Today I walked up three flights in Wheeler for what may be the last time. I dropped off a small box of almond cookies from Trader Joes, along with a garish, glittery Christmas card, addressed to my Hitchcock Professor, the one who, though gay and single, taught me so much about looking and about love.
In the middle of the year, I had gone to his office hours.
“You need to speak more in class,” he said. “You have an intelligent face and I’m sure a brain to match. Share the wealth.”
What else could I but agree?
“What other classes are you taking?”
“Nabokov and Milton,” I replied.
“And Hitchcock,” he added, leaning back into his chair, “You’re taking the Genius Agenda.”
Two weeks ago, he threw a small party for our class in lieu of a screening, and, holding an alcohol free spritzer in his clean, well-manicured hands, went around to each group and asked after our winter plans. He was going to Tokyo, a one-man tradition he undertook each year, preferring to spend the holidays in a foreign land that has since become familiar to putting up with the trials of being a single, gay man at large family functions.
“I just love Tokyo,” he said, “It’s just my absolute favorite city. It’s a shame I just can’t learn the language.”
Later, as the rest of the students thanked him and milled out, a few classmates and I stayed behind to invite him to drinks.
“I’ll just have one,” he said, and gaily donned coat, scarf and beanie, and walked down to the bars with us. Though young at heart – outfitting his lectures with vivid gesticulation and quick steps – he is an older gentleman nearing seventy. His soft white hair is cut close. His skin is always a pale pink, his eyes bright and twinkling (had he been straight I would have pegged him to be one of those “wicked old men,” who, having pinched a girl’s bottom, would wink slyly) and his pecs disproportionately robust compared to his rather thin legs, accentuated by his fitted trousers and denim. From his CV, I gathered he has an interest in body building, health and wellness, which he somehow worked into his academic work at Harvard, Yale, and now Berkeley. He was born in San Francisco. And now, he has returned to San Francisco.
He had two martinis, all the while regaling us with stories from his past, which was far less wild than we had assumed. “I did have a wild period,” he said, “but it came far after everyone else’s wild period and, now that I think of it, wasn’t very wild at all.” Though he was open – a rarity for professors, in my experience anyway – there were certain subjects we didn’t broach. But I gathered that he lived alone in the city, had no lover to head home to, and that at his age, finding a partner was no less difficult than for a single woman in her forties. I wondered if there was a special someone waiting in Tokyo. Nevertheless he smiled often and before bidding us farewell, went around and hugged each of us (he smelled, I imagine, of Bond no. 9 cologne). I asked if he would drive home.
“I take BART,” he said.
I was surprised. The man dresses as though he were a Fashion Editor at GQ – his office is strewn with bags from Barney’s and Hermes, his tennis shoes are LV, his belt and laptop case unmistakeably Bottega, his watch, a simple, understated stainless steel Cartier. His pecs, hard as they might be, are unfailingly wrapped in the softest cashmere. His eye for fashion is not limited to himself. It is from him that I learned that Doris Day’s gray suit in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was, in fact, Dior. I didn’t peg him as a BART man.
“A few years ago I had an accident,” he said, “And you know, some people, they shake it off. Get back on the horse. I never got back on the horse.”
I understood, I said, the BART is fine, even though we both knew the BART was awful, especially when compared to Tokyo’s unfailingly pristine and punctual transport system. But I had a hunch that in Tokyo, he was a cab man.
“You were a wonderful class,” he said, before slipping out the door.
Today I took the elevator up to floor F of Dwinelle, for what may be the last time in a long time. I slipped into his box another garish Christmas card, this one filled with a small essay, written with love, restrained. I walked down the hall to my lovely professor’s door. It was closed, but through it I could hear his rich, low voice discussing something or other with a young female. A graduate student, most likely. I lingered outside for a moment, pondered knocking, imagined being let in, and giving the man a hug, breathing in his laundry fresh scent (what else could he smell like?) and rushing away before he could see my eyes tearing up.
Yesterday evening I handed him my final exam and he stood up like a gentleman to hand back my final paper (A minus).
“Let me know how the Fulbright turns out,” he said, and I was so moved by his concern (feigned or not) I nearly wept in front of my classmates bent heads. They scribbled furiously. My mind raced. What could I possibly say to this very special man?
“I will,” I whispered, “Thank you, Professor.”
I walked home in the rain, knowing God was indulging me my melodrama. But truly, to know that I would very likely never see him again… it was a strange thought. People tie you to a place. I wanted him to know that. In the garish card I thanked him for his patience in discussing papers and my plans after college. I thanked him for encouraging me to stay in school – “I think you should finish,” he said, when I went to him feeling lost in the art history department. “Change your major, do what you have to, but you should finish.” I changed my major. It meant I would stay an extra semester, but an extra semester led me once again to his classroom, and to him.
Earlier this semester he sent an email to say he would be missing one lecture and one office hour:
“My mother has been ill for a while and has taken a turn for the worse. I will be back in class on Tuesday and hold extra office hours…”
Two weeks later, nearing a paper deadline, I went to see him. I asked about his mother. Perhaps she had recuperated? He never indicated that anything grave had happened and had reappeared the Tuesday following his email with a rather humorous lecture.
“She passed away,” he said, “She was sick for a long time.”
I was startled. Watching him teach and discuss so earnestly our silly paper topics, one would never have guessed his mother had just passed away. He had, in fact, leading up to her death, been flying to and from New York to see her and in a week, would return to New York for her memorial service.
And that was all. His mother was ailing. His mother died. And through it all he taught and taught, never once letting on.
And now I stood by his closed door. The empty hallway echoing like an old, bad dream, but for the future rustle of an envelope being torn open, a tasteless, glitter-covered Christmas card extracted, opened, and read. My prim penmanship burning into his eyes. At least for that. I too, had never let on.
Today I am studying for my last final exam, on Milton. I cared little for my Milton Professor and more, surprisingly, for Milton. He recommends change, and cautions me with a warning as I leave Berkeley for home and other places:
“Farewell, happy fields
Where joy forever dwells; hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell
Receive they new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
What matter were, if I be still the same?”