Sunday, July 14, 2013


We were to move back to the States after living in England for 5 years. I had come to England a little girl, still playing Addams Family and jacks, and now I was 14, rolling the waistband of my blue pleated school uniform skirt over and over so that my hem grazed the tops of my thighs instead of my knees.

I said good-bye to my school friends, the group of girls I had been with for the last two years. I had never merged with them the way I thought I should. School was different at this school than it had ever been before, much as I wished and tried to change it. 

I had come here the year before, running from the sudden meanness of the girls who had, in the beginning, been the best, longest-term friends I had ever had.

In all the many schools I’d been to since nursery school things like friends had come easy, up until the night in boarding school, aged 12, when Jane and Sheila, 2 girls who were not part of my immediate and very intimate circle, invited me to move out from the row of cubicles into a dorm room with them.

Jane was stout with a round face, thin mousy hair and light freckles. She was kind and nice and middle-aged ahead of her time. Sheila, her best friend, was the opposite – kind, yes, but tall, slim, blonde and pretty.

They wanted me to fill the third bed in their small dorm room under the eaves and I said yes. We were standing in the huge hall that had once been a ballroom and was now used for daily assemblies and after-dinner playtime. Younger girls ran around playing tag the way we used to. Older girls were tucked away up in their private balcony sitting room where only they were allowed. And a few of our peers had a portable turntable going in a corner, playing 45s.

And Jane and Sheila suggested I move out of the cubicles in the middle of the year and go share their dorm. I had never heard of anyone switching beds mid-year, or asking for any kind of change. But their smiling faces were inviting me and what other answer was there but to say yes?

As I lay in bed that night I had a sense of dread, of wishing I could take it back, but in the morning there were Jane and Sheila, saying how excited they were. 

The hissing began. Madeleine, Nicola, Lucy Ann – friends with whom I had written and staged plays, friends I wrote to and received fat letters from all through the school breaks when we were marooned at home, friends I had never questioned, now said that I was bad because I was moving in with Jane and Sheila, leaving Ann, my official best friend behind in her lonely bed across from me in our curtained-off cubicle village.

I hadn’t thought of it like that. Ann was not, in truth, most of the time my very favorite, but she was good. It was she who had picked me as a best friend and for 3 years it had stuck though sometimes I wished we weren’t so irrevocably married. Ann was a true true tomboy with not one feminine grace, sort straight lifeless brown hair and a pixie face. But she was smart and playful and most of the time we did just fine. 

The other girls – Madeleine, Nicola and Lucy Ann – told me I was cruel and thoughtless and it was as if they exposed a truth. I had been found out. That’s what it felt like. They must be right. A brown spot, like a bruise on an apple, had been uncovered in me and it could no longer be hidden.

I moved to the dorm as promised and the last half of the school year played out, but I was not safe anymore. I asked my mother, casually so that she would not pry, if I could switch schools at the end of the year. 

Boarding school for me had been my father’s dream and fantasy to which my mother had acquiesced since I too had wanted it so much. She grabbed me back as soon as I suggested it. 

In the new school I thought I would pick up where I left off, but something had happened. The bruise on the apple stayed with me. It was as if in the new class everything was already in place. I could find no way to the center. I had to stay on the outside and be friends with the girls who didn’t have any friends. 

Saturday, July 06, 2013


My father's hair was black and it grew straight back from his wide forehead with just the help of a few comb strokes. His hair seemed different from other men’s, the way it moved up and back with no part. My father liked his hair. “My friends said it was like Beethoven’s!” he said, happy to be affiliated with anyone great in any way.

His eyes were a pale blue, his nose straight, his chin defined, his face broad and square.

He carried me on his shoulders, never gave me anything as American as a piggy back, but while I was small enough often put me up on his shoulders, holding onto my ankles. It was perilous and delicious up there, the only thing to hold onto, his hair. He laughed and protested, Don’t pull my hair!” but there was nothing else. I couldn’t not hold onto something.

His feet were wide, like his hands and fingers. In summer, barefoot, in shorts, he sat on a green-and-white-plastic-webbed lawn chair, his square big toes often wriggling, or one set of toes overlapped on top of the other in a childlike pose at odds with his big body.

He was the only male in our small family of five that floated on an island pretty much by itself, no relatives within 3,000 miles, my parents almost without friends, certainly without casual long-term friends. They had each come to this country by themselves, the fabrics out of which they had grown left far behind, the people known since childhood left behind.

My father liked a good suit, a white shirt, cufflinks, a tie and leather shoes laced in a way noone else I knew did it. His laces did not criss-cross up the tongue of his shoe, but proceeded in a set of horizontal bars. I liked the way it looked but never could learn what came natural to him.

The closest thing my father came to being affected by the sixties was allowing pale blue and yellow into his office shirts in the seventies and, briefly, a leather man-purse. 

My father had one black and white formal headshot of himself that he liked, taken by his friend and mentor, Dr. Wallis, a Belgian who practiced in Manhattan. “You see,” my father said, showing me the photo, “a ¾ angle really suits me the best.”

There was a time, a few years, when he could get his suits custom-made, a time when he was travelling frequently to Morocco, Ethiopia and Switzerland on business, when he bought an apartment on a Swiss alp in the same building where the rich blonde Swiss woman with whom he was so taken also had a place with her husband.

I was there twice – once alone with my father and once when he brought all of us, wife and daughters. My mother cooked something in the kitchenette. I ate with my two sisters at the table. Helga, the Swiss woman, was taking a nap in a room down the corridor. My father went to rouse her and he was gone a long time.

That was when my mother started to dye her hair and wear make-up, but the make-up did not sit well on her face, the smudges of blue and pink painted on top of her plainness. When Helga appeared she was pretty and laughing, her jewelry sparkled, her lipstick like Barbie’s. 

My parents’ rooms had almost always been separate, no matter where we lived. The moments of friction far outnumbered the easier ones when they laughed like friends about a New Yorker cartoon. My father was usually away, home only on weekends as long as he could afford it. 

Years later, when there was nothing left in this country – no money, no job, no hope – he returned to the apartment in Budapest that he had almost grown up in, where his parent and grandparents had lived and died. 

He tried to keep up a pretense of commuting to the States, though my mother, with money eked out from housekeeping jobs, paid for most of the three of four trips he made over the last 25 years of his life.

“I never meant to actually leave,” he almost pleaded, but my sisters and I and my mother – each in a different way – were relieved to see him go. 

He died two years ago. I had visited him three times during those last Budapest years. It was a death without a good-bye though I had had plenty of time to think about it before I got my mother’s call.