Ariadne After Theseus – J M McDermott
He was doing me a favor. Really, we both had just wanted away from where we were, and running away together had been the natural way to do it at the time. I moved on long ago. I wouldn’t even call him my great love. I wouldn’t even call him my pretty great love. Honestly, we never even made love. I’ve never been with a man.
You are probably about to be my great love. Look at you, you. You’re adorable.
Anyway, that’s all there is to know about that boy. Let’s talk about something else from my many travels.
Do you see this weird, squishy thing? It’s a box and it’s alive, and I think it’s lonely.
I bought the box in my favorite curio shop, and the owner, whom I was supposed to call Hecate, told me it was a Living Box and all it did was sit there, waiting. It had a fleshy, squishy look to it – all pink and a little fuzzy like a square peach. It felt like a sausage patty with a heartbeat in my palm. I felt its tiny heartbeat. I watched the spidery blue veins beneath its skin pumping blood.
I filled this lonely box with small things. Here is a large, brass button I stole off a former lover’s jacket imprinted with a cheerful anchor that always made me melancholy. (Minnie lost it in my car, and I had lied to her for weeks before the end came that I had looked for it beneath the passenger seat. I never looked until I was looking for a piece of her because she wouldn’t return my calls. Did I ever tell you about Minerva? I will. I promise. And soon.) There was a fossil seashell collected from the side of the Anthropology building where I had spent days tugging loose my prize from the limestone wall beside my desk. I’ve kept that with me for years. I have no idea where my diploma went to, but I kept the seashell. (I haven’t been to the ocean since I was a child. We should go, you and me. We should go before we forget about what we remember.) Finally, a snow globe from childhood assured me that Rock City was awash in holiday cheer and small bits of flowing white plastic.
No matter where I put my living box, when the lid to my box was closed, my box looked lonely. I gave up trying to put my box somewhere happy. I placed it on a high shelf between a ship-in-a-bottle that my father had given me and a picture of myself from when I was young.
This, too, just made me sad. My father has been dead for years, and my smiling girl’s face has new marks in my canvas. I will never have a father again. I will never be so beautiful again.
Minerva – Minnie – would have said I was being superstitious about the box – which isn’t exactly what I was being, but she was not one to parse details like superstition and taking something too seriously.
Minnie was never superstitious. She was my last serious girlfriend. She was a mechanical engineer. She folded her clothes, and ironed them, and even used a little deodorant-stick-like-thingy to take out tea stains in white blouses. I couldn’t imagine a life more complex than pulling the clothes straight from the dryer – hot, hot, hot – and throwing them on slightly damp, and running to work at my computer in the bedroom. I never knew what to do about stains. Sometimes, in the night, I resorted to emergency club soda and it either worked or it didn’t.
Minnie called me reckless. I thought that she was telling me I was beautiful and daring when she was calling me reckless, because that’s what that word meant to me.
The day Minerva left might be the last day I ever vacuumed in that apartment.
I miss her. Of course I do. I miss all my lost lovers – even that boy. I’ll miss you when you leave me for a younger girl, with bright eyes. I’ll be so jealous I’ll dream of pouring acid on her face in her sleep, or poisoning her with black magic from Jennifer’s Curio Shop.
I’ve never poisoned anyone with black magic. I poured some acid on a girl’s hand once, in high school science, but that was just on her hand, and it was probably an accident.
Minnie, believe it or not, was the one who showed me the curio shop, where I got that lonely little Living Box.
Magical omens and mystic portents: the thunder was terrible that day, but it hadn’t rained at all. The boiling clouds tumbled all over each other, mustering up the courage to fight the ground. Styrofoam packing and dead leaves and papers danced in a windy bacchanal.
Minnie and I were riding bicycles on a Sunday morning, to a café, trying to beat the weather, because we thought it would rain any second. When we got to the café, we sat in the window. We sipped lattes and read the gigantic newspaper that spilled all over our little table like a cat on a toy piano.
Minnie looked up from the newspaper.
She said, I have a gift for you.
Gimme! I held out my hand.
She took my hand in hers, and lifted it to her lips for a quick kiss. I’m going to take you somewhere, she said.
You’ll see, as long as it doesn’t start to rain. If it rains, we’ll just stop wherever we are and wait for it to stop raining.
We took off immediately. We raced up a hill, and I won, and she shouted at me to turn the corner on 14th. I asked her which direction, but she couldn’t hear me shouting, and I couldn’t hear her at all anymore with all that wind.
I turned left. I got as far ahead as I could. I had guessed correctly. I rode as fast as I could over bumps and rough blacktop. Dense city buildings ended at a railroad bridge with brown grass taller than trees growing where a sidewalk should have been. The grasses were bowing supplicants to the winds. Minnie called out to my back.
I laughed back at her, though she didn’t hear me. Catch me!
I passed into a neighborhood of houses, some converted to businesses and law offices, some not, where older folks sat on porches and watched the sunrise from between the giant downtown streets.
Minnie shouted at me.
I turned my head long enough to see that she had stopped at one of the little businesses, there. She was waving at me and shouting. I skidded to a halt. I turned my tires back to her.
Ariadne, what are you doing? Get over here!
- Fortunes Told
- Palm Readings
- Tarot Cards
- Curios Galore
Minerva’s gift to me was a palm reading. I would have preferred Tarot Cards, because they look so beautiful and you never know which one will flip over to look back at you. Palms never change. They get older and older, but the lifeline never shrinks like you think it should.
See, Minnie was the one that took me there. She never thought it would be dangerous because she wasn’t reckless like me. To her, it was just a distraction on a Sunday afternoon, like a bad movie or a good book with tea. She gets palm readings. Women like her want the same things said in a reading, over and over, like going to church.
The gypsy lady that read fortunes – her name was Hecate the first time we met, and Jennifer after I had been there a few times, but I was supposed to call her Hecate if anyone else was there – dressed like a hippy and had long, black hair. Her father was from the wooded mountains of Lebanon, and her mother was probably mostly Irish. She had black hair, and it curled naturally and tumbled all over her body like a gown.
Every bookshelf had strange things for sale: eye of newt and bat’s blood and gross, squishy things in jars and vials right inside the door: gator skulls and the fossilized teeth of dinosaurs under glass and books and gorgeous candles and strange oils and books, books, books all old and leathery and covered in dust and smothered in dust, and Jennifer dusted them all the time, but dusting never worked.
When she read palms, she sat on a sofa and asked her visitor to sit next to her, and it’s like holding hands with a lover, and she pretended to seduce everyone a little.
Jennifer told me that she lost her virginity to the old man that taught her to read palms. I believed it.
The man was her father’s cousin, and he had come over from the mountains of Lebanon to sweep floors in a train station. The man had slept on the couch for months, and drank Ouzo with Jennifer’s father. He called the beautiful teen Hecate instead of Jennifer, and he begged her for help with his sputtering English. One night, he read her palm on the couch. Six days later, he was thrown from the house with all his belongings by her angry father.
I went back again for another reading, and another.
Hecate turned the card over – Jennifer really, but she was playing gypsy, so I’ll call her Hecate. Five of clubs. She raised an eyebrow. I touched the card with my painted fingernail. I asked her if she had ever made love with a woman.
She sipped her tea. She turned another card. Queen of Swords. No, she said.
I asked her if the cards had ever lied to her.
She shrugged. If they are wrong, people do not come back to tell me. If the cards lie, I lose customers. I do not know. If the cards are right, people come back and tell me that I am right. Isn’t that how it always is?
I guess that makes sense.
No, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not just talking about gypsies and fortunetellers and witches. I’m talking about love. We know only from the ones that stay. We do not know what it is that makes people leave us, because they do not return to speak of it. Unless, of course, there is an accident. Two people meet on a train, and must sit next to each other long after the passion has burned down, and now they are forced to spend hours either speaking to each other, or pretending to be strangers – pretending to read.
Nobody takes the train, anymore, you know. Now it’s airplanes or cars.
Don’t argue with me. I’m the gypsy, here, not you.
Sorry, Hecate. It’s a wonderful fortune. I wish you were a lesbian so we could have a future together.
I do not see that future in the cards, either.
Minnie would hate it, too.
Jennifer tapped the Queen of Swords. She shook her head, sadly, but she said nothing.
I bought windchimes that called the butterflies to my window. I woke up each morning, and every breezy day, I could reach my hand out the door and let the tiny, gorgeous creatures dip their tongues into my fingernail polish and try to drink. (I always wear very colorful fingernail polish, you know. My favorite color is Everything.)
I bought that painting over there, that moves when no one’s looking at it. The tree gently blows in the winds and shepherds watched the flock of sheep that nibble in an Alpine valley on a beautiful spring day. When I bought it, I liked to blink at it, to watch the clouds roll in and out. Eventually, the painting weirded Minnie out too much, and she made me move it in front of a mirror where the painting holds forever still, looking upon itself.
What else did I buy? Nothing gross. I liked the beautiful things, like Jennifer. I did not like the dangerous things Hecate sold to the mean women who sought revenge.
Candles, I remember. I bought lots and lots of candles. They never really seemed to do anything – Jennifer told me they were just a cheap gimmick – but the scented ones smelled so nice and candlelight was so romantic.
Minnie found the blackened wicks and cut them off and waved them at me. You didn’t leave this untended, did you?
I didn’t, Minnie.
Because I know how you can be.
A candle isn’t like the oven, you know.
I’m just saying, I know how you can be sometimes, when the windchimes are ringing and all you want to do is chase butterflies…
Just because one person – not me – one time, burned down your house…
And the butterflies are all over the bathroom! How did they get into the bathroom?
I thought it would be nice. We could take a bath together. Light some candles. We’ll angle the painting away from the mirror and make love with the butterflies and candles. We’ll make love in magic. It will be magical.
Oh, Ari, what am I supposed to do with you?
Run the hot water. I’ll get matches for the candles.
No candles. Butterflies are more than enough.
But I like candles.
I won’t be able to relax with open flames all over the place.
Minnie showed me credit card statements. She begged me to spend less. I had called a telephone psychic. I had spent three hours discussing my love life with a woman that was probably a fake. I had gone to a different reader of fortunes, wondering if my loves were all doomed. I sent in a prayer pledge to an Evangelist to beg for his help keeping my lover forever and ever.
Minnie was very upset. She asked me to be reasonable. I asked her if she loved me.
Of course I do, Ari! But, please…
They all think you’re going to leave me, you know. Every single one of them. Except the televangelist. But, I know he’s wrong, because he’s a televangelist, and I had hoped he would tell me you would leave me, so I could believe you must be staying.
I’m not going to leave you, she said.
Jennifer has amazing teas that do magic. I want to try them all. I want to see if I can find a different future, or conjure something new that way.
We can’t afford all this nonsense. If you keep trying to see the future…
I’m not trying to see the future. I’m trying to find a future with the woman I love. They all keep telling me that you’re going to leave me, and I hate that! I hate that people leave me!
I’m not leaving you, Ari! I love you! Buy the damn tea. I don’t care. Just don’t blame me if you turn purple or turn into a man. Tea wears off, you know. Everybody tries it once, and it wears off! It’s just magic! It’s a bunch of stupid tricks!
I bought tea from Jennifer. I told her that I didn’t want to know what they were supposed to do. I wanted to do a blind study of the effects.
I spent the next few weeks experimenting with the magic teas.
My hair turned blond.
My heartbeat slowed to a crawl, and I felt like I was some kind of undead monster with barely a heartbeat, and I was so cold.
I won the lottery – just five bucks in a scratch-off – and I walked around with five dollars in my pocket and all these men kept hitting on me and asking about the lottery. My boobs got bigger. Then, they got smaller. Then, they returned to normal. The last teas made me sleep for days as if I was dead. I was wandering, in a dream, through a maze of paintings that moved when I didn’t look upon them.
Once I found the next painting, I fell into it and out of the last in the dream.
And my lovers were all in the paintings.
First there was the boy, standing in my father’s house, looking back at me like he pitied me for being trapped there. (No, I don’t hate him. He did fine by me, actually. Don’t believe the tabloids, okay? Anyway, this isn’t his story. I’ve had a long life, since. The boy and I were together for a while, and we didn’t have a lot of options back then, and then we were not together and I didn’t know myself any better at the time.) After I escaped his painting for another, the girl with the acid burn on her hand clutched her hand in a corner and every time I looked, more tears had fallen, filling the painting with water enough to drown me if I didn’t escape in time. The next painting was a woman walking down the street, with the sun pouring over her and a smile on her face that burned my skin.
So many lovers.
I came to Minerva, and we were sitting in cars at a red light, waiting for it to change, making moon eyes at each other. The next painting was hanging from my rear-view mirror, and it was so small I could barely make it out, because it was such a small thing we did together. I moved on to the next painting, to women I hadn’t met, yet, and then the next and next.
I saw every woman I have ever loved – whether we had made love or not – and every woman that I would ever love. I saw my mother’s face. I saw Jennifer. I saw your face. I saw every woman in the whole world, and I loved all of them, and they all loved me as long as I kept them from moving by staring hard. Deeper and deeper into the painted heart of this maze of glowing oils, I found, at last, a room as black as a catacomb, all painted stones like oil fungus and pastel smoke. In the center of this terrible room, my doomed brother, the minotaur sat on his throne with sallow skin and small horns. He was a weak thing. He was draped in fine robes that hid his deformed body. His sunken eyes looked at me like they were already tired of looking at me. I knew he was my minotaur and not a devil, because he looked like my father, and because he had a tail that ended in a paintbrush. The tail whisked side to side, painting the flickering shadows of the catacomb when I wasn’t looking to hold him still. I asked the minotaur what I was supposed to do now. He didn’t move when I looked at him. He barely moved at all. He didn’t say a word.
This was – I realized – the last painting. I walked straight up to the monster with my eyes wide open. (Minnie told me later, I was sitting up in bed, at last, and my eyes were wide open, but I was still in a hazy trance from the tea, and she watched to see if I would try to sleepwalk.)
I tore at his canvas skin with my fingernails. The paint was still wet. It got all over my nails, all over my body. I scraped and scraped it all away until the monster was gone, and a blank canvas looked back at me.
Then, I woke up. I had – apparently – been shaking the windchimes to call the butterflies in through an open window. Then, I had killed them, and smeared their guts and wings all over the white walls.
Minnie was there, with a bucket of soap in one hand and a large sponge in the other.
Are you awake, or are you still in a trance?
I think I’m awake. How long was I asleep?
Too long. Do you want some coffee? I can make you some coffee.
I’d love some. No more tea for a while.
Have you ever dated an addict?
Yes. Have you?
Not until now. You’re addicted to magic.
I’m not addicted to magic, I said, I’m addicted to my quest for your love.
You’re either addicted to magic, or you are in love with Hecate.
Her real name is Jennifer, and don’t be foolish.
I love you, Ariadne. I wish I had never shown you that silly store. Then, as an afterthought – almost under her breath, but loud enough that she could hear it, and use it to hurt me – If you truly loved me, you wouldn’t obsess over leaving me. It’s like you’re looking for an excuse.
I would never do that.
Of course I was in love with Jennifer, who called herself Hecate. But I was also still in love with Minnie terribly, and I didn’t want to hurt Minnie.
We spent the rest of the night in silence.
I held Minnie in my arms. She held me. We shrank away from each other.
In the morning, we drove to the store to return the teas, the wind chimes, and the moving painting. Hecate frowned at us.No refunds, she said.
Throw them in the trash, then, said Minnie. I don’t care what you fucking do with them.
Minnie tossed the box onto the couch where palms were read. She stormed away, back to the car. A cool wind caught her coat, and she hurriedly tugged her jacket around her, stumbling at the hole where she had lost the button.
I looked out the window at the woman I loved and she was driving away from me, in her car. I had no way home.
You shouldn’t have been mixing teas, said Hecate. Some of them make enemies of lovers and lovers of enemies. Who knows what spell you cast upon your apartment.
Do you have a tea that will make her love me again?
Of course I do, but what’s the point? When it wears off, she’ll still be mad at you.
This was when I noticed the strange, fleshy, living box next to the skulls and vials of blood. I plucked it from the shelf. I marveled at it, how it felt alive in my palm. I paid cash for the box – it was cheap because life is always cheap – and I put it in my box of non-refundable curios.
Minnie had taken the car, so I had to walk home, carrying my box, and wondering if I should be mad at Minnie that she had driven off in the car without me.
I had bought the box and kept my magic things as my own petty revenge.
Every time the windchimes clanged or bumped, butterflies chased the sound. A trail of butterflies followed me all the way home. I felt sorry for them. They ought to have been looking for love. Time was too short for them to follow me. I decided I was definitely going to stop using windchimes.
I liked the painting, though. I wondered what had happened to the canvas since it had been placed in the box and out of sight. I wondered if night had fallen among the sheep, and wolves circled the shepherds with bared teeth. I wondered if it was snowing.
I decided, instead, that I’d hide the box of my magical things in the trunk of my car. I’d go upstairs and insist upon a foot rub, because she owed me one after making me walk home like that. I’d swear off magic for a while, just for her, and instead try to figure out how to make her late for work every morning with lovemaking, just for fun.
And I went upstairs to the apartment. I opened the door. I called out her name.
And she was gone, with her clothes, and her computer, and her books.
She was gone. No note, no word, nothing at all.
I was sad for a long time. I cried and clutched at the empty space in the bed. I brought women home from bars that weren’t that pretty, or weren’t that nice, or they smelled funny. And when they were gone, I washed the bedroom and scrubbed the couch, because I was disgusted that I had brought those awful bar women into my apartment, where Minnie and I had been in love.
I dug through my car, searching for the lost button that I knew had to be in there, somewhere. I clutched it as if it were magic. I wept and made a wish with all my heart.
But it wasn’t magic, and I put the button inside the Living Box, and hid it on a top shelf and tried to imagine a world where people don’t always end up alone.
Then, I moved out of the apartment.
Then, I met you.
I don’t need a gypsy to tell me what will happen to us someday, my beautiful one. I don’t want you to argue with me about it, either. I was raised above the labyrinth and abandoned on an island all alone. I drank the tea. I stared the minotaur in his sallow face. I tore his painted skin to pieces with my own fingernails. Everyone faces life and death alone – truly alone.
When I am old, I will sit in a retirement home alone, and I will watch the news and wonder at the world outside my little room, and I will die alone.
I’ve already shown you the Living Box. I don’t want to show it to you again, because it is so lonely, and it is too much of me.
I can show you the wind chimes, if you like, but it always makes me sad to bring butterflies here when I think about how little time they have before they fall like autumn leaves.
The painting, though, is up in my bedroom. I’ll have to show it to you.
(Maybe this is a ploy to take you to my bedroom. Will you let me use my little ploy, I wonder?)
In the painting, the sheep have grown up, given birth to lambs, died. The shepherds are all married off and old. Their grandsons guard a flock of lambs, while the old grandfathers hide in the mountains. If you look real close, you can see their geriatric lovemaking in the firelight. They’re so small, I know, but if you get a magnifying glass, you can study them carefully. If you blink fast enough, you can even watch them moving a little bit. They seem happy. I wonder where they go when they die. I wonder if they have souls…
I talk too much. I’m sorry. Will you stay with me, tonight, beautiful one? Will you love me for a while?
Will you love me forever?
Will I love you?