November 5, 2013 | by Amy Grace Loyd
I was recently asked by a Canadian online magazine to visit with the books on my shelves, to find what I’ve hidden in them over the years—old boarding passes, postcards, grocery lists, a love letter never sent. Yes, I found all these things, but mostly I found tree leaves in my books. The editor wanted a picture, fifty or so words, but I kept writing because it bears explaining why I do this—how I take leaves back to my apartment to identify them, compare them to pictures in other books; and once I’ve named them, or sometimes because I’ve failed to, how I feel compelled to keep the specimens—from ash trees, lindens, London planes, honey locusts, and as-yet unknown (to me) trees all over Brooklyn. They are slipped between pages of novels, story and essay collections, a biography, books I have read and often reread, and when I open them later, forgetting myself and the last day I read that book and where, and under what tree, the leaves reenact the fall, not just one leaf but several, all different sorts, falling, or it’s the fragile end of a branch of a pinnate leaves that’s waiting for me, as here in this photo.
I do this in part because Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Heights in particular, where I’ve lived for over twenty years now, has always felt a refuge from a New York City urbanity that is unabashed and demanding, denuded of softness. The streets in Brooklyn Heights in spring, summer, and every year longer into fall are canopied by the copses of trees, reaching for and finally catching each other. These streets feel like invitations to secrets—the right to secrets—to full breaths and quiet even in this city. The other reason I do this, will always do this, owes to my grandfather, who was an arborist, or tree surgeon, in Vermont. Truth be told, he taught me nothing about trees. I was too young to ask, and in my teens, approaching my twenties, when I did think to inquire, he didn’t seem to care to talk about all the trees he’d pruned, saved, and declared beyond saving, especially during the height of the Dutch elm disease in Vermont, when he and his crew carved up hundreds of elms and carted them away for burning.
He wanted to talk about his life before he was married and settled with children and responsibility in Bennington. He’d been a salesman, an itinerant in the 1920s, and lived in rooming houses up and down the East Coast, from New York to Florida, with other young men similarly and mostly happily unmoored. He saw in my youth his own and described men he’d protected from bigger men, men he’d hit, drank with, women who’d been kind, whose faces now were simply the faces of angels, that out of reach. He died when I was nineteen before my sisters and I had all the right questions to ask, so now I can’t stop asking when I look up from my reading on a city bench or stoop: Is that a Chinese scholar tree? Is that one a Norway maple? I asked recently while reading Grace Paley’s collected stories, reading I first did in the nineties and still do fairly often now, for the immediacy and singularity of Paley’s voice, her frankness and energy (partly a gift of city living and loving), and her humor even when confronting human sorrows and disappointments. The book is full of dust from leaves, like the ones pictured here, that want to disintegrate. I won’t let them. I close the book and reseal them—keep the conversation going.
Amy Grace Loyd’s debut novel, The Affairs of Others, was published by Picador on August 27. Loyd is an executive editor at Byliner Inc. and was the fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine. She worked in The New Yorker’s fiction department and was associate editor for the New York Review Books Classics series. She has been a MacDowell and Yaddo fellow and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
August 20, 2013 | by Alia Akkam
Everywhere I look there is paint. In the bristles of the brushes, hastily run through the sink, that bake atop the windowsill, on the collage of red and black splotches staining the metal table, filling bottles on the back shelf with tempera greens and blues, and dirtying the smocks my classmates gleefully slip on. To them, making papier-mâché panda bears out of old newspapers is a reward for practicing rows of cursive Ks and struggling through multiplication quizzes. I am the one who stares at the clock waiting for a sluggish second hand to make its orbit so I can be a minute closer to the well-worn marble notebooks tucked inside my desk.
Mrs. Grigg is our art teacher. She has a mane of gray curls, wears long, flowing skirts, and smells of musk. I discover that her first name is Yolanda, an ethereal departure from the Pats and Joannes who preside over the PTA bake sales, and I think maybe I can ask her what is wrong with me. Yolanda will tell me the truth. But I see the way she scowls when my ruler fails to prevent crooked lines, and when my green, left-handed scissors leave ragged edges, maligning what could have been a perfect triangle. So I remain silent. One day we are making Santa Clauses out of construction paper. For the artistically average children they will become centerpieces at the Christmas dinner table. I will toss mine into a garbage can on the walk home from school. As I curl strips of white paper around a pencil to make Santa’s beard, frustrated they aren’t half as springy as those the kids around me are churning out, I sulk.
“Are you miserable?” Mrs. Grigg asks me as she shifts the glasses from around her neck to the bridge of her nose and peers at my deformed Santa. I nod. Finally, I tell myself, Yolanda realizes no good can come from me sitting in this room pretending I have a shred of artistic talent. I fear art class almost as much as gym, where I can’t dribble a basketball and am picked last for teams. Even when the kickball is placed on home plate instead of rolled to me, my foot fails to make contact. Surely, being uncoordinated is punishment enough for an elementary school girl surrounded by ruthlessly laughing children. But Mrs. Grigg does not tell me I can sit in the corner and read my language arts textbook as I have dreamed. “You should have told me. You could have made a dreidel,” she says. She leaves me choking in the mist of her earthy perfume before I can tell her I am not Jewish. I continue winding shreds of paper around the unsharpened No. 2, one eye on the clock. Read More »
April 23, 2013 | by Jonathan Wilson
In March 1975, a couple of weeks after my twenty-fifth birthday, I accompanied my girlfriend Tina on a trip to Russia. At the time Tina was a graduate student at the University of Essex pursuing a thesis on “Dostoyevsky and the Russian Orthodox Church,” under the benign supervision of the eminent scholar and translator Angela Livingstone. Londoners both, we had been living together for almost four years in the village of Wivenhoe near its estuary, close to the college campus, far from the big city and the disapproving glare of our respective widowed mothers.
My mother, a conscientious objector to interfaith relationships, had long ago banned Tina from visits to her home. “It’s bad enough you have to go out with someone who isn’t Jewish,” she said, “but why did you have to pick a girl with Christ in her name?”
“Her name’s Tina,” I had replied.
“And what do you think that’s short for, idiot?”
For her own part, Tina’s mother, dressed always in Greek Orthodox widow’s black, was opposed to our living together on moral grounds, which had, I could see, a superior logic.
Our workman’s cottage in Wivenhoe featured no bathroom, a decidedly unpoetic outside toilet, and walls so thin that the neighbors’ voices came through no softer than our own. The wife could be harsh. “Pick, pick pick,” we heard her yell at her husband as we sat down to eat. “You stick your finger so far up your nose that you’re gonna pick your bloody guts out one of these days.” Our kitchen table doubled as a work desk, and was covered with books by obscure (to me) Russian saints and philosophers, Tikhon of Zadonsk and Vladimir Solovyov among them.
Angela Livingstone was already in Russia working on a translation project, and she invited Tina to come and visit her. I tagged along for the ride. We booked onto a group tour through Intourist, the Russian travel agency: it was not easy in those days to move without an official guide in the Soviet Union. We planned a few days in Leningrad, to be followed by a train journey to Moscow, where Angela would meet us at our hotel and, we hoped, spirit us away from our minders. Read More »
April 22, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
April 17, 2013 | by Alia Akkam
Every morning, I would start the day with the Smashing Pumpkins—haunting “Disarm,” anthemic “Today.” Over and over, in a bedroom still mired in childhood, where a mound of carelessly tossed stuffed animals crept up my white wood dresser, I relentlessly played Siamese Dream. This, I thought, is how one becomes a teenager.
When the sun was at its hottest, late in the afternoon, I would stand at my front door, forehead pressed against the mesh screen, waiting for some friend’s mother to pull up in a beige Nissan and carry us to the mall. Here, I would spend hours in too-short shorts in too-cold air conditioning deliberating between pungent Plumeria or Freesia lotions at Bath & Body Works, scarfing down greasy slices of food-court pizza, and buying a hideous glittery cropped tee my mother would take one look at and matter-of-factly proclaim I would never wear. Until I was called for dinner, I’d read Seventeen, wondering if, once my dreaded braces came off, I’d be as beautiful as the young girls staring back at me with their wisps of charcoal eyeliner rimming their almond-shaped eyes, the ones who looked like they hadn’t cried since they fell off pretty pink bicycles with white baskets and streamers flowing from the handlebars. After that night’s iteration of chicken and rice, the phone would ring. For the next hour and a half, I would talk about nothing with the person I had had nothing to say to at the mall just a few hours before.
It was the summer of 1993, and I was bored. Read More »
October 11, 2012 | by Alia Akkam
Liquor has never touched my Middle Eastern father’s lips. Or so he claims. In the late sixties, when he lived a spell in Munich, embarked on spontaneous sojourns to Italy, and dated a Finnish broad named Helvi I once saw in a faded wallet-size photo—activities that made him sound so much more alluring than the stern killjoy I remember—I like to think he nursed a few carefree beers just like any lonely expat. When he made his way to New York a few years later, renting a dingy studio on the upper reaches of Broadway, when he was still the man my mother fell for—an Arab version of Adrian Zmed with a rustling gold chain around his neck and swarthy looks that back then meant you were handsome, not a possible terrorist—he used to smoke cigarettes, my mother tells me. Perhaps he also took nips of whiskey from a flask.
But the only father I know, the real one, returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia when I was eight years old a sudden gung-ho Muslim. He was no longer the aggressive moderate who was content with me just saying Bissmilah at the start of each meal. Now, every moment he wasn’t holed up in a Hilton for work or stuffing fried eggplant into pita bread at the dinner table was spent hunched over a miniature Koran, recapturing the lost Islam of his youth, of his family, of the native Syria he hadn’t called home for more than two decades.
Freshly brewed mint iced tea. Distilled water from the Poland Springs gallon bottles that lined our laundry room. Dr. Pepper, when its effervescence became a salve for the wheezing that permeated my bronchitis-ridden childhood. These were the beverages welcome in our teetotaler home. Although my mother, a Catholic girl from Queens, didn’t have religion propelling her consumption habits, she harbored something worse: distaste for even innocent bubbles. “Champagne burns my ears,” I remember her whining—and she rarely invited company over for anything more than a cup of Earl Grey.