Through the Looking Glass
Ben, in the back seat, appears as two grinning eyes framed first by the black rims of his glasses and then again by the black rim of the rearview mirror, which I check regularly, looking for traffic behind us or to see if one of my stupid jokes, sent over my shoulder for his benefit, has had the desired effect.
He also gets a mere sliver of me, also framed by rearview -- my Groucho Kahlo brows hover over eyes that appear nearly Asian when my chipmunk cheeks push up into a grin.
I am driving us to West Texas; we have been invited by Ben’s aunt/my friend, Sarah. Sarah -- host mother to a German exchange student -- has masterminded a four-day journey for her charge and a group of other foreign students to witness, up close, Archetypal Texas. Ben and I are here to (sort of, in a very laid back fashion) chaperone. More importantly, we are assigned with running interference.
For with the students is their teacher. The Frau, as she hates to be called, greatly favors the word (and concept) compulsory, and suffers deep spells of random disdain around every other corner. To keep light the mood of the church-style van, in which the students are hurtling westward, chauffeured by Sarah, The Frau has been assigned a seat in the auxiliary vehicle, a Saturn station wagon, being piloted by me. She is— age before beauty— riding shotgun.
Because she is not my teacher and because I am a reporter and because there is an attractive, funny young man in the back seat I very much wish to amuse, I grill The Frau relentlessly. I get her opinion on teenage oral sex. She tells about her hot French journalist lover from way back when. I ask her if she’s ever sampled pot brownies. She tells us the first place she went when the Berlin Wall opened (for Italian food on the other side). She describes her current lover, so much younger, from the Congo. This is road trip repartee taken to new heights (and depths), punctuated by a thick German accent and inside joke glances swapped in the mirror.
Though I’ve known Ben’s family for years, this is my first chance to get to know him— he’s been away at college. Now, trapped in close proximity for several days, I study him. There is something drawing me toward him, prompting a round of Mrs. Robinson barbs from faraway friends I tell that I’m on the road with a recent graduate named Ben who is 17 years my junior and temporarily living with his parents.
But hold the koo-koo-kachoos here. A deep feeling is evoked, yes. But I can’t say precisely what that feeling is, in part because it changes shape over the course of the five months we get to spend together before Ben disappears, down his chosen path, which has its trailhead well over a thousand miles from my front door.
Most often, Ben is silent, prone to stare out the window at the moving scenery, the quiet observer. When he does talk, though, his deep voice hits something inside of me. It will take several hundred miles of driving before I pinpoint the pull. The slope of his forehead, the bass timbre of his speech—these are the same as someone else I met on the cusp of 23, someone else I was immediately drawn to.
My son’s father.
I’ve heard that upon reaching middle age everyone we encounter reminds us of someone we already know. And while Ben isn’t the first man to recall the kid’s dad, he possesses some quality that initially excited me and broke my heart all at once, until I put the lid back on those old pangs for that long gone ghost... until I recognized Ben for Ben, not for some other guy from so long ago.
And then even older ghosts were evoked.
One of my very first memories is of watching, on a tiny black and white TV, Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I was five. We were in the summer home of the Reeds, Charlie and Edna. Their place was across the street from ours, and their seven boys loved to tease us eight girls and our brother, treat us like an extension of their family. Their oldest was a whole generation ahead of our youngest—eventually their youngest would marry our second oldest. They’d heft me up on their shoulders and carry me to the corner store for bags of penny candy. Me, towering above all, queen of the world, my little brown bag overflowing with red Swedish fish.
Mickey Reed was around fifteen years older than me. Somewhere, my mother has a photo of him sitting at our old Formica table. He’s splattered in paint, mid-project on assignment for my dad, Mr. Never Finished Renovating, who forever had a steady supply of extracurricular jobs lined up for friends and in-laws, whether they liked it or not. But Mickey, I only remember him laughing.
Mickey got to take a trip, far away, to a jungle, courtesy of the United States Government, back in the late sixties. "Good-bye my sweetheart, Hello Viet Nam," as the song goes. Another early memory: watching my mother pack a care package to send to Mickey. I always only remember one item in that box, Jiffy Pop popcorn, that shiny silver foil container with its own handle.
Mickey died a couple of years ago, about thirty years after that conflict and about thirty years sooner than he should have. Late casualty of war if you ask me.
Ben came around a lot the last month or two. He’s got a gift for building stuff, can eyeball two screws and a piece of wood and ten minutes later be showing off a split-level, modern day garage-cathedral combo to put Frank Lloyd Wright and Mc Guyver both to shame. He built me a new box garden and the better part of my chicken coop.
Right now Ben is on the Appalachian Trail, stretching his legs out for about five hundred miles before the United States Government sends him far away, also to a jungle. But this is Ben’s choice. He’s going to help people live, not help them die. This stint is the Peace Corps, voluntary gig.
Like my mom did for Mickey, I pack a box. I fill it with books and notebooks, a knife, St. Christopher. Like Mickey, Ben paints, only not houses. Landscapes. He brings me a portrait of the West Texas, all clouds and mountains, and I hang it in my room so I can sleep and wake in the desert.
A new kind of longing fills me. We are, all of us, a collection of our hits and misses, our trials and errors and blah blah blah and finish off this sentence with an excerpt from any generic high school graduation commencement ceremony dreck you’d like. But really, it’s true, and really I know I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t stumbled as hard as I did and fallen on a regular basis for so long. Still, I can’t help but compare the young me to Ben and wonder who I’d have been if I’d looked at the map more closely (or at all) before setting out, as he has.
When I was 23 I was not calm or quiet or thoughtful. I was—and sometimes still am—loud and impulsive and not especially fond of what Ben refers to as "finding your pace," which he excels at. I did not, as he does, carefully research adventures before embarking upon them or mull potential consequences of pending actions. Mostly, I just drank a six pack and went for it.
Odd, then, that our paths should
cross— curious temporary companions we. I look in the rearview now and
he’s gone but he’s not. I still see him grinning, and think how apt
the exchange of that first long journey together. Him looking forward, me