By the summer of 2002, Ben’s hair hung to his shoulders. “I’m trying to look like Jesus,” he explained to anyone who asked. With his pale Irish skin and un-carpenter-like build, there was really no chance of that, but Ben knew it. He was just trying to shock people.
Ben’s desire to scandalize mixed with his natural kindness in a unique way. Despite his enthusiasm about his long hair, he asked considerately if it would be okay to wear it loose to my wedding. “I don’t want to offend your mother.” I related this to my mother, who went to college in the early seventies. She laughed, and told me to tell Ben that he had a way to go before his hair was as long as her brother’s had once been.
For the wedding, he ended up braiding it anyway, and made an incongruous picture in his jacket, tie, dress pants, and tennis shoes. He didn’t quite fit in with my other friends, who were a generally clean-cut bunch. But the sight of him made me smile then, just as the thought of him makes me smile now. And that’s the way our friendship has always gone.
I haven’t talked to Ben in quite a while. I think it was probably a year ago that I last spoke to him on the phone. We talked about philosophy then, his low voice lazily outlining the tenets of Bertrand Russell’s argument against the possibility of a first cause (an argument which I, obviously, don’t buy) and I responding quickly and dubiously to his words. He hung up after an hour to go out to a party, and I went to bed with my husband in our quiet home. Ben’s and my lives are very different and we hardly agree on anything, but before we got off the phone, he said softly, “You’re the only one I’ve ever been able to talk with this way.” It’s true for me, too. Through the years of our friendship Ben has always challenged me uniquely.
I first met him when we were in sixth grade. He was chubby, with freckles and a buzz cut which accentuated the roundness of his head. I was skinny, with glasses and stringy hair, bangs hanging into my eyes. Neither of us was a social outcast, but neither were we destined to be popular – our humor was too dry, our intellects too inquisitive and too reflective for us to be able to project coolness. But, at a time in our lives when boy-girl interactions were a novel thing, these properties drew us to one another, and by eighth grade we were fast friends, within a group that included his childhood best friend and mine. By then Ben had grown taller and lost his baby fat, his now-longer hair flopping attractively into his eyes. My hair too had grown, and although I still wore glasses I had outgrown my pre-adolescent awkwardness.
By the end of eighth grade, Ben had a crippling crush on my best friend. She wasn’t interested in him, but she liked having an admirer, so she strung him along, never agreeing to date him but flirting with him incessantly. (Anyone who thinks that thirteen-year-olds don’t play games hasn’t been around that age group in a while.) Meanwhile, I liked him, a lot. I liked the way his hair flopped into his eyes, the way he smiled, the way he joked with me. I thought it highly unfortunate that he was infatuated with her. That summer he called me on the phone almost every day and we talked for hours, he asking me pathetically why she didn’t like him and how he could get her to like him. I hated every minute of that, but I liked him so much that I was happy just to have the chance to talk to him, even if we were talking about her the whole time. Years later he would tell me, “I thought I was in love with her that summer, but she was really an illusion. I loved her face and your personality.”
As with all unrequited love, his for her eventually faded, so that was no longer the main topic of our conversation. We started high school that fall, and with so many older guys around, I got over my crush on Ben. He and I got caught up in different circles of friends. I hung out with the smart mega-dorks; he hung out with the semi-dorks whose path through life was a little bit stonier, if you know what I mean. We didn’t spend much time together at school, but he called me with his problems and I called him with mine. Our bond grew stronger.
Ben was there for me during some of the hardest parts of my adolescence. At the party where I told my emotionally abusive friend Tom that I could no longer be friends with him, Ben held my hand when I came out of the confrontation in tears. On a school trip to a nearby amusement park, when I was feeling depressed about being single because all my girlfriends had suddenly acquired boys, he walked with his arm around my waist so that I wouldn’t feel like a fifth wheel. (The possibility that this might not have been an entirely disinterested action did not, honestly, occur to me at the time.) Whenever my self-esteem took a plunge, Ben would pick me up and tell me, with such frankness that I knew he couldn’t be lying, “You’re gorgeous.”
In our easy friendship I learned to feel comfortable with myself, to trust myself, to be a stronger and more confident person. High school is filled with backstabbing and gossip, but Ben didn’t play those games, and he helped me not to play them too. He wasn’t afraid to tell me, when I developed a crush on a jerk, that the guy was a jerk. And when I ignored him and went for it anyway, he was always there afterward to help dry my tears.
I’m making him sound too good, though. Ben and I loved each other a lot, but we disagreed on important things. While I was struggling to make my faith the center of my life, he didn’t even believe in God. “I’ve tried to,” he would tell me, “but I just can’t. I feel certain that there is no God.” We didn’t agree on issues like pre-marital sex, abortion, underage drinking, and drug use. We did agree on important things like honesty, trust, and the meaning of love, but we didn’t have the same faith, and so our fundamental approaches to life were different too.
Ben’s mom once told him that she thought he and I would get married one day, and he asked me what I thought about that. We were fifteen. I laughed and told him I thought we were too young, and he laughed too. It was a joke to us.
One day years later, it didn’t seem like such a joke. During one of the worst months of my life, the month that Michael and I had broken up before we finally decided to go ahead and get married, Ben came from his college across the state to visit me at mine. I was depressed, honestly convinced that Michael and I would never be together again, and trying to make the best of it. Ben and I lounged on the grass outside my dorm, soaking up the last rays of Indian summer, and as we lay there in silence, he sat up suddenly. His words came too quickly, as if the dam holding them in had burst against his will.
“I know you just broke up with Michael, and you’re sad, but do you think there could ever be a chance for us? It’s always been you for me. I know you’re not ready now, but I’d wait. I’d wait as long as you need. I think I’ve loved you since that summer we were thirteen.”
I was dumbstruck. I’d had no idea this was coming. Of course I couldn’t say yes, because since that long-ago summer I had felt nothing for Ben except tender affection. I said no to him, as gently as I could. He was unusually silent the rest of the day, and as I hugged him goodbye that evening I hoped that I had not lost his friendship forever.
I had not. Ben was raised by a psychiatrist, and he is amazingly realistic and resilient. We didn’t talk much that winter, but the next summer he came to my wedding, looking not very much like Jesus, and congratulated me whole-heartedly. It was as if that afternoon in September had never happened.
Since my marriage I have found that the hierarchy of my friendships has changed. I cannot be quite as close to the guys as I was, and I am resigned to that – Michael is worth it. Ben and I don’t have the same relationship we used to, but when we talk there is still laughter and trust between us. Most of all, I am grateful for the support that he was to me during the most fragile years of my life, and I am grateful for all the memories we made together. He is, quite possibly, the truest friend I have ever had.