Friday, January 23, 2009


Shayna had the girls on weekends. That was the arrangement now. Her on weekends. Us during the week. The little waft of friendship between her and Natvar was over, but things were cordial.

On April 1, 1984 she brought them back. It was Sunday evening. She joined us for dinner.

“I don’t think the girls should live here anymore,” she said. “They’re going to come back with me, back to Staten Island.”

I new Shayna had grown up on Staten Island, that her parents still lived there, that her dad was an ex-cop.

I sat in my chair at the table. Sometimes Natvar said that this was the only home he had ever known and that were his favorite people. He said that sometimes to me, Tracy and Mark. Sometimes he acted like Tracy was his favorite, like the time he took her shopping to Bloomingdales alone – just him and her – and they came back and Tracy had two pairs of strappy fabulous high heels. I was jealous. Not of the shoes, of Natvar’s attentions.

Most of the time he liked Mark the best (not counting the girls, of course). Mark was the one he slept with in the room at the end of the corridor across from mine. It was a dark corridor with no light at all if the door at the front was closed. A corridor that held four rooms – three on one side, one on the other. Each room had its own door, stained a deep red. We, or rather Mark and Natvar had hung each door, something we had been told was very hard to do.

“I think all his clients just want to sleep with him,’ I’d said to Mark once. “Do you?” he’d answered. And then, “It’s not that big a deal.” But Mark was the one who slept with Natvar and it was a big deal. He had more of an ally here than Tracy or me.

There were moments too when I was suddenly the favorite, when I said something witty, when I shoplifted caviar before a guest came for dinner, and these were savored moments when Natvar’s warmth felt very real. His wrath and dissatisfaction were much more common though.

He began to shout at Shayna. “What can you offer my children? Nothing. A laxy good-for-nothing from Staten Island. Look at Tracy. Look at her. She goes out and works every day. Does she complain? No, she never does. She doesn’t expect anyone to take care of her, not like you.”

Tracy sat demurely in her in her full wool skirt, the one she wore almost every day. Her face was serious, her eyes cast down. I never knew that Natvar had valued Tracy’s job so much, or her, at all. He had never said those particular nice things about her before, but he was saying them now.

We have spread out from the dining room table. Natvar is standing, Mark is too. Shayna is telling the girls to go get their things.

I am just watching Natvar, listening to his every word, trying to be at his pitch, to care the way he cares. He often says that I don’t care enough. Sometimes he says I am trying to sabotage his every move, that I am some kind of evil force that subverts beauty and freedom and life, and when he says that it feels true, and I feel hopeless and defeated.

So I am trying now as Natvar speaks to be right there at his side in whatever way I can. After all, he has said we are his family, his dearest friends.

Shayna picks up a votive candle that is burning on the altar to Laxmi, the goddess of abundance – it’s the donation box, the place visitors are supposed to leave money. She throws the candle at Mark. Mark storms towards her. Shayna turns to run down the corridor, and it’s all movement now and shouts. I follow Mark and Natvar down the corridor. I must stay near to Natvar. I must not allow myself to not be part of this.

Shayna is on the floor at the far side of the meditation hall. All the lights are blazing. Natvar kicks her a couple of times. “Putana! Putana!” he is yelling. I stand at his side, leaning forward with concentration, willing myself to be a part of this.

And then she is coming after me, and as she grabs my hair and pushes me, I feel something in me give, some plug is released and I am allowed to be furious the way Natvar is allowed to be furious and I give it all I’ve got. I bite her shoulder hard.

I have never bitten anyone. I have never thought about biting anyone. But this is what I do.

And then it is quiet and we are in the kitchen. Natvar is gently dabbing Shayna’s shoulder with a warm damp cloth. The children are subdued, snuffling. A cop came to the door in response to Phaedra’s 911 call, but we told him everything was all right and he went away.

It is about 1 in the morning. Shayna prepares to leave. She is subdued. Everyone is subdued.

We stand at the front door, a clump of us. Ariadne puts her arms around Natvar’s legs. “I want to stay with Daddy,” she says. “Oh, my little love,” says Natvar and strokes her plae blonde hair.

“I’m going with Mommy,” says Phaedra. She is defiant, her jaw is strong. Shayna and Phaedra clump down the stairs, the ones we painted blue. To make them look like Greece.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


We painted the metal stairs a bright blue, the last couple of flights anyway -- the ones right outside our door -- and the walls a clean white. “Like Greece!” Natvar said with booming satisfaction. He spoke of Greece as a better place than America. I was used to that. My father had always spoken of Europe as a better place where people had style and class. And my mother too, a Canadian, had often used the adjective “American” pejoratively. Sometimes, when she wanted to complain about her kids being spoiled or whining she would say we were “so American.” So Natvar’s words about Greece being better than America felt familiar, and I could align myself with them more easily than either Tracy or Mark, both of whom were American to the core.

My father visited the Institute where we treated him so well that he began to come once a week, traveling in from Westchester County where everything had fallen apart for him – no job, no house. He suggested to Mark that he could help out with the books – my father no trained accountant, but it was one of the newspaper ads he had been answering lately, jobs that gave him an hourly wage. And so, for that winter, he came once a week, to do something or other in the office, to have lunch and take a nap on our sofa, which had once been his sofa. When he’d had a house.

My parents were living in a quaint and charming renovated barn on a property that belonged to the Frick family, the ones who have the museum. It was a large and empty estate, with empty stables and this gatehouse where my parents could stay for free to give outsiders the illusion of occupancy. They had landed this gig through someone my father met at the local Catholic church, something else he had taken to doing during these hard times.

My father invited Natvar out to the house and we all went on several weekends, even staying over. Natvar liked it out there, just like my father did. So much style and class. The fireplace was huge, the ceiling tall, everything made of wood. Mark found a book in the shelves inscribed by Edith Sitwell. I was glad to have this house to offer to the group. We went out there in the beat-up car my mother had passed on to us. Sometimes we brought Ellie, in her floor-length fur coat and her cigars, a plump woman with a round face and graying hair and Greek too. Ellie liked to talk and philosophize and pronounce. The only person who could converse with her was Natvar, and often they went at it in Greek with the three of us – me, Tracy and Mark – just kind of sitting there with expressions on our faces meant to convey that we were happy to be there.

My father met Ellie one afternoon at the Institute and the conversation turned to Hungarian folk dance and suddenly my father had grabbed Ellie in dance position and was whirling her around the room, both of them knowing exactly how it was done. This too gained me a point or two. Via my father, I was part of the Natvar-Ellie club for a moment. Europeans.

Natvar’s two daughters had moved in with us by then. They moved in once the carpet was down. I hadn’t seen it coming. Natvar’s wife, Shayna, with her long blonde hair, had started to visit Natvar, coming in from Staten Island. He showed her around with pride, although he had said so many things behind her back over the years and I had learned not to like her on principle.

They even went out on what looked like a date, and a few days later disappeared into the meditation hall for hours, Shayna having brought her massage table and offering her husband a massage. They were gone so long. It was so quiet back there.

And then the two little girls were living with us in the spare empty little room we had built. Phaedra the older at about 9, Ariadne about 6. Both blonde, but Phaedra the tougher one, Ariadne the softer, fluffier one.

Natvar spoke to his upper East Side clients – the ones with penthouses and servants -- and began a campaign to get his daughters into one of the schools that their children attended, schools with long waiting lists that Natvar was sure he could somehow overcome.

In the meantime, Natvar said I should homeschool the girls. After all, I was there all morning. I embraced the new job with pride, went to some store somewhere and bought a book to find out a little about the kinds of standards you had to meet if you were teaching kids at home, and we began.

Once Natvar and Tracy had left in the morning, and Mark had turned to his managerial duties, I went down the corridor to the little room where the two girls slept. One, wake them up. Two, give them breakfast. Three, get them to eat. Get everything done. Be firm. And sweet. Hit just the right note so that the girls are happy and when Natvar returns everything has been done perfectly and he can tell, by the atmosphere, that things are as they should be.

If their father was there the girls ate what he told them to eat. Without him, Ariadne hid her eggs in the couch and laughed when I tried to be stern. “You’re ugly!” they’d say, and I would feel ugly. I’d be nice if I could. But I can’t. I’m already in trouble. I can feel it. It’s just a matter of time.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Now we don’t eat at Mark’s anymore. We don’t need to walk the six blocks there for breakfast and dinner, and lunch can be a hot meal eaten around a wooden table that came from Tracy’s house. She has left her husband and the pretty Long Island home they had made and she gave the pretty wooden table to the institute and we have it out at the front where you first walk in. There is thick burgundy carpet now over the splintery bare boards. This carpet. Natvar got a deal on it. It was the last touch. After the months of hammering, washing, painting, living with sheetrock dust, the carpet went down and everything is different.

There are little rooms now. We made them. And a narrow corridor that leads from the front with its wide tall windows overlooking the street to the back, the meditation hall – four times the size of the old one.

I miss the old Institute, when things were smaller. When they seemed finished and done and permanent, a place I could go to any time I wanted. Now we have a big thing going on, a big monster to feed all the time and I am running and worried all the time.

The wooden dining table is up front and we eat around it three times a day.

We eat breakfast there early, in the dark. Tracy makes it. She doesn’t like to. It makes her angry. We can all tell she is angry by how she bangs the pots in the small windowless kitchen we made. We put up three walls near the big utility sink where we used to wash the paintbrushes every night. We bought a real refrigerator and two hot plates. Natvar instructs us to put masking tape labels with the date on all the left-overs so that we know when something is too old and has to be thrown out.

Tracy is the breakfast cook because she has to leave and go to work. So it’s kind of like her contribution before she goes for the day. I don’t like that she’s angry about making breakfast. It seems a pretty light deal compared to having to be here all day. We eat and then sit in the meditation hall and chant. Natvar has made a more elaborate puja than the old one. This one has a raised platform. Baba’s chair, the one Natvar made yars ago, before I knew him – made of wood and purple velvet – sits up on the platform with Baba’s framed picture sitting on it.

I never met Baba. He’s Natvar’s guru. He’s my guru too. I’ve read his books and I like them. I think of Baba all during the day as if he were present and watching, and I try to do things the way he suggests. I try not to fight back when things don’t go my way. I try to try hard all the time.

Natvar dashes off to work as soon as the chant is over. He has several private yoga clients now, wealthy women across the East Side. This is new. He leaves, dressed up smart in a cap and a flowing overcoat that we got for him. He looks glorious, smiling, happy, swinging his colorful bag that one of the women gave him. He carries his yoga clothes in there, pressed white cottons that Tracy has handwashed and ironed.

Mark goes into the office, one of the little rooms we made. None of the rooms have windows, just the big open space at the front. Mark’s office has short counter and a filing cabinet. He is the manager of the Institute. He keeps track of the bills and the not-for-profit paperwork. There is never any money. We always are working with a handful of dollars. Natvar has taught us how to buy groceries that are cheap and last a long time – like Goya products in a can. Plus I shoplift because I can’t stretch the money like Natvar can. Natvar does everything better: he cooks the best, he relates to other people the best – look how he met Arianna and is now teaching half a dozen rich clients. But only I shoplift. And Natvar loves me for it.

I am wearing a woolen skirt, navy blue, narrow, past my knees. And stockings. And a pressed cotton blouse. This is not how I used to be when I was with Jeffrey, smoking pot as soon as I got home from work, wearing jeans and elegant scraps from the Salvation Army. This isn’t the me who hitchhiked alone across the country or the one who listened to records on the screen porch, decoding every Dylan lyric and mapping my future with Leonard Cohen songs.

I have scribbled all that out. In the very beginning I came to class high once and told Natvar, thinking he’d find it amusing, and I was so surprised when he said no, I couldn’t get high and be in his classes, that yoga and pot did not mix. How strait-laced, I thought. I thought Natvar didn’t follow rules like that.

But I haven’t smoked pot since then. And I wear these clothes that he says are better. “I don’t want us looking like a bunch of hippies,” he said. Hippies. I had always wanted to be a hippy. Had never wanted to be anything else.

But I was wrong.

I am nervous now that Natvar has gone. He will be back for lunch and I must have everything ready – I must make it the way he has shown me, but it seems he never likes what I do, even when I am careful. And I begin again, timing the rice.

I must also call the telephone company and work some magic so that they don’t charge us for the last three weeks. There’s no way we can pay that bill. Whenever Natvar talks to people they just love him so much they make all kinds of exceptions. He said I should call today and he told me what to say, he said it over breakfast, holding a piece of toast in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. And I had nodded and kept my face serious, taking it all in, knowing to give him every reason to have confidence in me even though we both know I will mess it up and he will be furious.

And I should type up more of the manuscript. When Natvar talks I write it down in the speedhand I learned in high school and then I type it up for him. But maybe I should vacuum first and the window sills up front are dusty and the stairwell should be washed. Everything must always be clean and perfect. There is no excuse for it not to be. It’s a sign of unconsciousness.

When Natvar flies in at one I have the table set but the rice isn’t ready. He is furious – “What have you been doing all day, woman?” he shouts. “Come on, Mark,” he says with a smile to Mark, “let’s you & I go down to Paul’s and get something decent. She can eat this crap if she wants.”

Monday, January 05, 2009


Phaedra sent an email a couple of days ago and of course I opened it and of course it was disappointing, a generic Christmas greeting with a photo of her son whom I have never met except maybe when he was a baby.

Phaedra lingers on the outside of my life, someone who doesn’t quite go away. She wanted to come visit a few months ago. It would have been about 15 years since I’d last seen her, but she wanted to bring her son and I suggested better she and I meet up first somewhere, that she and I have some earnest conversation first before we try to include other people, and though we exchanged a few emails about it, it didn’t happen and I felt for sure she wasn’t into it. She wanted a friendly chatty visit with nothing said. Sorry, Phaedra. I didn’t even go see her when she was in a play, though there was a pull, as if she were my daughter and I owed her.

Phaedra was the little girl who called 911 the night of April 1, 1984 from the top floor of a four-story walk-up on 29th Street between 7th and 8th. She had blonde hair, brown eyes, teeth a little prominent. Her face was strong. She was about 9.

I lived on the top floor of that four-story walk-up with Natvar, Mark and Tracy. We had rented this godforsaken loft, or rather Natvar had rented it under the guise of the New York Institute of Classical Yoga, his yoga school of which the rest of us were protogées. When we took the place over back in September it was just bare broken down space. Four walls. One cold water utility sink. An old tin ceiling imprinted with a pattern. Bare splintery boards with sequins jammed into the cracks. The place had once been a sequin factory. Two narrow toilet stalls with wooden doors.

“We’ll make a yoga school here!” Natvar had said with great excitement and I had thought that my job was to support him and be equally as enthusiastic, to squash any impulse that didn’t contribute to that enthusiasm. I thought my job was to be as helpful as I could be. I thought that whatever Natvar wanted was more important than what I wanted.

Natvar was in his late 30s, tall but not towering. He was older than me, not a peer. He had a wife and two children. None of my friends had gotten married. Certainly none of them had children. I wasn’t thinking about marriage or children. I had been living in New York alone for a few months when I’d first gone to Natvar’s yoga school – not the new one that we were going to build, but the old one that was already established when I came – a small place, meticulously clean and orderly, a place where Natvar greeted me with huge enthusiasm as if he really thought I was exceptional and everyone around responded in kind, greeting me with great warmth.

I had stuck around more and more, the circles of my orbits getting smaller and smaller, until – wham – I moved in – not as a lover, but as a dedicated student – and now it is a year or two later when we take on the loft that is a bare cold bone that Natvar says we can make sumptuous and beautiful.

We work so hard. I sleep in the loft at night during the months of construction. Natvar and Mark sleep in Mark’s apartment a few blocks away. Tracy also returns to a home she has somewhere else at night. But this is my only home.

It is exciting to be with this group, to be with this Natvar, staying up late around the dinner table, a piece of marble broken in two that Mark found in the street, sitting around in Mark’s beat-up railroad apartment, eating the vegetable stew and brown rice that Camille has made, Camille who also has a nice apartment nearby but comes every night after her office job to shop and cook because she too believes in Natvar’s work.

I sleep on the floor of the loft. I wake up early and go back to Mark’s for breakfast, then back to the loft to chant with everyone for an hour before Tracy and Camille leave for their offices. Then I work with Mark and Natvar, Kenny comes too, a black man from Harlem who wandered in among us a few months ago and stayed.

We clean the floor, the walls – Natvar and Mark go to the hardware store for one long morning and in the afternoon things are delivered into the stairwell, things I’ve never heard of before – sheetrock we carry up sheet by heavy heavy sheet, long shiny studs, buckets of plaster, screws. Then Natvar climbs the tall ladder. He carries a screw gun. We hold the studs and he screws them up. We make the first wall, the back of the meditation hall, blocking off the two small cloudy windows. When he hits his thumb by accident he yells Greek swear words, and teaches them to us – scraps of Greek you cannot say in polite company – these phrases that are further evidence that we are on the outside, but we are special, we are irreverent, but we are real.

It feels very real. Natvar screaming at me for not having cleaned the paintbrushes properly the night before feels very real, very right, so different from the outside world of superficial conversations where people don’t say what they really think. Natvar can always say what he thinks. I must endure his fierce critiques, otherwise I will stay an ordinary person. Can I take my punishment?

It won’t always be like this. One day, if I hang in there, I will have Natvar’s abilities. That’s what yoga is all about – surrendering. If I weren’t so careless he would not have to get so angry. Sometimes Mark is Natvar’s target, sometimes Tracy. We all get it at one time or another. But then there are the quiet moments when he says he loves us. When he looks at me with his deep brown eyes, so brown, with his smile that knows he is cute when he smiles like that, when he says “only Marta” this or that, and it feels just as true as his fury.