In college, I used to go to these cheese and wine parties that were supposed to be Latin practice sessions, at least until we were all drunk. The group of friends who hosted them would go around saying ‘Salve’ to everybody and handing out Solo cups full of boxed Chardonnay, and then cluster up to make stilted small talk about their Latin homework or the television series Rome, which they were all following eagerly. I got to know them because I took historical linguistics with one of them and Middle Egyptian with another. They had Latin names, which stuck long after the class where they had been assigned: the linguistics guy was Telemachus, the girl from my Egyptian class was Octavia. Bacchus and Skippioulixes were from rich Detroit families who had sent them both to the same prep school, leaving them with strange, formal manners and a shared scatological sense of humor. Of all of them, I remember Agrippina best; she only made it one semester into the Latin sequence before she decamped to take French instead, but we all kept calling her by her Latin name, and that is how I still think of her, even now.
There are three such parties that stick in my memory. The first chronologically is also the least clear, because I was eighteen and still learning to drink. I remember the first half hour or so. The three boys lived in the top half of a stuccoed, two-story duplex, in what was essentially a converted attic. No one else had shown up yet, so it was just the six of us sitting in the living room, under the low eaves, in the still and unmoving September air. The whole state was going through a second summer. My mother, in her latest email, had sent a picture of the dogs lying belly-up in the dirt with their tongues out, undone by the heat. I was homesick already. The Latin boys had pulled the kitchen table into the living room and laid it out with fancy snacks: three kinds of cheese, celery sticks and radishes with an orange dip, the gourmet-store brand of potato chips, and a plastic mixing bowl full of edamame, which I had never seen before and thought was some leathery, furred variety of snap pea.
“Salve,” Bacchus said, handing me a cup of wine. “Vinum tuum est.” He was blond and very ruddy. I had never met him before, but he grinned invitingly at me, as if we were already old friends.
“Gratia,” I said. “Amo domicilium.”
“Hey,” Bacchus said, and crinkled up his face. “You’re not in our class.”
“I’m studying on my own,” I said. “Didn’t have room in my schedule.”
“Natalie’s taking Egyptian with me,” Octavia said. Bacchus looked impressed; it made me feel both cocky and terrified, a combination of feelings I had rarely had together.
“And I’m taking Greek too,” I added, suddenly emboldened and wanting to brag.
Bacchus looked me very seriously in the eye. He frowned for a moment. “Latin, Egyptian, and Greek,” he said. “Like Cleopatra.”
“Salve, Cleopatra,” Telemachus said, and bumped his Solo cup against mine. Then everybody else did too, and that was how I got my Latin name. They called me that all night, as more people showed up and we all got drunker and drunker, and then it stuck. I remember sitting on the arm of a couch next to Agrippina, who was wedged into the corner, and leaning half over her while I explained the Egyptian dual noun to the top of her head. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. Her thick curly hair smelled like strawberry shampoo, and her face was always a little sad, even when she smiled, with a trembling at the corners of her mouth and eyes that seemed to predict oncoming tears. When she got up to pee, I followed her to the bathroom without really meaning to, just as if she had me on a string.
“Excuse me,” Agrippina said, and shut the door behind her.
“Oh,” I said. “Cool.” I was too drunk to be really embarrassed. I wandered over into the kitchen to wait for her. The sink was full of dirty dishes and the floor around the trash can was sticky under my shoes. In the fridge, there was just Vitamin Water, bottom-shelf vodka, and a dried out, half-unwrapped Jimmy John’s sandwich. Agrippina was gone a long time, and by the time she came back, we had all moved on to shots; the rest of the night is a blur.
For a while afterward, I felt shamefaced and awkward around Agrippina, who turned out to be very smart and not sad at all, just afflicted with occasional migraine headaches. That was what gave her the look of overwhelmed emotionality that had so intrigued me. I learned to spot them coming on by the watery look in her eyes, and the way she reached up under her hair and pinched a certain nerve at the base of her skull, sometimes grunting softly as she did so, and biting her lip. I still found it appealing, though I knew it meant she was in pain, or perhaps because of that: it was as if I could see right into her head, where she struggled and raged against some interior enemy, invisible to the outside world.
These days, my Latin and Greek are pretty rusty. When I’m called on to use them, which isn’t often, I lean heavily on my reference texts and the input of my colleagues in Ptolemaic studies. My own expertise is in court literature of the New Kingdom, much of which has not yet been translated, or only translated into German, and then, badly. With my current project, The Lamentations of Ptahmose, I am blazing a trail by necessity; no other scholar has taken on this challenge in any language. The text is extant in only one copy, badly decayed and full of missing words and lacunae, so that whole stanzas of the story are indecipherable or easily misunderstood. I saw the single surviving manuscript once, in the papyrology collection of the Brooklyn Museum. They kept it sandwiched in glass to show the writing on both sides of the scroll. That close, you can see feathering at the tips of the brushstrokes, and the places where the scribe dipped his pen too long and left a splotch of ink. The final passages are pieced together, some of the fragments so small they contain only a single character—‘I,’ or ‘sh—,’ or ‘[bird].’ You can see right through the empty