In 2017, I was finishing my undergraduate degree with a project for an XML course where we were directed to digitize a piece of analog media. I discovered that my university had an archive of documents from the women’s movement. Among those documents were several years’ issues of a local lesbian newsletter. I descended to the archive to scan the yellowing documents and stitched together a PDF so that I could transcribe the content. For this task, I used my notebook laptop the size of a day planner, which was cracked from a fall off the hood of my family’s moving car. I sat in the cinema-coffeeshop on campus, or in a bar downtown where a presumed tattoo artist with stretched lobes and a lichenous beard doodled on a napkin beside me.
The newsletter was full of community advertisements for women-owned house-painting businesses, mediocre but excited erotic poetry, charming cartoons without good punchlines, Tee Corinne photographs. I felt extremely tender toward all the women who had submitted to the paper, collated and read it, even the ones I thought were a little dramatic, like the lesbian pastor who expressed hurt in her letter to the editor that women were uncomfortable in Christian churches: some Christians, she wanted to insist, were all right.
At the time, I was talking to a woman I had met in a summer course on the Nazi propaganda director Leni Riefenstahl. This woman had gone off to Japan on exchange and we would text when time zones conspired that we were both awake. I took a circuitous bus route that went directly from my house to my workplace. This route always seemed miraculous, since its existence was inexplicable from a city-planning perspective and most of the time I was the only passenger. Once, when I was on the bus in a golden morning, this woman was also on a bus in the middle of the night. Crossing to Osaka or somewhere. She texted me at the rest stop where she had stepped off to stretch her legs, maybe to smoke; she wrote that the stars were very beautiful. I remember this fondly now, but because of the circumstances of our meeting, and a wrong I did her early on in our relationship, she would later tell me she remembered it bitterly.
From the archived newsletters, I selected to transcribe a run of one year, basically at random, I think from April to April. On the back of one of the later editions, a post label was still affixed, on which a woman’s name and address were printed. The name looked vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t think why. A little later, however, I passed a room in the Student Union Building that I hadn’t ever taken good note of and saw the same name printed in silver caps above the door.
Some type of prudishness prevents me from saying that name here: I guess I’m too aware of the voyeur quality of my fascination with this woman I never met. There isn’t much public information on her, so my attachment to her is mostly speculation, which objectifies her in a way. My projection onto her might embarrass her surviving partner or her ghost. But her name isn’t difficult to find.
She was a lesbian-feminist economics professor who organized significant firsts at the university for women’s activism. She landed there after she was discharged from another university for being too radical or too gay–or so everyone speculates in the articles that were written in her memory. In the black-and-white photograph I know of her, she has short-cropped dark hair and smiles recklessly. She died of cancer at the age of 46. The year she died was 1997. The post label on my newsletter was from February 1997, or thereabouts.
I don’t remember the exact date anymore. To save space on my injured little laptop, I had to delete all the files. But it was just near enough for me to take notice of the fact that, in this particular edition of the newsletter, there was a posthumous publication from a woman who had also died of cancer. Her partner sent it to the newsletter for publishing. This was a small letter that the woman who had died wrote to her community and her partner while she was in the hospital. The letter was about knowing she was going to die and being afraid of dying.
I only barely remember the specifics of how this was conveyed: a window looking out over a green lawn; a candle; boredom in the hospital, a woman walking hallways with flecked white tiles. I don’t remember that she ended the letter with platitudes, like that she would see them all in the next life, or that she was being brave. In my memory she makes no attempt to coddle the recipients of her letter. She was dying and she was afraid to die.
According to the economist’s Wikipedia page, she didn’t have an official cancer diagnosis until April 1997, but the postmark on this newsletter was noticeably ahead of that date. I wondered if the public diagnosis date was wrong. I could speculate that a loved one told her about this edition of the newsletter and she ordered it to read this other woman had written about what might happen to hear.
Then again, maybe the diagnosis date was correct, and she didn’t know she had cancer when she read that piece. If she was a regular reader, the presence of the posthumous letter in this issue might have been a coincidence, a piece of indelicate foreshadowing. Or she might have known the deceased, or her partner, and ordered the issue in memoriam. Back then, the city would have been even smaller. Or maybe several months beforehand, she sought out stories of illness because she suspected already that something was wrong.
After ordering the edition of the newsletter I digitized, the economist would move to a small island with her partner to live out the remaining five months of her life. As it turned out, about five months after I digitized the edition of the newsletter she ordered, I took a weekend trip to the island with the woman I met in the Riefenstahl class. We stayed in a trailer on a farm by the ocean, and it rained the whole time we were there. We fed horses treats from our hands and we had to walk up and down the shoulder of the highway everywhere we went.
On our way back to the mainland on Sunday afternoon, as we walked onto the car ferry, we overheard small talk between two women our same age who were boarding behind us: a local and a backpacker from Spain. The backpacker asked the local why she was going away, and the local said, to visit her girlfriend; I’m gay, she said, after a dead moment, to clarify. The backpacker said, oh! in a tone of great surprise, which all women who visit their girlfriends are familiar with and dread. My own girlfriend and I looked at each other in dismay or hilarity. But after a moment of finagling her second language, she said, me too!
We sat on one end of the walk-on passenger compartment, and they sat on the other. We waited, but nobody else came; the ferry began to pull away from the pier and it was just the four of us shut into our little room. The other pair might not have been conscious of us as we were of them, but maybe they were. We always held hands. My girlfriend and I cracked jokes about the lesbian boat just loud enough that our friends could eavesdrop, if they wanted.
I felt that same gripping, soppy love for the backpacker and the local and her faraway girlfriend that I felt for the economist and the economist’s partner, and the women who wrote the mediocre erotic poetry, and the lesbian pastor. Love that is almost miserable; love whose opposite is not hate but loneliness.
I’ve tried to read the economist’s work before, but I’m not an economist. I tried to compose a piece of blackout poetry with the posthumous piece in the newsletter, but I’m not much of a poet either. I wrote to the library archive trying to find out if anyone knew who had donated the box of newsletters in the first place. Was it in the economist’s will, or did her partner bring them to the university where she worked? I never heard back. Now I’m trying this. None of it seems to crystallize what I want to do with my emotion.
For me, what is so moving about history is not just looking back at our neighbours there, but imagining how they might have looked forward for us. When my brother came back from Pompeii, he showed me pictures of the plasterized corpses, lying on the ground with their knees drawn to their chest and their hands over their faces. It’s vertiginous to remember the depth of time between us. You would imagine as the ash burned the back of your neck, that you were completely alone; but instead, it turns out that Canadian tourists however irreverent are passing you centuries later and thinking of you for the length of a pang of a heart.
I think it would soothe the terror, a little bit, to somehow discover this at the moment of your death. But then, I’ve never died. To me, it’s all theoretical.
I don’t know where any of these women are now, not even my then-girlfriend, though we parted on all-right terms. I don’t know where the local or the backpacker are; I don’t know where the economist’s partner is and I certainly don’t know where the economist is. Nevertheless, my love for them remains so strong.
Sometimes I have a strong involuntary impression that I can feel somebody else loving me back, without knowing where I am. Or if not love, then a fond and complete attention. In all likelihood, this is a neurological quirk of human empathy — a way for us to comfort ourselves, social beings that we are, in times of deprivation. And I do find it comforting. I savour it when it occurs, usually at night when I look out at the yellow globes of the streetlights from the window of my warm bedroom or of a car on the freeway.
Simone Weil describes the love of God in terms that remind me of this feeling in a 1942 letter to her spiritual mentor Father Jean-Marie Perrin. The letter was written the year before she crossed the ocean from occupied France to America and then died at the age of 34. Rather than cancer, the cause seems to have been tuberculosis, exacerbated by general ill health due to a practice of self-starvation that nobody is apparently willing to describe as anorexia mirabilis.
Before all that, she wrote that as she was reciting the George Herbert poem “Love”, which had become a kind of catechism for her, she experienced “a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God … in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love, like that which one can read in the smile on a beloved face.”
Personally, I doubt it’s God, either. Supposing it’s anybody at all, I don’t know who it is. To her: If you’re reading this, I hope you’re doing well.