Does this man have a life? Who knows! Between majoring in Biology and English, studying piano, writing god-awful poetry, and being the resident force of chaos on Hinderlie’s second floor, Daniel Bensen sure knows how to straddle the line between personal vocation and existential crisis on a daily basis.
He remembered being in her car, the old 2004 Toyota 4Runner with its grungy, gray-felted seats, and jostling along to the beat of her rap and the divots in the road. Fast-food bags and receipts piled up in the center console and on the weather mats where his shoes were, and the air was just musty enough to suggest the permanence of food bits lost to crevices over the years.
His teeth hurt from how much he laughed with her. He had grown fond of her sarcastic, witty nature, and enjoyed the openness and comfort that came with it. He was at ease in her presence, but felt a pressing urge to reveal the complex character beneath his own skin. He wanted to show her something. He reached for her phone and typed in the long-winded name of the piece he wanted to listen to: accents and numbers and “Opus Something Somethings” decorated it like hieroglyphics from an antique era. He pressed play, and sat back to anxiously watch the minute expressions on her face.
That was a long time ago. The end of summer, when Colorado’s August weather decided it was finally time to play devil with the sunshine, sending waves of hundred-degree heat to bake the tired bodies of the populus. Now it was the brunt of winter, and February took its own vengeance upon the landscape. The frost would encroach upon the dormant city through the night, entombing the brown and wilted grasses of suburban lawns and patrolling the dry air. The wooden walls and porous insulation of his home did little to keep out the winter weather, and the house’s aging heater struggled to stave off the dropping temperature.
It was six in the morning, and his eyes felt leaden with lack of sleep. His thoughts kept him from getting comfortable enough to drift off: he would scrutinize the few details he remembered from those August nights, searching for all the ways he acted that might have turned her away. He had to know, without hearing her verbal confirmation, that it was his fault.
The air bit at his bristling skin. Darkness was pervasive at this hour, winter having shunned the obtrusive eyes of the sun, and he sat collecting his anxiety in his chest and throat. He let his thoughts spin around in circles: he imagined starting at the greeting, the reunion, and made his way through fantasies of jokes and laughter until he met the barrier of his confession. Here, his imagination faltered away from simple recollections into spiteful vengeances. But he couldn’t follow through—his mind couldn’t handle the raw intensity of his anger for very long.
What really happened was more complex. His thumb left the play button only after he heard the deep register of the first notes, like a widower climbing oak banisters to the vestibule of a lover’s dark room. The music built in swells of love and grief, pushing forward and pulling back like moon-tides before breaking against the walls in catastrophic beauty. They were dazzling, crystal water drops cascading over him. Bone chillingly beautiful notes. He was so swept away he did not notice the yearning strain of his cheek and the stain of his tear that traveled the length of his jawline as the swell died down into placidness. He looked at her.
She said it was cool, or neat, or something else that was in between “Wow, this is interesting” and “I have no idea what this is.” Her awkward half-smile betrayed her hesitancy towards his sudden change of persona. She was used to seeing his gregarious side, the guy who cracked dad-jokes on a whim and did belly slides across the cafeteria floor just to make a fool of himself. Not someone who played her “Show-pan” and expected her to feel something about it. Yet here he sat in her car, playing his strange collection of melodies, waiting for her to react to this side himself—a side that felt far too complicated for her mind to understand or appreciate in the way he seemingly wanted her to.
He read her hesitancy like a hawk, and she felt the urge to retreat back to the comfort of her own jaunty rhythms. He saw the recoil of her eyes and her neck, and his heart took a step back to nurse itself. “I’m sorry, I just thought I would share,” was all that escaped him.
The cold, sharp and pointed, pressed into the shallow basin of his memory. His chest tightened, and his throat coiled into a ball at the base of his larynx, a symptom present every morning since he uttered those words. The tightness was chronic and began to convince him that anxiety was as fundamental to his body as his white skin and dry lips. He stood catatonically in the center of his bedroom, naked except for the towel wrapped around his shoulders. The sheen of water still coating his skin exacerbated his frigid condition. His teeth chattered. His skin bristled again. He needed to clothe himself before the snow-drifts in his head met and mixed with the briskness in his surroundings. He needed to get warm, get moving.
Primitive instinct brought each leg in front of the other and down the stair steps. Stiff, white hands, marbled with pink, washed the carafe and filled it to the twelve-cup line. Its weight teetered away from his hand as he poured the water into the brewer tank. From his left, he slid the white porcelain jar of coffee grounds in front of him, flicking the latch open and tossing the lid back. Reaching in, he grabbed the handle of the measuring spoon, and tapped it three times against the rim. Twelve spoonfuls, then he pressed the start button, and in minutes its wood-earth aroma bloomed in the air with a sweetness like fallen logs decaying in wild soil.
Her face tasted sweet in his memory too, but the coffee’s bitterness proved too strong for sugar and milk to cover over. He was chewing dirt at this point; stray coffee grounds slipped their way over the rim of the filter into the pot, sucking away the moisture in his mouth and drying out his inner cheeks. He hated the chewy texture. It ruined the silkiness of the drug and stained his cheeks with blackness. A not-so-subtle reminder of his solitude.
Her image had otherwise decayed into coffee grounds. They had not said a word to each other since the end of December, when he called her up one night desperately pleading for her company. At eleven o’clock in the evening, she drove over to his house in her beaten-up 4Runner, picked him up, and carried him aimlessly around the city while he spilled. He was lonely, desperate for connection. He felt like an alien in the company of other boys, who were more interested in fucking than friendship. He was crying.
She sat tense in her seat with both hands gripping the wheel tight. His voice was alien too. Boys weren’t supposed to be like this. The ones she met and fucked were all strong and stoic and masculine. Who was this alien sitting in her passenger seat, lamenting about love and loss and lackluster connection? He was alien in so many ways: his lean, marbled frame should have screamed toxicity and self-indulgence as she had come to recognize it in most boys, but his eyes were bright and blue and alive. He was a paradox of ease and intensity. His ritual “sorry’s” made each breath a little tighter for her too.
Maybe that’s where the bad taste came from: bitterness staining her tongue and every word which rolled over it. She could only taste her own bitterness, and she just assumed he tasted it too with every encounter.
Like snow on a sunny day, she melted away into nothingness and he never heard a word from her again.
But her face still showed up in his coffee mug every morning, swirling around on the surface of the liquid before depositing its bitterness in his mouth when he swallowed. That bitterness stayed at the back of his tongue as he tossed his backpack into the back seat of his Subaru and pedaled the clutch into first gear. It was there as he turned into the white lines of his parking space on the asphalt and timidly placed his foot on the ice blanketing the lot. It was there as he slid, more than stepped, his way to the salt-covered courtyard at the main entrance of his school.
In the hallways, he wished he had the traction to stay upright. Each corner he turned presented the opportunity to see something he begged he never had to see again, but feared he always would. And when he saw it, the ice would form with a vengeance beneath his feet, and he would cry out to no one as his body fell hard to the floor.