Happy birthday, Ben – you were always the life of the party and I miss you every day, you jackass.
Back in my wilder days in Hollywood, my best (now dead) friend Ben gave me a nickname. Here’s the thing about nicknames; you usually don’t get to pick yours and often, they’re not at all flattering. Think about it, didn’t we all go to school with a “pizza face” or the like? It’s like that old joke, “you fuck ONE goat, and for the rest of your life, you’re The Goatfucker”. Thankfully, mine wasn’t quite that terrible.
I got “Warhorse”. The Warhorse, if they were referring to me formally, just Horse for short. Isn’t that delightful? Years ago, as I prepared to go out for the night, my best friend Ben was flitting about my apartment, playing mood music and fixing us “primer coat” cocktails. You know, the drinks you have at home in preparation for the ones you’re going to have, when you go out. “They put a little glide in your stride, Mary”, Ben was fond of saying. He would perch atop my toilet and sip his vodka tonic as I plucked, sprayed, styled, contoured, powdered, and shadowed my face and platinum hair. The finale was always crimson-red lipstick, drawing yet more attention to my pale face and dark smoky eyes. I would contort and squeeze myself into dirty ripped jeans along with a midriff baring top and cowboy boots, and then adorn myself with every amulet, ring, and bracelet I could find. I fancied myself a bit like a younger Stevie Nicks.
As I was gearing up one evening, Ben took a long drag off of my Marlboro and looked me up and down. He twirled the cigarette from the top of my head to the well-worn tips of my boots (kicking the bar from many a stool causes this tip-scuff phenomenom) and remarked, “Jesus H. honey, you’re like one of those war horses in the movies – all painted up with metal shit hanging off everywhere, ready to ram your way into a fight” and lo, the nickname was born, and you know what? For years, I wore it proudly. I WAS like a Warhorse. I stomped and snorted my way up and down Hollywood Boulevard for years and often returned home limping and/or bleeding. One could say the bars on the Boulevard were drug and alcohol soaked battlefields in those days. In my memories, I was regal and magnificent – an independent strong woman who drank straight whiskey and didn’t need a man to buy it for her. Luck was on your side if I was feeling flirty but woe to the hapless patron who crossed me in those days. I was brutal, unforgiving, and hellbent on letting everyone know that I didn’t have a single fuck to give.
Nice, huh? This is probably a more accurate representation of my appearance.
I don’t recall thinking that the world owed me anything, but somehow I had tapped into the concept of unearned unhappiness. Looking back now with some perspective, I suppose my angst and bitterness simply stemmed from wanting to be different from who I was, or who I thought I was, I should say. I was a good girl. I was smart. I was loved deeply by my family and had a pretty healthy and supportive childhood. There was no abuse, no neglect, no abandonment. Ho-fucking-hum. I was SO white-upper-middle-class boring.
So, I became The Warhorse. The Warhorse wasn’t nice, OR a good girl. The Warhorse took no prisoners and left a lot of wreckage in her wake. She was ruthless, cutting and downright predatory, not a shy and timid Pollyanna. Over the years I’ve reconnected with folks from those days and they’ll inevitably mention a memory of my eviscerating someone in their presence, if not themselves. Naturally, this is mortifying and heart-breaking for me to hear, but I still need to hear it. More often than not their story will include whiskey, a fight and/or arrest or some other regrettable outcome on top of the initial castigation and I want to vomit right there on the spot. It’s just not who I am. . . anymore.
There’s a saying; “hurt people hurt people“. Simple, but accurate. It’s a vicious and terrible cycle, and one to say I’m proud to have broken. I’m not that
horse gal, anymore. I’m stuck with the nickname, however, so now my lifelong pals and I choose to have a little fun with it.
The Warhorse has been put out to pasture, and one could argue that there’s just a passive old nag left where the fearful beast once reigned.
Life is change, and that’s okay. . . the ride goes on.
Today I am fifty years old. FIFTY.
And, just as my high school yearbook predicted, I’m an unemployed alcoholic.
I KID. Well, it’s halfway true. I have returned to temping while I wait for someone to pay me for being awesome. Too bad I couldn’t have just been a temporary alcoholic, huh?
The card up there was given to me by my best friend Ben twenty-five years ago, today. Ben died from complications of his alcoholism last May and it has left a dark and abysmal chasm in my heart. I have no idea how I’ve kept up with that stained and tattered beaten-up yellow thing for all these years. (Ben, I am still talking about your birthday card, you jackass) This will be the first time in over 25 years that I haven’t received my annual snarky birthday message. I find myself absently glancing at my phone to see if I’ve missed his call. It’s been almost a year and his absence still, at times, takes me off guard. I mentioned this to a sweet and wise friend and she replied, “good days can be when we miss them most“. The simplicity of this truth surprised me. Of course I’m going to miss him today. We’ve celebrated half of my life together.
I’ve had grand birthdays, and lonely birthdays. My high school birthdays usually revolved around ice cream, scary movies, and me and my girlfriends agonizing over some terrible quiz in Cosmo. By my early twenties my birthdays usually involved hitting the bars in Hollywood full force with my posse and then ending with someone trying to pry my drunk ass off the back of a stranger’s Harley. Of course, that was pretty commonplace at the time, anyway. I’ve spent many birthdays at the lake laughing through the night with dear friends, and even spent a birthday on Alcatraz. Ten years ago today there was an epic surprise party thrown for me at my favorite dive bar of all time and I’m surprised I’m not still nursing that hangover all these years later. Now, before you balk and get all Ralph Furley on me with your “stop whining for the love of god, you’re still a young whippersnapper”, remember, I almost didn’t make it to 48. I arrived at 48 much like the space shuttle when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere – shaking violently with shrapnel flying everywhere and trying not to shit my pants.
Now, I’m not going to get all morose and somber on you, but I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that this birthday has a bittersweet ring to it. The joy in this occasion is obvious but what else is glaringly obvious to me is how much time I’ve wasted in those fifty years. Maybe it would be better reworded; how much time I spent wasted. This, I know, is a game I cannot win and it would behoove me not to play it at all.
Yet I do. It’s usually in the wee hours of the morning when the shitty committee comes out in my head and runs a reel-to-reel film featuring all of my mistakes, discarded opportunities and regrets. Often, it’s a double-feature.
Does everyone get reflective with introspective bullshit when they approach a milestone birthday or it is just me obsessing? Sometimes while driving I muse about what could have been. What I could have done. Who I could have been. What could I have accomplished in all those years while I was so raptly and selfishly engrossed with my reckless and audacious lifestyle? I overheard someone once in a meeting say “getting sober is basically growing up in public”. One could concur that I, too, have a lot of growing up to do. So, I look at the past fifty years. What I’ve done, where I’ve been, and who I’ve become. And here’s the thing, don’t get me wrong; I’ve had a ridiculous amount of fun – too much, you might argue. Memories dance through my brain like an out-of-focus montage. I’m ashamed of a lot, proud of a little and lucky as hell. So that begs the question; what’s next?
Well, I’m glad you asked. I can’t dwell on the past. Like I’ve said before, I’m really good at tripping over things that are behind me. No more. I have to forgive, starting with myself. I am not the same person I was and sometimes the best apology is changed behavior. I am determined to make up for lost time, and if I can’t do that, I guess I’ll just try to live every day forward trying to be grateful, humble and authentic. If I can help someone, I will. I mentioned when Ben died last year that I feel like now I have to make my life count twice as much, like somehow I have to live enough for us both, as if I haven’t already. I still feel that way.
So here’s to the next fifty years. I promise you, Ben – we’re just getting warmed up.
The pic isn’t great quality but the memory sure is. Christmas Day 2005, I think. Ben, as per tradition, was visiting and also per tradition, had to ruin (or make epically better) every photo ever taken of him. Mr. Cooper, between us, seems to have a Christmas name tag or label stuck to his head. I’m sure we were waiting for my Mother to come task us with something or chase us around the kitchen with some sort of tongs. To her, Ben was like having another kid. Better, perhaps, as I bet he never asked her to loan him money or tried to move in with her in his 30’s. <ahem>
Fast forward to this Christmas morning and I’m so grateful to have had these two in my life for as long as I did. They both did their best to love and protect me, and I tried my best to return the favor. They are both gone now and my Christmases have a little less sparkle, but like the Grinch, my heart is exponentially larger for holding them both inside it.
As the holidays approach I find myself thinking about Ben daily. Due to both of our illnesses, we haven’t spent a Christmas together in a few years but I think we had a 10 year run before we broke our streak. On the years we weren’t able to reunite we still squeezed in some trips but something was always special about our holidays together. Most of my friends knew Ben so his visits during the holidays were always cause for get togethers and celebrations.
I guess when someone you love passes away it’s normal for you to retrace your steps in the woulda-coulda-shoulda department and although not usually helpful or insightful, I find myself doing exactly that a lot lately. I think that most people end up feeling that they didn’t do enough, but what they did do, they hoped helped. Ten years later and I’m still wrestling with guilt from my Father’s passing but this is different. My Father led a long and exciting life. He was an adventure, and so was Ben, but Ben’s time was cut short and I find myself re-living every conversation we had before he passed this past May.
I spoke to him the week before he died, and remarkably he seemed almost like his old self. His confusion was minimal and his smartassery was fully in tact. You know what we discussed? Fucking ginger ale.
Today as I was on my morning run I talked to him as I ran along the river. It was early and it was foggy, grey, and still. I told him about my weekend, and the parts where I thought of him. I told him I missed him and I’m still pissed about his leaving me behind. As the tears started to well up I told him I wished he’d give me a sign of some sort. A sign he’s listening, a signal that he’s still with me. The request was part nonsense and part hopeful. Just then Cher’s song Believe came on my iPod (yes that’s right I still have one and you’ll pry it out of my cold dead hands, assholes) and although I put the damn song on there in the first place and it was on random shuffle I began to laugh out loud as I ran and then burst into Oprah’s ugly cry and had to stop running and wipe my eyes.
During one of our trips to New York years ago, Ben and I had wandered into a gay bar on the upper east side but it was after we’d been “over served” at many establishments and had found this place purely to bogart some air conditioning and re-hydrate. It was early afternoon and there were only a few folks gathered around the horseshoe shaped bar. We were not in the best of shape. We’d been partying for four days straight and it was the end of June and hotter than the hinges of hell. We were exhausted, and we stunk. I truly think it was one of the few times where Ben and I just sat in silence. As Ben later would lament, we’d had a little bit of enough.
And then it happened. One of those old queens crammed a crinkled up bill into that tragic jukebox and on it came with what seemed like 10,000 decibels, BELIEVE, by Cher. It wasn’t rehearsed and it wasn’t choreographed, it was just ridiculous. Ben leapt to his feet and began dancing and I jumped up with him, laughing and incredulous at his sudden burst of energy. In seconds the few folks that were in the dump began dancing too and our bartender handed me a tambourine while shouting encouragement to all of us. Ben was doing his very best Cher as I banged the tambourine on my hip in what I thought was the beat, laughing hysterically the entire time. We danced and spun ourselves around and the bartender poured pink shots of something delightful for all of us. As the song ended there were cheers and applause and Ben and I collapsed into our martini’s giggling until the point of snorting while we high-fived the rest of the impromptu ensemble. For years we joked about that spectacular shared moment with complete strangers in the awful heat of the summer in Manhattan.
That was a long time ago but it came flooding back with cutting precision this morning and although I felt lucky to remember it in such detail, it cut loose a piece of my grief that I’d been clinging to like Ben’s memory.
WHY? I want to know why. WHY didn’t I just go to him when he first got sick? Why didn’t I call more often? Why didn’t I call his Doctor’s and get more information? WHY WASN’T I THERE FOR HIM? He would never have left me like I left him.
Of course, I know in my heart that’s not the case. I know it’s not the truth and it’s my guilt and remorse talking. I sobbed by the river and slowly came to the realization that at the time I simply couldn’t go to him. I COULDN’T have helped him because I was in the fight for my life at the exact same time that he was. I wasn’t in my right mind, and I couldn’t make decisions for myself let alone think through a process in which it would take for HIM to recover. The difference between us is that I had help. I had a husband and a family and people in my life that would not let me give up. Ben had ostracized everyone and that is exactly what alcoholism does to you in the end. It tells you what you want to hear and common sense and rational thinking go out the window. He shut everyone out and one by one, we all tried to help him in our own ways, but he just wouldn’t let anyone in. Looking back I feel like I didn’t really try listen to him because in my heart I knew in the end, it was all lies. He, in turn, told me what I wanted to hear and he kept it up until the day he died. It was a dance of sorts and we both knew it. We knew the last time we saw each other that it might be the last time but we didn’t discuss it. I still don’t know how I feel about that.
I truly believe in my heart that the real tragedy is that by the time Ben was willing to accept help, it was simply too late. His body and brain were ravaged by his disease and it was just too damn late. And that’s the heartbreaking part of this whole thing, his hope at the end. Now the world is short one hilarious, kind and gifted person and I’m short one best friend. Like I’ve said since he passed away, now I have to make MY life count twice as much.
I hope he knows. Knows it all, I mean. How much I loved him and still do. How much I miss him and will always. How every Christmas from now on will be bittersweet in his absence. I profoundly hope that he’s found the peace that he so desperately searched for while he was living.
Can he see me? Is he watching me on my journey? Does he know how I feel and how I wrestle constantly with the choices I made for the both of us?! Does he know he mattered? Does he know my heart feels emptier now that he’s gone? I hope so. I hope he knows that we are all better people for having known him.
Yes, I think he knows. That’s what I choose to believe.
Everybody say HO! It’s officially December so I figure nothing says “traditional Christmas” more than my BFF wearing my Sheryl Crow coat while donning antlers and shades.We spent countless Christmases together and I cherish most of those memories. What memories I have, anyway. We weren’t ones to shy away from the eggnog, after all. When Ben and I were hanging out there wasn’t a competition to be the voice of reason so a lot of times we were just stray dogs barking at the fence together, as he often would say. I think of him every. single. day. Sleep in heavenly peace, my friend.
Ben and I hit up New York City for their gay pride festival some years back and needless to say the entire experience was off the chain. For four days straight we ran through the city like children on a playground. It was a magnificent trip and one of my happiest memories. Ben died in May of this year and I think about him every single day. It’s so gut wrenchingly hard. He made an appearance in one of my dreams recently and I was telling a mutual friend of ours about it.
Me: “Yeah, it was nice. He seemed happy. He was wearing a tie-dyed shirt.”
Friend: “Really? Well, there’s your sign. You said you were waiting for a sign from him.”
Me: “Yeah, I know, but what do you mean? Do you think it’s a sign that he’s happy?”
Friend: “No way. He’s clearly in hell if he’s wearing a tie-dye”.
We laughed for five minutes straight.
Again with the Carrie costume, I know. I think I went as Carrie seven years straight. It was a wee bit ridiculous. Anyway, up there with me are my hilarious friends Gregg and Ben. Of course, Halloween in Hollywood was ALWAYS off the chain but as I recall this particular year was insanely fun. I remember dancing with a large group of gay men who were dressed as the “Bee Girl” from the Blind Melon video and it was EPIC.
In case you’re not old enough to remember said reference.
Ben loved Halloween and I’ll cherish every one we spent together. Please note that when I naturally assumed he was a zombie in the above picture he corrected me and said he was a dead Tailor. A tailor? I didn’t get it. He winked at me, held up the fabric measuring tape in his hand and said “Oh, honey, I’m gonna measure inseams tonight”.
Saints preserve us.
Inseams notwithstanding, we ended up drunk as lords at Tommy Burgers, eating our weight in chili cheese fries. Ah, good times.
Um, I’m not really sure what’s happening here but if memory serves Ben was attempting to dress a pumpkin up to look like me. He and I adored Halloween and would celebrate all month long. I imagine his conundrum here was how he was going to carve it’s mouth into a sneer and have a lit Marlboro light dangle out of it.
Ben and I liked to consider ourselves the original Will and Grace. Our sarcastic personalities and
codependent intertwined friendship is where the similarities stop, however. Our Los Angeles residences were never very swanky although I can attest that Ben’s digs were always way more vogue than mine. He actually had furniture, for starters. And real dishes.
However, the chemistry between the main characters always made us laugh. We often found ourselves finishing each others sentences and reading each other’s mood with a glance. He was better than a brother or a sister, he was both. He was bitter, surly, and hilarious. Will can be a bit caustic and cranky. One of the things Ben was constantly saying to me was “don’t fuck up”, in a clenched-teeth-side-whisper-kinda way. Sweetly encouraging, isn’t it? Grace, of course, is a free spirit but unorganized and a bit of a chaotic train wreck. I *may* resemble her from time to time. Just like the characters in the show, together we found we filled in each other’s blanks and we often remarked that we had finally fused into one big bitch. His strengths were often my weakness and vice versa. Except booze, we were both slaves to the sauce. And happily.
People often referred to us as “Bennifer”, as we were always together and super annoying and most folks begrudgingly accepted us as a package deal. We sometimes laughed and called ourselves Jender Bender because our stereotypical gender roles were often reversed. I’d change his flat tire, he’d make me a chocolate mousse. It all worked out, really. He helped me with fashion and hair and I’d help him unclog his sink drain or hang up some photos.
The only true constant in our friendship was laughter. My fondest memories are the times NOTHING was special about what we were doing. There wasn’t a party or a holiday or an occasion or a trip abroad. You know, just life. A trip to Ralph’s for
beer hamburger buns. Window shopping on Melrose Blvd. Sitting at home flipping through magazines. Eating a taco in a gas station somewhere.
I’m stunned at how much I’m reminded of him daily. I’ve absently reached for my phone to call him more than a few times and I’m immediately slapped with the painful reality that he’s not going to ever answer the phone again. There’s some laughter too, of course. Plenty of times this summer a situation arose that I knew would have delighted him. I know that Will and Grace coming back to television would have tickled him, too. I imagine we would’ve watched together on the phone and then dissected and re-hashed every nuance of the show, giggling like ninnies.
Again, this is where the similarities end with our reality and the hit show. The Will and Grace on TV will likely go on for a few seasons but Ben and I’s traveling show is over. I guess I just have to hold on to the re-runs in my memories. I’m looking forward to a day when there is more laughter than tears when I remember. As I type this my eyes start to well up and I find myself swallowing hard. He’s only been gone 5 months now but it feels like an eternity to me. I can’t even bring myself to delete his number from my phone. I don’t want to delete him. I want him back.
I had a job interview last week and as I got out of my Jeep and smoothed out the crinkles in my pants I laughed as I heard his voice in my head say sharply, “Don’t fuck up“!
I smiled and proceeded to enter the building feeling confident and capable. Then I heard his voice again.
“I can’t believe you wore those shoes.”
I miss him more on some days than others.