My Friend Ben

This is Ben:

Ben, a thing young man with a ridiculous mustache, riding a giant inflatable unicorn whilst wearing a unicorn headband.
Hey Ben!

Ben–if it’s unclear from the photograph–was one of the most extremely (and uniquely) ridiculous people I’ve ever met. Yesterday, Ben died.

The details are unknown at the moment, at least to me, but Ben was home at the time. Of all of my friends, Ben is the one I never thought would die at home. He’d go in a balloon crash, or on white water rapids, or in an accidental brawl at a Norm’s with some Hell’s Angels. Ben would end up in a cabin in the woods, and the authorities would discover he’d been battling zombies all night with nothing but a bottle of Jack Daniels.

His cowboy hat would, of course, be found fully intact.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ben Otis since we were twelve. We met in the band room at Brookhurst Junior High. He spotted me and rushed over (I wasn’t hard to spot–I was the only boy with a ponytail). Ben was slight even then, flyaway blond hair cut in a line across his forehead, big eyes, mischievous mouth.

“You’re Bill’s brother!”

As younger brothers the world over will attest, this is a normal occurrence. I was referred to as “Bill’s brother” growing up more than I was called my Christian name. Luckily, I had a passing familiarity with Ben, so I said something like this:

“You’re Emily’s brother!”

“Yup! Your brother is dating my sister!” Ben said, which was true. He didn’t, however, say the word “dating.”

I laughed, a little shocked. We’ve been friends ever since.

I can say confidently that everyone who met Ben met him the same way. Not with sibling dating, but with an inappropriate, truthful, and hilarious insight that Ben did not feel embarrassed about sharing with you.

God gave many of us social filters, but he skipped Ben. And the world was a better, more interesting place for that oversight.

Ben is center, dressed like the Bride from Kill Bill when she goes to battle O-Ren Ishii (full yellow jumpsuit, blonde wig, katana). He is surrounded by his friends, dressed like the Crazy 88s
Ben, in one of his many incredible cross-dressing costumes

In junior high, Ben taught me Magic the Gathering, and we spent months of 7th grade sitting in the grass while he pounded my pitiful deck into the dirt. We were both tiny guys, geeks, and fucking playing Magic the Gathering in a wide-open field. We were basically begging to be wedgied. We were ridiculed and bullied together, but his “no fucks attitude” combined with my own natural inability to back down kept the worst at bay.

In high school, we became closer. I moved from the saxophone section to percussion, where Ben was waiting. I made the change because I was “Bill’s brother,” and Bill had been the drum captain the year before. The drumline had a shortage, and I as Bill’s brother would obviously do (even if I hadn’t touched a drum in my life).

Long practices and long trips made us fast friends. We were both geeks. We both loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and would sit in our lunch area on Wednesdays and annoy our friends with gushing, manic recitations of last night’s episode.

On bus trips to band tournaments, we’d always sit together, sharing a pair of earbuds attached to (gasp) a Discman. One of us had to hold the Discman in the air to minimize the skips. Pop-punk was our go-to jam, though movie themes, the Angel theme, and hastily-burned CDs full of our favorite video game music often made the rounds. We would discuss the music we were listening to with grave importance.

We got to go to Hawaii for a parade tournament freshman year (and later junior year). My memory fails me a bit here, but I think this happened during the first trip. The band was allowed free, unsupervised time out on the town certain days (I know, impossible to imagine). One night we were out with our friends, and we realized we’d cut it damn close to curfew. As we BOLTED back toward the hotel, Ben and I started belting Sum41’s “Fat Lip” at the top of our lungs.

Just two little weird blond kids sprinting at full tilt, screaming “STORMING THROUGH THE PARTY LIKE MY NAME IS EL NINO” with what little wind we had. Decades later, neither of us could explain why this happened.

Eventually I joined a ska band (they needed a drummer–you may be sensing a pattern here). The Caffeinated Superheroes would eventually disband in 2004: we discovered alcohol, college, and for some of us, girls. Ben never played in the band, but he was a vital cog in the CSH system: that hallowed position of roadie and constant supporter.

When we drew crowds of one, Ben was the one. When it was a crowd of two, Ben and my girlfriend Gina would be the two.

Here’s Ben and Gina skanking in front of Al Cappuccinos, a cafe now as defunct as the band:

Ben front and center. Gina on the left. Our bass player’s then-girlfriend Erin, just behind.

As high school went on, Ben became the drumline’s unofficial drill sergeant, whipping our bass drums into shape with his unique combination of profanity, unending stamina, and big-brother energy to the wee freshmen.

During one 3-hour afterschool marathon rehearsal, Ben tripped on one of the many potholes spotting the Savannah High School practice field. This happened all the time: I dislocated my knee for the first time in the same way. For Ben, he fell forward, splitting his chin on the shell of his bass drum. The white coating made the gush of blood really stand out. The cut was a deep one. Ben went right to the hospital.

Then, about an hour later, Ben came jogging back onto the field. He put on his blood-streaked drum (the biggest, heaviest bass drum we had), and resumed his position in the line.

We were stunned. The entire band couldn’t believe it. We barely wanted to be at that rehearsal, and none of us had gone to the hospital recently. Ben just smiled, showing off his new white bandage goatee (which hid the long row of stitches underneath), and laughed that Ben laugh. He turned to the other bass drummers.

“Now I don’t ever want to hear you complain about practices ever, ever again,” he said.

And they didn’t. Not to him, anyway.

Ben wielding Wolverine claws

There are too many favorite moments with Ben to list. Or just moments of good-dudery. I didn’t have a car in high school, and Ben drive me home every day of senior year. When I had an ill-fated date with my friend Felicia (sorry, Felicia, I don’t know what I was thinking with that trench coat), Ben chauffeured us to and from the AMC.

Me and Ben and our friends went “ghost driving,” which was just driving to spooky areas late at night and getting creeped out at nothing. My natural aura of chaos kept breaking pieces off Ben’s car (rearview mirror, air conditioner vent, part of the dashboard, etc), and while he’d give me shit about it he never stopped driving me around.

That was Ben. Ben was a bro. Ben’d give you the shirt off his back, even though it definitely wouldn’t fit you. Ben was a member of our fake fraternity (in good standing). Ben jumped into the pool at my wedding reception just to settle a bet.

Everywhere he went, Ben made friends. Ben didn’t have an evil or malicious bone in his entire body, and people could sense it.

In the past ten years or so, Ben and I have grown apart. No great drama: we saw each other at parties and friend gatherings and weddings. We started up our conversations about video games and D&D and the latest Marvel movies from the last party as if there’d been no gap between. A typical “male friendship,” where our busy-ness didn’t seem to dull our affection, or connection.

In those ten years, I’ve looked at our relationship through a fine mesh of guilt: why didn’t we hang more? The question was mundane, with a mundane answer: I had a wife, kids. Ben was still living the Ben-Adventure life, and I’d bowed out. He hadn’t left me so much as I had left him.

I don’t think he harbored any ill will toward me: that wasn’t Ben’s style. And Ben had no shortage of friends to get into invigorating trouble with.

The eating of the hot dog pie

I last saw him in October, at our friend Kevin’s wedding. He stood as Kevin’s best man, because he was. Ben looked dapper in a fine navy suit and that ridiculous mustache on his face. I was seated on the edge of the aisle during the ceremony, and when Ben walked down the aisle, looking grave and serious, he broke for a moment to wink and whisper something homoerotic to me as he passed.

I blew him a kiss–this was our way–and he took his place flanking the altar.

The reception gets blurrier, because that’s what they do. I know he was part of the group I hung with, when I could: best men are busy folks. I know I danced with him (also homoerotically) on the dance floor. I know I made jokes, I know I talked about nerd shit. I don’t remember the words. I don’t remember what my last words to Ben were.

I wish I did.

Ben and I playing beer pong. We called our team the “Young Guns” and sang Bon-Jovi songs to psyche up

Grief is weird. You miss the person, you miss the relationship. But you also miss the relationship you didn’t have. All of the “some days” become “never.” You don’t lose the past, you really can’t. But you lose the chance to make more past with them.

I loved Ben, even though I didn’t see him as much as I wanted to. Life happens, until it doesn’t. Ben was 36 years old and had no right to leave. But that’s not how it works. We might learn why he died, we might not, but it won’t change anything. Every version of death is stupid and senseless.

The world got a little dimmer yesterday, a little less wild.

I miss you Ben. I’m gonna drink some Bud Light and put on my one-and-only cowboy hat and see if I can talk to you a bit today. Maybe come up with some new last words I can remember. Then again, if I drink too much Bud Light, maybe not.

Thanks for always being my beer pong partner. Thanks for driving me to dates. Thanks for sharing your Discman with me, for getting those damn freshmen in line, and most of all for a thousand laughs.

Live a little for Ben today, and tomorrow. Say yes to something you might have said no to. Go have that shot on a work night. And for the love of God call that friend you’ve been putting off.

Ben lived more in 36 years than most ever will. And that’s something to celebrate.

Goodbye, sir. Cheers.

Categories: Diary | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “My Friend Ben

  1. Roberta R.

    “We might learn why he died, we might not, but it won’t change anything. Every version of death is stupid and senseless.”
    *nods furiously*

    You brought tears to my eyes in the end, dammit.

  2. Pingback: My Friend Nate | B.C. Johnson

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