The Battle of the Greek Pool

by , 2005

Berman, of David Bezmozgis' story "Natasha," spends the first part of his summer running errands for his friend and drug dealer, Rufus; sleeping with his cousin, Natasha; and reading interesting books. He does not, perhaps, have the most exciting life, but he is content enough with it to progress without trying to make any real changes. The summer does not, however, end as peacefully as it began. Berman realizes, because of the construction of a Greek pool in Rufus' backyard, that he cannot ever be as successful as Rufus while remaining in his current life. The pool symbolizes Rufus' victory over Berman in their abstract battle, as shown by the way Rufus "hunched over a blueprint as though it were a battle plan" (77). The battle between Rufus and Berman is waged on three levels: financial, intellectual, and sexual. The pool represents a certain amount of financial success because its construction shows that Rufus has enough disposable income to invest on an expensive pool that serves little, if any, real purpose. On a more metaphorical level, the Greek style of the pool represents Rufus' intellectual victory over Berman. Finally, the Doric columns act as a phallic symbol and represent Rufus' taking of Natasha from Berman. Because he originally wanted to be like Rufus, Berman feels defeated after learning that he is not as successful as him in these three areas.

Because Berman knows that Rufus does not swim, he can see the pool for what it really is, a status symbol, and is reminded by it how much more successful financially Rufus is than he. Berman knows that it will not be used for swimming and so he asks Rufus, "Do you even swim?" (75). Rufus says that he does not, but would like to float. He continues to say that the main practical reason for his building the pool is to have a place to "take a leak" (75) when the weather's nice and he does not want to go inside. He goes on to explain the social contract that he is bound by, being a suburban homeowner: "Pissing in the pool is fine, but whipping out your dick and irrigating the shrubbery is bad news. It's all about property value" (75). By these comments, Rufus reminds Berman that not only is he not a homeowner himself, but also he does not even know what sort of social rules apply to such people. If the pool were only to be used for peeing and floating, there should be no reason for anything fancy, but Rufus' idea is much more elaborate than the typical boring backyard pool. The decision by a non-swimmer to build not only a pool, but an elaborately themed pool, symbolizes a significant amount of extra money and suggests that the pool is being built to serve a purpose greater than just being a place to pee. Berman notes when he walks over and sees the pool van for the first time, "If the price was right, they could start digging tomorrow" (75). Well, for Rufus, the price was right because construction began right away. As Berman walks away from the construction area at the end of the story, after just being told not to worry about the possessions of Rufus' that he still had at home, Berman is hit by a sense of how financially superior Rufus is to him. While Berman is just running errands and reading books, Rufus is operating a successful business. Part of his decision to move out on a new path after being abandoned by Rufus comes from what he learns through the pool: that Rufus is more financially successful than him, and that he can never prosper while being the errand-boy for someone else.

In addition to being means for flaunting his financial success, the Greek stylization of the pool highlights Rufus' intellectual victory over Berman. Rufus explains his vision of the pool: "Do everything in mosaic tile. Give it a real Greek feel. Put up some Doric columns. Get a little fountain. Eat grapes. Play Socrates" (75). In this description, we learn that the Greek style is inspired by the philosophical side of Rufus. Throughout the story, he suggests and lends intellectual books to Berman, but it is only here that we realize that he associates himself with the Greek philosophers that he has provided. He will not only read Socrates, but will be Socrates. Rufus' intellectual dominance over Berman is also shown by the way in which Berman tells his story. The epigraph, "It is the opposite which is good to us" (69) is a quote by Heraclitus, one of the Greek philosophers that Rufus emulates. The quote itself seems to contradict what Berman's experience. The opposites of him in the story, specifically Natasha, are not good to him at all. Even though it is not relevant, Berman still includes the quote by a Greek philosopher because that is what Rufus, the philosophy major, would have done in his story. During the final confrontation between the two, Rufus tells Berman, "You're smarter than that," to which he replies, "I'm a fucking genius" (77). The comment Rufus makes is condescending in that it implies that he is of such a superior intellectual standing that he can pass judgment on Berman's intellect. Berman's response may sound sarcastic, but at the same time there is a truth to what he says. At that moment, as he is realizing his defeat and choosing to move on, Berman is behaving smartly. He has realized that Rufus has outmatched him intellectually and, instead of giving up and remaining second best, he moves on.

Metaphorically, the Doric columns can be seen as something more significant than just a part of the Greek style of the pool; they are a phallic symbol representing Rufus' sexual victory over Berman. It does not take too much Freudian analysis to realize that "ten-foot-long Doric columns" (77) are a symbolic representation of the male. The symbolic sexual victory that they represent is not too deeply hidden either: Rufus has not only stolen Berman's wild sex partner, but he has also tamed her in a way that Berman could not. Just after seeing the columns for the first time, Berman sees Natasha, "carrying a tray with a pitcher and multicolored plastic glasses" out of Rufus' house onto the patio. Rufus had taken Natasha, who had been a wild sexual adventure for Berman, and placed her in the role of suburban housewife. By observing this scene, Berman realizes that Rufus had not only stolen his sex partner and cousin, but had also forced her into a more domestic life. While Berman was with her, Natasha was always in control, but here, Berman sees that she is willing to behave however Rufus wants her to. As Berman associates the columns with Rufus' sexual victory of Natasha, he feels "a compulsion to stick out [his] foot and trip" (77) the workers carrying them. He wants to destroy Rufus' phallic symbol, but realizes that he cannot. Instead, Berman realizes that he has been defeated and walks away from the pool determined to move on with his life to new contests instead of dwelling on his defeat by Rufus.

As the pool construction continues and Berman leaves, it seems clear that Rufus has completely won the battle. He has proven his financial dominance and intellectual superiority, he has stolen Berman's girl, and he has even caused Berman's friends to ignore him. But, Berman does not let this defeat destroy his life. Instead, he moves on from the battle stronger for having experienced it. He thinks, "By the time I got home I had already crafted a new identity. I would switch schools, change my wardrobe, move to another city. Later, I would avenge myself with beautiful women, learn martial arts, and cultivate exotic experiences" (77). Instead of crushing him, the defeat that Berman suffers because of the pool causes him to reevaluate the direction of his life and to move onto a path that will allow him to become far more successful than he ever could have been as one of Rufus' messengers and to become even more successful than Rufus himself. While Rufus will remain floating contentedly in his new Greek pool, surrounded by Doric columns, Berman will be busy bettering himself and preparing for other battles with even bigger adversaries.