Where I'm Coming From

My Photo
Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Saturday, December 31, 2005


There's only one thing I appreciate about airports and that's the opportunity to people-watch. For hours and hours, while I'm waiting for a late flight, there's nothing to do except stare, as discreetly as I can, and eavesdrop on conversations. (The ethical implications of this are too complex to go into now. So, forgive me world, but you are so fascinating I can't help myself).

Conversation in an airport bathroom stall:

Little Girl: I want to get out.
Mother: Not yet.
Little Girl: Why not?
Mother: Because now it's my turn to go potty.
Little Girl: I want to get out. (The lock rattles.)
Mother: Don't open the door.
Little Girl: Why not?
Mother: Because people will see me sitting on the potty. Would you like people to see you sitting on the potty with your pants down?
Little Girl: I'll go under. (There was a meter or so of empty space under the stall door.)
Mother: No!
Little Girl: Why not?
Mother: Because I don't want you to go out there by yourself.
Little Girl: Why not?
The toilet flushed and the two of them got out.

A tall young man with a yellow plastic band on his wrist read Lance Armstrong's War.

At the baggage claim: A woman with a frizzy perm and a travel pouch around her waist dragged one bag of luggage after another from the conveyor belt, muttering and shaking her head. When she was finished, four huge suitcases flanked her on all sides. She put her hands on her waist and waited. A teenage girl walked towards her holding up a cell phone. "Dad can't come," the girl said. "Son of a bitch," the woman hissed. She lunged at a suitcase and yanked at the plastic handle to extend it so that she could roll the suitcase behind her on its wheels. She broke a nail. She paused for an instant to look at her nail. The she kicked the suitcase, knocked the others over with her knees, sputtering all the time, "The son of a bitch, the son of a bitch." Her daughter picked up two suitcases. The mother snatched the other two. Her hair flew into her mouth; she spat it out and careened towards the exit.

An old Asian woman with a face like a porcelain doll's peered up at the flight information screen. Her outfit was extraordinary: a cream and brown paisley dress, a knit scarf with fringes of gold thread, stockings with thick horizontal cream and brown stripes separated by thin strips of gold, and brown shoes with a leather flower above the pointed toe. She was beautiful and strange, like a great-aunt from a fairy tale.

An ancient-looking man with a protruding lower lip and enormous wire-rimmed glasses read The Warsaw Concerto in a crumbling paperback edition that had a lime-green sticker on the front cover: Read and Return, Chicago Public Library. He dozed off a few times but his grip on the book didn't falter.

-- I want to acknowledge that today is the last day of the year and to say that my hope for the New Year is that I will pay more and closer attention to what's going on around me, be more present and aware and compassionate.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


I travelled to Chicago for the holidays and for the first time in my life I saw, at the O'Hare airport, a woman in full purdah. She was dressed completely in black, with a veil over her face. As I walked behind her I saw the pale soles of her shoes pushing up against the hem of her skirt. She took small but quick, assured steps.

Her husband wore a long beard and on his shoulder, the strap across his chest, was a light blue baby bag, with an applique of a white dog. They had two sons who were squirming impatiently inside a double-seat stroller. The husband pushed the stroller and as he and his wife made the rounds of the food court he talked to her. After a while they stopped in front of McDonalds. My throat constricted with amusement and dismay.

I walked past them, staring, burning with curiosity, trying to catch a glimpse of the woman's eyes. Nothing was visible behind the veil. I wondered how people's faces looked to her from inside of that citadel of black crepe. Naked, cool, vulnerable -- things to avoid or be envious of?

She looked to me like Lazarus coming out of his grave when Jesus called him, like someone who should be dead but isn't. But unlike Lazarus she wasn't able to shed the cloth that encased her body. She looked erased, a faceless moving blot, a spill of black, an accident among the colorful crowd. Not even a glimmer of her eyes was visible; her voice seemed to come out of a void. This nothingness was what frightened and disturbed me most of all; it was a solid nothing, it was a black thick lump of invisible flesh.

I don't think very often about the female body when I consider women's rights. I want women to be seen as equal to men intellectually, to be paid for their work the same as men are, to be allowed political and social freedoms. I forget about the body and the fact that any kind of independence and freedom for women has to begin with their bodies, with being allowed entire possession of them. Nothing is more complete than the obliteration of the body, even when this obliteration comes simply in a black garment.

I realize now that I forgot to look at the woman's hands. Perhaps they were bare. Who knows what I could have seen?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Poem

This one is my own.

Night Out

He's waiting at home this evening with an argument
on the table between his forearms like a plate
between a knife and a fork. She thinks of not going back,
of driving to the nearest Best Western, checking in and
ordering room service, staring out the window as she eats
at the orange sky with obliterated constellations, relieved
that she won't have to wash the dishes, read bedtime stories,
not wrestle over the meaning of picturing herself making love
to another man -- while he rattles on about mortgage payments,
the broken garbage disposal and the cell phone bill.
Just a good night's sleep, someone else for a change to clean
the bathroom, empty the trash, someone else's voice to wake her up
in the morning. Cut off for one night from the life she's built for herself,
brick upon Victorian brick, massive, sturdy, beautiful, but without windows.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Speed Dating

One September afternoon I was sitting at a green metal table outside a coffee shop waiting for a friend. She was late and I passed the time sketching a woman's face in the back of a notebook. A man -- he looked like a college student, wore one of those many-zippered and many-flapped backpacks -- stopped at my table and said, "Wow, that's a nice drawing." I frowned up at him. It wasn't a nice drawing; it was barely a drawing at all. He pulled a chair from a nearby table, sat down and started talking.

He told me the story of his life, that he worked in the software industry besides being a student, and that he wanted to open his own business one day. He said he liked poetry, asked me if I liked poetry too -- no, I lied -- and made the usual moronic (and okay, okay, well-intentioned) comment about how well I spoke English. I was puzzled and frustrated but couldn't help being polite. I didn't know what he was after. I'm not the kind of woman who has moves put on her; I don't even know what the "moves" are, practically speaking.

Well, he was putting the moves on me. That became clear soon enough. To shake him off I told him I had to go grocery shopping. There was a Trader Joe's across from the coffee shop. He said he'd come with me because he had to buy bread. He loved soup in a bread bowl. In the grocery store I darted from one shelf to another, plunged into a group of people to lose him. But he followed me, grinning and hitching up the straps of his backpack. In the vegetable section he asked me to dinner. I'm married, I said. He backed up and lifted his hands, palms towards me. "Oh, well," he said, forcing a smile, and turned on his heels and walked away.

I lingered in the store for a few more minutes to put some distance between me and the guy. I wandered about and turned absent-mindedly on the canned vegetables isle. And there the guy was, talking up another young woman who was trying to pick up a jar of olives of the shelf. "I really like soup in a bread bowl," I overheard him say as I walked by. I waved at him and tried to swallow a peal of laughter. The man lost no time. He must have read some book about how to find love in half an hour or less.

He annoyed me; he was presumptuous and prying, his breath smelled stale, he had no understanding of personal space. But he was also earnest; he mentioned Walt Whitman; he was doing his best. Very few people fit clear-cut categories; very few have simple lives. It's very discomfiting to get a glimpse like that into someone else's messy inner life. But it reminds me that my own inner life is messy too, though in a different way. Willy-nilly, I share in this great strangeness of being human.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Categorical Imperative

The girl, her name was Angela, turned to me, grinning. Her teeth had small black and grey circles of rot at the edges. A swath of black hair covered her right eye. The left, large and green, with a tiny knob of white mucus at the inner corner, glimmered at me. Her elbow brushed mine. I started. I looked back down at the sheet of paper in front of me, stared at the second essay question on the history exam. I knew the answer. I'd written half of it down already. But I couldn't go on. That green eye was pinned on me, entreating.

Angela was my classmate from fourth to sixth grade. She skipped more school days than she attended. When she came to school her uniform smelled musty; the pockets on the blue apron were coming undone at the seams. Her hair was flecked with tiny balls of lint. And her homework was always badly done. She passed from one grade to another, barely, because teachers in Communist Romania were reprimanded if students failed their classes, so they didn't let any but the most incorrigible fail. Angela wasn't one of the bad ones. She smiled a lot. She waited cheerfully to be picked for games during recess. She struggled with her homework, though that was a battle she lost most of the time.

She did nothing more than smile at me during that history exam. She didn't give me any secret signals to help her. But I knew that what she wanted was for me to move my arm a bit away from my exam paper so that she could read a few lines and patch together her own answer. I forced myself not to look at her. I scribbled on, holding my breath when a whiff from her clothes reached my nose. I glanced up at the teacher once; he was sitting at his desk, reading, his glasses low on his nose. He was a handsome man. When he looked up at the class his eyes sparkled, and his hair, blond on the top of his head, white on the sides, bristled. He didn't walk along the rows between desks during exams like other teachers. He said he trusted us. He said what history was supposed to do anyway was teach us what it meant to be an honorable man.

Eventually, towards the end of the hour we were allowed for the exam, I moved my hand enough for Angela to see what I'd written. I felt for a long time after that I'd lost something, not my honor, not in the sense my history teacher meant it. I felt sorry for Angela, though I was afraid of her, of her poverty, of her being an outsider, and most of all I think of her serenity about it. During that history exam I did something I didn't think I was capable of: cheat. It felt deeply wrong, but it also felt inevitable. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken.

I was very troubled by this. I told myself for a long time that I hadn't cheated on purpose, that I'd simply moved my hand -- it could have happened by accident, it could have been a muscle spasm -- and that Angela had the choice of looking at my answer or not. But I'd made a choice too. I'm not sure even now that it was the right one.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Candy Canes

Besides listening to too much NPR, I watch too much Food Network. I love food and cooking; most of all I love finding out how food stuffs are made, from taffy to chocolate confections to chips to twinkies. The other day I stumbled on a show about candy canes. I don't like eating the stuff, but I was entranced by the process of making it.

The confectioner boils corn syrup and sugar together in a copper bowl until the mixture reaches a precise temperature. Then he pours it on a table cooled from below by water and swirls the candy about with a large pallet until it has the consistency of taffy. He adds the peppermint flavor, then splits the batch in two: one portion is for the white spiral in the candy, the other is dyed red. Then the candy has to go on a machine with three rotating prongs in order to have air incorporated into it. The red and white chunks are then put together in the shape of a thick, short log.

In the final step, the log is placed on a sort of trough that keeps the candy warm and thus pliable. The trough also rotates the log so that the red and white parts spiral along one another. At one end of the machine the confectioner pulls at the candy -- the log turns into the shape of a snake, its body thick at one end and skinny at the other -- and lenghtens it until it reaches the right diameter. He rubs his plastic-gloved hand along the log, fluidly and with ease. Then he snips off a length of candy cane that travels on a conveyor belt to the person whose job it is to bend the cane into its familiar shape. This worker has a window of only thirty seconds to do the bending before the candy hardens completely.

What amazes me is that the confectioner in charge of all this served an apprenticeship of six years to learn how to make candy canes. You have to know how to shape the candy without having it stick to your hands; you have to understand chemistry and thermodynamics; you have to have a bit of the artist in you. I was reminded, watching this show, about the craft and attention and imagination that goes into making things I take for granted every day.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Sweet Vanities

The first time I had some money of my own I made an appointment at a beauty salon. A European facial, an hour long, cost one hundred and twenty dollars. An exorbitant sum for me, especially to spend on a facial; I'm rather niggardly when it comes to such luxuries. But I was ready to spend it.

I have a sentimental attachment to beauty salons. When I was young, in Romania, my mother used to go to the beauty salon once a month for a facial and waxing. She had her eyebrows plucked and her eyelashes dyed black. I sat on a bench in the back of the salon, and watched her. She had only her bra on -- her blouse was folded neatly on my lap and gave off a gentle whiff of the smell of her skin -- and a towel draped over her shoulders. She lay on the white bed with damp cotton under her eyes and shiny black paste smeared on the arch of her eyebrows and her eyelashes. The beautician, in a white smock, leaned over her. She and my mother gossiped as my mother's hair absorbed the dye. The beautician's name was Felicia; my mother went to her for many years. She had red hair and dimples in her cheeks. Her son always had girl trouble. I secretly wished to marry him.

I loved the smell of that place: the chamomile smell of the steam puffing out from the machine where you stuck your face to open your pores; the burnt, honey smell of the wax; the pungent dyes and nail polish; the starched odor of clean linen. It was always warm in there too, and the chatter and laughter of women floated around my head like soap bubbles, glossy and beautiful and fragile. I was impatient to grow up and be a part of all that, have my own funny and tragic stories to tell about sons and husbands and fathers and lovers.

I got only one facial done at my mother's beauty salon before we came to America. And I promised myself to go regularly in America too, to form the same kinds of friendship that my mother had. Well, it turned out to be very different. It turned out that we hardly had enough money for necessities, let alone visits to the beauty salon. But I kept the faith. And when I got my first job I scheduled an appointment at a beauty salon with an Italian name. I was girlishly excited about it.

The beautician who gave me the facial was a beautiful woman, with the bluest eyes I've ever seen. But she was curt, her hands heavy on my face; and she sold me more than one hundred dollars' worth of lotions and potions. I, like the nice and stupid girl I am, bought everything. I got home with my face burning red and a bagful of products I felt ashamed of owning. I didn't go back to that salon, or to any other salon, again.

When I get homesick I sometimes ask my mother to tell me about her friends in Romania, the kinds of stories she remembers they told each other when they were at the beauty salon. "Oh I don't know," she says and lights her cigarette. But I see a glimmer in her eyes as she changes the subject, a sign that she still knows well enough.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Real Estate

My parents are obsessed with real estate. If they're driving somewhere on a Sunday afternoon and notice an "open house" sign at the side of the road, they take a detour to see it. Sometimes the signs are messed up and they get lost. But they don't give up. They drive five miles an hour, eyes peeled, until they find what they're looking for. They collect information sheets and argue about the benefits of buying a new house versus a fixer-upper.

This obsession baffles me. My parents talk constantly about selling their house and moving into another. We immigrated from Romania ten years ago and during our first seven years in America we moved every year or six months. It got to the point where we didn't even unpack half of our boxes; there was no point. I felt like a nomad. I got a sick feeling in my stomach when it was time to empty the closets and the kitchen cabinets, hire the cheapest U-Haul truck and drag the fridge and the couch yet again into the truck's echoing metallic belly.

We moved in Romania a lot too, from small apartments to large ones then to a beautiful house with a flower and vegetable garden and huge parqueted rooms with high ceilings. There was a floor to ceiling wood-burning stove covered in maroon glazed tiles in a corner of my sister's and my bedroom. I loved that house. It had a bathroom with a deep, old-fashioned tub, pink-and-mauve tiles, and two doors. You had to remember to lock both doors when you were in there or a guest could just bust in on you and catch you with your panties around your ankles.

But new beginnings are very tempting -- a clean white sheet to write another version of your life on. I suppose that's why my parents talk so much about buying a new house. Then selling that one and moving into another. It's a way to distract yourself from what's going on at the center of your life, things that are too painful to look at closely. You can pretend that you're leaving these painful things behind in the old house, with the dirty carpets and the drippy faucets and the stains on the walls. You can pretend that the fresh coat of paint in the new house is a tabula rasa, that by the exchange of money and the signing of papers you've been turned into an innocent who can start life anew.

Being an itinerant seems to be a fundamental part of the American experience. It's the spirit of the Puritan pilgrim whose house cannot be found here on this earth. There's great freedom in this rootlessness, and it's exhilarating. But it has often weighed on me. I feel lost without a sense of place. I don't live with my family any more and have moved only once in the past four years -- a record of sorts -- but I still feel like a woman without a country. I don't feel connected to the place where I live, to its history. There's no history here, it seems, no sense of the past.

So perhaps there's something else my parents are looking for; perhaps they're moving towards something rather than just away from their past. They want to find a place where they feel at home. I don't know that they can find it, though, not on Rolling Brook Lane or Paseo de las Palomas or Whispering Wind Circle up on a hill in northern Orange County. The only real estate an immigrant can lay claim to with any kind of honesty and any kind of hope is his own body and mind. That's the only place left, I think, where you can feel at home.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

From the Dark I Call Out To You

I read until midnight last night and before I turned off the light to go to sleep I remembered that at 12:01 a.m. a man was scheduled to be executed at the San Quentin State Prison. I read the news this morning and found out that indeed he had been executed. (Dostoyevsky experienced a last minute exoneration; he stood in front of the firing squad, blindfolded, when he was pardoned. I suppose I hope for this every time I hear about a scheduled execution.) The man died at 12:35 a.m. There was trouble inserting the needle to administer the lethal injection, and the execution took longer than expected.

Now I have this picture in my mind, of the man lying on a gurney, his arms pinned to arm rests, the insides of his elbows exposed, the veins bulging out slightly. There are people milling around him; he can hear the clatter of vials, the muttering of instructions he doesn't want to understand. His eyes are closed; after the prick of the needle he will sink into sleep like a rock to the bottom of a lake. Instead he stays awake, and feet shuffle, and the needle doesn't want to go in. He opens his eyes. He's practiced patience, calm, resignation, serenity. But he curses. The men milling around him stare at the man. He stares back. If God exists, I want to see his face at this moment, I want to see his face watching these men in this execution room, fumbling about with life and death.

The man who's being executed has killed four people in order to steal a couple hundred dollars. He founded a gang. In prison he repented, wrote children's books, spoke against gang violence. Friends of his clamored to nominate him for a Nobel peace prize. He deserves capital punishment. He doesn't deserve capital punishment. These things all seem irrelevant, deep down. What haunts me is that scene in the execution room, the imperfection of each person in that room, the unsteady fingers, the confusion.

What needs to be done is done in the end. Roles are played out, items crossed off lists. The man is declared dead. People go home, go back to living their lives, doing the best they can. Still no one knows what the hell it all means. We grope about, doing good things, doing bad things. And God watches on, I imagine, as puzzled as everyone else.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Here's a translation I made of a poem by George Bacovia (1881-1957), one of my favorite Romanian poets. He writes about death and decay, about rainy autumn afternoons and tubercular children, about depression and nothingness. I love the music of his poems.


The leaden coffins lay in heavy sleep,
With rigid palls and leaden flowers draped --
I stood alone entombed... and quick winds crept
Within the leaden wreaths and made them creak.

On leaden flowers slept my leaden love
With face upturned; I shouted out its name --
The crypt was cold... and I stood still, alone,
Next to the dead whose lead wings hung above.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Lighted Windows

The other night I was taking out the trash and saw, in a lighted window, a couple dancing. I couldn't hear the music. From a neighboring house came the sound of someone practicing the drums. I stopped, the trashbag handles cutting into my hand, and watched the couple. They were middle aged, the man dressed in a white shirt and dark sweater, the woman in light grey. They were looking straight at each other, smiling. The man clasped the woman's hand at shoulder height. I thought I saw the glimmer of a wedding ring. On a wall there was blue and white painting of a ship's anchor.

I have to admit, I'm a peeping Tom. I can't resist stopping for a moment in front of a lighted window. I like to look at the color of people's wall paint, their furniture, the art on the walls, at how many magnets they have on their fridge door. I like to watch what people do cocooned in that warm yellow light when they think no one is watching. Most often than not they take food out of the fridge or watch tv or sit around the dinner table eating and drinking and talking. Once I saw an old man exercising on one of those torturous-looking machines. Another time no people, just a four-post bed with baseball caps hanging atop each post. Or a bright red door in a cream-colored wall, like the entrance to some magical place. Ordinary things, and the quiet, almost boring rhythms of everyday life. And yet they fascinate me. Because even the smallest and careless of gestures, even the most ordinary of things, betray something about one's deepest self.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Chaos and Beauty

So, there's a dvd out there called The Zen of Screaming. It's for punk and metal singers who want to learn how to scream without shredding their vocal cords. You can get pustules on your vocal cords from screaming and end up losing your voice.

Melissa Cross, the vocals instructor who put out the dvd, gave an interview on Terri Gross's Fresh Air. (I listen to a lot of NPR. I'm slightly embarrassed by how much.) Melissa Cross is fascinating. She trained to become an opera singer. Then she went to London and was drawn to punk music. She was in a punk band for a while and ruined her vocal cords by screaming on stage "the wrong way." Apparently there is another set of vocal cords higher in the throat than the "regular" vocal cords that we all know about. These other cords are sort of unfinished, she said, as if God, or evolution, or whoever created us, started work on them and then abandoned them and descended lower in the throat to finish the job. I like very much the idea that we are made, physically, of approximations, of tissues and organs that are not perfect but manage somehow to sustain these miracles of breath and speech and motion and digestion and thought that we all are.

But I love even more the idea of a zen of screaming. It reminds me of chaos theory, which contends that if you look closely enough into what appears to be in utter disorder you will find patterns of a strange but great beauty. I think about this a lot because I started listening to Metallica (I watched the documentary about the band, Some Kind of Monster, and was intrigued and curious), and I didn't understand why some songs that were loud, chaotic, abrasive, moved me. I tried listening to Smashing Pumpkins too, with the same effect. A strange peace settled in my head and my chest in the middle of ear-piercing songs. There's an element of catharsis in the loudness for sure, but that doesn't explain completely what I feel when I listen to these bands.

I used to dismiss this kind of music as the mad bawling of people on drugs. But it takes an artist to stay in those impossible realms of sound and distill from them something unexpectedly coherent and strangely beautiful. I have to admit I can take this kind of music only in very small doses, only when I'm in the right mood. But it restores me in a way that nothing else can.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Candle and An Orange

One of my favorite places in the city where I was born and lived until I came to America is the cemetery. It's located on Army street. It has wrought iron gates guarded by a porter. On the sidewalk old women sell carnations and chrysanthemums and gladiolas from tin buckets and yellow candles that break in two as soon as you've paid for them.

I was never afraid in the cemetery. In the late afternoon, when my family visited my great-grandmother's grave, the light was so beautiful. Lit candles stuck in the dirt on the graves flickered against marble headstones and bouquets of flowers. My parents got out their gardening tools and weeded my great-grandmother's grave. In Romania graves rise above ground, their walls about a meter tall and wide enough to sit on. Sometimes a slab of stone or marble covers the walls, sometimes there's simply earth. My mother has brought a bottle of wine and lemon sours, my great-grandmother's favorite candy. She spills some wine on the earth and buries a lemon sour in a corner of the grave. We eat the rest.

It is utterly peaceful. Stone angels rise up from some head stones. If you hear anything it's the rustle of leaves or newspaper from which flowers are being unwrapped, a soft crying, a chant that has escaped from the cemetery chapel. I have such a strong feeling that this is a place of rest.

My grandmother, Veronica, died when I was seven. Not long after that it occurred to me, one night before I fell asleep, that I was going to die too. I was terrified. Not of my body and what was going to happen to it, but of the nothing that would be in place of what I was at that moment, in place of the thoughts I was thinking at that moment. I didn't grow up with any idea of hell or heaven; my parents weren't religious. What terrified me wasn't eternal punishment but finding myself in the black immensity of outer space, all alone in the dark. Me, the sky full of stars, and nothing else. I still think that's where I'll end up. I just don't think I'll know that I'm there.

Next time I visit great-grandmother's grave I think I'll take her an orange. She used to hide oranges in her shoes at Christmas time, to eat alone after everyone had gone to sleep.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Piece of Cake, A Piece of Mind

My grandmother throws her hands in the air. Her skin is sunburnt, her finger joints knobbly from arthritis. "No," she yells at my mother, "I can't think of anything." Her dentures slip a little off her gums. She bites down. "I can't think of anything," she goes on, "that you or your brother ever did right all your lives."

We're sitting at the dining table eating Dobos torte and drinking coffee. I baked the Dobos torte, my mother's favorite dessert. I'm trying to be a good daughter. I'm not a good daughter in what really matters: I write instead of holding a steady, paying job and raising 2.6 children. So I do little things to compensate, like baking elaborate cakes. "She could be a pastry chef," my mother says, grinning at me. An exaggeration, but she has to compensate too for her disappointment in me. I'm not leading the life that she and my father have dreamed that I would have. This breaks my heart. And it also makes me angry. I don't want to carry this burden. I wish my parents said something to me that would make the burden fall off my shoulders. I blame them for not saying it. I blame them for feeling disappointed.

It doesn't occur to me, until my grandmother picks up her fork again to finish her slice of Dobos torte, her face flushed, her eyeglasses sliding down the sweaty bridge of her nose, that my mother is also a daughter. That she lives with the same burden, the same guilt, that I do.

I can't look at my mother and I can't eat any more. I say, to distract myself, "Grandma, why don't you give me your recipe for doughnuts?" She looks up briskly. She waits until I take my pen and notebook out of my purse. A kilo of flour, she begins, but you have to take out a couple of fistfuls. I scribble quantities and rising times in crooked lines on the blank notebook page. My hand shakes; I make mistakes; I scratch them out messily.

My mother cuts herself another slice of cake.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What the Party Can Do For You

The first poem I ever wrote was about the Communist Party. I was in second grade. Because of the compositions I wrote for literature class -- laden with similes and metaphors stolen from the books I was reading -- my teacher thought I had a way with words. So he asked me one day if I wrote poems. I said yes, although I never had before. That night, after I finished my homework, I scribbled down two stanzas about the glorious Communist party that took care of me and all the children in our country. It rhymed! I was so proud of it. I fell asleep reciting the poem in my head again and again. I showed it to my teacher in the morning. He smiled. And he told me to write more.

I tell myself -- insistently, stubbornly -- that growing up under a totalitarian regime didn't affect me much. I had a regular childhood, I say. The usual tribulations of school, a younger and much more beautiful and popular sister with whom I didn't get along, books instead of friends, a father whom I worshipped because he understood my love of reading, a mother who out of passionate but blind love chided me for eating too much. But then I remember the summer when the president planned a visit to our city and children from all the schools in the county practiced marching in formation and chanting "Ceausescu and the people! Ceausescu and the children!" while twirling ribbons with red, yellow and blue stripes, the colors of the Romanian flag. We practiced for months on soccer fields under a blistering sun. Some children fainted from the heat. My sister was one of them.

I was sturdier. But also more permeable. I absorbed the propaganda like a sponge. I copied down rhymes from Communist poems and songs in the rhyming dictionary that my father suggested I start putting together if I wanted to be a poet. The red flag with the yellow sickle and hammer was a powerful symbol for me. I can't say a symbol of what. But I was moved by it. I listened to Ceausescu's speeches on television and discussed with my father what the "new man" was that Communism was trying to create. I was earnest; I was driven by intellectual curiosity, by pride.

This is deeply disturbing to me now. I can't shake off my mortification for being taken in by party propaganda, no matter that I was young, no matter that I grew out of that naivety. I was swallowed for a while in the great belly of the Communist party machinery, burned by its digestive juices. When I applied to become a U.S. citizen I had to answer the question if I had ever been a member of the Communist party. I checked the no box. Literally, that's true. But that doesn't exonerate me. I just can't forget that poem I wrote in second grade. I don't remember the words any more. But the poem still lives in me, in a dark corner, empty but indestructible, like a ghost.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

God and Peacocks

I would have loved to have Flannery O'Connor as my aunt. In the summers I'd have spent a month or two on her farm. In the morning, before breakfast, I'd have watched from the guest bedroom window (well-scrubbed panes, clear as water) her forty peacocks sit on fence posts askew with their weight. I'd have watched them eat chrysanthemums and roses and the figs off the fig tree. Flannery's mother would come out with a broom in her hand and chase them out of the flower beds. I'd smile and listen for the click of the typewriter in the next room.

On a weekday, I'd wash my face in a porcelain basin with a pattern of brick-red geraniums on it. Go to the kitchen where the tray for Flannery would be on the table, a soft-boiled egg and a cup of coffee. I'd take the tray to Flannery's room, knocking on the door fearfully, because no matter how many times she jokes with me, no matter how many times I see her feed and clean after her birds and hear her talk to the neighbors, I know that there's something secret and miraculous going on behind the door of her room. Those typed pages that she doesn't let me read because I'm too young. I leave the breakfast tray on the doorstep. These are the rules: knock then step away. Often I hide and wait for her to come out. She's still in her night gown, her hair wild, her lips pressed together. I think I hear the eggshell crack inside her room. It sounds like a typewriter key being struck.

On Sundays we go to mass and Flannery walks up to the communion rail without crutches; she doesn't need them yet. She eats God and returns to the pews with the lipstick smeared a bit off her lips. She looks dishevelled, ravaged. She clasps my hand. It's not an intimate gesture; she simply needs support. On the ride back home her uncle drives down dusty roads, and I sweat in the back seat, I sweat harder than everyone else in the car because I've made up my mind to show Flannery a story I've written about her peacocks. In my story her peacocks talk. They want to take a trip to Florida.

She doesn't say much about my story. After she reads it, she sets the sheets of paper on her lap, over her apron. There's a peach in each of her apron's pockets. She takes one out and gives it to me. "I enjoyed it," she says. She doesn't give me back the sheets. The peacocks trot about in the shade of the fig trees. "But they have the last word," she says, nodding at the birds. We laugh.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Vampires, Gymnasts and Other Domestic Animals

The problem is I can't write about my country (Romania) or my city (Oradea, in northwestern Transylvania, right at the border with Hungary) without a feeling of embarrassment. I have to plow my way mentally through questions about Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula, and Nadia Comaneci, the (need I say) exceptional gymnast. I've been asked these questions so many times that I've internalized them and started to think of myself as a former inhabitant of country with two types of citizens, vampires and gymnasts.

Well, a vampire I'm not. I once joked with a classmate in my Intro to College Writing class back in community college, that we Romanians drink goblets of blood on full moon nights. My classmate gave me a look of pure horror. I laugh at this now, but the truth is that back then I felt a bit nervous. I did eat blood though, cooked, inside a sausage. Well, blood isn't all that it's cracked up to be. It always gave me horrible indigestion. (I've since become a vegetarian and am attempting now to be a vegan.)

A gymnast I'm not either. I was one of those kids who tripped over her own feet and barely passed physical education class (a grade of five out of ten, consistently from grade to high school). I couldn't run, couldn't jump, couldn't finish up the simplest of gymnastics routines. (No, being good at gymnastics isn't in Romanian genes.) I was terrified to the point of nausea by the pommel horse. My parents signed me up for a gymnastics class at the sports club in our city. I went twice, wore a navy blue polyester suit that was too tight around my thighs, then was thrown out because I wouldn't walk on the balance beam, and anyway I was too fat. (I've since started practicing yoga and am now able to do a few pushups and stand on my head.)

So -- what's there left for me to be? Something that's recognizable as Romanian to people in these United States? Come to think of it, I don't even know what in me is Romanian, what goes in that basket and what in the American one. It's all jumbled together into this thing that's me, for better or worse one of a kind, who has a love-hate relationship with her accent (it's like the mark on Cain), with both her Romanian and American selves.

I like to think of my country as the books I read (latest obsession: novels about India under British rule), the music I listen to (Fiona Apple and Keane and The Canadian Brass Ensemble, lately), the food I eat (cabbage rolls, vegan version, as well as veggie burgers).

Awfully messy. But that's me.