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.