For a day, Ben was. Ben was Holden Caulfield, and that very day I went home and dug out the tiny little red-covered paper-back copy my mother had been keeping at the back of the bookshelf for years. I hunted. I cried when I almost couldn’t find it, I needed to read it so badly. My mother couldn’t understand the urgency, and kept on suggesting other titles. When I found it and its worn, yellow pages I devoured it and finished it all in one night and then read it again the next day.
Ben was. Ben was Holden Caulfield for a ninth grade honors English project where he became the main character for the book he’d been reading. He didn’t do anything gimmicky: he didn’t wear a backwards hunting cap; he didn’t cry when he talked about Pheobe. He swore and he told us through bitter fists of shame how he couldn’t even sleep with a hooker and then joked through the very next line.
He let silence descend on a room full of teenagers who were not even nearly prepared for the performance he was about to give them, and who stared in shock and wonder at the boy who then became Holden Caulfield before them. No matter that they didn’t know who Holden was; this was him. He paused, his pale neat face turned up at the light, then coughed and returned to his own life. In that instant I don’t even think I breathed.
I was in love with Ben at the time, singularly and purposefully in love. I was in high school; what else did I have to do? I was in love with Ben and I fell in love with Holden Caulfield, that strange and misguided boy who really could have been wonderful if his strangeness had been given a chance. That’s how I read it then, anyway, in the heart of my own misguided, angst-y life. And I read that book every year for the next part of my life, always coming back to those worn old pages and the way I could cry at Holden Caulfield’s saddest hour no matter how many times I could see it in print. I came back to it time and time and time again, long after Ben, when it beckoned me through the darkness, each time swearing (correctly) it had something new to show me.
And there I would see Ben, as he was, a child, vulnerable behind armor, me wondering all the time how much was character, and how much was the man.