It was a hat in the liquid state: It had no fixed shape but took the shape of the head that it adorned. It was made of a dozen brass angels attached to napkin rings and strung, three or four inches apart, on blue & green yarn. It was long enough to be a sash for Miss America.
The hat belonged to my friend Titania. She wore it to The Pink Teacup in North Hartford, where she ate fried eggs, biscuits, & ham with red-eye gravy.
The angels had a side of grits.
She wore it on New Year's Eve, when she & I danced to "Louie Louie."
The angels raised their trumpets and played along.
She wore the hat to her therapist's and in her own therapeutic practice. (Gestalt: The angels swung the bats.)
She wore it to church.
The angels sang in the choir but nodded off during the homily, despite my best efforts to engage them.
Titania took the hat to the pool. She draped it around her body (carefully, so as not to get poked with the trumpets & wings), removed it in the locker room, then re-strung the napkin rings on fishing wire so she could tow the angels in the water. I -- along with all the other women in the Winsted Y -- became aware of the hat as we changed clothes.
I have never been so often naked with a friend as I was with Titania. We went swimming, soaked in hot tubs, hiked in rain storms: engaged in all manner of activities that necessitated changing our clothing or removing it altogether.
I suspect that Titania engineered our nakedness to rid me of my Southern inhibitions. In this, she was resoundingly successful.
That Titania lived unharassed -- much less contentedly -- in Barkhamsted was a tribute to something, whether her impeccable manners, the longtime residents' curiosity, her prowess at bee-keeping & gardening, their good instincts, or some combination, I never knew. When we lived there, Barkhamsted was a town of perhaps 1000 people, located about 45 minutes northwest of Hartford.
Gender roles were vociferously traditional.
Hardly anyone except Titania lived alone.
I found the women generally exacting & a bit gossipy toward each other, but the only catty remark about Titania I overheard was, "Where on earth did she get that hat?"
There were several hypotheses, my favorite being that the hat appeared to Titania in a dream & that, on waking, she made what she had seen, using scraps of gold foil (for the angels) & (to string them) a pair of mittens that had almost unraveled but that, for sentimental reasons, she could not bear to throw away. The mitten "aside" was as close to speculation on Titania's love life as anyone came (at least aloud, at least in front of me).
Only the fire chief raised questions about the smoke on the banks of Alder Brook (Titania's sweat lodge).
Only the first selectman asked about the digging at Ratlum Nature Center (Titania: burying her great-niece's placenta).
I was expected to abide by community mores a bit more stringently, not least because a) my predecessor had been, by all accounts, an abject disaster; and b) as my great pal & staunchest advocate, Bill Salamon, said, I had three strikes against me: I was a woman, my husband was Jewish, & I had kept my maiden name.
For me, as for Titania, it turned out okay. There is nothing like tragedy, or acute need, to take people's minds off whether the minister is behaving. Within the first few months of my arrival, an eight year-old died of brain cancer, a teenager died of a cerebral aneurysm, the son of a trustee was busted for dealing drugs, and a woman who, with her two year-old daughter, was being sexually abused by the husband & daddy appealed to us for sanctuary. I was 27 years old -- but looked about 18. I think my parishioners felt sorry for me. In any case, they aborted the usual period of testing. Together we rose to the occasions.
Acceptance and belonging are two different things. Titania & I both experienced the former -- and lived with a high quotient of "if they only knew..."
As anywhere, those of us on the fringes formed our own community; that is, Titania shepherded Larry & me into an existing one. It comprised the New Age people, the people who drank, many of the people who read books, the people who did not regard the sexual norm as hetero, and the people who voted for Jackson in the 1984 primary. It was not a large group; then again, I rarely enjoy large parties.
The Hat and I
The hat warmed up gradually, if at all, to anybody who wasn't Titania. Over time, the hat warmed up to me. Sometimes I got to wear it; when, for example, Titania went to Greece & left me in charge of 45 bantam chickens. The angels, using their trumpets as eyedroppers, fed the chick who ultimately did not make it but lived, then, under a heat lamp in the bathtub. They avoided the sociopathic rooster, who lived in seclusion outside the barn.
One time the hat visited me of its own accord.
I had told Titania not to bother attending my final ordination (the Methodist church has two, a vestige of its Anglican origins). The ceremony was long & tedious; in my conference it took place at the University of Bridgeport, founded by P.T. Barnum; what more can I say?
Because I had dislocated my right kneecap, I could not kneel before the bishop, who was miffed at me to begin with because he had tried & failed to block my ordination, on account of the Jewish husband thing. The bishop had been warned about my kneecap, but he forgot. He & I had an exchange ("Kneel"/"I can't"/"Kneel"/"I can't"), which was broadcast over his microphone to a congregation of several thousand. When at last the bishop placed his hands on my head, I saw a lamb. I say a "lamb;" it had the shape (though not the size) of a full-grown sheep.
At first glance, the lamb was wearing a chain of gold beads around its neck. At second glance, the lamb was wearing Titania's hat.
The angels flew away as soon as I recognized them.
The hat gave Titania an aura of playfulness that belied her intensity. You could see it in her deep blue eyes, which, if they locked onto yours, would not let go. This phenomenon so discomfited our friend Lois that she wore a gorilla mask in the sweat lodge.
While I did not wear a gorilla mask (or attend the sweat lodge; I hate to be hot), Titania's gaze likewise unnerved me. Our friendship almost foundered on its implicit demand for a level of emotional engagement that I, at the time, could not give anyone.
My husband was, in this respect, Titania's dream come true. I think what saved the relationships between us was his confidence that strong emotions were not going to kill him.
The angels enjoyed loud music but were wary of primal screams. When Titania came over to visit Larry, they hung out with me.
On Nauset Beach
Three and a half years went by. The bantam chickens became laying hens. A coyote gobbled up the rooster. Titania expanded her garden. She grew green tomatoes & baked them into pies that passed like fruitcakes from household to household.
The yarn on the hat grew weak, the angels' perch precarious. They flew a lot less. They hardly ever swam. They listened to alternative radio instead. Late one night, on WMEN, they learned about a Tammy Faye Baker look-alike contest in P-Town. They were absolutely convinced that they could win.
Titania humored the angels who, of course, did not even place. (The guy who won looked more like Tammy Faye than Tammy Faye.) Despite their disappointment, the angels so much enjoyed their sojourn in a town with interesting bookstores, fabulous restaurants, & attractive people who knew how to dance that they packed up & moved.
Titania & I visited them on the tail end of a nor'easter. We stumbled, against the wind, over the boardwalk through the dunes, past the bathhouse, and onto Nauset Beach.
It was so cold... We were not even close to being naked.
The ocean roar inhibited conversation.
The angels emerged -- slowly, arthritically from a brown paper bag.
Before we could even greet them, before Titania could even think of putting on the hat, there was a trumpet call, a fluttering, a taking off.
The angels skipped like stones from wave to wave. The yarn gave way. (I think they knew it would.)
I could not bear to look. Titania faced it, saw them sink and drown.
She says they rose & shine again as stars.
About the author:
Elizabeth Alexander grew up in Dallas and lives in Seattle. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, The Raven Chronicles, Monkeybicycle, Eating Our Hearts Out (Lesla Newman, ed.), Crone Chronicles, & a few other places. She is trying, unsuccessfully, to wean herself off Diet Dr. Pepper.