[ Issue 4 / February 2013 ]
Stephanos Stavros could not figure out why there was evil in the world. A handsome, olive-skinned Greek-American, short and curly haired, the first of his family to go to college, he lived with his parents off Ditmars Boulevard but hung with his girlfriend Frieda every chance he could, exuberant to be getting laid good for the first time in his life. Although it was nearly Thanksgiving of 1972, not all the freedoms of the Sixties had crossed the East River from Manhattan to Astoria.
Getting laid good and regularly with a woman he loved was the cornerstone of his personal philosophy, and every morning on the R train, looking up from the work of Frederich Nietzsche, he peeked an eye to the whipped commuter faces across the subway car. He didn’t know what took all the vitality out of his neighbors’ features. “Not like this,” he wished to say to each of them but he only buried his head deeper in Beyond Good and Evil.
One day word reached his mother.
“Neighbors tell me my boy’s getting so serious,” she said one evening in the kitchen, “like a regular bookworm.”
“I’m studying the greatness of our Greek heritage.”
“That why you don’t go to church no more?”
“I’m reading the pre-Christian Greeks right now.”
“With the daughter of a Nazi?”
“Mama, she’s not a Nazi, and she’s very nice.”
“Any girl who says yes to you is nice.”
“But not as nice as you. Shall we have her over?”
“Leave me with a little hope, Mama.”
“I hope you outgrow her sexpot ways as well as these books that keep you from God. The hell with Socrates! How is he gonna help you when you take over Thano’s butcher shop?”
Late for another date with Frieda, Stephanos gave his mother a hug and left. He had no intention of taking over the butcher shop. Even his father, whose interest in retiring had been speeded up by a recent robbery that had left him with high blood pressure and debts, knew that. His son was lost to him, a victim of his girlfriend’s whims and the zeitgeist of pleasure. Greek heritage, family solidarity, personal sacrifice—they meant nothing.
Later that night Thano Stavros lay in bed, worried that his son was having sexual intercourse with the daughter of a former SS officer and wondered what his son knew of real life. “You spoiled him,” Thano said conclusively in the dark to his sleeping wife, although he remained awake until he heard Stephanos turn the key an hour later, climb the stairs and pounce on his own bed to fall asleep first.
“Your mother tells me you study the Greeks at City College,” Father Agrippas said to him on the street the next day. Stephanos wasn’t sure how to respond. He’d ditched his morning’s assigned reading of The Republic in favor of a Nietzsche vignette which posited that the essential task of philosophy was to re-discover the sense of abandon a child experiences at play, but philosophy as child’s play from Hitler’s favorite thinker wouldn’t square with the pastor of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church where he had stopped attending.
“Plato, Father. Getting my foundations.”
“Stephanos, consider this advice from an old man: eat first, think later. You know what I am saying? Your father has a good business here. What’s the matter, you don’t like the Greek girls in the neighborhood?”
Stephanos thought of his first time with the blond and voluptuous Frieda Lutzkopf—lying in her bed afterwards, sharing a cigarette and watching from the window her landlord fixing cars on Spring Street five stories below, how the asphalt shimmered with the colors oil unfolded after rain, something he rarely saw in neat and clean Astoria, reminders of the bruises, those rainbows of purples and blues that live just below the skin’s surface waiting for a beating to show. That’s where Frieda’s tales of growing up in a mad Aryan aristocracy originated, horrors that rushed out of her with the release of first love and unfolded a wilder world than he had grown up around. While he dried her tears and stroked her long hair, she told him of her mother chased by police all over southern Indiana, fleeing motel rooms in the middle of the night and how she’d vowed never to return to that butcher, meaning Frieda’s father, a surgeon who had seen plenty of the Russian front, and how it wasn’t long after one of these midnight escapes that Frieda had come home from school to find her mom on the big sleeping pill bed, empty prescription containers with Father’s signature on them everywhere, how she’d taken the receiver out of her dead mother’s fingers, fingers that had given recitals all over Europe, that had played Chopin and Schumann and Brahms until Frieda’s heart took flight and left small-town Midwestern life, how she’d dialed the numbers to the hospital and reported in an adult voice the lack of any vital signs whatsoever, how her father had wept at the wake, crying “mein Liebchen” to the woman he had beaten, and to protect his professional reputation, institutionalized when she’d reported his violence and philandering to the police.
Stephanos had not known love and fear so mixed up in a human life and now his life was all mixed up in hers. She put the cigarette out and asked him to hold her, which led to another round of slow, tearful lovemaking. Later she confessed that Father had hired a private detective, and if this lovemaking were discovered, Father would hunt Stephanos down and kill him and that’s how it went with Frieda. Sex led to a scary story and one story led to another which led them back to sex, the same way her past kept becoming her future: as he was leaving, she showed him where the dark-complexioned gentleman her sister Ava had brought home last night had been done dirty work on, the dull red blood washing clean in the rain, the oil from the careless landlord slick and slippery on the cobblestone street. It was Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence theme at work, for wherever Frieda went, some twisted and violent remnant from her crazy family followed. With each story he descended more deeply into her tortured and magnificent soul.
Stephanos looked the pastor over.
“Greek girls are the best, Father.”
“Crazy, crazy, crazy,” Mrs. Demi Stavros shouted.
She was losing her only son to crazy people.
Frieda had just phoned at three-thirty in the morning to say, “I’m having severe slide shows of the mind brought on by a reefer rolled in angel dust. The owner of the café where I work, trying to put the make on me, didn’t know that I have post traumatic stress disorder from Mother’s suicide, and he didn’t tell me it was treated until after I started tripping pretty hard, Steve. What am I gonna do? My sister is being weird to me, I’m having paranoid thoughts that she wants to possess me and I wish I could fall asleep but what if she attacks?”
“Do you wanna meet me at an emergency room?”
“I’d like to, but I don’t have any money and if I ask for professional courtesy because Father is a surgeon, they’ll call him up and he’ll disown me on the spot. He warned me that he’d stop paying rent and tuition if I had any psychological episodes. Since I’m having one right now, please help me, I’ll be on my ass and in the street if you don’t, Steve.”
His mother, listening from the living room extension, hated to hear her son called Steve, and when he did not answer her accusation of crazy, she asked, “What kind of father is that louse letting his daughters live in that Greenwich Village with the drugs and the mobsters? The older one is in and out of the nut house so many times they keep a bed
ready for her and the younger one calls whenever she feels like it. Their what-do-you-call-its are cuckoo.”
“Their genes,” Stephanos said, buckling up his pants and opening his bedroom door so his mother wouldn’t have to keep shouting. She had already awoken the neighbors. “I’ll be okay,” he said, got his coat and gave his mother a kiss.
“Stephanos, she says achtung and presto: you go? You’re a student who needs his sleep. If you want her to respect you, tell her what to do, not the other way around!”
From the bedroom his father shouted, “Let him go. He don’t care about us no more.”
“Your father’s blood pressure is acting up again. This girl has upset everything. What if something happens to him while you’re out gallivanting?”
“What happens is he got a pretty girlfriend now.”
“Pretty crazy, Thano.”
“And that sister,” his father laughed.
“Pop, I’ve never met her. Frieda says it’s a chemical imbalance: some cycles she’s fine, some cycles she’s so schizophrenic she hears voices.”
“Big words for screwed up,” his father yelled.
“Pop, come on, we’re all screwed up, show some heart.”
“He’s probably screwing the both of them, Thano,” his mother said, but that was too far, even for his father who coughed and shook his head.
“Stephanos,” she pleaded while he undid the bolts on the front door, “parakalo, for your father.”
“Go to sleep,” he told his mother, soothing but firm, just before opening, closing and locking the front door behind him.
“Heil Hitler,” she screamed and threw her shoe at the turning bolts. Although he listened by the door, she thought he was already walking down the hallway to the stairs, so she began to cry.
“The blond bitch wants my Stephanos. I’m telling you, Thano, that family is evil, evil, evil.”
Crazy-crazy-crazy, evil-evil-evil: his mother’s words echoed in his ears while the R train rattled its way under the East River. He smelled something foul, inhumanely funky, looked out across the aisle at the bag lady and tried to radiate calm waves of supreme love, the Buddhist practice of metta that he had learned in Intro to Asian Ideas last semester, but his mind wandered back to a discussion carried over from class to a private conversation in Meeta Geetanjali’s office.
“Why is there evil in the world, Doctor?”
“To propel you into your enlightenment.”
“But I’m afraid of evil.”
“Veda would argue that evil is nothing to be afraid of because it doesn’t really exist. The real world, the one that Shankara, Buddha, Mahavira and Ramakrishna awakened to, is beyond the duality of human and divine or of good and evil.”
“Why can’t I awaken just like them?”
“You are striving so hard to flee the evil in you.”
“That’s not the right thing to do?”
“Stephanos, would you rather justify this version of yourself or experience reality?”
“I’d like to give reality a try.”
“The reality is that there is no actual you there to justify in the first place.”
“So who am I then?”
“You’re Atman-Brahman, inseparably one with the One, or as Alan Watts says in On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, you’re It.”
“What about the concepts of good and evil?”
“A social agreement intended and invented for the conventional. Is that your destiny, Stephanos, to live conventionally or to discover life beyond good and evil?”
The train pulled into the Prince Street station and brought him out of his reverie. As if in response to his own confusion, the bag lady spread her legs, flashed him her pubic beard and asked, “Got a dollar, mister?” The doors opened and he got off, walked up the stairs thinking about crazy and evil and recalled film footage of starved bodies in concentration camp graves, goose-stepping troops saluting the swastika and Adolf Hitler stirring a crowd of thousands. As he rang Frieda’s buzzer, he decided that evil flowered from denial, like a parasite seeking a willing host, one misunderstood, misled, in the dark, and the rest was history. Unlike crazy, which was private and personal, evil was social infection, proving Nietzsche right: the Overman was the only antidote for a corrupt world because it created the possibility of a transcendent platform. Yet it was in distorting that idea that Hitler had fulfilled Nietzsche’s worst suspicions, that his insights in the hands of lesser men would prove destructive.
Frieda buzzed him in and he bounded up to her apartment, got into bed with her and held her.
“I got a whole lot of PCP howling through me.”
“How about I hold you until you get sleepy?”
She snuggled into him and he felt sure he was doing something right. Yesterday he had accused his father of being among those who had crucified Jesus, poisoned Gautama and insisted Socrates drink the hemlock, and his father had said in reply, “You don’t know your ass from your elbow.” When Frieda yawned he took that as a good sign and felt his father would be proud.
“She just left for her boyfriend’s.”
“The dark-skinned guy who took that beating yesterday?”
“Yes and good riddance to her. She’s evil and crazy.”
“What if evil were not really real, Frieda? What if good and evil or God and the devil or subject and object or life and death were in relationship, not as opposites but as complements that make a whole?”
“I wouldn’t bet against blood, Steve. Our evil is a family thing. My father got my mother, my older brothers tried to get Ava, and she’s now trying to get me.”
“Maybe there’s some sibling rivalry.”
“Steve, I’m talking about murder, not envy.”
The Triumph of the Will
In the morning Stephanos accompanied Frieda to class. Seeing her holding up poorly, he recommended that she visit the college counseling center and promised to rendezvous at her place in the late afternoon, but when he unlocked the door with the new key she had given him and walked into the living room, Ava was already stretched in second position next to the curtain that led to the only other room in the place, the bedroom. He didn’t want to go in there, so he sat on the floor, introduced himself and added, “Pardon me, Ava, I don’t mean to interrupt. Ballet must require incredible dedication.”
“Have you seen footage of Leni Riefenstahl’s ode to the ‘36 Olympics, The Triumph of the Will? She films these beautiful, athletic high divers but you never see them spring off the board or splash into the water, only fly through the air. That’s why I can train so relentlessly in the ballet, Stephanos. I keep this recurring image of a human body in flight defying gravity but what really inspires me is the film’s subtext. I know I run the risk of appearing deranged if I personalize it, but Hitler staged the Olympics that year in Berlin as a way of proving Aryan superiority and yet Jesse Owens, an African-American, waltzed off with four gold medals in track and field. It’s just like my own family: Mother was dark and Father is blond but the uber-talent is in the dark blood, no offense to your Frieda. Like when my toenail fell off after a performance last week: the skin went black but now the nail grows back stronger!”
Stephanos had expected Ava to be a twisted spinster lunatic or a vengeful murderer and was completely unprepared for this sleek cat woman, a panther priestess stalking the Nile for young men as foolish as he. In the contest for his heart, this older, darker and taller sister now had the upper hand, and she smiled at him in the ballet mirror as he struggled to find something to say that wouldn’t give his infatuation away.
“Nietzsche wrote of the Greeks that everything they valued they made a contest out of,” he offered.
“Ballet is a contest, and the Reich loved contests, too—as if competition and the need to excel create virtue whereas the Tao Te Ching says contests breed trouble and regret—but I don’t care about any of that, Stephanos.”
“What do you care about?”
“I care about what you think, what’s on your mind.”
What was on his mind was her body under that all-black leotard, low cut and long sleeved, which enhanced the length of her movements, a woman way more mysterious than Frieda. When she stood and took his coat he said, “Competition and jealousy divide us, cooperation and trust unite us. Our own decay as a culture may be that we’re trained to compete, even kill, but we’re afraid to love, trust and cooperate with one another. Hence, we now have a counter-culture trying to do just that. Maybe that’s where the wisdom we’re searching for resides—in an open heart.”
“You think so? Look at my boss at the café. I get my little sister a job there, and the minute I’m not around, the bastard slips her a Mickey Finn thinking he can now have his way with her sexually. How open is that?”
“Not open enough for those who see love only as a conquest, not an eye-to-eye encounter.”
“Choosing who you have sex with should have no other influence than your desire for the person. Do you agree?”
Feeling that he would be betraying Frieda if he agreed he said, “Maybe I ought to go to the café and see if anything else may have been in that joint she smoked.”
“Maybe you ought? Is that what you want to do?”
“I thought you liked my company.”
“I do, Ava.”
“I finally meet you, and that by accident, and you lie about your feelings. What do you want: to go or to stay?”
“I’m nervous, and I sound like what I am, confused and nineteen, and I’ve interrupted your workout.”
“I need a break and I like flirting with you.”
“Would you care for a glass of vino veritas?”
“Truthfully, yes, thanks.”
She poured two glasses, gave him one and sat next to him on the floor. After a few sips they fell out of conversation and into a twilight place, strange and forbidden, an eye-to-eye encounter, arms’ length away, and a mutual desire seemed to spring up unspoken. It didn’t disturb him until his erection pressed outward from his thin pants.
“May I use the loo?”
“By all means.”
He found his way to the tiny bathroom, stood over the toilet bowl waiting for his erection to subside so he could urinate, studied the books atop the bathroom library and grabbed On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts, the title Meeta Geetanjali had mentioned to him. On the inside cover Ava had written:
You go thru four distinct phases of the moon:
1. reading great literature in caves
2. the meeting of friends
3. drugs, Dylan, derelict
Stephanos thought Ava had solved the age-old question of identity in under twenty-five words: we imprint virtue in solitude, mimic in dialogue, derange the senses to unlearn or transcend imprint in order to dive within to prepare for Phase Four, empty of words. It’s the big blank’s ultimate initiation, pure awareness, back to the source, dwelling in the unknown, empty as a new moon, a return to innocence and all possibility, Of Which Nothing More Can Be Said.
Just as he considered that consciousness wasn’t about levels but about dimensions, that Ava wasn’t crazy or evil but, thanks to her triumph of the will, a voyager to other realms, she opened the bathroom door, walked in naked and sat on the edge of the tub. Seeing her beautiful body only a few inches away wasn’t helping him coax his erection down so he sat on the toilet seat and closed his legs to hide his excitement. Once again they were at eye-to-eye level. She grabbed his hand and held it tight.
“Stephanos, I need to explain why I’m here. I can’t avoid tiles. All old bathrooms have them. I don’t know why but I hunt these tiles out.”
“I go blank. I step into what I call Phase Four. Sometimes I find an adult Holden Caulfield waiting for me at the end of a rye field. Other times it gets scary, and following Korzybski, the only thing the floor is not, for sure, is a floor, so I try to remember the map is not the territory. Yet I’m deep in the place where two dimensions become three and so on. I think thought’s a vicious circle that at century’s end turned into a Vienna Circle that turned into a circle of experts hired by Father to tell him if I exist or not. I hear cries of mockery and accusation in the tiles: a suicidal Ludwig appears as a linguistic analyst, an obsessed Sigmund masquerades as a depth psychologist. Prick me right here, gentlemen, does it hurt you as much as it tickles me? Don’t make me giggle hysterically and please don’t say my name aloud, a palindrome whose spelling, front and back, calls to mind the same erasure, call it a clitoridectomy or go deeper and get the V out of the V area: Ava, that pussycat that sat on that mat.”
“Is that a line from Wittgenstein?”
“Yes, which means you know that certain philosophical investigations are the invention of men so crazy they believe they can conceal their evil intent from their own wives, mistresses and daughters.”
“Evil intent, Ava?”
“Could you hold me and tell me if I exist?”
When Stephanos stood up and put his arms around her, she started to laugh. He hoped he was not what she was finding so funny. With his trousers around his ankles, he held her close but his mobility was limited and his erection kept pressing against her flat stomach. Did it feel to her like he was trying to get in there or that he just didn’t know what he was doing? He was totally unsure what was expected of him in this situation: should he do what he had wanted to do all along and that she seemed to want as well, that is, to take charge of the situation like a real man and lean her over the tub, mount her right there and have his way with her or should he just grab his pants, pull them up and haul his ass the hell out of there?
He decided on the latter just as she stopped laughing.
“So, Stephanos, you’re not afraid to compete with me about ideas, only afraid to love and trust me, is that it?”
Stephanos wondered why his own words were being used against him. What did this woman want?
“I don’t care that you’re a failure of your own philosophy, but could you at least satisfy me?” she asked grabbing his erection, stroking it, slapping it, then guiding it down between her legs. He was tempted to tell her this was way out of bounds, but he didn’t trust his own voice to speak his truth.
When the front door unlocked and opened, Frieda stepped into the apartment and saw him through the bathroom’s open door, naked with a naked Ava, nothing between them but the erect body part that had once been only Frieda’s and now was merely a play thing in her older sister’s hand. As he watched all the life drain out of Frieda’s face, Ava began to laugh again, this time uncontrollably. The laughs spilled into tears, which spilled into crying jags, which spilled into manic raving in German and English followed by a state of catatonic stupor.
Stephanos watched in disbelief. Ready to deny any responsibility for Ava’s episode, he was furious to have been caught with his pants down and his erect member in the hands of her older sister. He wanted to rebel at the evidence, to plead that he hadn’t done anything wrong yet, no lines crossed nor would they ever in spite of what Frieda’s lying eyes were telling her which was less than half the story, but as she called an ambulance and reported the details of Ava’s breakdown in an eerily calm voice, he let go of the high road and pulled up his trousers.
He realized he might be fooling his parents and the priest, but he wasn’t fooling either sister. The taboo against knowing who he was had rendered him a Caspar Milquetoast Peckerwood in the moment of truth, wanting the wilder one but fearing the outcome as well as the wrath of the safer one and satisfying neither but sending the unstable one over the edge by preparing to cheat on the stable woman he claimed to love while she sought recovery from the trifecta of experiencing a debilitating date rape drug, getting hit on by her former boss and finding herself broke without a job.
Meeta Geetanjali had tried to warn Stephanos: his self-image as a good guy was obscuring his real life. He was neither ubermensch nor metta dispenser, just part of the tiles himself, muscled into the same conspiracy that haunted Frieda and qualified him to be a philosopher-butcher-denier for his own truth—that he was deadly afraid to love, let alone to love beyond convention—remained unknown to him. He knew he was merely a fraud surrounded by circumstantial evidence, which allowed him to blame crazy Ava with a clear conscience while getting ready to cuckold Frieda and fulfill the worst expectations of both sisters by merely appearing conventional just as Meeta Geetanjali had foretold. He wondered where was hidden the wisdom of the open heart he was searching for, the zeitgeist of love, trust and cooperation.
The ambulance appeared with its rotating red and blue lights at the curb below. In the tiny apartment, Frieda explained to the EMTs her sister’s mental condition, and it was only after Ava was strapped to a gurney and brought down five flights of narrow stairs and into the street that his heart broke. Standing in front of the building at twilight, he admitted all the weight for the catastrophe while Frieda wept and the ambulance door closed on her and her troubled sister.
When the siren wailed and the ambulance slowly rolled down the oily cobblestone of Spring Street, he knew that he too had crucified Jesus, poisoned Gautama and insisted Socrates drink the hemlock. He wished to say, “Not like this,” but said nothing when the Mafia landlord got in his face wanting to know what all the fuckin’ trouble was about. He shrugged and then ran for all he was worth toward the ambulance that was just now beginning to pick up speed.