The Birth of Venus
Who is she? The question hovers over the class like a swollen raincloud threatening to release a torrent of inquiry. Who is that girl? It’s the question on everyone’s mind, but on no one’s lips. You see, her presence contradicts the widely-held belief that everyone knows everyone, because no one knows her. Furthermore, she makes no motion to explain herself, to defend her right to be among them. She sits quietly. She listens to music on her iPod. She ignores the whispers and the pointed stares. New kids shouldn’t be this bold or self-assured. Who is this girl?
Her unfamiliarity intrigues Joe.
He’s realized that once you reach the 300 and 400 level courses in an academic department, especially one as small and underfunded as PortHound’s history department, and especially in the Greco-Roman era-specialty, you are constantly confronted with a sea of familiar faces that are as bored, hung-over, and uninterested in the subject matter as you are. These are his colleagues. These are his best friends.
There are seven people in the class. Four of them, including himself, are the Greco-Roman specialists: there’s Sean Fratelli, some chemistry professor’s kid who tried to kill himself two semesters ago, Vivian Smith, an international student from England who is a surprisingly notorious puck-slut considering she’s black, and Laurence Gerdane, this kid from Utah with a nasty case of Tourette’s who runs the mile with him on the track team. He figures Meggy Shelton is taking the class to finish up her History minor and to indulge her Professor Mellose obsession. The other guy in the class is Suit-Kid—the only sophomore—this guy who wears suits all the time, like all the time, and has a permanent scowl on his face.
And then there’s her. Who is she?
Introductions are traditional on the first day of classes and she is the last one to speak. While talking, she alternately sucks and munches on a green lollipop. Chunks fall off the hard candy and hit her desk like specks of emerald. Her name is Selene. She spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. She transferred to PortHound this semester from Xavier University. She is a philosophy major. Her favorite Greek myth is The Legend of Cupid and Psyche. By the end of her mini-speech, she’s made it all the way to the bubblegum core. She rotates her tongue counterclockwise, rolls it off her upper gums, and then blows a perfect pink bubble. When she bites down on the gum, the snapping sound it discharges causes Joe, and every other male in the room, to jump in his seat. There is a moment of silence. When Mr. Mellose is finally able to talk, he says “Selene, please, for the sake of the entire class, no gum-chewing. Ever.”
Joe doesn’t actually speak to her until the second week of classes and even then it’s only for five minutes during a group exercise. When she talks he sees electric blue sparks shooting out of her mouth, zapping the plebeians with her classical knowledge.
Joe’s taken four previous classes in this room, Thallus Hall 202 a.k.a the Bust Room; all four taught by Professor Mellose. There’ve always been two posters on the wall, a black and white London Calling Clash poster with some rock-star smashing his guitar on stage, and a sepia-tinted map of the Greek isles circa 432 B.C. The busts of 14 dead Roman emperors have always lined the shelves of a wall unit in the back of the classroom. Well that’s not true—there used to be 24, but Sean Fratelli stole one in an ill-fated attempt to impress a female professor, two semesters ago.
The point is Joe knows this room; he used to be comfortable in this room.
Now when Joe sits in his usual seat, to the left and next to the window, comfort is no longer a possibility. Selene takes up the whole room. Her thoughts spread faster than poison gas, seeping into his skin and burning his lungs, until he’s literally choking on her essence. Her face has been branded on the underside of his eyelids. When he blinks, he can see the outline of her face, glowing like those neon signs hung up outside of cheap bars.
He thinks her voice sounds like Angels howling.
He thinks she’s hooking up with Sean Fratelli.
He hates Sean Fratelli.
They officially meet at a party thrown by Suit-Kid at his theme house. Neither of them really knows anyone, so they cling to each other and make polite conversation the way people who are more than acquaintances but less than friends do at awkward social events. She’s new and all his friends are on the track team. He only came to the party to see her and he was only invited to the party because he and Suit-Kid work together at the bookstore.
After an awkward break in the conversation (he doesn’t know what else to say) they watch a pong-game side-by-side (Suit-Kid is on the table, and is surprisingly skilled when he’s drunk) in complete silence.
“This is your shot, Joe,” he keeps telling himself, “Maybe your only shot ever. Say something, say anything.” He imagines the possible scenarios. He could make a joke about Suit-Kid always wearing suits, but that seems too easy. He could offer her a beer, but what if she doesn’t drink? He could be bold, invite her back to his room where his four roommates are throwing the weekly kegger, but what if she doesn’t like his friends? What if his friends don’t like her?
“Want to be my pong partner?” she asks, slapping him out of reverie. Yes, he does. “I’ll sign us up.”
That night, when she invites him back to her room and then proceeds to fellate him not once, not twice, but three, yes three times, he begins to fear that this is some elaborate prank the track team is playing on him. He is truly convinced that his teammates paid some flaxen-haired, demi-god prostitute to enroll in PortHound, take a class with him, hang out with him at a shitty theme house party and then take him back to her room and suck him stupid. But after she runs her tongue down his chest, around his nipples, across his appendectomy scar and then dips it into his navel, he allows himself to believe that she likes him for real.
After their fourth round, Selene gets off her knees and jumps into his lap. Straddling him, she shoves him into the mattress so that he’s lying flat on his back. She grabs his hands and makes him cup her breasts. “Tell me you love me,” she whispers into his ear. “Tell me you’d die without me. Tell me you want me. Tell me you need me.”
The Trials of Psyche
He thinks maybe she has an oral fixation. She gnaws on straws and toothpicks until there’s nothing left but filaments of plastic and splinters of woods. When she drinks coffee, she rips open five packets of sweet’n’low at a time, dumps them into her mug and then sucks any leftover grains off the paper. She smokes six cigarettes a day: morning, pre-lunch, post-lunch, pre-dinner, post-dinner and pre-bed, and if they have sex she adds a seventh—post-coital. She licks her forks and spoons so clean they dazzle like dishes in those annoying Jet-Dry® commercials. At parties—usually at Suit-Kid’s theme house because she hates his Track buddies—the rim of a red solo cup is permanently attached to her bottom lip. She is always eating candy, chewing on bubblegum, nibbling on ice . . .
And then there’s the blowjob thing. Joe likes blowjobs, he really does, but—she’ll only give him blowjobs. No vaginal penetration, ever. He doesn’t press the matter. She’s easily irritated.
When he brings up the oral fixation thing to her, she laughs in his face. “Joe, darling,” she explains, “you’re the one with the oral fixation. I just indulge you. You should be thanking me.”
She officially proclaims him her boyfriend—Facebook official status—right before Thanksgiving break. Joe spends the four day vacation rhapsodizing about her beauty to his family. Her hair is the color of wheat in mid-June—more gold than brown but not the least bit blonde—and when it’s not wet (it’s usually wet) its soft like bunny fur. Her eyes are green when she wakes up in the morning, blue when it’s sunny and brown after it rains. Her lips are pomegranate red—darker than blood. Her laugh is bells chiming over a river flowing down the Alps. She doesn’t walk, she glides. She doesn’t touch, she caresses. She’s perfect. There’s no one else like her.
Joe’s mother begs him to invite Selene over for Christmas break. He surveys his home: red carpets, peeling blue paint, faded green wallpaper, hand-me-down dishes brought over from Ireland, four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a cat named Kat, and a dog named Pooch. He appraises his family: a father who owns a store, a mother who tends a hearth, a grandfather who lives in the attic and refuses to die despite years of hitting the bottle too hard, a younger brother fascinated only by the moving pictures on the television screen, and a baby sister, who, despite having died two years ago, still manages to keep the house in a constant state of quiet chaos as if her nighttime cries were still a regular occurrence.
It’s all just so ordinary.
When Coach tells him he’ll be running the 400 meter dash in an away game at Colby College, he gets worried. The 400 is not his run and those Colby bastards beat PortHound in sprints every year. He complains to Selene; he’s looking for a little comfort, specifically the kind of comfort that could segue into non-oral sex.
Selene is unsympathetic.
“Joe darling, you can feel either feel sorry for yourself or you can be a man and handle your problems.”
She gives him a few words of advice.
“In Sparta, wives and mothers would tell their sons and husbands ‘either come home a winner or don’t come home at all.’ Come home a winner Joe.”
At the track meet he breaks the state record for the 400 meter. It’s the first time they’ve beat Colby in any sprint in seven years.
“It’s the closest you can get to death without dying” She tells him matter-of-factly when he asks her to explain the appeal. “It’s astral projection. When you take Special K, you separate from your corporeal form and your spirit becomes part of the greater cosmos. It’s seeing God—or seeing the Gods, rather. It’s beautiful. You’re not you anymore—you become us. We become it.”
She reads his face and sighs. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
He changes the subject and brings up the Christmas break visit. She doesn’t answer.
Selene makes Joe attend philosophy club with her. It meets on Thursdays from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. It’s time he used to spend pre-gaming the night with his buddies by shot-gunning beers, but Selene doesn’t want him drinking anything besides wine anyway, so it’s not like he’s missing out.
Sean Fratelli and Suit-Kid are in the club too. Joe makes it a point to avoid sitting next to either of them, but Selene has made it clear that she likes Suit-Kid on her right and Joe on her left. Joe has never taken a philosophy class, but he’s read Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He likes Aristotle’s idea that everything has a class, that everything belongs somewhere. Lions belong in the category of animals. Selene belongs in the category of goddesses. Sean belongs in the category of drug-addicts. Suit-Kid belongs in the category of pretentious, uptight, assholes. Joe belongs in the category of Selene’s boyfriend. Organization, it’s something Joe has always appreciated.
He hates the modern stuff though. It goes right over his head. He can’t understand Immanuel Kant and Nietzsche scares him. Words like foundherentism and existentialism whiz by his ears like brightly-colored glow-in-the-dark Frisbees.
“Do you get it Joe?”
No, he doesn’t.
When he tells her he wants to try it she’s skeptical.
“Joe, please don’t do this for shallow reasons. Erik and I use Special K in an effort to seek enlightenment, not for ordinary recreational purposes like the masses. Don’t do this just to prove something. You’ll be disappointed.”
Joe has noticed lately that Selene is no longer an I, she’s become an Erik and I. She was never a Joe and I. He doesn’t get what she sees in him. The guy wears a suit every single day. He’s a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. He holds a monthly screening of “Blade Runner” at his house. He wears a suit every single day.
Who’s he kidding? Joe absolutely knows what she sees in him.
Eventually she gives up trying to reason with him. “Alright Joe, as long as you’re sure. Whatever happens, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He feels skeletal. Like his skin was melted off his body by the harsh light of the sun unencumbered by that burdensome ozone layer. He’s got no body mass, but he still feels heavy—heavy as a whale beached on the Athenian coast. He sees dead albatross chicks flying in the air, their tiny stomachs bursting open with non-biodegradable plastic materials—bottle caps, hair rollers, ink cartridges, lighters. Behind him he can hear the low growl of a hungry Cyclops roaming the Grecian plains in search of food.
“Don’t worry,” Aphrodite says to him. She’s in perpetual motion; her bubblegum pink stola is a forward propelling riptide, intricately pinned with clamshell broaches and snakeskin ribbons, whipping around her as she speaks. “That Cyclops won’t eat you. You’re nothing but a bunch of bones! I mean really, who would want you? That kid in the suit though . . .”
Then the drums start. A grand procession is soon to arrive. Joe knows he’s in trouble.
“Here come the drums!” Aphrodite shouts before vanishing in a swirl of smoke and fireworks and electrical discharges.
His bones are uncooperative. Joe is afraid, but no adrenaline burst is forthcoming. No blood equals no adrenaline. The procession draws closer and louder.
Leading the parade is The Man In Black. He shouts into a megaphone. The Man In Black speaks like a looped message.
“I’m coming for you Joe. I’m coming for you Joe. I’m coming for you Joe. I’m coming for you Joe. I’m coming for you Joe.”
Joe is afraid.
“Selene? Selene? Selene, please help me. I thought we were doing this together. Where are you? Save me Selene. I want it to stop now. Make it stop. Selene! Selene I need you. I can’t fucking move. Selene, where are you?”
And then The Man In Black is hovering over Joe and laughing.
“Selene says bye. I got you now Joe. You’re mine forever.”
When Joe wakes up he’s slick with sweat and drenched in watery vomit. Selene’s gone. So is Suit-Kid. Sean Fratelli’s threatening to kill himself and Vivian’s trying to wrestle something—a knife or maybe a hairbrush—out of his hand.
God damn it. He hates Sean Fratelli.
The Punishing of Actaeon
“I know what you’re thinking,” she says between sips of coffee, “‘I can’t believe she’s leaving me for Suit-Kid. He’s a fucking sophomore.’” She gives him a brief glance before turning her attention to her stirring spoon. She licks the outer-rim dry before plunging it back into her hot drink. “Well, am I right?”
It’s a rhetorical question. Of course she’s right. She’s always right. Girls like her aren’t born—they’re created. She’s Aphrodite; she emerged from the bloody foam that coated the Mediterranean Sea when Cronus cut off Uranus’ genitals. He imagines how she sprang fully grown on the Petra tou Romiou, naked and pink, nubile, wanton.
“That’s part of the problem really. You’re so . . . predictable. Dependable. Steadfast. I know everything about you and we’ve only been dating for two months. There’s nothing left to discover. It’s not that you’re boring—I just don’t see us as being anything more than what we already are. I want something epic. Something tragic. Something grand. Do you understand?”
She regards him with disgust. “Joe, please. For Christ’s sake, stop it! You know I hate it when men cry.”
She hands him a napkin and waits for him to finish before resuming the conversation. “Well, now that you’ve composed yourself, is there anything you’d like to say to me? Be honest. Because Joe, if you need to hate me right now I would totally understand. It’s only natural—.”
Joe grabs her left arm so fast she screams and knocks over her coffee. He shoves her hand into his mouth and bites down hard. He hears—what he hopes is—the snapping of a bone. When she finally wrenches her hand free, he can’t help but yell.
“Do you let him fuck you in your pussy? Huh? Did you let him fuck you in your fucking pussy?”
Selene doesn’t bother carrying her stuff to tray return. For a second, he’s worried she’ll rat him out to security but he doubts it, she doesn’t support law enforcement agencies. Tomorrow’s the first day of Christmas break and the cafeteria’s fairly empty besides townie cafeteria workers—no witnesses.
He takes her teaspoon and inserts it into his mouth slowly. He sucks on the silver utensil until all he can taste is cold metal. He is struck by the thought that this is the closest he has ever come to kissing her on the lips, the closest he ever got to putting his tongue into her mouth. He always wondered what she tasted like. Some of the flavors he recognizes from the spoon include: Pink bubblegum, strawberries, coffee, what he imagines is Suit-Kid’s cum, cigarettes, peppermints . . .
He shoves the spoon deeper and deeper down his throat until he’s gagging and as he loses consciousness, he smiles—she was right, he was the one with the oral fixation after all.