Achilles’s Heel

by Charlotte Dovey

Achilles’s father came from a family of working class immigrants from Greece.  His father, Euripides, was a wonderful, innovative young chef with a warm, vibrant personality, who opened a small Greek restaurant in a middle-class neighborhood that was increasingly desirable due to academics and artists from a nearby university expanding into the area.  Achilles’s mother, Chloé, was an art student from that university when she met Euripides.

Chloé’s family fancied themselves elite since they were well-off distant relatives of minor aristocrats.  It did not occur to them that most aspiring middle and upper-middle-class families can boast the same, somewhere in their distant ancestry.  While Chloé’s family did not object to her studying to be an artist, this was mostly because they, like many such people with a belief in their own superiority, thought themselves cultured.  They also humored her because as a girl it was assumed that her value lie in marrying well and producing children who would be raised to be ruling class elite; finding a suitable husband would involve a university degree.  They assumed that she would marry a distinguished businessman, despite her unremarkable appearance.  She had a somewhat dark complexion and unruly hair that required intensive management to tame – at least she dressed well, had good teeth, a clear complexion, was not overweight, and she carried herself with dignity.

Chloé did not exhibit any outright rebellion, but there was a subtle shift in her attitude when she went to college.  As she was surrounded by unconventional, artistic people who cared about art and creativity more than conventionality, this attitude seemed to pass on to her.  She began to dress more colorfully and she no longer bothered about supressing her frizzy hair, but began to wear it loosely tied up.  When she and some friends began to frequent Euripides’s nearby restaurant, she immediately took a liking to the young man, whose open frankness and infectious warmth and vivacity charmed her.  He also took a liking to the quiet sophistication and quirky appeal of the young woman. 

Chloé’s family was surprised by their marriage, but it was not their way to criticize her outright.  Rather, they exhibited their displeasure by holding themselves aloof from them both and gossiping behind their backs. 

Many years after Achilles was born, Euripides began to drink.  It began when his own dear sister had died suddenly in a car crash.  As his drinking got worse, he grew less organized and his business suffered.  While they had never been well-off, they fell into financial difficulties. 

Achilles did not see his mother’s family often.  He assumed that it was because they lived in another state, some hours’ drive from their own home.  Sometimes on holidays his mother brought him to their dinner parties and they stayed overnight, then made the long drive back the next morning. 

Achilles felt awkward and out of place in the big house, himself being used to living in an apartment over their restaurant, but he was nonetheless envious of his cousin’s bedrooms, their large garden, and their expensive clothes.  He also suffered his cousin’s comments about their own private schools and holidays abroad – he felt somehow inferior since he did not have these things, and because his cousins’ tone was that of superiority inherited from their parents.  His aunts and uncles were cool to him, though occasionally, politely but disinterestedly, asking him about his interests at school, and of course correcting his manners while they did so.  They raised their eyebrows at their clothes, and looked askance at Euripides whenever he spoke, as he drank too much and his voice was too loud.  Chloé’s family members always made a point to ask them how their business was, and about Euripides’s health.  Eventually, Euripides stopped going and sent Chloé and Achilles on their own.

Euripides often took them to spend time with his own family who lived nearby.  Achilles was always aware that while his mother loved Euripides’s family, and they loved her, she was very different from them, more distant and reserved.  They all described her as “very proper” and “lady-like.”  Achilles quite liked going to see his father’s family, as they were warm and affectionate and there was always a lot of activity, even chaos, with children and animals running about and a lot of aunts and uncles who were always delighted to see them.  There was always an abundance of Greek food – trays of homemade spanakopita, lamb roasted with rosemary and lemon, chickens stuffed with lemons, olives marinated in olive oil, and galaktoboureko and baklava.  Sometimes a relative would bring tins of halva back from Greece.  At these visits, people laughed, or sometimes argued loudly, mostly over politics but sometimes over petty things, such as how best to roast a turkey, and after dinner the adults drank Turkish coffee and sometimes ouzo out of little glasses.  Achilles especially loved his grandparents, who were affectionate people, even if they did sometimes hurt his father’s feelings, and his own, about his drinking.      

When Achilles was seventeen years old, his mother took him to her family’s house for an Easter brunch.  Euripides’s family celebrated it on a different day, but he happily went along for a second feast in as many weeks. 

Achilles always struggled to find someone to talk to at these events, a striking contrast with his father’s family, and was always grateful when people included him in conversation.  His uncle’s wife, a cool woman who only ever engaged with people superficially, approached him.  In an offhand manner, she asked him what he would like to do when he finished high school later that spring.  Euripides had seen his cousins go off to college and the eldest was about to start law school, and he knew from his father’s family that going to college was something that successful people did.  He also knew from his father’s family, and the endless heated discussions about politics, that many politicians were lawyers.

He answered her shyly, “I would like to be a lawyer.”  He knew that there was no money for such a thing, but that never stopped people from answering what they would like

She looked mildly surprised.  She asked, “Really?  What is it about the law that you find interesting?”  Achilles noticed that his uncle had looked over at them, eyebrow raised, as if he had overheard this.

He answered, uncertainly, and not wanting to appear foolish in front of them, “I like debate at school.  I am captain of the debate team this year.”  His aunt remained silent and looked at him blankly, clearly expecting him to continue, so he added:  “This week I won a debate on universal healthcare.” 

His uncle, hearing this, entered into the conversation.  He asked Achilles, “Which side did you take?”

Achilles replied, “I argued against it.  We are assigned which view we have to argue for, then we have to do research and prepare for it, even if we disagree with the view we are advocating.”

His uncle nodded.  He asked, “Have you applied for college?”

“Yes, but there aren’t that many scholarships for what I want to study.”

His aunt explained, “Achilles wants to study law.”  She gave her husband a pointed look.

His uncle said, “You should talk to your cousins about it.  They both went to Princeton, of course.  Where are you applying?”

Achilles explained that he was applying to five schools, all in state, as he was more likely to get a scholarship.

His uncle, looking out of the window while he spoke, seeming to be transfixed upon something in the garden, suggested, “Why not apply to Princeton?  Or Harvard, if you prefer something closer to where your parents live.”  Achilles could not read his uncle’s face, but he felt that somehow his uncle was mocking him.

He suggested carefully, “I don’t think that I would get a scholarship, even if I was accepted.”

“Nonsense.  There is always money for hard work and talent.  Those schools have enormous endowments.”

Achilles only vaguely understood what an endowment was so suggested, “I guess there would be no harm in trying.”

His aunt said, with a patronizing smile, “None at all.”

Then his uncle, in a clear tone, told him, “If you get accepted, we can help you financially.”  Achilles was not sure what this meant exactly, but was amazed and grateful that they showed interest in him.  His head swam all through dinner and he could not think of anything else for days afterwards. 

He told his mother about the conversation on the way home, but discovered that she already knew about it – her brother had suggested to her that he could subsidize school. 

Achilles’s mother helped him with his college applications, and while she picked two top colleges, she also helped him choose some with higher acceptance rates, despite his good grades and high testing scores, “just in case…,” she said.

When Achilles was accepted to an Ivy League College, he got a smaller scholarship than he had hoped.  He was not really from a poor family, despite the difficulties his parents had, and was not from a minority background.  When his mother took him through the financial paperwork, the enormity of his debt to her family grew very heavy on his heart.  Still, he was grateful and reassured himself with the idea that they did this because he was family and they cared about him.

Eugène Delacroix [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“The Education of Achilles”

Achilles’s aunt and uncle seemed pleased to hear his news, but mildly so.  His cousins did not seem impressed, nor did they seem to think that he was any different now.  They continued talking to him of their exploits abroad, and in the girls that they met from this family or that family.  He understood that they still thought that they were above him, and he felt that they were right somehow.

He did not see his mother’s family for most of the time that he was away studying, but on those rare holidays when he did go to visit, only a few times during his four years in college, they did not ask him much other than how he was doing generally.  He tried to engage his cousins in discussions of law, but they thought his conversation on the matter beneath their effort and instead changed the subject and mildly discussed sports and holidays and whom they were dating.  In addition to his studies, Achilles spent a good deal of time educating himself about wine, European food and culture, and clothes.  He already knew a good deal about art and music from his mother.  He thought a lot about his mother’s family, and he wanted to know the sorts of things that they knew, and to be able to fit in with them in a way that he father was not able to.

Achilles worked hard and graduated with high honors, and got accepted to a top law school.  His uncle and aunt agreed to continue to help him financially, and Achilles was as ever keenly aware of the cost of his education.  His mother never spoke to him about it, but merely helped him where she could, either in filling out forms or helping him move and set himself up in his flat.  She never discussed her family, only Achilles and his future, and Euripides and his family.

Achilles finished law school and was accepted into a doctoral program in law and was offered full funding.  His main interest was in the theoretical underpinnings of law and he wanted to teach and get involved in politics.  He accepted the new position.

Achilles went home for several weeks that summer.  He went with his parents to his paternal grandparent’s house.  When he walked in the front door, he was confronted with a mass of relatives cheering.  There were balloons and a big feast.  He nearly cried at the warmth of his surprise party – they had done this for his graduation.  They all had a big dinner, as usual, but in the course of it both his father and grandfather gave speeches, uncharacteristically, talking about how proud they were.

A few days later, his mother took him to her brother’s house, but as usual without Euripides.  Her family was having a Fourth of July party. 

Two of Achilles’s cousins were now practicing corporate attorneys.  They were still disinclined to discuss law with him and seemed to sneer when he spoke to them. 

He sensed their disinterest and instead walked across the garden to talk to his aunt and uncle, who were surrounded by others in their family.  He was anxious to tell them his news.

His aunt asked him, “Have you found a job yet?”

He answered clearly, trying to conceal his pride, “I’ve been accepted to a doctoral program in legal theory.”  He waited but everyone there just stared at him.  Finally, his aunt said, “You want to teach law?”

“Well, yes.  I am most interested in…”

His aunt interrupted, “We’ve spent all of that money so you can teach?”

He felt himself growing flushed.  He had a lot of practice keeping calm though bated, but that was in a very different context.  He began, “There is nothing dishonorable in being a university professor…”  His uncle scoffed and walked away.  His aunt turned to a passer-by and made conversation.  His other relatives, looking uncomfortable, left Achilles on his own. 

Achilles immediately sought out his mother and asked her quietly if they could leave early.  He looked flushed and anxious.  As there were a great many people there, including a multitude of friends and neighbors, they were unlikely to be missed, so she agreed.  Outside, they walked to his car, an inexpensive second-hand model.  They did not speak.  He opened the door for her, then he shut the door for her after she had arranged herself.  He walked around to the other side of the car and climbed in behind the steering wheel.  They sat for some minutes, not moving.  He could feel his mother’s eyes upon him. 

Finally, Chloé began to ask, “What…?” but suddenly Achilles broke into tears.

Chloé sighed sadly, looking at her son, now a grown man, crying.  Then she offered, cautiously, “Families create these issues.  Then they spend the next fifty years continually stirring it all up…  But you have to remember, these are their issues.  Don’t make them yours.”

She didn’t think he was listening, or else he didn’t understand.  He didn’t respond.  She explained, “Didn’t you see how they behave?  All of these years…  That has nothing to do with you.  It’s how they are…  It’s how they make themselves feel like they have value…”  Still he cried.  She finally said, “Please stop.  You’re a sensible person and you must know that this is not a reflection on you…  Why do you care about what they think?”

Achilles kept weeping, hiding his face in his hands.  Through his tears, he exclaimed, “I can’t help it!  I can’t help it!” 

Chloé thought that this was just what her family would have wanted – to see her, or her husband, or her grown son, weeping.  She patiently and lovingly stroked her son’s hair, as she did when he cried as a little boy. 

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)”

© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica

See Also: The Water of Life

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