Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Morning Thoughts

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted – either here or at Mostly Memoir. It’s been a very full time schedule-wise and I’ve gotten behind on my typing. I write pretty much everything long-hand.

This morning I was inspired to set other things aside and type up my work. It is an act of defiance and self-strengthening and empowerment. I was beginning to go down. To let the drudgery of the 9-5 get me down, to let other people’s opinions get me down.

It is easy when you are doing something as unsupported as undisguised personal writing to feel alone and to even be tempted to dismiss your work. A form of suicide. I am so happy to have revisited my writing by typing it up and posting it. Oh god, I feel better.


It was pretty this part of Athens, cloistered away from the raw cement, traffic and smog of the city by trees and gardens, houses usually only partially visible, set back, with now and then an ornate gate. The roads I walked along were only wide enough for one vehicle, and there weren’t any to speak of, nor did I meet anyone on the narrow strips of sidewalk.

I just walked. It was all I wanted to do. I wore my usual costume – brown leather pumps, the narrow knee-length navy skirt, a blouse – clothes that distinctly felt like someone else’s, but I insisted on them because Natvar insisted on them. They overrode my old hippy tendencies, my blue jean past, all that silliness before I had learned from Natvar to dress, to be adult, to be part of his world.

I came to a large open patch of grass, almost a traffic circle, almost a little piece of park. It was warm and this bright warm sunshine was the first of the season, the first after a long gray winter, the first promise of summer.

Cars passed now and then by this long rectangle of grass. I was coming out of the shadiest parts of the neighborhood now, getting closer to the busy street below with its stores and steady traffic. I lay down on my back and I slept. I slept with pure ease and sweetness, sinking down into its comfort, every muscle relaxing. It was perfect.

And when I became aware that I was sleeping, I pulled my awareness back down into the oblivion, pulling it this time, not sinking effortlessly. It was 3 or 4 o’clock when I opened my eyes finally and though I tried to linger, lying on my back, the sun was cooler now, the day was passing.

“It is 4 o’clock now,” I thought as I stood, “But 6 o’clock won’t come. And tonight won’t come.” It was an old trick from childhood. When dreaded things loomed in the future I could convince myself that the time would never arrive.

The rhythm of the day had shifted, the traffic picking up. I walked down towards the busy street. I would get something to eat. I would check out the movie – after all, Natvar had actually suggested it. I could follow his direction and have pleasure at the same time. And these things would take a long time – food, movie.

To walk into the pizza place. To choose a slice. To sit and eat. Alone. No one watching or commenting. Natvar had given me this. Could I really spend this money? I am spending it. I feel guilty, indulgent, but I continue.

I buy a movie ticket, enter the cinema, take a seat. I have not been to the movies for several years and more years since I have been alone. See, the movie hasn’t even started yet so there is still all this time before I have to go back. I don’t know what will be in this movie. By the time I leave the cinema I will know the movie. I will have seen it. So that is a long way away. Another time. Not this time. In this time I will never have to go back.

I watch the film – the opening credits, the first scenes, the story, the end. I sit until the lights come up. I am here, at the end of the movie, the place where four hours I thought I would never be. When I walk outside it is dark. The traffic continues to stream by, and still people on the sidewalks, a nighttime city. My sweet warm sun has gone.

I wish there was another place to go, but there isn’t. I have used up the long delicious leash Natvar gave me earlier. I must return now. But still, I am not there yet, and there is still the long slow walk back. Perhaps if I don’t think about it the end of the walk will not come.

But the streets slide by me, step by step, until I am in the small dark street below the apartment. My home is up there, but I can’t get to it. It feels fortified against me. The car is back, of course. They have returned. The apartment is in darkness. They have all gone to bed. Good. I can’t bear to see them. I like being alone so much. I know it’s not good, it’s weak, but if I can hold onto this aloneness I will.

I slip upstairs and into my tiny room off the kitchen. I take off my clothes, lie down, sleep a few hours and awaken at dawn, long before anyone else. I wash and dress quickly, not making any noise and slip out again, down the stairs, back out into the relief of the street.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Don't Be A Baby

I stand next to my father and he sits comfortably in the armchair. I stand to his right, my head a little above his. He is dressed in a suit – white shirt with cufflinks, a tie, matching jacket and pants with a sharp crase. His hands are fleshy and broad. He wears a thick gold wedding band and a thin expensive round watch with a shiny sligator strap. My father likes hi things – his cufflinks, his watch, his wedding band, which never looked for a moment like anything to do with romance. My father’s wedding band was a bade of stability, of all-rightness, a middle-class man, educated, tasteful, married.

He told me to come to his room because my report card has come in the mail. I am not concerned. I am 9 years old and I’ve had plenty of report cards and they’ve always been very good and school has never been hard.

It is a Saturday. That’s why my father is home. This is his room. We don’t use it for anything else. When he is not here it stays empty. It is a green room: dark green drapes and a dark green spread on the single bed. The house came with these things. These are not things we have had before – drapes that go all the way to the floor and close with a cord, matching bedspreads. This dark green room looks like it’s the man’s room.

My mother’s room in this house is pink – clearly where the woman is supposed to go though there is nothing pink abut my mother. They had someone else in mind when they prepared this room, placing inside it not a desk and armchair like in the dark green room, but a glass-topped, kidney-shaped vanity with a stiff pink-and-white-striped skirt. My mother doesn’t sit at it though I wish she was the type who would.

This is the house we have moved into. It is a rented house with all the furniture inside, but it is small, like a doll’s house.

My father holds the white sheet of paper that is my report card from the school I started a few months ago. I like the new school. I like that I don’t have to come home, that I can live there. I like my friends there. I like all the playing we do and the fat letters we have started writing to each other during this Christmas holiday.

My father starts to read the report card out loud. He reads very slowly so that I can hear each word. He doesn’t look at me. The first teacher is saying that I am not doing well, that I need to try harder, that I am careless.

I wish I could leave the room and never come back, but I can’t. I can’t go until he says I can. My throat is hurting now like when I see a really sad movie.

My father starts to read the next part from the next teacher. This teacher also talks about how I am lazy and that my handwriting is sloppy.

I didn’t know my handwriting was sloppy. We write with fountain pens at this new school. We fill them up from the ink pots in our desks. I liked buying the new pen the nuns said I had to buy. I chose the red one.

Now and then my father lifts his gaze to see if I am paying attention. His eyes are sort of laughing, like he is making fun of me, but he keeps reading, sometimes stopping to ask me something like why hadn’t I done better on my exams.

I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.

The math has been hard, but math is always hard. At the new school they were doing fractions and I’d never done fractions. Once when I was doing my homework the teacher came up to me and was shocked because I was trying to find the answers by drawing pies and cutting them up into halves and quarters.

I want to cry and cry. But I must not. I. Must. Not. Cry. I must pretend this is all right, that we are having a normal conversation. I tighten up everything I can, and I know I am not hiding it perfectly. I wish I could hide it perfectly, and I fight and fight to hide everything, but I know he is winning, he is stronger. He can just sit there and keep reading with a bit of a smile on his face, and he can read all the way to the end and tell me I must find a way to do better, that this is not acceptable. He doesn’t yell. He says it in the same even voice he always uses so that my tears that keep wanting to burst out seem absolutely wrong and out of place.

Friday, October 02, 2009

When You Can't Hold It Back

That afternoon I was coming down the stairwell when a guy I hardly knew came in and said, “Where are you off to?” because it was only about 11 and I said I’d just been fired and that’s when the tears rushed into my voice. I didn’t want them to show. I hardly knew this guy. I’d only been at Fotonovel for a few months and I’d hated every minute of it – from the dullness of sitting at a phone that didn’t ring to having to watch the rich pretty blond I’d known vaguely in college 3,000 miles before, now the rich handsome boss’s girlfriend. But I hadn’t thought they’d fire me. And it made me feel like a little girl, sad, crying, trying hard not to show it, but not having the strength to hold it back in front of this almost stranger.

It was Los Angeles and it was summer, hot and bright on Sunset Boulevard, that dense part with all the billboards and Tower Records – just before it turns all hushed and green and Beverly Hills.

The sun though is harsh and I don’t live in that hushed green part of town. I live in the cement of West Hollywood, just below the fumes of Sunset. There are lots of plants and even trees clumped around my white L.A. cottage, but the drive there is never sweet. It is always harsh and headache and I am only here because my boyfriend wants to live here. I don’t know how to live by myself. Though I feel very by myself. It feels just a little safer to stay with this boyfriend who, when I say I am leaving, starts to cry. And that’s when I feel that hot tangible strap that binds us to each other. We have been together since I was 18, and I am 21 now. We have graduated college. We have driven across the country. We are sharing the white cottage and my mother and little sister are coming to visit this afternoon.

I have not seen them since I got here last year. They are coming and I have to show them a good time. They have come into town by bus. They are at a downtown L.A. hotel and they are waiting for me to come and pick them up.

Will I tell them I’ve just been fired? Yes, probably. But I won’t make a big deal about it. I’ll get another job. I’ll toss this off as another minor adventure. The tears are just for that almost-stranger, and for Jeffrey, the boyfriend, who has seen me cry a million times. Before him no friend had ever seen me cry.

It was one of the new things in my life when Jeffrey and I began. A boy I could cry with. I hadn’t known I had wanted to. Hadn’t imagined a place where crying would be okay to do that. But it was gloriously okay with this new boyfriend.

The first time I cried with him was a drizzly night and we were in a playground on the upper East Side, near his childhood apartment that we had to ourselves. Late night walks in New York City with a boyfriend was very new. I stood in the light rain, with him very close, his arms around me and it seemed that the only way to hold that comfort was to let tears come. I wasn’t crying about anything in particular. Just somehow the rain, the night, his arms – I wanted him to hold me forever, and he had held me and he had taken care of me like I was delicate all that night.

It’s gotten much more complicated since then. Most of the time I don’t want to be where I am – here in Los Angeles, with Jeffrey, in these awful office jobs. I always pretend to my invisible family back East – my two disjointed parents and my two little sisters who are still in school – that I am doing great – hip and cool and living in L.A.

I take Jeffrey’s car to go meet my mother and little sister – she’s about 12 years old. Jeffrey’s car is bigger than mine. It’s a boxy four-door Mercedes, a leftover from an uncle of his. No one in my family has ever owned a Mercedes or anything even close. I drive Jeffrey’s car so we can fit the suitcases, but also because it is proof of my new grown-up, non-family life.

A few blocks from the hotel in downtown bumper-to-bumper traffic the car leaps forward without my touching the gas. I jam the brake, lifting myself up to put as much of my weight down on the brake as possible, and just miss the car in front. I know the moment I let up the car will lurch forward, like a galloping horse. I’ve never heard of a car doing this.

The car engine is racing. I see just half a block ahead an indoor parking lot and I make it that far, turning into its dark entrance, thinking, here, out of traffic, I can turn the thing off. But once inside, the entrance slopes steeply downhill and now I can no longer hold the car back. I am careening downhill towards a cement wall. I see it rushing up towards me and I give up. I say I don’t care. Let it fucking happen. And we smash into cement.

Except it is not cement. It is thin sheetrock and we smash right through it. The car stops.

Now I am sitting in the tiny parking lot office with men who look at me like I’m crazy. I call Jeffrey, hoping he will not be too angry. He just spent $50 on a paint job for his car, the cheapest paint job in L.A., advertised on late-night TV. He asked the guys – way out in some forgotten part of the city -- for chocolate brown. They delivered army green, and Jeffrey did not complain. Not to them anyway.

And then I walk to my mother’s and my sister’s cheap hotel room, the one I know my mother cannot afford. My poor mother. My poor little sister. I must make them happy. I must or we will be washed away in this sadness.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

From last night's workshop...

I sat in a chair this afternoon in my boss’s office. We were supposed to meet at 3:30 but she’d been pulled into a crisis. I had checked through the glass door of the executive director’s office at one point to see if that meeting was interruptable, but even I felt that I should stay away until they were really done.

Now it was 4:15 and I knew she had to leave at 4:30, and I didn't want to linger anyway and had been planning on slipping out the moment she was gone.

I have been getting more and more savvy about finding pockets of time in the work day that I can shoplift, no one noticing.

Yesterday I managed a 20-minute cat nap in the conference room at a busy time of day. I had to do it. There was nowhere else to go and I had to close my eyes and get even a few moments of unconsciousness. I managed it – actually sleeping for five minutes, then waking myself up in time for a meeting in the same room during which I had to keep pulling myself back from a magnetic brink of unconsciousness.

I am sitting now in my boss’s office. I have scheduled myself into her tomorrow to make up for the time lost today, but tomorrow’s appointment could be easily blown off at the last minute too so I have opted to make use of her first 15 minutes of free time today to get at least a couple of things done.

I have a folder in my hands in which I have stacked all the things I need her to see in order of their importance.

When I get my 15 minutes with her I don’t want to waste a moment of it.

It’s like when I worked for Gurumayi, so like it sometimes. You’re responsible for making sure they see stuff on time, their time is unpredictable and spare – you try to be ready at all times and on the look-out for when you can gently, elegantly spring. You have to be appealing because you are bearing stuff they would love to put off.

I haven’t mentioned to Erica, my good-natured boss, how I often bump into déjà vu as I do my best to serve her. She has read the book about my time with Gurumayi and liked it a lot, but I fear the parallel might make us both uncomfortable.

We began going through some easy but important matters, then someone knocked on the door. “Come in,” my boss called out, popping an almond into her mouth from a bag she held on her lap.

The person stuck her head in, then offered to come back later. “No, no,” said my boss, "what’s up?” And the person proceeded to step into the room and tell her what was up.

I kept my eyes down, not getting into the conversation, allowing myself to be mildly pissed off that Erica hadn’t asked them to come back later since she’d kept me waiting for 45 minutes. But I know that one of the things I like about Erica is that she doesn’t mind being interrupted. I like that you can almost always knock, enter, talk.

I could feel the sadness that I’d been feeling all afternoon plant itself on my face. Erica glanced over at me as she spoke to the other person and I noticed how her look paused, as if she were taking a closer look at me, as if she had seen something and almost asked what it was.

And as we resumed our small bits of business I thought about confiding in her. After all, we are close enough that she noticed some subtle shift in me. I wondered if I could tell her the story of the last day or two, wanted to, but then thought, no, I can’t. She doesn’t have the capacity to hold me in the complete way I would want if I were to tell this story. Though it’s almost there. I think she thought about asking in the same way as I thought about telling. But I kept it to myself, and she dashed off to her daughter’s first piano concert.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Writing Workshops in Manhattan

UPDATE: April 2010. This series was successful so that now we meet once a month on a Saturday morning at TRS, 44 E. 32 St. between Park & Madison.

I will be offering three
Authentic Writing workshops in Manhattan on Saturday mornings -- if you want to do some writing, this is the place to be.

All the writing will be from life -- spontaneous and personal. The workshops are for people who have written for years, people who have wished they were writing, people who write in their heads but don't manage to get it down on paper and everyone in between.

These are studios more than workshops, a place for artists to come together and practice their art -- without competition or comparison.

I do almost all my writing in these workshops. The Guru Looked Good was almost all written in workshops.

You may take one or more workshops, or you can sign up for the series of three.

We will meet at:
TRS, 44 E. 32 Street (between Park and Madison), 11th floor

Dates and Times:

October 10, November 14, December 12.
10am - 1pm.

$75/workshop (please specify which date)
$180 for all three workshops

To register:

You can use PayPal
email me at: martaszabo@yahoo.com
call me at: (845) 679-0306

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I wore the dark blue cotton dress with the tie around my waist that tied in a bow behind me. Not a big wide fancy bow like you saw in movies. Just a regular, narrow bow, like on your shoes. There was white smocking across the chest and no sleeves so my mother taught me to wear a white blouse underneath. I could see how the plain white blouse suited the somber blue fabric. This was my best dress. I wore it the day I got my first holy communion. I did it by myself on a Sunday. Only my mother came with me to church. My father was away that year.

We went to church and when it was time for communion, before everybody else came up, the priest made an announcement about me and invited me up first.

A month later it was my birthday and it was Sunday and I asked my mother if I could bicycle to church. We were not hardcore church people. I liked church though especially now that I could stand up with the grown-ups and go get communion.

I wore the same dark blue dress and I wore a brown wool winter coat and I bicycled. As I coasted down a steep hill, a dog leaped out at me, barking, snarling, jumping, his teeth bared. I kept going and got past him.

I left my bicycle out in the grassy parking lot amongst the cars and when I came out it was bent out of shape. I couldn’t ride it. I couldn’t walk home. It was miles. There were no cars left in the parking lot. Everyone had gone home.

The only person I knew was probably still around was the priest. I had never talked to him. But I had no choice. I walked back into the empty church. I walked down the side aisle to the door of the room that the priest went into after Mass. I had never been in there before. I knocked. He opened the door, dressed in plain black clothes now. I explained how I couldn’t ride my bike. “Here,” he said. “Why don’t you use this phone and call your mother.” He sat me before a large black telephone. My mother suggest I should walk to the store and she would come get me.

I knew where the store was. I walked over there. It only took a couple of minutes. It was an old store, painted red like a barn, with a long wooden porch. It always made me think of the times when I was really little and we were living here the first time and my father would stop here on the way home from church and he would buy the Sunday New York Times which seemed much too big to me – a giant newspaper. How could anyone read that thick thick bulk of pages, all black-and-white and tiny print? My father laughed when I told him what I thought. He laughed because he could read it and I could not.

Inside the store the light was dim. I had never been in here before. Not like this. Only when there were lots of people and I was lost amongst their legs, holding my father’s hand while he steered me through. Now I was by myself and there was almost no one here.

I walked over to the magazines. I looked at the covers. I didn’t touch them. Now and then I heard someone come in, walk to the counter and buy something. I wished I had some money. I wanted to buy a package of Hostess cupcakes, the chocolate ones with the white squiggle of icing and the creamy white inside.

I waited some more. I walked up one dimly lit dusty aisle, lined with canned goods. Then the other. Then I went back to the magazines. My mother was taking a long long time.

“That’ll be $2.65,” I heard the man behind the counter say.

“Oh, just put it on my credit,” the customer replied and left without giving any money.

I waited. No one else was waiting like this. Everyone else came in, bought something and left.

“Can I help you with anything, hon?” the man behind the counter asked.

“No,” I said. “That’s okay.”

I read all the magazine covers again. I looked at the racks of yodels and ring dings and the cupcakes I wanted. I wished so much I had some money. I was hungry now too.

I took a package of Hostess cupcakes and went to the counter. “That’ll be 95 cents,” the man said.

“Can you put it on my credit?” I asked.

“Do you have credit with us?” the man asked. “What’s your name?” I told him my name and he said something that let me know that what worked for the other customer wasn’t going to work for me.

I put the cupcakes back. I waited. My mother finally came. She had thought I would be outside on the porch. I don’t know why she thought that. She hadn’t told me to wait on the porch. She said she had been driving up and down the road, looking for me.

Monday, September 07, 2009

What Holds It Together

My parents’ anniversary was January 2. When I was little my sisters and I would each sit down at the dining room table and make them a card, then deliver it on the day after New Years. It wasn’t much of a holiday, but better than no holiday at all, the last little whisper of Christmas season specialness that went steadily downhill after presents were opened on Christmas Eve.

If I asked my parents where they met they said “at a party.” There was never more detail given – how did they notice each other? what was the conversation? – and I have pieced together a story from scraps found in other stories they told, and woven it with what makes sense to me.

This is how I see it. My father was a handsome Hungarian refugee living in New Haven because he had an uncle there. He had some kind of graduate student status at Yale, but I can’t quite figure it out because he also could not speak English and was forced to do menial work. The menial work was torture to him – a man who liked to dress up and go to the opera.

He’d come to the States on the invitation of a rich pretty Smith girl on her Junior year abroad in Geneva, but when he showed up at her door at Thanksgiving she didn’t like him anymore. He’d looked better in Europe than in the States.

Life in America has been cruel. He meets my mother. They are both 28 and marriage is way overdue. My father has had one marriage, back in Europe, but it had only lasted 6 months. They are both very alone, both family-less foreigners in Eisenhower United States.

My mother liked European refugees much more than the typical rich boys she was meeting around Yale with their crew cuts and baseball pleasures. She wasn’t a Yale student. She was working in a lab nearby. She meets this tall (taller than her, rare) dark Hungarian refugee – and, look, now he’s in hospital, and she can go visit him.

If someone is sick my mother knows what to do. If they’re sick or in any way down on their luck my mother has a niche she knows how to fit into. If they are well, thriving, soaring, then she feels at a disadvantage.

Shortly after they met – my stitching together of half-told stories – my father was in the hospital. My parents have never named the ailment. It always has had a curtain drawn across it, telling you not to ask. I think my father tried to kill himself with sleeping pills.

My mother was tall and awkward. Glamour was something mysterious that other girls had. She came from the outback of British Columbia where most people quit school after 8th grade, but she had soldiered on through high school and college.

And my mother says they had fun in the beginning, that my father would go camping, and do things on the cheap in the beginning – they were both so penniless that their first home together was a camper parked in New Jersey from where my father commuted to Wall St. She says that once he started getting real work and the makings of a career then he didn’t want to do things like drive cross-country in an old Pontiac anymore. He wanted to buy land, he wanted to impress people.

I remember my first home with them. I was the first child and the three of us lived in the bottom floor of a house – white with red trim – in Yonkers, a house built on a hill so that the front door – which was not ours – opened at sidewalk level, but to get to our door you walked downhill, down the side of the house. There was openness behind the house -- space -- and I sensed a river and a railroad track down below but they were hazy to me, something only grown-ups could see and understand.

My father wears a trench coat in these images. He disappears during the daytime --- out the back, down the hill, like a bird taking off into a landscape I cannot see – and then he’s back at night with a briefcase with mysterious papers inside.

I sit on his lap when he eats breakfast. He puts the sugar in his coffee. I ask him if I can stir it and he says yes. He says yes! I get to be part of the grown-up world for these moments – stirring – this is something he does that I can do just as well. It is pure pleasure.

There is an afternoon about 20 years later when I pick my father up from the airport. I volunteer because I know my father will need as much comfort as possible. He is broke and even broker after this failed business trip that was a fools’ errand at best to begin with. I know neither my mother nor my sisters can lighten his load like I can.

As we drive out of the airport, my father, sunk in the passenger seat, says, “I have not been this low since –“ I don’t know what he calls that time – New Haven? The early fifties? Since I first got to this country? But he says something so that I know we are talking about that dark time, that is connected to the hospital stay, the one when my mother used to visit, the one you don’t ask about.

I have a theory. Something to do with unspoken grief and sadness that gets passed invisibly from parent to child, shrouded in what cannot be spoken at all and what cannot be spoken outside the family circle. I feel ancient crazy sadness inside myself, have felt it since I was little, have always thought I created it. Sometimes it feels like a Greek tragedy where to free yourself you have to find a way – any way -- to sever bonds so ancient they feel like your own flesh and blood.

Friday, August 14, 2009


It happened one evening, after dinner. All of us younger classes were in the hall for an hour of free time before bed, and it was mayhem. The hall looked like it had once been a ballroom with a high ceiling, a long, broad wood floor with alcoves and window seats. At one end was a gallery where musicians might have played in olden times. Girls from a higher class used it as their common room. I had never been up there. Below, the 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds played tag like we used to do. But we were older now. We knew about sex and periods.

That evening I stood and talked to Sheila and Jane. Sheila was a tall, quiet, pretty blonde. Jane was a dumpy, plain girl. They had been best friends for years, as inseparable as a married couple. Jane and Sheila were all right. They were not part of my main gang – the group of five who were the smartest in the class and got into the most trouble – but Jane and Sheila were in the next tier. Friends, just not best friends.

By the end of the evening I had agreed to ask to be transferred out of my cubicle and into their dorm. They needed a third person, they said, and wanted to know if I was interested. Sure, I said, not knowing any other way to answer. I hadn’t been unhappy in the cubicles, though we liked to complain about them. For a moment, there with Jane and Sheila, it seemed adventurous to ask the nuns for a change (I’d never known anyone to do that), to move away from the cubicles where almost everyone else my age was living into a dorm room, which seemed, for a moment, like moving into an apartment.

The three of us became excited, planning our new life. When Sister Felicity blew her whistle, signaling that it was time for bed, Sheila and Jane walked up the big staircase to their dorm room, and I walked down the passageway that led to the chapel, then on past classrooms, through a locker room to the cubicles.

The cubicles were in an ugly new wing, a chunk of practical modernity tacked onto the old school building next to the courtyard and the clock tower where you knew horses had once stood and stamped their hooves on the cobblestones, waiting to be mounted.

“The cubicles” – that’s what we called them -- were two long rows of cells, each with a window, a tiny sink, a bed, a wardrobe and a chair to put your uniform on at night. The floor was white linoleum. At the foot of your bed you drew a white curtain across to close yourself off from the corridor and the cubicle across from you.

Lucy Ann and Madeleine and Nicola and Ann were all there as I brushed my teeth along with everyone else along the corridor, as we all changed into nightgowns and slippers and bathrobes and walked up and down to the toilets at the far end. The usual calling back and forth was there, the usual laughing and jokes that I loved to dive right into and be at the center of. But tonight I realized I had a secret. I couldn’t tell my friends what I’d done. I knew they’d be mad. They wouldn’t like it. I didn’t know why, but I knew I had a problem.

I went to bed with strange feelings of dread, wishing I could turn the clock back and erase the evening. But I was trapped, headed down a chute in the wrong direction. Old Sister Barbara walked up and down the two cubicle corridors a few times in the darkness, singing softly, “When Grandpapa Kissed Grandmama in the Second Minuet”, and then she was gone, but I could not sleep.

I lay in bed in the darkness and silence and began to cry, silently, in the boarding school way, making sure no one could hear me. As I cried I thought about our puppy who my mother had said in her weekly letter had just died at home. The little puppy I had played with that summer. She said Buffin had died. No one knew why. He’d just gotten sick and died. I cried and cried for the hopeful little pup and for my mother who had been so excited about that puppy. She had bought him. We never bought our dogs, but this one she went out and chose and bought because he reminded her of the dog she had as a child. So I cried for my mother too and for how she had taken me to the muddy little traveling amusement park I had begged to visit the week before. I cried, thinking of her expression as she clutched the baby and gripped the bar of some ride, her clothes tailored, a black-and-white check suit with a full skirt and heels. I could tell she wasn’t having fun, but I was. I loved the rollicking capsule we were jammed into, the way it swung and jolted us.

After the ride one of the silver combs from my mother’s hair was missing. My father had brought her those combs from a business trip to Morocco. As I lay in bed the loss of the comb the week before felt catastrophic, as if I had done something criminal and cruel in asking my mother to take me on a ride she didn’t want to go on. And then, look, she had lost a silver comb. I had asked for too much. That’s what it felt like.

I cried, rolling from one wave of sadness to the next and back again – the dog, my mother – and through it all this bitter promise I had made that my friends were not going to like.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What You Can Get Into

I grew up making my bed every morning, thinking you had to. I guess it started in boarding school, 9 years old. The nuns woke us up in the dormitories, small rooms at the top of the grey stone building that had once been a rich person’s mansion. The rooms way up on the third floor – some with slanted ceilings – held different numbers of beds. Some rooms had three or five, a big one had about 11. They woke you up and before going down to Mass or to breakfast, depending on what day it was, you had to turn down your bed – pull down the top sheet and your eiderdown – your quilt. Each girl brought her own eiderdown from home. It was something you could choose, something that did not have to match everyone else. I picked the prettiest one I saw in the store, a delicate pink floral pattern.

Pulling back your covers “aired” your bed while you ate breakfast, something I had never of before, words my mother never used, and then when you came back to your room – we moved in packs – to chapel all together, to the dining room, then back upstairs – you made your bed and brushed your teeth at the sink that each dormitory had.

We washed in that sink every morning from the waist up– baths were scheduled two or three times a week in the evenings, each girl remembering when her shift was. The bathtubs were scattered about the third floor and given numbers so you knew which one to use, tubs set alone in small rooms. Once after I’d gone to bed I was awakened. An older girl, scheduled to have a bath after me in the same tub, had registered a complaint that I had not left the tub clean enough. I was returned to the scene of the crime and went through the motions of cleaning – maybe for the first time that night, maybe for the second – cleaning didn’t register for me yet. I didn’t know what dirt looked like.

There were many moments of sharp shame during the three boarding school years though shame was not a word I used for myself yet. I walked in blindly, nine years old, like a puppy, going where I was led. We had just moved to England in June and in September I began school. I changed schools every year or two so that part did not surprise me. But it still never felt good to walk into a new one. It was a short walk through fire you had to do by yourself.

It made it much worse this time that my school uniform had not arrived and I had to wear my regular clothes when every other girl was in uniform. That was bad. But I did not say anything. That was one thing my mother couldn’t stand – my father either but he was not around much. My mother did not like it when I said I didn’t like something. It made her angry. Her voice got loud and harsh.

Sometimes her hand whipped out and smacked you. It felt mean and scary and I did my best to see her anger coming and get out of the way somehow or other.

So I didn’t say anything about the clothes and was relieved when the right ones finally came and I could match everyone else in my brown tunic, my beige cotton button-down shirt, the striped tie I learned to knot.

I slept in a row of three girls in the corner. You were allowed to bring trinkets to place on a bureau top – I brought my two kissing-alligators – Mr. and Mrs. Florida that Leslie Rider had brought for me in second grade – and the head of Abraham Lincoln that looked like it was made of sugar. I told my new friends it was made of sugar. I lied sometimes – I always had – to increase my street cred. I was on TV I told a kid once, figuring there was no way she could find me out. It sounded so good I could not resist.

“Go upstairs and wash between your legs,” the nun had called me up to the front of the class as we sat doing homework. She murmured this to me, letting me know that I smelled bad. I swallowed it down, went right upstairs to one of the tubs on the third floor and did as I was told, hoping to scrub away all offense. These things could come at you from any direction. You’re swinging along, blithe, and then someone informs you that you’ve made a very big mistake.

When it happened at the end, when my friends turned on me – the friends I had had so much fun with for years, the ones to whom I wrote deliciously long letters during school breaks when we were apart for four long weeks, the ones who sent me back fat envelopes with long handwritten missives in return – the friends with whom I got into trouble beautifully, like an art form – getting detentions for sneaking into forbidden territory, getting marks in the nuns’ little books carried in their hidden pockets – friends with whom I rode a wonderful wave of play and then the rising tide of sexual information. When one day they would not speak to me because I had chosen the wrong roommates – I asked not to return the following year. I asked my mother, scared and embarrassed to want something that much.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why Would I?

I call my mother, never sure. I call her in the moments when it’s been not only at least a couple weeks since we’ve spoken, but also moments when I am pretty convinced the obligation quotient is fairly low and I am doing this pretty much because I want to. If you asked me why I wanted to I’d have a vague answer – I want to be in touch, there is a definite sense that having my mother on this earth and available to call is an option I will only have for a little more time. Maybe ten more years. Maybe much less. Who knows when a person is 85? Even if she still drives and works and does all the things she has always done, more or less, in smaller doses.

Sometimes she refers to the future, just a little. We never talk about it for more than a sentence or two. This time she mentions how she doesn’t see well and how she probably won’t be able to renew her drivers license come the Spring her current one expires.

“How do you feel about that?” I asked. This was take the conversation down a non-family road. The normal thing would have been to say something that didn’t rock the boat or try to change its course.

I guess recently I’ve been wondering if maybe I’m too shut down when it comes to my mother. Maybe she attempts a little more contact, maybe I rebuff her.

“So how does that make you feel?” was a little tentative experiment.

“Well, you know,” my mother said matter of factly, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” and case was closed.

All the doors in my family are closed. We do not open them and we do not look behind them. We are unknowns to each other.

In this last conversation with my mother on the phone a few days ago I noticed myself not asking about my two sisters nor my father. When I talk to my mother it’s a matter of coming up with questions for her to answer. I have taken to asking about the neighbors as if they were family members, which for a few years – that at the time felt permanent – they almost were. I could tell that since these neighbors are fading out of my mother’s life and long ago faded from mine I won’t be able to use them much longer.

Until recently I asked about my sisters though we haven’t spoken to each other for a couple of years. I have idle curiosity. To ask about them feels like leafing through a People magazine. But they too are floating farther and farther from view and now if my mother doesn’t mention them we leave it out.

And my father, always slightly present for me, a dim figure in a dark apartment in Budapest. I have no idea how he spends his days but I know what I will get if I try to find out – simply more of the man I have always had, a person whose presence does not help me stay connected to who I am.

When he dies will I go to Budapest? I wonder things like this. That’s what people do. Their parent dies, they’re not expected at work the next morning. They go to where the action is. But will I? My sisters will be all over that stuff. They love that stuff. They do what they are supposed to do – when my mother can no longer live in her house they will organize the next step, I’m sure they’ve already done some research and it will probably involve my mother going out to them, to northern California.

I imagined the moment of the funeral. Why would I go, I wondered. I could not think of a reason. These things will be their show and I don’t want to be in their show. They love taking care of business and being adults.

I did make one inquiry. A good friend of mine had let drop something about a really cool community she had found – or her daughter had found actually – where she planned to go when her time was up, a place where older people were welcomed. It was in New Jersey and I got the website from her. It felt strange to be doing what I’ve heard and read about so many of my contemporaries doing.

But I knew right away it was no place for my mother. It just wasn’t. It made no sense.

And so I let it all be. Let my mother’s life run its course. Let my father’s life run its. Feel like a bad girl sometimes, but just keep trying to have the fullest life I can have.

A New Blog for Lovers of Real Memoir

I am very excited about this new blog by memoir writer, Alice Schuette: White Picket Fence Syndrome. Take a look!

Sunday, July 19, 2009


“So, how will you write about this evening?” asked Stu. It was a sweet, touching question. He was sitting out in the small audience with me up front, reading bits and pieces from my book and talking about things like writing and memoir and whether I edit my writing or not.

Stu is a big guy in a denim shirt. His hair is white. He looks a bit like a rancher though he lives in Rhinebeck, a wealthy man who looks like he’s been running things for a few decades.

“How are you going to write about tonight?” he asked, honestly wanting to know.

I said maybe I’d start with how an hour ago I realized the seam on my tight red dress was coming apart, how I searched my friend’s abandoned house where I was crashing for the afternoon for a safety pin at least, looking in all the places where a house might have tossed a stray safety pin years ago, and though I found many such places I never did find the pin. How I turned off at a supermarket on my way to the bookstore -- still thinking this was an emergency – 40 minutes before the reading, to buy needle and thread, and immediately realized there was no time for this and swinging back onto the road with the phrase “The Show Must Go On” in my head, imagining how actors must often have to leap onto the stage knowing their zipper is broken and you just have to pummel through.

I didn’t say to Stu how I might write about how before the reading, before people had really started to arrive, how when Greg my photographer friend, a friendly energetic Canadian, asked me to come to the door of the store, to lean out and smile so he could get the store name and my face in one shot, how it reminded me totally of my wedding morning when I was getting dressed and Ben, another photographer friend, wanted me to come out for a shot but I didn’t want anyone to see me yet so I just stuck my head out the door, looked into the long black lens and thought “This is it, this is my Vogue shot, the one time in my life that a real photographer is going to focus on me and make me glamorous and beautiful.” But there I was again, at the door of Oblong Books, sheltered from the rain by an awning, in the exact same pose 8 years later.

Jules was there with her husband, Bob. They introduced themselves. I had met Jules on Twitter and now here she was in front of me, a real person with a big natural smile, brown hair, brown eyes, no make-up, a pony tail. I immediately liked her. I introduced her to Jim who was pouring himself a wine – “Jules,” I said, “this is Jim – Jules & Jim!” I cried – a reference that the girls, Anna and Kristen, later at the Rhinecliff Hotel where we went for drink, didn’t get.

“I can’t believe I am hanging out with people whose parents were hippies,” I said. It is a strange thing, to be having a drink with the children of my generation.

We sat at a wooden table by the wall – I was relieved we didn’t have to order food. It was a friendly accommodating place. We knew the two guys making the music in the corner with rough voices and plugged in guitars – I wasn’t listening except when they started Knock Knock Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. I am always glad when my ear picks up background music that I didn’t think I was paying attention to.

Last week Nick Flynn, a great memoir writer, late in the café came over to Fred’s and my table. It was a celebratory moment, we had just opened the Memoir Festival with a rollicking panel discussion and I was making my way through a huge plate of French fries. Nick said I should read a memoir called Evening’s Empire. “Oh,” I said, “that’s a quote from something –“ I couldn’t remember what it was, but started piecing the words together as they came to me, not knowing what I was saying until the last line rolled into view:

Oh I know that evening’s empire
has returned into sand,
vanished from my hand,
left me blindly here to stand,
but still not sleeping.
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man…

I was surprised that Nick didn’t join in. I thought everyone vaguely my age had words like that tattooed on their blood vessels, but he just kind of looked at me almost in wonder as if I were performing a literary feat, which then I actually did take some pride in.

I don’t know all Dylan’s lyrics by any means. There are huge holes in my knowledge but what I know I know deeply and well.

The first Dylan I heard was when I was 12 or 13. I heard him sing one morning out of the small black transistor radio that I had taken to borrowing indefinitely from my mother. I played it late at night under the covers, listening to rock & roll on Radio Luxembourg, the cool station that reached England from Luxembourg after dark. And I played the radio – now just junky morning pop – as I got dressed in my blue pleated skirt school uniform. Olivia Newton John was having a hit with a song called If Not For You, and the DJ that morning must have been feeling ornery. And now, he said, we’ll hear the man who wrote that song, and on came Dylan singing Olivia’s hit.

I was horrified. It was hideous. I wanted Olivia back with her blonde hair and her smooth syllables.

By 14 and 15 though I was getting craggier myself, was back in the States where I had the whole attic to myself and though I had no friends through American 10th, 11th and 12th grades, I had my Panasonic stereo with two speakers – the fanciest thing I had ever owned and the only reason I had it was that it was leftover from my father closing down the apartment he’d lived in for a year, trying to make it as a consultant in Washington DC.

By then Dylan was my muse, the one I listened to more than anyone else – especially in the long summers, lying on the leftover couch in the screened-in porch where there was some kind of record player, listening to the double album of his greatest hits – the only Dylan record I had – records were out-of-reach expensive, at Christmas I put them on my list and received two or three from my parents but it was always a problem – how to have enough records, how to choose one over all the others. I depended on the radio.

I lay on the piece of sofa – one half of an el-shaped crushed velvet sofa, also a leftover from the DC apartment – one of those pieces of my father’s life that hadn’t included the rest of us – and listened to every single word that Dylan sang, over and over, listening as he painted scenes and dialog that I puzzled over but also understood in some wordless way.

It is only fairly recently that I understood the lines “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.”

I always heard it as: Stuck inside a mobile with the Memphis blues again – stuck inside a mobile, like one made by Alexander Caulder, I thought. Tangled up somewhere hopelessly and unable to get out. Which wasn’t so far off the mark.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Written at the Memoir Festival Workshop This Past Weekend at Omega

He was tall enough though not a tall man. He had gone bald on top but somehow this didn’t make him look old or ugly. His brown eyes were bright and full of activity. His lips curved. But probably his strongest feature was his voice. It was strong. Not unusually deep. Not an obvious radio voice or anything, but his voice was strong and always sure and the words spilled from his mouth in an accent all their own, a Britishy accent that he had taught himself fiercely in London when a younger man – he was in his late 30s now. He’d created a smooth English-speaking voice that wasn’t uptight and rigid, but which covered perfectly his Greek origins. He did not at all sound like the other Greeks I met all with their quickly identifiable and lampoonable accents.

He was smooth in everything without being conventional. His clothes always looked expensive even when they were years old, even if way back then they had been cheap or hand-me-downs. He took care of every item of clothing as if it were precious – never pulled up the sleeves of his sweater to the elbow because that stretched out the wrist. But he lounged when at rest, leaning back with a blue and white cup and saucer in hand, drinking his strong coffee, looking out over the zinnias growing in the roof garden, his legs extended, bare feet, ankles crossed, his robe of burgundy paisley silk tied around his frame. And he moved quickly when he needed to, leaping onto subways in his white pressed cotton yoga trousers, shirt ironed, perky cap on his head. You didn’t notice he was taking care of his clothes. You only knew that if you lived with him.

I was his yoga student along with several others and this is not a love story. He chose Mark as his lover, a boy in his late 20s, a few years older than me. Blonde Mark, dancer with broad high-arched feet, with large long-lashed eyes and a wide sensuous mouth, a boy who was going bald in the same way Natvar was.

So I was not his lover. I moved in anyway. To the school when a room opened up in the back, not really a room, more like a walk-in closet. It was New York City then, this was before Greece, and I moved in because a passion for yoga and an exploration of meditation seemed like the best way to go. Nothing else was really working.

I’d been back in Manhattan and hadn’t fallen in love with anyone. I had assumed that by now I would have. And it was crucial that I do. I’d left Jeffrey back in L.A. He had been at the center of everything for the last five years and the only way I thought I could really move on would be to fall in love with someone else. Oh man, it would be so great to have Jeffrey fade finally, permanently, into the background instead of still trying all the time not to think of him.

I had tried very hard to get the lover thing going. Picked up a couple men here and there at parties and though I tried very hard to spin them into something interesting they fell far short and made me miss the intensity of me-and-Jeffrey even more.

In desperation I’d looked up my high school boyfriend whom I had never liked that much but knew I could easily entice, and entice him I did, right away from his plain quiet no-competition girlfriend, but even that petered out in a couple months for him, this time, as much as for me.

Plus, this being-a-writer that I had set out to become with such optimism in the Spring, certain that all I had to do was quit my suffocating 9-5 job and stay home at my desk like Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag and find interesting non-conformist jobs to do for money like all real artists found like carpentry and selling used furniture on the street – it was Fall now and Winter and even though I had gone hitchhiking by myself in Nova Scotia, had injected every correct ingredient into my life for a fine-tasting stew, it was all tasting like same old. Same old just me not amounting to anything with nothing to be proud of. I need to be able to have something interesting to say to people in conversation. Otherwise they will overlook me. As well they should.

Friday, June 26, 2009

What A Letter Brings, Part One

I received a letter from my father yesterday. From several yards away I caught sight of the envelope tossed onto a heap of newspapers and mail and instantly went into alert. I don’t need to see the envelope from close up to know it’s from Hungary. It’s in the handwriting. It wasn’t my father’s handwriting. He doesn’t write his own envelopes anymore. It was that I recognized that type of handwriting that I associate with Hungary and with Europe in general. I see that handwriting on an envelope and I am pretty sure there is a message from my father. Letters like this only arrive a few times a year.

I open the letter immediately, standing in the kitchen while Fred opens the oven and stirs something in a frying pan.

The letter is typed, another clue that my father is not well enough to write. I imagine someone else typing it, probably the woman who comes every week or so to do his secretarial things. She speaks English. She has been working for my father for twenty-five years and – with her husband -- has become a close friend of his. A surrogate daughter perhaps.

He is writing because he received the copy of my book that I sent. I only sent it because my mother asked me to, even slipped me a $20-bill to make sure I did it. It’s true – I probably wouldn’t have sent it except that I knew I had her money. Plus, she had gone and told him about it. I wouldn’t have done that either, but there it was, she had told him just as if he didn’t appear in the book.

My father isn’t a huge figure in the book, but there’s a few paragraphs I’d just as soon he didn’t read, ones in which he stars. But my mother somehow didn’t get that and just thought well, if someone writes a book their parents will be proud and ought to know about it.

My father’s letter was short, less than a page, typed and double-spaced, with many grammatical mistakes he never would have made 25 years ago when he returned to Budapest after 30 years in the States.

He thanks me for the book. Says that he and his sister are reading it together – he must be translating out loud to her. He says they have read only 50 pages so far. They are reading slowly, he says. Proof, he says, that they are reading carefully. There is a tone of sincerity in his voice that I note, but still hold at arm’s length.

There, finally, is his signature, this definitely in his own hand. It is a spindly version of the proud hieroglyph that used to be his flourish.

For a moment I think to call. And immediately think no. I dislike our calls, our conversations, our contact so much. I can’t bear it, ever. Just because there will be a time when I will not be able to hear the voice that was the soundtrack of my childhood doesn’t make me want to listen to it now.

Or does it? I could call. Hear his voice. I don’t think there’s a lot of time left. It’s not that I want to hear or say anything in particular. Maybe just be there. Maybe.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


My father wanted to be a writer. When I was little he had a typewriter. I remember a black and white photo of him in shorts, shirtless, at a card table, bare feet, a typewriter, his hair thick and black.

I don’t remember seeing him type. I saw some of the thick books of typed onionskin that he’d had bound many years later.

One set he gave me, three long essays, almost all of it trying to make points about economics and government, material that was impenetrable to me. But here and there would be a glimmer of something softer, and more personal: the mention of a coffee shop on Wall Street, the mention of a child at a window. He wrote one piece called Suddenly Late Summer. He wrote it in the late fifties, at the real end of a real summer – I have always imagined he wrote it in the bare-bones farmhouse in Columbia County that we owned for a few years, driving up from Yonkers. It was a place of bare wood floors, card tables and rhubarb growing wild that my mother would exclaim about and cook.

Suddenly Late Summer though was another treatise and after an opening paragraph of readability drifted into techno-talk I couldn’t read. The title has stayed with me though and the feeling it evokes.

He wrote a book in the seventies, spent more money than he had to have someone publish it. It was supposed to make him famous. When I went to see him the first time in Budapest after he moved back, I saw a copy of the book, shrink-wrapped, lying by itself on a small round table. In Budapest, it looked pretty good. If I were a not-too-savvy Hungarian I’d be impressed by this man who’d had a career in the States and a book in English to prove it.

In 1981 when I was living in NYC, when I’d just quit my publishing job to be a writer though I had no idea how or where to begin, I wrote two pages that I liked. The piece was called Small Runaway and it was about a morning I spent in Van Cortlandt Park, taking the #1 subway up north as far as it would go and then wandering for a few hours in woods. I wrote about what I saw – the pencil-yellow leaves on the ground, sitting while it rained, “tented" under a poncho, an abandoned car, a menacing woman in a black tee shirt.

I gave it to my father to read. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of his response – where we were – but I remember him going through it and pointing out his favorite phrases. He took it seriously.

Again, in the late nineties came a burst of writing and I sent him two poems.

I did not show writing to my mother like this, in the same way. I did read her a short story about being molested by a stray farm boy while visiting her relatives – an event that happened completely on her watch – her response was only an uncomfortable and incredulous, “That didn’t really happen, did it?”

My father liked the poems and again wrote me something about them in which I could tell he chose his words carefully – partially because he had a real interest, partially because he likes to be a man of letters.

I haven’t re-read the letter he sent last week though I have noticed it several times, lying on my desk.

But when I read his sentences about “reading carefully” I again felt his great respect for this thing of writing – as if he were a fellow worshiper at my side.

We rarely liked the same books. When I grew up I realized suddenly that his tastes were much lighter than mine – Somerset Maugham and Iris Murdoch. He always read, always read slowly and now that I think of it I imagine he is underlining throughout my book, something he did obsessively, hardly able to read even a newspaper without Mont Blanc ballpoint in hand to underline not just points he thought well made but just phrases that he liked.

As a teenager beginning to challenge him I would sometimes open a book he was reading and say, “But Dad, why did you mark this?” and I would read out loud a random selection of words he had marked. My father would look at me almost flirtatiously, and laugh – he didn’t know either, but he liked creating mystery and mystique. He wanted to be a personality, which created a huge impassable barrier to who he really was, something he didn’t really want to know.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Shiny Floor

It was an apartment on the top floor of a three-story building, one apartment per floor. I never saw the other tenants. The stairwell leading up to the top had wide marble steps and smooth white walls and it curved gracefully up. Your footsteps echosed hollow as you climbed.

Our front door at the top was heavy and made of wood. once Natvar slapped me in the face there. I was coming in and he met me at the door, furious at the mistake I had made, and he hit me in the face. I didn’t say anything. I thought by then that perhaps it must be true that there was something mentally wrong with me.

I was tall and thin. I wore my hair up. I wore pressed blouses and narrow skirts and white stockings and leather pumps – all clothes that felt foreign, but what did not feel natural to me must be good. I was trying very hard, every minute, to get it right.

When you stepped inside the apartment there was a short hallway with low shelves of books on either side, just a few feet, a narrow space before you stepped into the spacious el-shaped room. You stepped into the living room, two white couches that we had made – they looked expensive because they were so white, but they had been cheap to make. The two couches were at right angles to each other, a square glass-topped coffee table in front of them. On the low table were Vogue magazines, lined up carefully like in a doctor’s office. Natvar wanted Tracy and me to look like the women in the magazines. “Why not?” he reasoned.

My job was to keep the apartment clean – the living room and the dining area with its expanse of shiny pale yellow parquet floor and Natvar-and-Mark’s bedroom. Once a week I did their bathroom and bedroom while they went out. I had to be done, relaxed and pleasant when they returned, otherwise Natvar would be very angry and lunch would turn into a tirade during which he would prove through beautiful verbal acrobatics that not only was I pathetic and inept, but I was vicious and unloving.

His bathroom had blue tiles that I must wipe carefully so no drips – pale and white – shoed. There were white shelves around the sink. I must take every item off those shelves, dust each item and wipe the shelves. Many of the items were the leftover empty boxes of expensive soaps. Natvar liked the feeling of abundance it gave him to have those shelves of attractive little boxes, even if they were empty. We could not afford expensive soaps or expensive anythings. I shoplifted whatever I could.

I did the shopping every morning, walking to the supermarket about 15 minutes away in the narrow blue skirt I wore most days, a skirt I had stolen back in New York from a well known client of Natvar’s. I had stolen a few pairs of shoes and a beautiful suit too that I wore when I needed to look especially together.

I purchased at the supermarket and stole to fill in the gaps. I had a certain amount of money, enough, Natvar said to feed an army. But I could never make it stretch. I had to buy cheese and olives, bread, yogurt, milk – everything precise – this kind of yogurt, that kind of bread – all the kinds Natvar had said were the right kind.

I walked home with heavy shopping bags in each hand. I wore foundation make-up and earrings for these daily expeditions because I was supposed to be the secretary, the assistant, to a very great man.

I had volunteered for shopping, just as I had back in New York. Mark couldn’t do it. Natvar needed his brains, talent, and love right by him almost all the time. Tracy was supposed to cook and do laundry. That left me.

Natvar is dead now. So is Mark. So is Ariadne, Natvar’s daughter, who was there too, an 8-year-old girl with blond curls and a pink terrycloth bathrobe. Just Tracy and I are left. And she doesn’t want to talk about any of it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

You Probably Won't Like This One

“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.” – Paul Gaugin

When Jeffrey comes in I don’t know which way it’s going to go. When I am in the blue bedroom and he comes in, or when I come home after work into the white cottage with lime-green shag. I take my cues.

In the summer apartment with the pale shiny wood floor always spotless and the sliding glass doors that lead out onto the terra cotta roof garden – in that place, the tension is high. I awaken there in the bed that is tucked into the tiny room off the kitchen – a room where a person who wants to appear rich could house a maid – a bed that I will cover with a piece of maroon velvety fabric during the day so that clients can sit on it as if it were a couch. There I wake up in the morning. There are no choices. I must shower and dress and fulfill my duties. I have a set of duties here – setting the breakfast table exactly the way it was set yesterday – blue and white china we bought at Bloomingdales on my mother’s credit card which we will never pay.

I have been a prisoner most of my life.

Dexter sits next to the window in his office while I sit across from him on the couch. I opened the window while he was coming up the stairs. The room felt stuffy and Fred had complained. Dexter sits next to the open window now. He is dressed in casual black. His hair, eyes and beard are also dark.

Somehow the spotlight of the conversation has settled on me. “Close your eyes,” says Dexter softly. “Finish this sentence,” he says. “If I don’t do it…”

“Nobody will,” I say, nt letting myself pause to come up with something more interesting.

“I have to do it because…”

“I can do it better.”

“If I make a mistake…”

“I will get in trouble.”

My mother called a couple of nights ago. Or I called her back. She had suggested a visit for this coming Sunday. For a day or two I had tried to see if I could fit in a visit with her and still feel like I had had a weekend – an opening, a space without restriction – but by Thursday I’d realized I was feeling completely squished and not only would I take a sick day off from work, I would postpone time with mother too.

I called. Came up with questions so there’d be a semblance of conversation. She asks me questions too sometimes, but I don’t like to give her answers. She has never been my real friend. She has not been an enemy in the dramatic sense of one – in easy fiction friends and foes are so easy to spot. There were years when I thought of my mother as my friend even though even then I didn’t want to tell her anything.

I explain how I can’t come this Sunday. It all feels plausible. Then she mentions my book. She has only mentioned its content once before – in one sentence – and now she brngs it up again, and starts to tell me what me and my younger sister were like as children.

It is interesting to me only because it is her perspective. It doesn’t change what I already know of that time from my own memory.

“Liz was so shy, and you were so bold when guests came, and those Hungarians could be so thoughtless – they didn’t know any better, they didn’t have children – if your Canadian grandmother had been there she would have made up for it and cuddled Liz. And Liz isn’t shy anymore, you know. She gives talks now and everything.”

I don’t care. My mother’s flounderings, attempts at communication, do not open my door. Her versions of the stories have nothing to do with me. Her blind spots and inabilities.

“But call, even if you aren’t coming down for awhile,” she says in that tone I recognize from the ancient days when that tone could immobilize me, freeze me with fear. It is a veiled threat. It is cold and hard and I ease further and further away.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Quiet Battle

You had to take sides in my house because there was a fight going on all the time. Usually, especially during the day, you couldn’t hear it. You could hear it at night, sometimes, after you went to bed. I could hear it from the darkness of my single bed, coming from downstairs, my mother’s raised voice, my father’s angry but fiercely controlled replies. That sound made me rigid with fear. I willed it to stop.

During the day the fight, the war, the battle was more subtle and you could pretend it wasn’t there.

The worlds of my two parents seemed like two different places that did not intersect except for the strange mistake that brought them together under this one roof.

That’s why it was easier when my father went away. Even though I liked him so much better, even though he was the one who did the fun things, it was easier when he didn’t come home. Then I just had to live in one world.

I noticed that I didn’t like him coming home when we were living in the small white house in England, when I had moved back home from boarding school. I was used to liking my father. “You’re Daddy’s girl, aren’t you?” the old nun had observed one evening after my father had visited and I had demurred proudly. I had never heard that expression before – Daddy’s girl – and thought the nun had created it just for me.

But now it is Friday afternoon and I am sitting alone in my mother’s bedroom, the one with the pink and white striped drapes that don’t look like curtains that belong in a room with my mother. this is a rented furnished house and so we live with what is here.

I am sitting alone in my mother’s room, watching our small black and white TV set. I like just sitting here, watching the afternoon kid show.

My father comes in downstairs. I hear the front door close and I hear him walk up the carpeted stairs, slowly. He always moves slowly. He has been gone all week. That’s what he does now. He lives in an apartment in the city during the week and comes home on the weekend. I have never questioned this pattern. It fits my father. It feels natural. His office has always been central to his life. It defines where we live – what house, what country, what school I go to – it takes him away on business trips. He carries a briefcase because of it, wears suits and ties, has heavy leather luggage.

Now he opens my mother’s bedroom door and peers in. He doesn’t come into the room. “And what are we up to here?” he asks. He has a smile on his face, but not the kind of smile that makes me want to smile back. It is a smile that is forcing me into some kind of corner. I don’t want to talk. I want to be alone and watch my show. “Ahhh!” says my father, his eyes falling upon the screen. “I see you are watching something very important.” A man on the screen is strumming a guitar, sitting on a high stool, and singing a song that is not a love song or a folk song. I want to listen to the words. I want to understand the song.

I know my father sees a useless person on the screen, some idiot with a guitar. He already knows what kind of music is the best – Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Bach, Schuman, Schubert, Verdi – that’s about it, plus Hungarian folk music, many songs of which he likes to sing in the car. That is music. That is the end of it.

So I know when he sees me watching TV he sees a girl who is not as special as he would like her to be. She is wasting time, doing something very ordinary. He has tried so hard to make her special, but she is ordinary. Like her mother.

I don’t look at him. “Hi, Dad,” I say. I don’t want him to know how I feel. I disguise it thinly but just within the line of acceptability, a borderline I know well --- how much fight is allowed to surface and how much must be held back inside the dam.