by Mark Spano
…friendship is…an abdication of self…We may talk a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute…And friendship is not merely devoid of virtue, like conversation, it is fatal to us as well.
—Marcel Proust from Within a Budding Grove
By my third year at Elderwood, I spent little or no time with friends in the neighborhood. I had found a crowd from my school and hung around pretty exclusively with them. Our other classmates referred to us as “The Existentialists,” because we went about spouting Sartre and Camus like the pretentious little shits we were. Maybe to some degree we knew of what we spoke, but most of it was the posture of contempt for the Irish version of Europeanism being inflicted on us by our school.
We met after school almost nightly to drink and party at the home of a particular classmate. We smoked cigarettes, drank beer and whiskey and argued about bands, books and the American war in Southeast Asia.
Marty Benoit was our regular host. (No one gave his name a French pronunciation. It got the Kansas City version, “beh-noyt.”) Marty was the smartest kid in school, and his family, if not the richest, were certainly among the most prominent in town.
Marty’s father was a hugely successful banking attorney. He always seemed to me more like a college professor than a lawyer. He looked a little like the picture of T.S. Elliott (a Midwestern banker) on my copy of the collected works. He possessed none of the glitz I’d seen in criminal lawyers and none of the glad-handing nonsense of lawyer/politicians. Mr. Benoit stuck to his business, stayed very clear of politics and was universally trusted and revered because of it. He operated in world of business in the Midwest that has now completely disappeared. He was the most civilized person I’ve ever known. I can’t imagine what he’d think of the business world today. He would be completely out of place.
Marty’s father was French but from several generations back. His mother, though, was only a single generation from France. She spoke French, and possessed every bias of a bourgeois wife from a Nineteenth Century French village.
Marty was their youngest child and his siblings were long since gone from the home. His parents were older than any of our own. They seemed to me more like grandparents than parents, not merely due to their ages. The family ate meals and entertained more formally than any of our families. They seemed closer to Europe, less American in their habits than other parents.
Mrs. Benoit was a low-to-the-ground, buxom woman gone to heavy. With the amount of time I was in their house I never once saw her in casual clothes. She was always in a dress, full makeup and jewelry. She ruled as absolute monarch of the Benoit hearth and home. Mr. Benoit was troubled with nothing but his work. He probably didn’t know how much money he had in the bank. Mother—and that is what Marty called her, “Mother,” never once did I hear a “Mom”—handled everything. She was a force of nature.
The Benoits were a family of remarkable contrasts. Socially, they were extremely rigid in their old-school manner of living; yet, nearly every evening and most weekends, Mrs. Benoit allowed us to overrun their home, at least that part of their home where Marty lived. The parents continued their lives quite civilly in the more formal areas of their large home while in Marty’s apartment-like section off to one corner of the house we caroused like the prep schoolers we were.
Marty himself was something of a mirage. At school, he took the brunt of the smart kid role from his classmates. He wore thick glasses, carried a book bag and walked away each quarter with class honors. He was, though, a secret Casanova. He was ridiculed by athletes who themselves boasted of sexual exploits many of which were pure fiction. Marty, on the other hand, walking his strident walk with his goofy book bag and class honors was sexually active younger and with greater frequency than any of us. Despite his very uncool ways he was never without a pretty, articulate girlfriend with whom he was regularly getting it on.
Marty and I were great friends. He was the person who introduced me to eating raw oysters. Marty gave me an impassioned speech on the differences between flavor and texture in the joys of eating. He also advised me that raw oyster were a strong aphrodisiac. After many promises to eat a raw oyster, finally at lunch at his father’s club, I tried one of Marty’s, then, promptly ordered and ate a dozen of my own.
Marty was also the first person I told I was gay. He didn’t flinch. He wanted to know with whom at Elderwood I had had sex. I told him no one. Marty was a horrid gossip. (Straight guys are much bigger gossips than gay guys.) Well, then, who had I wanted to sleep with? Hopefully, not himself. He was greatly relieved to learn that I had my eye on several other prospects and one in particular who was part of our group, the handsome Robin Mendel, a young man I watched from afar for more than two years. He sat next to me my first day at Elderwood.
Robin was popular and smart. His head was bunched with blonde ringlets like Billy Budd’s. His lips were thick and supple-looking almost too pretty for a guy, and his grey-green eyes were so gaping and translucent they suggested the stare of a mystic’s trance, a great deceit intended or not that I am certain Robin learned early enabling him to conjure mystery merely by keeping his mouth shut. He dated any girl he chose. He possessed extraordinary athletic skill, but did not play any sport interscholastically at Elderwood because he viewed the whole sport system at our school as akin to the military-industrial complex that was pushing the American war in Southeast Asia. Our whole group shared this view.
Among the participating athletes at Elderwood there was some contempt for Robin’s abdication from giving his all for good old Elderwood, but he found safe haven with The Existentialists. And, with all he had going for him, he didn’t seem to give it a second thought.
Marty had decided that it was necessary that I meet his older brother Andy. Andy was sixteen years older than Marty and was a priest and an army chaplain. He had only recently returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam and was stationed in Fort Leonard Wood in southern Missouri. He would be up to visit in a couple of weeks.
Father Andy Benoit was the first grown-up I told I was gay. He didn’t flinch. He was immediately supportive and considerate. I felt from the very start that he was on my side. I couldn’t believe I was telling this to a priest and a member of the United States Army, and I was not being judged or condemned.
Father Andy was all about the future, his and ours. We needed to get the most and best education we could so we’d be prepared to go out and change the world. We were the ones who were going to make a difference. It was easy to see where this came from. Old Mr. Benoit was like this too. He treated all of the rowdy young men who terrorized their home regularly as though we would be going onto the U.S. Supreme Court or the United Nations in a matter of weeks that we could and very likely should do these things. I had never before experienced from adults such confidence in me and the expectation of great things from me. Jesuits mostly treated us like prison inmates.
Mark Spano is a writer and filmmaker living in rural Orange County, North Carolina. His recent novel Midland Club has had a very positive critical reception and has won two awards. This spring, Mark's recent documentary Sicily: Land of Love and Strife will go into limited theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada. The two stories featured by Mark in The Long Island Literary Journal are a part of a larger work, entitled Killing the Moon.