“Can you write something for me?” Ben handed back the two save the date cards, which feature an engagement photo he captured for me and my bride to be. As Stephanie and I started thinking about what we’d scrawl on the back, Ben added, “Of course, I won’t read them until I’m back in China.”
The words I jotted down, I don’t feel like sharing now. You can guess. The stationary, smaller than a postcard, held very little, and it was probably the same drivel everyone writes when a friend leaves for an indeterminate amount of time. To paraphrase writer Chuck Klosterman, we so often cling to clichés because most experiences in life are unoriginal. That doesn’t make the experiences any less exciting, bittersweet, or painful.
Here’s a cliché: Friends come and go. But they’re often never too far away. Usually it’s a matter of neglect. You just don’t put effort into friendship; you could call to make plans—or, maybe next Friday.
When your friend moves to a different country—reached by a twenty-hour plane ride, not a twenty-minute drive—it’s different.
Ben and I met in college. Well, at college. The academic year had yet to start, and he had arrived early, during the first week of August. I was at school for The Reflector’s annual editor meeting, where we plan welcome week issue. After it ended, I was unlocking my bike from the bike rack, and over walked this Chinese guy. He was nervous, stuttering slightly, and I wasn’t sure what he wanted.
It was all about my bike. He wanted to know where to get one, a nice, used cycle he could pedal from the campus apartments to class. I told him I found mine on Craig’s List.
That didn’t pan out for Ben, but from the conversation I learned he was a fellow English major and he took photos for his college paper in China. I told him he should join our newspaper, that we were looking for a photo editor. Then we parted ways.
But there he was on the first day of classes, sitting in the newsroom. My first inkling that our meeting wasn’t a freak coincidence.
Sometimes you meet a person, and you both click. That’s a terrible, reductive way to say it, but it’s what happened with me and Ben. The other Reflector staffers called it a “Bromance.” More than hanging out, we pushed each other to do better.
Everything I know about photography I learned from Ben. Sure, we took the same photojournalism class, but he helped me put it into practice. He always gave honest feedback, and didn’t want compliments before critiques. He also taught me about Chinese culture—including the meaning of llama—and demystified or corrected everything I knew about his world.
I helped him as much as I could with writing. Once, Ben and I discussed his article about pollution at Ningbo Institute of Technology, UIndy’s sister college, on the second floor of the Esch Hall atrium, overlooking the admissions office. As I meandered down the page, marking little things while admiring his reporting, Ben said, “Jimmy, you can be honest.”
We both strive for excellence, feel like anything but our best isn’t good enough—and sometimes our best doesn’t cut it. What I learned from Ben is to keep pushing yourself. Part of that is surrounding yourself with good people.
This is how Ben, Stephanie, and I spent yesterday: We celebrated like Gatsby. Only, we focused on the driving parts of the book and downplayed the party scenes.
Lunch was first on the list, so we hit up our favorite Mexican restaurant. Ben had already eaten—ordered almost everything on the Bob Evans breakfast menu, from the way he described it. So he stuck to guacamole and chips, one of his favorite things in the US.
Then we drove to Lafayette for a birthday party, and he and I slipped away to look at Purdue’s campus. Ben, being an IU enthusiast, commented how much more he likes Bloomington.
When we came back, we picked up an office chair he was giving away. We then took a trip to Kroger where he dumped a paper bag of US coins into the CoinStar, clinging and clanging as it counted, and he bought copious amounts of beef jerky. We ate at, what Ben called, an “authentic” Chinese restaurant in Carmel. (Authenticity is tantamount to Ben.)
We finished the night early with drinks at Indiana City, then dropped Ben off so he could finish packing and we could get some sleep before picking him up at 5 a.m. the next morning. Sunday. Today.
After divesting most of his possessions from his year and a half abroad, he had three large suitcases and two carry-ons, which we loaded them in at UIndy and out at Indianapolis International Airport. We exchanged cards, with hand-written and heart-wrending notes. After a group hug, we said, “Keep in touch,” and, right before he rolled his luggage inside, “I’ll miss you.”
In his note, Ben told us not to call it goodbye, because we’ll see each other again. And right now, I have to believe that’s true.