Acis and Galatea

Acis and Galatea

Ryan Napier

Issue 31
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When I was in grad school, I was ashamed of many things. For instance, I had never read the Odyssey. I should have: it was essential to the dissertation I was writing on Joyce. I had read the SparkNotes for it years ago, and refreshed my memory with regular trips to the Wikipedia whenever I needed to discuss the Homeric parallels in Ulysses, but despite many attempts, I had never been able to get through the thing itself.

Why? I had a high tolerance for difficulty and boredom: I was writing a dissertation on Joyce, after all. But the Odyssey was different, somehow. My brain balked at it. After three or four lines, I found myself wondering about my stack of ungraded papers or how much milk was left in the fridge. I blamed the translations. I had tried several versions, but they all shared the same clumsy syntax and bulky repetitions—all those “glinting eyes” and “rosy-fingered dawns.” Homer, I reasoned, must be great, but no one had figured out how to do him in English yet. It was the translators’ fault, not mine. This explanation alleviated some of my shame—but only some. It also meant that when a new translation of the Odyssey came out, I felt compelled to read it, to make sure that the translators were still failing me.

This was how I met H.

It was a Saturday in late September, sunny and cool—one of those perfect New England mornings where you can feel the summer tipping into fall. The leaves had turned goldish-green, and rowers glided across the bright surface of the Charles. I was sitting by the river and reading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, which had come out a few months before. I liked Wilson’s version better than any of the others I’d tried; without much effort, I had already made it halfway through Book 3.

“What do you think of that?”

Standing over me, a hand on her hip, was a woman, about my age, in a tank top, leggings, and a wide crimson headband. Her arms and shoulders looked powerful. (She had come from the boathouse, I later learned; her club was preparing for next month’s regatta.)

“Pretty good,” I said. Hoping to impress her, I repeated a few things I’d read about it in a review as if they were my own thoughts. “It’s first translation of the Odyssey by a woman,” I added.

“I know,” she said. “I’m surprised you like it. Most of the men I know don’t.”

“Do you know to a lot of men who read new translations of the Odyssey?”

She did, it turned out: she was a grad student in the classics department. Wilson’s translation had become a flashpoint in her program: the older faculty and some of the male grad students despised it. “They say it’s too casual,” she said, sitting next to me on the riverbank. “But I think, on some level, what really bothers them is that she’s a woman.”

“I’m just happy to find a translation that doesn’t put me to sleep,” I said. I told her about my previous attempts to read the Odyssey. “I don’t think I’ve ever made it past Book 4.”

“That’s when it gets good!”

“I didn’t know that. This is my problem—I don’t have anyone to tell me these things.”

***

We exchanged numbers and started to text. I updated her on my progress through the Odyssey, spending dozens of minutes crafting each text, laboring to appear effortless. The next Sunday, she told me that she would be doing some reading down by the Charles, and invited me to join her if I wanted some help with Homer. I cancelled my plans to watch football with a friend and went down to the river.

Over the following weeks, H. and I began what must have looked like a typical grad student relationship—a date at a craft brewery in Somerville, afternoons working on our dissertations at a café, nights with Netflix and takeout. But like all new relationships, it didn’t feel typical. All my categories and assumptions seemed to shift. I usually avoided the square on the day of the regatta, but this year, I got up early and staked out a spot on the bridge; when her boat passed, I felt a stab of pride that she was one of the rowers.

As a joke, I sometimes called her my Mentor, since she helped me through the Odyssey. “You know,” she said one day, “in the story, Mentor is an old man. Hardly the thing you want to call your girlfriend.”

“But he was really Athena in disguise, right? I can see you as Athena. The goddess of wisdom.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think I’d look good in a helmet.”

This turned into a little game between us: which mythological figure described her best? One Sunday morning, for instance, we were at her apartment, preparing to go to brunch with her friends. After her shower, H. came into the bedroom and stood naked in front of the mirror.

“Diana,” I said. “The huntress. Tall, slender, athletic. Loves dogs. Goddess of women. That’s you, to a T.”

“And who does that make you?”

“I don’t know. Who’s her consort?”

“She was a virgin—swore never to marry.”

“Hm.”

She rubbed lotion on her legs. “You could be Actaeon.”

“Who’s he?”

“A mortal. One day, he finds a secret grotto, where Diana goes to bathe. Actaeon sees her naked, and she splashes him.” H. flicked a drop of lotion at me.

“I can see myself in that role, yes.”

“Then he’s turned into a deer and devoured by her hunting dogs.”

“Maybe not Diana then.”

I knew that it was corny to compare my girlfriend to a Roman goddess, but I liked it, and so—I think—did she. The corniness of the game made it more intimate. It was something only we could appreciate, a secret grotto.

My grad-school shame had transformed into the pleasant embarrassment of love.

***

At the heart of our little game was something true. I compared H. to figures from mythology because she seemed to exist on a different plane from other people. Most grad students—including me—were anxious and overmedicated; H. was graceful and assured. Everyone else fretted about their advisors and picked at the skin around their fingernails; H. read and wrote and rowed. I couldn’t believe that we were the same sort of creature: it made more sense to think of her as a goddess among mortals.

Deep down, of course, I understood that the difference between us wasn’t mythological at all. H. really did come from another plane. H. had grown up in Cambridge, in an ivy-covered brown-brick house northeast of the Yard. Her father taught at the Kennedy School and consulted for various banks and governments. An expert in emerging economies, he had published a popular book on globalization and regularly contributed to the opinion page of the Times, arguing that Country X or Country Y needed to resist the “siren-song of populism” and pursue realistic, pro-growth policies. H.’s mother had a PhD in psychology and spent most of her time at the family’s second house in Bethesda.

One day, when we were biking near Porter Square, H. pointed out to me the Quaker school she had attended as child. I looked it up online later and found that tuition was $35,000 a year. I tried not to show my astonishment at facts like these. But I was astonished. $35,000 was more than my mother made in a year. I had been the first in my family to go to college, and they were baffled that I was still there, all these years later. (“When are they gonna let you finish?” asked one exasperated uncle every time he saw me.) I doubted they could find the countries that H.’s father advised on a map.

For her part, H. downplayed the difference in our backgrounds. “I had some privilege, obviously, but it’s not like I’m inheriting my dad’s business. We’re in completely different fields. I’ve worked hard to be in the position I’m in. Just like you.”

I was happy to go along with this. The alternative was to convince her that we really were different. I preferred to let her keep whatever illusion it was that drew her to me.

***

If H. was under an illusion, her parents had no reason to be. As our relationship got more serious, I worried about meeting them. H. reassured me: “They’ll love you, I’m sure. They’re both really sweet. Well, my father is. And my mother—she’ll love you too.”

In early November, H. invited me to Thanksgiving at their house. I spent the next two weeks preparing. I read her father’s columns and skimmed his book; neglecting my dissertation and my teaching, I worked my way through ten or twelve issues of the Economist and extracted some glib sentences to say about various developing countries. (“In spite of its spotty record on human rights, the government has managed to reduce debt and increase foreign investment.”)

H. told me not to worry. “My father invites all the visiting fellows to Thanksgiving. He’ll be so busy that we won’t get to talk with him for more than five minutes. It’ll be very low-stakes. Besides, he spends all day talking about politics. He’d rather talk baseball.”

I made a mental note to read up on baseball. “And what about your mother?”

“She probably won’t even be there. She hates Kennedy School people.”

The day arrived. H. and I walked to her parents’ house, cutting through the empty Yard. Her father, a tall man with a neat gray beard, greeted us in the doorway and said he was very glad to meet me. We talked for a few minutes, but before I could deploy any of my prepared lines, he excused himself to welcome another group of guests. “See,” said H., “that wasn’t so hard.”

She went to get us drinks, and I gawked at a framed picture of her father with the Obamas. After a few minutes, H. reappeared and waved me into the kitchen, where she introduced me to a small woman with an enormous tangle of silver hair—her mother. My blood froze: I had not prepared. H. tried to start a conversation, but her mother quickly got bored and wandered off.

At dinner, H. and I sat next to her mother and listened to her complain: Harvard Square had become so dirty, the fellows were even more boring than usual, H.’s father looked tired. I brought out several of my best anecdotes, but they didn’t seem to register; when I finished, her mother returned to whatever complaint she had been making before I started. I couldn’t get her to acknowledge my existence—until she learned I was writing about Joyce. Her eyebrows shot up, and she asked if I knew Lacan’s reading of Ulysses. “Of course,” I said. (I knew that he had written something about Joyce, anyway.) That was enough: she took me for a Lacanian, and soon she was discoursing on sinthomes and the Imaginary Order. I must have smiled and nodded enough throughout this performance, because when H. and I left, her mother presented four fingers of her right hand for me to shake.

“She really liked you,” said H.

A surge of relief rushed through me, but by the time we reached H.’s apartment, I was already wondering how long I could fool them all.

***

The semester ended in early December, but H. and I stayed busy. In addition to her dissertation, H. was working on a feminist translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “The classics are terrible to women,” she had told me soon after we met. “But most translations, since they were done by men, treat that misogyny as normal. The point of a feminist translation is to give you some critical distance to examine it—to show just how much of these texts are about violence against women.” She had already finished twelve of the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses, and someone that her father knew at Random House had promised to look at the manuscript when it was complete. H. thought it had a good chance of getting published: after the success of Wilson’s Odyssey, there was a lot of interest in feminist translation of the classics.

I was also writing over the holiday, polishing one of my short stories. Unfortunately, I wrote short stories.

In the second week of January, a blizzard hit the Northeast. The forecast predicted fifteen inches of snow overnight. H. and I decided to ride it out in her apartment. (She was one of the few grad students I knew who didn’t have roommates, since she lived in one of her parents’ investment properties near the square.) We planned to get very drunk.

The snow started to fall around sunset. H. uncorked our first bottle. We cooked together, watched the city disappear under a layer of white, and worked our way through one bottle and then another. It was pleasant for a while, but suddenly, I realized I was too drunk. My skin felt clammy and damp; when I moved, I seemed to be sloshing around inside my own body. I told H. that I should go to bed, but she didn’t hear me. (Was she also too drunk, or was I not saying what I thought I was saying?) She wanted to talk about my fiction. For months, she had been asking to read it, and I had recently relented.

“You should submit more often! You underrate yourself, but your stories are seriously good. You could get published anywhere you wanted, if you tried.”

In fact, I did submit my stories all the time—and had them rejected. H. didn’t know this: I was too proud to talk about it.

She continued. Her intentions were good. It wasn’t her fault that I hadn’t told her about my rejections. I understood all that. And yet.

“If you put yourself out there,” she said, “I know that people would respond to it.”

“It’s easy to say that when you father can ask someone at Random House to read your manuscript,” I said. “Things are a little more difficult for the rest of us.”

I meant to provoke her, and I did. We argued for a long time: the astonishment that I had been holding back for months spilled out as resentment. H. started to cry and said she needed to be alone. She told me I could sleep on the couch. Indignant, I trudged home through the unplowed snow. At some point, I must have been sick, because when I woke up the next morning on the floor of my bedroom, my mouth tasted like merlot and stomach acid.

It was still snowing. I wriggled out of my damp coat and pulled myself up to the bed. For several hours, I lay there, head pounding, mouth dry, stomach sour and shriveled. Each scrape of the snowplows outside seemed to be happening within my own skull. I had nothing to do but remember what I had said to her, one excruciating sentence after another.

Where had all that resentment come from? H. was privileged, of course. But that was what drew me to her: her privileges had given her a confidence and a freedom from worry that set her apart from the rest of us. Her advantages were what made her her—and I liked her. So why had I said those things?

***

I texted H. a long apology that afternoon. We met the next day and walked along the frozen river, and I repeated my apology and begged her to believe that I didn’t mean what I’d said. I even told her about my rejections. “That’s not an excuse,” I added.

“No,” H. said, “it isn’t.”

“I was annoyed. I lashed out. I said those things, but I don’t believe them.”

“I hope not.”

“I want to make it up to you.”

“You will.”

A few nights later, I cooked us a complicated risotto and bought a bottle of wine well out of my price range. As we shared it, I asked H. to read from her translation, and gave it all the praise it deserved. The semester began soon after, and the night of the blizzard receded. After a few weeks, H. and I even began to play our little game again. Our relationship returned to normal—almost. We avoided certain topics now, such as my writing, and discussed others with discomfort. I noticed a slight flinch now before H. mentioned the woman who cleaned her apartment or her family’s house in Bethesda. I could apologize as much as I wanted, but I couldn’t unsay what I’d said.

That winter was long and wet. In mid-April, when spring seemed to be arriving, a nor’easter covered the city in another foot of snow. My right boot began to leak: salt had eaten through the sole.

“I have to get out of here,” I announced to H. one evening, as I peeled off my wet sock. I didn’t care where we went. I just couldn’t stand to see the same piles of dirty snow and trash.

She hesitated. “We could go western Mass.” Her mother’s family, she explained, had a summer house in the Berkshires. It was shared between H.’s mother and aunt, but since it was so early in the season, we would have the place to ourselves. “There won’t be much to do, but it would be nice to get away and take some time to work on my translation.”

“And I can finish my grading. It sounds perfect.”

“Do you think so?”

I squeezed her hand. “I’m glad you mentioned it.”

***

The morning after classes ended, we loaded H.’s car and drove west on Route 2. The temperature had dropped into the thirties overnight, and a thick fog blocked out the sun. Only a few feet of road was visible ahead of us. H. drove slowly; I dozed.

After an hour or so, we stopped for breakfast at a diner. As we waited for our food, I asked H. what section of Ovid she was working on.

“I’m almost done with Book 13,” she said. “I just have to finish Acis and Galatea.”

“Who are they?”

“Galatea is a water-nymph—the most beautiful daughter of Nereus, the sea-god. She falls in love with Acis, a mortal shepherd.”

“Lucky guy.”

“Their relationship enrages the cyclops Polyphemus. He’s in love with Galatea too, but she’s rejected him. He delivers a long speech about how much he deserves her, how he can’t believe that she prefers a mortal to him. It’s the height of male entitlement. One day, Polyphemus finds the couple lying together on the hillside. He picks up a rock and kills the shepherd.”

“Poor Acis.”

“And poor Galatea. But she has powers of her own. Acis’s blood flows down the hillside, and Galatea transforms it into a flowing river, as a memorial to their love.

“It’s only about fifty lines of the poem,” H. continued, “but I’ve been spending a lot of time on it. I want to get it right. The story really resonates with me. Of course, it’s an example of the classics’ misogyny, which my translation is trying to clarify. At its core, the story is about a male figure trying to control a woman’s sexuality. But Galatea doesn’t just suffer from misogyny. She also has these amazing, transformative powers, which give her a form of agency, even in the middle of tragedy. She turns the blood of her lover into something beautiful, natural, life-giving. As a woman and a translator, I identify with that. I’m trying to transform these bloody stories into something new, something that overcomes the violence.” She paused. “What’s wrong? You have that look.”

“No, nothing. Coffee’s a little strong.” I added some milk.

In fact, the coffee was fine: the story was what bothered me. H.’s interpretation wasn’t wrong, but it seemed to miss the point. Galatea may have lost her lover, but at least she had her powers. What about Acis? He wasn’t the child of a god. He didn’t have powers. He was just a poor shepherd who wanted to love a deity. Was that so wrong?

I couldn’t ask these questions, knowing that they would lead to the topic we had become so good at avoiding, but they throbbed within me nonetheless.

The waitress brought our breakfasts. H. pressed her egg with the side of her fork, and the yolk oozed out. I tried to eat, but my appetite was gone. My nausea worsened as the car twisted through the mountains. H. noticed how quiet I was and asked if everything was alright. I told her I was carsick and pretended to sleep.

The place we were staying was at the edge of a little village—two intersecting streets with art and jewellery shops, a few restaurants, a white-steepled Congregational church. The windows of the village were dark, the streets empty. H. said that the season didn’t start for another few weeks. “No one wants to come out here when it’s this cold.”

The house was unheated, so we ransacked the closets and piled the bed with blankets and quilts. Even so, H. and I had to spoon for warmth that night. She fell asleep quickly. I lay awake for hour, grinding out the same unspeakable thoughts.

Poor Acis!

***

The next morning, H. worked on her translation in the bed. I tried to grade papers at the kitchen table, but I couldn’t concentrate. Every clack of her keyboard reminded me of the story she was translating.

I decided to take a walk. H. warned me that the village was two miles away, but this only made me more determined to go. I plodded along the muddy shoulder of the road, both sweaty and cold at once. When I reached the village, a freezing rain started to fall. The stores and restaurants were closed, but the church wasn’t. I let myself in, sat in the back pew, and stared up at the white walls and ceilings.

I was struck, suddenly, by the absurdity of my situation. Here I was, alone in a strange village, wet, muddy, and aggrieved. And why? A story about a shepherd and a nymph. Was I really so insecure that I couldn’t handle a myth? H. and I were two reasonable adults. We cared for each other. We could talk and work things out. I wished she were here now: I was ready to tell her everything, to laugh at it together.

The rain was still falling, but that didn’t matter now. I walked quickly back to the house, kicked off my dirty shoes, and found H. in a nest of blankets on the bed, working. She didn’t notice me come in.

“Can I talk to you?”

“Ten minutes,” she said. “I’m in the middle of something.” She looked up from the laptop. “Are you alright?”

“Really good, actually!”

As I waited, I made us tea and grilled cheese sandwiches. H. emerged wrapped in a blanket, and I told her about my last twenty-four hours. I thought it would be funny, but as I spoke, I realized I didn’t quite know what the joke was: I identified with the poor shepherd all over again. Soon, questions I had suppressed in the diner resurfaced. “You talk about Galatea’s powers,” I said, “but what about Acis? Where’s his agency?”

“You’ll have to console yourself with the fact that literally every other story ever told is an example of male agency.”

“I’m not talking about men and women. I’m talking about—shepherds.”

H. grimaced. “I’m sorry. I understand what you’re saying. You’re not wrong.”

“Neither are you.”

We looked at each other for several very long seconds. Our agreement was worse, somehow, than any fight. An unspoken but hung in the air: I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t care. I know who this story is really about.

In a novel or a movie, this would have been the epiphany—the moment at which we learned to appreciate the other’s perspective, to change and to grow. In fact, we sat there silent for half a minute. We understood each other, but our understanding changed nothing. We had reached something that could not change—the hard kernels of our selves. She was a goddess. I was a mortal.

That afternoon, H. took a shower. When I heard her shut the curtain, I crept into the bedroom, opened her laptop, and read her version of the story of Acis and Galatea. I was searching for a word or phrase that showed my influence—a sign that I had been transformed by her powers.

Acis and Galatea was originally published in Lunate

Ryan Napier

Ryan Napier is the author of Four Stories about the Human Face (Bull City Press). He lives in Massachusetts. More at ryannapier.net and @ryanlnapier on Twitter.

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