You met Ben from Madera at a dorm party at Roble way early on, long before Tanya, and before you had accepted Andy as a permanent fixture in your life. Ben was from one of the wealthier parts of the East Bay originally, and like all Bay Area natives, he had a jump start on his college career because of his proximity to home. Ben from Madera exuded an air of confidence the rest of you lacked, something that came from being already a fish in just a different section of the same pond. It was a comfort unimaginable to you then, and you were envious of it and would always remember it, even though you and Ben would only ever become friends of friends, and even though this would happen much later in your college careers, after your perspectives had switched and realigned themselves and made you both unrecognizable to the each others of that night. Still, for this night he represented promise of friendship, if only in theory, in this new, exciting, terrifying, and oppressively lonely place.
It was back when you still required wine coolers to get drunk, a remnant from your high school experience, when the biggest difficulty in obtaining alcohol was finding somebody old enough to buy. Here, there was no shoulder-tapping required, but you had found that cheap beer foam was basically all there was to be had at most parties, so when you walked into Roble that night and saw the salad bar filled with ice and Bartles & Jaymes, it was like you were back home, if only for a second. And there was breathing room in that party, which at first was refreshing but quickly became oppressive once you realized that it was in those spaces that conversations were expected to take place, and that wandering around the party in circles endlessly, weaving through bodies and meeting no eyes directly, was not going to work here.
You weren’t quite into full panic mode when Ben from Madera moseyed up and started a conversation, but you were close enough to be thankful to him, possibly forever, for saving you from yourself. Ben should have been cute, and perhaps in a parallel universe he would have been: his piercing blue eyes were out of step with the darkness of his complexion and hair color, strange in an alarming but aesthetically appealing way. Perhaps he was just too short for you to take seriously? No matter, he was talking to you, and this was decades before you realized that men don’t want to hear about all of the challenges you are having adjusting or coping, and so you unloaded on him about all of the changes and challenges, slowly at first, but over time gaining the confidence to reveal your true fears to this stranger from Madera. He seemed to understand, even if Madera was an all-frosh dorm, and so he had less problems finding new friends than you and others who lived in the four class dorms. The presence of upper classmen in your dorm may have saved you from always looking obviously like a freshman, but it also contrasted your life with they who always already had their own social groups and events, study sessions, majors, and networking opportunities that made you feel perpetually behind, already, at 19. Unlike Ari and Dylan, the Juniors who lived on your floor and showered you with self-interested attention early on–while you were still unsuspecting Freshman prey–Ben from Madera had no illusions about easily seducing you before the more Alpha males on campus sniffed you out. To him, you were just another freshman, and though perhaps he was half-heartedly hitting on you, it was only a symbolic effort to make you feel like everything was fine.
You left that night with instructions from Ben to seek him out, something you knew you would never do, but which calmed you anyway. For that year, Ben from Madera would exist for you in the form of a yellow Post-It™ that read, “Ben from Madera,” and was stuck to one of the pages of your Froshbook. Ben had said, specifically, “Remember: I’m Ben, from Madera,” and you had taken him seriously enough to write it down. But otherwise, Ben from Madera was now a face in the sea of faces that you might talk to, the next time you felt out of place and alone, far from home, and not sure what to do. You didn’t see yourself becoming close to Ben from Madera, but at least he was someone who would be there to make you feel like you weren’t completely alone, during those nights that you were, in fact, completely alone, in a room full of people.
Shortly after meeting Ben from Madera, you and Andy became friends, with Tanya not far behind, and the rest, as they say, is history. You would run into Ben on occasion at parties, and he was a friendly face but not a friend, though you would probably always consider him to be the one who broke the ice on your finding a home away from home. Otherwise, he would not factor significantly into your life until Junior year, when his draw group was situated closely to your friends’ draw group in Robinson House at Sterling Quad, and the two groups became one larger group of friends that persists to a certain extent to this day. And though you were always somewhat of an outsider with the male faction of this group, due to living off campus and also being a raging alcoholic that oftentimes screamed at them for being the most handily accessible group of men upon which to vent your always seething anger, they became part of your lives like a group of somewhat distant siblings, important to you because they were important to others of your friends.
Ben from Madera was a fixture of this group, but as Junior year continued his place in others’ esteem seemed to slip. For Halloween, Ben from Madera chose to dress up in a bee costume and, not coincidentally, this was the year of the Blind Melon hit, “No Rain.” Though it was still a few years before the lead singer died of a cocaine overdose, it was certainly a prophetic choice, particularly since Ben from Madera had himself developed somewhat of an alcohol issue over the intervening years since you two had met that one fateful night at Roble. So when bee-suited Ben from Madera broke a window on the second floor that night, in a fit of rage having to do with his falling prey to one of the grosser of male adolescent pranks on each other, you figured it was the alcohol talking. It was memorable because people rarely got so angry, but not astonishing, since there was talk of crazy stuff like this happening all the time, and you had heard much worse.
Still, there was something tragic in the thought of little Ben from Madera in his bee suit, drinking pee out of a red solo cup and falling prey to the stupid, but hardly malicious pranks of his friends. And when you heard, years later, that Ben from Madera had thrown himself off the Golden Gate Bridge, you would involuntarily think of him that night, in his bee suit, marginalized and uncomfortable in his own skin and misunderstanding the actions of people who wanted the best for him, but were immature and mischievous. You didn’t go to his funeral. Ultimately, you and Ben from Madera were never so close as that one night you had met at Roble, when Ben’s confidence was something you latched onto temporarily, something that allowed you to find yourself in yet another place that seemed foreign and uninviting. And you would wonder what had happened to Ben from Madera in the intervening years, more of the same, perhaps, that had led him to the night of the bee suit, but what had made you different, what had allowed you to survive? Because there were Bens all around you, not from Madera, but still afflicted with whatever it was that you and Ben shared: what made you drink, what made you latch onto the symbol of a bee suit or throw lillies of the valley onstage at a Morrissey concert as a sign of solidarity with a self-loathing pop singer. Whatever it was, this affliction . . . this monster that had tossed you aside only to swallow Ben whole. It was a question that you could never answer, but would continue to ask, caught in your head like the refrain of the one hit of a band who had risen so high, only to be snuffed out and forgotten.