I left New York on a cold November day of dark skies and sideways rain, but I don’t care to say why other than the city itself had changed and I no longer felt I could sustain a living there. Gone was the New York I had idealized in the years before I finally arrived, the city of milk and honey, a place where dreams were achieved. But I’d been without a job for six months, my unemployment benefits had run dry, and work, once plentiful, had become as scarce as a street free of litter; the perpetually high rents were now higher, even in the outer reaches of Queens, Brooklyn, and Jersey, all of which once served as safe havens for the less-than-affluent; each day brought new demonstrations, sign-wielding protests and marches in the streets. The fight against inequality. Wall Street versus Main Street. Even the homeless seemed to have multiplied and, truth be told, I feared becoming one of them. Living in perpetual fear for the future. Each day more rife with anxiety than the day that had come before it.

When the tsar’s government ordered us from Poland in the spring of 1874, my daughter, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, was forced to leave behind her dog.

A mongrel dog with a limp and copious fleas.

Did such defects and disadvantages lessen my Nadya’s love for the beast?

Not in the slightest. Very likely such misfortunes made my daughter cherish her pet all the more. When the two were together, it was my Nadya, not the animal, who served as protector, my Nadya who chased away his enemies, who carried him and his injured paw across river stones, who would not consent to eat until her dog had been fed.

Prologue: Going Home with the Poets

New York City on Sunday, December 11, 1994

Madeline and I are walking home from the Nuyorican Poets Café, where these people with lousy day jobs, like waitressing or temping or sometimes dealing, read their poems, which are always about having really good sex or being a black woman.

We go there on Friday nights, always Friday nights, and we fold our legs beneath us on wooden floors, sipping cheap drinks and sweating under bare bulbs that make the place look ghoulish.

Next to us, the poets. Ahh, the poets! People of mystery, of magic, of words. We know they write quatrains and couplets on paper napkins at cafés on Sunday afternoons, stirring lattes, buttering croissants, consuming raspberry tarts—oh, we envy them their free verse!

I have spent years going over our past, untangling memories from dreams, trying to pinpoint the exact moment when fate sealed. The easiest place to start is with the most blatant mistake: our mother, Jenny, kept the matchbooks in the junk drawer. Amongst paperclips and rubber bands, bent spoons and thumbtacks, the glossy sheen attracted the kitchen light, creating an irresistible enticement. The logos on the covers hinted at Jenny’s fairy-tale existence—the outline of a slender woman dancing, knee lifted high; two champagne flutes clinked together, surrounded by bubbles; a cartoon trout wearing a top hat and blowing a tuba. I loved to sound out the names: Blue Moon, Miranda’s, Larry’s Lagoon. But that’s where my interest stopped, with these little girl fantasies of my mother as a glamorous star.

We ran wild at night, effortless, boundless, under a blood-red sky—to where and to what we couldn’t have known. We craved it, that someplace. We were two little girls, sisters, daughters with no mother, distrustful of the freedom we were given, knowing she shouldn’t have left. We tore across dirt campgrounds where we slept, naked but for our mud boots, letting the wind shiver up across our bare chests. We stole bags of chips from the canteen on the pier. Our feet pounded the crushed oyster shells in seaside motel parking lots when we’d search for drinking water, and we let calluses thicken up our soles to withstand the hot desert sand, or dash over a highway of broken glass, wherever we’d been dropped. We scampered across the foggy cliffs that separated Pacific Coast Highway from the ocean in old ballet slippers, as nimble as two fairies, our long red hair whipping into tangles in the wind. We bumped up against the night, without stopping. We stole wrinkled leather sneakers that were two sizes too big, and wore them until they fit. We raced in the sand, fought in the dusk. We knew we were not invisible. We tightened belts around our stomachs at night and bicycled unlit sidewalks and sometimes tucked up our knees and steered with no hands through the darkness. No one hit us. We believed we were unstoppable. We slept under sleeping bags, beneath trees, and pushed our backs against cliffs, our noses cold.

We waited for our mother to come back.

There are three things that robots cannot do,” wrote Maxon. Then beneath that on the page he wrote three dots, indented. Beside the first dot he wrote “Show preference without reason (LOVE)” and then “Doubt rational decisions (REGRET)” and finally “Trust data from a previously unreliable source (FORGIVE).”

Love, regret, forgive. He underscored each word with three dark lines and tapped his pen on each eyebrow three times. He hadn’t noticed that his mouth was sagging open. He was not quite thirty, the youngest astronaut at NASA by a mile.

I do what robots can’t do, he thought. But why do I do these things?

And at that moment my eyes opened. It was involuntary. I heard my name and reacted to it. Everything came slowly into focus; light coalesced into shapes, shapes coalesced into figures; figures coalesced into my entire family, crowded into my hospital room, none of them paying me the slightest bit of attention. Even my father, who’d asked the question, wasn’t looking to me for an answer.

“Terrible,” my mother said.

Actually, I thought, I’m feeling a lot better.

My father nodded and translated the answer. There was a lot of shaking of heads. Here I am, I thought. Somebody look over at me.

Before I came to stay at the Manse I lived in an old townhouse on the north side of Washington Square, where my cousin Max and I rented rooms from a middle-aged German man named Gerhard Gottlieb, the uncle of one of Max’s old flames. I was never entirely sure what business Gerhard was in, but he was usually out of the country, and he gave us the run of the place in his absence, provided we walk his dog, a purebred boxer named Ginger, and feed the tropical fish in his enormous Victorian aquarium. Max and I were the only ones paying rent, but there were often two or three others staying on the vacant floor above us. We were all “in the arts,” as we liked to say with intense but undirected irony, which is what left us free to take Ginger out during the day and to spend our nights entertaining ourselves in that old house, drinking bourbon and smoking those thin, elegant joints that we all rolled so easily.


Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a white woman who likes black men. I like the stories black men tell and the way they talk and the way they look at me, this way they have of being sure and tentative all at once, and yes, oh yes, I’m not gonna hide it, the hard sweet way they ball. Still, I don’t like having that reputation, white folks–not to mention the sistahs–all thinking I’m just after black cock. So let’s be straight: at the time I’m talking about, the only black cock I was on intimate terms with was attached to Samps, and I wasn’t after Samps, we just…well, OK, we fucked, we fucked a lot, but I want you to know the guy was homeless, penniless, quite likely clinically insane. Believe me, I didn’t have my hands on anything you would want.


According to my father, there are three types of necktie knots: the Windsor, the Half-Windsor, and the Limp Dick.

“Jeremy, I’d bet my hand,” he says, adjusting his seatbelt, “that every swinging dick at Byron Hall wears the Windsor.”

“Could you not talk about dicks first thing in the morning?”

“The ladies love masculine things,” he says, pinching his silver tie at the base of its knot.

“Dad, it’s an all guy high school.”

Renee felt the coming rush of customers like Harley motors thrumming down the highway. It was 4:30 when she and Rick took over from the early shift at Titty’s Bar and Grille and got ready for the long night ahead. They were partners in everything, she and Rick, and had been for going on two years, which is why Jimmy Titty wanted the two of them behind the bar of his establishment. “Y’all’ve got my back,” he said on more than one occasion. “I know y’all do.” And sure they did, but that didn’t mean that every once in a while some cash didn’t get slipped into a pocket instead of a register or that a bottle of beer didn’t get opened and drunk and never paid for.

30 Days

I threw the tea pot out the window.

It plummeted three floors and shattered into a hundred white porcelain pieces right behind Mrs. Epstein, whom I had never much liked anyway.

“Hey!” she yelled up at me.

“Sorry,” I said, hanging half my upper body over the sill. Then I turned back inside, grabbed half a dozen tea cups and dumped those out, too.

I wasn’t that sorry.



Mickey Fineburg’s email brings everything back again.

Hi, Sarah. Remembering those good ‘ol days in the neighborhood. Saw your CDs online. Sampled the links. Wow! Impressive. How did you end up in California?

I kissed Mickey under a broken pool table in my basement. We were eight, his lips warm as play dough, pressing with earnest intention. I pressed back, happy and unafraid, oblivious to Mickey’s younger brother watching us. That night at the dinner table Mother looked stern and surprised. She said: Mickey’s mother called me. You’re too young to start, Sarah.

Start what? I wondered.

The Pornographers Sneak Peek

Above all, you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness, and what is your relation to the ever-changing and turning world of gloves and shoes and stuffs swaying up and down among the faint scents that come through chemists’ bottles down arcades of dress material over a floor of pseudo–marble…
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own