Rafts in a Raging Sea
Three full moons have waned since last I wrote your name. The month
is August; the summer is broad and mature. I have been here, in
Tibur, the entire season. There is no Vitalis. There is no Decentius.
The emotional and sensual isolation I often feel is beyond description.
I have struggled, my friend, to abandon any thought of you. I have
tried desperately to resist the desire to set down words in your
name and bathe for a spell in the image of you. And I have generally
succeeded, more from the sheer will of it than by the fullness of
my days, which have in themselves become somewhat routine. Yet I
have recently arrived at the conclusion that to fight the desire
of writing to you is pointless, for all it does is to foment a far
greater sense of grief than the sadness I feel now, at composing
this missive that is destined to be never received. Perhaps the
lopsided logic of my brain goes something like this: To refuse to
write at all is an act of aggression against your memory, whereas
to indulge the desire is to acknowledge my enduring love for you.
It is a recurring requiem for our togetherness; an endless paean
in the name of our distant oneness.
Thus have I capitulated. Thus have I returned to the parchment and
the sacred rite of placing your name at its top. What I report to
you, therefore, becomes less important than the act of reporting
it. I take comfort in the thought that I am telling my stories to
Lysicles; far less in the contemplation and valuation of the stories
Hadrian and his immediate circle is by now quite accessible to me.
I am engaged by it and welcomed into it on a regular basis. For
the most part, it is a very agreeable company. Hadrian himself is
a remarkable man whom I admire and respect greatly. His advisors
are all capable and proud, and of them I am particularly fond of
the Caesernii brothers. They, in turn, seem to hold me in high regard,
mostly because I am quite adept at knowing when to wag my tongue
and when to hold it. Fuscus, whose appearance in Hadrian’s
vicinity is erratic and intermittent, no longer seems to disparage
my presence, although he has done nothing to indicate his acceptance
of it. He simply regards me with a cordial formality that is, in
the final analysis, tolerable. Phlegon, in contrast, treats me very
kindly and seems at times even paternalistic in his relations. I
am grateful for his support, for he, like Macedo and Statianus,
takes pains to interpret for me Hadrian’s behaviour when it
is thought that I could be adversely affected by it.
Notwithstanding their assistance, I have become quite skilled myself
at understanding the whims and wishes, styles and utterances of
Hadrian. He is an exacting and energetic man, powered by a most
amazing mind that can read a piece of correspondence concerning
the tax collections of a far-off province while conversing with
its messenger about the conditions of the road upon which it arrived.
All the while, he shall be formulating in his brain a precise and
apposite edict; a detailed set of policy adjustments for the province
in question which he’ll dictate efficiently to Phlegon the
moment the messenger’s report is ended. Then, suddenly, he
shall turn to me and ask which of two lines verse I most preferred
from the performance of a poet the night before. He shall recite
each of them with perfect recollection, and then listen critically
to my response. He shall respond in turn, and engage with me in
a sprawling (and yet, paradoxically, inconsequential) debate regarding
the finer points of that particular poet’s skill. And then
he shall announce an amendment to the design of his latest construction
project here at the villa, which he’ll hastily scratch out
for the benefit of his fellow architects while he debates with us
all about the colour of marble that would be best suited upon its
floors. All of this, incidentally, in the span of about a quarter
of an hour.
How can I not but admire him? More substantially, how can any that
knows him not acknowledge that he is indeed ordained by the gods
to rule Rome? Which makes all the more puzzling to me his friction
with the Senate and their stubborn refusal to honour him as a great
and glorious benefactor. Has he not proven himself constant and
trustworthy? Has he not made clear that the tumultuous early days
of his reign were not, as many feared, the harbingers of an enduring
terror but the swift, necessary, and limited actions of a decisive
ruler in search of stability? Shall he never be forgiven? It is
the Senate that repulses him from Rome; that indirectly persuades
him here, to Tibur.
And so I too am here. I am a companion and a friend to him, albeit
one whose interactions are strictly public and limited to such activities
that take place in full view of the court. We hunt and we dine,
we bathe and we partake in the theatre of debate. Yet we do not
exchange our private, physical pleasures. For that, Hadrian calls
other boys into his bedchamber, and disposes of them as frequently.
To me is left the pleasure of my fingers, or, if I am deliberate
in locating it, the company of random strangers that wish only to
record me as a notch in their walking sticks and care little to
know of me in depth.
“Does that upset you?” asked Macedo recently. “Of
course it does,” I replied, knowing full well how useless
it would be to lie to him. It also occurred that he needn’t
have bothered to ask it: he surely already knew the answer. Yet
it was his custom to ask directly, and use the response as a gateway
into more targeted conversation.
“You should not be,” he said. “It is a mark of
the esteem he holds for you, that you have already moved directly
into the circle of his immediate counsel.”
“Do not insult me, Macedo. Hadrian’s bed is not a hurdle
over which one must climb in order to reach the inner sanctum of
his counsel. Were you ever in his bed? Was your brother? Such prescripts
are not so rigid and defined. And while I am certainly pleased to
find myself so readily consulted and so often present in his company,
I am nevertheless disheartened that such company does not extend
to more intimate pleasures. Not because I wish for the formality
of Favourite, nor the structured pace of its duties, but simply
because I desire him! He is a fascinating and wondrous man who has
enraptured my imagination. I wish to give of myself to him. I wish
to take for myself from him. Yet he consistently, consciously, and
conspicuously refuses to admit me.”
“Then you must assert yourself,” said Macedo simply.
“You must impress upon him the folly of his delay.”
I sighed at that, and said, “But it is not folly, my friend.
There is a very real, if not unreal, reason for his hesitation.
The dilemma rests in his inability to find a suitable garb, definition,
and category for his unusually ardent love for me.” Macedo
knew better than to assume that I spoke from a place of excessive
self-regard. He knew my words and my frustration to be genuine.
Yet he did not know how I knew them. And so he asked: “How
do you know this?” Thus I replied, just as simply: “He
There blossomed between us a few moments of thoughtful silence.
At last Macedo asked, “But why must such a love be named at
all? Why can he not just embrace it, and let it be as it will be?”
Indeed, it was a very good question. And though I felt it to be
a powerful and useful question to ask, I also suddenly found myself
inside Hadrian’s head, where I was able to formulate an answer
according to his particular logic: “Because beyond these walls,
Sir, is a vast and cruel world, filled with the talk of ignorant
fools, who shall seek to destroy him on account of his refusal to
Macedo smiled at me. There was a deep and coursing respect in his
gaze. And then he spoke: “Antinous the wise.” With that,
he nodded singly, turned, and walked away, leaving me alone to ponder
amid the lush stillness of a buzzing garden.
How many gods shall I thank for the Caesernii brothers? Knowing
that they are concerned for me, and watch over me, and esteem me
as an equal, seems somehow to make the daily revolution of sun and
stars more bearable. They are good and unimpeachable friends. In
Hadrian’s paradoxically isolating company, I am eternally
grateful for the quiet and understated smiles of Macedo and Statianus.
Like rafts in a raging sea, they sustain me and keep me from drowning.