The compass needle spins where Orpheus is sitting. It is earlier in time, an earlier point in the myth, before he learns to cradle himself properly, before his arms and feet are stained a deep blue, before he learns to resist the past’s pointless call.
Orpheus is furious with the ugliness of the world, its inability to charm him back towards it. No effort, the world an old wife who has stopped trying. No blossoms in the trees, no warmth in the sand, the air so bland he worries his sense of smell has atrophied.
“Dr. Mother,” says Orpheus, slumped in his therapist’s chair, with his untied boots and naked chest, wearing only his coat woven from hair collected by brushstroke from the backs of a hundred gibbons, “Dr. Mother, listen. I have tried to improve myself, I have tried to let go of self-doubt, of accumulations of yearning and anxiety, but it’s too hard. Compared to the present, the past has so much more allure. Do you know who I ran into the other day? A girl I hadn’t seen in years, with whom a short-lived fling had long passed. Of course, even though this girl precedes her by half a decade, I compared her to Eurydice, then as if to punish myself for the thought I let her lead me by the hand into the nearest park and I fucked her under an overturned canoe. Not saying any of this is true, but isn’t it fun to say? This attachment to my myth has ruined my ability to distinguish between figment and reality. Do you think, Dr. Mother, that my entire life is made up of lies that exist in the world for no reason other than because the words composing them hold each other by the hand just right?”
Dr. Mother replies, “I thought we agreed, Orpheus, to keep your poetry out of our sessions. There is no place in psychoanalysis for balladry.”
“So tell me again, and tell me the truth this time. What happened to you this week? Did you see anyone?”
“No, although I did run into an unusual number of wild dogs. For most of the week, I hung from the ceiling by my left ankle, until the colours of the world became inverted. It was nuts.”
“Orpheus, enough,” says Dr. Mother. She doesn’t usually smoke, but suddenly there is a cigarette in a red holder between her lips.
“You’re being very unprofessional,” says Orpheus, and feigns a cough. The truth is, he hasn’t felt a thing in the back of his throat for months, certainly not enough to warrant a cough. In fact, come to think of it, his entire mouth is numb. His palate is still coated with his longing for Eurydice. “Smoking in front of a patient,” he says. “You know how suggestible I am.”
“You’re not a smoker, Orpheus, and I am. My nerves are frayed. Just look away until I’m done.”
Orpheus sighs and slumps deeper in his chair until only his head rests on the seat, and he stares up at Dr. Mother’s lofty ceiling. In many ways, he is younger than he looks.
“So there I was, hanging from the ceiling,” he resumes. Dr. Mother throws a lighter across the room, nearly missing his forehead.
“Fine,” he says. “I did absolutely nothing, saw nobody, had no opinions about anything, least of all myself, spent hours smelling my own armpits, as you do, and then for a moment, just a very short moment, I thought about the future, which is so uncertain now that my hands no longer pulsate with magic and my brain is out of room for words, and at that thought a constriction in my torso echoed so violently I think most of my organs must have been rearranged in the process.”
“And how did that make you feel?”
“Fuck off,” says Orpheus.
“Let me rephrase that. Are you still in love with Eurydice?”
“What do you think?”
“Orpheus, we won’t get anywhere if all your answers are either lies or sarcasm. I want to help you, it’s what you pay me for.”
“Fine. What was the question?”
“Do you still want Eurydice to return to you?”
“That’s a different question than the one you asked me earlier, but I’ll take it. Yes, Dr. Mother, I do. Twice a day, up and down with vigorous strokes, lasting between two and five minutes.”
“Orpheus, normally I’d say that this is a safe space, but as you can see, I’ve succumbed to my nicotine cravings, this is not the time for your inappropriate shenanigans.”
“Brushing my teeth is inappropriate?”
“Let’s talk about something else. How is your family?”
Orpheus lets out a sigh so long and loud his body slides from the chair onto the floor.
“How’s work?” Dr. Mother asks.
“You said no poetry.”
“Do you mean to tell me after all these years we have run out of things to talk about?”
“I’m in love,” groans Orpheus. “What the fuck do you want to talk about?”
“Your goals, your self-development. Your mother, if necessary.”
“In love with a ghost who thinks Hades is the place to be. This old tale again, as if it’s scored into my flesh. What sort of goals do you foresee there, Dr. Mother? What kind of self-development, for her or me? My mother would be proud, I can tell you that. This whole mess is perfect muse-material.”
Dr. Mother slaps the side of her chair as if berating a badly-mannered dog.
“Listen, you impossible child,” she snaps. “For years I have humoured your bullshit, enough is enough. Forget about Eurydice for a second, forget about what you think you feel. Sit down on your fucking chair and act like a human being, if you can remember how.”
“Jeez.” Orpheus drags himself back onto his chair and hangs one leg over the armrest. “What is up with you today?”
“Sit properly,” says Dr. Mother.
“I am. Still growing into my parts, I’ll have you know. Honestly, you’re never this weird. What’s going on?”
Dr. Mother stubs out her cigarette against her phone screen. “I read my daughter’s diary last night.”
“Oh, Dr. Mother. What a stupid thing to do.”
“I know.” Dr. Mother waves her hand at the tiny plume of smoke rising from her singed screen. “She is such a smart girl, but the men she involves herself with… I don’t understand how you can go so wrong.”
Dr. Mother closes her eyes the way only an exasperated mother can.
“I blame the parents,” says Orpheus.
Dr. Mother threatens him with a throw pillow, then sighs.
“Speaking of badly chosen men,” she says, “we haven’t discussed Hamlet for a while. Why is that?”
“Because, first of all, it’s in the past, and also it’s disruptive to my myth.”
“I thought the past had so much more allure.”
Orpheus groans. “That was back when I was lying to myself. You need to keep up.”
“Wouldn’t it be useful to start disrupting your myth? Isn’t your attachment to Eurydice based on some very restrictive assumptions?”
“I don’t know,” says Orpheus, picking his toenails. “I wouldn’t call it attachment. Anyway, I vote for talking about what hurts in the present, not what hurt back then.”
“We should talk about the past, Orpheus,” says Dr. Mother, suddenly back to her true form – this is psychoanalysis, after all. Dr. Mother puts the cigarettes away and opens a window to clear the fumes from her melting phone screen. “Eurydice isn’t where it all began.”
The compass needle spins where Orpheus is sitting. It is earlier in time, much earlier, before Eurydice, when his name wasn’t quite Orpheus but something else, when the love he felt was as consuming and voracious as a swarm of flies.
His food tastes of nothing, the people he sleeps with make no sound, the pages he turns reveal the same words as the ones before.
Orpheus is in love with Hamlet, who is somehow always otherwise engaged. Blablabla, my father’s ghost visits me in my sleep, blablabla, I may have to enact my revenge on a murdering uncle, blablabla, I’ve got to finish this report for my scientific assistant post tomorrow. Oh, I’ve got an essay due on Monday, I was once hurt so badly I don’t remember how to love, and on top of everything I need to apply for MA funding within the coming month. Nightmare.
Orpheus, who is always something of a child, even more so at that age, isn’t always this much of an asshole. At first, when Hamlet catches his eye, Orpheus is a delight. He sings the most enchanting songs he can muster, writes every word of his juvenile poetry addressing Hamlet’s gentle body and beautiful mind. He spends hours listening to Hamlet’s wild ideas, future plans, and endless complaints. He behaves the way Orpheus behaves when he is in love, opening his heart wide and bathing the entire world in his incandescent charms.
So many of his thoughts pertain to Hamlet, who has no use for them. Every inch of his skin is open to Hamlet, who is left cold by its touch. In his immature passion, Orpheus has no weapon against Hamlet’s disinterest except his own loveliness, which crumbles in the face of apathy, and Orpheus’s heart crumbles along with it.
Hamlet sits in their university library for hours without speaking a word to Orpheus, because Hamlet isn’t sure if it’s Orpheus he wants or someone else. After all, the girl who left him might return, and in the meantime there are all these other girls with bright red hair who look so charming when they laugh at his jokes.
Despite this, Hamlet has abstracted from all bodily pleasures and made desire into a completely intangible pursuit, to be led only by the ego in an immaterial realm. He writes love letters to Orpheus, writes poetry, endless lines of worship and erotica, but when they are alone, Hamlet won’t so much as touch him. Orpheus’s body is Hamlet’s fantasy, and as such it must never be consumed, only praised and made love to in words. Orpheus, up on his pedestal, is exhausted by having to hold a pose his agile, living body isn’t meant to hold, his body which wants only to be touched and stroked and played with, but which Hamlet will only caress through language. Hamlet’s mouth and Hamlet’s hands do not understand their purpose, and reduce themselves to verbalisers.
Slowly, Orpheus fades away inside his unreciprocated needs, until after years of this, Hamlet shows up at his door and says, “Why did you leave?” Orpheus says nothing. He builds a fort from blankets to cradle their bodies and offers Hamlet tea, then holds his hand while Hamlet weeps out his exasperation. The next day, Orpheus gives in and says, “I love you Hamlet, I never stopped,” which is true, and Hamlet’s ego is satisfied for a while.
But it isn’t enough, and soon Hamlet is drawn back into his own tumultuous self, and the easy admiration he receives from others. Turns out it’s not just the prospect of a duel that makes Hamlet feel queasy, but anything resembling a twosome. The person Hamlet needs to be is always elsewhere, always out of reach, and there is no room there for Orpheus, who wants reciprocity, to play his lyre and write his poetry, and whose need for physical closeness is too great for what Hamlet will allow himself to give.
“What was it that hurt you about Hamlet, Orpheus?” asks Dr. Mother.
“That whole unshakeable sense that none of what occurred between us was up to me. He removed my body from our bond, made my needs irrelevant and turned me into an idea,” says Orpheus. “I didn’t exist to him, not in my embodied form.”
“Do you think you exist, Orpheus? Physically, I mean.”
Orpheus slaps his thigh, once, then again, and again, and again, until Dr. Mother says, “I get your point. What I mean is, do you believe you deserve to exist physically in a way that compels those you love to engage with you? Don’t you feel you are somehow always a burden just by virtue of having a material presence, and physical needs?”
“You know,” says Orpheus, “you’re not supposed to validate my narratives this way. It’s bad form. I’m in a psychically vulnerable state.”
“I’m sorry,” says Dr. Mother. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me today.”
“Your daughter is sleeping with bikers, I believe. Happens to the best of us.”
Dr. Mother rubs the bridge of her nose. “The most recent one is apparently a knight and falconer. I just don’t know where she digs them up.”
“Can we get back to my story, or do you want to switch seats?”
“Yes,” says Orpheus, “I carry damage. Yes, I once chose someone who exacerbated my fears about being rebuffed in my intensity and needs. Yes, being with Hamlet somehow confirmed my fear of never being a priority to the people I cared about the most. Yes, for years I forgot what it felt like to have a body, to be an agent in the world, to desire and be desired. But I was also young, prey to more insecurities than I could handle, and Hamlet stabbed right into those unpleasant wounds for three continuous years. In a way, it’s remarkable I came out of it able, and willing, to keep desiring, and wanting to be desired. That I came out of it willing to keep trying.”
“I’m very happy to hear you say that, Orpheus,” says Dr. Mother.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t still know how to pick ’em.”
“We all do. Of course we choose those who match our wounds, how could we not? Those vulnerable parts of us that fall in love are also the parts that need the most healing, the most care. Sometimes, those we fall for cause our wounds to deepen, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, and if we accept their goodness, there will be a rare few who help us decontaminate all that festering hurt and redress our narratives, allowing the lesions to slowly heal.”
“I should be so lucky,” says Orpheus.
“You aren’t all that bad at healing yourself, Orpheus. You’re just impatient. Sometimes I worry you’d rather care for the wounds of others than give that attention to yourself. Why? Is it because in others the reward is more visible than in yourself?”
“Eh,” says Orpheus. His lids feel heavy. “Who’s to say.”
“You understand, don’t you, that Eurydice isn’t Hamlet, and vice-versa?”
“And the pain of losing Eurydice isn’t the same as the pain of Hamlet failing to love you,” says Dr. Mother.
“I know that. You’re the one constantly drawing comparisons.”
Outside, the sky has darkened to indicate the end of their session. Dr. Mother’s eyes are glazed over, her mind is already elsewhere. Orpheus can’t blame her, this has been his own condition for a while. The myth is slowly coming apart, undoing the rigidity of its seams, and all of its elements are now floating in free association, and already new matter is growing inside the widening spaces. The last thing that remains is Orpheus, loving Eurydice, this thought of her that will not fade from his mind, the gentle vibration of her that lives in his flesh.