Benjamin Bullard IV (still known as Benji to his family and friends) has boiled his life down to a series of lists. They were his last girlfriend’s idea.
“Focus. Focus. Focus.” Karleen said. “Lists saved my life.”
All of her suggestions about how he should live are attached to strategies she instituted to live hers, road tested for higher performance. She studied acting so her dramatic delivery was to be expected, triptyching her words.
“Eat. Eat. Eat. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.”
After awhile he found himself thinking in triple time.
“Fuck. Fuck Fuck.”
The transcendental meditation, EST sessions and their relationship didn’t stick, but the list making did.
“Leave it to you to overdo, overdo, overdo,” Karleen said scanning the Post It note covered door of the fridge as she packed the few pots, pans and utensils she’d brought with her into a canvas bag embroidered with the motto, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, right before she dragged her roll-aboard out the door. The dog, a teacup Yorkie named Diesel, went with her.
Although Benji is an animal lover, he was never fond of the dog because he was always underfoot and he was afraid that if he made the wrong move around the apartment or in bed he might squash the yappy little thing. And dogs are messy. As small as Diesel was, he shed, and slopped water and kibble out of his bowls. With Karleen gone, he’s called the Salvation Army to take away all of the furniture that was new when she moved in just six months ago. The steam cleaners will arrive after that and he’s placed an order with Bernie and Phyl’s (their motto Quality, Comfort and Price) to replace the furniture with exact replicas of what will be trucked away. It’s the fifth time in ten years so the salespeople know him and don’t have to dig too deep into their records to complete the sale.
Everything in the apartment is white. White leather sofas and chairs. White Formica pedestal tables. White plates. White handled cutlery. White sheets, pillows and comforters. And his food. Since he was a little boy. White bread sandwiches with the crusts cut off smeared with mayonnaise and sliced chicken breast, or plain pasta drowning in flavorless cream sauce.
When his mother visits, the phrase that repeats itself is an acronym, three letters, OCD. The strings of lemon yellow Post Its stuck to the walls, furniture, appliances and doors are a recent addition. There are lists for everything from the usual, groceries, to the bizarre, cost comparisons of different brands of condoms. At least he’s let a little color in.
Whatever Benji’s peculiarities, they haven’t prevented him from maintaining a healthy sex life, although not knowing whether her son’s sexual practices are as odd as the way he lives; healthy may not be the right word.
“Sex makes you dumb,” his sister Isabelle says during her weekly phone call to her mother. “It starts out as the illusion of love and then…”
“I liked Karleen,“ his mother, whose name is Mimi, says.
“I did, too. She made Ben look almost normal.”
“That’s not funny.”
“You have to admit, the striped tights and the tutus. Those were pretty funny.”
Mimi laughs a little. “And the hooping,” she says, referring to Karleen’s last acting gig, which required her to stand on stage with a chorus of other aspiring thespians, gyrating glow-in-the-dark hoola hoops.
Karleen was lovely looking. Japanese on her father’s side. She had dark tilted eyes, kabuki white skin and a tight little body. All of Ben’s girlfriends were lovely looking, small and dark. The deliberate opposite of, Isabelle, who happens to be his twin, Mimi supposes.
“Where does he find those girls?” she says.
“Don’t be ridiculous mother. He doesn’t find them. They find him.”
At forty Benji Bullard is a strikingly handsome man. He has the kind of looks that last –like his grandfather, father, and sister–height and physique that wear well right up to the end. His grandfather, Big Ben, died with every sparkling silver hair in place. The deep lines on his face added character, everyone said.
“Why is that crags on men read as hags on older women?” his wife Grace once asked Mimi, resentful of her husband’s continuing capability to charm.
Charming is not a word anyone would use to describe Benji. Blunt. Distant. Detached. Yes. But also capable of being kind, considerate, and concerned, when the subject suits him, although the subject never includes people. Save the whales. Save the tree toads. Save the Southern red lily.
He sits in on the meetings of the Environmental League. The President, Jasper Wright, knows him as well as anyone has ever known Benji. His motives are not entirely altruistic. Benji’s donations so far have been small but there’s the Bullard Trust behind them. That kind of legacy is worth cultivating. The room is full of tweed jacket and bowtie Boston Brahmins and Birkenstock sandal wearing tree huggers. The women are all either old dowagers, middle aged women with college age children looking to fill their time, or idealist young things campaigning for a cause to bring meaning to their lives. It’s where Benji met Karleen, and before her, Melissa, and before her, Jane, and before her, Suzanne. They’ve all seen his peculiarities as tantalizingly mysterious at first; it’s only later that mysterious turns into strange.
The Environmental League offices are in a beautiful old building opposite the Boston State House. The façade is stone inset with carved marble bas-reliefs of scenes depicting the history of the original owner, the Congregational Church in New England,. Benji has listed the subjects covered in each and attached the list to the journal he takes with him to these meetings. The girl who has grabbed the seat next to him this Wednesday morning is young, perhaps a college student. He’s immediately attracted to her small hands and feet. The meeting room isn’t nearly as grand as the building’s façade. The walls are dishwater gray and the folding chairs are the color of mushrooms just about to go bad. The floor is a checkerboard of mud colored vinyl tile. The chairs scrape unpleasantly as more people enter and take their seats.
He feels, rather than sees, the girl next to him as the lights dim and the presentation begins. He doesn’t like to make eye contact with people he doesn’t know. She shuffles some papers and adjusts her chair. The video is about the hunt for Orcas by unscrupulous organizations that purport to be rescuing abandoned babies but are actually separating them from their pods to sell them to sideshows like SeaWorld. By the time the video ends and the lights go on again, half the audience is in tears, including his seatmate. He catches a glimpse of her as she dabs at her eyes with the back of her hand. She not as young as he originally thought. She’s a woman.
“Your first time here?” she says. “It’s mine. They’re doing such important work. So inspiring.”
He says nothing.
“This building has some history,” she says to try to get him to converse.
He’s looking down at his journal, which except for the lists attached to the cover is empty. He’s carries it, because he thinks it gives him an air of importance. When she gets up, he does, too. She takes the stairs. So does he. Out on the sidewalk, standing on Beacon Street, she stops to admire the bas-reliefs.
“There’s a story to them,” Benji says.
Holding the journal with both hands he reads from the list he’s made that chronicles their history.
“Left to right:
Church members sign the Covenant.
Church members hold services outdoors.
Harvard College is founded.
Missionary John Eliot preaches to Native Americans.
They were carved by a Spainiard, Domingo Mora in 1898.”
“I’m Laura Lehman,” the woman says.
She’s dazzled by his looks. Out in the sunlight he’s Godlike compared to the rest of the dull New Englanders rushing up and down the busy street. And he likes the look of her. More refined than Karleen. Her hair is straight and cut chin length unlike Karleen’s long curly mess. Her shirt and slacks are two complimentary shades of blue, nicely tailored. Karleen wore crazy colors. This woman’s nails are manicured, lightly polished a pale pink. Karleen changed from one garish shade of red to another almost daily. He’s anxious to get home so he can draft a comparative list.
“I was thinking about finding a little place to sit down and have some lunch,” Laura Lehman says.
“Sorry I can’t join you,” Benji responds flatly. “There’s some place else I’ve got to be.”
She doesn’t know yet that he never eats out. They exchange telephone numbers. He won’t call her. She’ll call him. This is how it always begins.
Laura Lehman lies in Benji Bullard’s bed in a tangle of sheets so white she can smell the bleach on them. There’s something odd about him. Actually a lot of things about him are odd. The apartment for one thing. It’s huge, in a full service building, on a high floor so he’s got to have some money. But it’s furnished with bland stuff that looks like it came from one of those discount stores that advertise on TV, although he doesn’t own a TV.
No TV. No computer. No cellphone. Just a landline. A real Luddite. And the notes. Everywhere. Reminders she thinks, and wondered at first if he has a memory problem like her grandfather who died of Alzheimer’s disease. For a while he wrote lists and made notes about everything. He tagged the furniture in his room at the assisted living facility, “Chair. Bed. Table.” before he completely lost the words.
Benji’s lists are different. She can tell he uses them to give some shape to his life. Some are practical like the lists of cleaning supplies and the one that lists the benefits of fifteen different brands of toothpaste. Others are esoteric, like the list of all of the singers and musicians who have covered Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. That’s another thing Benji doesn’t have. No radio. No stereo. No records or CDs. He told her he listens at the library. The lists in the bathroom could be considered disturbing. He records the color of his pee and the conformation and color of each bowel movement. There are three bathrooms in the apartment so she steers clear of that one.
He’s been gentle with her. Quiet. Egoless. Kind. She’s always been attracted to men with big personalities who eventually overshadowed hers. She admires Benji’s causes. His sensitivity to the plight of endangered plants and animals. Sometimes he cooks for her. Delicious vegetarian meals he doesn’t eat. He eats like a child. When she cooks for him she makes macaroni and cheese, creamed turkey on toast with the crusts cut off, buttered white rice. Last night she made some angel hair pasta with butter and oil and garlic. She was careful not to let the garlic brown. He ate it as though she had invited Escoffier in to cook for them.
He’s amazing in bed. He takes his time. He’s made a list of what she likes. Wants to know more. He fills her up. He’s big, yet a perfect fit to her small frame. And he’s appreciative. He continues to cling to her long after they’re done, unlike her ex who couldn’t wait to roll away to claim his side of the bed.
She loves the feel of Benji’s hard body. The color of his eyes. A blue so piercing that when he looks into hers, which he only does when they’re making love, she feels like he’s seeing straight into her soul. And when he goes down on her, she comes, and comes, and comes.