Monday, May 31, 2010

One Answer

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 New York now for nine months and nothing had happened the way it was supposed to. I had nothing to show for it – no real new love to obliterate Geoffrey, no passion for a project, no hoards of friends calling me, asking me out, no parties to go to. I had strung together the people I knew, stretching them into a fabric of friendship, but I knew it couldn't hold much weight. I had quit my job to write, but those pathetic little things I wrote did not convince me that I was a real writer, a real artist. I was probably just another vapid dilettante.

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


Though he had turned me down up in Maine, within a few weeks of my return to the city Bill and Laura had broken up as I'd been so confident they would, and Bill and I picked up where we'd left off in San Francisco though now it carried more charge. Bill was a much more exciting person with his scrappy apartment and late nights of mad-man painting plus we both were falling upon our growing knowledge of health food as if we'd unearthed a new language, sharing new scraps of information back and forth.

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

Still Trying

Bill picks me up late in the afternoon. I have just had my backpack searched by a cop who found the little red leather drawstring purse that my father brought me from Morocco when I was ten and which I had used for years to carry my pot and pipe. I was sorry to see the quirky little bag disappear into the police officer’s back seat.

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

Not Far Enough

I would have a party. I wanted to dance. I borrowed records from Roy and my sisters and began taping strings of my favorite dance songs. Taping and stringing songs together was something I’d learned from watching Geoffrey for years. Making such tapes was his main art form – tape covers he made from color coded construction paper, typing the lists of songs on his Selectric, titling each “album,” each having a fast and a slow side. Each song segued into the next precisely, timed to the split second. He’d sit on the bed where the stereo was set up, his earphones on, the bed not made, he often naked, his finger hovering on the pause switch, listening for the instant when he want the next song – cued up – to begin, then – pow – hit the switch. If the segue came out wrong, he’d do it over until it was right.

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.


I wanted to be writing. I wanted a boyfriend. I wanted to go find large patches of nature to be in.

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.