WHEN I WAS BETTER (A NOVEL)

1957, January 30. Szombathely, Hungary

Eight months and four weeks to the day after István first set eyes on his son, he was announcing his departure. Etelka could hear it in her head. The orchestral interlude. Then the final notes of Bartok’s opera she’d heard on the radio. She remembered it all, note for note. Spring, 1945, while she was still just a teenager, Bluebeard sang his final separation song to Judith.

After a long and painful intermission, she said, “So, you’ve made a plan.”

“I’m going to drive –”

“Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.” She leaned against the sink staring at the castaway iron. Etelka wondered what their togetherness had ever meant. She wanted to lay forth one last raillery but controlled herself. Nothing about her goading would have been lighthearted. What did she have to prove? That she was right? That she should never have trusted him from the beginning?

“Where are you?” István asked.

“I’m nowhere,” Etelka answered. The separation began here, the betrayal that saturated her skin like indelible ink. It was a tattoo that read, You Left Me.

Behind them, Attila lay on the day bed, wrapped in blankets, motionless and mute. István turned to look at the baby. “What’s wrong with him?”

“What’s wrong with you?” Etelka asked staring sideways at the floor.

“Why doesn’t he look like me?”

“Because he looks like me.”

“Why is there nothing of me in my son?” István searched his wife’s eyes.

Etelka kept moving. “Children change so much. They can go years without looking like the other parent. It’s not uncommon.”

MY FAIR LADY – THE PUNK VERSION (A NOVELLA)

“Put me in your mouth,” he said, lying naked on his back, his cock strong and insistent. The bloated radiator hissed in the fusty Winnipeg apartment. The world outside was frozen stiff. I wasn’t sure what was more embarrassing, not knowing what he was asking for, or gagging when he shoved it deep into my throat. He was twenty-nine and he wanted it all.

“Turn around, get on all fours, I’m going to come in from behind.” He instructed me, manipulated my body like play-dough until I was exhausted and saggy. I had been so determined to resist him; he had never been what I thought of as ‘my type’, but now in one messy evening of intoxicated abandon I felt addicted to him, powerless to choose, unable to imagine how I would cope without him. What had become of me?

“You’re a natural, Jodie.” He already knew how to get to me, his voice soft and tender as he rammed himself into my submissive body. That one night changed me in ways I could never have anticipated. He possessed me.

For the next two days we lived on sex. Keith’s fridge was pretty bare except for the milk that went with the strong coffee he fed me when my energy got low. He kept me working for half a day. Teaching, pushing, shoving. Moved me from the bed to the floor. I was too tired to know what I was doing anymore.

By mid afternoon of day two, my exhaustion inexplicably turned to weightlessness. I found a second wind from the air I gasped while his thick fingers stretched my mouth.

“Training you to open wide.”

My jaw strained as tears formed in the corners of my eyes.

“You okay?” he asked.

I could only shake my head, with his fingers jammed into my mouth, my throat swelled large.

“Are you hungry yet? There’s not enough meat on you to make a sandwich.”

I was well beyond hunger but it didn’t matter. Like Marianne Faithful, I didn’t care for food much. I thought if I got tiny, people would be kinder to me.

“Come on.” He peeled my body off the bed, stood me up. His arms wrapped around me like a strait jacket. I couldn’t see my clothing anywhere. I was nineteen and things felt weird up between my legs.

“What did you do with my underwear?”

“Why do you need your underwear?”

I tried not to cry as Keith jumped to his feet on top of the mattress and began to lip-sync and play air tambourine to As Tears Go By. I watched his penis swing from side to side. “I don’t want you wearing underwear when we go out.”

 

LIVING TWO WARS (AN ESSAY)

The ‘savage Serb’ was a term I learned from my parents and relatives. They had nothing good to say about the race they once overtook. As a child I believed what I heard, albeit with confusion, because I instinctively felt I wasn’t getting all the information. What made the Serbs savage? Were they born that way? Or were they simply evil people?

 

“Thanks for an amazing read. The acute reminder of the ‘bullet that rang around the world’, is how I learnt about the reason for WWI. To realize again the Serb connection and how it was a continuous history thread that of course finds us in Canada. Both sides, newborns, refugees and lovers united and confused suffer from the aftermath of wars. The storyteller speaks with the depth of authenticity you know and feel this must be a true telling. The weaving of ignorance and openness and the twisted way we often learn through our skin despite the naivety of our actions. Actions tainted by our immediate ancestors live long in us through their prejudices purposely taught or not and how much it takes to go beyond them. If we ever do. And how the perceived enemy teaches us more than we can ever appreciate. To meet in the space of therapy was so very North American. Thanks, this is the second story I have read from this author. More more more please.”

Carol-Anne Bickerstaff

THE DAMAGE IS DONE (A PLAY)

Scene 1 – Dear Gabor

Projection:  (I Remember)

Sound: Alice Cooper, School’s Out riff.

Projection: (I Remember) Hungarian Radio and the Effects of Trauma

[Rita plays air guitar as Gabor Maté moves upstage to his table and chair, and turns on a lamp.]

Projection: (projected on screen via the overhead camera). Gabor places a large envelope on the table, takes out a letter and some photographs. Gabor unfolds the letter.]

Projection: July 2008, Hamilton.

GABOR: [reads from Rita’s letter] July 2008, Dear Gabor Maté, I visit my elderly parents twice a year. That’s all I can stand.

RITA: I shut down even before my flight lands in Hamilton.

Sound: Airplane landing.

RITA: No matter what success I’ve achieved in life, every visit forecasts turmoil as I anticipate stepping foot in my family home. I arrive on an early morning flight from Calgary. Stayed up far too late smoking pot. My last rebellion before arriving home. Choosing not to sleep in my childhood room upstairs I carry my suitcase downstairs. Repainted walls and new furniture help, but it’s still my brother Gabor’s old room, where he lived and coiled like a snake. I sit on the bed, take in the coral walls.

Sound: BB Gabor, Outsider, faintly.

I can still hear BB Gabor at ear-splitting volumes, and our arguments, my brother’s and mine, which never ended positively unless of course I conceded that the world was going to hell. His deep, dark, hollow depressions, his fury against the world.

Sound: BB Gabor, Outsider, fades out.

Sound: Distant voices of an argument, like memory.

I can hear other things too. Shouting. Accusations. Animosity turning to hatred, between my brother and my father; the threat of violence simmering between them; brother passed out on the rec room floor full of bourbon and valium. Mother endlessly berating father for his withdrawn silence; her resentment at the “overtime” spent at the service station tinkering with car engines; her mantra, “The station is his church and the car his God.”

Then, another memory:

She’s crazy! There was no food when I was a child!” My mother curses the result on the bathroom scale as I look down at my feet.

Eight pounds in two weeks! She’s your daughter. Do something!”

My father turns to me, desperation in his eyes. “What’s wrong my little kitten? Why are you doing this?”

I was eleven. That’s when it started.

I take a deep breath, force myself to present time and head up to the kitchen. How does the past so easily obliterate the soothing smell of turkey neck soup and the comfort of a clean home, appointed with hand embroidered pillowcases and hardwood floors?

My mother cooks from morning to night. If only she’d sit down, just once, and rest. The kitchen is her church and food her Communion. Everything else has failed her. Including her daughter.

“Tul sötétt a hajad. Jól néztél ki vörös hajjal.” Your hair’s too black, she says, you looked better with red hair.

I sit, flip through Nők Lapja, a Hungarian women’s magazine. Takes me forever to read in Hungarian. So I give up, look at the tacky fashion spread instead. Do-it-yourself trends and the exclusive availability of red hair dye and blue eye shadow during Communist times pervades the aesthetic today. Horrible.

“Can you still read?” my mother asks.

Sound: Classical music on the radio, loud.

I don’t answer. Dizziness and a hangover settle in. For twenty years, the radio has remained on this station. Abrasive over the racket of my mother’s cooking; a boiling kettle, frying onions, an ancient coffee grinder and slamming cupboard doors.

Sound: Heavy aircraft and gunfire, bombs exploding, loud.

My half-deaf father watches television in the TV room. I follow the sound of war down the hall. At the doorway, I implore him to put on his headphones. He nods and complies. He looks small and frail, sunken in the brown loveseat as he reaches for the headphones, the skin on his hands translucent and thin.

“Can I get you something?” My father doesn’t hear me.

Sound: Classical music on the radio and a mixer.

I return to the kitchen, more auditory assault, and read the Hamilton Spectator. Crappy reporting. My mother’s roiling. She burned the onions a second time. Swearing, she tosses the fry pan in the sink.

“I should have ended it long ago,” she says, under her breath. Her comment feels like a fork stabbing my gut. My chest feels hard as a cutting board.

Sound: Coffee grinder.

“Are you going to eat something already?” she asks.

“I’m not hungry.” [Rita sneezes]

“You’re cold,” says my mother.

“I’m not cold. I just sneezed.”

“You’re sick,” she says.

“I’m not sick, I just like sneezing.” [sneeze] “I’m turning off the radio, that’s what’s making me sick.”

Sound: Radio off.

I’m teaching her a lesson on the positive effects of silence on her over-reactive nervous system. The state in which she could learn calm, and reconciliation, if she really wanted to.

“If I didn’t have my music, I’d go crazy,” she says. “I’ve spent sixty years living with his silence. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.

Can you at least listen to CBC for a change? You’d learn something,” I say.

“It’s a bunch of talk. They’re not saying anything.”

That’s because you’re not listening.” My neck’s getting tight. I’ve got a stabbing pain in the back of my head. “People on radio, have discussions! And debates! On politics and important issues. How the fuck do you know everything?”

Sound: Classical music on the radio. Then scroll through radio stations. Ending on CBC Radio interview with Eleanor Wachtel.

The radio’s back on. I scroll through obnoxious commercials, more horns, and other stations I momentarily mistake for the sophisticated sound of the CBC. [pause]

Like the tranquility that descends after a puff on a joint, the voice of Eleanor Wachtel and the interviewee on Writers and Company relaxes me.

See, it’s about a book. They’re interviewing a famous writer.”

“Ez is csak beszéd.”

“It’s not just chatter!” [turn off radio] I turn a page of Nők Lapja. Another ugly dress. “The CBC is NOT just chatter!” Imposing my lifestyle on her, in her home, I feel justified. Why not improve her English? At seventy-eight she could attempt to accept a language she’s never liked and learn to speak properly.

“If you’d only listen,” I mutter.

She collects her mixing bowls, her batter and heads for the second kitchen in the basement, away from me. I still haven’t learned how to honor my mother… I’m such an asshole. [pause]

Sound: BB Gabor’s Metropolitan Life.

[Rita does as agitated movement sequence.]

GABOR: [reads from Rita’s letter] Gabor, you’re Hungarian.

GABOR/RITA: Tell me, are all Hungarian families this fucked up? Or is it just mine?

RITA: Looking forward to your reply. All the best, Rita.

GABOR: [pause] Dear Rita. Where there is anger,” says the great teacher Eckhart Tolle, “there is always pain underneath.” Do you dare feel your pain, Rita? Or only your anger at yourself and your mother?