The Ringmaster Left Us

He was generous. He was loyal. He was intelligent. He was compassionate. He was energetic. He had a firm handshake. He looked everyone in the eye. He was magnetizing. He was discreetly indiscreet at times. He was fun. He was opinionated. He was communicative. He had a strong sense of beauty and good taste. He was clear. He was inquisitive. He was ultra-liberal. He was charming. He was socially agglutinating. He was the quintessential socialite. He was the epitome of a great communicator with an extensive vocabulary and perfect grammar. He played with his voice and nuanced expressions by the modality of his inflection, “Huhh-ney.” He was my friend.

He could be belligerent, wry, domineering, fervent and dramatic. His social life was more like a re-insurance agreement than the plainness of the first impression represented. The initial perception of simplicity with time slipped away as a more complex image of the man evolved. Geoffrey gave everything with one hand and slowly took it back with the other, not with malice, but out of a strong sense of personal privacy. He only chose to reveal glimpses of his private life sporadically, depending on the degree of acquaintance and the degree of trust he established. His true reality was his own and while occasionally he shared glimpses of situations and events, he never truly bared it all to anyone else, actually.

Initially, he was from Tinsel Town and he attended a small school in Connecticut. Later, we learned that while growing up in Brentwood, his neighbor across the street was Cole Porter, whose Packard automobile he found as impressive as his musical talent and his crutches. His brother attended Caltech, but he chose Yale, attempting to illustrate geographically how their individual political outlooks differed. He was the younger of two children raised in a well-to-do upper middle-class family with a charming English businessman for a father and a very loving, idiosyncratic Canadian mother. His parents and their friends were typical for their time routinely hosting dinner parties at their home, a tradition he continued. As he was growing up, there were the occasional sojourns “across the pond,” as he liked to say, to visit his grandmother and her side of the family along the English countryside.

I remember how we met. It was in a local “watering hole,” as he was fond of labeling bars. Ours was an introduction from a casual acquaintance who asked if I wouldn’t like to meet a really interesting guy also working with insurance. We were both in the same industry, but his insurance operations were away from my own focus on individual products and their direct distribution.

“Back in the day,” as he used to say, I had owned a small insurance agency which I had recently sold. He was still a re-insurance intermediary. I had no idea of the scope of his work at the time. I didn’t have any contact with the re-insurance world.

More than over our common business experiences, our friendship grew for more mundane reasons. We were both divorced. Similarly, we were fathers of multiple children; he had three and I have four, but as he liked to underscore, his former wife took care of raising his children while I was raising my own all by myself. It’s probably what he first described about me to his friends.

Over the years—twenty exactly—our friendship took many forms. He introduced me to business contacts, to his social circles, and to his family. I met his children, his former wife, his brother, and his best friends from college. He met mine too. They were all extremely important to him and I felt honored when in his introductions he labeled me an equally important friend as well.

His social circle was extensive. Almost instantaneously, I began to meet people from his different groups and through his acquaintance my own social interactions grew, as almost weekly he hosted and invited more and more friends to share dinners and drinks at restaurants across South Florida. His uniquely personal, “the liquor flows like glue around here” became an expression we often echoed to mimic his humorous outbursts, as was “Oh waiter! Hurry up and bring me the Wine List,” followed by his wine selection that evening and the perennial codicil, “line ‘em up and keep ‘em coming.” He was the party anywhere he went.

There were two issues at restaurants that annoyed him; the first was the waiting time for a table. Woe to the host asserting a twenty minute wait that turned to more. After the twenty minutes elapsed, he would get in front of the host and demand they find him a table post-haste and he would stand there to rant and rave until one was made available, causing such a raucous that often the manager of the place would be compelled to apologize and accept fault for willfully misrepresenting the time required just to get another patron fooled into staying. The second pet peeve was selecting a wine from the list and having the waiter return with the news that they were out of it, but suggesting instead a more expensive bottle. He would demand they give him the suggested new one for the lower price every time, alleging “we came all the way from Des Moines,” to have that wine. He seldom got his way, but it was fun to watch.

We learned to trust each other and to confide more personal matters with time. We shared somewhat sensitive issues of business, finance, and family concerns. He enjoyed giving advice and he set a fine example on how to get along well and affectionately with a former wife. He even hosted parties to celebrate several of my birthdays at the handful of homes he owned at different times through the years.

He also liked to play Cupid at times. When his youngest son was fresh out of school and one of my daughters was unattached he wanted them to meet, so he hosted an evening at his home on Miami Beach where they met. It didn’t spark anything, but everyone had a good time.

In the early years, he would rent motor boats on weekends to go out with his friends. Regularly, he ventured out to Elliott Key with a boatful of friends and enough liquor to withstand the heat, which as a rule encompassed about a bottle of wine per person and for emergencies, when the wine ran out a couple six-packs of cold beer to hydrate us while at full throttle we cruised back to the marina. For these trips, we were each charged to bring different varieties of appetizers. He always ran with the fuel and in addition, he picked up along the way multiple sandwiches of different meats for our main course and all the liquor.

Our regular outings eventually spurred him to buy a larger boat. He christened her “The Lady Chardonnay.” He loved the times spent on Biscayne Bay, where he would stubbornly command his vessel and never relinquished the helm whether “over-served” or with varying degrees of sobriety. As one of the friends expressed at his memorial service, “there was always one of three possibilities when on his boat: either we hit bottom and ran aground, having to disembark and push the boat into deeper water to get home or we had an engine malfunction and had to get towed back into port or he rammed the dock as we reached its berth.” I didn’t find any of these fun, so in the end, I stopped joining them.

We endlessly argued over politics. Our views of the role of the federal government were completely different. He favored a strong central government and I favored a strict adherence to the mandates of the US Constitution. He was an American History major. I’m a political exile, victim of a socialist revolution that left my country in poverty and ruin as its charismatic leader ensconced himself as a totalitarian dictator now close to 54 years ago. Our political views could never be similar because our political origins were very different. While he argued the need for a social safety-net at all cost, I argued for a small federal government that emphasizes personal responsibility and financial solvency.

He had been most everywhere in the western world and could speak with certainty of some of the least important of US cities across the map, places he had been in at different times. He lived in New York, in Connecticut—Bridgeport—and in London for work. He knew Europe and South America. He loved Mexico and Mexican food. He liked jazz and soft Brazilian music. He was a sharp dresser. He collected a large number of impeccably lustrous shoes. He had an amazing sense of humor and a yen for biting commentary.

Along the years, he met friends whose jovial disposition he cherished. Their indulgent lifestyle gradually worsened his own penchant for skullduggery. Slowly, former nights of restraint and propriety at dinner turned to biting sarcasm and a more excessive consumption of spirits. In the end, their influential presence changed the equation and largely contributed to our differences. My sobriety was not fun. My restraint was dull. In the desire to make everyone laugh, I became the butt of all jokes with snarky remarks that were gradually more hurtful every time.

Despite promises to remain in “constant communication,” as he liked to encourage, eventually, the pleasant nights of civil conversation at the dinner table grew less gratifying and more sardonic. Increasingly, our differences over politics, finances, and lifestyle drove a wedge between us. Perhaps wrongfully, I interpreted his behavior adversely and felt he needed to underscore a personal allegiance to his partner. Thus, as my provenance from a “third-world country” became a mantra, the endless barrage of personal attacks taking the opposite side of anything I said eventually proved too unpleasant and adversarial for me.

After one final unhappy experience at a dinner party, I decided to put a healthy distance between us. This deliberate separation turned me into a Pariah. As neither Geoffrey nor anyone else reached out to me after my deliberate absence was felt, the weeks turned to months until it was too late.

My open defiance probably challenged what another friend expressed privately in that, “it was the Geoffrey Show and we were all guests, special guests or featured guests appearing at different times, but it was definitely his show.” He was the ringmaster, a gracious host, the lavish entertainer, but in the end, it was his show, and he never allowed anyone to take center stage and steal his thunder unless by design–his design.

When the phone rang Saturday morning and the caller revealed that Geoffrey had left us the night before, I felt overwhelmed with grief. The months that elapsed since we last saw each other seemed more like a fleeting few hours. The splitting gulf that had loomed so large for so long vanished altogether.

The regrets set in. I wished I had stopped at his door the weekend prior when after dinner I asked a friend in whose car I was riding to swing by Geoffrey’s place. I felt an unfounded premonition that something was not right with Geoffrey. There was an aura of sorrow in the darkened structure where the lights were never off before. In the somber darkness, a single, small light came from a window on the second floor.

The ensuing week only brought me restless nights. There were a number of nightmares about death, which I attributed to other sources of personal anxiety. There were visions of death at my door. I couldn’t fully sleep all that week.

The fatal phone call put everything together in a Nano second. Premonitions are nothing to which I’m accustomed. However, the prior week’s nightmares were too vivid to ignore. Sadly, I had never before experienced predictive dreams.

Amid the grief, I could not help but find irony in Geoffrey’s passing. Turns out Geoffrey died on the eve of the 400th anniversary of the feast of Our Lady of Charity, the Patron Saint of Cuba, “that small island in the Caribbean of so little importance to the United States.” I guess it’s a Catholic thing. He was Episcopalian.

I’m sorry we never bridged past the hurt. Certainly, one of us should’ve reached out and picked up the phone while there was time. I’m sure we would’ve laughed together again and resumed our friendship as if nothing merited greater importance. Pride got in the way.

Our friendship meant a lot to me. Among his multiple contributions to my life, he made me culturally aware of values uniquely attributed to white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, something 51 years in this country never managed to illustrate before. Although he never convinced me politically, I understood his desire to provide a cushion to the less fortunate. Despite all his vocalized assertions to the contrary, I know he genuinely sympathized with the plight of political refugees from “that small island in the Caribbean.”

It’s often said that actions speak louder than words. Through the years Geoffrey’s actions clearly proved, unequivocally, how he valued me and our friendship irrespective of the circumstances at his passing. It’s on this prevailing thought I safely find comfort.

I will miss my friend Geoffrey. May his soul rest in peace.

About Francisco

Born in Cuba; political exile; American by choice; polyglot; father of four, grandfather of two; occupationally semi-retired; reader; writer; lover of mankind and nature; searcher of truths; hungry for wisdom; open-minded; romantic realist; critical thinker, enemy of despotism, government abuse, and inequality; believer and faithful; social liberal, fiscal conservative; in a quest to unmask the hypocrisy and the corruption enslaving overwhelming numbers of God's creatures around the world.
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