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  • Robert L. Giron

Issue 110 — Kailee Pedersen

Kailee Pedersen

Winner of the 2018 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Award

Achilles and Patroclus in New York City, 1983

for Jonathan

Sing, muse, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles—

No, that’s not quite right. I’m not a Greek hero, like those

white-marble nudes I pasted on my college dorm walls

in the seventies, when I was full of good books

and poor taste. I read Ginsberg, perched haphazard

on the library steps at Columbia, told myself I’d

stop cruising on Christopher Street, stop

the wide-eyed morning flush of spare bedrooms

and tangled hair, russet mouths opening and closing

just as I had locked myself in my room, danced

to Bowie and the Rat Pack, studying Greek and Latin

measuring time in bottles of cheap champagne

but I digress—in languages that haven’t been spoken

in thousands of years, even—I’m sure you want a love

story. That’s what you came here for, right? A love

story, like the ancients used to play on their lyres

eating grapes in Rome, cutting their hands off

and nailing them to oratory podiums. Well

I don’t know any love stories, but I know

that years ago I met a very young man for whom

I would cut off my hands, my tongue, commit treason

sail to Ilium and back again, twice over. You wanted Achilles

and Patroclus. Here’s what you get: two homosexuals

in a crowded bar, the beginning of a bad joke

slaughtering each other not with razorblades

but with our teeth, hands, and the first night

I swallowed lightning, the exact shade of his

blonde, blonde hair and his thighs cut

by the verses I mumbled against them,

hot and sweet. Where did we begin

and end in our tangled sorrows? We

could have lived the nearest a young man gets

to forever, but I am old now. I know

better. Time has made me colder

than stained glass, winter in New York

raining freezing damnation I remember

we held hands at Christmas. I bought

a snow globe. We smoked cigarettes on the roof

and his mouth was wet ash. In 1980

I put my life into a few cardboard boxes

and drove to the Upper East Side, and unpacked

in his living room—my Patroclus had

a snaggletooth upright, and serenaded me with jazz.

The best days: morning omelettes slightly burned

on one side, newspapers with the perennial coffee stains—

I stacked my books in a corner until the floor

warped, and he hammered together a bookshelf

for my philosophers and my dreamers, Menander to Mann.

Here’s something they don’t teach you in high school

Latin: the gods are petty, worse than the opera queens

at 66th Street, worse than my mother’s frown

when he showed up for dinner with a casserole

and a velvet blazer. Aubergine. Our fights of 1982

were legendary, tempests in Central Park even

on the driest days of the month, with a busted AC

and ice-cold lemonade that evaporated in our hands

he had the flu that summer. The gods would punish

mortals with plagues, eons ago, so maybe that was my punishment

for not defrosting the salmon, for buying the wrong cheese,

for not saying “love” enough, in the way he wanted it

and not in the way I did, a lacuna, a thoughtless silence.

He volunteered at a shelter and made soup. He wanted to fight

when I first mentioned the New York Times article,

“gay cancer”, murders, beatings downtown in sultry bathhouses

where I had once tasted sea salt and danger, submerging

myself in the rip tides. He said there was “work” to be done,

but what he meant, I didn’t know. I taught Latin at a private school then,

that was my battlefield, eighteen kids in a small classroom

talking about the permutations of desire in Catullus

and on weekends we’d get calls that turned into elegies,

funeral games, songs for the dead. I never went to

the hospitals, but he did, maybe because he was braver. You

see? They’ll never carve my name into the Parthenon. Rhapsodes

sang about brave men and their limestone lovers, but I

am not worthy of such poetry. He started keeping lists, filling

notebooks with names of the vanquished and their untranslatable

histories, sometimes he went to protests while I graded papers

and said, no, I didn’t want to have a ceremony, no, I hated

the attention, crawling in the strangeness of my own skin.

He was an optimist. I could have been fired, and there he was

making signs, printing flyers. Patroclus puts on Achilles’

armor, the most beautiful armor made by the gods

to fight because Achilles won’t, he refuses

stays in his tent by the hollow ships, with his hollow

words. I played solitaire when he was gone,

rearranged my books on the shelves according to author

and time period and I ironed his shirts and cleaned

just to still my hands for an hour at a time. I only went

to one funeral: an old boyfriend from college. I didn’t tell

anyone. His family didn’t come, so it was just me

and a few of his friends, weeping, but I had forgotten

the way I used to grieve. I threw dirt on his grave and washed my hands

of him, and said I’d forget. But that night I looked

at Patroclus in the darkness and I wondered if the gods

were taunting me, like they always did, spilling our cologne in the sink,

mixing up our shirts in the laundry. His favorite

was the white cotton with yellow stripes, which I had bought

on sale from a cheerful woman who smiled and said, For

your brother? (I didn’t say

anything.) On a blistering Thursday in March he

rolled up his left sleeve, the one with the ink stain

and there it was: a dark wound. I almost wish it had been

Apollo of the silver bow who had cut him down, because I knew

mercy when I saw it. He got the flu again, but he still wore

my immortal armor, my favorite tie. He quit smoking and said we’d

make it through. You wanted a love story. Here, take it:

the disease loved him more than I did, and it tore out

his bones. After November there was no more

dancing. I brought him Chinese food from his favorite cart,

and fed pigeons outside of our apartment with the leftovers

he couldn’t eat. I started going to his meetings, until I didn’t

because I had nothing to say to these people, who died

of “undetermined causes” while I paced outside of doctor’s offices

and wrote “family friend” on patient contact forms. Out of all of the guys

shooting up in their Wall Street offices, or having sex

with their secretaries next to the copy machine,

there I was. Trying to make sense of the gods.

He told me he didn’t want to go like that. Said he had

better things to do than listen to me pacing at night,

spending all of my quarters on phone calls to doctors

and hospitals, and newspapers, and his mother. No one ever

answered. But one day the sky opened and dumped water

on everyone east of Park Avenue, and I knew it was a sign

of the end times. I took the subway home in soaked clothes

and I found him lying on the kitchen tile. Apparently

he had been trying to cook me an omelette. So it was me then:

I killed him, with the knife and the candles and the Italian dinners

and the ambulance and the uncoordinated ballroom dancing

and all the days I spent fixing grammatical mistakes instead of

finding his favorite radio station or stapling his flyers to telephone poles

or touching his blonde, blonde hair. I slept that night

next to the orchestral operating room, and at last I understood

the real dead language: not Greek or Latin, as I had been taught, but

the strange dark harmony of breathing machines

and the arcane glittering of hallway lights. I was allowed

to visit him the next day. I brought an old book of his

from the apartment, and a picture of the pigeons

on the balcony. But he threw the book at the window,

and shouted at me about nothing in particular. Patroclus dies

because the gods take away his shining armor, and so

I remember him naked, yelling. And I, swift-footed Achilles

fled from battle, a coward. I was told later that he had died

that night, with the pigeons and Oscar Wilde. I was not allowed

at the funeral games. I did not send my condolences.

Sing, goddess, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles—

there is no rage left in me. Achilles dies young

and follows his favorite companion to Hades, but I

must keep feeding the pigeons, rearranging my books.

I kept his things, until I burned them. The gods

are cruel, but so are the bickering couples in Times Square,

so is the rain. They never say how lonely it is,

after. I tell myself stories in the dark. So here: it’s not

a love story. But this is the only story I know. Patroclus dies

no matter what I do. Outside the gates of Troy,

or in a hospital room. And when Achilles hears of his death,

he weeps. But I am not Achilles anymore.

You wanted a love story? You got ancient history.

I’m sorry. Let me try again. Once upon a time

there lived two heroes, Achilles and the horseman Patroclus.

They owned between them a broken coffee table, a subscription

to Playgirl, and the Oxford Classical Dictionary.

They had an apartment in Ancient Greece (or perhaps New York City)

and the 1980s made them gods—

Copyright © 2018 by Kailee Pedersen.

About the Author

Kailee Pedersen is a recent graduate of Columbia University in Classics. She was adopted from Nanning in 1996. Her poetry and prose have appeared in New South, Arcturus, Midwest Review, Matador Review, and others. In 2015, she received an Individual Artist Fellowship in Nonfiction from the Nebraska Arts Council. She is currently working on a novel and a poetry collection. This poem is dedicated to her friend Jonathan Baker.

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