This makes me wonder what, in a multiverse of all possible universes, my life is like right now in the world where Benjamin and I are together.
So often have I tried to find him in others – repeatedly have I attempted to find him himself – that I’ve lost all concept of what the reality would be of us actually having done what other people do. Do other people do this? It’s certainly the impression I get: other people I know meet someone, fall in love, have some ups and downs, decide to give it a go, give it a go, stick together, or sometimes not, and if they don’t then most likely they have a break and then either give it another go or do so with somebody else. I have good examples at close range of things working out well between people, all around me. My family, especially, are exemplary. So it shouldn’t be difficult.
Still, it mystifies me.
Benjamin has fallen out with his father, this much I know. I know this much because the last number I find in my old address book for him is his old home number, and at one point, while I’m in the country, I phone that number and I get his dad on the phone who tells me that he doesn’t know where his son is. Nor how to contact him. He says this quite categorically and I’m surprised, of course, and a bit stunned and about to end the conversation, but before I do I ask whether anybody else might know how to contact him, and he says, yes, his mother might know. Ah, I say, and would he happen to still have a number for his mother. I sense I need to tread carefully as I don’t want to upset or offend him, and I feel sorry that they’re no longer together, but at least that offers a plausible explanation as to why his father does not know where he is or how to contact him: his parents must have separated many years ago, maybe on bad terms. But: ‘this number here,’ he says; ‘she’ll be back later, she’s at work now.’
This makes me sad, more than it puzzles me, and it puzzles me a lot: clearly Benjamin’s mother and father are still together, still living in the same house where I once or twice came to see him, where I met both of them, once or twice; where in fact I interviewed his dad for my final school project, which I wrote on racism; but while his mother ‘may know’ how to get in touch with him, the father not only doesn’t know, he obviously doesn’t want to know either. His son is dead to him. Which fills me with an unfathomable sadness. He is, has always been, so alive to me.
Should it surprise that your first love is your strongest, your most intensely felt, most devastating and also most exulted? To this day I remember getting drunk on coffee with him on the sofa. That seems surreal now, but we drank so much coffee over so many hours all through the night until it was getting light outside, I started feeling high. Caffeine and adrenalin and serotonin. And that other thing. Is there that other thing, that indescribable thing, that thing we sing songs about and write poems over and feel we could die for?
I phoned up again a day or two later (or maybe it was later that day) and spoke to the mother who remembered me and may have remembered me fondly, she certainly sounded warm and kind and she said, yes, if I were to write him a letter she would forward it onto him, that might work.
I wrote him a letter and she forwarded it onto him and nothing happened for a very long time and I remembered, as I spoke to his mother and before I wrote the letter, the birthday for which I had sent him a flower. He lived outside Zürich, I outside Basel, his birthday was and still is six days before mine, and because I couldn’t see him on his birthday, I went out and bought him a flower – I can’t be sure now what kind of flower it was but I like to think and am fairly certain it was a yellow rose – and I asked the florist for one of these small vials that would keep the flower fresh for a while, and I sealed this around the stem of the flower and wrapped it in tissues in case it should leak and sealed that in foil, I believe, and then put the flower into a long box and I must have used some padding, and then I posted it to him, with my birthday wishes. I didn’t wonder then but I wondered now what his mother made of that at the time.
I wrote him a letter and sent it to his mother and she forwarded it to him and nothing happened for a very long time until one Sunday the phone rang and it was Benjamin. Out of the blue, except for the letter of course. He’d received it and now he was living in Guggisberg. He’d moved to Guggisberg because of the song, did I know it? I didn’t but I do now.
We talked for maybe four or five hours. I don’t remember what we talked about, but then that was that kind of connection: where you can talk for four or five hours and not remember what you talked about, nor really care. For those four or five hours it was as if he were there.
And all of a sudden I can feel it ease, the pain of not knowing what had become of him. He’s not had an easy ride. ‘I have a son,’ he says. ‘I have a tooth missing.’ He’s been through the addiction and the rehab and back and other things. He lives with his partner, who isn’t the mother of his son. ‘You’ve done a good thing here, he says, meaning my writing to him, and after the afternoon had passed with us talking, he said, ‘and now I’m going to get drunk.’ We were a bit drunk already, again, both of us, this time on the beers we each started to open, he in Guggisberg, I in Earl’s Court. ‘And I’m going to hear Jane Birkin in concert,’ I said, and it was true. He wasn’t online but he would write back to me now, he said; but I didn’t think he would, and he didn’t.
After a few months or so, maybe a year, I thought I’d just write to him one more time although I was myself no longer sure of the wisdom of that, and I sent another letter, this time directly to him, at the address he’d given me, on the Guggisberg. It came back as not delivered: the addressee had moved away. But now I don’t mind. My heart is light and free. I hope before either of us dies I’ll see him again, maybe when we’re quite old. Maybe when we’re quite old we can sit together on a bench or in a lakeside café and spend a whole day, talking, and getting drunk. On whatever.
I look at George looking at me and remember I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone, I’ve always had George, but George has been very much on his own at times, he has chosen a lone path, and I can’t blame him for that. ‘Tell me about Benjamin,’ I want to say, but I know everything I need to know now about him, and I know that George knows much less now than I.
I walk into a room full of people. It’s the Christmas Bazar at the Steiner School in Zürich. I’ve gone there with a friend from Basel, to visit a couple of people we’d met at a Whitsun Camp earlier in the year and stayed in touch with. I don’t remember anything else about the day, not how we arranged to meet or who else was there. Most likely we’d just arrived and most likely we’d said: in the café, around then. The café is just a class room, converted for the day; or maybe it’s a hall. The room is busy, there is a table with five or six people at it, in conversation. Two or three of them we already know. We introduce ourselves. One of them turns around: “ich bi dr Benjamin.” My world has never been the same again.
‘Tell me, George,’ the Mojito giving me licence to talk, ‘what do you make of the heart?’