Tuesday, April 28, 2009


The floor is hard smooth cold linoleum. It is my first Manhattan address. I am so glad to have my own place in New York City. It is something I have wanted for a long time, especially since I met the New York City boy who became my boyfriend. He has a place in New York City. He’s always had one. He grew up here, which is something I will unfortunately never be able to claim, that will always be a drawback, but at least I am here now.

I feel at home in this city, moving on its subways and sidewalks. I feel like I belong here, but somehow when I come inside into this room New York City leaves me, its influence recedes and I am exposed as the girl without friends and nothing to do.

But who can I be friends with? The girl in science lab? She’s so drab. The other girls in the suite? I like it when they’re there when I come in, sitting around the table in the hall by the black wall phone, but I can’t sit down with them, they know each other, I don’t know what to say to them, my words sound hollow, I hate saying empty words like: how as your day, like: it’s so cold out – I say a few things to them and then I slip into the room at the end of the hall that is mine.

My boyfriend has an apartment where he goes to school in another town, a place with Salvation Army furniture and a tiny kitchen that he cooks big meals in. He has a TV and a stereo and a long shelf of records he’s been listening to for years. He has a phone and a bong and an electric typewriter. When I am there it feels like something is always happening. He is always on the move, always moving – lighting the bong, wanting to go out for pizza or Chinese or a movie, watching TV, buying a record. I do all these things with him.

And then when I am here and he is not, none of those things interest me though I know he is in his town, doing that endless string. He never says, I don’t know what to do. Never pauses. Never walks just to walk.

At night, it’s cold out, I return to this room, so small. Thank God no one can see me in here with these books I have looked at, lined upon the shelves, so many times. There are no curtains or shades on the window. It is a blank black square. How can I get through the few hours of evening. I must stay awake until 11 because then my boyfriend will call. He will be wide awake and I will pretend that I am too.

But I long to hear his voice, the tangle of his scratchy voice that wraps me in a blanket, wraps me. I clutch at its comfort, wondering when it will be taken away.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


I think that writing memoir is the most potent action I can take in this world.

When I sit down to write – not an easy place to get to – I feel all my energies and abilities come into one focus, one laser point – I feel like a bird, pausing in mid-air, then plummeting down into the waves, intent on that one fish that will save it.

I write, then come up for air, then look at what I have unearthed. It usually looks like just a handful of dust, not worth much. I could easily toss it out and forget about it. But I don’t. Not anymore. I add it to the pile. I am not sure what I am building, but this is all I have. For some reason, it is my most precious thing, the one thing that feels purely my own.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Long Grey Dress

My sister wears a grey dress, a frumpy cotton one with a belt and a longish full skirt, so old-fashioned and out of place that it’s cool. I would never have noticed that dress if I’d seen it, never have thought to put such an ugly thing on, but I admire this quirky choice. Her long light brown hair is scooped back with a red bandana.

She is different than she used to be. She used to be nothing, someone who stayed below the radar, who kept to her place as number two, as younger sister who couldn’t do much.

She is stronger now, more daring. She is 15 and I am 18. She even looks pretty to me now. And I am unsure of every step.

She has a boyfriend, now, after the episode, and a few months later another one. They make dandelion wine in my mother’s kitchen. She says she won’t eat meat anymore. She is angry, defiant, daring us to stop her.

My mother is frightened. I am frightened too.

The night she swallowed the pills I am in the kitchen, home from college, Christmas vacation, a dark evening, back home, everything quiet. My parents are reading in the living room, separately. Each sister is in her own room. There’s no music playing, no conversation. This is normal.

I hear my sister call downstairs for my mother. I just keep going with the dishes at the sink. Everything is still normal. A minute or two later my mother comes downstairs and says that Chris has swallowed pills, they must take her to the hospital. This is severe and new and I have no script at all for this. Any word I say sounds wrong so I do not say much besides, “okay.” I don’t see my sister. I stay in the kitchen and the three of them leave the house.

My smallest sister, 6 years old, comes into the kitchen now. She is wearing small gold-framed glasses. She walks into my arms and starts to cry. “It’s okay,” I say, wanting to comfort her. “It’s all right.”

Something in me is just stunned and unmoving. We go to see her in the hospital a day or two later, my mother driving Esther and me. We try to be normal. It is embarrassing to have nothing to say after such a big event. Surely there is the right thing to say right now to lipe up to something this big – my 15-year old sister’s suicide attempt. If this were a movie there’d be tons of dialog. But there isn’t anything, except now I move to New York City as planned, to the new school, into a cold grey winter, me in my room alone at night not knowing how to enter a life that would have people in it. There must be something very very wrong with me that no one is coming, that I am alone here. This flaw must never ever be seen by anyone.

I stopped eating that winter.


My father stretched out on his back in satisfaction. It was the weekend so he was home. This time everyone had gone on this walk. We had driven somewhere – my father driving, wearing “black glasses” – that’s what he called them, and I still think of the word “sunglasses” as an unnecessarily fancy word that other people use.

My father drives, his thick fingers on the steering wheel, his arm out the open window, rapping his gold wedding band on the metal roof of the car in time with the song he is singing, a Hungarian song that I sing along with. I know the tunes and the strings of syllables that go with them. We sing loud and look out straight ahead at the road.

My mother sings too though more softly and she looks out the side window. She is dressed in brown colors, smaller than my father.

My and my little sister are in the backseat. She is doing something. I don’t pay attention. I lean forward a little, between the two front seats, singing.

My mother points and says how the dirt in Virginia is red. She likes this the way she liked that the boards in our New York house were wide and therefore old. The dirt she points to doesn’t look red to me. It looks rusty brown. Red is the color of my new ski jacket.

We walk uphill through woods. At the top we stop. My parents point at all the hills and woods spread out in the front of us. This when my father lies down on the smooth rock, propped up so he can keep looking, his suit jacket around his shoulders like a cape. My mother says, “Look at the view!” in the same way she talks about the red dirt.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I look at the scenes of my childhood as if from a distance, watching the small dark-haired child with bangs. She is in the living room. Her father sweeps into the room, or out of it, always speaking with some kind of flourish as if he were perpetually on stage, as if he feels always that he is being watched. the child is the one who is watching him and this pleases the father very much. He looks back at her. They look at each other, and the father always makes sure he is worth watching.

That’s what it’s like, my father always wanting to be a personality, someone you remember and want to tell other people about, the way my father liked to tell me about the elderly gentleman who, when all the families of the Budapest apartment building were seeking shelter in the basement of the building while the Germans bombed, while they were all crowded into one room, this elderly gentleman complained when his wife brought him a cup of tea in a cup that did not match the saucer. This image was stamped in my father’s mind and I could tell by the way he repeated it to me – usually on our walks together, he and I walking together every weekend, he inviting me to come with him – not my mother, not my younger sisters – which made sense: we knew Mum and Dad did not like each other, and the two sisters were too young. Though I had walked with my father when I was their age. So I am the perfect choice – for my father the walks are his chance to talk to me. He talks without stopping in the car which is parks a thte entrance to the park which is a huge stretch of land with roads, fields and woods – even a house or two – we walk for two or three hours without seeing anyone else and my father talk the whole time. I am mostly quiet next to him, walking.

There is the walk when he asks me what word we use in school for a boy’s penis. I am in first grade, and we do have a word for this. “Wiener,” I answer, surprised to be entering this territory with my father. This kind of thing I only talk about with my friends. It doesn’t exist at home. I am alone with my father. We are in the woods and he tells me what men and women do. I listen. I know it is a secret.

There is a walk many years later, in the big park, on a Sunday, my mother left behind in the house where she is cooking lunch – roasting beef, boiling potatoes, chopping salad – while my sisters play cards upstairs – we are walking and my father is telling me something about the Catholic church and pope. He asks me something and I only half-respond. This angers him. “Come on,” he says, prodding me. I am supposed to converse and I don’t want to. I don’t know why I’m this angry. I know I am wrong and bad for not speaking. I wish I could cover up what I’m feeling and let something smooth and entertaining and smart roll off my tongue, but it is stuck. I have failed. the same way my mother fails, the same way my sisters fail, by being ordinary and uninteresting.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

In the House

I sit in the living room with the grown-ups, my parents’ friends. I am surrounded by them. They are talking to each other, laugh laugh laughing, drinking their grown-up drinks.

We are in this house. I came here with my mother and father. There were workmen here for awhile. They sat down at lunch time at the bottom of the hill, outside, where we park our yellow car. They ate big thick sandwiches. My mother stood in the kitchen wiping white paste onto the walls with a wide metal knife. There were no guests then. Now there are.

My mother goes up the stairs. I can see her bare legs through the railings as she goes up. I can’t see her head, her face. Just her legs going up.

“Joan,” says one of the women near me, “your legs are so scratched! You must have been working outside!”

This makes my mother different from the other women here. Their legs will never be scratched like my mother’s. they don’t work outside like she does. They wear stockings and skirts. My mother is outside a lot. She likes the garden. I can tell that she is the ugly one here, the one the others do not like. My father is here with the guests. My mother is separate from them.

I can tell she is separate also because of how she is not smooth the way they are. Her face doesn’t really laugh or smile the way theirs do. Her laugh is not a real laugh. She looks like a kid in school who is pretending. She sits on the edge of the couch.

They call her Joan. Even her name is like a rock, weighing her down. It is as if the other grown-ups are standing on one side of a lake all together, close together, looking at her, laughing at her – not in a big obvious way but in their eyes. My father is with them.

I pull away from my mother. I don’t want to be like her, unable to protect herself.

It is the same house that we come back to many years later after living in England, but it has been made to look like a much more acceptable house, a house like ones that other people live in. I like it better. It isn’t the place with broken glass in the dirt all around it anymore. Beige wall to wall carpet covers the bare boards that used to put splinters in my feet.

It doesn’t have Hungarians in it anymore. Those bands of grown-ups don’t come anymore. Once or twice some couple from my father’s office comes, and he runs out that morning to shop for things my mother doesn’t think are necessary.

The people never come back a second time. I know my father always wants to impress them. He asks me to pull up all the grass that has grown up in the white stone path that leads to the front door, and after lunch he asks me to play the piano for everyone. I resist as nicely as I can, but my father always presses and presses and I have to play. My playing is laden with mistakes. Though I have good intentions, I never practice and dread the weekly lesson with the unfriendly English woman.

After the people leave – they drive back to the city – I do the dishes. My father goes to read. My mother goes to read. My sisters are each reading in their rooms. Sunday.

We gather in the evening in the living room to watch Masterpiece Theater. The TV is small enough to be moved from room to room, a black and white. We put it on the coffee table. My father sits on the couch with my mother and sisters. I sit on the floor, my back against the couch. The Brandenburg concerto pipes up as the show opens and Alistair Cook, a dapper Englishman welcomes us. My father is the one who speaks, who says something. He is happy to be watching the show. He likes Alistair. He would like to be Alistair with his nice English accent, dressed well, sitting amongst good furnishings. My mother doesn’t say much but she is smiling. I want to watch the story, but I want to stay far away from my parents, as far away as I can.

Friday, April 03, 2009


The dining room table was made of smooth dark polished wood, its corners rounded. It sat on curved legs, each of which ended in a wooden carved claw clutching a wooden carved ball, a feature that my father pointed out to me privately in his Hungarian accent as an indicator of a proper antique. He admitted that it wasn’t a real antique, but an excellent reproduction.

The table consisted of two halves that were supposed to cleave together seamlessly, but the seam was always falling apart, just enough for us to keep pushing it together, pushing from each end so that the little wooden pegs slipped snugly into the little holes – and there, for a moment, it held, until the moment we released and then it sagged again, the two halves letting go of each other.

On top of the two wooden halves of the table were two protective glass halves. I wished we could get rid of the glass. That’s what really ruined it for me.

My father had bought the table and the six matching chairs that surrounded it. He bought them when we lived in England and crammed them into the tiny dining room of the rented house there. He bought them, he said, as a birthday present for my mother. I knew he bought them for himself. It was obvious. My mother never would have chosen them, but she packed them up and brought them back with us to the States when we returned.

We only sat at this table on weekends, the only time during my high school years that all five of us came together in one room.

My father sat at the end of the table farthest from the kitchen. The room didn’t hold much more than the table and its chairs. A small glossy piano fitted into the corner. We had brought it back from England too. My piano teacher, Daphne Spotiswood, a woman with an English accent who felt she was meant for better things, came to lunch on a Sunday once with her husband. With pride that we had an instrument, my father invited her with a flourish to play. She sat at our piano and played Mozart and Beethoven, music that our piano had never heard before. “It has a frightful sound,” said Ms. Spotiswood when she stood up, “not a good instrument at all.” We couldn’t tell. And even if we could we would not have said so.

My mother sat at the end of the table closest to the swinging kitchen door. I did most of the carrying back and forth. My mother had done the cooking. Now it was my turn. I wore jeans I had bleached in the bathtub, hoping they would come out differently than they did, patched with pieces of cloth left over from sewing projects that also never came out the way they should. Things I made did not come out the way I wanted them to. I did not know how to make things that satisfied. They fell short. I knew they always would. Just like my mother’s cooking and her sewing and her driving. She didn’t do things well and I knew I didn’t either. Not things I had to do with my hands.

My father initiated most of the conversation with false cheer, a smile on his face, a brightness that I knew was battling back blackness. We must all battle it back. “And what have my daughters been doing this morning?” His questions that I never ever wanted to answer, questions that instantly criticized whatever it was I had been doing – listening to a long-haired boy on the radio who sang about hitchhiking. I answer with as short an answer as possible. If it is too short it will draw attention. No, just enough to keep the scene going as it is.

“Your salads are always delicious, Joan,” my father says. It is one of the good things he has come up with to say to her. My mother doesn’t accept the compliment, doesn’t believe in it any more than I do. The salad is lettuce, tomato, oil, lemon and a little sugar. It always tastes the same. And yes, I like it too, but that has nothing to do with it.

The easiest moment is when my mother asks my father, or he asks her, “Did you see the joke in the New Yorker?” and they share a small moment of humor. They like the same cartoons.

When we are done I clear the table and do the dishes. My father retires to the couch, my mother goes up to her room, my sisters to theirs. I go upstairs too, to my attic room. And then there is quiet.