One of the Free
Two recent events had put Isherwood at the top of my to-do list (well, three if I go back to last summer when my pal the Total Femme told me of her fondness for his writing; four if I go back to maybe a year and a half ago when D. and I watched Chris & Don: A Love Story, a documentary about Isherwood and his lover Don Bacardi). A couple of months ago, I watched Cabaret for the first time since college and was even more impressed than I was 30 years before (which was a lot). And just last week I finished listening to all nine of Armistead Maupin's terrific Tales of the City books—the original six plus the more recent trilogy he added on in this decade, beginning with 2007's Michael Tolliver Lives.
I actually read Michael Tolliver a few years ago in book form and enjoyed it. This year when I was recovering from a detached retina and joined Audible.com, the first audiobook I bought was the follow-up to that one: Mary Ann in Autumn (2010). I went on to the final one, The Days of Anna Madrigal (2014), then circled back to the very first of the original six, which I'm embarrassed to say I'd never read. By the time I reached the end of those, I had to buy the audio version of Michael Tolliver and listen to what I'd already read on paper, because I now had all the characters' histories in my head that I didn't have the first time around.
At the end of that audiobook is an interview with Maupin in which he states his reverence for Christopher Isherwood (who of course lived openly as a gay man decades before it was widely acceptable), "a charming man who lived totally in the moment . . . . There's not a day that goes by that he doesn't inspire me in some way."
In Christopher and His Kind—a memoir in which Isherwood refers to his younger self as Christopher and uses "I" when looking back from his later vantage point—Isherwood writes of a German lover, Bubi, when he was first living in Berlin in 1929:
When Christopher left for London, Bubi pulled a cheap gold-plated chain bracelet out of his pocket—probably an unwanted gift from some admirer—and fastened it around Christopher's wrist. This delighted Christopher, not only as a love token but also as a badge of his liberation; he still regarded the wearing of jewelry by men as a daring act, and this would be a constant reminder to him that he was now one of the free.
Today as I type, I wear a rather substantial ring on the middle finger of each hand: on my right, a silver signet with my father's initials, of no great value (he didn't even wear it himself) but one he passed on to me years ago, before any of my fingers was even fat enough to fill it; on my left, a midcentury-style ring (or so it was described in the Provincetown shop where I bought it on New Year's Day 2013, having had my eye on it for five years), also silver, with a disk of green onyx surrounded by a thin gold rim—now nicked up from my bike accident six months ago, making it all the more beautiful to me. Hanging from my neck are two small silver baubles on separate chains. Until the accident, I had the thinnest of silver hoops through my right ear, a shiny parenthesis glancing my lobe; they took it out in the hospital and I never got it back. I have a small drawer full of pinkie rings, pendants, bracelets, chains, and more earrings (none of which I like as well as the one I lost).
For a few years in the '90s, I wore studs in both my ears. It's incredible to me, looking back, that I could have been so bold—I who never had even one ear pierced till I was in my thirties. A student of mine once wrote a description of the writing workshop I taught; I was the unnamed teacher with "a diamond stud in his ear." (A diamond? I don't think so. Calling it cubic zirconium would have been a compliment.) The fact that that was the detail she seemed to notice most about me—the shorthand that sketched me for the world—was flattering and surprising.
I was always envious of my sisters' charm bracelets, jiggling parades marching around their wrists: trinkets, commemorations, gifts, pretty little things. Today I see men—straight and gay—wearing bracelets and wish I could pull that look off. I have as many of the things as Cleopatra but always give up. The rigid bands clink against the desk as I work and get in the way; the link bracelets fall down my skinny arms and halfway over my hands.
Last month in Provincetown, I wanted to buy one of the tiniest ear studs I'd ever seen—a mere period without a sentence. It was on display with some other "singles" in a window, but I suspected my hole had closed up—something I confirmed when I got back home and tried to push through one of my old posts. I'd have to get it pierced all over again (which would actually be the third time). Maybe someday.
In the meantime, I wear my rings, and the necklaces peeking from my collar. Constant reminders.