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.

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