Susanna Salk



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Monday, June 17th, 2019

When I crossed the threshold into Gloria Vanderbilt’s Sutton Place apartment, I knew just from the fearless pink and black suzani rugs, that I was about to meet an artist, not an icon. When we began to chat it was woman to woman, not journalist to subject. We could’ve been eating in a little café in Greece, lost hiking in a forest, or deliciously gossiping on the phone: it all felt immediately intimate and necessary. Here was a woman who was very much in the present and never shielded about what she had shouldered in the past. However her past was everywhere and it was ever evolving. She liked to move things around from paintings to furniture to treasured objects…whenever I stopped to focus on one, her voice joined me there,narrating its story of how it came to be in her life. For a moment you went back with her to that life and yet she never lost sight of her present presence.

Displayed on the back of a doorway were some letters as if they themselves were tiny artwork and when I remarked that there was one from someone that I knew the amazing coincidence didn’t surprise Gloria as much as reinforce what she already knew about the world. 

I was excited to know that she had an email address as I didn’t want our contact to end with our literal visit. That evening I got an email from her in response to my thanking her for her time. Of course the word “star” was in her address.

She had an upcoming show in a few weeks of her doll’s heads, which sounded macabre but you saw them in person the display felt as natural and as vibrant as the way she draped her bedroom in patchwork pattern. A few weeks ago a friend sent me a picture of a cocktail party she was attending at Gloria’s because my book The Power of Pattern was on her coffee table. I went to bed that night thinking if I never sell another copy of a book that I still did something right. #gloriavanderbilt

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

For years it covered the floor of the main club lodge on an island in the middle of Moosehead Lake In Maine that eventually belonged to my husband’s father. After he passed away, its enormity prevented us from unrolling it in our starter cottage in LA until we moved to the country in Connecticut. There it kept me company in the studio barn that once belonged to children’s illustrator Leonard Weisgard. I’d escape there to try and write when the boys were having their naps as toddlers across the lawn in the main house. Later the boys and their friends would scamper across the rug’s plush surface at birthday parties: the rug’s duty seemed to shift from companion to caretaker and it patiently abided. Then we moved to the lake and I took that opportunity to clean it. The rug guy asked me for the size of it when I called for a quote and I replied I don’t have a measuring tape big enough. When we built a playroom at the lake house the rug supported the sleeping bags of my boys and their friends and the scuffed knees of endless air hockey tournaments. Tonight my son and some of those same childhood friends- now college sized- easily lifted the rug’s massive bulk onto their broad shoulders and transported it from the old house (which we are renting) to the barn on our new property. It hadn’t felt right leaving it behind, rolled away. The boys excitedly called me to come over and see. What I thought would have taken hours they had accomplished in minutes. Looking at it outstretched, admired by youth and supported by ancient floor timber, time, like the rug, seemed borderless.

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

When I was first in it, I wanted to be outside it. It wasn’t Notre Dame’s fault. It was patient with my restlessness- after all I was not the first myopic and moody teenage tourist to be herded through its Gothic splendor. We stopped beneath the Rose Window and as our chaperone droned endlessly on, the sun burst through its colored shapes and reminded me that life- specifically a French boy whom I had just met the night before- was waiting outside. He was going to give me his tour of Paris on his motorcycle until my curfew demanded a return. Ironically all these years later I can not recall even one detail about that boy but I remember the way the window allowed all the light it needed to become what it was intended to be. A few years ago my husband and I were in London for Thanksgiving and we took our two boys to Paris for the day by train. After a long day of sight seeing we were too fatigued to navigate the crowds to get in to Norte Dame, so we settled on worn velvet banquettes at a cafe across the street and sipped hot chocolate and watched the sun set against that window. We are a family, I kept thinking while I stared at the cathedral. The fact surged through me deliciously, as if I too were a cut piece of glass bathed by an intended ray. How for granted we take the standing of so many unique buildings. We expect them to always bear witness to our unfolding lives. They give and give to us while holding our histories and ask for nothing in return. If only every individual memory of this place throughout history were a drop of water, then surely the flames would be extinguished by now.

Two Paths
Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

We found the dead body- or rather the dog found him- on a walk through Griffith Park last week. That morning I woke to a Facebook Memory of my post  1 year earlier about a heroic stranger who had found my own lost dog after his leash had trapped him around a tree trunk in the woods behind our house back East. The picture shows my dog looking elated as a stranger and his dog had set him free after 3 days alone. Now a rescue dog – newly belonging to my son- had wandered off the trail leading to the Observatory and following him into shaded grove- which could only be called peaceful- we saw the back of a man who had taken his life, slumped against a tree trunk. Today back home wandering the woods with my dogs (who are tethered to a Y leash) we came to a point where one dog wanted to take one trail and the other dog, another. I thought of the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken and how many get its meaning wrong: it’s not about taking the less travelled road but simply on the impact of life’s arbitrary decisions. We had been debating about choosing another park that morning,  if we had…if my son had not adopted his dog…if we had chosen another path…perhaps the body would still be there. We kept asking ourselves: did he want to be found? But the only answer was somehow, it was we who did.

In Charge
Monday, March 4th, 2019

Babysitting at age 14 is a lonely prospect so my friend Jess often joined me. We split the money but that was besides the point. We were there for the homes. The clothes. The refrigerators. It was all fair game to explore and fantasize in, once our charges were napping. We particularly loved the Nortons’ house: it was a grand Georgian manor overlooking the ocean. Mrs. Norton was the only woman at the country club who wore a bikini and Mr. Norton’s hair was just a little longer than the other fathers and their baby girl slept a lot. As soon as she went down we poured ourselves Diet Cokes and went page by page through Mrs. Norton’s Harpers Bazaar magazines, where headlines like “You!” Or “Bold” shined like spot lights into the fog of the summer boredom that locked us into our Waspy little sea side town and rarely lifted. Too old for swim team but too young to do anything worth getting in trouble for, we made sure not to wear our retainers when Mr. Norton drove us home, mushing the other’s kneecap in delight when he turned his handsome face towards us to back out his long gravel driveway. One time at a red light he sniffed the air and happily remarked on how it smelled like gardenias. Jess had sprayed his wife’s Chanel perfume twice between her collarbones earlier while I had devoured Breyers mint ice cream straight from the carton and watched in awe. Mrs. Norton had encouraged us to help ourselves to anything in the fridge but permission hadn’t included her shoe closet. But that didn’t deter Jess. As soon as the baby went down for the night, we headed straight up to the dressing area where Jess traded her grass stained tennis sneakers for Mrs. Norton’s strippy high heeled sandals. Their hallway was mirrored and when Jess paraded past me, now several inches taller, her forged grown up self was reflected over and over. That night as we lay parallel in twin beds in the dark, Jess told me about how her mother was really her step mother and how her real mother had died when she was very young. I thought of the plot of the soap opera we were addicted to, how that afternoon a mother had told her daughter that her father had been the gardener all along. I then thought of the Norton’s daughter in her crib, so trusting of whomever put her there. The next time we came to babysit the Nortons there was a rule list taped to the refrigerator and at the top in caps was the instruction to REMAIN DOWNSTAIRS! So we stopped going. After I eventually got my own license, I would pass the Norton’s driveway entrance and long to go down it and see if they were all still there and how they had gotten older. Perhaps more children had come along or one of the parents had gone away or they had all moved on. It would’ve been so easy to do so but I never did. Jess went on to marry someone twice her age and move to California. I visited her once when I had work nearby. She lived in a small shaggy apartment on Manhattan Beach. Her husband kept his ties rolled up in little circles in a tired basket in the living room next to the sofa where I slept because their closet was so tight. On the coffee table were only golf magazines. As a hostess gift I had bought Jess a small bottle of Chanel perfume. When she opened it I gave her a knowing grin, hoping she would remember why. But she only looked away to watch her husband pick up the magazine and slowly start flipping through it. Then she got up to cook us dinner and that’s when I knew I’d never see her again. 

Hearing Chuck
Sunday, February 10th, 2019

I first heard Chuck before I saw him. It was Sunday morning my freshman year of college and I was walking to my mail box hoping for a check from home that would fund more trips into Manhattan to escape the weekend parties full of warm beer in red plastic cups I hated. There was thumping gospel music in the atrium above me and a distinctive male voice was singing  alongside a soaring chorus of female voices. At one point his tenor broke free and pulled me upstairs. There he was: this  white kid from Minnesota with big ears.  His skinny frame was draped in red robes swaying and clapping as one with a dozen African American females. There was joy in his open face- it was perhaps the happiest I ever saw him again and I was about to see him a lot. No one danced like Chuck. In our college bar The Mug, funk was often the late hour choice and Chuck would be the last one out on the floor- unabashedly soaked with sweat, swiveling his hips until his whole body looked liquid. I went up to him and told him how much I enjoyed the gospel concert. In appreciation he simply took my hand and twirled me to Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out” until Poughkeepsie, New York felt like downtown Manhattan. Once The Mug closed and most of us went on to finally start homework, Chuck often went to obscure gay bars several towns over on his own. He’d knock on my door at sunrise and sit on my bed because he didn’t want to be alone. One time he played me Chaka Kahn’s “Roll Me Through The Rushes” and sang along. It was so beautiful I opened my window wide so that the whole quad could fill with his voice. When the song was over he looked out at my view- across to the gothic library bathed in eerie moon light and said: “Sometimes I think I could just jump.” I didn’t know how to answer that so I simply closed the window. 

I eventually ended up finding my tribe of people and became enveloped in the daily distractions that college brings. Chuck had always been one to skip classes but then weeks went by and I realized I hadn’t  seen him at The Mug, in fact I hadn’t seen him anywhere anymore. 

By spring an English teacher named  Mr Sneden – whom Chuck and I both admired for his wit and pressed bow ties- wrote me a letter cnviting me to dinner at his house with some other students. “Chuck will be there” he said in a pointed way. I RSVPd yes but as the date approached I canceled as I had been invited to a party by someone I had a tremendous crush on. As I was walking Into town the next day I saw Mr. Sneden drive by: in the passenger seat was Chuck. His face, pressed against the window, looked right past me, as if into another world. I knew it was futile even to wave.

I later learned that Mr. Sneden had taken care of Chuck for six months after he had all but dropped out of school. He had tried to help him try to stay sober but it wasn’t enough to help him stay alive several years after graduation. I could never find out the exact details of Chuck’s death and Mr Sneden could never tell me even after I wrote him an imploring letter.

The last time I saw Chuck was at a Spring Parents weekend- it was before he officially dropped out of school and he was walking across the quad with his family. We had drifted enough apart by then that I didn’t feel right running over to introduce myself. There was his younger brother – a mini ten year old Chuck. His innocent face was tilted up to Chuck’s so worshipfully I had the urge to run over and hug them both. Instead I watched as Chuck suddenly took the hand of the younger version of himself and began to twirl him around and around until the whole quad felt the joy.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

It was found in the trash near Yale University around the time de Kooning (Jackson Pollock’s close friend) taught there, by a service repair man who collected discarded art. He kept it until his death (never trying to sell it) and when his estate came for sale, a local auction house I frequent took it under its wing. It’s signed “Pollock” in the corner but no one will authenticate it, the blurred strands of its provinence are far too random and suspicious. Yet for me, briefly this morning, they felt serendipitous.  Of course it couldn’t have been a real Pollock yet there was something in its confident, dense strokes that demanded I pay closer attention. The auction house was asking $5000 as an opening bid. A pittance or a bargain? They were not claiming it was a real, rather just putting its journey to their walls “out there.”

Was this just another one of those indulgent stories about a supposed masterpiece being found in an attic  or was it something to be trusted and pursued, the ultimate pay off not just being monetary ( would I really ever sell it even if it was real?) but the reaffirmation that extraordinary things could somehow, sometimes, happen in the universe. 

If some student did it to mimic Pollock- whether as a fun prank or as intentional fraud – in a way that I still love it regardless of its creator, does that merit whatever price I am willing to pay and what am I willing to pay? Is the memorable story of my “discovering” it this morning: the enjoyment of the auctioneer’s tale while he tapped on a Newport light in the dusty preview room where it hung; my excited ensuing call to my husband (skeptical but willing) best friend (very skeptical) son (wanted it even if it’s not a Pollock) and the delightful hope I suspended myself in like a hammock for a glorious two hours until an art expert tells me it’s definitely NOT a Pollock, merit its place on my wall as much as if somebody told me it was a real Pollock? My pondering strangely never dips into the cynical, rather it seems to coat the canvas like another layer of paint.  As much as I wanted it either way now, I also know somehow it was already out of my hands.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

It’s the day after Christmas and already- to me at least- the wreaths and tree have a taken on a slightly melancholy air. I am taking out my umpteenth bag of garbage to the garage in the chilled night air, grateful it is full of the scraps from a bustling, family-fed holiday but somehow feeling very solitary in my unnoticed task. The sensor light pops on, as if expecting me, illuminating a lone unexpected package. After so many have been ordered, delivered and opened it ruffles me a little: what has been delayed or forgotten? It’s addressed to me, and the return label is from Karina Gentinetta, an artist I greatly admire but have only met in person a handful of times in my life. But Karina is someone you feel you know without knowing. There is a special weight to the package that dares me to not want to expect something and yet, can’t help but wish for it. It’s the first time I’ve been by myself in the house for a week and I am grateful for the solitude as I open it. The simple brown paper wrapping belies the framed color behind it. I hurry around the house clutching it, looking for the right spot yet I already know that it’s going by my bedroom bureau, a place only I visit day after day. I hang it without measuring. Its flecks of raspberry reds seem to dance next to my pink velvet curtain like old friends. Her note simply says “I am thinking of you.” There’s been no special occasion in my life lately good or bad, so how could she know? How could she know how much I needed this color in my room. Tonight.

Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

We met on a rainy night, somehow the only two people on the library path, neither intending to go to the library. I was bent over, searching for my contact lens. The lenses were hard in those days, often popping out of my eyes as if with a protective will of their own. I had no back up pair and I could already hear the eye doctor’s clipped query of “Is this better…or this one…” as he slotted in sample lens over the examination glasses in an endless loop.

“What are you searching?” Carlos’ South American accent made me look up, as if he would take my hand and we would glide away to a place where palm trees swayed under clear exotic skies. He was part of the sleek European set at my New England boarding school: people whose parents sent chauffered town cars to drop them off after breaks, who knew how to pronounce “Gstaad” and huddled in the Butt Room, sharing their red packs of Dunhill cigarrettes purchased at Duty Free on the way back to school. Carlos wasn’t good looking but his exotic swagger and cheerful confidence endeared him with everyone from jocks to Mrs Primm, a Science teacher who- as campus legend had it- had smoked the hashish he had smuggled back from his hometown of Venezuala in the heel of his cowboy boot.

“Oh…just a contact lens,” I stammered, pushing back the hood of the yellow rain coat my mother had insisted I pack even though the drizzle had accelerated to rain. He just smiled, as if not understanding. I pointed to my eye but he looked over my shoulder, thinking I meant the building behind us, which happened to be the Science Center named after my grandfather, surely the real reason I had been admitted here.  I was the sort of student who was pretty good at a lot of things yet never had excelled at anything. I was sloppy and social, strong willed yet unsure. 

I could make people laugh, but unsure how to use that power. I could write but had no intention of rewriting. I could act but didn’t know I could expect that as a profession. My sensible Yankee childhood stories felt as plain as the newspaper my parents read side by side every night, next to the glossily colored stories of people like Carlos.  He stared at my rain coat intently and then reached out to me. I anticipated his touch but he was only pointing to something on my shoulder blade: it was my lens, suctioned to the coat’s surface, its bent ends flapping slightly in the wind. I tried to maneuver myself to grab it but it was too precarious: one more errant rain drop and it would be gone.

As though picking up a butterfly by its wings, Carlos plucked it and handed it to me, the band of his gold watch, flashing briefly. It was still visitation hours, where the girls and boys schools could intermingle between dorms as long as you kept you door open and both feet on the floor.

A late arrival to school, Carlos lived in the small room on the third floor in of one the faculty houses. Its slanted ceiling was covered with black and white pictures of beautiful girls my age which he had taken. They stared back at him intimately, their names like Inga and Marika. One was clearly next to Carlos in bed, the top of the white sheet covering her entire face except for one glinting eye. Carlos took a Dunhill from a carton on the small wood desk, lit it with a gold lighter and handed it to me. “Who is that?” I asked, trying to exhale in a smooth plume. One photo stood out in particular: a woman wearing a chiffon turban and a plunging black  gown with a jewel in its V.  She seemed to gaze at me directly, her hand cocked back holding a cigarrette as if Carlos had just lit it for her, her long red nails fanned out so you could see the perfect tips of each one. I thought of the summer before, how I had bicycled to pharmacy in town to use my baby sitting money to purchase some Revlon red nail polish.  I had done such a poor job applying the red nail polish that I had bicycled back the next day to buy remover. “That….” Carlos said, blowing a perfect smoke circle, “Is my mother.”I let him take my rain coat off and suddenly there seemed nowhere to put it so I placed it in the wastebasket under his desk.

He laughed then, a wonderful laugh. It filled the tiny room and the chorus of all the faces pasted around us seemed to join in. He motioned for me to sit down next to him on the bed and I did. I wanted to tell him how my grandmother wore pearls around her wrist and how her beauty was so great that a man once had threatened to jump off a bridge to capture her attention. How all of her could somehow validate part of me now amongst all of the women gathered here in this disproportioned room.

Mrs. Forbes, his dorm parent, walked past the room and stopped to take us in. She smiled, observing how both our feet were touching the ground. I could just feel Carlo’s warm ankle bone against my own.

As I smiled back, my lens popped out and the world outside of it once again,  became a blur.

Sunken Treasure
Saturday, February 2nd, 2019

It was late and as I was approaching my car in the airport garage, I saw the blurry lines of him, more movement than human, his car parked in the slot next to mine, using the same urgency to unlock it to get home. In the dark cold, a ring I was wearing suddenly flew off my shrunken digit and settled somewhere below in the dark.
“Damn it!” I said aloud and used my phone’s flashlight to sweep the car’s underbelly. Meanwhile I could hear him nearby speaking in another language- Chinese?- gently to someone on his phone. The ring was nowhere and I was torn between my urgency to find it to my urgency to be gone from this netherworld. I imagine my husband sleeping on the sofa next to our dogs by the fire. The ring wasn’t at all valuable- a dear friend had given it to me after I had casually admired it- she had found it at a flea market for forty bucks the same day I had admired it and had simply slid it off her finger with the same detachment it had come off on mine tonight. At one moment my tepid iPhone beam scaled my neighbors’ tire. Suddenly his iPhone light joined mine: I saw his intent face, look up and down as if looking under a ship for a leak. “Just a ring!” I said and wiggled up my finger, not sure those two words
together made sense. Seeing I meant jewelry he responded something urgently in Chinese. “It’s OK,” I said after a few minutes more of us both searching, waving my hand to show it didn’t really matter after all. His phone rang but he refused to answer it. I got up and opened my car door to signal I had given up. But he remained hunched over. His devotion annoyed me and I felt shame. I turned on the ignition. He looked up surprised. I placed my hands together in the international gesture of thanks and apology. My wedding ring touched the finger that once held the other ring. He stood there not moving, until he saw I was ready to back out. He stepped aside. I waved and slowly pulled away. Then I felt a knock on my back window. I felt the vibration of it, like the back of my head was resting against that glass. I looked in my rear view mirror. In his free hand, he held up the ring, offering me to stop.