My father and Natvar are the two people I have known who tried the hardest to civilize me in the name of culture and civilization and sadism too, I suppose, underneath it all.
Natvar was an expert on everything correct. Not that he wanted to be ordinary. He wanted to be superlative in every way like I thought I had to be.
Natvar was a yoga teacher on Eighth Avenue whom I met because of an ad for a free class in the Village Voice in the very early 80’s. He was tall though not much taller than me. He didn’t have a dancer’s body. In his late thirties, which seemed advanced to me in my early twenties, his body looked well exercised, gleaming with health. He said that before yoga his body had been stiff. It was hard to imagine.
He’d been an acting student in Athens, had run away from Greece and his own history to live in London which had seemed to him the pinnacle of civilization. He described to us as we sat on the couch and on the floor of the tiny carpeted lobby of his little but perfectly appointed yoga school how he had walked into the fanciest mens clothing store on Bond St., pretended to be experienced, and got a job behind the counter, selling suits of fine tweed, silk scarves and crisp cotton shirts.
He told us how he practiced his English accent over and over at night by himself so that no one would guess he was a poor, uneducated Greek boy. He told people his name was John Phillips instead of Yanni Philippoussis and as he told us these stories he made them all sound grand and heroic, like a movie where everything goes exactly as it should and the light is always bright.
We began as a happy family, a bunch of renegades. It was easy to hand over the reins to Natvar. He was eager to take them, starting with loving suggestions of what to eat when you didn’t feel well, rising to impatient corrections on how to clean a floor – don’t you people know anything? Fill the bucket with hot water and what is this tiny scrap of a rag you are using – here, let me show you – and he takes a large fresh cotton cloth, folds it neatly in two, dips it into the hot water and wipes the floor in long strokes, going into each corner, under the baseboards – there, you see, that’s how it should be done – while we stand and watch, we who thought we were grown up because we didn’t live at home anymore, but look, we know nothing, can’t make the brown rice so it isn’t sticky, look how sloppy we are and careless – Mark used eighteen inches of dental floss last night – spoiled Americans, no consciousness, that’s what it is.
I labored to get it right. Why did I listen so hard, that’s what I want to know. Why was there not the smallest cell in me that pulled away? Well, there were a few cells that wanted to pull away, but I fought them as if they were rebels who had to be put down. I knew how to do that. I knew how to say no to urges for pleasure, to think the grim way was the better one.
By the time we were in Greece, I was taking slaps in the face. I was accepting that I was fit only to be the maid. I was believing that, as Natvar said – furiously – I was psychologically damaged. I began to feel like an invalid, someone others had to tolerate and care for, who could not participate in the world as other people could.
There was a day when we were running out of Athens, running away from Natvar’s wife who had shown up the day before, waiting for Ariadne, their seven-year-old daughter, when she came out of school. Following Daddy’s orders, Ariadne had ignored her mother, and climbed into our friend Edianna’s car as usual. Edianna had risen to the challenge, driving at high speed through back roads to shake Neysa off her tail and preserve the secret of our address. It was the closest we’d come to being discovered.
After putting Ariadne to bed with extra cuddles, Natvar had been up most of the night, on the phone, talking in rapid-fire Greek to Edianna, to Irini, to Gelly, to Katina – all women who could always respond to his impassioned voice with matching Greek verve for hours and hours. When he spoke at dinner, pounding his fist on the table – his dilemma, his cunt of a wife who, like all women, was a scrap of pathetic slime – I found nothing to say that could possibly satisfy his rage. I, who had once thought we were best friends, sat there as I had by now a thousand times, mute, trying to force my brain into ideas of what could be done, how I could help. But nothing came and it seemed to prove that I did not care, that the human nerve of compassion was dead in me.
The next day I volunteered to go down and bring a cab back to take us to Piraeus where we’d catch a boat that would take us out to the small island of Aegina where Edianna said we could stay at her summer house. No one would find us there.
I volunteered always for the jobs I thought I could do: getting taxi’s, going shopping, which meant walking to the supermarket every other day and buying for our family of five, spending the money as I anticipated Natvar wanted it spent and shoplifting to fill the gap between what Natvar demanded and how I could stretch the drachmas. Mark was smart enough to share Natvar’s bed and help with manly things like strategy and management. Meredyth was the pretty one who Natvar said could cook, do his hand laundry and share his daughter’s bedroom. I got the leftovers: cleaning, errands.
So I went down to the big road, flagged down a yellow cab and brought it to the front door of the three-apartment building on the shady side street on which we lived.
I went upstairs, confident I had at least managed this. Natvar met me at the front door and hit me hard in the face. “You bitch,” he shouted. “You fucking cunt. Are you blind? Do you want to get us all arrested? You do, don’t you? You want to turn me in like every other fucking cunt in this world.” He dragged me to the window overlooking the street below. “That’s not a taxi,” he hissed. “I could see from here what you could not see even as you sat in the fucking thing. Can’t you see that’s not a taxi? What’s wrong with you? That could be a cop for all we know.”
I held myself together, went downstairs in my narrow navy blue skirt and leather heels, a costume that was supposed to make me look like a sophisticated executive who had it all together. I apologized and told the man to leave. He shrugged and drove away. He too must think I’m a crazy person.
Okay, okay. It goes on from there, but what I’m asking is why on earth did this all feel acceptable in its own strange way? Acceptable to feel like a psychological invalid? Where were the friends that when I first met Natvar might have pulled me back and said, oh, come on, what do you see in him? Natvar seemed much better, much more worldy and experienced than any of my sorry friends. Again, when I met Natvar I had nothing that I wasn’t willing to give away, nothing I wanted to hold onto. Life with him would be more counter-cultural and interesting. I went for it, and as I fell deeper and deeper there was nothing to break my fall.