Excerpted from What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. Copyright (c) 2020 by Mark Doty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
For a long time I lived at least a part of each year in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, one of those places at the end of a road, or the tip of a promontory, that seem not quite attached to the rest of the country. Provincetown’s been home or second home to countless gay men and lesbians, to artists, to those in need of a refuge, for more than a century now, and for the time I lived there it served for me as a kind of theater of the imagination. Everything that intrigued me was represented there somehow, on a scale intimate enough to grasp, and the houses and characters, the harbor and its old fishing boats, the salt marshes and crooked steeples became the fixed landscape of my poems, all lit by that distinctive, splendid light.
I met Frank there in 2001; I knew his boyfriend, a year- rounder, and we must have been introduced some afternoon on Commercial Street, where nearly all the social exchange of the village occurs. It was a challenge, sometimes, getting down that street; how many conversations could one have between home and the post office? These constituted an amazing demonstration of the local communications network; once I told someone I had a dentist’s appointment on one corner and, a few blocks later, was asked what procedure I was having done; once an acquaintance said, Oh, I heard you got new glasses, a statement that indicates just how extensive, and just how desperate for fodder, a gossip network can be.
I found Frank fiercely attractive. I was just shy of fifty then, he closer to sixty, and in terrific shape, with thick- muscled, vascular arms and a strong chest thatched in dense white hair. The perennial allure of the strong daddy, maybe, though it’s also true that of gay men of my age and his not so very many survived, so many of us erased in the years of terror between 1980 and 1995. I forget this all the time, and then notice a handsome man my age on the street and feel a little erotic flare shoot up, sometimes burning not so far from incipient tears.
Frank had a boyfriend, and I had a partner, and though no one in this gang of four was entirely monogamous, there was at least decorum to be observed, or consideration. I didn’t think about my attraction further until one hot summer afternoon outside Town Hall. The rows of green benches on two sides of the building where people hang out and talk are called the Meat Rack, though anyone sitting there is more likely to be eating an ice cream, waiting for a whale watch, or listening to one of the endearing but less than stellar musicians who play there— each of them, at least in those days, a sweetly cracked combination of damage and a remarkable lack of embarrassment. Whatever I was doing that day, my eye caught Frank standing ten yards away, talking and gesturing in an animated way, his bare chest splashed by sunlight coming through a big maple. What startled me was the way the sunlight reflected from the tops of his nipples; they were thick enough to seem, at this distance, two shafts of light. That was all that was needed to carry a little frisson of erotic memory over the years between that moment and the one in which I write.
All the following year, the shock of September 11 roiled through town; many people there had spent time in the city, or had friends there; one summer resident, a beautiful tattooed Englishman who’d been the boyfriend of someone I knew, was a passenger on the plane that struck the south tower. Grief and confusion, by the following summer, produced an odd, though not inexplicable, symptom.
Every night the open space at the Vault, a small local leather bar, would grow more and more densely populated, as the hour grew later, and when it felt full enough to provide a sense of safety in a crowd, men would begin to touch each other, and, rather unexpectedly, to kiss. They wore leather, or jeans, or shorts; the ones who wore shirts often lost them as the night deepened. And while certainly acts that were undeniably sexual did take place, despite the bar’s owner strolling through with a flashlight now and then and growling a little, there seemed a tacit agreement that what we were doing was holding and touching one another in a collective embrace of remarkable intensity, less interested in genital acts than in the creation of a tender, erotic collectivity. Well, genitals were certainly enjoyed, but what stands out for me is the kissing, the eagerness of mouths to find others. I talked to my friend Michael about it one morning, over coffee in the brilliant sunlight in front of his tiny condo over the coffee bar. “All I want to do,” he said, “is snog at the Vault.” I felt the same way; nothing seemed more interesting.
Frank and I were both in attendance, one of those steamy nights, and the erotic flair that had previously flickered a bit became a full-fledged pyrotechnic event. Eventually, we had to escape the suddenly intolerable, airless heat of the bar, but the cool sprinkle of rain on the street was too much. As we sat in the doorway of some closed gift shop, letting the fog- tinged air descend on us and cool the sweat on our chests, he looked at me directly and said, “Do you know Mark Doty? You’d like him.”
There are many ways to account for what Frank said: he was a little drunk and perhaps tired; the bar had been dimly lit; he had probably only been able to see parts of me, proceeding more by touch than by visual knowledge; I looked different, with a leather harness over my chest, than I did in the plain daylight of Commercial Street.
I will grant some truth to all of those, but what interests me most is the idea that we were only just returning to ourselves, cooling down in that sheltering doorway. Who or where had we been? Do the trappings or furnishing of identity fall away, leaving us less identifiable, less specifically ourselves? The merge with another, that desire to lose edge or boundary— how does it show in the human face?
The next fall, back in New York, I went one afternoon to Frank’s apartment. I don’t remember if we’d exchanged numbers, or if we saw each other online, on one of the sites that had increasingly become the sexual arena of choice. I hadn’t done a lot of online cruising then, and it was exhilarating, going to his place, a high-rise on the Upper West Side, having the doorman contact him to let me in, riding the elevator up, Frank opening the door wearing a pair of gym shorts and a thin gray tank top, and then all that followed.
I don’t know how long we’d been “playing” (now nearly a universal euphemism used by the gay men I know, and one that cries out for some examination) when I felt— and could feel that Frank felt— it was time for a pause, a catch-your-breath break. I leaned back, sitting on my heels, toward the foot of the bed, and looked at him, while he sat up against his thick white pillows, leaned his head back, and looked at me, mildly, with a pleasant half-smile.
And then something happened. I would be hard-pressed to describe any transition between what I saw first, which was my friend’s gray-bearded, strongly sculptured face, and what, after a moment, replaced it. It wasn’t Frank who looked at me then, but another man with short gray hair and beard, the same half-smile, but with the visionary dazzle of starlight in his eyes. I was, quite calmly, looking into the face of the Walt Whitman of 1856, the year of the Brooklyn daguerreotype, the picture in which he seems to be slowly and with a great inner radiance returning to earth from wherever it is he’s been.
It’s pointless, as this juncture, to try to defend or explain myself. For whatever reason, through whatever means, I saw what I saw, and allowed that face to look directly into my own until I couldn’t. Then I closed my eyes, and when I opened them he was gone.
I didn’t say anything about it to Frank; I can’t tell you anything about the rest of our congress that afternoon. I looked out over the Hudson before I left, the reddening sun slanting lower, and went down the elevator and into the street with the knowledge of what I had seen held in privacy. I didn’t tell anyone about it for a long time. Later I understood then why I’d gone, that afternoon, to that sleek high-rise apartment, the last place I’d expected, once again, to find myself face to face with a ghost.