I met Ben in the fourth grade, on my first day of school, after having just moving from the flatlands of Illinois to the rolling hills of New Hampshire. I already knew how to ride a bike when I met him; I had learned in New Berlin, Illinois on a gravel driveway with a red bike that was too large for me and was wont to bucking me off repeatedly. I don’t remember if I started with training wheels or not, but I do remember wobbling wildly and then collapsing in a heap of metal and flesh in the grass. But it didn’t take long to get my legs under me on my bicycle, though it did take a good deal of time for me to feel comfortable with it. It didn’t take long for me to meet Ben, either, and it took only shortly longer for us to become best friends.
There are two moments from my first day of school that standout most in my memory; both remain long after the other moments have passed into the haze of adolescence. The first was the insistence by a classmate of mine named CB that my large, rectangular (four inch, by two inch, by two inch) thick green eraser looked exactly like a condom. Not fifteen minutes after I had entered the classroom and began unpacking my things, he snatched my eraser off my desk and held it above his head and said something to the effect of:
“This looks like exactly like a condom. You’ve got a giant condom on your desk.”
And then he paraded around the room in little circles marching:
“A condom, Damon’s got a condom. A condom. A condom.”
I hadn’t a clue, at the time, what a condom looked like (and, come to find out, neither did CB); but I spent the next three years trying to imagine how you could fit a inflexible block of green rubber over your peckerwood in such as a way as to both have sex and prevent insemination. It was only a year earlier that I had learned that sex didn’t necessarily involve putting your penis in a girl’s butt — so I was proud to have recognized the word “condom” and its sexual association and wasn’t about to ruin it all by asking CB how, exactly, one managed to use a giant green eraser during the act of sex. (Now that I am older, of course, I have realized that people use a variety of objects during sex and I wouldn’t be surprised if an eraser or two hasn’t been thrown in the mix on occasion.)
Perhaps a year later, I heard a joke about a nun having sex in the woods and the other nuns having played a trick on her by cutting a hole in the condom she would use and then discard casually in the forest. I laughed at the joke because I knew condoms kept people from having babies and that was what made the joke funny because nuns weren’t supposed to have babies and a hole in the condom defeated the purpose. What I didn’t understand was how someone could cut a hole in an eraser, or how the eraser could interact with a nun to begin with. It wasn’t until the seventh grade that I saw what an actual condom looked like and, as it turns out, it looks nothing whatsoever like an eraser.
The second defining moment came when I met Ben. We sat next to each other in circle as everyone was being forced to introduce themselves to the class. I had the eraser back in my pocket hoping that CB, who was sitting to my left, would forget about it. He never did and I eventually phased my green eraser out of my box of writing implements.
At circle, the system for introducing each other was this, first you would say:
“Hello, my name is Pete” and then you would turn to your right and say, “and this is my friend Oystertag.” And you would smile at Oystertag and then Oystertag would say:
“Hello, Pete, my name is Oystertag, and this is my friend Tassleholf.” And so on.
We had made it about halfway around the room when it quickly became apparent that I knew absolutely no one’s name; especially the attentive little boy sitting next to me with brown hair a bit of spittle still clinging to his chin. This worried me, somewhat, for everyone else seemed to know everyone else’s name. No one had said yet:
“Hello, my name is Nadia, and I haven’t a clue who you are and I really don’t care because my name is Nadia. Nadia, did you hear?! Nadia!”
I didn’t want to be the first. I leaned slightly to my right, while keeping and eye on the approaching wave of companionship, and whispered:
“Psst. What’s your name?”
I heard CB saying:
“Hello, Gnyrup. My name is CB and this is my friend Damon.”
“Hello CB,” I said, “My name is Damon and this is my friend–.”
And I had forgotten who it was already. I had just asked, hadn’t I? I had just enquired as to the nature of the boy’s first name and yet I had already forgotten it. This was a pattern I have often repeated in my life since then but never has my discomfort been as quickly allayed as it was then. The little boy to my right whispered: “Ben.”
I continued, with only a slight pause:
“–And this is my friend Ben.”
That was it. There it was. We were friends. I had a condom salesman on my left and my soon to be best friend on my right. While it may take considerable effort to maintain certain friendships it takes very little to create them. Bingo and we had it. I believe this illustrates the universe’s willingness to put both those people in our lives that are necessary, purposeful, and beneficial, and those people that serve no purpose whatsoever except to lead us down the wrong path from time to time so we may learn things about ourselves and our condoms that we couldn’t have otherwise known.