|Loyalty to friends is,
or was, a feature of my character. I was reluctant to let go of
friendships. My earliest friend, Steve Sterner, was a neighbor in our
Bronx apartment building. My family moved away from New York to
Delaware when I was five, yet I remained in contact, which was possible
only because my parents returned to the Bronx to visit relations. Then
Steve moved when I was seven. It was twenty years later before I found
him again. We were both living in New York. He was a hungry actor with
one Burger King commercial under his belt and earning his living
playing piano. There was just that one meeting and I haven’t seen him
since. Nothing was familiar about him and he could have been somebody
else had we not shared the same memories. He knew his sister’s name,
proof enough he was the real Steve, but his deep voice, especially,
shattered the model of the much littler Steve in my head. Still, I do
forget him, and have followed his career from afar to see him succeed
in the Yiddish theater.
I made few friends for the three years we lived in Delaware - only two that I can recall. I was too young to appreciate the reason, but my mother has since explained it was because we were Jewish. My only two friends were the brothers David and Johnny. And when we left, I remained friends for several years to come. We didn’t have family in Delaware, but my mother was kind enough to drive me back to visit with them from time to time. Eventually, those friendships faded and today I have no idea what became of them.
The friends I made in Broomall, Pennsylvania were not the best of friends. Thinking back on those years, there was a strangeness to them all – and what might they remember of me? S had a violent streak. His mother, a very sexy woman, was married to an elderly man, sick and in a wheelchair. She had been married three or four times before, all her husbands having died. She drove a Thunderbird convertible with an automatic roof. S was spoiled with toys so we often went to his house to play. P was destructive, given to vandalism. T was a tough guy and leader of a gang. L was shy and goofy. He was unable to act independently, would obey almost any suggestion. We moved away when I was ten.
When I was seventeen, I drove back with my girlfriend in my MGB Roadster to see the old neighborhood. S had moved away, his stepfather having died. I didn’t look for P. T was this greasy little kid with a pompadour who regarded me with suspicion and disdain, probably because I had the appearance of a hippie, but I will never know.
L was strangest of all. His mother reflected on her son’s whereabouts. “Well, he’d be finished his paper route by now,” she said, “so he should be with his bowling team.” It was unusual in those days for someone as old as seventeen to be delivering newspapers. It was a job ascribed to younger children. We caught up with L at the bowling alley. He had grown tall and fat, but he towered over his teammates who were all twelve-year-olds. It was disturbing to see him laughing and gesticulating as their equal. When I came over and said hello, he froze. He couldn’t talk. For a moment I thought he didn’t recognize me, but he said he did. I introduced him to my girlfriend, but he refused to acknowledge her, wouldn’t even look at her. He looked at his feet and wouldn’t answer further questions. As soon as he thought he could escape, he turned and ran back to his friends. We got away from there as quickly as possible.
I feel chills when I imagine what my life might have been had we stayed in Broomall. It was fortunate for me that my parents’ misfortune forced us to move to Levittown, Pennsylvania. I entered Mr Whalen’s fifth grade class. Some of the friends I made at that time would remain my closest friends for decades; Joel, Richard, Alan, I know them still. It was recently hearing from Alan that launched this essay.
I’ve been proud of my friends. It has long been difficult for me to measure my self-worth. Being unable to judge myself, I have drawn conclusions about my merits from the quality of those who are willing to be my friend. But we change with time. Friends grow apart. We find ourselves following different spiritual paths or philosophical alleys, but mostly we get separated by marriage. Certainly, I have been affected by marriage. This is not an unfortunate thing. The intensity of my friendship with my wife surpasses every other relationship.
Perhaps a year had past since I’d last heard from Alan, that fellow classmate in Mr Whalen’s class. He recently emailed me. It was to alert me to The Folio Society’s plan to issue the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Those four joined novels are a great favorite of mine and this news could be reason enough for me to rejoin The Folio Society. I was always bound to rejoin. That email compelled me to think of our long relationship. Starting from fifth grade means we’ve been friends for forty-seven years!After Alan graduated from Yale, he went to graduate school at Princeton University, there to become a Computer Scientist.
For the most part, all my friends had left home for college, yet I, least among my friends in scholarship, was living at home and attending the local Community College. It was also true my father was unwilling, or not able, to keep promises to pay for my education. So it was that in the 1970s, I was driving the short distance to Princeton at night to visit Alan.
I’ve fond memories of those times, all-nighters. I’d accompany him to the Engineering Quad where he would apply himself to school work while I would sit at another terminal, playing early video games. There was Hunt the Wumpus. I received analysis from Eliza, a computer program that did a shamefully convincing parody of an annoying psychologist. And there was my favourite, where you tried to land the Lunar Module on the moon as close as possible to a MacDonald’s before running out of fuel. If you were close enough, astronauts came out of the Lunar Module and went into the fast-food eatery to order a Big Mac, then returned and flew off. I became skilled enough to land on top of the MacDonald’s, which resulted in the restaurant exploding and angry words appearing on the monitor reading “You idiot! You’ve destroyed the only MacDonald’s on the Moon,” or something like that. It was a long time ago.
The things I remember now were playing on the computer or on a pool table in one of the college’s lounges. It was also at this time that Alan had first started experimenting with gourmet cooking, in those days doing everything exactly by the book, with precise measurements. In particular, at this moment, I recall a chocolate mousse that we couldn’t finish eating as it followed a large meal. Was that the night I came over to watch the Late Late Show on television, The Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn? We stored the mousse in the freezer and the next day it had become the very best chocolate ice cream.
I went to my notebooks for that period in my life to check for the menus of the meals my friend served and the wines we drank. But my notebooks don’t recall as much as I do. Instead they tell the tale of how we drove to New Brunswick to see the porn flick Behind the Green Door, which was entirely out of character for us; the movie’s star, Marilyn Chambers, was there in person to sign boxes of Ivory Snow.
What wholly inadequate notes! I should burn that volume. There is no mention of my first meeting with Alan’s new girlfriend. How they made dinner one night in Alan’s dormitory and I brought blue point oysters which I proceeded to shuck with newly acquired skill, stabbing through the glove on my hand and breaking the knife’s point. Thirty plus years later and they are still together. Alan just called me from their Long Island summer home, reminding me there are bottles of Chateau Ausone that must soon be uncorked. He still remembers my favorite things.
My old friends have grown remote, caught up in the families they have created, chasing their careers faraway. I rarely hear from them, yet many of them keep up-to-date about me by reading these monthly essays. They get to feel connected just by knowing what’s going on with me. And I, too, have a family and a career. My newest friends of the last ten years all come to me by way of the internet. I’m a regular at a virtual café, the Café Blue, where an eclectic collection of literary-minded folks gather to talk about everything. I’ve belonged to that Café since at least 1996.
We are social creatures. It is hardwired into the brains of our species to read each others faces, to communicate and work in conjunction, to share and take delight in each others company, playing together when we’re not working together. I thrive on relationships, beginning with my wife who is the closest, but extending through letters and emails and a virtual café to many more, and it is these relationships that sustain me.
This essay is the most
a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr
Bentzman. If you've any
comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon,
as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"