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Ben



My father pulls into Jack's driveway and honks. Jack and his father both come out the front door, and I think, geez, could there ever be two bigger geeks than us, when my dad has to drive us to the movies and his dad has to come all the way out to the car to say goodbye? You'd think we were ten years old instead of fifteen. And then Jack's father actually gets into the car and I realize that he is going to this movie with us, and I think I am going to spontaneously combust from the mixture of horror and humiliation that wells up in my stomach.

Jack's father reaches into the back seat to shake my hand. He tells me I should call him Ben. He smells like hairspray.

After we drive for about seven and a half seconds, my father rolls his window all of the way down to let Ben's hairspray out. This makes my hair flap around and smack me in the face, but I figure it's better than getting dizzy from breathing in too much aerosol. I start to worry that thousands and thousands of the hairspray particles are getting sucked up into my chest and piling up and sticking there, shellacking the walls of my lungs and slowly suffocating me. Soon I will keel over dead. The convenient thing is that I will be instantly mummified, preserved by my interior hairspray varnish.

I wonder why Ben is wearing so much hairspray when he hardly has any hair, anyway. The top of his head pokes above his seat, so I examine it. His hair is wispy, a mixture of black and gray. It's pasted into place against his scalp. It reminds me of an art project I did a million years ago, where you dip strings in glitter and glue and then wrap them in a criss cross pattern around a balloon, and when the glue dries into a hard shell you can pop the balloon and the string web will stay there, stiff and balloon-shaped, forever.

Ben is telling my father about his car problems, about how it is taking forever to get his Buick back from the shop. My father is super polite and does not crack any jokes, so I know he is dying to get home to tell my mother how weird Ben is. When he drops us off Ben tries to give him gas money, even though we have only driven five miles.

The previews have already started by the time we get inside, so everyone gives us dirty looks for opening the door and letting the light in. We bump down the aisle until we find three seats together. I am praying the whole time that nobody I know will be here to see me at this movie with Jack and his dad.

Jack tries to hold my hand when the movie starts. I don't let him. I cram both of my hands into my armpits and don't even look at Jack.

Half way through the movie, Ben gets up and goes out to the concession stand. Jack whispers to me that he did not exactly mean to bring his father on this date but that he really could not help it, because his father is like right on the edge of a nervous breakdown because Jack's mother moved out last week and asked his father for a divorce. I don't know what to say to this, so I whisper back: Umm, huh.

Jack's father comes back with a monster sized vat of buttered popcorn. We munch away until I get really thirsty, and I'm wishing for some coke or water or anything at all, milk even, and then Ben suddenly starts to cry.

At first I think he has the hiccups, but then I realize, no, Jack's father is actually sobbing right here and now in the theater. Jack has a pile of napkins that Ben brought with the popcorn. He starts handing them to his father, one by one. He puts his arm around Ben's shoulders, and it hits me that Jack has seen his father cry like this before, maybe even lots and lots of times.

The only time I have ever seen my father cry was at my grandmother's funeral.

I sneak a look at the people in the row behind us. Nobody is paying any attention to Ben, even though he is being pretty loud and messy. Maybe they are just too embarrassed to admit that there is a man sitting there and crying right in front of them at the movies.

Jack is on his last napkin when his father finally calms down. Ben doesn't cry any more, but he doesn't watch the movie either. He huddles in his seat, sort of hugging himself, staring at his own shoes. I suddenly get this image of him standing in front of his bathroom mirror, pointing a can of Aquanet or whatever at his gray and black wisps, spraying on layer after layer like he is trying to glue his whole head into place and not just his hair.

I think that the kind of hairspray Ben really needs has not been invented yet.

Jack tries to hold my hand again. This time, I let him.

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    Copyright © 2002 by Danielle LaVaque-Manty