Deep within the galleries of the Metropolitan, a glass wall case barely contains the wild form of a racehorse. Veiny grooves mark the horse’s flank and haunches, its powerful shoulders, crest, the forelock of its mane. The tail extends like a petticoat train in its cantering wake. Head high, the horse is poised, proud.
Perhaps even more than his dancers, more than his nude women bathing, horses captured the heart of Edgar Degas. Yet they all shared similar traits—in their ephemeral postures, in their show jumps and pliés, in the strength and energy of their legs cast in bronze. I peer in close. All four of the horse’s hooves are suspended in midair.
Degas’s bronze is polished, near black. The light catches the horse’s muscular limbs, like white wax on obsidian, the patent leather shoes I wore as a girl in the city, or the riding boots I packed when we traveled west to Grandfather’s ranch. Christmas in Arizona rarely brought snow. The desert floor left a coat of dust on my rubber soles.
In the mornings I helped Grandfather in the tack shed. The straw-scented air from the paddock mingled with the damp, industrial interior that sheltered old oil drums, mud-caked basins, ropes, harnesses, thrush ointments, and salve. I followed as he worked, measuring feed buckets, dragging water to the trough, grooming the remaining mares as their black marble eyes and mahogany bay coats shimmered in the sun.
I read in the newspapers that the wild mustangs are on the run again. Nearly thirty thousand horses still roam the open range. Each fall the papers grapple to tell the story of the annual rundown and removal of horses from public grazing lands. Decades since Congress passed the Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971, prohibiting the capture of wild horses by machine for commercial sale, the New York Times described the latest roundup as “horse versus helicopter here in the high desert.” Each year the occasion stirs controversy and I find myself, a world away, awaiting the whinny and squeal of the Manhattan-bound #1 train on my way to work at the museum, enmeshed in following the debate. For every advocate that warns of the damage—foals separated from their mothers, yearlings caught in the stampede—a straight-talking rancher heralds the old days of feral pursuit, when “a cowboy really wasn’t a cowboy if you didn’t rope a wild horse.” The horses no longer vie against lasso-wielding cowboys and Indians; the Bureau of Land Management and its band of modern ranchers run down the horses with low-flying helicopters into makeshift corrals. Degas may have captured his racehorse in trot, but what of a wild-blooded mustang on the run?
Bronze bears no witness to a horse’s speed. Whether by breeding or birthright, a horse is a runner, surrendering only to the curl and surge of its legs, to its hooves drumming the ground like thunder, to its mane fanning as it leans into each turn. I imagine the uneven terrain as a mere notion beneath their hooves, the same way the cracks in the concrete had no impact on me as I skipped down city streets; of no consequence were the tar pebbles and schist that got caught in my worn tennis shoes when I ran.
Out west, we sprinted like thoroughbreds. Equus caballus. Born of the same pedigree, my older brother and I were three years apart and an uneven match as we raced the dirt roads of my grandfather’s Tucson ranch. I trailed, breathless. The warmth rose in my legs; my pulse quickened. My feet propelled me down the straight toward Grandfather’s angled figure, his blue jeans pale with the dust of my brother’s victory. But there he was, still palming his Stetson, its buckle gleaming as he swept his arm, waving me to the finish. A deep “whoa, whoa” sounded from his chest as I came to a stop in his arms. Leaning against his hip, my legs tingled—a slow sequence toward stillness—with each recaptured breath.
In 1878, Eadwaerd Muybridge—pioneer of the moving image—shot a series of photographs at the racetracks in Palo Alto, California. The images, Horse in Motion, revealed for the first time that there is a moment during a horse’s trot when all four hooves simultaneously leave the ground. The previously unobserved phenomenon caused a sensation. Muybridge toured Europe with his signature biunial lantern slides to present his sequence, which proved that artists, by depicting at least one hoof on the ground, had been misrepresenting the true movement of horses for ages.
Degas’s horse is true to life. The artist frequented the Longchamp Racecourse in Paris to observe the racing breeds. He studied Muybridge’s photographs and, by placing a supporting post beneath the horse’s abdomen, molded each leg faithfully aloft. Horse Trotting, Feet Not Touching Ground is sleek, agile. But it is not on the run. Notice the upright neck and slightly gapped muzzle. Notice the stately curve from the crest to the loins and hindquarters, between the shoulders and breast—ribs open, posture squared, well trained, rehearsed. Degas has mastered a refined, elegant trot.
In the museum, a girl enters the gallery where I linger after a lunch break. She scans the collection in a nearby wall case—Horse Balking, Horse Rearing, Horse at Trough—and then turns suddenly and increases her clip toward the adjacent gallery where a bronze dancer stands poised. Tiptoeing around the base, the girl peers up at the statuette fashioned with a corset and crinoline skirt. The statue’s braided hair, cast in wax from a horsehair wig, is held by a bow of white satin. The dancer’s legs support the upright carriage of her stance—fourth position, is it?—her right leg extending forward to present the inner line of her slippered foot while her left remains grounded. From behind, one can see her arms are locked close along the curve of her torso; her hands are cupped a derrière.
The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer is modeled after the young ballerina Marie van Goethem, who became Degas’s signature model and muse for his scrutiny of the female form in motion. Her figure, and those of several smaller dancers exhibited nearby, reveals the nuances of youth with subtle majesty—the soft tension between a prepubescent slouch and a choreographed style. Notice the Dancer Putting On Her Stocking, or another, Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot, their nascent curiosity and preoccupation, the truth of their form—over their loveliness—revealing grace. From a distance, I can see that the bronze of the dancer’s skin is tinted lighter than the trotting horse before me, more brown than black, like an equine coat of chestnut or roan, like the Sonoran sands after a heavy rain.
At dusk, my grandfather and I walked away from the white adobe ranch house, along the back acres of his land. I skipped alongside him, keeping pace in the lines of his Bill Hickok shadow, which lay like a paper doll against the ground. And I, his devoted Calamity Jane. After a while, he stopped to square his legs and shoulders, as I grabbed his arms and stepped onto his boot tops. There, we waltzed. His white hair feathered around his head; his Buddy Holly glasses slid down his nose as he laughed. He smelled of pipe tobacco, hay bales, leather, and liniment—far from the cufflinks and fresh-laundered lapels he might have worn to white-tie affairs after he married my grandmother and settled back east. We danced until dark, his spurs scrawling arabesques in the dust, my feet safely elevated atop his. I could have been Marie van Goethem herself. The young dancer’s head tilts upward. In the museum, as I stand before her, my own neck cranes. The statuette’s eyes appear half-closed, as if wishing, or remembering, or searching to find her pose—like a rider feeling for balance on a saddle or a child seeking treasures of the past.
It’s funny really, all this talk of horses. I was hardly the vision of a girl one might imagine on a horse: blue eyes and tight ponytail, beige riders and good posture. Nor was I the plaid-shirted cowgirl type with authentic chaps and true-buckle riding boots. With my blonde nappy curls and hand-me-downs, I may have been more akin to a horse than a rider. Born of a black father and white mother whose marriage in 1976 (nearly a decade after Loving v. Virginia struck down laws opposing interracial marriage) never really garnered approval from the families, each camp fearing how hard it might be for the children.
Before dark, my brother and I marked “X” in the grainy desert soils. Kneeling in the rocky arroyo, we staked our claim in the prospect of fool’s gold and muscovite to add to the growing museum of specimens we brought back to the city: flint arrowheads and fossil shells, horseshoes and snake skins, a handful of sharks’ teeth buffed and blackened from the Gulf Coast of Mexico. We collected what we could. Back home, we became the curators, turning the windowsills of our bedroom into showcases, testimonies of a land otherwise odd and foreign to us “city kids.” And what we couldn’t bring back I recorded in the archives of memory: Grandfather’s dalmatian prancing among the horses; a gestating mare bedding down in straw; the first steps of a newborn foal, gray-moistened with life, eager to unfold its legs, to stand, wobble, run. This became our gallery, evidence of the expanse of life and what it meant to dream.
Degas had his evidence. He learned about movement from the sequential photographs of Muybridge, the world-class racing breeds at Longchamp, and van Goethem and her classmates at L’École de Danse of the Paris Opera. Degas molded his horses with the same painstaking observation as he did his female figures: a galloping stride captured with equal scrutiny as a woman’s step from a bath or a ballerina’s pointe work. In the same way Muybridge revealed the nature of human and animal locomotion—a Horse and Rider Galloping, a Woman Opening a Parasol, Man and Woman Dancing a Waltz—Degas revealed the common repertoire of movement, of finesse.
Perhaps that is why children seem to appreciate the Degas galleries. They filter in and out with wide eyes, parents somewhere in tow, or enter with the brisk run-walk of field trip excitement. They peer at the pastel canvases of dancers stretching at the barre, or the bronze statuettes midpirouette. The girls finger-brush their hair and retie their ponytails, mimicking the footwork. One girl demonstrates a pas-de-bourrée shift to demi-plié. The museum’s wood floor creaks beneath her. Another presses close against the wall case to better see the horses. She shimmies her shoulders, and I hear a faint “neigh” escape her pouty lips. I wonder what she sees, what world inhabits Degas’s racehorse, what fate awaits her memories. Her fingers and nose leave breathy smudges that slowly vanish from the glass.
Much of what we know is emblematic: the glory of the West, the icon of a wild horse. Most of what we see is representation: the aesthetic of a captured pose, the inner compositions of how and why we remember. But some things we know because they are part of us: the long limbs and piano fingers I inherited from my grandfather, his high-arched feet and his curiosity, too. And some things we only know by observing: sequential images, dominant traits, language used to classify, shape, and mold.
For my grandfather’s part, it was a simple choice to live in the Sonora—to “go west” as he did—from the valleys of Pennsylvania to the Arizona plains where, in the late 1930s, he worked his way through college. And there, by chance, he met my grandmother, the fair-skinned, blonde-bobbed young woman on an English saddle, who was traveling on a sorority vacation. Grandfather rescued her from a runaway horse. I’ve imagined the story more than once: a harem of Bettys and Dorothys touring the desert on horseback, when one takes off from the caravan. Did my grandmother will her horse to gallop, or did it take off beneath her? Did Grandfather feel his horse’s hooves aloft as he followed in pursuit? The two of them later settled back east, but they always plotted to retire, as they did in the mid-1970s, on the same land where they first surveyed their courtship.
I, too, moved west for college, and then for a while I just kept going: West to Southwest, Central America, and eventually Europe, moving between the backcountry and the boroughs, and always returning to New York. I sometimes wonder to what extent I was still running in search of the thrill I felt twirling atop my grandfather’s boots or racing toward a mirage.
We never know how much we inherit from the past. How far did the early stagecoaches travel to stake claims on new land? How far did Degas voyage through the Parisian racetracks and ballet theaters to capture his forms? How far ahead did my grandfather plan to escape the domestic landscape of the suburbs and cities, to return to his unfettered freedom?
Few sights compare to that of a wild mustang. Equus ferus. First introduced to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors, many of the feral horse breeds left free on the range descended from cavalry horses once bred for their size and strength. Grandfather, docent of my curiosity, taught me of the wild horses—los mesteños, the stray, the “ownerless”—of what they teach us about resilience and grace. For those he owned on the ranch—retired quarter horses and show breeds—we rehearsed every act of their care: testing the water temperature, tasting the feed. We sampled the liniment, too, used to cool the horses in the Tucson heat. I watched him as he rubbed it into his own skin. “Whatever is good enough for the horses” was good enough for him. So I tried it too, massaging a dab on my knees and ankles, kneading the thin muscles along my shins. The balm tingled and burned. My skin felt like ice (not just cold, but colorless), polished, sleek. I almost believed that we could feel what the horses felt, that our legs could know what their legs knew: about the difference between a trot and a run, between mere movement and dancing—that freedom is different from flight.
And maybe we are among those untamed and unclassified, neither domestic nor wild—half-breeds given just enough training in the world to watch our backs in the city before we are let free to live and graze with abandon, forming our own names for things that exist between extremes (neither the saddle nor the shoe, wax nor the obsidian).
Sometimes I think that as long as the horses are left free to roam, memory, too, may exist unbound. Yet each fall bands of mustangs are corralled into holding pens. Of those that survive the stampedes, some will be trapped and tamed, preserved as keepsakes or insignia, like the cast of an infant’s shoe enclosed in a museum vitrine. Some will be broken and trained like a ballerina forced to shed her youth. But some will run like the racehorses of Longchamp, like a runaway stallion courting romance, and escape to another year, trotting, until the day their feet touch ground.
Carassius auratus auratus
BRONX, NEW YORK
Dinner had just ended and the dishes were stacked in the sink, all except mine. My plate lay before me, empty but for a damp pile of spinach, which I spun in slow spirals with my fork. My eyes paced between the remains of my meal and my father, who watched with a look of silent forbearance, just waiting for me to learn something. Why not the sweetness of corn, I wanted to know, or the lush bite of carrots?—Carrots, of which Cézanne once said, when “freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”
It couldn’t have been long before the cat came in, but I imagine my attention turned eagerly from the dinner table stalemate to delight in the precious distraction of a new presence in the room: tawny coat, white underbelly, all his familiar softness, postured and prideful. I don’t know how long it took for us to realize something was amiss, to register the fiery iridescence of his eyes, the wet fur around his paws, the odd incongruity that hung from his mouth—something more brightly orange than he: a boiled carrot, a wedge of clementine, a crescent of cantaloupe.
But in fact, it was my goldfish that the cat dropped like an offering before us: the wet squish of its body falling to the floor, the splat as it landed, a flash of orange light, limp and lustrous against the white linoleum tile floor. And then the world spiraled into action—
My father, with the one-armed gesture of a swinging Indiana Jones, shooed the cat, scooped up the fish, and motioned to my brother, spritely sidekick, who trailed just a step behind as they disappeared from the kitchen, which had morphed into its own Temple of Doom. Even the overcooked spinach, which had grown cold, turned to a sort of algae on the sea of my plate.
On the floor a thimble-sized splash of pale orange pooled like water-color. Somewhere beside me I heard the word honey and recognized my mother’s careful voice, trying to soothe, trying to decipher the depth of a child’s pain. Honey? And I now know it was less a question than an address, not honey as nurtured by bees, but “honey” as in a mother’s endearment. But now it is the lasting image of my first bout of grief: the smear left on the tiled floor, part water, part blood, part pearly pulp and scales. If orange were to leave a footprint it would be not juice or nectar but honey. Not so easily wiped away, but thick and lingering, as sweet as it is sticky—
Like Cézanne’s carrots, it is not so much about revolution, but about the intricate grace of still life. Not the orange of pet goldfish but the orange crush of first love. Not O’Hara’s ORANGES, which turned out to be twelve poems, or prose. In the same way, Goldberg’s SARDINES became mingling letters and then a sea of white paint. Or now, because time gessoes the deepest wounds, it is not the goldfish but the linoleum that I see, just the white gleaming tile. Just a small dab of honey.
Later that night, the floor wiped clean, my spinach tossed with the rest of the dinner scraps, we flushed the goldfish down the toilet. All of the family gathered around. I’d like to say that I held the cat in my arms, too, that I had invited him to the service. But it would be weeks of snubbing his purr before I buried my grudge and nuzzled into his warm spots again. My loyal cat, after all, had opened the door to the white space of loss. What injustice! What cruel betrayal! For weeks I would think about heaven, try to imagine it, a faraway room at the end of a tunnel, a porcelain chamber or small empty bowl in the basement of the heart where my goldfish went to rest, joining countless schools and long-lost cousins—
My goldfish, which I ran home to every day to finger flakes of feed over its underwater city of plastic castles and sea ferns and pebbled sand.
I peered into its bowl like a landlocked ingénue pining wrist-deep into its tank, trying to stroke the slippery surface of my small bright ruler, to touch what’s close enough to touch but never close enough to hold, in the playground, in the kingdom of deathly fragile dreams—how terrible orange is, and life!
I wonder, if there were fewer goldfish, would our hearts not suffer so early through lessons of delicacy and scale? Like an unwatered gill—that mere incision’s worth of air—we are as powerless against loss as a goldfish against an eager-to-please housecat.
But then I think that maybe the cat loved the goldfish as much as I did, so much that he wanted to eat her. I myself had wanted to take a spoonful of the kitty, inhale his velvety coat, and nibble his paws. I’ve since wanted to consume lovers in this way, gnaw on their skin, ingest their bodies, pull them deep inside. But such is lust, not love.
In love we swallow the impulse to devour. We convey affection through gesture and language instead. Similarly, we learn to swallow hatred as if it were a forkful of overcooked greens. It is the swallowing that dignifies compassion. It is the honey that coats the tongue and throat. It is the honey that offers a little sweetness even as it pierces the impeccable royalty of youth. Why not wage a revolution in orange? Why not drip honey along the shallow creases of our gills? Why not invite the greatest persecutors of the heart to the funerals of our friends, and breathe again, through the paper cut of longing?
Truth is a burning guitar.
I. The Hammer Song
When I was a girl, barely five years old, my father and I held regular recording sessions. In my father’s cluttered study I rattled off folk songs and nursery rhymes into a microphone as he played on his classical guitar. A pair of headphones dipped slightly into his Afro and, eyes squinted in concentration, he checked the sound levels on the cassette recorder. Saturday mornings during the fall of ’86 were marked by the sound of our indulgence—a blend of high-pitched vocals and acoustic guitar that filled our Bronx apartment.
In the morning, I’d lean over the back of the couch, prop my elbows on the sill of the living room window, and watch the neighborhood stir: the patterns cast on the sidewalk as the morning light changed, the odd habits of our neighbors when they thought they were alone. I watched them closely, as if they were characters in a silent film beyond the window, adding my own narrative, humming the soundtrack.
I’d see one of the neighbors in the front courtyard having just returned from walking her fierce-eyed German shepherd. Her cheeks caked in rouge, the tail end of her cigarette stained Russian red. She bent, mindful of her back, to ash in the flowerbed before heading inside. Across the street, rosy-faced Irish men posted lazily at the chess tables along Greystone Avenue, smoking their morning pipes.
Down the block, kids would soon fill the blacktop to play handball. Later, I’d head out too to assume my perch on the monkey bars, peering over my dangling legs to referee hopscotch on the asphalt below while my mother talked shop with the other young moms. Until then, the streets were quiet—it felt as if the whole block were awaiting our songs.
Before my father woke, I explored the contents of his study. The shelves were lined with records: Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Seeger—we knew most of Seeger’s songs by heart. We sang with him when he came to visit the day camp where my mother worked most summers. His metallic banjo rhythms kept time, buoying our voices as we sang near the banks of the Hudson, “This Land Is Your Land,” “Had I a Golden Thread,” “If I Had a Hammer.” Songs that carried meaning well beyond my understanding. I didn’t know then that Pete Seeger and Lee Hays wrote “If I Had a Hammer” in 1949, or that it was later revived by Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1962, shortly followed by Sam Cooke’s live version at the Copacabana. I didn’t know then that the song offered what was, at the time, a radical allegiance to justice first expressed in the labor movement and later in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This period in my history was one of singsong simplicity.
In my father’s study, I browsed through the 1960s and ’70s—rock ’n’ roll, Motown recordings, jazz sessions, traditional folk and bluegrass. My father would go on about when Dylan turned electric or how Crosby, Stills, and Nash reunited with Young. He’d talk about protest songs and the power of a well-written lyric. And I’d sit with Sgt. Pepper in my lap, tracing the flowers on the cover, wondering if we’d ever sing that way, if we could learn to bend our voices into such uncanny harmonies.
We began each session with an easy warm-up. My father tuned his guitar, humming a note while he plucked each string, now and then tightening a tuning knob. The sound morphed with the twist of his fingers. I swayed with anticipation, twirling a curl of my hair. My father’s eyes, deep pools of brown, narrowed as he listened.
At the time, I could only assume my father took “music time” as seriously as I did. If not, he exhibited a remarkable patience. As he tuned, I listened, enjoying the provisional sounds, the same way I liked to lean in close to the record player during the raw whisper between songs, the needle tracing soft warps in the vinyl, its rhythm like a Manhattan taxicab coasting over the rivets along Tenth Avenue.
“Okay,” my father said, strumming all six strings. Their sounds merged into one. “Let’s hear it.” He hummed a note and motioned for me to join him. I cleared my throat and mustered my best vocals. My voice entered the same space as his, as if the two of us had stepped into our own sound booth. We were in tune.
As we moved on to the first song, I glanced up for my cue as my father leaned on the edge of his seat with the first line of “London Bridge Is Falling Down.”
The lyrics came like instinct. I fidgeted with the ribbon of my dress. My father, ever casual, wore piped slacks that—though it was well into the 1980s—flared distinctly around his tennis shoes tapping out a beat. He moved seamlessly. Cradling the neck of the guitar in his left hand, he let its hollow body sink to rest on his thigh and strummed again with his right—three fervent chords as we brought the last line to a close: “My . . . Fair . . . Lady . . .”
Every few songs we would take a break from recording. I chattered, disregarding the microphone during my digressions: I wouldn’t mind tending a farm where the “Oats and Beans and Barley Grow,” though I would never name a dog “Bingo,” I told my father, trying to make my five-year-old voice sound mature, subduing, with pursed lips, my inquisitive chime. Also, “I wish I had a watch.”
“You wish you had a watch?” my father asked in that half-amused way in which adults echo children.
Quick to recognize an opening, I signaled to my father to hold off on backup and focused on a speedy rendition of “Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” a capella.
When we hadn’t voices left to sing, we’d listen. A handful of cassette tapes were stacked like a cairn by the stereo. They were labeled neatly—my initials, the date—penned in my father’s hand the same way he tagged the backs of our photographs, J.H.P. September, 1986.
My father leaned his guitar against the wall, waiting for the base to steady before removing his hand from the neck.
I felt my cheeks ball up to my eyes as he handed me a pair of headphones. They haloed my head.
My father reset the tape to play from the beginning. “Listening is the most important part,” he would say. The grainy whisper of the guitar strings and the deep-rooted hum of my father’s voice tickled my ear. My own voice, so often shy, felt bold.
Back then I had no way of knowing to what extent I would grow to value these moments. But on occasion I noticed my mother hovering nearby, taking photographs as we sang, which solidified my suspicion that they were special. I was certain of my father’s musical gift. I seemed to sense, too, if vaguely, the indelible appreciation for music that he bestowed on me at an early age.
But it wasn’t just the music. My father also taught me the city, and for many years I understood the two as intertwined. Together, we recited the subway stops from Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to Union Square in Manhattan and back again; I learned the names of streets and avenues, counted time between the changing traffic lights. We watched West Side Story and hummed the melodies of Leonard Bernstein as we passed the chalk-lined basketball courts on Riverside. We saw the musical instruments at the Metropolitan. On the museum steps, we snacked on pretzels and listened to the nearby street drummers playing for change.
I spent much of my childhood believing that life would at some point reveal itself as a string of magically recorded moments. I later realized that music was the only working transmission between my father and me. The memories that are distinct to our relationship relate to the sound of his voice: the stories he told; the songs he sang each night before bed; the way he hummed when he was concentrating, lips slightly parted, his tongue against his teeth.
I don’t know, precisely, when things began to change. I remember one day, riding the subway downtown, my brother and I clamored our way to kneel by the window seats as we always did. Propping our elbows on the edge, we peered through the graffiti-etched glass to study the elevated view of Bronx neighborhoods before descending into the tunnels of Manhattan. In my head I practiced the nursery rhymes my father and I would sing—“Farmer Joe,” “London Bridge”—my humming muted by the subway’s roar. The tunnel lights blurred, keeping time: My . . . Fair . . . Lady. I looked over at my father, who sat calmly, eyes closed, arms crossed on his chest, one foot tapping out a beat. But he didn’t sing along.
The local newspaper ad read: “Experienced craftsperson wanted . . . excellent pay.” The listed telephone number belonged to a woman in Yonkers who had purchased a dollhouse as a gift for her niece—a girl of seven years, same as me—and found herself without the means to properly assemble it. My mother had been searching the classifieds for months, taking odd jobs to make some extra money “for a rainy day.”
The forecast promised rain nearly every day that month. The summer of 1989 was marked as much by the acidic scent before a thunderstorm as by the humid swelling of tensions between my parents, whose marriage moved steadily toward collapse. By midsummer, in the form of varying sheets of perforated balsa wood and blueprint instructions, the Granville dollhouse arrived. My mother set to work constructing a mansion in a half-emptied room in our Bronx apartment.
The dollhouse was modeled after the Bedford Falls house in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. When the makings of the Granville arrived, my mother sat looking at her supplies. I knelt beside her and peered over the table where she had laid out the thin slabs of wood, tins of glue, small clamps, and a utility knife.
“How does that song go?” my mother asked, humming a few words about a “very fine house” before turning her attention back to the table. I didn’t know then that Graham Nash’s “Our House,” written about his affair with Joni Mitchell, ran as a looped, almost inescapable, melody in my mother’s head that summer. At the time, her humming just lightened the thickness in the air.
I examined the family: four miniature dolls my mother made, painting their muslin faces to resemble each of our own—my mother and father, my older brother and me—stitching a heart at the breast under each felted jumper. The Family, I called them, as if needing to feel the family as a tangible collective, characters in a scene I might narrate, a play I might one day direct—or simply hold all together in the palm of my hand.
A warm breeze carried the scent of honeysuckle from the neighbor’s garden. My mother inhaled and then, worried the humidity might affect the balsa, rose to shut the window. I splayed the dolls like a deck of cards in my hand and asked my mother how big the house would be when it was finished. Studying the blueprint, she said, “We’ll have to wait and see.”
With slender hands, my mother aligned the thicker slabs of the Granville’s foundation. As she sanded the edge of a floor panel, sawdust showered her forearms. She still had the frame of her high school days, though no longer the mousy blonde bob. She still stared off with the lost wonder of those teenage years, the same strength of conviction waiting to bud from the flowers in her hair.
I looked down at the dolls in my lap. They were near perfect, though too small to bear the minor details that compose the portrait of a family. My father’s brown skin and black hair; the glassy blue of my mother’s eyes, the pale softness of her skin; or my brother and me, filling in the spectrum of color in between.
My parents married in 1976. As college dropouts and art school graduates, they left their Pennsylvania suburbs for a quick stay outside Boston, where my brother was born, and then found sanctuary in New York, where, in the fall of 1982, I was born into the hands of a midwife in a maternity center on Ninety-Second and Madison. At the time—before she landed a job as a high school secretary—my mother worked as a seamstress and held a closing shift at McDonald’s. My father, having recently finished a stint in seminary, was enrolled in a master’s program at Columbia University, because somewhere between art and religion he believed he might find his doctrine.
By the time I was five, we had moved to a small corner of the Bronx, due north of Manhattan, into a two-family house built into a hill.
My mother fixed the garden out back, brought home paint swatches from the hardware store, painted each room a different color based on the allure of its name: Shrimp Toast, Celadon Cloud, Rusted Persimmon. We danced barefoot on the patio when it rained. My mother wrote poetry and waited for the Solstice; my father composed music on his guitar and painted in the attic; my brother and I grew up sewing patches on our corduroys, composting our food scraps, and worshipping Cat Stevens and Sweet Honey in the Rock.
My parents scraped just enough together to toggle between urban streets and natural landscapes. Summers meant sun tea and rock candy, salamanders along the creek beds of New England, sea glass and cowry shells on the shores of the Atlantic. In winter we went west to my grandfather’s ranch in Tucson, where we baked fudge on Christmas and weighed horse feed at dawn.
But New York grounded us. We lived on the line where the enclave of Riverdale dissolves into the massive borough of the Bronx. Tucked below the Westchester suburbs, the neighborhood is bookended by the Hudson and two-way traffic on Broadway. Orthodox Jewish families stroll the tree-lined streets on Saturdays, while the Irish bagpipes sound off a game of hurling at Gaelic Park. On 238th Street, old couples with their Sunday hats and swollen ankles line up outside the diner for the early morning bus to Atlantic City. Slow-moving trains creak along the elevated subway platform, heading one stop north to retire in the train yard near Van Cortlandt Park, which, on summer afternoons, pulses with salsa or merengue and the smell of backyard barbeque—enough sweetness in the air to make your mouth water for days.
John F. Kennedy once owned a house on Independence Avenue. The women in the Laundromat gossiped about Ed Sullivan’s apartment in The Whitehall as if it were John Lennon in The Dakota. And, though it meant little then—a real TV man in the same building as the neighborhood dentist—it confirmed my suspicions that the closer to the river my brother and I rode our bicycles, the larger the houses grew, and the richer the people inside. But our attentions were tuned in elsewhere.
“Turn that up, would you?” my mother would say, motioning a dish-watered hand toward the NPR broadcast on the kitchen counter. Just as my father’s voice bellowed each night from the living room, reminding us kids to keep it down during MacNeil/Lehrer.
In the summer of 1989, downtown city politics was a spiraling staircase toward chaos and evictions. Tenants were battling landlords. Mom-and-pop establishments were being bullied by boutiques. Nearly a year had passed since the riots in Tompkins Square Park—a violent showdown between warring tenants, ad hoc activists, the city’s fearless fringe, and the NYPD after the mayor dispatched city police to enforce a curfew, running off the homeless and squatters who, in the sweltering heat, had taken up residence in the East Village park. And again, that summer a year later, the city made plans to dismantle the encampments known as Tent City. At the time, of course, I was ignorant of these details, but I had gleaned just enough from newspaper images and radio news to sense that somewhere, not far away, things were awry, that we had reason for concern.
Squatting before her worktable, my mother installed a banister along what would be the Granville’s front porch. She was dressed down in the heat, her T-shirt hanging loose around her neck and billowing over her cutoff shorts. Her ears, normally adorned with beaded earrings, were bare, her silvery hair wrapped neatly away in a faded bandanna.
I inhaled the smell of wood glue. My mother handed me a scrap of balsa wood. With its narrow edge, I scrawled my name in the sawdust that blanketed the floor. My mother reached down to untwist a strap of my overalls. She knew how much I loved it there, with her, with the Granville. But I was careful not to be a bother. Something in her silence that summer suggested that she needed to build the house alone.
Instead I became obsessed with the spirit of the Granville. We all did for a while. When we had nothing to talk about, we talked about the dollhouse. At dinner my father would ask how it was coming along. My mother issued progress reports as we filled our milk glasses and passed the salt.
“Whoever gets the dollhouse should paint it camouflage,” my brother once said.
To which I responded, “That’s ridiculous,” as if knowing then that the mansion’s refinement was fit for a scene of a Fitzgerald novel, where the parvenus of Long Island Sound gathered by the shore. I hoped it would belong to a girl with a wagging ponytail, pressed dresses, and enough sensibility to wallpaper the interior—dreams interrupted only by my mother’s voice of reason. “Let’s just remember,” she said, “the house will belong to another family when it’s complete.”
Some of my friends lived in big houses with parents who entertained in distant dining rooms and checked in every hour. In our cramped apartment we tripped over one another. While I recognized what fun it might be to slide down a banister into a spacious foyer, or close the door to my own bedroom, I filtered between such envies and a distinct pride in our family’s differences—the comfort of our close quarters, each of us no more than a name call away. But it didn’t always feel that way.
In the summer of 1989, it seemed my parents hardly crossed paths, as though the humidity had swelled not just the balsa wood but also an invisible rift between them. My brother offered far-fetched ideas of a secluded base camp for his G.I. Joe action figures. I countered with imaginings of a house filled with pint-sized debutantes and miniature armoires. As well-loved children sheltered by our youth, we bickered in oblivion, filling the hollow silence as we played with our vegetables.
That summer, during a brief respite from the heat, my mother knelt in the yard, staking tomato plants along the stoned wall of our garden. I watched our neighbor Frank—old, Italian, with kind eyes and a widowed heart—tend a cucumber vine that crawled along the fence between our yards. Frank’s house was built farther up on the hill. I rarely caught sight of him from level ground.
Next door, on the same hillside where Waldo Avenue and Dash Place meet at a sharp bend, lived another family with children. Their house, built of stone with wide-planked mahogany floors, creaked when we played.
“That house is very old,” my mother said. “Years ago it was probably the main house. And these,” she motioned a handful of weeds toward our house and then Frank’s, “probably belonged to the grown children.” In the nineteenth century, she explained, the Riverdale section of the Bronx was an estate district where Manhattan moguls built their country homes.
“Back then this was considered the country,” she said.
“So we live in the daughter’s house?” I asked.
“Not exactly. The entire house likely belonged to the daughter. Our apartment may have been the maid’s quarters.”
In some pockets of the neighborhood, historic manors remained more or less intact. But with the advent of apartment living, several streets were transformed to create a modern-day hodgepodge of distinguished Georgian and Tudor revivals from the twentieth century, prewar co-ops, luxury condos, and midrange housing projects.
We lived in the maid’s quarters. I tried to imagine where we fit in on the architectural scale, just how we measured up in the neighborhood, in life.
In an early scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey and Mary Hatch sing an old tune before they stop in front of the Granville. The dilapidated house towers large in the background. The young couple nearly shares a kiss before backing away from each other in a classic moment of awkward shyness. George says: “Okay then, I’ll throw a rock at the old Granville house and try to break some glass.” To which Mary is quick to protest: “It’s full of romance, that old place,” adding with breathy sincerity, “I’d like to live in it one day.” They each make a wish and hurl stones at the windows. George has a whole list of wishes. Mary has only one. But she doesn’t dare tell.
On one of the sweltering days in the summer of 1989, I asked my mother, “If you had three wishes, what would they be?” She stood sweeping matchsticks and sawdust from the floor. Then, propping her chin on the broomstick, she considered the question. The dollhouse sat on the nearby table. Each day it had taken more form. I circled it, peering into its skeletal frame, its interior nooks and doorways, its zigzagging staircases. My mother joined me, crouching to inspect the innards of her creation. On opposite sides we could see each other by way of the cavernous foyer. Small vertical beams soon to be walls hid the full image of her face, like the rosewood grating of a confessional.
“I would wish for a house like this one,” I whispered.
Through the Granville I saw only my mother’s eyes, sharply blue as the light turned and the air braced for rain. I stood and ran around to where she was kneeling on the floor.
“I also wish that I had a cat,” I said. “One who goes in circles before he sits. Like this—” I rolled my hands into pawed fists and kneaded them gently into her thigh. My mother laughed and squeezed my hands.
Satisfied at least with her smile, I headed off to find my brother. Before I got far, I stopped to listen: the broom swept against the floor, keeping rhythm as my mother, left alone, hummed an incessant song.
By the end of the summer, the Granville was complete. My father carried the house out to the garden and placed it on a stool. My mother posed for a photograph. Her expression was stiff but proud, one arm draped awkwardly over the shingled roof.
My father tinkered with the Pentax, showing my brother how to focus the lens. My mother leaned down to me and whispered, “Go and bring the family,” fingering the curls at the nape of my neck. She said it too—the family—referring to the four miniature dolls, those characters in our unwinding script.
After retrieving the dolls I propped them one by one around the exterior of the house—my father and brother on the second-floor balcony, my own doll bent to sit on the porch steps, my mother propped at a slant in the threshold behind me. They were the perfect size for an otherwise unfurnished home.
After the photographs, I collected the dolls and stood them up in the front pocket of my overalls. Leaning back into my mother, I pulled her arms around my neck and we watched my father carry the doll-house away. I realized then how much my mother hated to see it go. Oddly, I don’t remember feeling too disturbed watching the Granville move on. Perhaps, because my mother had prepared me for the moment, it seemed inevitable. Or maybe I was more concerned with what might come next. In the crease of her elbow the faint smell of patchouli oil, sawdust, and sweat turned to the metallic scent of rain.
Two years passed between the dollhouse and “the end,” but it was that humid summer of 1989, the rain, the Granville that most capture the memory of my parents’ divorce. After the dollhouse there was relative normalcy in our home. Sometimes I wonder how little I remember of those years. Or rather, how well my parents masked the budding divide between them. The weeks and months read as a period of prolonged silence. We grew accustomed.
My father spent more and more time holed away in the attic with his guitar. My mother took night workshops at a nearby city college to hone her poetry and make new friends. I entered the second grade and assumed a dose of elementary-level diversion: pottery classes, extended recess, Laura Ingalls Wilder novels. And likewise, more grappling concepts: friendship circles, boys, pop music. I came to ignore the hushed interactions, the closed doors behind which my parents, young and disappointed, were negotiating their marriage.
I was nine years old when, two years after the Granville dollhouse but an equally hot and humid evening, my father’s clenched fist came down against the half-cleared kitchen table. My brother and I sat in the living room watching the changing glow of an old film playing on TV.
We listened as our parents argued in the kitchen. My father’s barreling voice and my mother’s shrill cries carried, not as decipherable words, but as noise that filled every corner of our apartment.
I pinched at my brother and whispered, “What are they saying?”
He swatted at my hand and snapped at me to shut up. And then almost immediately said, “I’m sorry,” and inched closer as a cascade of dishes sounded down the hall. We sat cross-legged with our backs together the way we often did, as if indeed camouflaged. I tried to move even closer, but my dress had risen under me and, in the heat, my bare legs stuck to the floor. A gust of air entered the living room window and boiled around us.
Next, I remember my parents crouched on the floor beside us. In the tangle of their arms, my father stroked my hair and kneaded my brother’s shoulder, assuring us that “things would be better now.” His voice was heavy, smooth like tar. My mother wept apologies in my ear.
We ate at the kitchen table for weeks, setting our plates over the crack in the white Formica finish left by my father’s fist, which it turned out, had also been broken that day. We tried to ignore the fractured surface. My father’s hand was in a cast for weeks while he moved into his own apartment up the street.
I knew from a young age that my parents were different. They expected more from the world. But their politics were not manifest in picket lines. I wasn’t thrown on my father’s back attending protest rallies downtown. I have no lasting images of my mother with bullhorn or soapbox amid a swarming crowd. In our house, society’s underbelly surfaced as protagonists of my mother’s poems or the drawings that hung above my father’s drafting table. In one, a black boy peers up at a mounted police officer, a small stone clenched in the fist behind his back. For years, I imagined it as a still frame from a motion picture, and wondered what might have happened next—if the ideals of art and love could trump reality; if I could run away with a boy like that, all patience and courage, and live off morals and a handful of stones.
My parents, I have no doubt, set out to build something solid. But by the time I was seven I had learned about impermanence. Just as the Granville, adorned in decadent possibility, would come and go, my parents were architects of what could only be a short-lived wonderland.
In the mid-1990s, while New York City’s homeless still resided in the streets, news of Giuliani’s crackdown aired on the radio. Life went on. But we were all changed. My father stopped writing protest ballads on his guitar; my mother no longer gathered wildflowers along the side of the road; my brother and I settled into the routine shuffle between our parents’ apartments.
Most people know the Bedford Falls house in Capra’s film, as well as the story of George Bailey, who in his moment of despair is visited by an angel and given a glimpse of the meaning of life. But these are only the superficial details—the ones I would have gleaned from the film as a girl. As the film ensues we learn of George Bailey as a boy who aspires to design buildings and construct cities, of his compassion for the working class as he battles the most abominable landlord in the country, of the tension in his marriage, of the Granville Mansion, the run-down structure that houses their dreams.
Perhaps the greatest gift the angel offers George Bailey is the reel of a life that might have been had various events never occurred. But to some extent we can gain perspective on our own lives only by revisiting the scenes not as they may have been, but as they were, or at least as close to it as the lasting images allow.
A week or two after my parents’ decisive fight, my mother knelt on the floor over a splayed newspaper, packing a box of my father’s things. She stopped to skim a news story before clipping the article. The headline said something about bulldozing in the shantytowns. By then Mayor Dinkins held the reins of the city as police in riot gear escorted men and women from abandoned buildings and East Village squats. The half-faded picture in the newspaper showed a woman in a wheelchair out on the street.
My mother said, “The city doesn’t know how to handle its homeless,” and I nodded, trying to emulate her quiet scorn, which is something I have yet to fully master.
My mother pinned the clipping into her notebook against the handwritten elegy she had penned earlier that day. I studied the woman’s face in the newsprint, photographed minutes after her eviction. Her expression held resentment, fear. Her belongings lay piled in a nearby shopping cart. A cat sat close in her lap. At once this woman had become the heroine in my script. The newspaper caption read “Pixie Louise”—not quite an angel but a fairy—and quoted her describing her home made of wood, metal pipe beams, and a tarp cover, saying, “there was nothing shoddy about where we lived.” With her crooked wandlike fingers and vacant gaze, she both embodied and demolished the illusion that once held us—its fancy cornices and wrap-around porch, constructed precisely to plan, smooth but weightless—a doll-house, after all. A structure not built for us.
Nearly thirty minutes into the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story, Natalie Wood as Maria argues with Anita over the cut of her dress. Soon they will be at the neighborhood dance—the Puerto Rican boys are already on their way to pick them up—and when Maria slides into the iconic white dress with a trim red sash, she falls rapt, spellbound by the promise of her first night out in America. The music heightens as she twirls in front of a full-length mirror. Her body blurs à la midcentury special effects. The background darkens around her colorful haze, fades, and then refocuses again on a gymnasium full of Jets and Sharks dancing the mambo with their girls. Each time I’ve seen the film, the moment, despite its Technicolor excess, rings true: transitions are a whirlwind; trying to belong in a star-crossed world can lead to a dizzying spiral away from what we know.
When I was nine and my father moved into his own apartment, it felt for years as if the music had stopped. By the 1990s, when I entered high school, the details of my father began to fade as he seemed to grow less and less involved in the daily aspects of my adolescence. Only rarely did I see him pick up his guitar. To be fair, I had limited time to observe his behavior as my brother and I assumed the weekly schedule—Tuesdays, Thursdays, alternate weekends—of many nomadic children of divorce. Perhaps, on occasion, he did finger-pick along to the jazz instrumentals of a few contemporaries: Chick Corea on piano, Al Di Meola’s electric guitar, some early Jean-Luc Ponty on violin before he, too, resorted to electric fusion. My father burned incense in his apartment, slept often, and added several New Age records to his collection—their synthetic timbres like ghosts of an instrumental past. Meanwhile, I scoured the secondhand shops for old rock and blues albums of Janis Joplin and Nina Simone, Dylan, too. Some nights at my father’s apartment, I sat paging through Othello or A Tale of Two Cities for English class, thinking about the French revolution in London and Paris, eventually returning to the Beats—memorizing verses of “Howl” and “Kaddish”—while eyeing my father, who sat glued to the television. At sixteen, in the chaos of adolescence, I hoped for something to hold on to, like the comfort of a childhood rhyme or a timeless folk song resurrected. The space around us once filled with music felt vacant, still.
One night I emerged from my bedroom and found my father in front of the television.
“Just in time,” he said motioning to the screen where the Double Jeopardy! category listed “Rock ’n’ Roll.”
I grabbed his guitar off a stand in the far corner of the room, blew lightly at the film of dust on the top edge, and sat on the couch, palming the cool wooden face as my father chimed answers over the on-air contestants.
“This guy is incredible,” he said pointing to the screen where a middle- aged man, clad in a tweed blazer and crimson bow tie, stood grinning behind a podium. My father was wrapped in a dark flannel robe. His eyeglasses rested on the bridge of his nose. I remember thinking how old he looked then. He no longer bore the height and build of his youth, when he’d held me in his arms, his guitar slung around his back, singing “Blackbird” in my ear as I fingered his spongy black hair.
That year in school we studied civil disobedience, and this history teacher, whom I was crushing on hard, told me about the poet Bob Kaufman. After that, as if a fire were lit, I needed to know my father’s story more than ever before. How he became so staunchly antiwar, how he used to play protest songs in downtown cafés. I wanted to ask about the day he received his draft card, about who shot Kennedy, who ended the Vietnam War—and did any of it really matter? Except that somewhere in San Francisco a poet was vowing silence, refused to be a citizen of speech until the war came to an end—how it’s a wonder he never lost his voice, just kept the rhythm in his chest, somewhere beneath his beatnik poncho and flares. For a moment, at the start of a commercial break, I thought I might catch my father’s attention, but he waved his hand.
The screen cut to the blue Jeopardy! backdrop of the stage. The familiar theme music chimed over audience applause. My father waited for the cue of a commercial break to pause his videocassette recorder.
“I like to revisit the questions sometimes,” he explained. “When you listen again, you learn things you didn’t catch the first time.”
I looked down at the guitar in my lap and traced my fingers along its strings, listening to the eerie whistle of steel against my skin, like a slowing train car or the call of a seagull lost offshore.
In April 1968, Diana Ross went live on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and sang a version of Leonard Bernstein’s composition “Somewhere”—the same song Maria and Tony sing just after gang rivals Riff and Bernardo are killed at the rumble. The song had been a staple in the Supremes’ lounge act, but that particular performance took place a day after the assassination of Martin Luther King. In the middle of the song Ross stopped singing, as she often did, to address the audience. But instead of her usual interlude on romance, she incited the spiritual hymn from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Ross’s performance met with some skepticism by critics who considered it a pop-diva-turns-political kind of moment, and was often dismissed by the press as a superficial political gesture. But in old video recordings, you can see the unease in Ross’s body. You can hear the emotional overwhelm in her voice—a voice that is sleepy and sad and stumbles slightly over the lines, a voice that, in its impromptu uncertainty, carries grace.
My father had become little more than a collage of sparse details, a set of trivia—a game show category himself—that loosely coincided with milestones in the history of American music. In 1956, when rockabilly classics dominated the radio waves, my father, just five years old, picked up his first guitar, and for a long time he never let it go. That same year, he and his sister sent in a mail-order coupon for a pair of Elvis Presley sideburns. In 1964, when the Beatles arrived in the States and my father turned thirteen, he and his grandmother sang “Can’t Buy Me Love” as they danced in the muddy yard behind his childhood home. The year he was drafted to Vietnam, 1970, was two years after the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the nationwide race riots, and antiwar demonstrations; it was two years since The White Album had topped the charts and Diana Ross, live on TV, had tried to make sense of all the tragedy. But my father never went to war.
Before I had a moment to question again, he shifted his gaze to the television and reset the machine. I slouched back, the guitar flat against my thighs, listening to the variations as I pinched and plucked each string.
A Double Jeopardy! category flashed on screen. “Literary Quotations,” he said. “Right up your alley.”
Pressing against the guitar frets, I felt the finely ribbed strings leaving grooves in my fingertips, and the aching regret that I had never learned to play. Because had I learned, I might simply hole up in my room and strum myself the chords of the folk songs and nursery rhymes we once loved.
“Do you want to play?” I asked, holding the guitar out, obscuring the view of Alex Trebek.
My father shrugged and blew into his teacup. As his attention turned back to the contestants, I lowered the guitar to my lap again.
Without holding any notes, I strummed hard. The open strings buzzed wildly out of tune. My father glanced over to me and raised an eyebrow. I left the guitar on the couch and walked back to my room. No Technicolor twirling. No special effects. But something in me transitioning nonetheless.
My father’s past, as I understood it then, was full of holes and unanchored facts. What I did know about him maintained my regard for him as a father and exposed a unique strength: he was born to rural poverty; he never knew his own father; as the oldest of three children, he cared for his mother and younger siblings; and as a young man in the 1960s, he learned to play the tuba and traveled Europe as the sole black student in a marching band.
Over time, my father became more of a concept than a man, more of an acquaintance than a father. In the same way that he rescreened his game show, I reread my books. I may have wished for a catalyst to address the estrangement between us, but in my teenage sulk, I grew equally distant. By the time I was eighteen and graduated from high school, there were no sounds beyond those of halting taxicabs and unfazed pedestrians, loud-mouthed neighbors, and smooth-talking players. The sounds of a childhood city, like a folk song I once loved, now seemed abrasive. I had grown out of the dress shop or perhaps out of the dress itself; I couldn’t be sure amid all of my turning and whirling, my spiraling toward somewhere far away.
Flying—or, not yet in the air but staring impatiently through the porthole of the Boeing window while the attendant closes the overhead bins during cross-check—it comes to me: a line from an old diary. The first in a series of entries addressed to Leonardo da Vinci when I was seven, or perhaps eight, when I would have called it a journal—somehow oldersounding, a little more mature:
It’s true; it’s all backwards to them anyhow.
Except that when I wrote the words, I began from the right side of the page. With my left hand, I reversed each letter’s form, aligning the letters neatly atop the page’s faint lines. I moved swiftly toward the center binding—the people’s margin—that place where we learn, when we are small, to begin.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Da Vinci knew this. His notebooks, now stored in climate-controlled libraries and vaults, were scrawled in mirror-image cursive. His works bear inscriptions like primitive forms of cipher, Islamic calligraphy, or Samaritan script. The kind of imprints found on ancient tablets and gilded parchment—the Torah, the Koran, the Book of Kells. Maybe this is where my obsession with holy books began, why I thought I might write one someday, its pages all beginnings and endings, footnotes and failures, about a girl who played in sprinklers while loving Heraclitus. (Or, rather, rinsed off in hydrants while lusting after da Vinci.) Leonardo—
the most clever of them all.
Around this time, just before the divorce, I remember hearing my parents, when they still shared citizenry in love and other illusions, discussing da Vinci’s methods, musing over his madness in the same breath as his genius. And I admired, even then, the conflict in their tone, as much as I may have recognized the same inflection as they addressed my reticence, shyness, and odd behavior. A tone not extended to my older brother, local superhero, his cape tucked away with the magic set he brought out when he performed card tricks for our friends. He kept secrets like Houdini or, rather, some Jedi-mind-tricking Karate Kid, who carried the best beat box in the sixth grade, back when such titles held cachet. He has been a master of mirage ever since he began practicing his disappearing acts in high school, stashing his lies, along with the booze and stolen goods, in the trapdoor of his closet.
Second-born and sister, I was the strange and silent sidekick. No stockpile of trophies stowed beneath my bed, though my mattress hid a few miniature jars with an alchemist’s concoction of Old Spice and Barbasol, baking soda and cinnamon, a dash of glitter, my mother’s shampoo—love potions and “pretty brews” I kept safe for later. I took pride in knowing that my middle name held the symmetry of a palindrome, that the mirror image of certain words was as heartbreaking as the original. How mood swings with the weight of a boom—a never even palindrome, a pendulum that might near stillness but not quite hang level. Or the hidden pleasure of a word like bid—because what greater stakes might a word contain than appearing, forward and backward, exactly the same? Like siblings sharing DNA, how many words grow apart in opposite direction? The way loot is the wild-mannered sister to the ever-skilled, ever-talented brother tool. He—
the most gifted child by far.
Perhaps this is why, while my brother and his friends waged b-boy battles in the yard, high-tops swivel-kicking over our mother’s flowerbeds, I was content to disappear and visit the neighbors. On days when the boy next door had his weekly Greek lesson, I sat with his mother listening from their kitchen. I tried to record the words I knew on the back side of a grocery list that his mother placed before me while she prepared us coffee in tiny porcelain cups, which contained fortunes and futures that she read from the pattern left in the grounds. I was content, too, to tag along after school on the days when my best friend had Hebrew school, to practice the alphabet—a twenty-two-letter script of consonants—starting with our pencils at the right side of the page. Such order was akin to levity in the otherwise spiraling world. Some nights I would linger on our doorstep and listen for the man downstairs we rarely saw and only sometimes heard, whom I imagined a watchmaker or inventor, a connoisseur of model planes. Something like that: smart and neat and quiet. Or sometimes it was enough to head inside early, prop the TV antenna in order to catch the nightly lotto numbers or Sajak’s Wheel of Fortune (all that luck and puzzle spinning ’round!), or settle on reruns of Nature, trying to decipher each kingdom, phylum, genus, order—behind all the static, while searching for pictures like cloud patterns and constellations in the sky.
Not long ago, on a red-eye from New York to Rome, I listened to an old woman sitting in the row behind me talk about her granddaughter and mathematics—how, although most children favor addition, she’s quite fond of subtraction. This, one of her more “precocious quirks.” I wonder what that means, her fondness for subtraction, and then I have one of those moments when I think, This will find its way into your dreams, like a splinter or a needle prick. And, inevitably, it does. I envy this anonymous girl, profound erasure artist. I wonder what she knows that the rest of us don’t, as she scrapes her knees in the playground, maybe fights with a brother or a stepsister. How much will she figure out with her love of deduction, solving for x, as she will?—X, one of few letters appearing one and the same in its reflection. Maybe that’s why cartographers chose x for treasure. Maybe x will always mark the division between her and them, whoever they are, as if a magic mirror revealing the “takeaway” of childhood.
Finding explanation in scientific terms is easy, just as it is easy to find definition in a dictionary. But where is the meaning in that? Studies show that mirror writing is a question of atypical language organization, a product of a genetic trait closely associated with left-handedness, ambidexterity, synesthesia, and other oddities that, at the time, made everything seem—different. The pattern of inheritance is not entirely clear, but evidence suggests that the ability is passed through the X chromosome, regardless of which parent may have carried it. I imagine my parents—non–mirror writers, I’ve since confirmed—and the look they must have shared over my encrypted pages, as I scribbled away unaware.
Could I have known then of da Vinci’s paranoia? (And was that really, as some historians would have us believe, what made him scrawl in reverse?) Or was this my expression of a girlhood crush? Perhaps, because I was eight, I would have called him my role model, fifteenth- century polymath that he was. How else can I explain how I swooned over a reproduction of The Vitruvian Man that hung in the living room, the figure superimposed in two positions, one inhabiting the circle, the other the square? Love-struck by this canon of proportion, smitten by da Vinci’s precisely rendered sketches, I paged through my parents’ art books, where graphite and conté marked his architectural and anatomical forms: Designs for a flying machine, Study for the head of Leda or Saint Anne, or the Trivulzio Monument, Study of concave mirrors of differing curvatures, Study of water passing obstacles and falling—
who is the greatest dreamer of them all?
I believe da Vinci’s was not a mind wracked by compulsive mistrust but a mind brimming and at work. For my part, I was no Renaissance child, no budding whiz kid with genius to protect. And had I something stored in the musty scented pages to keep safe, surely the black cat silhouette on the cover of my lock-’n’-key diary was sufficient vault. Instead, I wrote and read back the words, my eyes skipping right to left along the letterforms, not once consulting a mirror, not daring to seek their reflection. While I craved the encryption, it was the expediency of expression that fed me—my own Nocturne for the Left Hand—free of the smudge that branded my schoolwork for years or the awkward tightness of words smothered by my sleeve. Like in a symbolist composition, the words carried clarity, one piece of the puzzle I could control, protect, and practice, devising my own style where each reversed letter carried a note, soft and tuned and mine.
Those days I grew suspicious of magic school buses and fairy tales (even those Brothers Grimm) and traded in fantasy for proportion. The astrological scale I was born under tipping daily just as everything around me seemed to: the landlady who invited me into her kitchen, a palace of warm honey and baklava, could in an instant yell with the wicked breath of ouzo and gin that it was time to go home. The quiet neighbor, as it turns out, was not consumed by time machines or model planes but was something of a huntsman, tinkering with explosives, constructing pipe bombs beneath my bedroom, which was revealed one sunny school day when we came home to police bagging evidence and escorting him away.
who holds the greatest secrets of us all?
Years later I no longer have the diligence to keep a regular journal—and if I did, I would call it a diary—somehow more transparent, forthright, perhaps even naive. But when daydreaming takes hold, my hand still travels to the right margin of the page, as if propelled by a flying machine toward that familiar reversal. My mirrored shorthand becomes a gliding carpet or a worldly wardrobe, turning a page back in time to visit a girl I once knew, who gazes at me—equal parts longing and disappointment—waiting for some explanation for all the immaculate confusion, all the apples and poisons put before us.
Are my reversals the result of a stubborn nostalgia—a precedent I set out like a tea set, or a trunk of dress-up clothes, and never fully put away? Maybe I’m excited by eccentricity, aroused by the peculiar and the queer. I once slept with a man who collected palindromes, which could have been a spark between us, until I realized he also collected women. The same boy next door had ten letters and four syllables in his Greek name, which I would write repeatedly, forward and backward in my notebooks, oblivious to the sideways glances from my friends, just as I might have missed the one raised eyebrow my brother and father and mother all exchanged over the dinner table—their own special trait—when I said things “out of left field.”
I remember trying to explain how numbers are colors—three like yellow, four cool like blue—or how certain words made me itch, gave my body a kind of ache. I remember seeing the faces around me turn, as if delighting in a foreign film in which every time the beloved supporting role steps into the frame, the subtitles jumble and fade, like an x drawn in the sand, above some long lost chromosome no one ever knew would surface so boldly.
Such digressions (words and their colors, spatial relations, sounds) I learned to keep stored, private, recorded in an almanac of riddle and wonder. And now I often think, so much worry for such a small girl—everything all backward in the quest to belong, everything needing to be counted, codified:
The steps that cut through the hills of our Bronx neighborhood, I climbed two at a time, so I might make it to the top with breath left; all the cracks and lines in the sidewalk I avoided so as not to break my mother’s back or my own fragile spine. So I might sleep at night without recording my pulse, listening for signs of panic, even the slightest turbulence in what should have been the plucky rhythm and dramatic consistency of a ten-year-old heart, wishing for some real elixir that would put me at ease.
Maybe then I would have spent more time with the other girls, watching the boys play wall ball or stickball, stoopball or war, as we huddled clandestinely by the courtyard’s chain-link fence, confessing our crushes, wondering if we would ever be pretty enough (and who, really, was the greatest belle of our ball?), as we braided each other’s hair and spit-shined our Keds so the soles glared white like snow.
I’m beginning to realize I am fond of subtraction, too. It is similar to wiping dust from a record as it spins and hearing the sound clear, or cleaning out the kitchen drawer on a Sunday afternoon just to see what’s inside, to recognize how little we actually need: scissors, a flashlight, a spare set of keys, so we can be the sleuths and cryptographers, aviators and excavators of our own design, digging backward until once upon a time there we are again.
And maybe that says something about why I took to charcoal in college after scraping by in mathematics with a final paper on phi and the golden mean, the first draft written in longhand, half in reverse. By the next semester I had transferred to life drawing so I could feel the smooth grain of charcoal against the page, erasing the blocks of black into a gradient of gray and down to the clean page, where I outlined the contours, the cheeks and chin of the Pietà, the Mona Lisa, La belle ferronnière—yes, there she is!—her image projected as a fair queen against a curtain.
It’s easy to find beauty in solitude, just as it is easy to find misfortune in loneliness. But where is the reason in that? Where is the margin between the two? I keep thinking how one morning I will get out of bed and things will feel different, that my skin won’t be so porous, won’t wear like a gown I’m still waiting to grow into, that I won’t so easily cringe at the color or texture of things or the sound and shape of the words for those things. Instead, maybe I’ll wake up to a call from my brother and he will no longer be among the list of brilliant strangers. He’ll be shuffling his cards and telling me about the latest trick he’s learned, how it’s all “smoke and mirrors,” as I peel back a newspaper and scan the latest headlines: World reaches unanimous vote on new alphabet. Long lost da Vinci notebook suspected to lie beneath the Trivulzio monument. Miraculous descendant of Heraclitus born to teenage parents in Greece—
what has the world come to, after all?
And then there will be nothing left to do but marvel at invention: the French press or lamplight, colanders and cutlery, a window screen, the fire escape. Even a low-flying airplane headed east over the Atlantic, crossing invisible longitudes where unhinged imagination enters the time zone of abnormality, where daydreams translate into dysfunction, where from the very beginning we’ve reserved our coach-class seats in the exit row and agreed to come of age over the ocean. Stewards of sadness, we stow longing away as if it were a stutter or tic we’ve outgrown. In the same way we learn to distrust happily ever after, or odd reclusive neighbors, yet save compassion for the young and the old, though they are no less disillusioned than the lovelorn or the fanatic: The old veteran who spent days at his window, ogling the breasts of women who passed by and harboring hatred for the Japanese, still asked daily after the girl upstairs, who rewrites lines of nothing but her name, as torn and crumpled paper scatters the floor. The landlady who piled her empty bottles in the trash bin outside must have known that I would count them, repeatedly, until I was late for school, where I charted on an invisible x–y axis the scale of her sadness, trying to draft a formula for forgetting, to concoct an antidote to grief.
If only I could write in this space forever. If only I could return to the glass coffin where p resembles q, where b becomes d, where U and I remain intact. Except maybe it’s not the secrecy or order that is saving me anymore, not so much the letters or the words but the uncharted margins, the outdated virtues of common things such as fountain pens and telegrams, fine stationery and wax seals, which are not in the least necessary but feel elegant and classy—comforts amid chaos. Like ordering cocktails in the sky from tiny bottles, sipping a macchiato in a quaint café, tossing pennies at Trevi Fountain, posting a letter from the Vatican. Maybe that is what this really is: a letter that holds a mirror to a message I want to write, seal with a kiss, and send to the strange little girl who loves subtraction, the one I know only through the voice behind my seat, and I would write How brave you are! and ask what she knows about the future, if subtraction is a long road toward solitude, if minus equals loss. The way backward feels synonymous with the most intimate of codes, the way all of life is an enchanted spell we may never come out from under. Is this—
the fairest truth of all?
Or maybe we’ll go on not knowing any answers, keep trying to reverse ourselves, erase the parts of us that don’t quite fit as the reflection multiplies ad infinitum, a word that itself feels wrought with blue and suggests a bright but thinning air. Preparing for takeoff, I secure my seat belt and tray table, and the flight attendant, wielding an oxygen mask like a tasseled wand, mimes an encrypted message of safety, procedure, and the commercial flying machine pushes back and takes to the sky.
When I was in my early twenties and living south of Denver, Colorado—which was not quite San Francisco but the sky was big and open just the same—I got in the habit of visiting a Baptist church downtown, slinking into the back pews unseen, just to see a boy, no more than nine years old, sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” At that point I thought nothing could top notable performances of that song by Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, even Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount, but something about this boy had me captivated.
That same spring my father sent me a compilation of our old recordings, nearly a year’s worth of cassette tapes dubbed and condensed into a single, slick CD. The small package was addressed with my initials in the same fluid hand he’d used to label the tapes.
That morning, before the package arrived, I had taken my coffee by the window and watched the paths of campus fill with students dragging their feet to the dining hall. I listened to the brisk stampede of the cross-country team cutting across the quad and the lazy hum of a bicycle over the stone campus paths as I lit a cigarette and, barefoot and a little bit hung over, tried to balance on a skateboard a boy had left by my bed.
On the cover of the album my father had fashioned an old photograph of me nestled into his big leather chair, same bare legs and bony feet. His guitar filled my lap, my arms rested on the glazed wood of its hollow form.
As the cross-country team circled back, returning from their mountain drills, I still sat with the copy of our recordings, trying to decipher my father’s overture. I imagined Fitzgerald might have felt similarly when he set about to chronicle the Jazz Age, knowing it was too soon to maintain a clear perspective. “The present writer already looks back to it with nostalgia,” he wrote. After I left New York to attend college and travel, I assumed the obligatory gestures toward my father—sent postcards, telephoned on Christmas. During my visits home we met occasionally, for lunch in Manhattan, but our meetings were composed of disjointed conversation. In college I studied politics and literature, still searching for Dickensian virtue and rebellion, still idolizing Bob Kaufman, too. My father had assumed various new philosophies that seemed to profess a metaphysical detachment from the world. Though I tried to look back wistfully, I knew that years had solidified the fact that if he and I had ever been a band, we had long since split.
I listened to the CD that morning. The sound was crisp, clear. It picked up the interim noise that had blended into the vast background of the cassette recording: the start and stop of the tape recorder, the white noise between songs, even the muffled groan of traffic outside our apartment window. With each tune, the guitar’s classical melody and my father’s steady voice buttressed my wild young vocals. I hadn’t mastered the microphone. The sound of my voice fluctuated from strident and piercing high notes to muted lows as if I had just begun to walk away. We may have given a mismatched performance, but we kept good time. We were bound in key.
I don’t know why the package arrived when it did. Perhaps, just weeks before my college graduation—something of a milestone in my family—my father longed for old times. I couldn’t be sure. After years of attempting to navigate the role of out-of-touch daughter, I didn’t know my father at all. But listening to the recording, with the shrill of my own voice barreling through “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and the steady strum of his guitar in my ear, I realized: we shared a common history. Perhaps we might communicate, as we once had, through sound.
Paul McCartney has said that he wrote the song “Blackbird” about the struggle of African Americans during the civil rights movement shortly after the riots in Little Rock, Arkansas, when racial tensions in the state escalated in the spring of 1968. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, McCartney explained that he intended the blackbird to be a symbol of the black woman. McCartney couldn’t have known how it felt to be a black woman in America in the 1960s any more than a black woman fighting for her rights in America would have known how it felt to be a Beatle. But when McCartney wrote “take these broken wings and learn to fly,” it was a poetic appeal for strength over adversity. It is a song about perseverance, a song of support.
My father’s whole body moves when he laughs. After I ask him about the summer of 1970, his shoulders heave silently and he shakes his head as, I imagine, he pictures himself as a young man. I try to do the same—to see the lankiness of his adolescence, the dome of his hair, the thick glasses and thin mustache. Now when he smiles I notice the crow’s-feet around his eyes, the new creases in his brow. My face is a facsimile of his. While the lines of my features are tweaked for more feminine angles, my cheeks still ball and blush like his, just as they did when I was a girl, when we laughed together and sang folk songs and rock ’n’ roll.
We sat in a French café on West Fourth Street, at a wobbling table by a window. A voice recorder lay between us. I had decided to record my father. I was newly graduated and trying to be a journalist, but I was bitter and lost and needed to get my own stories straight. Our waiter approached and kneeled to wedge a piece of folded cardboard under the table’s leg. My father, with two palms splayed flat on the marble surface, tested its balance, while I gripped a small vase filled with baby’s breath and a synthetic red carnation. My father ordered a drink. I took a steady stream of coffee.
“Can that thing record with all the noise in here?” he asked.
Checking the recording light, I assured him everything was fine.
My father sipped his Scotch. He was dressed in a black turtleneck and slacks, like an aging Beat, a stoic panther. His hair, trimmed short, had begun to gray near his temples. “Where shall I start?” he asked.
I told him it didn’t matter. I wanted to know everything.
“I made a few notes,” he said, reaching into his jacket. He unfolded a piece of paper, put on his wire-rimmed glasses, and peered down at the page. He had made an outline. It was typed. I watched him trace his finger along an ash-colored line of the marble tabletop and look down into his plate. For as long as I can remember, my father has dropped his head when he recalls a feeling, the same as when he listens. After a moment he cleared his throat. His voice sounded strong, as if just tuned.
He began from the beginning.
That afternoon, during our first recording, my father told me about his earliest memories: of standing barefoot in a yard as he watched his family’s house burn down in Western Pennsylvania; of the neighbor who gave him a secondhand violin and the miles he used to walk to reach his lessons in a nearby town. He told me about his first guitar, “the love of his life,” about the day it was run over by a bus, and about how my mother saved up to buy him a new one, the one he still has to this day. He told me about the year he was drafted to Vietnam. Although his mother offered to send him to Canada, he reported as directed, to the Pittsburgh Induction Center, where he waited for hours before an officer, sizing him up, grew skeptical of his stance and deemed him unfit for service: flat feet. A month later, his friend Ronnie, a fellow tuba player and the life of the party, came home having lost both of his legs.
I may never know the most intimate details of my father’s life or why, after years, he agreed without hesitation to let me record his story. Perhaps there is something that inspires us as adults to share who we are in the same way that as children we feel safely compelled to belt out our voices. Some of the best, most enduring songs in American music are reinvented. Nursery rhymes have lasted for centuries with new interpretations, new verses, and new hand gestures to serve succeeding generations. Perhaps in life and family, just as in music, we can only hope to rebuild, to relisten, to remix.
The remix is a sampling intended not to reconstruct but rather to repurpose. We are not rewriting history, just reimagining the tense and tempo of its verses, reassigning the beats—who gets beat, who holds the beat, who goes to war, who stays silent.
The thing about the boy in the Baptist church that has stayed with me was the way he sang with pure abandon. He had full lips that he licked and moistened in between lines, and the resonance of his voice emerging from such a small body carried an unexpected, chilling force. “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” is not an easy song to sing, so when it is done right it’s awe-inspiring. In the same way, I remember hearing Eva Cassidy’s version of Pete Seeger’s “Had I a Golden Thread” recorded shortly before her death in 1996. A world apart from Seeger’s banjo folk song, Cassidy’s version rang out as blues. Against a background of pounding funk and organ riffs, her vocals belt through each verse, transporting the lyrics in a hair-raising gospel of throaty high notes and crescendos that brought an old song back to life.
Later that evening at home, after visiting with my father, I dug out a set of old headphones that fit snugly around my head and listened to the new recording. The intonation of his voice rose and fell with thoughtful reflection, and sometimes, with the excitement of a child, as he recalled memories of his youth, his teenage years, his wants and struggles into adulthood. When I reached the end of the recording, nearly three hours’ worth of tape, I listened again. Each time I pulled new details from his voice, new meaning from the pool of sound, re-envisioning a man, filling the years of silence.
The sound of my own voice was surprisingly steady, near adult.
“Do you remember singing together?” I ask. This is the question that makes my voice crack, and spill into the ocean of sound between us. Awaiting his response all I really want to know is if he remembers the way I do, if he was present in our past. Between my question and his answer there is enough time to project the fate of this collaboration. This would be our B side, the second side of vinyl where record labels place, not the lesser tracks but the more experimental tunes, when the band lets loose and plays. But what if a short studio session in the fall of 1986 was all we had? What if our father-daughter duo wasn’t the show-stopper I once believed it to be, but instead was nothing but hype?
But my father still repeats my questions with the same smiling tone he used when I was young: “Do I remember singing together?” When he speaks again it is both stern and gentle: “Those recordings . . .” His voice thins and retreats. I press the headphones against my ears, as if I might miss something. He is quiet for a long time. Then I hear the faint rumbling train of his breath—“You were really something,” he says—and maybe we are bound for glory now.
My father heightens his voice to imitate my straining falsetto.
“My . . . Fair . . . Lady . . .”
His deep laughter bathes the space around my ear. And in that moment, I wonder how he’s kept his voice so strong. I wonder if maybe he’s been out on the frontlines all this time—staying ahead of things until his name is next called so he won’t be sent home, watching his friends return changed, watching his children grow up changed—keeping his fingers fast and nimble, the black knuckles of a jazzman dancing over the frets, his guitar tuned and burning, so he can keep the beat happening, can keep singing about blackbirds and sparrows all through the second side.