Monday, May 13, 2013


I drove with my father – him driving and talking, me quiet beside him in the Ford Granada – his car -- into the city and when we sat down in the plush seats of the opera house, before the curtain went up, he said, “What you did yesterday, with Alex, this was not elegant.”

Alex was a boy with curly dark hair and a drooping moustache to match and he was the closest thing to an appealing boy that had found his way into my suburban world where otherwise the only boys were the ones at school, some of whom got my attention but none of them even close to boys I imagined when I listened to Me & Bobby McGhee or Dylan’s all-knowing voice, rasping of people he had known.

Walking over to Alex’s house on a Saturday afternoon without mentioning where I was going, through woods where I hoped one day to run into a boy with a pony tail and a guitar who would notice me so strongly that he would bring me not only into his embrace but into the wide circle of friends I imagined he would have, walking through the woods with these pictures in my mind but not coming across anyone at all, and Alex is not home.

And sitting next to my father I am so angry I cannot speak because I am not allowed to speak. Anything I could say – if I could even say it – would be so beyond inelegant that I know it is not allowed. I don’t have to be told this. It’s in the air I breathe. You are not allowed to say anything ugly, anything disruptive.

Your mother does sometimes and look how vile that is, how far that does not get her.

My mother yelling at my father at night when they are the only two still up because they are the grown-ups, or my mother at the breakfast table saying all the wrong things – every single thing wrong – while my father’s fingers tighten around his coffee mug and he plods a chunk of cold butter on a torn much smaller morsel of toast – and me sitting there too, knowing if I do anything except not be affected I lose the game. Do not be affected. Let nothing show. This becomes easier than speaking.

You see, your mother is letting it all show, and see how ugly it is?

Until even if you wanted to, say, one day, for a change, you want to yell when you’re angry, you actually can’t even try it. You can’t. The words stick, condemned before the syllables form so there is this seething blank space that is only confusing. Confusing and mute. And you can’t blame anyone for it. You’re just inarticulate.

Friday, May 10, 2013


I walked with my father almost every weekend, starting in the days when I rode on his shoulders, clutching his black hair.

Year after year we walked when he was home from the office – on Saturday or Sunday – and we went by ourselves, him and me. My mother stayed home. My sisters stayed home. 

The walks were long. They lasted much much longer than I wanted them to. But to my father the hours were effortless. He chose roads and paths surrounded by trees and fields. He did not scramble through bramble patches the way my mother did. He wanted the way clear and the scenery beautiful. 

He talked without stopping as we walked. Often he spoke of this thing called “the war” that had taken place in a past beyond reach. I imagined the places he described to me: the basement of the apartment building in Budapest where all the families lived together while the bombs dropped outside. 

I imagined the storage areas for coal, each family sleeping on their allotted pile, and I saw my grandmother spreading sheets over the black heap just a few feet from the next family. My father spoke these stories to me as if it had been fun, as if now it were unbelievable, even to him. 

He told me of the old military man down in the basement who refused to drink the tea he was brought because the cup did not match the saucer, and I knew from my father’s tone that this was how he wanted me to be, and that I would try.

And when the time came when the boy in the cotton smock turned towards me, when for the first time the right boy turned towards me, I knew I had to be careful. I had to be someone like that old distinguished soldier, someone who had figured certain things out, someone who had drawn her lines nice and clear.

When I first slept with Jeffrey I did not tell him it was my first time. I knew it was not his and I said nothing that would betray my pretense that this was old hat. I pretended as he stayed for three days with me alone in my parents’ house in the summer.

Weeks went by. The boy still called. He took me to spend weekends with his rich family. He continued to be the most precious boyfriend, one I thought I could never keep. And he said telling the truth was important. I had never had someone to tell the truth to.  

In the fall, both of us back in school, he said on the phone that he had a ride and would come see me. “I have something to tell you,” I answered, “but not til you get here.” And as we were lying in my friend’s twin bed, the room borrowed for the occasion, me so happy that at least this year I have a boy to borrow a room for, I laid out my piece of truth, and there, it was done. I had come clean.

Was it that night that he complained my breath was terrible? It might have been. 

Friday, May 03, 2013


The grass was rough. We called it “the grass.” We did not call it “the lawn.” It was an irregular shape that drifted into woods on one side and into the house on the other. In places, it sloped, good for somersaults. In one spot, near the tall, wide purple lilac, lay a square pale gray stone, “the well.” My father crossed the grass on weekends wearing khaki shorts, shoes without socks and no shirt, pushing a red lawnmower. My mother had some kind of garden patch with strawberries, and where the grass sloped up towards a grandfather oak, where the grass turned to myrtle, she sometimes stood with strangers who had just driven up, she stood in her garden work clothes, handing them clumps of myrtle cradled in newspaper in exchange for money.

Years later my father tamed the house a little with a garage, a rose trellis path and even an asphalt driveway, things that helped us pass for normal.

In the old days the house faced the road below, faced it with a bare blank stare. And then – in the new days – you ignored that stare. You drove up the side of the house on this new asphalt and entered from the other side, the one with the new verandah and the screened-in porch, so much gentler.

But it was the bare plain side of the house that was our real face.

Frills were suspect, a weakness, artificial. I knew it.

Lunches on the weekends were the only time all five of us ate together, my father home. This is the new years, with the rose trellis, with the make-believe antiques my father had bought just a couple of months before when we still lived in England, cramming the dining room table and the tall armoire into the tiny apartment-sized dining room of our rented English home. The antiques made the voyage back to the States with us, the dining table, a soft rectangle with legs that each curved and ended in a wooden claw clutching a wooden ball. The table was made of two halves that were supposed to fit securely, invisibly, together, but never did, the pegs always falling short of their holes, though we kept pushing, thinking maybe this time they will hold together. Because my father said it was a fine aristocratic table, with its set of matching chairs with their green velvet seats, standing on the old wide floorboards that my mother liked so much.

But we sat at this table, each person always in the same place, and it was as if we ate the same meal over and over again, my mother at the end near the swinging door to the kitchen, an unadorned woman who has given up and is not the person my father wants. My father at the far end, orchestrating the conversation. Without him there would be almost silence. He teases me, my sisters. He irritates us and yet we only mildly complain. We cannot really complain. My father eats large portions. He tells my mother how good her food is. She stops just short of ignoring him. He doesn’t want to make her angry. None of us do.

I clear the dishes. I bring dessert -- the jello or the supermarket ice cream. I like eating, but there is no other reason to sit here. Except that I must. It is impossible to oppose this rule, the one that says we must sit here, be polite, and not upset anyone.

And afterwards we go to different places, each person to their room, and the house is silent. My father naps on the living room couch. My mother reads the New York Review of Books. Each younger sister stretches out on her twin bed with a book. And I go up to my attic room, back to living in my head with book or radio, imagining my life when I am grown up.

The afternoon is long and quiet. We have not fought. It is a relief and an accomplishment.