Ben gave me flowers two nights before he catapulted into the carrot
patch. They were Queen Anne's Lace, with beetle bugs stuck to the
webbing like miniature jewels.
That same night, he asked me what I saw for our future.
Ice cream in a bowl, no less than three scoops, I'd told him. Also, a lot of cosmic significance. Secret creatures on Jupiter clapping as
we kiss. But I have to go away for a while, I said, biting the edge
of his sleeve.
I was moving away to the green mountains. Here, the sea curled around
us, leaving salt crystal spawn in our hair. I am allergic to water.
It leaves my skin blistered. I tell people not to feel bad for me. I
say: Somewhere, there is a gang of octopi. These octopi want nothing
more than to own a corn and tomato farm out west. But they are
allergic to the dirt. They would suffocate atop their tractors. I'm
getting out of this place that can't hold me. I'm going to the dirt.
I'm leaving the water for the banana slugs to own.
A few days later, I'm camped out in Ben's yard. I'm sleeping as he
plays tight rope on his porch railing. He pivots and then falls into
the communal gardening space below. It is catastrophic. It is seen
from a satellite spying on earth. It's felt in the trenches where
His death makes him a hero in Madagascar. When the scientists came to
extract the pieces of Ben's body, they had to sift through the carrot
patch. They dug and found gold globules and a collection of scrolls
penned by the mistress of a Malagasy king. The land of Madagascar was
prone to awful things, like cholera and cyclones, and they took Ben's
name and sewed it into their language.
For the next seven thousand years, through heat waves and radio
transmissions and atomic energy and the birth of a hundred fiddle
players, up until our planet got mashed into Mars, the word "Ben" in
Malagasy was used to signify love.
I like to think that's a fantastic tribute. Christ himself didn't do
much better. America Ben was forgotten as soon as the scientists
gathered him and sprayed us with solvent and ate our carrots and
ditched town. Madagascar Ben was a hero, snapping his own bones for
the honor of somebody else.
Let me tell you about Ben.
In school, they would give lectures about him. He could electrocute you if
you rubbed his hair for too long. The scientists called him a
national treasure. The rebel kids would pretend not to listen. They
would sit and wedge pennies in between the keys of the auditorium
The scientists told us not to be afraid of Ben and his rows of baby
shark teeth. They told us not to get nervous when he made the
whirring noise in geometry class. Shapes and angles were really his
thing. We ditched science class because he called it a sham. We hid
out in the birch trees. Ben would sizzle ants and their tiny bodies
would tar onto the branches.
Ben was painful to hug due to the electrons that swarmed around him
like invisible mites. He has a heart, bloody and real, and that's
what counts, I told myself.
Sally, he said. Do you like blackberries? He had found the vines on
the sly. He wouldn't tell me the quadrants, just that it intersected
with a makeout trail behind school. He wouldn't take me there, and I
was too afraid to go. I really wanted to swordfight him with my
tongue, in a style better than anything else.
I want to buy you a book, he told me. He was thinking about 20,000
Leagues Under the Sea. He knew it was written about my dad. My dad
built a submarine and took a guitar and a potted plant with him. He
told me that he would write me letters and deliver them with whales.
He told me a lot of things.
I pictured his daily chores and the exercises he did before bed. One
would have to exercise a lot in a submarine. I wondered if he missed
the sun or owning freckles. I wondered if he pined for a jelly
sandwich. At night I dreamed about his lungs collapsing from
pressure. I dreamed about portholes with hairline cracks and a large
milky eye staring down its prey.
Ben couldn't afford the book. He made a plan to lift it from the library. No, just memorize it, I told him. At night we sat up and he
talked through a chapter.
He would talk about natural disasters or ghosts closing in on my neck. He would grab my wrist and its two piano chord bones. He clutched me and made me unafraid of the gory stuff inside me. I didn't mind the
sinew and I counted my veins like they were matchsticks.
His mom never cooked him turkey oysters. She didn't understand the
art of gingerbread construction. She liked to torture ice cubes. She
would melt them down to pebbles in her martinis. The olive was
Jupiter and the pebbles were its moons.
Ben tried to make her fall in love with pink plastic flamingoes and
raise a colony of them in the yard. He even wanted her lipstick
smudges, but just on the holidays. He ached to complain about her
trail mix and how the spices were all wrong. He never got a chance.
She would yell anytime his whirring woke her up. We had to be opera
house quiet any time we kissed. Sometimes his teeth gave me a shock
but I took on the currents without a word.
Once he told me about a volcano near Fiji getting ready to churn up
the sea. It would be a mess of earth guts and creatures would boil in
the water. I cried and he told me that the heartiest ones would live
to tell the tale. During this prophecy, we ate popsicles. I slurped
the life out of the ice before I allowed it to disappear. His was
gone in three quick snaps.
His whirring kept me awake even when I was away from him. I think
some molecules hitched a ride in my sneakers and then got stuck in the
toothpaste. He wanted to make me forget about the mountains. One
day, we stood near the edge of the ocean. I was trying to mind the
water. He shocked a purple-stained anemone and looked triumphant.
He wanted to tell me things he saw in my future. He tried to talk
about cricket championships and the way light bulbs would someday
explode at my feet. His prophecies itched my ribs and punished me for
skipping forward. I would plug my ears and yell about june bugs and
peanut butter. I would yell about my dad's cracked submarine,
anything to distract him from spilling my future best parts.
Please move to the mountains with me, I said. I will build you a
porch swing. I will let you be assistant manager of the tee ball
concession stand. No, he said, jumping into the surf.
I think you are afraid to leave your mother, I told him. I'll be
better than her. I'll make spaghetti even when you don't ask. He got
mad at me. This was his mother. What beats blood? Only bone. They
shared those, too.
Kissing doesn't beat it and rain puddle stomps can't, either. We were
stalemates next to the low tide and his mother watched us while she
He tried to rid himself of me. He said I was worse than measles. In
class, he spoke very loudly about predators that exist in mountain
ranges. He camped out on the beach and took up surfing. He started
dating girls who ate lollipops while they sunned. He started to whirr
constantly. He kissed girls in front of me. I could feel the
Everybody knew that Ben was planning something awful. The scientists
made us waddle around in rubber suits. If he strikes, it will be
worse than one thousand simultaneous lightening bolts, they said. I'm
not afraid! The smallest kids would chant, sticking their necks into
the fat air.
I found him sitting on his lawn with a tiny mole. His name is Merle,
he told me. The rodent ran loops around the corn stalks. He laughed
and poor Merle took one beady-eyed glimpse at Ben's molars and beat it
into the grain.
It was our last night together before the mountains. I tried to tug
his ear and Eskimo kiss his kneecap. Snow pea, I called him, trying
to win him over. Couscous. He wouldn't look up. Onion? Food names
were sweet to me. I thought he would approve.
Leave me alone, he said. I hope you meet a really great cowboy and
have tons of ice cream. Not a cowboy! I yelled. I will meet a
farmer. We'll own a lousy Italian restaurant on our back porch.
On my walk home, kids stopped me at a checkpoint and emptied my
pockets. You're the freak's girlfriend, they said. The freak doesn't
have a girlfriend! I yelled, trying to mash their toes.
I kept walking. I realized that I loved the freak's sea of molars and
his whirring that lulled me to sleep. I liked how he stung anemone
and I liked his plan to cure me on water. His body was oddly buoyant
and I liked that, too. He is very conducive for being marooned
someplace palmy, I thought. It would spoil the danger but it's nice
to know that he'd never let me sink.
I made my smallest bones scrape together some courage. I knocked and
asked to see him. His mother turned me away at the door.
I camped out near the garden. I spent some time looking for Merle,
but he was long gone. I sighed and figured that he had joined up with
the vermin navy and hit the seven seas. I thought of Merle as I fell
asleep in the dirt. The stars looked like a bunch of sad-eyed
When Ben's body fell, I thought it was a meteor. I was scared and I
tried to pretend the meteor was filled with space jewels and some
alien kid's history homework. Around me fell pieces of my boyfriend.
There were wires and bone and some guts near the edge of the field.
There were carrot splinters everywhere. The old widows started to
screech from above. This woke the scientists, who arrived and carted
me away, struggling, soaked to the eardrums with his softest parts.
The last I heard, his mom met a scientist whose research was so filthy
that he was sent away. Together they set sail for the Bermuda
triangle, daring it to try and corral them in.
Sometimes I can sense him. Other times, I'm convinced that he guards
the carrot patch or haunts his mother by throwing ice cubes at her
head. Sometimes I think he's living in a tree in the highlands of
Madagascar, ghost kissing the necks of girls because really, why not?
In the mountains, they sit you down and ask for your story. I know
some really nice octopi, you tell them. You like the dirt. You
nibble tomatoes like they are fresh hearts.