Friday, March 30, 2012


The floor was glossy and smooth, polished wood. The walls were white. The el-shaped room I stepped into was bright and empty, just a beige phone on a shelf.

There were sliding glass doors. I stepped through them onto reddish tiles, a rooftop garden edged with a low wall of white stucco, holding bushy green ferns. A metal railing overlooked the quiet leafy lane below.

We have just come from the airport. I have never been here before, in this apartment, in this country. Everything is going to be all right here. Everything will be much easier. It’s warm and sunny here. There are flowers. I saw them from the taxi.

There is a real kitchen here with yellow linoleum, a tall fridge, a stove, counters and cupboards and a sink by the window. Already, so much more than we had in New York. And we didn’t grow into this, the way I imagined we would in New York. No, we just switched countries and now we have all this.

Natvar has an idea of how we could get couches. We can’t just buy furniture. There is no money. But there will be. Everything is going to be all right now. Natvar said.

We buy some heavy white cotton fabric, the kind people here shade their verandahs with. I saw these stretched blue canvas shields all throught he city as we drove.

Natvar buys the fabric in white and has the man who usually makes the shades make four over-large, over-stuffed rectangular cushions, hard as rocks.

We place the cushions on two matching wooden boxes that have come our way. We push each couch against a wall so that they are at right angles to each other, near the sliding glass doors, facing the front door. They look gloriously white and expensive. A coup.

People must think we are rich, at ease, successful, busy, international. This is who we must be.

At a concert one night at the Acropolis our host for the evening introduces us to a chic woman my age who says she works for Vogue.

“That’s what you should be like,” Natvar says later. “Why can’t you be like that? You could get a job writing for Vogue,” and I imagine myself with a real job, a profession, an actual assignment. I imagine myself that confident woman in her short black dress and heels.

I have the dress, a perfect short black dress, expensive, bought at Bloomingdales on my mother’s credit card that we will never pay. I can almost imagine myself that woman, but no one has given me that job, and that’s the part I cannot imagine. It’s as if she comes from a world I have never been able to figure out how to access.

But Natvar has told me this is the person I should be and I know I could almost be that person. Maybe I am jut not trying hard enough. I must work harder, make this happen, correct what is lacking.

I am in New York a few months later for two weeks. I call the offices of Vogue. I say I am a journalist living in Athens, that I’d like to write for them. I’m told to come in at a certain time and I meet a woman, sit across from her in a small office. I stride in with a smile and a firm handshake. I have some ideas what I could write about and the person behind the desk agrees and tells me to send her whatever I complete.

But I can go no further. I return to Athens, to the apartment where I am on some kind of track I can’t get off of. I can prove that I tried. I had the appointment at Vogue just like the chic woman at the Acropolis would have done. But it has not turned me into her.

No, I must clean. I must fill any empty moment with endeavor, a job, a chore, an assignment, a duty, or else I am not doing my part. And there are days at a time when things go quite smoothly, and other days when Natvar criticizes me so harshly, building a case, layer by layer at the dinner table while the others listen, building the case that I am emotionally damaged, lazy, heartless.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012


In that house the animals came and went. I did not pay too much attention. No one did. My mother did the caretaking – housecleaning, gardening, feeding us, caring for the animals. Not that the phrase "caring for” would have been used.

When Red, the dark auburn cocker spaniel, stayed out all night and returned with a bleeding paw it was my mother who wrapped the paw in a sheet and spoke of how he had bled through a whole sheet. Red lay in the kitchen. Maybe he went to the vet. He got better. And then he disappeared.

Puppy was the last dog I shared that household with. A bouncing barking short-haired dog my mother found through some ad. Puppy came with his name. I heard later, after I’d left, that Puppy would not stop chewing his tail. And Puppy too eventually disappeared.

Jeffrey, the boyfriend I lived with, got a kitten, a black kitten with no tail whom he named Golem.

I can’t write of these things. How Golem became the monster he was named for and why.

I was raised in harshness. It makes you afraid to be soft.

“Your kids are wimps,” my mother’s sister said to her once.

The harshness my mother came from was worse.

Her father, an angry frightening man I am told, is the one though who had the books and was not made to farm.

And the man my mother married must have seemed like a softie to her – a man who couldn’t fix anything or watch sports or shoot – a man who liked a good suit, who listened to classical music records, who could waltz.

She had two brothers, one who had some delicacy and education, and another who ran a paint store.

The first one died, the second one sends a Christmas card and my mother urges me to write back, but I just can’t do it. It’s hard enough to write to the people I know. Uncle Dick is all right, but he is not in my life and I am not in his.

I haven’t thanked my Hungarian aunt for the late Christmas present she sent, a book I will never read, a copy of which I already had.

Now that my father doesn’t exist anymore it is hard to maintain the thin thread of connection to my namesake. It does not really matter to me. I cannot make it matter more.

And yet I find myself envying others their vibrant families, the community of which they are a part.

Both my parents left their parents thousands of miles behind on opposite sides of the globe. No member of my mother’s family met any member of my father’s family. A few of them met my father once or twice. I saw my grandparents a handful of times – three or four times – in my life. Aunts and uncles and cousins, once or twice.

And yet they have a certain reality that other people don’t have. More weight. I have heard their names all my life.

The one person I talk to, the one I go to see is my mother. I have two sisters I have not talked to for about eight years. I do not miss them though something is missing. I don’t want to call them up. I don’t even want to hear their news anymore.

I hold onto my mother though. Mostly because the sound of her voice is so familiar.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


In the beginning he was an exciting boy with dark hair pulled back in a straggly pony tail tied with an elastic I’d only seen girls wear. He sat across from me around a long rectangular table in a basement corner room with  small windows at the tops of two of the walls with about 20 other college students and the writing professor at the head of the table.

It was summertime and it was evening and I was here because my father had suggested to me in a way that I felt I had no choice that I sign up for a summer course at the prestigious college he had always wanted me to attend that I had failed to get into despite the afternoon on a weekend when my father had driven me to the campus, me dressed up in my favorite long red corduroy skirt and peasant blouse embroidered with multi-colored flowers – the one I’d actually bought in Hungary not Macy’s – to introduce me to an old Belgian man, an economist my father had admired for years, a professor at the college.

We visited the old man somewhere – his home, his office – and my father’s introduction of me was more of a “See, isn’t my daughter pretty?” I felt very pretty but that I had nothing to say to this old European intellectual. I felt stupid in his presence, as if there was nothing to me. I knew when I impressed people and when I did not. Walking back to my father’s beige VW bug a student with a camera asks if he can take my picture, and I pose, and my father is pleased that I have attracted this attention.

I sign up for the writing class to assuage my father and because it means that every Wednesday I can borrow my mother’s green VW station wagon and drive it two hours to the campus on I-95, spend two hours in the class, then drive back. I love to drive, to have a car of my own, to speed down the highway, to weave nimbly through traffic.

And then there is this boy, right away, in the first class, sitting across from me, in the crowd, and when the teacher makes us laugh, I notice the boy always catching my eye.

After the class, in the pale light of the summer evening, I walk alone to the parking lot and my car, and I see that boy again, walking a block or two away, unaware of me. He too is alone and I like what he is wearing – a cotton smock, something very different from what most people wear.

I find it hard to fine the clothes I want to wear. I don’t know where people find them. Once I saw a hippie walking by the side of the road wearing a sort of woolen poncho, but not the typical kind and I went to the Elephant’s Trunk, the store in a neighboring town most likely to have something similar, but they did not, and I couldn’t describe it, just that it was different.

I could embroider my jeans and sew patches on them, but I didn’t know where to find a cotton smock like the one that boy had.

The next week the boy and I talked after class. We sat outside on the porch of the building and he said he had written a novel. he’d written a novel. How did he do that? I hadn’t written a novel. I hadn’t done anything even close.

During the week the boy wrote me a letter. It came in a thick envelope to my house where my parents and two little sisters lived, the white clapboard house that sat up on a hill overlooking the road where the mailbox was – the mailbox I checked every day, hoping for another letter from Mark, the intriguing tall, skinny boy who wrote plays and was three years older than me.

The boy’s letter was typed and single-spaced on crinkly paper. It was like the piece of a manuscript, dense. I love you, it said.

We met up before class in a library, a modern library, built half underground. Me wearing the yellow smock I had sewed a few months before and a yellow ribbon in my long dark hair, and this boy who had written a novel, had a pony tail, wore smocks that were just what I wanted, and who said he loved me.

He loves me. This means something about me has turned him on. I don’t what it is, don’t know how to keep this tiny flame alive. Because I want him to keep loving me. He is not like clumsy Bill in high school or Mark who is so hard to draw out.

The boy invites me for dinner, to his place. He will cook. “What do you like to eat?” he asks.

I don’t know what I like to eat. I don’t know a good answer to this. My new friend Ruth has shown me many things I didn’t know before like Maxfield Parrish and Joni Mitchell’s album Blue, and how you can get patterned sheets and make them into curtains, and Marimeko and modern dance and the Metropolitan Museum, discount clothing stores and bagels. She mentioned eating Eggplant Parmegian once, and so I answer, “Eggplant Parmegian,” thinking this is something someone else would say, someone whom this boy might like, someone who has friends and knows her way around.