“Why don’t you come eat with us?” Natvar asked me. We were walking south on 8th Avenue, on the east side, at about 25th Street. Mark was there. It was the end of the day and Natvar was looking at the fruits and vegetables that the small grocery stores had displayed out on the street. It was summer or fall. I hadn’t moved in yet, but I was spending more and more time at the Institute.
“No,” I said, smiling, polite. “No, that’s okay. I better get going.” Natvar smiled, tweaked my ear, his brown eyes bright, his smile making me smile, Mark in the background, a paler version of Natvar. It was Mark’s apartment they were on their way to, a place I’d been to a few times, a scruffy walk-up, beat up tenement. You pushed open the door at the dark top of about four creaking flights of narrow staircase and stepped into the kitchen with its deep old white porcelain sink and its gas stove. Natvar and Mark slept somewhere in the back. I had not seen that room.
I admired Mark that he was that close to Natvar, that he actually slept with Natvar, that Natvar had chosen him. I didn’t think about them fucking. I just didn’t. In the very beginning I had sort of hoped that Natvar would notice me like that. It had felt that way the first time I’d come to his class, that free workshop he’d given back in the spring, and I had felt so much spark between us that I thought perhaps he would pursue me.
We walked a little further down Eighth Avenue, moving slowly. Natvar paused to look at the potatoes. How much they were, what the quality was like. He would cook. He knew what to buy and he knew what to cook. Me and Mark didn’t know these things. Natvar bought Goya cans of pink beans and Goya olive oil. Goya was so much cheaper than all the other brands. I’d never heard of it before.
I was on my way to the subway. I had nothing going on. I would ride back up to the Upper West Side. I’d read, go to bed. Maybe I should accept the invitation to go with them. I was shy, but they were my new friends and this was a special kind of new friendship. There was something personal and deep about it. The way Natvar kind of ploughed forward with us, with those of us who stayed around the Institute, who didn’t just come by for a class now and then, those of us who really seemed to love the place. I had heard Natvar really yell at Anjani when she brought the lights down too early in class – there was something so unleashed in his fury, the way the words flew out of his mouth, passionate, spontaneous, a brilliant articulate fabric that nailed her personality, her weaknesses to the floor. Contact with Natvar seemed so much more alive and real than the weak unsatisfying friendships I had stitched together since I got back to New York – none of them compelling and engaging and demanding the way Natvar was.
And Natvar was older. He was almost forty. He had a wife and two daughters. He’d left Greece to live in London, then come to the States and built a life out of nothing. He’d run a juice bar on the Upper East Side that he said Greta Garbo used to come to and how she’d ask him to walk with her and how she’d talk to him the way she couldn’t talk to anybody else. All Natvar’s stories were like that: heroic. He could teach me these things. He had some secret ingredient I could get from him that would lift the lid on my own passion. I wanted to be able to get angry the way he did. I wanted to be able to cook without a recipe. “A good cook only has to smell the food to know if it’s good,” he said emphatically, stirring. And when I wasn’t feeling well he’d ask me what I was eating and he’d think and say, “You need more protein. Just have a little cream cheese.” We were all vegetarian.
“Can I change my mind?” I ask on the street. “I think I would like to come over with you guys.” The welcome I had felt with the invitation doesn’t quite hold up. “Of course,” says Natvar, looking up from the heap of potatoes, but it doesn’t feel right – to say no or to say yes, both have felt bad. Probably I shouldn’t have been so ambivalent, I think. He would like me better and I would be more deserving if I’d been able to say yes right away.