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.