Saturday, December 16, 2006


I think of lying on my back in my crib in the dark, in the middle of the night. It felt like the middle of the night because it felt like the whole world was asleep and I was the only person awake. I am in my crib with its pale wooden bars. My crib is in the smallest room of the apartment, a place where my father has his desk and his tall grey metal filing cabinet. I am awake. I can see the room around me, dark with shadow. There is a small man suspended up above me, somewhere near the ceiling. His face is stern and unsmiling. He is staring hard at me. I know that I must look back at him and I must not move. If I move I will die. I can hardly breathe.

So what. Maybe it's nothing.

But that feeling of being pinned down, of having no choice. I associate that feeling with my father.

I used to be so angry with him. I remember the day it started. My father and I are walking in the vast park near our house. We went there every weekend, he and I. My mother and my two younger sister stayed home. Nobody questioned this arrangement. Everybody knew my parents didn't want to go for a walk together, and my sisters were too young. I had been going for these long weekend walks with my father since I was three, but now that I was twelve they seemed too young for walks. I was the better choice. My father and I were like a matched set. No one thought to separate us.

We drove the few mintues to the entrance to the park and began to walk along the narrow paved road that wove through the woods and then out into open fields. We never saw other people there.

We walked side by side, my father talking and swinging his walking stick. He liked to carry a walking stick as an accessory. He didn't need one. My father was talking and talking, and then he asked me some sort of question and I didn't feel like answering it. For the first time, it felt like some huge effort to bother to answer. I shrugged. "Now, come on," my father said impatiently. He didn't like rudeness. I could see I was making him angry. I felt he was right to be angry. I just didn't feel like answering him anymore. I couldn't even think of a nice way to fake it.

From then on, for decades, it was like that most of the time, a vast surging anger that left me mute. I never could put my fury into words, which made me think there was something very wrong with me. He seemed able to put everything into words. I didn't even know what it was that came over me when I was with my father as we drove into the city on Saturday nights when we would both dress up and go to the opera, stepping into the crowded lobby, climbing the staircases -- everything in sheathed in red velvet with chandaliers sparkling in bright light and always crowds of people and the buzz of conversation, everyone dressed up, and I feel confident being there with my father, confident that he can navigagte a place like this in a way that my mother just can't. But afterwards, back in the car, I can't talk to him, cannot tell him anything, can only stare out my window and wonder what is wrong with me as he continues to talk like he always has.

And I flash on the old man he is now in his Budapest apartment. I don't think any of these things are on his mind. He washes his mind with a few glasses of wine each day, a scotch and soda when he can. He is getting lost in some nice fog of old age. I imagine. I don't know.


I wonder if I will tell my mother. I think about it. For a moment I imagined that my telling her might make her sick, might make her die.

A few weeks ago I wrote to her and said that for a few weeks I wouldn't call her. I'd be in touch by mail. I haven't written for a couple of weeks now because suddenly there is too much to say. A cheerful little card with a robin on it would be so false I can't bear to send anything. So I know she's thinking, wondering, probably worrying, waiting to hear from me no matter how independent she is.

I keep finding more shreds of evidence, all circumstantial, nothing that proves anything, but the shreds are everywhere.

I thought of the time in England. I was ten or eleven or twelve. I remember the nightgown I was wearing then, a pink one with no sleeves, not one I liked very much. It was plain and straight, something standard my mother had picked up. I had learned that on cold nights I could lie on my stomach, my arms stretched out beneath me, my hands pressing just a little in the place you don't talk about, and it felt good in a strange, wild way. I remember bringing it up with my father. It felt like playing with fire. I wanted to see if he knew about things like this. I told him that when it's cold at night I lie on my stomach with my arms underneath. That's all I said. I left out the unmentionable part. I wanted to see if he'd get it, or give some sign that he knew what I was really talking about. He didn't. The moment passed.

I think of the time in the taxi. I was eleven and my father and I were returning from a few days spent in Switzerland. I had never been with him on a trip like that before. I'd flown by myself to meet him in Geneva. The first night we stayed in a fancy hotel. I had my own room, my father had his and they both connected into the bathroom. I saw a bidet in there as my father was giving me a tour of our suite. "What's that?" I asked. "It's where ladies wash their wee-wee's," he said. "Oh," I said, embarrassed.

The next day we took a train into the mountains. My father was very excited to show me the place he'd been going to and telling me about for the last year. It was a tall modern skyscraper right on the mountainside, surrounded by snow. My father said he wanted to buy an apartment there. In the evening we had dinner downstairs in the fancy restaurant and a woman joined us. My father said to call her Aunt Helga. I could tell that he liked her alot. He kept running his finger down her nose and saying her nose was like a ski-jump. She smiled and laughed. She had short blonde hair. She wore make-up and jewelry and pretty clothes. She was the opposite of my mother. I had alwyas known that my father liked women like this. Even when he was getting along with my mother, at best it was like she was his sister. He never looked in love with my mother and she never looked that way with him.

My father dropped me off at a hairdresser the next day and spoke to them in French. The lady there washed my hair, cut it a little and then divided my hair into two ponytails which she wrapped in special black velvet bands. When my father came to pick me up he bought several sets of the black velvet bands for me to take back to boarding school.

On the taxi home from the airport I am with my dad. We are talking back and forth in a way we never have before. Something about this trip has given me a kind of confidence, a new language, and I am making grown-up jokes with my dad and he is laughing and joking back just like I was a grown-up like him. I call him "Mickey" just like Helga did. I am surprising myself how slick I am.

And then I stop. Maybe it's calling him by that name. Something makes me pull back and not let this go any further. Something in me smells danger, like I'm in a go-cart hurtling downhill without brakes.

These are a couple of the many many scenes that have been passing through the last few days. Other ones were coming through last week.

The words "molest" and "abuse" say so little. They are words easy to dismiss as overused. But it all makes so much sense. I have no proof except that it feels like I have found a missing piece.

I thought of the time, again, still in the English house, on a Saturday morning when my father decided I had blackheads in my ears and they had to be removed. My mother seemed in agreement. The operation happened in his room, me lying on my back on his single bed with its dark green silk cover. He is leaning over me, squeezing these fucking blackheads. It hurts and I am yelling and he will not stop. Blackheads are hideous. He must remove them. His daughter must not have such blemishes. He keeps going until he is satisfied.

It all fits. My mother letting things like this happen. It must have helped to have a daughter to pick up the slack. to absorb the husband's attention, a husband she didn't really want to have much to do with, a husband she was incapable of being close to. It must have soothed something to give him the little girl to play with. The little girl clearly liked him better anyway and he clearly liked her better too. So, good. Let them go off together, leave her alone. It made the home tolerable.


I think the drive will take about twenty minutes, that I'll make that right onto Apple Lane, a road I have passed for years, and then the left will be right there and then the second driveway on the right.

I turn onto Apple Lane, expecting a little development, a few make-believe roads and cul-de-sacs, but Apple Lane has higher aspriations. It starts climbing a mountain. The left I am supposed to take comes after a couple of miles, not yards. I have left the town behind below me and I am on a steep road climbing up. The trees are all grey and leafless. The sky too is grey.

Perhaps I've missed my way, but no, there is the driveway he said would be there. There's a small building off to the right, separate from the main house. I stop the car and look over at the quick notes I made last week while I was on the phone. Yes, he said there'd be a separate building. This must be it.

I step out of the car and lok out across a Catskills expanse. I feel way up high. It is beautiful. It is not often that I get up into the mountains I live so close to.

I open the door and walk in and he comes to greet me. "Stan?" I ask, extending my hand. He nods and smiles. I look at him. So this is Stan. It's been a couple of years since I've come to talk to a therapist. I'm not sure I want to be here. No, I do want to be here, but still.

He looks like this: a little bit like one of the seven dwarves, a type I am generally comfortable with. Comfortable looking. A cardigan. Sweatpants, socks, and a little round knitted cap on the back of his grey head.

He asks me gently to leave my shoes by my coat and I step into a room that feels made of wood. There's a desk in the corner and windows on both sides of the corner. He sits at the desk, turned in my direction, and gestures towards an armchair nearby.

I imagine my friend Jane sitting there. She told me she's been going to see Stan off and on for twenty-five years. I have chosen him for this reason alone.

I sit in the chair and pause before I leap into conversation. I look around the room. I want to see where I am. There's a fire -- real or fake, I can't tell -- in the corner opposite Stan's big desk by the windows. I cross my legs under me and somehow we get talking. Perhaps he says, "What brings you here?"

His voice is calm and deep. He looks trustworthy and I want to trust him. He doesn't smile. His face is serious. He's paying attention. He's sitting cross-legged now too as if my doing so has given him permission, and we sit there like two old yogi's. I had guessed from the prayer flags outside that he's into something or other and this confirms it.

I tell him lots of stories, mostly from the past, a little from the present. I talk alot. It's easy to talk. There's alot to say.

I wind around to the punchline.

"I have all this evidence," I say, "all this evidence that points to my father fucking me, but no memory in the center that proves it, just a blank space."

I feel like a cliche. I wish there were better words for this.

But it's like a door swung open a few days ago and opened up into a chasm I feel I'm hanging over now. Suddenly the strings of memories that have kept me company all these decades look very different -- there is a harshness I never saw before, a barrenness, and the romantic father doesn't seem so romantic. He seems like a monster, a lost and forgotten monster, unaware of his own demons.

Stan asks if I would mind standing up. He says that part of the way he works is to get a sense of a person's physicality.

I stand up about five feet from him. I put my hands in my pockets. I don't put on a defiant show like I might have ordinarily. This is a place I want to be very honest. I look down at the floor.

"Your legs are long," says Stan and I want to kill him. I flash on the boy thirty years ago who asked if I was a dancer. I hated him. I was wearing a leotard and jeans and my hair was in a tight ponytail. I knew I looked like a dancer that day, but it made me furious that he would fall for my disguise.

I feel Stan's gaze on me. "What are you feeling?" he asks.

"I have this feeling of 'unjustness,'" I say, struggling to put it into words, "like I'm being taken advantage of." And I do, like he's over there at his desk on some private trip and my body is supposed to be part of it.

I look towards the armchair. "Sure, go ahead," he says and I sit down. "You grew up too fast," says Stan and then he adds gently, "You don't have to do anything here that you don't want to."

It sounds nice, but it's not that easy. I am so used to doing things I don't want to do.

I like the room though. I like the wood and the mountains beyond the window. I can't see anything from where I sit except mountain and it feels like I'm in a special, privileged place.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


I thought I'd do it last year, buy a bunch of small things -- like a box of Sucrets, like a pack of Stim-u-dents -- little things that my father used to like when he lived here, little things that don't exist in Hungary where he lives now. I got the idea to send him a box of things like that for Christmas.

I bought one thing for it, one of those round metal tins of small European-looking candies. These were orange flavored and they were right by the register at Deisings where I'd gone for a buttered hard roll to eat on the bus into Manhattan. It was only October and I felt good getting a running start on my father's Christmas present. I never got any further and sometime in February or March I put the candies out on the counter for the workshop. I think Fred at most of them during the week. Now it's Christmas time again. I have just in the last few days begun to let the feeling in, and the idea of this Christmas package to Budapest is floating around as I walk through Eckerds, but I still put it off.

My father never wrote his Christmas cards til after Christmas. It was one of his private rituals each year to go into his office ? there was always a room wherever we were living that held his desk ? and write his cards. I don't know who he sent them to ? people related to his work, I think, mostly -- or what he said to them. My mother, my two sisters and I were not included. I only know what his cards looked like because he showed them to me each year with pride. I never liked them. They were always black and white, an etching or something very serious and adult with his name printed by a printer inside. And he enjoyed telling me that Christmas cards did not have to be sent before Christmas as long as they arrived by January 6.

Last year this theory bought me some time, but then I never got the package out.

I imagined this morning taking a few hours to just focus on it, get it done and out, but the idea went up in my mind like a lazy firework, dying down just as quickly as it went up.

It's a good idea, this Christmas package of little things, but that's all.

Natvar used to say often how he hated good ideas. He meant that he hated people who didn't follow through on their good ideas. He hated it if I suggested a solution to one of our many problems. To him my suggestions were empty words. So worked hard to make everything I thought might help happen. I considered it a spiritual discipline. I honestly thought if I made myself do things I didn't want to do I would be a better person.

I think of sending my aunt and/or my father ? who live together ? a $20 bill. It's not huge in Hungary either, but it's enough, say, for two people to go out for a pretty good dinner. They could do something with twenty bucks and they seem like they would welcome it. But maybe the cash will get stolen before it gets to them. Maybe my father -- if I send it to him -- will lose it on his desk or forget he ever received it. I'm told he's done that. So maybe I should send it to my aunt who would
never lose or misplace a $20 bill. But should I say it's for her, or for him, or for both of them? They are not very friendly. They live together out of necessity. Kind of like my mother and father did. I loathe the idea of joining all the womenfolk and treating my father like a child, but lost money doesn't appeal either.

In Hungary, out in a small, historic town called Eger, we said good-bye to my cousin Laci with whom we had just spent a meaningful twenty-four hours. Out on the street Laci introduced us to his cousin, Andras, a young, dark, good-looking man dressed neatly in black. Andras was driving back to Budapest and would give us a ride. I had never heard of Andras, but it seemed we were distantly related.

He didn't speak much English and seemed to prefer to drive in silence. His car was tiny. I sat in the front, Fred in the back. Andras did say that when he was a little boy my parents sent him a box of colored pencils. It startled and pleased me. He said his little girl, Angela, was turning one that weekend. I vowed to myself to send her some colored pencils. Or crayons. Or paints. Andras would get the reference. I would send her something every year because after several hours I came to like Andras very much even though our words had been few.

But as I walk into town this morning, I think how a one-year-old isn't ready for even crayons yet. So maybe a teddy bear? Or something for the parents? Or the little woolen booties I got for Chantal's baby except that she never let me know when or if the baby was born. Are those booties big enough for a one-year-old?

I remain in present limbo.


This morning I called Betty McDonald again. Betty McDonald is a wild jazz violinist who lives down the road from me and is well known in the Hudson Valley. She performs a lot with different bands here and there. I heard her once and I could tell that she could just go wherever the music feels like taking her.

Last year I was flipping through the bins of sheet music at the annual library book giveaway when everything is for free. There was a short grey-haired woman next to me also going through the music. We said a few things to each other, found out that we both played violin. Then the woman said she lived locally and did some teaching and if I ever wanted to come round to call her. When I asked she said her name was Betty McDonald.

My first reaction was not to believe that she was offering me a lesson. She was just being nice, I thought, as I thanked her and moved away. A few minutes later though I realized that Betty McDonald had just offered me a violin lesson and I went back and really thanked her and said I would call.

My favorite part of our lesson was when she played a tape of music over her stereo system and asked me just to play along with whatever came to mind. And when I left she said, "Go outside sometimes, into the garden or the woods, and just start playing anything, any notes at all."

I never did. I stayed with the regular violin teacher I had then, a nice big quiet guy who never gave me a hard time, was always patient and willing to work with whatever I came with. I always left my lessons with Ryan excited to play more and to practice and I could see that I was making progress even if it was glacial.

Though I did complain about Ryan sometimes. Ryan is so laid back that sometimes I think he's going to fall over. He broke his violin about six months ago and hasn't repaired it yet. No problem, he plays his viola instead. He rarely thinks ahead to have new music ready for me. I find myself hunting for more things to play. I left him three messages a couple weeks ago about scheduling before he got around to calling me back. He talks a lot during our sessions. Maybe that's the thing I'm really tired of

My friend Henny is also friends with Betty. "God, Betty was so happy to meet you!" Henny told me last year. "She was so excited. She thought you were so brave to be taking up the violin. She really liked you." "Why don't you call Betty," says Fred. "Remember how she liked you?" I hadn't paid much attention to Henny's enthusiastic report. It's hard for me to think of anything about me and the violin except that I am still very much in the beginner phase and surely I should be doing better, and surely any music teacher must dread spending an hour with someone who plays as badly as me.

I called Betty and made an appointment to see her. On the morning of the day I was supposed to go see her -- this was last week -- I cancelled. I'd been feeling sick off and on for a few days and that morning I woke up convinced I was too sick to go. I called her right away, at 8:30 in the morning -- before I'd even had my tea -- and cancelled. As the day wore on I didn't feel so bad. Maybe I could have done that lesson, I kept thinking.

Every time over the next few days that I thought about calling Betty I backed off. Did I really want to have a lesson with her? Maybe I should quit violin. It's too hard. Maybe I should start guitar.

When I called her this morning I felt strong. I want something that can lead me out of my pasture, out into land I do not know, and I think Betty can do that. It's scary. But in my strong moments it feels important and I am glad I chose violin as my instrument because if it were something else I wouldn't be able to go to Betty McDonald who I think is a musician the way we are writers.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

She Doesn't Try

I stood next to my father. He was sitting in the armchair in the corner of his room. It was our house in England. We had moved there in the summer. Then I'd gone away to school and now I was home again because it was almost Christmas and it feels like we have always lived here.

It is morning. My father stopped me on the landing just outside the bathroom. He said, "Your rport card came yesterday. It was not too good. And it was not too bad. We will talk about it after breakfast."

So I am in his room and the door is closed and we are by ourselves as we often are. Sometimes it's like my mother and sisters live in one world and me and my father live in another.

He is holding my report card in his hands. It's my first one from this new school here in Engliand. It is a long white piece of paper. Each subject is in its own rectangel on the paper. The teachers have written comments in the different rectangels.

I didn't know they were going to do this.

My father starts at the top. It's Math. They call it "Maths" here. The teachers says that I am careless and that I don't try and she gives me a low mark. My father reads each word out loud, slowly. I want to cry but I make myself not cry. I had thought I was trying. I hadn't thought about it.

The piece of paper says I came #22 out of 24 girls. I didn't know they were counting like that.

School was easy before I came to this school.

In this school my classroom is in a set of three classrooms that are in their own building apart from the rest of the school. We are in a wooden building, long and low. Each classroom has its own door to the outside and a set of steps. Everyone calls this building -- this set of three classrooms -- "the huts." Inside you can walk from one end to the other, from one classroom to the next, opening and closing the doors that separate each of the three rooms.

In the beginning I was in the first classroom, the youngest class in the whole school. Everything there was easy and it felt like playtime, not school. After a few days they said I could go be part of the next class, so I went through the door and I was with a different group of girls. They were older than me and they wrote with pens that had ink in them, not pencils.

My father just keeps going, reading how badly I have done and I can't not cry. I have to cry. It gushes out. It feels very bad, all these people saying I am messy and careless and I don't try. "Trying." I never thought about trying. I thought I did everything they wanted. I didn't know they were going to do this. I thought everything was fine. Nobody told me.

I hate this. That I am crying and my father keeps reading and he won't stop.