April 11, 2010

Time limits

I am reprinting here the memoir piece I call “Absent.” It appears in an earlier post, the beginning nugget of my next book. Here I’d like to share with you the ways this piece came to be.

I was working with the artist M.M. Panas, whose work I love. I’ve wanted to partner with her for a couple years and finally persuaded her to work with me. This means she shows me a piece and I ponder it while I write. I show her something I’ve written and she ponders it while she paints. We do this over a time-limited period: 10 days to be exact. The limit, like the limits of life, evoke a certain thrill in me. And by certain I don’t mean indefinite, I mean specific and particular to this experience: the process of creation.

Panas sent me the painting you see here and in her missive also sent a photograph taken by her husband John Panas after the massive snowstorm that hit D.C., making history.

I sent Panas a story from my book The Woman Who Never Cooked. Here is the excerpt of “Sine Die.” The full story is in my book.

Sine Die

I see the two women at the bar, yellow silk, split skirts, dark hair, beautiful long thin legs.

The two women were at the bar, thinking they were in Hong Kong, pretending. (Much of what they do is pretending—it is how they get on with one another.) Today they pretended that they were Asian, that their hair was long and straight, that they could smoke without harm, that they could drink and stay in control but still get high, that their skin was the beautiful mellow beige of Asian women, that they could lie in the sun without burning. They talked and laughed. They wore their hair pulled back against their heads, made smooth with gel so they had the look of straight hair. They went shopping and bought yellow silk blouses and skirts, went to a seamstress who cut the slits in their skirts, who tightened the silk against their hips.

The only way to tell them apart is the younger sister’s small bones, tiny points, exposed; the older’s small round stomach. They bought high-heeled shoes and wore them even though both had inherited their mother’s feet—one with the hammer toe, both with the bone that widened at the ball, that had become a bunion as they grew older. One sister’s bunion was worse than the other’s. The bunions, hidden in the narrow vamps of their shoes, hurt. They did not care. They were pretending and they were good at it.

It had taken them a long time to learn. It began when they were children, when they pretended they could fly by riding on each other’s feet, when they pretended they were fine cooks like their mother, cooked mushrooms on toast and created a delightful meal for themselves without their mother’s help, when their parents were not home, when the older sister was babysitting the younger. It was when they were children—like other children—that the pretending became an integral part of their play. But unlike other children, the pretending became so essential to their relationship they could not, would not, outgrow it because, while they were children, one of them got sick. They didn’t talk about the sickness; they pretended, the way their parents pretended, that it did not exist, but the sickness was the source of all their pretending now, the unspoken source.

The two sisters left the bar and went down Baltimore street, the street where the strippers took off their clothes inside the bars. They didn’t go into any of these bars but they liked to walk down the street. So they walked, watched the eyes of the men on them, knowing this was dangerous. But the older sister was strong, a powerful, sick, fearless woman who told the younger sister not to be afraid. She said, “Pretend you belong, that you own the street. Anyone can go anywhere if she acts like she owns the place.”

This way of walking, of turning a street corner, of entering a room, is something you can learn by pretending. It’s the key to everything. That’s why we do it when we’re little—so we can learn.

I am not sure when I am pretending and when I am not. I had a sister, three years older than I, who died. I have trouble remembering her. To help with this I think of remembering and forgetting as two sides of a right triangle. I think of the third side, the hypotenuse, as pretending. It is this third side that helps me accept the not knowing, the intangibility of the truth.

Fig. I

sine curve

In Trigonometry, the graph of the equation y = sin x is called the sine curve, an elegant mathematical tool for defining the relationship of the sides of a right triangle. It is an infinite (sine die) pattern of undulating curves with an infinite number of points that plot changes in the triangle, including a point where no triangle exists—a flat line.

Figure II

On the right triangle, let us call the two sisters Sides A and B; A is the older sister; B, the younger; they are bound to one another in a right angle, an essential (sine qua non) element. Their relationship, the unknowns and knowns of each to the other, is defined by the sine curve. The unknowns reveal themselves as knowns, as points on the sine curve by calculating the relationships of A to B to C. Side C is the pretending. I think of the sisters (A and B) interchangeably as remembering and forgetting, for as I’ve said the two are hard to tell apart, the way the sisters looked alike that day on their walk down Baltimore Street.

The two women were not whores. They were not wild.

The only thing they had ever done together with abandon was the time they cut their long hair short and had it permed, which made their curly hair curlier—and them, ridiculous. Then, like now, they did not know exactly what they were doing, and their hair bloomed into unexpected Afros when it dried. Since puberty, each had rolled her hair and sat under dryers. Neither knew that she had naturally curly hair because both had straight hair as children. The curls came with puberty when all those rollers became essential to their pretense of appearance. In this sense, the truth about their hair was a secret neither had known—that they discovered with a silly mistake, the permanent solution on their hair. The tameness of the mistake and the resulting discovery contrasted with the seriousness of the pretending that defined their relationship and the current adventure.

For now they both knew there were other secrets. Neither knew what the other had done that could have been wild, that they had not done together. Both sisters, who were married, believed that the other had never had an affair. But on Baltimore Street each sister looked at the other wondering if this were true. Had neither actually had an affair?

The older one, the one who was sick, thought, My sickness is like an affair. It seduces me to live even though I know the doctor will cut off my leg soon (this, my sister doesn’t know). It repels me because I would rather die than live deformed. I am infatuated by my secret. When I am ready to tell, my horror will hold my sister near me. What has my sister kept secret? she wondered. To find out, she lied, “We tell each other everything. I would know if you had done something. I would see it in your face, hear it in your voice.”

The younger knew that was not true because she had had an affair with a married man, a lawyer, many years ago before she was married—and not told. She wondered, Would I sleep with the lawyer now? Now that I am married?

So she was not as innocent as she pretended. Did her sister know this? She was reminded of when they were both teenagers: The older had made her a costume like the yellow silk outfit she was wearing now. Her sister had called it “the gypsy costume.” Now the younger saw that the gypsy costume really was the outfit of a whore, with the low-cut blouse, the skirt with a slit up the side, on a fourteen-year-old girl. The skin-tight skirt, which the thin little girl wore well, pretending to be older. Her thin body suited the outfit, the scarf her sister put around her forehead, a larger scarf around her shoulders atop the off-the-shoulder blouse. Who was pretending? Was it the little girl? Her seventeen-year-old sister? Both, the woman now realized. They were dreaming the shared secret, desire.

The sisters’ most powerful secret was something each knew but would not, could not express—the power of the older over the younger. Both were aware of it. Neither knew how it would play out.

My sister is dead. She died three years after our mother died. My father is sick—but because I am left I am the only one who knows about this. My father doesn’t remember that my mother (his wife) and my sister (his daughter) have died. He has severe memory loss—Parkinson’s Disease. He is sine cure (without cure). The doctors simply say, to clarify, “Senility.” But I think he is mad with grief. I am forty years old, married to a man I love. Like my father, I am not sure what I know. I often pretend—now that my sister and mother have died and now that my father can’t remember those facts—I pretend that another man loves me, a man who has no connection to any of these losses. My husband, who I think no longer desires me, went through it all with me—all I’ve lost. I want to forget, to pretend. Perhaps the other man is real. Perhaps my husband desires me. My father sometimes says, out of the blue it seems—is he trying to remember or forget when he says this?—“The circumstances are extenuating.”

Here is what Panas painted in response to "Sine Die."

She startles: so much so that I bought the painting.

During the ten-day period while she was creating this painting and I was writing "Absent," I met with my cousin whose mother had died. We had not seen each other since the funeral and not much before that: the distancing that occurs in families as we live more broadly and perhaps more narrowly as a result has caught my imagination and my heart: This distancing I experience most particularly now with my son who lives a good part of the year in Australia. So absence was on my mind in the story and in my limited existence.

Here is what I wrote.


The camera was invented in 1839 by arguably Fox Talbot—some say it was Louis Daguerre, but whatever the controversy about its invention, its mark on our lives is indelible. The photograph defines for better or for worse: Think of family, think of presidents and kings, think of wars and holocausts, of earthquakes and broken houses, think of tidal waves and flooded land, think of volcanoes and moving bodies frozen in ash, think of slow-moving glaciers and grand canyons, or simply think of blizzards and great pines struck down by flakes of snow.

No photo of my father when he was a child exists. One family photo of his parents and his six brothers and sisters stands as proof of who they were. The photo belonged to Cecelia, my father’s niece who died this fall, whose life became entwined with his well after this photo was taken.

I ask, Can absence be defined?

The only photos that mark my father’s existence begin with his marriage to my mother. He came to her with one shopping bag with everything he owned, that included one small framed photo of his mother Hannah that sits now on one of my book-lined shelves in the condo where I write.

Cecelia’s mother Rose stands tallest in the family picture but she succumbed at thirty to tuberculosis when Cecelia was seven and my father, thirteen. And so their lives joined. She and Rose lived with my grandmother while Rose died and when she did, Nathan, Cecelia’s father said he couldn’t take her. Gerson and Cecelia ate fried matzo and gefilte fish, bought, when they could, corned beef sandwiches and split-grilled kosher hot dogs on Lombard Street. They cleared the china from the table. They translated the English Hannah, who spoke only Russian and Yiddish, needed for the blocks she’d walk where she felt safe. They became brother and sister.

My father never forgot the day that Cecelia was wrenched from his mother’s arms. Her father had remarried and came when she was just thirteen to take her away. My father never forgot her screams as she was shoved into the car to live with a woman she’d never met and would never find a way to love. They shared this memory that even her children don’t know—as if it didn’t happen.

No other photo of my grandfather exists.

Harry, a tailor in Russia, and Hannah escaped a pogrom through a sewer with Rose who lived because, when she cried and the guide said she must die, she suckled at Hannah’s breast. Harry couldn’t find work as a tailor in Baltimore. He died on the street where my father found him in the gutter he was cleaning, struck down by a heart attack, lying with his broom.

Gerson barely graduated high school. His geometry teacher was a drunk and Gerson wrote that on the board and got expelled. The truth is crooked and should not be chalked.

He couldn’t afford the photo or the yearbook from Eastern High School in East Baltimore where he did get that diploma, but didn’t walk across the stage: No one to come see him.

He played pool in a pool hall where he met a lab technician whose low-level job at Hopkins gave him time and money for pool and opera and books, who could see Gerson’s mind and where the gambling would land him. He lent him Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. Gerson read that one and every other Hardy wrote. Gerson read The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. He visited the lab technician’s flat on East Baltimore’s Broadway near the lab and not too far from Milton Avenue, the street and neighborhood Hannah dared not venture from, where she was putting briskets in the oven. He heard the notes of Wagner and Beethoven and Chopin, the voice of Enrico Caruso on a gramophone. Reading was his game now. Opera, his obsession.

He wanted to go to Towson State Teachers College and go back to Eastern High to teach literature, to show the drunk how you really chalk the board. He couldn’t afford the 15 cent trolley fare in 1924. He sold shoes, earned five bucks a week and gave two to his mother.

My father didn’t live to see my first book published.

He gave me my first book: Green Mansions by R.H. Hudson with its heroine the sylph, Rima, who he always said I was. This book that I still own is boxed in a black protective folder that sheds, crumbles in my hand when I remove the treasured gift, the book still perfect, that my father gave me when I was a child. I traveled without passport to the erotic and the primitive, to the wilderness and came back changed.

He took the home movie of me in my Davy Crockett buckskin jacket that I wore walking down the tiny stoop of our Grantley Road row house. He took the shot of me while I twirled and that my lover stilled from my father’s yellowed eight-millimeter film and placed inside a frame to give me when I left my corporate job to write.

He is the missing man in the photo of my erotic life. And here’s the proof: My lover has his wit—the circumstances are extenuating, said my father. My steed at the ready, ma'am, says my white knight with no armour. My lover plays Schubert on a baby grand, listens to Chopin and Greig, owns a woofer that he built for the stereo that resounds. My lover reads Saramago and McEwan and McGuane—and everything I write.

The philosophical chestnut asks, If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it … ?

I ask this question, If my father is absent in the family photo, is he missing?