On June 2, 2003 — the day after Erin Beers flew back to Nashville after a five-day trip to Pittsburgh to visit Ben (and attend Mike and Beth Werkheiser’s wedding) — Ben cracked open his journal and wrote, “I think Erin Beers made a mistake.” He considered this for a while, reading and re-reading those seven words, before adding, “It’s not an irrevocable mistake. I am still confident of that.”
Six days earlier, on Tuesday, May 27, 2003, Ben awoke with a ruthless headache. He was home in State College, PA, to celebrate Memorial Day with the family. It wasn’t much of a celebration though, as he spent most of the day in bed with a fierce migraine. He went to sleep Monday night thinking it couldn’t get worse. He woke up Tuesday and it was.
Ben’s parents refused to let him drive back to Pittsburgh that day, not that Ben would’ve attempted it. But Ben had to find a way to be at the Pittsburgh International Airport by 12:57 p.m. on Wednesday, the 28th, the time at which Erin Beers would be landing for a five-day visit. The ostensible reason for the visit was a wedding. Mike and Beth Werkheiser, camp friends, were to be wed in Beaver, PA, that Saturday. Erin returned her invite with the “and guest” box checked, then booked her trip. She’d spend four days in Pittsburgh prior to the wedding, then fly back to Nashville the following day. All Ben had to do was be there.
Ben woke up on Wednesday and felt like a human being again. He drove back to Pittsburgh that morning, and three hours in the car allowed him ample time to plan out the crucial details of Erin’s reception. Ben plotted what album would be playing when Erin got in the car (Gemma Hayes, Night on the Side). (Ben had visually associated Gemma and Erin since he thought they looked alike. Plus he had a crush on Gemma. Plus Ben hoped Erin would pay special attention to the lyrics of song three on the album, “Let A Good Thing Go,” a lament for, as the title suggests, letting a good thing go.) He visualized which details of the youth room at Shadyside Presbyterian he would point out to her, details which — if carefully selected — would evoke shared memories of the prior summer at Summer’s Best Two Weeks when Erin and Ben met as co-counselors of the kitchen crew, comprised of twenty-some high schoolers who occasionally did bone-headed yet endearing things like try to mail camp forks to friends (this is you, Chris Tolles) or parade around camp during optional playing the bagpipes (in kilts, no less). Ben was concerned about the state of his apartment, which he had not had time to prep given his delayed return from State College. Had he accidentally left his frog-print boxers in the common room? Carefully arranged his Paste magazines on the coffee table as potential conversation-starters? And the right books beside them? And the right CDs? He’d have to wing it when they walked through the door, assessing the situation like a field commander and moving like a hawk to correct any incriminating details that might suggest he was not boyfriend-worthy.
By day’s end, an event Ben had anticipated for so long (Erin! in Pittsburgh!) came and passed … normally. When Ben spotted Erin at the airport, all the little details of her face, hair, build, gait came back instantly. When they toured Shadyside, Ben feared that the youth room — rather than inducing camp nostalgia — may have alternately raised Erin’s potential doubts of Ben as the stereotypical churchy youth pastor. When they reached the apartment, Erin — tired from her trip — dozed on Ben’s bed and drooled on his pillow. That night, after Ben dropped Erin off at a friend’s house in Squirrel Hill where she would be staying for her visit, he drove back down Negley Hill and saw — as he always did from that hill, when he was paying attention — a panoramic view of Pittsburgh at night, stretching far and wide in all directions. One other detail Ben had incorporated into the day was the glorious view of Pittsburgh that greeted drivers emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel, a view most spectacular at night but even at midday still a pretty good way to introduce the Steel City to a visitor. (Pittsburgh is “the only city with an entrance,” sayeth the New York Times.) When they had emerged from the tunnel that afternoon, Ben rolled down his window, stuck his head out and yelled, “She’s expecting big things, city!” He repeated that line, alone in his car, with slightly less gusto, as he descended Negley Hill that night.
The template for the next two days started with leisurely mornings spent sipping coffee at Jitters on Walnut Street (Ben, in his pre-coffee days, getting a chai instead), enjoying a light breakfast, then going for a long walk or run. This was still three months before Erin, running for the first time with Ben in Nashville, nearly blacked out from a combination of fatigue and nerves, the latter being the result of her fear that she couldn’t keep up with a boy. While Erin sat down on the 21st Avenue sidewalk to regroup, Ben — slightly panicked and doused in sweat — ran into the nearest convenience store. “My girlfriend almost passed out and I need to get something for her,” he told the clerk. “Are you going to pay for it?” the clerk asked. “I don’t have money,” Ben said as he grabbed the closest granola bar and apple juice. “I’ll come back and pay you, honest.” The clerk shook his head. “You can’t take both,” he said. Ben put the granola bar on the counter. “Ok,” the clerk said — resigned, probably, to taking $1.09 out of his paycheck as the price to pay for enabling a possibly life-saving intervention, if not an unusual new shoplifting technique.
But, again, this act of small heroism would not transpire for another three months.
On Thursday, Ben and Erin drove south and east to visit Fallingwater, then to Ohiopyle, another site intended to evoke fond shared memories. (Camp rafting trips down the Youghiogheny River launched from Ohiopyle.) They parked at Cucumber Falls and hiked downstream to Cucumber Rapids where they found a big, flat rock to stretch out on and just rest, eyes closed, below the sun. On Friday they explored the Warhol Museum with its balloon-filled rooms and Campbells soup can trinkets in the gift shop, then sauntered around the North Shore and its wading pools. They talked of the upcoming summer at camp, when Erin would return for two terms (a month) and Ben would overlap for two of those weeks, his first — and only — post-youth ministry plans once he wrapped up four years at Shadyside. Where he would move that August — be it Nashville or Chicago or, less likely though still a possibility, out West to regions unknown — was still up in the air. Ben hoped to have a better idea after Erin’s visit if there was a green light on Nashville. But for the first three days of Erin’s stay, no talk ventured too far down that uncertain path.
Neither Ben nor Erin remember much about the wedding, except that they were slightly late arriving because — depending on who you asked — the driver either missed a turn or the navigator misread the map. This would prove to be a harbinger of things to come.
What both remember happened after the wedding, in Ben’s car, parked on Elmer Street just outside his apartment, with the engine off but the power still on so Erin could enjoy the smell of a Honda Civic’s A/C, its own little aromatic madeleine. It started raining, first a drizzle and soon a downpour. Inside, Ben and Erin were still all decked out (though Erin had removed her shoes and put her aching feet on the dash), both reclined with their seats back, watching the rain patterns on the windshield and talking, finally, about where they stood. (The kids today refer to this as the DTR conversation.)
Erin said she didn’t see a green light when she thought about a relationship with Ben. It’s not that there’s another guy in the picture, she said. It may be about the timing, she said. Everything lines up, she added, ticking off items: musical and artistic interests; athletic interests; shared religious beliefs. That’s what I’m looking for in a guy, she said, almost apologetically. But no green light.
I’ve never met this Green Light guy, Ben thought, but God help him if he ever crosses my path…
Ben had a hard time believing Erin. He considered the evidence from the past three days and saw only good things. He couldn’t bring himself to believe Erin wasn’t feeling something good too, although there was always that nagging doubt — cultivated from numerous misreadings of relationships past — that Ben simply didn’t get it the way other people got it on matters of the heart.
That’s when Erin said, There’s something else. She told Ben he had always been a good thing in her life, and it occurred to her that this may be something to consider.
“I don’t think it was just my optimism that wanted to hear ‘yes’ when Erin said ‘no’,” Ben journaled after the fact. “I think it’s because her ‘no’ was a ‘yes’ in the making.”
Later, both of them would recount the other doubts that went unspoken that night in the car. Erin’s visit had reminded Ben, who had been single for quite some time, what the harder parts of a relationship might be: the listening, the yielding, the silences. Erin, for her part, had some misgivings both large — about what Ben would be now that he was done being a youth pastor — and small — about some of Ben’s fashion tastes, particularly his choice of black suede dress shoes for the wedding. (This would fester in silence until, a month after they were married, Ben saw those shoes and certain other items from his closet in a Goodwill pile Erin had started. “I could let it slide until we were married,” Erin said. “Now I’ve got to put my foot down.”)
Because they could not talk about “us” before an “us” existed, Ben and Erin had the more immediate conversation about where Ben would move in three months. Nashville? And if so, to do what? And for what reasons? Neither one suspected that the fragile possibility of a relationship could survive the expectations that would come with Ben moving to Nashville for no other reason than that Erin was there. Ben found himself wondering, Where would I be and what would I do if Erin Beers wasn’t in the picture? Would I be doing us harm by moving to Nashville? Is it really just a matter of timing, and we just hit it wrong?
The first letter Erin wrote to Ben after returning to Nashville included a folded copy of the cover of New York magazine’s June 9, 2003 issue. The headline reads “What Are You On?” above a counter of pills, ranging from Paxil and Zoloft to Ritalin, Viagra and Vicodin. Such was one outcome of their visit: Mental health issues were not just out in the open now, but fodder for comic relief. “Yeah! Drugs!” Erin scribbled on the cover. This was the kind of thing they couldn’t have joked about nine months ago.
“It’s fun to spy on your life and to put together a few more pieces to the puzzle of knowing you and not knowing you at all,” Erin wrote in her letter. That’s before the missive went completely bipolar. Erin first wrote, “I stand behind everything I said to you last week … I cannot say things to you that I don’t fully mean & have you move here & then be disappointed,” then — half a page later — “When I think about you possibly moving here and having things go well and I imagine us together or whatever, it makes me think that it would be final. You would be it. If we dated then we’d probably get married, pros & cons. And that FREAKS ME OUT. I wouldn’t want you to be someone on a list of failures.” Later in the letter she wrote, “When I think about the future, I know I’d be happy with you. There isn’t one good reason why I wouldn’t be.”
Ben would not receive that letter until after he saw All The Real Girls at The Harris Theater downtown. He saw it alone, as he usually preferred. The film is a beautiful, note perfect account of all-consuming young love in a small North Carolina mill town. It is brutal, and it is honest. “I just want to make sure that a million years from now I can still see you up close and we’ll still have amazing things to say,” Paul (Paul Schneider) tells Noel (Zooey Deschanel) in one scene. It is a line that only the very young could say and mean.
Leaving the theater, all Ben could think about was Erin. He was sad and forlorn and elated and confused all at the same time. He was in love and didn’t know if he was loved back. Standing on top of the Smithfield Street parking garage, Ben called Erin to tell her he’d just seen the film and how much he’d enjoyed seeing her and how he couldn’t wait for camp in less than two months. That was it. It was a good conversation. And the next day Erin mailed the letter.