Wednesday, December 14, 2011


I lay on the bed next to the boy from the writing class.

It was a water bed. I’d never been on a water bed before, but I did not tell him this.

We were in his apartment -- one room really, at the end of a corridor on the third floor in an old building.

He had invited me over for dinner. When he had asked me the week before what I liked to eat I did not know what to say.

It was as if I were finally in the movie I’d been hoping to get into, but I did not know the lines and I did not want to improvise because I wanted to stay in the movie.

“How about Eggplant Parmigian?” I had asked. We were in a parking lot. I had heard of Eggplant Parmigian because my friend Ruth had mentioned it once. She was the first friend I’d had in many years and had introduced me to many things I hadn’t know about before: bagels, discount clothing, Maxwell Parrish, modern dance and making curtains out of colorful sheets. Also, colorful sheets.

I liked the shelf of plants in Geoffrey’s apartment and the long purple tube lit up and suspended above them. My mother had houseplants, but they were geraniums and African violets that sat on window sills. This boy had plants on a back wall above an old couch covered in clothes and notebooks. I liked the unexpected green of the plants and this purple light, something new to me, something I would have been able to set up myself.

None of this could I have had in my own life, this independent home complete with waterbed, telephone with a long long cord so he could talk in the bathroom, or the kitchen, or even out in the hall if he felt like it. And the long row of beat-up records housed in old red milk cartons, and the dumpy armchair by the window with a green plant hanging from a hook with long long trails of small green leaves, a gorgeous plant that looked so perfect here.

He acts like all of this is nothing, very ordinary, and I feel like I must keep myself perfectly disguised here, not let one drop of truth emerge. I must never be found out or he will stop liking me immediately.

I want him so much to touch me, to start kissing me and I don’t know why he does not. We are lying so close, inches apart.

He has his own TV too, just for himself, propped up right by the bed. And it’s a double bed.

Isn't this the part where he kisses me?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Note on a Sunday morning

Dear Friends, I've been sick with cold/flu etc. and though I've done some writing I have not been up to the task of typing it and posting it. But I am very much on the mend and will have some new pieces for you soon. love, Marta

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


I have a long piece of plywood set up on three sawhorses.

I found a hardware/lumber store through the yellow pages not too far from the apartment and though I am not supposed to buy anything until I pay Geoffrey back, this desk seems so crucial I think it transcends the obligation temporarily.

I have pictured the desk here for months, ever since I knew I was coming back to this apartment. I knew this room with the dark salmon-colored walls and the parquet floors.

When I lived here before – or sort of lived here – this room had a large four-poster bed in it, a color TV at its foot and a nightstand for the ashtray. Geoffrey’s father, Arthur, spent his evenings after work lying on top of the bed, sitting up in his clothes, legs outstretched, smoking and watching TV.

Sometimes Geoffrey and I sat with him. Geoffrey liked his father, was always energetic and talkative with him. Arthur was a small, dapper man, who didn’t talk or emote much.

When I knew I was coming back I knew that Arthur didn’t live there anymore. “Please get ride of the four-poster bed,” I asked Geoffrey, “before I come,” because that room was going to be my room. Where I would write, and I saw the plywood desk I would set up under the windows.

“Really? It’s a beautiful bed,” Geoffrey said. We were talking by phone, me in London, he in the apartment he had never left. I loathed even the idea of that big elaborate bed that took up all the space in the room. I wanted the space to be almost empty, a studio.

We’d be living in the apartment together, crazy-in-love lovers, years older than the first time we had tried it.

And there had just been a Japanese girl living in the room with the four-poster bed, a Parsons student who had answered an ad, needing a room to rent, and she’d moved in and become his girlfriend, but he had asked her to leave because now I was coming, and though her name was still part of his everyday life, a name that kept coming up, he had asked her to go to make room for me and she, Geoffrey said, was happy to take the four-poster with her.

“Can you get me a futon?” I asked from London, imagining the clean light lines of thick cotton fabric and pale pine wood.

When I entered the room for the first time there it was – just the single futon bed with a navy blue cover and the long low chest of drawers that Arthur’s TV used to sit on.

I brought one oversize suitcase from my four years away. I unpacked the little gifts and mementos from London, knick knacks I’d collected, and laid them out purposefully across the surface of the bureau – the paperback of Whitman poetry Julian had given me for Christmas, the little black metal car from somewhere, the condom Lisa and I had bought from a vending machine the one time we went out to a pub.

I scattered these things across the surface so that I could appear as someone with a life, someone with friends, a woman not alone. I wanted Geoffrey to see these things and know that I had a lot that he was not part of. And it comforted me to think of the people I’d left behind, all of them who came to my going-away party. I liked looking at my collection of memorabilia.

I took the expensive mass-produced Paloma Picasso silver brooch from Tiffany’s that Geoffrey had sent me and pinned it to the navy blue cover of the futon where it looked very good.

Geoffrey had said I would need my own bed. The Japanese girl, though she usually slept with him in his room as I would, always had her own room, “so that it doesn’t just become routine,” he said, “so there’s somewhere else to go,” and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to manage this intricate dance that he and the Japanese girl had managed so effortlessly.

I bought the lumber and the sawhorses one afternoon when Geoffrey wasn’t home. I had to. That’s what the space underneath the windows was for.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


The man who picked me up somewhere in California, when I was still going down, before I had turned left to head across to New York, drove a cramped sporty sedan. He had cans of soda in the car and offered me one. He had dark hair and was a little older than me. Not a hippy. But he would do. He could be my boyfriend maybe.

“Why are you out hitchhiking by yourself?” he asked.

“Because none of my friends have any guts,” I said, giving him the answer that sounded best to me. I imagined my imaginary normal friends back in some imaginary homeland, a place where I talked on the phone a lot and raced around in cars with other kids.

Sandi was short and round with thick braces on her teeth. Cynthia was tall and heavy-boned with long red hair who wore a purple thick polyester dress at least once a week.

These were the two girls who liked me the most and came at lunch time to where I was sequestered in a wooden carroll in the school library, the place where I ate the thick liverwurst sandwiches my mother packed in a brown paper bag.

The cafeteria where everyone else ate I didn’t know how to walk into, didn’t know where to sit, who with. I pictured a noisy circus where everyone else had figured out their place, but I had come too late, that must be the reason, not arriving until tenth grade, but the reason didn’t hold water. Dino was a handsome easy boy who got absorbed quickly, and Nancy with her tidy long hair, arriving this year, knew just what to do too.

“Well, it does take guts,” said the man in the car with the soda, and he let me off at the side of the road, another possibility ending, because each ride was maybe the one that would give me a new road to follow, would be a man who would scoop me out of my life, fix it, or a group of kids who would love and absorb me into their life-on-the-go, their sleeping bags on the beach with guitars and a fire.

I get out of the car with the man who hadn’t been what I’d been looking for, but he had been a man alone, a man who had his own car, who drove freely wherever he wanted. If he had fallen love with me I would have stayed.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


My aunt from Budapest sent me the photocopy of a short letter she had received from a man who had just heard of my father’s – her brother’s – death.

The letter is written on stationery printed with the man’s name at the top in a fine delicate script. The guy is a baron and he has modestly drawn a line through his name and title as if we are not supposed to notice it.

The man writes two paragraphs – more than good manners demands – about how he will miss my father, of the great work they did together, the conferences they organized.

I read the letter, thinking how much my father would have loved reading it, would have soaked up every word – especially the crossed out aristocratic title. I don’t remember anyone speaking of him so highly.

I was looking recently at color photographs taken during those conferences, held in Hungary and Belgium, that my father had organized and been so proud of. I remembered thinking that in all the photos he was alone, never in conversation. I looked at him so closely in those photographs, confident I could read his every expression, not trusting that he was doing anything more than trying to make a good impression on somebody.

He had talked to me of these conferences with great excitement. When I visited Hungary in the late nineties he showed me the beautiful villa they had rented, and I had listened with only restlessness. What were these co-called conferences, anyway? Who came to them? Did they really accomplish anything? I didn’t think so.

My father was proud that he was working with a bonafide baron, and he mentioned too with almost equal satisfaction the name of an English banker he was working with. I realized with embarrassment it was the same sleazy man I had met once at a disgustingly sleazy London dinner party, but I said nothing. 

During the same visit my father and I had the kind of shouting fight that only lovers have, and the words that came hurtling out of my father’s mouth at the peak of our exchange were, “You have never cared about my work.”

No, I never did. It was always an abstraction, a disguise my father could hide behind, the disguise of the gentleman, the man of letters.

But who are you really, I wanted to know.

Days before I was due to leave I accidentally broke a window in his apartment, sending shattered glass into the courtyard below, minutes before his secretary was due to arrive for her weekly bout of dictation.

My father hustled me out of the apartment with a broom as he ushered in the young woman with a smile. It made me furious! Tell her we just broke a fucking window and we have to clean it up, I wanted to scream. It’s okay to be normal, to have something go wrong in front of someone else.

And then here today was the baron, writing more than he needed to, acknowledging the foundation, describing a conference that would be held in a couple of weeks, saying my father would be missed. For a moment I felt a tug pulling at me to sink beneath the waves and believe the nice baron’s words, believe that my father was just who he said he was.

I am glad he wrote, that these kind words exist for a man none of whose three daughters attended his funeral. Although the letter did not lull me for more than an instant, it is an unexpected part of the collage, a finishing touch to a picture that will never be finished.

Sunday, November 06, 2011


The ceiling slopes sharply on both sides so that really I can only walk upright down the center of the room. I stoop to open the cupboard doors that line the short walls. I have painted the doors bright sunshine yellow. It was my idea. They were white before, my mother’s color.

The floor is covered in beige wall-to-wall carpet. It was added to the house while we were away for five years. My father made a lot of changes to the house while we were away and now it looks a little more like other people’s houses, a little more grand. Like the carpeting. We never had wall-to-wall before, just the dark wide boards with the old square nails. There is a softness to the carpet, a sense of comfort that seems foreign.

I like it here in this attic room at the top of the house. One of the new things is the set of narrow French doors my father put in at the bottom of the steep carpeted stairs, so I can close them and I feel like I have my own apartment up here.

In the morning, dressing for school, I use the French doors as my full-length mirror. They don’t work very well, with all those panes of glass framed in white wood. Sometimes I go into my mother’s room where she has an old square mirror framed in wood, propped against a wall. I can only see my bottom half with that mirror.

I wear the pink cotton shirt that used to be a dress two years ago, but I cut off the bottom. Or I wear the beige knit top, a body suit that snaps at the crotch, a little too affected an item for a hippy, but I like how I look. Or I wear the bright orange, colorfully striped hotpants body suit as a shirt with jeans. This one has no snap at the crotch. I have to unzip and pull the whole thing down to go to the bathroom. But it looks great.

I wore the hotpant suit with white cork-soled sandals, my first high heels, three years ago when we still lived in England. I’d worn them to catch the train with friends for a day in London. I was 14, and I heard a little boy refer to me, talking to his mother, as “that lady.” No one had ever referred to me as a lady or a grown-up of any kind before.

In the attic room I am alone except for the male DJ’s on the radio. I have a Panasonic stereo – a turntable/radio and two separate speakers. The stereo sits on the floor and when I enter the room I walk over and flick the radio on with my toe and the neon-green dial lights up.

This stereo is the kind of thing that other kids in my high school class have -- the girls who have a different pair of corduroys to wear every day, the boys who jump into their own cars to get home. I have this stereo with its two separate speakers because my father bought it for an apartment he lived in for a year near Washington DC, the year after he quit the London job and tried to be a consultant. When he left that apartment the stereo was one of the things that came back with him, and it was extra, so I got it. I actually got my own stereo.

It’s the kind of thing I could show to a friend if they came to visit, like the two rectangular cushions – a dull peagreen and black tweed – left over from the couch we had when I was little, the one I lay down on when I had an earache, lay down holding a little cushion against my ear that my mother had warmed in the oven.

Now I have those cushions on the floor, a place where I could sit with other people and listen to music and pass a joint maybe. But I don’t know anyone to invite. At school I do not speak. I watch and listen as it all happens around me and I feel I have no place there. Which is not right, is not how it should be and this empty room reminds me of my failure all the time.

I should have more records too, a big casual collection that shows how much I know about music. But one record costs more than I make on a Saturday babysitting. Last summer I bought three used records for 50 cents. I didn’t know the singers, but at least they added bulk.

I listen to the deep voices of the men on the radio, talking about the music. And I listen to the words of the songs, the melodies, the wistfulness, the guitar picking, the stories of being on the road with always a beautiful, fierce, wild, mysterious woman. Like Suzanne who takes you down to her place by the river…

I ask my mother for a guitar and she finds one second hand and for lessons she drives me once a week to the Y in White Plains where I sit in the back of the crowded room and wonder how how how did other people live different lives – how do you get out of the attic room, the VW station wagon with your mother who doesn’t notice that the rain has stopped and the windshield wipers are still going, shrieking against the dry glass?

Blowing in the Wind is the best of the easy songs – only 3 simple chords. I buy the Simon and Garfunkel songbook and try, but music like what I hear on the radio is a universe away, another thing that only other people can do -- though I can walk by the side of the road, sometimes even hitchhike, and carry the guitar in its black case and just like I am supposed to.

“See me!” says the guitar wrapped in its black case. “Fall in love with me. Pick me up. Take me somewhere. Make it so I can talk to you and laugh and have sex, make it all happen. Please. You out there, boy with a pony tail, pick me up.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I live in a yellow house with twists and turns and steps – rooms tacked onto rooms, making it an unpredictable place. 

The floors are wood, worn.

There are animals – cats and a dog, maybe even squirrels in the walls.

As I walk up the crooked, uneven path to the front door I eye the disintegrating garden, looking for color. One of the pink daisies I bought in the Spring just put out one last small burst of flower – the color deep and strong though the bloom itself is small. 

I am disappointed in the garden this year. The zinnia – usually so reliable for color – turned brown and sickly right away – plants don't flourish here and I am frustrated, wondering do I have to spend a ton of money on fancy soil just to get flowers? That doesn't sound right, and each year I try again, always with such limited funds, and there are pockets of fleeting success, but I haven't mastered the sense of abundance and color I am hunting for.

Gardening should not be expensive, but it is. For instance, now's the time to plant bulbs so that in the Spring color will burst forth at a time when your heart really needs it, and you don't want to plant cheap WalMart bulbs, you want them from some kind of trusted source like Victoria Gardens, but they're a good $5 a pop, and I haven't done it yet.

I garden like my mother gardened. She's the only model I have. She gardened naturally, but roughly. She was not a Martha Stewart gardener.

The first time I heard of Martha Stewart was in the late 90s. I was still living in the ashram.

I had a dear friend, Amma, who had moved out of the ashram with her husband and 8-year-old daughter. They moved to an old farmhouse in New Hampshire where Amma painted a colorful sign in her perfect calligraphy for the front door that said “Welcome,” and they bought a few sheep and some chickens. 

Ruefully Amma admitted that she subscribed to a magazine put out by someone called Martha Stewart.

Amma and David and Libby were big figures in my life. Amma was tall, blonde and beautiful with an exceptional singing voice and a deep laugh. Her husband was tall, gangly, boyish and shy. Libby, when I first met her just 4 or 5, was shy too, but Libby fell a little in love with me. We were all still living in the ashram then.

Libby liked to read. When she got in the car the time I was taking her to see Little Shop of Horrors – a true aberration from ashram life – she brought her Grimm's fairytales, a paperback about 4 inches thick, small print, no pictures, and she read to herself when we weren't talking. 

Libby said she wanted me to be her godmother so we made up a ceremony, going to the Bade Baba temple on a snowy December night. 

The Bade Baba temple was the jewel of the ashram, located in the most celebrated area, the area where Gurumayi lived, where the nicest rooms were for the wealthiest guests, where the gardens were the most manicured, where the biggest meditation hall was with its glorious turquoise carpet, tiered floor and chandeliers. Everything was better in the Main Building – the name of this part of the ashram that had once been a Catskills hotel. Two other hotel complexes made up the rest of the ashram, all linked by a shuttle bus and footpaths.

But the Bade Baba temple was the nucleus, the most sacred, holy place. It was a small white building, almost circular, each side of the polygon-shaped building held a wide, tall plate of glass, looking out onto the smooth lawns and tidy gardens. 

In the center of the temple was a larger-than-life bronze statue of a man in the lotus posture, set up on a white marble pedestal and encircled by a ring of four white marble pillars. Plush turquoise carpeting made the place deeply quiet, like the inside of a shell.

So Libby and Amma and I went there for the godmother ceremony, offering Bade Baba a coconut and some prayers and afterwards we went to the Winter Garden to celebrate, a cafe that had been set up for the holidays in the lobby, complete with white tablecloths and fancy desserts, strings of white Christmas lights, menues and waiters, young people doing their seva – their selfless service. 

A few years ago I was being interviewed by a small new-age magazine about our Authentic Writing workshops, and I spoke with great enthusiasm and fluidity. “Well,” said the editor when we were about done, “would you like to say a few words about the value of service? We're doing an issue on service and asking this question of everyone we interview.” 

“No,” I said. “I don't want to say a word about service. That's totally not my subject,” and the man cracked up. He had thought I'd launch into all the predictable platitudes about service and I had refused. I had just been talking about wriing, something that really means something to me – there was no way I was going to spout a bunch of crap about how service is a good thing. 

When Fred and I were first a couple we went to visit Amma and Michael and Libby. Libby was about 10 and writing books at the computer about gnomes. There was a new baby. They gave us their brand new guest room, an addition they had built where everything was perfect – from the smooth down quilt to the two unused bottles of expensive lavender shampoo in the brand new shower. 

Amma had a spinning wheel going in the living room, using the wool from their sheep and she and Libby sang the song that Amma had written for all the neighborhood kids which had a chorus of “If you love your parents, clap your hands.”

At one point, in a private moment during our stay, Amma said something about how she'd had to come up with a story for Libby about how Fred and I could share a bed even though we weren't married. 

The ashram mantra played quietly and continuously in the kitchen.

When it came time to leave I saw that Fred was walking out of the room, leaving the bed we had slept in a tangled jumble of sheets. I knew the proper thing to do in this house would be to make that bed, even though Amma would be pulling it apart to launder everything. To leave that mess untouched seemed sacriligeous. I checked my impulse to tidy up and left it as Fred would have left it.  

A year later I invited Libby of course to be my flower girl at our wedding. 

But they had a conflict, Amma said over the phone, another wedding of someone from the ashram I hadn't even realized she was friends with. But perhaps in some stressed out way they could travel back from Nantucket in time to make our wedding – because how could they miss it? And Libby was so excited.

But they did not come. Nor sent a card or gift. It ended in silence. 

Somehow, through a vague trace on Facebook, I have picked up that Libby might be at a college now a few miles from my house. Maybe one day, by herself, she will look me up. Maybe not. 

I look back at that friendship – see some red flags along the way that at the time meant less than the substance of the friendship.

I hope for friendships that last, that are grounded on real appreciation, that don't make demands or depend on shared dogmas. 

The ashram brought so many disparate people together, brought us so close we became family, even the people I only knew by sight. Now I see through Facebook all these people scattered – the woman who was so close to Gurumayi during my time has dyed black hair, a botoxed face, and vivid red lipstick firmly in place in every photo. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Part of the reason I wanted to hitchhike was that anyone who picked me up did not know me, didn’t know that I had no friends, didn’t know I rode a school bus to a high school and sat in classrooms. When I stepped into a car or up into the cab of an eighteen-wheeler I could be the adventuress I was sure I was supposed to be.

I told Joseph I had older brothers. Not true. I didn’t mention the two actual younger sisters. Older brothers at least put me in the company of men. It implied that I hung out with them and their friends. I liked the idea of older brothers.

Days later when he was still with me and now we were going to my house where my mother and two little sisters were waiting I explained that well, now that you’re actually coming to my house you might as well know that we don’t talk much about my brothers at home, they’re kind of in trouble right now, mumble, mumble.

Joseph did not prod me, just nodded okay. Joseph in his dark beard and hippy hair, his overalls and dark eyes, his short working-man’s body that I had wanted so much to be mine from the first night when with such deliciousness he had shown me how we could sleep on the concrete ledge under the overpass of the interstate, here on the roll of cardboard we’d picked up from the side of the road in the afternoon because Joseph had said we would need it, and he was right, the cardboard made a difference, a little bit warmer than lying on the bare concrete – and Joseph saying, we have to lie close together, our body heat will keep us warm, and I am more than eager, a man, finally, to lie beside at night, I have wanted one for so long and there has been no one except dully pimply high school boys.

Joseph does not kiss me. He wraps me in some kind of bear hug in the dark on the cardboard above the lanes of traffic.

I have been hitchhiking for a few days by myself, but here has been no one interesting, and now there is Joseph and we are only in Nebraska so there are miles more to go before New York and we are traveling together, on the road, a couple, just like I wanted, and Joseph is not a kid who doesn’t know this world. He knows this world.

“You need better shoes,” he says and we get off the highway in Milwaukee and go to a Salvation Army where I get lace-up men’s shoes for free – I am so happy – and in a field he shows me how we can eat ears of corn right off the plant – we don’t have to pay or ask anyone – and best of all he takes me to a friend’s house somewhere, an old farmhouse, almost no furniture, pot growing outside, the friend picks some, spreads it on a cookie sheet, bakes it in the oven so we can smoke it. This is all exactly as I had hoped – drugs and hippies.

But I cannot talk. Even now that I am where I so much wanted to be. Joseph and his friend talk late into the night. We are in a plain room with a couple of old armchairs and we pass a pipe and the boys talk, but I cannot find a way in, and stay silent, and this I fear will give me away – that I am not at ease the way I want them to think I am.

Alone with Joseph he can make me laugh. I feel connected. He is my friend. He waits for me when we go to the bathroom in the rest stop and then get into the big tractor trailer. But even Joseph says, “You don’t talk much, do you?” and I have been discovered and must do all I can to get him off the scent. Bluff fast.

It is almost perfect. If he would kiss me at night it would be perfect, but he does not. He says I am too young, that he could go to prison. What is he talking about?

And we stop in Buffalo for the night at a house on the street, a woman comes to the door, his wife. “Oh,” she says, “come on in. I was just going out on a date.”

His kids are there – two or three of them – and when the mother leaves Joseph and I babysit and when the kids are in bed we sit on a couch in the dark and now he kisses me, finally.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cards and Calls

My aunt in Budapest sends me two color photographs, one of my father’s grave, heaped with flowers. The second of a ribbon around one of those bouquets imprinted with my mother’s name, my name, my two sisters’ names and some strange unrecognizable name at the end.

In the photo you can’t see my father’s gravestone, which was what I looked for. Instead you can only see the gravestone next to his with the names of my grandparents. A big stone cross stands between the two stones, a grave with some status, planning and pretensions.

My father buried next to his parents as if he didn’t get far.

My mother on the phone last night saying finally, “I’ll let you go,” and me feeling almost hurt though I was aching to get off the phone, wondering why I can hardly tolerate two minutes with mymother one the phone though I always want to hear her voice and know she is there, I never want to tell he anything, never want to then hear her response which always feels off the mark, and always she keeps me on the phone longer than I want to be be except last night she actually said, “I’ll let you go,” as if she too did not want to be on the call, and we hadn’t mentioned my father, I didn’t mention the photos that had arrived just hours before, and maybe I thought as I hung up, maybe that’s what’s different that we – I – don’t want to talk about it, want that his death means nothing, in a way it’s easy to go that route – he’s been so gone for so long – out of the country for 25 years, in some kind of senility for a year, and even when he was in this country and functioning, always not someone we wanted around – me, my sisters or my mother.

But now he’s really gone and I think as I walk to my car how I will never ever see him again.

But I don’t want to talk about it with my mother.

A gravesite has nothing to do with the person. In a way, I wish my aunt had not sent the pictures. I didn’t want to see something so gruesome. But it’s real and I claim to always prefer the real.

My sister’s name on the ribbon was the name she rejected about 30 years ago and legally changed 20 years ago.

My aunt in the note she sends with the photos makes no mention of the card I sent after I heard of my father’s death.

I chose a card from the Omega bookstore. Its main image was of a strong red heart.

I didn’t know if the image would mean anything to my strict, bare bones aunt, but though I didn’t’ buy the card the first day I saw it, I chose it because the red heart said to me what I wanted it to convey to her – thank you, I appreciate the burden you carried – caring for my father for years -- though I didn’t offer to help you.

I put $20 in the card. I had never sent money before though I knew it was needed. This time I did though it was a low-cash period at home. I wanted to put in a $50 bill but just couldn’t do it, so folded up a twenty and wrapped it in tin foil – a haphazard attempt to foil the attempts of anyone who might be able to figure out the envelope held cash. I had no idea if tin foil could mask such things, but hoped it might, though it kept making me think I was sending cocaine through the mail.

Friday, October 14, 2011


Tamar the dog pants, indicating she is in pain or at least uncomfortable.

It reminds me of Claude panting in his last weeks.

It is the first time Tamar has been so unwell. The doctors say she should feel better tomorrow. She’s had the first two doses of antibiotics and today she had a B12 shot and some dog aspirin and I could tell she rallied.

She hasn’t peed or pooped all day and can’t walk.

Everything they say will clear up and I am sure that it will. Still, it is hard to see her so uncomfortable.

This morning for the first time in her life she did not get up, but stayed in her bed all day.

I went on our walk without her, to smell the woods and move. I ran into Nancy who lives across the street with a small overweight dog called Sammy. “Where’s Tamar?” she immediately asked.

Both yesterday and today we have taken her to the vet. Both times I have had to overcome my kneejerk reluctance to let medicine intervene, but both times have been so reassuring. I felt like that was why it was so expensive – because I felt so much better afterwards. Less in the dark, optimistic.

Every single person in both facilities – receptionists, assistants and doctors, about 10 people in all – were female and, except for one, very young. The assistant today had blunt nails painted silver.

I am working on my manuscript, perhaps the thing closest and most important to my heart, not counting some living breathing entities who shall here remain nameless.

This lovely three-day stretch away from the office gave me a new start on an early morning ritual that I hope will stay with me, revisiting several pages every day for a buff and polish.

Also in these three days I have drawn a line. I have said no and no more to a woman who was coasting, a woman I thought of as a friend, but a person who was draining, drawing on me, not much you could say, but a steady drip drip drip like the faucet that I walked over to Timo’s about, early on one of these refreshed summer mornings, walking down Tinker St. before the town is awake with the weekend spread out before me, hoping I would find Timo to come fix the faucet.

The woman, the friend, I let her down. Out of nowhere. She didn’t see it coming. But there was no pretty way to do it. It was something that I slowly realized really had to be done, to leave her, send her back to the quicksand of her life to let her come up with something, to withdraw the rope I had thrown and that she would not let go of.

And I painted a room in the house and found the perfect table at a yard sale for $12 and tomorrow I will go back to work and people will ask, did you have a good weekend? And I will say – it was fantastic.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


On the wall it hung, from a long leather strap a couple of inches wide, a leather strap decorated with cut-outs and fringes.  A flask covered in short brown hair, smooth like a horse’s hair, a wooden stopper sealing the flask’s mouth.

I did not touch the flask because of the smooth brown hair. I imagined it would shiver if I touched it, move, be alive.

I knew the flask was Hungarian, one of my father’s things, special, better than ordinary things. He spoke of the flask to me, in a proud voice, a voice designed to convince me what was right, what was wrong, and what was better, a voice with force and gusto, something that it would always take an effort to live up to, but that that was what was important -- living up to something, a standard, something that kept your head above water, better than other people, something that saved you from drowning.


In first grade at the new school in Virginia I am jumping rope outside. Two girls are turning the long rope and I am standing to the side, attuning my body to the rhythm of the rope slapping the ground so that I know the exact moment I can leap in and become one with that turning rope. It’s a small miracle to be able to run in at the right moment that doesn’t interrupt the rope’s smooth turning and now I am in the middle of its loop, jumping and shouting, “Paul John George Ringo! Paul John George Ringo!”

I know they are the Beatles, but I don’t know which is which. The name you are shouting when you mess up and the turning rope stops is the name of the one you are in love with, a thought that makes me and my friends squeal in disgust for a moment before it’s the next person’s turn.

I’ve only been at this school for a little while. I came in on my first day in the middle of things – the middle of the year, in the middle of the morning – I still had my coat on, the one my mother liked, navy blue, woolen, the kind of coat you could wear with dresses – and the teacher stood beside me as she introduced me to the class, the two of us side by side while everyone else sat at their desks and looked at us. The teacher introduced me, said my name and I said nothing, hating this part where I was not yet part of them, but someone separate and strange. I kept quiet always in the beginnings.

It was an old school and had a darkness to it as though it were always in shade. The floors were made of wood and there was a staircase like in a house that led up to floors I never went to. My classroom was at the bottom of the stairs.

We had come to Virginia in a truck – me, my father and another man – my mother driving in a car with my little sister. I sat in the cab of the big truck that had all our stuff in it. My father drove the truck. Of course he did. My father could do things like that, things we hadn’t done before, my father could always do these things.

There were a couple of crushed beer cans in the cab the men had drunk and then reflexively crushed before dropping them on the floor. I held a crushed can, one in each hand as we drove, me between the men, and I pretended the cans were people. First the one in my left hand talked, then the one in my right hand. I watched them. They talked silently.

And we lived in a big white house with a long driveway at the top of a hill, far away from the road and surrounded by fields with cows in them and sometimes when my father took me for walks through the fields on a weekend, the dog sometimes with us and sometimes wandering off on his own, we passed something called a silo and there was a sweet rich smell.

Walking with my father, long long walks, much further than I wanted to go, him always talking. About so many things – the story of the novel he was reading, or Budapest when the bombs were dropping, or Hungarian countryside when he was a teenager, or a story about taking a girlfriend some place fancy for the weekend not knowing how he was going to pay the bill, or how in Geneva after the war he went everywhere by bicycle.

My father was always the hero on those walks. In the stories. In my world.

Though he made me cry when we played Monopoly at night, him buying hotel after hotel while I had nothing and then buying more hotels and laughing as I could not keep up.

Under the trees my sister and I made a store selling small rocks, an acorn – for 5 cents, 10 cents – inviting my parents to come and buy by the sandbox. There was a sandbox there and a turquoise tent, a tent my mother put up for me to play in, but I didn’t go in there, the small turquoise tee-pee – a tent being something from my mother’s world, but not from mine. My mother came from a place of outdoor things – a farm, British Columbia, a garden, bicycles and tents. My father was different, from the city. I liked him better.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


In a dream last night I cried a little bit. Not much, but a few tears came. In the dream I was in Budapest, my father’s city, and I was looking at a wide boulevard lined with trees and in the dream I thought, “Dad would have liked this boulevard” because it was spacious and elegant, and in the dream a few tears came and I was glad for them.

Because I haven’t cried for him at all. Not since the Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago when my mother called from her new home in California to say he had died in his sleep. Finally.

I have almost started to make a list of the good things my father gave me, the good moments. Like this morning I was remembering the beige VW beetle he drove and was proud of when I was in high school.

A friend had just sent me a song by The Noisettes. I was thinking about that song this morning when I realized that the same spelling could also be pronounced “Noisette” – which is what my father called his car. Noisette, hazelnut in French.

He explained it to me somewhere, the two of us sitting together, him confiding in me – Noisette – telling me this because it made him special – he had the right car, it was the right color, and had a French name.

I remembered this morning the day he was teaching me to drive – me in the driver’s seat, backing out of the garage, speeding towards a stone wall, my father shouting – not angrily – for me to stop, and I am kicking the clutch pedal instead of the brake, “Stop! my father is saying from the passenger seat, and I hit the wall.

He didin’t get mad. That’s what I thought of this morning. Now I know how expensive it is to fix a car, but my father didin’t get angry and I didn’t feel the weight of guilt for an unnecessary expense.

Every time I think of something like this I make a mental note. The list so far is very short.

I will keep trying to understand my father, to try and separate out my disappointment in him, try and see him for who he was – but so much of him was always hidden and camouflaged. He did not want to be discovered.

And so I left him by the side of the road some time ago, let others take care of him, tried to release myself from time-honored obligations.

Because really I should not have a life of my own. I really should have dedicated my life to him. Should have always been there to help him. That is is what I have torn myself away from and what I do not completely forgive myself for.

His death hangs over me these days, like a soft gauze curtain suspended like a transparent shroud, not covering me, not even touching my life, but not invisible either. There and not there, along with what everybody has been saying to me about death.

It is the first time that someone I have known so long and so well has gone, but he has been gone for so many years geographically, and psychically I don’t believe he was ever present.

It is funny how you are left with all these bits and pieces that don’t add up – like a bouquet that is partially just stalks of different lengths, some have flowers, some are actually just green pipe cleaners.

I sort through them.

The other day, stepping out of the shower, I was having an imaginary conversation with someone in my office who, in my head, was uncertain whether I could write a letter to a very large donor, uncertain that I would get the tone right. And in my head I said to her, “Of course I will get the tone right. My father was Hungarian.”

My father took me on long walks alone with him when I was little. He used these times to talk to me, drenching me with words. He told me of how in Budapest before the war people visited each other unannounced. If the person they hoped to see was not at home they left their card, and – this was my father’s favorite part – they turned down one corner of the card.

He was full of the proper way to do things – how to eat soup, how to eat bread at the table. I remember him coming to my room when I was about ten when we were living in England to tell me – with delight – the salutation he used when writing a business letter: Gentlemen. Not “Dear Gentlemen.” Just, Gentlemen. The word gave him delight as if he were a musician and had discovered exactly the right note.

And so when I stuck up a large piece of burlap on the wall over my bed and stuck pictures to it that I cut out of magazines – some of gorgeous men, some of modelly women, I knew he would not be impressed. That it would be impossible to get it right for him because that would mean wearing tweed skirts to my knees and getting a degree in Economics or something from an Ivy League and then a doctorate and then all sorts of things that had nothing to do with rock and roll and Levis and Dylan and hitchhiking and writing and garrets and Paris.

Which made me angry, a deep low anger that had no way to appear except by no longer running to meet him, no longer seeing him as the center of the universe.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


My mother sent a birthday card to Fred yesterday. I saw her familiar writing – blue and loopy – amongst the chopped onions on the counter as Fred was cooking, and reached for it. “Oh, my mother sent me something,” I said, surprised Fred hadn't mentioned it.

“Actually, she sent me something,” Fred said. It was a postcard mailed inside an envelope with a few sentences about the weather. She said it is still very hot where she is, and inside I cringe a little, the cringe I do always at the thought of any suffering she might be enduring. It is an old habit.

The first time I felt it was in boarding school, lying in bed one night, a single bed in a narrow cubicle, separated from the corridor by a curtain, in a long line of curtained-off cubicles.

My mother had been to visit me that weekend with my two little sisters, one of them still a toddler. I had begged to go to the little local circus that had pulled into town, a shambly bunch of rides that looked like a glittery fairyland to me, until I saw how hard it was for my mother to pick her way through the mud in her black leather pumps, until I saw how little she enjoyed the careening car, her arm clutching the baby, her face concerned. The worse was afterwards when she realized a comb had fallen from her hair, the brown hair that she pinned up. I knew the comb was one of two my father had brought to her from a business trip to Morocco and though I knew there was no romance in the comb it still seemed a terrible loss, one for which I was responsible.

I lay in bed that night and cried like I might never stop, silently so none of the other girls could hear.

I was thinking too of the puppy that had died at home, my mother had just told me.

My mother, the puppy, and the two girls I had talked to that evening who had invited me to move into a dorm with them. I had said yes, and now, in bed, in the dark, a sense of dread came over me, that moving in with Sheila and Jane was not really what I wanted to do, but how I could get out of it, and the puppy's death and my mother in the careening car looking so unhappy.

I think to call my mother. I probably will this weekend. These calls that I feel I must make, want to make, but the content of which is relatively light. I get bored quickly. There is little I really want to share. But I want to hear the sound of her voice and I want to know she is all right.

Perhaps she will bring me up to date on what's happening around my father's death which happened a few weeks ago. My youngest sister – the one who was the toddler – is now a business woman and she was going to travel to Budapest to take care of things like my father's belongings. 

She sent me a crisp typed letter a few months ago with a list of my father's books, asking me to let her know which ones I wanted when the time came.

I don't want anything from his belongings – everything will just make me sad – not so much because he has died – but because the thought of my father has always made me sad – when it hasn't made me furious. I have enough objects already to remember him by – like the two-volume set of War and Peace, leatherbound and gilt-stamped, that I remember from childhood – and even if I had nothing physical it will be a long time before I can't remember what he was like.

I received in the mail from my aunt who has lived with and cared for my father in Budapest for the last few years, a slip of paper, printed, with a black border. It was all in Hungarian, but Fred found the Bible verse that was quoted at the top and Christina Varga who runs the wonderful outsider art gallery down the road translated the rest for me. It said when my father would be buried and where, a date that has not stuck in my head.

I liked the bible verse though. It was identified on the slip of paper – Romans 22 or something – so Fred could find it. Something about the ways of God are mysterious and not easily understood.

I liked it. I like this. I like the belief that not everything can be boiled down and understood. That things happen in ways that make no sense at all. Maybe within that belief there is room for a daughter who cannot feel the grief she keeps hunting for. It must be there, right?

Thursday, September 15, 2011


It was a Tuesday two weeks ago and I was sitting in my office at work. Things were pretty quiet, my boss was away. Summer light was coming through the window, the computer screen was my main amusement.

I had called my mother in the morning, some kind of short check-in call, nothing unusual, and she is calling me.

It’s about 1:30 in the afternoon and my mother’s name comes up on my small black iPhone. I felt a small click of alertness. My mother and I don’t speak twice in one day. Once we’ve had a call we wait at least a week.

But I’ve had that small click of alertness before when she has called or left a message, and there has been no reason for it. So I felt the click and answered the phone, waiting for it to be something unimportant.

But this time it finally wasn’t. This time finally it was the call I had been waiting for for a long time – months, years – my mother’s voice was the same – calm, quiet, concerned. She had just gotten a call, my father had died in his sleep that morning.

I heard it like I might hear any news. Calm, very calm. My mother and I spoke just for a minute or two and then I hung up.

I called Fred, but he didn’t answer. There was no one at work to go talk to. The afternoon continued – a few phone calls, some scheduling to figure out, emails to send, photocopies. When I passed someone in the hall I said hi the way I always do and once in awhile I noticed that I’d forgotten my father had just died.

For a long time, usually when I am driving, I have asked myself – OK, Dad is probably going to die soon. Are you done? Will you be OK if he does? Will you have any regrets of things you could take care of now?

And it always felt like there was nothing more to say or do.

Last year for his birthday I sent a Fritz Kreisler CD – some of my favorite violin music, very easy to listen to – I was sure he would like it. I hadn’t sent him a present in years, hadn’t been inspired until I got the idea to send him that record.

Somewhere last year I got some kind of note from him – he wasn’t writing himself anymore, someone was typing for him and he was signing an approximation of his familiar signature.

I had noticed his signature when I was little, had asked him about it. “Why do you write your name like that, Daddy? No one can read it.” I couldn’t read any of his writing when I was little, but especially that signature seemed not even meant to be legible. He had answered with some kind of pride, as if he had fashioned that signature with care, with an eye to impressing others, and I had done right to notice.

Last year, the signature he scrawled at the bottom of the short paragraph someone else had typed was shaky, spidery. In the note last year, the last one I’ve received from him I think, he had urged me to be more in touch. “We used to be such good friends,” he had written.

He must have been thinking of me as a toddler, adoring him.

I called on Christmas. He was unable to speak. I don’t know if he understood me or not. He managed one strangled phrase, “keep in touch,” though it sounded generic, something he might say to anyone.

So I will not hear his voice again though I can hear it easily in my head. I can hear his Hungarian accent that for the first ten years or so of my life I thought was just his voice.

The last time I saw him was 2006. I said good-bye from the back seat of a taxi, him in the front. He had insisted on getting a taxi for me and Fred to take us back to our apartment across the Danube on the other side of the city. We actually were staying much closer to my father, but I didn’t want him to know this, fearing that our presence would be in even higher demand.

I didn’t want my father to get the taxi because I knew he had no money. We didn’t either so I couldn’t pay for it. But he insisted, and he told the driver to take the scenic route by the castle lit up at night.

And when the taxi stopped outside the apartment we were not staying in, I was pretty sure this was our last time, and I think my father must have been thinking something similar. There were tears in his eyes, not unusual for him. “Goodbye, Dad, goodbye,” I said, not lingering.

It is a tragedy that anyone dies and disappears and is gone forever. And I feel that, but my father was my father and our connection was in shambles and irreparable. He is a sad being, someone I have felt sorry for for decades.

I have searched for a moment when we were together and he was not trying to impose something on me. I have searched for a moment when things were really right between us, and I don’t find one.

So I am left with the memory – a million memories – of him that I know I will continue to write and think about – someone I knew, my first lover, you could say, a deeply injured person, someone who was once huge in my life a long long time ago.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011


My father got out of control angry just a few times, always because my mother would not stop talking, needling – I knew if she would just stop everything would be okay – didn't she know she was making him furious, that it was building, cresting, like a wave? 

In the car – he is driving, she in the passenger seat, me behind her, sisters, younger, beside me. It is dark. We are returning from somewhere. My mother is doing it, doing that thing that makes him grip the steering wheel in silence. Tighter. My sisters and I in the back seat are quiet quiet quiet, waiting for this to be over, my father responding in short terse phrases only when he feels he must, clenched teeth until finally he stops the car by the side of the road, gets out, says, “I'll walk home,” -- he is about two miles away – and now my mother is quiet, finally, the spell broken. She drives us home and noone says anything except maybe I play with my little sister as if nothing happened, knowing I can give her this much, easily.

It is easy to give to my little sister, the one with the curly hair, the big eyes, the round cheeks. Different from the other sister whose hair is straight and light brown whom  everyone says takes after my mother. That's what the adults say so she and my mother are one team, and me and my father are on the other, and the littlest sister, Esther, who comes last, after the teams have already been formed, is sort of on both and neither.

Later, in high school years, my mother occupies the room at the head of the stairs. It's the one she was in when we were little, before we moved away. Now we are back and though most things feel very different my mother returns to this room, and now it is completely her room. When I was little my father sometimes joined her in the double bed up there, but for many years that hasn't happened in this or any other house we have lived in, and there have been several. 

Her room still has the dark wide boards with the old square nails – though by now much of the house and its old board floors have been covered in wall-to-wall beige carpeting, my father's doing. Beige is his favorite color – he says so to me as if this choice is classy, a sign of aristocratic taste.

My father would like to be a member of the aristocracy. Not American aristocracy. There is no such thing. There is only European aristocracy. He even uses the word “nobleman,” pronounced it gently with his Hungarian accent, with complete sincerity and respect when describing a character in a novel he is reading.

My mother has a plain, wooden dresser in her room, dating from my early childhood when she used to seek out old pieces of furniture and refinish them – sanding and staining. She doesn't do stuff like that anymore. When I was little she had a camera and a camera case and a light meter she held in her hand and a darkroom where my little sister sleeps now. My mother takes a few photographs now, but only snapshots and the drugstore develops them.

In her room, in the corner between two windows, she has a simple wooden desk with three drawers down the left-hand side. The desk is glossy and must too have once been something she bought and re-stained. The beige push-button phone sits on this desk along with things needed to pay bills and write short notes.

My father bought us all beds when we moved back in, and he bought a double bed for my mother. 

He sleeps downstairs now on a yellow fold-out couch. He closes the two narrow French doors at the bottom of the stairs in the evening when I, my two sisters and mother have gone to bed. He closes the doors and sometimes he plays classical music records on the stereo that sits inside a big piece of furniture with glass doors and shelves – it fills a wall. He calls it an “armoire” and he keeps his shirts folded from the dry cleaner on the shelves below, hidden behind wooden doors – and on the upper shelves behind the delicate glass doors he keeps mementos from his travels: the brass mold for coins from Morocco, the Kenndy silver dollar floating in a cube of plexiglass, the tiny enamelled pill box in which he keeps the gnarled stone they took out of his gall bladder when we still lived in England. The pill box has small elegant print: I am yours while life endures, it says, and I know the blonde, rich Swiss woman, Helga, whom we are supposed to call “aunt,” gave it to him and I know he would rather be with her than with us.

Sometimes at night my father sits in one of the two big armchairs upholstered in a yellow and brown print of sunflowers, reading an Iris Murdoch novel or Somerset Maughm, always with a Mont Blanc pen in hand to underline the words and phrases he likes. Sometimes I review the marks he has made in a book. They usually make no sense to me – random underlinings – and when once or twice I ask him, “Dad, why did you underline this?” he raises his eyesbrows and smiles as if he has a secret and will not tell. As he reads he keeps a chunky glass of whiskey on the rocks beside him, and the kitchen is nearby when he wants a late night snack. No one else snacks.

When we first come back from England, moving back into this house, my fathers sits me down and shows me a brochure for asphalt. This is his new job, he says proudly. He will be selling this road surface and he makes it sound like a job that is fabulous and glamorous and how he is excited. He says too that he has only brought in $7,000 so far this year, a fraction of what he used to make. These numbers are foreign to me. I do know that my father has never sold asphalt to anyone before – that this is not at all what he should be doing. He is someone who needs a fancy office in a city with a secretary – but these things seem to have disappeared and he is acting now as if selling asphalt is the perfect next step.

But it's only when I see the Christmas tree that year that I know something is very very wrong. There are not enough presents. There are too many empty spaces and holes where there should be a package or a bow, and that's when I know we are poor, that I must not ask for anything.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


My father liked to tell me things. I was his special friend in the family, the one he sought out to tell about his latest victory. He didn’t go to my mother and he did not go to either of my two younger sisters. He came to me, the first born.

He had dark hair pushed back from a high forehead with blue eyes and a straight nose. His face was big, square and he thought himself handsome. Others thought him handsome too. I did.

He spoke with a strong Hungarian accent though I didn’t know this until kids at school commented.

My mother was quiet and pale compared to my father. He was the one who burst into a room and took care of things, made noise, insisted that everyone smile and be happy and cheerful. My mother did not know what to say ever to anyone.

She was a shadow in the kitchen, sometimes the one who got angry, who yelled, who hit you. Not my father. He never yelled. His anger was more concentrated. It came out in stern lectures that made me cry because they seemed so mean.

In the beginning everything was better when Daddy was home. I felt safer, like there was someone at the helm. My mother often failed. When she drove she got lost or crashed into something. But my father never got lost and he drove with his elbow out the window, his wedding ring tapping the metal of the car roof in time to the Hungarian song he was singing with gusto.

He often had suitcases open, packing or unpacking for a business trip. Trips made him happy and I loved the drive to the airport to see him off or pick him up. When he returned he always had presents.

He wore suits and ties and white pressed shirts folded from the dry cleaner. He got dressed in front of the black and white TV that sat on top of the four-drawer gray filing cabinet in the small narrow room across from my mother’s room.

Still in my nightgown, I slipped into his unmade single bed and watched the man with the dark moustache on the TV read things from sheets of white paper he held in his hands while my father dressed, fresh from his bath.

His underwear and socks and shirts were kept on shelves at one end of the room, his suits and ties hung in a closet at the other end.

In between was a table with skinny black metal legs and a smooth brown top, his desk. On his desk was a small white plastic cube that held a roll of gray stamps so you could pull one out at a time. And he had a small red stapler.

When I was sick my mother put me in my father’s bed during the day so I could watch Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room. Outside the two windows grew a large tree, shading the room and its bare wood floor, a floor made with dark wide boards, stained and cracked with square nails. My mother said you could tell the house was old because of the wide boards and the square nails.

My father gives me a book with pages that are thick and black. He gives me a bottle of glue with an orange rubber top and a slit in the rubber. When you turn the bottle upside down and press on the rubbery part the glue – thick and honey-colored – comes slowly out. He gives me postcards – from where he has travelled in Europe and ones my grandmother in Budapest has sent – and tells me to stick the postcards in the book. He thinks there is something nice about the postcards, but I don’t like them – photographs of public buildings and monuments against sunny skies.

My father creates a shoe shine kit for me – flat round tins of polish – one black, one brown. They are hard to open. I have a brush and a cloth and my father wants me to shine his shoes when he comes home from work.

Then he buys some stamps and gives me an album with clear cellophane pockets to put them in.

And every Saturday after I clean my room he gives me a silver dollar to put in a savings account. He takes me to the bank, lifts me up onto the counter, shows me the little book. I prefer paper money though and wish he would give me that instead.