PART III

"Failures"

While Servilia’s experiences at the Eleusinian Sanctuary were life-changing, her fainting episodes continued, unaccountably.

Taking a steely attitude, Valerius concluded that a different approach was needed as an alternative to the magical ‘atavism’ of the Eleusis sanctuary. Against her vehement objections, Servilia was compelled to attend the famous Hippocratic School of Medicine on the Aegean island of Kos.

“I was told, much to my disgust and disbelief, that I was suffering from a problem with my uterus. They described it, with slighting condescension, as a case of ‘wandering womb’. My ‘hysteroid womb’, is supposedly floating around freely, unattached within my body, causing all kinds of problems.”

She shakes her head reflexively, in dismay.

“It doesn’t make any sense, and only applies to women of course. Never men. So if a woman gets ‘emotional’, it’s not really an appropriate reaction to events, but rather her floating womb that’s the culprit. Everything is lumped unto the evil womb.”

By this time, Servilia’s voice is racing, and reaches a such a pitch that she is almost shouting. Her much-maligned body shudders involuntarily, limbs agitated, as if casting off a putrid garment.

“When I objected, that it wasn’t helping, they even quoted Plato in an attempt to convince me. Apparently, he refers to the uterus as a separate creature living in a woman’s body, especially if she is older and childless! That’s the end of Plato for me!”

“They applied a brew of foul smells to my nose, and these men wanted to rub a fetid ointment into my genitals. I put a stop to that. Can you believe it?” Servilia asks rhetorically, with flashes of anger accenting her words. She shakes her head.

Her brunette mop of hair is plaited with gold and silver beads. With each shake of her head, a shimmering aura lights up, as the flickering beads catch the slanted beams of the late afternoon sun. Never was anger so breathtaking!

“It seems to me as if this repulsive conclusion, my evil, wandering womb, was deliberately intended to undo much of the good that has come from my Eleusinian pilgrimage —- so I totally ignored it.”

“It’s made me very angry at my father. He sent me to Kos only because he was losing his control over me. He resented my newfound confidence and self-determination following my pilgrimage. It really changed my life, and still does.”

“Wandering womb!,” Servilia declares incredulously, throwing her arms up in disgust.

“Can you believe that? Such nonsense!”

I remember the time immediately after her return from Kos, when she first told the story of her ‘wandering womb’, to the accompaniment of much merriment from friends. However, it wasn’t one of my finer moments, and I would be more than happy to erase it from my memory.

Amidst the general hilarity and cackling, I had thought of another part of her anatomy that had a habit of wandering about, unaccountably. I was the garrulous one on this occasion, and couldn’t help myself from making the obvious flippant remark.

“All in the spirit of good fun,” as I had said later in my pitiful defense. While her friends had all laughed heartily at the insinuation, Servilia’s petrifying stare would have turned the mythic Medusa into stone. There could be no doubt that my flippancy would cost me dearly. Caught up in the merriment, without thinking of the consequences, I had put my foot in it (not the womb)!

It was then that I found out about the meaning of hubris. That was several years ago, and my slip has been forgiven, though not entirely forgotten, as Servilia once again reminds me. What was originally an unthinking quip in bad taste has now taken on a legendary life of its own, and lives on irredeemably, much to my everlasting chagrin.

I have tried in vain to induce Servilia to recast my gaffe as an item of petty juvenilia that we both can dismiss with a laugh, or even a groan, but to no avail. She is unwilling to relinquish such a useful chess piece that carries such leverage.

The only thing that matters is that she is here with me now, flashing-dark eyes and lustrous olive complexion, happily yielding to the pleasures of the grape in my father’s cozy culina. Whatever may be its other attractions, this interlude offers a temporary respite from her father’s scrutiny.

As for my own father, he is all the family left to me —- though I must admit, I still fear his formidable dark moods. I have made up my mind to leave Colophon however, whenever my meager tutorial earnings will permit. The pull of Athens, my ancestral home, yet still largely unknown to me, has grown irresistible of late. The newly minted Parthenon has turned out to be a lucrative attraction. My cache of silver drachmas however, remains woefully small.

Meantime, I have my own Athena beside me, a warrior goddess with a kind heart. While Athena is virginal, according to the mythology, and Servilia certainly is not, I am no Hercules either. She and I had decided together, as children do, spontaneously assigning roles which remain for life, that she was to be Athena, the virgin warrior, rather than Aphrodite, goddess of sexual desire.

I wonder about this sometimes, whether there is some ambivalence in her roles, occasions in which my stern, vestal Athena is transformed into the numinous, seductive Aphrodite. I eventually console myself that her inevitable flirtations are nothing but the outrageous behavior of a worldly warrior goddess. After all, she had adopted Athena to please me, as she knew of my familial origins in Athens, and arguably, I take this to be a tacit acknowledgement of commitment.

With her pedigree of Latinate and Ionian cultures, I have always cherished my stormy dialogues with Servilia, all through our shared childhood. She would feign apparent disinterest, followed by a startling flash of incisive enquiry that always stimulated me to think further.

Whatever the ways and uses she makes of her body, Athena or Aphrodite, wandering womb or not, her brain is a different organ altogether. At once precocious and inquisitive, she never hesitates to challenge what she can’t intuitively understand. Preoccupied with her alluring beauty, I had never previously thought of her as a muse, a stimulus for my enquiries, much less my personal muse. Until now, I had never even considered that I needed such an esoteric thing, though implicitly, she had always been my sparring partner.

The thought grows on me now as I begin to appreciate her as a complete and unique personality. She has changed, grown in maturity, and surprisingly, against the odds, so have I.

On my side, I must learn how to bridle my defensiveness, and yes, my own intellectual arrogance.

I know only too well that Servilia is not always the bouncy, whimsical creature that she presents to the external world. She usually has an ulterior motive in most of her actions, such as her present apparently ‘random’ visit. I didn’t have to wait very long for the inevitable.

“About my little poem on the art of loving; what does it mean for Epicurus the budding philosopher, I wonder?,” she purrs, an inviting Aphrodite, with warlike Athena waiting in the wings.

“Where does your love lie?” She queries, in her best dulcet tone, sweet as honey.

I sigh with relief. I had expected this at some stage, and had practiced my diplomatic, yet affectionate response. I take vicarious enjoyment in her real poetic talent, though this particular piece was keenly personal for both of us. The poem is a declaration of love, but also a baited trap of sorts. I choose my words with great caution.

“Loving someone must always be an act of free-will, which applies to both parties, if it’s to be authentic. They go together.”

She is nodding now, and smiling broadly. I feel relieved, yet with a lingering pressure to perform, to say the right words, so I continue.

“You are right in saying that being spouses can degrade love, turning it into a lie, when people take love for granted, just because they are spouses. This is what happened with my parents: what was once free-will turned into a prison for both of them, which then became a tragedy.”

In mouthing Servilia’s rather self-serving views, I struggle with my growing impatience. I know also that these views are nothing but a thin veneer. At one level, they hide concerns involving myself and our relationship. At a deeper level, she has her father Valerius in her sights, especially his oppressive scrutiny over her life.

The importance she places on free-will is not coincidental. She doesn’t want to replace one controlling male with another. To that end, she plays other suitors against me. It only happens infrequently but sufficient to maintain her sense of independence, as well as my sense of unease. I understand her ambivalency, especially in light of the gross misogyny she experienced at Kos.

All these concerns come together in a patchwork quilt, begging to be disentangled. When I reach out, as I have done several times, all too often I end up as the target for her carefully nurtured list of vexations. I try for a singular shift in the discussion.

“You speak wrongly of Eros and Aphrodite, as if there is no love outside of the erotic ‘Now’. There are different types of loving relationships, whether the lovers are spouses or not, just as there are different types of love, and love-making.”

When I examine the lyrics of Servilia’s short but poignant poem, ‘Where Love Lies’, the focus is clearly about free-will as a consciously willed choice.

This is very different from its application as some kind of external agency, entitlement, or bargaining-chip, that shakes and moves particular events, nominally in our favor (of course !), justifying our self-interest. Servilia for example, uses free-will as a ‘concept’ to bolster her argument for open relationships.

In my own case, I can consume my time needlessly with morbid thoughts of rejection, loss, and a thousand other futile misgivings, over which I have little control. In so doing, I am choosing as an act of free-will to forsake that precious joy which life has already vouchsafed me. Thinking about free-will helps me understand the choice I am making, even though I don’t recognize it at the time

It becomes clear that free-will means very different things to Servilia and me, though we bandy the same word back and forth as a common currency. There lies the root cause of many of our misunderstandings.

I’ve had more than enough esoteric discussion on the varieties of free-will! Putting discretion aside, I close the awkward moment by cutting straight to the unspoken heart of the matter: the very personal issue which lies hidden behind the rubric of ‘free-will’.

“Look, Servilia, it comes down to this: I am not your father, seeking to control you…..And you..you are certainly not my mother, so that I should feel forever guilty, always trying to prove myself to you.”

I hit the nail on the head……. Or not!

Servilia raises her eyebrows now, at the same time affecting a disdainful drooping of her mouth, matching her infamous body shrug. Surprise and disinterest, all rolled into one. Her spectrum of expressive gestures is an admirable language unto itself, worthy of the best theatre.

I’m perplexed! What am I missing here?

Knowing Servilia to be an accomplished poet, I understand that she is lyrical by temperament and wily by nature. With all this tedious talk of free-will, fathers, and mothers, it dawns on me, if ever so slowly, that there may be an altogether different meaning, hidden in plain view, between the lines of her poem.

A meaning that is simple, allegorical, and obvious, rather than deep-diving into the sophistry of overripe philosophy. Moreover, a meaning that calls out, albeit forlornly, for an immediate response.

Slow indeed, but I eventually get it.

In the ‘Now’ of her love-making lyrics and the spontaneous ‘free-will’ of her visit, she is expressing a visceral invitation. That’s the simple, straightforward reason she asked about my reaction to her poem!

The Now is right now!

I roll over in bed carefully, so as to avoid disturbing Servilia, after exploring the full exercise of our conjoint free-will. The existential ‘Now’ has at last, been adequately laid to rest.

Servilia wakes, tousled and bleary-eyed. Propping myself up by the elbow, I ask for her assistance…….with my philosophical analysis of ‘rejection’. She replies coyly, purring with satiation.

“What further assistance could you ever possibly want?”

As if offering a reply, she whips off the cover with one hand, exposing her nubile young torso. Placing her other hand on my scalp, she pushes me gently down in the bed, despite my stubble, rubbing me along the length of her lithe body. I’m enthralled and speechless, totally helpless, by an ardor that seems unquenchable.

She nibbles my ear. I can see little above the crescent outline of Servilia’s generous cleavage which now fills my sensuous world. Genteel she is not, when despite her inherited wealth, or in rebellion against it, she practices the exotic arts and skills of Aphrodite and Eros.

“Servilia wakes, tousled and blurry-eyed”

Idle rumor has it is that Servilia gave her virginity to an eastern mystic cum businessman who mysteriously arrived from Byzantium and was offered lodging by Valerius while they held trade discussions. Whether oriental scoundrel, or racy liberator to womanhood, who is to say? Whatever her prior credentials, Servilia’s eroticism is all-consuming: I surrender myself hopelessly, to her florid generosity.

Ionian philosophers believe that all things are in constant flux, beginning at the atomic level thence working their way upwards to worldly objects, which sadly, includes lovers. Only too soon, I have firsthand experience of this very inconvenient truth.

Abruptly, I hear the telltale squeaking hinge of the front door, as my father returns home late from school. Impeccable timing, or in my case, impeachable, as it couldn’t come at a worst moment. Tumescence so instantly, so effectively eclipsed. Aghast, I come to my senses, only to realize that it’s already sunset, Servilia’s curfew.

Valerius will begin searching. The thought flashes across my mind: to be compromised and caught between two formidable fathers. I have never before appreciated the sublime ‘squeakiness’ of our front door, as the ‘Ionian’ harbinger of approaching change. I sit up, listening for movement in the house. I hear my father padding about in the culina, then outdoors to attend to his vegetable garden. There’s no immediate urgency. Servilia nevertheless, covers herself demurely. After all, she comes from noble stock.

Our blithe suspension of time has come to an untimely end. ‘Now’ is over. Decorum is restored. Bacchanalia terminus. Back to bucolic boredom.

Dressing quickly, I once more invite Servilia to collaborate with me in my unfinished analysis of rejection? We would share the outcomes, for our personal benefit as well as the companionable joy of spending time together.

Half-naked, at once disheveled and voluptuous, Servilia looks askance at me, then appends a correction.

“Partner, not collaborator!”

Ever defiant, with an intellect to match, my own personal Athena. I cherish her, and tell her so, one furtive eye on the door, and the other lingering on her resplendent nakedness.

“You’re a good one……”

She cuts in, to finish my sentence with a question, inquisitively,

“……despite the rumors?”

A conspiratorial opening, if ever I heard one, replete with recollections of a wandering womb.

“……because of the rumors!”

Her beaming grin lights up the room.

Servilia and I are sitting side-by-side atop a volcanic hillock, a vast swathe of pitch-black basalt boulders, looking down on my father’s house below us. Even from such a remote eyrie, the notorious squeaking door-hinge is clearly audible.

“I need to oil that damn thing!”

“Oh, please don’t do it” she cries out entreatingly, breaking out in one of her sunbeam smiles, crinkling her eyes, as she turns to wink at me.

She’s right, of course. It is the proven alarm system for our daytime dalliances.

Our amorous encounter of the past week appears to have gone unnoticed. Time will have its reckoning however, and for now, we gloat and nudge each other like footloose teenagers.

I can see him clearly, a small match-stick figure in his sleeveless tunica, working alongside Marius in the vegetable garden. Growing his own crops is my father’s favorite compensatory pastime upon returning home from the mental strain of schooling all day.

The hillock comprises my own private retreat that I often use for my philosophical reveries, with the famous ‘seven hills of Colophon’ as a vermilion backdrop in the hazy distance. I like to think that the physical height of the hillock somehow lends a corrective to my thinking, enhancing my ability to ‘look down’ at complex matters or else to ‘rise above them’, otherwise aiding my perspective.

Delusional maybe, but it seems to work, even though I know it’s my own personal placebo. At other times, the hillock offers a temporary refuge from my father’s wrath during his dark episodes, when he becomes unapproachable.

“Well, let’s get going on your so-called Swerve,” she says, with customary gusto, “it fosters the choices made by our free will, especially how we handle rejection. So it’s determinism, how we are born with our instinctual reactions versus free will, how we consciously choose to react.”

“You have it,” I say, in awe of her succinct summary of our work together, better than I could do. Knowing myself, I would cloud it with needless complexity.

“Recognizing this fact consciously, gives us greater choice in how we perceive events and what action we take: like a column of dominos, we may wobble in the face of rejection, but remain upright, so that we choose not to react. ‘Conscious recognition’ is the lynchpin.”

She pauses for dramatic effect, then responds with a poignant provocation.

“But what if you have done something that justly deserves rejection?”, she murmurs shamelessly, glancing sideways at me, with a wicked sardonic smile.

We both know that she is referring to Critolaus, of course. She alludes to him now, I think, so as to create ‘distance’ between us. Servilia wants to trigger a jealous reaction from me, since we have become too close: is she feeling uncomfortable, perhaps trapped in some way? Perhaps at a deeper level, she may also be referring to her own self-rejection which lies at the heart of the matter.

Though she won’t acknowledge it openly, she maintains an eerie relationship with the ‘spirit’ of her dead mother, whose death at Servilia’s birth sustains her legacy of perpetual guilt and self-hatred. This guilt is further reinforced by her controlling father, whose overt ‘love’ belies a clawing possessiveness, allied with an unspoken blame.

The end result is a witch’s brew of guilt, anger, and melancholic isolation, which feeds her ambivalence about emotional attachments of any kind. The closer she becomes to someone, such as myself, the more it raises her hackles of fear, vulnerability, and anger.

This much she has told me over the years, a confession but also a warning, and the rest I have pieced together.

Attachment to anyone, even her father, places her at risk for the pain of further loss, which is unconscionable for her. Pushing the other person away becomes more pressing than the desire for closeness. A most infernal paradox, forever caught between desire and fear, wavering between the poles of intimacy and estrangement.

I ignore Servilia’s provocation, perhaps for the first time, in the light of my recent work on myself, and my own chaotic childhood.

Much to my own surprise, I am quietly annoyed, but not overwhelmed by jealousy or betrayal. Instead, Servilia’s desperation and fear, masked by a veneer of smugness, is palpably sad for me to witness. I can plainly see the pitiless, powerless trap into which she was born.

While her Eleusinian pilgrimage certainly provided a measure of relief, her visit was too brief for any lasting resolution of her inner conflict. It gave Sevilla a sense of hope nevertheless for the first time, though Valerius has forbidden any further visits. This is the woman I love, and my heart goes out to her, yet her plight is not without a sliver of recognition in my own past history. This is not the time for primal outbursts of jealousy.

I finally answer Servilia’s loaded question carefully, as empathetic as I can manage. I try to turn her ‘projection of rejection’ away from me and back to its source: her own self.

“That’s a great question. Sometimes, we just need to drop our defenses and accept rejection behavior by other people, even when we don’t want to hear it, even if it’s true.”

Servilia pokes out her tongue, nonplussed, mimicking her distaste, smiling puckishly, as if my words were sour wine. I had not reacted impulsively in the manner she had expected. I had called her bluff by ignoring all the emotional innuendo and simply answered her question literally and concretely.

Servilia pouts, with aristocratic disdain. She thinks that I’m lecturing her with my dry observations, or ‘recitations’ as she calls them. Things are getting a little heated.

I shudder that our discussion may be striking too close to home. She makes inchoate grumbling noises. What began as a dispassionate analysis of rejection has now become something much more personal and unsettling. I am alarmed for where it could go.

I remember the recent emotional collapse at her villa, with her father watching us so intently (I still have a meeting with Valerius tomorrow). I feel as if the pressure is on me. Things have gone too far, too quickly. I need to close the wound that I have unwittingly opened. I can’t heal that wound: she must do that, in her own way, at a time of her own choosing. It’s presumptuous, nay arrogant, for me to think otherwise.

Silence has settled over us, a stalemate. I sense that both of us are taking stock, aware that a seismic change has occurred in our relationship. Servilia played the old game, tempting me with jealousy, and it backfired. For my part, I pushed too hard into her personal space, where I had no right to be, taking her to the edge.

Where do we go from here, I wonder?

Servilia is quiet now, even docile, so uncharacteristic of her.

I know that she is particularly adept at cutting through the complexity of word-play to get at the essential ideas, however painful they may be. That may offer a solution in this case. I sigh, and catch my breath.

“In my opinion, perception is the key to managing rejection,” I declare, innocuously, hopefully putting matters back on track, “I would like to suggest an important idea for the management of rejection.”

“Yes. I’m waiting”, she interrupts, swirling both of her hands for me to get on with it; patience never being one of her great virtues, while wordiness is undoubtedly one of my vices.

“It’s a simple, pithy statement, easy to remember when we encounter rejection behavior:

‘WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK ABOUT ME IS NONE OF MY BUSINESS’

It’s the fulcrum, the center point, upon which all our perception rests.”

“What does that mean?”, she asks cautiously.

I have kindled her interest, and I can see that she is musing over it. I also see, despite the noonday heat reflecting off the rocks, that she is trembling.

“Well, it’s impossible for anyone to know what the other person is really thinking,” I reply, “regardless of what the other person says or does. We are not omnipotent gods in Olympus, at least not yet !”

I put it very bluntly, even provocatively.

“The problem is that we start thinking about what the other person may be thinking of us, often incorrectly and usually for the worse, then things spiral out of control. Meanwhile, the other person is doing the same, both of us mired in the negative projections of the other.”

I say this, while I gently reach out and hold Servilia’s hand, to make physical contact.

“In trying to guess what the other is thinking, we become caught up in our own frenetic projections. Since we are so busy putting ourselves in the other person’s mind, we lose any sense of ourselves, our own solid grounding.”

“I get it.” she says, amiably, adding her own interpretation.

“It’s like projecting rejection by proxy! We project that others are rejecting us, so we reject them first, while they are doing exactly the same with us.”

We both laugh, contagiously.

“Now that’s positive projections” Servilia adds, with a chuckle.

I realize with an intuitive shock that Servilia’s mental labyrinth is no different to my own self-defeating paralysis. I think of the many times when my repetitive thoughts drift aimlessly, heaping one negative thought upon another, such as my recent rumination about the meeting with Valerius. I think of the metaphor behind the fable of Sisyphus, a lot of mental effort, repeated endlessly, for no gain, leaving only frustration and exhaustion..

I reach out, and grab both of her hands in mine, my eyes catching hers.

“No one can reject you, Servilia, only your own projection; not your father, and especially not me.”

She throws her arms around me, irrepressible as ever, though still tremulous and obviously shaken. I’m left in an bewildered state myself, an absurd combination of care-taking and arousal. Not so bad, really.

We trek back down the hillock, following the crooked trail of steppingstones, dodging the pitch-black basalt boulders. Hand-in-hand, light-hearted, we stop to pick a bouquet of blood-red poppies as we go, destined for the tabletop of the culina.

It’s Servilia’s novel idea, as if she is claiming the culina possessively, in her own words, as ‘our special place’.

“So it seems you are marking your territory?” I ask, laughing kind-heartedly, suggesting a snide reference to certain feral animals.

She winces visibly, eventually breaking into a puckish smile. There is more than a little of the imp embedded within the multi-colored hues of Servilia’s personality.

“Your gross lack of delicacy, Epicurus,” she sneers, gloating in mock severity, “is so typical of you men. You just can’t help being coarse and vulgar. It’s your base nature!”

Servilia has made few previous complaints, if at all, about my ‘base nature’; rather she has purposely cultivated it. Reveled in it, actually, if the truth be known. However, the truth would ruin our impromptu one-act play.

I instantly revert to role, becoming the crestfallen, aggrieved lover, whimpering at the injustice of a scolding, castrating Medusa. Servilia responds to my flippancy with a solid, rather painful punch to the shoulder. I love it when we play, albeit not so physically.

“We are talking about Poppies, which symbolize blood,” she declares, fancifully, “and blood means passion, and matters of the heart, love and longing.” Unbeknown to her, Servilia is more correct than she ever realizes.

I don’t tell her that blood-red poppies were my mother’s favorite wild flower. A bouquet of such poppies therefore serves a poignant double-duty for me.

If not my father, then surely Marius, discrete and ever observant, will appreciate the diverse sentiments belying our simple gesture.

 

 

(To be continued next week)