SO I HEAR...
Saint Benjamin and the Village Bicycle
This is another true story from the sticky-floored theatre of my life. It doesn't make me look very kind or ethical, in fact I'm a little embarrassed by it. But it's a story that I felt I had to write if only to preserve it in my memory.
“So I hear, Alejandro went back to Venuzuela. You guys didn’t hit it off?”
I looked uncomfortably into my soda, as if I could blot out Alejandro’s face. “I found out he was divorced,” I sighed. Then wanting to be honest with Benjamin, who always made me feel like being honest, I added, “And he had a kid.”
“Oh, wow,” he said, sounding indifferent. His excited posture on the edge of his seat told me otherwise.
“Yeah, I was like, ‘I’m eighteen, for God’s sake! I’m not ready to rush into a relationship with a guy who just wants me to live with him, when he’s already got an ex and a toddler.”
“He wanted you to live with him?”
“In Venezuela. With a guy I can barely communicate with? I don’t think so.”
“I thought the language thing would get in the way.”
“Then why’d you introduce us?”
“I didn’t think you guys would start dating,” sighed Benjamin. He then brightened. “So…um… your day off is Tuesday, right? Did you want to…” he left the second half unfinished. I felt my stomach lurch as I quickly shook my head.
“I’m already seeing someone else,” I admitted.
Benjamin’s face sank. “Already?” he asked.
“Yeah. He’s from Fez, he’s a real nice guy.”
“Is he a Christian?” Benjamin asked.
I bristled a little. “With a name like Hicham Muhammad Latchkar Hidara? I doubt it. But I don’t think it matters.”
“I thought you were a Catholic,” he said, probing deeper into a subject I didn’t feel like talking about.
“I was raised Catholic…I dunno. I don’t think I’m anything now. It’s no big deal, right?”
“Without faith, there is no love,” he responded cryptically.
“What kind of bullshit thing is that to say?” I demanded. “Where do you get off, anyway? Just ‘cause I’m not Muslim like you two!” I fumed.
“I’m Catholic,” he said.
I blinked at looked at him. “You are?” I asked.
“But I thought…” I began, uncertain what was appropriate to say next.
“There’s not a lot of us,” he said with a small smile. “My name is Benjamin, after all.”
“I didn’t think it was…well I know a girl named Karma who was a Methodist,” I reasoned.
Benjamin had grown quiet and pretended to be absorbed in The Simpsons playing on the breakroom TV. I chewed the rest of my microwaveable chicken in a biscuit that tasted like salty ass.
Eventually he turned to me again. “You know that… well I…” his face contorted in what looked like heartburn for a moment. “You know I’m attracted to you right?” he finished.
I didn’t meet his eyes as I nodded.
“Then why?” he pleaded.
I didn’t know what to do, or where to look as I felt the hot flush of guilt steal over my face and legs. I put down my lunch, no longer hungry.
“He asked me first,” I finished lamely.
I had no other excuse. Hicham was hot and mysterious had had a sexy accent… and Benjamin was my best friend who watched Simpsons and played paper football with me. Hicham was going to be my fourth boyfriend in as many months and I was both excited and desperate for one of these losers to be THE ONE. Thinking about it, I realized that I liked Hicham almost as much as I liked Benjamin, to the point where I didn’t like having to choose. So I let fate choose for me. Hicham asked, I said yes. Poor Benjamin missed the deadline. Besides, I didn’t want him to be a boyfriend. He was a friend. Hicham might be a dismal failure like Nadi, and Chuck and Alejandro, but Benjamin would still be there. I needed that more than I needed a soul mate now.
“Sorry,” I said.
Four weeks later, I was dancing on air. I was going to be married and live in Morocco with Hicham. I could already see myself with a black-haired baby and a jewel-toned Hijab as I spoke to his sisters and mothers in broken Arabic. I waltzed into the breakroom, bursting with excitement to tell Benjamin that my life was finally turning around. Sure, my bosses were threatening to fire me, and my Mother was in tears over this, but I didn’t care. I was in looooove!
That afternoon, there was no Benjamin. I asked Martin in broken Spanish if he’d seen Benjamin, who answered that Benjamin had gone back to Cairo.
“¿QUE?” I cried in shock.
Had Benjamin told me he was leaving? I couldn’t remember, but I was furious! How dare he leave without telling me! Or… maybe I had been ignoring him kind of lately? I’d been taking a lot of sick days, just to spend them with Hicham, and I hadn’t seen him for a while. Maybe he never got the chance to say goodbye. Martin then pressed something into my hand.
“Benjamin left this for you,” he said.
I unfolded a wad of patterned paper. I couldn’t read the text, but I surmised that it was Egyptian currency. Across the whole, he had written my name on it in English, followed by flowing Arabic script and intricate hieroglyphics. I studied the symbols and script in a daze, willing myself to remember them, yet sadly realizing that I with my luck I would definitely lose this flimsy piece of paper, Benjamin’s gift to me.
I hadn’t thought of Benjamin in 10 years. My working semester finished with Hicham and I growing apart. I had tried becoming a Muslim, but washed out. It wasn’t for me. Benjamin had been right. Faith was the wedge that came between us. Hicham had his, and I had none. I found it again in Joe, but for some reason, I never thought of Benjamin again, or what a good friend he’d been to me.
For a week now, the crisis in Cairo has been escalating as I followed the plight of the Egyptians fighting a thuggish dictator. I find myself wondering if Benjamin is okay in Cairo, and if there’s someone with him, keeping faith.