Friday, June 7, 2013

Against Fate

by Jean Roberta

Ancient Greek tragedy has fascinated me since I was in elementary school, and I’ve often wondered if its basic premises are true for all times and places. The audience can see that the central characters are doomed, but they don’t see the writing on the wall (or hear the wailing chorus – strange, that) until it’s too late for them to undo whatever act of hubris set the plot in motion. The ultimate hubris (an almost untranslatable word meaning arrogance and self-trickery) is to think you can outwit the gods, or fate, or the Way Things Are. Yet this delusion keeps the characters going until they crash to the ground, get walled up in a cave, or get stabbed or strangled by an angry relative. (The Big Three tragedians--Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles—showed the world how dysfunctional a family could be. No matter how much dysfunction is attributed to “modern life,” these guys still cast a long shadow over modern literature.)

Believing that you’re going to wake up, day after day, in good health and with good things waiting for you, is hubris. But if you didn’t have it, you probably wouldn’t want to wake up at all. The hubris sets up a contrast with the tragic ending. Without that contrast, there would be no plot, and no point.

So if a hope of happiness, or an unjustified sense that one is entitled to be happy, is an essential element in any story, a Happy For Now ending seems reasonable to me. It's not the ending of a life, just the ending of an episode.

When I began writing stories about lesbian life, the Happy For Now ending seemed like the perfect compromise between grim realism and the unconvincing Happy Ever After ending of a traditional romance. A formula ending that promises happiness until death seems to me like a sign on the front door of the newlyweds’ house that says: “Don’t ask. You don’t really want to know what happened after the honeymoon.”

When I began dating women, of course I hoped this lifestyle would be better than the place I came from, where men could erupt into rage at any time for no logical reason, and where a fair deal was hard to find.

Like many other newcomers in sexually-defined communities, I was taken aback by the conflict, rivalry and dishonesty in it. In short, I found that people have human flaws however they define themselves. The raw truth seemed to be that: 1) everyone is essentially alone, and hooking up with another person, for a night or for 50 years, doesn’t change that, and 2) long-term proximity doesn’t necessarily enable two individuals to understand each other.

There are also specific disadvantages to living in the social margins. If you’re fishing for a date in a relatively small pond, you have fewer choices than you would in the ocean of the social mainstream. And if you’re a woman supporting a child alone, your date is not likely to have a better income than yours, or a great interest in co-parenting.

But I was not resigned to giving up hope.

While thinking about my next lesbian erotic story, I read about a sub-genre of erotic fiction (and a sexual sub-community) called “splosh.” It’s about the thrill of wallowing in messy substances, or pouring them on your sweetie. Splosh! Here’s a pie in the face. Splosh! Here’s a spray of cold water to wash it off you. Sploshing seemed like a perfect metaphor for the messiness of life.

In my story, “Ariadne’s Thread,” Ariadne is a young woman living in the modern world, but she is a doomed character from Greek tragedy. Instead of being accompanied by a chorus chanting “Woe!” she is rescued by two friends who are determined to change her luck, her outlook and her mood. I was determined to give Ariadne a “Happy For Now” ending, dammit.

"Let me in, girlfriend."

The sound of Zoe's voice assaulted Ariadne's ears where she sat in the funk of her misery. Dirty dishes covered her tables and counters, pungent clothing littered her floor. Her curtains were closed, leaving the apartment in perpetual gloom. "Go away."

"Come on, baby. I know you're not feeling good, but there is life after a breakup, you know? We've all gone through it. You need company." Silence. "Ari, come on. I don't want to stand here talking to you through the door. Do you want all your neighbors to hear this?"

A dark, swollen eye appeared at the peephole, then the thin wooden door was yanked open. Ariadne Megalopolous blocked the entrance, taking up space out of proportion to her girlish, fine-boned, high-breasted body. The smell of her sweat and her contempt for the world confronted the brisk assertiveness of her friend Zoe, who stepped back before she could stop herself.

Ariadne sneered like a damned soul, her white face framed in greasy black hair. She held onto the doorframe, slouching in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans so old and dirty that they held the shape of her ass and thighs even when she wasn't in them. Her presence was so intense that Zoe felt it in her clit.

Ariadne filled the silence. "What are you, Zoe, human Prozac? If you think you know how I'm supposed to feel, then fuck you."

For an instant, Zoe heard her say, "Fuck me." What a pleasure that would be.

“Okay, you wanta be a good Samaritan, you can come in and wash my – Jesus.” Ariadne had stepped far enough into the hallway to see Carter lurking a few feet away from Zoe.

Suzanne Carter, who preferred to be known by her last name, was wiry and wily. As an employee of Child Protection Services, she took bewildered, mistreated children away from their violent or distraught parents after warning the adults of the legal consequences of their behavior. Carter dreamed of being a secret agent for the federal government.

Carter grabbed Ariadne by the arm before she could slam the door on her two friends.
Zoe tried to soothe her with words. “Ari! We’re concerned about you. We just want to—“

“Help me get her inside,” grunted Carter.

Zoe worked for the Department of Social Services, like Carter, but in a milder role. She specialized in job-readiness counseling.

Ariadne saw through the good-cop/bad-cop act. “Fuckin’ Christ!” She made no effort to control her volume. “You two dykes are a fuckin’ joke! What is this, a scene for World’s Worst Videos?” She wasted so much energy expressing herself verbally that Carter had no trouble forcing her back into her apartment. This didn’t prevent Carter from glaring at Zoe for awkwardly trailing behind and closing the door quietly instead of helping to restrain the prisoner.

Carter’s pale, spiky hair seemed to bristle more than usual. It was naturally blonde, and Carter tried to compensate for the baby-chick color by keeping it short and artificially stiff. Zoe suspected her of using starch.

“What the hell do you want?” Ariadne was still hostile, but quieter.

Carter loosened her grip, and slid a hand up to Ariadne’s chin. “Why didn’t you answer your phone for a week, Ari? Don’t you think anyone cares what happens to you?”

Ariadne backed away. She seemed to be wondering whether anyone in the world could actually worry about her. “You didn’t have to spaz out. You knew Denny dumped me so she could be with whatsername. Everyone knows everything in this community. There’s no flippin mystery here, okay? That’s why the fuck I didn’t answer my phone.”

Ariadne still gave off a dull-red glow, but Zoe could feel her exhaustion. Zoe offered traditional advice. “You can forget her, Ari. Denny didn’t deserve you. You’ll find someone better.”

Ariadne fended off a hug by pushing Zoe’s hands away. She looked like a cornered animal. “You can go to hell, both of you.”

“Hey!” Carter objected.

Ariadne wasn’t finished. “Damn social workers get all your lines out of a book. I’m not gonna find someone better. You know that damn well.”

Something in the air chilled Zoe to the bone. It was the presence of death, lured in by the despair that lingered in the smell of stale food and body odor.

Zoe had watched the luck drain out of Ariadne’s life, one event at a time, for the past seven years. She had had to drop out of university due to lack of funds and lack of credit. She had found a good job at an advertising agency, but a volatile male boss had first groped her and then ridiculed her ideas until she quit. Her mother had died and her father had moved his girlfriend into the house a few days after the funeral.

A series of alcoholic girlfriends had wrecked or taken all of Ariadne’s most treasured belongings, including her car, her good-luck stone and her grandmother’s earrings. She had given notice on her apartment after accepting Denny’s invitation to move in with her, then Denny had changed her mind after a one-night bar hookup with someone else.

Like her namesake in Greek mythology, Ariadne seemed to be lost in a maze with a monster at its center, and no one had given her a thread to guide her back to the open air.

“Just leave me alone,” she said. The dark eyes in her puffy face said something else.

“We can’t do that,” Carter told her, unconsciously imitating the coolly-dangerous voice of a cop in a crime show on prime-time. “A stupid little thing like you can’t be trusted alone.” Carter seized her by both arms from behind as though she were planning to handcuff her. Ariadne’s T-shirt was pulled against her small, perky breasts and her hips bucked provokingly.

Zoe was appalled at Carter and herself.

Carter looked at her like a conspirator. She kept speaking to Ariadne. “Besides, if you can’t find anyone better than Denny, you’d be lucky if we do you a favor. Everyone knows everything in our community, honey, and we’ve heard all about you. We know what a greedy little pig you are, and you have nothing to lose.”

Ariadne looked at Zoe in disbelief. “Oh please. You’re not going to try cheering me up by fucking me.” It was more of a question than a statement.

The heat of evil joy spread through Zoe. “She said please,” she told Carter. “We both heard her.”

And thus begins a three-way orgy in which Zoe and Carter make Ariadne dirtier in every sense so they will then have a reason to wash her clean. Ariadne reaches catharsis (another ancient Greek concept) and Zoe, the witness, is moved. Here is the conclusion:

Carter looked more shaken than Zoe had ever seen her. The two conspirators formed a pungent sandwich with Ariadne as the filling, and they kept her balanced between them.

The three women swayed together, slipping against each other. Zoe wondered if they had fucked open a new crack in the universe, a way out of no way. She felt as if they had all fought a monster, and it made her love the other two like crazy.

Zoe knew there was plenty of time for them to clean up the mess and continue their game, or vice versa. She could hardly wait to offer her own ecstasy, an explosion out of her skin, to whatever gods might be watching.

This story is in my e-collection, Each Has a Point, by publisher Love Your Divine/Alterotica, which will be closing soon because the owner has health problems that no one should have to cope with. But there it is: life (and more specifically, the U.S. health care system) often sucks.

I know that happiness and success are both against the odds. But sometimes I manage to give my characters a little satisfaction as a consolation prize. Sometimes defying the gods just feels too good to resist.



  1. "Splosh", huh? I think that would be a challenge for me to write.

    This is such a great line: "Zoe had watched the luck drain out of Ariadne’s life, one event at a time, for the past seven years."

    Still, I can't help being an optimist. I think that happiness can be a matter of attitude and perception. If you expect to be happy, that's more likely to occur.

    Hubris, right?

    I know a woman (a reader) active on romance readers lists who has several kinds of cancer. She's missing organs and spends as much time in the hospital as out of it. And yet she's one of the cheeriest, most supportive, most humorous people I've met online.

    Of course when she reads, she's definitely looking for a HEA. In fact, I dedicated Quarantine to her, because I thought she deserved it.

    1. Lisabet, dedicating your novel to her seems like a great tribute. It's true that some strong people seem to rise above their misfortunes, but it makes you wonder why they have them in the first place.

  2. Jean, I love your musings on the universality of the Greek tragedians. I think they really captured something very human in their work and for me that is why they stand the test of time. I think those plays are far better and speak much more truly to the human condition than most literature - even Shakespeare (over valued in my mind.)

    But that said, Ariadne is a damned character in all the versions of the myth. But her damning is in degree. One thing for sure though, and this makes her end all the worse, is that she knows the maze of the Labyrinth incredibly well. She is virtually the keeper of it. So when she can't see the maze of life unfolding in front of her, it is that much worse.

    But in some versions of the myth she is rescued from her abandonment by Theseus by the god Dionysus. But in others she hangs herself.

    Not that your piece should capture every nuance of every myth (if you are writing about a neo-mythological figure) but sometimes mirroring a particular version of the story can carry the universality that made you seek the story out in the first place.

  3. I like what Jean says about the end of a story (novel, etc.) as an end to an episode, not a HEA in the classic sense, but definitely HFN considering the set of circumstances comprising the story.

    Gritty story, Jean. Well-spun. I love the tactile and olfactory elements of this, taking us along with all our senses working, right there in the intervention. Let's hope Ariadne is able to get out of her decline for the long run. Seems unlikely, but you did give her this little lagniappe.

    And yeah, when the hell is this country gone wise up regarding health care. Don't get me started. When hard-working people can go bankrupt from illness after contributing all their lives... Ghaaaah! ... Whoops...Almost got started. Whew!

  4. Thanks for the comments, all! mjs, I know there are several endings to the story of Ariadne, who helps Theseus escape from the labyrinth only to be abandoned by him as soon as he is free. In the happy ending version, she gets a man who is arguably better -- Dionysus, a god or demi-god. In my story, the two friends are the rescuers after Ariadne has been abruptly dumped by someone who got what she wanted first. There is too much of that sort of bad behaviour, IMO.
    Thanks for your comments, Daddy X. There is always room for hope.

  5. Hi Jean!

    I have to admit this is pretty different, I'd never heard of sploosh. Interesting way of approaching it too.


  6. Hi Jean!

    I have to admit this is pretty different, I'd never heard of sploosh. Interesting way of approaching it too.



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