The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater
a continuing fiction
© S. Moss-Ward, 2010
All rights reserved. This may not be reproduced, except with permission.
I wish I could say the story came true, that I gave Ben his birthday present that had taken me, like, six weeks to knit, and that afterwards we’d somehow moved into an even more “interesting” phase of our friendship. I did actually text him one Friday night at ten to see if he could go with me Saturday to Olneyville, and pretty soon afterwards he replied: “bizzy.” So right from the start nothing went as I’d hoped.
The next time I saw him, after hours of numbing servitude in the Olneyville community garden and a weekend that generally stank because it was either homework or chores, was early the following Monday. Ben was ahead of me on Rochambeau, walking fast towards the bus stop, and didn’t turn around once to notice I was a half block behind.
It was drizzly and dank out, but it was really spring by now with green grass and leafy trees and tulips and daffodils; I was grateful that I didn’t have to pick my way over patches of dirty ice and slush as I’d done for all the winter months, since no one in Providence shovels sidewalks. Even with clear sidewalks, though, it was impossible to catch up to him. By the time I reached the corner he was already across the street and the bus was there. Of course the light was red in my direction, there was a ton of morning rush hour traffic on Hope Street, and by the time I made it to the other side, the bus had already loaded. I could see Ben, through the windows, moving towards the back as the bus roared away.
I should have known this was an omen, but I’m not really superstitious. It wasn’t until fourth period French that I had a chance to confront him.
“Hey,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even. “What was the big hurry this morning?”
Ben stared blankly.
“Like you couldn’t get onto the bus fast enough,” I continued. “I was a half block behind you, which you would have noticed if you’d bothered to turn around.”
“I didn’t want to be late. What’s the problem anyway? You could have yelled to get my attention.”
“No big deal.” I felt suddenly stupid, prissy. I didn’t want to admit I’d been trying so hard to catch up that I was completely out of breath and couldn’t have yelled if I’d tried. After I reached the bus stop, I’d stood there feeling my heart pound like it was trying to punch its way out of my chest.
“Monsieur Golden,” interrupted Mr. Corbeau, our Honors French teacher, who was then circulating through the room, collecting homework. “Est-ce que vous avez des bons mots à partager avec la classe?” He shifted his beady gaze from Ben to me, then back to Ben.
“Pas maintenant, Monsieur Corbeau,” Ben replied, giving a dazzling smile and offering his paper and mine, which I’d pushed onto his desk. “Plus tard, peut-être.” Mr. Corbeau, always a sucker for Ben’s politesse, took the papers, cackling “Bien sûr,” and moved away.
I stage-whispered to Ben, as we opened our books. “We need to talk.”
“Ben, are you ok?”
Ben was suddenly focused on the exercise—past participle agreement of reflexive verbs—that we were supposed to do for the first ten minutes of class. He held a mangy Bic in his right hand and chewed the cap end as he read Monsieur Corbeau’s hand-out. His expression was calm; his wavy blond hair fell across his forehead, and he wore a green tee shirt that said “Pave the Bay.” Soon he began to write.
“Good shirt,” I hissed, even though I didn’t like it as much as some of his others. I felt it was time to inject a more positive note into our conversation.
“Merci.” His eyes stayed on the assignment.
What was going on with him? I started thinking of the line he sometimes used when we were talking about teachers or sketchy people in general: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” And I was, well, if not afraid, let’s say anxious. Ben was clearly in an altered state of consciousness.
Then, after last period, he was hanging out by the exit where we usually met up before our after-school snack.
“Hey,” I said, with some trepidation.
“Hey, Bee,” he said with an easy smile, making me think it was all right, that I’d just been projecting some of my crap onto him.
“Where to?” I asked.
“Gotta go home. Eventually.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t certain this was an invitation to do something together.
We stood there for a couple of minutes, as the rest of the school streamed past us, heading for buses or for rides from boom-box vehicles that idled along the street in front of the building, waiting to pick up the usual complement of sluts and druggies as they were disgorged from their daily education.
Then I said, “Is everything, like, ok?”
“Of course everything’s ok.”
“It’s just that…I don’t know…you seem kind of, uh, far away. Preoccupied. Know what I mean?”
Ben sighed. “Well,” he said, “I do have some news.” He looked serious and kind of happy, all at once, and I was totally and completely overcome by dread. My heart started to pound like I had palpitations or something. I mean, I was fearful, truly.
Be afraid, be very afraid.
Without saying anything else, we walked to the bus stop, just like always, and boarded our bus, mechanically throbbing, belching out putrid exhaust. It was stifling inside because the heat was on, even though it was probably sixty-five degrees outside. We sat in the seat by the back door, which was open while the bus stayed there idling, and the window next to the seat was open at the top, letting in a little air. I tried, discreetly, to flap my sweater a bit, and I rolled up the sleeves to the elbow.
“Hot in here,” I observed.
Ben said, “Listen, Bee…”
“Oh,” I said, lightly, as if I’d suddenly been reminded. “So what’s the big news?”
But I had already figured out what he would say. And I knew that I’d brought this moment upon myself. Tears, hot and embarrassing, filled my eyes, and I immediately turned from him and looked out the window.
“I’m transferring to another school next year.” He spoke close to my ear because the noise of the bus was so huge. His breath was warm upon my skin.
All the air left my body, and I felt inwardly crumpled. Finally I turned around and croaked out, “What did you say?”
Ben stared at me for a minute, then repeated, “I’m going to another school next year.” His voice was louder and more forceful. “You’re the only person outside of my family who knows right now.”
I wanted to say, Ben, Ben, you can’t do this to me, but no words would come. Finally I forced a laugh. “I didn’t know you hated the Vincent A. Cianci Academy for Creative Community Service all that much.”
“Honest to God, Bee, I don’t really care one way or another. I mean, it’s boring and easy and everything, but so what? It’s my parents. They think I’m wasting my time. They had me do the private school application thing a few months ago. I didn’t want to tell you until I was sure it was going to happen. But now I know. It’s going to happen next fall.”
“Shit,” I said. My tears had stopped, and I dragged the back of my hand across my eyes to get rid of the evidence. “So where’re you going? Moses Brown?”
“Nope. Boarding school. Out of state.”
I was looking at my feet, in their ginormous Doc Martens, beyond the grassy field of my tent-like sweater. Ben’s black-and-white Converses with the scuffed rubber toe caps were next to my shoes. Wads of flattened chewing gum, a discarded newspaper, and some candy wrappers were on the floor just beyond our feet.
“Shut up!” I said, trying to make it sound like a positive with a high-pitched lilt. “Shut up! No way! I mean, I’m happy for you. I’m just really surprised. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Ben gave me a puzzled look. “What you’re going to do?” he asked. “What do you mean? You’ll just do the same as always—go to school here, hang out with…um…your family, you know…”
“Yeah, I guess so.” We were almost at Kennedy Plaza, and prepared to get off the bus.
“Café Choklad?” he asked.
I sighed. “Uh…ok.”
We trudged along for some blocks without talking. I felt seriously discombobulated. I felt ill. Then he said, “Look Bee, we’ll still be in touch. We can email, text, phone—you know, all that stuff we do anyway.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“And I’ll come home for vacations.”
“Where are you going?”
“Andover,” he said. “It’s in Massachusetts.”
“Jesus H. Christ! That’s fucking far.”
“Not really. Maybe two hours at most. Maybe less.”
We walked into the Café and studied all the beautiful, perfect pastries in the glass case.
“I’m going to have an éclair, “ Ben said. “What’ll you have? My treat.”
“I don’t know,” I said, sighing again. “Surprise me. I’ll get us a table.”
I found us one in a nook to the side, and unloaded myself onto a chair. Ben came over with a tray and put it down, then sat, facing me.
“C’mon, Bee,” he said. “It’s not like I died.”
I swallowed and said nothing. He pushed an iced brownie on a plate in front of me, and handed over a cup of tea. “You want anything else? I’m going to get some sugar.”
While he walked across the room, I pulled The Present from the bottom of my pack. I’d been carrying it around since the morning, and it looked worse for the wear. The green tissue paper of its wrapping was slightly crushed and ripped. The bow of blue curly ribbon was flattened. When Ben returned I looked up at him and handed him the gift.
“Happy birthday,” I said, trying not to sound dreary. “Sorry the wrapping is kind of skanky.”
He stared at the package, now in his hands. He pulled off the bow and ripped the paper, letting everything drop onto the table. His hands were full of marine blue wool.
“Oh. Wow. I didn’t expect this at all.”
I looked at the scarf and the cap in his hands, and then I looked at him.
“You made these yourself, right?” he asked.
“Bee,” said Ben. “These are really nice. I’ll wear them next fall and winter, and whenever I put them on I’ll think of you.”
He pulled the cap on and wound the scarf around his neck. He looked unbearably cute. “Thanks a lot,” he said, and he reached across the table and patted my hand, which was holding a forkful of brownie with mocha butter-cream icing.
“You’re a great friend, Bee,” Ben said. “I don’t know anyone else who knits like you.”