Beloved

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - SIOB­HAN ROCA PAYNE

I’ve been root­ing around in the past. Pok­ing around in the grey area be­tween truth and leg­end. I’ve found some­thing I need to show you.

Come here. We’re go­ing to the banks of the Nile River. It’s late Oc­to­ber of 130 C.E., and we’re on the border be­tween Up­per and Lower Egypt. Close your eyes. See this. The banks of the Nile are swampy. The river is still reel­ing from her an­nual life-giv­ing floods. Tall green pa­pyrus reeds grow from the murky wa­ter.

Oh, and: we’re on the Ro­man em­peror’s barge.

We are, per­haps, a part of Em­peror Hadrian’s harem. Maybe he’s not fuck­ing us, per se, but we’re use­ful to him for some rea­son. You choose. Are you the will­ful daugh­ter of a Ro­man sen­a­tor? Am I Hadrian’s chief ad­vi­sor? Do you wrap shawls around his shoul­ders while I read the stars and pre­dict the out­comes of his bat­tles? We can be who­ever we want. I just want you here with me.

Look over at Hadrian. The em­peror of Rome. In Latin, his full name is Cae­sar Publius Aelius Tra­ianus Hadri­anus Au­gus­tus. His curly beard glis­tens with oils. The bridge of his nose is sun­burned, peel­ing. The Nile runs on be­hind us, choppy wa­ter splash­ing up the sides of the barge. The sun sets in the sandy be­yond. Ra is al­ready on his way to the un­der­world in his mesek­tet.

I brought you here to show you Hadrian’s beloved. His name is Anti­nous. He was born in Bithy­nia, what we now call Turkey. You see him there, re­clin­ing next to his em­peror? His chest glis­tens like Hadrian’s beard. His skin is golden. His cheeks, plump and flushed. He can’t be more than twenty-two years old, and youth clings to him like a per­fume. Hadrian is watch­ing Anti­nous. We are all watch­ing Anti­nous. His up­per lip is a per­fect Cupid’s bow, crowned by a del­i­cately curved philtrum. The lower lip is pouty—the kind of lower lip you wish for in fever dreams. And, yeah. His lips re­mind me of yours. One day, I’ll have you carved into stone, too. And when you’re mar­ble, even the sharpest eye will be un­able to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween your lips and Anti­nous’s lips.

Aca­dem­i­cally speak­ing, it’s ir­re­spon­si­ble to ascribe our cur­rent no­tions of “gay” and “straight” to peo­ple of the past. It’s called pre­sen­tism. Look­ing back and call­ing Hadrian and Anti­nous queer is a pro­jec­tion of our cur­rent cul­tural

per­spec­tives onto our in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the past. So, no. We can’t re­ally call them queer.

But I am not an aca­demic. I’m a ro­man­tic. And I’m call­ing them queer. Be­cause we de­serve to have a his­tory, too. We de­serve to see queer­ness in em­per­ors and gods and peas­ants and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. We de­serve to take what be­longs to us.

I brought you here to show you that. Our re­flec­tions in the past. It’s im­por­tant. Time is a flat cir­cle. Our lives lie on top of each other in lay­ers. Our love cir­cles us and lives within us, no mat­ter what body we’re in.

Okay. Back to the barge. Back to the story. Back to ev­ery­thing else I want to show you. God. I want to show you ev­ery­thing.

This is the last sun­set Anti­nous will ever see. He prob­a­bly doesn’t know that. Or he does, and he’s at peace with it. Here’s the kicker: Anti­nous’s life will end on the sa­cred border be­tween Up­per and Lower Egypt, near the city of Her­mopo­lis, in the Nile River, in late Oc­to­ber of 130 C.E. We know that he drowned. We know that the Nile swal­lowed him whole.

Since it’s all up to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, my in­ter­pre­ta­tion is this: Anti­nous was the love of Hadrian’s life. I know his face al­most as well as I know yours. A lot of peo­ple know his face as well as their own lover’s. His face is one of the best pre­served in all of an­tiq­uity. Hadrian made sure of that.

He gave or­ders for Anti­nous to be de­i­fied, to be lit­er­ally made into a god. We know lit­tle about the per­son Anti­nous was, but we know so much about what he looked like be­cause of Hadrian’s or­ders that ev­ery ar­ti­san in his em­pire work to hon­our his beloved. They got to work. And the more they sculpted, the more they drew, the more they wrote, the more they wor­shipped, the longer his life has lasted.

Stat­ues of Anti­nous are across the globe, in the re­mains of an­cient ru­ins and on pedestals in art mu­se­ums. Con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates say that two thou­sand stat­ues of Anti­nous were made in the eight years be­tween his death and Hadrian’s death. The city of Her­mopo­lis, the place where Anti­nous drowned, was re­placed with a new city: Anti­noopo­lis. Hadrian cre­ated a city in his beloved’s mem­ory, but it was more of a shrine. In the His­to­ria Au­gusta, they say that he “wept like a woman” in his grief for Anti­nous.

Even Os­car Wilde wrote a fair bit about Anti­nous. By his time, Anti­nous had be­come some kind of queer icon, more proof that you can look back and say: See! We’ve been around for­ever!

He had been seen, so the tale ran, press­ing his warm lips to the mar­ble brow of an an­tique statue that had been dis­cov­ered in the bed of the river on the oc­ca­sion of the build­ing of the stone bridge, and was in­scribed with the name of the Bithy­nian slave of Hadrian.

—“The Young King” by Os­car Wilde

Sing to me of that odor­ous green eve when crouch­ing by the marge

You heard from Adrian’s gilded barge the laugh­ter of Anti­nous

And lapped the stream and fed your drouth and watched with hot and hun­gry stare

The ivory body of that rare young slave with his pome­gran­ate mouth!

—“The Sphinx” by Os­car Wilde

None of this fuss seems strange or ridicu­lous to me. In fact, it makes per­fect sense. I know how Hadrian felt, maybe. Or at least, it seems log­i­cal to me. You’re not dead, but I know ex­actly what I would do if I lost you.

In any case. Come over here with me.

Anti­nous and Hadrian only have a few hours to be to­gether. Let’s leave them alone. I have some ex­plain­ing to do.

I’m not here to model us af­ter Hadrian and Anti­nous. Com­par­isons are poi­son. I will likely never rule Rome, and you will likely never drown in the Nile. We don’t have to live like them to un­der­stand them. Lis­ten.

I want to make sure we both know that we are hold­ing a great and an­cient power be­tween our teeth.

What I want to say is that I love you as Hadrian loved Anti­nous. This is a clumsy way to say it. Love is not the right word. I can­not find the right word. When Hadrian couldn’t find the right words, he built Anti­nous a city. He made him a god. He made sure that ev­ery­one in the en­tire Ro­man Em­pire knew Anti­nous’s face.

And look. Look how Anti­nous lives on and on, a pre­cious relic of an­tiq­uity, the key to one of his­tory’s most fas­ci­nat­ing and bizarre love sto­ries, and most of all—a mys­tery. A thing to won­der about. Some­thing we’ll never re­ally know.

When I’m with you, I feel the rush of time. Or, rather, the flimsy bar­rier be­tween our time­line and theirs starts to fade away. It takes a thou­sand years to blink. It takes less than a sec­ond to fall in love. Gauzy cur­tains that hang over our heads flutter in the wind and I catch glimpses of won­der­ful things—the Nile River on a late Oc­to­ber evening, empty city streets, an­cient sun­light, dirty fin­ger­nails, bruised skin, lush lips, grand mau­soleums and crum­bling Doric col­umns, the ec­stasy of At­lantis and the close­ness of Pan­gaea.

Okay. We have to go back now. Take a deep breath.

I can’t show you the ex­act mo­ment that Anti­nous’s head sunk be­low the Nile’s sur­face. Nor can we see the mo­ment be­fore.

There are three the­o­ries of Anti­nous’s death that I’ll en­ter­tain:

1. Anti­nous com­mit­ted sui­cide be­cause of some tragedy con­cern­ing his re­la­tion­ship with Hadrian.

2. “On the ad­vice of ma­gi­cians, [Anti­nous] sac­ri­ficed him­self or [was] sac­ri­ficed to save the Em­peror from some hideous fate.”

3. Anti­nous’s drown­ing was a tragic ac­ci­dent.

None of th­ese are sat­is­fy­ing. I guess they don’t have to be. I’m try­ing to ac­cept that his­tory hides the things she doesn’t want you to know. And she’s very good at it. Hid­ing, I mean. A part of me likes that. And, yet. His­tory didn’t swal­low Anti­nous, like she’s swal­lowed so many oth­ers. In­stead, his­tory tongued Anti­nous in her mouth like a sweet sugar cube, spit­ting out gran­ules here and there.

I go to see him of­ten, at the Art In­sti­tute. On per­ma­nent dis­play is a bust of Anti­nous as Osiris, loaned to the mu­seum by an anony­mous donor. He’s wear­ing a nemes that cov­ers up his curly hair, but you can still tell it’s him, if you know what to look for. The lips.

The chest.

That soft, ten­der beauty. And, of course, Hadrian.

He’s right there, to Anti­nous’s left. A small bust with a bro­ken nose. Day and night, while we live and breathe and sleep and eat and fuck and cry and imag­ine and for­get and scream and give up and fall apart and fall in love, Anti­nous and Hadrian are there, side by side, pre­served in stone for all of an­tiq­uity and for­ever, or un­til for­ever ends. I know that we will be there too.

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