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 cafĂ© with notebook and pen, to sit down with the empty page.