I stood inside the main entrance to the State Fair shuffling my feet nervously. The crowds streamed into the grounds at a furious pace. I was early so I had time to wait and think and torment myself.
It had been years since I had seen Benjamin. After he and his wife split, I stopped receiving the family photo at Christmas. The last one was from about five years ago. It showed a smiling young family in matching sweaters.
The accompanying letter was the usual holiday update for family and friends, vague enough as not to be indiscreet by saying, “If we were close, you would know this.” It was well written, impersonal, and like the others, included a handwritten note at the bottom saying to not be a stranger and to visit if I could. I never did. The note was always written by Ben’s wife to make it more personal.
Years of irregular small talk, or the random e-mail, culminated with the suggestion that he was going to the fair with the kids and would I join him for the day? I can only imagine his surprise when I sent back a tentative maybe, later followed by the shock of a “Yes.” Why now, would be a fair question to ask. I had asked myself the same thing before hitting “Send.” After all the years of avoiding Ben, I guess I still wanted to know if he was really happy. The life I saw in quick glances seemed to be of relative happiness and serenity with the exception of the divorce, but that would have been a typical exception. The perfect family who, split apart. The perfect split where the kids lived with mom and spent every other weekend or more if they wanted with dad. Of course Ben was happy, but the question still lingered: Why now?
Maybe it was time. I spent the last couple of decades on the fringe, politely avoiding. I wanted to know but I didn‘t. I wanted to let go but I couldn’t. Not letting go gave me the ability to effectively sabotage my life. Sometimes, when I was able to forget for a while, I would find someone with whom I could share my screwed up world. Life was good, not perfect. Then an e-mail or Christmas letter would arrive and I would second guess and effectively fuck up my relationship. Around the time of Benjamin’s post-divorce girlfriend, I stopped looking for someone. It was over, it really had been for over twenty years but that didn’t matter. I needed to move on.
He wanted to talk after the break up as he had when he split from his wife. I listened to him as best I could, but we never met up. He couldn’t see the tears on the other end of the phone. I had wanted to be there, to hold him and tell him I could make it better, that I could love him the best of all, but to what purpose? I had my chance a long time ago and our lives changed us. He moved on. Why now? I need to know this not only is over but it never could be, only then would I finally, painfully, move on. Avoidance had been a mistake. Forty is not ancient, I had time. I need to get this done, now.
Ben and his son wore matching cowboy hats, and Ben had trimmed his beard to an attractive goatee. His daughter brought a friend. Ben held his son’s hand, partially bent over to talk to him as the four closed in on me. Someone said something, they all laughed and Ben looked up. Even through his dark sun glasses I could tell he locked eyes on me. The kids, realizing Dad had stopped joking, followed his gaze. At six-five (when I don’t slouch) it’s hard to become invisible. He smiled and waved. His daughter and her friend exchanged glances. His son looked excited.
“How are you doing Pat?” He shook my hand and hugged me. “Kids, this is Patrick, my oldest friend. Pat this is Annie, her friend Kathy, and Darrin.”
“Hello,” I said quietly.
“Nice to meet the man in the picture finally,” Annie said.
“Dad has an old picture on his wall of you guys at school,” she continued.
“That is the guy?!” exclaimed Darrin. “He doesn’t look this big in the picture!”
“Darrin…” Ben cautioned.
“But he is so big Dad!”
“Darrin!” Ben said quickly. The girls giggled.
I blushed. I had an idea of what he meant. Depending on exactly when the picture was taken it could be easily two decades old and I, seventy pounds less.
“Sorry,” Ben said.
“Its ok.” In school Ben stood five-ten and under two hundred pounds, he couldn’t be much more now. I had gotten fat, he hadn’t.
“Well, lets get started,” he said to the kids, then to me, “We can catch up while we walk.”
We wandered into the park proper, seeing activity everywhere. Darrin wanted to visit the horses, and we went over to the barns first and walked between the stalls. “Oh that one is pretty,” or “Can we get a horse?” Here and there Ben made sure to include me in some way.
“Do you remember riding when we went to the Dells?” He asked.
“O, yah, that was fun, I remember having to pay extra for not getting the horses back on time.” We had taken the horses out into the woods, just the two of us. We had insisted we knew what we were doing, even though we had only ridden once before. We got lost. Ben had been on edge. I calmed him by leaning over to squeeze his hand. I told him the trail was over the ridge, even though I didn’t have a clue. We rode close, every once in a while reaching out to each other for comfort. Eventually, we came to a road and followed it picking up the trail on the opposite side. We were red as beets at the end of the ride.
After making them promise to meet us for lunch at a little booth near the stadium, the girls went off into the crowd. Ben relaxed and I felt less inhibited. Darrin clearly loved his dad’s playful side and so did I.
Darrin ran wild in the baby animal barn. He touched each lamb or piglet one at a time. It was a small enough enclosure that we were able to hang back.
“Why didn’t we get together before?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know. Always busy, I guess.”
“We couldn’t have been that busy,” he said, “a lot of wasted time.”
“Not that often. I miss hanging out with you.” He said, watching Darrin pet a rabbit.
“You had a wife and family, a girlfriend. You were busy.”
“Well, you know how that turned out. What about you?”
“Work, you know, just life.”
Darrin came back laughing and asked to watch the goat milking demonstration. We followed him across the barn and out to the little stage with a goat standing there ready to go. I nearly fell off my bench when my cell phone went off. I had forgotten about Jake.
“Do you have to answer it?” Ben questioned with a small pout.
“Paaatriccck!” Jake said in the way he always did. “How’s it going? Do you need a rescue?”
“Hang on.” I quickly put my hand over the phone. “Sorry Ben, be right back.”
“We’ll be here.” Ben’s voice was calm but his face didn‘t look pleased.
I moved away. “Thanks. No, it’s going ok for now. I’m actually having an ok time.”
“Yes, really. I mean, well, like I said. Some hurt, you know, but it‘s still good. He’s still Ben in so many ways.” Jake was the only person who knew the extent of my dilemma.
“Just be careful,” He said sincerely. “Do you need me to call you later to say your place burnt down or something?”
“No. Really, I’m a big boy, I’ll be fine. I was stupid to ask you to call.”
“No big deal. Call me if you need anything.”
* * *
When the show was over, we walked back to meet the girls. On the way, Darrin went on and on about how he didn’t want to eat and wanted to go on some rides. Ben kept telling him later.
Lunch was fun. The girls wanted us to sneak them some beer, but we didn’t. I watched Ben laugh with the kids or listen to them. He clearly enjoyed the company. Annie and Kathy took Darrin to the rides while Ben and I headed over to the arena to observe a judging. We’d meet up later for dinner on the other side of the fairgrounds.
We made our way down the lane toward the arena when Ben suddenly caught my arm.
“That’s exactly what you need!” He pointed and ducked in to a vendor’s booth. I followed and a cowboy hat was shoved at me.
“Aw… come on…” I laughed at him.
I put it on without looking and waited for the reaction. Ben whistled. I blushed slightly.
“Perfect!” He turned me to face a mirror. I burst out laughing but his expression over my shoulder stopped me. He had raised his sun glasses and was looking at me with a glassy, peculiar expression on his face before he realized I wasn’t looking at myself but at him.
After paying, we left the booth and walked the rest of the way to the arena. Between my height and my new hat, I had to duck under the archway. We found a partially empty section and planted ourselves down, sprawling out across the benches. The horses showed off their skills while we listened to the announcer.
For a while, a comfortable silence settled between us, content with each other’s company.
“So, who called you earlier? I mean it is a Saturday, no work right? Just wondering,” He said.
“A friend of mine,” I said cautiously. Then for some reason feeling the need to explain, I lied. “He wanted to see if I was around for a cook out.”
“Oh.” Ben shrugged. “I thought it was a guy, I caught some of his voice until you moved. You must be close...”
I cut him off. “No, not like that, he’s straight.” Ben’s eyebrows went up. “I’ve known Jake for a few years. He’s great.”
“Cool. You never mentioned friends. Good to know you actually have one.”
“We got close a few years ago. He listens to my bullshit and stuff.”
“Like I used to…”
“No.” I thought for a moment. “He’s very easy to talk to, his best quality is that he doesn’t judge, so he makes me feel really comfortable, I can tell him anything.”
“Anything…” Ben said. “Like we used to.”
The silence that followed was unsettling. If Ben had any heart at all, he would remember the promises, the secrets, the fun. Memories that caused intervals of happiness and sadness over the years. Confiding in Jake helped keep me sane.
“Why couldn’t we keep that?” He asked, leaning toward me. A new team of horses entered the arena.
“I’ve been asking myself that for years… Enge.” I said it slyly and waited for his reaction. He smiled at the sound of his old nickname, my nickname, for him.
“You are the only one who ever called me that. Thanks.” He leaned closer. “How did you ever come up with it?”
“You were my little engine that could so I guess Engine: Benjamin: Engeamin: Enge.” I grinned.
“Yeah, I sure could, hell, back then, we both sure could.” He reddened with embarrassment. He remembered something alright, something really, really good.
Maybe it was about when we learned about masturbation. He claimed he didn’t know anything about jacking off until I mentioned it, but he was eager to try. After school, we laughed all the way to his house. We made sure no one was home, locked the doors, and closed the curtains in his bedroom. I was nervous as hell as we stripped down to our underwear. We were crazy, horny teenagers. To show him what to do, I reached inside my boxers and touched myself with my eyes closed. After a few moments, I opened them to see Enge staring wide eyed at me with his mouth hanging open. I pointed at him and he reached into his own tighty-whities. We stroked ourselves for just a short time before we both orgasmed. It was embarrassingly short and we giggled. Before his parents got home, we did it, again. From that day, when no one was around, we would enjoy ourselves with each other, watching and doing the same thing.
“You’re blushing! You’re embarrassed! And just what are you remembering?” He laughed.
“Nothing worse than you! Your face is as red as that ribbon!” I was ecstatic. The memories were happy for him, even if he was embarrassed. He finally stopped laughing but continued to grin sheepishly. I continued to snicker.
After a few more moments he leaned over.
“I’m so glad you have good memories of us back then. You have no idea how good that makes me feel.”
“Me too. I thought that you had politely forgotten.”
“Forget, how could I forget you, the stuff we did!” He said, surprised.
I shrugged. “I kind of thought it might have been easier on you maybe.”
He shook his head. “You are too serious. Sometimes that stuff still makes me smile.” I realized how close we were now from the smell of his deodorant and the beer on his breath.
“Dad!” Darrin yelled at us from the archway before running in our direction. The girls watched. That strange look that Kathy had this morning had spread to Annie.
“You have a hat just like mine!” He grabbed it from my head.
“I guess he does.” Ben brought his head next to his son’s showing off their matching cowboy hats. When Darrin returned mine, I noticed the hats made a perfect trio.
We walked over to the entrance and the girls.
“Sorry, we didn’t see you at the food stall so we came to find you,” stammered Annie.
“Just catching up. Didn’t even know the time,” Ben explained.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Let’s go eat!” Darrin said, tugging on his dad’s arm.
We worked our way across the park. A large crowd had formed in front of a stage. We were weaving through when the singing started and the girls squealed and stopped and we all bumped into each other.
“Dad, can we stop for a sec?” Annie begged.
“Sure, but just a moment, this is crazy...” he said, observing the crowd packing in around us.
“He is so… cute!” Kathy gushed at Annie.
The girls were satisfied for a few seconds, but seeing the singer was blocked by a crowd, they pushed forward under arms and between people.
“Hey wait…” Ben started. “Stay here.” He crushed in after them.
“What’s going on? I can’t see,” Darrin whined, looking up at me.
“It looks like some guy is dancing around on stage singing. I don’t know who he is.”
“I can’t see,” Darrin complained.
“Here.” I squatted down and Darrin climbed onto my back. I nearly lost my hat in the process. I held his legs tightly to my chest as he sat on my shoulders.
“Yeah!” Darrin screamed wildly.
“Try not to move too much,” I pleaded on deaf ears. He was higher than everyone and was having a great time being able to see the stage. He clapped along and it was hard not to resist the exuberance. I joined in.
In the middle of the second song, I caught Ben watching, smiling. He finished squeezing his way back to us. He yelled out for me to hear.
“The girls will meet us in a few minutes. I couldn’t be mad when we were late already.”
When the song ended, Ben called up to Darrin. “Ok, time to get down and eat.”
“Daaddd,” Darrin complained. “I’m not hungry now.”
“Yes, you are,” Ben replied while helping him off. We walked away from the noise to the food stands.
“Can Patrick come to my birthday party? He can give rides to my friends. No one would believe I had a giant!”
“Darrin!” Ben shouted. I turned my head away to suppress a laugh.
“That. Was. Not. Nice. Patrick is. Not. A giant.” He suppressed a laugh in spite of what he was saying. I couldn’t look. “Apologize. Right now,” he choked out.
“I’m sorry,” mumbled Darrin.
“Sorry, for what?” Ben was barely able to keep from laughing out loud.
“Sorry for calling you a giant.”
“That’s ok Darrin.” I exhaled trying to be serious.
“But you are like so big!”
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled again. Then he looked at his dad. “Can he still come to my birthday party?”
“You can ask him.” Ben turned away quickly before adding, “…but no giant rides.” I could see his shoulders shaking.
“Can you come to my birthday party?” Darrin asked.
“If I’m not working, sure.”
“Promise,” I said, at Ben.
“Wow, twice in a row,” Ben said sarcastically. “I should have introduced you guys a while ago.”
We browsed one of the nearby stalls while waiting for Annie and Kathy. There was a photographer but I politely declined when Ben asked about a new picture. I told him when I got back into shape, maybe. He told me I looked good and not to worry. He ended up taking one with Darrin instead.
Once the girls found us, we ate dinner, during which Darrin told Annie I was coming to his birthday party. Annie exchanged a private look with Kathy. After the begging to stay longer was over, it was finally time to head home.
Outside the main gates, we turned to say goodbye. I shook the girls hands one at a time, it was a goofy move but they giggled when my large hand enclosed each of theirs. Darrin hugged my leg and I patted him on the back while he made me promise to come to his party again. Last was Ben. The familiar hurt came back, the pain from the knowledge he’d go back to his life. I hadn’t resolved a damn thing.
Like this morning, Ben shook my hand and pulled me in for a hug. He didn’t say anything. I felt misty so I turned away immediately and made some distance.
“I’ll e-mail the details for the party,” he called loudly.
I raised my arm in acknowledgement, waving while walking away. I didn’t want them to see the tears in my eyes.