Ben adjusted his glasses and held the letter closer, then further away from his eyes. “This is ridiculous. You read it to me.” He playfully grabbed me around the hip and pulled me closer to him. The day was sunny, one of those late summer days when the grass still feels moist and the sun spills like champagne through leaves that had just begun to turn.
I grabbed the envelope. Ben was three years older than me, just enough of an age gap that he needed cheaters to look at small font. I had coke-bottle lenses for as long as I could remember. The chief advantage of having such terrible nearsightedness was that with my corrected vision was 20/20. Always.
“Wow, Ben, fancy!” My eyes darted over the script. It was his college fraternity’s thirty-year reunion, a formal affair. The raised blue script indicated that tails were not necessary, and therefore that a tuxedo would be required. Ben removed his glasses and held the invitation close to his eyes. “It’s at Highpoint,” I said. “We’ll be in Virginia for Christine’s wedding that weekend, anyway. We should go. Besides, I’ve heard the service at Highpoint is good and the food is amazing.”
Ben looked annoyed. “I don’t know. That was the old me. I haven’t seen those guys for decades. Let’s skip it. You and I can go to Highpoint for a weekend by ourselves some time.”
I never understood this aspect of Ben. In college, he’d earned the nickname “The Caveman,” because he had lived in the basement of the fraternity house and drank. He did this to such an extent that he missed classes. Then he’d missed classes to such an extent that he’d been put on academic probation. Then he’d met me.
The rest, as they say, is history. We were an unlikely match, Ben and me. I was skinny, gawky, with acne that refused to subside, even after trying every concoction known in the skincare industry at the time. I also wore braces, one of the few students at college who hadn’t gotten her teeth straightened out prior to starting school. Ben played football and drank. And that was what most of his fraternity brothers had done. It was odd then, that we ever met. I suppose that I’d pulled Ben out of a close call in that after we met, he crawled out of a drinking problem. I had also loosened up, and we discovered that we made a good pair.
I was the one who had gotten Ben to start studying. He was a naturally gifted student, and once he stopped drinking and started applying himself again, he had decided to go to medical school. Ben had become a reconstructive surgeon and had sworn off alcohol. I had started out in scientific research, but, after the birth of our children, and when aesthetic surgery began to become popular, it was no longer necessary for me to work. In order to befriend the other mothers in our community, I had given up working. Since then, Ben and I continued to complement each other well. We had softened each other’s hard places. We had survived hardships: the anguish of the medical board exams, the heartbreak of a cancer diagnosis. We had beat it all, so far, and now we had the crow’s feet under my eyes to prove it. On the other hand, we had seen the marriages of Ben’s classmates and fraternity brothers fail over the years. We didn’t know why. We were just lucky, I supposed.
“Ben, I never beg to do anything, but I am beseeching you,” I smiled. “Go, have a little fun again! See your friends. It’s been ages. Besides, I want to see Skip and Woody again.”
Skip and Woody. For a moment, I looked out at the green carpet that was our lawn and fell back into memories of college. Skip could have been mine. The day I’d met Ben was during fraternity rush. The fraternity engaged in hijinks regularly, one of which was to make the pledges carry large cardboard boxes in case of an “air raid.” When one of the fraternity brothers called “air raid,” the pledges had to grab anyone close by and place them in the box, protecting them. It was goofy, but it had worked. I was always in the vicinity of Skip and Ben when the air raid occurred. The first time, in fact, Skip had sprained his wrist, trying to push Ben out of the way, while Ben put me in his air raid box. Skip was fine, of course. He was that way, always goofing off, and always laughing in my presence. I smiled at the memory of it.
Ben had been annoyed. I could tell even then. He played along with the air raids, and he’d laughed along with all the rest of them. It was funny, I’d thought at the time, because I didn’t fit into the mold of the typical fraternity girlfriend. The typical was the model type, like Skip’s former wife, Chanelle. Chanelle had plastic surgery while in school and was beautiful in a way that most regular people are not. Skip and Chanelle had gotten married while in school but had some tough times. Skip’s investment firm had gotten in trouble with insider trading, and Skip had to serve time in a white-collar facility in northern Virginia. Chanelle left him immediately. That had been years ago, and Ben had lost touch. We were in the autumn of our lives now, too, with Ben having nearly cut all ties from his old self, his old friends, his old way of being.
In the end, I won, of course. The wedding had been beautiful, but also long, and in the stretch of Indian summer and light hors d’oeuvres, I found myself starving by the time we had gotten to Highpoint. I had consumed a few glasses of wine by that point, more than I normally do. Now I found that occasionally the room seemed to be slightly off kilter, and I was tired from the perma-smile I’d been wearing. Moreover, Ben’s fraternity brothers were not as I remembered them to be. Skip was preoccupied with trying to impress, which I found obnoxious, and only Woody seemed to be his old self, wandering around Highpoint and politely asking if I needed a refill.
I didn’t. I did find myself wanting to get away, so when Ben was wrapped up in conversation with Skip and a few others, I wandered off to look at the old memorabilia, which was in a room just off the ballroom, where we’d been talking.
There were old items I’d recognized, the university mascot of one of our rival schools. Ben and some of the brothers had stolen it before the championship game. There were old yearbooks that showed beaming classmates, Dentyne-white teeth gleaming in the sun. The world had been ours for the taking, I thought. There was also a large, heavy book with handwriting in it. It dated back many years, and I flipped through the pages and saw names and dates. I flipped to our college years and something caught my eye. It was my maiden name, and next to it, Ben’s name and Skip’s. Next to it was another column, “Dogfight,” and the date.
It was curious. Skip and Ben must have been more consumed with me than I’d originally thought. My mind wandered to whether I would ever have married Skip. Another woman entered the room. She was tiny, with dark hair and shining eyes. I knew the type, fun in college, fun as an adult, and I could see that like me, she had been drinking too much. “Isn’t this all crazy,” she nudged me. “Can you believe our husbands did all this stuff? If I had known Jerry was doing this, I’d never have married him.” She clinked my glass. I laughed because I didn’t know what else to do. “Mmmhmm,” I said. “That was a crazy time.”
“Did your husband get kidnapped?” the dark lady asked me.
“Yes,” I recalled, suddenly remembering that Ben had told me he’d been placed in the trunk of a car and forced to drink tequila until the bottle was finished. “That was awful.”
“Jerry did, too,” the dark lady responded. “Did your husband ever do a dogfight?”
Something in me, some internal safety mechanism, prevented me from answering.
“What’s a dogfight?” I asked.
The lady’s pretty eyes glittered with mischief. “Oh my God. That’s when they challenge two of the brothers to sleep with the ugliest girl in the school, you know, a dog. They call it a dogfight, because the first to bag her wins.”
I looked over again. The glittering pretty eyes now looked mockingly at me. She pulled me closer and whispered, “Jerry told me he was put in a dogfight with a Latina girl.” She guffawed. “Oh gawd.”
The room reeled and I began to feel nauseous. I noticed that my heel cup was cutting into my ankle and that a small red slice had formed where the skin had broken open. The pain now seemed unbearable, all nerve endings and slices. I went outside and found Ben. “We have to go,” I said. Ben knows the urgency in my voice. He stopped his conversation and took me by the arm.
* * *
Back in the car, the scenery raced by in the dark. I felt old, too old for my eyes to fill with tears over the loss of my innocence. “They’re assholes,” Ben said. “Besides, what’s the difference, I love you now.”
But the car ride home seemed long, and Ben didn’t look the same to me anymore.
Through the clouds, the moon shone high. We had children together. We had faced deaths of family and friends together. We had salvaged photos and videos, baby clothes and books when our house had flooded. All that time, Ben was there. All that time, he’d loved me. I put my hand on his. “You know?” I said. “You’re right. What’s the difference now?”
* * *
On Monday, Ben was back to work. I put out our coffee, as I always did. “Sleep well?” I asked.
“Why, did you think I wouldn’t?”
“Well, we had a long weekend. I thought you might need some time to recover.”
“From what, feeling bad about the past? I wish you wouldn’t be so self-righteous sometimes.”
Ben picked up his jacket and left for the office. I remained in my seat. I looked out the window again. The green leaves on the trees had now turned. Brilliant shades of orange and red had turned the large maple in the front yard ablaze. Flames, I thought, which had been dormant through spring and summer. The chlorophyll had fettered the beautiful colors. Now liberated, they shone with technicolor precision against the blue sky.
And I found myself longing for the sleepy, silent green of late summer.