrupt and my mother got to be right.

Once in the last few visits during the last few decades my father remarked as we came home from his favorite neighborhood restaurant up in the hills of Budapest -- not an ultra fancy place anymore, but fancy enough and they knew him there – we could have been in a horse and carriage but it was the 20th century and we must have been in a cab – he remarked that my mother loved us kids so much.

Love is not a family word. Perhaps that’s why the sentence stayed in my mind. I return to it, wondering why he said it, if it’s true, wondering where he stood in the equation.

For he was always on the fringes of the family – the one male, the one who only partially lived at home, the one who spent the last 25 years of his life in a different country from the rest of us.

“I never meant to leave for good,” he said to me, but we had never made an effort to bring him back. For me, it was a relief to have him on another continent.

As a child I had complained that I wanted a “coming-home daddy,” which made my father laugh with pleasure. It suited him to not be a coming-home daddy, to be someone better than the norm.

“Don’t leave me just swinging in the breeze,” he reproached my sister once during those last Budapest years, making both of us furious.

I look at the blue and green mug and feel affection because Dad saw this mug. He saw all the Hungarian pottery I brought home that afternoon. I spread it out proudly on a table, talking animatedly, telling of my successful navigation of the city with my scraps of the language, the good prices I’d managed. It was more than rare for me to have a story of my own that I wanted to tell him. “It’s good,” he said, looking at the mugs and vases, “not the most traditional, but very nice.” I too knew it wasn’t the best of the best, but we both liked it for what it was – colorful and unique.

I borrowed all my father's woolen sweaters to wrap the fragile ceramics in for the plane ride home. He gave them to me willingly. At home, it occurred to me that I could probably get away with not mailing them back. The international shipping was expensive, and a hassle, but I mailed them to him promptly, completing the circle. 

Thursday, August 01, 2013


My father drives the rented car past the office building on Sunset Boulevard where I have a job. It’s night and we’ve just had our requisite dinner, the kind we always have, the kind we both like, with white table cloths, doting waiters, a muffled world that comes with the sense that we can order whatever we want. 

I forgot, as I always did, what it would actually be like to sit across from my father at a table. I forgot how he would do all the talking, how my words would disappear out of me as if they had never been there.

But now I am showing him the town, this new city where I have lived for a year. The office building I point to stands tastefully on the edge of Beverly Hills. Up there on the fourth floor I spend my days sitting in a corner at an IBM Selectric outside Marty’s office while he shouts and yells through the open door at me or into the phone, making deals for writers and directors. 

We glide past the building into the lights and traffic of Sunset. During the day I walk along this stretch of sidewalk at lunchtime, sometimes giving in to the temptation of an over-priced lunch, then drifting into the little dress shop where I found the dress I am wearing – deep greens and blues like the James Taylor song, shot through with gold threads. 

“The trouble is,” my father says, his voice grave. He is summing up our evening together now. It is time for him to say something important. He does not just want to drop me off. He needs to make a proclamation now after seeing my life here.

I showed him our cottage earlier. I made it quick because Jeffrey was hiding in the closet. Jeffrey didn’t feel like saying hello or coming out to dinner so he hid in the closet while I gave my father a glance at the kitchen with its sticky yellow linoleum floor, the living room with its lime-green-and-white shag rug and Salvation Army furniture, and the bedroom with the squares of mirror stuck to one wall.

Jeffrey didn’t see any reason not to have the evening he almost always has – the one where he sits on the couch with an old atlas on his lap, skinning chicken with a pair of scissors and smoking pot from a pipe while the TV erupts with canned laughter. 

It would be different if his father was visiting. I would go out to dinner with them because I like going out. The place would be fancy, expensive, but casual where my father is formal. Jeffrey would still be in jeans and high, but he would laugh and chat with his dad who would smoke his Parliaments and not say much.

“The trouble is,” my father is saying from the driver’s seat. He wants to give me a helping hand, set me straight. “You have no ambition.” And he says the word “ambition” as if it were a golden word. Ambition. I look out the window into the darkness spangled with lights. “You are too much like your mother.”

We are passing Tower Records where the road curves and where somewhere over there I had that awful job where I cut my hair one night without a mirror and where they fired me in the end and I burst into tears though I hated that job. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013


We were to move back to the States after living in England for 5 years. I had come to England a little girl, still playing Addams Family and jacks, and now I was 14, rolling the waistband of my blue pleated school uniform skirt over and over so that my hem grazed the tops of my thighs instead of my knees.

I said good-bye to my school friends, the group of girls I had been with for the last two years. I had never merged with them the way I thought I should. School was different at this school than it had ever been before, much as I wished and tried to change it. 

I had come here the year before, running from the sudden meanness of the girls who had, in the beginning, been the best, longest-term friends I had ever had.

In all the many schools I’d been to since nursery school things like friends had come easy, up until the night in boarding school, aged 12, when Jane and Sheila, 2 girls who were not part of my immediate and very intimate circle, invited me to move out from the row of cubicles into a dorm room with them.

Jane was stout with a round face, thin mousy hair and light freckles. She was kind and nice and middle-aged ahead of her time. Sheila, her best friend, was the opposite – kind, yes, but tall, slim, blonde and pretty.

They wanted me to fill the third bed in their small dorm room under the eaves and I said yes. We were standing in the huge hall that had once been a ballroom and was now used for daily assemblies and after-dinner playtime. Younger girls ran around playing tag the way we used to. Older girls were tucked away up in their private balcony sitting room where only they were allowed. And a few of our peers had a portable turntable going in a corner, playing 45s.

And Jane and Sheila suggested I move out of the cubicles in the middle of the year and go share their dorm. I had never heard of anyone switching beds mid-year, or asking for any kind of change. But their smiling faces were inviting me and what other answer was there but to say yes?

As I lay in bed that night I had a sense of dread, of wishing I could take it back, but in the morning there were Jane and Sheila, saying how excited they were. 

The hissing began. Madeleine, Nicola, Lucy Ann – friends with whom I had written and staged plays, friends I wrote to and received fat letters from all through the school breaks when we were marooned at home, friends I had never questioned, now said that I was bad because I was moving in with Jane and Sheila, leaving Ann, my official best friend behind in her lonely bed across from me in our curtained-off cubicle village.

I hadn’t thought of it like that. Ann was not, in truth, most of the time my very favorite, but she was good. It was she who had picked me as a best friend and for 3 years it had stuck though sometimes I wished we weren’t so irrevocably married. Ann was a true true tomboy with not one feminine grace, sort straight lifeless brown hair and a pixie face. But she was smart and playful and most of the time we did just fine. 

The other girls – Madeleine, Nicola and Lucy Ann – told me I was cruel and thoughtless and it was as if they exposed a truth. I had been found out. That’s what it felt like. They must be right. A brown spot, like a bruise on an apple, had been uncovered in me and it could no longer be hidden.

I moved to the dorm as promised and the last half of the school year played out, but I was not safe anymore. I asked my mother, casually so that she would not pry, if I could switch schools at the end of the year. 

Boarding school for me had been my father’s dream and fantasy to which my mother had acquiesced since I too had wanted it so much. She grabbed me back as soon as I suggested it. 

In the new school I thought I would pick up where I left off, but something had happened. The bruise on the apple stayed with me. It was as if in the new class everything was already in place. I could find no way to the center. I had to stay on the outside and be friends with the girls who didn’t have any friends. 

Saturday, July 06, 2013


My father's hair was black and it grew straight back from his wide forehead with just the help of a few comb strokes. His hair seemed different from other men’s, the way it moved up and back with no part. My father liked his hair. “My friends said it was like Beethoven’s!” he said, happy to be affiliated with anyone great in any way.

His eyes were a pale blue, his nose straight, his chin defined, his face broad and square.

He carried me on his shoulders, never gave me anything as American as a piggy back, but while I was small enough often put me up on his shoulders, holding onto my ankles. It was perilous and delicious up there, the only thing to hold onto, his hair. He laughed and protested, Don’t pull my hair!” but there was nothing else. I couldn’t not hold onto something.

His feet were wide, like his hands and fingers. In summer, barefoot, in shorts, he sat on a green-and-white-plastic-webbed lawn chair, his square big toes often wriggling, or one set of toes overlapped on top of the other in a childlike pose at odds with his big body.

He was the only male in our small family of five that floated on an island pretty much by itself, no relatives within 3,000 miles, my parents almost without friends, certainly without casual long-term friends. They had each come to this country by themselves, the fabrics out of which they had grown left far behind, the people known since childhood left behind.

My father liked a good suit, a white shirt, cufflinks, a tie and leather shoes laced in a way noone else I knew did it. His laces did not criss-cross up the tongue of his shoe, but proceeded in a set of horizontal bars. I liked the way it looked but never could learn what came natural to him.

The closest thing my father came to being affected by the sixties was allowing pale blue and yellow into his office shirts in the seventies and, briefly, a leather man-purse. 

My father had one black and white formal headshot of himself that he liked, taken by his friend and mentor, Dr. Wallis, a Belgian who practiced in Manhattan. “You see,” my father said, showing me the photo, “a ¾ angle really suits me the best.”

There was a time, a few years, when he could get his suits custom-made, a time when he was travelling frequently to Morocco, Ethiopia and Switzerland on business, when he bought an apartment on a Swiss alp in the same building where the rich blonde Swiss woman with whom he was so taken also had a place with her husband.

I was there twice – once alone with my father and once when he brought all of us, wife and daughters. My mother cooked something in the kitchenette. I ate with my two sisters at the table. Helga, the Swiss woman, was taking a nap in a room down the corridor. My father went to rouse her and he was gone a long time.

That was when my mother started to dye her hair and wear make-up, but the make-up did not sit well on her face, the smudges of blue and pink painted on top of her plainness. When Helga appeared she was pretty and laughing, her jewelry sparkled, her lipstick like Barbie’s. 

My parents’ rooms had almost always been separate, no matter where we lived. The moments of friction far outnumbered the easier ones when they laughed like friends about a New Yorker cartoon. My father was usually away, home only on weekends as long as he could afford it. 

Years later, when there was nothing left in this country – no money, no job, no hope – he returned to the apartment in Budapest that he had almost grown up in, where his parent and grandparents had lived and died. 

He tried to keep up a pretense of commuting to the States, though my mother, with money eked out from housekeeping jobs, paid for most of the three of four trips he made over the last 25 years of his life.

“I never meant to actually leave,” he almost pleaded, but my sisters and I and my mother – each in a different way – were relieved to see him go. 

He died two years ago. I had visited him three times during those last Budapest years. It was a death without a good-bye though I had had plenty of time to think about it before I got my mother’s call. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013


I sat on the lime-green-and-white wall-to-wall shag carpet in the large corner closet of the bedroom, here in this L.A. cottage. I sat in the closet not moving, not responding when Geoffrey spoke to me, urging me to get moving, to say something, anything. 

I couldn’t move. I had folded into myself in some kind of hopelessness and dread. It must have been a weekend, one of those days that the work week promises: on Saturday you can be yourself, on Saturday everything will be all right, on Saturday you will write.

Outside the sky was probably blue again. When you looked up from the small terra cotta porch outside you saw palm fronds, big green leaves printed against that blue sky, leaves from trees that didn’t grow back east, trees not in the business of giving comfort.

We had come to L.A. together from New York. I came because he asked me to and it was delicious to be asked, to hear him say that he had been waiting to leave until I was done with school. I had not known this. It had not seemed that way. 

We had gotten into his car, an old boxy four-door Mercedes, passed on from an uncle, in the snowy depths of February, the car filled with his records in red plastic milk cartons, his cat, two travelling cases of mixed tapes, a supply of joints rolled by his sister. I threw my new Army Navy duffle bag into the trunk.

Now in the corner closet the green duffle bag stands nearby. It’s still where I keep everything. 

Other people in the city are moving through their day, doing all the right things I think of our neighbors, Lenny and Nancy. I am sure they are breezing along – Lenny swinging a tennis racket, Nancy smoking a cigarette. They would not know what to make of me right now. No one would.

But I am here, doing all I can to be dead without actually killing anything. But I cannot bear any of it, this being that is me. Nothing is right – this secretary life, the pathetic writing dream, the days that just rotate: coming home every evening to dinner, pot and TV – though Geoffrey assures me nothing is wrong and I watch him being happy: checking off everything in the TV Guide a week in advance that he wants to watch, running out in the afternoons to flip through bins of used records, or to the aquarium store to pick out a new fish for the salt-water tanks that he just set up, or typing up a screenplay at his IBM Selectric, or staying up all night to get the segue between two songs micro-perfect on the tape he’s making. 

While I wonder what to do. 

Having to be at work at 9 and stay til 5 answers so many questions, but only the dullest person would work like this and not have weekends that burst with the kind of writing I am sometimes sure is inside me, but it’s gone when I sit down with a pen.

I sit on the lime-green-and-white shag carpet, frozen, maybe hoping I can make everything stop forever this way.

Finally, Geoffrey gets up. I hear him walk to the kitchen with its mustard-yellow linoleum. He stands by me now, holding the jug of oil he uses in the electric fryer. He is laughing. “If you don’t get up, I am going to pour this over you.” It is old oil. It’s been used at least a couple of times to fry chicken. I don’t move. I don’t care. I don’t want anything.

The oil pours down over me, over my hair and shoulders. I get up. 


Geoffrey sat cross-legged, back to the window, on his side of the bed, the side squeezed up against the stereo, so close you had to scoot down to the bottom of the bed to get off it. He was telling me he’d dropped acid or something a few hours before and my anger and hurt were so strong they showed. It felt so bad to learn that all afternoon or all through dinner – whatever it was – he’d been high and I had not known. I felt like I’d been lied to hugely, but my complaints went nowhere. Instead, he looked at me blearily and said – in wonder -- how much he loved me and though it sounded like he meant it, the way he said it, with a smile I wasn’t really part of, it did not soothe me the way it usually did. 

The old black bureau stood near the bed, pushed up against the hard blue wall. He kept his journal in the bottom drawer. Sometimes I read it. Sometimes I came across little scribbles in the margin – Hi, Marta! – shaming me. But I had to keep reading though it did not help, did not bring me closer or make me safer.

The black bureau was from his childhood. So was the low oval wooden coffee table that stood in the center of the narrow room, covered in anything that dropped there – mail, change, bag of pot. The room held what was left from the apartment he had grown up in, an apartment I had seen in the very beginning, but which had been cleared out when Geoffrey moved in with his father who lived a fancier life because of his second wife. 

Geoffrey kept his records in one of the closets – lined up on a shelf that was supposed to hold sweaters. In the other closet were rarely worn clothes – like a musty suit jacket for funerals – and memorabilia from childhood, yearbooks, boxes of letters.

I was supposed to be there a lot but have a home somewhere else where all my stuff was.

I had the cheapest room I could find, $50/month for a small dark room in an apartment with people I did not know. After 6 months at school in the city, friends had not really happened. That part was still a mystery, and so I answered an ad, got the room on 107th Street, proud of my Manhattan address.

I liked it better down at Geoffrey’s where the TV or stereo was always on, where he cooked dinner every night – manically, privately, but the food always delicious – and we smoked pot and watched Letterman -- and even if these were not my things, they were all his things, I knew this because when I was alone I did not watch Letterman or any TV at all – but here at least there was light and sound and this Geoffrey with his gravelly voice, black erratic hair, his button-fly Levi’s and black tailless cat, doing everything he would do whether I was there or not. 

Monday, June 03, 2013


You got to the ranch by following a long empty dusty dirt road, dusty because it was always summer when I was there, smelling of hot pine needles. There were several buildings -- my aunt's house and then the barn with a pond in between, and a little further on the small one-story house where my grandmother and aunt lived.

Except for my grandmother's house, things were in disrepair. As a kid I'd seen an older cousin's foot come through the floor of the hay loft above me, something that made the other kids laugh and keep going without pause, but I didn't like being in the barn after that, every footstep suspect.

My grandmother wore housedresses and her gray hair thrown up on her head with a few invisible pins. She spoke in a voice thick with cigarettes and a strong accent. She sat at the kitchen table with a round tin of tobacco and rolled a cigarette when she wanted one. She laughed easily and did not ask for much.

Neither did Billy, the aunt who lived with her. Known in the family as "mildly retarded" Billy was always a little off, but not scary. It was the other house that I tried to avoid without seeming to, the gray unpainted two-story house, dark inside, where no housekeeping was done, where the furniture was just whatever was lying around. Everyone else liked it there.

My aunt Moon lived there, smoking too, her hair short like a man's and gray, her face wrinkled and tanned, with a skinny body dressed in men's work clothes. It was her ranch, her land, the cows roaming, her cows. My mother, Moon's younger sister, told the story of Moon shooting a coyote that had been getting at her cows. Moon didn't seem to have much use for anyone who couldn't drive a tractor or throw a steer down on the ground for branding.

I prefer to think of this landscape as I have heard my mother speak of it in its beauty almost 100 years ago. Not the same piece of land, but close by. My mother saw the snow-capped Rockies every day for the first 18 years of her life, and she has described to me the alpine meadows they hiked to -- acres of color that have since been slaughtered by developers.

Though when she drove cross-country with my father in the first years of their friendship to show him her people and where she came from she refused to stop at  the house she'd grown up in.

I was present a few months ago when my mother's younger brother called and I listened as she went into what felt like a different mode, hunkering down with her brother who ran a paint store all his life and is a dedicated member of the Elks, or the Moose. She spoke to him of the place they'd grown up and though she always spoke of this place as I was growing up so that I felt like I knew it, when she talked to him the detail was finer -- specific roads that I had never heard the names of. 

Monday, May 13, 2013


I drove with my father – him driving and talking, me quiet beside him in the Ford Granada – his car -- into the city and when we sat down in the plush seats of the opera house, before the curtain went up, he said, “What you did yesterday, with Alex, this was not elegant.”

Alex was a boy with curly dark hair and a drooping moustache to match and he was the closest thing to an appealing boy that had found his way into my suburban world where otherwise the only boys were the ones at school, some of whom got my attention but none of them even close to boys I imagined when I listened to Me & Bobby McGhee or Dylan’s all-knowing voice, rasping of people he had known.

Walking over to Alex’s house on a Saturday afternoon without mentioning where I was going, through woods where I hoped one day to run into a boy with a pony tail and a guitar who would notice me so strongly that he would bring me not only into his embrace but into the wide circle of friends I imagined he would have, walking through the woods with these pictures in my mind but not coming across anyone at all, and Alex is not home.

And sitting next to my father I am so angry I cannot speak because I am not allowed to speak. Anything I could say – if I could even say it – would be so beyond inelegant that I know it is not allowed. I don’t have to be told this. It’s in the air I breathe. You are not allowed to say anything ugly, anything disruptive.

Your mother does sometimes and look how vile that is, how far that does not get her.

My mother yelling at my father at night when they are the only two still up because they are the grown-ups, or my mother at the breakfast table saying all the wrong things – every single thing wrong – while my father’s fingers tighten around his coffee mug and he plods a chunk of cold butter on a torn much smaller morsel of toast – and me sitting there too, knowing if I do anything except not be affected I lose the game. Do not be affected. Let nothing show. This becomes easier than speaking.

You see, your mother is letting it all show, and see how ugly it is?

Until even if you wanted to, say, one day, for a change, you want to yell when you’re angry, you actually can’t even try it. You can’t. The words stick, condemned before the syllables form so there is this seething blank space that is only confusing. Confusing and mute. And you can’t blame anyone for it. You’re just inarticulate.

Friday, May 10, 2013


I walked with my father almost every weekend, starting in the days when I rode on his shoulders, clutching his black hair.

Year after year we walked when he was home from the office – on Saturday or Sunday – and we went by ourselves, him and me. My mother stayed home. My sisters stayed home. 

The walks were long. They lasted much much longer than I wanted them to. But to my father the hours were effortless. He chose roads and paths surrounded by trees and fields. He did not scramble through bramble patches the way my mother did. He wanted the way clear and the scenery beautiful. 

He talked without stopping as we walked. Often he spoke of this thing called “the war” that had taken place in a past beyond reach. I imagined the places he described to me: the basement of the apartment building in Budapest where all the families lived together while the bombs dropped outside. 

I imagined the storage areas for coal, each family sleeping on their allotted pile, and I saw my grandmother spreading sheets over the black heap just a few feet from the next family. My father spoke these stories to me as if it had been fun, as if now it were unbelievable, even to him. 

He told me of the old military man down in the basement who refused to drink the tea he was brought because the cup did not match the saucer, and I knew from my father’s tone that this was how he wanted me to be, and that I would try.

And when the time came when the boy in the cotton smock turned towards me, when for the first time the right boy turned towards me, I knew I had to be careful. I had to be someone like that old distinguished soldier, someone who had figured certain things out, someone who had drawn her lines nice and clear.

When I first slept with Jeffrey I did not tell him it was my first time. I knew it was not his and I said nothing that would betray my pretense that this was old hat. I pretended as he stayed for three days with me alone in my parents’ house in the summer.

Weeks went by. The boy still called. He took me to spend weekends with his rich family. He continued to be the most precious boyfriend, one I thought I could never keep. And he said telling the truth was important. I had never had someone to tell the truth to.  

In the fall, both of us back in school, he said on the phone that he had a ride and would come see me. “I have something to tell you,” I answered, “but not til you get here.” And as we were lying in my friend’s twin bed, the room borrowed for the occasion, me so happy that at least this year I have a boy to borrow a room for, I laid out my piece of truth, and there, it was done. I had come clean.

Was it that night that he complained my breath was terrible? It might have been. 

Friday, May 03, 2013


The grass was rough. We called it “the grass.” We did not call it “the lawn.” It was an irregular shape that drifted into woods on one side and into the house on the other. In places, it sloped, good for somersaults. In one spot, near the tall, wide purple lilac, lay a square pale gray stone, “the well.” My father crossed the grass on weekends wearing khaki shorts, shoes without socks and no shirt, pushing a red lawnmower. My mother had some kind of garden patch with strawberries, and where the grass sloped up towards a grandfather oak, where the grass turned to myrtle, she sometimes stood with strangers who had just driven up, she stood in her garden work clothes, handing them clumps of myrtle cradled in newspaper in exchange for money.

Years later my father tamed the house a little with a garage, a rose trellis path and even an asphalt driveway, things that helped us pass for normal.

In the old days the house faced the road below, faced it with a bare blank stare. And then – in the new days – you ignored that stare. You drove up the side of the house on this new asphalt and entered from the other side, the one with the new verandah and the screened-in porch, so much gentler.

But it was the bare plain side of the house that was our real face.

Frills were suspect, a weakness, artificial. I knew it.

Lunches on the weekends were the only time all five of us ate together, my father home. This is the new years, with the rose trellis, with the make-believe antiques my father had bought just a couple of months before when we still lived in England, cramming the dining room table and the tall armoire into the tiny apartment-sized dining room of our rented English home. The antiques made the voyage back to the States with us, the dining table, a soft rectangle with legs that each curved and ended in a wooden claw clutching a wooden ball. The table was made of two halves that were supposed to fit securely, invisibly, together, but never did, the pegs always falling short of their holes, though we kept pushing, thinking maybe this time they will hold together. Because my father said it was a fine aristocratic table, with its set of matching chairs with their green velvet seats, standing on the old wide floorboards that my mother liked so much.

But we sat at this table, each person always in the same place, and it was as if we ate the same meal over and over again, my mother at the end near the swinging door to the kitchen, an unadorned woman who has given up and is not the person my father wants. My father at the far end, orchestrating the conversation. Without him there would be almost silence. He teases me, my sisters. He irritates us and yet we only mildly complain. We cannot really complain. My father eats large portions. He tells my mother how good her food is. She stops just short of ignoring him. He doesn’t want to make her angry. None of us do.

I clear the dishes. I bring dessert -- the jello or the supermarket ice cream. I like eating, but there is no other reason to sit here. Except that I must. It is impossible to oppose this rule, the one that says we must sit here, be polite, and not upset anyone.

And afterwards we go to different places, each person to their room, and the house is silent. My father naps on the living room couch. My mother reads the New York Review of Books. Each younger sister stretches out on her twin bed with a book. And I go up to my attic room, back to living in my head with book or radio, imagining my life when I am grown up.

The afternoon is long and quiet. We have not fought. It is a relief and an accomplishment. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


In the beginning there were white see-through curtains that the light shone through. They were in the living room and I didn’t know what was on the other side. It was something big, too big for me to go into by myself. It had no boundaries, a place my father stepped into every morning in a trenchcoat, with a briefcase, going, I knew, to a train somewhere, somewhere down below, and returning from that big open space at night.

And from the bright room was an interior with no windows, a place with refrigerator and counter on one side where my mother stood in shadows, and on the other side a table with chairs where my father sits in the morning with a cup of coffee. I sit next to him and I can take a spoon of sugar, I can put it in his coffee and stir it for him, and he laughs. He is happy. I am happy too.

And lastly there is my room. Just a small narrow room with my crib opposite the door, my father’s grey filing cabinet, maybe a table.

I can see out the window from my wooden crib. Sometimes an old man walks by and taps to me on the window. This is a very good thing.

And then there is another house, an old white house that needs fixing and there are bits of broken glass in the dirt around it all the time, as if already many things have happened here. My mother stands in the kitchen patching holes in the walls and paints them white. The jacket I wear is black and white checks.

And then there is school where I wear a red plaid pleated skirt with straps that cross in the back and come down the front to fasten at the waist with buttons. I have a rug – each kid has a rug – at school that we lie on at naptime. Mine is a dark red color, one of the colors my mother likes. She and my father call it wine-colored. She also likes navy for clothes and she likes dark green for shutters that need to be on a white house.

And both my parents talk about the houses we pass when we drive. I hear them say, “It’s nice, but it’s too close to the road.” My father says this. My mother says this – the same way they say to each other, “Did you see the joke in the New Yorker?” or the way they always say about the mail, “Just bills.”

I have a sister now, a baby. My mother puts her on the double bed in her room. “Watch she doesn’t roll,” my mother says in a sing-song voice as she leaves the room with the dirty diaper, and I watch to make sure the baby doesn’t fall off the bed, but she never does, she never rolls, she lies on her back.

It started the day my father helped me get dressed in the living room. Everything was different. He put my yellow ankle socks onto my feet and took me to the Kaisers. The Kaisers were two old people in a small white house. I visited them sometimes by myself because I could walk there. Mr. and Mrs. Kaiser had a kitchen with a table, everything a bit dark in there, but they were nice to me and gave me cups of Kaiser tea, milky and sweet.

I slept upstairs in their house that night, up in the attic. I had never done that before. Mrs. Kaiser called something up the stairs about not letting bed bugs bite.

After that I had a sister.

The car is yellow. The seats are green, a plastic weave. My parents call it The Rambler.

My mother hangs a swing for me from a huge tree.

One morning I watch her and my grandmother carry our dog across the patch of grass. My grandmother in her housedress holds the front paws, my mother holds the back paws, and Casey, the German Shepherd, hangs dead in between.

I tried once to sit the way Casey sat. I came down beside him on the porch. He had his back legs propped one on either side with his body stretched out between them. I wanted to copy him. I sat, bent my knees, feet flat on the bare boards of the porch that looked down the slope to the road. But my body would not stretch forward and flatten itself the way Casey’s did.

And in the background is a party. The grown-ups. My mother’s brown hair is pinned up. There are plates of salami and green pepper. My father is playing records -- Mozart and Beethoven -- on the record player, loud so that the music comes out across the grass where people stand and talk as it gets dark, and in the morning he tells me how he waltzed a lady all the way down the driveway. He tells me with cheer and with pride.

Thursday, April 04, 2013


The house is yellow, freshly painted, darker than our house but still very yellow. I have never been here before, to Peter’s house in Virginia. It is a rainy morning. We ring the bell. A small dog erupts into yapping, but otherwise nothing happens. Peter knows we are on our way. He is expecting us and we have triumphed by arriving early enough to meet him at the house. It feels like an acknowledgement of closeness – a privilege -- that we were invited not to just show up at the funeral, like strangers, but to come to the house first.

We ring again. Perhaps he has left. But the door opens and there is he – so pale, looking like an old man now, an ill one. His face does not smile. He just looks shocked. Fred steps in. I step in. A few words get said. No one has hugged anyone. I break in, step forward, give Peter a hug.

Fred disappears to the bathroom and I follow Peter into the kitchen where he begins to boil water for tea. He is my husband’s completely unidentical twin and though he and I have only met a few times we are bonded by the family circle.

Peter speaks of this and that. I am sitting on a stool, attentive. I ask him how he is doing. “Well, I’m a falling down wreck,” he says, adjusting the flame, and it sounds genuine, like those are actually his words not somebody else’s.

We sit in the living room, the three of us. Tidy furniture, prints on the wall above a spotless fireplace. I see an old photograph, framed, and ask Peter who it is. “Our mother,” says Peter and I stand, cross the room to examine this picture of a young bride alone. I have never seen a picture of Fred’s mother.

I am watching the time, and suggest perhaps we should go. We stand. We’ve been talking as we probably would on any other day. I see a bunch of flowers in a vase – yellow and white – and ask, “Oh, are those the flowers we sent?”

“Yes,” says Peter but doesn’t warm to the subject.

And I ask to see the room where Rosemary spent her last months because I want to see and imagine and Peter takes us to a large almost empty neighboring room, and shows u the corner – now empty -- where she had lain. Somehow I had expected something – a view, some wide window that she would have looked out of, but there is almost no window in this room. And I stand in the dark empty room and I cannot say anything. I want to say something, but I am so horrified by this bleak room that I cannot overcome, cannot say anything with anything good in it.

We park at the church, our two cars. With Fred, I follow Peter to the door. He walks with a limp, in a pale raincoat that flaps and a pale rainhat. There is something awkward about his movements, like a marionette gone awry.

The door of the church opens from inside. A smiling bleach-blond young woman in a short tight skirt and high black patent stiletto heels says, “Good morning, Mr. Poole.” She must be a friend, I think, imagining Peter a member of some circle of some people somewhere.

We step into the carpeted entranceway. Everything is new, like a school. Although we are not technically late, the church people are acting as if we are – or as if Peter is – the priest, his tall awkward assistant, and the cluster of women who seem part of the team. There’s no time to be lost, it seems.

Before going in, the priest gathers us in front of the coat rack for a prayer. I tune in. I want to feel this. I want to have a good church experience. We have come a long way for this. I meet the priest’s eye for a moment. He is handsome. He seems sincere. I notice Peter reach out and hold onto the wall during the short prayer, and it is as if I glimpse his real life for a moment.

We file into the chapel to the front row, Peter on the aisle, then Fred, then me. We sit, stand, sing, listen. I pay attention, sing heartily, listen to the two Biblical readings closely, but can draw not a shred of meaning from either. Fred and Peter share a hymnal and this sight is touching to me. Perhaps there is actual closeness despite everything.

The priest opens by saying that Rosemary was in the Foregn Service and taught art history – so you know from this what kind of person she was, he says. She is not mentioned again except when her name is inserted into the funeral text when the word “Name” appears.

Near the end the priest puts his hand on what appears to be a box covered in an embroidered church cloth and I wonder if Rosemary has been cremated and if those are her ashes.

Afterwards we stand outside the chapel in a wide sunny corridor, while the team of women move here and there, including the blonde in stilettos who I have figured out is employed by the church. This is her job. It’s like a receiving line and these people are all neighbors, each and every one. They have nice things to say about Peter and Rosemary, and I think maybe he is not alone.

But then at lunch we sit at the circular table and everyone chats and eats – and Peter has a quip for everything. He talks about what publishers want these days and the thriller he is writing. He says he came a few days ago to make arrangements with the restaurant, how they gave him samples of the food all of which were “terrible,” he says, which gets a laugh. He is their old curmudgeon writer.

And then people are standing and saying good-bye. I want to connect. I want him to feel loved, for us to feel something together, but he says good-bye to me the same way he has said good-bye to everyone.

And later, as I stand by the coat check he comes to retrieve his coat. The restaurant is quiet now, almost everyone gone. He puts on his coat and leaves without noticing me, a few feet away, a man walking out alone.

Friday, March 29, 2013


I sat in the living room of this apartment overlooking one of the main traffic-clogged streets in Athens. It was a teenager’s living room, not much to it – one big dumpy armchair, a bunch of tapes and something play them on. I sat here alone to write to Uncle Ed, the uncle who had once told me I was his favorite niece – though we had only met once or twice – and the man who had once asked if I needed money. I had not seen him since that night about ten years ago when I had said no thank you, though the next morning I’d be leaving to hitchhike alone across the country. He hadn’t known that part. Maybe there had been a card or two since then, but nothing beyond bland holiday correspondence.

But I was writing to him now. As I scraped through my brain for someone to write to, someone who might lend me some money that I had no plan to pay back, I thought of Uncle Ed.

I wrote as I had learned to write under Natvar’s tutelage, Natvar who was still living just a few miles away in the apartment in the leafy part of town, everyone still in place there without me.

I wrote in my best handwriting, and I laid it on thick – flattery that was rooted in some kind of truth, everything rooted in some kind of truth so that it was easy to just add onto the base coat, a flourish here and there. And my plight. Nothing exceptional. But $250 right now would really help. I did not say that I needed the money to accept Natvar’s invitation to join him and the others in the islands for a couple of weeks. I would need money to go. I had already said yes, and though I had a job there was no extra money. And Natvar expected me to have spare money. I didn’t want to face him without it. I had to maintain my new persona: girl with job and separate apartment.

But I knew it was fake, this little bit of scaffolding I was standing on. I was only here because he had said I must leave. I could take no credit for anything. But money at least would create a little protection. If I didn’t have it, he would be scornful, and he would be right. If he were me he would have found a way to have money. He would have connected with someone who would have been so deeply impressed – even transformed – by the association that this person would be honored to offer Natvar whatever she or he could.

Look what he had already procured out of nothing – the chic apartment with its rooftop garden in the best part of town, the Peugot that had been a gift, and what am I but a miserable hanger on.

I fight back my insufficiency, and I write to my uncle, trying to be Natvar. Part of it is to impress the person with how well you are doing, get across glamour and sophistication and couch it all in a way that the person at the other end is intimidated too, cannot help themselves.

I wrote the letter in the living room, not my living room. The only my part of the apartment was my room with its lightweight camp bed along the wall, sitting just a few inches off the floor, the cheapest solution to needing a bed.

I sent the letter to Uncle Ed. He wrote back politely, saying no. I had failed. I saw him one more time, ten years later, everything in my life in a different place. And we did not speak of the letter.
He died a few years later. His wife said she knew how desperately ill he was when one afternoon she entered his workroom and all his tools had been left out, nothing put away.

Thursday, March 07, 2013


I go into a phone booth on campus. I pull out one of the heavy phonebooks with its wide, built-in metal spine. I open the white pages and pick any name and put my finger on the phone number. I pick up the phone, dial 0, and say I want to make a long-distance call and charge it to my home phone. Then I give the operator the number of the random person I have put my finger on and she puts me through to my boyfriend’s phone a few hundred miles away.

It is night and cold. The boy and his gravelly voice at the end of the line gives me a thin sense of comfort, this blanket is almost heavy enough to let me relax, but not quite. He offers a delicious warmth that could be snatched away at any second.

This unattainable boy has noticed me forcefully. He says the words “love” and “sex” and “fuck” as if they were ordinary words, as if he has been living them for a long time. I have to pretend they are easy, familiar verbs for me too. He must never see my foreignness, my terrible plainness.

I picture him as he talks to me. He is in that big room with the waterbed in the corner with the row of red plastic milk cartons that hold records upon records upon records, all within reach of the bed, as is the stereo, and the small black and white TV sitting on top of one of the crates, the black push-button phone with its long cord so he can walk into the bathroom if he wants or into that corner that is his kitchen. He talks to me from the comfort, warmth and light of this room where he is lying back, happy, watching TV, smoking pot from the bong. He tells me he ran into his old girlfriend today. He asks me if I am jealous. I say no. The girl I wish I was says no.

I hang up the phone finally and almost pick it up and call again. How to keep the call going forever though even as the call is happening, the voice, the conversation I have been waiting for, even as it is happening, it isn’t quite happening. Not the way that I’d hoped. It is not answering every question forever. It isn’t filling in every hole. It is making new ones, that I smooth over, laying asphalt over sink holes.

Thursday, February 28, 2013


I've never thought that single beds would be any good for sex. But this new boy, Jeffrey, who has come out to see me for a few days, tells me with a little laugh about fucking his first girlfriend in a single bed. He talks about it with affection, as if the smallness of the bed had been part of the fun.

We start off in my single bed under the slanting attic roof. We are alone in the house – my father in the city, my mother taking advantage of an invitation from people we hardly know to stay on a lake in New Hampshire with my two little sisters.

This looks good. I can say to this new boy who wrote me a letter a couple of weeks ago – two pages typed singled spaced – a letter where he said he loved me – I can say to him – he who has so many things I don’t have and haven’t even thought of having – a phone, a TV – I can say: I am alone in a house. I can say: I have a father who stays in the city, and a mother staying on a lake.

This new boy has divorced parents and even stepparents, which I do not, but at least I have parents who don’t like each other and are usually apart.

I pick up the boy at the station. Yes, I have this car. It is my father’s, but I have it for these few days. I pick up the boy, wearing my soft beige cotton halter dress. In the car, the boy runs his hand up my calf. “Ah,” he says, “you shaved.”

Last week I hadn’t fully prepared for our first make-out session, and he had commented on my stubble, “I didn’t know you were the type who shaved.” I had been found out. He was supposed to think I had naturally smooth legs.

He is here, this boy who must not find out too much about me or he will lose interest. I show him my attic room with its pitched roof, its wall-to-wall carpet, the bright yellow cupboard doors I painted, the couch cushions on the floor, and my pride: the Panasonic stereo, a turntable with two speakers that I inherited from my father’s bachelor pad when he moved back in. This stereo looks like something a rich kid would have.

He looks through my handful of records. I only have one Dylan album, a double-album of greatest hits. I have listened to it over and over. I know the words to every song. “Funny the songs they chose for this,” Jeffrey muses – he knows every song and which album it’s on and what year it came out, plus how many bootleg versions there are.

We didn’t fuck last week. I pretended that I didn’t have my diaphragm with me. Now I am lying beside him in my single bed because that’s how he did it with Jane, and I have figured out my lie for this week. “I think I must have left my diaphragm in a box of things I left at school,” I say, though there is no box of things, and there is no diaphragm because – and this is my real secret – I have never needed one.

I don’t care though. I want to get fucked and I’ve finally found someone who I am sure can do it, because he’s had two girlfriends before me, he’s been fucking for three years, and I won’t get pregnant. I just won’t.

“We could use my mother’s bed,” I offer because really sex needs room, doesn’t it?

We go down the steep flight of stairs to my mother’s room with its double bed. I have always imagined fucking in a double bed.

I make sounds to show I’m into it, that I’m a pro.

Afterwards I suggest we change the sheets. I think it’ll be nicer for both of us to have clean dry sheets. I get the sheets from the closet in the small bathroom with its tub and no shower and when I come back this boy is sitting naked and cross-legged on the bed, looking at the framed photo that hangs over it, a photo of me as a little girl.

“I love that picture,” he says. “I want one. I’m going to photograph it.”

And I have a naked boy with black curly hair in a pony tail talking to me, sitting cross-legged, lighting up a joint. These are all the things I wanted.

Thursday, February 07, 2013


My father sitting in that apartment in Budapest, the one with the high ceilings, the double doors between rooms, the apartment he has known since he was four years old and his grandparents bought it, the apartment he returned to like a ship to harbor when everything in this country fell apart, a place all along he must have kept in mind as a place he could return to if all else failed. Which it did.

I think of him there though he is there no longer. I think of him sitting there for the last thirty years of his life, his life becoming smaller and smaller and smaller until it finally went out.

I remember visiting him early on when he was still active. He took me to another apartment in the complex one evening to visit a woman he had known since they were teenagers. She was an artist, her apartment filled with canvases. She gave me a piece of her jewelry, a bracelet of silver rectangles linked together. It was ugly, but I had very little jewelry at that time and I liked that this bracelet was old, held history, had come from someone.

My father dressed up for that dinner as he always did in the navy blue double-breasted blazer and a cravat. He said something to me about how wearing a cravat takes care of the need for a tie but is so much more comfortable. He said this to me with the air of triumph that he often used. Triumph. Everything had to be won and it made me always want to put down my pieces, not play at all.

He said something before or after the dinner, disparaging about the woman artist, something that implied he wanted to keep some distance between them. Yet he was proud that she was a painter, proud that she was a friend. I had the feeling that perhaps they’d been lovers, or that she wanted them to be – some history of some sort.

Like the dinner with Ilona, a woman in a different part of town, a woman my father assured me had once been very pretty when they were in high school. Ilona had definitely once been his girlfriend and now she was a widow in an apartment filled with old-lady things, cooking dinner for my father almost every night, a sad woman who still spoke of the war and how it had changed everything forever.

But by the end it was just my father alone with his younger sister caring for him. Maybe people came by or called. I don’t know. I wasn’t there and with so many barriers of distance, culture and language I don’t know at all how things really were.

But I think of him there, silent, perhaps brooding. The last time I called he could not speak and I didn’t know if he knew it was me. I didn’t know anything. I could hear him struggling, and he managed the phrase “keep in touch.”

Which I do. I keep in touch. I think of him. Without tears. I welcome the pieces of his writing that my aunt sends as soon as the translator finishes a chapter. Because my father remains a mystery. He never did succeed in explaining himself to me. He tried. But he edited out so much I was not left with much.