He told me it was an inside joke with he and his roommate Chase—from a psychology video that semester where a crazy person thought monsters (called the Casheestees) were after them. Well, okay. I thought as long as you texted me, I’m thrilled that the Casheestees are after you. Can you imagine what it would feel like to suddenly become friends with your favorite celebrity? The way my 19 year old heart felt was akin to that. Giddy would be the perfect label for that.
I ran into Ben that morning outside of the humanities building and we didn’t say much to each other. I deflated a little, but felt better when he said he’d see me (only me, not the friends I was standing with) at 2:00 for pictures.
Kristen and I went to the yearbook room to meet Hope and Matt, the photographer at 1:45. True to his word, Ben and his entourage of friends showed up on time with a chocolate labrador puppy in tow. Ben felt it would add to the creative vision if he held the puppy in the photos. It would make the whole thing more “majestic.” Off we went to the lake on campus to shoot the photos. I got in the car with Matt, assuming Ben would do the same since they were friends. Ben got in the car with Kristen, assuming I would of course be riding with my roommate. Deflation. We got to the lake and Ben and his buddies decided it would be hilarious if he waded into the lake in his sweater and sport coat, with the pipe and puppy for props.
Listen y’all—I have ALWAYS loved the funny guy. When the funny guy walks into a room, people hold their breath to see what he’ll do. Guys love him. Girls love him. When the funny guy is also the tallest, biggest and friendliest person in the room, it’s unbearable to not be his girlfriend. It would be so perfect for me to date the funny guy because I don’t like to be the center of attention—I’d rather he do all the talking while I stand by his side. I wanted to date this funny guy. Oh, did I ever want to.
I remember that he was wearing black gym shorts and Puma sneakers with this outfit. He’d gotten rug burn on his knees by sliding on them dressed as Santa Claus at the party the night before. He kept yelling “I’m gonna get a staph infection in this mud, y’all! Hurry up!”
This is the money shot that went in the yearbook.
After the pictures, he climbed onto the side of Matt’s X-Terra and hung on to the luggage rack back to the yearbook building. We went upstairs to look over the pictures and he was flirting with us 3 girls. Hope asked, “Where are you going after Jones?” In my heart of hearts I prayed to God that he would say Georgia, a couple hours away from my plans at Savannah College of Art. The words that came out of his mouth were:
“Ole Miss. Me and Chase are going to live together.”
Hope, my best friend, the traitor, says “Kristen and I are too! We should all hang out up there! That’ll be fun.” I immediately regretted my big idea to visit Ole Miss our junior year of high school, imagining she and Ben holding hands frolicking through the Grove barefoot and playing frisbee. Ben asked where I was going, and I told him—probably sounding a lot like Eeyore but gloomier.
We kept talking about the pictures, his favorites, our favorites, then I asked him the questions for his interview. At a point, he leaned in very close to my face—dangerously close, romantically close (I later learned this was one of his favorite flirting maneuvers), and I didn’t flinch. He said, “You were going to let me kiss you.” which I flat-out denied. It was not lost on me that he didn’t lean in to Kristen or Hope, and my heart was sailing again. Afterward, he asked if he could drive my car to check those brakes and I followed him to his house so he could change into dry clothes. He climbed (fell, really) into the driver’s seat of my 2000 Volkswagen Beetle and we drove to the Howard Tech Park without my brakes ever making a sound. I swore they were the night before, and he swore I just said that so we could hang out. I asked how many other girls’ cars he’d driven (many), and he said he’d like to keep riding for a while. I put on my favorite CD at the moment, O, by Damien Rice. He loved it right away and I took that as a providential sign. We drove for a long while out in the country looking for a place I could go to paint the last landscape for my painting final on Friday, then we pulled into the cafe off campus where Kristen and our friend Sydney were parked. We went inside for a while and I hoped they thought that Ben and I were TOGETHER together at this cafe, not just friendly together. I felt different walking in with him. I stood taller, I felt confident. The two of us shared a slice of pie and sat across from my friends who were confused seeing us like this.
I drove him back to his house and we said our goodbyes, then I went back to my dorm to work on paintings. My mind kept wandering, wondering what he was doing while I paced back and forth in my room, painting then watching TV, painting, checking email. Around 6 o’clock, my cell phone rang and it was him. He was walking back to his house from the union, and said he was feeling kind of down. I realized that I hadn’t eaten supper so I asked if he wanted to ride with me to Sonic.
“I’m near the business building. Come pick me up on your way.”
We got to Sonic and I ordered my usual. He said he had something for me, and pulled out a white and red sticker that said ‘Ben’. They were from a Florida politician’s campaign and Ben had gotten a ton of them for various uses. Mostly, he and his friends had them on their cars, and he wanted me to have one too. He got out and stuck it in the bottom center of my back windshield. I was his friend. Really, truly, his friend.
“Everybody’s going to New Orleans tonight and they want me to go. But I don’t feel like it. I would rather stay right here, talking to you.” he told me. It took the breath out of me.
“I’d like that.” That’s all I could say.
We drove back to his house, and sat parked in his driveway and talked about everything. His phone kept ringing and he kept turning his friends down. This was the conversation where we covered the big things. I learned:
1. He came from a family of 4 boys. They were all big guys like him. Sam was 4 years older, Tom was 2 years younger, and the youngest, Jesse, was 11.
2. His dad was a preacher. He went to Duke University. (I was all ears after that last part—his dad must be a genius if he went to Duke, so the apple couldn’t have fallen far from the tree, right?)
3. He’d never told a girl he loved her.
4. He’d kissed more girls than he could count.
5. He didn’t like the new duet with Nelly and Tim McGraw, which played at least twice while we sat there talking.
6. He had a nephew, Jared. He was Sam’s son.
From me, he learned:
1. I had one brother, Clark who was much older than me.
2. My dad went to Ole Miss and wanted me to do the same.
3. I’d kissed 5 boys.
4. I didn’t like that song either.
5. I used to have very long hair.
6. I didn’t think I would like it at Jones, but so far it had been the best experience of my life.
He leaned coolly against the passenger side door with his hand propped on the back of my seat. He made me talk like someone I don’t know—I sounded older, smarter, funnier than myself. Or at least I thought I did. He told me he’d texted my roommate the night before to ask about me and my jealousy disappeared. He showed me the messages that read “What is she like? Do you think she’d date other people?” The clock finally hit midnight and I had to leave to make it back to the dorm by curfew.
“I’m glad I didn’t go to New Orleans. This was perfect.” he said.
“Yeah, it really was.”
He stood in his driveway and watched me leave with his hands in his pockets. I was heartbroken that the day was over. I crept into my darkened dorm room, Kristen sleeping soundly, and my phone began vibrating in my purse. It lit up, his name in those digital block letters, and I know he heard my smile when I whispered, “Hello?”