Not Helplessly Strange

January 28, 2021   •   By Lily DeBell

I WOKE TO the golden afternoon light streaming through the train windows. Ivory-rimmed clouds clung low to the tops of the buildings in midtown, the last relics of warm September days that had tricked the entire East Coast into believing that summer might last a long while yet. Tired and cramped after nine hours in the same seat, I grumpily rose and acquiesced to the mounting anticipation as the skyline of the great city emerged in sharp relief.


I was traveling to New York to see my best friend, Nathaniel, who had started at Columbia three weeks previously. I, too, was to begin college that fall, but as if to highlight the disparity from my peers that would be engendered by my moving to California, the term began for me in October. A fortnight home alone had left me bristling and restless, so I spent the remainder of my meager summer earnings on train tickets to the universities at which my friends were beginning their new lives, visiting Philadelphia and Burlington before heading south again.


Nathaniel waited for me at the subway stop on 116th and Broadway. I marveled as he pointed out the window of his room above us, indistinguishable from the windows of people for whom this place had been home for many years. To Nathaniel and me, growing up four hours south in Baltimore, New York had always seemed the center of the world. It was the site from which nearly all art and culture important to us emanated. When I could scrounge together enough money for a bus ticket, I would spend indolent teenage afternoons getting hopelessly lost in Manhattan, trying naïvely to pick out the real New Yorkers from the tourists, so that I could mimic their dress and mannerisms. Nathaniel’s relationship to the city had not been merely an adolescent infatuation; his quiet devotion to his work in high school had been his means of securing a precious seat at the elite college, thereby ensuring that he would go there to live.


As we entered Nathaniel’s dorm room, I felt our impending adulthood in full force. Standing in the space that he had created for himself, where he came in the evenings to sleep alone, I saw my friend of seven years scattered across the desk and taped to the walls and in the laundry bin. I was unsure if new customs were necessary to approach him in this new place, but we instead sat conspiratorially, cross-legged on his bed, as we had when we were children, when we did math problems together or debated my new crushes, when we laughed at one another’s jokes so hard our stomachs hurt; as we had seven months earlier when I, covered in bruises and snot and briny tears, revealed to him the violence that had ripped apart my house for the entirety of our friendship and had then left me too frightened to return.


This was how I came to stay at his parent’s house for a week, alternating between fits of weeping and long hours spent staring blankly at unanswered text messages, interrupted only by the companions who came to visit. Abby, soaked through from sleet and rain, hand-delivered a letter she had written simply to say that she was thinking of me. Barrett brought bagels from my favorite café. Rohan played board games for hours and never asked questions. Nathaniel, always Nathaniel, sat beside me while I floundered in attempts to articulate the pain cocooning my body and held my hand when words were just beyond me. I was raw and weak and embarrassed by my being so, and thus at night I would retreat early to inventory the remaining clean shirts in my backpack and read Sherill Tippins’s February House.


Of all the poets I loved in high school — Rainer Maria Rilke, Hart Crane, Richard Brautigan, Sara Teasdale — W. H. Auden was foremost among them. His formality and technical mastery appealed to one of my passing fixations with meter, but I became a true admirer because of his lyrical talent, which manifests itself in his unmatched capacity for recording the romance of small, mundane moments. I felt such warmth emanating from his verse that I desired closeness not just with the poems but with the poet himself. (Auden, reclusive and made extraordinarily anxious by strangers, would undoubtedly have been horrified by such an aspiration.) When I learned of February House, first from the musical of the same name by composer Gabriel Kahane, and then from Tippins’s book, I began to satiate my hunger for connectedness.


Tippins’s history chronicles the building that once stood at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, where, in the early ’40s, George Davis began an experiment in communal living. Tenants included composer Benjamin Britten, tenor Peter Pears, novelist Carson McCullers, burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, authors Paul and Jane Bowles, activist siblings Klaus and Erika Mann, Auden, and his partner Chester Kallman. The book is gossipy and confidential, immersing the reader in rowdy parties with Aaron Copland and Salvador Dalí accompanied by the sound of Britten’s piano in the living room fighting for airtime with Paul Bowles’s in the basement. Debauchery and drunkenness were mainstays of residency at 7 Middagh, but the gang that sojourned there was linked together in nontrivial ways. The war ravaging Europe had forced the Manns, Britten, Pears, and Auden to flee for the United States. Nearly all of the occupants were queer and sought a reprieve from the homophobia and gender normativity of American society. These artists became friends and mentors to one another, drawing sustenance from their bonds as the world outside went insane. Curled up on the floor of Nathaniel’s guest bedroom, I could forget my own displacement by disappearing into the familial intimacy of February House, imagining myself in the corner as Britten and Auden hunched over the same desk to critique the libretto for their opera Paul Bunyan, or as George Davis rearranged the pages of Gypsy Rose Lee’s first novel, or at the meals they shared three times a day, where I imagined they saw themselves not as sages and luminaries but instead laughed at the silliness that necessarily emerges from everyday life together.


When morning came to New York, Nathaniel had class, and I had a plan. Twenty subway stops later, I arrived in Brooklyn with a map to 7 Middagh Street. I breathed in the still of the borough just after the crowds had departed for downtown, the reek of the drains overfull from thunderstorms. I walked toward the river admiring stolid brownstones, au pairs and tricked-out strollers and kids cruising on bicycles over the uneven sidewalks. Traversing the enervated neighborhood, it seemed to me that it must have been a mistake in the author’s research to suggest that February House had been destroyed in 1945 to create an on-ramp for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. My pace quickened as I began to half-believe that in a mile, I would find a door that disguised the place where they were writing and singing and trading secrets, upon which I need only knock to gain entry.


When I arrived, there was no house, of course. I was overtaken with an unexpected, wild grief. Running my hands along the wall constructed to shield pedestrians from traffic turning onto the highway, I dreamt that some particles from the razed building might have settled in the cement of this most inadequate replacement. It was a cruel joke that I should be able to look to my right and see Middagh Streets 21 to 91 upright and healthy in the bright sunshine. I felt foolish for having made the long journey here only to feel the absence of number 7 more acutely. In my discontent, I knew that all that could offer comfort was my nearness to the mythical house itself, and so I climbed atop the wall that had been erected in its stead and perched there for a long time.


From my vantage, I could see the whole of Lower Manhattan floating in the river, the city impossibly rising from the depths. It occurred to me that this view was what had lured the artists here in the first place. As I observed the Middagh Street of the present, I saw that it still paid small homage to February House. When I reached my hand into the ether above me, was this where Pears’s walnut music stand once balanced? If I jumped from the wall, might I instead float onto the stoop where eager, boyish Kallman had once waited for admission to the writers’ high society? The corner beside the water I knew to be the auspicious site of McCullers’s burst of inspiration for The Member of the Wedding; of Auden’s carefully concealed spiritual awakening; of a thousand of George Davis’s drunken speeches, which were merely preludes to a thousand more.


As a breeze tumbled across the scene, my mind turned to the humid hours of the summer that was drawing to a close. For the entirety of June, July, and August, I had done little other than wander the Eastern seaboard with the eight people for whom I cared most in the world. We were not — or at least, not yet — the greatest minds of our generation, but my disintegrated, threadbare life was of no consequence to my friends. I, who had never had a family, was surrounded for those months by love strong enough to form one. Enveloped in the imprint of 7 Middagh, I thought about the places where our own ghost house existed now: the back seat of Barrett’s aging car, screaming as we entered a one-way street in the incorrect polarity; high out of our minds on the front lawn, feeling everything; the abandoned classroom where we skipped physics and pinned old photographs of one another to the bulletin board.


The friends who had once lived in the air surrounding me in Brooklyn loved one another with a ferocity strong enough to sustain them through cataclysmic suffering, with a ferocity with which my friends loved me, with a ferocity that could reconstruct and remodel a dead house before my very eyes, and then we were together, happy and whole, the kettle on and all of us expectant around the kitchen table.


Mere days after I had returned to my house from Nathaniel’s parent’s, a letter arrived to inform me that I had been accepted to college in California. Before I knew how I would pay for tuition or if I would particularly like the school, it was evident that I must go.


February House imploded dramatically, but not unexpectedly, given Auden’s dictatorial control over every aspect of the tenants’ finances coupled with Davis’s unchecked spending of rent money on paintings and Turkish carpets. Yet without the guardianship of the house and one another, many of the former occupants’ lives began to go awry. McCullers’s health, always fragile, continued to decline until she was almost completely paralyzed. Auden and Kallman’s breakup had an enduring impact on the poet, who spent the rest of his life in a failed attempt to repair their relationship. Davis died of a heart attack just over a decade after the sale of the house. The only people to escape relatively unscathed were those who made Los Angeles their next destination: Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Gypsy Rose Lee. My own group of friends did not disband acrimoniously, but on the wet grass of the synagogue playground when we said goodbye, there was a finality between us that made me grateful that California was my next destination. I hoped that I, too, would recover where the 7 Middagh alumni had found healing. My family was parting ways, and I instantly understood that this was a death with the power to damage a person in much the same way that a municipal wrecking ball might erase a house.


When I returned to Columbia, I kept silent about how I had spent my day. Nathaniel and I embraced on the sunlit lawn before I boarded another train to watch the city fade from view. I carried two aging duffel bags onto a plane a week later, eschewing the orderly, provincial enclaves of my youth for the alien romance of an unknown coast. I climbed to Griffith Observatory on my first day in L.A., and beneath my feet I could see the whole world unfold before me, all the way back to New York and a strange 18-year-old suspended above a highway. I was alone for a moment, and then two families broke free of my skin and encircled me as we all stared up together in wonder at the expansive Western sky. I laid the first brick of my new house there. I have been building it ever since.


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Lily DeBell is an undergraduate at Caltech studying biology and English.


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Featured image: “NewYork200710b 019” by Lawrence is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.