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The Orpheus Paradox: Maybe Looking Back Can Help You Move Forward

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Illustration by Shutterstock, Edited by Lindsay Hattrick

With so much to learn from what has already passed, who wouldn't begin to accurately guess at what is ahead?

After his lover Eurydice's untimely death, Orpheus descends to the Underworld to attempt to win her back. He plays his lyre for Hades, who is so moved that he grants Orpheus permission to lead Eurydice out, warning him that he must not turn around to look back at her, or she will be lost forever. Orpheus agrees, believing the task to be easy, but ultimately, suspicion is his downfall. He turns around, needing to be sure that Eurydice is following him. She is quiet, undetectable, as all shades are, but—mere steps from the sunlit realm of the land of the living, mere seconds from rejoining her lover to resume their lives together—she is there. She was there. If only Orpheus had not decided to turn around.


*

I bought my very first pack of cigarettes during a recent trip to Paris. I was traveling alone, beholden to absolutely no one's schedule and whims and impulses but my own, and I found myself falling victim to the aesthetic allure, however cliché and unhealthy. After a leisurely dinner at a restaurant in Montmartre, I made a beeline into a small tabac and asked for recommendations—Lucky Strike, I was advised—and received a miniature yellow lighter as well. The cashier's smile was warm, amused. I waited until after I'd taken the wrong bus, gotten off, boarded the correct one, followed Google Maps to the quiet side street of my destination, across the street from the gentle blue glow of its sign, to take out my cigarettes.

Immediately, an older woman passing by gently asked me to smoke elsewhere; I was in front of the windows of someone's apartment, and they might not like if my smoke blew inside. Would I mind moving? I acquiesced at once, horrified by my total disregard for this obvious gaffe; thrilled to have understood every word of her chiding. Across the street, on the tiny sidewalk beneath that blue glow, I took my first drag. It was near 9pm. A man and his small dog walked past me, and then I was alone, the sun sinking languidly in the sky. I exhaled, head swimming, glancing down at the lipstick stain. It was wasteful, and foolish, buying these cigarettes, but I had wanted to, and so I did. I took another drag, then another, then scuffed out the orange glow beneath my heel and went inside.

*

As a young child, I learned about the destruction of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah, as recounted in the book of Genesis, Chapter 19. I always found the opacity of the tale frustrating: I knew that the evils of the city had something to do with sex, and a few years later, gay sex, but it lacked the level of detail I hungered for, although I was aware that wasn't the point. Two angels arrive in the city, and Lot, a nephew of Abraham, recognizes their divinity immediately, urging them to stay in the safety of his house, rather than the dangerous town square, where they had planned to find accommodation. Lot's fears are proven correct when a group of men from the city show up at his door, demanding for his guests to be brought out so that they can have sex with them. Lot refuses, but offers the men his daughters instead, insisting that his guests have earned his protection by being sheltered beneath his roof. The men of the city are outraged, and threaten violence, but his guests spring into action, dragging Lot back into the house and striking the men blind. Then they tell Lot that he needs to leave at once, because his city is about to be destroyed.

Lot goes, but his wife, Sarah, doesn't heed the angel's command to flee without looking back. Her punishment is swift and total.

*

There was no one in the bar: just empty tables hosting empty chairs. I swayed unsteadily in the doorway, wondering if I should leave, but found a perch at the bar instead, giving what had become my signature drink order: une Soixante-quatre, usually the cheapest beer on the menu, and totally adequate. The bartender poured, and didn't ask where I was from, why I was there, or otherwise indicate any intention to engage me in conversation. My relief, instinctual to the point of impertinence, hinged rustily on my sudden desire to be seen. The owner, also seated, on the other side of the bar, didn't offer me much in the way of attention either, though, and so I sipped, quiet, still, while they talked to each other. And then I noticed the owls.


I didn't really have a plan, I realized, not past this point


They were congregated on the shelves of the bar opposite me: ceramic and porcelain owls, plastic and wooden; some the size of my fist, others a thimble, most about as big as a tangerine. The French word for owl is hibou, I recalled, and thought about formulating a question about their startling ubiquity in this festive, empty place, but took another sip of my beer instead, catching the condensation with the tips of my fingers. I didn't know what I would do when I'd drained the glass, and fished the requested currency from my wallet. I didn't really have a plan, I realized, not past this point, which struck the most peculiar cord, somewhere between despair and giddiness. I could do whatever I wanted.

*

The goddess Athena chose the owl for her mascot, and so the Greeks ascribed it wisdom, which stuck, as far as Western culture is concerned. Think, cartoon owls in glasses, those peevish, hooting professors. I can't help but assume it has something to do with their ability to turn their heads nearly 360 degrees, to observe in exaggerated panorama. Imagine being able to see not only behind, but beyond yourself: angles that should be invisible, inaccessible; the hypothetical peripheral. There are things I've done that I regret, of course, and those I have not done, but maybe wisdom is not in the rejection of regret, but the willingness to bear it, in measured doses, when you're ready. Examining the contours of a road once taken, hidden as it may be beneath the tangled weeds of abandonment, of the years gone by. Why? Why did I do that? Why didn't I say that? I'll never see all sides, I know, but I'm curious. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious.

I'm curious about what Eurydice thought when Orpheus turned around. Do shades feel? Disappointment, maybe, shot through with rage. Sorrow, staining her wearied resignation. Pity, even, as she was whisked back, back into the land of the dead, forever this time. And what did she see? His shock? His anguish? I wonder if there was a moment of relieved exhilaration to have the proof of her, of the validity of his rescue mission legitimized. How steep the cost for that second of confirmation, of doubt assuaged. He would always know that it would have worked. He would always know that, and perhaps begin to wish that he didn't. I think I would rather train my eyes forward and suffer through the doubt, rather than gain surety and loss in one single, swooping instant.

Of course, that is not what I did. Orpheus is as easy to replicate as he is to judge.

*

In July, I visited Paris alone, which worried and saddened my mother. Eight years ago, I'd occupied a tiny apartment in the 12th arrondissement for eight months, which I returned to this summer on a sweltering day, shielding my eyes from the sun as I stood awkwardly on the cobblestoned street. I tried to telegraph confidence and a sense of belonging to the curious eyes that followed me from the métro, although I didn't belong, not really; I never had. It was a crucial stop in my nostalgia tour, this walk through my old neighborhood: the street where I was pursued by a catcaller for several blocks before he gave up the chase, my laundromat with the drafty windows, my boulanger, whose baguettes were perfectly fine, my overpriced grocery store. Several blocks over, the library I once frequented, from which I'd borrowed a book I knew so well in English that I read it effortlessly in French. For six glorious days, I immersed myself in memory, retracing the steps I'd taken that had led me, ultimately, right back here: at a restaurant over a block and down the street from my former home, nursing pretzels and a Soixante-quatre, swatting away a persistent fly as car horns blared in the early evening traffic, sweating and alone.

*

As a child, I was taught that God loved everyone the same, no matter their sin. The Old Testament was rife with implausible laws and terrifying imagery: entire populations being destroyed in fire and water by their Creator, caught completely unawares. I read the stories and prayed and shuddered and put them out of my mind. The God of the New Testament was not so quick to righteous anger, blunted by his son's mortal sacrifice—however abandoned Jesus felt at the very end, as he hung there, dying.

I was young, but I wasn't fooled: magnanimous lip service aside, it was obvious that some sins ranked as more egregious than others. When I learned, around seven or eight years old, what a lesbian was, I tried to relay the information to my best friend and an older acquaintance during a church trip, buzzing with pride, feeling uncharacteristically worldly.


I was taught that God loved everyone the same, no matter their sin


"One second," the older girl interrupted in a whisper, then whirled around to address the rest of the bus at large, raising her voice to a shout. "CARLA'S TALKING ABOUT LESBIANS!" She turned back to me and my best friend, who was snickering helplessly, a cruel betrayal. "Okay, keep going."

I received a stern warning, laced with Biblical disappointment, and slunk deep into my seat, so furious and ashamed I couldn't speak a word the rest of the way home. I had no idea what lesbians did together, but I did know that they were the inverse of men who committed sodomy, the same kinds of men who earned their fiery deaths at the hands of those angels Lot had protected. Decades later, when I continued that conversation with the same best friend—privately, this time—she absorbed my news silently, and then asked, "But what about Adam and Eve?"

It took me a few seconds to realize she wasn't joking.

*

Sodom was Sarah's home, so I couldn't blame her for looking back. It was all she knew. All she would ever know.

As a child, I found the image both horrifying and sort of lovely, in a melancholy way: I liked to imagine her frozen figure—neck craned, eyes seeking, beseeching, spine curved to a slight pivot—transformed into pure, gleaming salt. There was some small part of me, the part that yearned to jump from high places and shriek obscenities in hushed rooms, that admired and even envied her abandon, her decision to turn and look, because she wanted to, and chose not to repress the urge. Damn the consequences. I hope what she saw was spectacular, even in its horror. I hope she didn't even have time for regret: just that one thrilling moment to marvel, airborne, before such complete, quiet obliteration.

*

In many African cultures, owls are seen as malevolent animals: harbingers of death and evil magic. European legend held them in similar regard: creatures of the night, foretelling death and misfortune. According to a popular British myth, an owl would turn its head to keep its gaze fixed on an object until it snapped its own neck. Appalachian folklore believed that an owl circling in the sky during the day was an ominous sign. What is more unsettling than a creature with such a pliable, piercing gaze? The notion that its gift bears no significance. We need the owl to be majestic and wise, to be diviners and arbiters, because they do what we cannot: look far behind themselves, without regret, without injury, without fear of censure or loss. With so much to learn from what has already passed, who wouldn't begin to accurately guess at what is ahead?

*

I wandered into the bar on a Tuesday, as that was the night they offered weekly tarot readings that I'd hoped to glean some insight from, anxious though I was about the inevitable language barrier. My fluency manifested only in dreams and after one too many drinks. When I finally mustered the courage to break the silence, I learned that the reader had left hours ago. Hundreds of owl eyes watched me nod and swallow my mild disappointment. Foolishly, I had assumed the tarot reader would be there all night. I thought I'd had time.

Outside the bar, I paused, then turned. The sign's blue glow was brighter in the absence of sun, so I took a photo of it before walking away.

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