Porcia Catonis—philosopher and notably known, as historical texts customarily stated unenthusiastically, as a political pawn of men during the Roman era—reportedly committed suicide by swallowing hot coals once she learned of her husband’s death. Historians—mostly men, of course—found that implausible probably believing women could never do something as abhorrent and painful, so unmaternal-like, insisting instead that she asphyxiated herself by carbon monoxide poisoning, alas, still, because she couldn’t live without her husband.
Porcia was the second wife of Marcus Brutus, otherwise known as the leader of Julius Caesar’s assassination and Et tu, Brute? fame. Allegedly, Porcia demanded Brutus entrust her with his secrets. When he denied, fearing her too weak if tortured, she carved a slice out of her thigh and spent the day in pain to prove him wrong. Her husband then acquiesced promising to spill his secrets, though whether he did, historians never determined.
Throughout the many historical interpretations—written mostly by men, of course—Brutus repeatedly referred to Porcia’s weakness. Penned as a tragic love story whereby Porcia supposedly took her own life in a macabre suicidal grieving widow death trope that patriarchal societies have long mythologized, historians later concluded that Porcia died of illness long after contradicting the romanticized tragedy of an influential man’s wife who pined away for him until she no longer could.
Women held little political power in ancient Rome with the exception of those from wealthy and powerful families that exerted influence covertly typically through domestic and private interactions. Lucretia liked to think that Porcia and the other women created the catalyst with whisper and ruse—anything to bring down the newly appointed dictator perpetuo because frankly no one person, especially a man, should ever have absolute power.
Elementally evergreen from the queens of mean: ‘We should totally just stab Caesar.’
Nevertheless, Caesar was martyred and mythologized into historical texts while Brutus— regarded a Judas—apparently died by suicide after a failed battle eventually making way for another dictator perpetuo otherwise known as the first Emperor of the Roman Empire—Augustus.
Men in power are still men in power, reader.
Meanwhile, women—the original anarchists—constructed themselves in the cracks to form the mortar; mortar bends and breaks; sometimes it heals; oftentimes it doesn’t. Traumas remained. Generational traumas endured and became embedded in the DNA transmitted across generations biologically.
Lucretia understood trauma when she looked into the eyes of an impending one. She swallowed that trauma and fear—sorta like those hot coals—and persisted. She presented herself unflappable; only Layne knew otherwise, and vice versa—unfortunately, as women they must as the wolves regularly circled and Lucretia didn’t just mean the men. Vulnerability skirted the edge of everything. She understood this. Vulnerability transformed perspectives—perspectives that opened oneself up to unknowns, which led to fear, but also, enlightenment—empathy; a spark of relatability that attached, planted, and grew—like a virus.
Viruses can be good or bad. In all things, reader, context rules.
Empathy in excessive quantities negates the self. It becomes egotistical—a cerate of self-worship. Was it reasonable to experience empathy for someone and not agree with them? To hold them accountable? Aware of this fact as both her and Layne grew within communities that consistently challenged humanistic principles they eventually sought to fortify, they understood that possessing empathy for someone did not necessarily determine or equate agreement of their actions.
None of these were mutually exclusive emotions.
They continued to remind themselves of this as they interacted currently within this gang of thugs.
While Layne busied herself with Brody, Lucretia fortified the rapport with the elder Blake who recognized a like-minded soul.
The conversation continued briefly on the kinks of business and capitalism—a dull read this narrator will avert, dear reader, if only not to bore you senseless, but spiral you into a fiery hell of fury with which those insights glean. Insights, they, however, were quick to liberate themselves because it frankly irked them. When this attitude presented itself so unabashedly between them, they discovered yet another tag at which to relate.
Greed, driven by a diseased capitalism, they both hinted, corroded the individual mind and heart, ultimately weakening the physical health of the body, to say nothing of what it was doing to society and the collective. With the continued corruption and deterioration of this disease, unregulated business exposed the weaknesses of civilization, exploiting the vulnerable, leaving behind the values of humanism, corroding all.
These were philosophical observations that remained implied coded perceptions between the two. To fully assert such conclusions aloud publicly and currently could be perilous and result in the uncomfortable and unskillfully awkward attentions of the prevailing harbingers of misery, and neither Lucretia nor Broderick desired such scrutiny presently—or ever. Both quietly acknowledged this again respectfully between them as the crowd churned around them.
The veil of hypocrisy seemed distant if not completely unapparent.
“You remind me of my late wife.”
“You remind me of an old rich white man,” Lucretia asserted.
Broderick’s laughter bellowed across the room again triggering another astonished amount of awe while Lucretia looked on amused. All thought him cold and stoic uniformly asserting dominance and merit because of wisdom and wealth. That acceptable guise established his persona by virtue of yet another diseased mentality—the conflating of wealth, wisdom, and merit once again wielded its corruptible influence.
“Your wit is refreshing.”
“And your mediocrity is as novel as your entitlement. I daresay these people seem astonished that you can even emote.”
“Parts we all have to play. After a while, the typecast becomes a suit you cannot remove, especially with no one around to intimate otherwise.”
“You employ all sycophants?”
“No, but they seem to evolve into that part eventually no matter how many times I urge otherwise. Expressly in this environment.”
“This environment is not conducive to creativity. Or much of anything just.” Her eyes connected with his over the rim of her glass. “Especially not agency and autonomy.”
“Awww, yes, the nostalgia of a faux independence, and choices. Sort of like that exceptionalism theme.”
Lucretia frowned in suspicion: “You are far too white, old, and rich to be this woke. Is this another role you’re playing for my benefit?”
Broderick sighed. “Sadly, no. That one is genuine. And tired.”
“Oh, you’re tired?” Lucretia murmured.
He dipped his head apologetically. “As you say, I’m old, rich, white, and tired. Mediocrity and entitlement are fundamentally driven into us from birth. It’s an ugly destructive habit.”
“One of your ilk confided in me that white privilege was like cocaine. He was scandalously dramatic, whispering and giggling his way through that conversation as if the partaking of cocaine was far more destructive and insidious than his acceptance and embrace of those other ugly habits and ideologies.”
“Well, he’s here.” She sipped her water while side-eyeing one overly inebriated and obnoxious male guest in particular who stood blustering enthusiastically amongst a small group.
Broderick noticed and nodded. “There’s mediocrity and there’s pathetic.”
“Or deplorable even,” Lucretia smiled.
Broderick bowed to her: “Bravo. Bravo.”
Lucretia curtsied. “I found his comparison apt from someone like him after some thought.”
“Cocaine is stereotyped as a privileged drug. Most relate it to Wall Street, excess, and rich people—hence, white people. Heroine—like crack—is more desperation, disapproval, irresponsibility, and poverty. Thanks to Hollywood propaganda, a puritanical ignorance, and also, yes, racism.” She whispered the last discretely then shrugged. “What would I know though. I barely drink alcohol.”
“I’ve never really given thought to it.”
“Of course you haven’t. You don’t see the destruction at your feet when your head is in the clouds. You wouldn’t need to now, would you? Especially if you were the originator? You in general, that is,” she flourished a hand indicating all this.
“I suppose not.”
“The rich have insulated themselves.”
“Only the rich?”
“No, unfortunately this complacency has seeped into the general public. Most notably those in comfortable circumstances. So this is when we start to define comfortable circumstances—”
The conversation ceased when the elder Broderick was summoned to the Emperor’s side. Broderick looked back at her as he walked away: “I do hope he’s wearing clothes.”
“And not tweeting?”
Broderick chuckled nodding in the affirmative. “I genuinely enjoyed this conversation. It was refreshing and the most authentic chat I’ve had in a while. Other than with my son. Thank you. I hope we can continue it in the future.” He nodded to her in respect, turned, and left.
Lucretia, aware she was being dissected as she moved across the room, felt one set of blue eyes sweep over her like a breeze cool and dry on a hot humid beach. This stoked the fires of her impudence. She stifled the shiver, straightened her spine and shaped her reality as best she could in the circumstances assigned to her. Given the aspersions thrown at her character universally, a distinct brand of pragmatism commanded vigilance over everything; too much caution, however, incited suspicion—the line betwixt fraught. True allies represented hope; little of both remained. Ethical boundaries fixed and adaptable depended on the circumstance when the circumstance itself was inherently diseased.
Was that a rationalization to be a bad girl? Did Lucretia want to be unethical and perform amoral absolutes like those attending this soiree? Asserting power and entitlement without thought and consequence?
Yes, she did, particularly with these people. They felt no need to hold back. Why should she?
Lucretia never felt comfortable parading such shamelessness. The urge to be shameless conflicted and challenged her and came with a paradox of emotions—fear being the most prevalent. A specific form of shamelessness exploited in an attempt to fight for agency—an unapologetic nod to freedom; to be independent and assert your identity and rights in the most audacious ways regardless of the criticisms.
Not for everyone—never for everyone.
This shamelessness censured—inherent to certain identities and most ubiquitous in the younger generations—was available only to certain individuals and groups and even then an element of fear remained. Ultimately, shouldn’t there be some level of fear? No one person should walk around completely shameless, right? Yet, many did; the most notable ones in this very room. She wasn’t one of them and never had been, especially at the cost of others more vulnerable.
This was what she told herself.
As Lucretia walked towards Jason, the people around them melted into a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Bastardized and filled with the depraved rot of the era they lived, a Bosch painting could depict the incongruities here on canvas to perfection. She often found herself wondering how the great artists would illustrate such irony and profligacy so much so she began looking for their contemporary twenty-first-century equivalents—political cartoonists aside.
Transferring sizable amounts of currency to artists, representing the authenticity of this very thing, empowered and radicalized her. These artists amplified everything illusive and surreal. They rendered a degree of boldness in art that not many could publicly state without obstruction and eventually arrest in some form or another. There was some debate about the interpretation of such pieces. Were they propaganda of the worse kind? A Rorschach test in an examination of one’s character and emotions? Their morals?
Couldn’t it be all and then some?
Is it a duck or rabbit? Or both?
Caught amid the horrors of deference and disobedience, heretics tiptoed and ghosted their way into plain sight, morphing into the irony of subsisting amongst these Earthly Delights while engaging in seditions that would likely get them ostracized if not disappeared discretely. Above all, she fashioned herself a heretic—better yet, an anarchist as Layne invoked then asked Aren’t all women anarchists? Black women most of all? That statement and question—profound and earnest in nature at its very core—revolutionized her life.
Thankful for Layne’s brand of philosophical awareness that she meandered into casually, oftentimes innocently, and vaguely mindful of the connections she tried to work her way through, fighting to uncover them antithetically, Lucretia related to her for not only that but so much more. Sometimes Layne managed to provide criticism specifically for Lucretia if asked. Mostly though this characteristic was part and parcel to Layne and a distinct brand of fascination she brought to the world around her so much so that Lucretia hired Layne on the spot then challenged herself to render the world similarly.
Many times failing.
Lucretia linked eyes with Jason and the world changed yet again. Anticipation yielded to euphoria. Both made her heady with pleasure and rich with confidence. She found herself drifting into another Earthly Delights painting where they both writhed and curled nakedly at the center. This one categorically heated and mildly pornographic in assemblage with a surrealistic orgy aesthetic and interpretation Bosh would find inspirational—perhaps? She certainly did. Enough to cause a flush and practically prostrate her if she didn’t compose herself.
There Jason stood in all his impressiveness—his stature, build, suit and beard trimmed to flatter and preserve; his hair, a tad longer than most in his profession, fell cleanly into perfection—so soft, her fingers strained to touch; his eyes, a catharsis of blue and true in every way, probed her sharply. The line of sight unbroken between as she strolled casually up to him. The silence thundered like a squall. All sound lost in the onslaught. Decades flew by in passing. The scenery shifted. The twinkling of lights transformed into giant floating stars on a black backdrop ethereal and weighty with the hint of precipice and the scope of something other—mysterious and bold; scary even. The air snapped between them like kindling hot and searing. She stoked it. Pulling to stand unusually close beside him as they both looked over the venue, her hand drifted towards his with a brush of heat. Her pulse quickened. She swallowed emotions and continued to explore boundaries.
The alcove Jason chose to perch obscured eyes, so fading into the background transpired easily enough. No one acknowledged them. They stood alone. She felt the subtle catch in his breath like a small wave that increased in size with each brush of skin—a tsunami of desire building. Seconds slid into minutes. When he finally looked at her, Lucretia lost herself in a world far too ineffable for her to summarize succinctly. She looked away and backed off. Careening far too long on that ledge, she felt dizzy and faint, hot and cold. Cursing her lack of courage in this area, rarely one to pursue, Lucretia felt shy and vulnerable, panicky indeed—the antithesis of everything she was and meant herself to be.
Lost in self-flagellation of her romantic failings, she neglected to notice Jason move. Pressed into a dark corner where lips, hands, and heat exploded into everything sublime, Jason devoured her like a dessert lush and whole. This the only thing she thought of as their mouths tasted both sweet and salty, like the ocean and a caramel apple mixed and merged abruptly in a combustion of chemistry—an experiment gone magnificently awry. His scent, gendered and neatly arranged, transformed into a flowery hot-house, humid and sultry, at its center while cool around the edges, like minty pine trees dripping in hot honey. To put it bluntly, he was order and she was chaos—a big bang of everything complete and imperfect; of the extreme and the peaceful.
She returned such zeal with an incomparable amount of her own much to her surprise.
Deprived from air for far too long, they withdrew slightly. Lips parted, breathing shallow, foreheads together, they stood combined in a collective awe of what just transpired. Both unmovable, rooted in a stunned silence until Jason pulled away. Standing straight and apologetic, an underlying frustration made him remarkably stern yet yielding. His face showed an amalgamation of emotions—each fleeting and none she could translate. Both stood transfixed and dazed.
“I…I’m sorry. I’ll get you some water.” With that, he walked towards the nearest waiter on the opposite side of the room.
Lucretia heard a faint familiar giggle emerging from the shadowy hallway. A barely lit grinning silhouette formed in the darkness leaning casually against the wall.
Layne slow-clapped into a crescendo of applause ending with a robust: “That was hot.”
© 2020 Alex Shea/Pamela Gay Mullins