I'd like to tell you a true story. This is unusual for me, as I usually tell you half-truths and outright fiction. This was told to me by a reader who wants to tell the story, but is sure he couldn't do it properly. So one weekend we fired up Skype and he told me this tale.
I leave it entirely up to you to believe it or not.
But now, weeks later, and after having spoken with him a great deal, and written this account, I fully believe him. I've gone back and touched this story up a bit, mostly small details he's recalled now, after reading the story I wrote from his description enough times that he could be less emotional while doing so.
In the late fifties and early sixties, being gay was a complete shame. It meant that your family bore the stigma of raising a homosexual, a pervert, a mentally deranged reprobate. There was no excuse for it. If you were one of those, you raped children, killed family pets for fun, and you were doomed to Hell.
If you were a teenaged boy who found himself attracted to other boys, you were taught that you were going to grow up to become a monster.
Benjamin was outgoing as a child. He had many friends, and he played sports. He rode his bike to the small town's theater with his friends on Saturdays and paid his dime to watch monsters rampage on the screen. He had soda and pie with them at the little diner after the movie, and then they rode to the park and played ball until it was time for dinner.
Benjamin had many friends, but I was his best friend. We had become best buddies by the time we started school, and we stayed that way until... I'm getting ahead of the story.
We lived in a small town, just like the ones in the giant monster movies. It had a school, a police station, a theater, a drug store and other shops. It was surrounded by mostly desert scrub and dry, rocky outcrops. A train ran through it, and a bus line, but otherwise it was fairly cut off from the rest of the world. We all waited for the day to come that a giant spider or gila monster came to town.
But that was when we were kids. By the time we were in high school and becoming more than just little boys, we no longer believed that one day a monster would arrive in our sleepy little town. It turned out that the monster had been there the whole time, at least, so he was taught.
Boys change as they become young men. Blond hair may darken to brown, or a redhead might darken to auburn. The small boy may become the big athletic type, and the big, strapping boy may become the adult pipsqueak.
As a boy, Benjamin had thick, blond locks. Curly and dense, and startlingly bright, almost white. His blue eyes shone out of his wide, flat face like beacons. Big, red lips, always smiling, framed his white teeth, especially when he laughed. He loved to laugh, and did so more often than not. It took nearly nothing to make him break down into giggles. He had freckles, honest. The only person I ever saw with blond hair and freckles. Not many, and mostly only on his cheeks, but they were certainly there. He wasn't skinny, and he wasn't heavy, and he was always tan. Benjamin was also very smart. He was easily as smart as any of the rest of us his age, and got grades as high as anyone else's.
As he aged with the rest of us, he didn't change much at all. Not in looks. His blond hair stayed bright, his eyes remained blue, he didn't get fat or turn weak and pale, and he kept being bright. But sometime near the end of ninth grade it started to require extreme measures to make him smile.
As the summer began, one week after the end of school, Benjamin turned sixteen. I was two months behind him, and most of our friends were fifteen, a couple still only fourteen. We were the oldest of our friends, except for Mark and Terry, both of whom were already sixteen and had graduated into the near-adult world of cars and girls, and thus spent less time with us 'kids'. His parents held a party at his house, and nearly everyone was there. Boys and girls. In the fifties, a sixteenth birthday for a boy wasn't all that big a deal, not like for a girl, but it was more than turning fifteen, just not as big as turning eighteen. At sixteen, we could get a license, but a car of our own was a distant dream for many of us, including Benny and me.
Cake and ice cream and games. The girls left early. Us boys were given a ride to the theater to watch the late night monster movie. We had seen it, but this time it was late at night! It was a different time then, and we weren't so used to horror and death. There was no Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, and nothing on the television anything like that. The only frights we got were on radio programs, and the movies on Saturday afternoons.
We found ourselves in the theater late at night, watching a scary movie. Benjamin and I sat next to each other, in the middle. Chris was sitting next to me on the other side. Chris was smaller and younger than Benjamin and I, and he was obviously more frightened than most of us. I wasn't surprised when he grabbed my hand at one point and hid his eyes. It was funny, and it made me feel like a big brother, or an adult. He took his hand back after a minute, and I never let on about it to anyone.
It was that Benjamin took my other hand and kept it all through the movie that I found a little uncomfortable. I didn't think I should, but I did. I didn't try to take my hand back at all, I just let him hold it all through the movie.
When the movie was over, Benjamin's dad was outside with the car, waiting for all of us. We all planned on staying overnight. In those days you didn't stay out that late when you were a young teen, and only if you had permission. We spread out all over Benjamin's bedroom floor and laughed at the movie and each other. I didn't say anything about Chris holding my hand, even after other guys made fun of the other guys who had grabbed someone's hand.
Again, back then, it wasn't that big a deal to hold a friend's hand in the movies. If you got scared and grabbed a hand, it wasn't a huge deal. It surely didn't make you an evil homosexual. In fact, we hardly knew what they were. We had to watch a movie in school just before summer break called Boys Beware that explained them; that was about all we knew of them.
So Chris and Benjamin holding my hand during the scary movie wasn't that big a deal. I didn't tell, even though some of the other guys did, and we laughed and called those guys chickens. But no one was hurt by our teasing and we all laughed it off. Soon we all fell asleep.
The next morning, Benjamin's mom made pancakes and fried ham slices, and then we all went to the park and played ball until lunch. I stuck with Ben as usual, and we only split long enough to have lunch and then meet back up at the park.
Like I said, Ben was sort of less fun and smiles lately. He was harder to make smile, and harder to make laugh, and talked a lot less. When we met up at the usual corner and started walking to the park, I felt like asking if there was something wrong. I don't remember exactly how it went after all these years, but it was something like this.
"Ben, is there anything wrong?"
"You seem sorta sad all the time. Like something is always wrong."
"Is there something I can help out with? Are your folks doing okay?"
In those days, divorce was nearly as awful and evil as homosexuality.
He nodded but wouldn't look at me, which was a dead giveaway that something was wrong. He always looked at me when we talked, that I could remember anyway. His intense blue eyes were always looking at me it seemed. I know that I noticed they weren't pointed my way that day.
"You're down and out, I can tell. I just wanna know if I can help. Or if you wanna talk about it."
"It's nothing important. Forget it."
I remember those words as if they are chiseled into my forehead and I must stare at them every day of my life.
He kicked at a rock in the road and we kept walking in silence. We got to the park and played ball until it was time to go home for dinner. On Sundays, most of our families ate together and company wasn't allowed, so we all split up and headed home. I walked with Ben most of the way, in silence, as he didn't seem to want to talk. He almost seemed upset with me, and I felt as if I had done something wrong.
I asked him again if anything was wrong, but he gave me those same words again, carving them into me.
"It's nothing important. Forget it."
I said goodnight at our usual corner and I remember watching him walk away, looking so sad and as if he had lost his best friend. I was his best friend, or so I thought, so I knew he hadn't lost me. He would never lose me. I loved the guy, like my brother, and I would never let him out of my life.
But sometimes we don't have a choice in things.
I had dinner and called over to Ben's house. He asked if he could sneak over later. That was not only unusual, it was downright bad. If he was caught, we both would be tanned. Probably by both of our dads. But I said sure. I knew something was wrong, and I hoped he wanted to come over and tell me what I could do to make him the old, smiling, happy Benjamin again.
I waited in my room, the little light on, in my pajamas, and waited. I worried and worried. I wanted to call his house and see if he was still coming over, but that would have been as bad as being caught out this late without permission. I fell asleep.
I was woken up by someone moving in my bed. It wasn't the first time Mom or Dad had come in and pulled blankets over me or something of that nature, but I was in high school now, almost sixteen, and I didn't need them to take care of me like a little kid. I was about to tell them goodnight when I heard someone crying.
I opened my eyes and it was dark in my room, but I could see that it was Ben in my bed with me. Again, that wasn't all that unusual. Two boys, even sixteen, in the same bed wasn't any big deal. What was the big deal was his crying, and then his arm over my shoulder.
I sat up and gasped. I was embarrassed at a boy having his arm over me in my bed, crying, and surprised at the whole situation.
I just didn't understand. He was so sad, and had come over to talk to me, but had sneaked in and cried in my bed, then put his arm over me. Homosexual thoughts were no part of what I was thinking at all. I knew he was hurting, that was all. His actions confused me, even scared me. I didn't know what to do. He got out of my bed and climbed back out of my window.
I made up my mind to go over to his house first thing in the morning and apologize if I worried him or anything, and make him tell me what was bothering him so much. I went back to sleep after a long time of worrying and wondering.
The next morning my mom woke me up before Dad went to work so we could have breakfast together, like every day. Once Dad had gone, I asked Mom if I could go over to Ben's. She said of course and to come back for lunch. I went to my room and got out of my pajamas and got dressed, and then noticed the paper on my dresser. It was a full sheet of paper under the little light I had left on last night, that had been turned off when Ben had woken me up.
It was short, and it seemed like an incredibly stupid joke. I crumpled it up and threw it into the wastepaper basket, then headed to his house.
When I turned the last corner, I saw a police car parked out in front of his house. I thought that maybe he had written a stupid note to his parents, too. I wondered if I wanted to get mixed up in that kind of silliness. I wondered what had gotten into him. I thought of the movie from school, "The Terrible Truth," and I wondered if he had gotten poisoned by the drug somehow. I had to know why the police were there at any rate.
I wasn't allowed to approach the house. An officer in the car called me over and told me to go home. I tried to ask what was going on, but he said that I would find out later.
I went home, feeling bad. I told Mom about the police at Ben's house, and she called. She turned pale and sat down, I remember her face, and how she grabbed me up and held me so tight and cried. She asked me if I was okay, if I felt sick, if I was having weird or frightening thoughts. I couldn't understand, but I began to believe that Ben had gotten hooked on drugs and become sick. I became so scared that I cried, too.
Mom fixed lunch, which I hardly touched. I was mad now, and demanded to know what had happened at Ben's house, and why I couldn't at least call and talk to him. Mom explained that Dad would explain, but that Dad would need some time to be able to explain it to me. It was confusing, and it was maddening.
I went to my room to stew. The second I closed my door, I remembered the note. I pulled it out of the trash and read it again and again.
I am becoming something awful. I feel it happening and I cannot stop it. I have a growing monster inside of me.
These feelings are wrong and I cannot stop them no matter how I try. I am afraid of hurting you.
You are my best friend and I love you like nobody else in my whole life. I will always love you.
Your Best Friend Forever
Nobody called him Benjy. He hated it when anyone called him Benjy. I only did when we were sharing something secret, or were all alone and giggling at something we were doing that would make our parents mad, or we just had.
It made no sense. It only made the whole situation that much stranger and hurtful. I just wanted to straighten the whole mess out. To do that, though, I had to talk to him. I snuck out. For the first time in a long time. I ran to his block and then up the alley to his back yard. I climbed over the fence and sneaked up to his window. I couldn't see inside, so I knocked softly. After a few times without answer, I decided to try the window. It opened, and my stomach sank as I climbed inside. I knew something was wrong. I don't know how, not even to this day, but I knew it. Maybe it was simply my climbing into his window without even his permission, but it was most likely the smell.
His room was a mess. Now I knew something was up. It smelled like a hospital, in a way, but not clean, more like it needed to be cleaned. The bed was stripped and the top mattress was gone. Some things were moved, like his bedside table was knocked over and his poster of the Grand Canyon was torn. It hung just over the head of his bed, but now half of it was hanging down over the headboard.
I heard his mom crying, and it sounded like it was getting closer. I threw myself out his window and ran for it. I didn't stop until I got home and was on my own bed. I knew something bad had happened, and I knew Ben had known it was going to happen. His note was proof that he knew it. I couldn't figure out what, though.
Dad came home, and after he talked to Mom for a while, he came to talk to me. He lied to me. I could tell. It wasn't hard to tell at all. He said that Ben had gotten sick and passed away during the night. He said that I should tell him if I felt anything unusual, or wrong. He asked if I felt okay, he felt my forehead, he hugged me a lot.
He had "The Talk" with me. Right then and there, he told me all he could about the birds and the bees, and even used the word, "Sex," while he talked to me. It was awful, having my dad tell me about sex, how boys got erections and girls became lubricated, and boys inserted their penis into the girl's vagina, pumped it in and out repeatedly, and had an orgasm that expressed semen into the girl's womb to create a baby. He explained masturbation, and how it was natural and normal, but I should refrain from doing it, only as rarely as I could manage to.
He finally left me alone in my room. I wanted to cry. My best friend was gone. It seemed so wrong. It couldn't be true.
I ran to the park. I asked our friends if they knew what had happened. They didn't. I had to tell them what I knew, which was nothing. They were sure I was making it all up. We went to Ben's house. The police car was gone, of course. I knocked. His dad answered. I asked if he could come out. We were told that he had died last night. Some kind of quick disease that had snuck up on him. It wasn't contagious, and we were in no danger. It was rare, and no one knew what caused it. But it had been quick, and he hadn't suffered, and he had gone on in peace.
None of us talked as we walked back to the park. Some of the guys sniffled, some even had tears, but back then, it wasn't such a big deal to cry when your good friend had just died.
We didn't play any ball that day. I went back home and read his note over and over. It made no sense to me. What would have been growing inside of him that he was so worried about? How could it harm me? Did he think this mystery sickness was contagious? What feelings would he be unable to stop? At least he said that he loved me, and I took deep solace in that.
After a time, I put that note away, and in a way, I put Benjamin away, too. But I never forgot him. Hardly a day went by that he didn't enter my thoughts in one way or another. I lived my life and time passed. Then, as graduation from high school grew closer, I guess I was feeling nostalgic, and I pulled that note from its hiding place and read it again.
As if I had been slapped in the face, or as if I just read his words for the first time, it was now painfully obvious.
At first I raged that I had to be wrong! He couldn't be that way! He wasn't one of them! Benji was no monster! He wouldn't hurt or kill kids when he grew up! He wasn't sick! He was Benji!
I hadn't believed much of the little movie they had shown us in school just weeks before Benjamin had killed himself. It smelled like propaganda to me. Maybe there were men like in that movie, but Benji would never have been. But Benji had believed it. He had believed it enough that he had hid his feelings and thoughts from me, and had told me that they weren't important, and that they didn't matter. He had believed that movie enough that he had taken his own life.
But his thoughts, and especially his feelings, were important, and they did matter.
He was important, and he did matter.
So very, very much.
I still can't believe he was there in my bed, thinking that he was going to be a monster just because he liked guys, maybe me. But it didn't, wouldn't of, and couldn't have mattered, even if it was me he liked that way.