Helen of Troy
I stood in for a thousand ships and you, Paris, hid behind and conducted them with your pinky finger until I was seduced or abducted (they are not so different). Even then, with fleets and armies fanned around you, it was always you most exposed. Me in my silks, and you in your armor, it was you most exposed. Chainlink shirts and sheets of metal, swords at your hips and knives hiding your heart, it was you most threatened.
One night as the waves washed up and sank into the sands of Crete I looked right at you and saw you beneath that helmet. I looked right at you and saw you so well that you needed an entire army between us so I could never see you that way again. You on one side and I on another: unleashed fleets, invasions and battles and fire on water between you and my eyes. All this for my hipbones and shoulderblades, all this for the way I looked at you and made you feel seen.
In the division of assets for our second divorce, Richard offered me our house in the Hamptons, my wedding ring (titled, of course, under his name), and a framed photo of us from our first wedding. How generous.
So, I tell my lawyer, he can have the wedding ring. I don’t need his charity. I’ve got more jewels than the English monarch. I’ve gotten bigger rings from other marriages. I had four marriages before I even married Richard the first time. Tell Richard’s lawyer to tell Richard that I’m going to take all the diamonds from all the wedding rings I’ve ever gotten and have them set into one big ring so goddamn heavy that I won’t even be able to lift my hand, and you know, that’s how much men love me. Richard’s diamond will look like a speck of dust next to all of that one. Also, I’m keeping the L.A. house.
I tell my lawyer, he can have the house in the Hamptons; that house is too angular for me. And anyways, I never liked the Hamptons. Too east coast. My lawyer asks what I mean by angular, what I mean by east coast, and the woman is really wearing on me. Couldn’t someone have done something with that hair of hers? I mean, with the sort of money I’m paying her, she should at least be able to afford a decent wardrobe. Anyways, so she asks me what east coast means, and I sigh, and I say can’t we just draw up the papers from our last divorce, copy them, and do it all the same? She smiles at me like I’m joking and asks me if I want the photo.
It’s a funny offer, because we were captured in so many more interesting ways. There’s no reason that I should want this photo. I can find us anywhere. Movies, news articles, marriage certificates, lavish gifts, jewels, houses. People wrote about Richard and I for decades. They still do, because common people have nothing better to do than nose around in the lives of far more interesting and rich people. But despite all this, there are very few of these documents that capture Richard and I as we were together, behind closed doors, make-up off, spotlight searching but not finding.
So in this photo, I’m looking up at Richard, that bastard. I’m still in my wedding dress: my hair is piled on top of my head in a way that made even Audrey Hepburn sick with envy. I never met the woman, you know, but I feel sure she would tell her hairdresser to imitate me. Those eyebrows on Hepburn… I mean, really. Couldn’t they do something about those for the poor girl? She certainly makes enough money. Anyways, I remember the way those pins clung to my head, pulled my hair from my scalp each time I moved. I remember it took Richard and I hours to get those pins out the morning after our wedding. So in this photo, I’m looking up at him. I’ve got on ruby red lipstick and the biggest set of pearls you’ve ever seen (titled under Richard’s name, of course) and I’m smiling. And Richard, that lying, griping, son of a bitch, is devastating: face half in shadows and he still breaks my heart.
I should’ve known then: my wedding day and every angle of my being points to him in that photo. I’m looking right at him, you know, and he’s looking at the woman behind the camera.
Maybe we loved each other too much, I’ve always said that. Or maybe we never had a chance, not with everyone sniffing out our secrets at every turn. Our own names shone with the brilliance of being known, there was no part of us that was ever in shadow. Our very breath was American culture, and rightly so. The flashing lights of the paparazzi followed us like stars that abandoned all the laws of physics just to see what it looked like to be in love. Common people came to see us in hoards: not because of our movies, but because we had what they spent their lives looking for, and they thought that maybe, if they could see us holding hands, our names burning together on the same electric circuit, they could find a little of what we’d found so much of.
Even through both of our marriages, and even now, the common people have seen the worst of us: the drinking, the fights, the insults and abuse. And still they do not turn away. Cameras follow us, pens whisper our secrets to paper, and paper yells them to the people. Video cameras roll and record, capturing every second of us without blinking, because they can’t afford to blink, because there’s nothing so real as something unreal.
So, no, I tell my lawyer. I don’t want the photo. I have other ways to remember Richard, if I want to. Like the first movie we ever did together. Like that first take of that first movie. My eyes were so heavily lidded the first time I ever saw him that I couldn’t hardly keep them open. We were both in costume: Richard was Mark Antony and I was Cleopatra and I looked at him knowing that we’d end up killing ourselves for one another and I was sad about that for takes two and three and four and five. I was sad about that until we got divorced the first time and I was sad about that until right now, because now I feel okay about it.
No, I don’t want the photo. Tell Richard’s lawyer to tell Richard that he can have it. Tell Richard’s lawyer to tell Richard that I know it’s still me he thinks about in bed. Tell Richard’s lawyer to tell the press to tell Richard that I know, for him, it will always just be me.
I tell my lawyer I’m giving her a check; I tell her I’m leaving now. I tell her, for God’s sake, use this to go do something with your hair.
Grave robber, please find in the etchings on my sarcophagus the consequence of too much want. Look there and find me portrayed as I was in life, with a reedy thread of skin like an edge of papyrus pulled from each of my shoulder blades and looped around Mark Antony’s fingers. See how want made me weak. See how, with a flick of Mark Antony’s wrist, my strings grew taut and I’d dance for him, declare war for him, command men to die for him, abandon my throne for him.
Listen to me, grave robber. In the organs they took from my body, find that ownership is not always as overt as you might believe. See it in the way my languid heart has ceased to serve me. Find that ownership is not always carved into stone or made into a treaty, branded into skin with hot irons or leather whips. Sometimes ownership lies in sideglances and narrowed eyes; silence and sand collecting in corners on cold nights.
Here, I have been surrounded with food and jewels and statues. Servants, fine clothes, and precious stones, darkness. Light your torch so you can see. Open your eyes so you might hear. Can you find, in the corner, by the tapestry of my family, a bust of Mark Antony? Do you see how he is trapped? In the fire’s light, do you see how his eyebrows furrow in want and longing?
Perhaps you can see how, in the beginning, when he sought me out, I was standing by the Nile with the sun setting in front of me like I could lower it with my own gaze, subjugate it with my mind. The sun was not cut into three before me as his crown was, it sunk wholly mine and its moon-shadow rose wholly mine. Pyramids towered around me and want burned through his fingertips. Do you see now? In the light and in the shadows. He saw gold at my fingertips; I saw myself at his.
Wash your light over the walls of my tomb and discover how we tied our two empires together with knotted bedsheets. Behind my head you can find one of my armies, and those men will tell you. They will say that still, Mark Antony felt too big to be trapped with one woman and one Egypt and only half the Roman Empire: not enough land for him to stomp on, not enough women to call his own.
In the end, want was both of our undoings. Entitlement grew from our hair follicles and seared within our irises, it singed the edges of our heart and insulated our graves, yawning open for us.
Mark Antony ended this way: lose a battle, lose an empire, lose yourself. His want was still ignited but now had nowhere to burn. He had an empire and lost it, and all he had left was me, and we fled to Egypt but he couldn’t live with himself, castrated and vulnerable, as you will be if you are caught, grave robber, and in that moment I never loved him more. At my feet, I had a kingdom, and at his, he had me. But he couldn’t live to reconcile his worth with his loss and he killed himself over land that never once knew it was his, and he left me to try and breathe in the spitting wake of his absence.
I ended this way: lose a man, lose yourself.
Now, grave robber, do you see how the dust has settled over all of my treasures, do you see how it coats all of the evidence that I had ever lived? Imagine this: after Mark Antony had gone, there were moments I thought I’d breathe in once more and my entire body would be filled with sand and dust, and I would suffocate under my buried lungs. I felt sure that one morning I would wake only to have turned to a pile of sand and dust myself.
You know by know, I am sure, that not too long from these mornings, there would be plagues. Eventually, the crops would die out, hoards of locusts and frogs would seep into every part of Egypt and my people would starve. Eventually there would be absolute darkness, and mothers would mourn the murders of their firstborns at the hands of some merciful god, but there was already sand in my eyes and beneath my fingernails, collecting in strands of my hair and in between my toes. For me, there was already absolute darkness. In the end, I only embraced what already hovered there.
Take what you want, grave robber, but know from the paintings and the statues, know from the jewels and armies with which I am buried: your want, one day, will consume you.
Call me what you like. Badly behaved. Twice divorced. Call me a golddigger with too lavish a wardrobe, call me power-hungry, ruthless, too rich, too thin. Here’s the truth: you can never be too rich or too thin. The things they’ve written about me are horrid and cruel, but darlings, most of them have been true. No woman should ever apologize for being called ruthless. If that’s what getting what you want gets you, then so be it. I know what they whispered around dinner tables, I’m not stupid. They said if I was British, I would have behaved better. Would’ve slipped away quietly before David, as I called him, took the throne. Would’ve had more respect for the British constitution. They said I was too American.
I’ll tell you one thing, darlings, it isn’t just British women that are taught to slip away quietly. It’s American women and French women and Chinese women and any other kind of woman you’ll ever meet. We’ve all got that backup and makeroom instinct etched into our DNA no matter where we’re born.
But I didn’t slip away quietly, I took what was mine. Abdication was David’s choice. I even told him not to abdicate. Take what’s yours, that’s what I think. Call me a slut, a floozy, but King Edward VIII left his country and abandoned his throne to fuck me every night, and that’s Ruthlessness right there. Before you whisper those tired lines over cups of tea in cafes, think on this: in the whole history of humanity, when has a man ever given up an empire for a woman? When, until me, has a woman ever been so strong?
Joséphine de Beauharnais
Napoleon returned to sit on the spring grass and lay lilacs on my grave. This, my final moment of triumph, passed onto you, my daughter, like an inheritance. Napoleon above, and me below, and still I won. I won in this marriage, and I’ll show you how to win in yours, daughter. Let me teach you how to strategize.
First, know this: you’ll be courted like a conquest, dear. Men closing in from all sides, luring you from a point you can’t see, waiting to ambush you, forcing you to surrender. You’ll fight a different kind of war, just as I did, just as all women do. Our only battlegrounds are bedsheets; our weapons: fingertips, candlelight, the curve of our lips.
If you remember one piece of advice from me, daughter, remember this: eventually, one man will walk you down an aisle and pass you like property to another man, and you will lose yourself along with your name and the rest of your life will be a struggle for autonomy. And so, my daughter, here is my most precious piece of advice: never love your husband, and if you do, never tell him so.
Am I too callous? Maybe. But it worked for me. I had the greatest military leader in French history out of his mind for me; I had his entire kingdom tied to his commandeered heartstrings.
Take a walk through the Hall of Mirrors: that corridor commissioned by the Sun King, gilded in glass and gold and crystal to capture the gardens and the starlight itself. Picture me there, fifty years younger, ornate and luxurious as the walls between which you walk. In the evenings I’d wander through that same hall and watch the stars lust in the mirrors and chandeliers that stretch before you, reflecting in one another. Napoleon would seek me there, millions of his eyes darting around me in those reflections, sparkling in the moonlight that streamed syrupy through thick glass windows.
He sought me in those Mirrors and could not find me, because I knew enough about power and love to know how to break a man. So he pursued other conquests. I collected my freedom and he collected trophies. A brooch from a young English girl, a hair pin from the duchess of a province he couldn’t pronounce. A corset from a young maiden from Venice, taken like the heads of lions from the tops of the Duke’s Palace in St. Mark’s Square. Hoopskirts and bracelets, ribbons and rings, all kept on a shelf in his bedroom to remind himself that he could succeed. It was only when I was no longer a conquest that I could love him, that I could see him. It was only as I heard him behind his bedroom door that I could appreciate his ambition, only when it was not this same ambition to which I submitted could I be loyal.
At the end, I was weak. I had spent so many days alone that I deluded myself into thinking that I could belong to both myself and another at once. I spent my last days looking for eyes that were not my own in the Hall of Mirrors, seeking ghostly glances the chandeliers would never reflect. Streams of sunlight and drops of rain became Napoleon in the mirrors. I looked for the purposeful light that always shone from his eyes, but, lucky for me, I could only find that light which shone with ambivalence: benign and distant, observing.
It was only when he could no longer see me that he returned. He returned to sit on the spring grass and lay lilacs on my grave: this, my moment of triumph. I should be glad he never found me in those mirrors, glad my gaze had slipped from their surfaces. Rippled out and gone, there was nothing in those mirrors that wasn’t already his. There was nothing that could tell him I’d ever been there at all, that I’d ever longed for him. And he’s buried standing up, daughter, in a nesting doll of tombs, trapped and searching for me in the faces of thousands of tourists who come to see him daily under a golden dome. And I am free under this bouquet of lilacs.
Do as I did, daughter. Pursue your own ambitions, conduct your own crusades. Inherit all that is mine and all that was your grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s right under Salic law’s rotting nose. Sit at your parlor tables in the afternoons and evenings and watch blue smoke rising from pipes and red suns falling from skies, and gamble better than your husband’s best men. Strategize better than his military captains. Match his soldiers drink for drink and then take them to bed or don’t, but always leave them in the mornings, smoke pouring from their mouths, hands scratching heads, because this is the only way they know how to measure your worth.
Helen of Troy
Myths rot and go bad, they get buried under retellings and rewritings and rememberings. But I’ll be remembered in this stone because right here someone has unburied my face with a hammer and a chisel, above all your armies and your fleets, your battles and your wars. My face was uncovered here under the rough stone: an artist brushed the powdery rock from my cheekbones and the curve of my lips and he found me, and even though I had always been here, buried, waiting beneath this stone, that man claimed he made me.
Look, there you are, below me, remembered by what it was you wanted, and there’s me, remembered for being what it was you wanted. We’re chipped and pockmarked with age now; we’re missing limbs and lips and big parts of this frieze that told our story. We’re eroded from centuries of dirt and rain and wind and the botched restorations of men trying to bring us back to life with their soft brushes and glue. But they can’t bring us back any more than I can move from the face of this frieze to another. I was buried under this stone with you and I cannot leave its face. Now that I am remembered as yours, do you feel safe?