After a school day that felt like it was years long, Ben and I had made plans to go looking for a spot to paint one more time. I was running out of time to get the thing done so I couldn’t hang out with him otherwise. He drove me all over the county looking for the perfect place, but nothing looked right to me. We settled on painting the field and trees beside the lake on campus, but I realized I didn’t have everything I needed to paint. I left my palette back in my dorm, but Ben came to the rescue.
“I’ll find something. I’ll be right back.”
He ran to the men’s dorm nearby and came back in less than 5 minutes with a piece of cardboard and some masking tape that would work perfectly for a makeshift palette with my wax paper. He stayed there, leaning against my car while I painted for a couple hours. We didn’t talk much, and it didn’t feel like we needed to. There was nothing awkward about it, just like the last 2 days of our burgeoning friendship. The painting was terrible because I was distracted (obviously), but it was done and I was relieved that finals were nearly over with. We were walking into the union for supper when Sheryl, a mutual friend who lived in my dorm, walked up and got in line with us.
“Some people are going to Sports Rock tonight and they want me to drive. I wish you would come with me,” he told me.
A date, I thought? Better test the waters…
“I really can’t tonight. I have to go to my parents’ house and pick up a few paintings for tomorrow. I’m sorry,” I told him.
“That’s okay, we’ll be going later tonight. You could still come, huh? I’m the only one who doesn’t drink and it’s gonna be boring. Since you don’t drink either, we could keep each other company.”
“I don’t know about that. The club is not really my scene. I’ve actually never been to one before.”
“It’s not mine either. How about if I go with you to your parents and we’ll talk about it more on the way?” My heart stopped, but I tried to act as if that was a perfectly normal request.
Sheryl interjected “Oh, me too! I want to meet your mom!”
I couldn’t imagine why everyone was so interested in coming with me, but I didn’t mind the company. Especially not Ben’s. I had a feeling my mom would like him right away, and I’ve never felt that way about a boy I’ve dated. I wasn’t nervous at all about introducing them. When we pulled into their driveway, he was impressed that my daddy drove a restored 1986 Silverado that belonged to my grandfather before he passed away. The truck was extremely sentimental to my family, and it made my heart happy that Ben loved it too. We walked in and mama was at the stove cooking dinner. Ben lumbered across the kitchen to her,
“Hey there sweetheart. I’m Ben,” as he wrapped her in a bear hug.
“Hey Ben! My GOSH you’re tall! How tall are you?”
She was flirting, and I was overjoyed. I knew that was her seal of approval. After talking for a few minutes longer, I ran upstairs to grab my paintings and made a quick exit (not before Ben could squeeze in one more mom-hug). I had made my mind up that I would go wherever he asked me to, even if it was a gross club where they serve beer on tap and glow sticks at the door. He asked me again in the car on the way home with Sheryl pleading for me to go, and I “reluctantly” agreed. He was visibly excited, thank goodness, and said they would pick me up at 9. I spent the next few hours in a frenzy, running from dorm room to dorm room looking for something cute in my friends’ closets. Everything I tried on felt contrived and not like me, and even though I wanted him to like me, I knew I wouldn’t get far if I tried to dress like someone I wasn’t. So I decided on my own simple, slinky black scoopneck, my darkest jeans and black ballet flats. I only ever wore black to work at B&BW, but it felt appropriate considering I was already stretching so far outside my normal confines. I had no idea what to expect going to a club, and I felt certain I wouldn’t fit in, but that was okay too.
Around 9:00, Ben showed up in Sheryl’s car—she instructed him to take it and she was riding with some of her girl friends. I sat in the passenger seat. Chase and their friend Vino were in the back seat. Driving down there, Ben asked about this guy I was seeing. I let him know that the other guy was nearly his same height, handsome, a former college football player. I wanted so badly for Ben to feel the jealousy that I had, and it actually worked. He didn’t say much more about it and we swung by the USM dorms to pick up his other roommate, Barron, who’d been visiting his girlfriend there. On our way to the club, Charlie called. He asked what I was up to tonight and I told him I was going to the club—not because I wanted to, but because everyone else was going. He said he might come later on if he could get his friend to go. I hung up and let Ben wonder who I had been talking to, and doubted seriously that Charlie would come.
We walked in the club and I was struck by how very dark and loud it was. There were booths along the walls that had small lamps at the tables, so I sat first on the inside of the booth, and Ben sat beside me. We had to yell to hear each other over the music. Ben said something, I couldn’t understand what, then he took my face in his hand and drew me closer to him so he could talk quietly in my ear. My pulse was racing. Besides the hug in the yearbook room, this was the first physical contact we’d ever made—it was electric. All night we talked like this, as if we were telling secrets. Leaning close, our noses touching ears, and I could hear him smiling in every word.
“I’m glad you came with me. This would have been terrible without you here,” he told me.
Then I saw him walk in. Charlie, taller than the rest of the crowd, in a white button down and jeans. A 2 week-old beard, handsome as ever. I told Ben I had to go, that the guy I was seeing had just walked in. He looked at me, dejected, looked at Charlie and stood up from the booth to let me out. I pleaded for forgiveness with my eyes, then took a seat beside the guy I was actually dating a few tables away. At that moment, I knew that while everything about Charlie screamed ‘perfect!’ there was a strange, stilted cadence to our conversations, there was something missing. I felt horrible, like a betrayer to both of them. I knew it was right to stay and talk with Charlie for the rest of the night, but I left my heart when I walked away from the table with Ben. As the night went on, I saw Ben go down to the dance floor to break up a fight one of his buddies was stirring up, I saw him walk outside for a while. I wondered why he went out there—was there another girl that I didn’t know about? My mind wandered, I couldn’t focus on anything. I felt bad for doing this to Charlie, a perfectly good and charming guy.
Around 2:30 a.m., it was finally closing time and I saw Ben walk back inside, scanning the crowd for a face. We locked eyes as I was herded toward the door with Charlie following close behind, and Ben stood waiting for me. The 3 of us walked outside, me and my 2 guys, and as Ben was being bombarded by drunk friends needing a ride home, he got to work arranging rides for each of them, accounting for everyone, when Charlie said:
“Hey, I can drive you home if you need me to.”
Ben turned when he heard this and put his hand on my lower back to ease me toward Sheryl’s car.
“I brought you here and I’ll take you home.”
I felt bad for leaving Charlie standing there, but it was true. I chose to come there with Ben, and I would choose to go back with him. Charlie was a good sport and said “Alright. Well y’all be careful. I’ll call you later.”
We got back in the car and I was enamored by Ben in that take-charge moment, the way he was in control. The way he arranged rides so everyone got home safely. The way he cared so much for his friends. It was obvious to me that this was the sort of guy who could take care of a girl. We were pulling off the street and onto the highway when he reached across the great divide of the armrest, the shifter, and he took my hand in his. When I felt his warm hand curl around mine, it was like watching Big Fish, Moulin Rouge and Good Will Hunting all in one instant. I was so aware of the way it felt, his rough thumb rubbing the top of my hand. I knew then that I was his and he was mine and we wouldn’t even have to say it.
A tipsy Sheryl popped up between us and asked, “Do you guys loooooove each other or somethin’?”
We smiled at each other and Ben said, “Yeah, Sheryl. Go to sleep now.”
Halfway between Hattiesburg and Ellisville, Barron decided we needed to stop the car because he wasn’t feeling so hot. We pulled over on the side of the interstate and Ben got out to check on him, unknowingly leaving his cell phone perched on the roof of the car. Once he was feeling better, they got back in the car and we made it back to campus so Ben could let them out at his house. He asked if I would mind riding back to look for the phone with him, and I was more than happy to. We parked on the side of the interstate and Ben looked everywhere along the darkened shoulder and found nothing. We got back on the road to head into town because he wanted to get a Nehi before going home. He went in the store, came back out to the car, opened the drink and took a sip. He said to me,
“Would it be alright if I kissed you?”
Even after he’d said the words, I wasn’t sure it was real. So much about the night was a flight from my normal routine, that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a dream. Emboldened by my sleepiness, I said, “You can’t ask something like that! You have to just do it.” I gave him what I hoped was a flirty smile. He smiled back. Whew.
A few blocks away, we were getting close to campus when he stopped at a 4-way intersection and leaned toward me. He kissed me. The softest, sweetest, kiss I’d ever had. It was exactly the way every first kiss should feel—unforced, earth shattering. It only lasted a second and we pulled away from each other realizing it was nearly 4 a.m., realizing the urgency that I get back to the dorm before the sun started coming up.
He pulled up beside the dorm and campus police was waiting. Harmless, silly campus police. The officer took our student IDs and let me into the dorm. I could care less. He could keep the ID, because I had everything in the world. I had kissed him.