31 January 2009

What Stands Between Me and Her?

It's already the end of the first month of this year. Soon there will be only five months between me and my surgery.

Can you imagine me doing a commercial in which I coo, "Nothing comes between me and my surgery." OK, of all the women in this world who are or ever were prettier than I have ever been ( I admit, that's a rather large percentage of the female race!), Brooke Shields is one of the last I'd want to be. (As you might expect, Sarah Palin is at the bottom of my list, at least for now.) I mean, when Ms. Shields, who was about sixteen-going-on-twelve at the time, all but whispered "Nothing comes between me and my Calvin Kleins," was that child pornography, or what?

So what's all this got to do with the price of a postage stamp?, you ask. Well, not much, except for what happened when I stopped at the post office before going to the farmer's market on Roosevelt Island early this afternoon.

Roosevelt island is connected to Queens by a bridge that looks like a pair of cranes that are sleeping in seperate beds, if such a thing could be made by a young boy with an Erector set. (Now, tell me, what kind of a message does a toy with a name like that send to said young boy?) And, after creating it, some angry alcoholic painted the contraption in a tint of orange that's one shade removed from rust and left it to fade, chip, crack and peel for about 40 years. The island is also connected to Manhattan by a finiculaire over the East River, seemingly within arm's reach of the 59th Street Bridge. I've taken two dates for nighttime rides on that gondolier in the sky: You can hardly find anything more romantic for the price of a subway ride (You swipe your Metrocard to get on; back in the day you used a token.) or, for that matter, at any price. As long as you focus on the lights from the New York skyline flickering on ripples from boats that, from that height, seem to skitter along the river--and as long as you're not agoraphobic and don't think about the time passengers were stuck in it, high above the river, for eleven hours--it is one of the most beautiful short rides of any kind you will find anywhere.

At the north end of the island is an old lighthouse in the middle of a park built on the rock that comprises the island,and Manhattan. That is where I buried my first cat named Charlie, and Candice, the pretty calico who died little more than a year after he did. They say that still waters run deep; somehow, I think that even under most treacherous currents there is calm, if not peace. Which, really, is all you can give to those who have just died. And the only way to honor the dead is with the truth.

The rest of the island, which once housed a sanitorium, consists mainly of buildings and a parking deck that might win a Stalinist architecture competition, if anyone would hold such a thing today.

Ok, so what's this all got to do with anything? I'm coming to that.

In addition to the Farmer's Market, which is held every Saturday, Roosevelt Island has, to my knowledge, the only post office besides the big main post office next to Penn Station that's open on Saturday afternoon. I needed to mail two small packages, so I stopped at the post office before I went to the market.

I stopped in that same post office last week, when I needed something postmarked and was running low on stamps (something that happens less frequently these days). Mike, who is wonderfully genial and sarcastic--yes, at the same time--told another customer that he had the Edgar Allan Poe commemorative stamps, which I bought last week. "Nice stamp, even if I don't like it, all that gloom." I felt myself cracking a smile. "Hey, watch it, I'm from the Poe anti-defamation society, " I called out to Mike.

A woman standing two places in front of me began to titter. She wasn't much more than five feet tall, but she stood out as much as any basketball player would have. Her face and eyes were in tones of earth, with all its complexity, and nearly raven-colored hair. She could have been a peasant or the wisest woman in the world, or both. Most people wouldn't think she was beautiful; however, she seemed to have a sense of style that transformed the plain black pants and brown jacket she wore. It had something to do with her accessories: I especially loved her earrings, which looked like a cross between something Native American and something from India: a metal that looked like a combination of bronze and silver, and stones that looked like green and red marcasite.

She, Mike and I exchanged some banter about Poe, the stamps and other things. She asked what I did. I told her I write and teach English. "And whenever I teach Othello, I tell my students to remember this: 'Quoth Iago/Lusty Moor.'"

Her laughter seemed familiar, in some odd way. So did just about everything else about her. Who was she?

I didn't ask. I couldn't. During those few moments, I thought I was talking to a professor I had at Rutgers. The woman I saw in the post office looked and sounded like, and even had similar body language, to that prof who taught the class I took on John Milton. That prof would most likely look a good bit older than the woman I saw today; I'm not even sure that she is still alive.

That prof was a poet and I loved listening to her read passages from Lycidias, Comus and, of course, Paradise Lost. A few people I knew at the time, including Elizabeth, thought that perhaps I had a crush on her. After all, attractions to older people of any gender were never out of the question for me, and all of my relationships before Tammy were, with one exception, with people considerably older than I was.

But the real reason why I noticed that prof, and why I still think of her, is that she represented everything I ever wanted to be. She wasn't beautiful, but she was sexy because of the person she was: a poet and an all-around interesting person. And a woman. So, I couldn't say, "I want to be her when I grow up" without raising a few eyebrows, or eliciting something worse.

I took the Milton class with that prof around the time Brooke Shields was ruining a lot of guys' underwear because, if she was telling the truth, she wasn't wearing any. Just her Calvin Kleins. That prof would never have worn Calvin Kleins. Then again, she was a prof, and in those days profs--especially at Rutgers, with its proximity to Princeton--had an image to uphold, if you know what I mean.

So...that prof wasn't really much to look at, even considering that she was roughly the age I am now. But she was a woman, to the core, and a formidable one at that.

She's one of the first people I ever wanted to be when I grow up. And that woman in the post office reminded me of her.

Only five months between me and my surgery. But what, between me and her?

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