Incomplete Octaves

 

AURORA

If you vanish, Aurora yawns; I was startled to a pause.

“Well, go on. After all, your time is limited.”

Standing on the corner, a dark young man smiled in a way that made me frown.

I went on, but those words held me in check. What had he meant by that? Was it a threat? A prophecy?

It was too much of a delay. By the time I got to the bus station, she was gone. Aurora was really gone.

Her abandoned jacket lay jeering on my arm, and the afternoon approached gray, dull, sluggish; a pestilent congregation of vapors.

On my way back I ran into the same young man on the corner.

“You’re back,” he didn’t sound surprised.

“And with plenty of time.”

“After all, your time is limited.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Pretty much means whatever you take it for.”

“You go to the academy?”

“That’s right.”

“So, what. You a philosophy major or something?”

“Psychology. How about you?” He smiled.

I frowned.

“I bet I can guess.” He looked me up and down, a full appraisal. “Business.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You run from place to place like a businessman.”

“Well, you’re wrong. I’m a classics major.”

“So you are.”

“Well what’s your story? You just stand on street corners?”

“They call me Hector.”

“Nice to meet you, Hector.”

I didn’t volunteer my name.

“So why the classics, of all things?”

“Why not?”

“Yes, why not. Finally you’re asking the right questions.”

“Good as anything else. Why psychology?”

“Well that’s easy. It’s what I’m writing my thesis on. I study psychology because we all want to die, and I want to know why. Pascal says everything we do is distraction from death. I tend to think the opposite. Everything we do is to distract us from the horror of life, and really we’re just looking for the quickest way out.”

“Oh. Good for you.”

TEA FOR TWO

I thought about Hector and his gloomy thesis all weekend. It was just a distraction from Aurora. I called her as soon as I got back, I left a message. I sent her a text. The day just dragged on by. I put her jacket on my bed and lay down next to it, like she was still beside me. For a moment I was happy. The day glimmered dim against the ceiling, and the jacket and I lay draped arm in arm, and I thought about how everything we do comes out of our desire to die, and fell asleep until the sky went dark.

When I woke up, I stayed up; I thought about Aurora. I opened a bottle of wine, and listened to Thelonious and felt awkward about everything. She was harder to get a hold of than Monk’s linguistics; the moment you thought you connected with her, she was on a different wavelength. Why did she have to slip out like the sun shifts? Had she waited for me to leave before she vanished?

I’d just gone for tea; had brought back two.

Sometime late in the night, I wrote her an email, which I shouldn’t have done, because I’d already opened my third bottle of wine, and it was one of those witching hours where the night seems to stretch to no end on all sides, like a sailor lost in the rain, and no land in sight.

ON VIRTUE

There was no way for her to avoid me forever. There was nothing from her Sunday, and she didn’t show up for class on Monday. I sat on the quad in the afternoon, pretending to translate Seneca, enjoying the mediocre sunshine. Before I finished Hippolytus’ first speech, a shadow came over me, and I looked up to see Hector.

“You mind if I join you?”

“I was working, but-,”

“Great.” Hector sat down and took the book from me. “Phaedra.” He shook his head. “I came here to get away from all that nonsense, but I see now how naïve I was.”

“Get away from all what?”

“Western brainwashing. I expected more from a black liberal arts college. A more nuanced view of things.”

“Where you coming from?”

“MIT, Emory, Mythology, Oxford, Reed, Yale. The stately gates of Dis. They’ve all rejected me. I don’t make friends easy.”

“You’re a real joker, huh? Maybe that’s your problem, though.”

Hector examined me for a moment. “You’re a wise one, aren’t you, Hippolytus.” He smiled. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Theseus. Oedipus. Achilles. Hector. Agamemnon. Odysseus. Caesar.”

“See, I like you already, Hipp. You don’t mind that, if I call you Hipp? We’re never given the names we deserve, but we try to live up to them all the same. It’s a terrible distortion of our personalities.”

“So what did you expect from a black college?” I felt like I should get back to Seneca. I scanned the Quad, hoping for Aurora.

“I’m keeping you,” Hector said after a while. “But I do this, you know. I’m pretty good at it.”

That made me smile. “You’re good at keeping people?”

Hector returned the smile. “In my fashion. I’m good at talking to people, I mean. I hold sessions. Patients. That’s what keeps getting me in trouble.”

“You mean you practice on patients? Students?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Well, no wonder you keep getting in trouble.”

“It’s not so much that I practice that gets me into trouble. The problem is that people, and women in particular, take my teachings too much to heart.”

“So you say, Socrates.”

Hector just smiled.

PRELUDE TO BAR MUSIC

The first suicide was a week later. I felt electric waves just looking at the phone buzz Aurora.

“Aurora?”

“I need someone to talk to. Are you free this afternoon? A girl I know just killed herself.”

“Who?”

“Sophie. Do you want to get a drink?”

“Of course. Where do you want to meet?”

We met at a sleepy bar on Orchard. Aurora looked sullen. She hadn’t really known Sophie; she didn’t know why it bothered her.

“I was probably translating Dante’s suicides when it happened.” She pouted. “Sophie was one of those girls, you know the type. Everything they do is golden. She comes from society. Her father worked with the Clinton Administration. She’s always had money. She’s pretty, even white boys like her because she’s light.” Her voice shook a little. Aurora was dark.

Something about what she said made me think of Hector, and for a moment, I wondered if he’d practiced on Sophie, and this is what he meant by practice. The idea was absurd. I laughed; Aurora scowled.

“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s funny – what’s funny, I mean, is maybe she just felt disconnected. I’ve been thinking about that lately. Aren’t we a little disconnected? It’s a problem of perspective probably.”

Aurora looked at me inscrutably. “What are you talking about?”

I shrugged and frowned. “Race. Class. Culture. Perspective. What are we doing here, studying Roman literature and Greek literature and philosophy and all that jazz, isn’t that just us buying into an oppressive culture? I’ve been wondering that lately.”

“People don’t kill themselves for ideas.” Aurora sounded exasperated.

“Sure they do.”

“So go join the Black Panthers, then.” She stood up. “I really needed to talk to someone today, but all you can do is go on about yourself. You really blew it.”

She got up and left, and I just watched her go.

I sat in that bar for another couple hours and thought about our conversation, why I’d blown it, why I brought up all that stuff to begin with. Somewhere in those couple hours my thoughts turned around to Hector and his theory of death. Had I blown it on purpose? I felt so low, I could throw myself in the river. That’s what I would do. I would jump in the river. The thought made me laugh.

“A man amused by his own company is a wise man indeed, Hipp.”

Hector appeared, and took a seat next to me.

I was happy to see him. My thoughts had been turning dark, and now I needed someone to talk to.

“You hear about that girl Sophie?”

“It’s all over campus,” he said. “You can’t get away from it. Big scandal.”

“Why do you think she did it?”

Hector smiled. “Who knows? Maybe she learned the music of the seasons.”

“And what is that?”

“Each season has its own music, the way I see it. We’re always hearing it, but we can’t pick up on the tune. It’s barred from us, but that’s all a mental block. You can walk out of a window, walk into a train. You can swallow pills or dive into the river. You can always do any of these things, if you manage to learn the wavelengths of the tune. But it takes a special enlightened state of mind to learn this music. Most people never get to that level.”

“Is this your practice?”

“Listen, Hipp. I like you. Why don’t you let me come by some time and talk to you?”

I laughed a dark laugh, and dove in the river over and over. “I don’t think I need your help, Hector. I’m halfway there already.”

“The tune is more elusive than you think. After all,” Hector shrugged a little. “I’m still learning it myself.”

A PARALYZING BLOW

When I got to campus, no one knew about the suicide. I frightened people. They wanted to know how I knew. I made a few girls cry. It’s a small school, and Sophie was popular.

I walked off campus slow. I didn’t have anywhere to be. I kept seeing things funny, like spring nocturnes. Every object I passed, or scene where I appeared, there appeared a receding scale. In everything alive and everything dead; everything organic and everything inorganic. This change didn’t frighten me; it made me curious. Why hadn’t I experienced everything like this before?

Supposing I walked to Aurora’s house? The liquor made the courage compelling. I was sure to self-sabotage, it was surely a glorious mistake, like that email I wrote, but that was the point.

It wasn’t far. She lived walking distance if you were in the mood to walk, and I was in a mood to walk. I wanted to study things rearranged. I wanted to notice the architecture of the buildings, the old regal stone columns of banks, sturdy as Samson giving a push. I wondered at the slipshod shingles of houses in blue and pink and yellow, slap gashes of windows silly in the spring, and I breathed deep this pestilent congregation.

I arrived at her house just as the sun was hitting the hard part of the horizon. All the windows were open and the lights were on. Aurora was with someone. She looked upset. She kept standing up, sitting down. She got up, paced the place, she sat back down. I walked through daggers of dying sunlight for a better view.

Yes, reader, I saw him.

He couldn’t have been someone from the academy. Young enough, but pale and wan; why so pale and wan? And now we have entered somewhere else.

I walked through the door. It was open; somehow I knew it would be. For a moment I hesitated on the threshold, uninvited after all, and in a private moment. I listened to them talk. I couldn’t make out the voices, and increasing curiosity led me in.

I didn’t close the door behind me. I didn’t want to make any noise. I floated down that hall like Sugar Ray Robinson, if you stop to think, you’re gone. Around the corner and into the bedroom, where they were.

Aurora looked at me with horror.

“What are you doing here?” She probably screamed it.

“What’s he doing here?” I feinted, adding, “You needed someone to talk to, and here I am.”

The fond lover arose. “I think you should leave.”

“Perhaps,” I scrutinized him distastefully, “you shouldn’t think.”

When he pushed me, I rolled strategically back into the wall. I came forward with my right. It was a good hit, but this wasn’t going well.

“Get out!” Yes, Aurora was definitely screaming.

I left them in my wake. Into another passage, the fond lover on the floor, will looking ill prevail?

I felt ill. The liquor was making the world a wash of hymns and passages and I was getting lost. The clouds had gained the day, or perhaps it was already evening. The same bar on Orchard returned like a recurring nightmare. Hector was still there.

“Hey there, Hipp,” he said, a full appraisal. “It looks about time you retired.”

THE BOOK OF THOTH

On Thursday morning there was a second suicide.

Self-slaughter is contagious. A girl named Florence drowned herself, she jumped in the river, she jumped in the river, she jumped in the river. She learned the music of the seasons.

That wasn’t an easy afternoon. All people do is talk. They never take things for what they are, they just talk them to death until they don’t mean anything. There were connections made between Sophie and Florence. Predictions as to who would be next. Sudden sages appeared everywhere.

“It’ll be Katherine, and she’ll jump down the stairs.”

“It’ll be Whitney, and she’ll drown in her pills.”

“It’ll be Phaedra, and she’ll die by the sword.”

Maybe it would be me.

After all, Aurora wouldn’t speak to me anymore. I called her that Thursday. I called her all day. I must have sent her a tome of texts.

Evening wasn’t easy, either.

One day threaded into the next. I never caught her after class. Why did she avoid me? I sat on the Quad and stared at Seneca’s untranslatable play. The more I looked at that obscure Latin text, the more it looked to me like a series of incantations.

If you vanish, Aurora yawns.

No sun now she gone.

Had I translated her symbols right? Her kisses felt like prophecies. Had I translated her kisses right? I relived the night we spent together, relived it again and again. How translate classics when you can’t even read your contemporaries?

EACH NEW SEASON NEWLY DISCOVERED

Where’s Hector when you need him?

Hector’s absence exaggerated Aurora’s.

I started skipping class; I was hanging out in the psychology hall.

When I finally saw him again, he didn’t look so hot.

“How are you Hipp? I haven’t been feeling too well, myself.”

“Why? What’s up?”

“Let’s take a walk. We should chat.”

We walked into an overcast afternoon, muggy in the misty day, and too warm.

“Those two girls, I guess they were both psychology majors.”

“Eureka.”

“Did you practice on them?”

“You get right to the heart of things, don’t you Hipp?”

“Are you responsible?”

Hector seemed to consider this. “I don’t know,” he decided. “But I don’t see the world the way others do.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Maybe you already know.”

We walked in silence for a while. We reached the river, and walked along it without saying a word.

“Why were you looking for me?” Hector asked after a while.

“How’d you know I was looking for you?”

Hector shrugged. A shadow came over me, and the clouds seemed to descend on the water.

“I know someone you should talk to,” I said.

“I don’t think you know him all that well.”

The words threw me. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“I haven’t been doing so well lately, Hipp,” Hector paused, stopped and turned to look at me. “I was more naïve than I thought.”

“Oh.”

“We’re in an impossible situation. I guess I knew that all along. I just didn’t understand the horror of it. Others understand it better than I do.”

“Others?”

“Sophie. Florence.”

“Oh.” I hesitated. “So you did practice on them.”

“I talked to them. I just talked to them. I practice on others.”

“Oh.”

We walked for another couple minutes without saying anything.

“I live inside someone who hates me.” This from Hector. “That’s what it is.”

Why did the words feel familiar? Suddenly I was in a hurry. “I have someone you need to speak to. Someone you really need to practice on.”

“Who should I practice on, Hipp?” Hector’s voice cracked like an incomplete octave.

“She’s not a psych major. She’s a classics major. Her name is Aurora, and I need you to talk to her for me.”

VOODOO GAME THEORY

That Saturday Jennifer Language swallowed pills, slit her wrists, and wandered the classics droning a drowsy syncopated tune. Our most public suicide starlet yet, she proved all the sages loons.

Administration called assemblies. Professors talked about the follies of the young & rash. Counselors offered to speak privately to students in crisis. I considered the proposition. How do you know if you’re in crisis? Jennifer was a classics major. I knew her pretty well. Did she know she was in crisis?

Aurora still wouldn’t speak to me.

I thought tragedy might put things in perspective. When I was a child, I spoke as a child.

I chased her down after class one afternoon.

We stood regarding each other curiously on the Quad.

“Aurora, this is ridiculous. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know how many times I have to say it.”

She glared. “More times than stars in the sky, and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

“I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“The moving principle is in the man himself.”

I let her go. Why argue with Aristotle?

Zero-sum, Hector had practiced on the wrong classicist.

THE ETHICISTS DEBATE TIME

“I’ve been talking to Aurora.”

I looked up from Seneca to see Hector looking down at me.

“Take a seat.”

He took a seat and took Phaedra. He flipped through it listlessly. “It’s a play about finding a tune.”

“I think you missed the point, if that’s what you get from it.”

“You probably read it as tragedy, when really it’s a comedy.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. What could a psych major know about these things anyway?

“So when did you start with Aurora?”

“Last weekend. She’s a good listener.”

“You seem to be pretty persuasive.”

“It has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the student.”

“Well, how’s she coming along?” I hesitated. “Maybe this was a bad idea.”

“No, it’s not. I may learn a thing or two from her myself.”

Now what did that mean? I didn’t like my thoughts.

Days passed, and I lost Aurora in students bursting from classrooms into spring. I hung around in her cloud. Hector vanished from the Quad.

Where did he conduct these meetings of his anyway? I walked around downtown and looked at the buildings. One of them housed a lunatic. Talk to someone if you’re in crisis. Who would talk to Hector?

I could hear Hector and Aurora echo behind everything.

Who would talk to me?

INTERIOR: SEASHELL SONATA

I would follow her, of course.

I would have to watch for her. I couldn’t get left behind in the rush of the bell, so I didn’t go to class. I drank at the bar all morning, and drank down half the afternoon. A little before class let out I walked up to campus, and waited, hidden behind pillars, simple as Samson shrugging a push.

Aurora walked out gorgeous as the day. She descended the steps to the Quad. I slipped after her, shadow of a suicide. We hurried past circles of students splendid in the weather. Off campus, then, and passing by the bar where I’d just been. She turned the wrong corner, and so she wasn’t going home.

Did he hold court on street corners like Socrates?

No, Hector, coward, only held court on women, and maybe he broke hearts. He would have a room somewhere. There lay the secret science of his teachings. Try his technique on a man, and he’d end up with a broken jaw, or worse, dispatched; you want to learn the music of the seasons? I’ll teach you, and quick. ‘Til you spit blood with murder ballads!

It made me mad. I almost forgot myself, got caught. I was walking too fast, and getting careless. Aurora walked down Portland. We were headed toward the river. Cover was getting sparse. I had to hang back, Aurora now just a hint on the horizon.

An inclination arose in me to call out to her. The proper thing to do was to warn her.

Another figure wavered pale and dim in the distance. Surely it was Hector, and we will have our conclusion.

“Apparently you’re a man of little faith, Hipp.” This from behind me. I turned to see Hector stalking a saunter in the sun.

Dumbfounded, I stood and stared at him, then turned to see Aurora, persistent doom, hand in hand, vanishing beyond the horizon. I looked at Hector and tried to speak, but words collapsed. Hector’s eyes were light, was he possessed?

“You probably think I’m following you.” He smiled. I frowned.

“Of course you’re following me.” I looked back to scan the empty landscape of the river. “Who – who is she meeting?”

“I think you already know the answer to that, Hipp.”

Suddenly I was furious. “Who was he? How? How could I know the answer to that?” I moved to strike him, and just as I did the sun revealed itself from behind the clouds like a hidden God.

Hector’s cheeks were wet. Tears seemed to complement his smile. “I have a confession.” The sincerity of his tone was disarming. “You see, I’ve finally found the tune. It’s why I’m here.”

I looked from Hector to the river. Now I was smiling. “I’ll race you.”

For a while neither of us spoke. I listened for the shrill of laughter to slice the still afternoon.

“I love her, Hipp.” Hector frowned. “And it’s more elusive than your philosophy.”

CHORUS

There have been no more suicides since, except Phaedra’s. I finished my Seneca translation within the week.

Still, I’ve never been able to shake that sunny afternoon. It confronts me even in my dreams, where Hector and Aurora continue to make appearances.

I sometimes wonder where Aurora went, and if Hector is alive. I look out over the Quad, and it feels like no time ago, almost like they remain here, now that all my context is cuneiform.

As for Hector’s philosophy, I try not to see the world that way anymore; I focus on my studies. That’s not to say it doesn’t stay with me, because it does. It hums below my surface, like the sun rising in the east each morning, carrying in its swansong, a promise.

 

 

-Whit Frazier, 2013

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