When the storm’s coming, you can feel it. The atmosphere’s tense, quivering the leaves, hot, damp air close up to your face, the cloud doubling and darkening, metallic grey, sucking in the light. There’s a portent in the frenzy of birds and the cat’s retreat into the bottom of the clothes cupboard. Sometimes night falls and everything is still on edge, pending. The child loves to hear the thunder sneak up in the dark with a low growl. She counts the seconds after each cannonade. When the rain finally falls, you can’t hear much else, even when there’s shouting. She likes to climb out of bed into her window and get gooseflesh in the wind, then to jump back, shivering, under the covers to get warm. Then she does it again. Once there were hailstones, thrashing the asbestos roof. The noise obliterated everything, like a drug; she slept.
On October 24, 1956, the day I turned 9.8, my grandmother came to take me out of school in Budapest’s 6th District. We were in the middle of reviewing decimal points because of a mistake a classmate named Mary had made. Other parents and grandparents were arriving too with the same aim, although no one had come yet to get Zoli, the boy who sat beside me.
When your partner comes home with you for the first time, try to prepare her. Explain how they still see you as a child: cake and candles, streamers and balloons, bubblegum and colored pencils as parting gifts. Though you’re twenty-three, your father insists, “You won’t be grown up in my book until I’ve walked you down the aisle.” Expect jokes about Clinton’s impeachment and Hillary’s headbands. Anticipate talk of bootstraps—how “some people” have never learned to pull themselves up. On the refrigerator, George and Laura Bush grin inside a heart-shaped magnet. The radio plays Rush Limbaugh all afternoon.
11 Warnings: How to Avoid Talking Politics at Parties
At the boarding school where I teach, my campus residence bears a plaque with the name of an English teacher who drowned after falling through ice. He had been skating on the river after the year’s first deep freeze, which had been followed by a snowstorm. I was told that once his pickup hockey game had ended and the players dispersed, he made the choice to remain behind, to skate upriver, enticed, perhaps, by the beauty of new snow, to explore the transformed hemlock-banked waterway alone. This happened the winter I was hired, before I started teaching the following fall. Our paths had crossed briefly during a fellowship in New York City and at a cookout in New Hampshire with friends we had in common. I didn’t know him well, but liked him immediately, and afterward I felt as if I’d lost a friend, a kindred spirit. I appreciate what he might have felt. The power that could have drawn him onward along that white, unblemished path until it betrayed him.
My friend with the brain tumor—a grisly glioma
Surgeons can’t get to the bottom of—that on one side
Of his head presses transmitters on the other, hears
A constant, streaming waterwheel of voices and music,
Slopping pails drawn up from who knows where
Each of us has reservoired it all—the dreamhorde,
The broadcasts, bunny hops, back seat schmoozing,
Nixon’s re-election bid, Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,”
Cheap café tunes with dummy lyrics, traffic reports,