Thursday, December 25, 2008
Sunday, December 07, 2008
The move that he made to the fancier Fifth Avenue apartment was one of those bends in the river that redefined our time together. The 65th St. apartment was the beginning – tempting to call it the happy innocent time but it was not. The Fifth Avenue apartment was the horrendous middle. The L.A. place was the lingering death.
The first apartment was already pretty much abandoned when I came along. But it was available when needed. The kitchen functioned. Jeffrey cooked there. Mostly on baking sheets, chicken breasts coated in rice krispies, butter and peppery spices.
The living room full of sad old furniture, cramped, somber red cartons of Parliaments left behind by his mother who had returned to her home state of Mississippi.
We stood waiting for the elevator to take us down to street level. Jeffrey looked at our reflection in the mirrored wall. “We look good together,” he said, surprising me. Looking good together was not something I had thought about.
He wanted to take photographs of me. Had his clunky black and white 35mm camera and took me the first day we were at his father’s big Southampton house to a graveyard where had me pose. I wore the beige short cotton halter dress that I felt good in. We both waited for the contact sheets and were both disappointed when I didn’t look particularly good in any of the shots. I hadn’t expected to look good, but had been hopeful. Jeffrey had been so sure. Maybe he’d see now that I wasn’t as beautiful as he said I was.
The Southampton house was a white mansion with a circular drive where you were informed upon arrival which bedroom would be yours for the weekend. Jeffrey delighted in the place, delighted in the company of his siblings – one full sister, one half sister, one step-brother. Jeffrey had started to teach me backgammon. It felt like a foreign language in which he and his sister were fluent. Their conversation was aimed at getting laughs. Wit or nothing. I pretended this was easy for me too, that I like it here – the plush drawing room with drapes, carpets, leather couch, room after room, especially the large kitchen where the Guatemalan maid presided, the over-filled double refrigerator, where Kitty and her friends would spend Saturday morning grocery shopping and return with brown paper bags to cover the counters. I hoped to be included in this circle of Kitty and her friends, all of them older but like buzzing queen bees, confident glamorous women, Jeffrey I could tell awed by Kelly who was deep-voiced, dark, beautiful and so about-town with her tales of Afghanistan and hookah pipes.
Jeffrey talked to all of them as if he’d known them all his life and I feeling like the new girl in class but there are no handicaps here. If you don’t talk you’re boring.
Jeffrey’s father spends most of his day in the bedroom he shares with Kitty, his second wife. He sits on his bed, fully dressed in clothes Kitty has bought – pressed pants, starched shirt – leaning against the headboard, his legs stretched out on the flowered quilt, watching golf on television and smoking. When he appears downstairs, quietly, unimpressed by the stretch of lawn and patio, the croquet, the ocean on the other side of the hedge, Kitty’s friends defer to him despite his low-key demeanor. He’s the only one who doesn’t have to vie for attention.
When I see him sitting alone I sit next to him. I say hello. “How ya doin’, sweetheart,” he’ll say, and it sounds so friendly and warm, but then he doesn’t have much more to say.
One day there in Southampton, one of the first weekends with this new boyfriend who also keeps urging me to talk more, to tell him more, me who am not used to that at all, who finds it so hard to say anything as if my vocal chords have been paralyzed – I say that I want to go back to New York with him. Now. Not wait til Sunday. I want to go back to the 65th Street apartment where it is just me and him and the hamburgers we eat in coffeeshops and the hot fudge sundaes in the afternoons, just him and me. Because the new boyfriend has also been telling me that’s it’s all right to have what you want – to have ice cream in the afternoon. To go to two movies in one day.
We are in our pretty assigned bedroom when I reveal this truth and Jeffrey asks why. Why do I want to leave when it’s so nice here? I can only say I don’t know. I don’t know. “Well, you should go tell my father then that we’re leaving,” says Jeffrey, as if this is protocol, etiquette, and I don’t question this though it is scary to knock on Alvin’s bedroom door, to gain entrance, to say to him as he sits on his bed, tight against his nighttable that holds the ashtray, that I’d like to leave – not for any reason, but I’d just like to go. He isn’t perturbed. “Whatever you like, sweetheart,” he says.
We leave the house and its people. I feel the relief, the great relief. I have failed. I have given in to my weakness. But I am relieved for the moment, leaving the crowds behind, headed back to New York City.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
I wanted the pink knee socks. From the seat in my mother’s shopping cart I wanted them. They were soft and a little fuzzy. I didn’t ask for them. I took them from the hook and put them in my pocket without anyone seeing and when we got home I went to the living room.
The floor of the living room was bare boards. My mother liked the boards because, she said, they were wide and that meant we lived in an old house and that was better than living in a new one. There was a rug in the living room, a big one. I lifted the edge near the door that led into the dining room and then the kitchen, the part of the house where my mother usually was. I slid the pink socks under the rug and covered them. Then I pretended to find them and that’s when I showed them to my mother. “Look what the fairies brought me!” I said.
This was the house with the bare wood floors and glass in the dirt outside, the house that was up on a steep slope and looked down on the road. There weren’t any houses very close by and cars did not go by often. It was like we lived there by ourselves.
Old Tony lived across the road, on the other side, back in the woods. I went there sometimes with my mother and sometimes I went by myself, walking down the dirt pathway. Old Tony had an old van parked back there. That’s what he lived in. Beside the van he had a small table and a couple of chairs. He was an old man. He gave me sips of his beer from a can. He told me I could touch his dick one day when he had it out because he had been peeing. I stretched out one finger and touched it. It was hard underneath the skin and soft and wriggly on top.
A long ways down the road was the school I went to, an old school with three rooms: one for kindergarten, one for first grade, one for second. The school was a short distance back from the road. The road there was lined with pine trees and beneath them was a wealth of soft brown cast-off needles. My friends and I arranged the needles, heaping them up in long rows to define the rooms of our play-houses. This is the kitchen. This is the bedroom.
I hit Danny Moses by accident one morning down by the pine trees before we were called in for class. He was in the second grade. I only even knew his name because my mother knew his mother. I sat on the floor or behind a desk in kindergarten and Danny marched in with his teacher. They stood in front and the teacher asked him who did it and he pointed at me with a straight arm. I said I didn’t do anything.
We left that school in the middle of first grade to drive down to
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
We were sitting in our friends’ living room. Deidre looked over at me. “Can I tell you something?” she asked, her eyes solemn and sincere. “Sure,” I said, cringing a little. Deidre likes to talk about how she has mended everything with her family and I was sure she was going to tell me that if I don’t behave nicely to my mother I will regret it, that “she will not be here forever” etc. “I’ve been through so many things with parents,” Deidre began, speaking slowly, searching for the right words, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes you just have to put them in a lifeboat – making sure the lifeboat has no holes in it – and wave good-bye. That sometimes you have to accept that you will never have a real relationship with them.”
I nodded, relieved, expanding with the realization that Deidre was supporting me. Just that morning I had been walking in the woods with Tamar and I’d thought how maybe I’d ask Rabbi Gregory to talk with me. I thought about how I wanted to explain what I was doing around my mother – withdrawing without being antagonistic – and then I thought, as I walked, how I didn’t want to discuss anything with the rabbi. I just wanted him to support what I was doing, tell me it was okay.
And I think that underneath the withdrawal, the not sending gifts, the not calling every week anymore, underneath that, the next place to go is realizing that my mother is not a warm accepting person. She can’t be. It’s as if she had that part of her blown away a long time ago, back in British Columbia, on the farm where life was hard and there were no soft edges – not in any of the stories she told. My images of the farm she grew up on are barren, a place where my mother walked to a one-room schoolhouse, carrying her shoes so they would last longer, a place where when she fell off a horse in the woods and broke her leg she had to crawl home by herself, a place where her mother cooked three meals a day for seven children, her husband and the handful of working men, where my mother was a plain child whose siblings taunted and ran away from her. My mother always told these stories with a laugh.
I keep thinking of standing in the kitchen in the kitchen in the house we lived in in England, a small rented house. My mother cooking supper, wearing an apron, a simple meal just for her and the kids, my father always away during the week. It was homework time for me up in my room and I would sometimes come down early, stand behind her, put my arms around her waist, turn my head sideways against her back. She would pat my hands that were clasped around her waist. She would say something gentle but always a little teasing. I felt like I was reaching out to sea and trying to pull the boat in to shore and never quite managing it. It was my own gesture, this hug from behind. I never saw anyone else in my family do it. It felt cozy to me, but I had to steal it. I only did it in the evening when my mother was cooking. It was my favorite time of day. It felt the safest, my mother cooking in the evening.
We ate at the kitchen table. We always sat in the same places, my mother with her back to the stove, facing the window that looked out onto the sidewalk of a quiet residential road. No one ever walked by. We walked down that road sometimes – my mother taking us all for a walk. Just walking. We did a lot of walking as a family. We walked and we read – the only two things that everyone did. As a child I walked just because my parents told me to.
I walked with my mother and my two sisters down that lane when we didn’t have anything else to do. My mother told me once on that lane to walk with my head up. I had started to walk with my head down, looking at only the ground in front of me. I hadn’t noticed that I had started to do this. When my mother asked me to hold my head up, it felt very difficult. Looking down felt natural.
Long dark afternoons in the English house. My mother with only me and my two sisters for company. She doesn’t talk on the phone to friends. She doesn’t have friends. I don’t either anymore. I used to. I used to have lots of them, more than anyone else in class. But now I am 12 and 13 and I’ve lost the touch. I don’t know what has happened to me, but some awful spell has fallen over me and I am always outside the circle now like my mother, like a wallflower.
Monday, November 24, 2008
I imagine my father in that dark
Seven months or so ago I wrote a card to my mother and said that I’d like to take six months off. No calls, visits, notes. She assumed that included my father and let him know that I was checking out for awhile. It wasn’t what I had meant. How to deal with my father I hadn’t figured out. But I didn’t hear from him and later when I heard my mother had included him I felt relieved.
I saw my mother a couple of weeks ago finally. Very undramatic. I did two hours, letting Fred do most of the talking, and then I left. A week later she called and left a message. I answered with a pretty card, an expensive one even. I rarely buy cards. They feel like an extravagance so I was treating her special with a specially chosen card. I mailed the card.
Two days later in a consignment shop – a strange place of odds and ends where sometimes I buy and sometimes I just go for the simple pleasure of idle treasure hunting – I found a pretty pale blue cardigan with the tags still on. I thought it would be a good present for my mother. For Christmas maybe I thought, though I don’t usually buy Christmas presents til the last minute when it’s fun and not well-planned. Or I could just give it to her now. Or I could not spend money I didn’t really have.
I left the cardigan hanging, then returned four hours later and bought it, yielding to what felt like temptation.
My mother’s phone message had been about buying me a kitchen appliance. She’d seen it in Walmart, she wanted to get it for me, she was checking if I wanted it.
The card I had sent was supposed to gently stop the flow. My six-month absence had created a piece of land. Her phone call was like a little stream trickling into my land. I didn’t want it there.
But then there was the sweater which now I’d paid for, throwing out the money because I had just cashed a check that morning and felt rich.
My mother will be given an award this week. She has worked for about ten years as a homecare person and they are giving her an award. My two sisters are coming in from
Because by now I had made up my mind to just go with the flow and mail it now, not wait for Christmas. I bought a big puffy envelope, I wrapped the sweater in scraps of tissue paper that I would not have used for anyone else, but my mother doesn’t care about things like obviously used tissue paper. She is not someone who expects to be treated well.
I sealed the envelope yesterday, stuck my address label up in the corner and addressed it. It didn’t take much longer to realize I had to stop, not send it. I felt like the addict setting down the drink. No. It was too easy. To send this present. That’s what I would have done two years ago, always trying to get satisfaction by giving.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
to wash my floors
once a week
I hide my shoes
my 4 or 5 pairs of shoes
that seem such an extravagance
because I've never had 4 or 5 pairs all at once before.
Not because I think she will take them
but because I remember what it was like
to have other people's wealth in my face --
their jackets and bags casually dropped here and there
as if they cost nothing --
when I went to other people's houses
to clean or type for them.
Sunday, November 09, 2008
The room I am in is divided into four desk spaces, partitioned one from the other and a corridor down the middle that everyone passes through. My desk – or counter, really – is made of wood. That too is good. I hung a bright red sari down one wall and pasted a mad collectin of prints from old art calendars I had saved, so I threw color into this working space. I tried hard to overtake the bland grimness of workspace. Still, it’s hard to get enough color into even this space with its benevolent blonde wood, enough color to feel alive.
It makes me think of all the desks I’ve sat at since I was 18 – over 30 years. I’ve sat at so many desks in so many offices. Man, if karma exists, then I have desk karma. With all the desks for some reasons certain ones remain in memory.
My mind often drifts to a large room full of desks. I think it was some kind of banking or insurance place. I was a temp there for a week or two, 21 years old. I had just moved to California, to L.A. I had a desk in this big room of desks and the whole place has the color of grey-green as if everything there including the air had been misted with the grey-green color of filing cabinets.
There was a man I rarely saw, a boss of sorts, whose office was behind a closed door. One co-worker told me the boss was having an operation for hemorrhoids. The only think I knew about hemorrhoids was from Preparation H commercials. I didn’t really know what they were. I’d see the yellow Preparation H box in my father’s bathroom. I hadn’t known it was something people had operations for and I wondered how such an intimate detail about this man’s life had made its way into the public giggle space of the office.
It was at this place at this desk that Eric called me from New York City, an exciting thrilling call.
Eric was the lawyer I’d had a brief unconsummated fling with six months earlier, back in New York. I’d been a temp in his office too, just over the Christmas break, and there was nothing appealing about Eric except that he was utterly out of my league: a boyish high-powered lawyer with a Porsche that he’d let me drive once by myself through Central Park. Me, who loved driving. It felt good to have this man hunger for me especially since Jeffrey, my live-in boyfriend of several years, had just had a three-month affair with a woman who was also way out of my league: a published author with an eight-year-old kid.
It was an ongoing debate with Jeffrey who insisted that just because he wanted to sleep with other people didn’t mean he didn’t love me, and my inner struggle to let him have what he wanted because if I didn’t he’d resent me and take it on the sly, which was even scarier. So when Eric called me in the sea of grey-green desks and asked if I could come to the Virgin islands for the weekend I said yes.
The timing was perfect. Jeffrey was just about to head back to New York for a few weeks. I’d gone on anti-depressants, hailed as miracle drugs, and I had felt no results until the Friday night of Jeffrey’s departure when suddenly the movie we went to was one of the best I’d ever seen as we sat over delicious Chinese food I could not stop talking. I had so much to say. I felt great. Jeffrey didn’t enjoy it. “I can’t believe the drugs are kicking in just when I’m leaving,” he said.
It was such a joy to be able to talk. I had stopped talking somewhere around thirteen years old. It had only gotten worse all through high school and college. I couldn’t not speak with my peers. I could speak with my parents and sisters only as a jokester, someone who kept the mood light when dark clouds threatened which was often. But mostly I stayed quiet, felt out of place in the chattering crowds of school where I walked around mostly feeling like a knife was twisting in my stomach, feeling like I was locked inside some awful impenetrable place where no one could see me, where I was crippled. That Jeffrey, the boyfriend, had picked me out – a boy who was rich and had friends and knew how to get drugs and have sex and had a huge record collection – a boy who had so many things that were out of reach for me – that he had come to me and made me part of his world was a huge opening and I had grabbed at it. Our closeness too was unique in my life – how we knew each other’s every expression, how we seemed wrapped so close one was inside the other. And when it hurt it hurt real bad, and when he was mean he was vicious and I walked out, slamming the door, many times. But I had always returned because I had nowhere else at all to go.
So my sudden chattering that Friday night when the sound of my voice didn’t make me cringe was a pleasure I wasn’t familiar with.
I visited my mother last week and again sat quietly while she talked and things happened around me. I hadn’t seen or talked to her for six months. I noticed my quietness. there was just no impulse to talk while I was with her, except once or twice, briefly. But mostly I felt as I sat there at her little table by the window, not animosity, but that anything I might say did not matter, had no place.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
I think about her.
She lives about an hour and a half from here in a small white clapboard house with a nice unfenced yard, woods, and a lake beyond the woods. I found her the house about 12 years ago. I knew it was perfect. I want her to be happy. The thought of her tears at my heart. It always has. I think of the first time I felt it.
I was 11 years old. I was in boarding school and I was in bed, a single bed, curtained off in a long corridor of identical curtained off cubicles. You had to cry as quietly, as silently, as if you were in a dorm. I was crying that night for 3 major reasons. It was the biggest, longest cry of my 3 years in boarding school. I was crying because our new puppy had died back at home. I was also crying because I had told 2 girls that evening that yes, I would move into a dorm with them and now I didn’t want to and I didn’t know how to get out of it. But the image that kept flooding my brain and fueling the tears like gasoline were of my mother and how I had hurt her.
I kept seeing her in her black and white houndstooth suit, her brown hair swept up and back and pinned, her arms holding the new baby tightly, one hand clutching the bar of the tin capsule we were all seated in, part of a circus ride I had insisted on. I had begged when my mother had visited that weekend to go to the little country amusement park that had been set up. My mother hadn’t wanted to go, but she’d given in. The place was muddy. I was happy to be there, a fairyland of rides and tents. My mother wasn’t dressed for mud. Not that my mother was ever a fashion plate. In fact, she’s usually dressed for mud. Not in a bad way, but just ready for it. But that day she had on the suit and the shoes and she didn’t enjoy the jolting ride in the tin capsule that I had dragged her into. Her face as we sung back and forth showed only concern that the baby not be hurt.
But the worst part was afterwards when she couldn’t find one of the combs from her hair. My father had brought her those combs from his last business trip in Morocco. That’s what my father did. He went on business trips and brought back presents. I loved that about him. I knew he didn’t like my mother much and that she didn’t like him much – the friction of their conflict was always in the air – but after the jolting swinging ride when my mother couldn’t find one of her combs it felt like my fault and as I lay in bed that night I couldn’t stop feeling that I had been mean to my mother.
I don’t want to live a certain way to prove that I mean my mother no harm. I do love her. She is dear to me. I even want to be with her at times. But I step cautiously. Right now I don’t know where to step.
I dreamed last night of my father, coming to visit me at work with a proposal for some project that he wants my bosses to embrace. He wants me to advocate on his behalf and begins to cry in the dream when he senses it’s not going to work. He’s been counting on this. It’s his last chance.
It’s this sadness that seeps through my family on both sides, mother and father. Sadness that somehow they were born into, and born me into. It is hard to think of either of them without feeling sad, and that the best way to honor them is to be sad too. This clutches at me and pulls me down. It is hard not to be a member of this family. My father’s singing in the car when I was little was defiant. It wasn’t real joy, I don’t think. It was his desperate effort to keep that sadness at bay. His voice was buoyant, his gold wedding ring rapping on the roof in time. He did not like sad faces. If you looked sad he would say, “Cheer up!” My mother too. They believed in stoicism. I have learned something different in my life with Fred. I am learning something different. Something.
Any time these days when I notice fear I think of Sarv, he and me driving the other day, our mini road trip to Albany and back, packed with conversation – Sarv saying fiercely how it’s fear that stops everything and I felt as he talked that yes, I could conquer fear, by noticing it and marching toward it instead of away from it, like Philippe Petit walking in the space between the two twin towers.
Thursday, October 02, 2008
And then, that night, it felt awful. Thea was away on a modeling assignment for Vogue in St. Bart’s. I didn’t have other friends in New York City. I hadn’t thought that would matter. I hadn’t had friends since I was 12. At least, I hadn’t felt at ease with people since then. But I had thought that coming back to Manhattan would turn me into Annie Hall instantly, that instantly I would be in a different movie. But that night in Thea’s tiny unfriendly hip apartment, it felt like the same movie, just emptier.
So I had called Jeffrey, the distinct gravelly sound of his voice, coming from one side of his mouth as he leaned his head back on the brown couch and watched the TV screen, helped. Just to talk to someone who knew me. I wanted a new boyfriend, but one who knew me like this one did, one who loved me like this one had. But a different one. One who was interested in new things. Like maybe yoga and meditation that I had just started learning about. Or astrology and tarot, like my sister liked. Or health food. Jeffrey was rare steak and Coca Cola all the way. With drugs. That part was fine with me – the pot, the coke, the acid. We hadn’t gone beyond the pale into the really hard stuff. I wanted to drug myself as much as I could, but there was always some mysterious force that held me back from going completely over the edge.
I knew exactly where Jeffrey was when I called him. I knew he was sitting on the brown couch we’d bought at the Salvation Army exactly three years previous, when we’d first gotten to L.A. after spending a month driving cross-country with his black Manx cat, in his uncle’s old Mercedes Benz with Jeffrey’s mix-tapes going the whole way, smoking joints tightly rolled for us by Buf, Jeffrey’s younger sister who was two weeks older than me, and not with us.
I knew where Jeffrey would be because Jeffrey was pretty much in the same place at a certain time as he’d been the day before and the day before that. So I knew he was on the brown couch, that the TV was on, that he was cooking and getting high with the long blue ceramic pipe shaped like a wizard that he had bought in San Francisco. Part of me wanted to be back there with him, and part of me knew I had finally escaped and that I had been desperate there and could never go back.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
And yet I thought as I drove to work one more morning the other day, driving across the Rhinecliff/Kingston Bridge from which people regularly jump, that one of the things I don’t want to forget about or make light of is how desperately and consistently unhappy and uncomfortable I was for many years from 12 years old, increasing intensively through high school, excruciating through college and then Los Angeles, until the first little yoga cult in Manhattan gave me a straitjacket that calmed my nerves, after which the big yoga cult was a country club, and then the finding my way into a life where art and writing and relationship have started to take their rightful places. Not that all the answers are lined up in a row now, but I am not the desperate 20-year-old I once was.
I think of writing to the boyfriend of that time and asking him to send a DVD of the 20-minute black-and-white 16mm movie we made in the mid-seventies, just so I could watch myself as a 19-year-old. He wrote the script in one night on his electric typewriter that was on a small table pressed up against the wall right by the door of his scruffy studio apartment on a poor street in New Haven. Everything he owned or was part of seemed extravagantly more important and delicious than anything I had or knew. His electric typewriter, his own apartment, his cotton smocks from Guatemala given to him by a stepmother. The way he stayed up all night to write.
Making the film together is not really the right phrase. He wrote the thing then told me what to do when the camera was on me, which was all the time. I was the only main character. In the movie I am a girl who plays Russian Roulette and go to a shrink alot. It was demanding going through all the scenes, getting the props, showing up. His movie dominated our summer. It hadn’t started out that way.
I was going to spend the summer in Manhattan, live in the empty apartment of his childhood, work at the front desk of the newly opening U.N. Plaza Hotel, a fancy hotel that I had bought two suits for with my mother in the White Plains Macy’s – a white linen suit and a navy blue one, tailored and trim. I was going to make money, but Jeffrey careened when I told him. We had been together a year, though always apart because of school. Now he freaked on me, grew cold, wove a sticky impervious web around me the only way being to quit the job before it began, signing up instead for summer school at his campus where he was going to be because he wanted some film credits – his school being the one school my father had wanted me to attend because it was the only school my foreign father knew, my father such a stranger still after 20 years to American culture, only knowing Yale because his uncle something, something, something – somehow my father in his earliest years in the States, in his twenties, had washed up in New Haven, had a mentor there, had found a little community there in grad school for awhile, met my mother during that time, overdosed on pills there but survived. Always talked about this school as the only school and so of course when I suggested summer school there, there were no questions.
Just ease my boyfriend’s angst. Just quiet him down. Just get it back to how it was before I got the hotel job. It worked kind of. The immediate crisis stopped. I gave in.
I had been giving reading lessons to a man in New York City in the abandoned apartment of my boyfriend’s childhood. I told the man that I would have to stop the lessons because I wasn’t stayed after all. I was going to go to my boyfriend’s school. The man looked confused and I knew my story didn’t hold water. I had spent my mother’s money on two suits that now I didn’t need. She shrugged. I was a teenager. They’re crazy.
Friday, September 26, 2008
Sunday, September 07, 2008
I told this to one woman a few weeks ago and she looked puzzled. “Did you have a big fight with your mother?” she asked. “No,” I said. Another woman spoke confidently about how she went through a phase of being estranged – that was the word she used – from her father, but that now etc. etc. And someone else said how most people do what I’m doing when they’re teenagers and that I never did it as a teenager so I’m doing it late.
No, I answered to him. I don’t know anyone who’s doing what I’m doing, or who has done it.
Except maybe Philippe Petit who is the man who strung a wire between the two twin towers, the World Trade Center, in 1974 and walked across, back and forth, for 45 minutes. He described in his book how when he had one foot – his left foot -- on the wire and his other foot – the right one -- still on terra firma, how his right foot was still attached to all he had known, the world as he knew it. He described too how just before he moved his right foot to the wire there was an inner scream, a mad desire to run away – after having toiled for years to make this dream come true.
This summer I took a trapeze workshop one weekend. I work at Omega and I get one free workshop as part of the deal and I signed up for trapeze. I’d never thought about trapeze before, but after leafing through the catalog 100 times it was the only workshop I wanted. I’m not a jock. Why did I want to take a trapeze workshop? I wanted a new experience, something that would take me outside my world. And I wanted something physical.
But it was terrifying. It was literally one of the best weekends of my life, but it was terrifying, awful in ways I had not at all anticipated. It’s one thing to say “I want to break through” and another thing to actually do it.
It was terrifying to climb that narrow skinny ladder, feeling at any moment I could fall backwards. And then to climb up onto this tiny fucking platform that wobbled three stories up. “How high are professional trapeze rigs?” I asked Tony, the old trapeze artist on Sunday at lunch, when it was all over. “Same height,” he said.
But there’s one moment in the trapeze process that sticks in my mind more than anything.
You stand, toes at the edge of the platform. Sure, you have cables attached to you, but to the brain they mean nothing at this point. You’re holding to some kind of firm bar with your left hand and with your right hand you’re holding the trapeze bar, which, by its sheer weight, is pulling hard. Just before you jump off the platform you have to let go first with your left hand and bring it to the bar. For me, that’s the scariest. To have that open space.
Anyway, these images are in my head as I think about what to do with my mother. It is one of the main things I think about.
A couple of weeks ago on a lovely Sunday I almost got in the car to go down and see her. This was the kind of day when we could walk around her garden and she could show me this shrub that she’d thrown in last year and how it was doing, and how the string beans came up this year. My mother’s gardens are always messy and unprofessional, but there’s always a lot going on in them. She grew up on a farm – a real farm way out in British Columbia during the Depression where if you couldn’t grow your food you were in trouble – so she knows dirt and plants and how sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
I almost went. I thought about it and it seemed real and okay to break my six-month fast early and go. And then I told Fred what was on my mind. He didn’t say much, but the strength of the urge to go began to fade, like a pimple that had swelled and swelled, and then popped.
Since that Sunday I have felt stronger in this urge I have to say good-bye to my family of origin. My mother is the hardest one. My two sisters live in California – far away – and stopped talking to me about 18 months ago, so there’s no challenge there. And my father lives even further away in Europe and he’s pretty easy to say good-bye to too. But my mother, an hour’s drive away, and in many ways less conflict-laden is harder, really hard. To say good-bye, and I mean really say it, end things, is terrifying and yet it is the step that feels so important to take.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
“No,” I said, smiling, polite. “No, that’s okay. I better get going.” Natvar smiled, tweaked my ear, his brown eyes bright, his smile making me smile, Mark in the background, a paler version of Natvar. It was Mark’s apartment they were on their way to, a place I’d been to a few times, a scruffy walk-up, beat up tenement. You pushed open the door at the dark top of about four creaking flights of narrow staircase and stepped into the kitchen with its deep old white porcelain sink and its gas stove. Natvar and Mark slept somewhere in the back. I had not seen that room.
I admired Mark that he was that close to Natvar, that he actually slept with Natvar, that Natvar had chosen him. I didn’t think about them fucking. I just didn’t. In the very beginning I had sort of hoped that Natvar would notice me like that. It had felt that way the first time I’d come to his class, that free workshop he’d given back in the spring, and I had felt so much spark between us that I thought perhaps he would pursue me.
We walked a little further down Eighth Avenue, moving slowly. Natvar paused to look at the potatoes. How much they were, what the quality was like. He would cook. He knew what to buy and he knew what to cook. Me and Mark didn’t know these things. Natvar bought Goya cans of pink beans and Goya olive oil. Goya was so much cheaper than all the other brands. I’d never heard of it before.
I was on my way to the subway. I had nothing going on. I would ride back up to the Upper West Side. I’d read, go to bed. Maybe I should accept the invitation to go with them. I was shy, but they were my new friends and this was a special kind of new friendship. There was something personal and deep about it. The way Natvar kind of ploughed forward with us, with those of us who stayed around the Institute, who didn’t just come by for a class now and then, those of us who really seemed to love the place. I had heard Natvar really yell at Anjani when she brought the lights down too early in class – there was something so unleashed in his fury, the way the words flew out of his mouth, passionate, spontaneous, a brilliant articulate fabric that nailed her personality, her weaknesses to the floor. Contact with Natvar seemed so much more alive and real than the weak unsatisfying friendships I had stitched together since I got back to New York – none of them compelling and engaging and demanding the way Natvar was.
And Natvar was older. He was almost forty. He had a wife and two daughters. He’d left Greece to live in London, then come to the States and built a life out of nothing. He’d run a juice bar on the Upper East Side that he said Greta Garbo used to come to and how she’d ask him to walk with her and how she’d talk to him the way she couldn’t talk to anybody else. All Natvar’s stories were like that: heroic. He could teach me these things. He had some secret ingredient I could get from him that would lift the lid on my own passion. I wanted to be able to get angry the way he did. I wanted to be able to cook without a recipe. “A good cook only has to smell the food to know if it’s good,” he said emphatically, stirring. And when I wasn’t feeling well he’d ask me what I was eating and he’d think and say, “You need more protein. Just have a little cream cheese.” We were all vegetarian.
“Can I change my mind?” I ask on the street. “I think I would like to come over with you guys.” The welcome I had felt with the invitation doesn’t quite hold up. “Of course,” says Natvar, looking up from the heap of potatoes, but it doesn’t feel right – to say no or to say yes, both have felt bad. Probably I shouldn’t have been so ambivalent, I think. He would like me better and I would be more deserving if I’d been able to say yes right away.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Natvar was there the night I moved in. He was hanging the curtain and he was celebrating my arrival by being happy, by hugging me and pinching my cheek. “She’s such a good yogi!” he was saying with delight to Mark who was helping measure the fabric, set up the pole from which it would hang. Mark was smiling and echoing Natvar’s enthusiasm.
I had decided quickly to move in when Natvar announced that he was looking for a renter. Whenever Natvar asked for anything I wanted to provide it. By becoming the renter myself I would solve his problem of needing one and I’d contribute to the Institute’s monthly rent, always a big sum that had to be scrambled for. In my mind, I thought Natvar would charge me maybe $50 or $75 a month. Before I moved in I asked him how much I should pay. “$100,” he said firmly and I did not question him.
I had been back in Manhattan for eleven months, living in Scott’s upper West side apartment, first in a spacious corner room, then for a month or two in the little loft room off the kitchen for half the price. The Institute would be cheaper still.
And it would bring me closer. I was reading Baba Muktananda’s books now. I had quit my publishing job about six months ago. I had broken up with Bill, the high school boyfriend who had only interested me for a short while and though I was pretty sure he would always answer my calls he’d turned to look instead at my Vogue-model-friend Thea after our sex reached a dead end.
I moved in that January night, thinking this movement will make a big difference. It will make a statement, saying I take this yoga seriously, I am a serious student of the enlightenment which Baba made sound both easy and hard at the same time. I can prove that I’m tough enough for yoga and then I’ll get visions and I’ll be allowed into the secret garden of the truth that lies behind this false world of 9-5 jobs, marriages, divorces, children, possessions. And Natvar too will see that I am worth paying attention to. I want his attention. I am so happy when he says nice things about me, when he says how smart I am, how sincere I am. How I am making progress.
My high-heeled gold strap sandals are still with me that night as I unpack. We all laugh as they tumble out onto the floor, so out of place here. I act as if they almost don’t really belong to me anymore. They are left over from a Halloween in Los Angeles, a Halloween when I was alone and felt I had permission because it was costume night to wear short-shorts and high gold strappy sandals – attention-getting clothes not otherwise allowed. I only wore the outfit to Ralph’s the supermarket up on Sunset, late, after 11, hoping to get into conversation with someone the way my boyfriend had just gotten into conversation on a New York subway with a girl he went to bed with, but I came home alone, and only wore the shoes again on the tropical island weekend with the lawyer.
But now they are only evidence of the worldly life I am leaving behind. I won’t miss it, I thought. I must be made for yoga because this all feels so easy.
After a night or two I began to sleep in the lobby after everyone had left. I had the Institute to myself. I was its keeper. Natvar must feel better, knowing someone loves the place this much. He has started sleeping a few blocks away in Mark’s apartment. He says it’s more comfortable for him there, and I am beginning to understand that things for Natvar should be a little better than they are for the rest of us. Mark’s place has a bath tub and Natvar says I can come any time for a bath. The Institute doesn’t have such a thing.
We are roughing it. We are dedicated yogis, roughing it for the sake of something good and pure and beyond the obvious.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
The Institute was the structure,. In the beginning. The reason. The focus. The thing we could point to and say because.
It was a sweet haven. So clean and orderly with a precise and correct way for doing everything.
It was sweet in the beginning: the piece of orange thick cotton fabric that covered the small square window of the front door that looked out into the stairwell. The narrow entranceway with the impossibly small bathroom on the left and the sliding door on the right leading into the dark meditation hall. We left our shoes in that space by the front door, tidily, in rows, never more than ten people here at a time, usually only about five of us.
This was the first Institute, the lobby, changing rooms, office and two back rooms wall-to-wall carpeted in a low-pile olive green that we vacuumed daily. We wiped the baseboards of the whole Institute every week, every Sunday. Sunday was cleaning day. In the beginning.
Who were we?
When I arrived – I arrived on Sunday, March 15, 1981, six weeks after returning to New York City after living with a boyfriend in Los Angeles for three years. I had never lived in New York City without him. Even during the years when he was a student (if that’s the right word, which it isn’t) an hour and a half away, he was still my boyfriend, someone I could call and think about and be connected to. But I had resolutely snapped that cord. No more boyfriend. No more sadness. But New York City – my city, my place, my friend – was not folding its arms around me and making it easy like I’d thought it would.
Til this yoga place.
I was almost 24. Pretty old. College had come and gone. I should have it together by now. I really should. All I have is this ridiculous 9-5 job and yes, I am not a secretary anymore, I’m an editor with a private office now and business cards, but it does not feel like anything. I feel I’ve been trapped, the 9-5 machine got me, the bastard, and I must escape. This is humiliating.
Who else is there? Who else says “the Institute” with same affection? Of course, there is Natvar, but he is so huge and obvious that I will leave him til last. At his right hand, when I first arrive, is Anjani, a petite, dark-skinned woman with white-white hair that she wears pinned up. She is elderly, somewhere far beyond middle age, but she is pretty. I have never seen such an old woman who still can be called pretty. She dresses in white cotton yoga clothes: a long top, loose trousers, bare feet. She takes the yoga classes Natvar teaches with us, standing at the back so she can operate the dimmers and bring the lights up and down at the right times during the class. It is she who has the tea ready for us at the end of class – hot water in a saucepan with pieces of real ginger floating in it. We sit on the floor of the small lobby after class, after nine at night, drinking tea, talking shyly whoever has been in the class. We don’t know each other very well yet.
There is a small bookstore – everything is in miniature here. A set of built-in shelves, and slanted display shelves, offering just a few yoga paperbacks. Some incense. A beautiful curved wooden incense burner that I want so much to buy and send to the boyfriend back in L.A. I don’t buy it. It is too expensive and I am supposed to not be in touch with that boyfriend. I am supposed to be independent and busy.
There is Eve who is a little older than me and seems very at home here. She wears a small diamond in her nose. I have never seen a non-Indian woman with a diamond in her nose. She has long mousy hair and is a painter. She is not beautiful, but she goes to see the guru that Natvar and Anjani go to see. I don’t listen to their guru talk. I am not interested in the books in the bookstore. The pictures on the walls – especially the one of some goddess that promises if you give her money she’ll make sure that more comes your way – make me uncomfortable. I am more interested in the burgeoning East Village scene that Bill is introducing me to. I cut my long hippy hair down to a spiky upstart punk cut. But I come to yoga class every Tuesday after work.
Mark is there too. He is young, maybe, like Eve, a few years further along than me. He has an open friendly face. He smiles. His eyes are blue. His blonde hair is already receding from his broad forehead. He says he is a dancer. His calves are firm, his foot curves in a strong arch. I know he is gay the moment we meet.
These are us in the beginning. And Natvar. Who teaches every class, almost every evening of the week. Except on Fridays when he runs out to catch the last ferry to Staten Island to see his wife and kids.
Sunday, August 03, 2008
Mark – with a good hair cut – could spruce up really well. He’d learned from Natvar how to iron a button-down shirt, how to wear trousers with a crease and hang them properly afterwards, how to shine shoes. Mark, after a shower, all dressed up, looked shiny, fresh and new, his eyes bright, his smile wide – or his eyes lazy, his smile languid, or his whole appearance stern when that was the order of the day.
The women – me and Tracy – were more difficult, and of the two I was much more difficult. Somehow, Tracy could put on a pair of sassy little sling-backs and a tight skirt, could enthusiastically apply the new lipstick and she was pretty as a picture – trouble was she wasn’t as educated as Natvar would have liked. He teased her for being a small-town girl – a “git” he called her, a “git” being someone who said “git” instead of “get” – but she was a good cook and sexy.
Marta was just a problem. Smart, yes. Pretty well read. But clothes did not sit properly on her. Not the navy wool skirt, straight to her knees, that came out of a client’s closet, nor the battered pumps that did too, nor the white stockings that Mark thought would make us look better. Hellish clothes, I hated them, I felt ugly in them, but felt I must ear them, must leave my childish hippy clothes behind. I was in the grown-up world now, I thought, Natvar’s workd, and I so wanted to keep up with him. To fail at this was to fail utterly.
My mother was living with my father then. They were both working minimum wage jobs, renting or living rent-free is some place my father’s church had found for them. They were scraping by. I had sent them my tax refund check when it came.
My mother said she’d like to take me out to dinner. She drove to Mount Kisco and walked me into a pizzeria, the kind where the menu is posted up behind the counter with black moveable type on a lit white background.
I knew Natvar would be horrified at such a place, could hear his voice in my head, crashing about it. I was supposed to be learning that I was better than this sort of place.
“Can we go somewhere else?” I asked my mother. I had never asked anything of her before, nothing that questioned her choices or taste, especially when she was giving me something. It felt horrendous to push against her choice of the cheap pizzeria.
She took me instead to a place called The Brownstone Café where you sat down and a waiter came with menus and the desserts had real whipped cream.
And I thought of the black bag I had bought almost 10 years ago that had given me the same feeling. I found that bag on 14th Street, in a narrow little fly-by-night shop. I was passing by on my weekly freedom visit, the one day of the week when – in the city and alone instead of up at the ashram – I felt like a new person: fresh, alive, young.
I was about to go on an ashram business trip and the black bag I spied would help me match up with all the young confident professionals I would mingle with in the airport, on my way to meetings. It had long straps, pockets, zippers and compartments for organization, all of it sleek, streamlined, and made of some kind of black nylon fabric. And it was cheap of course. That’s what 14th Street is for. Like others who shopped on 14th Street I had to live on almost no money.
I bought the bag and for years took good care of it. Whenever I needed a sort of briefcase, out it came, not a real pedigree, but not a bad stand-in. I pampered it, always unpacked it when I was done, laid it away til next time. It was only with this special care that the bag lasted as long as it did.
Then it became my teaching bag, the thing I lugged to campuses stuffed with files of student writing, books I wanted to read to them and videos I wanted to show. The black bag lost its trim lines. It sagged. Its true shapeless soul finally showed through.
One day just looking at it made my heart sink. Such a cheap piece of crap. It’s in a landfill somewhere now.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
I am in Los Angeles, a place that isn’t right for Thanksgiving. It’s too warm. I live in a one-bedroom shag-carpeted cottage with two 40-gallon saltwater fish tanks that stand at a random angle to each other in the middle of the living room floor, my boyfriend’s two latest must-haves.
There’s no office to go to which opens the day wide open, my feet can go in any direction, something that always feels good when I open my eyes in the morning, and that by 9 or 10 o’clock feels like a burden, money I don’t know how to spend.
All I know is that I am wearing Levi’s and a tight white tee-shirt. I buy them three-in-a-pack, always size small. It was my boyfriend’s idea. Something about his favorite costume for a girl: Levi’s and a white tee shirt. I have on my garb and my dark hair is parted in the middle and hangs long.
I will go for a walk. It will fill the time and I will feel in motion, like something is happening.
I walk. In Los Angeles no one does this, and no one does this on Thanksgiving. The sidewalk is wide. The streets are more or less empty. The houses have neat lawns, all more or less the same size. I walk with hands in my pockets, enjoying the elasticity of my body, the feeling of strength like I could go forever. I do this well, walking. I am in my element even though I know I will just turn around in the end and go back. Nobody else knows that.
The sky is washed blue. The sidewalk and street are beiges and gray. I walk fast, my strides are long. I am just walking and it is Thanksgiving day.
Ahead I see two boys walking towards me, enough my age, older or younger but enough my age to know that they will see me and I don’t know what will happen.
I am walking, I am striding, hands in pockets. The boys are closer. Maybe as we pass I glance up because it would be too obvious not to.
“I like the way they bounce,” one says with a smirk.
I keep walking. I pretend I don’t hear. The boys laugh of course. They have noticed me. Again, my looks have drawn attention. I am used to this. But I hate the boys, hate them impotently.
There is always a point in a walk when you are not going anymore but coming back, especially in random city walks, a moment when I give up, let go of the spring that propelled me forward. It’s a disappointing moment, the anti-climax.
I like the first part best, the bursting out of the house, full of promise.
Friday, July 04, 2008
I came home and Jeffrey said he had a song he really wanted me to hear, a new Jackson Browne song and instead of going into our bedroom that was really his bedroom that I slept in – the walls had been painted an unrelenting, harsh blue by his stepmother, the furniture was left over from his childhood apartment that had not been shared by this stepmother, and the stereo Jeffrey was usually monitoring was set up within easy reach of the bed – we didn’t go in there this day or into the living room where the TV was, the other main fixture of our life in this apartment though I didn’t like TV much, Jeffrey could watch it for hours. Instead, he led me into the bare almost lifeless room where his father slept, or used to sleep. He wasn’t coming around so much anymore. In the beginning, the apartment had been rented to house Jeffrey and his father who was going through a rough patch with his second wife. Jeffrey’s father’s room had a four-poster bed in it, a nightstand and a TV at the foot of the bed on a dresser.
Jeffrey and I sat on the edge of the bed and he played me the song. Jeffrey was excited for me to hear the song. Jeffrey and I had had some sort of huge fight I think that morning or the night before. Somehow, this song was supposed to cure something. Or maybe I’d had a particularly horrible bout of depression that I couldn’t hold back the way I usually did, and it spilled out into view and Jeffrey had found the song that would address it. Or something. I don’t know. To Jeffrey the song was relevant and a big deal. I almost wrote the word “important,” but that word does not go with Jeffrey. To use that word here would give him credit that I just don’t associate with this scene.
I listened to the song. It did nothing for me. It pierced nothing. And it made Jeffrey angry that I didn’t get it – I even felt that maybe I wasn’t getting it. I just remember sitting there, on the edge of the double bed, in a room that didn’t get much light and Jackson Browne’s song is for Jeffrey, not for me. And I don’t know if what I want is so deep Jeffrey will never able to reach it, or if I am so lost that things like this song, things that can save other people, are swinging in a world I can’t get to.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I see him walking down the street across from me, a man who is not exactly a friend, but a pleasant sort of acquaintance. I’ve heard him play music – singing songs he’d written that were witty and rhymed well, playing a guitar skillfully. I’ve been to his house, he’s been to mine. When I saw him the other day he was hobbling, holding a cell phone tightly to his ear, his body distorted to the point of being frightening. He has the same disease as my father so I thought of my father – I was driving through town – I was almost home, passing the familiar string of Woodstock shops in summer – and I am thinking again: am I missing something, am I doing it wrong, letting my father go, not calling, not writing, knowing he is sick and riddled with trouble. And who am I not to be at his side, helping?
My father sat in the dining room at the head of the table on Sundays. After dinner – or lunch really, it was lunch though it looked like dinner – he would sit a little longer. He would linger and we had to linger too.
“When I am old,” he said once with a laugh after lunch on a Sunday, with a smile and a challenge in his eyes that told me I must not question this, “I will divide the year in three and spend four months with each of my daughters.” He said it in an ironic tone as if he wasn’t being serious – and I knew I would somehow manage to escape this – it wouldn’t really happen, but I know now I am absolutely supposed to be there, taking care of my father, his real wife.
That’s true, and at the same time, that possibility feels small and distant like it’s at the end of a very long tunnel, a telescope even. Marta taking care of her father isn’t as real as it used to be.
I picked him up from the airport the day he came back from Dubai, a crazy crazy last-ditch trip he made when they were so broke they were selling the house and declaring bankruptcy over credit card debt and my father flew to Dubai with a loose-leaf binder of black and white photos of houses for sale in Westchester County, a real estate license being one of his attempts to get back on financial track, the trip looking maybe, almost, like the years of glamorous business trips in his heyday when I was little and he would go and come frequently with heavy leather luggage and a passport with extra pages inserted to hold all the stamps.
I was about twenty-four when he went to
The one thing they still had was a brand new Suburu station wagon and while my father was gone with the binder in Dubai, hoping he’d find some takers for this real estate – my father who is no salesman, who has no gift of the gab, no easy manner to put people at ease – my little sister, a teenager in high school, crashed the Suburu one night. She was unhurt, the car totaled.
This I felt would be unbearable. My father, already on his knees, to hear the car is gone, the one thing they owned.
“I’ll pick Dad up,” I offer. “I’ll give him the news.” I am living in
“I have not felt this bad since I first came to the States,” my father says from the passenger seat, and I know he means the suicide attempt he made before I was born, before he married my mother, when he was here alone, in the States, not speaking the language, forced to work in jobs that made him feel like an ordinary person, a plain person, a person he could not bear to be. I know he took pills. No one has told me all this. I have put it together.
I’ve never had a relationship with my father, I think as I approach my driveway. I think in terms of real connection. It has always been a calculation on his part, a struggle, a resistance, a disappointment on mine. I could never go be with someone I am not really in relationship with, and pretend that I am.
“I gave a lot in the past,” I think, as I start to turn. “I gave for years and years and years. Now I’m paying myself for all those years.” And I felt a pang of pleasure, like when you’ve worked a long time and then the money comes in and you can spend it.
I run out long on the leash, get jerked back for a moment, then run on long again, the image of my father sitting, in dark clothes, hunched in his
Thursday, June 05, 2008
I used to have two sets of twin sheets. A set of white ones with dark green stripes, and a set with pink flowers.
My younger sister had given me both. I valued them. I preferred the pink flowery set. I made my bed with them in the room I had to myself for three years, a single bed up against the wall and in the corner almost underneath the window. I lived there for three years. Opened Christmas presents with my mother there. Decorated it with Christmas lights. Wrote there at the small yellow desk I found in the corridor. Covered the windows with plastic in the winter and opened them in summer so I could hear the school bus/shuttle roll in three times an hour to stop at the small bus stop just a few yards away where the teenagers hung out late into the evening, making too much noise for me who wanted to fall asleep early so I could wake up before dawn.
“Which set of sheets did you prefer?” my sister asked me years later. “The pink ones,” I said. “She laughed with surprise. “I thought for sure you’d like the pin-stripe ones.”
I have a few 100% cotton sheets now, picked up here and there, never bought. They’ve taught me that neither the pink sheets nor the green striped ones were full cotton. They were 50/50. I assumed at the time that they were cotton. Could not imagine my sister giving me anything less.
I wrote a card to my mother on Saturday. It took me less than a minute to write. It was a flowery card that a charity had sent me in the mail in the hopes that I would make a donation. It had lines for you to write on inside, like the lines on that green paper we used to write on in third grade, copying the letters from above the blackboard.
It was a note I’d been hovering over in my mind for a few weeks. I picked up the pen deliberately. I had finally made up my mind.
I told my mother that I needed a six-month break. Not to worry. To call Fred if anything big came up. Said too that I realized this would be a strain for her. Said I appreciated her support.
Sealed the envelope and stamped it and wondered if I would think of something important that had to be added, but I didn’t.
And it went.
And there are moments, waves that wash over me when I think how could I, but many many more moments when I feel like I have opened the door to a room I have been longing to enter for along time and never thought I was allowed – a field more than a room, an outdoor place with a lot of sky.
When I was nine I asked to go to boarding school. I didn’t make a formal request. I mentioned it in the wistful way I mentioned any number of things I wanted, but didn’t expect to get. Going to boarding school was too big to actually get.
But I went to boarding school. At the time I thought I was getting my wish. Now I know it was a magnificent coincidence. I would have gone that year to boarding school even if I’d never longed to.
Even then I was trying to get into the room or the field where I wasn’t allowed to go. I stayed in that school for three years. I liked it there. And then betrayal hit and I wanted to go home and my mother said yes of course, I could come home. She didn’t ask what had happened and I would not have told her.
Home. I did not want to be there, but I knew no other place to go. A dark shadow closed over me and hung there for years.
I never liked living with my mother. But right now that’s not the point. She could be a living saint and I would still write the card.
On the drive home this evening I see a bank of grass by the road covered in dense red flowers. I slow down to look at them more closely. I don’t know their name. “Indian paintbrush” I hear in my mind, a flower’s name that my mother taught me. I think of digging some up to bring home and plant here. That’s what my mother would have done. She did that a lot when I was little and I never knew why she wanted to do those things that no one else I knew did. But today I want the same thing, and I think as I pick up speed again, of the things I got from her, but that’s not what this is about. This is about having a turn in the field.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
My father invited me to lunch at Windows of the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center. I’d never been there before, but I knew what to expect. My father’s invitation to lunch is like a narcotic that I swallow yet again. It dissolves in me, this anticipation that I will meet my father – we will both look good and there will be an instant leap of recognition. I will dress up within the boundaries of my hippie taste so that I look good in both worlds – mine and his – and my father will be in his suit and tie, full of lavish energy. His eyes will appraise me in a flash and find me to be exactly what he is looking for and I will roll on the wave of that enthusiasm, buoyed by its flourish and we will sit at a table with linen and silver, two or three globe glasses at each setting, a neat little bouquet in a silver vase. There will be wine that my father will taste first as the waiter stands aside respectfully, wine that he will of course agree to with a nod, and there will be large menus and I will order and I will eat. I accept the invitation as if any other response were possible.
Perhaps I wear the long, full white skirt made of light wool and the white v-necked blouse with Geoffrey Beene’s initials embroidered in red on the pocket. I usually wear things that my boyfriend’s stepmother gave me when I dress up. Kitty is a rich, exciting and glamorous woman so I feel rich and exciting and glamorous when I wear her cast-offs or things she picked up on a shopping spree and tossed my way.
I arrive downtown and go first to my father’s office, riding up the smooth elevator. He hasn’t been at this office long, a year or two. He introduces me with gusto first to the receptionist, then his secretary, then some young man fresh out of college, then an older man. I am a big hit. I’m good at this. This is so easy, to be gracious and beautiful, a little witty, friendly. I am good at the two-minute relationship.
Delighted, my father sweeps me back to the elevator and up another twenty or thirty flights.
He makes sure we get window seats. We sit across from each other as we have so many times. My boyfriend has been sleeping with an older woman called Harriet who is a writer with paperbacks you can find in stores. I will be done with college in a few months. I keep track of how many more papers I have to quickly type up overnight. I am writing a long short story, using my boyfriend’s stepmother as the main figure because she’s fun to pretend to be. I smoke pot every day and do any drug that comes my way – quaaludes, acid, cocaine – nothing exceptional. I try not to eat at all except when I’m in a fancy restaurant and someone else is paying.
“Now,” says my father, and he puts on his serious face. “I need to talk a little business with you.” We have told the waiter what we’d like and I am neatly pinned. “Now that you have almost finished college, I’d like to make a proposal.” He draws out the word “proposal,” putting a little spin of irony on it to inject a little humor here, a little but not too much. “You know, money does not grow on trees.” He lifts his eyebrows and looks at me.
I smile to make this easier for him.
He continues. “And so, now that you are almost finished with your schooling, we need to think about how to pay the bill! I hope you will agree that it is not too much to ask that you help your daddy. You don’t have to do much.” There is something said about monthly payments. I am nodding. I take a sip of water and look out over the city that I am hovering over.
My father’s conversation moves on now. He’s made his point, gotten my agreement, so now we can enjoy our lunch. He is drinking his wine, putting large gobs of butter on the soft white rolls, careful not to butter the whole roll and bite into it, but tearing off a chunk, putting the butter on – not spreading it, just placing it with a quick swipe of the knife – and popping the soft, buttery morsel into his mouth. This is the correct way to eat bread. He has taught me and I have learned. Because we are partners, capable of the style that my mother and sisters are not.
The meal becomes every meal we have together, the part I forget when I say yes and pop the pill – cloudy hours with my father talking and me, eating and nodding to prove I am still here and he has nothing to worry about.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
We were living in a furnished apartment off Sloane Square, an unstylish cheap apartment with a stylish, expensive address. Again, Natvar had managed this real estate feat – finding a cheap place at an address that assumed you were rich.
It was our second address in London. The first one was in Kensington, not a posh part of town. It was the spacious apartment they were living in when I arrived from Athens, a few days before Christmas, leaving a mound of unfinished business behind me, but convinced that everything would be easier and better in London. This move from Athens to London was what was needed. It had to be the right next step.
And in the Kensington apartment I did have my own room, a real room, and there was a kitchen you could sit down in. They didn’t meet me at the airport though, after all the lucsiousness on the phone, the honeyed persuasion urging me to come. They did not meet me and the walk from the subway station on the snowy sidewalk, carrying heavy suitcases, was not glamorous. I arrived feeling very ordinary, not the star I had been on the phone. And they took me in and we stood in the kitchen drinking tea, awkwardly trying to revive the enthusiasm of the phone calls and Natvar said sternly, “Don’t think you won’t have to work. London is expensive.” “Of course,” I assured him. “Of course.”
We moved to the Sloane Square place a few months later after the Kensington place was broken into, the front door smashed when Mark – the third member of our reduced family – came home one afternoon, and Natvar now in pitched battle with the landlord over who should pay, me writing long letters on his behalf about why we will not pay, making empty threats with complex sentences, the only weapon at our disposal besides Natvar’s rage.
The second place, the Sloane Square place, has two bedrooms: one for Mark and Natvar, and one for Ariadne. That’s okay of course. Marta can sleep on the couch, keep her clothes in this closet. Natvar opens the door of the empty closet and explains with a wave of his hand how I can fill the shelves here and hang my things there – he is smiling and happy, we have a new place, this Sloane Square address, and he tweaks my ear, calls me “Murtz” and I smile with the pleasure of his attention. The only response any of us gives to his happiness is to mirror it and make it last as long as possible.
At one end of the new apartment is the living room, at the other end the kitchen – both spacious – and connecting them is a straight corridor opening onto two bedrooms and two bathrooms, not so spacious. There is no natural light in the corridor. The best room is the kitchen because it’s big and the table is made of blonde wood and it feels light in there -- even hip and with it, a kitchen other up-to-date Londoners might have.
It is better here than when we lived together in Greece. I leave every morning now for my job and return in the evening. We only have to be together in the evenings and on weekends. And I am bringing in money.
I think that I am happy, that this is what I want, to be with Natvar, Mark and Ariadne, to make a good life with them.
My parents and two sisters don’t know where I am. When we lived in Greece, although my mother didn’t know exactly where I lived, she got the address of Natvar’s brother from Natvar’s ex-wife, and she sent me things, little parcels. A cotton skirt once. That I wore. Something new. Valuable.
Now my mother does not know I am even in England. We are more invisible than ever. This too is good.
My mother told us stories – me and my sisters – in the many times when my father was not present – about her growing up: the farm in Depression-era British Columbia, the one-room schoolhouse, the six brothers and sisters, the capable if unsentimental mother, the educated but angry father with his library of French, German and English leatherbound books. I grew up familiar with this landscape though I never actually saw it. It was not a happy place, this place of her stories, but I did not think of it as an evil place. Just a place I was glad I did not have to live in.
She didn’t tell these stories when my father was present. It was rare to be with both of them at the same time. There was always a tense silence between them, at the very best it dissolved into teasing, a little joke, a brief elbow-dig. But these moments of a shared joke were only moments and always had the feeling of a respite, like a held breath released for a second. When they were in the same room they didn’t talk to each other, not about pleasurable things. If they were in the living room together each might be reading. But even this was rare. They were usually in separate rooms, or separate places – my father in the city, my mother in the country.
I see a weekend. So my father is home. My mother in the kitchen, standing, making lunch. There is a saucepan or two on the electric stove, meat roasting in the oven. A green salad on the counter dressed with oil and lemon juice and a little sugar. Meals have three or four ingredients in our house. There are no sauces, no blends, nothing new. There are boiled vegetables, meat, potatoes, salad. Jello, ice cream or cookies for dessert. My mother prepares food without much mess or flourish. It’s a job she does.
Maybe my father enters the kitchen. Maybe it is Sunday morning and he has been up in the woods behind the house, raking brush, trying to get all the roughness out so that it will be a smooth park.
My father enters the kitchen cautiously. Perhaps he wants a glass of water. Maybe he is hungry, hoping lunch is almost ready or that he can sneak a quick snack.
“It smells very good in here!” he says with artificial cheer, testing the waters. How angry is she this time?
“Well, it’s not ready yet,” my mother replies without looking at him, angry, furious for a thousand reasons.
“Okay, okay, no rush,” my father says in a soothing voice, trying just to avoid her outburst. He too is angry, furious – why can’t she be nicer? He leaves the room.
I set the table in the dining room with its failed antique table that my father bought with so much fanfare a few years ago. The table is divided into two halves that are supposed to fit neatly and invisibly together, but the pegs are loose in the holes and there is always an unsightly opening between the two halves. We ignore it. We still treat it as a valuable table. My parents sit at opposite ends with us kids in the middle and nobody talks much except my father. He cannot bear the silence.