Peter James Conti
by pronounced "ahhh" like a sigh
It had been awhile since I’ve seen him. Peter had a tendency to disappear. He’d slip into this darkness or latest boyfriend and he’d be gone. We always knew he’d be back. I remember the phone call. I was on the Amtrak headed towards DC and staring out the window oblivious to the scene passing outside. I was in my head so deeply that when my phone vibrated on my lap, I jumped. I smiled when I saw Peter’s name pop up on the caller ID.
“Dude, where have you been?! I haven’t seen you in forever.”
“I know. A lot of stuff’s been happening.” His voice sounded thinner than I remembered. Peter was Sango. He was fire.The trickster Elegba. He was always top voice and top energy, there was something there that I couldn’t pick up but also didn’t want to know. “Bass… I gotta tell you something.”
“Pete, I’m on the train on my way to see my family…” I don’t know why I told him this. I wanted to stall the thing hanging from his voice, keep it from falling and shattering into a million pieces.
“Bass, I have cancer.”
“What? What do you mean you have cancer? Do you have cancer like the last time you swore you had ebola?” In our group of friends, Peter was the resident hypochondriac. He’s had every ailment monkey pox, ebola, bird flu, heterosexuality. Of course none of these were true all Peter’s drama. So I refused to own what he’d just said. “Come on, Pete. You don’t have cancer.”
“No,B…” His voice hung quietly, “I do. I have it. Remember all that back pain from a few years ago?” I nodded into the phone. “It was my kidneys… and its spread.”
I covered my mouth before I could scream, the tears seemed to shoot out of my eyes instead of dripping. “Peter… Peter… Peter…” I said his name over and over. Hoping it would help. Cure him. “But you’re going to be ok, right? Chemo and surgery. You’ll be fine.”
“When are you coming back from DC?” I noticed how he hadn’t answered the question.
“Come to Rockaway. Come see me. I miss you.”
“I’ll come. Soon as I get back. I miss you.”
“I have to go. I’m a little tired.”
“Go rest. You’re going to be ok. You will.”
“I love you, Bass.”
“I love you too, Pete.”
I hung up and stared at my hands. The words “Peter is dying.” kept trying to force themselves into my head. I shook my head with an audible, “No.” The man next to me was pretending not to notice. I leaned against the window and cried for 2 hours.
When I got back to Brooklyn, I was scared to call him. I didn’t know what he would look like. I didn’t know what I would say. I wasn’t sure if I held any comfort in the confusion I was carrying. It was May, the weather was finally behaving. After six months, of side effects and set backs, my meds finally seemed to be working. I put off calling Pete for a week.
Wednesday, I was in Union Square Park trying to figure out what to do for dinner. I opened my phone to see who could join me when Pete’s number scrolled by. I hit talk before I understood why. I was surprised and scared when his mother answered the phone. I tried to hold my voice as I asked, “May I speak to Peter, please.”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“Oh Bassey, honey, how are you? It’s good to hear from you Peter’s been asking for you.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t called sooner, I’ve just been…” My voice trailed off. I had no reason.
“No worries, baby. Peter actually isn’t here. He’s at St. Vincent. Do you want the number to his room.”
St. Vincent was 4 blocks from where I was standing. Why was he there and not at home?
I hurried to scribble Peter’s room number onto a receipt in my bag. My handwriting is so much like chicken and scratch. Peter always said, I wrote like a 8 year old boy with no hands. I said my goodbyes to Mrs. Conti and stared at the receipt. St. Vincent’s was 4 blocks away from where I was standing. I had to call.
The phone rang once before Peter’s voice appeared on the other line. His hello was thin and strained.
Immediately, the tears appeared in my throat. I cleared my voice twice before I could respond.
I told him that I called him at home and his mom said he was here. I asked if I could see him.
“Of course!” Peter screamed. “Get your ass over here.”
I allowed myself a laugh and asked him if there was anything I could bring him. Food? Or gum? Or a body without cancer? anything. Peter said he needed deodorant, toothpaste and a People magazine. I ran across the street to the Rite-Aid. Peter and I had spent so much time here after a night out. Union Square was where we first met. He took one look at me and said, “You look like Lauryn Hill. We have to be friends.” That was Peter. I couldn’t allow this space to be haunted. Peter was still alive and he wasn’t going anywhere. Outside, I started walking briskly then found myself running to the hospital. I stopped before I entered. I needed to make sure I was normal as possible for Peter. The front desk directed me to his floor. I knocked on his room door, quietly. “Come in.”
As soon as I saw him, I burst in tears. He was so skinny. So pale. So sick. He reached towards me, “Bassey, we have no time for the ugly cry.” I collected myself and handed him the bag. Peter thanked me and told me to sit on the bed with him. “I’m finally as skinny as you. Now tell me what’s going on with American Idol. I haven’t been able to watch for weeks.”
It was Peter. We laughed and joked and when he cringed in pain, I bit my bottom lip. I asked him about the cancer. He told me. We said nothing else about it.
I laid myself next to him and listened to his heartbeat. I wanted to stay there forever to make sure it was always beating. When visiting time was over, a nurse knocked to alert me. I gave Peter my goodbye and hugged him longer than I understood.
“I love you, Peter.”
“I love you, Bass. Come see me again.”
I will. I’m flying tomorrow but next week. I promise.”
Next week, turned into next month, turned into Fall and then Winter. I never saw Peter alive again. I didn’t want to see him get sicker and sicker. It was selfish of me but I knew Peter, I knew he wouldn’t want us to see him like that.
On December 16, 2005 Peter James Conti passed away one day before his 30th birthday. Leave it to Peter to make sure he was forever in his 20s.