Friday, October 17, 2014

TAKEN BY SURPRISE

Last week Polly said how she had only just now really noticed that Tamar is not in the workshops anymore. “You must feel bereft,” she said. I do. Very much. In a way I have never felt before.

I have never really grieved before. My heart has not been touched by death like this before. And part of me can hardly believe these feelings are real.

We had Tamar for 10 years. It seemed like almost no time at all. I walked with her a thousand times on the Comeau property, the stretch of woods near the house and often I thought how one day I would have to survive her dying, but no matter how much I steeled myself to be ready, even when she was just three and four years old, it seemed distant and unreal.

Although her time with us feels like a snap of the fingers now, it was enough that she is still embedded here. When I step in the front door I expect her presence, when we plan a trip to Brio’s I automatically think three of us are going, and when the room gets quiet for writing she is for me especially absent, her warm black form. No head on my foot.

I have never in my 57 years cried over someone’s death. And one or two thoughts of Tamar can easily do it.

I have dreamed of her three times.

Fred and I both feel ready to invite another dog here. I do dearly want another dog. It will help, not to forget Tamar, but to let life keep moving.

Even on her last day, a Friday, when I knew it was her last day, it was impossible to take it in. I cut the grass, I gave her a raw egg to eat, I asked Maritza, who came to clean, to please go back home, and for the last 45 minutes I sat with Tamar as I read a book. When it was time to go to the vet she tried to elude me, going to her green cushion. I had to pick her up, go against her will. But she had become that way about most car trips.

As we drove down the curving road of Sawkill, I watched her in the mirror as I always did. She sat with her nose near the open window. As a young dog she used to stand and hang her whole body out the window as we drove. Lately, it had just been her nose. But I was happy that she was not suffering too much not to still enjoy the fresh air going by.

I avoid places where I went with her. Yesterday Fred and I were near Colgate Lake and I was relieved that there wasn’t time to even talk about going there even though I don’t remember ever going to Tannersville without visiting Colgate Lake. I haven’t been to Big or Little Deep either.

I remember about 5 years ago driving with my childhood friend Dinah who had come to see me after 40 years from New Zealand. Dinah had had a younger sister with Downs Syndrome, Catherine, who had not lived past her 20s. “What happened?” I remember asking Dinah from the front seat, she in the back. I was hungry for information. The three of us – Pauline was there too – all friends from the same time and meeting up for the first time as adults, had been talking like girls at a slumber party – non-stop about everything.

“Oh, I can’t,” said Dinah, and I heard the catch in her throat, though Catherine’s death was probably 25 years in the past. But I thought Dinah was different than me, soft-hearted Dinah who still mourns her mother and now her recently deceased father.

Part of me is relieved that I am not so tough after all, part of me is suspicious of my almost daily tears. Sometimes I just cry and say I want my dog back, and I know part of me still wonders if I didn’t time it wrong, call the vet too early – though I know I would do the same again.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

OUT THE DOOR, Part One


I stood on the small porch that we had never used as a porch, only as a way to get from the cement walkway to the door. It was a spread of terra cotta, supported by two round white pillars, all of it set down in a small forest of unfamiliar almost-tropical California greenery.

I was leaving. It was morning. I was leaving the little house, Los Angeles, California, my boyfriend of forever. I was slipping out almost without having to say, at least to the boyfriend, I am going, we are breaking up finally forever. Neither of us really believed it though I hoped so much that someone would take his place and thrust him into my past. But we were saying good-bye as if I were going on a trip.

I stood on the porch and he stood in the doorway. We had come to L.A. and California and this house together, three years earlier, the little house with the wall-to-wall shag carpeting, stick-on squares of mirror on the bedroom wall, the Salvation Army furniture, the round piece of stained glass hanging in the bedroom window made by one of his two closest friends. It was one of Jeffrey’s most prized possessions and he’d broken it one morning, throwing a shoe in fury as I left for work.

Kelly and I went to work together each morning. She was blonde, wore a white nurse’s uniform, smoked, lived a few cottages down with Bobby. Boyfriends throwing shoes was normal to her.

Fighting with boyfriends, love and hatred, seemed to be natural companions. You couldn’t have one without the other. Kelly and Bobby confirmed it. Their fights were noisy and crazed too. The fights, then the making up, then a little bit of calm. That was love.

I had left the little cottage almost a year ago, moved across town in the middle of the night on the wave of a slamming-door fight, going to an apartment building I had picked out a few weeks earlier, going there and staying there and even sleeping with one or two others, but still it did not feel that we had fully separated. Though life was very different in my own apartment, a place where on Sundays I went to art galleries by myself, trying to find art that I liked, and never finding it, but always looking, always trying to see what others must be seeing. 

And in the apartment I was able to have a friend over now and then, always new friends, women I was hoping would become friends and they did though the friendship could only go as big as the short time we’d known each other. 

One woman with strawberry blonde hair came and talked on my couch about the baby she had lost from crib death. I listened, I sympathized, though I had never heard of crib death and did not know anyone who had had a baby yet. Still, I felt at home with people who were sad.

Buf came to this apartment and with her I laughed and got high and baked granola though there was always in our friendship something we could not ignore. She was Jeffrey’s sister. She, getting her PhD. In clinical psychology, liked to try and nail me. “You only want to be friends when Jeffrey is not around.” Both she and Jeffrey liked to nail you to the wall in the name of truth-telling. No,” I’d say, but she was never convinced and neither was I. 

I wanted my life in the furnished apartment with the Murphy bed to be perfect, with weekends filled, a new boy in my bed, but these were hard things to accomplish.

I had my camera. I had a black-and-white TV that sat on the floor near a mirror, propped up also on the floor. Wearing my favorite oversize black sweater, my long hair hanging down, I took pictures into the mirror, but didn’t like them much when they came back from the printer. 

And I took a several-week course in masturbation and had my first orgasm alone in the Murphy bed. This counted mostly as something I could report to Jeffrey, something I hoped would raise me in his esteem. So I was making progress, I thought, I must be. Though it did not feel like it. 

I liked Rose downstairs who ran the place. Ancient, in a housecoat, her hair dyed red, always with a cigarette going.

The only other person in the building I met was the boy next door, clearly a Jeffrey-replacement candidate. I sat beside him on his bed one night, probably smoking a joint. “I’d like to make a pass at you,” he said. I deflected him then, feeling like I already had a boyfriend, but returned on a night when I felt like I didn’t. I spent a half hour in his bed before returning to mine. When he asked to store his skis at my place I said sure, but when I left the apartment – leaving L.A., leaving California, leaving Jeffrey – I did not tell him I was going. I wanted him to lose his fucking skis.



Wednesday, October 08, 2014

HIGHWAY THOUGHTS

My father always said I was Hungarian. My mother didn’t claim me in this way. To my father it was very important that I be a proud Hungarian like himself and for many years I followed his lead, being the daughter he wanted, sure that he knew what was best. And because I sensed early on that he didn’t like my mother much, was not proud of her when in the company of others, I followed suit there too, hyper aware of my mother’s social awkwardness, committed to not being like her ever.

That was one level. On another level she was my mother, always present in a way my father never was. My mother almost prided herself on being, what she insisted on calling, a plain person – not flamboyant, not terribly interesting or talented. That's how she would describe herself. As a plain person she did plain things, took us ice-skating in the woods on a pond, cooked plain suppers of hot dogs, mashed potatoes and boiled broccoli. The things my mother provided were plain, but they created a solid world that my father only highlighted here and there with a trip to the opera or a blue velvet dress.

In boarding school at night – 9 years old – it was my mother I wanted, not my father. But that was only at night. Mostly, I didn’t want any of them.

Driving home this evening I thought of the card I came across the other night, something my father had written to me a few years ago, something about wishing me well, sincerely. As I drove down 209, past Kingston, I wondered again why his love for me didn’t get through, didn’t get across, and why I was so angry and disappointed in him even years after his death, that I can’t soften up.

I thought of how hard he made me work. I wondered if I’d had a kid if it would have been any better. Everyone says how hard it is to be a parent, and I see it everywhere. But I couldn’t, as I drove, really believe that if I were a parent I wouldn’t find a way – maybe just once or twice – to be with my kid, to get across to them that I supported them, that they could count on me. Something, a moment, where I wasn’t asking for anything, just being with them.

My dad’s words on the card sounded almost anguished in their sincerity, as if he were trying desperately to let me know that he wanted me to be happy.

Was it too late? Had he already convinced me that I wasn’t what he wanted from a daughter? Because I could see the image of the daughter he had in mind as clearly as if she were real, and though I styled myself on her I also had many things she did not – she only had a few dimensions, where I was an actual person.

My father wanted a sedate picture-perfect family – wife, children, life. He had ideas of what he wanted and all of us – mother, me, sisters – were much too messy to fit into the Christmas card reality he really thought was possible.

Friday, October 03, 2014

CHRISTIAN'S MONEY


I was driving when he texted again. I glanced at the solid block of words, got the gist, kept going. 

My mind was made up. There it was. I could practically see my mind and its certainty. The answer was no. You cannot have your money back. I don’t believe you. You’re bullshitting. No.

He wanted his $500 by noon. Otherwise, he said, “my ass is grass,” meaning that he’d be in trouble with his new landlord.

So why did he come asking for the money only last night, why had there been no response to our letter last week saying that we would not return his security deposit? To at least partially compensate for the FedEx package he had lost that contained Fred’s newly repaired hearing aid. 

Fred wanted to just hand the money over and be done with it. And the night before I had finally grudgingly agreed though the idea of giving that man $500 threw me into the kind of extreme emotional turmoil that reminded me of how I used to feel 35 years ago during fights with Jeffrey.

I had said ok, had driven to the ATM, taken out the $500, brought it back, put it in an envelope, placed it on the table, held in place by the small solid ivory Buddha that is always so handy for holding things in place. Then I’d gone into the bathroom and cried for a moment as though my heart were breaking. Fred was doing the dishes, letting me be in my world while he was in his.

I sat down to my computer, came upon an email offering a workshop. I read the description, my interest growing. Everything was fitting into place – the teacher, the subject, the date, the price. I hadn’t signed up for a course in anything for years and years. The prospect gave me joy, gave me a feeling of moving forward, away from this struggle over $500, over what was fair.

On the wave of this surge I signed up, clicking the keys all the way through.

And in the morning, driving to work, when one more text came from our ex-tenant I ignored it. I had promised Fred that if Christian wrote to me again I’d refer him to Fred who would give him the money, but yesterday morning I did not want to. I had thought I could but I could not. “You need the money, my ass,” I thought, thinking of this child-like man, playing the part of a poor man, playing innocent. I didn’t want to contribute to his theater production.

And all day I hardly thought about it. Things with Christian often disappeared of their own accord. He forgets from one day to the next what he has said. Maybe he would storm our house that evening. Just having the money there, should I change my mind in his presence, felt like enough of a conciliatory move.

He did not come last night. His dramatic noon deadline came and went. Good, I thought. Perhaps it’s done. And we didn’t have to give in to him.

I lay in bed.

New thoughts came into my mind. I watched them. Nothing really to do with me. New thoughts arriving, like mail.

He believes he is entitled to that money. He’s not trying to fool us, steal from us, he sincerely believes it. Money is filthy. I am fighting over money. It is polluting. Better to give the money than run the risk of being wrong over this. He is a child, a middle-aged child. He should be willing and eager to compensate us for the hearing aid, but guess what, he’s not. Losing the package was an honest mistake, not something he did on purpose.

I get up. I find Fred. “I’m having new thoughts,” I say. Fred is eager to follow this path. It’s what he has wanted essentially from the start, though his reasons feel a little different than mine. I don’t argue these fine points.

I text Christian that he can come the next day for the money. I don’t apologize. Part of me wants to, wants to be present when we return the money, wants to do full penance, but I follow the natural pacing that I feel is almost being dictated to me. And there is too a sense that I can only wash myself as clean as the circumstances I have created will allow. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

LAST NIGHT

I have the evening off. Fred is in the living room, his headphones on, leading the telephone workshop and there is still some light left in the day, though it is cool, not a pure summer night, but an evening with just enough summer in it to call me outdoors, to leave the dishes behind and just walk out into the evening.

I have always loved to do this in summer, to wander into town after dinner when it’s warm and still light, but this summer it became almost an addiction.

Tonight I walk more quickly than usual, hoping to get to Taco Juan’s before it closes, which it does whenever the string of customers dries up which could be early or late. But if I can get there on time I can get an ice-cream. I don’t even really want an ice cream tonight, but I want the goal and because it’s been an integral part of so many evenings in the past. There is something about the cone that rounds out the stroll, and so I rush along, aware that I am missing half the joy of my walk because I am not pausing to look in shop windows, I am not savoring the air, not taking it all in. I am rushing.

I see a light up ahead at Taco Juan’s that gives me hope and as I approach I see the heavy manager/owner guy sitting outside on a bench. He has grey curly hair and glasses. You can still see the youth in his face, but I don’t know his name and have never seen him smile.

“Thanks for still being open,” I say, hoping to open some kind of friendliness with him. “Don’t be so sure,” he says, so that my ice-cream anxiety returns and I worry that though the door is open and all the lights are on, the person behind the counter might still turn me away.

She’s a nice woman behind the counter. She appeared towards the end of the summer, not one of the kids, older, motherly, warm. Her hair is bound back with a scarf. A small boy ahead of me asks for Caramel Cream and as she goes to scoop it for him she asks him if he likes that flavor and solemnly he tells her yes.

I get my Killer Chocolate scoop and go back out into the evening. Now I can move slowly. I feel the warmth and familiarity of this street, this small piece of town. There are not many people out, and I follow my usual path off on a sidestreet to Family, a shabby building with a front porch. I wander in. Family is just a nice place to go. You can look at the books being given away, inspect the dishes to see if something is so pretty you have to have it. Tonight no one is sitting on the plastic chairs chatting with each other or the people manning the phones, or even just sitting in silence. I look through the clothing but nothing catches my eye. It is a place of treasures and trash and sometimes I get lucky. Most times I don’t, but it makes for a good game.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

LOOKING UP


I sit on my father’s lap at the kitchen table, facing him. It is evening, after supper and it’s just him and me. His face is large, more square than round, up above mine. I bend my head a little to look up at him, his eyes, laughing eyes, are cast downward to meet mine.

We are playing a game. My father points to his eye and I try to remember the Hungarian word. Usually I can’t remember and he must remind me, laughing, though I like it best when I do remember. Then he points to his nose, then his mouth. Some of them I can always remember, some are hard, like ear and neck.

Hungarian people come to our house sometimes. They are my father’s friends, mostly, that my mother has made friends with, sort of. My mother is always on the edge of these small parties in our living room where the men wear suits and the women wear skirts. They drink drinks and talk in Hungarian and if I am lucky Robert Major, who has grey hair, will do coin tricks for me. 

Sometimes I sit amongst them, looking at the way they across their legs. I look at my own legs that stick out straight when I sit in a chair. I would like my legs to be adult enough to at least bend over the edge of the chair. I try crossing them anyway.

My mother is the only one who does not speak Hungarian so sometimes they speak English. My mother is learning Hungarian from a book and she tries out phrases.

I would like my mother to blend in better somehow. There is a way that things could easily fall apart and my mother is the fault line, the place where the seam could break. If she could be different, part of the other side of the fault line where my father lives and where things seem to be bright and move easily.

She would be less serious. Her face would be younger. She would be more girlish instead of often wearing shorts and sneakers and kneeling in the garden. She would not pull leaves off bushes as she walked to chew on them.

Then my father would laugh with her and she would laugh back, maybe everyone in the room would laugh and look to her for the next joke.

But is it not like that. My mother sits on an arm of the couch while the others chatter. This is not her place like it is my father’s place. Her place is out in the woods.

One morning my father tells me how the night before, when it was dark and I had gone to bed, he had waltzed one of the ladies all the way down the driveway.

He tells me the story with the big smile he has when he is pleased with himself – happy and proud of who he is and how nobody else is like him. He waltzed another lady – of course not my mother. Of course, someone else.

And all the way to the end of the driveway. He did this. No one else even thought of doing it.

His eyes are focused outside the house. People beyond us get his attention. He does turn back and gaze at us – me, my mother, my little sister – from time to time, but my mother is never dressed right and my little sister is a duplicate of her, on the edge and shy. Then there is me, and him. His eyes light up as they meet mine and make me feel that I can do the things he does. Maybe. Almost. If I am to hold his gaze. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

FRIENDSHIP UNRECOVERED


My friend, Ruth, whom I have known for almost 40 years, texted me this morning, saying she is sad for her father who died this week, and sad for herself for no longer having a living father.

And I am up against the quandary again, of having felt no sorrow when my own father died 3 years ago, no tears for the person who was the center, the shining light, of my first years.

I wonder about this over and over. Once, my father wrote to me during his last few years, asking to be more in touch. “We used to be such good friends,” he wrote.

This was only true when I was a little child. It was true until the time he and I were out on a walk, a common thing we did together. Since I was a little kid riding on his shoulders, my father had taken me with him on long weekend walks, walks that always felt much too long, my feet hurting.

My father always talked on these walks – telling me the history of Napolean, or how the Germans and then the Russians came through Budapest, about the bombs, or about how when you went to visit someone in Budapest before the war and they were not home, you left your card with one corner bent over. 

There were certain things my father loved, and bending the corner of a visiting card was one. The visiting card itself was another. The things he loved usually involved other people, or Hungary, or Switzerland. They were customs and habits from other places or things other people had said. They were never things here at home.

On this day he was talking about the Pope and my father asked me a question. Not an unusual question, but I did not like the feeling it gave me. I didn’t like that I knew I had to answer it in a right way, that my father was waiting to assess my response. So I just shrugged.

“Come on,” said my father with restrained irritation. I was letting him down.

I was about 12 for this conversation and it never went back to the way it had been.

It was always a mix after that, a mix I did not know what to do with except to pretend it was not there. 

Suddenly I noticed I did not like my father coming home on weekends, his arrival  an unwelcome interruption, the way he poked his head in at the door of my mother’s room where I was watching my weekly show. No, I did not want to talk to him right then, did not think it was funny when he made fun of what I was watching as if anything I was doing just for fun proved I was stupid.

I did not like him coming into my room to look over the pictures from magazines that I’d cut out and pinned to a big piece of burlap, the way he scrutinized them, making some flat joke about the women being prettier than the men while I knew he thought the whole thing incomprehensibly silly.

He asks me to help him clear the woods on the weekend. It is a few years later, a different house, and my father likes to clear all the woods behind the house – to “make a park” he says with excitement. I don’t want to turn our woods into a park. I want to listen to Bob Dylan, but I must go out and labor beside him or pull weeds from the path of pure white gravel that leads to our front door before the guests arrive.

And though I know I am still his favorite company over my mother, over my sisters, and though I still look forward to our Saturday evening trips to Lincoln Center, dressed up, as soon as we are in the car alone I feel the wall rise up, the way it rose up when he asked me a question on that walk when I was twelve, and I don’t trust him, cannot speak to him beyond monosyllables because I know he wants more from me, always more, and it makes me feel like not giving him anything. It is the only way I can give voice, or at least a little voice, to this anger that is not allowed. 

Anger, especially around my father, is not allowed. It’s one thing -- one of several things -- my mother gets wrong. She gets mad at him, at us, she yells, she loses it.  We tiptoe around her so she won’t explode. So I must not explode. That’s for sure. At least I can please my father that much. It’s one thing I can master to his satisfaction: to smile when I am furious.