If it were possible to hear a stunned silence, we definitely heard it that day.
And what a day it was: warm enough to shed my jacket and don a short sleeved top over my favorite pair of jeans and just hope that there was enough UV light to darken up my pale skin. I missed being tan. It was the first warm day we’d had – and what better way to spend it than goofing off in the grassy fields outside our dorms?
As I approached the familiar brick-red building that I called home, the sounds of laughter, chatter and all those other college clichés grew louder. I made a beeline for my friends, three of whom were playing catch, two of whom were just kicking back to watch and one of whom was nowhere in sight.
“Hey, where’s Ben?” I asked as casually as possible.
Of course I wanted to know where he was; I always did. I had forged friendships with several of my guy friends over the course of a year and a half of college, but I was starting to realize that I had a particular fondness for Ben that often couldn’t be explained. We didn’t ever spend any time alone, so I’d never be able to gauge the situation. As far as I was concerned, nothing was going to come of it. But even if it had to be amongst all his hallmates, I still loved spending time with him. I loved hearing his often exaggerated stories and we shared a common passion for the Yankees and Texas Hold ‘Em.
My roommate, who used to pitch softball in high school, threw a hard curve and turned to me. “He’s grabbing money for pizza. Me, him and Jeff got a pie each.”
“No one’s getting mine,” Jeff called from the sidelines.
“You can have a slice of mine,” my roommate offered.
“Abby, if you ordered what you always ordered, we can’t be pizza buddies,” I said. Her guilty look gave it away and we both burst into giggles.
“Sorry, roomie,” she said.
“No worries. I’ll steal from Jeff.”
“No you won’t!” Even from across the field, Jeff could sense when his food was in danger.
Right on time, a white car pulled up to the curb and the delivery guy stepped out. I watched Jeff hand him some cash and eagerly grab three white boxes in exchange.
Something compelled me to run over and grab the remaining two boxes. As Jeff happily munched on his first slice, plates and napkins be damned, I jogged over to my roommate, yelling, “Special delivery!” Might as well make a dramatic entrance.
Poking my head into top box, I immediately knew it was hers: she loved Hawaiian pizza, and the smell of grilled pineapple was a dead giveaway.
This left one box for Ben, who had just stepped outside, looking triumphant at the sight of dinner. He grinned at me, beckoning me to hand him the box.
“Surrender the pizza and no one gets hurt,” he said. “There’ll be something in it for you, if – hey!”
I playfully started taking steps backward, and Ben quickened his pace.
“Don’t make me come after you. I run two miles a day, you know.”
Always such a show off. He closed in quickly and grabbed the box, placing his hands over mine. His touch was surprisingly soft and I could smell his musky deodorant. He grinned at me and I let go.
But he was pulling, and spun away as he pulled. I watched the rest in slow motion.
I watched him spin, watched as only one hand held the box, watched as the fresh-out-of-the-oven pizza flew out of the unguarded side – why did they have to use such crappy pizza boxes? – and then I gasped as it hit the grass and the dirt and the rocks cheesy-side down.
There was no five-second rule and no way to save it. Ben’s dinner was done. Not one bite. All that was left was its memory – that heavenly smell that still hung in the air.
Like I said – you could hear the stunned silence that followed.
“Ben. Ben, I am SO sorry. I’ll buy you another one. I’ll give you money for it.” I felt regret and stupidity rise up in my throat like bile.
He didn’t say a word. And for someone who never stopped talking, his silence was absolutely awful. He dropped the box and walked back inside, never saying a word.
“Ben!” I called after him. The glass door shut and I couldn’t get in because I didn’t reside there. I saw Jeff stretch out his hand, offering his keys, giving me a look that said “go fix this.”
I knew my crime. I had come between a man and his dinner. His time, his money and his patience were embedded in the ground, covered in grass.
And quite possibly worse than that, I thought as I climbed to the second floor, was that this was never how I imagined I’d talk to Ben one-on-one.
I knocked softly on his door. “Ben?”
More of that awful silence.
I slid ten dollars under the door. “Get some pizza with this, please,” I said.
There was noise and the door opened. Ben picked up the ten and tossed it back at me.
“No, I don’t want the money,” he said, and flopped back on his bed. I ignored the fluttering money and stepped into his room before the heavy door could shut me out.
This was the first time I'd ever been in his room. His half was atrocious-looking: books, clothes and papers were strewn all over the place, though that musky deodorant still permeated the air. I almost cracked a smile when I saw an opened accounting textbook marked with an index card on the desk; he was fibbing a bit when he bragged to me about never studying.
And now, Ben lay on his bed – the mattress was barely covered by his tangled sheets - refusing to look at me.
“Ben, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine,” he replied, trying so hard to act unconcerned.
My heart sunk. “Please take the money.”
There was another heavy silence.
And suddenly: “I was going ask you to share it. You said the other day you hated when Abby ordered Hawaiian.”
I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. How could someone take a tiny detail from what seemed like meaningless conversation at the dining hall yesterday and make such a kind gesture like that? I didn’t think we were pizza-sharing friends. But I guess Ben thought otherwise. Now an entirely new set of questions popped into my head. I didn’t know how to respond.
That was usually my problem. It had become somewhat of a bad habit: not saying what was on my mind, shuffling away from conflict and using awkward silence as a means of getting by. Conflict was just another way to add stress; I avoided the former to reduce the latter. It worked for the most part, except that I always seemed to walk away with a funny gnawing feeling that munched away at my insides (and my integrity).
Which explained why I stood there, biting my lip, ignoring the discomfort that simmered in my stomach, wondering just what was going on in Ben’s head.
”I wish you’d stop being so petulant and just take the money,” I said suddenly.
“Ben, you never get annoyed or pissed off and it kills me that I ruined your dinner, so your silence makes this about ten thousand times worse. But I hope this doesn’t put a strain between our...” (our friendship? I wondered) “…between us. Because, well, you’re an awesome person.” (And now the awkward fumbling took over) “And grass-stained pizza is way more replaceable than grass-stained friendship.”
He sat up and faced me – was that his trademark shit-eating grin creeping back into his face? “Good point,” he replied.
I surprise myself sometimes. Relieved (and a bit giddy), I smiled. “Excellent. Now please, Ben…” I handed him the money once more.
He shook his head and finally accepting, shoving the money in his pocket. “I’m gonna grab dinner. Are you coming?”
Somehow I managed to stammer “Uh, yeah, sure,” and with that, we headed out.
Right as we turned the corner, Ben swung his arm toward me and for a split second, his hand rested lightly on my waist. And just as I was about to turn to ask him what had gotten into him, I felt his hand stuff something into my back pocket.
I pulled the ten dollars out and gave him a dirty look. “Bastard.”
He raised his eyebrow at me and said, “This one’s on me.”
I grinned. I had a feeling this was about so much more than grass-stained pizza. Getting him to admit that was going to be an entirely different ballgame.