There was, there was, and yet there was not. That was the opening to a Georgian folktale my mom used to read to me, and in many ways, this contradictory notion holds true for my book.
There was an almighty chaos, which set in after my father died. In no particular order, my family’s finances seesawed, routines went out the window, and my older siblings joined the Sullivanians, a cult that thrived on New York’s Upper West Side until it disbanded in the late eighties. Our mom sought to reclaim her happiness with someone who made us children unhappy, and in my own blunderbuss fashion, I found my moxie with friends who are still my go-to people to this day.
Memory is an unreliable narrator. I wanted the freedom to condense time and not be beholden to biographic particulars, so I reimagined these events, firstly by making my fictionalized self eight years older than I was in real life when we were bereaved. I have written truthfully about my experience without necessarily being truthful to the facts. I have taken liberties with events I was not privy to or which I heard about secondhand.
By writing in the third person, I allowed Saskia to become a character who is me and not me. This in turn gave me the vehicle to be private in public. The only time I wrote in the first person is in the following excerpt, which was my very first stab at tackling this story.
Most importantly, I wanted to portray the exquisite peculiarities of growing up in a New York that no longer exists, and pay homage to a city that will forever make my heart skip a beat.
As in any good folktale, we eventually had a happy- enough ending. We pulled through it, and then some, with an abundance of love, red wine, and dark humor.
Some people have a bad hair day, but I had a bad hair decade. Looking back on it, I guess you could say that was the least of my problems. You see, my problems were of the chemical type. The fun, up-till-dawn, downtown, party-girl sort, and the sort where cesium meets water, and the world as you know it blows up in your face.
I’ve since traded in living on that little island off the east coast of America for another soggier one, off the northwest coast of Europe. Mostly I have good hair days now, thanks to brand-name products and the knowledge I’ve gained over the years.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This isn’t a story about hair care and island-hopping. It’s about the time when we stopped being “we,” after Daddy died. I think of my father when I smell turpentine and cigarettes. Baseball and highballs. Rothko reds and the blue notes of jazz. NYC is my DNA. Blondie and the great blackout are in my bloodline. Broadway is a river in me and my family are the rocks, worn smooth, which, no matter how far I travel, will always remain at the center of my being.
1. No Place Like Home
Chelsea, New York, 1977
Right now, as the lights on the Empire State Building are being switched off, Saskia beholds the swagger of the city at dawn and feels her soul changing colors. For the second time that night, Manhattan has held her to its heart and shown her the impossibility of darkness in the light of day.
She crosses Seventh Avenue when the Walk sign changes, and starts down the stairs to the uptown local, but stops mid- step when a white limousine with a wilted bouquet of flowers on its hood cruises to a halt and double-parks at the corner of Twenty-Third Street.
She hurries back to street level, wondering if it’s that very same limo from that night way back when, before the world as she knew it fell down. She cautiously traces her reflection in its darkened window.
It’s as though only the pane of glass separates her from the past. True, she has the same curly hair and green eyes, but the scab on her thinned cheek and the faint red marks around her neck are as different as the girl she was two-and-something years ago.
She seems to reach into herself as she watches the limo pull off and disappear into traffic. Instead of continuing to the uptown train, she ducks into a twenty-four-hour deli where she selects a legal pad, a pen, a can of seltzer, and a box of Cracker Jacks. By the time she boards the downtown local, it’s light outside.
Gramercy Park, New York, 1975
It’s not that her parents fight often, but Saskia can always tell when they do. There was one fight that was truly terrible. Daddy called Mom spoiled and she accused him of limiting her and then he slept in the maid’s room for two whole nights. But that was a long time ago and thankfully has never been repeated.
She has friends in her eighth-grade class whose parents are divorced, but she never worries about it with the two of them. Even her aunt Tilly is divorced, which is why Daddy helps his sister as much as he can, and also why Mom sometimes gets annoyed by how often Tilly comes over for dinner.
Saskia’s the last one up this morning since her big brother Toby has swim practice every day before school and Naomi, who is a year behind Toby, volunteered to help decorate the gym for the high school dance.
When she finds Daddy in the kitchen preparing a breakfast tray, there is a giddy second when she thinks it’s for her. After all, he is the one who is going to be in the hospital for the weekend, and not just any weekend, but Valentine’s Day weekend at that.
But when she clocks that Mom isn’t there she figures something must have blipped while they were out last night. She had helped Mom pick her earrings and fastened Daddy’s cufflinks, before waving them off. She knows it’s corny, but she loves how handsome they look together. To her, Daddy is the Miles to Mom’s Mozart. Their different styles make them tick.
Daddy is in his pajamas, brewing coffee, and listening to the radio, and instead of smelling like he always does of Royal Copenhagen aftershave, he has stubble on his chin and his springy dark hair is rumpled. He playfully groans when she sits on his lap. “No wonder I busted a gut.”
“Are you calling me fat?”
“No sweetheart. I’m calling you trouble with a capital S.” He drops an Alka-Seltzer into a glass of water and with
that burst of fizz, she can just about hear the high notes of the night before. It doesn’t happen often, but often enough for her to know that when he gets juiced, Mom gets jangly.
“What?” Daddy protests when he catches her look. “It’s not every day that your pal gets a promotion.”
“You know she hates it when you do that,” Saskia scolds, while twirling his wedding ring.
“Libby and Mom didn’t exactly complain when we ordered that second bottle of champagne. Mom never usually rounds a third, but she did last night,” he says. Saskia stares him down until he shrugs sheepishly and admits, “Then Tom and I put the ladies in a taxi and had a nightcap, or four.”
Saskia pats his bathrobe pocket to see if he has a Valentine’s Day card for her, but it’s empty, so she reasons that he’ll give her one when he gets home on Sunday. She wonders if she should give him his card now to open a day early, or put it in his overnight bag to have for tomorrow.
Valentine’s Day is like an empty frame. She knows its shape, but not its content. She’s never received a card from a secret admirer or been kissed by a boy. She’s not as developed as some girls in her class who have the straight hair she longs for and already wear bras. She’s not popular or unpopular; she’s a second or third choice rather than a first.
The coffee finishes brewing so she gets up to pour him one with milk, no sugar, the way he always takes it. “What will your doctor say?”
“My hernia has nothing to do with my liver,” Daddy laughs, then breaks a bloom off a potted poinsettia that adorns the windowsill to place among a saucer of grapes. “What are they teaching at that fancy place I send you to?”
Whatever it is, is going over my head, she thinks. She’s not like her best friend Kathleen, who always gets straight As, although she never makes her feel dumb, or Toby, pianist and editor of his school newspaper, or even Naomi, who seems to have inherited Mom’s good looks and her love of theater. She’s the caboose on a fast train.
Daddy gets out the eggs to scramble while she finds him a bowl and the whisk. Then she puts butter in the pan and asks, “Can we go out for dinner Sunday?”
“On one condition. Promise to be home on time to say goodbye?”
“I promise, so long as you promise to take us to Luchow’s.” “Deal.” They shake.
When the eggs finish, Daddy motions for her to open
the swing door that leads to the dining room. She picks up his coffee cup and follows him through the dining room and down the carpeted hallway, densely hung with the prints he sells at his gallery, to the sunny master bedroom.
Mom is propped up in bed, reading War and Peace, and surrounded by silk throw pillows. Her long, brown hair is loose, and the traces of last night’s makeup cause her hazel eyes to look even more sultry than usual. “You’re going to be late to school,” she says, without looking up.
“No, I’m not.”
“Just because some of us chose to come home in the small hours, doesn’t give you license to be tardy.” Mom signals for Saskia to turn around and gestures toward a spot where her shirt isn’t properly tucked into the waistband of her pleated uniform.
“Here you go, Duchess.” Daddy places the tray on the bedside table and sits down on her side of the bed. Mom moves away from him and slowly turns a page of her book.
“It won’t happen again,” Daddy continues, crossing his fingers so only Saskia can see.
He reaches over to move a loose strand of Mom’s hair but she slaps his hand. He tries to kiss Mom, but she turns away sharply.
“This is no time to be hovering,” Mom barks to Saskia. “You should be on your way.”
Saskia hates to leave them all angry and tangled like this. She hesitates, spying their framed wedding photo. “Tell me the story of how you two met again?”
“Spare me. Besides, you know the gory details inside out,” Mom replies tersely.
She sure does. Mom was doing summer stock. Daddy crashed an after-party with a friend. They eloped seven weeks later and then moved to a West Village walk-up.
Daddy throws Saskia a grateful look and picks up his cue. “If you won’t tell, then I will. You asked me to hold your drink—”
“I live to rue the day,” Mom interrupts.
Daddy continues, undeterred, “And then I asked you out.” “More fool I.”
“Then lo and behold, our first date lasted three days.” “That’s an inappropriate disclosure,” Mom says, turning
“Your parents were dismayed that you were marrying down and were convinced we’d starve. But I promised them there was a rich man in me, waiting to get out.”
Mom puts her book down and fixes him with a haughty stare. “My father always said it’s rude to talk about money.” “My pops always said twenty percent off is a bargain, fifty percent a mitzvah.”
Mom stifles a smile and returns to her novel.
“I guess we could both agree that opposites attract,”
Daddy says, and holds out the grapes.
Mom brushes her fingers against his when she selects one
and delicately peels it with her teeth. “Your transgression is going to cost you.” Mom pauses to eat the grape. “A lot.”
“Sweetheart, can you get some sugar for my coffee?” Daddy asks.
“But you don’t take—” Saskia starts. And then realizes.
She closes the bedroom door behind her, and pauses to listen in to the laughter that gives way to that muffled language of nineteen years of them.
Much later that day, after assembly, after school, after hanging out at Kathleen’s, she and her best friend hook arms as they saunter to Third Avenue, busily imagining what he thinks of them. He is Kathleen’s new neighbor, who looks like a teenage Ryan O’Neal. He is the reason why she goes to Kathleen’s every Friday, and he is the one they try to accidentally-on-purpose bump into while walking Kathleen’s dog, every weekend when he arrives home in a taxi from boarding school.
Although she suspects that the boy prefers Kathleen, who is tow-haired and tomboyish, it’s still fun to make eyes at him and imagine that he might, just might, like her.
While they are waiting on the corner of Seventeenth Street – 13 –
for the Walk sign, Saskia hears the music of the city at night and wonders what riffs her future will bring. As if on cue, a white limousine with a bouquet of fresh flowers attached to its hood double-parks in front of them.
“I’ve never seen one so pretty,” Saskia exclaims. “What I wouldn’t give to ride in one of those.”
“Maybe we’ll rent one for our junior prom,” Kathleen sighs dreamily.
“I don’t want to wait that long. Come on, let’s make a wish.”
The girls touch their reflections on the glossy patina of the limo as though it were a genie’s bottle. “I wish I get to ride around in limos when I grow up,” Saskia says.
“I wish that new boy falls in love with me when I grow up,” Kathleen proclaims, just as the lights change and the limousine glides off.
Saskia hastily kisses Kathleen goodbye and crosses the street to run down Irving Place, the cold night air chafing the skin between her knee socks and duffel coat. The windows of Pete’s Tavern are cloudy with cigarette smoke from the Friday- night crowd, the bells in the Con Ed clock tower are chiming seven times, and the crescent moon looks like it’s hanging from a bare tree branch in Gramercy Park.
Mikey, the ruddy-faced doorman, is outside having a smoke under the awning when she arrives, her nose running from the cold and her duffel coat dusted with the snow that has just started to fall. “You’re in the doghouse, young lady. I just put Mr. Soyer in a taxi.”
“Did he say anything?”
“He said you better not stay up too late watching TV, since he doesn’t want you to end up with four eyes and an antenna where your brain should be.”
Her mood slip-slides as she kicks herself for not seeing
Daddy off to the hospital, but then she steadies her conscience with the promise that she’ll make it up to him with a batch of her famous brownies when he gets back. By the time the elevator reaches their sixth-floor apartment, she’s got that Friday feeling back again.
Toby is poring over a map in the living room with his best friend Arthur, both of them having already suited up for the dance. The cowlick in Toby’s thick chestnut hair has been plastered down with Brylcreem and he smells of the Aqua Velva aftershave she gave him for his eighteenth birthday.
She knows they are planning their graduation trip to Paris. And that come July, they’ll be gone for months. She knows, and this is the part that she’d rather un-know, that as of September, Toby will really leave, this time for college. That’s the sticky part. He’s the oil in their family machine, while Naomi is the accelerator. And as Daddy likes to tease, she’s the one with a career in the Foreign Service, since she’s the born diplomat.
Naomi must still be getting dressed, so Saskia drops down beside Toby and leans against his lanky frame as she tries to make sense of the upside-down mass of squiggles that constitute France.
“What’s up, squirt?” Arthur asks when she sighs, his clean- cut blond looks marred by a rash of pimples on his forehead.
“Nothing,” she sulks.
“Let me guess,” Toby says. “Does it start with ‘it’s not fair’?”
“Well, it’s not.”
“Which part?” Toby continues. “Have you got a bad case of the I-wishes?”
Saskia nods and plays with his class ring. He always gets where her thoughts take her.
“Mark my words, when you graduate high school, Mom and Dad will send you to Europe on the QE2.”
“When I get home, I’ll bring back so much French perfume you’ll be swimming in it.”
She hangs up his promise alongside the other shiny ones that he’s made to her, like you’ll outgrow your baby fat, and you’re just as pretty as Naomi. You’re the apple that fell far from the tree, Mom always says to her. Like she really needs reminding.
Naomi comes in brandishing three beers she snuck from the fridge. The red of her dress complements the garnet earrings she must have borrowed from Mom. Naomi usually has an Ali MacGraw-thing going on style-wise, but tonight her thick, dark hair is in a French twist, making her appear more grown-up than ever.
Toby takes one look at Naomi and groans, “People are going to think I’m your kid brother, again.”
“At least she won’t get proofed when we send her in to get a fifth,” Arthur counters.
“I’m your gal Friday when it comes to buying booze,” Naomi jokes. “Think of it, Saskia. By the time your day comes, I’ll be legal.”
“By the time that happens, you’ll be in college,” Saskia replies.
She is forever borrowing her sister’s CoverGirl lipstick and peacock earrings, as though each item could instruct her in how to be prettier, worldlier, sophisticated-er, Naomi-er. She loves talking with Naomi in the dark before they go to sleep, and even though it bugs her sister that they share a room, it never bothers her.
She runs into the kitchen to say hello to Odessa, who is putting the finishing touches to dinner. Her appetite quickens as she smells burnt sugar and dives for one of the meringues that are cooling on the sideboard.
“Have you come in to tell me about your day or to paw at my food? Look with your eyes, child, not with your hands.” Odessa’s voice is stern but her eyes are not. They never are, and never have been in all the years she’s cleaned for them. Her frosted orange lipstick and the burnished brown of her skin are as pretty to Saskia as a butterfly wing.
Odessa listens attentively while Saskia fills her in on how her pop science test went, while together they set the table for supper. Then Odessa puts the plates in the oven to warm and says, “Now go and call everyone for dinner.”
Mom is in the bathroom, listening to classical radio while languishing in a Chanel-scented tub. Whenever she comes in to keep Mom company, Saskia feels as though she’s entering a place where Mom is a woman first, and a mom second. Her mother’s movements become sensual in the water, and she takes an almost girlish pleasure in her ablutions. Mom has a way of switching gears that can sometimes be abrupt, but she is always at her dreamiest here.
In the bathroom, they never talk about the boring day- to-day things like school, only the past. It’s a door that Saskia never gets tired of opening. She’s a junkie for Mom’s stories about the horse she once had, the house she grew up in, and all the things she did before she and Daddy met.
Between Mom and Daddy, she has a world with two suns. Things can get overheated at times, but it never ceases to shine.
After dinner, Toby comes into her room to set up the portable TV in time for The Wizard of Oz. They usually watch something together on a Friday, but Naomi, Toby and Arthur are getting ready to leave and Mom is meeting Tom and Libby across the street for a party at the National Arts Club.
“Can Kathleen and me go to the movies tomorrow?” Saskia climbs under the covers.
“Kathleen and I.” Mom strokes her daughter’s forehead, her fingers cool to the touch. “I don’t see why not.”
The tumbling snow outside her bedside window makes Saskia all the more glad to be snuggled up in her flannel pajamas. She gazes at the bright stacks of windows that assemble her skyline and wonders which hospital floor Daddy is sleeping on tonight.
Arranging the pillows just so, she reaches for the graham crackers and cocoa on her bedside table as the credits on the TV screen roll. She drifts off to dream of Paris and peacock feathers as Dorothy clicks her heels and chants, “There’s no place like home.”
At 10:15 a.m. Saskia wakes with a start. For a moment, she panics about being late to school when she sees that Naomi’s already risen, but then she remembers it’s Saturday and lies back down. It’s too early to call Kathleen, so she gazes outside the window at the sturdy troika of snow-covered water towers on the adjacent rooftop as the day begins to build itself around her.
She listens to find out who is up, but there’s no breakfast radio or trace of voices, only the rhythmic rasp of a shovel scraping the sidewalk as someone clears a path on the street below. She stretches languidly, pushing her leg out from under the quilt to test the room’s brisk temperature, then gets up to go to the bathroom that connects their bedroom to her brother’s. Through the ajar door she can see Toby’s empty bed, so she switches off his overhead light, flexing her toes as she walks to avoid the cold black-and-white-tiled floor.
The phone starts ringing but it stops just as she reaches the foyer. “Is anyone here?” she calls out.
Mom’s pocketbook is gone. There’s another in its place. But it’s too matronly for Naomi and too cheap for Mom. She knows it’s not Odessa’s. She never works weekends and besides, she always uses the patent leather tote Saskia gave her for Christmas.
Confusion turns to joy when she spies Daddy’s fedora and wallet on the hope chest. But her joy is disrupted by a glint of gold next to the hat. It’s his wristwatch and wedding ring. Air seems to fall outside her body as she struggles to grasp why he’s not wearing them. Her mind ripples in the space between seconds. Then a confused whimper escapes her.
The silence that follows curves her soul.
Her thoughts run cold as she whips around, trying to return to a moment that is no longer there.
She can make out that the dining room has been set for breakfast and food is on the table. But the scrambled eggs are hardened and the chairs are still tucked neatly in place. She bursts into the sun-spanked kitchen and promptly trips on the telephone cord that is stretched tautly from the wall socket to the inside of the maid’s room.
She lands awkwardly and the space behind her eyes goes dark. From the floor, she sees the maid’s room door open and cries out for Odessa. But the legs are white instead of black and the shoes aren’t Naomi’s or Mom’s, they’re Tilly’s. As much as she loves Tilly, love has nothing to do with why her aunt is here, or why her face is wet with tears.
She instructs her mouth to form a question.
The answer is there, before Tilly says the two worst words, which Saskia doesn’t need to hear anyway because she knows now that he’s dead. Something older than existence itself has rolled over her life and rearranged it forevermore.
A garbled wail stuns the air. It’s hers. As is the blood from her knees and the thud of her feet as she attempts to run from a day that has changed all her tomorrows.
Her legs leave her. Her ribs split with tears. Tilly wraps her in words that are useless. A door slams. Naomi and Toby are there now, their eyes leaking like stains, propping up Mom between them.
“What happened?” Saskia cries.
“There were complications—” Mom manages before collapsing as though drunk with despair.
“With the anesthetic and he never woke up.” Toby finishes her sentence. The sentence finishes them. They’ve been plunged into a place where their grief has no corners.
If asked, Saskia couldn’t recall when Oma arrived from Philadelphia, or where Tilly slept that first night after he died, or when Libby and Tom arrived, Libby in a fur coat flung over her nightie, having just heard the news. Saskia never saw a grown man cry until Tom broke down, and she never realized that crying could make your stomach hurt like it does when you laugh too much. She doesn’t know what was said when her family grasped each other like buoys, as they weathered the wash of those liquid hours, where one world ended and another began.
Time behaves differently here. Hours no longer amount to days. Time has become units that she must bear, with each block heavier than the rest.
In this new place, promises are exchanged, love offered, loyalties pledged. Allegiances are formed. Oma, Tilly and Odessa work in unison to create order. Meals are prepared, baths drawn, arrangements duly made. She would laugh if it weren’t so awful. As if she cared about what she wears, or who is notified.
Sorry becomes as predictable as shocked. Disembodied voices on the phone keep telling her, again and again, what a mensch Larry was. How friendly, how funny, how warm. She love-hates these people for telling her what she knows.
She is cold when indoors, hot on those few occasions when she ventures outdoors and is met with wet, sympathetic stares from Mikey or their neighbors. The Valentine’s Day decorations in the lobby are a mockery. Love has no business flaunting itself in front of her.
Home is newly hollowed. It prickles with his absence and is rife with his presence. He is there and not there. In her head, he is everywhere. Fixing a highball. Listening to the radio while shaving. Watching the evening news.
Nights are restless. The images on the prints seem to move behind the frames. Shadows do ugly things when she wakes at odd intervals. She is too frightened by the sounds coming from Mom’s room to brave going in there, so she takes to joining Tilly in the kitchen, where she invariably finds her drinking lemon tea while writing to inform their few remaining far- flung relatives of the news.
They wither in their grief. Mom’s eyes grow fat from crying. Naomi’s hair becomes lank and disheveled. Toby develops a spot that weeps with pus and Saskia bites her nails until they bleed. Oma, with the tenderness of a German Buddha, dutifully tries to nurture her daughter and grandchildren back into bloom.
Why? is the question that screams in her head and shrivels on her lips. Why me, is what Mom keeps asking through her tears. Only when the limousine comes to take them to the funeral service in Brooklyn does she see it.
She had let something loose by wanting to ride in one, and Daddy somehow paid the price for her terrible dream. A part of her is saying that’s not logical, but a larger part is saying of course, that makes perfect sense, why would this have happened otherwise, with every thought hitting her harder than the next.
It is then that she swears to herself that she must do anything and everything to make them whole again. If she was responsible in any way for this, then her family’s well-being is now her responsibility. For in letting the genie out of the bottle, she’d invited tragedy into their world.
On that first day back at school, when Kathleen waited on the corner to wordlessly hug her, Saskia said, “Watch me clear the room” before they went into their classroom. She was right. No one knew where to look.
She thought everyone would get used to her soon enough. Then she realized she was the one who couldn’t get used to them. So she starts cutting school to walk the city instead.
It’s so easy. She slips out of the house in her uniform before Mom rises, with her jeans in her knapsack, and changes in the bathroom at a nearby coffee shop. Then she sets off for Kips Bay one day, Stuyvesant Square another.
She expects to be challenged, but never is, so she walks farther and farther, excavating the streets for traces of her dad, a Brooklyn native who once called this city his own. Often, she ends up in Central Park where the granite rocks protrude from the earth as though they were scattered vertebrae of the city. Once there, she spends her spare quarters on carousel rides, hugging the painted Arabian horse tightly as if it could carry her back to the perfection of her past.
But time is more patient than she can ever hope to be and Daddy is folded somewhere within it, leaving her to search alone for a New York that no longer exists.