How Ben Changed Me.

January 16, 2010
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The subway had always been my favorite place. There was constantly movement and excitement and plenty of people. Here businessmen and the homeless shared a platform. Men in turbans milled and mixed with old ladies in purple hats. Burnouts shaded by dingy columns dealt their drugs and men dressed in husky winter jackets pushed carts full of God-knows-what. And now, I sprinted down the stairs into my own personal Bat Cave.

But the subway wasn't busy now. I hadn't expected it to be around two a.m. Honestly, I'd be surprised if the trains were still running. Yeah, I knew the empty terminal wouldn't take me away right now, but I had nowhere else to go.

My footsteps echoed against the tiles and I pulled his oversized leather jacket tighter across my body. I stole it out of his closet before descending the fire escape. I had waited for him to fall asleep before I gathered up my stuff and threw it in my bag. So, with the jacket, bag and what's left of my dignity, I walked the six blocks to the subway entrance and there I was, starting to cry, walking in an empty subway terminal. I spotted a bench under a flickering light and decided I needed to sit sometime. As I made my way to the little oasis, I saw a figure lying on the seat, stretched out, like a person trying to sleep. I was about to turn around and find somewhere else to wallow when the figure sat up, moving to the far end of the bench. It was just a kid, not any older than 16 from the looks of him. His eyes darted back and forth, looking at me, the flickering light, my short skirt, his hands, and me again. His hair was ruffled a little bit, but dark brown under his Yankees ball cap. Despite the chill, he only had on jeans and a sweater. All he had with him was a book, a folded up peice of paper, and a rosary.

I plopped down on the opposite end of the end of the bench, wiping away the tears still lingering on my cheeks.

"Why are you sad?"

I turned my head to the left and saw the boy looking my way. His eyes still darted a little, looking past me, over my head, into my eyes. I realized this kid wasn't all there. He was handicapped.

"What?" I answered dumbly.

"I said, why are you sad?" he reiterated. "I know you are because you're crying. You're sad. Why?" His fingers drummed on his knee, he rubbed his temple.

"I've had a rough day." I replied. I had been avoiding his eyes, but in the silence that followed my response I met his gaze.

"Was someone mean to you?" the kid asked. I nodded. "Yeah," he shook his head. "Me, too." He pulled his legs up by his chest and turned his body toward me. "Yeah, someone was mean to me, too," he repeated.

I glanced at him, then around the terminal. No one. I wasn't sure if I should talk to him, or if he would even understand what I would say. I noticed him fingering the plastic crucifix of the rosary. What's the harm? I thought.

"Oh, yeah? Who was mean?" He looked up at me through his lashes.

"Jake. He was mean," he bit his lip. "He's my friend. He laughs when I do things. We laugh together." He hit his open palm on his knee.

He shouldn't be here alone, I thought. I should call someone. But he kept going, and I couldn't help but listen.

"Jake has friends, we're all friends." He began to bite his nails. "We bikeride and one time--" he started to giggle in a way that made my heart break. "--we all went bikeriding and I was going so fast, really fast like a rocket! And then Jake," the kid edged closer to me, smiling into my face. "He stuck a branch between my wheels and I flew!" He laughed fully now, rocking back and forth on the bench, the walls echoing his amusement.

I gaped at this kid. I couldn't help it. I looked at him, laughing and rocking, and felt everything inside of me drop. My stomach churned at his story and I wanted to cry all over again.

"Yeah, Jake's my friend but today he was mean." He gazed down at his hands again. "What's your name?" he asked.

"I'm Jess," I stammered. "What's yours?"


He beamed as he stuck out his hand. I gazed at his outstretched palm and after a few moments, I shook it. I don't know if I was being nosy or I was just so struck by this stranger, but I asked, "Ben, what did Jake do that was mean?"

His eyes darted and he hit his open hand on his knee again. "How old are you, Jess?" he inquired, not meeting my eyes.

"Twenty two," I replied. He hadn't answered my question, but I wasn't frustrated like I normally would've been. There was something about Ben that confused me, there was something about him that led me to want to know more. All I knew was that he wasn't right in the mind, but it didn't scare me.

"Wow, you're old!" he exclaimed. I smiled and he giggled again. I was going to ask him again about Jake, but he spoke first. "Who was mean to you?"

I sighed, hesitated, but answered. "A guy. Well, he's more than that. He is--or, um, was-- my boyfriend," I crossed my arms and looked down. I hadn't realized it would hurt this much to say it out loud. I'd never been one to put my guard down, but I had never known pain like this existed in me. When I ripped my wet gaze from my lap to Ben, he looked compassionate. For some reason, I trusted him. I kept going.

"He, um, well he has another girlfriend. He likes her better. I found out today." The tears started flowing again and Ben dug into his pocket, pulling out a tissue. He wiped my tears for me as I somberly chuckled my embarassment.

"Do you love him?" he asked.

"Yeah," I nodded sniffing. "I do. At least, I thought so, but he didn't love me. I guess I'm not what he wanted. I looked down again and began speaking more to myself than to Ben. "I tried to be beautiful and patient and what he needed, but," I choked on the words. "I just couldn't look that way. I tried so hard to be beautiful and I tried so hard not to be mad at him for making me feel ugly but I just wasn't enough." I was starting to slur my words. I had no control all of a sudden, the words kept spilling out along with the tears. "Finding out about her," I took a deep breath. "I'm just...I'm just tired. I'm so tired of not being enough. I'm tired of thinking he deserves better than me. I'm so sick of it."

I was sobbing now and before I knew it, Ben was hugging me. He was hugging me around my neck and telling me it was okay. He held me like that and I felt so stupid, yet so grateful that he was there. I couldn't help but think how ironic this was, that a kid who probably felt stupid everday of his life was consoling me, a true idiot.

Ben let go and rummaged around for more tissues. "You are beautiful," he said. "I can tell because a person is only as beautiful as their heart, that's what Mom says. And I know you're heart is beautiful because you're being so nice to me." He sat again with his legs drawn up to his chin, only this time he sat resting on the back of the bench, starting ahead. He patted my hand.

I sat next to him for a while, trying to breathe noramally again. "Ben," I ventured. "What did Jake do that was mean?" I hoped he would answer me this time. I wanted to know. This kid had just seen me cry and somehow had made me feel better. I couldn't explain it, but his words did something to my heart, my mind. Ben had helped me and I had only known him half an hour. I wanted to help him.

"Today, he called me a name." He took a deep breath, his fingers drumming on his knees. "He yelled at me. 'RETARD!', he said." Ben took another breath. "He screamed it, 'Retard! Retard!' I said it, too. But Jake didn't like when I said it. He said it meant someone who was really stupid." Ben licked his lips. "Everyone started saying it, 'Retard!'"

Ben's voice echoed in the terminal. I felt my insides drop again.

"And I was bad and I left home because I didn't want Mom and Dad to know I'm a retard." Ben hung his head then. He didn't cry or even whimper, he just looked down. I had never seen someone look so dissapointed. "I don't want people to know I'm a retard," he whispered.

"Hey," I said assertively. "Look at me." He made no move. "Look at me, Ben," He looked up at me through his lashes. "I look smart, right? I look smart to you?" He nodded. "That's because I am. And from one smart person to another, you are not a retard."

He raised his head a little more.

"I know a retard when I see one, okay?" I continued, finally becoming myself for the first time since I descended to the subway. "I know what a retard is, and you are the farthest thing from it." My words hung in the air and I wondered if I had said the right thing. Ben lifted his head and looked at me, a smile creeping onto his face.

"I am smart, aren't I?" he chided.

I laughed. "Yes, Ben. You are."

"I need to go home, don't I?" he asked, intently studying my face.

A few moments passed.

"Yeah," I said. "You do." Ben stood up, picking up his book and jamming the peice of paper and rosary into his pocket. Just like that, he was getting ready to leave. He was beaming, and for a moment I wondered if he would remember what was said within the past hour. I wondered if our bizarre meeting would matter to him. I could already sense that I would never forget that night.

"Do you know where you're going?" I asked. "You sure you're safe?"

"I live up the stairs, and then left, and then on the third story of the first apartment buliding on the corner," he recited.

Ben started to walk away toward the steps of the terminal as if it was perfectly normal to walk the streets and three a.m.

"Ben," I called. He turned. "Thank you."

He smiled, waved, and said, "You're welcome!" Then, he went up the stairs two at a time as I stood there, remembering the smile on his face and the rosary jammed in his pocket.

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