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.