De Arboribus et Rubis*
“Yet in ‘Apollo and Daphne’ we do see the change from girl to tree happening before our eyes; the bark enveloping and encasing her lithe body; softness giving way to ligneous toughness; movement turning into rootedness. The sculpture seems to defy what we know is the chief property of stone: its brittleness.” – Robert Hughes
I had been knotting my headphone cords and folding the museum pamphlet into a thousand tiny triangles when Anna yanked on my jacket. Our tour guide on the school trip, a fat Italian named Valerio, was standing in front of a marble statue of a beautiful girl with foliage blooming from her hands, followed closely by a lustful male pursuer.
“The statue of Apollo and Daphne is a beloved masterpiece because of the tangibility of the selfish passion of Apollo that Bernini has carved into the stone. Rome was, and is, the place of ardor and romance. The piazzas, the fountains, the plates of spaghetti and meatballs for two…”
Anna let out her breath slowly, catching it in her throat as Valerio rambled on about love and insatiable passion. I turned my head away from Daphne’s desperate face and looked down at Anna, surprised to see that she had already been watching me. I averted her gaze, but her hand squeezed my waist playfully and she lunged forward, dragging us towards the statue. We didn’t notice that our group had already gone outside.
“Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands. What do you think that means?” she whispered, reading from the Latin engraving on the base.
“I have no idea,” I said. She leaned against my chest and closed her eyes, inching her hand down my spine and into the back pocket of my jeans. I hooked my free pinky finger through her belt loop and guided her other hand towards my waist, twisting our palms together in our not-so-secret handshake. Alone in the room with the statue and Anna, I smiled at Daphne. She didn’t smile back.
The rest of the day went by as if I were watching it from the very last row of a movie theater, in the kind of seats you choose when you pay $12.50 just to make out with someone. We passed the Trevi Fountain, the ancient temples, the gelato stores, but they were only the hazy backdrop behind Anna’s clear excitement, which had my full attention. She crushed my pinky finger with her own whenever Valerio took us to the places Audrey Hepburn visited in Roman Holiday, her favorite movie that had overruled my selection at every sleepover since sixth grade. Dancing around the Piazza Navona at last, she said that Rome really did make her feel like a princess. I told her I’d be her prince, and she laughed, holding her hands in the air and placing an imaginary crown on my head. I didn’t know what the laugh meant then. I didn’t know why I wanted it to mean something, but I did. We laughed all the way back to the hotel together.
Laudat digitosque manusque
bracchiaque et nudos media plus parte lacertos;
si qua latent, meliora putat. (1.500-2)*
“Do you want to kiss me?” It was barely a whisper. The blankets over our heads shut us away and we wrapped together in an awkward cuddle that had seemed platonic enough in middle school. She repeated the question, even though she knew I had heard. I felt a sudden, slick wetness and arched my back when I thought it was her tongue, but relaxed slightly when I noticed a single tear rolling down my stomach. Her eyes were red.
“Anna, I’ve wanted to kiss you since sixth grade.”
This was the only time I had ever seen Anna cry. Not wanting to let her rare moment of vulnerability slip through my fingers, I slowly inched down the bed until our noses were touching. For a second I lay still beneath her and let warm tears dry on my neck. Then I kissed her. I loosened my sweaty grip on the sheets when she didn’t jump off me, but her lips remained motionless until I hooked my ankle around her leg. Then Anna began to kiss back, and she kissed back until our pajamas were in a crumpled pile on the floor and our phone alarms buzzed for the 6am wake-up call. When the sun rose up behind the city walls, I asked her if she loved me. She nodded her head sleepily.
Quod facit, auratum est et cuspide fulget acuta,
quod fugat, obtusum est et habet sub harundine plumbum. (1.470-1)*
Once in eighth grade my mother gave yet another version of the ‘talk,’ and warned my sister and me about the dreaded “morning after.” I didn’t really know what she was talking about then because I didn’t understand why anyone would have sex with someone and then run out the next day. That next day in Rome, I finally got it. Maybe this was indicative of becoming an adult. Or maybe it was something about innocence.
I wanted to talk to Anna that day, to tell her that I loved her too. But I couldn’t. What if she had forgotten that she had nodded her head? Or worse, chosen to forget? She avoided me until we reached the Boca della Verita, a famed statue in the Forum Boarium that Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck stick their hands into at the end of the movie. Valerio told us that the statue is supposed to tell whether one is lying or telling the truth.
“I love Anna,” I murmured. I took it as a good sign that the mouth of the gaping sun did not bite off my hand, and I was even more relieved when I saw Anna staring at me across a group of senior girls. The expression on her face told me that she had heard.
Sic deus in flammas abiit, sic pectore toto
uritur et sterilem sperando nutrit amorem (1.495-6)*
“Are you a lesbian?” she asked. It was past midnight and we were both lying as far apart as possible on the opposite sides of the bed. We had been there, silent, for an hour, trying not to touch each other as we shifted under the sheets.
“Yes… But this is the first time I’ve said it out loud. Are you?”
“No.” She turned her body around to face the wall.
“But you’ve never had a boyfriend. Or even kissed a boy.”
“I just want to be loved, is that too much to ask? I don’t love you at all, at least, like, really love you. That’s not why I let it happen. I like guys like everyone else, okay? I just felt like you were the only one that would love me, so I used you. You can’t hate me for wanting to be wanted.”
“I can’t believe you’re actually gay.” Anna slid out of bed with her back turned and ran out onto the terrace, hopping over the shrubbery divider and onto the balcony of the room next door where the other girls in the class were watching a horror movie. I rose from the blankets slowly and closed the screen. I didn’t want to hear what she would say.
As I was walking back across the carpet, I stepped on the folded museum pamphlet from the Borghese Gallery. Two shining marble bodies gazed eerily up from the cover, reflected in the moonlight. Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands. Apollo remained with only berries for his greed, his hands caressing a tree trunk instead of the girl’s body. I saw the longing in his eager arms and knew the disappointment of chasing something forever out of reach. But the inside flap of the brochure showed the god with a golden laurel wreath upon his head, casually honoring the silenced victim of his passion. Torn between confused pity and an irrepressible rage, I began to dig my heels into the glossy pages, tearing them apart with my toenails and grinding the stone bastard into the rug.
Where was the pleasure now?
Daphne’s revenge was short, for I stopped my tirade when I thought I heard footsteps on the terrace. I shoved the screen door aside and ran blindly into the dawn, hoping to catch Anna’s curly ponytail, and to yank it. But no one was there, and no noise was coming from the adjoining balcony either; it was deserted but for a few ruffled magazines the other girls had left behind before going to sleep. I sat down gently in one of the white lawn chairs and let my breathing slow, counting the spires, the pigeons, and then the beats of my pulse until I could barely hear them. Perhaps I had imagined the footsteps. In any case, it was already too late.
Hanc quoque Phoebus amat positaque in stipite dextra
sentit adhuc trepidare novo sub cortice pectus. (1.553-4)*
* Of Trees and Berries
* He praises her fingers and hands and arms and upper-arms with more than the middle naked: if some things lie hidden, he imagines them better.
* The one which creates [love] is golden and shines with a sharp point; the one which repels [love] is blunt and has lead under the shaft.
* Thus the god departed into flames; thus in his whole heart he is burned and he feeds futile love by hoping.
* Apollo loves this one too and with a right hand placed on the trunk, feels that her heart still trembles under the new bark.
Age 16, Grade 11