Sunday, July 24, 2011

PEIK JOHANN, Lover, Friend, Son, Brother, Writer

The boys in Berlin won't soon forget him. He left a trail of broken hearts and shattered could-have-beens. I was almost one of them. It was nice while it lasted. I still visit our spot, in the Tiergarten city park, under the tree where we first caressed.

I was aloof in the beginning. It tweaked his interest to be put off at first. He followed me deeper into the woods. I led him to the bank along the lake, under the linden that's become 'our' tree. (I wonder if he ever thought of it that way. Probably not; I'm the sentimental one.)

Later, getting acquainted we discovered much in common: business acquaintances, similar work experience, literary aspirations -- why I'd even been dealing with somebody in his office. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet again real soon.

A couple of days later he called.

I suggested a new cafe in the Goltzstrasse. I liked the high ceilings and widely spaced tables, and there was never a crowd in the early evening. He arrived promptly, dashing in bright blue silk tie, tweed jacket, tailored blue jeans and well-buffed cordovan shoes -- a virtual uniform I came to anticipate.

(Maybe I should have asked for something of his. The tie, or better, one of his monogrammed shirts, or some jewelry: cuff links, a stickpin. I'd settle for a handkerchief, anything that was his, something to remember him by.)

That was the first of several dates we squeezed in before I was due to depart. He was so attentive: always arriving promptly, and always entertaining to be with. It was fascinating just watching him charm us into a table at crowded restaurants. Or how strangers at other tables would often try to ingratiate themselves.

We did make an attractive couple, even if I say so myself. His patrician goodlooks and hoch-deutsch inflection when he spoke made his education and breeding easily apparent. I, in suitable contrast, the exotic companion he lavished so much attention on.

My departure was unavoidable. He prepared a special goodbye envelope. Driving to the airport he presented it to me, first making me promise not to open until I was over the Atlantic. Then at the last minute he bought for me in the terminal gift shop a kitschy bottle marked 'Berliner luft'. The air in Berlin is notoriously bad.

In bits and pieces I learned his history. He grew up in Hamburg, after university jobbed in the film business. He moved to Paris, having always wanted to bask in the breath-taking beauty of the City of Light. He studied French, got occasional freelance work, and become a familiar face in the upscale cafes of Mommartre and in the deep shrubbery edging the Tuillerie Gardens. I believe he had a trust fund but it was never discussed with me.

The years in Paris proved hard professionally as he struggled with the language. He'd always been reluctant to even visit Cold War Berlin. He despised the Wall that enclosed and divided the city, and only traveled in and out by air. He couldn't stand the idea of driving through East Germany, or suffer the humiliation of the infamous passport controls at border crossings. Yet unable to get work that suited him in France when an opening in Berlin came his way, he grabbed it.

Compared to Paris, the Berlin night scene was smaller and easily navigated. He quickly insinuated himself with a succession of casual acquaintances, and just as quickly let them fall by the wayside. He seemed perfect partner material -- attractive, thoughtful and generous -- easy to see why so many fell so fast and so hard.

I guess I could have easily fallen into that category but I intuitively cultivated a friendship rather than make romantic demands. Once he said he didn't believe in flaunting his preferences, and of course he would never want to live with a lover.

"Imagine having to see someone every morning before you've brushed your teeth or combed your hair. That's not for me," he said, reaching over to touch my hand after shifting gears. He would sometimes whisper that he loved me. I luxuriated in the glow of his affection.

We never really became lovers in the conventional sense, he wasn't looking to settle down and I wasn't living full time in Europe. But whenever I was in town he was good to me. Then when I finally came for an extended stay he had already decamped back to Paris.

We stayed in touch by letter and the occasional phone call, and planned on spending New Year's together in Paris. I got stuck in New York that winter, but I figured we still had lots of years ahead, and there was time enough for other New Year's Eve celebrations in Paris or wherever we wished.

The phone rang one September morning in New York and it was he. He was in town for a few days on business, would I join him for dinner that evening? Would I!

We had drinks at his hotel and then went on to a restaurant I suggested on the West Side. It proved the perfect choice, just what foreign visitors consider very New York: a French-style bistro featuring live jazz.

We went back to his hotel. I waited in the lobby. He went to his room to freshen up. (Perhaps he'd gone to take medication. I now know he was on AZT.) He came down about fifteen minutes later and we got into his rental car. I wanted to show him my hometown from the standpoint of the places that had meaning for me, and he was game for the whole tour.

I showed him how the city sparkled from Brooklyn Heights promonade and the maze of crowded streets that formed Chinatown, Little Italy and Soho. In the wee hours, we walked arm and arm up, down and around Christopher Street spooning out of cups of Hagen-Dazs ice cream and drawing the appreciative smiles of passersby.

It was past four o'clock in the morning when he dropped me off. He gave me a goodnight kiss, nothing lingering -- that wasn't his style -- but not passionless either. I remembered half-hoping he'd want to come up even as I knew he probably wouldn't. I also knew it was pointless to ask him or suggest we try to meet once again before he left town. If he had time I knew he would call. I watched him drive away.

It wasn't until a year later that we saw each other again, this time in his hometown. He picked me up at friends where I was staying and drove me out to see his parents in the suburbs for afternoon tea. His sisters and their husbands joined us. Somehow I saw fledgling status as a significant other in this domestic picture.

His family had other dinner plans so we went to a favorite Italian ristorante not far from the waterfront. We drove across town chattering away. At a stoplight he turned to me and said, "You are very patient, aren't you?"

I was startled by this out of the blue comment but readily agreed, "Yes, I'm willing to wait for something I really want."

He nodded approvingly.

"Shall we spend our old age on the French Riviera?" he quipped gamely.

"Sounds divine," I said. "We can trade off gigolos over lunch everyday."

He laughed and readily agreed.

How was I to know this was to be the last time I would see him. The only hint of what was to come would be in a letter he sent the following spring from France. It was just a casual mention, almost a metaphor for life in bohemian Paris. He said he was getting over the flu but couldn't seem to get warm.

I was busy that spring and summer and the months flew. I finally managed to dash off a note to him in early September. I probably even alluded to our standing invitation to spend New Year's in Paris together.

A few weeks later I received a letter that immediately struck me as curious. It had a foreign postmark but no return address. I barely had a foot in the door when I tore the envelope open. At first I thought it was some kind of a wedding announcement. His name, some dates, a black border.

Gradually it dawned on me: this was not good news; this was a death notice. He was dead! Even as I thought it I couldn't fully grasp it. I really couldn't believe it. It was just past 7 PM New York time, well after midnight in Central Europe.

Shaking, I retrieved his parents' phone number, and though it was late felt compelled to call. His father answered, obviously in bed, perhaps even asleep. I told him who it was and apologized for calling so late. He said it was okay and not to worry about it. He asked me how I was doing?

"I'm fine, but I wanted to call about the card I received. What's happened?"

"Cancer," his father said quietly. "It was cancer," he repeated more emphatically. "My wife and I are very sad."

"Please give her my condolences. What kind of cancer?" I pressed.

"Cancer," he said and would say no more.

I told him I would stay in touch and asked for their address. "And certainly the next time I'm in Europe, or you're in New York, I hope we can meet." We said goodbye.

At first I was angry that Peik hadn't told me he was sick. That probably had a lot to do with the schoolboy sex we had. On further reflection realized I was better off not knowing while he was still alive. What could I have done except offer to help him anyway I could. There were others more capable and they did for him, as I was later to learn. My memories of him will always be when he was at his best.

A few days later I received another copy of the death notice, this time from Paris with a note from one of his friends who said she had found my last letter to him in the mail, and since it was obvious we cared for each other, it was her sad duty to inform me.

I wrote Michelle back immediately, thanked her, and said that I was hoping to pass through Paris soon and would very much like to meet her. But I didn't get to Paris that winter either and so a few months later she sent me a photograph of him, one that captured him in all his golden glory. He was as I remembered him so vital and disarming.

A year or more passed and finally I had a chance to stop in Paris for two days. As soon as I knew I called and left a message for Michelle. No message for me when I got to Paris. I called her the first morning. She was glad I reached her but unless I could come right then she was afraid there was no other chance to meet.

"If only you'd given me more warning but now I'm afraid its too late to change anything, they're all business appointments and very important." She and Peik were partners in a business venture she was now running alone.

"Why don't we talk now," I suggested.

And we did, for a long time. She sketched in the last eighteen months of his life; beginning with the first time he became seriously ill. She said it began with a case of what appeared to be the flu but it just didn't seem to want to go away. Running a 40 Celsius fever he flew to Germany and was immediately hospitalized. It was then he was diagnosed Positive.

After a hospital stay and home recuperation he was put on regular medication. In a few weeks he felt well enough to return to Paris and did so. The first indication that she had of anything serious was one night they had a date for dinner. As they pulled up to a parking space, he said that he had to go home, that he was too sick to go into the restaurant. She complied immediately, of course.

He was bedridden for several weeks and finally it got so bad his father flew in to bring him home. Once again he recuperated and was soon back in Paris. And then one day in March she returned home late to find a series of desperate messages from him on the answering band. He was at the prefect of police and needed her to come immediately.

As it turned out he'd been picked up wandering the streets barefooted and disoriented. He later explained that he was having an epileptic seizure and afraid of being alone in the apartment rushed out into the street in the hope of finding help. Now it was apparent he was no longer able to take care of himself, so arrangements were made for him to return to Germany.

His health stabilized and in July he accepted an invitation to visit friends in Majorca. They had no idea about his precarious condition. The flight was shaky and it was apparent when the friends came to pick him up at the airport he wasn't well. They insisted he return to Germany. Instead he flew to Paris, his beloved Paris.

Michelle was not prepared for the man she picked up at Orly that sultry summer day. He was thin, emaciated, and his hair, his full dark silky hair was severely thinning. She knew immediately he had to go home. But it was impossible for him to travel alone for at least a few days. His conditioned worsened, and once more his father was summoned to Paris to bring him home.

Last summer I called his parents and his father included me in a family outing. Over the course of the evening I got to see what caring loving people my friend had left behind, leaving a void in their lives that would probably never be filled.

After dinner I asked the sister closest to him in age and expression, where his grave was, and she said she would take me. The next morning we drove to the cemetery, one she'd said they'd chosen because it was small and intimate.

As she led me to the gravesite she talked about his final days. He was hospitalized and the doctors weren't too reassuring. He'd rally for several days and just when it seemed he might be released, he'd relapse and uncertainty would return. And then one afternoon the family gathered at his bedside for the last time.

At the end of a long path beneath shade trees like the ancient linden under which we first encountered each other, stands a imposing grave marker of polished granite carved simply with his full name and dates.

I finally said goodbye.

Had he surviced Peik would be late 50s today.

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