The Missing FriendPrint
An attachment that will not die
By Phillip Lopate
September 2, 2016
Over the course of the past 20 years, a half-dozen friends of mine have died. In almost every instance, after the initial shock and sorrow, I adjusted to the loss; but about two years ago, my friend Peter suddenly passed away, and I cannot seem to get over it. Why this one death is harder to accept—more so than my parents’—is baffling to me. I suppose it’s partly that we expect our aged parents to die, but Peter was a few years younger than I. He had always seemed youthful, boyish even—the kind of person for whom death seems inappropriate—while appearing both gracefully responsible and adult.
We had been good friends for more than 40 years. We came together initially because of our shared love of the movies. He had a much greater appetite for violent action pictures and blockbusters, and would mock my enthusiasm for the latest esoteric art film from Taiwan or Romania, but he caught up with them as well. His taste was formidably developed, especially when it came to classical music. You could disagree with him on matters of taste, but never hope to prevail.
I was attracted to him partly because he was so handsome, or rather, striking-looking: tall, thin, with curvy black hair cut short. He dressed beautifully, like an Italian count. Though only half-Italian, on his father’s side, he embraced the elegance of that national style in cuisine, couture, and, above all, manners. I met Peter’s family at the church memorial for him, and they seemed nice enough, but ordinary, and a little stunned that this highly stylized creature had emerged from their midst.
When I first met him, he was engaged to a woman named Christine, who bought him a membership in a swimming pool that he never managed to use. A telling omen, that. The engagement was broken off, I suspected because he had decided that he was gay. Peter kept his romantic life very private, however, and would never explicitly declare himself homosexual. To the degree I could get him to talk about it, he seemed to regard himself as bisexual; moreover, he seemed to think it tacky to derive one’s identity from sexual orientation. What mattered to him, besides taste, was professionalism. His mottoes were: Get on with it; Don’t whine. I had come from a Freudian family background, and was frustrated at times by his indirectness, trying as I did to press every relationship into an increasingly confessional frame. Among other things, Peter taught me that one can be very close to someone without necessarily discussing at great length one’s feelings or engaging in intimate soul-bearing sessions.
I too aspired to professionalism, with its inevitable component of stoicism, and took him as my model. I watched as he ascended from the vice presidency of one nonprofit organization to the next. He was the perfect Number Two man; his specialty was development, or fundraising, and he had the diplomatic savoir faire necessary to massage wealthy donors. He also had rather precise notions of office procedure and working within a chain of command. I would listen with fascination to him discoursing on such corporate matters, which seemed so much more grown-up than the shaggy literary-academic milieu in which I operated. During the Carter administration, his disapproval of Jimmy Carter had less to do with White House policies than with the amateurish gaffes of his staff, mostly clueless Georgia cronies.
Peter had definite ideas about everything: one morning while shaving, he solemnly volunteered the opinion that the disposal shaver in his hand was “a very good product.” I had to laugh—it sounded so much like a TV ad. He could be a very generous host but you had to surrender to his mise en scene. When I visited him in his house in upstate New York, he would plan out every detail beforehand: what to eat for breakfast, where to drive in the area, what DVDs to watch at night. If I sometimes bristled at the level of control he required, it is as much for these eccentricities, quirks, and rigidities that I miss him now.
I especially missed him this summer; we used to visit him in his upstate home in June or July, and in return he would spend a few days with us in our Vermont rental in August. He was one of those rare friends who could show warmth and concern for the whole family—my wife and daughter as well as myself. I will miss him, too, when the New York Film Festival starts in September: we would regularly confer each year about what tickets to buy, and attend screenings together. It was one of our many rituals.
In trying to puzzle out why he is so present in my mind, why I miss him so much and find it so hard to accept his death with equilibrium, I ask myself, “Could it be that I was in love with him, and didn’t know it while he was alive?” Not exactly, any more than I am a little in love with all my friends. I think it has more to do with the ways that we were alike and unalike, and the differences between us that stimulated my imagination. He lived alone, by most appearances serenely so. He had numerous friends he treated kindly, making the rounds bearing little gifts. He was corporate, gay (for the most part, though I think his last years were celibate), Catholic, reserved, and—formal. It’s that formal quality I think I cherished most, in the end. Once, I visited him in his office, and his secretary said, in the spirit of sharing a conspiratorial joke: “The Monsignor will see you now.”
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.