Peter, Hughie & me.
Three's not always a crowd.
I’m getting ready for my movie date with Peter when he calls.
“Hey Debbie, I got a question for you,” he shouts into the phone. Peter always yells into his cell and he always calls me Debbie. He has, since the day my husband, who was then my new boyfriend, introduced us.
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“Peter, this is Debra,” Philip said.
I smiled. Peter smiled bigger. He opened his arms and said, “Come here, Debbie,” and enveloped me in the softness of good cashmere. Philip watched, like a proud dad who’s arranged a successful play date.
“Peter, no one calls Debra Debbie except her family,” he said.
“You’re so bougie, Philly,” Peter answered, then rolled his eyes at me and said, “White people,” as if I wasn’t one.
I wedge the phone under my chin as I wait for Peter to continue.
“What’s your question, honey?” I ask.
“Well, I was thinking - can I bring Hughie? Is that crazy?”
“It would be crazy not to,” I say.
Peter and Hughie got married when it became legal, after having been together for 40 years. And they were both Aretha fans, so the question makes perfect sense. Except for the fact that Hugh died three months ago.
I want today to be perfect because this is the one thing Peter has ever asked of me. He’d come over for dinner soon after Hughie died, and as Philip cooked, I asked Peter what I could do. He paused, then said, “Go see the Aretha movie with me.” His smile was shy, as if I might laugh.
“Of course I will,” I said. I would have gone to see Police Academy 5 if he’d asked. He says that when Respect came out, it made him want to cry, because he and Hugh both loved her - “Aretha was our girl.”
“I just couldn’t bring myself to go alone,” he said.
I tuck a lipstick into my bag as I tell Peter I’ll meet him in front of the theater. He shouts that I better look good for Aretha and I laugh. The truth is, I better look good for Peter.
Peter is always well-dressed. When he drove a cab, he looked more like he was going to museums than dropping people off at them. When he waters the roses in front of his building, wearing a summer Kangol, a good white t-shirt and red Carhartt suspenders, he looks like he was styled for a photo shoot. And no matter how I primp for our New Year’s Day parties, he saunters in and elegantly steals the show in a houndstooth jacket and beautifully cut trousers.
He wore a linen suit to our June wedding and drank one too many martinis. Someone told us that he was lying on the balcony and Philip ran to check on him. He came back laughing and said that Peter was fine, just needed to rest for awhile.
“You know what he did before he passed out?” Philip said. “He took his jacket off, folded it inside out, and laid it down neatly.”
The man cares about clothes.
It’s a hot summer day, so I choose a long, flowy dress that’s looks as cool as it feels. The walk from our apartment to the theater is about seven minutes, and I know Peter will be early, so I grab shoes I can walk fast in - my beloved gold Birkenstocks.
I take a quick glance in the mirror and think of Peter saying “you better look good” and take them off. I slip into a pair of red mules with 2-inch heels as my phone rings.
“Debbie, I’m in front of the theater,” he yells and I tell him he’s half an hour early. “Yeah, but we need good seats,” he yells even louder, as if I’m both hearing impaired and dim.
I promise to hurry. The Birkenstocks will save time. But this is Peter. I stick with the impractical mules and grab a cab. I see him before he sees me. He’s wearing a tan linen shirt that complements his skin as elegantly as the crema on top of an espresso. The grey canvas bag he holds is bigger than I thought it would be. When I comment, he says, “Yeah, Hughie’s heavy as hell.”
“She’s here,” he says to the guy who collects the tickets, and adds “Finally,” with a conspiratorial roll of his eyes. I point out that we’re 20 minutes early and he shakes his head and says, “Debbie,” and looks at the guy as if they’ve discussed my lack of movie etiquette in depth.
“Great shoes, Booby,” he says, as we make our way to the concession stand and I’m so glad I didn’t wear the Birkenstocks. As he looks closer, I’m sure he notices the slight wear on one of the toes, because that’s how Peter is. I hope he doesn’t ask where I got them and say, almost apologetically, that they’re not good shoes but I love them. He says I should love them because they’re smokin’.
We get popcorn and drinks and make our way up the grand staircase. “This used to be the Yiddish Theater,” I say, which of course Peter knows. This is his neighborhood. And good cab drivers know New York. The movie is playing in the main, and most grand of the theater rooms and we’re the first ones there.
“I told you we’d be early,” I say as we head to the middle seats of the balcony’s first row. We hesitate before sitting and I say, “Do you want to put Hughie between us or, like, on your lap?”
“I’m not putting him on my lap,” he says, implying once again, that I was born yesterday.
“So then, between us?” I ask.
“Jesus. No. On the other side of me. What’s wrong with you?”
When the coming attractions start, we chomp on our popcorn and talk about which ones we want to see. Actually, Peter talks. I whisper. When Peter says, in his giant phone-voice, that Jane Fonda’s hot as hell, I realize we have a problem. I hate movie-talkers.
I will myself not say “shh” the way I do with my husband, but hope that maybe, since he wanted to see this movie so badly, he’ll be quiet.
The movie begins. I miss Forest Whitaker’s first line, because Peter says, “What’s that guy’s name again?” I pretend not to hear him and he’s silent for a beat.
“He was in that movie about the dictator, right?” he says as if I’m at the end of the row and not next to him. I whisper the actor’s name, hoping he’ll follow suit and lower his voice, but he raises it, as if others in the audience might want to jump in, and asks, “Who’s he supposed to be, the father?”
I can feel my jaw tense, dreading the annoyed looks on the people behind us. I glance around. And gasp.
“Peter!” I say, this time, not in a whisper. “We’re the only ones here!”
He looks around, then stands, to be sure I’m right. “Wow!” he says, “We got the whole joint!” We smile and laugh over our good luck. The movie has been out for a few weeks, and it’s noon, so it’s not shocking, but it is wonderful.
“How’d you do it?” he asks and I suppress a “shh” and point toward the screen.
“Let’s watch,” I whisper.
We’re quiet for a few minutes, until Peter feels compelled to announce that the car Aretha’s father drives is a caddy. “That’s a beauty,” he says, and, then chuckles appreciatively about the woman who steps out of the car, and says “Black women love their fur.”
A minute later he asks if one of the characters is Aretha’s sister and I want to say that we’d know if he hadn’t been talking so much, but I look at him. He’s so kind. And so happy. And there’s no one here but us.
So I say, “I think so,” as loudly as he asked it.
Before I know it, I’m saying things like “Ooh, that’s Mary J. Blige!” and “Uh oh, he looks like trouble” and Peter is asking me if I like the popcorn as if we’re at a baseball game and I’m saying “hell yeah,” even louder, and I don’t care. I love this movie.
About halfway through, Aretha works out her version of “Respect” at Muscle Shoals Studio. The film then cuts to her performing it at Madison Square Garden. Peter yells “Yeah!” and I pump my fist in the air and shriek “Woo!”
We jump to our feet. We clap as we dance, turning to each other and hamming it up on the line, “And guess what? So is my money,” and Peter yells “Oh, Debbie!” over and over, and we have tears in our eyes and I don’t want it to end.
When she finishes, Peter yells “Yeah!” I frame my mouth with my hands and scream “I love you!!” as if Aretha, or Jennifer Hudson, or both, can hear me.
“Oh, Debbie,” Peter says yet again, and I laugh and yell “Peter!” and we hug like two people in love. Which is exactly what we are.
We leap to our feet a few more times before the movie ends. I’m grateful we’re alone when Peter asks if I knew Queen Latifah was gay and points out loudly that “she doesn’t look like a dyke.”
“What’s wrong with you?” I say. “Do you want someone to call you a fag?”
He snorts. “I’ve been called a lot worse than that,” and I get nervous because I sense he’s about to get riled up and tell me I don’t get it. Which I don’t, really. Gay and Black in the 50’s was anything but easy, and Peter carries a hard-earned chip on his shoulder. His flashes of resentment and hard-headedness can be trying. But Peter’s anger is no match for his sweetness.
We leap to our feet again and again, and when it finally ends, we’re yelling so loudly, I wonder if the ticket guy downstairs can hear us. Peter touches my hand, looks me in the eye and for the first time all day, whispers. “Thank you,” he says. “I needed this.” I want to say that he’s welcome but can only smile and squeeze his hand. And “you’re welcome” would be an understatement.
During my twin-pregnancy, he appeared at our door once a week, with covered dishes, saying “I fixed you some dinner.” Once, he proudly showed up with a plate of chocolate covered strawberries that he’d made.
When Ava and Ben were little, no one visited more, or got them as charged up as Peter. Within minutes, he had them on the floor, and to my horror, encouraged them to take flying leaps onto him and pound him with their little fists.
On one of those days, it began to rain just after he left and I wished I’d thought to give him an umbrella. Half an hour later, our bell rang and Peter’s voice blared through the intercom, telling us to let him up.
I opened the door to a rain-soaked, beaming Peter. He was holding a giant red rubber ball.
“It was in the window of KMart and I thought, these kids need a ball!” he said.
“But KMart is right near you - you were almost home,” I said. “You came all the way back? In the rain?”
He wasn’t listening. “Benji, Ava, looky here” he shouted as he dried the ball with paper towels.
When his mother, who lived in Washington DC, became sick, he’d get into his car every Friday night, drive four hours to see her, then drive back to be with Hugh by Saturday night. When I praised his devotion and said I could imagine how exhausting it must have been, especially after driving a cab all week, he shrugged and said, “She’s my sweetheart.”
And when Hughie got sick, Peter nursed him, and cooked meals Hugh could only take two bites of, and went to every doctor’s appointment and sat exactly where he’d been through their 55-year relationship. At his side.
Peter’s a giver. Today, I get to reciprocate a little. But the gift is all mine. We sit for a few minutes, wiping our eyes and realizing our cheeks hurt. It’s been a long, mask-wearing time since either of us has smiled like this.
He thanks me again. And then turns to the seat at his right and puts his hand on the canvas bag and softly says, “Alright, Sweetheart. Alright.”
“Come on,” he says. “I got lobster rolls waiting for you. And a bottle of wine. You want wine?” I say I’d rather have a beer and he tells me I have no class and I punch him in the arm and we go home feeling like the happiest people on earth.
Peter, Hughie and me.
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Vivid. Funny. True.
Oh Debra. You made me love Peter even more than I already do. What a beautiful story.