Saturday, December 22, 2012


I sat in the front desk, the row of desks extending behind me. I sat towards the right hand side of the room, off center, away from the door. Mrs. Turner’s desk was at the back of the room.

I have come into this room, hoping they don’t notice me. Yesterday, a lady came into the classroom, stooped down to me privately as I sat at my desk, and suggested I come with her into the second grade classroom.

I followed her into a noisy room where all the kids were talking at once to each other. They didn’t sit in rows. They sat at tables across from each other. They threw things at each other and the teacher yelled at them.

So this morning I’ve come back to my desk in Mrs. Turner’s classroom, the first grade, and I hope they don’t come and talk to me again.

Mrs. Turner has brown hair pinned up in a bun. She is kind and gentle. She likes me. I like her. She invited me to sit in a chair facing the kids and read them the Peter Pan story. I like to hold up the book to show them the pictures the way teachers always do. Mrs. Turner interrupted me one time from her desk at the back of the room to explain how to pronounce the word “island,” which was coming up a lot in the Peter Pan story. I was pronouncing it the way it is written.

We pull our chairs into a circle, some of us, on the side of the classroom to read out loud. The book we are reading from – we each have a hardback copy, a dark grey/turquoise cover with black letters – has a long word in its title that I cannot decipher. Usually I am the one who knows all the words. I am embarrassed that I don’t know this one. I don’t ask anyone what it is.

I got home one day after school with Mrs. Turner because my mother cannot come get me. The creek at the bottom of our driveway is flooded and no one can get through. So Mrs. Turner takes me home with her.

She lives in a small house. She has a husband. The house is quiet. She puts me to bed in a tall, high bed, a double bed. I like this bed. It feels old-fashioned, so high up off the ground.

At playtime at school we play in the playground. We play jump rope. Two girls twirl the rope, one at each end, and we take turns standing by the edge of the turning rope, our body moving with its rhythm until we know the moment we can jump in without tripping or stopping the regular turn of the long rope. “Paul John George Ringo!” we chant as each girl jumps inside the circle of the turning rope. Paul John George Ringo,” and when finally each girl misses her beat, stumbles and gets in the way of the turning rope, whatever name was last called – be it Paul or John or George or Ringo – we know that’s the one she is secretly in love with, and everybody laughs.

The Beatles are four boys with black hair. I do not know which is which. 

Monday, December 03, 2012


When I was 11 I lived in England in a white house with a bumpy, stuccoey surface. The roof came up in two peaks, one on the left, one on the right with a flat piece in the middle that ate the tennis balls I smacked against the one windowless wall. You walked through a short black swinging metal gate with a latch, from the sidewalk, along a short straight concrete path to a black front door with a brass letter slot through which letters got pushed in the mornings. 

It wasn’t our normal kind of house. It came with all its own furniture. Each bedroom -- and there were four -- had its own color of floor-to-ceiling drapes that opened and closed with a string and white chiffon curtains that were underneath, like a petticoat.

The floor-to-ceiling drapes with their pull-open strings were foreign, one of the things that no house of ours would ever have. Everything else was normal except the vanity table in my mother’s bedroom. It was glass-topped and kidney-shaped, but the most unfamily, unmother  part was its pretty pink and white striped skirt.

My mother lived in the pink room, my father in the dark green, my two little sisters in the blue, and I in the red. 

But my father wasn’t there much. He was a visitor on weekends, often away on business trips for two or three weeks at a time, returning with presents.

One time I was told I would be going to meet him. I was going to fly by myself, they told me, to Geneva, and he would pick me up.

My father was my favorite. He was the interesting person, the one who went away on trips, the one who was happiest, bursting into the house with a kind of cheer and good spirit that wasn’t present without him.

There was a stewardess on the plane with the duty of watching over me and handing me over upon arrival. I was not frightened.

There was some kind of adult fuss when I arrived because my suitcase was missing, but I didn’t attach any importance to a missing suitcase.

My father was there in suit, with swagger, and I knew I was in good hands, that he could take care of things like airports and hotels much better than my mother could. Things went wrong when I was with my mother. We missed turn-offs, got lost, and sometimes bashed up the car. But these things didn’t happen when I was with my father.

We went to a hotel. This was the kind of thing you did with my dad. He liked things like that. His restaurants were fancy, my mother’s were not.

My father showed me my room, his room, and the bathroom that connected them. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing at a bathroom fixture I’d never seen before. 

“It’s for ladies to wash their wee-wee,” my father said with some kind of smile, some kind of upbeat that I could not echo. I looked away, looking for the next stone to step onto, away from the strange object in the bathroom.

He took me out of the city to a skyscraper of apartments, a skyscraper out of place amongst snow and mountain slopes. 

He liked this place. He had been talking about it back in England, telling me with some kind of deliciousness about “après-ski.” He liked to tell me his things. He took me on walks, away from mother and sisters, and told me the good things in his life 

We sat at dinner in the glittery restaurant on the ground floor of the skyscraper, and a blonde woman was with us. My father said I should call her Aunt Helga. She was pretty, old like my father, her hair pale blonde and cut short. Her eyes were blue and she wore make-up and jewelry and high heels  and pretty clothes. She wore the clothes my mother never wore and laughed a lot with my father. 

My father ran his index finger down her nose and teased her for having a nose like a ski jump. She asked me if I would ever marry a black man. “I’ll marry anyone I want to,” I said, and they laughed.

My father took me to a French bookstore and chose some books for me to take back to school, picture books with French words and a tiny dictionary with a soft plastic cover that I could hold in the palm of my hand. 

And he took me to a hairdresser where the ladies cut my hair and put it in two pony tails, covering the rubber bands with black velvet bands. My father came to get me, talked French with the ladies, made much of their work, and pressed upon me that I must not lose those black velvet bands.

We went to Aunt Helga’s house in Geneva for dinner, a fancy dining room where I sat up straight. “Look,” said my father, so at ease and at home here, “she can press a button under the table with her foot so Maria knows to bring the soup.” 

There was a small wrapped gift to the left of my fork. I pretended not to notice. It seemed like the polite thing to do, not to assume anything was for me.

Towards the end of the meal my father suggests I open it. Inside, from Aunt Helga, is a red leather cover with the word “Passport” stamped in gold. I say thank you. My father expresses admiration for the beautiful cover. It is a grown-up present, not something I can play with.

And then I am in the taxi coming back from the airport. My father is in the spacious back seat of the cab with me. We are playing and goofing around in a way we have never done before. I am pretending to be a grown-up lady, like Helga. I am making jokes and my father is laughing at my grown-up jokes. 

And then I go one step further. I call him Mickie. That’s what Helga had called him. And with that word I pull back. I stop this game. It doesn’t feel good anymore. It scares me. 

Friday, November 02, 2012


Perhaps it was on the short trip to Switzerland when I was 11. It was some time when I was alone with my father. It was evening, after dinner, and we were in the lounge of a hotel or a fancy restaurant amongst expensive couches, perhaps a blazing fireplace. I was sitting next to my father on a couch while he nursed a drink and he was telling me about the war, about Hungary and his eyes were full of tears. He caught my eye and smiled a little as if to acknowledge or apologize for the tears, which did not spill over, but remained in his eyes.

Recently, I was thinking about one of the stories my father liked to tell me. It was about how his father, as a young man, had planted fruit trees out in the country by the ancestral thatched-roof cottage in which he’d been born. By then my grandfather lived in Budapest, but the family returned frequently to the village for vacations. My father liked to tell me in detail how his father had dreamed of beautiful fruit trees, had purchased them, planted them full of hope and how the rabbits had eaten and destroyed the saplings. The lovely lovely dream came to naught.

It was told as a heartrending tale and I received it as such. My poor grandfather. He had his heart broken.

A week or two ago I thought – wait a minute. So what the rabbits ate them? Why didn’t he plant again, or figure out an anti-rabbit strategy? Why was one failure so important?

My father did a lot of giving up, I think, took failure very seriously. Lost his house, jobs, money, the bits of prestige that came his way.

He told me a lot of sad stories. When I was a little girl I said out loud one day, basing my opinion on my father and his friends who often came then to the house, that Hungarians are sad. This made my father laugh, and he repeated it for years, almost proudly, as if, yes, that’s how Hungarians are and should be.

When I visited him in Budapest where he went to live for the last 25 years of his life my father took me to the apartment of an old girlfriend for dinner. A plain woman now who spoke with earnest regret of all that had been lost in the war 50 years earlier.

My father told me a number of times of being a teenager and coming across his father in his room, looking through his wallet. “’Why are you going through my wallet?’ I asked him angrily,” my father said. “’My son, I am just putting a little money in it.’” And my father’s voice was filled with sad remorse each time he told the story as if he had caused his father pain and could never soothe it.

I know the feeling. If I were my father and I had a daughter I would tell her tearfully of the time my mother visited me in boarding school.

I was 9 or 10. I begged her to take me and my two younger sisters to the local, muddy little circus that was parked in town for a few days. She gave in when I could not stop asking. But I could tell on the ricocheting tumbling ride she was frightened, mostly for the baby she held in her arms. And afterwards she noticed one of the combs from her hair had disappeared.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Back in my school bed alone, in a curtained-off cubicle I could not stop crying, the kind of silent crying I had learned how to do in boarding school, the tears coming in relentless hot waves as all I kept seeing was my mother – in her black and white houndstooth suit with the long full skirt and her black dress shoes – gripping the bar in the metal capsule we were strapped into and the comb now gone forever. I had injured her, hurt her, and it was too late to do anything about it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


I thought of my father today for a moment or two. Wondered how his death had felt to him. Imagined him in the narrow room off the kitchen in the Budapest apartment, the room designed for a maid, the room that had originally belonged to my great aunt Dora, my grandmother’s sister, the designated artist. The family has lived in this apartment for over 80 years. 

My mother told me that when my sister visited there recently she objected to sleeping in that room because my father had died there. My aunt had responded that it was impossible to find a room in that apartment where no one had died. 

I just thought of my father being the first and the only one of us five to die, to have crossed over that mysterious border. My father, whose reputation amongst his wife and children, holds little dignity, yet he’s done what none of us have done. That’s what I thought this afternoon.

I remember the small room off the kitchen where my father slept in a single bed against the wall, in the corner. Above the bed hung an oil painting he was proud of because his cousin had painted it. He led me to believe that this cousin was a well known painter in Hungary, something I don’t think is true though I have been in that man’s home and seen that he was a true artist, devoting his life to it.

My father also had on the wall framed black and white photos of his parents in their soft, handsome youth.

The window of this room let in the only direct sun of the whole apartment, and only for a few minutes in the morning. My father pointed this out to me and spoke of how he wanted to plant red geraniums in the window boxes.

My mother had red geraniums in window boxes when I was little. She brought them into the dining room in winter. I did not like their furry leaves, the unrelenting red color. 

Living in Athens 25 years later I saw balcony upon balcony filled with geraniums in pinks and fucia, and when I returned to Manhattan I sought to duplicate that profusion on the tiny balcony overlooking Washington Square Park, and at every place I have lived ever since, welcoming geraniums, even red ones, so willing to bloom and add color.

Though my father only made me angry on that trip, always caring for things I did not care about, insisting and pushing, we were frequently at odds, blowing up at each other one night like lovers, him storming out the door, we reunite in the morning, catching the train we were scheduled to catch, saying nothing of the night before. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I lay in bed a few nights ago, thinking about the woman who would be arriving the next day from India. I would be greeting her. “It would be nice to wear a Punjabi,” I thought, the long cotton tunics and matching pants that I had learned to wear in India. But I didn’t have them anymore. “I could wear a sari,” I thought. I had plenty of those.

I had not for one split micro-second considered wearing my Indian clothes since I’d had a woman turn one of my red silk sari’s into a short, strapless wedding dress, cutting up a second sari for the lining. I had so many of them, even after the laundry next to the ashram in Ganeshpuri failed to return a couple. It had taken me a long time to notice that two were missing – the laundry, from long experience with Westerners, knew this was a good risk to take. 

As I lay in bed, in the dark, not sleeping yet, I knew I wouldn’t wear a sari to work the next day, but I could wear a sari, I thought to the huge fancy dinner Saturday night. I pictured myself in a perfectly wrapped, graceful sari, taking everyone by surprise. There would be a good number of Indian women at the global conference dinner, and it could be my way of diminishing the barriers between our cultures. I loved the idea. I got up and told Fred about it with the peculiar excitement I get sometimes when I’ve come up with something brand new. 

As soon as I had voiced the idea, I drew back. Maybe I should dress a little more ordinary. I shouldn’t draw attention away from the people who were the real stars of the night, the ones who had conceived of and worked for over a year on this event. 

And besides, I didn’t have a sari petticoat. 

The next morning, in the early grey of dawn when I could have been writing, I looked online for an Indian clothing store nearby. Nothing. I found sari petticoats for sale online, but they would not arrive on time. Who did I know who was Indian who I borrow from? 

A woman at work had married an Indian man and lived with her Indian mother-in-law. I Facebooked a message to her and she replied quickly. No, she didn’t have one. “My friend uses a regular slip,” she suggested, but I knew you can’t wrap a sari with a regular slip. 

I showered. I moved through the still-early morning, still at home. Another local friend who knew so many people also had no ideas. And then I thought of all the women in my town who had been or still were part of the ashram world I had once been so completely a part of. I went through a few possibilities in my mind, trying to think of one who would speak to me and quickly alighted on Yvette, the beautiful French woman who I thought would still be friendly. She was not one of the sourpusses who crossed the street when I came along. 

I Facebooked her. An hour later I left a message on her home phone. 

Yvette called back that afternoon, friendly. Of course she’d lend me one. 

That evening I went upstairs to the closet I rarely open and pulled out the plastic box in which I knew the sari’s were folded, the box I had chosen about 20 years ago because it fit under my ashram bed, the only storage space I had back then.

I opened the box. They were as fresh in their air-tight box as if I had put them away a few days before. Each one had its own story – this one had been a gift from Christina, the Italian friend of Antonioni’s wife. This one had once been Hemananda’s and I remembered the morning when Gurumayi had spread out Hemananda’s old sari’s and invited us to the secret conference room to pick one. 

I tried on the little cotton blouses, each one a different color but absolutely identical. I had hoped to find one where the sleeves were not so tight, but then I remembered how the seamstress, somewhere in Bombay, had measured me and made them all exactly the same. I could still get into them, but only just.

“Let me see if I remember how,” I thought. Something in me was eager to re-enter these waters. There was something I wanted to feel again. I began tucking and folding, but one thing went wrong. I clicked on YouTube and watched a 4-minute video made by a young woman  and remembered the step I had forgotten.

The dinner was now two days away. Will I do it, I wondered as I went through my days. No. Yes. Maybe. 

And then I was packing for the weekend, packing two other dresses that would work just fine. I just had to slip one over my head and I’d be done. And now there’s just a few minutes before my ride arrives and I watch myself pull out the ironing board, iron the blouse, choose the blue sari because the drape of it is so beautiful – the stiffer fabrics do not hang so sweetly – and I take them with me, still not certain.

It is time to dress. There is no mirror in my single room. “I’ll try,” I think.  “Maybe it won’t work.”

The blouse, the sari still look perfectly pressed. They have made the journey well.

I tie the petticoat tight at the waist. I get my arms through the tight sleeves of the little blouse and pull each little hook through the tiny stitched eyelets made of matching thread. I lay the sari on the bed, look closely at the silk to determine which side is the right side, the one with the strongest colors, and I begin to tuck, seeing myself standing in that room in Ganeshpuri, the cool smooth floor, the square column in the middle of the room, the two pink bedspreads, mine in the corner, Kevali’s under the window.

I pin the sari at my shoulder then begin the pleats at my waist, the tricky part.

There were always beautiful women in the ashram who wore their saris perfectly, like swans gliding. Though I had tried hard somehow I had never quite pulled that look off. You can look so frumpy in a sari if you don’t get it right.

I tucked the pleats in and went out to the bathroom to look in the mirror over the sink. It looked all right. In fact, I think I nailed it. How could that be – how could I have wrapped this sari better than any sari I had ever wrapped before?

I stepped out into the evening, the silk caressing me. I moved easily, at home in the garment that I knew looked like an evening dress, but that I knew I could stack wood in if I needed to. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


I longed for Leela to be my friend. She said she was and all the discomfort that surfaced when I was with her I stuffed like newspapers into the cracks to keep the cold air out.

Leela had to do with being an artist in the city. That’s what I wanted to be. I had brought myself to the city, had watched as the sidewalk did not sprout friendships and typed pages like mushrooms, but there was Leela.

She had become beautiful since college. Her resume was so much better than mine. She’d become a model of all things, flying to St. Bart’s and Japan, showing up in Vogue.

I had tried it out in L.A. for about five minutes, had gone to a photo booth, taken four pictures and sent them to an ad. The man on the phone suggested I send him a photo with my hair down instead of tied back tight and somehow it just felt silly and empty and I wouldn’t win anyway.

But Leela had all that and a studio apartment in the Village and a job at an art gallery. She spoke of grown-up friends, like Jonathan who wrote for Rolling Stone and gave her ideas for what to read next. Paul Bowles.

She’d speak of these people casually, with a little laugh of amusement, and we read Oriana Fallaci’s autobiography and both wanted to be her: daredevil writer.

Leela had a large loom in her dark studio almost-unfurnished apartment. I loved the loom and that she knew how to use it, but when she and I went out to dinner she talked of how she wasn’t weaving.

We both spoke of becoming writers.

She talked of Milo, her boyfriend, and I imagined him dark, tall, sophisticated, sleek. And she had dinner with Salvador Dali who wanted to paint her.

Milo, the gallery, her model friends were in one world, and she kept me in a separate one. I wanted my life to flower. I wanted to be rushing to parties, and I was not. At all. She was, but on the other side of the partition, and I couldn’t quite figure it out – why I was not invited -- and answered those questions by not asking them.

She gave me a pair of earrings made of lapis lazuli. She named the stone as if it were magic as she handed me the small box in the tiny restaurant. I treasured the small blue stones. I treasured too the cast-off dress she gave me – not because it had been hers but because it really was a wonderful dress – blue and loose and long and flowing.

I was mad at her the afternoon we walked through Soho, her actually walking into the clothing stores that looked like art galleries, trying on cowboy boots that cost 100s of dollars while I wondered how to make $10 last the weekend.

I loved her face – the high wide cheekbones, the narrow blue eyes that became slits when she smiled. And I wanted my camera to capture what I saw. She stood for me once, dressed in black leather jacket, by the window of Jeffrey’s empty apartment where I was camping out. She stood by the window as I held up my mother’s 35mm Exakta, the one she had passed on to me, and I hoped for a rich black and white portrait of this face I loved to look at, and I printed two shots on 8x10 paper – one where she is looking at the camera like a model, and the other where she is laughing and blurry. Neither was what I wanted exactly.

She wrote to me two years ago, an email. There it was, her name in my inbox, as if I had always known it one day would be.

We spoke on the phone. When we hung up I knew I would not call or write again. What was it? A cold cold wind on a barren wasteland – somewhere between the words and what she said, the allusions to things that again cost more money than I had ever seen, her presence a place I knew could not give warmth or nurturance of any kind.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Ann’s hair was short, thin, brown and straighter than straight. Her hair seemed to spring from one central point at the crown of her head to form a sort of cap.

Her name had no “E” at the end to fancy it up. Just plain Ann.

Her face was eager and friendly. We met during my first week of boarding school. She asked right away during evening playtime if we could be best friends and I said yes, not thinking about it very much. I would never have said no to such a request. That would be mean.

My dorm was down the hall from hers. I had been assigned a small room with two other girls, our single beds lined up under the eaves, and an older girl to watch over us, sleeping in a bed near the door.

The next day Ann told me with delight that she had jumped up and down on her bed shouting, “I’ve got a best friend! I’ve got a best friend!” and I was surprised. The event had not been so special for me.

But Ann and I remained an official couple for my three-year stay at St. Mary’s. 

She told me with pride that she came from a place called “the Lake District.” She spoke of it often enough that I could not imagine her coming from any other place.

During school breaks when each girl disappeared to wherever she had originally come from, Ann and I plus our small circle of friends wrote to each other long, long thick, thick letters. I sent mine off and waited for the responses, deliciously thick fat stuffed envelopes that the mailman pushed through the brass slot in the white front door, letters that plopped to the floor in the tiny front hall with its black and white checkerboard floor, perfect for playing Jacks.

My friends and I were Olympic-level Jacks players.

Back at school, in the evenings, after dinner and before bed, we were let loose, crowds of us in the long, high-ceilinged hall to play. Children ran, played tag, hide-and-seek, house – clumps of girls, each involved in its own world.

First we played Addams Family, a game I had been playing with other friends back in the States. But now we were onto something much more grown-up: Jacks.

The satisfying weight of the jacks, swept up with one hand, or flipped elegantly to the back of the hand then back to the palm, as the other hand caught the ball on its first bounce. It was a game to become proficient at, one we played night after night – Ann, Nicola, Lucy Ann, Madeleine and I – with possible visits from second-tier friends, sitting on the floor, each girl taking her turn.

Until Lucy Ann upped the ante, bringing a new game back from the holidays. Stones.

No rubber ball in Stones. Just stones. Stones gathered from outside. In Jacks you had the leisurely time of a rubber ball that would touch the floor and bounce back up to be caught. A stone, tossed in the air, had to be caught before it hit the floor, while some acrobatic was performed with the other stones, the other hand.

We climbed on board. After all, Lucy Ann had brought this game. Lucy Ann was my real favorite. Her face was unusually pretty, like a doll, and her singular talent, setting her apart from anyone I had ever known, was her grown-up singing voice, louder and more confident than anyone else’s, sounding like an adult’s. But it wasn’t just the prettiness and the voice, she was the most interesting, the one who saw movies during school holidays like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, movies my parents would not think to take me to. Her parents were divorced,. Sometimes she was with her dad, sometimes with her mother. She had an older brother. Her life at home more adult-sounding than mine. 

So I pushed to master Stones, but Stones was not a good-natured friend like Jacks. Stones had a harshness to it, a feeling of having to grit your teeth, but there was no going back. I had to keep up. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


I am here now, alone in the quiet of a Monday morning, not going with everyone else to work. I’ve pulled myself off the track and now there is nothing else except the white walls of my room, the white shelves that came from my parents’ house, holding mostly books from college English classes – poetry collections that span a few hundred years – Dante, Milton – the thick book of translated Japanese poetry with the picture of the sunflower on the cover. I like my collection of paperbacks. I don’t open them all the time, but I like having them there, steady companions, reminding me who I am, what I want.

I sit at the white wooden desk that my mother got for me as a child. I have a manual white portable typewriter you can carry around in a grey case, inherited from when my mother tried to teach herself to type. It types in small, cramped pica type, not the fuller Courier that most typewriters use.

I am here on W. 91st Street up on the fourth floor, and it seems like the right place for writing.

I don’t think too much about how to pay the rent. Maybe I can learn carpentry. So many artists have interesting off-the-map skills. I want one of those. Being a secretary is the worst thing I can think of, but this is what I have always done for cash.

I help two women clean up their apartment. They have been living together as a couple for 20 years and are splitting up. They have grey hair and I can tell they like me for my youth, energy and prettiness. I work mostly with the one who is moving out, she is the more quirky of the two, the one more at a loss. The one staying in the apartment has something tidy, organized, academic about her, a collection of ancient clay figurines from archeological digs lines her long window sills.

The one I help is an artist of some kind. She tells me about two carpenters she knows and I ask if I can apprentice with them. They are two young men doing fancy cabinentry in wealthy apartments. I tag along a few times, sanding, bored, I quit.

I do write a little. I describe the walk I took in Van Cortlandt Park, starving for greenery, taking the subway as far out of the city as it would go. I describe the gentle rain, the pencil-yellow leaves on the path, the abandoned car in the woods, the angry woman in the black tee shirt who glares at me as she passes.

This writing thrills me.

I move into a smaller room in the apartment to lower my rent and then when Natvar, my yoga teacher, the man who runs the school I go to three times a week now, the man who greets me with a huge smile every time I arrive, where I sit and drink tea after class with the same group of four or five who listen to Navar’s stories – when he says wistfully that he needs someone to rent the back room, I volunteer. It will be even cheaper than where I am now, and I will be helping him.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


My father’s voice on the other end of the phone, sounding serious and strict, telling me, no, don’t quit that job, but his voice is far away and I am going to quit this job. I was so extremely happy yesterday morning, striding down Broadway in my sneakers and flowing blue skirt, so sure and excited – yes, I’m going to quit this job, this office, this desk, this path to nowhere, and I’m going to freelance, do odd jobs, and sit down every morning and write. I’m going to live in New York City in my square, high-ceilinged corner room and every day I will write – something, I don’t know what, but surely something will come.

My father does not respond to my excitement. His voice is heavy and stern. No, do not quit that job. And I think again how silly he is.

In high school I gave him a copy of Babbitt. I’d just read it for English class and I thought it described my father, or at least that part of him that was ordinary and worried about things that didn’t worry me.

My father told me stories for years and years, stories of the bombs in Budapest, living with other families from the apartment building down in the basement, stories of him sneaking back upstairs with his friends to play records and dance.

His stories though are not real to me, not as real as this office I will leave in two weeks. It feels good to just walk away. “Why?” asks my boss, sitting at his desk when I tell him. He is a nice man, round, tubby, grey-haired, Irish, who originally wanted to be a ballet dancer which of course was not allowed, nor was being gay, but he was gay anyway, with a young handsome boyfriend called Andy. “Why?” asked Patrick.

And I really tried to answer him, tears coming into my eyes with the effort. Something about this life where the bookcovers had to please the salesmen more than anyone else, something about how if I stayed here I’d be doing the same thing for 40 years, over and over in a tiny world of editors and publishers – it felt claustrophobic and middle-aged and bland. I didn’t say that. I said something with the word “meaning” in it.

I remembered what another boss had said to me. “All editors originally wanted to be writers.” I must not let that happen to me. And my sneakers flying down Broadway promised me it would not happen, and my sneakers flying down Broadway kept me far far away from my father’s desperate voice, “Don’t quit that job. That would be a big mistake.”

Monday, August 27, 2012


Steve is at the door of our one-bedroom cottage. It is night. He has shown up here in L.A. from New York. We haven’t been in touch. He was a blonde boy in New York who never tried to kiss me though I wanted him to, and now he is here at the doorstep, blonde pony tail, saying can he crash for the night?

Jeffrey, my boyfriend watching TV on the couch, doesn’t know Steve, and, knowing Jeffrey, doesn’t want to.

“Hold on,” I say to Steve. “Let me check,” and I lightly close the door.

This is not how I want to be. I want to be the hippy chick whose door is always open, who has friends who can show up any time. This is who Steve thinks I am. This is who I have professed to be. But he has never seen me with Jeffrey.

“Who was that?” Jeffrey glances up, his head bent over the long blue ceramic pipe, inhaling as he holds a match to the bowl.

“My friend, Steve,” I say. “He’s in town from New York. He needs a place for the night.”

I don’t have friends, especially friends that count. My friends, like my family, don’t count for much. Jeffrey’s do. He likes his friends from college and high school. He likes his sister, his father, stepmother, that whole crowd.

But my people seem shabby. Not bright, sophisticated, not quick-witted, not wealthy. Not from Manhattan.

“Well, tell him to get a hotel. There’s plenty of them up on Hollywood.”

Maybe I push back and forth a bit, but it doesn’t matter.

I have to open the front door and step out onto the small terra cotta porch and say to Steve, “I’m sorry, but I can’t put you up, but I can give you a lift up to some hotels nearby.”

Jeffrey has said this is normal. “You can’t just show up and expect—“ he had said, and so I am hopeful that maybe Steve is in the wrong and it’s okay and normal to send him to a hotel.

And I do it and he is gone and I try to just believe everything is all right.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


My mother kept her jewelry in a soft round case made of shiny green quilted material that had a zipper all around. The color green was her color, a dark olive that reminded me of her.

She kept the case in the top drawer of her bureau where she kept underwear and silk scarves. The bureau was of smooth unpolished wood with a fine grain. The plainness of it reminded me of her too. As did the rough wide wooden boards of the floor. 

I liked to sit on the edge of her bed, unzip the soft green jewelry case and finger through the tangled jumble of necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

Also amongst the silk scarves in the top bureau drawer was an almost flat metal box, pale blue, that opened on a hinge to reveal my mother’s collection of tiny pretty shells – iridescent, pink – lying on and covered with a few sheets of Kleenex. My mother said the shells came from Cuba, from a trip she and my father took before I was born.

Cuba was something to do with their life from before I was born, some hazy indistinct past. The way my father said “Cuba” in his voice with his Hungarian inflection stamped Cuba as one of our places. Iowa was not one of our places, nor Cleveland. But Cuba was. British Columbia was. Hungary was. New England was – both parents talked about how pretty it was in the fall. Even Philadelphia was one of our places because my father’s Hungarian friends lived there.

Once, years and years later, I came upon the metal box of Cuba shells in the garage. My mother was beside me. The shells were still there despite all the many moves. 

Now though they are gone and I wish they weren’t.

Pretty much everything is gone. When the house that held if not all of it, at least a good deal of it, was sold, my mother filled a storage unit with what she did not get rid of immediately. She did it alone – my father back in Hungary, my sisters and I off in our own worlds.

A few years passed and she invited me to come help her sort through the storage unit and its many cardboard boxes. I opened one box and saw the red straw hat of a little figure that used to sit on the piano, a figure that instantly tugged at me, conjuring up the dining room and all that went with it.

I closed the box. “Let’s just throw them all away without opening them,” I said, brash and 30, living in an ashram where belongings had no place. “Okay,” my mother said, and for an hour we heaved cardboard boxes filled with our past into a dumpster.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I met a little girl a few days ago, 9 years old, the same age I was when I went to boarding school. My adult friend told me how the little girl was stressed because her mother had left her with her grandparents for a few days, all as planned, a summer vacation.

It made me wonder again why at 9 years old I had been happy to go to boarding school, relieved to be on my own.

A few days ago, chatting with a friend I asked her, “Do you remember being little and thinking – like, on the street – that as long as you were walking by yourself people would think you were an adult?”

She and I had been looking out the window at a four-year-old boy walking through the parking lot, keeping a careful distance between himself and a man we identified as his Dad.

“Oh no,” my friend laughed. “I never wanted to be alone. I panicked if I was alone!” And I imagined a big expressive family where she felt at home, a family that – now in her 50s – seems hard to be free of.

When I was 16 I was getting ready to babysit some small little child. The parents were gathering their things, ready to leave. The child started to cry. The mother crouched down. “I love you, sweetie,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”

Something in me froze, caught. I love you. Those words. Words I had never heard from a parent to a child. I thought those words were just for romances, and I was waiting for mine, hungrily, waiting for the boy who would go crazy for me, love me the way Loenard Cohen and Bob Dylan loved their lovers.

They told me I was going to boarding school and I was excited, thinking of books I had read of girls in schools who were friends and played tricks on each other and on the teachers. It sounded like a great place to be, much more fun than where I was.

The school was built mostly of grey stone, an old-fashioned building with windows that opened by turning handles. It looked like a place that rich people had lived in once with a long driveway and a circle in the front where your parents’ car stopped.

The front door was made of thick wood in an arch of stone. A square sign said “Ring Bell,” and a nun opened the door, usually with a smile.

This is where I said good-bye to my parents and stepped into the high-ceilinged front hall with the polished wood floor and the wide staircase that curved up to the next floor, making you turn twice as you went up. I could imagine old-fashioned ladies coming down those stairs slowly in long dresses with fans on their way to a ball.

I missed my mother at night, in that margin of time after the lights went out before I fell asleep, missed her with an ache, wanting her to come and lean over and kiss my cheek and say good-night and be in the next room.

She did those things when I was at home and I liked them. She went to each of our three beds. Each kid got a cheerful good-night and a peck.

We were living in England then, in a small house with many rooms crammed into it, like a doll’s house. My father was proud that he had found it so quickly, in one day of looking at rentals within commuting distance of London. My father told me when he did things that proved he was better than other people. He told me with a big smile, and a “You see?” in his voice.

There were four bedrooms upstairs, one in each corner of the square second floor. My room was at the top of the stairs, defined by the red curtains that fell floor-to-ceiling and opened and closed with a string. When I sat on the floor, leaning against my bed, my feet touched the white-wood wardrobe. 

My two sisters shared the next room, defined by blue curtains and bunk-beds. My mother’s room had pink curtains and my father’s were dark green. Curtains that came with the house.

The tiny front hall had a smooth black and white checkerboard floor, the stairs leading up from its center and also turning you twice to get you to the top, but a tiny miniature of the stairs I knew at school.

When I was home I ate supper in the kitchen with my mother and little sisters. We only used the dining room when my father was home on weekends.

At night sometimes from my bed I could hear my parents fighting downstairs, a terrible sound that I wished and wished would stop, the harsh sound of their voices, please stop.

The parents and sisters visited me in school once a month. I preferred being in the school, uninterrupted, wished my parents lived in Kenya or Bahrain like other girls’ parents so I could just be here, as myself, without them.

And then 3 years later suddenly overnight friends turned against me, girls said mean things, girls I had been playing with for years, girls I wrote long letters to during school breaks, girls whose fat envelopes in return burst through the brass letter slot and onto the black and white checkerboard floor of the front hall. Overnight, the temperature changed, and I asked my mother to change schools. She did not ask why. I did not say.

And the next year I began at a school near the little tiny doll’s-house house, a school I returned home from every afternoon. And now everything was different. I was in the wrong place, an ordinary school, not a place that put me in a different, separate world, the way my father was in a different, separate world. A school where I had no magic, no friends appeared as they always had before, and I became what I dreaded, a side-figure, a someone more like my mother than my father. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012


Last night “Sixty Minutes” talked about eating sugar and “the reward center” in your brain. I didn’t know this was a scientific term, its use taken for granted by the reporter and the doctors on the show. The reward center. I was to understand that eating sugar was addictive and connected to this place in the brain that lights up happily when you reward yourself.

I thought of my father – so fond of his Viennese pastries and his whiskies and sodas – these, I realized, were moments when he could sit down and reward himself. No one else was going to.

“Sixty Minutes” also talked about people who can’t recognize faces, not even those of their own children. And I thought of my first few weeks at my current job and how I divided people by hair color, unable to see differentiating characteristics in the crowd of new faces. And now I could never mistake Melissa for Amy for Rose even though they all have long blonde hair.

My father is dead and my mother is 88 and when I asked her last week if, by the way, Dad had a will she said no, but that she was going to have everything split evenly three ways between me and my sisters and that she’d been paying monthly into a fund since the late 80s that would cover the cost of her cremation. I hadn’t wanted to know any of that.

My mother is having a hernia operation on Friday and my two sisters will each do a bit of homecare. I am not there. I will send an audio book of one of the books featured in the memoir festival. I was going to send her Townie, but maybe I should send her a McCourt book. I wanted to send a pretty nightgown too. And flowers. But I haven’t done any of it yet. I am scared to spend money. It’s awful, but I am. An irrational reflex fear that if I spend it’ll all be gone forever.

Where I am sitting there is a small birdcage with a tiny potted jade plant inside that looks pale but alive. The birdcage – far too small for any bird – but pretty with a domed roof, made of wood painted a pale olive green, sits at an angle on a bed of moss that still has most of its green but is drying out and going brown fast. A bunch of ferns, thoroughly dead, has been thrust between the birdcage and the wall. If I looked further I’d see that dead sunflower in a glass vase, but I turn away and look, instead, out the window. 

Friday, August 03, 2012


Her tanned arm to my left on the steering wheel. Her black tank top and jeans.

We are chatting as we drive. I catch her eye and imagine this is a moment when her boyfriend probably tells her she’s beautiful. She has twisted her long blonde hair up off her shoulders and her brown eyes have their cute, pert look.

Often she looks different – efficient and executive, taking her job seriously, frowning, a little ticked off about something that is not going well. 

This evening though she is young and happy that it’s summer and she can afford to go out for dinner. She has handled her modest income well. School debt and car debt paid off. She signed up for the credit card with the most frequent flier miles.

I don’t want to write about work.

This morning I got to Maria’s coffee shop at about 8 and got my table by the wall and the iced coffee with half & half for $2 plus a quarter for the tip jar.

Nothing has to go any particular way.

The last few chapters have been going smoothly. The whole Greece section will need at least another read-through. It’s been difficult and I’ve given up once or twice. But the end of the Greece section moving into the London piece has been fun and easy to re-enter. 

I read the sentences I wrote a year or two ago and I step back into those scenes. Sometimes as I am reading I feel like it’s not good enough, I am not saying enough, the sentences seem so bare, like the skeleton of the scene without its flesh. But unless new words come quickly, I urge myself not to worry, not to linger, to just keep reading.

My boss today asked me how I was. In a firestorm of activity and rushing, she turns and says, “How are you?” and I say, “I’ve gone back to the manuscript. Remember how I told you I had set it aside?” She nods, brightening, easily forgetting the person who is on hold and the email she must answer five minutes ago. We last talked about my writing about a month ago at a wedding, both us drinking wine, making conversation easy and slippery. This afternoon she says, “Good!” immediately and talks about my other book which she liked and I soak up her sweet generosity. 

This afternoon I found myself being angry at a woman who keeps saying with passion and sincerity how much she wants to write and come to the workshops. But she doesn’t come. Or she says she will and then her sink gets clogged or her cat gets sick.

I was having angry thoughts about this woman. And then I thought about how if I wasn’t careful I probably wasn’t going to write anything for the workshop tonight, how I wanted to, but it was going to slip away from me and I was going to let it just like that woman. And it gave me the strength to move like an arrow – straight to a friend’s office to ask for a tea bag, straight over to the café with notebook and pen, to sit down with the empty page.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


I am in the dark in bed against the wall. My parents are downstairs, far away. I lie here against the wall in the darkness.

In the afternoon I lie here with a story book my grandmother sent. I turn the pages. My mother is downstairs. She feels very close, not like when it’s night and my parents are all the way downstairs at the bottom of the house. She is just below in her bedroom and if I call she will say something back. I have to stay here though as long as I can bear it in the quiet of the afternoon, turning the pages of the book, telling myself the story by looking at the pictures.

My father brings home presents from his business trip. Toys. I like when my father comes home. It is exciting. There are presents. He is laughing. He gives my sister a wooden house, brightly colored. Hours later my sister makes me very angry, very very angry and I take the new wooden house in both my hands and I drop it from the window at the top of our house, the window that fits right into the V of the roof. I drop the toy house from the window where it falls all the way down to the ground and smashes, right below the big spreading maple.

My little sister is blonde with round cheeks. People say when they come to visit that she looks like my mother and they say I look like my father. I don’t see what they are seeing, but it happens every time. This is fine with me. I like my Dad best.

My mother on the phone two nights ago asks me about my life. She really does. And I hear myself telling her things, speaking for a few sentences at a time. It is unusual, her holding the door for me like this, and holding it still longer so that I really step through. It feels different. Most of the conversation is about what I am doing, and I feel her hand on the rudder gently keeping the direction of the conversation in place. This is brand new. And she tells me of a conversation she had years ago with someone who was describing me, something she remembered, and she told me what the person had said. I don’t remember receiving like this from my mother. 

My mother made sure we ate three meals a day. She made sure our clothes were clean, our bed was made, that we had a warm sweater and enough blankets. And then when most of our contact became phone conversations – decades of them – I kept quiet. I let her talk. And when I got bored I said good-bye, and then I would miss her and call again. 

When I miss my mother I miss her voice most of all. “You’re so private!” she said once, teasing. Her other kids, she said, tell her more than I do.

I didn’t feel room to talk. I didn’t want to talk. When I tried, the words felt like heavy stone blocks, not worth anyone’s effort.

But two nights ago it was different. I felt my mother’s fondness for me, as if she might really like me, miss me.

She lives now in a northern California town. It feels so alien, like not a place where my family tribe would live. My sisters put her there, she, the 88-year-old who grew up in the wilds of frontier British Columbia is in a one-bedroom apartment with an air conditioner and yes, it’s comfortable, and yes, she has made a new life there, but it will always feel like an uprooting to me. 

Before she lived in a small house that I found for her that seemed perfect, and was, but not permanently so, and this is what took me by surprise.

When I visit my mother now I sit at the small round table in the kitchen half of the long room that is a living room in the other half. I sit while she stands, stooped, over the stove, stirring, peering. I take in her familiar gestures. They have become precious to me. There is that and there are also glimpses of other moments.

I sat, we were talking the last time I visited, disagreeing about something. I felt her rock-solid wall, an obstinancy that refused anything coming in from outside. That hardness I remembered and I knew my father knew that irrational closed door.

There’s little cause these days for seeing that part of my mother though she hinted at it the other night. Referring to the surgery she’s about to have she said “and I’ll take plenty of drugs because I get very crabby when I’m in pain,” and as she said the words I could feel the anger behind them, or maybe I imagined it, but I felt the ball of fear inside of me at the thought of my mother’s anger.