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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was right there seeing it, hearing it, smelling it, repelled by it and also drawn to it, this is so very real.