Back at the dawn of my thirties, in that wet, windy month when fall turns to fell, I found myself mostly jobless, newly loveless, living on a cold, dead warship with no bathroom.
When I’d moved aboard, in July, I’d had what felt like a solid plan: I’d live on the river, play hide-and-seek with capitalism, and snuggle in a small berth with the newest someone I loved. The ship, a rust-scabbed hundred-fifty-foot tug built for but never used by the military, had no toilet, no shower, no heat, but in peak Portland summer, none of that had mattered. The rusticness was the whole point. I couldn’t wait to show my old warship to my new love; I hoped it’d give me a splash of the brawn and mystique that I, in my textbook Pisces softness, had always lacked. And that ship, it was brawny. It was mystical. It was hulking and angular and charcoal and black; it was spectral rust and spiderwebs and lead paint like gangrenous birch bark; it was a labyrinth of gunwales and gangways and steampipes and secret tunnels and tiny cabins, and I lived in one of those cabins, and one day, while sitting inside, trying to write, I looked out a porthole and saw a breaching sea lion chomp a salmon from the air.
That was in August.
Now, three months later, my ship was cold, leaky, not so mystical at all. I had this pathetic space heater, about the size of a toaster oven, and I spooned it, every night and most afternoons, as I lay in my berth, listening to Sufjan Stevens and staring at my phone and reading and rereading an email I’d just gotten, the email, the one that explained why I’d be spending another winter alone.
There’s another guy, that email said. I like him better.
My only work, at the time, was teaching a writing class, which met once a week for two hours. I was very new to teaching. I had no MFA, no training or qualifications at all, save for my first book, which was finished but wouldn’t be published for months, and which, I’d begun to tell myself, kind of sucked. I felt, in that classroom, like a fraud. Still, that was better than how I felt the rest of week, much of which I spent on my husk of a warship, hiding from who and what wasn’t trying to find me.
That ship was a good place to hide: from heartbreak, from fraudulence, from everything. It was moored on Portland’s northern industrial fringe, so when I was aboard, at night, I felt as far from the rest of the city as I’d ever felt from anything. Since I didn’t own a car, if I wanted to go see anyone—like my sister, who lived in town and had been instructed, by Mom, to worry about me—I’d have to swaddle myself in rain gear, then bike across a yard full of chatty metalworkers, then climb a hill steeper than most ski slopes, then ride six miles, minimum, into gusting wind and sideways rain—and then, I’d arrive in a centrally-heated home full of laughing humans, and I’d immediately miss my ship.
I hadn’t been going out much, except to teach.
I was about to begin a new class, with a new curriculum I’d been working on. The class was called Writing to Your Strengths. At the time, that seemed like a smart, even honorable, focus, though I now wonder: what was the alternative? Writing to Your Incompetence? Anyway, eight students had signed up. Six women, two men. And a few days before the first class, one of those men, Tom, sent me an oddly upbeat email, saying that he’d recently been suffering from hypoxia, and had thus landed at Portland VA Hospital, where he’d gotten a dual diagnosis of lung failure and preleukemia, and so he was wondering if it’d be okay if his son, a screenwriter and actor, sat in for him at our first meeting? Such was the depth of my insecurity, at the time, about everything, that I pretty much skimmed over the lung failure and preleukemia and fixated on: screenwriter. There would be a screenwriter in my stupid class. I emailed Tom right away, and I told him that, yes, of course his son could sit in. And then I spent the next five days trying to figure out how I’d keep his son from seeing me for all I wasn’t.
On the morning of the first day of class, I woke to raindrops on my steel roof and a phlegmy soup in my lungs. The studio where I taught was a good nine miles to the south, and I was too proud or dumb to take the bus, so I felt I had no choice but to bike, sick, in the rain. I left early, and rode slow, stopping every few miles to sit, shivering, in bustling cafes, where I slurped overpriced tea and read and reread my syllabus and wondered how thin and amateur it’d seem to the screenwriter/actor.
That night, the screenwriter/actor ended up being first to arrive. His name was Ben. He smiled like he’d had training, and his clothes fit the way I wished mine did, and he looked like a Good Will Hunting-era Matt Damon but with better hair. This might’ve been more intimidating if Ben hadn’t oozed such goodness and humility: the first thing he said, upon walking in the room, was that Tom—he called his dad Tom—was maybe prone to exaggeration. Yes, Ben wrote for film. He acted. “But I’ve sold exactly zero screenplays,” he said, smiling at his hands. “And I’ve been in like two commercials.”
I exhaled a week’s work of anxiety and told him, “I think your dad might be my mom.”
The rest of the group soon arrived, and I shuffled my papers like I thought a professor might, and we began. An hour in, I already knew: this class—these people—would be my beacon, my reason to crawl out of bed, my ship, myself. There was Charlotte, the aging hippie biker with the bonkers travel stories; and Alissa, who’d already published some and had a knack for saying what we all were thinking; and Patrick, who spoke fluent self-deprecation and seemed incapable of being unfunny. There was Carrie, who was half done with a haunting novel basically set in my hometown, and Jessica, who’d never taken a workshop and was crackling with new-writer energy, and Sarah and Quincy, both of whom said little but said it in such a way that you knew their writing would be otherworldly good—and there was Ben, the screenwriter, who was supposed to just be taking notes, but who, by the end of the first class, was saying he might just have to ask Tom if he’d mind his son tagging along.
That night, I left class feeling warm, buzzy, necessary. But then I biked back to my warship, where I resumed my routine of shivering and not showering and eating Triscuits for breakfast and waiting for emails I knew would never come and feeling so stupidly fucking alone, and then, suddenly, it was Tuesday. I did my best to rinse the film from my skin and climbed back up into the world.
I heard Tom before I saw him. Clunking up the stairs, dragging something that even sounded ugly. The first thing I noticed, when he walked into the room, was how big he was: tall enough to almost need to duck through the doorway, and thick all around, with the sort of bloated, knuckly hands that spoke to decades of hard work with heavy tools. The second thing I noticed: his eyes, so blue, and so gentle, just like his son’s. Third, I saw the apparatus he was carrying, a sort of oversized briefcase, the color of industry, that spat out a plastic tube that disappeared into Tom. And finally, I noticed Ben, who was smiling tightly and walking two steps behind his father, just far enough away to plausibly deny what he was clearly doing, which was: spotting. Only when I saw that—when I saw Ben, seeing Tom—did I realize how frail Tom was. Only then did I think about lung failure, about pre-leukemia.
What I remember most from that night is how it felt having those two, father and son, together in the room. I remember Tom gushing over Carrie’s writing, and Ben blushing. I remember Ben saying something funny, and Tom laughing loudest and longest. I remember another writer—Charlotte, maybe?—sharing the sort of story that etches itself into your skin, and all of us going on about its beauty and bravery, and Ben and Tom smiling at each other in such a way that made me miss my own dad with electric intensity. I remember Tom sharing a short piece, about his home, I think, though I can’t be sure, because I was too busy watching the others watch Tom, and watching Ben watch them, and seeing warm eyes over warm smiles, and letting myself understand that if I hadn’t come up with this stupid class, none of them would be here. I remember forgetting, for a moment, to feel lonely.
In the days and weeks to come, I got out a bit more—I saw friends, in centrally-heated homes, and movies, in centrally-heated theaters—but mostly, I just traveled between the two poles of my life: from cold, empty ship to warm, rare classroom. That was the word I kept using whenever I talked about my class: rare. And when I said it, I was often talking about Ben and Tom. It was a rare thing, I’d say, to get to see a father accidentally reply-all with an email meant for his son, an email that read: You can relax now, I think it’s awesome, they’ll love it; and it was way too rare, in a writing workshop, to see sensitive men sitting wide-eyed, humbled, in awe of the women at the table with them. I, too, was in awe. At that point, I’d not yet been in many rooms like that one, rooms full of humans whose intelligence and self-awareness was exceeded only by their bravery. All of them were sharing stunning, painful stories—stories about surviving awful men and rabid dogs and stillborn piglets and gut-curdling shame—and when they discussed each others’ work, they did so with such tenderness and grace. After one class, I told several friends, for the very first time, “This is what I wish church felt like.”
A few hours before our second-to-last class, I got a note from Tom. He was, as he put it, “south of AWOL,” and was at home, on oxygen, in bed. He was new to illness, he said, and not very good at it, so he’d need to miss class again. I don’t know whether it was my genetic predisposition toward forced optimism, my chronic self-involvement, or the way that Tom, even when addressing his failing health, wrote with such buoyancy—whatever it was, I don’t recall feeling worried when I read his email. I just felt sad. That night, as the others read, I looked at his empty chair, and I wished he was in it, leaning forward, nodding, humming, making listening look like something muscular and strenuous and urgent. And then I looked at Ben, who was smiling, smiling like he’d had training and was putting it to use.
The next week, our last, it was Tom’s turn to submit a longer piece for critique. I kept waiting for the note I knew he’d send—about his inability to submit or participate further—but a couple of days before the meeting, an email came, from Tom, with no mention of his health, just a lengthy, heartfelt thank-you-for-reading and a few notes on the piece he’d attached. I read it immediately. In the Disney version of this story, Tom’s piece would be the next Great American Novel. In real life, it was an ambitious and somewhat confusing short story about the plight of an albino Tanzanian named Noah. I could tell, from Tom’s email, that he’d been working on it for a long, long time. So I marked up his pages with every comment and question I could think of, and then I got ready for our final class.
Day by day, I’d been poking holes in my sad little chrysalis, letting in more and more light, tasting air untouched by my own sweat and rot and sadness. I was remembering, slowly, that there was and is an upside to grief, a moment when you begin to regain feeling in your fingers and ears and heart, when you feel like you’re feeling it all for the first time, when you’re noticing so much, and what you’re noticing is that the whole world is vibrating and shimmering and a simple change in light is enough to make you cry. It was in this raw, misty state that I showed up to our last class. I showed up ready to connect with these sweet, smart people, ready to double down on all we’d built, to shoot tenderness and grace from my chest like the Care Bear I’d always believed myself to be. I wanted everyone to walk out saying to themselves, or maybe even aloud, “I will never forget this.”
I’m sure, looking back, that they all did say that.
I’m equally sure it had almost nothing to do with me.
I’ve by now forgotten most of that night’s particulars. I’ve forgotten what the others wrote about, and whether I said anything graceful or tender, and what we talked about when we talked about Tom’s piece. I’ve forgotten because, near the end of class, there occurred this black hole of a moment, the sort of moment so powerful it obliterates everything around it. What happened was: Tom, after taking our feedback with closed eyes and knotted hands, looked around the room, face to face to face, and gave a speech I wish I’d had the foresight to record. He began by saying how stunned he was by everyone else’s stories. He’d written for years, he told us, and had always wanted to share his work, but hadn’t, not until now, and to get to do so, in this room, beside his son, meant more than he’d ever be able to explain. He told us he’d never felt more alive than he had while hearing our stories and sharing his own. He told us that life is short, way shorter than you think. And that the best thing we can do with our lives is tell stories about them, to anyone and everyone, as well and as often as we can.
For a long while, nobody spoke. I’d been gearing up to give my own little wrap-up speech, but now my words just felt wispy. I looked around the room. Everyone was staring at their hands, or at the wall, or off into distant space, their eyes wide, bodies limp, looking like they’d just been told a secret and proposed to and dumped all at once. Everyone besides Ben. Ben, he was looking at his dad, smiling in that tight, quivering way you smile when you’re trying hard not to sob. The silence stretched, and kept stretching. And after ten seconds that felt like twenty hours, I said all I could think to say. “Thank you,” I said. Everyone else said it, too. And soon, too soon, we were standing and stuffing papers into bags and carrying them out of that rare warm world and back into the other one.
Not long after class ended, I left my warship. The weather, of late, had gone unremittingly wet, and wind gusts kept blowing out my portholes, and one morning, after a night when the temperature had flirted with the 20s, I finally told myself: Enough. I wasn’t much of a Jew, but I did know you were only supposed to sit shiva for like seven days, and I’d now been hiding on my tug and cuddling my space toaster and savoring the taste of my own tears for a month. And really, my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I’d been feeling too good about too many things. I no longer had it in me to feel so bad.
I moved into a friend’s basement, which at the time felt like a five-star luxury suite but which I now remember as a basement. Suddenly, I was blocks from the people I’d been avoiding, including my sister, who I’d begun to see and smile around often enough for Mom to call off the search party. When hanging out with her, or friends, or students—I’d just begun a new class—I rarely made it ten minutes before bringing up the story of Tom and Ben. I’d talk about vulnerability and tenderness, about rare this and rare that, about the words Tom had left us with—and in fluent humblebrag, I’d talk about how grateful I felt to have had the teeny-tiniest role in creating a space that’d made space for all of that.
And then, a month after our last class, Ben emailed the whole group. By the end of the first line, which spoke of a “storm that has been brewing since August,” I felt I knew what was coming. So I bit my cheeks, and I read on, as Ben told us the story of Ben and Tom. He told us that Tom, long ago, had moved to Portland from East St. Louis, where he’d worked years and years in an oil refinery and been a Golden Gloves boxer. Ben told us that, after a decade of visiting Tom in Portland, where they’d drink too much in Tom’s grimy apartment and then walk rainy streets until later than late, shadowboxing and boxing-boxing and acting less like father and son than Kerouac characters, he’d at last moved to town. Ben told us that, not long after the move, Tom had had to slow down, those years in the factory having caught up with him, leaving him “biting at the air, starving for oxygen.” Ben told us that, the day after class ended, Tom had to be rushed to the hospital, his oxygen saturation having dropped to half what it should be, and that, when Ben arrived, the doctors said: if anyone wants to see him, they need to come now. Before long, Ben told us, the room brimmed with family and friends and a hospital-furnished harp player, and for days, that whole room shook and shivered and rose and fell, until, finally, on the third afternoon, Tom told the room he was ready, he wasn’t afraid. And then, Ben told us, as his loved ones made a half-moon around him, Tom did something that no one—not Ben, then, nor I, now—saw coming: he asked Ben to read aloud the comments he’d gotten on the piece he shared in writing class.
So Ben did that. He read our words about Tom’s words. And Tom listened like he always had: eyes closed, whole body smiling. And then he took his pages in his hands, and exhaled, and was gone.
If I had written about this in the weeks following Tom’s death—and believe me, I tried to—the story would’ve ended up being about what I, at the time, needed all of my stories to be about: about the pearls buried in the mud of grief, about the rare beauty of tenderhearted men, about all that becomes possible when someone (read: me) holds a space of which others can make their own meaning. It would’ve been a story about pain, and loneliness, and redemption, and I would’ve been the hero.
I know this to be true because, as soon as I finished reading Ben’s email, I wrote to him. Or, rather: I tried to write, then started crying, then reread his email, then cried more, then called ten of my favorite people to tell them what had happened, then tried to write again, and again, until finally I decided to just shut my laptop and drink a beer and go to sleep. The next morning, though, I sat down, and I wrote. I wrote like I was journaling, the words geysering out of me, my fingers barely able to keep up. I wrote like I, as a kid, had thought writers wrote: like someone or something possessed. I wrote about how touched I’d been to have Ben and Tom in my class; about how seeing them in that space had made me yearn to find something similar with my own dad; about how I couldn’t believe Ben had found it in himself to write us that email; and, of course, about how good it felt to know that I could in some small way help create the space that had meant so much to Ben and Tom and all the rest.
I think I’m still glad I sent that email. And not just because Ben would tell me—on that day, and on many to come—that my words to him, like his to me, were a balm. I’m glad because that email told a real, raw story, the sort of story I hadn’t yet shared with Ben or any other student, those being years when I still felt I, as a teacher, shouldn’t. I’m glad because that story stands as a document of who and where I was—because it’s a reminder of how far I’d felt, from everything, when our class began, and of how badly I needed to be in the center of something, to be swaddled in stories, to be seen, to matter.
So, I don’t regret telling this story that way, then.
I just can’t quite tell it that way anymore.
It’s been five years since I sat with Tom and Ben, with Alissa and Carrie and Jessica and Patrick and Charlotte and Sarah and Quincy and myself. Over those years, I’ve been published and rejected, have dumped and been dumped, have moved back onto and off of and onto and off of that warship, the real one and the one in my chest. I’ve taught dozens of classes, with hundreds of writers, and while there hasn’t been another Ben-and-Tom, there have been so, so many others who walked into a room full of strangers and set their loneliest loneliness on the table and trusted that someone would pick it up.
The next time I write to Ben, I think I’ll say more about all of that. I’ll say that, when I think, now, of those weeks spent with him and Tom, in the presence of a story far bigger than any I could’ve imagined on my own, I don’t feel like the hero. I’ll say I don’t know if this story even needs a hero—I just know it needs to be told, and told again, to me if to nobody else, so that the next time I find myself encased in cold steel, a million miles from everything, I can remember how it felt to be pulled off of my warship, away from my edges, into a room full of people willing to be alone, together. I’ll say what I said to Tom, the last time I saw him. “Thank you,” I’ll say. And then I’ll gather that warm rare world in my arms, and I’ll carry it out into the other one, and I’ll hold on, as tight and as long as I can.
Brian Benson is the author of the memoir GOING SOMEWHERE. He teaches creative nonfiction at Portland’s Attic Institute and facilitates free Write Around Portland workshops in schools, treatment centers, and affordable housing. Originally from the hinterlands of Wisconsin, Brian now lives in Oregon, in a centrally-heated home.