Oh, Peter

rocks“Sometime you hate everything.”

That’s what my friend wrote to me ten days before he died.

I didn’t want to look back on our email interaction when I heard the news of his death. Because reading his typed words the first time was bad enough. I hadn’t seen Peter since I was in my early 20s, but he was a life raft of a friend. And this typed correspondence between us wasn’t an everyday occurrence. I can’t even remember the last time we emailed back and forth with each other.

“Sometime you hate everything.”

What do you say back to someone you know is hurting but you haven’t talked to person to person, live voice to live voice, in more than 20 years? You respond the way you always did with this kindred soul. You call up your poet self for this photographer friend.

I typed, “And sometimes the black turns blue turns red then orange.”

“True,” Peter wrote back to me.

Now I look at the time stamp, just like I did the first time he wrote his words to me. Up in the middle of the night, typing his poet friend. Probably the only reason he wrote to me was because I sent him a poem three days prior. A poem that spoke of our bond so long ago, that called up a hard summer that often found me biking to his house in search of his total acceptance.

With Peter, I didn’t need to talk, I just needed to track him down. Tracking him down wasn’t easy, but when I did, his door was always open. In fact, I could just go sit on his mom’s couch and wait for Peter to return. If his mom showed up, I tried to be as quiet as a person who is a ghost, with the hopes that Kay wouldn’t see me. Because Kay couldn’t see me due to her blindness. But she always heard ghosts, especially skinny girl ghosts who are battling depression as they enter their 20s.

“Hi, Nancy!” Kay would call out to me.

And then, blessedly, she’d leave me alone. Eventually Peter would show up. Upon seeing me, happiness would run across his face. “Hey Nancy! What’s up?” he’d say.

And he’d mean it, but I wouldn’t have to spell out anything. If I showed up at midnight, he’d just swing the porch door open and offer me a beverage. If his brother Andy hassled him about my presence, he’d brush off his words and tell me sure, I could stay overnight. And sleep. I couldn’t sleep that summer but I could always sleep at Peter’s house. The grace in his attic room was like a whisper with no words.

I sent Peter my prose poem a few days before he wrote to me that he hated everything:

Perfect Thunder and Heat Lightning

Have you ever lived in a tree-top apartment, one you reached by climbing up a set of wooden steps? Did you sit on outside, atop the house, perched just so, smoking with your artist roommate? Did you reach that sacred space by climbing out the window? Was it so hot that summer you sweat while perched in front of the turning fan blades? Was your bed a futon, your favorite time the lightning storms? Did you ride your blue bike through the dark night to your friend Peter’s house? The friend who knew you well enough to just let you in so you could rest your head upon his pillow and finally get some sleep. God, the thunder that summer was the sound of relief, your feelings sung out loud within each deep boom. And you never remember which comes first, the thunder or the lightning, but that light, the way it claimed the sky, you wanted to claim the whole world with your words screamed out loud. Oh poet, my poet, the summer of living in the treetop apartment that would be cut down by fall, cut to the ground with your bathtub on the lawn. You’ll never be 20 again and that old best friend, you’ll conjure him up sometimes. The way he knew you best because there was no need to talk with him. He understood when you finally wanted quiet, the need you took to him, how next to him you finally let yourself fall into deep, dark sleep.

And he wrote back. He even sent a 4 second audio clip. Can I admit I never listened to the audio until today? Because it was clear Peter was not in his right mind when he wrote back. Was he drunk? The last time I spoke of Peter to a former girlfriend of his, I was 31. She talked of his drinking, how she thought drinking was robbing him of possibilities. Hearing this broke part of my heart off, and it fell like a shard of glass that didn’t make a sound as it hit the carpet flooring.

Still, after talking to her, I called him as I stood in my former hometown airport of St. Paul before flying back to my now home in Seattle. I think it’s the last time we talked by phone, but I’m not sure. I told him all my happy news. I had no idea of how to dig into his life, nor did I have any right. But man, it was nice to hear him say he wasn’t surprised that I was a professional writer by then, or that I was going to be a mom. Always, always, Peter was present for me when I could reach him. I’m not sure how present I was for him.

I wasn’t present for his garbled reply two weeks before his death. I listen to the audio clip now and there’s no sense in it. Is he saying “Thief?”

Death is a thief that took Peter from his hotel room in D.C. and now his human form won’t be back. I wonder if I had done anything differently would I not have heard news of his death. And I don’t know how he died. I email with one of Peter’s oldest friends, but he doesn’t divulge and I don’t push him to tell. It feels wrong to pry and what does it matter? Peter’s dead.

I sigh when I ponder about how I don’t think we can save other people. We can still show up for them, though. I’m not sure I showed up for him a few weeks ago even as Peter’s email interaction with me mirrors our friendship. We were two sensitive artists and I sent him my words now and again. A few months ago he posted on Facebook that I taught him more about poetry than any class ever did. He taught me about showing up without judgment, a hello and a smile always offered.

I’d love to berate myself and say I could have done better. I know I could have done better, but I leave the berating behind. I don’t even know how Peter was during these last 20 years, just words through the grapevine.

Two days later, he send me a free Uber ride coupon. And I felt sick to my stomach every time I thought about it. I didn’t reply but the word Uber occasionally flashed across my mind. Peter, I’d think and then ask the air, are you O.K.?

I’m so human. I both want to know and don’t want to know how Peter was these last 20 years or so. Instead I contemplate how peaceful I felt around Peter. How he could give me a compliment and I could take it in, no small feat for a Minnesota-raised girl. How I could sleep next to him and not fear the dark. Isn’t that what everyone wants in a friend? I wish the peace that Peter gave me upon Peter now. Oh ghost Peter, I wish your peaceful presence most for your mom Kay. May you sit with her in her living room, a being of light, at last.

Ever since I heard Peter was gone, he’s more alive than I care to admit, in front of me, all sweet Peteness before me. And his last words to me play on repeat. His physical form transformed, what remains is the hard, true string of words in my e-mail box.

“Sometime you hate everything,” wrote Peter.

I reply, “and sometimes the black turns blue turns red then orange.”

 

2 thoughts on “Oh, Peter

  1. Hello Nancy,
    I met Peter around when we were in high school. A unitarian universalist, I was very close with one of his good high school friends, Ian Young, who I met through church youth camp. I attended Macalester from 1988-1992, and then lived in St. Paul for another year before moving back to Nebraska. But during those years, it was a great relief to be able to hang out with Ian, Peter and John in St. Paul who were just hearty midwestern, good-hearted, down-to-earth but inspiring creative adventurous people.

    When Peter got an fb account, was the first time I had heard anything about him in many years, and I was so happy to have news of him. I haven’t been able to find our mutual friend Ian for many years, since I heard about him getting married in 1996/7.

    We exchanged some messages on fb, but didn’t have any in-depth conversations. It really means a lot that you wrote this piece, it gave me some insight into the years that I wasn’t in St Paul to see him. I’m not sure how, but it wasn’t until I saw one of John’s post today that I found out that we had lost him. So all these months later, I am experiencing this great sadness.

    I didn’t know he was drinking, and of course, like you, wondered what happened in that hotel room. Was it suicide? overdose? No matter what it was, such heart-breaking circumstances.

    He was a beautiful human being, and you writing this piece gave me the opportunity to express myself to you, a stranger, about how much this beautiful human being will be missed. Thank you for that.

    Best to you dear poet.

    Erica Dawn Birky Rios
    Lincoln, Nebraska

    1. So lovely to see your words and once again have a chance to chat about Pete. Yes, Pete and John were the same balm for me during my years at Mac, the same years as you. I met Peter as I tried to carry my fridge up to my dorm room in Turck, he and Marty Ruddy literally ran it up the stairs. And my life was never the same. Pete was one of the great loves of my younger years, not as in a boyfriend, but as in a true friend that guides you long past the time you are with them. I will email you offline and tell you what I’ve learned about Pete from the people that did get to be with him. I’d only loosely been in touch with him off and on, but losing him is heartbreaking. I loved thinking about him still there in St. Paul while I was way out in Seattle, where he rode the trains once upon a time. Much love to you. Nancy

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