In the early eighties, I lived in a large, duplex apartment on Washington Street and Perry with three wonderful stoners. Danny I’ve introduced, but Richard was a guy who seemed to only eat bananas. My most vivid memory of him was on the morning after John Lennon was killed, and we both woke up to radio alarms of the news. I opened my bedroom door and stepped out, and Richard, a curly blonde with parchment skin, was already there on the landing, in nothing but tighty-whiteys. He was waiting for me, doing what he always did when he was stressed out—twirling his short ringlets around his index finger like a baby.

But the point of the story is not Richard or John Lennon, except that Richard was probably the one that made the brownies, put them out on the dining-room table, and forgot to post a note listing their most important ingredient. I ate one on my way out to cook dinner for my boyfriend, Joe, who was recently separated from his wife, and living in his ex-girlfriend’s loft in Tribeca while she was away. I had never had a pot brownie, nor have I had one since, because of what happened.

Joe, you see, was ailing because of his recent separation, and though he was the cook of our couplehood, he needed some TLC, and I’d stepped up to give it to him; I was going to cook him dinner. The trouble was, though, that by the time I reached the loft, I was whacked out of my mind, like I was on acid or something, and I was a babbling idiot. Joe, though, usually a very forgiving person, wasn’t amused by the fact that I’d shown up for our healing date with my teeth on backwards, and so I had to push forward, as if I were fine.

But I wasn’t. I don’t remember much more of this evening, except standing in Joe’s ex-girlfriend’s kitchen with a butcher knife in my hand, thinking, “Woah! Am I supposed to kill a cow with this thing? How do you hold it?!” Poor Joe. I’m sure he ended up cooking himself dinner.

I seem to be ready to accept all feedback on my insufferable behavior, mainly because I deserve it, and because my sense of humor has returned, though I still miss my girlfriend.


Dead Dads

My old boyfriend, Geoff, they told him his father was dead, but he wasn’t. When Geoff was little, his mother told different people different things, like Geoff’s father was killed in the war, or he died of cancer. But one night when Geoff was seventeen, his stepfather, drunk, told him that his father was alive—that he’d left Geoff’s mother when Geoff was a baby, his sister, three.

I met Geoff right around that time, and I remember him telling me that story as we waited for the car, furnished by the waterside-apartment complex we lived in with our mothers, to take us to school. I didn’t think, at the time, “I wonder if my father is alive.” I knew he wasn’t. Instead I thought about Geoff—what beautiful blue eyes he had, and how sweet he was.

He had another story that he told me in this period, which was in the weeks before we started going out. He had been working as a box boy at one of the local grocery stores, and he’d been befriended by the store manager, who was an old guy—like a dad’s age. One night Geoff was walking with him across the parking lot to wherever it was he normally deposited the store’s daily earnings, when two or three boys jumped out with guns. They took the money, and shot the store manager. They killed him.

Geoff, being about those boys’ age, was a suspect, at the same time that he was traumatized by the event, and the death of this dad-guy. If you knew Geoff, you’d know the truth of all that: that he wouldn’t have been involved in any crime, let alone this one; that he suffered, and didn’t know how to suffer, suffering being hard, for one thing, but also something that was magically wiped away in his family, by lies and alcohol etc., etc., etc.

This is the beginning of a long story.

Bad Girl Deitch: Green Hills

O.K. This is the one time I remember my father getting angry at me: At some point in the very early sixties, my father bought a golf club in Greenwich, Connecticut, called Green Hills. One of the great things about being the kids of the owner of the club was that we could take the golf carts out after hours, and drive them around the course. I can’t really believe I did this, because I couldn’t have been more than, say, six. I do remember flying over hills with my brothers once or twice, and I remember feeling some anxiety at the speed. Just to put it into perspective, I now drive, as my ex-mother-in-law used to say, like a foot. I am very careful.

Anyway, I knew how to drive a golf cart, and one day I was out there on the course with my father and some of his pals. They were up on a little hill, as I remember it, teeing off. Or maybe they weren’t teeing off. But they were standing on this little hill, and I was waiting down below, in the driver’s seat of the golf cart, all of their golf clubs in bags in the back of the cart.

I’m pretty sure I was alone that day. And what I remember is starting up the cart and suddenly taking off around the little hill as fast as I could, around and around and around and around. I remember laughing. It was hilarious. It was like a cartoon: In my memory, the turn was so sharp that the cart was up on two wheels, screeching in circles around that hill.

In real life, I went so fast that many of the clubs flew from their bags and were strewn on the grass behind me. That’s what I remember. And that’s the one and only time I remember my father getting angry at me, coming down off the hill irate.

It reminds me of a news story I heard on the car radio years back, after I was an adult. Some mom had killed her little daughter—probably not much more than eight. And when they asked her why, she said, “Because she was doing cartwheels in the living room.”

The Virgin and the Gypsy

I think it’s time to post this. I wrote it one morning in Berlin this past summer, for Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, on the occasion of his birthday.

This morning, bedroom

We were getting high, my friend Janet and I, behind the church by the grocery store. Back then, if you got caught, you’d be taken into the station, put before a judge—who knows what else: Raped? Ruined? We were fourteen, fifteen tops. We were the smart girls in our class, and still some of the junkies in town knew us and called us the Virgin and the Gypsy. Back then, when I got high, the earth would sometimes tip and I would start falling. It was not a pleasant feeling, but it was better than the other one, the one that I still feel sometimes–the overwhelming knowing that I am actually, like a new bird fallen from its nest, too alone.

Anyway, we were behind the church, sitting on the summer grass, and we were high, when suddenly we heard the sound of footsteps. Now, the church and the grocery store were separated only by a chain-link fence and an embankment (on the grocery-store side) crowded with trees and garbage. We were about six feet from the fence, almost close enough to reach over and touch it with our outstretched fingers. We could see the trees on the other side, but we could not see the person approaching us. We could only hear their heavy footsteps in the dry leaves. I said we were stoned—did I say we were falling?
Let me take a quick break to say that for my tenth birthday, my mother gave me twenty dollars, and sent me with our housekeeper to Chinatown. She couldn’t come with me on this birthday journey, because my father was very sick. I didn’t know that my father was dying, right then, at the time—I just knew that I was spending my tenth birthday alone. O.K. What I wanted for my twenty dollars was to find something that would make my father feel better. I scoured Chinatown looking for that remedy. I paced the winding streets, endured the dancing chicken and the fish smothering in their tanks. I bought him a pair of pajamas from some men with comb-overs, but that wasn’t it. It, it turns out, was perfect: Though my father was a Jew, what I found for him was a plaster Buddha, about a foot and a half high, spray-painted gold.
You mentioned the dog eating its own shit and not looking back. I’m happy (and afraid) to report that I eat my own shit less and less, but when I do eat it, I always look back. I always look back. I trust nothing and no one. I am trying my best to trust you.
My father died three days later.
The footsteps were heavy and slow, and were definitely heading up the embankment in our direction, as we fell towards them, stoned out of our minds. I stabbed out my joint in the grass. (Grass to grass, ashes to dirt.) I could hear that Janet had stopped breathing. I stopped breathing, too. Continue reading “The Virgin and the Gypsy”

Chris, 15

We had no reason to be friends, this boy Chris and I. He was a jock, a class clown, a guy who drank beer and got Bs, maybe Cs. His friends sat somewhere else in the cafeteria, who knows where. He lived in a modest house with his big family. He could balance a spinning basketball on his finger for forever; the toe of one of his Cons was worn from dragging it every time he made a jumpshot. I was a freak, a smart girl. My family was coming apart. I had been suspended from school twice: once for wearing overalls, once for refusing to salute the flag. For some reason, we started talking on the playground at lunch.

It was springtime, 1971, maybe. I had just turned fifteen, and day after day, this unlikely boy and I would drift towards each other from across the field. He was tall and skinny and wore button-down shirts and jeans. He had wavy hair with bangs that swooped. We were in the ninth grade, and he was the star player on all teams. It was ridiculous: I had no pom-poms; I didn’t even want to wear a skirt. We would talk, I don’t remember about what. All I remember is the sudden, daily slow drift towards him. He was a nice person; he had a rare charm.

Anyway, on this one day, we were standing at the edge of the playground, right by the small school parking lot. I know this because I remember stepping up and down on the curb a few times. It was a Friday, and there were two or three other kids around. They were talking about a party that was happening that night, at someone’s house near the beach. Somehow Chris was standing behind me, his arms around my shoulders. How did that happen? I was not easy with boys. He was funny, though, always kidding everyone about one thing or another, and that kind of boy can touch you and it’s O.K. So he had his arms around my shoulders, and maybe he was swinging me a little, back and forth. He asked me if I wanted to come to the party. I had my own friends, my own things to do on a Friday night. Yes, I said, sure.

Continue reading “Chris, 15”


I signed a lease, which still amazes me, considering how groundless I feel. I rented a two-bedroom place over an artist’s studio in East Marion, New York, which is out near the tip of Long Island, on the North Fork (a five-minute drive from L.B.’s). Mark Rothko is buried in East Marion, and my post office box is #73, which gives you an idea of the population. In that post office, on the plaque that tells you who, from East Marion, served in the Vietnam War, there are ten names, including three pairs of brothers.

My place, designed by Tony Smith, an abstract expressionist who lived out here in the seventies, has a cedar ceiling, and when you come down from the deck (which is on stilts) in the middle of the night with an old black dog in your arms, chances are you’ll find a bunny in your flashlight beam, or a deer the size of a horse. It is extremely nice.

I was trying to figure out why living out on Long Island makes me so happy (besides the vineyards and the beach and the the fact that there were blueberries at the farm stands last week, and this week there are pumpkins). I grew up on Long Island, though just outside the city, in two suburban towns that were mostly populated by wealthy white people. Pretty much everyone I knew couldn’t wait to grow up and leave Long Island, but I loved it even then.

There was the fat white lady who sold penny candy out of her house on Steamboat Road (the main road in the so-called black section of Great Neck) when I was really little, who sat in a folding chair without her underpants.

There were black guys waiting outside the train station in their Cadillac cabs, with the backseats covered in that bubbled plastic. Their hair was combed back in ridges, and they smelled perfumed. I spent a lot of time in the back of those caddies as a little girl, being driven around, don’t ask me why (because I don’t know).

And there was Mike Thompson. I could go on, but suffice it to say that I’d had a crush on him from afar, starting in the summer between eighth and ninth grade. I saw him. That was it. I didn’t meet him, or talk to him. For a good part of ninth grade, I’d walk several miles out of my way after school to pass by his house. No joke. He was a year older than me, tall and lanky, with curly, shoulder-length hair. He had pointy features, like a fox, and blue, glow-in-the-dark eyes. Picture Robert Plant in his youth, and multiply by a hundred.

He played the guitar. Later, when he grew up, he played for Earth, Wind and Fire, so, really, he played the guitar. When I got into high school, where he already was, I’d see him standing in a corner with his friends, playing air guitar and throwing his hair around. I’d overhear him talking about Rod Stewart or chord changes. He wasn’t like that, but that’s what he did. He had a girlfriend who had already graduated. So through the fall of tenth grade, I continued my anonymous crush.

Then our gym class went skiiing for a day. We took buses somewhere where there were hills, the freaks and the jocks and the nerds all together. I didn’t know anyone on the trip, so I skied alone, which was fine by me.

Anyway, somewhere in the late morning, I was waiting in the line for the chairlift, minding my own business, being angry at, and in love with, the world in equal measures. It was a long line. I could wait. And then—bam!—I was flat on my ass with one of my poles and someone’s leg bent between my legs.

Of course, it was Mike Thompson. He’d come flying down the hill, made the left turn toward the lift line without slowing down, and crashed into me, hard. What luck! We untangled ourselves, and dusted ourselves off, him apologizing nonstop, and laughing, his face red and frozen, his eyes the color of ice. He introduced himself. We laughed some more, and checked for tears and bruises on each others’ butts and legs, arms and backs.

Then he asked if I wanted to ride with him in the chairlift, and maybe do a little solitary high-school skiing together. There you go—that’s why I love Long Island. We sat together in the bus on the home, me a pig in shit, he a prince at the circus.

He had a car, and we drove around after that, during school hours. He taught me how to play a couple of songs on my bed in my room, while my stepfather packed up his stuff and left. His girlfriend even called me one afternoon, and told me to stay away from him.

Now, when I drive around the North Fork, I’m back there, too, living a life where everything bad happens, and all your dreams come true.


(For Dolly)

Not us, but still kids
All loss brings with it every loss before it. Did I tell you about Kevin? I can’t remember. Kevin lived two houses down from us, on the block in Kings Point where my brothers and I were born. Being Ian’s age, he was officially Ian’s friend, but Kevin and I had a deep and secret connection.

The get-go: There was this woman named Thea who often came to watch us. She was ancient—from another era, with red, Betty-Boop lips, a white-pancake face, and wavy hair like frosting. She was a seamstress. I remember her laughing and recalling a day when she was out walking with me in a baby carriage. Kevin, apparently, was walking beside her. She said, “Kevin, do you want to go for a ride in the carriage?” And he said, “No, I’m too big of a man to ride in a carriage.” Anyway, that’s how far we go back.

Kevin, who was a small, gentle redhead—not at all a big man, or even a macho boy—taught me how to ride a bike. He dug an old, black, boys’ stingray bike with a banana seat and ape-hanger handlebars out of his garage, and would run behind me, his straight bowl-cut hair flying. (Kevin’s much-older sister, Joanie, was engaged to Wes Farrell, who wrote “Hang on, Sloopy,” and Kevin, unlike a lot of boys—including Ian—was allowed to wear his hair like a Beatle.) He knew me; why else would he choose that bike to teach me, rather than the pink one in my garage?

Once, when my family came home from having been away for several months, Kevin, who was probably seven at the time, was waiting for us by the kitchen door. As soon as we were all out of the car, and the house key was in the lock, Kevin let loose two fistfuls of confetti, which flew around our heads like tiny, red, white, and blue welcome birds. How does a boy get like that?

On the day that my father died, and my brothers and I were sent over to Kevin’s house for a few hours, Kevin told me, from across the dinner table, that there was a strategy for dealing with grief. (He was eleven at this point.) He said that I could cry ninety-nine times, but after that, I had to stop. (This was very much like the advise he’d given me when I was four or five and couldn’t sleep—he’d said that if I hit my head on my pillow three times and then spun the pillow around my head, I’d soon be out like a light.) I took that to heart. Though I never counted the number of times I cried for my father, I knew I had both permission and leeway.

By the time we were junior high school, Kevin had begun suffering over the war. He always wore a green army jacket, and he alone sold pretzels from big bins at the end of the school day, raising money for people starving in Bangladesh (no, wait—Bangladesh came later; this was for Biafra). I was twelve and he was fourteen. My family had left the neighborhood, and we didn’t have much contact anymore. But I still loved him in the same way I had when I was a little girl. That is, I loved him, period—pure and simple.

Anyway, that same year, the year of the pretzels, when I was twelve and he was fourteen, there was a terrible snowstorm. The schools were closed, the roads were closed, the world shut down. Kevin, someone told my mother over the phone that day, had somehow shut himself into his father’s car in the garage, and was in a coma. They said he had been warming the car up for his mother, and hadn’t realized that the garage had been sealed off by the snow.

I don’t know.

They air-lifted Kevin from his house on our old block to a nearby hospital. He lived for a few more days, and then he died.

It was strange. I’d gotten a whole new set of friends after I’d left the old block, and none of my new friends knew Kevin. I guess they didn’t know me either. So I took the morning off to go to his funeral with my family, and when I came back, I remember sitting in the cafeteria, with this heavy, heavy sadness storming, raging in my chest, and this bewilderment that I experience often still—what is this?—while kids around me, completely unaware of the fact that I’d even been gone, did their goofy kid thing.

Because Kevin was Ian’s friend, officially, was he my friend? He was the boy next door. He was the kid who taught me how to ride a bike. He was the boy who cured my insomnia and showered my family with confetti. He was the one person on this planet who gave me a prescription for my grief when my father died. He was, I believe, the first real bodhisattva I ever met on this planet, at least in this lifetime.

I think of Kevin a lot. The thought of him, running behind the bike that he knew would be my perfect steed, instantly creates a fire in my heart, a genuine living experience of true love. For me, from him. People teach us how to love without ever knowing it. They are our little secret heroes.

Memoir: Within You, Without You

I’ve been putting this post off since I started blogging, for a variety of reasons which will become obvious. It’s about a pivotal experience in my life, though, and the holding back of it is junking up the works. So I’m going to proceed.

When I was sixteen, I got a hold of some organic chocolate mescalin, and took it one afternoon, with my friend Merry, at the garden apartment in Port Washington where I lived with my mother and younger brother Peter. (Ian had moved out already, and was living at the old whorehouse run by the male nurse with the snake named Barbara.) Anyway, Merry was not a particularly good friend, but we were doing a little bit of hanging out that summer; she took the mescalin with me—mixed into a glass of water, I believe, though it could have been milk—but left shortly after, to go have dinner with her parents (a strange, nerdy couple who I don’t think I ever saw not cuddling and kissing and flirting with each other). I don’t remember asking her how that worked out, that dinner, though I can’t imagine having had a conversation with a grown-up that night, let alone my P.D.A.rents.

What I do remember is sitting on the dock outside my apartment by myself after it had gone dark, watching the water (the apartment complex was on the Sound). It was black, and not rough, but roiling. No, not roiling—it was dancing. That’s the point: the water was dancing. Soon I started to notice that the leaves in the trees around me were shaking. No, not shaking—they were dancing. In fact, they were dancing the same dance as the water (and the night clouds and the night wind). And then I started to notice that I was breathing. No! Not breathing—I was dancing! Every cell in my body was dancing, the same dance as the water and the trees and the clouds and the wind. The night birds were dancing, the candy wrapper skipping by, the stars were dancing that same dance.

Now you surely think that I was on drugs, and was imagining this. But I have known ever since that night decades ago, that the thing that I perceived then was the way that things are: That we are all made of the same thing (call it atoms, call it space, I don’t know), and that there is something (I’ll get to that) that hinders us from seeing this.

Around the time that I was having this experience, Ian dropped by. He was seventeen at the time, or maybe just eighteen. I told him what was happening, and he got all excited. He did not do drugs like this at all, having too fragile a mind, but he was, and still is, a philosophy nut, and was pretty sure that I was having the kind of mystical experience he’d read about in some of his books.

I don’t remember if I got to this by myself, or if Ian led me here, but I saw very clearly that night (by now in my room where I was playing the Beatles’ “Within You, Without You” over and over again) that the thing that was in the way of this feeling of being one with everything—this dance—was wanting things.

I hadn’t realized how much I wanted up until then: I wanted to be happy, I wanted a boyfriend, I wanted to be on my own already, I wanted to get into a good college, I wanted to be successful—I’m sure I wanted a few more pairs of jeans and another pair of Cons (I had blue ones—maybe I wanted black or white). I wanted so many things for my mother. I wanted to not be in so much pain.

On this night, my wanting had ceased. I checked it out—I didn’t want anything. Except I wanted this experience to go on forever. I remember Ian saying that I would never have the experience again—not, that is, until I died. At the time of my death I would stop wanting again. I cried about that, there in my room with my big brother beside me.

There you go. When I think of my life, I put the experience I had the day after my father died together with this one. In my mind they are two beads, side by side, on the rosary that is my life so far.

Three years later, some months after Ian had had his first breakdown, I started to see the therapist I’d see for the next thirteen years. I remember telling her about this experience with the chocolate mescalin, and I remember her response. She said, “It sounds to me like you’re closer to death than to life.” I was nineteen at the time, and her words sent a terrifying shock through me. That did not sound good. So right then and there, sitting in her office, I took that mystical experience and I shoved it so deep inside me, that for many years I barely thought about it. And then, one day, I realized that my therapist had been wrong.

(Artwork: Kaz Tanahashi)

Memoir: Ian's Influence

I found my old gray I Ching this morning while I was packing up my books. I first fell in love with that book, not as literature, but as a physical object, when I was thirteen, and saw it on my brother Ian‘s bookshelf. My mother and stepfather had moved into a new house while we were away at summer camp—it was a huge, white-brick, white-pillared mansion, with an indoor squash court and a swimming pool overlooking the Long Island Sound (it would remain empty of furniture for the two years we lived there, my stepfather clearly having it in his mind that he would be bolting any minute now)—and when Ian and I arrived there in late August, we had both changed.

Being fifteen, he had grown several inches, and morphed from an unhappy little boy into a gentle young man. I had resigned myself to being me (i.e., not a laugh riot and not like the other kids), and had resolved to henceforth stop trying to fit in. I hung an American flag upside down on my wall, and Ian made a shelf for his I Ching and a few books of poetry. Suddenly, we were friends.

I always knew that I looked up to Ian, but I didn’t realize how much I was influenced by him until today. Apart from the I Ching, I also found, today, the copy of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal that Ian gave me for my eleventh birthday, in 1967, exactly a year after our father died. I remember being astonished by that gift, and with the other one that came along with it: a small bouquet of dried, colorless flowers. The book and the dried flowers were the first presents I’d ever received that were not age appropriate. I got the message immediately, though I didn’t know how to act on it. Ian’s gift to me said, Wake up. But wake up to what?

A year later, Ian dragged me into the living room the moment I came home from school one day—Miss Baron’s sixth-grade class—and played me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Before he put it on the record player, though, he held the black disc between his hands and showed me how the vinyl they’d used to make it was different from before: it bent, rather than broke.

The next year, in 1969 (this is the year before we became friends), in yet another house, Ian played Traffic’s song “Dear Mr. Fantasy” over and over again for days from behind his bedroom door. The music, slightly dissonant and sad and otherwordly, was like a drug wafting out from under the door and through the house: I breathed it in. The particular perfume of that song, that time, my brother, did it. I got it: The journey was not going to be an outward one; we were going inward.

Memoir: My Boyfriend Geoff

In the winter of 1974, I was living in a tiny bedroom in a house in Port Washington owned by a junior high school teacher named Fred, who had a soft spot for his young female students. (This was at least a year before Ian went crazy.) I’d run away from home a couple of months before, and Fred had agreed to rent me this room, which was only big enough for a single bed and a dresser. It had a slanted ceiling and one window, which seemed huge in that space. I was not quite seventeen, and Geoff—who lived with his mother, but stayed with me most of the time—almost eighteen.

Downstairs, on the sun porch, was a big-boned, red-headed guy in his late twenties with freckles and aviator glasses who screwed at least two women a day—I kid you not. He said his name was Danny Lee, but his mail came to Danny Bonini. When we asked him how he did it—got so many girls—he said he just walked up to women every day and said, “Do you want to have the best time of your life?” Many said yes. Geoff and I both liked to think of Danny as dangerous (a dangerous creep, to be precise), and we made up a whole story around the fact that he had alias.

Upstairs, on our floor, was Rusty, also in his late twenties—ancient, with thinning, long blond hair. I don’t remember what he did for a living, but I do remember that he was quiet and drank himself into a stupor every night. One morning, after a night when his troll-like, drunken mother had come for a visit, I went into the bathroom to pee and discovered pubic hair all over the toilet bowl, a pair of scissors, and blood everywhere. Rusty didn’t come home that night. Then, the next evening, while we were cooking dinner (undoubtedly spaghetti), the back door opened and there he was, lipstick smeared on his mouth and his mother’s little black velvet hat tied onto his head with a bow. (She had called looking for that hat the night before, and when I’d told her it wasn’t there, she’d said I was a nincompoop.) Ashamed at finding us home, he ran down into the basement and didn’t come up until we were asleep.

But that story is not the point of this. Today is Geoff’s birthday. He is fifty-five.

Back in 1974, Geoff pumped gas at a station about a half mile from our house, and his shift started very early every day. Nixon had invoked the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act that winter, and the clocks were turned ahead an extra hour, so it was dark in the mornings (so dark that many more schoolchildren were hit by cars that winter). From our little bed, I’d watch Geoff get dressed in the shadows. He wore a uniform: blue chinos, a matching blue shirt with his name embroidered on the pocket, and a big blue coat with a Mobil emblem on the breast: the flying red horse. Geoff looked like Michaelangelo’s David—no lie—though he never believed me when I told him that.

I have not said explicitly that Geoff was an angel: He was. He wanted to change the world. In those days, he did it partly by being polite and attentive to his customers. I can see him looking into their eyes and smiling when he said hello. I can hear him saying, “Thanks so much!” after he’d handed over their change—a few ones he’d peeled off the giant, greasy roll he kept in his pocket.

Anyway, it snowed a lot that winter, and the gas lines were very long. Every morning I’d lie in bed and look out that big window after I heard him shut the front door behind him. The street was like an empty stage—quiet, dark, and snowy. I could see one streetlamp from my vantage point, and it’s light shone on the snow like a spotlight. I looked forward, every morning, to seeing Geoff come into that spotlight, his shoulders hunched, his hands deep in his pockets. His boots left solitary tracks in the snow.

At night, when he came home, his hands were always black, and he smelled like oil. I still love that smell; it is like the perfume from a faraway dream.

Memoir: Sword

Speaking of self-involvement, I remembered this thing when I was in the shower this morning: how I discovered writing.

My father had died, like I said, when I was ten, and we moved into Manhattan from Long Island a year later, so that my mother, I think, could date more easily (no judgment—it was 1967, she was 38, had three young kids, no money, and needed a plan). She enrolled me at P.S. 6, on the Upper East Side, and somehow finagled it so that I was put into the sixth-grade I.G. class—the class for so-called intellectually gifted kids. <a href="I told you already that I was a wreck, so this development was a stroke of karmic genius: If torture by humiliation at eleven doesn’t kill you, it leads you to ask a lot of important questions later on.

So it was clear that the teacher, Miss Baron, who sported a loose orange beehive and always wore red lipstick, didn’t like me. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough, or well-enough educated, or too sad and angry—I suspect it was all three. At one point, anyway, she told my mother she was going to transfer me out of the class, and my mother managed to stop her. So I’m not making it up; she didn’t want me around. Needless to say, I spent many evenings crying over the fact that my homework was actually too hard for me to do.

Somewhere in the middle of the school year, though, Miss Baron told us to write two poems, and bring them in the next day. I’d never written a poem before, but when I sat down to dutifully do it, I discovered this amazing thing: writing it down to figure it out. I had a lot to say, it turns out, but not the sort of stuff you talk about. (If you know what I mean.) I wrote one poem called “Who Am I?,” and another one about time. I didn’t consider whether or not they were good—of course, they wouldn’t be—but they just fell out, and that was a bright experience in a dark time.

All grownups in the 1960s
The next day Miss Baron called us up to her desk, one by one, which was something I dreaded and loved. It was hard to have a conversation with an adult back in those days who wasn’t drunk and/or high,* so these chats at school, though intimidating, were an opportunity to have some sane face time with someone other than my poodle, Zsaz (who was a really good listener). Miss Baron, on this day, snatched my first poem from my hand (or so it seemed to me) and started reading, clearly expecting the usual annoying stupidity. I believed I was a fuck up, so I sat there waiting to be put down and sent off by Miss Baron with a impatient little shake of her head and a roll of her eyes.

But something else happened. I watched her reading the poem with her furrowed brow and her pursed lips, filled, like tiny rivers, with red goop, and suddenly her face changed. The lines disappeared from her forehead. Then she looked at me over the paper. It was not a happy look, or a look of relief: it was a blank look. But behind the blank I could see what she was hiding: surprise. Total surprise.

That’s how I became a writer: I wanted to see that look again. Thank you, Miss Baron, wherever you are, for giving me that. Thank you for making me a writer, however vengeful, and for kicking my ass.

*See John Updike’s amazing story on the subject, “The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd.”

Memoir: The First Breakdown (Con't)

So at least in the old days, you couldn’t just take a person who’d never been a resident in a psyche ward to the hospital and drop him off. Not that that’s what I wanted to do with Ian: What I wanted to do was have someone evaluate him, and tell me what to do next. Back in those days, though, if someone needed this kind of overnight psyche consultation, you had to have the cops bring him in. Even now, just thinking about these events takes my breath away.

After I got the requisite letters of recommendation (so to speak) from two psychotherapists Ian had known, and a letter from our mother (don’t ask), I went to the local police precinct to have a chat with the cops. I looked, physically, how you might imagine a wild teenage girl would in 1974 (long crazy hair, jeans, boots, tee-shirt): I looked, that is, like the enemy. Needless to say, they were not happy to see me.

What I remember most about the conversation between me and the Jerk In Blue at the desk was that he kept calling my brother “a mental”:

“What’s wrong with your brother?”

“He’s having some trouble, and I need a doctor at the hospital to check him out.”

“We don’t chauffeur people to their doctor’s appointments.”

“No, I know, but he’s sick—he’s having psychological problems.”

“Oh! Well! If he’s a mental then that’s another story.”

“He’s not ‘a mental.'”

“Well, then we can’t pick him up.” Continue reading “Memoir: The First Breakdown (Con't)”