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.