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the firebird

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All the papers on the wooden table had long bled together. The library population was dwindling ; even I could tell through the glass windows that boxed us into our fishbowl of a study room. The sky was dark, which meant that it was truly growing late, and I longed for my lumpy bed in the Aventine Hall. The spring equinox had come and gone, but that seemed to mean nothing to the weather, which was still upsettingly cold. Finals week was upon us, so we had to tally forward, hold out for five days and then revert to our degenerate selves, retreating back home to mother’s cooking and free laundry, gladly trading our freedom and autonomy for a summer of respite.

I had added pressure on me, though, as I didn’t just need to impress my professors, but also one of my project partners. Marcus Iunius Brutus and I had been partnered in one of our law classes to serve as a duo of defense attorneys to represent a John Doe from one of Rome’s cold cases from a few centuries ago, long lost in the public domain. Partnerships were random, but I knew there had to be divine intervention somehow. Marcus Brutus was out of my league. Out of all of our leagues. He was somewhat of a legend on campus, only seen in flashes, rarely heard unless you somehow managed with him. His friends were few and close knit, his demeanor an enigma. I had no idea what he was about or what he was like. As it turned out, he was curt and wasted no words, but still kind. That wasn’t to say that he couldn't, or wouldn’t, be absolutely rotten when he wished to be, but his nature was generally magnanimous. He kept me at arms length, I could tell, and I couldn't really blame him for that, but oh, how I wished that were not so. I don’t know what made me so attracted to him, if it was truly something about him, or if it was the general hype that was tacit throughout the student population.

How could you not be, though? His father was murdered in cold blood, his mother was ridiculously powerful and the rumoured partner of Julius Caesar. His uncle was the renowned statesman, Cato, and his largest influence was a former consul. Every person that made him who he was was wildly contradictory ; what sort of person does that create? From what I had seen, a greatly impersonal, mild, and well-rounded one with more money than he seemed to know what to do with.

Brutus closed his textbook abruptly and leaned back in the wooden chair with a sigh huffed through his nose. I thought I had done something wrong and set my yellow pencil down to look at him. “Penultimate Friday of the semestre,” he said, noticing my quizzical look, “and I feel like shit.”

“We can take a break, if you want.” I didn’t know he could feel like shit.

Brutus leaned forward and the fine silk spun fabric of his dark suit jacked shushed quietly as he rested his elbows on the table. The bright fluorescent lights were harsh against the warm brown of the furniture and the candied hazel of his eyes. I found it hard to meet his gaze. “People have been doing offerings to Bacchus for good luck on their examinations. There’s a party at Theta Chi if you want to be my plus one.”

“I didn’t know you were in a fraternity.” I thought a league of scholars or perhaps a monastery might fit him better.

Brutus rolled his eyes at me with bitter annoyance. “I’m not. That’s the point of the offering, idiot.” He stood up and started separating our copies of things, stuffing his with uncharacteristic haphazardness into his leather satchel. “Are you gonna come?”

I looked at him for a moment. It wasn’t like I couldn't keep working on our project without him, and I wasn’t exactly keen to face my other classes quite yet. I supposed my only other choice was to head back to my dorm and scroll through the same three apps until I inevitably became so exhausted I fell asleep. Besides, Marcus Brutus was inviting me to spend time with him. It made my heart glow in ways I thought was simply being starstruck. This chance might not come again ever, so I packed up my things and followed him out into the cold night.

“My car, or yours?” he asked me.

“Well, I have a Cannondale--”

“Is that a foreign make?”

“It’s actually a bike,” I said, a bit humiliated. Brutus fixed me with a fascinated glance.

“So we’ll take my car then,” he said mildly. I tried not to look too impressed or frantic when the bright, narrowed headlights of an Aston Martin winked at us as Brutus clicked the remote. It was a studious shade of charcoal, sleek and shining even in the dark night, fitting for someone like him. It sat low and had geometrically perfect rims. Brutus sat and shut the door with irreverence. I followed him and ran my hands over the finely upholstered leather seats. He pushed the ignition, and I saw a small smile playing at the corner of his lips, and I hoped he hadn’t noticed me. The radio came on to play the very beginning of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite . The music was foreboding, the engine purring quiet enough for us to hear each dreadful note of the low strings marching a dirge. Brutus drove fast, his left hand on the wheel and his left resting on the door. His jaw clenched slightly when he swapped hands so his right could grip the gear shift. I sat there like a dollop of whipped cream, slowly melting onto the seats.

I had seen a few frat houses on my few college tours and from what my parents had pointed out, and, for the most part, they looked the same. Pretty brickwork, beer cans on the lawn, a pool somewhere, and a patio balcony with a big shiny grill. This was not one of those. This was a mansion, a pristine, white mansion with dizzying tall Corinthian columns that stood like big middle fingers to Classical Greek simplicity. It was Olympian in scale and design and its larger-than-life nature was not discreet about the larger-than-life lump sum of money it surely took to build the palace.

Brutus led me inside, past the tall white gilded double doors, and I was immediately overwhelmed. Lights were flashing all around a sea of people like spirits haunting the large atrium. A DJ was situated in the middle of it all, hyping the crowd up as he built up to the bass drop. The smell of alcohol in the air was heavy and nearly enough to intoxicate me. Cups littered the ground amongst smashed glass and little pink capsules. The bass dropped and the lights began flashing so rapidly I could only make out bits and pieces of what was going on. I could feel the music through the floor, and it made my knees weak and disoriented me. I felt like everything was moving. The crowd was headbanging, throwing drinks up to the high ceiling. There were too many people suddenly around me, too much to smell and see and panic started to rise in my chest, and the familiar irritation of sensory overload made me surly. Somebody took my hand and I saw, through the flashing lights, the face of Brutus. He looked ghastly, but mildly unbothered by the Bacchic surroundings. He pulled me in close, so close that his lips brushed the shell of my ear. I could hear his voice, that thin baritone whose timbre seemed to draw silence from everyone who listened, just so he could say his handful of curt, direct words and be silent once more. I couldn't make out what he said, so I nodded along anyway. Brutus slipped behind me, releasing my hand and starting down clearing of people. I took that as my cue to follow and trailed behind him. He led me a grand staircase with a velvet carpet over the marble stairs, looking regal against the bronze handrail. There were some people scattered along the path, and they hardly seemed to notice us go by. We reached the top of the stairs and went down a subcorridor, tall windows framed with damask drapes on one side and a long row of doors on the other. Brutus seemed to know this path well, opening a random door with little fanfare and sidling in.

“Where’s the fuckin’ blow at?” Brutus greeted. A man wearing a tank top with deep arms that exposed his muscular side down to his hips, and shorts so short his balls nearly hung out, stood from a paisley chaise to greet us. A porno film was playing on the television. His legs were sculpted and his nose obtuse and aquiline. He was a beast of a man, not quite taller than Brutus, but he could probably throw him across the Colosseum all the same. His presence was larger than life, and he seemed command authority just by existing.

“Brutus, baby,” he said, grasping Brutus’s hand roughly and pulling him in for a peck on the lips, his other hand resting on Brutus’s bony waist.

“I missed you, Mark,” his eyes glittered as he pulled away, seemingly self - conscious. I wondered if it was because of me.

“No, you didn’t.”

Brutus glossed over the remark with an impartial blink. “This is Caius Cassius Longinus. This is his first year at uni, but he’s a transfer student.”

“Marcus Antonius.” I thought he was going to kiss me too, but he didn’t. I couldn't decide if I was glad that he hadn’t or if I wish he had, just to denounce what it meant that he kissed Brutus.

“You play on the football team, don’t you?” That seemed to please him.

Please ,” Brutus scoffed and patted Antony’s chest, “don’t stroke his massive ego.”

“I’d much rather you stroke my massive--”

“Don’t you have any coke around here?”

“Why didn’t you ask sooner?” Antony said, and then rifled about in the cushions of the chaise to pull out a little bag of white powder. Their hands met, and I saw the dull flash of a bill being traded as Brutus took the baggie. He jiggled it in front of my eyes.

“Ever mainline before?”

I felt sick to my stomach. I wanted to go home. “No.”

“Not even snorted it?”

“No.”

We went down the line (no pun intended). It embarrassed me, but I could tell it amused Brutus, so I played along. Somewhere along the inquisition, Antony had gone to sit on a couch and was flipping through television channels. “Have you had Tylenol?” He asked. He was wearing novelty glasses with two beer glasses on the eyes. Brutus snickered.

“Play nice, Antony. Don’t you know drugs kill?" His tone was facetious and taunting, but I didn't know who it was directed at. "Speaking of, where’s Curio?”

“He’s in the bathroom smoking dope or fucking somebody or taking a shit, I think.”

“Come with, Cassius?” He smiled at me, quasi-goofy (as goofy as someone so studious and sophisticated could be) and waggled the bag. I was almost tempted to go with him, just for that smile. It was alluring. He was alluring. Brutus was the kind of person who drew everyone in, just for the mysticism of his lineage and the almost inhumanly perfect way he carried himself. He was attractive in that way, and yet he held himself almost entirely isolated, not speaking to anyone unless he had to. Like me. It made him all the more attractive, and for some reason, I was a slave to his aura, desperately parched for more of him, like a kid on his name-day tearing open the paper on gifts to see what lay beneath. But alas, I was too afraid to say yes.

“Not this time, I think.”

“Suit yourself,” he shrugged. “Just a few hits and then we can enjoy the party.” Brutus disappeared down the hall, and I was alone.

I felt displaced in the lavish loft. I didn’t belong with this crowd, and I absolutely did not want to. But I felt obligated to stay anyway because Brutus was there, and beyond being my ride, I wanted to impress him in some way, to show him that I could keep up, even though I was stuck floundering out of my depth. I went to sit beside Antony, who was the picture of a boy prince, thrust on the sofa, his legs splayed carelessly, his long fingers rubbing mindlessly at the beautiful upholstery, every curve and pull of his body the muse of those Ancient Greek statues. He had the television remote in one hand, and he was idly flipping through channels, the little tk as the picture changed almost falling in step with the thumping music downstairs. I had almost grown immune to the electronic pulsing, just as I did the sound of the channels changing, and only recognised its absence when he stopped on some preacher.

The man was Christian by the looks of it. This was the only time such unpopular content could be aired, in the pitch black dark of the night when no upstanding Roman could be offended by it. He wore a brown suit and had a receding hairline with baby eyes framed with crow’s feet that crinkled as he spoke, all garnished with a sheen of sweat that he would, occasionally, stop to mop with a handkerchief. A neon crucifix steadily changed from green to pink to orange to blue to green behind him on the podium. They don’t show the crowd, but I can tell it’s empty. “You feel confused. You feel lost,” he told me, staring straight into the camera. “You don’t know what’s going on. Everything seems to change, but yet our world stays the same, and you’re lost in it. That’s why you feel hopeless, helpless. That’s why you feel so lost, because you don’t have the power to do anything about it. You don’t have the power to change the world. Only one does, and He will come. Jesus will come again.” His gaze broke away from mine to gaze up at the ceiling. “Heavenly Father, I ask you to come set our society straight, punish us where we have failed You, and set the captives free and teach our captors.” He was looking at me. He raised a thick finger and pointed. A bead of sweat ran down his face. “Submit! Submit to the Lord! Let this be your night of Deliverance, of Salvation! Pray to Jesus, tell Him, ‘I confess my sins and ask for Forgiveness’. Only then,” he calmed, “may you feel the unspeakable ecstasy, and you will find God. In Jesus name, Amen. Amen! ” Antony flipped the channel to an infomercial for a knife set. I waited for something to happen but nothing did.

We were roused by the sound of a crash coming down the hall. Antony and I exchanged a look (I felt uncomfortable under his gaze.) and got up to go investigate. Antony led me into a bathroom. A chandelier was on the ceiling, bringing out flecks of gold in the granite countertops and the cool onyx floors. Another man was there, decidedly older than Antony. A dark shape was behind the frosted glass around the shower. Antony pulled the door away. Brutus was on the tile, a white crust on his nose. His dark hair drooped  into his eyes, the pomade long given up. His suit jacket was crumpled and wet beneath the faucet, and one sleeve of his white dress shirt haphazardly tugged up to his bicep. He didn’t seem to notice us. There’s a thick liquid in a spoon, barely balanced in his trembling hands. He took a cotton ball and wadded it up, pinched it small between his fingers and dipped it in the liquid. Brutus took a syringe that was resting dangerously on his stomach and stuck it in the cotton, drawing it up into the chamber slowly. He reached for a belt, his belt. I noticed his pants were unbuttoned too, and he was half hard. He wrapped the belt around his arm, and suddenly, a field on needle tracks bulged out from his pale flesh. I felt sick. I felt disturbed. I couldn't stop myself from watching on in horror, but none of us could.

“C’mon Brutus,” said Antony, and his voice sounded wary. I looked over at him, hoping he might do something to stop it, but his lips were beginning to grow into a smile, and I realised that he wanted him to do this. Why wouldn’t he? By all political standings, they should be enemies. From what I understood, Antony was his dealer. For all I knew, he set him on this path of ruin. Brutus didn’t say anything, just slapped his arm to find a vein. He held the syringe and dipped it into his flesh, trembling fingers pushing down slowly on the plunger.

“This is wild,” said Antony’s friend. Blood began to fill the syringe. As if that all wasn’t bad enough, Brutus started to sniffle. At first I thought it was because of the cocaine, but then tears started to fall down his cheeks. He rolled on his side, his back to us, and I heard the clatter of the syringe falling to the tile. He let out a low moan, and I don’t remember much of the next minute. Perhaps it traumatised me in some way, but I can’t remember fully in what order things happened in, but I know, generally, what happened. Brutus began to seize violently, and someone, I think it was the third man, went to him. Drool was pouring out of his mouth and his eyes were wide are scared, his pupils dilated severely. I couldn't bear the sight of it anymore, of him. Neither could Antony, as he left the bathroom in a pale faced flurry.

“What’s happening to him?” I demanded, even though I knew full well what was happening to him. I simply couldn't bring myself to believe it. “We have to take him to a hospital!” I exclaimed as I followed Antony out back into the room where I had first come in. I could hear Brutus retching in the beautiful marble bathroom.

He whirled on me suddenly. “ Really ?” Antony scoffed a laugh, too drunk or too high to realise how ridiculous he looked in his beer sunglasses. “You’re gonna take him, are you? You’re gonna tell a fucking consul of Rome and the second richest woman in Rome and the biggest dickhead in Rome that their golden boy is OD’ing on coke during the last week of school?”

I balked. He had a point.

“Look, he’ll be fine. Just lie him down somewhere and give him one or two of these,” he pulled a worn and faded plastic back from between two cushions of the chaise and shoved it into my chest.

“What the hell are these?”

“Flintstone vitamins to make him big and strong,” said Antony. I could barely make out his eyes rolling from behind those stupid glasses. “It’s fentanyl.” That was serious stuff.

“Well fuck, man, do I give him one or do I give him two?”

“That’s your prerogative, just get him out of here.” I stared at Antony for a moment, just about pleading for him to do something , to offer to come with me just to make sure I didn’t fuck anything up. The care of another human being in such a terrifying state was quite a charge, and it didn’t get any better when that charge was Marcus Iunius Brutus. Antony’s only additive to my awful situation was to give me the keys to the car. He went back into the bathroom, leaving me alone to watch the knife infomercial, to go collect Brutus. I wanted to go with him, but I couldn't will my feet to move. I could hear them talking indistinctly, and it sounded like they were underwater, or maybe I was underwater. My eyes focused on nothing.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“What in the fuck do you want to hear?”

“Don’t you care about me? What about us?”

“What about us?”

I didn’t drive more than thirty miles per hour, and I was thankful for the late hour, as no one was out. My hands gripped the wheel, and I almost drove off the road numerous times as I looked at the back seat to make sure Brutus was still alive and quasi-well. The RA was inattentive, and gave us a passing glance as I just about carried Brutus to my room, praying that we wouldn’t run into any night owls haunting the halls. I locked my door behind us and even moved my desk to cover it for good measure.

“Just lay down,” I said as soothingly as I could, trying to jostle Brutus off of me and into my bed, but his grip was strong and true. His eyes were wild and his clammy hand was tangled in my shirt, pulling me so hard, I knew it was stretched beyond repair.

“Please,” Brutus begged, huffing hard, his other hand scabbling at his throat, “please, please, help me, I don’t want to die anymore, I’m scared.” He was ranting, raving, any semblance of that cool control and genteel temperance erased from his constitution. It was hard for me to remember that he was the same kid that I saw striding beside his thesis advisor, deep in academic conversation, his brow furrowed and his jaw held tight, even as his eyes glittered with the thrill anyone could tell learning gave him. Maybe it was all just an act. I didn’t know which side of him was him.

“It’s okay, you’re going to be just fine,” I told him. Truly, I had no idea if he would be.

Tears leaked out of his eyes and dripped into his ears. Brutus seemed consoled enough to let me lay him back in my bed, the frame creaking slightly as he gave into the twanging boxsprings. “I want my mom,” he whispered, still holding tight to my shirt.

“She’s on her way, she’ll be here in a few minutes.” I wasn’t sure why I lied, but it seemed to put him at ease, and his knuckles popped as he released me.

I sat with him until the sky started to lighten and the cedar trees pressed black against the stars. He slipped in and out of consciousness, sleeping longer and longer as his vomiting wore him out. “I have to say,” I said from where I sat on the floor, my back against the wall opposite to the bed so I could face him. The baggie of pills was still on the bedside table. I knew anyone could come in, but I couldn't bring myself to get up and do something with them. Stuff them under my mattress pad or flush them or take one just for the hell of it or something . His eyes somehow opened and they rested on me. His gaze was heavy, and I couldn't hold it for long. There were ashes in his eyes, a desolation. I didn’t want to see that in him. It was like watching Rome weep the morning after it burned. “I have to say,” I said, “this isn’t what I expected you’d be like.”

He smiled, weak and tired, and looked away from me. Brutus shifted on my bed slightly, jostling a thick stream of blood and mucus from his nose. He swiped at it with the back of his wrist and the pristine cuffs of his shirt were stained crimson. His leg slipped off my unmade bed and he slumped diagonal and his hair hung around his sweating face. “What did you expect, babes?” He rasped. I thought about getting him some water. “My mom? My uncle? Cicero?” His tone soured and Brutus scowled at me. “What the fuck did you expect, Cassius?”

Brutus was a prodigy in every way, and everyone knew everything about him since the day he was born, even me. He knew his father’s killer personally. His mother was Caesar’s mistress. He was Cicero’s protege. And Cato’s. And Servilia’s. And everyone’s. He was on the speech and debate team, which was ranked nationally. He was a student senator. He was an occasional frequenter on the covers of tabloids in the grocery store lines. He wore Brooks Brothers suits and rectangular glasses with a light prescription and he polished his oxfords and carried his books instead of putting them in a bag and he didn’t drink coffee but he liked black tea and he spoke all sorts of languages and he was as charming as he was abrasive, as gentle as he could be savagely cruel. But no one really knew who he was. I don’t think he did, either.

Where’s the fuckin’ blow at? The words still echoed in my ears. They made me feel worse than a kid seeing Mickey Mouse take his head off, seeing that cartoon idols held in godly reverence were just people too. The picture of scholarly perfection had fallen away, coked out and drooling with blood steadily leaking out of his nose and no concept of anything. “I don’t know,” I said. “Who are you?”

Brutus sneezed and blood spattered his hand. I started to grab him a tissue or a cloth or something, but he didn’t even seem to notice that he was bleeding. “Who are you ?” he countered.

“Who are you?”

“Stop fucking asking me that.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m a terrible fucking person, and the sooner you realise that, the better.”

I wanted to validate him, to tell him otherwise, but the truth was, I had no authority to say. I didn’t know better. Maybe he was a good person, maybe he wasn’t. When I thought of bad people and the things that bound them, categorised them as bad people, I couldn't see Brutus among them. Perhaps I was romanticising him, and the idea of him, but he was too complex to say one way or the other. He was too confused to say one way or the other. I couldn't blame him for falling apart. How could he not, with all of those influences pulling every which way on him until he has no place to turn and no way to escape? I pitied him, and I hated that I did. “I don’t think that matters,” I said quietly.

He head lolled to the side so he could look at me. “Why?"

“I don’t know,” I shrugged and said what may have been the only truth I had said all night. “You don't have to know." I think it was the first time someone had ever said something like that to him. 

The images of that night stayed branded in my mind long after the school year had been done, filling the miserable emptiness of a lonely Roman summer, plagued by feelings I couldn't name, nights of longing and sadness and unrest separated by a maddening malaise. I tried to hold onto any trace of him I could for reasons that I couldn't completely understand. I didn't want to remember him like that, but my only other memories of him were simply fraudulent. Sometimes I would think of them, of him, and they would echo in my mind for days, and I could tell he knew in the way that our eyes met in passing. I never asked him about it and he never told me. Those memories were personal, and no one I knew, not Antony and not Brutus, had them in quite the same way I did. They remained with me until the very very end. What about us?You don't have the power to change the world. This is wild. What about us? You feel confused. You feel lost. You feel confused. You feel lost. They seemed to be the only thing I could grasp onto for a long time afterwards.