Sunday, November 23, 2014


Now and then, at really aimless moments, I still look for a trace of Geoffrey on the internet. There is nothing except some comment he made on a Bob Dylan fan site almost 20 years ago. Otherwise nothing.

I am not so stirred as I was 10 or 15 years ago to look him up. No, I won’t do that, but I do think of him from time to time and wonder what his life is, who did he become.

I imagine him alone in the large family apartment overlooking Washington Square, the same place I occupied as a 20-year-old in the 70s. The computer world no doubt suits him, its anonymity, its lack of need for any real contact.

I have even wondered if he was a threat to his two young nieces, born after my time. I have seen Geoffrey’s sister’s profile on Facebook – a lifeless profile, so constrained – and seen the profiles of the two adult daughters. Even from this great distance I can tell that one is more troubled than the other.

I remember Geoffrey liking white cotton underpants and small breasts and I have made the leap to wondering if what he really wanted was a little girl. 

In those harsh summer months back in 1977 when he had started his out-in-the-open affair with HB, a writer much older than either of us whom he’d met in a writing class, I took to reading his black and white copy book journal that he kept in the bottom drawer of the tall black bureau brought from – and still smelling of -- his childhood apartment. 

I read Geoffrey’s awkward stick-figure handwriting, pages of it, looking for clues to who he was, always with the approach of admiration. Geoffrey was an enticing mystery to me then. I wanted so much to enter and be at home in his world. I’d been trying for years. Though sometimes I gave up, preferring my own world more and more.

In the journal I read of a memory of his of being a child and being in bed with an older boy who showed him how to jerk off. Something like that. Sexual. With an older boy. He had never told me this story.

In the margins of his journal he wrote here and there: Hi Marta.

I used to dress in white tee shirts, no bra, and Levi’s, no make-up, long hair parted in the middle – it was how he liked me best and how I felt the best too. 

His sister, who is now a shrink in LA, was a provisional friend. First of all, the two of them were so tight I had to find a way to fit in.

During the first few weeks of meeting this new boyfriend he took me to his childhood apartment where he’d lived all his life. The apartment was in disarray, its three occupants all moving on – Geoffrey, his sister, their mother. His sister was on her way to college. She sat on her bed amidst half-packed suitcases as the three of us hung out, Geoffrey and her making jokes, me trying my best to be part of this circle I was so new to. Part of the challenge was that his sister did not have a shirt or a bra on. She sat on her bed, folding laundry and chatting with her large breasts fully exposed. 

I could sense that Geoffrey liked her toplessness for the coolness it implied and I did my best to take it in stride. 

There was a lot of laughter between Geoffrey and his sister, as if they could not be together unless they were laughing and I learned quickly how to crack the right jokes when I was with them to earn my keep. Much of their banter came from Geoffrey teasing her. Much of it came from her picking up the thread and teasing herself before he could get to her. Geoffrey was the prince of his family: the smart Ivy League boy. She was the girl, more plain of face, assumed mediocre though hard-working, who would have to fend for herself. Even her eventual PhD would never be able to compete with what we all took to be Geoffrey’s natural talents. 

Once Geoffrey’s mother, long and far removed from his life, a chain-smoking alcoholic from and living in Mississippi played a tape for me of Geoffrey as a little boy. He was saying, “Toy, toy,” and the grown-ups were laughing and saying, “No, Geoffrey, that’s your little sister.” “Toy, toy,” he kept insisting.

When I first met him – me 18, he 19 – he was so much more in command of his life than I was, a life with so much more contained within it – divorced parents, a stepmother, a stepbrother, a half-sister plus New York City apartments, a house in the Hamptons, possessions, friends. I had none of these things, my life so contained by my small family and its poverty. 

All I really had was reading and the dream of writing. Geoffrey already had a typed manuscript, a full novel. It didn’t matter that I didn’t like his book, that I didn’t like that he chose the title by lining up a few phrases that he liked the sound of and asking me to pick one. I chose “Pure Effect,” slyly giving my comment on the content. But he had written it. And he liked it. And I couldn’t write anything without tearing it up.

Then he was young with a quick tongue and it was all going to happen for him in the future. And now we are in that future and I am pretty sure it has not happened for him. I imagine him in shadow and alone with no more youth to protect him. Everyone else really did grow up and get a life. Geoffrey never thought he would have to. I imagine he still laughs at the expense of others and keeps the steel chains across his character and history firmly in place, making him dangerous, vicious and someone I now know better than to go near. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


My mother says that my sister will go to Hungary in the spring to visit our aunt, my father’s sister. Uh-huh, I say, blandly, and don’t think about it again until tonight when I am driving home in the dark and the rain, railing against the black heavy curtain that falls like lead in the middle of the afternoon. Early darkness has never bothered me before. I thought back to London in the late 80s, just this same time of year I was there, walking every day through parks, looking at everything with pleasure – the colors of wet bark and brown grasses, noticing that the days were short – “the sun goes down before it comes up,” I quipped – but it didn’t touch me the way these fall days do, and I rail against what can’t be changed and feel like I am in prison.

You can spend half the year in the other hemisphere and have it be summer all the time – it’s not the cold that bothers me, it’s that impenetrable darkness that says, “It’s over.”

We brought a little black dog home last week and after naming her and really thinking for 24 hours that we had a new dog, we realized we could not sail the rough seas of bringing a new and young dog into our home. And so we gave her back. I like to think she had fun with us – a couple of long walks in the woods, a wonderful time digging up the foam cushion in the window seat, and working it out with the cats. We had to give the little black dog back, sheepishly. That Sunday, surrounded by dogs who needed a home we had wanted to take two, but they had rules against that, and then even the one had been too much.

We plan a trip to Florida, a place for which Fred has had nothing but scorn ever since I’ve known him. “The two worst writing topics,” I’ve heard him say, “are ‘money’ and ‘Florida.’” And now we find ourselves planning a trip there because for several years we have said we must go South and get some heat in February, and year after year we don’t do it. I haven’t been serious about it for one thing, but this year it seemed crucial to me. Mostly, I want it for Fred.

We scour Florida for a place we can stand – all the other options are just too economically challenging – and yesterday we think we find it, and today too it has held, despite inviting people on Facebook to talk us out of it, no one has, despite alternate suggestions. It appears that we will go to St. Augustine, which promises to have art, architecture, and personality, plus the ocean, plus a state park.

It was while talking to Dinah last week that I put it into words. Up till then the working plan had been to drive through the Florida Keys, but walking with Dinah, my friend since 1969, with about a 40-year hiatus until the Internet reunited us, I could bring to speech things that were floating in my thoughts without form.

“I want a cottage by the ocean,” I said, “and I just want to stay there. A place with our own kitchen, and the ocean right there. I want a place to rest, not a week when we are moving the whole time. I’m not tired, but I want some stillness.”

I can say things to Dinah that I don’t say to anybody else. I only see her every few years. She lives in New Zealand. This was our first visit when it was just her and me, and it made a deep impression. It meant a lot to have her here. I think we have a lot of love for each other. It comes as a surprise. When we were 13 and 14 we were in the same foursome, but we were not official best friends. We each had an official best friend, but these were arranged marriages, marriages of convenience that could not be cut asunder. I think I knew that I liked Dinah the most back then, but I couldn’t act on it for fear of hurting her best-friend-spouse and mine.

We talked about it last week for the first time, almost shyly. It was her determination to track me down that got us back together. She just spent five weeks traveling through England, Scotland and Scandinavia, seeing people from her past, not willing to let these bonds go, and I know I was – though it scares me to say it – pretty high up on that list.

When she boarded the bus for the airport in the dusk I got back in my car and burst into tears, and that loneliness comes back from time to time as the days go by.

It’s strange these tears, like the tears I still cry for Tamar who I miss so much. I don’t understand these things. I’m not much of a crier normally.

At 4:15 this afternoon I tear myself from the poisonous computer screen to walk in the dusk and the light rain, fast, and I think of how I used to walk in London, how the darkness didn’t bother me then, how I was living on pure fantasy then, a make-believe romance that sustained me for months.

Friday, October 17, 2014


Last week Polly said how she had only just now really noticed that Tamar is not in the workshops anymore. “You must feel bereft,” she said. I do. Very much. In a way I have never felt before.

I have never really grieved before. My heart has not been touched by death like this before. And part of me can hardly believe these feelings are real.

We had Tamar for 10 years. It seemed like almost no time at all. I walked with her a thousand times on the Comeau property, the stretch of woods near the house and often I thought how one day I would have to survive her dying, but no matter how much I steeled myself to be ready, even when she was just three and four years old, it seemed distant and unreal.

Although her time with us feels like a snap of the fingers now, it was enough that she is still embedded here. When I step in the front door I expect her presence, when we plan a trip to Brio’s I automatically think three of us are going, and when the room gets quiet for writing she is for me especially absent, her warm black form. No head on my foot.

I have never in my 57 years cried over someone’s death. And one or two thoughts of Tamar can easily do it.

I have dreamed of her three times.

Fred and I both feel ready to invite another dog here. I do dearly want another dog. It will help, not to forget Tamar, but to let life keep moving.

Even on her last day, a Friday, when I knew it was her last day, it was impossible to take it in. I cut the grass, I gave her a raw egg to eat, I asked Maritza, who came to clean, to please go back home, and for the last 45 minutes I sat with Tamar as I read a book. When it was time to go to the vet she tried to elude me, going to her green cushion. I had to pick her up, go against her will. But she had become that way about most car trips.

As we drove down the curving road of Sawkill, I watched her in the mirror as I always did. She sat with her nose near the open window. As a young dog she used to stand and hang her whole body out the window as we drove. Lately, it had just been her nose. But I was happy that she was not suffering too much not to still enjoy the fresh air going by.

I avoid places where I went with her. Yesterday Fred and I were near Colgate Lake and I was relieved that there wasn’t time to even talk about going there even though I don’t remember ever going to Tannersville without visiting Colgate Lake. I haven’t been to Big or Little Deep either.

I remember about 5 years ago driving with my childhood friend Dinah who had come to see me after 40 years from New Zealand. Dinah had had a younger sister with Downs Syndrome, Catherine, who had not lived past her 20s. “What happened?” I remember asking Dinah from the front seat, she in the back. I was hungry for information. The three of us – Pauline was there too – all friends from the same time and meeting up for the first time as adults, had been talking like girls at a slumber party – non-stop about everything.

“Oh, I can’t,” said Dinah, and I heard the catch in her throat, though Catherine’s death was probably 25 years in the past. But I thought Dinah was different than me, soft-hearted Dinah who still mourns her mother and now her recently deceased father.

Part of me is relieved that I am not so tough after all, part of me is suspicious of my almost daily tears. Sometimes I just cry and say I want my dog back, and I know part of me still wonders if I didn’t time it wrong, call the vet too early – though I know I would do the same again.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


I stood on the small porch that we had never used as a porch, only as a way to get from the cement walkway to the door. It was a spread of terra cotta, supported by two round white pillars, all of it set down in a small forest of unfamiliar almost-tropical California greenery.

I was leaving. It was morning. I was leaving the little house, Los Angeles, California, my boyfriend of forever. I was slipping out almost without having to say, at least to the boyfriend, I am going, we are breaking up finally forever. Neither of us really believed it though I hoped so much that someone would take his place and thrust him into my past. But we were saying good-bye as if I were going on a trip.

I stood on the porch and he stood in the doorway. We had come to L.A. and California and this house together, three years earlier, the little house with the wall-to-wall shag carpeting, stick-on squares of mirror on the bedroom wall, the Salvation Army furniture, the round piece of stained glass hanging in the bedroom window made by one of his two closest friends. It was one of Jeffrey’s most prized possessions and he’d broken it one morning, throwing a shoe in fury as I left for work.

Kelly and I went to work together each morning. She was blonde, wore a white nurse’s uniform, smoked, lived a few cottages down with Bobby. Boyfriends throwing shoes was normal to her.

Fighting with boyfriends, love and hatred, seemed to be natural companions. You couldn’t have one without the other. Kelly and Bobby confirmed it. Their fights were noisy and crazed too. The fights, then the making up, then a little bit of calm. That was love.

I had left the little cottage almost a year ago, moved across town in the middle of the night on the wave of a slamming-door fight, going to an apartment building I had picked out a few weeks earlier, going there and staying there and even sleeping with one or two others, but still it did not feel that we had fully separated. Though life was very different in my own apartment, a place where on Sundays I went to art galleries by myself, trying to find art that I liked, and never finding it, but always looking, always trying to see what others must be seeing. 

And in the apartment I was able to have a friend over now and then, always new friends, women I was hoping would become friends and they did though the friendship could only go as big as the short time we’d known each other. 

One woman with strawberry blonde hair came and talked on my couch about the baby she had lost from crib death. I listened, I sympathized, though I had never heard of crib death and did not know anyone who had had a baby yet. Still, I felt at home with people who were sad.

Buf came to this apartment and with her I laughed and got high and baked granola though there was always in our friendship something we could not ignore. She was Jeffrey’s sister. She, getting her PhD. In clinical psychology, liked to try and nail me. “You only want to be friends when Jeffrey is not around.” Both she and Jeffrey liked to nail you to the wall in the name of truth-telling. No,” I’d say, but she was never convinced and neither was I. 

I wanted my life in the furnished apartment with the Murphy bed to be perfect, with weekends filled, a new boy in my bed, but these were hard things to accomplish.

I had my camera. I had a black-and-white TV that sat on the floor near a mirror, propped up also on the floor. Wearing my favorite oversize black sweater, my long hair hanging down, I took pictures into the mirror, but didn’t like them much when they came back from the printer. 

And I took a several-week course in masturbation and had my first orgasm alone in the Murphy bed. This counted mostly as something I could report to Jeffrey, something I hoped would raise me in his esteem. So I was making progress, I thought, I must be. Though it did not feel like it. 

I liked Rose downstairs who ran the place. Ancient, in a housecoat, her hair dyed red, always with a cigarette going.

The only other person in the building I met was the boy next door, clearly a Jeffrey-replacement candidate. I sat beside him on his bed one night, probably smoking a joint. “I’d like to make a pass at you,” he said. I deflected him then, feeling like I already had a boyfriend, but returned on a night when I felt like I didn’t. I spent a half hour in his bed before returning to mine. When he asked to store his skis at my place I said sure, but when I left the apartment – leaving L.A., leaving California, leaving Jeffrey – I did not tell him I was going. I wanted him to lose his fucking skis.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014


My father always said I was Hungarian. My mother didn’t claim me in this way. To my father it was very important that I be a proud Hungarian like himself and for many years I followed his lead, being the daughter he wanted, sure that he knew what was best. And because I sensed early on that he didn’t like my mother much, was not proud of her when in the company of others, I followed suit there too, hyper aware of my mother’s social awkwardness, committed to not being like her ever.

That was one level. On another level she was my mother, always present in a way my father never was. My mother almost prided herself on being, what she insisted on calling, a plain person – not flamboyant, not terribly interesting or talented. That's how she would describe herself. As a plain person she did plain things, took us ice-skating in the woods on a pond, cooked plain suppers of hot dogs, mashed potatoes and boiled broccoli. The things my mother provided were plain, but they created a solid world that my father only highlighted here and there with a trip to the opera or a blue velvet dress.

In boarding school at night – 9 years old – it was my mother I wanted, not my father. But that was only at night. Mostly, I didn’t want any of them.

Driving home this evening I thought of the card I came across the other night, something my father had written to me a few years ago, something about wishing me well, sincerely. As I drove down 209, past Kingston, I wondered again why his love for me didn’t get through, didn’t get across, and why I was so angry and disappointed in him even years after his death, that I can’t soften up.

I thought of how hard he made me work. I wondered if I’d had a kid if it would have been any better. Everyone says how hard it is to be a parent, and I see it everywhere. But I couldn’t, as I drove, really believe that if I were a parent I wouldn’t find a way – maybe just once or twice – to be with my kid, to get across to them that I supported them, that they could count on me. Something, a moment, where I wasn’t asking for anything, just being with them.

My dad’s words on the card sounded almost anguished in their sincerity, as if he were trying desperately to let me know that he wanted me to be happy.

Was it too late? Had he already convinced me that I wasn’t what he wanted from a daughter? Because I could see the image of the daughter he had in mind as clearly as if she were real, and though I styled myself on her I also had many things she did not – she only had a few dimensions, where I was an actual person.

My father wanted a sedate picture-perfect family – wife, children, life. He had ideas of what he wanted and all of us – mother, me, sisters – were much too messy to fit into the Christmas card reality he really thought was possible.

Friday, October 03, 2014


I was driving when he texted again. I glanced at the solid block of words, got the gist, kept going. 

My mind was made up. There it was. I could practically see my mind and its certainty. The answer was no. You cannot have your money back. I don’t believe you. You’re bullshitting. No.

He wanted his $500 by noon. Otherwise, he said, “my ass is grass,” meaning that he’d be in trouble with his new landlord.

So why did he come asking for the money only last night, why had there been no response to our letter last week saying that we would not return his security deposit? To at least partially compensate for the FedEx package he had lost that contained Fred’s newly repaired hearing aid. 

Fred wanted to just hand the money over and be done with it. And the night before I had finally grudgingly agreed though the idea of giving that man $500 threw me into the kind of extreme emotional turmoil that reminded me of how I used to feel 35 years ago during fights with Jeffrey.

I had said ok, had driven to the ATM, taken out the $500, brought it back, put it in an envelope, placed it on the table, held in place by the small solid ivory Buddha that is always so handy for holding things in place. Then I’d gone into the bathroom and cried for a moment as though my heart were breaking. Fred was doing the dishes, letting me be in my world while he was in his.

I sat down to my computer, came upon an email offering a workshop. I read the description, my interest growing. Everything was fitting into place – the teacher, the subject, the date, the price. I hadn’t signed up for a course in anything for years and years. The prospect gave me joy, gave me a feeling of moving forward, away from this struggle over $500, over what was fair.

On the wave of this surge I signed up, clicking the keys all the way through.

And in the morning, driving to work, when one more text came from our ex-tenant I ignored it. I had promised Fred that if Christian wrote to me again I’d refer him to Fred who would give him the money, but yesterday morning I did not want to. I had thought I could but I could not. “You need the money, my ass,” I thought, thinking of this child-like man, playing the part of a poor man, playing innocent. I didn’t want to contribute to his theater production.

And all day I hardly thought about it. Things with Christian often disappeared of their own accord. He forgets from one day to the next what he has said. Maybe he would storm our house that evening. Just having the money there, should I change my mind in his presence, felt like enough of a conciliatory move.

He did not come last night. His dramatic noon deadline came and went. Good, I thought. Perhaps it’s done. And we didn’t have to give in to him.

I lay in bed.

New thoughts came into my mind. I watched them. Nothing really to do with me. New thoughts arriving, like mail.

He believes he is entitled to that money. He’s not trying to fool us, steal from us, he sincerely believes it. Money is filthy. I am fighting over money. It is polluting. Better to give the money than run the risk of being wrong over this. He is a child, a middle-aged child. He should be willing and eager to compensate us for the hearing aid, but guess what, he’s not. Losing the package was an honest mistake, not something he did on purpose.

I get up. I find Fred. “I’m having new thoughts,” I say. Fred is eager to follow this path. It’s what he has wanted essentially from the start, though his reasons feel a little different than mine. I don’t argue these fine points.

I text Christian that he can come the next day for the money. I don’t apologize. Part of me wants to, wants to be present when we return the money, wants to do full penance, but I follow the natural pacing that I feel is almost being dictated to me. And there is too a sense that I can only wash myself as clean as the circumstances I have created will allow. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014


I have the evening off. Fred is in the living room, his headphones on, leading the telephone workshop and there is still some light left in the day, though it is cool, not a pure summer night, but an evening with just enough summer in it to call me outdoors, to leave the dishes behind and just walk out into the evening.

I have always loved to do this in summer, to wander into town after dinner when it’s warm and still light, but this summer it became almost an addiction.

Tonight I walk more quickly than usual, hoping to get to Taco Juan’s before it closes, which it does whenever the string of customers dries up which could be early or late. But if I can get there on time I can get an ice-cream. I don’t even really want an ice cream tonight, but I want the goal and because it’s been an integral part of so many evenings in the past. There is something about the cone that rounds out the stroll, and so I rush along, aware that I am missing half the joy of my walk because I am not pausing to look in shop windows, I am not savoring the air, not taking it all in. I am rushing.

I see a light up ahead at Taco Juan’s that gives me hope and as I approach I see the heavy manager/owner guy sitting outside on a bench. He has grey curly hair and glasses. You can still see the youth in his face, but I don’t know his name and have never seen him smile.

“Thanks for still being open,” I say, hoping to open some kind of friendliness with him. “Don’t be so sure,” he says, so that my ice-cream anxiety returns and I worry that though the door is open and all the lights are on, the person behind the counter might still turn me away.

She’s a nice woman behind the counter. She appeared towards the end of the summer, not one of the kids, older, motherly, warm. Her hair is bound back with a scarf. A small boy ahead of me asks for Caramel Cream and as she goes to scoop it for him she asks him if he likes that flavor and solemnly he tells her yes.

I get my Killer Chocolate scoop and go back out into the evening. Now I can move slowly. I feel the warmth and familiarity of this street, this small piece of town. There are not many people out, and I follow my usual path off on a sidestreet to Family, a shabby building with a front porch. I wander in. Family is just a nice place to go. You can look at the books being given away, inspect the dishes to see if something is so pretty you have to have it. Tonight no one is sitting on the plastic chairs chatting with each other or the people manning the phones, or even just sitting in silence. I look through the clothing but nothing catches my eye. It is a place of treasures and trash and sometimes I get lucky. Most times I don’t, but it makes for a good game.

Sunday, June 29, 2014


I sit on my father’s lap at the kitchen table, facing him. It is evening, after supper and it’s just him and me. His face is large, more square than round, up above mine. I bend my head a little to look up at him, his eyes, laughing eyes, are cast downward to meet mine.

We are playing a game. My father points to his eye and I try to remember the Hungarian word. Usually I can’t remember and he must remind me, laughing, though I like it best when I do remember. Then he points to his nose, then his mouth. Some of them I can always remember, some are hard, like ear and neck.

Hungarian people come to our house sometimes. They are my father’s friends, mostly, that my mother has made friends with, sort of. My mother is always on the edge of these small parties in our living room where the men wear suits and the women wear skirts. They drink drinks and talk in Hungarian and if I am lucky Robert Major, who has grey hair, will do coin tricks for me. 

Sometimes I sit amongst them, looking at the way they across their legs. I look at my own legs that stick out straight when I sit in a chair. I would like my legs to be adult enough to at least bend over the edge of the chair. I try crossing them anyway.

My mother is the only one who does not speak Hungarian so sometimes they speak English. My mother is learning Hungarian from a book and she tries out phrases.

I would like my mother to blend in better somehow. There is a way that things could easily fall apart and my mother is the fault line, the place where the seam could break. If she could be different, part of the other side of the fault line where my father lives and where things seem to be bright and move easily.

She would be less serious. Her face would be younger. She would be more girlish instead of often wearing shorts and sneakers and kneeling in the garden. She would not pull leaves off bushes as she walked to chew on them.

Then my father would laugh with her and she would laugh back, maybe everyone in the room would laugh and look to her for the next joke.

But is it not like that. My mother sits on an arm of the couch while the others chatter. This is not her place like it is my father’s place. Her place is out in the woods.

One morning my father tells me how the night before, when it was dark and I had gone to bed, he had waltzed one of the ladies all the way down the driveway.

He tells me the story with the big smile he has when he is pleased with himself – happy and proud of who he is and how nobody else is like him. He waltzed another lady – of course not my mother. Of course, someone else.

And all the way to the end of the driveway. He did this. No one else even thought of doing it.

His eyes are focused outside the house. People beyond us get his attention. He does turn back and gaze at us – me, my mother, my little sister – from time to time, but my mother is never dressed right and my little sister is a duplicate of her, on the edge and shy. Then there is me, and him. His eyes light up as they meet mine and make me feel that I can do the things he does. Maybe. Almost. If I am to hold his gaze. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014


My friend, Ruth, whom I have known for almost 40 years, texted me this morning, saying she is sad for her father who died this week, and sad for herself for no longer having a living father.

And I am up against the quandary again, of having felt no sorrow when my own father died 3 years ago, no tears for the person who was the center, the shining light, of my first years.

I wonder about this over and over. Once, my father wrote to me during his last few years, asking to be more in touch. “We used to be such good friends,” he wrote.

This was only true when I was a little child. It was true until the time he and I were out on a walk, a common thing we did together. Since I was a little kid riding on his shoulders, my father had taken me with him on long weekend walks, walks that always felt much too long, my feet hurting.

My father always talked on these walks – telling me the history of Napolean, or how the Germans and then the Russians came through Budapest, about the bombs, or about how when you went to visit someone in Budapest before the war and they were not home, you left your card with one corner bent over. 

There were certain things my father loved, and bending the corner of a visiting card was one. The visiting card itself was another. The things he loved usually involved other people, or Hungary, or Switzerland. They were customs and habits from other places or things other people had said. They were never things here at home.

On this day he was talking about the Pope and my father asked me a question. Not an unusual question, but I did not like the feeling it gave me. I didn’t like that I knew I had to answer it in a right way, that my father was waiting to assess my response. So I just shrugged.

“Come on,” said my father with restrained irritation. I was letting him down.

I was about 12 for this conversation and it never went back to the way it had been.

It was always a mix after that, a mix I did not know what to do with except to pretend it was not there. 

Suddenly I noticed I did not like my father coming home on weekends, his arrival  an unwelcome interruption, the way he poked his head in at the door of my mother’s room where I was watching my weekly show. No, I did not want to talk to him right then, did not think it was funny when he made fun of what I was watching as if anything I was doing just for fun proved I was stupid.

I did not like him coming into my room to look over the pictures from magazines that I’d cut out and pinned to a big piece of burlap, the way he scrutinized them, making some flat joke about the women being prettier than the men while I knew he thought the whole thing incomprehensibly silly.

He asks me to help him clear the woods on the weekend. It is a few years later, a different house, and my father likes to clear all the woods behind the house – to “make a park” he says with excitement. I don’t want to turn our woods into a park. I want to listen to Bob Dylan, but I must go out and labor beside him or pull weeds from the path of pure white gravel that leads to our front door before the guests arrive.

And though I know I am still his favorite company over my mother, over my sisters, and though I still look forward to our Saturday evening trips to Lincoln Center, dressed up, as soon as we are in the car alone I feel the wall rise up, the way it rose up when he asked me a question on that walk when I was twelve, and I don’t trust him, cannot speak to him beyond monosyllables because I know he wants more from me, always more, and it makes me feel like not giving him anything. It is the only way I can give voice, or at least a little voice, to this anger that is not allowed. 

Anger, especially around my father, is not allowed. It’s one thing -- one of several things -- my mother gets wrong. She gets mad at him, at us, she yells, she loses it.  We tiptoe around her so she won’t explode. So I must not explode. That’s for sure. At least I can please my father that much. It’s one thing I can master to his satisfaction: to smile when I am furious.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


I don’t sew. Not the way some people do.
I can make no sense of patterns
or the machines that look like they will sew your finger to the table.

But I sew.
Buttons and hems, a rip in a sheet.

Not often, but when I do
there comes a gentle softness of simplicity
and memory.
Sewing a button today and
I am six years old
prick-prick-pricking the needle up from underneath
in blind search of a hole.
Convent needlework classes
taught me things I still own
like the tidy 3-point stitch just for hems
and the deft move that lands a knot right at the end of your thread.

I do a small repair today,
bringing out the sewing box I assembled
a couple decades ago at the beginning of some new life,
and I am sitting in the garden in Athens
hemming linen napkins
pretending to be invalid to stay out of the fray.

I am glad for this consistency of sewing.
Each time I return
It is the same.
They might say boys should sew their own buttons.
But I would miss this corner of ability and accomplishment and peace.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

There are three little girls next to the buckets of fresh flowers out on the street. Two mothers are talking to each other, oblivious to their offspring who are equally oblivious to them, playing a private game that involves stamping their feet. They are wearing dresses and I already have pulled out my phone, am calling up the camera function impatiently, dying to photograph flowers, dresses and small stamping feet while appearing to be doing something else, which is not so hard with a phone as it used to be with a full-scale camera.

I only get one shot of the little girls, not really the one I wanted though maybe tomorrow it will look better. As I continue walking I keep the camera function operating, and unobtrusively point it towards the people I pass, pressing the button as casually as I can, never sure that I have gotten any picture at all, let alone a good one. I feel a twinge of guilt, taking people’s pictures without them knowing, but reassure myself that I do them no harm, and the fun is too enticing to refuse.

My mother had cameras when I was a little girl and a darkroom in the room nearest the bathroom. I was used to cameras and the light meter she held in her hand before every shot.

In high school I pulled off the shelf The Family of Man, a book of black and white photographs from around the world, mostly of people unaware that they were being photographed. I kept the book in my room, unable to put it back. I loved every photograph, every face – some in pain, some laughing, faces caught in motion.

I took the high school photography class, the first place that felt like my place. I still felt shy there, and could not speak, but I was not scornful like I was everywhere else. My mother let me use her Exacta. I started out trying to recreate photographs I saw in my head, was always disappointed by the results that never matched what I saw inside, and learned quickly that I liked my photographs better when they caught something unexpected.

Still, how to capture people’s beautiful unaware faces in the street? How to get pictures like in The Family of Man? It was scary, pointing my camera in public. I tried stopping people and asking if I could photograph them. That was better than nothing, but not really what I wanted. 

I couldn’t afford a zoom lens and was jealous of my friend who had no trouble photographing gangs in Alphabet City. 

A few years ago it came to me. I started wearing the camera around my neck and just pointing it at people as they went by, taking a chance on what I’d get. And I started to get pictures that excited me. 

And now with the iPhone it is even easier. I never had more fun than I did last weekend, taking these pictures on the streets of Manhattan. 

(And then I kept thinking of more photos I wanted to show you -- made myself stop. But the last 3 are from 2010 in Venice, Italy). 

Sunday, January 12, 2014


I have not been in a small private plane before. I have not been with a rich boyfriend before who can invite me to Southampton for the weekend, a place I have not heard of. He says we will fly there from Manhattan and that it’ll take about 30 minutes. He is a kid like me, but it is his father’s house and his father’s arrangements that include the plane. I pretend that this is no big deal but I am nervous, and I hate that I am nervous. Not nervous about the plane. That's nothing. Nervous about being with these people who are not nervous about anything.  

I like the way my new boyfriend looks – especially his long dark curly messy hair. And he’s a writer. He’s written a novel. Already. I am out of my league, but any boy who is not my old high school awkward gangly boyfriend makes me feel out of my league. I feel out of my league with everyone actually.

Jeffrey was in this summer’s writing class that I only signed up for because my father wanted me to take a class at his favorite college. The writing class met once a week around a seminar table in a basement with tiny windows along the tops of the walls, giving us a groundhog’s view of cut grass. 

I noticed Jeffrey during  the second session when he kept catching my eye every time the group broke into laughter. I’d laugh, look up, and there would be that boy’s brown eyes, laughing like everyone else but looking straight at me.

A few weeks later and he has written to me a single-spaced two page letter on crinkly white onion skin that says at the very end “I love you” – words so precious I am immediately afraid of losing them. Words given to me by a boy I have noticed for his pony tail and the interesting cotton smocks that he wears, smocks I have never seen before and wonder where he gets them – he has said these magic words though we have only spoken once or twice, like when he mentioned that novel after class. A novel. He’s written a novel. How did he do that? How does anyone do that? How will I ever be able to do anything like that? 

The house in Southampton is a mansion with a circular drive, and people who all know each other, family and friends of family. Jeffrey, this brand new boyfriend, who says he loves me but it is hard to believe it, feels at ease here. 

He laughs as we stand outside in the dark, talking to a boy named Eric who is Jeffrey’s stepbrother. A stepbrother. A stepmother. Divorced parents. All things that my plain family cannot claim.

“How are you?” asks Jeffrey to Eric, who responds, “Stoned,” and Jeffrey laughs. I do too, happy to be with people who smoke pot and know where to get it. Jeffrey has plenty of pot, and a bong to smoke it from. He also knows how to have sex. I have been looking for a boy who can take me across, and Jeffrey has, in my mother’s double bed when the family was away, under the framed photograph of me as a two-year-old – and of course I did not tell Jeffrey this was my maiden voyage. He must not know. 

For I am his third sleeping-together girlfriend. He’s already had two, and mentions their names easily, telling stories from time to time, laughing – already he has so many lover stories and I have to let him assume that Bob was an appealing ex-lover too.

“How are you doing?” Jeffrey asks during one of the Southampton weekends. “Me and Jane used to play the Truth Game. It means you have to answer the question and say the truth.”

We are sitting on the bed in the well appointed bedroom we’ve been assigned for the weekend. Jeffrey sits cross-legged, barefoot, in tee shirt and jeans. 

It’s come up before, this truth thing, this saying the truth. It seems to be part of having a real boyfriend who says he loves you.

I can’t say how awful it felt to play backgammon when he is teaching me and winning over and over. I can’t say how bad it felt to sit with him and his sister as they made each other laugh while I just guessed at what might be the right things to say.

But this time I do say something. I say I’d like to leave. With him. To go back to the city.  “Really?” Jeffrey is taken by surprise. “Why?”

I’m not sure, I say. 

“Well, ok,” says Jeffrey, “but you better tell my father.”

I had not expected this, had not realized there would be protocol, but what do I know of families and mansions and weekends? 

I tap on the door of the room that Jeffrey’s dad and his wife share. I have been here before. Have sat on the king-sized bed with Jeffrey as the family banters – but now it is just Alvin. In this family you call the grown-ups by their first names. 

“What’s up, sweetheart,” drawls Alvin, hardly looking up. He is a small man, sitting on the bed made by women, leaning against the headboard, his legs extended, watching television and smoking. He wears an ironed button-down shirt and pants with a crease. 

I say apologetically that although it’s only Saturday afternoon I’d like to go back to the city.

I don’t say how much easier it is to be with Jeffrey by myself, that that’s when I like it best – when it’s him and me in that Manhattan apartment, littered with Jeffrey’s childhood but where no one lives anymore, where we can walk up First Avenue in the middle of the night for an ice cream sundae or a hamburger in a coffee shop or into a movie theater in the afternoon – all things I have never done before.