I have other friends who's "first moments" I remember, but not many. I remember my friend Marlisa walked up to me on the church playground (we were 15 years old, and I'd never seen her before in my life) and declared that my skin was "... so peachy! Your skin's like a peach!!" I liked her immediately. (I'm a Leo - we like compliments).
But Gene - or Eugene, as he called himself back then. I just don't remember.I wish I did. Because on Wednesday, January 16th 2013, he died. Passed away. Succumbed.
Whichever phrase you choose, it's all the same really. He's no longer here. No longer in his body. No longer available for those giant bear hugs, raucous laughs, cutting insults (to others, thank God - strangers who cut him off in traffic or people who's politics appalled him) or the excessively excessive meals - parties - perfectly prepared cocktails - expertly made beds, gorgeously designed gardens, paintings, rooms, quips, stories, general hilarity, and the lesser known, quiet, thoughtful, generous, frankly heartfelt moments of conversation. Not just "talking", but a genuine exchange of ideas. He was interested in what you had to say and trusted you were interested in what he had to say. He wanted to know about your family, friends, history, passions and trusted that you wanted to know about his. He was right. I did. So that guy - that man - that friend. He's gone.
And of course (CLICHE ALERT - because it is so undeniably true that there is nothing original to say about it) - We are all going to die.
We know this. Not as kids so much, or teenagers, I mean we get the basic idea, its just so abstract. Even if a child loses a parent or sibling, it's still hard for that child to grasp the concept as it applies to self.
It's more like "... yes yes ... I'm going to die. I get it. Now what's for lunch."
And I believe that "yes ... yes I get it" attitude continues until one is around 40.
By then - give or take 5 years - you've lost some people. Parents. A close friend or two - or three - maybe more. Maybe a sibling, taken too soon. It's always too soon if someone is under 80 (and people over 80 would probably bump that up). But yes. You're over 40 and people are starting to go at what seems like quite a clip. So you can't ignore it anymore. You try. But you can't. And that's where I am now, five days out from my friend Gene's death. And ... I don't care for it. That's about all I can say about it. Without cursing.
I knew him for about 30 years. And though I can't remember the moment I met him. I remember a lot of other moments. I remember cracking up - and cracking him up. I remember he and I being hired to cook for two nights for KoKo Taylor "Queen of the Blues", who was performing in a club downtown. We made fried chicken, collards, black-eyed peas, pork chops and so on in a generous friend's kitchen. She was a vegetarian, and says that to this day, that was the only time she'd allowed meat to be cooked in her home. I remember his "white trash/frozen food party" where he and his friend and roommate Steve served huge martinis in iced tea glasses and swept around their nearly furniture-less - painfully cool - historic district apartment passing silver trays of Gino's Pizza rolls as if they were fois gras en croute. I remember having dinner at his parent's palatial southern home - trying desperately to keep up as they poured me cocktail after cocktail, and throwing up later before stumbling to bed "drunk as Cootie Brown" - as Gene would say - did say - often. I remember his mother, Marion, an elegant woman in her 60's by then, washing the car out in the yard in shorts and her bra - something he said no other woman in the neighborhood would have done, but that she did all the time. Meanwhile - his father, Robert, also elegant, with a very "country club" demeanor - was in the house, polishing the chandelier.
Later, long after we'd both moved, me to NYC, him to Charlotte NC, I'd spend the night at his house whenever I got a chance. He would make me a lovely dinner - or we'd go out somewhere fun and fabulous. Then we'd stay up late-ish with a nightcap or two - or three - talking, not laughing so much then, as late-night was the time for those quieter conversations. Finally, I'd slip into a bed, beautifully made with sheets and a comforter with Oprah-worthy thread counts. In the morning he'd pad into my room around 8:30am (he'd been up for two hours, at least) with a full silver tea set - perfectly brewed Earl Grey, cream and sugar and announce that he'd be serving eggs, livermush (it's a southern thing) and fresh biscuits shortly.
He taught me about Yma Sumac, Peggy Lee, and "cocktail jazz" - and reminded me that I loved old country, gospel, James Brown, Beethoven and Mozart, and that they could, and should, all be played at some point during any given day, preferably all mixed up together.
Having these memories helps. And just because I don't remember "the first time we met" ... well, it shouldn't really matter. But see - I didn't know he'd be gone so soon. And - well I just think I should have realized.