Benji Tate was eating and drinking to forget that afternoon, stuffing his face with all available means to postpone conversation from Brady Connel’s less than stellar group of self-indulgent intellectuals. He sat at the opposite end of the same long cherry picnic table where Frank Parks and Bill Hewitt were reliably swooning over their girlfriends Carrie Johnson and Jean Logue. Brady stood a few feet away, tossing a blue Frisbee to his girlfriend Halle Gibson, the two of them cracking up more when the round disc managed to fly right past either one of their heads. Families full of chipper children and happily married individuals wandered into the backyard every ten minutes or so, handing Brady more large envelopes before staking their place in line for the catered goods.
Benji was alone, instantly regretting first, the fact that he had left his reliably morose bedroom, and second that in the short fifteen years of his life, he had managed to fully classify everybody on the entire planet earth into two very distinct categories. There were the mostly happy ones, the ones with people to fall back on. Then there were the people like him. The people who were stuck starring at everybody else, patiently waiting for a return to normalcy.
Benji had become the person that everyone inevitably felt bad for all the time, and he couldn’t stand the thought of it anymore. He was full of other emotions besides depression, and yet it was rather difficult at such debauched social events, to shake off the substantially large chip that directly resided on his shoulder. Such get-togethers were suburban routine, everybody marking their free church calendars, before sitting down at their kitchen tables and browsing through the paper, looking for any shred of an event worth attending.
The party had a purpose, and it wasn’t necessarily to celebrate Brady Connel’s level-headedness. People needed to escape their boring living room couch weekends. They needed to dress themselves up, to show off in whatever manner they knew how. They needed the escape, and yet for Benji it was the exact opposite. He found that any forced social event, whether they be school dances or backyard barbecues, weren’t helping his supposed progress. He wasn’t like everybody else, and it wasn’t going to change, or simply subside. He wasn’t going to find an item of clothing in the back of his closet that reminded him of the way life used to be, because he couldn’t remember a time even before the previous six months where life wasn’t so goddamn horrible.
Benji had a good relationship with Caleb, or at least as good as it could have been considering the situation. They had been through the majority of the father/son motions. Fights over misunderstood circumstances, baseball games from the very top of the stadium, and yet nothing could have prepared Benji for the world his father had so firmly placed a flag in. North Shade High School was a death sentence, and Benji prowled the hallways as a marked man. Caleb was the likeable teacher, the one everybody could understand, could relate to, the one who took all the basic angst-ridden bullshit with a grain of salt. Students could depend on Mr. Tate to be there in mostly all complicated instances, and furthermore to be on their side.
However, Benji didn’t need to see his father in the hallway. He didn’t need to walk past him every day with his head down, ashamed to be living in his own skin. He didn’t need to hear from various individuals that Caleb was the best teacher they ever had. He didn’t need to see his father’s inherited shitty grin every day. He didn’t need to deal with the fact that Mr. Tate was giving Lorene Connel the same kind of looks that Benji was, and he didn’t need to be lied to that afternoon in January, when he knew that something rather fishy was going on.
None of it made sense until it was completely over, though. Benji had seen Ronna Huffman carry the large red duffel bag down the hallway that morning, and thought nothing of it at first. He saw the same red duffel bag sitting patiently in the corner or Caleb’s classroom that afternoon, and yet putting two and two together was kind of a tricky procedure at that point. Initially Benji had thought it was absolutely ridiculous. His father managing to get with a highly attractive student of North Shade High, even before he could. It was absurd and would never happen in a million years.
But it did happen, and all the subsequent looks in the hallway that followed weren’t necessarily any better than the ones that occurred before it. There wasn’t any kind of filtering system for such looks, but rather Benji Tate simply had to get used to them, and he did, just like everything else. It was amazing, the ability of certain fifteen-year-olds to adapt to such troubled times, and adapt they did.
There was one particular look that Benji would never quite live down or adapt to, though, and it wasn’t the last one from Caleb, as most people including Audrey, thought it might be. It was the look every time he saw Ronna Huffman in the hallway afterwards. Every time, without much hesitation, as if by some kind of unspeakable deal between God and the devil, Ronna would smile at him, but it wasn’t the kind of smile that put everything back together again. It wasn’t that simple.
Instead, it was the kind of smile that was subtle while still full enough to say everything both knew they never could to each other. It was the kind of smile that Ronna could only truly pull off in Benji’s presence. It was an apologetic smile, a smile that wasn’t in any way standard to the North Shade High School hallways, and yet still, it managed to make him feel better, and he wasn’t sure why.
By all accounts Benji Tate should have been cursing the day Ronna Huffman was born and strutted into his already fragile life, but he wasn’t. He was almost past the point where thinking about somebody like her and somebody like his father as anything other than two people who unexplainably and without much hesitation ruined their own lives, was impossible. It was never him, and yet even as the phrase dangled back and forth like a swinging pendulum in the foreground of Benji’s brain, he couldn’t quite shake it clean.
There was a distant and somewhat dimly faded light at the end of the tunnel, though. Benji found himself reliably dipping into such familiar clichés at that point, as if nothing else, at least they made sense to him. It was those and finally the presence of Lorene Connel in the backyard that made it easy enough for the highly confused fifteen-year-old to turn off such long and winded thoughts of his life, and instead float along with the rest of the debris. The two youthful neighbors of Derby Street’s awkwardly subversive exchanged looks always managed to hit slightly harder than most of the others Benji was used to. Lorene hadn’t ventured into the highly nerdy vicinity of her older brother’s graduation party gala for Benji Tate’s benefit, though. There was another apple of her eye on the prowl, and yet he more often than not brought company with him.
Lorene Connel’s best friend Doyle Booth coolly walked through the yard, his right hand firmly securing his girlfriend Gina Hamilton’s left. Gina’s best friend and confidant Quinn Pitman strutted two paces behind the happy couple, quickly gazing at the potentially available male graduates and then turning back to the ground. All four, including Lorene, followed Doyle’s lead as he conveniently sat down across from Benji at the table, making the supposed charity case snap out of whatever predetermined daze he was in.
“Hey Benji,” Doyle said with a thrilled-to-be-breathing look on his face.
“Yeah, hi Doyle,” Benji replied, taking the last sip from his red plastic cup of foam, before forwarding his attention directly to Lorene. It was the first time he had seen her all afternoon, like she was patiently waiting in her bedroom for Doyle’s infectious presence the whole time.
The two had been best friends since before they could remember. While some girls inevitably latch onto other Barbie-dream-house-toting clones, Lorene simply wasn’t the type. She raised herself like a tomboy. It was her own will power that, at least early on anyway, kept her grounded in what stretched past the cliché little girl princess fantasy. Lorene and Doyle’s frivolous adventures in the nearby woods behind their large white house on Derby Street, were more than just typical childhood hikes through common worn trails. They were full of what built their friendship on common experiences, and what would later center them in an equally full veil of indifference.
Around seventh grade everything would change without completely changing for the two. Doyle learned how to play guitar, while Lorene learned how to hide her boobs, as more common than not, they were what all the unbalanced hormonal boys in her class fixated on. Doyle never really noticed, though. They were both past the point where the remedial pull of sexual education had an effect on them, or at least that’s what they thought.
Lorene wasn’t completely sure of her true feelings until Gina permanently came into the picture the previous October, and brought Quinn with her. Two girls she loathed for no other reason than the fact that first, they were always there, and second, they had nothing in common. They were the girls who got dolled up for the backyard, the girls that would discuss and repeat all the callow bullshit spreading from peak to peak of North Shade. They weren’t the kind of girls Lorene thought Doyle would fall for, and yet his truly simplistic example of the human male sixteen-year-old experience was only further proof to Lorene that most expectations are meant to fall apart.
“So how long have you been here man?” Doyle asked Benji, with a nod.
“Maybe an hour. I’m not sure. I’ve kind of been out of it the whole time.”
“So how’s your summer going Benji?” Quinn asked, shifting her weight closer to him on the picnic table. He instantly felt strangely awkward about it, his eyes first shifting to Lorene’s who were batting about over Doyle’s every movement. It was a disappointment that only a next door neighbor could pick up on.
“I’d say alright. I haven’t really been doing much of anything.”
“Yeah, me neither. I mean, I’ve been reading a lot, hanging out at the pool.”
“Cool,” Benji said, trying his best to make the more obvious stroke of teenage depression he was subscribing to, apparent with all his newly discovered peers.
“So uh… there’s food if you guys want any?” Lorene said, trying to find some place to talk in her own backyard.
“I’m not really hungry,” Gina chimed in, like she was trying to watch her barely existent weight.
“Yeah, me neither,” Doyle replied, before looking over at Benji and instantly knowing what his purpose for being there was. “So um… Benji, I think I have that record I borrowed off you from like December in my car, if you want it back.”
“Uh, I forget what it’s called. Something… Yeah, I can’t remember. Come with me, I’ll get it for your right now.”
“Do I need to stand up?”
“Yeah, I think so.
Following Doyle’s lead, Benji stood up from the table, his sweaty imprint left to occupy the space next to Quinn. The two made it about five paces before Lorene and Gina both instantly picked up on what was really going on. The former was the first to speak, as she shifted to her left hip in the freshly cut grass and rolled her eyes.
“Hey! What are you guys really doing?” Lorene almost shouted.
Doyle turned to the girls, walking backwards through the yard. “I told you. I’m just giving him this record back.”
“Yeah, I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t have.”
“Doyle, we just got here, and you’re leaving already?” Gina asked in a whiny girlfriend voice that instantly got under Lorene’s skin.
“I’ll be back. You guys should just eat something.”
“What?” Gina questioned, almost flabbergasted by such an inclination.
Lorene was the last to turn away from the two as they headed towards the long line of parked cars on Derby Street. She didn’t necessarily understand why Doyle was such a stand up guy as far people like Benji Tate were concerned, and couldn’t necessarily think of it as anything else other than pity. Lorene figured that Doyle felt Benji needed a friend in the world, following the headlines and so forth. What she didn’t understand was that the two had been friends before all the pain and anguish of the winter months, and the trend would continue for some time afterwards.
Doyle pulled out onto the Derby Street in his large rundown red truck, searching for turns that would be off the radar. Benji sat buckled up front, packing small chunks of marijuana into the blue glass piece that Doyle had purchased off of Curt Allen’s older brother, Jeremy, the second to last week of school. Surprisingly enough, the escapist device had held up stronger than Doyle predicted it would, those first few weeks of summer having been full of usage. It was the first time Benji had ever seen it, though, the two of them having smoked out of a fashioned iced tea bottle in Doyle’s car prior to that afternoon.
It had been routine for them, even before Caleb’s long fall back to reality. The two had Spanish class first period for all of Benji’s freshman year, which meant that if Doyle happened to catch his reliable source for homework exercise forgery before the final bell rang, there would be a smoke-filled copying session that quickly followed either in the truck or the one stairwell where the smoke detectors were broken.
At first, Benji wasn’t necessarily sure why he fell so comfortably into narcotics, and by that point in his life had stopped thinking about it. Possibly it was the administration’s fault. Those upper level officials had become excellently crafted at drilling every single North Shade student with unmistakably familiar anti-drug banter, to the point where somebody like Benji Tate couldn’t resist the idea of a slow creeping reefer buzz. He found it much easier to deal with Caleb’s presence in the hallway, when his father would be speaking in sounds mirroring that of the teachers in the Peanuts’ cartoon as opposed to actual truly useful educational information.
If nothing else, Benji had learned too many shrill life lessons from Mr. Tate, without having to do or say anything. In this way, it would always be easier to rush off with somebody as influentially succinct as Doyle, and hope for some brand new wave of teenage enlightenment, rather than search for answers in recycled handouts and questions about the brash character development in morally corrupt fictitious participants. Right and wrong was as big of a blur as the objects that were passing Benji and Doyle both by as they high-carted around their sunny suburban neighborhood that Sunday.
“So what have you actually been up to man?” Doyle asked, before turning down the long drag of Maple Avenue. A few younger kids ran around their front yard with squirt guns, their water battle much more important than the car, filling with thick white smoke, driving by.
“Nothing. I’ve been sitting around for the last few weeks.”
“Well, why didn’t you give me a call or something? I mean, I have the whole bag boy thing during the day, but afterwards I’m usually doing something.”
“Yeah, and by something you mean Gina,” Benji said sarcastically.
“Ya know, not as much as you would think. I mean, it’s fucking weird how girls are. First, they’re like all over your shit. I mean, the first time that it happens for you, and then slowly but surely they just get sick of you. I don’t understand it either. I mean, usually I’m turned on to an equal degree by Gina every time we hang out.”
“Well maybe that’s a surefire sign that you’re losing your sex appeal at sixteen, Doyle.”
“Jesus, I hope not. That would be quite the bust.”
“Yeah, I guess… Man, I gotta say, I think I almost enjoy hanging out by myself more than taking everyone’s advice and being social.”
“Well, that’s kind of weird.”
“Yeah, I know, and don’t get me wrong, I mean, I want the whole girlfriend thing to happen, or at least the whole messing around thing, but man… I don’t see myself every getting over Lorene, which is fucked up. I mean, don’t you think?”
“I guess. I mean, I think eventually all of us have to grow out of our infatuations with the girl next door.”
“What, did you read that on a fortune cookie or something?”
“I think maybe the reliably stupid quotes calendar my dad bought me for Christmas.”
“Yeah, that’ll do it too.”
Doyle exhaled and quickly forgot what other topics of conversation he had thought about bringing up from the initial epiphany at the picnic table minutes earlier. Both thought about how strange it was that the tides of reality could quickly change from one setting to the next. While Benji Tate would never have a problem reminding himself to forget in places like Doyle’s truck, it was a bit more difficult in the Connel’s backyard. Possibly it was everything that was popping up out of nowhere that day. The unexplainable looks being the most prominent of confusing elements.
In any case, it was easily understood by at least Doyle, why Benji decided to simply walk back towards his own house that Sunday afternoon, following their leisurely drive around the block. He wasn’t quite ready for the same reliable scene, the loud guffaws echoing from the garage where he knew Audrey was conveniently stationing herself with all the other supposed adults, simply another reason why Benji made the choice he made. It wasn’t like rocket science or something, and in so many ways, he felt like he summed it up best upon his and Doyle’s reemergence into the neighboring front yards.
“So are you sure you’re just gonna go home now man?” Doyle asked, beyond disappointed that all of a sudden he was the only guy worth hanging out with at the party.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure. I mean, I don’t really wanna waste this with the rest of them,” Benji said, before hazily taking his leave, and opening the front door to his house.
His upstairs bedroom was exactly how he had left it; the red lights on the television set and video game system remaining conveniently lit, awaiting his return. He ejected the copy of Raw Power from the CD player, and placed it back the black case, before browsing the large oak bookshelf of alphabetized albums. Benji was beginning to view the perfection of his bedroom arrangement as a blessing and a curse at that very moment, all the sufficient shelf space slowly but surely becoming obsolete with the weeks that passed. Maybe there would never be enough room for everything he required to fill the void in his life, but in any case, it wasn’t worth the effort of dwelling upon right then.
Benji eventually settled on the dark red case of If You’re Feeling Sinister, placing it on the spindle, before stationing himself back in the brown recliner, mirroring the same disillusioned stare from the album cover. The night would pass in similar efforts of picking and choosing from the collection, and blowing off the sides of invading alien’s heads. Even though the often intriguing sounds from the Connel’s backyard barbecue would call out to the most humanistic side of Benji’s subconscious, he knew better than to plot a triumphant return to the madness. Doyle had been right with his stoned sentimental advice. The crush on the girl next door needed to be forgotten about.