Sunday, April 29, 2012


On Sunday mornings I walked down Broadway from where I lived on 119th St. to Coliseum Books on 57th, an almost-straight line. A long line, that I walked swiftly and purposefully.

Walking is something you can do by yourself so well. It makes you feel like you have a place to go. And if you walk down Broadway on a Sunday morning it feels like anything can happen, and will happen, any second now. You are as far away from aloneness as is it possible to be.

The worst part about my alone life was that I was not supposed to be alone. My aloneness was a huge embarrassment. It had been for years. Ever since I’d come back from England, 14 years old, sure that this move back to the jazzy hip United States would snap me back to where I should be, snap me back into circles and circles of friends.

Three years of high school and deep embarrassing isolation I could not explain. How did everyone else make friends? Not that I wanted their friends. But still. I watched them. How did they talk so easily? Not that I wanted to say anything they were saying. Everyone's chit-chat seemed so stupid. Something had happened to me. I remembered being at the center of things, it being so easy I didn’t even notice it.

But now I am 14 and I have lost my touch. Only the outcasts notice me and I am repelled by them. I don’t want Sally – round with thick braces – or Rachel – tall, big-boned, dressed in polyester – to come talk to me in the library at lunchtime where I am eating the liverwurst sandwiches my mother put in a brown paper bag in the same wooden booth, off to the side, in the corner, an area few people frequent. I don’t want Rachel and Sally to seek me out and pull up a chair and tell me about the Girl Scout camping trip, but I listen and talk, I am polite, I must be, and really, they are okay – I even get interested – we laugh, and sometimes being even with them feels better than the utter silence of talking to no one.

Maybe it even looks better to be laughing with misfits than to be sitting alone.

But Sally and Rachel are not my people I know they aren’t. I will never ever be a Girl Scout. I listen to Leonard Cohen. The women he sleeps with are not Girl Scouts.

I walk down to Coliseum Books and I go in and I look through the riches there, the treasures, the fresh new paperbacks. I thumb through. I open here and there. I look at the brand new hardbacks too, but never buy one of those. Too expensive and too stiff. I wait for the soft paperbacks you can bend and soften.

Maybe I buy something.

And then it is time to go back. I don’t want to go back, not the way I leapt out of my room this morning, bright with the joy of a destination.

On the walk down it has been easy to feel the surge of confidence that I am hopeful will this time turn into words on paper the moment I sit at a typewriter. If only I had a typewriter with me right now, I am sure this super-charged excitement could spill out and become something as rich as what I see at Coliseum.

Instead, though, it is time to return, to leave this bookstore – so worn and warm – this place where writers end up, their words – how do they do it? – neatly packaged, glowing.

I can’t walk back up Broadway as fiercely as I came down.

I make my way. Back to the small room in the linoleum suite – not a real apartment -- I haven’t figured that out yet – this narrow room with the small vinyl-topped desk at one end, and the typewriter I inherited from my mother. I cannot look at it without seeing her, without seeing my whole family, the whole story of where I came from that must be erased – how can I write anything like what I see in all those piles of beautiful paperbacks when I am who I am?

Here in the room it is impossible to be free of it all the way I was just now on the street. Here I am the person I have always been. Out there, I was a stranger, someone who maybe had a chance of being a writer.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


I sat at that desk by the entrance to the office. Just me and the phone and a wasteland in between.

In front of me was a series of doors, all lined up. Inside each door was a narrow windowless room, each with a drafting table. That’s where the artists worked, the real people with real lives, older than me. In their twenties.

I had a boyfriend a few blocks away, a boyfriend who didn’t like other people much. I sort of wanted a home where people came and went easily, but he didn’t like people to show up, especially if they were my friends and not his. He doesn’t like my friends and the way he talks about them I don’t like them much either.

Like Jan, the blonde secretary whom I finally invite over, just for a little while, before we go out to eat somewhere.

Jeffrey doesn’t come out. He has told me in advance that he will pretend not to be there. He will stay in the bedroom so Jan and I hang out for awhile in the living room with its lime-green-and-white shag carpeting and the two bubbling fish tanks and the brown Salvation Army couch.

Jeffrey and I have lived here for a couple of years. Los Angeles. West Hollywood. A place where there are palm trees and the supermarket stays open 24 hours a day. Los Angeles. California.

I drive an orange-and-white Pinto that Kerry gave me. Kerry is beautiful, older, sophisticated. The set of keys she gave me has a plastic fried egg attached that has a perfumey smell to it.

I drive Kathy to work every morning. She lives a few cottages down in this shady line of cottages. She lives with Stanley who is black, while Kathy is blue-eyed and blonde. Kathy smokes. There are little lines around her eyes. She wears a nurse’s white uniform to work and their living room is filled with adult furniture.

Stanley and Jeffrey hang out during the day. Stanley is an actor and Jeffrey writes screenplays, sometimes, sitting at the heavy wooden desk in our bedroom at the beautiful self-correcting typewriter that I never in a million years could afford.

Jeffrey drives an old four-door Mercedes. That’s the kind of thing that would never happen to me. His Uncle Elliott passed it on to him. We drove that car cross-country. Jeffrey made tapes for the trip. He bought two special tape-carrying cases to store them in for the trip. He cuts out from construction paper a cover for each tape – red for fast tapes, purple for sleep tapes, the ones he plays to fall asleep to, blue for tapes of slow songs.

And he types up the song titles onto the construction-paper label. And he gives each tape a title as if it were a book or a record. Sometimes he uses words I don’t know.

And before the cross-country trip his sister rolled us dozens of joins because Jeffrey and I have never learned to roll. We always use a pipe, like the pipe Jeffrey bought as we passed through San Francisco, ceramic, long and blue, shaped like a wizard with a beard. That’s the pipe that sits always now on the vinyl-topped coffee table in the West Hollywood cottage along with the ashtray, round, large, painted in earth tones from a trip Jeffrey went on in high school to Morocco.

After I got back from dinner with Jan Jeffrey was on the couch, watching TV. “She was so stupid,” he said. “Why would you want to spend time with someone so dumb?”

And I know what he means. There isn’t much to Jan, but in the office somehow we are friendly, something sets her apart, I’m not sure what it is, but I can’t pit her against Jeffrey’s friends from college and high school all of whom he thinks are so great.

I have a shelf in the cottage, one of the built-in bookshelves. I put there a mirror I bought in the Salvation Army that day when we got the couch. It’s an old-fashioned hand-held mirror with a stem and curlicue initials on the back. There’s something sweet and pretty about it, like I can imagine being a woman wrapped in a satin dressing gown sitting in the morning, taking the pins from her long hair. I don’t tell Jeffrey why I get the mirror. I don’t know why I want it. I just sense that we have something in common, me and the mirror.

I hate the sticky yellow linoleum in the kitchen from the oil in the electric deep fryer. I hate the freezer splashed with dried brown liquid from when Jeffrey’s coke exploded. I hate the tiny fish tank on the shelf, never cleaned, where some mushroom-like creature seems not to die.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

April Visit, Part One

Here with my mother, I speak, using words I only ever used within my family, words and phrases we made up, some unintelligible syllables, others based on my father’s Hungarian accent, or words that one of us girls uttered when we were babies. The family vocabulary. It rolls easily off my tongue when I am there, and I enjoy uttering these phrases again, each with its own particular familiar cadence – phrases that at other times I have banned from my speech, phrases that it never occurs to me to use in other contexts.

Ruth, college freshman roommate and first friend in many years, said to me once, “You know, your sister Liz says that she wishes you all wouldn’t talk that family talk that you do,” and it was the first time that I heard the language we relied on acknowledged like that, and criticized. I could hear my sister’s criticism and immediately felt chastised, felt that yes, I have done something wrong and foolish, which was how Liz had often made me feel ever since her suicide attempt, her swallowing of the pills a big fat statement that she was suffering, that we were not, that she had the courage to speak up against the status quo that I had been so much a part of maintaining.

But this week in California I speak the language of childhood easily, almost with relief that I need not restrain myself – though my mother does not follow suit even though she created much of the vocabulary. She and I were the creators of this language though I have to think about this – everyone spoke it so freely we did not think about who was contributing the most.

I imagine my two sisters are quite strict about not using these childhood phrases that no one else understands, these phrases that covered up so much of what was wrong, phrases that made us laugh when maybe something else more mature was needed. Yes, I see how the language added to – maybe even created – the wall that kept us all safe from the rest of the world, hid a lot of reality, and my sisters are both so dedicated to doing things properly – one a 12-step sponsor to the masses, the other a food purist – that they probably forbid the speaking style. But I let it rip, surprised at how on the tip of my tongue it all is.

April Visit, Part Two

A few months ago my mother had mentioned that my father’s sister had sent some writing she had found that my father had done. “I’ll make three copies of it,” my mother had said, “and send each of you girls a copy.”

“Where’s that writing of Dad’s?” I ask when I am there. My mother goes into her bedroom and returns with a large white padded envelope, and I start to go through it, about 50 pages of onionskin, typed.

I have seen these pages before I realize. I come across two passages I thought I had lost forever. I had first read them decades ago when I found these and similar pages in my father’s filing cabinet. Most of the writing, I surmised at the time, was about politics and economics and I breezed over it. But I had always remembered two short pieces – one a few lines long about a child identified as “M,” pointing from a window, and another description of being in a New York City coffee shop, ordering coffee, the cream congealed and disgusting.

I had never thought I’d see those pages again, but they have traveled back and forth across the globe and are back in my lap again.

This time I read the other parts a little more closely and see things I did not see before. They are dated 1959. “Gosh, Dad’s English was good,” I say to my mother after reading for while – because the writing is fluent and sophisticated and I know he’d only been speaking English then for less than 10 years.

“Yes,” says my other. “He was smart then.”

I read. I hear a man writing in a tradition I identify with the thirties and forties, not personal, but lyrical. The lack of his being willing to really reveal himself on the page pains me – everything expressed in grandiose terms like “democracy” and “the common good” – I recognize that that’s how I used to write when I seriously started as a teenager, how my writing then was similar to his, how his writing and outlook were my model – and how still it is those two poignant real moments he captures – a description in a few words of what must be me, a two-year-old pointing from our Yonkers home down to a ship passing on the Hudson, and a more detailed description of ordering coffee, the congealed cream and pancakes that the menu described as being “made in Heaven.”

And through this short period of time with my father’s pages, I feel again for the first time in a long, long time that thin thread that connected us, that made us very different from the others in the family.

“I’m going to go out and make my copy,” I say to my mother, wishing I could keep these crinkly originals, but they don’t belong to me.

“Oh, just take them,” my mother says. “The girls won’t care. They’re not interested.”

Monday, April 02, 2012


My first two-wheeled bicycle was blue. I went with my father on the weekend to get it. It was parked in someone’s driveway. We were answering an ad in the newspaper.

This was also the time my father showed me how to peel apart the little green helicopter leaves that fell from the big maple tree and stick them on my nose. It was something he was pulling from his own childhood that had happened a very long time ago, in a different country, before The War. The War was something huge that had happened a very long time ago. Old people knew about it. But it was over and it would never happen again.

Instead, now, there is my mother with her brown hair pinned up and her plain face without makeup or jewelry, without colored nails.

I like her jewelry pouch made of green satiny fabric, round with a zipper, and her necklaces and earrings inside. She keeps it in the top drawer of her bureau and sometime I sit with it on her bed and look through the strings of smooth pearls or the silver earrings with their tiny screws.

It seems like other women – the ones my father likes – the ones who sometimes visit, the ones who drink and laugh -- are prettier and younger than my mother and my father likes them much better. I wish my mother was different. I wish she wore high heels, but instead she parks by the side of the road in high grass and takes me with her to look at the old church she noticed as we drove by, a church nobody goes to anymore. It has signs on its locked front door, but my mother walks over the bits of broken glass and gravel round the back and finds a side door she pushes open. I keep hoping she will turn back, but she wants to go in. Sometimes she finds old books, old things left behind that she likes and brings home.

My father doesn’t do things like this.

My father walks on wide paths or dirt roads, places where it is easy to walk, places where there are no cars and you can see fields or woods, but where there is a path, and he brings always one of his walking sticks, sticks he has bought as if they were jewelry. He shows them to me and I know by the way he flourishes his cane, sometimes swinging it in a circle as he walks or using it to point to something, that the stick is like a good friend to him, the stick makes him feel better, the stick believes in him.

Sometimes my father wears his overcoat spread over his shoulders like a cloak as we walk, leaving his arms free.

He has taught me to fold my coat so that when I put it down somewhere the lining is on the outside. My father has shown me this carefully and when he teaches it to me I feel like I am learning something everybody knows, like the alphabet.

Both my parents take me on walks. I go with my mother through woods and orchards without paths. She pulls a leaf off a branch to chew on as we go. She exclaims about a jack-in-the-pulpit or a skunk cabbage or a cardinal. My father talks to me as we walk. He talks the whole time. I listen. Sometimes he tells me the story of the book he is reading. Sometimes he tells me something about history like Napoleon, or the Inquisition, or Hitler. Sometimes he talks about being a teenager in Budapest, about the bombs, or about the village my grandfather grew up in. One time he asks me what my friends at school call a boy’s goo-gah . “Weiner,” I answer. Then he tells me something about how men and women get in bed and the weiner falls in the woman’s goo-gah.

My father likes to lay a game after lunch on weekends. This is the only time my sisters and I eat with both my parents. My mother sits near the swinging door to the kitchen, my father at the other end.

One by one he invites each daughter to stand on his knees and hold his hands. He begins by bouncing his knees slowly, holding my hands, looking at me with his bright blue eyes, smiling, singing a Hungarian song about a circus pony. I like the beginning. I can balance on my father’s knees, the tune is bouncy. I sing along. But always my father quickens the pace and the game is to stay on as long as you can and you always end by losing, falling, he catches you, laughing.

When people visit my father urges me to play piano for them. I hold out as long as I can. I don’t play well. I never practice, am never confident, but he always insists, smiling, never stern, but immovable, and I give in, playing making mistakes.

His hair is black and grows straight back from his forehead. He combs it with a small plastic comb. Combing with one hand, smoothing with the other. “They said I looked like Beethoven,” he tells me, delighted.

“Intelligent people have high foreheads,” he says, and I feel like I am learning something everybody knows, that this is a fact. Like the alphabet.