This is a story about a woman, two Beautiful Men, and the god Apollo. It’s a quieter, more contemplative story than my others, about memory, loss, love and second chances.
The Apollo in my story was inspired by several real sculptures, including the Mantiklos Apollo in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The style is recognizably “Daedalic,” from the period before the Greeks developed their unequaled ability to sculpt realistic yet idealized human figures. The ghost of a smile hovers about the tiny god’s lips…
“Hey Andy,” said Linda, the department secretary, “could you pick up someone from the airport on Wednesday morning before the conference?” A platoon of graduate students had been deputized to provide transportation, but all had classes on Wednesday morning.
“Sure,” said Andy. “What time and who?”
Linda checked her list. “9:15, Continental, Max Desmond. He’s the keynote speaker, so I wanted to take extra good care of him,” she explained.
“No problem,” answered Andy, “He’s an old friend of mine. But why’s he coming so early?”
“He didn’t say. I asked everyone to send me their flight information, and this is what he sent.”
It was not surprising to Andy, yet still unexpected, that the conference program committee had decided to invite Max Desmond as the keynote speaker. “I should have thought of him myself,” she told Barbara Cardinale, the Director of the Institute. “His work is a perfect match for the conference theme.” This year’s theme was “Likeness and Presence: The Gods in Western Art,” and Max was the author of three celebrated books on ancient Greek sculpture.
“Yes, I loved Cynthia’s idea of a round table on the Apollo.” Cynthia Gooden handled the Institute’s Roman art, while Andy herself curated the Greek collections. One of the museum’s gems was the Philadelphia Apollo, an early Archaic marble statuette of the type known as “Daedalic” after the mythical sculptor who worked for King Minos of Crete. The Apollo was three quarters of a meter high, naked except for a belt around his narrow waist, and carved from lustrous marble. His lips turned slightly upward in the expression known to art historians as the “Archaic smile,” and of all the magnificent objects in the collection of the Philadelphia Institute of Fine Arts, he was her favorite. Each morning when she arrived, Andy paused to salute the smiling god with a cheery “Hello, gorgeous.”
“No doubt Max will offer some thought-provoking observations on the Apollo,” she said. His prose was unusually witty and lucid for an academic. Andy made a point of reading everything he wrote.
“And his reputation is stellar,” enthused Barbara. “A Macarthur grant, a residential appointment at the American Academy in Rome, NEH Fellowships, a publications list as long as your arm. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get him, but when I called him, he mentioned that he went to grad school with you.” She looked at Andy and smiled expectantly, as though waiting for the dirt to be dished.
“Did he? Well, we only overlapped by one year,” said Andy. She didn’t intend to share with Barbara just how memorable that year had been.
“Did he meet his wife in Madison? Such a horrific thing, that car accident. Cynthia was telling me about it. She was in New York last Spring and ran into them on the High Line. She said Sandra looked great.”
“That’s good.” Max’s wife Sandra had been the victim of a hit and run eight years ago, a bad one that totaled her car. She had been seriously injured and, it was rumored, required reconstructive surgery to her face. At the time, Andy had sent Max a card. She hadn’t heard back from him, but then she hadn’t expected to.
“They met when he was in England, I think. On a Mellon Fellowship,” she added, with a laugh.
“Cynthia said Max is gorgeous, even though he must be close to fifty,” said Barbara, whose specialty was the eighteenth century. Max focused mostly on ancient art, with occasional forays into Medieval and Renaissance, so their paths had not crossed before. “I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
Dr. Fenske —Jim, since you would have us on a first name basis— I’m beginning my journal today, as we discussed. When you first asked me to write a journal, I was surprised because I thought that psychotherapy always involved talking. Yet it’s true that I feel more comfortable writing about my life than talking about it. We didn’t get very far the last two times we met, did we? I’m afraid I felt a certain inhibition because you’re a man, though I don’t want to see anyone else. You came highly recommended by more than one of my friends in the Psychology department.
After John died, I started to have panic attacks. At first I didn’t understand what they were. I thought I had MS because my hands and thighs were tingling with a pins-and-needles feeling. Or that I was having a heart attack, because my heart began to pound for no reason, and my chest felt tight, as though I was being crushed under a heavy stone. My doctor put me on an anti-anxiety medication, which eased the panic attacks. But I found that it had unpleasant side effects. The worst was that I ceased to be able to have an orgasm. I don’t have a sexual partner and haven’t had one since John’s death, but I’d like to be able to manage things on my own now and then. With the medication there was nothing, not even when I used a vibrator. The second medication I tried was no better, so here we are. My sexual response has returned, but four years after John’s death, I still have panic attacks.
I’ll be forty-five in a few weeks. Only now am I beginning to understand what a strange, outlandish thing John did, when he plucked me like a fresh daisy at the age of twenty-five. He was more than thirty years older than I. Strictly speaking, he was old enough to be my grandfather.
What went through John’s mind in those days? I wonder how I would react now if a nice-looking graduate student sat at my feet three times a week, hanging on my every word, and able to converse with me at a surprisingly mature level. If he came to my office hours, not acting flirtatious, but with the clear-eyed conviction that he had so very much to learn from me. What if he had dark hair and beautiful eyes with long lashes, and smooth, soft skin? And if he was tall and broad-shouldered, with a firm, muscled abdomen and a shapely rear end? And what if he was eager to share something else of his with me, something I haven’t had for quite a long time now? And then, what if I fell in love with him?
It makes me laugh out loud. The image in my mind is pleasing, but the gender reversal makes it seem absurd. I can’t picture myself taking a younger lover and teaching him about life, eros and literature, though I’m sure some women do exactly that, and do it very well. I want a man who is at least my equal in fact, not merely in potential. And I find it erotically pleasing to think that a man is my intellectual superior in some respect. Within my brain there is a deep, subterranean connection between paideia and eros, so that if I have nothing to learn from a man, he fails to be attractive. Brilliance is a great aphrodisiac for me, which explains why I find certain nerdy, donnish men sexy, while my friend Jennet scoffs at my eccentric taste. When I read a book or paper by someone whose intellect is off the charts, I become aroused by the sheer beauty of his arguments, or the passion with which he lays forth his ideas, or his distinctive and original diction. That happens very rarely, of course, because most academics write like dull, plodding workmen on the one hand, or prancing, obscurantist poseurs on the other. John’s writing, of course, was always a joy to read. But then, he belonged to a generation of academics who had the luxury of time, to polish their words to a gemlike brilliance, or take on decade-long projects.
You’re probably wondering, Jim, whether I managed to learn anything from my female professors. Oh yes. Paideia works whether the teacher, the guide, is a man or a woman. It is always an erotic process, but in this case, desire is resolved through an intimacy that skirts the cruder urges of bodily arousal. At the Institute, our crown jewel is a Greek statue of Apollo, one of the earliest marble sculptures in the form of a free-standing kouros, or youth. Before I ever dreamed that I would one day become the Apollo’s custodian, I learned about him from a woman named Angela Barnes. She shared with me things that were as interior, as personal to her as anything she gave her husband or her children. We studied every aspect of him, from his frontal stance, modeled on the dignified colossi of Egypt, to the broad Cretan belt encircling his trim waist, to his long plaited hair, which evoked the idols of North Syria. He was born in the Aegean islands, she said, and in his glorious nudity, he represented a new, uniquely Greek idea of the resonance between the human and the divine. She read me a passage from Pindar’s ninth Pythian ode, in which the god Apollo fell in love with a nymph one day, when he spied her boldly wrestling a lion. He asked his friend, the wise centaur Chiron, whether it was lawful to shear the honey-sweet meadow-grass of her bed. Chiron chided Apollo for asking a question to which he already knew the answer, that the glorious Cyrene was destined to be his bride.
Even Apollo, the oracular god on whose temple were carved the words “Know Thyself,” was occasionally touched by doubt.
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Andy Elliott was another of my experiments in writing characters who are physically different from myself. Jennet Thorne was more petite, willowy and athletic than I am, while Cynthia Gooden was blonder and heavier. In this story there is no description of Andy, but the reader sees her through Cynthia’s eyes in the story Opération Séduction:
Glancing up and through the front window, she caught sight of Andy Elliott, black curls flying around her face in the breeze as she briskly crossed the street…
Cynthia viewed Andy’s figure enviously. She had noticeably large breasts, but her midriff and hips were slim. Her head of black curls fell past the shoulder and her jet eyebrows set off dark brown irises and high cheekbones. She looked exotic and sexy, and she never seemed to diet.
Andy is the most physically attractive female character I’ve written and the farthest from me in looks. But this story is very interior. It’s more about her mind than her body. And her mind happens to work a lot like mine.