The night is long and I miss my Professora. I haven't heard her voice for 9 days and I worry about her. I am used to her calling me from far away places--Beijing, Cuba, KL, London--but for some reason Mumbai has defeated her. In her last letter, she wrote of not feeling well, and so an uneasiness sits with me tonight. To comfort myself, I want to write a memory to you all--how odd--but so it is. A moment of my times.
The year, perhaps, is 1965. I was living on the lower East side in a tenement on 9th street--the bathroom in the hall, dank and well used; the bathtub in the kitchen, its porcelain top camouflaging it during the day, the old sink and then the small stove out of which one day jumped a small rat, as scared as I was. 37$ a month was the rent--for this three room railroad flat in a condemned building--but oh what joy I found there. Dinah and Nancy on the top floor, my comrades from the march on Selma, Steven across from them, a handsome Black folksinger, under whom I would lie from time to time, and outside on the tenement lined street, the whole flow of the 1960s. I would sit on my steep stoop and smile at the layered life before me. One morning a group of bearded young men passed before me carrying their version of Jesus on a cross, heading for Tompkins Park. I nodded my head at them as if every day I saw gods carried by. And this takes me to where I wanted go on this lonely night. Gods walking the streets.
Often I would walk to Second Avenue to get my bagels, and one early morning, with the sun already brightly shining, I fell into step behind a tall man who had come out of a corner building with a garden on its second floor and as I passed him, I realized who the possessor of that craggy face and shambling walk was, W. H. Auden. I had discovered his poetry in my 20th century literature course in Queens College--the education that gave me all my mother could not--and made my anthem for those many-lover-days his
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on your faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary power,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
You see, queer lezzie youth knew its voices when it found them, even though we were invisible as erotic forces even then. I thought of Candy and Rachel and Merril, all of whom shared my bed in that tenement flat and the men, Steven, Ajax, Vincent, and one whose name I cannot remember. But most of all, I think now of Carol, the moppy golden haired woman who melted me with her brave kisses, she who had all to loose, her Jamaica Estates family, her fiance, gaining only eternal damnation according to her therapist--"if you let a lesbian kiss you," she said, the star therapist of the Ackerman Family Foundation,"you will be lost forever." Perhaps it was because I had nothing to loose and loved the poets we both studied, Carol bent over me, her lips a never-ending gift. We read the poets in the old girl's reform school that now passed as a college and made love in her tiny red car in the Queens College parking lot, our books thrown to the floor. We began our affair in 1960 perhaps and by 1964, Carol of the crooked smile and broad shoulders was dead from a careless big shot doctor and ovarian cancer. She was perhaps, 23, and I was 24. I sleep here in a small bedroom and on the book shelves the Professora has built for me, is a fading colored photograph of Carol, with low mountains behind her, she is in a boat, I think, wearing a blue polka dotted shirt, with its sleeves rolled up, her hair, with those golden tints, frosted, I think they called it then, a close lipped smile and a hazy satisfied look in her now fading corn-flower blue eyes, and on the back these words: Joan, This is one of my favorite pictures--I always think of myself as big enough for this world in this picture because I can stand up to anything. And since you make me feel "big enough for this world," I want you to have this. No symbols, no mush, just plain old honesty--C.L. Here in a Melbourne night, when I feel mortality all around me, when I rail at my world that so desires killing certainties, is so sure in its hatreds, I wrap myself in Auden's words, the warmth of the human faithless touch, and all these years away, I feel Carol's kiss upon my lips. This is what I had to tell you this night.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards fortell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Nor a kiss nor look be lost.
from W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, ed. by Edward Mendelson, 1994