No Other Life than This Ch. 01bypodga©
Not for the first time, Benny wondered what idiot had come up with the saying about being stuck with family, but being able to choose one's friends. Not only did it falsely imply that one wasn't stuck with one's friends, but that one had thoughtfully chosen them, rather than haphazardly picked them up along the way. Maybe even -- and this was the worst aspect, in Benny's opinion -- that one would be held accountable for those non-choices; St. Peter would pull out the ledger, run his gnarled old finger down the long list of people Benny had known in his almost five decades, his frown growing, and then point poor Benny downstairs.
But surely St. Peter couldn't blame Benny for Roger. There were photos of Roger and Benny sharing the same crib and sitting in the same sandbox. If he looked closely enough in the mirror, Benny could still see the scar over his left brow, where Roger had hit him with a toy truck when they were both four. And if only his mother had taken that golden opportunity to tell Roger's mother that their two sons would never be allowed to play together again, Roger might not have been sitting in Benny's living room, trying to convince Benny to be his best man. Something Benny would have been happy to do, if only he hadn't filled the exact same role in Roger's previous two marriages. And not only was Roger not listening to reason, he was actually laying a guilt trip on Benny for trying to refuse the dubious honor.
"I can't write another speech, man. I've run out of ideas," Benny whined, as he also tried to keep an eye on the TV, where the Yankees were playing. Had he known Roger would ambush him with a ridiculous request, he'd have never invited him over to watch the game.
"Just deliver the same one as last time," Roger said. "There wasn't a dry eye in the house when you were done. Carrie wasn't there to hear it, so she won't know."
"The one about how the day you met Chrissy, you called to tell me that you'd finally found your soul mate and your one true love? That ought to go over real well."
It was true that Roger had called Benny and used those exact words; it was also true that, at the time, he had been three sheets to the wind, freshly divorced, and apt, therefore, to overvalue Chrissy's place in his heart and soul. The marriage had lasted five years, about the same length of time as Roger's first marriage to Pam, incidentally also his soul mate and one true love.
Roger leaned over to grab the bag of Cheez Doodles out of Benny's hands and crunched thoughtfully for a couple of minutes. "Well, you'd obviously need to change 'Chrissy' to 'Carrie'."
They stared at each other wordlessly for a couple of seconds. Roger cracked first, his round face alight with amusement, and Benny rolled his eyes. The problem was that he liked Carrie; she was a smart and attractive woman, with a wide variety of interests and a sharp wit. More importantly, she seemed to have Roger's number. This was the marriage that might actually last, and Benny couldn't help thinking that it would be nice to be connected in a semi-official capacity to the success, and not just the two failures leading up to it.
"Does Carrie know you're asking me?"
Roger nodded, but he didn't meet Benny's eyes. It could have been simply because of the action on the wide screen TV that took up half of Benny's living room wall, but Benny had known Roger way too long.
"Okay, so she knows. Does she also know I was your best man the last two times?"
"Yes, she fucking knows. Jesus, Benny! You don't think I consulted her before asking you?"
"You don't really want me to answer that, do you? And gimme my Cheez Doodles back."
"You're not supposed to be eating these," Roger said, stuffing more into his own mouth and holding the bag out of Benny's reach. "You just got out of the hospital."
Benny scowled. He hated being reminded that he was convalescing. And from a bleeding ulcer, no less, which he regarded as a personal affront. He was in good shape, ate well, Cheez Doodles and other junk food addiction notwithstanding, didn't smoke, even meditated sometimes. That ulcer had had no business stopping at his door.
"What color is the wedding?" he asked resignedly, unable to believe that he was beginning to consider Roger's request. If Roger said something like canary or pastel blue, he was definitely out. The rented green tux he'd been forced to wear at Roger and Pam's wedding had made him look like a tall Italian leprechaun; Phil had given him shit about it for over ten years. Benny rubbed his chest, as if the sharp pain he felt whenever a memory of Phil snuck up on him could somehow be soothed away.
"Black tux for us boys," Roger beamed happily, foreseeing Benny's imminent capitulation.
"Aw, fuck," Benny sighed. "What the hell, I'll do it. So long as you've explained the whole situation to Carrie and she's okay with it."
"Yes, Benjamin, I do solemnly swear that I've explained the whole situation to Carrie and she's okay with it, so help me God" Roger intoned solemnly, raising his right hand.
"I can bring a guest, right?"
Roger dragged his eyes from the screen. "A guest?" he asked suspiciously. "You mean like a date? Who?"
"Jordie will probably be in town around that time."
Roger's lips thinned. "I guess," he said, his reluctance obvious. "Benny—"
"Stuff it, Roger, okay? I don't want to hear it for the zillionth time." For some unfathomable reason, Roger had hated Jordie at first sight, and thirty years later still didn't much like him, no matter how much Jordie had changed.
"The thing is, Carrie has somebody in mind for you to meet."
Benny was vigorously shaking his head before Roger had even finished speaking.
"No way. No fucking way. No!"
"Come on, what have you got to lose? He's coming to the wedding, and there'll be other people around, so if it starts to look like things aren't working out between you, you won't be stuck with each other."
"Who is he? No, wait, don't tell me. I don't want to know. I don't care."
"Carrie's brother," Roger said, ignoring Benny's request. "I've spoken to him on the phone a couple of times. He sounds like a great guy. I'm sure you'll love him."
Benny gritted his teeth to stop the five-year-old inside him from retorting that he wasn't going to love Carrie's brother, and that Roger couldn't make him. It also wouldn't do any good to remind Roger of all the other times he'd been wrong about whom Benny would love, because Roger would simply blame Benny for being too picky and an asshole, just like he always did. Benny resolved to bring Jordie to the wedding, if he had to drag him there.
"Why can't people just leave me alone?"
"Because, Greta, we care about you and we don't want you to die a bitter, twisted and lonely old man."
"Well, if you care about me, just let me move in with Carrie and you when the time comes. All three of us can retire, move down to Palm Beach together, and live happily ever after in one of those assisted living communities."
"Oh, Jesus God! I'm finding you someone, if it's the last thing I do," Roger mumbled, clearly appalled at Benny's suggestion, and nervously stuffing more Cheez Doodles into his mouth. "Foul ball! Foul ball, you idiot, what the hell are you running for?" he was yelling at the TV a second later, and Benny thankfully let the conversation drop.
After Roger left, Benny slowly prepared for bed. Even the minimal effort of taking a shower and brushing his teeth left him shaky and exhausted. He braced his hands against the counter, staring at his reflection and hating the grooves that had carved themselves into his forehead almost overnight and the sharpness of his collar bones. Even his skin seemed wrong, gray and loose. Fuck, he looked awful. Worse, he looked decrepit.
More than anything, Benny despised being perceived as weak, be it mentally, emotionally or physically. He'd never been the smartest, or the fastest, but sheer force of will and discipline had always gotten him what he wanted in life. He'd thrived in the New York of the eighties and nineties, with its work hard and play harder attitude. He hadn't slowed down after meeting Phil on Fire Island Memorial Day weekend of 1990, and when he'd lost Phil thirteen years later, he'd gone into hyper drive, worried that otherwise he might curl up and die. And now, he couldn't even take a fucking shower and shampoo his hair without having to lean against the wall.
He slowly straightened up, stretching his back and squaring his shoulders. He'd get over this. He had five weeks until Roger's wedding. Time enough to gain back the weight he'd lost so that he could fit into his tux and stop looking like death warmed over.
"I'll be fine," he assured his reflection, and nodded firmly. "I'll be just fine."
Three weeks later Benny had to admit to himself that it was entirely possible that he wouldn't be fine. At the very least, he'd be forced to get his tux altered, because at this pace, there was no way it was going to fit right. He was getting better, but the process was too slow for his liking; he still couldn't go to the gym or run in Central Park, still couldn't put in much more than the minimum hours at work, and by ten at night he was reeling with exhaustion, good for nothing but bed.
Plus, the one time in his life that he'd absolutely counted on Jordie, fucking Jordie wasn't going to come through for him. Every September Jordie would come to New York for a week-long company meeting, and every time they'd spend a few days together. It was almost like they were students again, only better, because in his late forties Benny no longer had to wonder or worry about what his future might bear. He'd had the big questions in life answered, and he knew he was luckier than most in that respect.
But that didn't mean that the small questions didn't still bug him; like whom he might bring to Roger's rehearsal dinner and wedding, now that Jordie had told him that he'd be tied up with some project and wouldn't have much spare time. Roger might not like Jordie, but at least he took him seriously as a man, who held a firm position in Benny's heart and possibly even his future. If Benny showed up with anybody else, Roger would believe he was only facing a small impediment and not a real obstacle in his efforts to pair Benny off.
Even in retrospect, Benny could never quite figure out how the two most important people in his life had come to attain that position; he'd certainly never imagined what they would eventually mean to him when he'd first run into them. Funnily enough, the first meetings with Jordie and Phil had both occurred right after he'd taken a shower, though otherwise the situations, and the two men, couldn't have been more different.
He'd met Jordie right before the beginning of his sophomore year. Benny hadn't been too sure about his sexuality at the time, and Jordie wouldn't have been his normal type anyway, but something about the shy little freshman had attracted his attention. Instead of hanging out with his fraternity brothers and track teammates, he'd found himself pursuing Jordie's company, dragging him along wherever he went. Jordie was the first man he ever kissed, the first man he had sex with. It had never quite worked out between them, despite several attempts, but somehow they kept on ending up with each other.
There was never any question that Phil was exactly, precisely his type. Then again, with 6'4" worth of lean muscle, blond curls, sparkling green eyes and a large basket exquisitely showcased by his turquoise Speedo, how could he not have been? He'd smiled at Benny as he'd passed him on the way to the outdoor showers and Benny had forgotten all about getting back to his friends. Later he remembered it all, the water cascading down on Phil's broad shoulders, Phil rubbing his hands over his chest and adjusting himself in his Speedo in order to rinse off the saltwater, shutting his eyes and turning his face up into the spray, as if it had taken place in slow motion, like those teen movies when the boy first spots the object of his affection. "See something you like?" Phil had smirked, when he'd noticed Benny gaping at him.
At 28, Benny hadn't been thinking long-term. That first weekend had been all about fucking, partying and then fucking some more. They'd exchanged phone numbers and had seen each other off and on throughout the rest of the summer, though not exclusively. At some point Benny had noticed that he was seeing more of Phil, that during the not infrequent orgies of the times they'd started pairing up and moving through the crowd together, that he didn't exactly mind when he woke up to find Phil's big body sprawled out next to him, even when Phil was hogging the covers. Still, he hadn't realized what was happening. When Phil had told him that he thought he loved him, roughly eight months after they'd first met, Benny hadn't felt surprised or nervous, just a recognition of his own feelings and an absolute certainty that Phil and he would grow old together.
It had been the most ordinary of mornings, when Benny got the call at work. He still remembered Phil's sister's voice, how she'd kept on repeating "Oh, Benny... Benny, Phil... Phil..." and hadn't been able to get past their two names, and how he'd immediately known that Phil was gone forever, even though Liz hadn't yet said it. Just a stupid, ordinary morning, with Phil on his way to an appointment and one split second's worth of inattention, caused by who knew what, when he'd stepped into the street, even though the light had changed. Much later Benny would be thankful that that particular morning they hadn't been bickering over who was going to pick up the dry cleaning or go to the post office, that they'd actually shared a cup of coffee and the New York Times, rather than rushing along like they'd done on so many other days in the routines they'd created together during twelve years of living together.
This was the thing that Roger and the rest just didn't get. It wasn't that he still pined for Phil seven years after his death, or that it was the pain of having lost him that kept Benny from trying for a second time. It was simply that he was no longer interested. He'd had his love affair, and he didn't see any reason to search for someone to take over Phil's place in his life. And he didn't need help from his friends to get laid. Besides, people willing to be set up by their friends and family were, by definition, people who were looking for somebody, and Benny didn't want anybody thinking that he was going to be that somebody for them.
And so, the question remained: what to do in order to avoid being set up and, at the same time, avoid insulting Carrie by not being interested in her precious brother. Jordie had indicated that he'd have at least some free time. Maybe Benny could ask him to the rehearsal dinner, which would be a smaller and more informal affair, and where it would be more difficult to avoid match-making efforts. Plus, the earlier Carrie's brother understood that Benny wasn't interested or available, the better.
Still, there'd been an evasive note to Jordie's voice, when he'd talked about the project and needing to work; it had reminded Benny of the old days, when Jordie had been trying to hide that he'd relapsed. If he was hitting the bottle again, Benny wasn't sure he was up to dealing with him. Maybe if he were feeling better himself, but not now, and certainly not where Roger could witness the situation and start busting Benny's balls all over again about being an enabler, and about how he needed to kick Jordie to the curb and be done with him.
The day of the rehearsal dinner Benny woke up half-hoping for a bad bout of stomach flu, so that he'd have a legitimate reason for not attending. In fact, he felt better than he had in a long time. He rolled over onto his side, cushioning his head on his arm, and gazed at the photo on his nightstand. It had been taken at Liz's wedding, about a year before Phil had been killed; in it, both Phil and he were laughing at something that must have been taking place to the photographer's right. They might have simply been friends, except for the way that Phil had his arm around Benny's shoulders and how Benny was leaning against him, his head resting against Phil's. For almost two years Benny hadn't been able to even look at the picture, but now it always made him smile.
"So I have to do this thing," he muttered to Phil. "Place myself at the mercy of Carrie and Roger, with no help from either you or Jordie."
At least he had met with Jordie and been able to ascertain that he was okay. More than okay. "Looks like it might happen for him, Phil, just like it did for us, so long as this guy sees through his defensive bullshit and doesn't let him get away with it."
He got up, as always a little embarrassed about speaking to Phil out loud. If Roger knew he was doing so, he'd be recommending therapy, and if he knew that Benny sometimes thought he heard Phil answering him, possibly a straitjacket. And unfortunately Roger had the professional accreditation and licenses required to do so.
If Benny had to be honest with himself, he'd always been a little vain. Still, he'd never spent quite as much time in front of the mirror as he had since his return from hospital. He might not be interested in meeting anybody, but he didn't want to look like an invalid, either. For some reason he hadn't managed to put much weight back on, but he was up to half-hour brisk walks twice a day and he looked a little healthier. The haircut he'd gotten yesterday had helped. The gray, too-long curls had made him look like mutton dressed as lamb; even though more severe, the short hairstyle somehow made his face look younger. At least he still had a full head of hair, a trait that, along with his 6'2" height, came from his German ancestors. His facial features, brown eyes and olive skin were due to his mother's Italian heritage. Whenever he looked at photos of his relatives, Benny knew he'd lucked into just about the best combination of genes he could have possibly hoped for.
The rehearsal dinner was informal. "Very informal; jeans, sneakers and sweatshirt kind of informal, so long as you don't wear your ratty Dartmouth or Columbia ones," Roger had warned, though Benny felt that Roger's objection lay more in the schools than the rattiness. It also wasn't so much a dinner as an all-day affair, starting with brunch, at Roger's Westchester home. Rather than jeans, Benny opted for chinos and a coral long-sleeved shirt, which concealed his gauntness and lent some color to his face. He packed an overnight bag, since he was spending the night at Roger's house; his altered tux had already been delivered there.
The train to White Plains was oddly full for a Saturday morning, but he managed to snag a front row seat, which gave him more room to stretch his legs, so long as nobody came to sit directly opposite him. Right before the train jerked into motion, a man dropped into the seat diagonally across from him and smiled a polite greeting in Benny's direction. Benny smiled back, then turned his attention back to his paper, only looking up again when the conductor came by. He wouldn't have spoken to the man, except for the fact that he'd taken his windbreaker off, and Benny saw the Dartmouth Crew emblem on his long-sleeved T-shirt.
"You go to Dartmouth?" he asked, and the man looked surprised for a moment, then laughed.
"Not for the last eighteen years, no. But thank you."
Benny's face grew hot. He should have kept his damned mouth shut. He couldn't very well admit that he hadn't looked at the guy's face very closely. Which, now that he did, was obviously that of a man in his late thirties or early forties. Make that of an attractive man in his late thirties or early forties, with hazel eyes, a wide generous mouth, milky skin with a smattering of freckles across his nose and high cheek bones. Benny figured that the only right name for his hair color, a bright, almost gold auburn, was titian. It was the hair -- messy, thick and long overdue for a cut -- that had tricked him into thinking the man was younger.