The point of going back to Pennsylvania, the only reason I now have for doing so, will always be family, so long as it lasts, and the few friends that might still be there. My affections, like my affectations, are now largely settled, unquestioned, set, and so much so that I need hardly go anywhere but where I happen to be to be as I am. (Not a bad definition of adulthood, that.) Going back now is an obligation I feel not to the past, even my own, but only to the living. I love those I love now much the same way I walk, speak, sit in a chair, or hold my hands. I make that little list because I do not now do any of those things as I might once have done them. My posture, for example, bad as it is, was once a subject of some anxiety to me, as was my accent, my vocabulary, my gestures. I understood, perhaps even before I understood why, that if I was to ever make a place, however modest, for myself in the world, I would have to change some of what was natural to me -- from my overly sibilant "s" to the lazy way I let my hands hang in the air, to the words I'd learned at home and in my hometown that would, had I used them without irony at least, always have marked me; as a redneck, a racist, a provincial. If I was to pass, both safely through adolescence and out into a life I knew would allow, ironically, for greater personal authenticity and safety, I had to be mindful, and I had to change. Not all the change was radical, I don't mean to make too much of them here, and I now regret nothing of what I struggled to be rid of, but neither am I particularly proud of the strategies and practice I studied then to make myself both less like and unlike who I knew and or assumed myself to be. If my affections, like my habits, are, as I've said, largely settled, it was not an easy thing, finding the confidence required, or the place, or the friends, the partner, the life, that would allow me to be so. Anything I did to survive the place I came from, I can't regret. Anything I am now that is good and honorable, I may owe as much or more to the people I love who I have left behind me when I went than to anyone in my life since, other than my dear A., who has taught me so much, but to the place I came from, I now owe nothing. My debts there were all paid long ago. I don't regret it, save perhaps for the sake of the unhappy boy I was there, but neither do I feel what I assume is the more usual nostalgia for the places of childhood and early youth. Other than my parents and my brother, there would frankly be no reason for me ever to go back. I am not bitter, so much as indifferent to the place. The past, as embodied in that quaint town and the increasingly unfamiliar people in it, when I visit now, looks harmless enough, even charming, but almost none of it and nothing there has much of anything to do with me. I am, happily, now something more of a tourist there than I ever imagined I might be. I wish the place well, I suppose, but neither more nor less than I might driving by.
This isn't something I can easily explain to anyone not from the place I grew up, to anyone not gay, to anyone younger. I am confident that what was ugliest in that small town I knew as a child is passing. I hope, in a way, to not be understood someday, in looking back with less than perfect affection. May that day, for any who need it, be soon. True, there is nothing so very unique in the sad little autobiography suggested here, and I am already embarrassed at having gone on so, for fear I will be accused of protesting too much, but I should at least like to think I have been fair, if not perhaps altogether just, in everything I've written to date about going back. It is important to me that no one reading this assume I know myself so little that I don't see how ridiculous I might make myself by insisting, even as I write yet again about this trip, that I might as easily not have gone. Obviously, that is not so. It is important, for reasons, again, I can't quite explain, that my friends understand, that I understand, why I went, and will go again. My reasons, as I've said, all but one, are among the living.
I had one other reason to go back. One memory did require my presence. I had someplace I needed to see.
I have no confidence in any afterlife but memory. I am, reluctantly, an unbeliever. The dead are with me only in so far as I keep them 'round me, tell their stories, say their names aloud. That so many names come now to mind, when I am not yet myself so old as to see this as right, is, again, nothing unique to me or to the gay men of my generation. Beyond the family lost to me in the natural course of things, there are those I've lost well before their time, without the justification of age, in a conflict more pointless even than war, a conflict not with enemies, or even, finally, between ideologies or with prejudice, though an argument may be made for all that, but with indifference. The deaths I speak of, the dead I speak for just now, these were losses suffered for nothing, justified by nothing, not made significant even by their unimaginable numbers. These dead men died fighting for nothing but the days still owed them, for the health and dignity and happiness not sacrificed to some purpose greater than themselves, but taken from them, arbitrarily, by a disease too many chose to ignore, refused to name, or infamously even acknowledge, until it was already too late for so many. Disease kills without thought or judgement, without moral justification or reason, without any intention but that with which so simple and insidious a thing as a virus may be said to possess. Any other explanation proffered is an obscenity. But human beings, by their indifference, in their disdain, confident in their theologies and sure of damnation, can, and have and may yet still, allow for some deaths, some disease, and feel nothing, or worse, ascribe meaning to that which has none, and in so doing, sleep as if innocent of any fault or failure. I have seen this. I am a witness. It happened here. Do not forget.
The night of the day he died, I was already gone. I'd spent that day with him. I'd washed his eyes and wet his mouth with water. All that I said to him then is mine. I won't tell it now. That at least belongs to me. His family I'd spoken to often, spoken to that day. They were seeing to his things. I couldn't. I didn't care to. I knew they would do everything that was right. I wasn't needed for that. In truth, I don't know that I was much needed then even by him, yet I needed him. I needed to be there, to wash his eyes, put water on his lips, to touch his feverish skin, to let him go. At last, I had to leave. I had a job I thought I needed to get back to, a life that was miles away. So I left. He was still there when I left, some fragments of my friend that still clung to the wreckage of what had been so much beauty, such vitality and vanity and youth. It was hard to see any of what he had been in what he became before he died. It required an act of will, the greatest of my life, to love what was left of him, to insist that he still loved me then.
I can not describe just how beautiful he had been, the wonder of him, how he had radiated life. I have never known, and will never know another soul so much alive. You can't know. You can't.
In his long illness, through days we were together and times we were not, when he lived in my house and when he didn't, I bullied him, fought with and for him, that was my role then, as he had cast me years before, when he'd refused me more; to be his conscious and his confidant, the friend who took him seriously and refused to let him take himself so, the one who did not indulge him, pity him, let him die. It was a hard thing to be that, thankless, and near the end I'd been made to pay for it, that privileged position in his life as the supporting scold and goad. I'd seen him through numberless lovers and infections, jobs and cities and night-sweats and tears. I'd refused his delusions when they first came on him, when he thought strangers
angels and decided I was not his friend. Later, living hours away, I drove all day, more than once, when he insisted I come to him and then, confused and frightened, tried to send me away. When his mother died before him, and he by then in her house waiting himself to die, he had decided never to speak to me again. I'd bullied and joked too long, I seemed indifferent, I'd been cruel. He wanted nothing more to do with me. He was mad. When his mother died, he called me and I came. He was insane with grief, with guilt. She had insisted to me so many times that she dreaded nothing so much as living to see her son die. She didn't. He was horrible when I came, he kept me up all night, accusing me of endless betrayals, of unforgivable selfishness, of old jealousies and forgotten slights. And I yelled back. The next day, slipping in the wet snow, I helped him take his mother to the grave.
I don't tell this now to spite him. He was right to resent me, to fight and hurt me. He was hurt, so often, and by me. I had left him, following the man I loved better, no less than I loved him, and that was unforgivable. We were friends. Friends are not always kind. Try as we might, we are in the end no better than we can be. There had been nothing noble in my love of him, I'd sacrificed nothing, really, that I missed. Anything imperiled proved strong enough, in the end, to survive. Loving him, knowing him, having been so helplessly in love with him, in the beginning, even being disappointed in that love, had been so central to my life that I can not now imagine my life without him. He was so funny, outrageously brave, foolhardy and romantic and wonderful. He was a good friend to me. He was my best friend. I was the best friend to him I could be. I know he loved me.
After his mother died and he came back to San Francisco, where we no longer were and where he insisted he had to be, he lost too much too fast. I felt helpless, as I know his family did, as his other friends did. When his brother called me and told me to come, I knew it was going to be the last time I would have with him. Once, just a day before he died, he woke up and found me staring at him, petting his hand, indulging in the kind of woeful expression I'd not been allowed for years. He did not much like that.
"Don't stare," he said, and meant it. I tried to excuse myself, with a joke, telling him I'd been staring at him for twenty years and that he'd never much minded before. "That was different," he said, and frowned. He was right, it had been.
The night of the day he died, I was home. I'd driven back, as I'd gone to him, alone. I knew I ought not to leave him, not leave him again as I'd left before. I knew he was going to die. I wanted to be there. I wasn't. I'd wanted to be forgiven when I went. I wanted to be forgiven when I left. It doesn't work that way. We die alone, with those we love in the room or wherever they might be. He died as he lived, just as it was, just as he'd always done, just as he'd always been, much loved, much, much loved, but later than was convenient to anyone else, to me, and far, far too soon. He died alone, someone just having stepped out of the room.
I spoke at his funeral, to thank his wonderful family, to speak for my friend. I saw him to his place, next to his parents, his mother, who loved him better than anyone. I went back to her house afterwards, where another son was by then living, I was made welcome again in his family, as I've felt myself ever since. And then I left.
I'd never been back to his grave. I'd never seen the stone. I don't know why this mattered to me, but it did. His dear sister and her son, handsome and now largely grown almost to a man since I saw him last, drove me out to the cemetery, found the place for me, stood with me and let me make them laugh a little, with stories of my friend, of his mother, of the days when. His sister let me talk, and talk too much I suppose, for such a solemn place. But he was seldom solemn, and I was never allowed much so to be in his company. He did that for me, too. He gave me that. He gave me so much, so much joy, so many stories, adventures, courage, trust. I owed him this. I know he isn't there. I know he's gone. But this is what we do. He was the first joy I found out in the wider world. His face was the first I ever forgot myself in. I loved him, as best I could. He loved me the same. I love him still. I always will. I will miss him every day for the rest of my life.
It has been nine years. It was time.
I came back, Peter, my dearest friend, never quite my own, my own sweet Pete. I love you. I came back. Forgive me?