In honor of World AIDS Day, Michael Rowe remembers his mentor John Preston, the ghost of whom he carries with him everywhere.
On the day after John Preston’s memorial service at St. Luke’s Cathedral, I took a walk down Congress Street through the driving rain and tried to bring him back to life for a few hours by seeing his adopted hometown as he might have seen it if he had been walking with me. The last time I saw him was in October 1993, at the OutWrite gay and lesbian writers’ conference in Boston, perhaps John’s last blazing moment of pure star power before his illness finally foreclosed on his writing and his life. More than once in the months after he became unable to communicate, I wondered how much this last dazzling turn in the public eye had cost him. He had pneumonia that weekend, but you wouldn’t have necessarily guessed how ill he really was.
I photographed John with Joan Nestle on Boston Common that weekend, for the dust jacket of Sister and Brother. The night before our session, after the launch party for Flesh and the Word 2, John went on a bit of a spree. The next morning, ironically, the puffiness that accompanies a night of drinking actually worked to our advantage, filling out his face for the photograph in a way that was most attractive. My last mental image of him is the one I saw through the lens of my Nikon, wreathed in gold and yellow. Behind him, a brilliant autumn sky. The undisputed star of the OutWrite conference, the gray eminence receiving his adoring public as he sipped his cocktail in the lobby of the Park Plaza Hotel.
The image was at odds with the one I was trying to conjure, John walking with me through these wet Portland streets, on this slate-gray morning in the rain.
The day of the service had been as flawless as an L.L. Bean catalog cover. The sky was as clear and blue as ice, the warm ocean breeze drifting across Casco Bay carried a lick of salt. Through the eyes of a visitor from Canada, the town appeared to gleam with white-clapboard red-bricked perfection. From the window of my suite at the Holiday Inn on Spring Street, Portland looked the way John described it in Hometowns: “The archetypical Yankee city.”
John had always been so proud of his New England roots. It seemed as though he had orchestrated the entire scene for the people who had come to say good night: the Episcopal service for the dead, the incense, the high drama of ritual, the elegant reception following the service, and all that brilliant white sunlight pouring luxuriously through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant like liquid platinum.
And then, the next day, after his friends had gone home, it was as though he flipped the switch to “off,” and the rain came. Oh, John. I see your hand in all of this. This is so you.
I met John in March of 1992, at the first OutWrite conference I attended. I noted the event in my diary, although nothing on earth would make me forget anything as awful as that first handshake. I had been an avid reader of John Preston’s work since I first encountered I Once Had a Master in the old Glad Day bookstore in Toronto. The elegance of the prose spoke to my mind, and the razor-edged sexual imagery left me light-headed. I never missed a John Preston book publication. I would try to push his work on my friends, tell them, “You have to read this guy!” but something about the content would distress them, and they would hand the books back to me unread, watching me strangely for weeks afterward.
I approached him shyly a the preconference cocktail party. I chain-eat when I’m nervous, the same way other, slimmer people chain-smoke. I ate a piece of cheese on a cracker, and swallowed it before I went to speak with the Great Man.
“Mr. Preston”, I said, “It’s such a pleasure to met you. I’m a big fan of your work—”
At that exact moment, a renegade sliver of Brie, lodged undetected between my cheek and my gums, suddenly disengaged itself and slid out of my mouth and down the side of my face.
If the chandelier had chosen that instant to come crashing down from the center of the ceiling and crush me beneath its weight, sparks flying, people screaming, I could have made a good death of it. The thing with the cheese might have been forgotten by my hero, and my friends might have mourned the dazzling literary career that ended before it began, the moment the chandelier fell.
No such luck.
“Thank you very much,” said John Preston, eyeing the cheese, my Brooks Brothers blazer, and my rep tie with equal distaste. His eyes had already glazed over. I died in that moment. I prayed he would forget me, and he did. Immediately.
That summer, after eight years as a magazine journalist, and on the cusp of turning thirty, I went to Harvard to take a summer program in creative writing. I needed to be away from my partner Brian and our home in Milton, Ontario, while I cleared my head and decided if “being a writer” was what I really wanted to do. I moved into Adams House with my word processor, bought a telephone, and went to a barber in Cambridge who gave me a military haircut. I spent my days writing and doing course work, my evenings exploring the bookstores and pubs of Cambridge, and my nights at the Ramrod. On the weekends, I visited friends on Martha’s Vineyard and in Amesbury. I grew very tanned.
Before I left Milton, I had convinced Dayne Ogilvie, the editor of Xtra!, Toronto’s gay an lesbian magazine, to assign me a profile of John Preston. My intention was to travel from Boston to his home in Maine and interview him in his natural habitat – beard him in his lair as it were. Mercifully, when we spoke on the phone, he didn’t remember me at all (not that I did anything to remind him).
John met me on the steps of his apartment, and we went inside and talked for a while before going to lunch, which he subsequently insisted on paying for. Back at his apartment, we consumed two or three bottles of wine and talked through three cassette tapes about everything. I missed my bus, and we went out for dinner. I left Portland on the last bus to Boston, loaded down with paperback copies of his work, which had just been re-released by Badboy (a fact that delighted him), and his address.
“Can I write to you?” I had asked him.
“If you don’t,” he said, “I’ll be very angry.”
I shivered, not entirely from fear. But I smiled all the way back to Cambridge, and the books kept me up late. The interview, which I count as one of the best I’ve every done, made me undisputedly sure of one thing: I did in fact want to be a writer.
The following weekend, I won a wrestling contest at The Ramrod. I wrote him and told him of my victory, feeling quite gladiatorial.
“I adored the image of you wrestling at The Ramrod,” he drawled in his letter, which I received almost immediately. “And you won! Such a good boy.”
This began a correspondence with him which continued after I left Cambridge and returned home to Milton. We exchanged letters regularly. His attention made me feel, somehow, important. His letters were a warm arm around my shoulder when, on my birthday, I was sucker-punched by a handwritten rejection letter of untrammelled nastiness from the Harvard Review. (“Those people exist to publish their friends because no one else will publish them,” John told me.)
It was a relationship that no one else understood, no matter how much I tried to explain it. I don’t think I understood it myself. All I knew was that there was something about John which addressed something in me that only he was able to touch. Whatever it was, I stretched toward it as a plant stretches toward the sun after the rain.
I learned how to listen for the variegated timbres and cadences of his speech whenever I read his nonfiction. Another voice altogether took over in his fiction, so I read and reread his essays and introductions. When he was slow to respond to my letters, I wrote to him and called him on it. John once said that an SM top could tie up an SM bottom and leave him tied for an hour. The bottom would be fantasizing the entire time. The top would be reading the New York Times. John was, by his own admission, all top. He wrote back that although he was known for his “long letters,” he had just been “teasing” me by not writing. “The SM impulse is so strong in some people,” he said by way of explanation. “Young people are such fun to tease.”
John loved the idea of “young people.”
“You young people have no idea about what life was like back then,” he scolded in our interview. Or, on another occasion, when letters I had promised him failed to materialize, he sighed, “Young people are so unpredictable.” But he loved saying it; and, at thirty, I wasn’t going to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth.
In November, he sent me galleys of The Arena and said that he was including me in the “admittedly long” list of dedicatees. For a week following that letter, I was impossible to be with.
On December 15, he telephoned me at home in Milton, and asked me formally if he could “adopt” me as his literary protégé, along with two other young American writers, Michael Lowenthal and Owen Keehnen. His purpose, he said, was to introduce us (as part of a new generation of gay writers) to the world of book publishing. He wanted to guide my career and protect me while I developed the talents he saw in my work. I was – quite literally – speechless. When I recovered, I accepted. It was any writer’s dream. For me, because it was John Preston, it became more than that.
Over the next few months, he read work I sent him, calling one story “a very good writing-class story” (which was as mean as John ever got). He mentioned the three of us in an interview in the Gay and Lesbian Times of Maine. He wrote about us in his “Preston On Publishing” column in the Lambda Book Report.
Together we worked on my essay for Friends and Lovers. The essay I was writing dealt with one of my deepest and most combustible relationships – the one I have with my friend Barney, my first lover (for lack of a better word), whom I had known in boarding school, and who has remained one of the three men I call my brothers. John patiently helped me excise the excess emotion from the essay, showing me where anger and love overtook rationality, both in the essay and in real life. (In fact, Barney and his various exploits became so much a part of the mythology of our conversations and letters that at one point John suggested that I write “The Tales of Barney” as my contribution to Flesh and the Word 3.)
And he gave us a fat-free education on the reality of writing and publishing, the likes of which we never would have received in CREA 101, or in the pages of Writer’s Digest.
John loved the idea of being a “gay uncle,” and he passed that sense of family down to me through his letters and telephone calls. I began to think of Owen Keehnen, in Chicago, and Michael Lowenthal, in New Hampshire, as cousins, of a sort. Although I thought nothing of it at the time, John mentioned in one letter how different the needs of his three protégés were turning out to be. Aside from the fact that Michael Lowenthal was a gifted short-story writer, and Owen and I were journalists, I came to suspect that the differences ran deeper than that.
Owen and Michael will doubtless write their own stories of what John meant to them. For my part, John became as much of a life-mentor to me as a writing-mentor. By the time he and I finally met, I had been a working journalist for nearly a decade, and I had won accolades for my work. What John gave me, in our relationship, was a context in which to merge my identities as a gay man and as a writer, moving past purely objective journalism and into issue-oriented gay journalism and creative nonfiction. But, deeper than that, we explored the issues of maleness: what it meant to be a man – and a gay man – in these uncertain decades.
John’s celebration of his own advancing years opened a window on the dignity and power inherent in age. He relished his position as an elder. As part of a generation of gay men raised with the lurking fear that an inevitable loss of taut muscle tone and smooth skin heralded the loss of something far more significant than mere beauty, John’s delight in his “curmudgeon” status intimated to me that the second half of a man’s life could be more powerful – and indeed more erotic – than the first half. No topic was ever off-limits during our exchanges. Once, for instance, in response to questions that I had about SM and masculinity, he wrote and impressed upon me how important his sense of male identity was to him, and sent me a copy of his essay, “The Theater of Sexual Initiation,” which would be subsequently re-published in My Life as a Pornographer.
Censorship was anathema to John, and he suggested, only half in jest I’m sure, that when he went to testify on behalf of Vancouver’s Little Sister’s bookstore (from which several of his books had been seized by Canada Customs) some buddies and I should flank him in full leather.
My Canadian-ness was a source of endless mirth to John. He listened for me to say “eh?” or “oot and aboot” (out and about). But I was craftier than that.
“Can’t I be a Yankee too, Uncle John?” I asked him plaintively one evening.
“No,” he said crisply. “You have to be born that way.” He paused, then said, not unkindly, “Well, maybe we can get someone to adopt you.”
As the child of a Canadian father and an American-born mother, John’s intensely Yankee identity spoke to some atavistic yearning in me for an American identity of my own, any trace of which had been completely sublimated by my proper British-inflected Canadian upbringing. (The joke about the cultural duality of American-Canadian children really does have a ring of truth to it: we can be loud and obnoxious one minute, and shocked and appalled by our own rudeness the next.) I admired John’s islophilic New England sense of himself and his place in the world. I saw it in his prose, and in his letters to me. I admired his work ethic, and his ability to project a self-effacing nonchalance when, in fact, he loved attention. Most of all, though, I was spellbound by his unfailing generosity with time and advice when it must have been taxing for him to extend it. Quaint as it might sound, John Preston was a gentleman to his fingertips. If I’ve learned anything at all from him, I hope it’s that.
I cannot honestly say that I was looking for a father figure in John Preston. But I can say that his views on older men initiating younger ones into their society struck a chord in me that was profound and primal.
Our communication began to slow down almost imperceptibly in mid-1993. At first, I assumed that he was just busy with his writing, and the duration of our phone calls was a measure of how much work he had to do. He wasn’t as quick to respond to my letters, and when he did, they were short – no less witty and dry than they ever were – but shorter. He was loath to indulge in self-pity, and when he brushed off his illness, I clutched his nonchalance and held on to it as though it were a life preserver. The thought of losing him (which I knew, intellectually, would happen far sooner than I was ready to have it happen) was more than I could bear. Every once in a while, he would scold me sharply for not working harder with my fiction writing. Instead of taking this as a well-intentioned chivvying, I became paralyzed by the fear of ultimately disappointing him. Ironically, his assurances of his good health and state of mind exacerbated the problem: had he been healthy and happy (and I wanted him to be, so he had to be), the only valid reason for his silence could have been his displeasure.
When John asked me to photograph him with Joan Nestle at OutWrite 93, I took it as a grace note. When I saw him at the preconference cocktail party, I was relieved to see that he was looking well. He had a terrible cough, but he had lovely colour. He introduced me to Michael Lowenthal, who was younger than I’d imagined. Michael had a beautiful smile and a warm manner that I took to immediately.
John gave the opening plenary address that first night. He spoke of his history, his writing, and the meaning of legacy. His legacy. Of taking his place in the time-honored pantheon of New England “bachelor uncles.” My throat was full, listening to him. Selfishly, or perhaps because John prized his ability to speak directly to his audience, I took his words, and held them tightly. His voice was ravaged and raw by the end of the speech, but he finished it to a standing ovation. He had come home, and he knew it.
I saw little of him that weekend. His time was precious, and many people had a claim on it. On Sunday, after we had taken the photographs, and the OutWrite conference dispersed with the same odd sadness that marks the end of a summer at camp, we drove my friend Ron Oliver to the airport so that he could catch his flight home to Los Angeles.
John could barely talk. A less-obsessive personality than mine might have guessed that he was very ill, but he didn’t look ill, and he insisted that he wasn’t ill, so I believed him, and suffered under his silence. I was convinced that my inability to produce the writing he demanded of me had been the final blow to our mentorship. Tonight, writing this, I am appalled by my myopia, but it seemed far less clear back then.
John’s letters began to dwindle further, both in length and in frequency. By this time, he was blunt about how sick he actually was, and the dread of losing him, which I had been holding at bay, finally broke free. I was livid with myself when Joan Nestle told me that he had had pneumonia at OutWrite. The shame I felt for my fear of his displeasure overwhelmed me, and I had no place to hide. He had been trying to stay alive, trying to communicate with his people one last time. Idiot! I raged at myself. Self-centered idiot! “Lovely colour” indeed! Where the hell were your eyes?
He managed a short note thanking me for the photos (“I think they’re fab!”) of him and Joan.
Then, in early 1994, the communication ceased altogether. I telephoned Michael Lowenthal in New Hampshire and asked him to keep me abreast of John’s condition. I continued to write to John on a regular basis in the same way that you hold the hand of a dying person and whisper softly to them, on the off-chance that they can hear you. I wrote letters about practically nothing, relating the minutiae of my life, telling him things that normally I wouldn’t even note in my journal. I knew what the silence meant, but I wrote anyway. I became obsessed with adding my voice and my love to the good love of friends which surrounded him around the clock.
Sensing my desperation, I think, Michael Lowenthal called and wrote to me about John on a regular basis, moving beyond his own grief to inject into my silence and darkness a note of such grace and pure human kindness that I was, and still am, humbled by it.
In March of 1994, New England was paralyzed by a blinding snowstorm of historic proportions. I was staying with my big sister, Nancy Bowers, and her husband Jay, at their house in the woods of western Massachusetts. Wild turkeys flock at the edge of the forest near the house and deer come into the yard early in the morning. The forest trails wind for miles, through the woods and into New Hampshire. Their house in Warwick is my ultimate refuge. I go there when I need to think, or heal.
The night of the storm, I fell asleep listening to the wind whipping fistfuls of snow at my window and tormenting the branches of the trees outside the house. I dreamed that John and I were driving along Duval Street, in Key West. He was tanned and strong, and he handled the wheel of the car as though he hadn’t a care in the world.
“If only it could be different,” I said to the dream-John. He reached over with his other arm, and squeezed my knee. Beneath the rosy-bronze skin, his forearm was well-muscled.
“It is different,” said the dream-John, smiling at me. His famous ice-green eyes, the source of so much conjecture and anecdote, were warm and sparkling with life and humour.
I woke from that dream feeling the first peace I had felt in months.
On the morning John died, Michael called me at home and told me it was all over. I tried to tell the people around me what a light had gone out of the world, out of our literature, but they didn’t really understand, even the ones who wanted to. I built a fire in the fireplace in the sun room, closed the blinds, made myself a cup of tea, and read his essay on Portland from Hometowns. But for some reason, when I read, I couldn’t hear his voice in the words this time.
I met Owen Keehnen for the first time, at the memorial service. We shared a room at the Holiday Inn. After the service and the reception following, John’s friend Robert Riger generously chartered a boat for an evening tour of Casco Bay. We boarded the boat: Owen, me, Michael, Will Leber, Tom Hagerty, Tom’s friend Mark, and Royal Fraser, a young ex-varsity swimmer who had become a good friend of John’s, and wanted to become a writer himself.
The sun went down, and a cool wind came up across the water. The seascape took on the green- gray-blue tones for which Maine is justly famous. More than one of us remarked that the mood seemed festive. There was none of the funeral gloom that accompanies so many such occasions. More than one of us noted that John would have loved this: a boatload of young gay men experiencing the beauty of Portland at twilight from the water, thinking of him.
Robert took photographs inside the boat.
“Let’s have one with just the protégés,” said Robert, and we all leaned in, touching, and smiled while the flash exploded. I felt the strength in all those bodies, the life of them, and was warmed by it.
“The grieving mentettes,” someone teased, and we all cracked up. The flash exploded again, recording, I hope, that laugh. The sunset faded from the sky, and the lights of Portland ran together in the black water of the harbour like paint. The boat docked, and we went dancing.
The next day, the rain came, and I started to walk. I walked the length of the town, running my fingers along the rough brick of the buildings as I passed them, hungry for texture. I sipped a cup of Red Zinger tea at a bookstore café, under a wall display of hardcover editions of Flesh and the Word. It was the same bookstore where, two years earlier, I sat and nervously assembled my notes for our interview, checking and re-checking the batteries in my tape recorder to make sure they were working. I had come full circle. In an hour, I would ride to Boston with Michael Lowenthal and Will Leber, and I would not likely ever set foot in Portland, Maine, again.
I walked with the ghost of John Preston because I carry him with me everywhere. But I didn’t see him that morning, and I didn’t hear him speak to me.
In June, I was in the Glad Day Bookstore on Yonge Street in Toronto. As is my custom, I checked both the P section and the Gay Men’s Anthology section. I visit those sections at Glad Day the way other people – those people who are lucky enough to have them – visit loved ones’ graves. In the P section was Tales from the Dark Lord 2, which I had not previously seen. Eagerly, I flipped to the back of the book, and found our 1992 interview. I would read it when I got home, I told myself.
In the Gay Men’s Anthology section, I found a copy of Personal Dispatches: Writers Confront AIDS, the only book of John’s that I had not read, and in fact, had studiously avoided. I reached for it, and opened the book to the introduction. The voice that filled my head was one I knew well, one I despaired of ever hearing again. Through streaming eyes, I read, and I listened.
“Two years ago,” said the ghost of John Preston, “in 1986, a young bodybuilder came and asked whether he could pose for me. I had had some success as a physique photographer years ago when I lived in Manhattan. . . .”
Goodnight, Dark Lord. Sleep well, Uncle John.