I met Ben in the fourth grade, when he transferred to Saint Greg’s from Alverno. My first impression of him was dead on–he was one of the biggest nerds I had ever seen–but my judgment was way off–that being a nerd was a bad thing. By high school, this nerdy boy who had always been on the periphery of my daily existence had become my best friend. And when he moved to Boston in the fall of our sophomore year in college, transferring from UW-Milwaukee to Boston University for a more suitable education, it almost broke my heart.
Little did I know that I would be in Boston a few short months later, at the same university as my best friend, but in completely unfamiliar territory.
Ben got to know the city out of loneliness and heartbreak. He wandered the streets in Boston in preparation for his girlfriend’s visits, finding places he could take her, places that they would enjoy together. He wandered the streets in Cambridge after she dumped him, reveling in his misery. Especially when it rained. It’s hard for me to imagine the time he spent in a new city and a new school without anyone present who had a shared history. He sent a lot of email. And he called me from a broken phone booth.
I got to know Boston through Ben. I never visited him during the course of the semester he spent there alone, and I never visited the university before I attended my orientation in January of that year. But when I came into town, Ben knew exactly where to take me and where I would actually want to go. There were so many aspects of the city that he hadn’t gotten the chance to share or explore, and he wanted to make sure that I would never feel any of the loneliness he had suffered.
Every so often, during that semester and the many that followed, Ben and I would entertain guests. We stayed up late and mixed screwdrivers and sea-breezes. We skipped classes and wandered around Boston Common or took the red line out to Harvard, where there were some funky little shops and seemingly endless used bookstores. Personally, I was not very interested in the history of the area, but Ben could remember so many things. Though I don’t remember many of the details of those tours, I knew our guests were in good hands with Ben as a guide because every time we had a visitor, I became a tourist in his presence.
It is difficult to remember a time in Boston when Ben wasn’t around to be the tour guide for our guests, though there was a time. We didn’t have many guests that year, though, after he had gone to Egypt. And after graduation, it wasn’t so easy to just take a day or two to go ambling around like a vacationer. When I remember Boston, I remember following Ben around. He was the one who would call me out of the house, insist that I see something I hadn’t seen, or even something we had seen a thousand times. He was Captain Plan, both in Boston (especially with visitors in tow) and back in Milwaukee, among our group of high school friends.
In January of 2006, Ben came to visit me and my husband in Springfield, Virginia. Springfield is probably best known for being in close proximity to our nation’s capitol. But since I both live and work in Springfield, I don’t have much occasion to go into DC on any sort of regular basis. Ben was visiting with two of our other friends, his dad and his sister. Dad and Sister stayed at a nearby hotel, and Ben and the other two stayed with us in our one-bedroom apartment. They were in town for two full days. This gave my husband, James, and I a small break from work and an excuse to show off our surroundings a little bit.
In Washington, DC, Ben was no longer Captain Plan. But I can’t rightly say that I embraced the position to its fullest. One afternoon, James and I, with another area resident, took our guests to the International Spy Museum. This was a place that we had never been, and we couldn’t think of anyone better to share the experience with than our nerdy friends. This was a group of gentlemen who cannot deny that at some point in their lives, they truly believed that their career calling would be as international men of mystery. I watched them live out their fantasies, not nearly as amused by the various tools and stories in the museum as they were. I did, however, feel very satisfied with myself for helping to lead our group in such a direction that ended up bringing them such joy.
Near the Spy Museum is a Capitol City Brewery. One of the times that my dad was in town, we had lunch there. So I suggested that we go with our friends to eat after visiting the museum, elaborating to the best of my ability on how I had eaten at this very place with my dad when he had been in town, even going so far as to point out the booth in which we sat during that visit. It’s true that my tours don’t contain widely applicable information, but these are the kinds of details that I remember. I tell the stories of other experiences that overlap themselves onto the location at hand.
The next day, Ben and I split from the rest of the group. They went to the Air and Space Museum, and we went to the Hirshhorn. There is a particular sculpture in the garden at the museum there, and it is a detail from DC that I remembered from a school trip at the end of my sophomore year of high school. I had a photograph of the sculpture taken from the front view, and it shows a human figure stuck in a door. Every time I showed the picture, I tried to describe the backside of the sculpture how I remembered it. The back has the head of a wolf (or related creature) near the rear end of the figure stuck in the door. The body of the wolf is not visible. I took Ben to the sculpture gardens at the Hirshhorn and told him this story as we approached the sculpture. I told him this and took him there to show him because that was what I had to offer him.
For me, visiting a place is not so much about the place as it is about the people. In my life, there is no one place I can visit where I will be able to encounter every friend I’ve made. Because my friends are scattered, I have reason to travel. Because I am counted among the scattered, my friends have reason to visit me. I can take them to every local place where I have managed to make a memory without them, and try to bring them in. By showing Ben the places I like in my new home, I connect him to the place and the memory of the place, just as he brought me into his places and memories of Boston.