59 years ago.
Consider the details barely touched upon in this certificate of live birth. The parents. The siblings. The time and place. How very much has changed. How much remains, is remembered, honored.
Peter departed in the very early hours of the morning of November 14, 1994. At home, abed, while the rest of the household slept fitfully. I alongside him, Vera in our bedroom doorway and Véronique downstairs in the guest bedroom.
Julia joined our grieving but loving assembly. Jane gave us a nourishing breakfast.
Two favorite photographs: the portrait is one of my earliest, taken on a hike above the Castro, San Francisco; and one with myself and Peter’s cat Vera, one of the latest, taken in front of our home on Divisadero.
And, his obituary that includes a school photo.
When Laurence was 15 years old, she was entrusted to Peter’s loving care on her very first trip to London.
Now, a few too many years later, Laurence entrusts her 16 year old son, Maxime, to the care of myself and my life partner Jack – to introduce him to American English and the state of California.
Marvelous and wondrous, the circles of friendship!
Should I share with you some of what I feel, some of my doubts and concerns? I do not know how much of this you should bother reading. It is probably better for me to have written it down, got it out. Please realize it is at least a little therapy for me, perhaps nothing more.
Do I speak too low, or does he in fact hear me but without it registering? Do I imagine him to be distracted or distant? Would I not be distracted were I in the same position? Do I wait for the inevitable; do I see behaviors that are not there; where is he when he seems so distant? Fear, wonder, anxiety, anger and loathing of this circumstance – these are but a few of the lenses which often distort my thoughts and observations.
He is almost constantly scratching at himself – his skin is so dry and irritated, allergies and fungal infections compounded by who knows what else. Ready to bleed, his skin is so reddened.
His cough is so deep and so much at the surface at the same time. He would cough the life out of him, or the very demons he is afflicted with.
I would have him cut back on his work but he wishes to finish the school year with all his students. He seems angry at my suggestion. I stifle the way I end his sentence, his desire to “teach full-time” (even if it kills him). For the last couple of weeks now, he has absolutely no energy left at the end of his work day. Is this quality life? Who the hell am I to say except for myself.
I am sure we both wonder if he will travel to the mid-east this summer. I sometimes expect he may not make it to the end of the month, when he hopes to go to Chicago to visit with a dear friend. It will be Peter’s spring holiday. I stayed at home this entire week – my spring holiday – thinking that he could not manage without me, taking him to and from work, making dinners, doing most of the other household chores. At first, I felt a little resentful. I think it would be so much easier if he would open up to me – he holds everything in, except for a little, or maybe lots, that comes out in his writing. I am scared, frightened that, like Greg, any concern he has for himself will slowly and completely disappear as the virus makes its way with his mind. But how terrifying it must first be, to comprehend as I fear he must.
To slowly waste away or to die quickly? I know what I would want for myself and for those around me. But will I want it then? I know he has considered suicide as well as its effects on others close to him – how not, given the suicide of his sister and mother. I wish we could talk about it. I wish he could trust me with these thoughts as he seems to have with his very life.
Thoughts such as these I constantly live with this last year. And add in deep concerns for the welfare of Katie and Sarah as well as the realization of how much I miss my mother, close friends and extended family… And I also feel sometimes too full of self-pity.
As I say, I have second thoughts about appending this to the other pages – but, what the hell. I hope you will respond in any way or not at all as you see fit. I would so much prefer a day of conversation with you.
You have my love,
Notes: From a letter, dated April 9, 1994, sent to my dear friend Norman. Some years before this I had served as a Shanti emotional support volunteer with Greg, another young man with AIDS. My mother passed March 6, 1993.
12 July 1959, Washington D.C.—14 November 1994, San Francisco
Excerpts from a short story; a letter; a poem; travel notes
A Little Romance—[Davis, 1985 – San Francisco, 1994]
The scene is a gas station in the ungentrified, unglorified Southwest, perhaps somewhere outside of Bakersfield, California. He is the attendant—we’ll call him Cal (although his name be legion under the Texaco star, world without end, Amen). He never answers to Cal, but to “Fill’er up,” “Check under the hood, please,” or “Could you get all those squished bugs off my windshield?” Cal is tall and lanky and speaks with a drawl. He wears a red baseball cap over straw-like, dishwater-blond hair, and is clean-shaven with a bony nose and sunken, dull-brown eyes.
Cal wears a white tee shirt and loose blue jeans held at the waist by a hand-decorated belt which he won at the county fair by shooting a whole row of cardboard ducks. The belt came from some Indian reservation and is now the only force in the world anchoring Cal’s pants over his skinny haunches. Cal’s tennis shoes are oily from gas station grease, car exhaust and tire treads. His fingernails have a permanent accumulation of motor oil under them. An old, dirty rag hangs out of his back pants pocket. Cal smokes Lucky Strikes and has a pack in the front chest pocket of his tee shirt. To refresh himself in the arid heat of the Southwest he drinks about five bottles of coke over the course of a day. He spends a great deal of time under the boss’s old Dodge, a vehicle promised to Cal if he can get the engine to turn over. Cal has been at the car for three years and has not yet given up. When he is under the Dodge his absorption in repairs blocks him from the outside world, and customers resort to honking several times before Cal pulls himself from under the old car. Cal never has to hurry; the next gas station is a tank away and most people drive in nearly empty. No; Cal never has to hurry.
Cal is under the Dodge when she drives up to the gas pumps. We’ll call her Betty because that is her name, although Cal will never know it. Betty is driving to Los Angeles in a late-model, white Cadillac Eldorado convertible with red-leather interior. She is a forty-seven year-old divorcée whose ex-husband will give her all the alimony she requests on the condition that she will just stay away. Betty was a red-head cocktail waitress until she married her ex-husband. Then she changed her hair to sunburst blond and promised herself never to work again. With her alimony she has been able to keep her promise and the hair color, which graces a coiffure piled, teased and bombed with enough spray to defy the worst turbulence which the convertible can offer with its top down. The pink chiffon scarf covering her hair serves merely as evidence of Betty’s talent in accessorizing her wardrobe.
Betty’s face is a little puffy from her predisposition for vodka stingers, a major indulgence since her divorce, and she wears huge, round sunglasses to cover the circles from a relatively sleepless night in the company of an oil field hand who, as Betty will elegize later, “… maybe was dirty but sure knew how to drill.” Betty is actually a little puffy all over but has enough of a figure to dress down for the heat in an amply-filled, chartreuse-green jumpsuit, zipped from the crotch to her sufficiently revealed décolleté. Her step-in gold lamé high heels are tossed to the passenger’s side; she navigates the Eldorado better in bare feet. Next to the shoes, her matching clutch purse contains a roll of bills, some loose change, keys to the house whose locks were changed by her ex-husband, a wallet with an Arizona driver’s license, credit cards whose bills will be paid by her ex-husband, a bottle of Chanel Number Five eau de toilette, dog-collar tags for the dachshund which her ex-husband kept, and a full line of Maybelline products: Shell-pink lipstick, baby-blue eye shadow, black eyelash thickener, and salmon low-gloss blush. Betty is not ashamed of her weight, age, marital status, livelihood, drinking habits, cooking or taste in men. She needs a tank of gas but does not mind if the attendant takes his time. No, Betty does not have to hurry any more….
Letter to Douglas K.
le 25 février 1986
Salut, mon beau garçon—
I’m enclosing a baseball card to complete your collection …
Long live the days when women in white gloves used to buy cans of Spry (“it creams so easily”) at their local grocery.  Nowadays everybody uses K-Y jelly or Vidal Sassoon mousse during commercial breaks between Miami Vice or Dynasty.
Speaking of the latter, when I was in London two weeks ago I happened upon a Joan Collins Society meeting. There I found people to whom I could sincerely relate. For a brief, all too brief, moment, it felt like :sniff: Home. Otherwise London was calm under a layer of snow, and I amused myself with an outing to the symphony and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It.
Now of course, I’m back in Paris, which is also covered with snow, except here it doesn’t stay white very long because of the excessive population of dogs, DOGS and more DOGS. The reason the French are so fond of dogs, I decided, is because that is the only way they can assure themselves of being loved.
I am getting over a cold which I try to convince myself doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, the cold’s trying to convince me by waking me up at night choking in a flurry of mucus. What have I done to deserve this? Is this the thanks I get for giving up smoking? I was doing so well, too, going to Aerobics classes and jumping up and down to Loud, Throbbing and Mindless Disco Muzak. I will start again once I get over this cold.
When April S. was here she took me to the Folies Bergère where I saw 20 pairs of breasts which all looked the same. The boy dancers were real cute and all in all nous avons un temps.
I heard there were monsoon conditions in Northern California. Hope your cottage is holding up. Just the perfect weather to curl up to your television and groove on Let’s Make a Deal …
Je t’envoie mes tendresses avec une grosse baiser—
 Spry was a popular brand of vegetable shortening.
On New Years 1982-83
To be read while sifting rice or other grain
Haze lines the horizon
beyond the village.
My lover is far away.
And the bare dry branches
rustle in the wind
The austerity is only
that of a season.
Soon the dry spell will end
and my lover will ride
over the summits
—like the first rains—
—Forays into nature have never constituted a top priority in my vacation plans. I am not a Field and Stream kind of guy; my wanderlust is best fulfilled in a seat on the terrace of some café which serves decent coffee. A better choice would be somewhere between Paris Match and Interview.
Of course I have a tremendous respect for naturalists who venture through forests and up mountainous ranges for weeks at a time, savoring fresh air, alpine meadows, and all the wonders of flora and fauna. Some of my dearest friends run off to hill and dale with their tents, sleeping bags and compact freeze-dried delicacies. On occasion I have accompanied and surprised myself that I tolerated a sleeping bag with no air mattress, survived getting saturated by camp fire smoke and enjoyed a decent cup of coffee in the brisk, pine-scented morning air. But these were at the most weekend excursions, accompanied by a Coleman cooler stocked with delectable perishables, and a car trunk no further than 500 yards from our camping site stocked with red wine for the evenings around the campfire. Occasionally these outings included the invasion of mosquitoes, and I would bear the oil and gas repellants. Weather blessed these short excursions with an absence of rainfall. Twice I allowed myself an entire week of car-camping in T_
—We have arrived late at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, just as the last rays of sun are doing their work of coloring the different angles of the canyon wall. My partner unleashes his camera with his endearing, almost boyish enthusiasm for the rapidly fading pageant before him. I stare at the seeming infinite expanse below and see God’s terrible face, eternal and unrelenting, dwarfing me to the point where I could be a leaf blown by a gush of wind into the abyss. My eyes wander over the vastness where God has made his signature of terrible beauty…
Grand Canyon Sunset—Summer 1993
The first journal entry is dated November 1, 1987
Beginning from an enormous desire to write—and then? Thoughts escape me like so many days, and where is the journal then?
My ears are clogged up from swimming and it’s hard to think.
The ostensible reason for this journal is my current crisis—J’s diagnosis. Was “La Plaie” a premonition? How much more difficult it will be to live the scenario, not having any control over the denouement. And how empty that story seems now. And here am I on these pages now, trying to objectify the experience. Since I wrote “I” in the short story, why not “he” here? “He is very sad, very confused. He sometimes looks at J when he is asleep and imagines him dead a second later. When will that moment come, he wonders? He is sometimes distraught in public places. He is on edge at work. But all in all he is holding himself together remarkably well. But he is only going through the motions. Going through them so well, that he doubts whether a single gesture of his is at all genuine. ‘I am a cliché.’ His imperfect modesty sometimes reminds him that he is not alone in this mess. But in his life he feels that he has had an immoderate share of the mess. How many ghosts can one man support, especially on a teacher’s salary? Well, we’ve seen repeating patterns before and we shall see yet some more. The well-seasoned survivor always plods on and, as Samuel Beckett wrote, only grieves for himself.
Autumn is here, and the weather is appreciably colder. The sun hasn’t warmed the ground for a few days.
“He returns to the front line—will he tarry on the way?”
~ ~ ~
From February 1993
A few years after her death, I found an old picture of my mother as a young woman. In that perfectly frozen moment in time, she is caught walking down a city street—probably in Manhattan for the weekend, on leave from the Nursing School in Manhattan. The photo reveals much about her which marriage and children and time robbed—her youth, hopefulness and courage. Feeling the burden of her memory was enough, I left the photograph behind, not knowing how much I might want it later.
Years went by after my abandoning the photo to a box of relics in my sister’s possession. The house where I’d grown up, and where my mother died, was torn down and replaced by a garish condominium development. Seeing the changes on that property reminded me of my abandonment of the photo—I had run away from an artifact, foolishly believing that memory was more than enough, only to find that those pieces of physical, tangible memories could wound me by their vanishing as much as any memory by its endurance. All evidence of my mother’s existence was vanishing, and I would follow in its wake.
Although the women in that now demolished house did indeed die, the young woman in the photo remained alive; at first dormant in the recesses of my conscience for many years, she patiently waited for her encounter with her unsuspecting son.
We lived through an age of terrible sadness, but
slowly reopened our eyes one day to discover
a new age of grace.
We lived through a time of terrible sadness,
and yet, somehow, after the grieving and regret,
we were able to wake up one fine morning, knowing
that the worst was over and the best just beyond
I cannot tell my story in fine and fancy language because I didn’t get that kind of education, but since my young days I’ve had the habit of sorting my ideas out on paper. I’d write a letter to a friend who had moved away, and somehow just my describing one old thing or another would help me see it all more clearly. When I first went to work I was too tired at night to write even a post card.
I cannot tell my story in fine and fancy language because I did not receive that kind of education. The priest here told me that keeping a journal might help me put my thoughts in order and find the best way to pray for forgiveness.
~ ~ ~
And the last journal entry, dated August 15, 1994
“Hum a few bars and fake it.”
You would be 55 today.
My first gift to you
on your birthday
— your one and only Broadway musical —
Kiss of the Spider Woman, with Chita Rivera;
my last, roses to your hotel room
Planting a cedar today
might not be such a good idea.
(With thanks to April Scholz for saving Peter’s itinerary.)
Do Not Try This at Home
A Fulbright Study Tour of Israel and Egypt
I am several hundred feet up on the face of the Avdat canyon in Israel’s Negev desert. I am hanging on for dear life to the metal rungs which are allowing myself and my fellow Fulbright participants to make a vertical course up toward the top of the canyon. My heart is pumping with the exertion and fear created by the view below—and this is only the mid-point of the ascent. Clearly I am not a seasoned mountaineer. I am just a mild-mannered history teacher who accepted one of sixteen openings for a Fulbright Summer Study Tour for Teachers in Israel and Egypt. The vertical hike continues, I reach the top, and feel that special pride in having tried something new and survived. In my excited state the risky crawl up the canyon’s face became a logical and completely appropriate exercise in gaining an understanding of the Negev Desert. “But,” my inner cynic reminded me, “do not push your luck—and do not try this at home.”
Although the Negev desert did not transform me into a permanent outdoor adventurer, my participation in the study tour of Israel and Egypt made a wonderful addition to my experiences in international education. The Fulbright grant introduced me to an entirely new region of the world: the passionately controversial Middle East. With this travel experience, I would be able to complement my teaching of history and world affairs with the unique perspective that is added by visiting the actual sites which my lessons so often targeted.
As the date of departure approached, the offices in Cairo and Jerusalem heightened my anticipation with descriptions of our program of study. The sixteen teachers would spend three weeks in Jerusalem, followed by three weeks in Cairo. Within these three weeks for each country, the study directors would schedule extensive road trips to balance the more traditional lectures which comprised our study. By the time I boarded the plane for Tel Aviv, my mind was racing with the excitement of seeing a part of the world that I had not yet had the chance to explore.
Our arrival at Ben Gurion Airport provided a stark introduction to Israeli realities: Airport security was intense if not efficient, and illiteracy in spoken and written Hebrew made it difficult to distinguish political protests from “for sale” signs. Our Israeli study director, Arie Shoval, was present from our arrival until departure to serve as translator, guide and resident head scholar. Arie organized informative lectures in Jerusalem, concert outings, lunch at a falafel stand in the sweltering heat of Tel Aviv market at high noon, and, always at a safe distance, evidence of the unrest caused by the new Palestinian state. Arie’s love for his country and his commitment to it impressed many of us who had never before witnessed such deeply felt patriotism. For a people who have struggled to survive as a nation for thousands of years, such patriotism became a standard observation throughout our study tour.
Although over a third of our time was spent touring the whole of Israel, our home base was the Ariel Hotel, just South of the old city of Jerusalem. Israeli realities converge and become explosive within the walled confines of the old city, with security forces always present. The Arab Quarter has seen less violence due to the peace accords but an outsider still has to tread carefully as he passes Damascus Gate toward the Arab market. The Grand mosque of the Old City is only a five-minute walk from the Western Wall, the holiest site of the Jewish faith. Access to the Western Wall is heavily watched, and during the time of our stay rumors of Arafat demanding the Old City as Palestine’s capital added extra tensions, and extra security forces.
Jews and Arabs are not the only sources of violence in the Old City. In the Christian sector, orthodox Armenian and Greek sects and Franciscans coexist with great difficulty. Israeli police have had to break up fistfights among the clergy of those various denominations, and tensions run especially high during Easter services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Above all this fracas, the rooftop garden provides one source of peaceful coexistence. On the roof, Coptic Christian and Ethiopian monks live in austerity in dome-shaped, individual cells. Here these holy men pray, tend gardens, and thrive in a thoroughly ascetic existence.
Far away from the tensions of the Old City, The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum stands on a hill in the new part of the city as testimony to the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Through a variety of exhibits Yad Vashem takes the visitor back to the first attacks on Jews in the early 1930’s, the German government’s codification of anti-Semitism by the Nuremburg laws of 1935, the hardships of the ghettos where Jews were forced to live without adequate food or sanitation. The last exhibits focus on the “final solution” and the death camps in all their horror. Such testimony gives a special context to the Israeli state. The vow, “Never Again,” was clearly expressed throughout our travels in Israel, from the United Nations peace-keeping outpost in the Golan Heights to the heavily armed Israeli-Lebanese border.
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Every Man Jack: On writing, politics, parenthood, being gay, grief management (Who said anything about great art?).
On publishing Peter Bell