Where the hell are you? It’s been almost 25 years, way too long to play a joke on your family and friends. And still no trace of you. Even on the Internet. Despite all your writing for the Inter Press in Italy, despite Contextos, the well-regarded Spanish-language magazine you directed in Mexico City, despite the huge hunt for you. Just this paragraph in the Orlando Sentinel:
OAXACA,MEXICO— VANISHING POINT,
September 17, 1987, Investigators still have no clues in the case of an American journalist missing since Aug. 30. Peter Steele, 32, of Philadelphia, who worked for Inter Press Service, disappeared from the beach in Puerto Escondido, 45 miles west of Oaxaca. He was with a companion, Michael Contarino, who said that when he awakened from a nap on the beach, Steele was gone. His glasses and sandals were left behind. Friends say they doubt he could have drowned because he is afraid of going into the water; he does not know how to swim. Investigators said 1,500 men from the army, navy and judicial police have searched for Steele.
Our friend, Pablo, told me you were showing Contarino, a journalist friend from Rome, around southern Mexico. The two of you had been drinking. He went to sleep and woke up to only your sandals and glasses. The police soon cleared him. Your friends and family hired the best investigators, but they turned up nothing. The Pacific is angry and rambunctious at that particular beach, with big waves and a strong undertow. And it wasn’t like you would have gone for a dip. You were slim and wiry, but no athlete. Your endless energy burned off calories. You’d never swum and had no desire to learn. So what happened? Some believe thugs robbed you and killed you, tossing your body into the ocean or a ravine. Others think you walked too close to the water, fell in and drowned. But detectives never found a body or a suspect. Some even guess you took off to make a new life somewhere else. You did just that in 1971, leaving your comfortable home in Philadelphia to complete high school in Saltillo,Mexico. When I met you in 1972, you spoke flawless Spanish and had no intention of ever returning to the States You enrolled at the National University, got a degree in International Relations and married Laura in Mexico City in 1977. In 1983, your son, Barnard Steele Sanabria, was born. But by 1987, Pablo said, you and Laura were having problems and you’d become too fond of wine. I know you wouldn’t walk away from your four-year-old child. You were too loyal to family, friends and life to vanish without a trace. Not to mention the fact you couldn’t see without your glasses.
In the summer of 1972, you showed up at a party in my Mexico City apartment, just eighteen, dressed in a button-down shirt and khakis, looking like a boy scout in that gathering of left-wing hippies. Throughout the evening, you drank a frightening amount of beer and defended American capitalism until you passed out on the floor, just before the other guests threw you as a suspected CIA agent. I put you to bed and offered you coffee the next morning. “I only drink Coke,” you told me. You were slender, with dark hair and green eyes and a radiant smile. I asked if you really believed your arguments of the night before. “Everyone was too solemn,” you said. “I just wanted to get things going a little. How about some eggs? I love eggs with my Coca-Cola.” I knew then we would be great friends.
You moved in. We were housemates in a series of places over the next three years. I was 22, four years older, and regarded you as my good friend, the younger brother who kept surprising me. Your need to explore pushed you to abandon hamburgers and Coke for the exquisite and varied cuisine of our adopted country. You roamed the neighborhoods and markets of Mexico City, trying out barbecued pork, roasted corn, all manner of flan, and of course chocolate: thick and hot, perfumed with cinnamon; barely sweetened dark truffles, rolled in cocoa by nuns in a convent high above Mexico City; and the fabulous cake with 36 secret ingredients at El Coyote Flaco (The Skinny Coyote), a restaurant near our third and final house.
Before you started college, you ran an import/export business, really an excuse to drive your beat up little car into the mountains, to villages where you would buy clay animals, woven rugs, inlaid wooden boxes and sample local food. I still have a leather duffle bag you brought me. In the spring of 1974, you cut a deal with a landlord in the old cobblestoned Mexico Cityneighborhood of Coyacán. He was renovating a huge two-story apartment right on the main plaza. We could live there rent-free until it was completed, then sign a lease. He wouldn’t have to worry about vandals, and we—both broke and enrolled in the National Autonomous University of Mexico—would save lots of money. The caveat: no electricity and gas until the workers had finished. But we bathed in cold water, ate at a nearby restaurant and studied by candlelight. By the end of the summer, the place was beautiful and adorned with your folk art finds. Over the next several years, our closest friends—Pablo, Manuel, Wendy—would live there.
I finally left Mexico but returned as often as possible. I attended your wedding, stayed with you and Laura just before she gave birth, joined you on numerous excursions. In the summer of 1984 you called me, excited. “Listen,” you said, “There’s a new paper, La Jornada, with the best journalists in Mexico. I’m going to head their International section. Come back and write for it.”
God, was I tempted. I had just completed my first year of law school—like surviving boot camp—and was in a failing marriage. I had strong ties to Mexico and its people; and I’d rather be writing than anything in the world. But I didn’t have the guts at that point to turn my life inside out. You stayed with La Jornada for awhile, then moved to Rome to work with an international news service. Your letters were light and breezy, full of your love of new places. “¿Tienes galán?” you asked. Have you got a boyfriend? By the summer of 1987, I’d finished law school, passed the bar, gone to Cuba on a legal studies trip and was happily defending Spanish-speaking defendants in Minneapolis. Then the news.
I’ve never stopped wondering: if I’d bailed out of law school and gone back to Mexico to work on La Jornada, would we all still be there? Complaining about the smog but not quite able to leave Mexico City? And would I somehow have been able to save you, stop you from going to Oaxaca, invite myself along as your surrogate older sister, insist we stay at a hotel, not some lonesome beach?
You are so alive to me. And to all the people who loved you. Beatríz, Pablo’s wife, expects you to walk in the door some day, just the way you used to after returning from some trip or journalistic adventure. I imagine taking an extended trek through Oaxaca, alighting in villages, looking for a man—now 57—with green eyes, perfect Spanish and amnesia. You’d probably be running the local internet café or a folk art cooperative…or maybe drinking in the cantina every night.
In any event, it’s time. Barney is 32 this year, the same age you were when you disappeared. Laura went on to work for the National Commission on Human Rights, then died of cancer a few years ago. The rest of us are alive, but getting older. And we still miss you. Come back, damn it.