Streaming Now

Three Things I Have Been Thinking About

Photo by Edenpictures, via Flickr



When I was nineteen and living uptown near Columbia University, my boyfriend and I would go to a small bakery. The man who owned the shop worked unassisted, selling napoleons, linzer tarts with current jam, chocolate brownies, milk, and homemade matzohs. His clothes were well worn and pressed. When he wasn’t behind the counter, he sat on a chair, talking to whomever took the seat beside him. The first time we went in, he was reading Huckleberry Finn. Other times, other books. He was always reading. When you paid him, he said, “That is correct.”

One day we bought napoleons and took them to our apartment. I opened the bag and put them on a plate. The top layer of icing had hardened. The layers of what should have been custard had turned to glue, the layers of puff pastry were cardboard, and underneath the second layer were baby cockroaches, moving very quickly once exposed. I took the pastries back to the man—the reader, the polite proprietor who was there all the time—and, with a glance at the cakes, said, “You probably put the bugs there yourself.”

A few times I tried to write about this incident so that I—who was better off than the man, at least in having my whole life ahead of me—didn’t come off mean-spirited for reporting what had happened. But who cares how I come off? The story is hilarious and meaningless and tragic and, best of all, surprising.

You never know when anyone will say anything to you, and often the things they say are appalling and memorable; at least, the appalling things you remember are memorable, without knowing why you remember them. The thought that there are reasons for the things we remember, psychological reasons that link circumstance A to feeling B, this I don’t believe, and if I did believe it, I wouldn’t care about it.

Today, for reasons I could tell you and you wouldn’t care about and so I won’t bore you with the reasons, I remembered sitting beside a writer in a bar, and he was telling me about a group that had been formed by a mutual friend, and I was learning about my exclusion at that very moment, sitting beside him in the bar, and I went white, my insides went white, and I must have said something like, “I wonder why,” and without missing a beat and with an expression he couldn’t possibly have known about, said, “Maybe she thought you weren’t intellectual enough.”


For months, maybe years—probably years—I dreamed of the day I could tell you about the sisters who own the building where I lived for forty-three years. I needed to wait until I told them I was not renewing my lease, until I had hired a moving company, until I had returned to the apartment to clean it and leave behind the keys, until I had received a check for my security deposit, if I was ever going to receive one. The man I live with said more times than you want to imagine, “They will never give you the money.”

I lived at 808 West End Avenue in apartment 511. In 1978, a friend was moving in with her boyfriend and said I could have her place. I had been living in East Hampton and had started an affair with an artist too old for me to have a real life with and therefore perfect because I didn’t want to have a real life. The apartment was not me. It was never me. The artist said, “You will fix it up. You will make it beautiful.” I didn’t want to live on the Upper West Side. My life was Downtown. I had a bike. I rode everywhere.

The problem with telling you about the sisters, C and D, is that I have nothing shaded or complex to say about them. To tell you about the sisters is to celebrate their vileness. This isn’t supposed to work. Mostly when I write, I check to see if I am asking something of the reader the reader has no interest in giving me, such as feel something on my behalf. I don’t want you to feel anything on my behalf. My job is to entertain you. Still, I can’t resist using the freedom I have had for less than a month, really, to say anything I want without fear of retribution.

Fear, it is dawning on me now, is the real subject here. I was afraid of them for forty-three years. I learned nothing about myself or the world in the embrace of that fear. More than the sound of birdsong outside the windows of the house where I now live, or the towering trees that rise up everywhere in view, or the fun of transforming a property treated without tenderness or care by its former serial-killer (I can only assume) owners, I value in my new life awakening without fear.

I value knowing I will never again—I mean, never again—have to see the broken tiles on the hallway floors and the dim lighting in the empty, cavernous lobby that resembles a holding pen outside a room for interrogation. Never again see the unhappy faces of the sisters C and D and hear their voices that shrieked rather than spoke all communication to tenants and workers, yelled threats and insults with a streak of violence and madness that reminded me of things I could become someday if I sank into bitterness.

All the tenants in the old guard with rent-stabilized apartments, all of us to a person who had not yet died on our parquet floors (and there have been many of us), all of us wished secretly and aloud for several of the rickety gargoyles that line the facade of the upper stories to come crashing down on the heads of the sisters C and D and, as even a mercy to them, end a misery so deep and encrusted, no one could fathom the bottom of it.

What could they have done to me? It doesn’t matter. Fear is an environment when you live in it and then, when it’s relieved, a memory you don’t want to revisit. I can tell you about the joy of no longer feeling it, although, even as I write this, I wonder if somehow these words will get back to them and they will figure out a way to rekindle our relationship. I suppose we will always be attached. You can’t live with people that long and ever be entirely free. Every life is colored, at least some of the time, by the plot of Oliver Twist, lifted from terror as if for good, only to be pulled back to it.

I understand it’s confusing to read things people say about their experiences and to think the important thing about them is that they happened to the person. I’m asking you to think a different way.

I will end this section on a positive note from C. I wasn’t entirely truthful when I said there weren’t any. It concerns her final interaction with me after inspecting the apartment. She was trying to wriggle out of returning the security deposit—of course. I left thousands of dollars’ worth of renovations I had done over the years on the table. Never mind. She said, “There are scratches on the top of the stove.” I said, “They were there when you insisted I accept a cast-off stove from the basement.” She said, “The toilet seat is broken, and I will have to replace it. And it’s pink, and I will have to find a match.” I said, “I don’t know how the toilet seat got broken.” I did know, and by broken she meant there was a small crack in it from a picture that fell when my neighbor was watering my plants and slammed the door. I said, “When you had tiles removed from the floor to repair a leak, no one matched the color then.” I said, “So you are saying you had been planning to give the next tenant a toilet seat made of wood someone else had used for forty-three years?” She said, “I’ll send you a check.” And she did.


This morning, the man I live with and I were talking about the long tail of incidents in our lives that were startling, and that at the time we found startling without knowing they would also be life changing.

I have been thinking lately about forms of disappointment that went into me in ways that deterred my progress toward a goal or toward more creative freedom, and how difficult it generally is for me to know this is happening. I was thinking about the many women I know who have been raped and how, in each case, the rape set the future course of their lives in ways that became clearer to them, increasingly in retrospect.

I’m going to tell you something else I have been thinking about, but first I am going to tell you what this piece of writing isn’t. It’s not a confession or a cry for help or commiseration. I do not want these things. The writing does not want these things. I understand it’s confusing to read things people say about their experiences and to think the important thing about them is that they happened to the person. I’m asking you to think a different way. I’m asking you to look at this section as a piece of writing that plays with language in order to produce an effect on the reader, and in order to turn a personal event into a subject for contemplation.

I am going to tell you about André Glaz, the psychoanalyst who touched me sexually when I was fourteen, began having sex with my cousin when she was eleven, and had sex with other children and with many of the women who came to him for treatment. He shaped my life.

He didn’t rape me. He took me to his bed in a country house he owned and began to induct me into sex with him by touching my naked breasts and, in a second session that night, arousing the rest of my naked body and asking me to touch him. These episodes seemed to go on forever. I don’t know how long they went on. In the first experience, I left my body and rose to the ceiling and looked down, wondering how to make it stop. During the second, bolder session, other people were in the house, and when I said to André I was tired, did not want him to do what he was doing, and that I wanted to go to sleep, he left the bed and slept somewhere else that night.

I was shocked he left the bed. I thought he was angry with me. He probably was angry with me.

At the time this happened, André was in his sixties, ugly, and fat. Even at fourteen, I was struck by the presumptuousness of his thinking I would in any way want him. I’m sure he did not give one tiny thought to what I may have wanted or not wanted. This was not my first sexual experience, although André touched me in ways I had not been touched before. I was interested in sex. I can’t remember a time I didn’t behave in a way that could be regarded as flirtatious and sexually curious. I was flirtatious and sexually curious. I am still those things.

The reason I floated to the ceiling is because reality shifted when André told me to remove my sweater. This is the thing I want to tell you about. I had one life before this incident and another life after it, and my life after was set on a course in ways I will tell you about in a moment.

André was at the center of trust and belief in my family and in my extended family. He was regarded as brilliant and caring, a medical doctor as well as a psychoanalyst, a Jew who had been able to leave France before all Jews there were rounded up and murdered. My mother was his patient, my sister was his patient, my two first cousins, their parents, and more Stones.

What I thought on the bed was: if this is happening, then anything is possible. When JFK was assassinated three years later, I was sad and shocked the way other people were sad and shocked. Also, I was not shocked. I was unable to be shocked. I mean, you know, the planet had already been tipped on its axis. A man touching you in his bed being more of a big deal than the president of the US being killed by an assassin? No. It isn’t. It’s that when Kennedy was shot, I still hadn’t told anyone what happened.

I had been living from that moment on with a giant piece of understanding I absolutely knew I couldn’t share, and that understanding was connected in my mind to how the world worked. It appeared to be A, and I knew it was B. I didn’t want the world to work the way I knew it worked, but I did know, and I felt very alone with this knowledge. The knowledge made me lonely and also gave me my life.

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