Tuesday, June 08, 2010
And this wonderfully dear blog that has served me so well for so many years shall remain to catch all the bits and pieces that don't belong in the Natvar story.
Monday, May 31, 2010
In front of Natvar on the floor was a shiny wooden rectangular box with a short keyboard – black and white keys like a small piano. On the other side of the masking-tape aisle sat Mark cross legged in front of an oblong drum, the kind with two circles of stretched skin on either side and an oval of wood in between.
Anjani, in her quiet white clothes, had handed me a white laminated card when I had entered. I set it beside me on the floor. Natvar, his back to us, began to play the strange instrument in front of him, his left hand pumping a bellows, his right hand playing the black and white keys. The instrument had a haunting, plaintive sound, more like an organ than a piano. Mark began to gently tap the drum in rhythm. Eve, the woman with the stud in her nose, picked up a tambourine.
Mark was a regular, like me, but I had started to notice that he was almost always there when I arrived, helping Natvar in the little office off the lobby. And now here he was, playing the drum. I felt a little nudge of jealousy that he was perhaps closer to Natvar than I was. Natvar was always so enthusiastic and responsive when I was around it was hard for me to imagine that he might prefer Mark. But Mark was one of the people who visited Baba and joined in the conversations about how great the last weekend had been up in the Catskills. Maybe he'd been around Natvar's school for longer than I knew.
Mark was a couple of years older than me, in his mid-twenties, a boy with a sweet, wide face, round, pale-lashed blue eyes and a blonde head that was already half-bald. It didn't make him look any older. The first time I'd seen him after class a few months ago, lounging on the couch with his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, I had thought, “That man is gay.” It was in his casual, fluid body, his sometimes half-closed eyes and lazy, easy smile. And I noticed his wide beautiful feet with their strong high arches. Sometimes as he sat on the floor or couch he'd absent-mindedly point them into curved white-socked parentheses. He was a dancer, he said without pride, studying with Merce Cunningham.
When I saw other people pick up their white laminated cards, I did the same. There was a column of words on the left in a foreign language and a column on the right, the English translation. People began singing the foreign language words. I liked the melody. It moved fast, and I liked Mark's spirited drumming and Eve's rustling tambourine.
The song reminded me of the Hungarian songs that my father sang in the car. Every time he drove he launched into these songs. I didn’t remember a time when I didn’t know his songs well enough to sing with him. He told me what each song was about – a soldier returning from the war, a pretty girl, a mother with nine daughters – and I sang, mimicking the words he strung together, not knowing when one word ended and the next began, but it didn't matter. I liked the fast ones, not the slow, sad ones in minor keys that my father was also so fond of.
That night at Natvar's, not knowing the melody or the strange words people were effortlessly singing, my eyes strayed over to the English translation and while everyone sang the hearty chant around me, I read that.
It was a prayer sung to the guru by the devotee. It spoke of how the singer was incomplete, only partially alive, like an unlit flame. It asked the guru to kindle my heart with your flame – jump start me. The song said that I contained everything I needed inside of me, but I just needed the guru's special touch to unlock that secret chamber and release all the power that has been stored up inside of me, waiting to come out. And that the only reason the guru existed was to help those who reached out to him.
I read the words silently, the music soaring around me. The words described how I felt better than any words I'd ever read before. I'd been in
Since I was twelve years old when everything had collapsed, I had sat on the sidelines and watched other people succeed – have friends, do things they loved doing, have faith in themselves as filmmakers or writers or painters or ceramicists – while it seemed that all I did was try and fail, try and fail.
But the song said I had something special and powerful inside of me. That sounded right. I did have something inside of me, and it was true that I did not know how to bring it out. Nothing and no one had ever said that to me before with so much conviction. This song knew how I felt. It reached out to me as if I were a member of a secret, underground society of people who had something so deep and important inside of them that it could only be given expression through very special means. For you, the song said, there is only one answer.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Becoming a carpenter hadn't worked out, copyediting was proving not very interesting, and Scott had forbidden my idea of rehabilitating and reselling furniture I found in the street, saying he didn’t want his living room to look like a junk yard, so I started babysitting for a sweet Chinese American baby with the unlikely name of Christopher while his single stylish young mother went to work in the cosmetics industry. Their small apartment with a good address held almost no furniture as if Christopher's mother had just been caught unawares by motherhood and I felt called upon to inject as much life into my hours with Christopher as I could, pushing his carriage through the Rambles so that we both could pretend we were in the woods and talking to him as he sat in his high chair, accepting the spoonfuls of banana and baby food I offered. He rewarded my attentions by screaming with delight every time I showed up, bewildering his mother who was always in a rush to leave.
And I went to Natvar's Monday night chant, something I'd been avoiding for nine months. I hadn't wanted to chant. I had only wanted Natvar's school for its yoga classes, a place that would keep me young and beautiful and thin. I was afraid these things would fade and then what would I have? Geoffrey had once wondered out loud whether if I were in a disfiguring accident if he would still love me. He wasn't sure. It seemed like honest inquiry at the time, not less than I could expect. Looking good was the only currency I was sure of, something I traced back to my father because he knew how to look good too – in double-breasted suits and cravats and laced leather shoes. Looking good was the only thing about me that he liked. He didn't say it out loud, but the only time I saw his eyes light up was when in high school I dressed up to go with him to the city on a Saturday night to the Metropolitan Opera where he had subscription tickets. We were perfectly paired as the two in the family who knew how to glide through any crowd as if we belonged there, and yet within minutes of leaving the house in the car, I felt a speechless fury descend on me, fury that was not allowed to speak, was not allowed to hurt anyone else.
But Natvar's place had begun to feel like home, and I wanted to explore this unknown corner of this new home, chanting night.
On a Monday in late September I slipped into the meditation hall where normally we did our classes. This evening the lights were up higher than usual. The room was long and narrow with an aisle marked on the flat dark grey carpet with perfectly straight strips of what I now saw was simply masking tape. I sat cross-legged on the women's side of the aisle, just room for a couple of us to sit in each row, with the same amount of space for the men on the other side. There were about five of us there, sitting near the front, the long hall stretching empty behind us.
Natvar strode in from the sliding door, down the aisle and sat, facing forward, on the women's side on a thick colored carpet that lay in front of the wide elaborate purple velvet chair with the picture of the old Indian man propped up in its seat. That was Baba, the man Natvar and some of the others went to see in the Catskills on weekends. I had heard them talking about these visits with insider jokes and had stayed away from those conversations. I didn't like the word “guru.” It made me squirm. It was an embarrassing word, one that did not have a place in the Manhattan picture I wanted to be part of.
I wanted to get a scrappy apartment like Bill's in the East Village to write in, like my friend Meg with her darkroom had, but I couldn't think of a way to do that. It felt like all the buildings I walked by were locked with no way to penetrate. Other people had done it, but I knew I didn’t have the magic formula that would get me off the sidewalk and into an apartment of my own. But I cut my long hippy hair punk-short so it stood up in brazen tufts.
My father was in the hospital when I cut my hair. Not for any illness, more for a sort of resting cure. He'd come up with a reason to be in the fancy Manhattan hospital for a few days, and he seemed happy when I went to visit him. He could lie in bed. There were people to wait on him. And for a few days he didn't have to think about how he didn't have any money and really no home anymore. Although polite, I could tell he didn't like the short hair, but again I did not care. I was tired of my father's criteria for beautiful women. I felt strong in my short hair, my long loose lavender pants and spaghetti strap camisole, strong in a way that my father had never helped me find.
I didn’t figure out a way to make much money, but I thought of a way to spend less. I came up with the idea of moving into the tiny loft room off the kitchen in the apartment I shared with Scott. I'd give up my spacious corner room for the sake of a lower rent. Scott hadn't like the idea much. He'd rather have my higher rent – something I hadn't thought of – but I persuaded him easily and we put up a notice for a third roommate to take over my old room.
Scott and I, after six months of apartment sharing, were pretty easy buddies though his monochromatic life was almost as frustrating to me as my own. I hated how he moped about the girl who had left him a year before and complained about his mundane 9-5 job without quitting it. With his balding head and glasses, his long skinny body, 10-speed bike and dusty meditation shelf he looked to me like someone who would never accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish. One evening we were arguing in the living room, the kind of argument where I was trying to convince him of something, trying to get him to be different. He stubbornly refused to burst into flame or into blossom, just sat there flat and ordinary and in exasperation I picked up a cup and threw it at the wall behind him. “Wow,” he said, ducking. “No one’s ever thrown anything at me before.” He liked the excitement.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Bill drove me out to the log cabin on the lake where he was staying with his two elderly parents. He and I slept upstairs that night in a loft with a slanting ceiling in separate beds. Laura was still his girlfriend, but she wasn’t there and I could feel Bill’s pull towards me. It had always been there, one of the few things I could count on.
“You could come over here,” I whispered from my cot on the other side of the room, certain of his yielding. It would feel good to have his arms around me, to feel the unchecked rush of his attraction.
“Oh, Marta, I can’t,” he groaned from his cot. “I can’t. Because of Laura.” His refusal was a punch in the stomach.
In the morning his mother had turned icy, her welcome smile had disappeared. I was startled. I had never felt so thrown out by someone’s parents, usually such an easy group of people to please. She must have heard me last night, I thought.
It was September now back in New York and back at the yoga school Natvar greeted me with the same bear hug and enthusiasm. “You look thin,” he said, eyeing me closely, his brown eyes concerned. “Are you eating enough protein?” He knew I had just become a vegetarian, had seen my snacks of carrot sticks and peanut butter. “Make sure you eat some cheese after class,” he said with conviction, and I said I would even though Bill had just read to me that dairy was an unhealthy thing to eat.
On Monday nights Natvar substituted his regular yoga class with a chanting night, but I had never gone. I had been politely ignoring the pictures on the wall of the old man they called Baba. I just wanted Natvar’s yoga class, the string of movements he led us through every time, always the same movements in the same order.
It was becoming so comfortably familiar – Natvar standing in front of us in the narrow darkened hall, a soft light illuminating him. He stood in his creased white cotton pants, barefoot, without a shirt when it was warm, and as soft bamboo flute music played – always the same tape – he performed the different stretches and poses, guiding us with his voice, but always absolutely absorbed in his own practice.
“Follow your breath,” his deep, accented voice intoned, and his own breath changed in sound and speed, so that sometimes he snorted, often shaking as if ridding himself of unwanted inner spirits. Sometimes other people in the class snorted or shook, and I wondered if anything that spontaneous and uncontrolled could happen for me.
And always the class ended with a long relaxation, everyone lying on their backs in complete darkness with Natvar’s voice guiding us to relax our toes, our feet – all the way up and through until I disappeared – to emerge blinking ten minutes later into the tidy, well lit lobby, to accept Anjani’s ginger tea sit on the carpeted floor and listen to Natvar entertain us with stories from his life.
“I call it Classical Yoga,” he said one night, “because it revealed itself to me when I was in India. I didn’t learn from anyone that it’s all about the breath. I know the yoga I teach is the essential, true, original yoga. And I named it Classical Yoga – ancient and classical like ancient Greece.”
That’s where he was from, Greece. When the war came, he said, they’d taken him to a village on a small island where relatives took care of him .”I saw the icons speaking to me in church,” he said in all seriousness. “The villagers spoke of me as a spirit child, a child with spirit gifts.” He laughed as if this was a little silly and added, “and when I was a little older back in Athens I found I could rub shoe polish on an icon and make it look ancient and people would pay money for them, thinking they were antiques.”
His life had some kind of magic to it – theater, travel, survival. I listened to his stories, amazed at what he had accomplished. I didn’t speak at all during these small gatherings. Eve sometimes teased him as if he were a peer, an ordinary person. She was a painter a few years older than me with a stud in her nose. She knew the Baba who Natvar sometimes talked about. It made me uncomfortable to hear Eve talk to Natvar so casually, watching her inadvertently revealing her own lack of awareness.
Natvar was not ordinary. I kept quiet because any words I thought of to say sounded pretentious and empty, floating in my head. He was sure of himself in a way I hadn’t seen before, in a way I longed to be. And he loved all of us – the five or six people who always seemed to be there for class. He loved us with bear hugs, and earlobe-pulls of affection, and we began to love each other in the same way, adopting his terms of endearment and enthusiasm.
“Okay,” I thought. “Maybe I’ll give his chanting night a go.” I knew Basil, my sister up in Boston, whose life was so appealing, had done some chanting and said it was great. Maybe, I thought, surveying again my New York City life that now, nine months since my return had still refused to flower in any way, I am too much in my head, maybe I need to find my way into something that isn’t about thinking.
Sunday, May 09, 2010
I didn’t go to so much trouble. I wanted a few hours of great dance music, no bad songs to sit through. As I sat on the floor, adding The Harder They Come to Twist and Shout I tried not to think of Geoffrey and how well he would do this and was I living my own life or still trying to do things that he would like. “Put on the Ramones!” Esther, my little sister, yelled from the bathroom – that felt new and my own. Geoffrey didn’t listen to the Ramones.
My sisters both came in for the party. Esther had turned into a teenager with black-rimmed eyes and multiple earrings who made us laugh with stories of drinking and parties. Basil – in purple cotton baggy pants -- helped me to roll joints for the party. She had brought copper rings, one for each of us. We would each have a matching ring, our sister rings. I wore mine, proud to have a relationship this important. Even if I couldn’t find friends to fill what felt like an immense hole, at least I had my two sisters.
And after the party I would go hitchhiking in Nova Scotia. Surely, that would be far away enough to really feel like I was in wide open space. I was reading Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” where she described moment after moment of herself and what she sees in the water and grasses around her house. I wanted to write like that and took the subway one day as far north as it would go to Van Cortlandt park and walked – in the long flowing apple-green skirt that I loved. No one else was there. I could feel the woods and the earth there. A junked car lay abandoned and a young man approached, glowering in a black tee-shirt. A few steps away I realized it was a woman. She passed without speaking.
I came home and wrote about the walk, calling the piece Small Runaway. Nova Scotia, I thought, would be a bigger runaway. I would hitchhike like I had when I was 16, and I would camp, which I’d never done alone. Basil would lend me a tent she said. She’d done a lot of camping.
But first the party. I invited everyone I could think of – people from the old job, the lesbians, the carpenters, the different men I tried to sleep with, Geoffrey’s sister who was in town. I put out bowls of blueberries and bowls of joints, and I wore the white cotton dress that looked like a slip. I moved the glass-topped table to make a dance floor.
I did dance. Almost all the party. I saw the Brooklyn guy sitting by himself. I saw Cynthia the copyeditor sitting by herself. Charles from the office roared in at midnight with a woman bearing flowers and bottles of liquor.
I danced alone and with my sisters, the music loud, past midnight. I felt beautiful, but no man came to join me.
Basil showed me how to put up her tent in her living room in Boston. Hiking boots, pack, sleeping bag. She lent me a little cook stove and told me lentils were good for camping trips because they cooked fast. So I took a bag of brown lentils. Basil spoke with assurance about everything she did.
The first night in Nova Scotia I put up the tent in someone’s field, which is how I’d imagined things – putting up the tent wherever I felt like it. But I hadn’t realized this meant not having a bathroom. The next night I gave in and accepted a campsite. The tent fell on me while I slept.
I got a ride with a man who gave me his card and said if I needed a place to stay on my way back to call him and his wife. I found my way out to raw landscape, what I had been imagining but I could only look at it for a few minutes. I didn’t know what to do with it. I slept in a church that night, on a pew, frightened but least inside. The lentils tasted awful.
At the far end of Novia Scotia I saw you could take a boat to Northumberland. I wanted so much to buy a ticket and keep going, go further, not stop, never stop, but I didn’t have the money. I turned back, reluctant. I could never go as far as I wanted. I called the man who’d given me his card. “Sure,” he said. “You can stay here though my wife and I are leaving for the weekend.” He picked me up, drove me to their simple two-story home and a warm bed. In the morning I was left alone. I stayed for two days. I ate all their food, returning to the fridge then the freezer all day long and left them a thank-you note on the counter.
I found my way back to Halifax and the ferry to Portland. The plan was to hitch a few hours inland and Bill would come pick me up. He was staying a few weeks with his parents in their Maine cabin.
One man drove me off the main road to a clearing in the woods. He said he wanted to show me the land he was buying. He wore a suit and was older than me. We stood on the edge of the cleared land, pretending this was normal. I played along, pretending the land was interesting, wanting to keep his focus on the charade of show me real estate, not thinking about what was at stake, just knowing I had to keep the conversation going.
The boyfriend part wasn’t going to well. I had pinned some hopes on Roy, put a lot of energy into that one, gave him a lovely night of sex before he’d even asked for it and in the morning I felt nothing and, worse, neither did he. I had imagined he’d fall right into love with me the way Geoffrey had.
I tried other men – the acceptably cute boy I’d known a little in college who now lived in Brooklyn and took me to hear Talking Heads. I liked him well enough, but though I showed up looking my best he never reached for me. Nor did Jack the filmmaker I’d known from Geoffrey years who I’d always assumed was just waiting for me to be a free agent. And all of this was important, was a race, because I had to make Geoffrey my history, had to prove that he was not needed, that my foray into Manhattan was a blossoming success.
Bill called to say he’d moved back from San Francisco. Bill had been my high school boyfriend – tall, gangly, a blonde boy I went out with because he asked me to. At school I didn’t speak to him. I didn’t want other people to know I made out with him on Saturday nights – he was over-tall, a clumsy mover, bespectacled and shy – not at all the dark sophisticate I should have been with. Worst of all, Bill didn’t have the muscle to get me across the intimidating border into non-virginity.
Later, when I needed a quick lover to counter Geoffrey’s wanderings, I looked up Bill in California where he was growing up, doing acid and riding a Harley. Now, he said, he lived in the East Village, had become an artist and earned his keep as a waiter on St. Mark’s Place. I went down to meet him in a turquoise cotton dress with spaghetti straps and knew right away he would sleep with me any time I wanted. But not yet. His girlfriend Laura had come East with him – a pale, dark, quiet girl who I knew was no contest. I pretended I didn’t know though, inviting them both to my apartment for dinner, cooking a cheesecake made from tofu because we were all getting into health food.
In the mornings I sat down at my white wooden desk, the one my mother had bought for me when I was nine to do homework at. I sat in the corner room with its two windows, my bookshelves behind me – mostly books from all the English college courses, and I forced out the words onto paper.
There were brief moments when I liked what I got and read it to Ruth or the Talking Heads guy or my father, read it with pride and pleasure. Though every page seemed fragile, a wisp anchoring me to the possibility of being a writer.
I went to a feminist meeting and got a job working for two middle-aged lesbians who were breaking up after 20 years and needed help sorting out their apartment. I could tell they both loved me – my spirit, my youth, my long dark hair and thin elastic body. It was easy to look good before their admiring eyes. They introduced me to two carpenters who said I could apprentice with them. I thought that would be a great way to make money and be independent, but I got tired of sanding, which is all they asked me to do the two or three times I joined them for jobs in other people’s apartments.
By late summer – now six months since I’d returned to New York – my father had sold the family house and now he, my mother and my youngest sister were living in someone’s spare room, someone my father knew from the church he had just started going to. My jet-setting father with his custom-made suits and leather luggage was working as a night security guard. These things happened and when I talked to my parents on the phone or when I visited, we talked as we always had, as if none of this were happening.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Still, when she called that she was in NY, I looked forward to our evening together, most of which we spent in her mother’s apartment, drinking ouzo and talking. As I drank and talked a beautiful plan took shape in my head. I would quit my job. That’s what I needed to do to make things better. The certainty of it, the splendor of this ripe possibility rose up in me with joy.
I had been with the paperback publishing house for almost three years. I had begun as a secretary and been promoted to editor – my first private office, my first set of business cards. I could take manuscripts that I liked to my boss, a short round gay middle-aged ballet-loving boss, and persuade him to publish them. I had gotten Geoffrey a job to write a novel based on a movie. He had two days to write it in and got $1,000 for it. I wrote copy that I could read months later on paperback covers at B. Daltons. Lately, I’d been going to cocktail parties for book people after work though I often showed up in cut-offs and hiking boots, confident I was the youngest and prettiest girl in the room.
But always, weaving in and out of my days was the dread of being trapped in a 9 to 5 job, and lately – even with the parties – I had the sense that I was in a prison, a large one, but still, a very confined space. And the words of an old boss rang in my head, “All editors once aspired to be writers.” I couldn’t let that happen.
I left Marion’s apartment, having talked it all out with her. I would quit. I would get odd jobs. I would sit at my desk in my new corner room and I would write, just the way I imagined Virginia Woolf had done it, the way Susan Sontag surely did it. Yes, I thought, yes. I had hit on the answer to everything.
As I bounded down Broadway in my sneakers in the morning, everything sparkled. I couldn’t wait to be in my new life.
I knocked on my boss’s door and sat down across from him at his desk. “I’d like to leave in two weeks,” I said.
He looked at me, his wide bespectacled face. “But why?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.
all my reasons collided, causing a pile-up that stifled my voice for a moment. I wanted to give him an honest answer, and it brought tears to my throat because it all seemed so important. “I just want a life that means something,” I managed to say.
His expression didn’t change. Though my words meant everything to me I could see they didn’t mean much to him. “All right,” he said.
“You must not quit your job!” my father called me at my office two days later, his voice urgent.
Nothing he said touched me at all. His worries about disaster if I quit were nothing more than the annoying buzz of a mosquito. I was doing this.
The Managing Editor said she would send me manuscripts to copyedit. that seemed like an appealing writerly way to make money. For the rest of it I would figure something out. Other people did it. I would get my writing life.
I looked at its noticeboard, assured that whoever posted something there was a friend. It was the usual scramble of fliers and things for sale. Roommate Wanted, the notice said, Upper West Side. I took down the number and called. I had been staying in Geoffrey’s apartment for three months and I was restless to get away from a place that –though rent-free – would never really be mine, a place that wasn’t much more than a fancy hotel suite.
Scott was tall and gangly and going bald early. He wore glasses and kept his 10-speed in the hall and sprouts in jars in the kitchen. In his apartment – that had the high ceilings and random layout of a house – I could have a corner room. I signed up and moved.
Spring was just coming to New York City, I was just steps from Riverside Park and the new warmth, the new beauty of trees and plants, the newness promised by my new address lifted my spirits. I walked the 50 blocks to work in the bright mornings now straight down Broadway in my sneakers and skirt, proud to break glamour rules, and feeling like an elastic Superwoman.
I had liked meeting that man, Natvar at that yoga school on Eighth Avenue, but I hadn’t liked his class very much. It wasn’t hard enough. He talked a lot about following your breath as you moved, but I wanted something more demanding, something guaranteed to keep me skinny and young. I continued going to one yoga school and then another, hoping to find the perfection that had been the L.A. school.
But I returned to Natvar’s class. He was very happy to see me. He remembered my name. I was not surprised. I knew he had noticed me that first time just like I had noticed him.
After his class, I accepted the invitation of a petite dark-skinned woman, who seemed to be helping there, to linger and have some tea. She spoke softly and shyly. Her hair was gray and pinned into a bun. She wore baggy white yoga clothes and though I would have guessed she was in her 60s or 70s her face was still very pretty.
There were three or four other people lingering with styrofoam cups. The older woman ladled tea from a saucepan on a hotplate. I looked into the pot and saw simply steaming water with chunks of raw ginger inside, a recipe I had never heard of. The others kew each other and chatted easily, sitting on the couch and floor. I looked at the books in the little bookstore, an elegant set of 3 shelves built into the wall. The same man whose picture sat in the big chair in the hall looked out from the covers of the books that lay flat on display. I didn’t reach for them. I liked the curved wooden incense burner though. I wanted to buy it. I wanted to send it to Geoffrey as a gift. I thought he would like it. I wanted to send him something that would help him miss me. But I couldn’t afford it.
I walked a few steps over to the typed paragraph that was framed, hanging below the picture of a plump Indian goddess with many arms. The paragraph said something about how the blessings you receive are in proportion to the blessings you give, and right beside it was a small wooden box with a slot in the top.
I squirmed inside and moved away.
I returned again for another class, and this time the older woman smiled when I appeared and told me her name in a low, quiet voice. Anjani. Her old face held wisdom and warmth.
When I went to the other yoga schools you never saw who ran them or who had opened them in the first place. Those people were invisible. Here though Natvar was always present, teaching all the classes. Anjani was always at his side or in the background, helping out. Eve was there too, a painter with long hair and a nose ring. And a boy called Mark, a dancer with high arched feet and a ready smile.
Natvar loomed larger than anyone though. When he strode into class or stepped into the lobby afterwards it was always with great energy and purpose as if he could never be idle, as if he were enjoying every moment and wanted everyone else to too.
After class, he disappeared into the back and then joined us in the lobby for Anjani’s ginger tea. “Aha!” he’d say. ‘What great company,” as he drank his tea, leaning back on the couch now, his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, his white yoga pants ironed with a crisp crease. And though it seemed it should be a place of ease I stayed alert in these small gatherings, aware that Natvar’s standards were high.
When he saw me he greeted me with tremendous joy and vigor. “Marta!” he’d call. He greeted all of us with this kind of unabating enthusiasm, and bade farewell to each of us after class with strong hugs, yet I never felt part of a crowd. I felt selected. I felt like I stood out to him as someone special – for my brains, my looks, my sensitivity. He saw me the way I wanted to be seen. Perhaps, I thought, he will be my next lover.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
When I lived here with Geoffrey we didn’t use this cut-out part of the living room, but it had my favorite furniture in it – the gray wood table and the big set of shelves and cupboards, both of which looked like they came out of an Italian farmhouse. I cleared the table of the junk mail and scrap that had been tossed on it over the years and sat there in the mornings before work with organic grapefruit and wholegrain toast, foods I never ate when I was with Geoffrey, foods that he would never eat and a meal that he was never up for.
This kind of food went along with the other new things I was exploring, the things Geoffrey didn’t want to go near – the yoga, the astrology, the meditation – all of which were well represented in the Village Voice – ads and classes and talks. The Village Voice would lead me into the city, I thought, provide me a path into the maze.
I went to a meditation class at East West Books, a place that appeared permanently established in secret knowledge, and came home determined to practice as the teacher had advised. I sat in the living room on one of Geoffrey’s stepmother’s chairs, the only object that resembled a straight-backed chair – a shiny chrome frame with spongy blue fabric, artificially soft. I sat in the evening after work, eyes closed for as long as I could stand nothing happening.
I saw an ad for a free introductory yoga class at a school I had not yet visited. I walked over on Sunday afternoon, arriving a few minutes late to the Eighth Avenue address. I opened the door from the street and climbed the straight flight of stairs to the door at the top. A sign read The New York Institute of Classical Yoga. There was a window in the door covered by a curtain on the inside of yellow cotton. I pressed the buzzer. Someone pushed aside the cloth, glanced out and opened the door.
He was lovely – tall and handsome with a big smile, dressed in white yoga clothes and bare feet. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Kevin, come on in!” He pointed to a small cluster of shoes on the black and white linoleum floor and said, “You can leave your shoes here.”
“Very strange,” I thought, pulling off my sneakers. I had never been asked to take off my shoes before. It seemed as random and odd as being asked to hop.
I followed Kevin from the narrow front hall a few steps into a small but bright open room with olive-green wall-to-wall carpeting. There were a few colorful pictures on the walls and some shelves displaying yoga books. “You can change in there,” Kevin pointed me towards a door that led into a changing room that was tiny but tidy and cared for.
Kevin was waiting for me back out in the main room. “We’ll be starting in a few minutes,” he smiled. “Come on, I’ll show you into the hall.” Again I followed him back towards the front door, into the narrow hall with its black and white tiles where Kevin slid open a door I hadn’t noticed before. “Just go on in,” he whispered, “and sit on the left side.”
The room was almost completely dark with just enough light to make out the shapes of six or seven people sitting and facing the front of the room. I picked my way carefully over to the left side, noticing a narrow aisle had been marked out that cut through the center of the long room. I spread my towel and sat cross-legged like everyone else. The women were on this side of the aisle and the men were on the other side. How strange. There was some kind of music playing and the people in the room had their eyes closed and were murmuring along in a practiced way, uttering words I did not understand, as if they were a secret code. This didn’t feel like any place I could ever be a part of. The party had gotten started too long ago.
I heard the door slide open at the back and someone stride up the aisle to the front of the room where there was a little more light. It was a man. He stooped for a moment over something in the corner, bringing down the sound of the music and then sat down back in the center of the room, facing us as the lights in the whole room came up slowly and gently.
The man was smiling. His hair was brown though bald on top. His face was young though he was older than me. In his thirties, I thought. Behind him was a strange oversize chair with a framed photograph of an Indian man placed upon it. There was a little table to the side with a rose in a vase. I just wanted a good exercise class.
The man began to talk to us. He said his name was Natvar, a name that seemed to match the unusual accent he had – it wasn’t French or German or Spanish, none of the ones I was familiar with. His English though came easily. He didn’t give us a lecture on yoga. Instead, he spoke of things he had noticed on his ride over on the subway – an old woman, a young boy with a skateboard. He made them seem important. I liked the way he described the subway, the walk up Eighth Avenue. He had vigor and energy and seemed really happy to be talking to us and about to teach a yoga class.
I listened to every word. I had never heard anyone talk like this before. Not like a teacher. Not like a friend. I felt I knew this man from the inside, like he knew me. That we were relatives in some way, that our inner worlds were similar. It was like finding a book by an author who speaks for you. This man was putting into words pieces of myself I didn’t know could be voiced.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
I am truly honored to have just been awarded an Honest Scrap Award by the blog, Words, Words, Words, a blog that I actually love to check in with from time to time because she’s always reading and passing on something juicy.
The one condition of the award is that I list ten Honest Scraps about my own self and here they be:
- I don’t like to cook though I like the idea of cooking.
- I took so many walks with my parents (separately) as a child that it is in my blood and I have always walked a lot.
- I want to become a better photographer and like to practice. My favorite things to photograph are strangers in the street who are not aware of me watching them. I find faces beautiful. And I love old architecture.
- I love really good desserts.
- I love dogs and cats. In that order.
- I wish I had a pied-a-terre in
. And New York City . And… Paris
- I haven’t slept the last two nights. Hardly.
- I just got my first iPod and am a little frightened by how easy it is to get new music. It used to be something I had to think long and hard about, and then usually postpone.
- I think Obama is a great and historic figure.
- I still think Bob Dylan is the greatest.
And now I'd like to thank my producer...
Sunday, April 11, 2010
My mother and father were selling the house they had owned since I was three years old, a house that though we had not always lived in it – moving in and out several times – had always defined us as a family. It was a part of us.
I remembered the house from when I was little and it was the very beginning. My mother spackled the walls of the kitchen and painted them white. Workmen sat around in a circle at the bottom of the hill and ate thick sandwiches of meat and cheese. There was glass in the dirt near the house.
It was an old house, my parents said, and my mother showed me how a road used to go right by the house, a road that was now just a grassy open passage, cutting through woods. The house – white clapboard – stood on a slope overlooking the new road. There was always something ragged about it, more rough-edged than the smooth suburban homes where other people lived.
By the time I finished high school and we had returned to the house for the last time, my father had refined some of the rough edges so that when you drew up to the front door now the house looked more luxurious than it actually was, a rose trellis leading to a two-car garage. He left the huge spreading maple from which my mother had hung a swing for me in the early years. By the end, the swing was long gone, but a path of white gravel led you to the front door.
And now they had to sell the house. I knew it was because my father could not pay his bills. He was declaring bankruptcy. I received the news as lightly as if he were mentioning that he was getting a tooth removed. We did not react to things. Feelings were embarrassing. We left each other’s inner worlds very much alone.
The house was within easy commuting distance from the city, easy to get on a train at Grand Central and get there in less than an hour. I was glad to have a place to go to on a warm Spring weekend.
My sisters were at the house that weekend – Basil had come down from Boston, and Esther was still in high school, living at home. It was the first time in years that all five of us – two parents, three daughters – had been together, and here, in this house.
It was exhilaratingly summery. The dandelions were blooming. My sisters and I – all between 15 and 23 – played music loudly from the stereo inside, loud enough so that we could hear it outside on the grass.
Our spread of grass was too irregularly shaped to be called a lawn. It sloped downhill and faded into woods on two sides. I remembered doing my first somersaults on this grass, demanding that my father watch as he passed by, pushing a weekend wheelbarrow. I remembered my mother and grandmother carrying the body of our German Shepherd, each of them holding two paws while his body dangled between, across the grass one morning to the hole they had dug. I remembered the blow-up wading pool on this grass and the game of red-light/green-light that a woman, the wife of a businessman who had come for dinner, generously played with us. The big lilac had always bloomed purple.
On this Saturday my sisters and I blasted reggae or Van Morrison and we danced, the three of us, on the grass. We had never done this when we all lived here. We had stayed alone in our rooms, reading, listening to radio privately.
But there was a new freedom that morning, a sense of power, and we danced almost as if we were taking over now. I felt it, a sense of flaunting – our beautiful flexible bodies that could do anything.
My mother prepared lunch in the kitchen. My father watched from a picnic table as he waited for the real estate agent who had said she would drop by. I put a dandelion behind my ear.
Friday, April 09, 2010
I did move into the apartment on
The doormen and elevator men were always at hand, dressed in green uniforms. Only one of them was black and he was called Curly. His job was to stand in the elevator and press the button of your floor for you and talk amiably about weather or sports, your choice.
And yet it was spacious, the apartment. Two bedrooms. Two full bathrooms. Much more space than a 23-year-old in
I had lived here with Geoffrey and his father and sometimes his sister in my last couple of college years before we’d gone to
I brought Roy, the guy from the party in the
When people at work asked where I lived, I answered either vaguely, “in the Village,” or, if more detail was needed, I’d have to explain what I was doing in an expensive old-people’s building.
I put sneakers on and walked to work every morning – 40 blocks – feeling like I was riding the wind, feeling invincible in the power of my stride. Our
I had to get a lover quick. Mostly to protect myself from the memory and presence of Geoffrey of whom I was still so conscious. I promised myself I would not call him for six months, and slept in our old bed, with his childhood furniture that smelled the way it always had.
The only thing I knew for sure that I wanted and knew how to get was a yoga class. I wanted to find the classes that would make me feel as perfect as those
One was on
I knew three women from college in
Anna and Sara persuaded me to take a weekend workshop that promised breakthrough via a system they swore by. I took the weekend and did not have the promised breakthrough, could not join in the party afterwards where everyone celebrated having gotten it. I felt as disconnected there as at any other party.
I brought one boy home to the apartment after meeting him at a brunch on the upper West Side, identifying him early on and bringing him home, hoping that he would be the next Geoffrey, that we would melt into each other, but it was like trying to get something to stick with cheap glue.
Thursday, April 08, 2010
Alyssa was a few years older than me. Not many. Just enough to put her over the edge into the next category. She had short dark hair and a serious face. She didn’t laugh or talk much. There was something serious and self-contained about her, almost sometimes disapproving so that being with her was sometimes a little bit of hard work.
She moved into the white cottage across the walkway from us and I pursued a friendship. She interested me. She seemed to know things I didn’t and I wanted to push past the usual boundaries that exist when people don’t know each other so that maybe she would share with me that secret knowledge.
I went over to visit her in her cottage, stepping across the few feet of concrete from my shady stoop to her identical one. She did not come over to my cottage because Geoffrey was there and it was as obvious as weather that we could not have our conversations there. In fact, Alyssa – visiting Alyssa – talking to Alyssa was a way of creating or trying to create a small island to which I could go, an independent place.
Alyssa talked of things I had never heard of – reincarnation, tarot, and astrology as if it were a science not just something dumb in the newspaper. And she was so poised and adult that I listened to her.
Alyssa took me to a bookstore called The Bodhi Tree, shelves upon shelves of books all covering these subjects I hadn’t known existed. I had spent so many years in bookstores, and yet here was one that I had never entered or known about. It was like stepping into an alternate universe. “Where do I begin?” I asked Alyssa, and she suggested a thick red paperback.
It was slow going, but I did not stop, chopping my way through its humorless prose about ancient
Alyssa and I came up with a plan to drive up to
We drove all day, arriving in the evening at a small house on a river bank, set amidst dense forest. Her friend was a man, living alone, handsome and friendly. They were old friends, it seemed, who had not seen each other for awhile, and I left them to be alone and catch up for awhile. I sat out on a rock overlooking the water. There was no sound of traffic or people or industry. This is where I had so wanted to be, but still I felt on edge, not sure how long I should leave them.
I waited for a half hour and then joined them inside where we sat together and ate. Eventually they drifted into the bedroom. I slept in the living room.
Not much was said in the morning. The handsome rugged man drove us around a bit, showing us the small town, and I filled up any empty moments with Remembrance of Things Past which I had brought along, drinking in every succulent word from its thick pages.
This was a place Geoffrey would never come to, and so it felt more authentic, more like a place where I would go. It wasn’t a place just for TV and pot and food and movies and shopping and chats with friends on the phone – none of that had ever found its way comfortably or permanently into my life. Those were the things Geoffrey was content to do for the rest of his life, things that seemed empty to me, like the scripts he wrote about handsome men falling in love with witty beautiful women.
The yoga class wasn’t like that. I liked the way the other teachers looked – the men handsome and the women confident, and all of them at ease with one another. They talked about who was going to
I did not miss a class, driving to the white mansion two or three times a week. And after every class I felt good in a way I had never felt good before. I had never found anything that so reliably made me feel better – in body, in mind.
Sunday, April 04, 2010
I said good-bye to Geoffrey on the terra-cotta tiled stoop of the white stucco cottage, a bright Los Angeles February day, three years after we’d arrived.
We said good-bye as if I were just going on a trip. I had spent the night. He had offered to make whatever I wanted for dinner and I had asked for pot roast. His sister Buf was driving me to the airport.
Geoffrey and I said good-bye, not knowing what the next step was. I was just glad to be headed back to Manhattan, all of it paid for by my job. I was ready for wonderful new things to happen in the city where things happened. I had no lingering love for Los Angeles, the biggest suburb in the world.
On the airplane I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman and saw a young woman sitting, her eyes down, small headphones on her head, a small black cassette player in her hands. Wow, I thought. Very cool.
I took the bus and subway to the West Village, to Thea’s empty studio apartment. Thea, a friend from college, had inexplicably become a model and was often out of town.
I put the key in the lock, opened the door, put my things down. There was not much light in the apartment. The main room was empty except for Thea’s large loom with a piece of weaving in its strings, dark purples, blues and greens.
When Thea and I spent time together it was always at some little place for dinner where we talked about how our writing was going or not going. This was the topic that held us together. We both had a tortured sense that we weren’t making enough art and that life was useless if you weren’t an artist. During those conversations we felt like best friends, but then there were huge pieces of her life she kept hidden from me – all her other friends, for instance. Her boyfriend who I imagined as dark and ultra-cool since I never met him and his name was Milo. The art gallery crowd she worked and hung out with. I knew I couldn’t make it with those Soho sophisticates. Thea’s keeping me out confirmed it.
But I liked her, I thought. And I liked her unusual face – wide, and almost Oriental-flat with blue eyes that could become almost slits. She wasn’t tall and she wasn’t thin, but they’d made her a model. Salvatore Dali wanted to paint her.
There was one time that Thea invited me to Fire Island, to a small house she was renting with two men. They were pretty boys of some kind. I was aware of my plain navy blue one-piece bathing suit and my unmade-up face, something in me refusing to put on a show for people who obviously were all about show. I was confident that I was beautiful anyway and if the two boys didn’t see it, it would just confirm how lightweight they were.
“They said you were beautiful but that you didn’t know it,” Thea said later. It was soothing to know I’d been accepted that much.
Her single bed was stuffed into a small closet-room with no door, a few feet from the loom. The kitchen was a hot-plate and a coffee pot.
Outside I could hear the roar of Sixth Avenue and the whole city. I felt the huge impossible distance between what was happening, who I was, what I was capable of – and what I wanted. There was no way to get from one to the other. Like they were on two different cliffs with an abyss in between. This was going to fail.
And though it felt like going backwards or standing still, I called Geoffrey, settling for the comfort of his gravelly voice. “It’s going to be all right,” he said. I knew he never felt this way – desperate, at the end of the line – that it was easy for him to say, sitting on his couch, watching TV and smoking pot, that it would be all right. “Why don’t you go live in the apartment?” he asked. “It’s empty. No one is staying there.”
His family’s apartment on Washington Square Park. The one we’d lived in before L.A.
Friday, April 02, 2010
My last few months in
I lived in a two-story building. I had seen a For Rent sign there once, driving around, and the next time we had a door-slamming, middle-of-the-night fight I drove to that building, parked my orange-and-white Pinto outside, put the seat back and slept, waiting for morning when I could go inside and rent whatever it was they were offering.
It was a large furnished room with a real sit-in kitchen complete with built-in breakfast nook. The bed came down from the wall. The bathroom was a bright robin’s-egg blue. The rent was low. It would do just fine.
Rose, my landlady, was a frail old woman with dyed red hair who shuffled in a housecoat and never left her own apartment on the first floor.
I liked the adventure of getting my own place. I covered the couch with a new Pier One white bedspread and took black and white photographs of myself, emphasizing the long dark hair and the oversize black Beatnik sweater. On weekends I went to modern art galleries by myself, looking for something. I wasn’t sure what.
Geoffrey and I hadn’t figured out if we had broken up or not. We weren’t very good at separating beyond the initial fury. We had separated 1,000 times, but never, ever, not once, for good. I was 23 and I didn’t know anyone else who had had the same boyfriend for five years. We were an institution.
Geoffrey didn’t come to my
I tried to fill up my new apartment with new friends and things to do. I invited the woman I met in a bookstore over for dinner, someone a little older than me, married, with pale strawberry blonde hair. She told me how a year ago she’d had a baby who had died in his sleep. It was the first time I heard how easily this can happen. And because we spoke so intimately I hoped we would be friends.
I tried to turn the boy who lived in the apartment next to mind into another romance, but it was just a blow job. Funny how Geoffrey could have affairs so easily with women he claimed to really like and all the times I tried to do the same none of the boys came even close to the urgency I felt being with Geoffrey.
While I lived in the furnished room there were times when Geoffrey and I still fought, didn’t speak, hung up on each other, or when I didn’t answer the phone at all, knowing it was him. And one time when, after not speaking for one whole week, I came home to a thick letter shoved under my door.
There were other times when I went over after work as if I still lived there, when I ate the dinner he always made whether I was there or not – some recipe he had honed since childhood, something with a lot of butter or cream or whatever it took to make it perfect. Evenings when he would sit as he always did on the couch in front of the television, the wide flat surface of his childhood Atlas lying on his lap as a counter top for rolling egg rolls, or skinning chicken, or chopping onions.
I joined in by smoking the pot and watching the television, stilling my uneasiness that came from not really having anything to do here. But for an evening now and then, the comfort of predictability and the plain comfort of physical comfort, of having Geoffrey’s well defined world to fill my empty one, was enough.
And in December when Geoffrey's family invited me to go with them on one of their well-financed vacations and when Geoffrey assumed I'd be coming, I let myself be included.
I would be leaving
These were the worst fights – the ones where Geoffrey's thorned complaints doubled as evidence that he loved me desperately.
Friday, March 26, 2010
“It’s nothing,” I heard myself saying without hesitation. “I’ll just drive back down this week and get it.”
“Really?” my mother said. ‘You don’t need it right away?” She’d been ready to wrap it in yards of bubble wrap and send it Fed Ex. My mother who just went on food stamps.
I noted how easily I said I’d be back, the words coming out like they’d been waiting. “I’ll come after work on Wednesday,” the last day before my sister arrived.
“I’ll make us some supper,” my mother said.
And so three days after saying what I thought was my last good-bye and taking my last lingering look at the house, I am returning, alone this time, without husband or dog, just me.
My mother opened the door, diminutive now, she has shrunk so much, her back rounded with osteoporosis. But I notice her white, white hair and the childlike bob she has recently adopted. For a long time she wore her hair pinned up, but now it’s cut blunt and square to her ear lobes and it’s pretty.
I step into her small living room. It is more bare than it was on Sunday, closer to being empty. A small radio sits where the TV used to.
I feel tall and big in my mother’s living room. I start to take off my hiking boots as she turns towards the kitchen and then she turns back towards me. “Let me give you a hug!” she says.
I am surprised. She often bypasses hugs, or delivers them stiffly, but tonight she actually says the word and wants it.
It is still light out. I sit at the small wooden dining table that she and I bought from a thrift store in Narrowsberg about 13 years ago. It will be picked up by another second-hand store on Saturday.
I look out the back window, through the thin winter woods to the spread of lake that is a mass of brilliant sparkles, reflecting a sun that is going down. it is much more beautiful than a cheap acre of land in the most economically depressed county in the state has any right to be.
My mother and I talk of easy things. My mother talks. I listen and comment and ask a question here and there. I like the color she is wearing. Just a bulky woolen sweater and work pants, but they are a dark periwinkle/lavender, a color that flatters her. my mother, in her last decade or two, has started to wear colors very consciously and well and it fits with almost nothing else that I know about her.
She brings out a shallow bowl of cooked peppers – red and green – and onions, and the bowl is so pretty I wish I had my camera. It’s as if all the laws of symmetry are satisfied by this bowl and its contents. And again the gentleness of the bowl of food, its simple perfection surprises me. This is not where I expect to see such things.
“I looked up your town online,” I say. “It looks pretty nice!” I did look up the town and was pleased to see it has more heft than I’d imagined. But I can’t keep up this thread of conversation. It requires too much effort.
We eat. I make tea as I always do when visiting my mother, relieved tonight that our ritual is not over yet. But as soon as I drink it down I say I have to get going. My mind does not want to slow down too far. If I slow down I will start to say things that keep creeping into my mind like how she won’t see her daffodils bloom, or the lilac – grown so tall now from those stumps we planted.
“If you need help with the house or the renter, let me know,” I hear myself saying, me who has been so aloof.
She is surprised. “Oh,” she says, “that would be great. Thank you.”
We have things to put in my car – the flowering plant, the laptop, some candles. “And I’ll get a few logs from the woods,” I say.
My mother’s face brightens. “I’ll come with you!” she says, and I know we are both looking forward to those few moments – the short walk down to the pile of logs, picking up a few, putting them in my trunk. Something outdoors.
As I walk back up to my car, logs in hand, I feel the pull of this small piece of land – the two houses, nothing separating them, the one that used to be mine, for a short-but-long six months. I feel the land holding me, wanting me.
I put the logs in the trunk, my mother puts in hers. “Let’s go get more,” she says.
“No,” I say, “that’s enough.”
“That’s not enough,” she argues.
But it is. There is room for more, but something in me says no.
“Come check that you haven’t left anything,” my mother says.
I know I haven’t. I know she wants me to come back in just to keep me a few more moments.
And I’m happy to go through those motions. I glance around the bare room.
I hug my mother. “I’ll come see you real soon,” I say. I cannot linger. I just can’t. “Bye, Mum,” I say as if I were coming back in 30 minutes. I can’t bear to have it any other way.