Yesterday, I went onto Facebook to show Tim a picture of a high school friend. On Friday, we had seen a doppelganger, so I wanted to let Tim see just how eerie it was.
When I got to his page, I scanned a couple of wall posts. My friend died of a drug overdose, three weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.
Besides roiling shock, I was deeply ashamed that this happened nearly a year ago — mid-October — and I hadn’t noticed. Granted, until the spring, I rarely logged on to Facebook. I tended to forget that some people were religious updaters. Which also creates so much noise, it’s often hard to notice what isn’t there. Still, I felt that I should have known.
Mainly, though, I was sad. Tim came home from getting groceries to find me sitting in front of the computer, tears running down my cheeks. I told him the news and then showed him a picture I had found. He agreed, the guy had practically been Ben’s twin.
Reading the wall posts — people still leave messages to him — I was sick with grief, not even my own, but that of his friends and loved ones. The pain he left behind was palpable. People’s sorrow and longing for his continued presence in their lives spoke to what a spell he cast on people.
In addition to being sad, though, I was angry. The last time we had exchanged emails (far too long ago) he had finally seemed to hit his stride. He was living in Colorado and he was sober. I think he said he’d been sober for over a year.
I was really happy for him. He finally seemed to have found his place in life. For as long as I had known him, Ben seemed a little untethered, floating whichever way the winds blew. He was utterly focused on one thing, until the next one came along. He threw his heart and soul into everything he did.
When his flash animation gained some notoriety, he stopped going to work. I don’t mean he quit, he just stopped going. And he had been thrilled to get that job. But now something else was calling to him.
It seemed to me that he never found a place he could rest in, one where he could find a balance between his passions and real life. In his emails, though, he seemed content for the first time in a long time. I had hope that he really had found his spot.
When Ben lived in Seattle, we would run into each other from time to time. We’d reconnect for a bit, then fall out of touch.
Then, around two years ago, he added me on Facebook. We exchanged a couple of emails and, like most Facebook encounters, that was about it.
Until last night, when I spent about an hour scrolling through wall posts, as well as trying to find his animation to show Tim my old friend’s strange sense of humor. I thought it was the best way to explain Ben, and I thought Ben would be glad that his art was remembered as such a basic part of him.
The wall posts brought up memories I’d completely forgotten. Like Ben’s obsession with flip books. He would fill a Post-It pad and then have us look at the animation. I remember wondering how he could work so meticulously for hours when the result was less than 10 seconds of entertainment.
Looking back on it, though, I suppose flash animation was the next logical step. He had some success with the Stick Slayer series. It was a fully drawn, Rambo-style figure — who looked suspiciously like Ben, if he had spent a year feasting only on creatine and steroids — ending the lives of various stick figures in strange and gruesome ways. But almost always the weapon looked like the end of a pencil, which always cracked me up.
He and one other theater friend also helped keep me sane in Japanese class. The class usually consisted of three or four pages of homework… due four or five days later. So the three of us would finish our work in 20 to 30 minutes, then spend the next couple of days trying not to be bored.
Then there was the band, New Low Price. (I had forgotten the name until reading the wall posts.) I knew all three members. They were all good musicians, but this was a kitschy band, designed more with an eye for silliness, a way to showcase the guys’ humor.
Ben got to ham it up on stage — the same reason he loved theater, I think. Unfortunately, I only remember one line from one song. It was a joking criticism of the EPA and its endangered species list. Part of the refrain was “We don’t need no spotted owls no more than they need us.” I still get a chuckle out of it to this day.
Ben was also a fellow theater geek. I mainly did tech work. Ben was out on stage. He loved it there, so much that he defied his dad. Apparently, his church didn’t approve of theater. It was never fully explained to me why. Though Ben apparently showed our friend (and his bandmate) Karl where the church was on the FBI’s official cult list, or some such thing. Karl said Ben had him listen to a church session he secretly taped, and he could hear people falling off their chairs and speaking in tongues. Then again, you could never quite be sure when Ben was yanking your chain.
Perhaps my favorite memory, though, came from a play that was a series of vignettes. Ben was playing a German soldier who had captured Walter Mitty, played by Karl. About to send him to the firing squad, Ben was supposed to ask for the honor of lighting the last cigarette of the greatest spy ever.
Except, one night, Ben forgot his cigarette. So, when the time came, he said it was considered an honor to… kiss the greatest spy ever. Karl apparently didn’t so much as blink at the change; he just hauled off and slapped him across the face, like a spurned woman in a ’20s film.
It’s one of my favorite memories of Ben, not just because it was a hilarious moment. But it also perfectly embodied him at his finest. He practically glowed for the rest of the night when they talked about it. Sure, he was impressed with himself for the ad-lib (and with Karl for reacting so perfectly), but he got a rush from the audience’s laughter — and from his friends backstage cracking up.
It’s that glow I remember best about him. Whether he was talking about a hit flash animation or whether he was on stage amusing people with music or dialogue, Ben thrived on his raw power to entertain. It was a talent, but it was also a need, I think. A deep pull inside of him to constantly make those around him happy, to share himself with anyone and everyone in whatever form it took.
I only wish that drug had been enough for him. Instead, we lost a strange, fantastic and sometimes bewildering presence in this world. I can only hope that any afterlife includes computers, or at least Post-Its, so he has something to keep him busy until we all see him again.