The courtship of Erin & Ben picks up four months after we last left off, when 569 miles (the distance between Pittsburgh and Nashville) and another man, “Rex” (booooo!), stood between our protagonists.
PROLOGUE: When Ben and Erin parted ways at SB2W camp in August, neither knew what — if anything — would come of their two week friendship. Ben, while hopeful, was sobered by the existence of an offstage boyfriend (dubbed “Rex”). And the fact Erin would be moving to Nashville. Where Rex lived. Nine hours away from Pittsburgh.
Things brightened up once the two began exchanging letters. Erin’s first letter to Ben ended with the line, “If you are ever in Nashville or somewhere close by, give me a ring or drop a line. I expect to see you again.” This was enough hope to last a month on. I expect to see you again! Ben plotted the possibilities by which he could somehow casually be in the greater Nashville area. The key word there was casually. He could not be desperate. He could not crush a young friendship with the weight of romantic expectation. He also had a boyfriend to contend with. He needed an excuse to go to Tennessee.
As a youth director, Ben planned to attend the Youth Specialties National Youth Convention in Pittsburgh that fall. Until, that is, Scott Guldin announced he would be getting married in Ohio on the same weekend. Ben considered the other convention dates and was struck with an epiphany. The convention would be in Nashville the weekend before Thanksgiving. Ben (casually) floated a trial balloon to Erin in a letter: Might be in Nashville in November. Cool, Erin wrote back.
And by the way, Rex and I broke up.
Ben immediately switched his registration and booked a flight to Nashville. He also called up Seth Swihart, who had a fold-out couch with Ben’s name on it and a neon Cubs/Bud sign to sleep under. “Your room and board consists of watching Hoosiers with me at least once,” Seth said.
The plan was set.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 21: Erin was waiting at the Nashville International Airport baggage claim with a sign that said, BEN VORE, VISITING HIPSTER. She immediately gave Ben the tour of the Nashville hot spots, from Percy Warner Park to Hillsboro Village, home to Fido’s, Bookman and The Belcourt Theater, where Erin worked part time. That was where we watched I Am Trying To Break Your Heart that night, which Erin had already seen twice but told Ben she had waited to see with him. The day’s proceedings — coffee, movie, walking and talking — were so long in the making, and yet so … ordinary. Ben went to sleep that night bathed in the glow of the Cubs sign, surprised but not displeased to realize how very normal the reunion had been, as if now that it had happened it had gone exactly the way he pictured it.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22: Seth gave Ben a Nashville tour before dropping him off at the convention center downtown, where the conference began early afternoon. The minute Ben stepped into the convention hall he did not want to be there. It was loud, noisy and unbearable. A Christian rock band was blaring contemporary praise. Everyone looked incredibly happy and psyched to be there. Ben sat down toward the back of the hall, with a backpack stuffed full of fliers and notebooks and freebies and a schedule jam-packed with seminars, activities and speakers. He didn’t know a single soul in that auditorium full of two thousand people. And as the worship ended and the main speaker stepped to the stage, Ben was surprised to discover there were tears running down his face. Where was this coming from?
The first and only other time Ben had set foot in Nashville was in April of 2001, for a retreat called Sabbath. That experience had begun in no less terrifying a fashion. When Ben arrived with thirty other people at the Scarritt-Bennett retreat center just outside Vanderbilt’s campus, he was disturbed when he looked over the schedule from the security of his own room to realize that most of the upcoming four days would be spent in silence. Participants were not allowed to speak until noon each day, and there were wide open blocks of time set aside for prayer, solitude and contemplation. What the hell am I doing here? Ben thought at the realization that he had no place to run for the next ninety-six hours. No distractions. No TV. No mildly diverting entertainment. I’m not sure I can do this, Ben thought as he set the schedule aside and stared at the blank wall of his monk’s cell.
It was a different kind of terror in the middle of that jubilant convention hall, but Ben knew he still had to get out. After the speaker finished, Ben went straight out the door and began walking west on Broadway. He still had his luggage with him and a backpack bursting with resources that would make him a smarter, savvier youth director should he seize the days to come. But just then he couldn’t get far enough away from that. So he lugged his rolling suitcase and switched his backpack from shoulder to shoulder as he trudged four miles to the West End Borders.
“What are you doing here?” Erin asked when Ben walked up to her in the second floor children’s section. She was sorting books in a manner which looked a lot like pleasure reading.
“We’re done for the day,” Ben said. “I just thought I’d come say hi.”
“Did you take a taxi?”
“No, just walked.”
“Oh. That’s like–”
“‘Bout four miles. My shoulder’s a little sore. I think I’m going to get a chai and sit in the cafe.”
Erin said later how strange it was to walk down the staircase and see Ben sitting there in the cafe, looking homeless with all his bags strewn about, staring out the window at who knows what. A good strange, Ben thought later. At least he hoped.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 23: Mike Yaconelli, one of the founders of Youth Specialities, had given his typical pre-convention welcome the day before with the usual subversive charge: “If you’re burned out, don’t go to a seminar on burnout — take a nap! If you’re having marriage problems, don’t go to a seminar on fixing your marriage. Get your spouse, grab a bottle of wine, go to your room, lock the door, and don’t come out until Monday. Just buy all the tapes on your way out!”
This was advice Ben wanted to take to heart but which also went against every fiber in his body. Didn’t his church shell out big bucks to send him here? Shouldn’t he be going to every seminar and general session? Shouldn’t he be living and breathing “Junior High Ministry ‘Til You Die” and “Ice Breakers and Games” and “Understanding Youth Culture”? Most of all, shouldn’t he feel guilty for sleeping until 2:30 in the afternoon at his hotel? Maybe, except for the fact he awoke feeling more rested than he had in months.
Ben looked at the schedule he had not already slept through and then called Erin to propose a night out together. She was game. They had dinner at a Thai place. That’s all either of them remembers now.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 24: Guilt caught up with Ben and he spent a full day at the convention center. He cut out early again to trek down Broadway to Borders. Erin seemed less surprised to see him than she had two nights earlier, but soon she was dropping off various reading materials at his cafe table for Ben to enjoy, some sincere (such as Empire of Conspiracy, by her former professor Timothy Melley) and others ironic (Everyone Poops). When Erin made the closing announcement over the intercom, Ben did his best to make her laugh by pretending to be thoroughly fascinated by the magazine Guns & Ammo, which he lifted up to reveal Thrasher magazine, which he lifted up to reveal Needlepoint Now, which he lifted up to reveal Muscle & Fitness, which he turned sideways as if admiring a centerfold of some grotesquely muscled and underclothed specimen of human meat. He stroked his chin thoughtfully and Erin had to pause for a moment to collect herself before finishing the announcement. Things were looking up.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 25: Seth picked Ben up at conference’s end and after tossing the pigskin at Centennial Park they went back to Seth’s place to watch Hoosiers, the lines of which Seth knew by heart. (He chastised himself when he couldn’t quote Myra Fleener’s early demurrals of Coach Dale with word-for-word accuracy.) Later they watched the real life Hoosiers play UMass in the Maui Invitational while Seth dispensed newfound, hard-won marital wisdom. (“The hard parts are harder than I imagined but the good parts are even better than I imagined.” What were the hard parts? “Oh, having every character flaw you’ve ever had exposed and magnified times ten.” Hmmmmm. “And once you get married, you realize how much of a sinner you are.”)
Erin came over to the Swihart’s for dinner, and Miriam Swihart indulged everyone an evening’s worth of Summer’s Best 2 Weeks small talk, with Seth reinacting his famous Lower Back Pull stretch as he hobbled around the kitchen, groaning. Later we went to one of Erin’s favorite haunts, 12th & Porter in the Gulch, for the traditional Monday night “Twelve @ 12th,” an open mic night for primarily local artists. Erin and her sister Bevin had discovered several new artists there, including Mindy Smith. “You’ll hear her name more soon,” Erin predicted. That night’s line-up was hit-or-miss, with the highlight and lowlight being a painfully sincere, emo/hard rock act called Hurts to Laugh, which performed its smash single, “When You’re Gone, You’re Gone.” (To this day Seth and Ben continue to amuse one another with those three simple words: hurts to laugh.)
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 26: Ben’s last day in Nashville was largely spent with Erin. They hung out at a coffee joint called JJ’s, then purchased art supplies and groceries for a night in at Erin’s apartment at Brentwood Downs. Ben grilled chicken for dinner, then they watched The Royal Tenenbaums before having arts & crafts time at the dining room table. As they were painting Ben asked Erin if her feelings had changed since August. Yes and no, Erin said. She wasn’t ready to be in a relationship, but she still had some feelings she needed to figure out. They agreed the timing was far from ideal. They agreed long distance relationships sucked. And they agreed to stay in touch, to keep writing letters, to be open and honest about where they stood.
Driving Ben back to the Swihart’s that night, Erin remarked that she hoped what she said earlier hadn’t been discouraging. Which Ben didn’t think it had been at all. He had made do for four months on far less than what they had shared that night. So what was another four months? Or eight? Maybe they’d be reunited at camp the following summer. It was just a case of learning to appreciate and embrace the waiting. Now, at least, they had another reservoir of shared time and memories to draw from to fuel their correspondence. It was sad this little chapter was coming to an end, but not despondent or despairing sad. It was the kind of sadness that holds within it hope as well.
EPILOGUE: Back during that Sabbath conference in spring 2001, one of the exercises Ben participated in involved shaping a piece of clay as a form of prayer. More explicit instructions than that were withheld. I have no clue where to start, Ben thought as he found a sunny spot in the courtyard. He liked the clean lines of an undisturbed block of clay. Why did he have to alter it at all? Whatever I make, Ben thought, is going to look like a first grade art project.
First Ben made a man. He was barrel-chested and his arms were lumpy and his right foot kept falling off. So Ben smooshed the clay back into an amorphous blob, aimlessly working it with his hands and wondering what to shape next when he realized he had something that looked an awful lot like an ear. He hollowed out the top of the ear (the scapha) a bit more and used his fingernail to make indentations for the cartilage. Then he turned the ear on its side, reshaped it ever so slightly, smoothed over the cartilage and hollowed out a circular, depressed center. It had become an eye.
So Ben made a face. An irregular, misshapen face with two eyes, a nose and a smirking, upturned set of lips. He spent a moment or two rearranging the eyes, bending their angle to produce different expressions, before settling on bemused. Then, since it was getting hot, he went inside to change into shorts. He left the face lying flat on a sheet of tissue paper and set his name tag down beside his bag.
When he came back out five minutes later, the face had changed. One of the eyes — the right one — had shifted a little bit. Then Ben noticed that his name tag was not there. Had he taken it inside? Was he still wearing it? No, he had left it right there. But it was missing.
Irrationally, Ben’s first thought was, Will they still let me get into meals? He was annoyed and uncomfortable, and just wanted the security of the name tag back. That’s when he noticed the slight breeze blowing through the courtyard. Had it been blown away? Unlikely. But then a gust of wind sent leaves skittering by. Ben watched them whisk past, trying to determine what path his name tag could have taken. He looked up at the entire courtyard stretching out in front of him.
That’s the moment he suddenly realized why he was in Nashville. He was there to listen. He was there to play a game. The ear, the face that changed expressions, this quad before him now a garden of mysteries. Faith, he realized, was a state of perpetual anticipation and watchfulness. It was looking at a certain scene and seeing it both as it existed and as it might exist under different circumstances. That someone told Ben later what had transpired when he went inside — a bird landed by the clay face and picked at it before grabbing the name tag in its beak and dragging it halfway across the courtyard — diminished nothing. We don’t choose the roads by which we come to faith. But we choose how we see the road we’re on and where it could take us.
That’s what Ben’s second pilgrimage to Nashville was about too. It was a prelude to nothing and a prelude to everything. It was spending six days with Erin as a friend and seeing it as the next six days in something far beyond a friendship. So which would it be?
After breakfast at Pancake Pantry on the morning of Wednesday the 27th, Erin drove Ben back to the airport. By now they were comfortable around each other again, and conversation flowed easily. Erin had introduced Ben to Grant-Lee Phillips, and he had become sufficiently obsessed with the song “Spring Released” to play it on repeat for the full duration of the drive. (“There are other songs on the album,” Erin noted.) As they unloaded at the airport curb, Ben pulled out what he referred to as The Trump Card: a sealed letter, postmarked August 28, that he had written shortly after camp. This letter was inspired by Scott Guldin, who had advised Ben to play it cool in the feelings department, seeing as Erin was already in a relationship. But write the letters you want to write her anyway, Scott said. Just don’t send them. Hold onto them until the day comes when she’s ready to read them.
So Ben wrote them. Then he mailed them to himself and left them sealed. He said everything he was afraid to say in the open. What’s the worst that can happen?, he thought. Erin marries the other guy and disappears forever and I burn the letters. No harm done, aside from the crushing heartbreak, of course. Except now, somehow, it had come to pass that Ben was giving Erin the first letter, which was not a love letter so much as a prelude to a love letter, a sort of What if we did fall in love? kind of letter. Wouldn’t that be a kick? Which it was, Ben thought, after they hugged and he disappeared into the crowds while Erin pulled back into traffic and the two of them again went their separate ways.