Wednesday, February 11, 2015

YOUNG NIGHTS


This morning, driving to work, the radio on, a song begins. I hear the opening chords and immediately relax. I don’t recognize the song, but I recognize the tone. Perhaps, I think, it will be a boring song, a mundane song, one that is embedded in my past, but too familiar to be interesting. Still, something in me settled down deeply, with pleasure, as if into an old familiar armchair. This was not going to be a brand new song I needed to pay attention to to see if I liked it. Nor would I have to endure a song I didn’t like much, or turn off the radio to silence one I hated. No, something was coming that my body knew I loved. 

And then the voice came in. Of course, Van. Into the Mystic

And I am transported to the cocoon of bed and night and Geoffrey then. 

We do not go to bed without music. In his apartment there must always be a soundtrack. For sleeping, he makes special tapes. The wrapper he makes for them is of lavender construction paper with the songs of Side A typed in a column on the left, the songs of Side B typed in a column on the right. He types the title on the spine, then cuts the paper with scissors to fit perfectly into the hard clear plastic case. There are many lavender tapes, and many other collections, all typed, titled and color-coded -- red for loud rock, blue for softer.

The lavender sleep tapes weave a soft web.

I listen as we fuck every night in the sheets we rarely wash. They have a comfortable familiar scent, the smell of New York City apartments that have been lived in a long time. The same with the nubby electric blanket. 

Into the Mystic, Van’s voice, Madame George – these endless strings of soft, warm sound carry me beyond where I am. I yield to those songs so easily in the dark. These nights with Geoffrey’s body so natural to mine, so easy to fall asleep with, his arms with no ambivalence around me, his body under me, still inside, my head fits his shoulder perfectly. And Van sings so long, so far out into the night without boundary, far enough away that we all stay lost till morning. 

Monday, January 05, 2015

AT HOME

My father sits at the restaurant table. It has a creaseless white linen cloth. The white linen napkins are large and starched. The cutlery is heavy, polished silver. The glasses shine. The waiter stands like a soldier at my father’s elbow, gently pours a small amount of the red wine into the globe. My father sniffs the wine, swirls it and sips it, then nods his assent. Not once does he argue with the wine. It is always just as it should be.

When guests come on a Sunday afternoon, they are people we do not know, a man and his wife from my father’s office. My father directs me to pull out all the tiny green weeds growing up through the white gravel path that leads to the front door. He drives to the Eidelweiss bakery in the Bedford shopping plaza and buys pastries. Sometimes he buys a few new glasses, a bottle of Johnny Walker, and my mother receives these things in the kitchen as an affront, as unnecessary, a waste of the money we don’t have.


After the lunch my father insists though that I play the piano for our guests. I pull back, I say no as politely as possible, sure that the guests do not want to hear my clumsy playing, but my father does not give up.


I do not enjoy my weekly lessons with Miss Spottiswood who does not enjoy them either. I might enjoy them if I practiced in between lessons, and I leave each session with Miss Spottiswood intending to do just that so as not to repeat the awful hour of plonking through what I have not looked at since the week before. But after each class I let the next day go by, and then the next, and another week disappears on me.


I do not play anything well.


If there are no guests, my father likes to have each daughter one by one stand on his knees while he holds their hands, bouncing his knees in time to a Hungarian song about a circus pony. The song gets faster and faster, you shriek, you lose your balance, my father catches you. Everybody laughs.
Usually the house is very quiet, each person by themselves.


On the back slope that leads down to the road are a few scattered evergreens, Christmas trees from years past that my mother has planted. Also there is a small azalea bush that my father gave me for a birthday. It was covered in flowers that night when he crept up the attic stairs after I had gone to bed and left it on the top step. My mother planted it on the back slope, which remains an ignored place. Not like the front of the house that my father tries to make look like something.


Often on weekends he dives into the woods opposite the front door with a lawnmower, telling me to pull out patches of brambles. I do as I am told though I want to stay up in my attic room listening to the radio. I can complain, but not completely cross my father. I must do what he says. And in the evening he and I will dress up and he will drive us into the city to Lincoln Center and we will glide into the crowd, the only time we are in synch, gliding up the red velvet stairs.


I want to like opera, but most of it is unintelligible and not meant for me. Still, I am happy to be somewhere, to be in New York. My father has a small smile on his face, pleased with the surroundings and with the pastries we order at intermission.


“A park!” he says to me once about the woods back home. He wants the woods to look like a park.


My mother despairs when she sees him with the lawnmower. “He runs over half my plants,” she laments. “He doesn’t know the difference.”


There is my mother in the kitchen, in the house, in the garden, housecleaning, making bag lunches for my sisters and me, making three meals a day, easy simple meals but never missing one, reading the New York Review of Books, a novel – Dickens or something from the library. This is what I see of my mother’s world. 


My father’s world is his new Ford sedan, is his subscription to the Metropolitan for Saturday nights, is his whiskey and soda on the rocks at night (or cheap wine) with classical music on the Fisher stereo and Somerset Maugham or Iris Murdoch as he sits in the living room in an armchair in lamplight, the narrow French doors closed at the bottom of the stairs, the rest of us upstairs, each in a bed.


“You ruined my life!” I hear my mother cry out one night in the living room. I had heard her get out of bed and go downstairs and knew a fight was coming. My father’s tones never match hers in the late-night fights. It is always her voice that makes the fight, his that tries to tame it all back down.


And in the morning my mother is still distraught, her face creased with pain. I have never seen her carrying the fight over into the next morning. I suggest perhaps she just leave. It seems that this would solve alot of things. We are standing in the living room. “But you kids are all I have,” she says, and I am disappointed. Nothing is going to change. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

BLACK CLUES


Now and then, at really aimless moments, I still look for a trace of Geoffrey on the internet. There is nothing except some comment he made on a Bob Dylan fan site almost 20 years ago. Otherwise nothing.

I am not so stirred as I was 10 or 15 years ago to look him up. No, I won’t do that, but I do think of him from time to time and wonder what his life is, who did he become.

I imagine him alone in the large family apartment overlooking Washington Square, the same place I occupied as a 20-year-old in the 70s. The computer world no doubt suits him, its anonymity, its lack of need for any real contact.

I have even wondered if he was a threat to his two young nieces, born after my time. I have seen Geoffrey’s sister’s profile on Facebook – a lifeless profile, so constrained – and seen the profiles of the two adult daughters. Even from this great distance I can tell that one is more troubled than the other.

I remember Geoffrey liking white cotton underpants and small breasts and I have made the leap to wondering if what he really wanted was a little girl. 

In those harsh summer months back in 1977 when he had started his out-in-the-open affair with HB, a writer much older than either of us whom he’d met in a writing class, I took to reading his black and white copy book journal that he kept in the bottom drawer of the tall black bureau brought from – and still smelling of -- his childhood apartment. 

I read Geoffrey’s awkward stick-figure handwriting, pages of it, looking for clues to who he was, always with the approach of admiration. Geoffrey was an enticing mystery to me then. I wanted so much to enter and be at home in his world. I’d been trying for years. Though sometimes I gave up, preferring my own world more and more.

In the journal I read of a memory of his of being a child and being in bed with an older boy who showed him how to jerk off. Something like that. Sexual. With an older boy. He had never told me this story.

In the margins of his journal he wrote here and there: Hi Marta.

I used to dress in white tee shirts, no bra, and Levi’s, no make-up, long hair parted in the middle – it was how he liked me best and how I felt the best too. 

His sister, who is now a shrink in LA, was a provisional friend. First of all, the two of them were so tight I had to find a way to fit in.

During the first few weeks of meeting this new boyfriend he took me to his childhood apartment where he’d lived all his life. The apartment was in disarray, its three occupants all moving on – Geoffrey, his sister, their mother. His sister was on her way to college. She sat on her bed amidst half-packed suitcases as the three of us hung out, Geoffrey and her making jokes, me trying my best to be part of this circle I was so new to. Part of the challenge was that his sister did not have a shirt or a bra on. She sat on her bed, folding laundry and chatting with her large breasts fully exposed. 

I could sense that Geoffrey liked her toplessness for the coolness it implied and I did my best to take it in stride. 

There was a lot of laughter between Geoffrey and his sister, as if they could not be together unless they were laughing and I learned quickly how to crack the right jokes when I was with them to earn my keep. Much of their banter came from Geoffrey teasing her. Much of it came from her picking up the thread and teasing herself before he could get to her. Geoffrey was the prince of his family: the smart Ivy League boy. She was the girl, more plain of face, assumed mediocre though hard-working, who would have to fend for herself. Even her eventual PhD would never be able to compete with what we all took to be Geoffrey’s natural talents. 

Once Geoffrey’s mother, long and far removed from his life, a chain-smoking alcoholic from and living in Mississippi played a tape for me of Geoffrey as a little boy. He was saying, “Toy, toy,” and the grown-ups were laughing and saying, “No, Geoffrey, that’s your little sister.” “Toy, toy,” he kept insisting.

When I first met him – me 18, he 19 – he was so much more in command of his life than I was, a life with so much more contained within it – divorced parents, a stepmother, a stepbrother, a half-sister plus New York City apartments, a house in the Hamptons, possessions, friends. I had none of these things, my life so contained by my small family and its poverty. 

All I really had was reading and the dream of writing. Geoffrey already had a typed manuscript, a full novel. It didn’t matter that I didn’t like his book, that I didn’t like that he chose the title by lining up a few phrases that he liked the sound of and asking me to pick one. I chose “Pure Effect,” slyly giving my comment on the content. But he had written it. And he liked it. And I couldn’t write anything without tearing it up.

Then he was young with a quick tongue and it was all going to happen for him in the future. And now we are in that future and I am pretty sure it has not happened for him. I imagine him in shadow and alone with no more youth to protect him. Everyone else really did grow up and get a life. Geoffrey never thought he would have to. I imagine he still laughs at the expense of others and keeps the steel chains across his character and history firmly in place, making him dangerous, vicious and someone I now know better than to go near. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

TOO DARK TOO SOON

My mother says that my sister will go to Hungary in the spring to visit our aunt, my father’s sister. Uh-huh, I say, blandly, and don’t think about it again until tonight when I am driving home in the dark and the rain, railing against the black heavy curtain that falls like lead in the middle of the afternoon. Early darkness has never bothered me before. I thought back to London in the late 80s, just this same time of year I was there, walking every day through parks, looking at everything with pleasure – the colors of wet bark and brown grasses, noticing that the days were short – “the sun goes down before it comes up,” I quipped – but it didn’t touch me the way these fall days do, and I rail against what can’t be changed and feel like I am in prison.

You can spend half the year in the other hemisphere and have it be summer all the time – it’s not the cold that bothers me, it’s that impenetrable darkness that says, “It’s over.”

We brought a little black dog home last week and after naming her and really thinking for 24 hours that we had a new dog, we realized we could not sail the rough seas of bringing a new and young dog into our home. And so we gave her back. I like to think she had fun with us – a couple of long walks in the woods, a wonderful time digging up the foam cushion in the window seat, and working it out with the cats. We had to give the little black dog back, sheepishly. That Sunday, surrounded by dogs who needed a home we had wanted to take two, but they had rules against that, and then even the one had been too much.

We plan a trip to Florida, a place for which Fred has had nothing but scorn ever since I’ve known him. “The two worst writing topics,” I’ve heard him say, “are ‘money’ and ‘Florida.’” And now we find ourselves planning a trip there because for several years we have said we must go South and get some heat in February, and year after year we don’t do it. I haven’t been serious about it for one thing, but this year it seemed crucial to me. Mostly, I want it for Fred.

We scour Florida for a place we can stand – all the other options are just too economically challenging – and yesterday we think we find it, and today too it has held, despite inviting people on Facebook to talk us out of it, no one has, despite alternate suggestions. It appears that we will go to St. Augustine, which promises to have art, architecture, and personality, plus the ocean, plus a state park.

It was while talking to Dinah last week that I put it into words. Up till then the working plan had been to drive through the Florida Keys, but walking with Dinah, my friend since 1969, with about a 40-year hiatus until the Internet reunited us, I could bring to speech things that were floating in my thoughts without form.

“I want a cottage by the ocean,” I said, “and I just want to stay there. A place with our own kitchen, and the ocean right there. I want a place to rest, not a week when we are moving the whole time. I’m not tired, but I want some stillness.”

I can say things to Dinah that I don’t say to anybody else. I only see her every few years. She lives in New Zealand. This was our first visit when it was just her and me, and it made a deep impression. It meant a lot to have her here. I think we have a lot of love for each other. It comes as a surprise. When we were 13 and 14 we were in the same foursome, but we were not official best friends. We each had an official best friend, but these were arranged marriages, marriages of convenience that could not be cut asunder. I think I knew that I liked Dinah the most back then, but I couldn’t act on it for fear of hurting her best-friend-spouse and mine.

We talked about it last week for the first time, almost shyly. It was her determination to track me down that got us back together. She just spent five weeks traveling through England, Scotland and Scandinavia, seeing people from her past, not willing to let these bonds go, and I know I was – though it scares me to say it – pretty high up on that list.

When she boarded the bus for the airport in the dusk I got back in my car and burst into tears, and that loneliness comes back from time to time as the days go by.

It’s strange these tears, like the tears I still cry for Tamar who I miss so much. I don’t understand these things. I’m not much of a crier normally.

At 4:15 this afternoon I tear myself from the poisonous computer screen to walk in the dusk and the light rain, fast, and I think of how I used to walk in London, how the darkness didn’t bother me then, how I was living on pure fantasy then, a make-believe romance that sustained me for months.

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.