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The freshman

Published on Dec. 6, 2011 | Print | Share | Recommend ()


The freshman was soaking in the silence of the Pimp Cave. It was Saturday night, and Ben Wade waited for his best friend Nolan to arrive from Louisville for a visit. For a moment, though, he sat alone.

Ben rocked in his desk chair, the warm glow of his lamp shining down on the avalanche of homework he could never seem to outrun. The door to Collins Smith 006 was open, adorned with a sign giving the room its name. Ben wasn’t all that focused on the work. It had been a while since he had seen his best friend.

“Line me up some honeys and find me a party,” Nolan told him.

Ben’s mind wandered, trying to come up with a plan. He still didn’t know how everything worked, let alone where the honeys were.

A few months had gone by since Ben and his parents packed his entire life into milk crates and suitcases and loaded it into his mom’s gold Corolla. They had said rushed goodbyes in front of Collins, and his dad didn’t even have the chance to cry. Now, Ben was two hours away from the only place he ever knew, inventing a new life for himself in the Pimp Cave.

There are 7,410 freshmen in Bloomington this semester. These freshmen buzz around campus, laughing in dorm rooms, walking to parties, and navigating their classes. They’re lost and trying to find their way and to settle into a life they’ll live here for four years. They don’t know who they’ll be.

Ben is just one of them. He struggles through new classes, meets new people, and lives with a roommate he has only known for a few months. He lives off chicken flavored Ramen, oatmeal, and whatever food they serve in the dorms. He doesn’t have a curfew, and no one is watching him. He has new friends, including a new girl with whom he isn’t sure if he wants to be just friends or something more. And there is the inevitable tangle of the past—two girls from high school, in particular—still nagging at his mind.

Sitting in the Pimp Cave, Ben is in the middle of it all.

***

The lights of Woodlawn Field glowed faintly orange through the damp September air. The gates were locked, and Ben stood illuminated against the dark trying to find a way in.

Nolan had arrived just an hour or so ago, pulling him from the silence of his room. They had only thrown his bags in the room and eaten at Wright Quad before coming here. The new girl Ben had met in here in Bloomington, Lori, stood looking up at the fence with them.

Ben and Nolan threw their lacrosse sticks over and scaled the fence easily. Lori had more trouble, and Ben helped her down on the other side.

Once they were inside, Ben and Nolan took off. They ran in arcs through the wet grass, flipping their lacrosse sticks back and forth and lobbing the ball hard into the net. They laughed, Ben wearing big Nikes and a backward IU hat. This was almost like high school, but it wasn’t.

Ben wished it was. He was never one of those people who couldn’t wait to get away and start college. Back in high school, he was on top. They were the best days. Here, he’s just one among many.

Ben flung the ball hard at the net, but it ricocheted off the post and went skipping and skidding through the dust. He sighed and rolled his eyes and ran off into the darkness to get it.

“That’s my boy,” Nolan said

Like so many other freshmen, Ben Wade is in the middle. He’s stuck between a life he once knew and a life he’s still trying to figure out, between the people he has to take with him and the ones he has to leave behind, between the new people who will stick around and the ones who will leave.  

***

Ben grew up in Louisville, Ky., and lived in a 100-year-old house in a neighborhood where the kids played kickball and four square and their own version of soccer on scooters. His mom made him cardboard swords and super hero capes. He lived there his whole life until he finished high school.

Nolan was his best friend then. They made silly videos together and wrote parodies of hardcore rap songs. They still talk every day. They text each other about girl problems. They’ve even planned out their funerals like some girls plan their weddings. They’ll be buried side by side in pimp suits. Everyone in attendance will receive an airbrushed shirt that says “RIP.”

Ben wants to work in video or music production. He goes to classes for his telecommunications major and does illustrations for the IDS. He comes back to the dorm room he shares with Taylor Hocutt, his roommate. They probably wouldn’t hang out outside of college, but they get along. Sometimes, they stay up until 4 or 5 a.m. lying in their bunk beds.

“Ben,” Taylor says. “What do you think about physical combat?” The theory of relativity. How hard their classes are. Their campaign to get Snoop Dogg as president. It doesn’t matter the topic, their conversation spins off until they’re both too tired to stay up.

Outside the room, there’s a new tangle in Ben’s life. Ben met Lori Probasco in his first week at IU. She introduced him to her friends, and they exchanged numbers. They spend a lot of time together doing homework and hanging out. It isn’t a question of if they’ll meet for dinner, usually, but when.

They discussed dating, but they’d both just gotten out of relationships. Lori would probably date Ben if he asked, but she’s okay with it as it is now.

Lori isn’t the only girl on Ben’s mind, though. There’s one, his high school ex who still comes to stay sometimes, and another, his most recent ex and the girl he can’t get out of his head.

It’s a knot of connections, high school and college colliding. It’s almost too much, and for now, Ben is standing still.

***

One weekend, Ben’s ex-girlfriend Kate came up from the University of Kentucky. They ate at Jimmy John’s, catching up. They dated for more than a year, breaking up between prom and graduation. They’re technically friends now, but the relationship is constantly up and down.

After dinner, they sat in Kate’s midnight blue Corolla, waiting. Lori and her friends were on their way to meet up with them. Kate is still getting used to meeting Ben’s friends, the girls who are so close to him.

Kate shut the car off. They waited for a while before walking to an ice cream place. She and Ben sat playing a game called Cube Runner on Kate’s phone. When Lori and her friends arrived, Ben got a scoop of fresh strawberry, putting almost the whole thing in his mouth at once. Kate sat in the corner on her cell phone.

Ben sat at the table with four girls. When she hung up, Kate was quiet.

They left and moved to one of Lori’s friends’ dorm room, one floor above Ben’s. The girls talked about high school, and Ben worked on a video on his computer. Kate sat on the floor. When they got up to leave, Kate followed Ben downstairs.

Ben says he has to defend his relationship—just friendship—to Kate a lot. They’re still adjusting, trying to figure out what’s okay for friends after a long relationship.

They were just getting to spend time alone, but then Lori texted Ben. They left to meet up for pizza, Kate following along, and Ben was stuck in the middle again.

***

Ben’s dad, Scott Wade, doesn’t really give him advice about women. He might have, maybe once in eighth grade, but it’s not really something they talk about. Instead, Scott tries to give Ben advice on getting the best out of life.

Scott has always pushed Ben to do everything. When Ben was younger, Scott bought a beginner telescope. They’d spend hours looking through it, learning to find Saturn through the dinky lens.

“I wanted to give Ben every kind of experience I wanted him to have, and I was just leading the way,” he said.

It was hard for Scott to drop Ben off when they got to IU. They were close, and he knew it wouldn’t be the same, but he knew it was time. He had done his job.

“Kids just kind of move out before they move out,” Scott said. “At this point I kind of feel like I’ve just got to get out of the way and let him discover his path.”

Scott has always been a writer. He teaches English as a second language at a high school. He’s written Ben letters throughout his life, sometimes even before lacrosse games telling Ben how he should play. Now that Ben is in college, Scott still writes him about every week or so.

The letters are a way for him to hold on, a way of reminding Ben of their relationship, a way of imparting the wisdom he still hasn’t shared.

One day he wrote:

It is now October in Bloomington. In your life, you get four of these.

As you rush from class to class, it is easy not to notice a golden-tinted elm leaf floating around in Jordan Creek, to see glistening sap on the side of a conifer near Woodburn, or how warm coffee feels when it slides down through your chest on a 40 degree Tuesday morning.

And maybe as you walk back from the library some night you will look up at the stars and have a Father-son (Lion King moment) (Simba and Mufasa) flashback to all those night we looked up at the stars together.

Love, Dad

***

Ben got the letter just as he was leaving the Pimp Cave. He didn’t have time to read it right away, so he stashed it behind his computer. Ben doesn’t usually have time to respond to his dad’s letters. The meaning sinks in, though. Some of them are pinned to his bulletin board.

Ben sat at his desk in his room later that night. Two plaid shirts and a pair of skinny cut pants were draped over his chair. His sketch pad leaned neatly in the corner, and high above on a shelf rested a Batman lunchbox.

Above, on sheets of a yellow legal pad, a to do list was scribbled in highlighter.

Medieval hero read.

English paper.

Mongolian empire essay.

Study 4 media life.

Caricatures.

Among the mess linger figments of the past. In plastic box without a lid, nestled between a black crate and a pack of water bottles on his book shelf, Ben hides letters he doesn’t let many people see. He reached behind him and pulled one out from beneath a mix CD made by a girl from back home. Her real name is Mackenzie, but everyone calls her Max. She’s the girl Ben can’t forget.

Let me just start off by saying that I miss you. Boy do I miss you. I’m so happy for you, though. And I think you’re happy…?

When he met Max, it was something different. It was the kind of chemistry that doesn’t come around often, the kind when you just know that person is supposed to be in your life. Max was the girl Ben was talking to before he started dating Kate, and the chemistry never really went away. They finally got together for three golden months last summer, just before college. He went to school, and she started her junior year in high school.

I don’t want this letter to be long and sappy because I just can’t do it. As you know, I’ve tried a few times and not been successful. Plus, this isn’t the last thing I’ll ever say to you so I hate making it sound/seem like we’re ending.

Ben didn’t want to keep things going while he was so far away, while he was meeting new people and starting a new life. He didn’t want to hold her down while she was living hers. When they broke up, he wrote her a 10 page letter. He included photos of places that were important to them—their first kiss, first date.

I know we’ll probably text/talk everyday until we die, but being in two different places does make it very difficult for two people to not drift apart.

He’d still date her if he could, but he just doesn’t see how it would work. She’s in high school, and she’s busy, and so is he. The feelings are still there, though, and he can’t imagine liking anyone else that much.

***

Ben, Nolan, and Lori roamed campus on that Saturday night. They left the field and found their way to the IU Art Museum with its kaleidoscope of changing colors.

All three of them lay down, their backs on the cement and their feet straight up on the smooth outer wall of the museum. The colors shone pink.

Ben lay there quietly. The colors turned red, flowed through the rainbow.

There was still so much left to learn. He didn’t have it figured out. He didn’t know which friends would stay with him and which would go. He didn’t know who he would become. For now, though, he was right where he wanted to be with the people he wanted to be with.

It was a fragile moment, still and quiet and perfect. His past was right beside his present, and the future was somewhere out there, up above, blending with the lights.

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