Sunday, January 28, 2007


I drive out there from the city with Mark in the little brown car that my mother had loaned us. We hadn’t planned this drive, but when the phone call that afternoon yielded no results I wanted to try harder, to go out there in person.

I wanted my mother to give me/us a thousand dollars, maybe two. Enough for a ticket or two to Greece. I had to get to Greece. We all did – Meredyth, Mark and me. Natvar and Ariadne were already there and when Natvar called each week he was always urging us to hurry. He said it was so beautiful there in Athens – the people were better, the food was better. We could leave our harsh life in New York City and come to Athens where everything would be better.

I knew if Natvar were making this drive he would not come home empty-handed. He could always get people to do whatever he wanted. It was miraculous. He was so scornful of me and Mark and Meredyth. He thought we were mediocre failures most of the time. If I got it right this time he would be so pleased and impressed.

My mother had just won a small court case so although my parents were otherwise penniless -- my father working for minimum wage at nights as a security guard, my mother cleaning houses – there was this little stash of cash.

I dressed up for this meeting in the most imposing clothes I had, the navy blue suit I had stolen from Arianna’s posh apartment on the Upper East Side. It fit me perfectly, the short woolen jacket and the long wide culottes. My parents had never seen me in clothes like this. They’d only seen me as a hippy in baggy yoga pants or pretty dresses for dress-up, but never in a suit.

We got there in the early evening. My father was in the living room, reading. They were living for free in a converted barn, the caretaker’s cottage of a rich estate. The place looked rich with its double-high ceiling and huge old fireplace. My mother, he said, was already in bed. I went into the little bedroom off the living room where she was sitting up in her single bed, reading.

As we spoke she got up and, still wearing her nightgown, came out into the living room. She was saying no. I was insisting. I had seen Natvar get angry a thousand times – mostly with us – but I knew how his anger was like a sharp effective knife, it cut to the truth, I thought, and got what it wanted. Natvar, I knew, was never afraid.

So I let anger come up, until I was shouting. I remember my mother shouting back, “That’s right – it’s always the parents’ fault, isn’t it? When I was your age I was giving my mother money every month, not asking for it.”

I was desperate. I had to take this all the way or give up. I spat in my mother’s face. She raised her hand to hit me, then lowered it.

My father picked up the phone and called the police. I turned on him, began to jeer at him about his drinking, something I had never mentioned before. “After this you’re going to pour yourself a drink, aren’t you,” I yelled. He ignored me, kept talking to the cop.

Mark and I went out to the car, defeated. My father walked in the receding headlights of the car as we backed out. “Don’t ever come back,” he shouted, pulling a chain across the entrance and fastening it.


I see both of my parents, each alone. It may not be true, but that’s how they keep appearing to me, like the ghosts that haunt Scroodge in The Christmas Carol, they travel with me everywhere, all the time – my mother sitting in her little house, my father in his old high-ceilinged Budapest apartment. They sit in empty rooms and I should be there, making them feel better.

So when a card comes in the mail with a $20 bill tucked inside from my mother, or the $100 bill that came at Christmas, my heart twists.

But I don’t obey. To create something new with everything I have, I can’t go there and do that.

I can’t even visit one of my sisters. I imagined walking through Ilona and Stu’s little farm in northern California, the place that is the center of their life together, and I realized I’ll probably never do it. I couldn’t. I imagined myself walking through it next to my sister and it would be like being in an alternative universe or underwater. We’d be friendly. It would look just right -- two sisters etc. – but it wouldn’t’ be. I wouldn’t be writing. I’d be on hold. I wouldn’t be living. I’ve done tons of this. Sold them years. You’d think I’d have some credit, but I don’t. I am in eternal debt to them and no matter how much I pay, the debt doesn’t stop.

Last week I told the local charitable organization that I couldn’t give them three hours a week anymore. Actually, I couldn’t quite say that. I had to say I’d be taking a month off. I didn’t have the guts to say I’m quitting.

But it feels like I have given myself a thousand empty acres to roam in. I keep clearing space for more writing to happen and it doesn’t necessarily mean hours at my desk. It means empty time the writing can take its time in, that I can take my time in.

My mother, at 82, leaves her house at 6:30 in the morning to go to work. She makes her bed before she goes and probably does her breakfast dishes. On her afternoons off she rakes leaves or cleans the kitchen floor. These things thunder in my ears. Who are you not to be working all the time?

I read recently that humans use about 10% of their brain capacity. I don’t want to settle for 10% of anything.


My sister and her husband say how they have hired a Feng Shui consultant because they know their house need something, but they didn’t know what. the consultant has made a lot of suggestions like changing the floor boards to a lighter wood. It sounds to me that what they really have is an interior decorator. I have never known why anyone would hire an interior decorator. It still surprises me when my mother, father and two sisters turn out to be so ordinary.

When I moved into the sparse little cottage after the ashram I called up a Feng Shui person, a devotee that everybody swore by. She came. Said I should paint my front door green and put mirrors in the four corners of the ceiling of the basement because it was really bad to have a garage under a house. A certain plant by the computer and a bowl – a white bowl – of salt.

I did all these things, even buying some cheap mirrors at the local drug store and climbing up a ladder and sticking them somehow to the fucking ceiling as if it were a spiritual practice, as if not to do these things would signal a failing, proof that I wasn’t serious and didn’t deserve good things.

Yesterday afternoon Maurice called to say that in the process of upgrading my computer he had accidentally erased my entire email program. Next to my writing, the most valuable thing on the computer. “But Sally did her intuitive thing and says it’ll be alright,” he said. “Bullshit,” I thought. An hour later Sally was still insisting that my mother lode of addresses would reappear. I heard her insisting in the background as he said, “Well, she isn’t usually wrong, but she sure was this time.”

Four young white mothers have gathered beside me in this café, each with a wriggling hardly-walking toddler. They talk about what foods each kid is eating. I hear something about “avocado diarrhea.”

My mother. Can I hate her? It seems utterly taboo, but I am drawn to this area as if it were the place on the other side of a wall I can’t see over.

I hate her for not having been a happy person, for having been so beaten down even before I was even born, a woman completely defeated who had decided the best way to survive was to not ask for much.

I’m not allowed to hate her. It makes me go to war inside. On one side: hatred. On the other: the voice that says I should care for this poor woman who is so gutsy and outspoken and cute.

But she wasn’t that for me. When I was little she was the one who said no, you can’t be pretty, you cannot be a success, you will not make it, how could you? These things were not allowed for me and now they are so foreign to me I cannot invite them in for you.

In my head she protests, says she always thought I was special. And I can imagine she did, back in some frightened crevice of her consciousness, but she had to make me normal to fit into her everyday, to make me someone she knew how to talk to.

And my father I hate with a rage that makes me scream at him to leave me alone. I rage against the years of his cloying presence, his assumption that he was welcome.

I have not written to or called him for several months and have not heard from him either. It feels easy. The other day, putting mugs away in the cupboard, I imagined the call coming from my mother. How will she put it? “Dad died this morning.” I feel ready. At peace. A thousand voices rise up, telling me this will not last.

The four mothers talk to their wordless babies in voices that rise up in swoops. “You don’t want to go hoooome??” The baby cries and struggles not to have its coat put on, but of course mother insists. “It’s not usually this hard to get her to leave!”

My mother. My mother. My mother. I looked at audio books today. It soothes something to imagine giving her a present. I could hide behind that. If I had money I probably would. I didn’t today. I knew it was extra, over the top, hiding something.

My mother sitting alone in her living room. Eating alone, by the window. I can remember feeling this way when I was nine years old, being left at boarding school. I had to be careful. She could be hurt so easily.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


There was school up on Broadway and 116th St., a place of classrooms, lecture halls, papers due. There was Broadway itself between 116th St. and my room on 107th. I ate in the coffee shops, cheap falafel places.

It is dark. I am by myself, hungry, not wanting to spend money. There is a boy in one of my classes, very handsome, dark curls, not football-popular handsome. His face is sweet but there is also an air of the outsider about him, something uncertain and quirky that makes me imagine he might be for me, I for him.

I don’t talk to him or anyone in the classroom. I don’t know the teacher. I have been a student here for over a year, but don’t know anybody really. School and anything to do with so-called “campus life” seems embarrassingly infantile. I never go to anything I don’t have to go to, always ignore the pink flyer on the noticeboard about a “mixer” in such-and-such hall, always leave the campus as quickly as I can to merge into the city.

But then it gets very quiet. Alone walking down Broadway, hungry, eating something where it's cheap, going to the tiny dark room in the railroad apartment where three or four other people live. I thought moving in with a bunch of people would give me something adult and exciting to be part of, but it’s an apartment where residents rarely see each other.

I know if I go down to Jeffrey’s place there will be bright lights on in the living room, the color TV will be on and the twin towers will be lit up on the other side of the living room window. Jeffrey will be on the couch, using a wide flat book as a counter on his lap, skinning chicken with a pair of scissors in his left hand, holding the long blue ceramic pipe in his right, inhaling the smoke deep, holding it in long, laughing at the jokes on Mork and Mindy. The lights will be on in the bedroom too where a record will be turning on the turntable by the unmade double bed, the big puffy headphones thrown down among the sheets, a tape silently turning and recording the song.

All that is there but it’s one of those nights I’m not going down. We’ve had a fight. Something. There have been a lot of fights lately. I am staying up here in this part of town, my part of town. It feels a thousand miles away. I pretend I don’t feel empty. I pretend I like it up here.

If I could just spend the night with the boy in that class, have some kind of falling in love with him, it would help a lot. Jeffrey has a lot of people. He even has Harriet now. He stays with her one night a week. I haven’t met her, but I know she’s a writer. She writes actual paperbacks. And she’s old, in her thirties, with a kid.

Thinking about her makes me feel like I’m standing on the edge of a bottomless crater. I want to jump in and die.

After class I say something to the boy, something so that we are walking down Broadway together. We go to the falafel place. I look like a girl with a friend.

As we are eating I ask him if he would like to come to my place and spend the night. I don't tell him there isn’t room for two in the tiny room, but there’s the living room.

He says yes. We walk up the stairs. I unlock the front door. We step into the narrow corridor. “No,” the boy is saying. He is looking down the hallway. We have hardly stepped inside. “I can’t stay after all. I’m sorry. I have to go.” And he is gone.

If I tell the story to Jeffrey, I will be casual, say something about how this guy almost stayed over, but had to leave. It won’t matter to me.

I will be left with the grittiness that I don’t know what it is that covers everything I touch and don’t touch, that at best I can ignore here and there when for a moment it seems to blow away, but usually – especially alone – it accumulates in mazes of huge dark piles I can't find my way out of.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Windows on the World. The restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. I was there once. It could have been any fancy restaurant. It was lunch with my father. I was dressed up. I looked forward to these meals with my father. I could order anything, the waiters would pretend to be servants and we would pretend to be rich.

I was almost done with college. College. One deadline after another stuck between temp jobs and the dagger-and-shark landscape of being with Jeffrey.

I was more or less living with Jeffrey in the fancy apartment looming over Washington Square Park that his father paid for where the TV was always on in the living room and rock and roll was always blasting from the stereo. Jeffrey – if he was up – would be making dinner, making a tape, smoking pot or on the phone. He made dinner every night, sitting on the couch with the TV, using a broad flat book on his lap as a countertop, only going into the kitchen to actually use the stove. His food was delicious, loaded with butter, sugar, cream – whatever it took to make it taste good. Vegetables forbidden.

Most of the time it felt a little like home. I stayed most nights, leaving when we had a screaming fight with slammed doors, but I always came back after the burst of relief that seemed so real disappeared on me. My alternative to the gaudy place over Washington Square Park was a tiny dark room – a bargain at $50 a month -- the first room immediately to the left of the front door in a railroad apartment with three or four other people, no one I knew. I had hoped I’d come to know them, had hoped that this apartment on 107th St. that I found through a noticeboard would be some kind of hub of busy people with full lives and friends that I could merge with, but it hadn’t turned out like that, just a bunch of people who met once in awhile over the sink in the kitchen.

The first chapter of Jeffrey’s novel took place in a girls’ college dorm. One girl comes out of her bedroom where she’s just fucked some guy. She starts talking about it all very casually – plenty of jokes and laughter – with the three or four or five girls who are all hanging out. When I read that chapter I was a virgin. I didn’t have friends that I could imagine talking about sex with, not in any honest or casual way. I didn’t have friends period. Not really. Not like the ones in Jeffrey’s book.

Last night when Betty McDonald, the jazz violinist, said something from the stage about being a hippy in ’69 – weren’t we all? she laughed, and a lot of people in the audience nodded – I thought about myself then, how I hadn’t been a hippy. Not a real one. I came along just a little too late, but I didn’t know that then. I thought if I just looked hard enough I’d find the hippies and join them on the beach. As I sat in the darkness last night, my eyes closed, riding the unpredictable flow of the music, I thought of being sixteen and hitchhiking alone from Michigan to British Columbia, down through California and back across to New York. For the first time I thought about how I hadn’t told anyone of my plans. There was no one to tell. I didn’t think of the trip so much as of the girl up in her attic room, thinking it all up by herself.

In Windows of the World my dad in a good suit, looking fresh and energetic, chooses a table by the window.

My father says somewhere between the roast beef and the apple pie that since I am almost done with college I should now think about helping him to pay for it.

Oh. Okay. I murmur. Nod. Chewing. Yes. Thank you. Swallow. Great lunch. The check. The coats. My father kisses me. and returns to his office where, if anyone asks, he will say that he just had lunch in Windows of the World with his daughter who is an English major at Barnard. Lovely. And I go back to wherever I came from.

Friday, January 19, 2007


New at boarding school, I was nine years old in a convent for the first time, in England for the first time, away from home – first time – the English I heard around me from the other girls was sometimes almost like a foreign language that I struggled to keep up with.

I am walking outside on the school grounds in a crowd of girls – we are being shepherded from one place to another – and I hear a girl somewhere behind me say, "stale buns for tea."

Immediately, I say to the girl next to me that the buns we had at tea that day had been stale.

I have noticed that other girls complain sometimes. It seems sophisticated to me to complain out loud. It doesn't come naturally to me.

It doesn't take long to learn that "stale buns for tea" is an English-girls-boarding-school idiom, meaning: "old news." It has nothing to do with food and has to be delivered dripping with scorn.

This morning I said something to Fred about how the only thing I have wanted all my life was to be a writer. He said something like, "Well, you've always wanted to be yourself, and it takes the form of being a writer."

I had just said something about how all the things I did for my parents and sisters – the character I played for them to keep them happy – the cheerful spinster – none of it made any contribution to my writing.

I am almost not playing that role anymore at all and I have much more of my own life.

I imagined my mother telling my sisters that I haven't been good lately. "Bim's being bad," I imagined her saying to them over the phone. She would say it sort of as a joke, but the message would be there.

And I imagined my two sisters in California getting angry that even though they have let me off the hook for so much, I am taking more.

I listened to my mother's voice mail yesterday. She had left it two or three days ago, but I waited awhile to listen to it. I haven't done that before.

My mother sounded a tiny bit crazy, a little bit desperate, wanting me to be in touch but not saying so. She almost sounded like a lonely little child.

I sent her a card this morning. I didn't say too much in it.

I read Alice Miller as if I am drinking water.

I sat on a couch in a café this afternoon, reading Alice Miller who is a psychotherapist who writes about the importance of the child, how parents – even those with the best intentions – wound and traumatize the child. I read this stuff, wanting very mch to re-enter my own childhood which I used to think was very available to me and now I begin to realize how most of it is walled off.

I feel a little silly reading Alice Miller in this café where on one side of me a young Korean man plays noisy video games on his cell phone, and on the other a guy talks into a phone, saying things like, "Well, what does he DO that he has so much money?"

I also read a few pages of A Sentimental Education. I had looked forward to a few hours of reading and writing, but somehow I am not sinking in deep.

I look up Alice Miller on one of the computers the café offers. I don't know what I am looking for. She has a section on how to find a good therapist. "Ask questions," she advocates.

And I think how, over the phone, when I made an appointment with a therapist for the first time a few weeks ago he asked me, "Do you have any questions?" "No," I had said. "My friend's recommendation is good enough."

But it wasn't and after three sessions I stopped seeing that guy. But how impossible it was for me in that first conversation to ask him any questions.

I saw bits of Monster In A Box, a Spalding Grey monologue, the other night on TV. At one point he's describing himself meeting a new shrink and I got this impression that Spalding didn't enter the new shrink's office like a shy child, but as himself, a full-grown man to be reckoned with. If this thing with the new shrink was going to work the shrink would have to make an impression just like anyone else Spalding came across. I liked that. When it comes to shrinks, so far, I've been fairly good at being vulnerable. Not so good at having any confidence in my own impressions.


To update my blog I get in our car, our beat-up VW that we bought four years ago when we re-mortgaged the house at a runaway interest rate and secured $18,000 in cash that we spent on fixing the roof, getting an above-ground oil tank and $2,600 went for the 1989 VW Golf with about 85,000 miles. It was a big step up from the little Metro that I'd bought for $1,800 when I was leaving the ashram and they let me plunder ahead of time the small savings account they made each of us maintain, a certain amount from your monthly stipend deposited there automatically so that whenever you finally left the ashram you weren't penniless. I remember when that rule came into being though no one else ever made the connection out loud.

She lived next door to me, a short woman with large-framed glasses and greying brown hair in a non-descript cut. Her face was scarred from acne. She had a tomboy quality, always dressed plainly. She was generally good-natured as far as I could tell and worked somewhere in the bookstore warehouse.

She wasn't a close friend, but because she was on staff like me and not part of the glamorous flock that went on tour, accompanying Gurumayi around the world, but one of us who stayed behind and made our way through the Catskills winters, someone who, like me, showed up for the big Saturday projects like planting trees in the rain or chopping massive amounts of vegetables in time for a celebration – she felt like family, someone I always said hi to.

A year or two after I moved in she got a cat somehow. Maybe a stray. She kept it in her room, which wasn't allowed. She thought somehow they'd bend the rules for her. After all, she'd been there so long. But they didn't. The struggle went on for several months until she gave in and found a home for the cat. She called the cat "L.D." I don't remember what "L.D." stood for.

It was such an upheaval – those months of resisting the administration – that the guru deemed it was time for her to go out into the world. The guru sent the message even though the guru was in India at the time. It came as a shock to all of us who traveled on the shuttle with her every day, drank chai with her at five in the morning on our collective way to the Guru Gita chant before breakfast, passed her in the dining room three times a day. Like hundreds of others, she was part of the décor.

It took a long time for her to leave because she had no money. I think the ashram ended up giving her money. After that the savings account rule came in. Heaven forbid they'd want you gone – especially someone as odd and unuseful as this woman – and they got stuck with you.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


I open up any Alice Miller book, anywhere, I can never read her page after page, but it works well to open up one of her books and read a few paragraphs at random. I feel immediately in good company. I haven't had this exact experience before with a writer.

Alice Miller writes about the abuses that every child experiences in one form or another. She doesn't try to reduce their importance, but to pay a great deal of attention to them. She writes as a professional observer, but imbues her prose with empathy. You know, as you read, that she is seeking to know for her own sake.

Her writing invites me to think beyond the safe fields I've been staying inside until now. Several months ago when I was hit by a strong depression that seemed to come out of nowhere It was her books that provided the first comfort, not because they had any rosy aphorisms in them, but I think partially at least because what she writes about is mysteriously relevant to me right now and provides some kind of needed release. She paints a new landscape of possibility and I step into it as easily as if I already lived there but didn't know it.

I went to see a therapist about it, but he didn't seem too interested in these things, as if, yes, of course, talk about them if you want to but I don't think you'll get very far. He wanted to press on my meridians and open up the blocked channels, and when he pressed they did feel blocked but afterwards I realized slowly that I wanted to be with someone who was interested in those landscapes I had started to discover. There seems to be something very important for me there, something so taboo that the moment I have an excuse to drop it I do, like being with a friendly professional with a good rep who doesn't see much point in it, who makes me feel like an overly verbal intellectual.

It's a weak spot of mine. I've been accused of being too much in my head and it always sounds right. I'm touchy about it. But you know, I think I'm onto something and I'm going to keep at it. Somehow. I hope. I'll open up an Alice Miller book and see what happens.

For the last few years I didn't buy books. I didn't think I could afford to and by most reckonings I couldn't. I don't make New Years resolutions but one came to me spontaneously this year. Fuck it, I was going to buy books again – not second-hand ones over the internet, but a brand new one now and then.

I looked through titles for half an hour in our little local bookstore, an independent survivor, before finding the one I wanted. I didn't look too closely, just enough to sense its possibilities. It was a memoir called LISTEN.

At home, the first three pages were perfect, all written in her mother's voice as heard by the narrator. I read this book slowly. Usually, when I find a book I like I gobble it up greedily even as I know that the faster I read the sooner it will be over and I'll be book-less again. This one I savored, shutting it every few pages. Partially because the writing was not so facile that it slid down that easy, it was intense writing, serious – all of it first person, all of it telling while exploring a real story.

It becomes a story about a father and a daughter. And incest plays in the background. It's not center stage. You could even miss it if you wanted to.

When I finish I write her an email, saying how much I liked her book and why. And then about my own tentative steps into uncovering incest in my own life. I sign off and put at the end my blog address with the implication that if she wants to she can check it out.

I don't hear back from her.

"Bitch," I say to Fred. To make him laugh.

While cleaning out my spam yesterday I catch sight of her name. Quickly, I fish out her email and see it was written the day after I sent mine. She is appreciative, has read my blog, says I gave her some ideas she hadn't thought of.

I forward the note to Fred and don't think about it too much. Hours later Fred comes in. "Boy, you really connected with that woman!" he says. "Did you see what she said?" I have rarely seen him so excited.

Once again, I guess, I have overlooked something, made it smaller than it is.


The shrink on the phone, the one I called tonight, thinking I'd get his voice mail, but no, even though it's after-hours he answers, but that's okay, I don't mind talking to him. I say how I can't make Wednesday's appointment, which isn't true, I can make it but I don't want to, but then I add how – and I think this is a very decent way of putting it – I don't have "the commitment for this work" and that (pause) I don't think (pause) well, I don't think I'll be continuing for awhile.

I'm expecting case closed, but he says I should come in for one last session so that there's nothing (pause) "fuzzy" left behind.

Okay, so now the conversation is getting tricky, tricky for me anyhow as I watch myself go into hyper alert, trying to make sure I don't get intimidated into short-changing myself, trying to see my thoughts very clearly as if they were three-dimensional so I don't miss anything, trying to manage the cloud of fear that descends as I realize we are pulling in opposite directions.

"I don't feel fuzzy," I say, adding an artificially hesitant tone to soften the blow.

"Well, you and I have a relationship and it's important that there be closure and (pause) that's just how it should be done," the shrink says in his nice Jewish New York earth-father yogi voice.

I'm talking to a shrink, one I've poured my heart out to, though only three times. I didn't want to blow him off, but it's becoming inevitable. I thought he'd say: Okay, it's been great, call me if you need me. And I would have said it was great too and maybe I would have called him the next time I wanted that kind of thing.
So I lie, say I'll call, and the call is over.

That conversation was familiar, someone arguing with confidence, telling me my choice is wrong, that they somehow know better. So often I have believed them and sent myself to jail, to reform school, as if they were right and a little extra punishment wouldn't hurt.

It was all the times he said "should" that clued me in.

Thank god, I thought. Thank god I didn't keep going to him for another couple of years, wondering every week if I was doing the right thing while I made excuses for him.

I woke up early this morning not at home but in someone else's apartment. It was still dark out. I thought I'd try watching some television. Recreational television is a novelty for me. It is seared into my bones that anything other than the high class stuff will kill off cells – Masterpiece Theatre was a light as we got at home.

In today's pre-dawn I found a documentary on Townes Van Zandt who I didn't know before, an acoustic guitar player, singer-songwriter from Texas. He looked a little like Woody Guthrie, gaunt, rough.

The movie was satisfying for about an hour. I liked the part where he says how somewhere along the way he realized he could really do this – play the guitar, write songs – but it would mean leaving everything else behind: family, money, comfort. I liked this picture, leaving things behind so the art can happen.

The doctors told his parents he was manic-depressive and they okayed a series of vile hospital treatments that wiped out all memory of his childhood.

He seemed a tortured person – tons of drugs and drinking. There were clips of home movies of him as a baby, being pushed in a stroller. The family was well off and supposedly happy, which I did not believe. I know happy family photos hide a much bigger reality.

My mother had left me a voice mail when I came back this afternoon after five days away. I saved it to listen to later. I still haven't listened.

When I told the shrink last time I saw him – it was the last two minutes of the session and it didn't have too much to do with where we were at right that moment but I wanted to get it in because it had been so much on my mind – I said how I was really thinking about pulling away from my family, really reshaping the current relationships utterly to my own measurements – but that I wasn't sure. He almost rolled his eyes. I saw a fleeting expression of "oh, here we go, the same-old family hang-ups."

"Well," he said, "let's use your talents. Write up the reasons you want to be in touch, and all the reasons you don't want to be."

My talents? I thought. That's what you think my so-called writing talent is about? Writing lists?

In the movie this morning Van Zandt says how he left his mother behind to go become a musician and didn't call her from July til Mothers Day. "That's nothing," I thought. "I've gone much longer than that many times."

Friday, January 05, 2007


My aunt's Christmas card from Hungary, the aunt I am named after, my father's only sibling, his younger sister who in old photographs is pretty and laughing who now is mostly stern and weathered, the older she gets the less she smiles. Her Christmas card, which came because we were just there, it is not a tradition that she sends me a card, her card was mostly about some Hungarian author who, she said, has been translated into English and we should both read him and then we can discuss him because something about Hungarian literature. This kind of thing in a Christmas card felt very familiar -- it's like only giving children educational toys -- you know? Something akin to the work ethic, I think, except what is especially familiar to me here is how instead of lightness, frivolity, warmth -- the kind of thing a Christmas card from an aunt who had been genuinely happy to see you might be an occasion for -- it's used as a little literature lecture, and considered higher quality because of it.

My aunt dresses severely and plainly with no attempt to be pretty, in fact a definite attempt not to as if vanity were a sin she must not commit.

I knew my grandfather had once been a Protestant minister. When you're Catholic, which I was though not as utterly Catholic as some, all Protestants are the same. It wasn't until this last visit that I figured out he was a Calvinist, a Presbyterian -- which I don't know much about but there's not much tolerance for frills and leisure in that church. And I started to see how those tendencies had trickled down through my father to me.

My mother is very no frills. She grew up on a farm during the Depression way out in British Columbia with six brothers and sisters. She doesn't know what to do with lace or fancy gloves or a low-cut dress. So, though my father is one for the parties and theaters and custom-made suits, he thought my mother would be the right kind of person for a wife -- not for a girlfriend, not for someone to get scented letters from, but to build a home with and raise proper children with -- a home and children he could dare show his parents and the people from the office.

When I was eighteeen I found a Playboy magazine in a bottom drawer of my father's rented room at the Yale Club. Which kind of sums up what I'm trying to say. The Yale Club room -- spartan but proper, a gentleman's room in a supposedly gentelman's club with naked chicks tucked into the bottom drawer.

My grandmother -- my dad's mother -- was another severe one. Even though she was Catholic there was nothing Latin about her. She wore flat lace-up shoes, straight skirts and sweaters, again with zero attempt at color or frill. She was a schoolteacher and looked like one though you almost missed it. She had a pretty face and pure white hair that curled beautifully around her face.

My aunt looks like her mother's daughter but she doesn't have those soft white curls, the pretty face that defies age.

Years ago I went to visit my aunt. I hadn't seen her since I was a child and didn't know her at all. I'd been living in Greece with Natvar and Natvar had always liked having current issues of Vogue magazine around. They made him feel wealthy. In Greece Vogue magazines were expensive. So I took my aunt a Vogue magazine. She smiled politely. Now I can't think of a worse present to have given her.

I don't think my father is a natural Calvinist. Perhaps its straitjacket explains some of his inner damage. My father seems very damaged to me, like shards of broken pottery held together with a little bit of sticky tape.

And my aunt makes me angry. She's practically a nun -- I was about to tell you all this stuff, like the crosses in her room, like the Catholic books her shelves are filled with -- and then I remembered her talking about some progressive feminist theologian she was working with and I got hit by a wave of guilt that I was mis-representing her, that I don't know her at all.

Anyway, I think of her angry face that she has allowed to grow ugly, her ugly-on-purpose clothes and I get mad. I don't want her -- and that -- to keep me prisoner.


My father drives me into Manhattan in the tastefully green Ford Grenada – four doors, beige interior – as sedanish as a sedan can be – my father who would never think of himself as someone who would drive a Ford sedan, only Americans would do that, people who don't know any better, not like him who grew up in Budapest, who was there while the city was bombed and the bridges spanning the Danube collapsed, not he whose favorite – whose only – dance was the waltz, who listened to Mozart and Beethoven – you get the gist.

Anyway, he drove me into Manhattan, to Lincoln Center, to the Metropolitan Opera House on a Saturday night and while we sat in our theater seats waiting for the lights to dim, he aid that my walking over that afternoon to see Alex, a beautifully long-haired, moustachioed man-boy, was not "elegant."

Quote, unquote.

I don’t remember saying anything. I had perfected the art of freezing up into absolute steel.

What did he know?

What did he know of my dreams about Alex who was the best guy within reach I had seen so far?

I wrote his name over and over in the margins of my note book at school, watching myself do it, knowing I wasn’t quite as lost in the thought of Alex to really justify the doodling of his name but I guess wanting the fantasy so much – the guy, the romance – and this part – the doodling – was one piece I could supply myself.

Alex looked the part but that was about it. For awhile we had some sort of not quite romantic something but he was just a schizophrenic on meds living with his parents. I liked him because he was different.

I was so dying for the right horse to come galloping by and I’d leap on its back and get carried away. I thought it would be easy. You get done with school. You get away from home.

I hated home, but not enough, or I didn’t know enough how much I hated it, how antithetical it was to me. These good people – this noble Hungarian, this something-or-other mother, these innocent sisters, this house – our house. I must not betray any of it.

Something like that.

Though they would all deny it, each in their own way. They would each say that they want me to be happy. Can I just go straight ahead without them at all? Make no concessions whatsoever? I can hold onto this clarity for about thirty seconds.


My father gave me a manicure set, leather, zippered around the sides, a small pair of curved scissors, something more serious-looking for toe-nails, a metal file, and a few other mysterious tools, each held in place by a leather loop. Fingernails had to be short. I could not imagine cutting my own. A half-moon must always be showing on each nail, my father said seriously, as if to let one disappear would really get you banished from the human race.

He told me things like this in his room across the narrow corridor from my mother's bigger room. His room had a tall grey filing cabinet with our TV on top. It had a table with narrow black metal legs and a dark brown smooth fake-wood top on which were lined up my father's small red stapler and a small plastic cube that held a roll of grey-blue stamps. This table was his desk.

I played there sometimes when he wasn't there during the day. Once I stood at it with a few slices of white bread, cutting them into small circles so I could make believe having Communion, the one part of Mass that looked like fun, to walk up the center aisle to the front with your hands folded in a line with everybody else – all people who were old enough – and then kneel down as soon as you saw an opening at the railing, tilt your head back, stick out your tongue, let the priest put the white disk on your tongue.

I also sat at my father's desk with the book he brought me. All the pages were black. My father had suggested I glue postcards into it. I didn't see much point, but I started to do as I was told, taking the postcards my grandparents in Hungary sent from time to time. I never thought those postcards were interesting – color photographs of churches or buildings with daffodils blooming in the front. My father presented me with the project as if this were important, something that had to be done. It was one of the things he approved of. There were lots of things he didn't approve of.

Chewing gum was pretty much the worst. TV.

Things had to be serious. Though my father didn't seem serious when he was having fun. He looked happiest when other people visited. Then he would talk and pour drinks and eat salami and cheese from the plates my mother put out.
But I didn’t think he would like me to have fun like that. He wanted me to play the piano when the guests were there. I never wanted to, always tried to get out of it, there was nowhere to go. I'd play, plonking through whatever it was the piano teacher had assigned that week.

I knew it was better to read certain books than others. My father said if you started a book you had to finish it and he looked down on my mother because she skipped the paragraphs that bored her. This, in my father's world, was not allowed and further evidence of my mother's shortcomings.

I admired my father for a long time. I liked how he underlined books, even magazine articles – he did not read anything without a pen in hand. I was mystified by what he marked – fragments of sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. Once or twice I asked him why he underlined these particular words. He liked that I was interested, and that he had baffled me. He had no real answer.


My dad, the sweet old man who deserves a call on Christmas Day. Makes sense that I try three times and his line or the international circuits – I can't tell which – are busy.

I don't think to call him the next day. Well, I guess I do think of it, but feel no pressure to do so. Not compared to Christmas Day anyway.

The armies lined up across from me take the form of the people I love. It feels like love. I love these people: my two sisters, my two parents. Even my sisters' husbands who feel like brothers.

My mother – getting smaller all the time. The little lady with her long white hair pinned up, wearing a soft mauve turtleneck and a bright turquoise cardigan. My youngest sister in nice casual – sort of weekend jeans you see in L.L. Bean catalogs with the nice sweater. She is letting her hair go grey. So is my other sister. Both of them colored their hair for decades but now that they're going grey they've decided to go natural.

I shouldn't get catty. I'm getting catty, right?

I called one on Christmas Eve. We never speak on the phone. Just a few emails a year and a visit or two when she comes East. If I read that description in a magazine I would imagine a relationship so different from the one I have with my sister. It doesn't feel like we are hardly in touch. Though I know little of her day-to-day life I feel like our lives are almost in overlap. I hear her voice on the phone and it's like she's in the room, facing me and I am trying hard to forge a little distance. At least, I guess that's what I'm doing.

And the moment I tentatively sketch a conclusion the painting dissolves again, refusing to be seen.

Three weeks ago I was seeing my father as a molester. That picture held for awhile, its clear charcoal outline a relief, but it too has slipped away from me. Daddy is laughing. I can't catch him.

Fred said something the other day and for a moment it was clear again, something about the family not allowing Marta to be fully alive – something like that. It made sense. I see Esther – the little sister, supposedly – she was almost my little daughter sometimes, the way we leaned on each other – but I see the parasitic side of that, or sense it. She claws at me. I see it in her angry cold face when she greets me with a smile that I know is not real. I think a lot of her is not real and that probably none of it has much to do with me.

It's funny how my sisters have become grown-ups, separate from each other, from the family, random grown-ups out there. We have less and less to do with each other, but the hooks are in so deep.


I don't remember him saying it specifically, but I think he must have talked about it just once or twice, about his worry that he was a mere dilettante, not a real scholar. Most of the time my father worked to give me a very different impression. He was proud that he'd gotten his PhD by the time he was twenty-one. I wonder about this PhD. What kind of degree could he have gotten? Was it something to do with the war, that people were handed doctorates in a hurry? The few people I know who have pursued these things spend years grinding away in agony. My father has no such stories. It's like he got it by snapping his fingers. Maybe he faked it. My father is the kind of PhD who likes to be called "doctor."

My father liked to describe himself to me. He liked to talk abut his height. He was 6' he told me with a smile of self-satisfaction. He talked about his hair too. "My friends used to say I looked like Beethoven!" he said to me, alone, with delight. He told me that when he first came to the States in his early twenties that he'd been persuaded to get a crew cut. He said the words "crew cut" as if he were smelling something bad. Clearly, a crew cut was one of those tasteless American things that he would never lower himself to again.

When my father got a new suit, he showed it to me. "You see," he might say, "this is a real tweed, the best you can buy." There was a month in the mid-seventies when he thought to try a pipe. He went out and bought the pipe and a tobacco pouch and showed these things to me. Another time, also in the seventies, he tried carrying those leather male purses. This too he showed me. Neither the pipe nor the purse lasted.

When he first got a Water Pic – I was still in high school – he had to show it to me and explain how it worked.

And I was always polite, or showing as little interest as good manners allowed. It was as if there was a certain agreement or tension between us that I dared not break. I dared not say fuck off and leave me alone.

I could yell stuff like that at my mother and sisters, but I think I was more afraid of my father's fury. I knew my rebellion would unleash a really scary anger. I didn't go so far as to even contemplate it then. It's just that when I look back now and try and feel what it is that stops me from yelling at him, it's fear.

My father didn't get out-of-control mad very often. My mother did all the time – out of nowhere she'd be yelling, swatting – she was scary in a different way. I was careful around her. I was careful around both my parents, monitoring their conversations, stepping in when the needle veered into the red zone.

My father had a way of letting me know he was angry. He might raise his eyebrows and look at me directly. He might raise his index finger or jab it into the tablecloth as he spoke, or put it along the side of his nose. "No daughter of mine…" might be the start of his sentence.

I did get angry at him twice, I think, to the point of yelling.

The first time was under Natvar's influence, Natvar who made fun of all our parents, who told us we were all under our parents' thumbs. I wanted to prove that I wasn't afraid of them. We needed money. Natvar had gone on ahead to Athens and was telling us to join him. I knew he'd be able to do it, conjure money out of thin air. I tried doing what I'd seen him do. I dressed up in the woolen suit and the high heels a client had passed on to me. With Mark, my brother in crime, I drove out to the elegant little home my father had finagled – he'd gone broke, they were homeless, my father had started going to church again, a friend from the church had told him about this caretaking position.

I was scared going out there, but I thought the only way to succeed was to act like I wasn't, to put on an invisible suit of armor and act like I was invincible.


There is no door to my attic room except the two narrow French doors at the bottom of the steep enclosed carpeted stairs.
Before that, in my twelve-year-old's room with the long red drapes – a small narrow room at the top of the stairs – there are two doors, one that's never used goes into my father's room.

My father comes in whenever he wants to. Through the regular door. Wherever I am, he's allowed in. He expects to be let in. I cannot refuse him, the poor immigrant homeless Hungarian. It doesn't matter that I wish he would go away. What he wants is more important.

When I am seventeen I am in college and my father comes for the weekend. He suggests -- since it is not too far -- that we go to Niagara Falls for the weekend. He drives. We go to a good restaurant in the evening. That's the part I look forward to: the dressing up, the sense of luxury, the limitless food. My father is good at conjuring these things. I know I am pretty in my embroidered peasant blouse, my favorite red corderoy skirt that flows past my knees and the high leather boots, things I have patched together from the local mall, the trip to Europe, a thrift store. "You seem so much more mature than your friends," my father says and I am pleased and embarrassed. I know what he means though I don't have words for it. It has something to do with how he would never invite my friends out for dinner – not Janine and Ruth, in their jeans and sweatshirts, their faces shy as they shake his hand. I have this thing where I can shake a stranger's hand with confidence and see the interest in their eyes.

I am in college because of him, because my daydreams of joining the Peace Corps or just hitchhiking around the country amount to nothing in the face of his assumption that I will go to college, and not just any college.

Once, years later, he said rather grumpily, "Well, why didn't you tell me you wanted to join the Peace Corps?" As if he would have listened. My voice would have been feeble anyway, dismissing itself before he dismissed it. Instead, he drove me to Yale to meet with an old Belgian economics professor whom he'd known and admired for years, thinking that somehow this might help my half-hearted application, presenting me to him as if we were in some living room and I would now play a sonata on the pianoforte.

I am thirteen and we're all – both parents, both sisters – in Budapest visiting the grandparents. My father takes me with him into the country, to the ancestral vilage. We drive all day in his beige VW bug, our luggage with my sanitary pads strapped to the roof of the car and I am bleeding – almost for the first time – with no idea how to ask him to stop the car, unstrap the suitcase, lift it down and let me open it. I sit around smiling as relatives ply me with cakes, keeping my knees together in case it's all showing, waiting until finally I am alone in a room with my suitcase.

I can only have what I want when I am alone.

My father comes home from work – sometimes it's a weekday night, sometimes just a Friday night for the weekend. I don't want him to come home. Something in me draws back when I hear his car or hear him call up the stairs, but I always answer in cover-up because he is a poor sad immigrant from Hungary whom nobody appreciates and I cannot bear it that even I don't like him.


My brother-in-law, David, wears those very thick glasses that make your eyes very small behind them, small rectangular lenses, his eyes appearing almost like dots behind them. His hair is slicked to the side. His face is round and boyish. You'd never think he was past fifty. Well, maybe you would, but still he has that boyish youthful quality. He wears a brown checked shirt tucked neatly into belted pants. He has lost weight but is still leaning towards chubby. He has small feet. I don't know this for a fact, but when I look at my inner pictures of him the feet are small.

When we go outside he wears a black leather jacket with the name of a computer company emblazoned across the back and he wears bright brown leather gloves that look straight out of the package. He offers to transfer some logs from the trunk of my mother's car to ours and does it in about three seconds. He likes to be helpful.

And when Fred and I drive away David comes out into the yard to look at the crescent moon, the dying light in the West, to sniff the air. I remember he did this last time too, coming out of the house as we left to wave, but also just to take in whatever nature was doing right then. He's no big nature boy. He just likes to look and see what's going on.

As we sat in my mother's small living room, Fred in the big chair that doesn't look so big anymore, the one we used to call "the throne," the chair my father used to be so proud of – upholstered in a buttery velvet with a high back and carved curving arms – my sister Esther tucked into a corner of the small couch with a plate of goat cheese and smoked salmon – my mother on a dining room chair off by Fred, a little out of the circle of conversation, David mentions all the new presidents of South American countries who have recently been elected; without effort or showing off he refers to them by name – so and so in Chile, so and so in Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil.

David walks just a little pigeon-toed. His legs are short. It adds to his child-like appearance. He's sort of cuddly. My sister says on their first date he ordered a hot chocolate instead of a beer and she loved that about him.

I noticed my sister calling my mother "Joan" on this visit. Not all the time, but sometimes, matching her voice to her husband's.

Three months after I first moved in with Fred my mother went into hospital for an operation. She needed someone at home with her for awhile afterwards. I was the obvious choice. After all, just a few months previous I would have been there anyway, living right next door. No one had really taken in that I'd moved away. And even though I'd moved away I wasn't far, only an hour or so by car. Instead, I spoke with a Mexican friend of my mother's who needed a place to stay. She was thrilled to hear that she could stay with my mother. But Esther said mother deserved better. She called up the Mexican woman and told her she couldn't stay, and flew out from California herself. I didn't say anything. I just melted away. I never thought my family would end up so stereotypical.

My mother once gave me power of attorney. Esther had that changed because she says she is much more involved with my mother than I am. And she is. She has burrowed into the finances of both our parents, giving advice, and monthly checks. She calls it being responsible.

She owns the little white house right next to my mother's. Doesn't live there, just owns it. The two houses are almost identical. She bought it just as I was leaving the ashram. It was where I was supposed to live. Perfect. Right next to my mother. Since it looked like I wasn't going to get married, I might as well take care of my mother. I only stayed six months. Then I moved out into a much bigger arena, here in Woodstock, a place where really anything can happen. It's way scarier than the half-acre in Sullivan Country where I was alone in a one-bedroom cottage. I thought I'd write there, alone in my little white house looking out into woods from my computer. Instead, I got into a rocket ship.