Friday, July 2, 2010

“Something About Ben Jensen” by Joseph Riippi

So he isn’t dead. That’s what I thought when I saw Ben Jensen today. It happened on the bus, the 14D. I was sitting with my feet against the back wheel-well and trying to read some poems. I kept getting distracted—there was a paper sac on the floor next to me, of beer and the frozen turbot filets I made for dinner tonight. I kept picturing the bottom of the bag getting wet and the fish and beer spilling out across the floor of the bus. We would get to my stop and I would stand and lift the bag by its brown paper handles—then everyone would stare at me, the man holding half a paper bag while warm beer cans spun fizzing on the floor, ruining everything, making a spitting sound.

Even now it makes my eyes pinch.

Jensen got on at Fifth Avenue. I recognized him by his height and the knit fingerless gloves. I’d remembered his gloves being red, but these were blue. He made his way toward me and he looked like he’d lost weight. I don’t think he saw me. I hope he didn’t see me. I wondered if I looked different, too.

I thought of calling out, but there were too many strangers between us, and I didn’t want to lift the bag of fish and beer until I got off at 11th avenue. Almost everyone would be off the bus by then and if it spilled it would matter less. Fewer people would stare. So I watched him over my book. I peered. I remember thinking that word. I remember my foot fell asleep, cramped against the wheelwell. I remember wanting to say, I missed you.

Jensen wasn’t reading anything except advertisements for skin cream and HBO. He held onto the metal pole and rocked back and forth with everyone else. I wanted to ask him where he’d been the last three years, and if that last story he’d told me was true, about the guys beating the shit out of him in Washington Heights.

He got off at Seventh Avenue. I didn’t chase or even put down my book.

The bus took a deep breath and moved forward. Only then did I get the courage to look back. I tried to catch a glimpse of him going into a coffee shop or electronics store, a church or a synagogue—something that might give a clue as to what he’s been doing. There have been no new poems. No cryptic emails from Europe or the Bosporus or Caspian Sea. No sightings in the usual bars.

I didn’t see anything, and I accepted he’d disappeared again.

Three years ago was the last time. I got an email he’d been attacked by four men in hoods up by City College.

The sun wasn’t even down yet, he’d written. Somebody should make a rule.

I tried to picture a person being mugged at 136th and Amsterdam in the middle of the day. There would be so many people. I pictured the old Dominican man who sold sneakers and underwear in front of the bodega, the women sitting in neon lawn chairs by the ball field. The long accordion-bellied buses, pigeons fleeing barking dogs, children running from landing pigeons. And then Jensen being attacked in the heart of it all. Jensen wrote that he’d been able to roll away and outrun his attackers. Even after being punched in the back of the head and kicked in the ribs they hadn’t gotten his wallet or his phone. I remember reading his email right here, at this same kitchen table.

I am still trying to picture it. I've never seen Ben Jensen run.

When I think of Jensen I think of red fingerless gloves rolling cigarettes and us arguing about other poets behind their backs.

I don’t deny I loved him.

When I imagine the mugging, I see a man selling sneakers and women in lawn chairs and a black patch where Jensen should be. He’s a patch burned out of a newspaper I can’t read.

Once Jensen and I met for drinks somewhere and when he arrived he had a patch of bruise beneath his left eye. He’d been in Berlin for a week and an Austrian woman had thrown his own boots at him; one had kicked him in the face.

I remember he laughed as he told the story. Then he took a pack of rolling papers from his pocket and started making cigarettes with his red gloves and fingers.

I can still picture the boots. The purple bruise-stamp of the heel beneath his eye. I can picture it very clearly.

When I got off the bus at 11th avenue I was so distracted I almost let the bag of fish and beer spill out across the floor.

I started to cry and the bus driver stared at me until I cried harder.

I hope that was him. I still can’t accept the story the others told. That a bus exploded and he just disappeared.

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