In the hallway of the house where I live there is a reproduction of a painting of Alexander the Great by the Italian artist, Pietro Rotari. It is a poor quality reproduction and hangs in a gilded frame. The painting depicts the first meeting between Alexander and a young woman he would later marry. When Alexander was a young man he had fallen in love with his childhood friend, Hephaestion. Years later when Hephaestion died, Alexander’s grief was uncontrollable. He ordered the manes and tails of all his horses to be cut and on the day of the funeral gave orders that the sacred flame in the temple be extinguished; something normally done only on the death of a king.
When I was young woman, I too fell in love with my childhood friend. That was a long time ago. Now I live in one room above a shop. The walls are painted green, but they have been painted so many times that when they chip it is blue underneath. The glass in the windows is thin. I have my own toilet but share the kitchen with other people. The kitchen is on the floor above my room and I go there in the afternoons when everyone is at work. I wipe the surfaces clean and then cook stew or goulash with dumplings or pork with rice. I eat some of the food and leave the rest in the fridge. The walls of the kitchen are painted yellow.
Alexander the Great was educated by Aristotle who, in his later years, fell in love with a boy. I imagine the boy as smooth and beautiful; soft eyes and hard arms, a boy bathed in the kind of stereotypes that never go out of fashion. The pottery of the time depicts such relationships—an older lover fondles the genitals of the beloved while holding his chin and looking into his eyes. The beloved’s genitals are unmoved. He remains a perfect child in a perfect dream. Of course, this is art and not reality. Maybe Aristotle’s lover was a muscular teen infatuated with his girl-cousin.
The food I leave in the fridge is eaten by a young woman from the country with yellow hair and green/blue eyes. She is a librarian. She told me this one day in the hallway. She would like to tell me more, but I pretend to be in a hurry. I live here because I have no money, not because I want to hear stories. One day the young woman knocked on my door to tell me that she was going away for the weekend with her married lover. She asked me to feed her cat. I told her I was busy. I am tired of people with their dot-to-dot fantasies.
After Hephastion’s death Alexander the Great was warned not to enter Babylon. He went anyway, fell ill there and died; his death helicing back through all the events of his life. My childhood friend died many years ago. During the time I was in love with him many things happened, but in the end everything happened on one afternoon of green leaves blowing back and forth against a blue sky. This visual is attached to some particular memory, but I no longer know what. Alexander the Great is said to have been fair skinned, with a ruddy tinge to his face and chest, but Plutarch said that he had a pleasing scent.
After the young woman returned from her weekend I met her in the hallway. She told me that her married lover was going to leave his wife and that they were going to rent an apartment together. I expressed the sorrow due to anyone who gets what they want. In the fading light the young woman’s eyes were charcoal and her hair was grey. A few weeks after that she moved out. I stopped cooking and took to eating in cheap restaurants. I rarely think of the young woman, but sometimes, when I am in the hallway, I experience an intense but shortlived desire to begin my life again.
After my father died I craved tranquillity—not the soft kind, but steady firmness of mind—what the Greeks called euthymia. My father was a hollow man. He plumped himself up with stuffing, but in the end I could see right through his eyes and out the back of his skull. At night the waves of his breath beat against my door and in the morning I cleaned spittle from the sheets. Democritus was the first to write about euthymia. He explained it as the state of being in which the soul is freed from all desire and unified with all its parts. Democritus believed that euthymia should be the final goal of everything we do in life, and that is why I need to tell you about my lover, but first let me say this. I held my father’s head in my lap as if it was the head of a gold baby. Time passed. I found stuffing in the bed and on the couch and in the toilet. Time passed. I held my breath when I kissed him. Time passed. My eyes turned into wolf eyes. Time passed. I fantasised about death, sometimes his, sometimes mine. Time passed. Nothing.
When my father died I went to see a priest. The priest told me that no one can be happy unless they live a virtuous life, not because virtue is good in itself, but because it leads to the absence of pain. I did not know this. He also said that many of the bodily pleasures brought with them pain. I did know this. As a child I had taken a bite from a glass and crunched it into a thousand red pieces. The priest’s hands were warm but when he touched me my stomach growled. I had not eaten.
I will tell you more about euthymia, but first I must tell you about my lover. He is an old man, tightly contained within himself. His hair is white and his eyes are mercenary blue. He lives in the marshlands in a bungalow built from a plan in a book. It is the worst place in the world to live. The brickwork around the door is the colour of a giraffe’s neck and all the rooms face north. Rubbish has gathered by the gates. The first time I went to the bungalow my lover held my hair and made love to me as though I were a man. Afterwards he changed the sheets, tucking the corners in, and I slept against his back in a deep moribund ache.
Before I met my lover I was stuck in a dance with desire and had no way of distinguishing waking life from dream. I was unhappy. That is a lie. Sometimes I was happy and it lasted for years, but then I was unhappy again and blamed the dance, and then I fell in love with the dance in the ferocious way we love things we do not like. After my father died I wanted to make peace with death, and that is where euthymia comes in, and I’ll tell you about it, but first I must tell you more about my lover.
I go to the bungalow every two weeks and stay for two hours. When I arrive my lover sets a timer and we make love on the sitting room floor. The carpet is rope and I get scorch marks on my knees and lower back. I observe the dust that has gathered under the sofa and the chipped paint on the architraves. My lover makes no concession to the fact that I am a woman. Once, when I talked too much, he hit me in the face and made my nose bleed. Of course, I was not always delighted with physical pain. I used to shout ‘How dare you?’ and ‘Bastard’ and run out the door, until my lover bit my nipples and they blackened like berries.
My lover insists that I reach orgasm because he hates to owe anyone anything. When he works his fingers inside me, his eyes never leave mine. He will not tolerate a lie. Afterwards I am calm. My thoughts are sentences. If there is time left on the clock we sit together in the kitchen and drink coffee. The mugs have worn pictures on them and the windows are smudged opaque. I tell my lover things from newspapers and then the clock buzzes and I leave. I am getting closer to telling you about euthymia.
The last time I went to the bungalow my lover was sick and I sat alone in the kitchen. It is an old kitchen, veneer presses and dots of mould in the corners of the ceiling. Everything is neat. My lover stacks the dishes beside the sink and folds the bag of sugar tightly at the top. I make coffee and it tastes like his breath. He has no toaster, so I grill bread in the oven. It makes a spinning noise and I am afraid it will disturb him. There is no butter, so I use jam. I bring some coffee and bread to my lover. He eats the bread and, as I leave, I hear the coffee filtering through his chest.
And now I will tell you about what the Greeks call euthymia. At night, when I walk the city streets, metal clouds obfuscate the sky. There is tremendous weight in their mood, but it falls as virga, never reaching me. I possess tranquillity, not the soft kind, but steady firmness of mind.
Seneca was born a long time ago. He believed that the greatest obstacle to living is the expectancy we hang upon tomorrow. Because of this we lose the present, while all the time the future remains uncertain. This is the story of a woman who wasted a great deal of time (a) expecting her married lover to leave his wife (b) expecting her single lover to propose to her. Of course, in the end something entirely different happened.
It was an ordinary day. The woman got on a tram destined for the city. She had broad shoulders and was well dressed. She was neither young nor old but had a rich sexuality. Above her bra her breasts bulged and her hands seemed to be forever feeling their way in the dark. The woman had spent the night with her married lover, a short man with a compulsion to oppress things that were already oppressed. In the morning she was anxious to be gone but the married lover always booked rooms in industrial estates where there were no taxis, so she got a tram.
The tram was one of the newer kind and had no conductor. The woman dropped in coin after coin at the driver’s booth until a ticket came out. The seats were narrow and the window was shrouded in dust. The woman did not know where she was, so she did not know how long it would take to get to the city.
This was the first stop on the tramline and people sat far apart. The tram moved as though in a dream that woke each time the doors flung open to let people on. Soon the aisles were full and the woman breathed the breath of strangers. Rain spat against the glass in hard little spits that carried no weight.
The woman checked her phone. Her single lover would call soon and sigh loudly to denote emotion. He was young and could not understand why poor people had children or why intelligent people took harmful drugs. Through the window the city passed in a frieze of odd angles and tower blocks and statues of giants in grimaces.
A child sat in the seat across from the woman. He was three or four years old and sucked on a soother. He saw something out the window and bobbed in his seat, pointing and sucking hard on the soother. Nobody responded. The woman looked out the window and saw a plane flying low to land. ‘Aeroplane’ she said to the child, ‘Aeroplane’. The mother of the child pulled him onto her lap. Her skin was dead from smoking too much and her jeans were empty. She looked at the woman as if to say, ‘Mind your own fucking business’ or ‘Get your own child, bitch’. The woman was unmoved. She did not want children.
The child wriggled free and stood beside the woman’s legs, staring at her. His cheeks were glossed with snot and his hair was thin on a flaky scalp. The woman looked out the window at grey buildings merging into grey sky. She could smell bed wet. When she turned back the child was still staring at her.
Seneca said that every condition can change, and whatever happens to one person can happen to anyone. But when things change people want the past back. They want to relive their old life, conscious this time that it was not so bad. The woman, however, was not such a person. When her life changed, she realised that the past is just a random sequence of images.
On a busy street in rush hour the tram crashed into a bus. The bus driver thought the traffic light was green. The front carriage of the tram buckled as though made of foil and the next carriage turned on its side, broke away from the rest of the tram, and skidded along the road, slamming into the front of a pharmacy. In the end the death toll was eleven. People asked, ‘How can something like this happen?’ The woman was uninjured. When the crash happened, she had picked up the child and held him to her. Against her blouse, he felt like a bag of dough. She remained holding the child when she saw that his mother was dead. She held the child at the police station and in the courts and on visiting days, and in the end she held onto the child forever.
The married lover was inspired by the woman. For a short time he remembered that he too had children, and ended the affair. The single lover was repulsed by both the desire for the child and the child itself. Soon afterwards, he married a woman with a perfect hip-to-waist ratio. Seneca died in great pain. Ordered to commit suicide, he opened his veins, but either he didn’t do a good job or his veins were too old. It took ages for him to die.