Like a Roman
A car alarm goes off while I’m at the park with my kids. I’m sitting on a low ledge that borders the playground, looking over in the alarm’s vicinity, occasionally. The sound is coming from a cluster of cars that I cannot clearly see from the vantage point of my ledge. Nobody seems to be attending the alarm, and nobody else at the park seems to notice it.
Somehow, and – truthfully – I cannot explain how or why, I begin to think about the possibility of this same exact situation unfolding on a planet in a different galaxy, perhaps even at the very same moment in time. To the individual on that other planet, I am the miracle living species in a faraway galaxy. My mind begins to get away from me; it’s reeling through the vastness of the universe, and I can’t stop it. I am on this rock in a little neighborhood of planets in a galaxy that contains billions of other planets that we know nothing about. This galaxy, holding billions of stars and planets, is just one out of billions of galaxies in the universe – a universe that makes the speed of light look pedestrian at best, light years like inches, whole epochs of human history like single sentences in giant books that make up volumes of giant books, which make up enormous libraries of volumes upon volumes of giant books. I try to arrest my thought process before it becomes lost in this sea of infinity but to no avail. What business does a translator of poetry have in the physics of the universe anyway? Perhaps, someday when the wormhole is discovered, linguists will be in high demand to begin taking apart the language of the species that lives on that other planet, in that other galaxy, a species that will, no doubt, be strikingly similar to the one that lives upon this planet.
I look at the kids as they go back and forth, up and down on swings and think about how they have no idea. Nobody does, not even me. Even my musings are childlike in comparison to what those realities must mean. Perhaps they mean nothing at all.
Thusly, I try to reason, maybe it doesn’t matter that I am like a Roman.
I envy the Romans suddenly for the fact that they didn’t have to fathom the enormity of the universe in the way that I am now. Or, I wonder, did they? I also suddenly envy believers in God. Not, of course, because I think they have a corner on some sort of truth. Oh, no. I envy them for just the opposite. Their faith short circuits the thing that is happening to me right now and makes it so that it cannot happen to them. Their notion of God acts as a set of padded walls within which they are safe from such identity rattling thought voyages. As soon as their minds start to wander, a natural human proclivity, boom, God! This must explain the incessant belief in deities amongst the human species, I suppose. The belief is a safeguard against insanity, an evolutionary adaptation to address the absolute inefficiency of the human brain to comprehend the mystery of the space-time continuum. I am religious, adhering to many of the rituals and practices of my ancestors; I just don’t believe in God, at least not in the way of the adamantly faithful. Perhaps, I ought to try to pass a belief in God on to my own children to give them some padding when their minds start to wander in that direction, as they inevitably will. Yet, there will likely be enough to distract the human brain for all of its waking moments once they are old enough for such wanderings. That, then, will be the God that cushions them.
It had occurred to me that I was, perhaps, like a Roman earlier in the day as I sat in my bathroom, which is a large room, the size of a bedroom, with a jacuzzi tub and steamer jets in the shower.
Because of my work, I am able to spend large swaths of time at home. I translate books of English poetry into Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian and books of Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian poetry into English. Most days, I spend an hour or two in the aforementioned, modern Roman bathhouse with the steam on and the jacuzzi full of hot water, bubble jets roaring. I sweat prolifically, but I always bring a large vessel of ice-cold water with me into the steamy chamber. When the steam plumes and heat become too much to bear, I drink voluptuously from the vessel, letting the excess pour down my chin and onto my chest. The icy water sends chills through my body and instantly cools my entire being. When, on occasion, I need to leave my steam room, I wrap a towel about my waist and do so. When, on occasion, I want to see attractive females to feed the inextinguishable ember of lusty coal that ever burns within my impassioned loins, I bring them up on a screen and look at them. There is a sort of freedom and liberality to the whole experience.
I did some delicious beard curling, and thought, with a certain level of fear and alarm about the fact that I am likely remarkably similar to many men who inhabited the earth thousands of years ago.
Would I, for instance, have gone to the Colosseum to watch the games, as it were? Would I have cheered and jeered and celebrated pain and agony and the human body being pushed to its extremes in all sorts of fantastical ways? The answer, I knew immediately, was an unqualified yes.
Would I have taken a lover, had I the power and means to do so, of a younger woman? The answer again an unqualified yes. I do not condone these things, per se; I only admit to my nature – how, were I alive during such a time, I quite likely would have capitulated to the norms.
Would I have simultaneously celebrated art and scientific discovery with authentic joy? Even prided myself on being cultured and high-minded? The answer – an unqualified yes. The educated Horatio likened the troubled times of Hamlet to “the most high and palmy state of Rome.” Why should I be forbidden from such comparisons?
My kids approach with impressive speed and vigor. “Daddy, can you help us go on the monkey bars?”
My mind is spiraling back through the Milky Way, then into our solar system, finally back to earth, through history, and ultimately back to this little park where a car alarm is still sounding nearby – one that continues to be addressed by nobody.
I look at them, these beings into whom I have poured every ounce of my life for the past seven years and shake my head quickly as if to snap myself back into the here and now – though, perhaps, I was closer to it just moments ago.
“Yeah, yeah, let’s go. To the monkey bars!”
I help each of my three children, one at a time, to get his or her hands placed on the first bar, and then I spot them as they traverse the “pit of lava” below, acting out the age-old struggle of our species. Before long, their arms turn to mush, and we decide we have all had enough. July can be a cruel month to linger in the outdoors in our parts.
On our way home, I see our neighbor, Titus, who to my knowledge has been on or very near his porch for all of eternity. If he is not out there, he quickly appears. He’s from Texas. Maybe this sitting out on the porch and watching the neighborhood thing is a holdover from his time in the south. Amongst other annoyances, he loves to tell me about the deals he finds on large cuts of meat. He will say, for example, “Hey, Henry, ya’ll should come by later. I got a pork butt for ninety-nine cents a pound. We’re gonna smoke it in the backyard.” Once I went, and it was insanely good – which irritated me.
“Hey Henry, ya’ll want to go out to dinner?” he calls when we are still at a distance where it is not reasonable to speak to us yet.
Instant vexation shrills my emotional nervous system. My countenance falls, but I have no choice but to press on.
“Well, I can check with Maria,” I finally summon.
I might actually ask her. Often, I will say something like that just to appease him but then never follow through, but today is different. I feel that I am somehow in need of my fellow man today. That is, after all, what the charade is about, is it not? Eat, drink, be merry. Carouse with one’s fellow man. And woman. And then, of course, tomorrow – die.
“We have a reservation for four at Quantum tonight and the other couple canceled. Ya’ll should join us,” he says, with a voice downgraded in volume only slightly.
“You mean like, the Quantum? The one nobody can ever get into?”
“Yep. Ya’ll should join us. Little costly but supposed to be worth it. We already have a sitter. If you want, she can watch all the kids, and they can sleep over since it’ll be late when we get back. Ya’ll can just toss us a few bucks. Just bring em’ on over.” He is leaning over his porch railing with the concentrated grin of an angler who feels the first nibble upon his worm.
I have been wanting to go to Quantum for some time, and Titus is quickly extinguishing any excuses that have flared up in my mind since the moment he looked at me. I also desperately want to get my mind off of the whole Roman business. I mean, who cares if I’m like a Roman or not? The whole thing seems rather silly now, in fact. To be plagued by such a question! I try not to think overmuch about the poetry I read all day. I mean, I am somewhere in between on the spectrum of scrupulously literal translations and capturing the spirit of the verse in my efforts, but I try not to carry my work around with me. Sometimes, however, I think this has the unintended effect of making me rather fanciful, at least, if nothing else, on a subconscious level.
“Well, I’ll head in and let you know shortly.”
Maria is finalizing some work from the week. Annotated papers are strewn around her laptop on the kitchen table. She has the problem of working beyond work hours. Everyone at her law firm seems to have this problem. She appears in no mood to “suffer this rude knave now to knock [her] about the sconce with a dirty shovel.”
“Jus commune!” I announce arrogantly as I walk in. She makes no reply.
“Hey, Titus from next door, wants to know if we want to go to Quantum tonight with him and Julia. They have a reservation, somehow, and the couple with whom they were supposed to go, canceled, apparently.”
“Like, the Quantum? The one nobody can ever get into?”
“Yes, the Quantum! He said we can throw in some money for their babysitter and have the kids go over there.”
“Okay, let’s do it,” Maria says with little thought.
“Are you sure?” I ask, now thinking maybe I should wiggle my way out of this.
“Henry, you haven’t been out for months. It will do you some good.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
We have an hour, so I get in the shower and turn on the steam. After I shower, I sit on the smooth tiled bench for a spell and disconnect in the warm cloud of foggy vapors. Maria keeps the house in the sixties during the summer months, so the warm steam feels resplendent. There are times when I cannot see more than a foot in front of my face through the cloud of steam, which curdles around my face like the thickening of storm clouds. “Le Poete est semblable au prince des nuees/ Qui hante la tempete et se rit de l’archer;” I am the prince of the clouds. I imagine myself a senator who has an important meeting with the Emperor in a little under an hour at the Curia. Will I take a short boat ride or walk there? Decisions, decisions. I better dry off and get myself together.
Quantum is one of the few culinary powerhouses in the known universe that has a BYOB policy, so I run down to our cellar and carefully select a couple of dusty bottles before we walk over to the neighbor’s front porch to wait for our ride.
The nice thing about people like Titus and Julia is that even though we have never reciprocated their attempts at friendship, there is no awkwardness. Julia has made up some mint juleps for us while we wait for our ride on their creaky porch – with “fresh mint from the garden.” Blah. God damn it, it’s good; “the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits.” As I stand on their porch, I suddenly feel as though I’m in Texas, and I like the feeling; there’s something old-fashioned about it. I imagine myself smugly fart spitting tobacco into the yard while some naïve passerby calls “hello” up to me and I stare disdainfully and then continue to smack on the moist, pungent, trustworthy leaves and twirl a mint sprig in my glass.
I pull up the prix fixe menu for Quantum in the car on the way over.
“This is so amazing. It looks like there will be like ten courses,” I say as the car hums along, but nobody is listening.
We arrive at a nondescript restaurant front, which I only notice because I know its exact address. We walk into a small dining area with maybe ten square, candlelit tables, and the kitchen is clearly visible through a large cutout section in the wall that divides the dining area from it. The place has an interesting and unexpected vibe given its acclaim. On top of the other details that I didn’t imagine beforehand, a fairly heavy rock song is playing loudly through the house speakers, the one item of apparent high-end quality in the front of the house. Our group’s response to this vibe is to get wine bottles opened as quickly as possible. In addition to the two we brought, Titus and Julia brought a pair. We get two bottles open and toast our glasses for the impromptu moment that brought us together here, at Quantum. Before my first sip of wine, I feel painfully out of place; after it, I sink into this new environ and osmose with it. My companions appear to have done the same.
It might be the dimly lit atmosphere, but it seems that we are waited upon by a bevy of extremely attractive young people, strapping young men and young women attired just so their natural curves are perfectly accentuated. The men wear a sort of tunic and the women longer gowns.
After only having been seated for a few minutes, a small plate of oysters arrives. I slurp one from its shell and then swirl a glowing and aromatic red pinot before taking a tight nip from the glass. The mixture is divine.
Charcuterie materializes in front of me on a dark-grained wooden pallet. I have always taken deep pleasure in charcuterie, and this proves to be no exception. There is a bread that tastes warm and savory with a hint of saltiness, sliced hams and prosciutto, both hard and soft cheeses that taste of butter and salt, and cherry, apricot, and fig spreads that send shocks of life through my taste buds, awakening them to flavors that were heretofore unknown, and this perplexes me. There are little tins of walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, and olives and a variety of little crackers. I make eye contact with a woman sitting close to me at the table next to ours. Cherry spread coats her top teeth; she slowly and luxuriously slides her tongue across them to clear them of the blood-red mixture. They are just finishing the charcuterie course.
I indulge in the oily, salty, sweet array with a kind of bliss that is heightened by a second glass from that open bottle of zippy and evocative pinot. Black truffle over foie gras arrives, and I forget my name for a while, basking in the multisensory induced high that is now settling around and gently massaging my brain. My pleasure sensors are finely tuned to respond positively to salt and grease. I have not trained them, of course; this is the product of hundreds of thousands of years of human history at work. Quantum has figured out how to play with that notion and tease out over several hours what fast food restaurants do for us for ten minutes. The consumption of food, merely, would not be worth hundreds of dollars, but this is a journey through ourselves and through time, and it is worth every penny.
The table next to ours seems to be undergoing a similar transformation, and at some point, completely naturally, they begin talking to and toasting us. Their table consists of two males and two females, couples it appears, just as does ours. Before long, our tables sort of merge and there is not a clear boundary, as though we are a group of eight. They have a bottle of scotch, and, again, I cannot remember how but it begins moving around the now larger group of eight, everyone sipping directly from the bottle and then passing it along. Our conversation grows louder and louder as the music grows louder and louder. It is now 90’s hip hop, beautifully commensurate in its decadence.
Titus looks across the table at me. He smiles and jolts his head up in the air, which suggests a clandestine understanding. We are unable to speak to each other from across the table anyhow due to the decibel levels.
Perfectly seared sea bass, rare Wagyu beef, quail egg, tuna caviar with crème fraiche, ginger, beets, lemongrass, citrus, sauces made with ingredients I have never heard of but that taste of what I have always desired. I’m not sure at this point what has me more intoxicated, the food or the alcohol – or the lust I’m feeling for the aforementioned female who has now become part of our table, my brain gently and pleasantly cozened every time my eyes take her in, which I can no longer prevent from happening every few seconds.
“Earlier today, I was thinking about how I’m not so different than a Roman!” I shout to my new female friend who is sitting devilishly close to me, our bodies touching purposefully. We have to speak so loudly that it is completely natural to almost bury our faces in each other’s necks and ears to communicate. I am spurred on by my wife’s similar behavior with the woman’s partner; I am uncertain how they wound up next to each other. This is not necessarily normal behavior for us, by which I mean that nothing like it has ever happened. But, why not haunt the tempest like the albatross? Riders on the storm! I am also uncertain as to which dish belongs to us and which to them, but it clearly no longer matters. I feed my new friend a bite with my fingers and now feel like there is no boundary that I cannot cross. I make a quick survey of the restaurant and realize that nobody has come in or gone out in hours and the thirty or so other patrons in the restaurant all appear to be in the exact same mental state as everyone at our table.
Most of the wait staff and chefs are out amongst us also. They are sipping from bottles, indulging in some of the cuisine, and one of the female chefs is sitting on the lap of a female patron at one of the tables, and they seem to be seriously enjoying each other’s company.
I reach down and start rubbing my hand up my friend’s thigh, closer and closer to her explosive, hot center that is pulsating and pulling all of the surrounding energy in with ever-increasing levels of heat and intensity until there is nearly a singularity of pleasure.
“Why did you think that?” She laughs, breathing in heavy bursts, closing her eyes in quick successions.
“I don’t know. It was just a weird thought,” I yell, purposely expelling more air than necessary into her ear.
A server approaches with shot glasses of something that appears to be dessert-like. My friend places her hand atop mine and moves it the final inch to its ultimate destination. The music is so loud that the server nonverbally offers to pour the shot glasses of dessert into our mouths to which we both consent. A decadent rush of chocolate and cream that is both hot and cold explodes in my mouth and through my nasal cavity. My hand is simultaneously feeling an explosion under the table as my friend ingests the contents of her shot glass. She is trying to control the rest of her body in order to conceal the spasms I can feel occurring with my hand. After a few seconds, we look at each other and shake our heads and open our eyes wide in disbelief. Wine takes on newfound flavors after the revelations I just experienced in my mouth and under the table. A second dessert arrives, more delectable than the first, and now there is more staff out in the front of the restaurant than there is in the kitchen, and things continue to get wilder. Food continues to arrive that I’m fairly certain was not on the menu I studied during the car ride. It is all incredible, otherworldly one might say.
“Hurrian Hymn Number Six,” my friend says.
“Never mind. Nobody’s listening.”
It’s only then that I notice the type of music playing has dramatically changed to a mystical stringed arrangement.
The vibe is finally winding down. Finally, after a four-hour journey, we are hugging strangers who feel like best friends and fighting through the fog we are under to figure out how to get a ride service to the restaurant, so we can get home. We stumble onto the sidewalk with a large group of people, accompanied by some of the staff.
In the car, I look up into the sky and see dim stars. My mind searches for the figures that I was tabulating earlier in the day. Hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way. Average of one planet orbiting each one. One hundred million – no billion – galaxies. My mind is spinning at these numbers. One billion trillion stars. As many as grains of sand on earth.
“Henry, we’re home,” my wife calls. I look at her as though I’m seeing her, any human, for the first time. I see a building that looks vaguely familiar, and I feel myself being sucked at warp speed, light speed, down back to this place and time.
“Let’s go in, yeah, sorry,” I say, finally.
“Hope ya’ll had a good time. Pretty wild over there!” Titus says, laughing.
“Craziest dining experience I’ve ever had,” Maria says, also laughing. I stare, as if completely lost. “We’ll get the kids in the morning,” Maria concludes as we stumble to our front door.
“Take care, guys!” I manage to slur forth, eventually.
Once inside, Maria and I start into each other the minute the door closes. Clothes are being shed in record speed and our two bodies have a current flowing through them that I haven’t felt in a long time. Like a Roman. Touched for the very first time. We end up on the living room couch, and euphoria envelops us.
Afterwards, I tell her that I want to just sleep right where I am, and she laughs and goes off to our bedroom. I feel a blanket get tossed over me, and she tucks a pillow under my head some interval of time later.
“I am more an antique Roman than a Dane,” I say.
“What?” she implores.
“Horatio. Hamlet. You know. But, me!”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” she says.
I look up at her. “I’m not like a Roman,” I say, chuckling.
“What?” she replies.
“I am a fucking Roman,” I say heavily but clearly.
“Okay, Henry. Good night. Get to sleep.”
Once the room is completely quiet, I stare into the dark and wonder how all of this happened – all of it – with a kind of petulant helplessness but also with a deep satisfaction at having come to terms.
Brian Will is an English teaching, fiction writing, golfing, fishing, parenting, motorized parent of two. He loves the writing process and being part of artistic endeavors when time permits.