NEMESIS – Paulos at Myth Pilot
May 3, 2022
“So, tell me again, about the dream. You’ve continued to experience it?”
“Yes, almost every night.”
The two women sit across from each other in soft gray chairs, a table just to one side where the therapist takes her notes.
“Let’s talk through it again. Do you feel you can?” said the therapist.
“I think so,” said the other woman. She feels herself tired this November afternoon, with heavy thoughts already of the trip home, and a twinge of nausea in the back of the throat.
“It’s OK. Take your time. Try to give as much detail as possible. Just like we practiced last time.” She smiles reassuringly. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“My dream is, that I’m at the Met Gala again, but it ends … differently.”
She frowns slightly, and takes a sip of water. She feels silly, to be so bothered by a dream.
“It’s like I can see it all, like a movie. I’m in the car, I’m nervous about my dress. I’ve done this before of course but you’re always unsure if you’re going to pull it off. I guess anxiety is the right word, both in the dream and in reality. It sits like a weight in my chest.”
“I arrive, there’s a chorus of screams from the fans as I get down from the car. In the back of the crowd there are people being dragged away. They are protesting COVID or BLM or something. There are rows of attendants in beetle-black masks who usher me into the great tent.”
“There are crowds of famous people already, but there’s no chit-chat. I’m rushed to the carpet and glide up the stairs. I hardly notice the flashbulbs. At the top, a journalist, a camera in my face: ‘Are you ready this year? Are you scared?’ I give a smile. ‘Yes, I hope so,’ and I enter the Great Hall. I am wearing an olive dress, a headpiece of flowers, and I have this horrible realization that I’ve missed the theme. Everywhere I turn, the clothes are these silk-poufed masses, sleeves dripping with lace and pearls and everyone looks at me from behind peacock fans with pinched faces.”
“Someone gives me champagne and I go to greet people. Everything has this floaty feeling, like a massive dose of Celexa. Megan Fox and several other women are wearing these tall recurving horns, breasts exposed, Beardsley-esque. It’s very elegant, very decadent, and I feel small and simple in my green dress.”
“I say my hellos, give my cheek kisses, and it’s like I’m watching myself from outside my body. There are so many people to greet. What people don’t realize is that the photos you see, the public sees, are only of the celebrities but every year the bankers, the money people actually outnumber the stars. It’s why Anna holds it of course, to raise money. The gala is for them, not for us.”
“And this year, in the dream I mean, I just feel dead inside talking to everyone, taking pictures and being approached by everyone. I am sick of these people, sick of myself, sick of my clothes.” And, she says, drawing a deep breath, “I feel like I would scream if I had to spend even one more minute there, but also like I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to.”
The woman pauses for a moment, recalling the first time she was invited to the Met Gala. A young model, her career had just reached that giddy point of surging improbability that marks the transition between mundanity and stardom, her agent’s texts now blowing up her phone for new bookings every day. She almost missed the text, scrolling through her phone in bed one rare late weekday morning. “Anna wants you to come to the Gala this year!!!!” She’d leapt from her sheets and screamed, danced alone in the living room of her apartment. When the invitation finally arrived in the mail she hugged it to her chest and refused to open it for three days lest it disappear like a gift left by elves.
And in that first year the Gala was really effervescent for her. To see, and to be seen, to be really beautiful, and meet movie stars, but mostly to feel as if she’d broken finally into her fairy tale, which was to do all this and drink champagne in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
She’d had dreams like that, as a little girl growing up in New Jersey. Before his depression, her father would sometimes wake her early. He’d say “Wake up Beanie.” He called her Beanie which was short for Little Bean. “Wake up Beanie, we’re going on a trip today.” They’d walk down to the bus station in the misty quiet of the morning, her father singing little snippets of opera, and they would ride the bus together into the city, stop at Dunkin Donuts, then take the train uptown to the museum. What excitement! She would gawk at all the people, cover her ears when the subway car roared into the platform. She would look especially with a shy kind of awe at all the ladies in their fabulous clothes: some in furs, some in heeled boots, some (the coolest ones) in sneakers and tube dresses and little colored jackets. Where were they going? What did they do? They all looked impossibly grown up and beautiful to her.
Then they would arrive at the Met and it always seemed to her, with its enormous steps and tall columns, to be the most beautiful building in the whole world. Inside her father would show her the paintings, stopping at each one and telling her about who was in them and who painted them, like one talks about old friends. The names would sail over her head but each face she’d remember.
They’d stop at the Goya of the little boy in his red suit and sash, which she liked, with its mysterious cat, and then the young girl peeling apples, which she also liked and many others as well: the Vermeers and Van Goghs, the Seurats and the enigmatic Gauguins.
At Cranach the Elder’s Judgement of Paris her father would say “Look Beanie, Juno offered power, and Minerva offered wisdom, but Paris chose Venus because she offered him Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world.” He’d ask her if she thought Paris made the right choice. “Of course not Dad!” she’d answer. Laughing, her father would say “You’re right Beanie. Paris was a dope, but that’s the power of beauty for ya!”
Then she’d ask, looking at the three naked goddesses in the painting. “But which is which?” Her father would tell her that there were theories, but that no one really knew for sure who was who. Then she would say that she thought that the woman turning to look out from the painting, with her cheeky smile, was Minerva. It seemed to her a knowing look, that Minerva would know that of course Paris would reject wisdom for beauty, and that looking at the rather silly-looking Paris, you would know it too and smile with her. Her father would beam at that and ask her how she got so smart. “It must be from your ma, Beanie.”
Then they would leave the museum and her father would let her choose something from the gift shop (“Something small Beanie, we can’t break the bank”) and that’s when she first read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and decided that one day she would live in the museum too and that’s where her dream of the Met Gala began.
Later, when she grew into her body, she would think about that painting, and how men were often floored before her just like hapless Paris. They would stop and stare in department stores, blow her phone up with texts. Some would get visibly flustered just talking to her. It made her feel strange; “I’m just me, there’s no need to be weird!” but it also made her feel powerful. Her entry into the world of modeling came very naturally to her. That was how she felt at the beginning of her career, like a naked goddess, men vanquished at her feet. Later, with time and experience, it was very different.
The therapist has been waiting for her to finish her reverie. “Do you want to go on? What happens next?”
“It’s like all of the shit I experienced, all the catty bitches I’ve had to avoid offending, all the slimy people I’ve had to suck up to are here in one place and I have to relive all of it in one night and there’s no way I can leave and it’s even worse because I got myself into this.”
“First there’s this parade of decrepit old men, with a bunch of models and ballerinas. They hold them by the waist with dirty fingers. They fawn over each other, pour each other champagne. One starlet, dressed in like a bulletproof vest, regales a troop of Hollywood types with stories of her renovations: she’s constructed a pink vagina tunnel behind a false wall in her new home, ‘So I can give birth to myself.’ They whoop uproariously. They call out to me, they want me to join them. I am pulled in and they take turns telling me about their philanthropy. A doughy man is telling me about his film school for Afghan women. Another, with a sweating face, about his work for bail reform. Interrupting, yet another about his program to pair LGBT-curious middle and elementary school kids with gay mentors. I am supposed to be impressed. They drone on and on. I can’t leave.”
“After what seems like an eternity I am torn away by a band of photographers. The sensitive artsy ones, the aggressive voyeurs, the untouchable industry favorites; all here. They have enormous flashbulb eyes and limp dicks, little rictus grins. I have to greet each of them (‘They could put you on the cover!’) and they paw at me, inviting me upstate for private photo shoots at their Woodstock retreats. In the dream I’m horrified to watch myself promise to visit each of them. I struggle to wake up, moan ‘Nooo,’ but they have each already claimed a part of my body. I’ve agreed and this one gets my neck, that one gets my ass, the other one my tits and it’s all been decided and, smiling awkwardly, I promise to put my agent in touch like I’m expected to.”
“Then there’s music, a dirge, an eternal chorus of cynical ‘Hallelujahs.’ Do you know the ‘hellos’ from Smells Like Teen Spirit? So hopeless? The music is like that. Some people start to dance and I’m pulled in, a circle of men in dresses and I’m to play the part of the man, dipping and twirling each of them. I stumble, I do not know the steps. I am stepping on their gowns. One of them presses himself against me and whispers into my ear with fluted voice that if I mis-step again I’ll be devoured. I laugh as if it was a joke but I am very cold. His mouth smiles but his eyes are flat and black.”
She pauses now, and takes a breath, but doesn’t mention the other things she saw in her dream: Beverly Sackler in a long trailing dress made entirely from poppies, Simone Biles weighed down with 100 pounds of rhinestones, like a sequined Jabba the Hutt, Pete Davidson carried, cradled like a baby, in the arms of a fat enormous mute, and many other grotesqueries like Madonna and Whoopi Goldberg and Megan Rapinoe. Her therapist takes notes, motions her to continue.
“Somehow, I escape and now I’m crying in the bathroom, hidden in a stall. After some time I realize I am alone and go to wash my face. I turn to see a woman next to me at the sink and my blood runs cold as I realize why the bathroom is empty. It’s Anna; she always sends her people in to clear the bathroom out before she goes in. She asks if I’ve been crying; there’s no denying it. She tells me to put my face back on and get back out there. ‘Cover girls don’t cry, darling.’ She breezes out and I am left utterly alone again. Dutifully, I do as she says, re-apply my lipstick and mascara and flow back out into the chattering crowd. It’s expected of me.”
The woman takes a deep breath and continues. “Finally, we go to sit down for dinner. The tables are arranged in front of the Temple of Dendur, and I’m sitting with every one of my exes. The main course is lab-grown meat, and they’re just devouring these chunks of flesh and smiling at each other with bloody teeth, saying how it’s carbon-neutral, and cruelty free, and consent-based. They want me to eat too, and they’re making weird jokes about how I should get used to it, that soon it’s just people meat or crickets, those are my only two options and I want to escape but it’s like I’m glued to my chair. They tell me I need to get with the program, and point out Elliot Page, who is quietly eating his crickets. ‘See, Elliot got with the program and it’s great? Right Elliot?’ And Elliot gives a little thumbs up and has little black bug eyes too.”
“Then the lights go out, and I’m suddenly aware of a breath of wind in the hall that carries the musky smell of horses. From either side of the temple come two lines of men on horseback, the hooves clatter on the stones. Some carry torches and some carry these enormous spears. In the light of the torches I can see that they’re all totally nude.”
“Everyone starts clapping. It’s incredible. There’s this music playing; like brass with drums, and soprano. It’s like a funeral march but major key if that makes sense. It’s very solemn. Each of these men, and they were all men, look like they were carved from marble. The horses too: every single one of them is a pure white stallion. The physiques were hard. They looked like a frieze come to life, stacked ranks of powerful human and animal muscle. They’re holding their heads so high. They just keep lining up, completely silent except for the sound of hooves, until they’re two deep stretched all across the room. There must have been a hundred of them. No one moves to stop them. It just took my breath away.”
“Now the leader, and he must be the leader I think, because he looks like a hero, with flowing hair and shoulders like great spreading antlers, he edges his horse forward and wheels left, then, right. He rears his horse and raises his spear. The front table scatters.”
“In this voice that fills the whole room he says, ‘DO NOT BE AFRAID.’ Just like that, it was a voice like thunder. I remember exactly. It’s stuck with me. ‘DO NOT BE AFRAID. Our fate cannot be taken from us. IT IS A GIFT.’ and for some reason, despite what happens after, I’m not afraid, not for the whole night.”
“And this makes you feel guilty?” Her therapist interjected.
“It does, yes. What happens next scares me when I think about it later but in the moment all I feel is like this expectation, like a tingling.”
“So what happens next is that a woman stands and just screeches, this long wailing scream. She’s dressed in this wide black dress, a political statement piece, decorated with thousands of bits of coat hanger sewn in to look like thorns. She raises her arm and points, still screaming, and the leader urges his horse forward into a short gallop, raises his spear like a javelin, and throws it across the room like a lightning bolt. It catches her full on through the chest and she immediately bursts into flames.”
“The guests leap to their feet, a smashing of falling chairs and breaking glass. Some applaud, they think it’s part of the show. Others scream- they think there has been an accident. The hero barks a command and the first line of horsemen advance at a slow walk, descending from the platform and upsetting the first rows of tables. Food and drink and elaborate centerpieces are trampled to the floor.”
“The crowd, now enraged and indignant, call for their security details but none respond. They are nowhere to be seen. Now the most agile turn to run. The horsemen break into a slow trot and lower their bronze-tipped spears. Some guests are fixed in place, unable to understand what is happening, and are speared where they stand. The copper smell of blood is in the air. The hall is suddenly full with screams.”
The therapist leans forward. “Do you need a tissue?”
“No thank you,” says the woman. Her eyes shine. She knows she should hide her excitement. She continues and the words tumble from her mouth.
“Now real panic sets in and the guests are like a herd of cattle driven to stampede. They trample over each other in an attempt to escape the hall. The floor is slick with blood and littered with broken heels and the torn ruins of clothes that just an hour ago had made magnificent costumes.”
“I have stood in place, head high, through the first assault, and the first line of horsemen have passed, opening to flow around me like water around a river reed. I have removed my dress, I stand naked now with my crown of flowers. I feel like something inside of me has woken up.”
“Now the second line of horsemen advance into the hall to dispatch the survivors, spears dipping like egret beaks. Most of the guests have been allowed to flee into the exhibit halls. The horsemen regroup for the pursuit, and as they gallop off in squads I follow them with light footsteps. I know that there is somewhere I am supposed to be.”
“First however I wander. I want to see everything. The museum is dark but alive with the whinny of horses and hoof-falls and screams. The horsemen chase the guests through the halls, they leap over benches, they swoop like hawks, and like driven sparrows who can fly this way and that, but find no escape from the talons of swift birds of prey, the guests are caught and speared one by one. In the midst of this I am a void. My skin tingles and I can see in the dark; I am sure of myself. I pick my way with dancer’s feet; I am the small serene figure in the corner of a great canvas of struggle and destruction.”
“Some run, some try to hide and are pulled like worms from their holes. Some beg for their lives. They piss themselves, crying ‘Why? What have we done?’ The horsemen laugh and tell them to ask the gods, then slaughter them like pigs. Some, the brave, break open the weapons displays in the Armor Hall and attempt to defend themselves. These are honored with single combat but are cut down in turn. Meanwhile the eyes of the figures on the walls, the kings and queens, priests and prophets, saints and sinners, seemingly brought to life in the flickering torchlight, watch impassively.”
“Now I make my way up the stairs of the Great Hall to the gallery of European Paintings at the center of the museum. The horsemen, now dismounted, form two lines on either side, a silent honor guard with spears pointed skyward. I reach the top and hung now in a place of honor, just beside the Triumph of Marius, is the painting from my childhood, Cranach’s Judgement of Paris. Beside it I find the hero dismounted. He has been waiting for me.”
“Like a lion fresh from gorging on the ox, he is spattered with blood, across his face, down the powerful sweep of his neck and shoulders, and up his legs and forearms, but I am not afraid. He looks at me. His eyes are grey and piercing.”
“He sings to the assembled men, to the great hall, but I have the sensation the stairs and balconies and even the air are thick with the spirits; the portraits and sculptures have taken leave of their frames and pedestals and make a great whispering gallery. They are here to witness. I remember the words exactly:”
Now I am come into my kingdom
Give thanks to God for life triumphant
Now we set our hands to work
Life upon life, stone over stone,
World without end.
“And though his voice fills the whole space, I feel he sings for me only, and when he finishes I step forward and sing a song I already know.”
I am the daughter of Wisdom born
Before all ages my blood was
Waiting for you.
“In the silence after, when the echoes have died away, he takes my hand and says, ‘Fair Wisdom, I would know you.’ A great rumbling cheer erupts. We are processed down the stairs and through halls. The blood, the piles of bodies, are now carpets of petals and great drifts of roses mounded up against corners and pedestals. We are washed in the black marble fountain of the sculpture court; the three Graces are my attendants. Our heads are anointed with oil.”
“Then he carries me away to a secret place, and …”
Here she searches for the right word. The therapist has put her pen down, and only listens. She continues.
“Then we consummate.”
She doesn’t elaborate. Not from modesty: it’s that she feels there would be too much to say, and so she glosses. She doesn’t tell how she felt in the hero’s massive arms, which are warm (flesh and blood, not metal or marble), these killing hands now a cradle of safety just for her. She doesn’t say how they found solitude in each other’s eyes, the deep and mutual seeing that shuts out the world, that makes them singular; the first man and woman in the universe, or the last. She doesn’t say how she traced the scars on his chest, on his arms, and found a spark of recognition there. “He is like me,” she thought. “His body is his tool.”
“What battles did he fight to earn these?” She wondered. “Was he sent to war; his limbs exposed? His body portioned off?”
As if understanding her, he looked into her eyes said “A king’s body belongs not to himself but to his people. Tonight, beloved, it belongs to you.”
And this was the point of the dream in which the hero took possession of Wisdom, took possession of her, and it was the memory of this encounter that subjected her to many sleepless nights adrift on a raft on a sea of desire, her imagination helpless against waves of sensation mingled with tumbled visions of embrace that would wash over her, leave her waking in sweat-soaked sheets, and the loss of the memory of this dream was felt as an ache in her loins and in her heart.
Now she looks at her therapist. She is sobbing. “And after we fuck he smiles at me and crumbles to pieces in my arms. He says, ‘Now you must be brave for me’ and kisses me and crumbles into a thousand pieces of bronze and that’s when I wake up and I don’t know what it means!”
Her therapist adjusts her glasses and gives a reassuring look. “Okay there’s a lot to unpack here. I’ve got the notes, let’s continue this next time. In the meantime, I’m going to refer you to Dr. Coleman again to see if we can up your dosages.”
The woman’s voice quavers. “But why?”
The therapist is matter-of fact: “You’ve clearly been through something very significant, I think until we can work through exactly what’s going on it would be good give you some tools to manage your anxiety, and maybe help you sleep.”
“But I’m not taking any of that anymore, I’ve already stopped.”
Seeing the therapist about to begin a new line of tedious questioning, she cuts her off. “Listen, thank you for taking the time to hear all of this. I think I should go. Yes, I just need to go now, I’m sorry. Let’s just follow up later. Goodbye.” She gathers her coat and purse and rushes out the door of the office and down the stairs into a waiting night washed clean by recent rain.
It has been several months since her dream, and the woman has bought a house by the sea outside a remote village. In the morning the wind carries the smell of dust and cypresses down from the hills, and in the cool of the evening it carries the scent of the sea. She has not taken work or really communicated at all with her ties to her former life. She is resting, and besides there is something she needs to focus on; she is with child. She spends her days reading, visiting the market in the square of the village, and taking walks by the shore, but also mostly thinking about the life growing inside her and cultivating a quiet knowledge that everything had changed, and would change. She can see the signs now; in the flights of the sparrows, in the swell of her belly, in the strange troops of strong young men who now seem to be everywhere about the village. They salute her on their morning exercises, clad only in black running shorts. Some bring her baskets of fresh figs, meats, olives, and sometimes flowers left on the doorstep, but give no explanation, only smiles. She understands that they are to respect her solitude. Therefore, having seen all these things and pondered them in her heart, she does not question, but trusts. For she knows that something is coming.