a m i s h

(for Niall)

I met Amish in Paris in November or December 1987 at a pendaison de crèmaillère (housewarming). I had just arrived in Paris with Jeff, exhilarated by the air of an Hexagonal autumn. Our host, Jill, had an apartment near La Motte Piquet. It was small and cramped by North American standards, but newly renovated and well situated near a market, gym, Métro station and restaurants. When invited, my curiosity had already been piqued by Jill's description of her Parisian friends. Since Jeff brought her home for dinner she hadn't stopped talking about them: rich, gay and charming Didier; Meg, a New Zealand transplant who owned a small Brazilian restaurant in the cinquième; Barbara, an upper-class Brit who had fled England and her family for the arms of a Moroccan husband some twenty years earlier; and, Amish, her carpenter, the Irish gay man who turned a devastated apartment into her home.

The apartment was full of people. I walked into the kitchen to get a glass of wine and ran smack into Didier and Amish. Amish was fairly tall, Irish, a stunner. He looked like James Dean, but was more butch, happier and probably drank less milk. Beneath his shaven head he wore a black leather Perfecto over a tight torn t-shirt. He slid a glance over me as I entered. We briefly said hello. He and Didier were intently cataloguing the sick, dying and dead. AIDS was ravaging gay Paris and Jill had already mentioned that both Didier and Amish were positive. I went back into the living room and talked on the floor with Barbara about her latest lover, an English academic. When I looked up, most everyone had left and a smiling, tipsy Amish was dancing Irish jigs for those who remained. What a number!

I didn't see Amish regularly or often. I was a married man whose lover had a hotshot career in the European headquarters of a major American computer company. I played a role. Jeff and I loved Paris, but hated each other. We couldn't break off and being in a foreign culture provided yet another excuse to "need" each other. I supplied emotional support as he slalomed through the murky politics of the corporate world, awash with late 1980s cash. He gave me the financial support I needed to finish my doctoral thesis on French politics. I worked, but never earned enough to buy writing time. Life moved between major consumer purchases, weekends in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin and London, fistfights, late-night tears and sumptuous dinners. Late eighties a-gay culture.

I saw Amish again at a dinner at Jill's. Easily the reigning worst cook in France, vegetarian Jocelyn nonetheless loved to entertain. We sat down before what looked like a steak and kidney pie. Polite Canadian fags, we were wide-eyed as Amish picked up a spoon, smacked the top of the pie and said, "Now Jill, what the fuck have you made us here?" They both howled with laughter.

The next time I saw him, he had been ill and was on AZT. It was a summer Sunday afternoon and Barbara invited les anglais over for a barbecue. Her house was in a courtyard surrounded by apartment buildings. The City of Paris wanted to demolish her house to make room for more apartments. She was fighting the expropriation every inch of the way, but knew she would lose. We danced to "Red, Red Wine" (the only danceable tune she had) in the blazing sun as horrified Parisians looked down from their balconies. Parisians often dimly view others' fun. When Amish arrived, he was slightly pudgy from the AZT and had a cute Zairois in tow. His doctor had told him to keep it cool, but he smoked and drank heavily that afternoon.

Several months later, it was fall. Amish was still living in his sixth-floor walk-up on the rue du Caire. I heard that he was lonely. He remained a fantasy about which I never breathed a word to anyone. I called him up and said I'd drop by for his homemade Irish soda bread and tea. We sat, talked, drank tea and smoked pot. When he suddenly said that AIDS hadn't done a lot for his libido, I felt like an idiot.

Months went by. I wrote. Jeff made money. Then Amish tried to commit suicide with a lot of sleeping pills. His Argentine friend Jorge found him and called an ambulance. Amish was furious at being left to live. He wanted to die.

I started to spend time with Amish. Terrified and with no AIDS caregiving experience, I felt his call for attention needed a response. His close friends were burnt out or kicked out in a temper tantrum. Meg said that he wasn't the same, that laughter and fun had soured into cruelty and bitterness. She wasn't dying.

I took the bus to the Hôpital Rothschild every second day during his last two months. His brother and sister, both doctors, came from Ireland with his sister-in-law, a nurse. The three took shifts looking after him.

Despite the suicide attempt, I found a man who still sparkled with life and was anxious to tell a story. I would show up unannounced in the afternoon and talk with him for a couple of hours. . . about his early gay days in Ireland, his crazy affair with a married nobleman and a highly tolerant wife, about the difficulties and boredom of his life in Ireland, about coming to France, the French, their fear and denial of his disease, about his fear of dying. "I didn't look for this fucking virus, it found me, it hunted me down." I listened. Sometimes we had a laugh, sometimes he didn't feel very good. Then one day in February, I arrived as Amish and his brother William struggled to get him out of the bed. He looked at me and said "I'm too sick. There won't be any fun today." The next morning, William phoned to tell me that Niall died during the night.

He was cremated at Père Lachaise. The cemetery has a lively cruising scene. Men poke in and out of huge tombs, follow one another, fuck in the stillness of the stone. We never talked about the scene, but I'm sure that Amish was perfectly aware of it. I peered into the huge furnace as his coffin moved forward on the conveyer belt. The flames licked its sides and it burst into a fireball. I drew away from the intense heat.

Nine months later, I left Jeff and Paris. My time with Amish partly helped me realize that I wasn't at all like Jeff. I took what I could carry (actually quite a lot) and split. The plaque for Amish's tomb wasn't ready before I left, so I didn't see it.

I didn't return to Paris for six years, but remembered Amish. I want to remember the person. I feel that it's important not to forget. I don't know if I gave anything much to him, but he helped give me a different view of my life.

In December 1995, I went back to Paris. I stayed with friends in the eighteenth arrondissement, not too far from Père Lachaise. One day I bought flowers at Marx Dormoy, hopped on the #60 bus and got off at the end of the winding route, Place Gambetta.

Père Lachaise was different on that winter day six years later. I thought I remembered the location of the tomb, but couldn't find it. A guardian looked up Amish's name and quickly led me through the columbarium, the central building under which ashes are laid to rest. The columbarium looks oddly Byzantine, but the cellars containing cremated remains are concrete. I looked up and saw Amish's name and birth and death dates "1958-1990". I put my flowers in the container and started to cry. After a few minutes, I shuddered at the cold dim light and concrete. Images of parties, laughter, a jig, flashed though my head and soaked into the silent concrete. I took a photo. I cried for Amish, the loss of who he was and what he had and for myself and my own fear. I couldn't leave. The black marble plaque stared back at me, coldly final. My eyes burned. Disoriented by my tears and that cold underground hallway, I slowly climbed the stairs back up to the grey Parisian winter. I wanted to photograph Oscar Wilde's tomb. Winter wind and the silence of the cemetery howled. My hands were cold. I took my photos and left hurridly, freaked out at the sight of men cruising the tombs.