Wednesday, May 21, 2008


My father invited me to have lunch with him. He was working in the World Trade Center, a business man in the American world with a Hungarian accent and a European flair. I was a young and pretty college student thinking regularly about suicide, living mostly with a boyfriend whose family is rich. I live in his apartment most of the time. It has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, a balcony over Washington Square Park, cable television, lots of pot, my boyfriend’s fancy stereo and his record collection. There is usually music playing because he plays music all the time when he isn’t watching television. When we fight and I go to spend a night or two in my own place, there’s no music and no television, not that I would listen or watch if there were. I have a tiny dark room in an apartment I share with people I don’t know. I only have to pay $50 a month. You can’t beat that.

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


Aliki, the rich aristocratic Greek-turned-English woman whose friendship we were cultivating, gave Ariadne – Natvar’s charming little blonde daughter – a yellow tee shirt. It was too big, and I think that’s how I got it, a pale yellow tee shirt, brand new. Valuable. Anything brand new was valuable.

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.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Strong Measures

My mother is an old woman who I think has just returned from a week in California visiting her two other daughters who decided about a year ago not to talk to me, which actually suits me quite well. I just wish they all didn’t want to talk to me.

I typed a note on the computer at work, just practicing the note I am thinking of sending her.

I bought a pretty card during lunchtime, the kind of card all her daughters buy her – two chickadees. You always get my mother an animal or a flower, something related to nature.

I looked at the racks of cards. All of them had pretentious sayings on them, sayings I’d been seeing for years on cards. I got scared that maybe this incense-drenched bookstore only sold cards with inspirational words on the front, but then I found an Oriental-looking one with just a frog – no words – but still a little more sophisticated than is my mother’s style. It might have to do. I pulled it off the rack, flipped it over to check the price. $3.95. Pretty steep. Kept looking. Two chickadees. Only $2.50. I’d found the card.

I was in the bookstore with my new friend Eleanor. She’s English. “Here, Eleanor,” I say, “for your new office.” I show her a hefty table-top statue of some kind of Hindu god, seated cross-legged with a naked woman facing him on his lap, legs wrapped around his waist. The statue is semi-hidden. It totally does not fit with the rest of this store with its thousands of books and CDs about how to become pure and its little gold earrings with Om signs, and its expensive stretch-cotton yoga clothes.

Eleanor gives a good guffaw. It’s one of the things I like about her. She’s good for a laugh.

Then she points to a drum up high on a shelf, says how much she wishes she could have it. She says it with real longing. I know she has a $25 gift certificate to this store in her pocket, something her husband gave her years ago that she hasn’t used.

I reach up high high high and coax the drum off the shelf. It’s stretched leather with a picture of a palm and a spiral painted onto it. The price tag is $200 more than Eleanor’s gift certificate, and as we are looking, heads bent, another drum crashes to the floor. “Eleanor did it,” I say to the store in general and Michael, alone on the other side of the lofty room, catches my eye and laughs. He’s an aloof person and this is rare contact.

I don’t tell Eleanor the card is for my mother and that I want to write a note that tells my mother to leave me alone – don’t call me, don’t make surprise visits.

For awhile. The note comes out gentler than I feel, on the computer screen. It might buy me two weeks. That would be something. Because right now I have no time at all because it was her birthday last week plus she’s just returned from a trip and because when we spoke on the phone last time she mentioned that my father and my aunt in Hungary were wondering about me, why I hadn’t been in touch. I am supposed to respond to this and call them.

I would never be friends with these people if I met them under other circumstances.

I google from my office phrases like “adult children” and “guilt” and “parents”, and of course I don’t find anything helpful – just conventional bits about how to manage guilt, by drawing boundaries, and deciding how much responsibility to take. “You can’t do it all,” they say. But I don’t want to do any of it. I realize I am just looking for someone to say – an anonymous stranger way out in cyberspace – “You don’t owe them anything. They used you for all you were worth.”

The card isn’t written yet. I didn’t get to it this afternoon. It got covered with a white flurry of emails printed out so I wouldn’t forget them, a scramble of tasks involving typing and phone numbers – I imagine I will do it as I sit with tea in the early morning.

I am working on divorcing my family. I think it’s possible. A process. But possible. This card like a medicine I must take, for myself.