Sunday, January 12, 2014

WORRY


I have not been in a small private plane before. I have not been with a rich boyfriend before who can invite me to Southampton for the weekend, a place I have not heard of. He says we will fly there from Manhattan and that it’ll take about 30 minutes. He is a kid like me, but it is his father’s house and his father’s arrangements that include the plane. I pretend that this is no big deal but I am nervous, and I hate that I am nervous. Not nervous about the plane. That's nothing. Nervous about being with these people who are not nervous about anything.  

I like the way my new boyfriend looks – especially his long dark curly messy hair. And he’s a writer. He’s written a novel. Already. I am out of my league, but any boy who is not my old high school awkward gangly boyfriend makes me feel out of my league. I feel out of my league with everyone actually.

Jeffrey was in this summer’s writing class that I only signed up for because my father wanted me to take a class at his favorite college. The writing class met once a week around a seminar table in a basement with tiny windows along the tops of the walls, giving us a groundhog’s view of cut grass. 

I noticed Jeffrey during  the second session when he kept catching my eye every time the group broke into laughter. I’d laugh, look up, and there would be that boy’s brown eyes, laughing like everyone else but looking straight at me.

A few weeks later and he has written to me a single-spaced two page letter on crinkly white onion skin that says at the very end “I love you” – words so precious I am immediately afraid of losing them. Words given to me by a boy I have noticed for his pony tail and the interesting cotton smocks that he wears, smocks I have never seen before and wonder where he gets them – he has said these magic words though we have only spoken once or twice, like when he mentioned that novel after class. A novel. He’s written a novel. How did he do that? How does anyone do that? How will I ever be able to do anything like that? 

The house in Southampton is a mansion with a circular drive, and people who all know each other, family and friends of family. Jeffrey, this brand new boyfriend, who says he loves me but it is hard to believe it, feels at ease here. 

He laughs as we stand outside in the dark, talking to a boy named Eric who is Jeffrey’s stepbrother. A stepbrother. A stepmother. Divorced parents. All things that my plain family cannot claim.

“How are you?” asks Jeffrey to Eric, who responds, “Stoned,” and Jeffrey laughs. I do too, happy to be with people who smoke pot and know where to get it. Jeffrey has plenty of pot, and a bong to smoke it from. He also knows how to have sex. I have been looking for a boy who can take me across, and Jeffrey has, in my mother’s double bed when the family was away, under the framed photograph of me as a two-year-old – and of course I did not tell Jeffrey this was my maiden voyage. He must not know. 

For I am his third sleeping-together girlfriend. He’s already had two, and mentions their names easily, telling stories from time to time, laughing – already he has so many lover stories and I have to let him assume that Bob was an appealing ex-lover too.

“How are you doing?” Jeffrey asks during one of the Southampton weekends. “Me and Jane used to play the Truth Game. It means you have to answer the question and say the truth.”

We are sitting on the bed in the well appointed bedroom we’ve been assigned for the weekend. Jeffrey sits cross-legged, barefoot, in tee shirt and jeans. 

It’s come up before, this truth thing, this saying the truth. It seems to be part of having a real boyfriend who says he loves you.

I can’t say how awful it felt to play backgammon when he is teaching me and winning over and over. I can’t say how bad it felt to sit with him and his sister as they made each other laugh while I just guessed at what might be the right things to say.

But this time I do say something. I say I’d like to leave. With him. To go back to the city.  “Really?” Jeffrey is taken by surprise. “Why?”

I’m not sure, I say. 

“Well, ok,” says Jeffrey, “but you better tell my father.”

I had not expected this, had not realized there would be protocol, but what do I know of families and mansions and weekends? 

I tap on the door of the room that Jeffrey’s dad and his wife share. I have been here before. Have sat on the king-sized bed with Jeffrey as the family banters – but now it is just Alvin. In this family you call the grown-ups by their first names. 

“What’s up, sweetheart,” drawls Alvin, hardly looking up. He is a small man, sitting on the bed made by women, leaning against the headboard, his legs extended, watching television and smoking. He wears an ironed button-down shirt and pants with a crease. 

I say apologetically that although it’s only Saturday afternoon I’d like to go back to the city.

I don’t say how much easier it is to be with Jeffrey by myself, that that’s when I like it best – when it’s him and me in that Manhattan apartment, littered with Jeffrey’s childhood but where no one lives anymore, where we can walk up First Avenue in the middle of the night for an ice cream sundae or a hamburger in a coffee shop or into a movie theater in the afternoon – all things I have never done before. 


Sunday, November 17, 2013

EVERYDAY NEIGHBORHOOD


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

MORE THAN RARE

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. 

Monday, August 05, 2013

FALSE STEP


Grass, and it is ragged. Later, it could almost be called a lawn, but we are not good enough for lawns. We carve our place out in the woods – my mother, a woodswoman who grew up not only in British Columbia, but during the Depression, a girl who went to a one-room schoolhouse where she learned Shakespeare, a girl who lived on a farm with hired men, animals that got butchered, in a house that had the only indoor plumbing in town.

Her father had a library with red leatherbound books in English, French and German. 

She brings all this with her as we settle amongst normal American people who have refrigerators bulging with food, more than one car, so many clothes that girls don’t wear the same thing twice to school. I watch them, these girls with their perfectly fitting corduroys they wear so casually, a different color each day.

We are not poor. This is not a ghetto. Our house is large and white and clapboard, built before there were cars, I think. And I have traveled through Europe and taken music lessons and ballet and gone to operas and concerts and even a private school here and there. But I cannot buy a new pair of jeans and these girls never wear the same pair twice. 

I am new in this school, but it’s no excuse. I am paralyzed in the crowd of kids who laugh and tease and talk to one another. I didn’t used to be like this, quiet, a wallflower. Something has happened. I’ve lost my touch. And now I cannot speak hardly at all. 

I plan and strategize to make my clothes stretch over the five days of school. I turn a shirt-dress bought three years ago into a shirt. That’s one. I get a hand-me-down from my mother, and it works. That’s two. I time my favorite outfit for the day I am most likely to pass David Sheel, but I never see him on the days I should. 

In the mornings I stand on one side of a railing and lean across, over an open stairway, to a rack of hanging clothes on the other side, wedged under a slanting roof. The clothes are covered with a white sheet. 

This is the woodsiness, the roughness that my mother brings with her that my father cannot mitigate. He has his Beethoven records and his evening glass of whiskey and soda, his Somerset Maugham novel. 

But he is happiest when he can leave the house and get somehow with a credit card that still works to a restaurant, the kind that treat you like nobility. 

My mother does not fit in this expanse of white linen, high heels do not come naturally to her, nor the lipstick, so he brings me. We leave my mother behind and my two little sisters, and I am my father’s date. And we fit perfectly together, like deft dance partners. This part comes easily, the gentle nod to the maitre d’, stepping smoothly past my father who indicates that I, the lady, may go first. My mother would hesitate here and miss the beat. 

Thursday, August 01, 2013

NIGHT OUT


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

OUTSIDE


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

YOU AND ME


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.