I met Ben when I was 14 and working for a carnival. He was of average height, slightly stocky, with thick black hair, blue eyes, and a lopsided grin that I rarely saw during my time with him. He had an amazing sense of humor – when he allowed himself to find something funny – and he had a worldview like nothing I’d ever seen before. He was also 12 years older than me but I didn’t care – I was in love!
Together we ran the Jenny, and there were often periods of free time while we waited for enough ticket holders to climb on. Ben educated me on the ins and outs of carney life and told me the history of the world that he had called home for the last decade or so..
Ben also told me about himself and I soon saw that my first love had genuine darkness behind his enigmatic blue eyes. He was a divorced father of a five-year-old girl that he had not seen in years. I could tell by the way that he spoke of her that she was the most important person in his life, and it was also clear that he hated his ex-wife for keeping him from her.
But hate was an emotion that Ben carried well. He made it clear that, in his opinion, life would systematically beat a person down until there was nothing left of mind or soul, and he considered his fellow human beings to be nails in an unavoidable coffin. Therefore, he hated people in general and walked a solitary path by choice. A rough past, the circumstances of his divorce, the banishment from his daughter’s life, and the news that he had cancer had filled him with a cynical bitterness that defied comprehension.
But…the more he talked, the more his opinions and ideas made sense, and it wasn’t long before I was engraving his words onto my soul, where they became as much a part of me as my DNA.
He taught me to watch my back, guard my heart, and to never trust anyone – especially those who claimed to be my friends. This may seem like negative advice, but a young girl on the streets often attracts the worst kind of people and I truly believe that it was his warnings that kept me alive. He was a hard man who had learned some very brutal truths.
But surprisingly, he was also a man who remembered what it was to walk through life with hope in his heart and the promise of tomorrow stretching out before him. This was made clear to me when I saw the tattoo on the left side of his chest.
The picture was that of a heart, pierced by a sword and a rose that together formed an X. The heart signified love, he said one night as we shared a bottle of tequila, while the sword and the rose represented the beauty and the pain that inevitably followed the impact of Cupid’s tiny arrow. Beneath the heart was a banner that contained the letters L. D. R. It was, I suppose, a feminine design, but it in no way lessened his masculinity; rather, it explained the man that he was, while being an homage to the man that he had been before his love of life had suffered an agonizing death at the hands of fate.
“Live, dream, and remember,” he explained. “Those are the three things you should never be afraid to do.” I never forgot those words and have done my best to live by them.
I learned from a mutual friend that Ben had passed a year or so later, but to this day my first love lives on in my heart. I’m who I am largely because of his influence, and I will always…remember.
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