“I’m one of those,” I said, owning it and not apologizing.
“I should have known. pretty girl like you had to have some sort of flaw.”
“You don’t like talk radio?”
“I like it, I guess. I mean, I like it the way I like doctors’ appointments. they serve a purpose but they aren’t much fun.”
I laughed, and he looked at me. He looked for just a little too long to be safe.
“Hey! eyes on the road, Casanova!” I said. “Casanova”? Who was I? My dad?
Ben immediately turned back and focused on what was in front of us. “sorry!” he said. “safety first.”
By the time we hit the freeway, he had turned off the radio. “that’s enough traffic updates for me,” he said. “We will just have to entertain ourselves the old-fashioned way.” “old-fashioned way?”
“Ah, right. Conversation.”
“let’s start with the basics: How long have you lived in l.a.?”
“Five years. I moved right after college. you?”
“Nine years. I moved here to go to college. looks like we graduated the same year. Where did you go to school?” “oh,” I said. “Ithaca. My parents both went to Cornell and made me take a tour, but when I got there, Ithaca seemed a better fit. I was originally premed, but that lasted about two months before I realized I had absolutely no desire to be a doctor.”
“Why did you think you wanted to be a doctor?” We were speeding up the freeway at this point. the driving was taking up less of his attention.
“Both of my parents are doctors. My mother is the chief of staff at the hospital in my hometown, and my dad is a neurosurgeon there.”
“A neurosurgeon? that’s intimidating,” Ben added. “He’s an intimidating guy. My mom’s not easy either.they were not happy when I changed my major.”
“Oh, that kind of family? the pressuring kind? overachievers?” “they are definitely overachievers. the thing is, I’m just not like that. I’m a work-to-live not a live-to-work type of person. I like to put in my forty hours and then go have my life.” “But that doesn’t sit well with them?”
I shrugged. “they believe that life is work. It’s not about joy. It’s not about laughter. It’s not about love, really, I don’t think, for them. It’s about work. I don’t think my dad likes saving lives as much as he likes being at the top of a field that is constantly growing and changing. I think it’s about progress for them. library science isn’t exactly cutting edge. But I mean, there isn’t much they can do. My parents weren’t really very engaged parents, you know? so, I think when I changed my major it was, like, this moment of . . . It was a break for all of us. they no longer needed to pretend that they understood me. I no longer needed to pretend I wanted what they had.” I hadn’t ever told anyone my real feelings about that before. But I didn’t see any reason to tell Ben anything but the entire truth. I was somewhat embarrassed after I said it all. I realized just how vulnerable that was. I turned and looked out my window. the traffic in the opposite direction was relentless, and yet, we were flying through town.
“That’s really sad,” he said.
“It is and it isn’t. My parents and I aren’t close. But they are happy in their way and I am happy in mine. I think that’s what matters.”
He nodded. “you’re absolutely right. smart and right.” I laughed. “How about you? How are your parents?” Ben blew air out of his chest but kept his eyes forward and on the road. He spoke somberly.
“My father passed away three years ago.”
“Oh, my. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Thanks.” He looked at me briefly and then returned his eyes to the road. “He died of cancer and it was a long battle so we all knew it was coming; we were prepared for it.” “I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
Ben let out a brief puff of air. “I don’t either. anyway, my mom is doing well. as well as you can when you’ve lost the person you love, you know?”
“I can’t even imagine.”
“No, I can’t either. I’ve lost a father and I know how hard that can be, but I can’t even imagine losing your best friend, your soul mate. I worry about her, although she insists she’s okay.”
“I’m sure you can’t help but worry. do you have any brothers or sisters?” I asked.
Ben shook his head. “you?”
“No, sir.” I rarely met other only children. It was nice to hear that Ben was one. When I would tell people I was an only child, I felt like I was either being pitied for not having had siblings or being judged as petulant even if I hadn’t proven to be. “awesome! two only children! I knew I liked you.” He highfived me sloppily as he kept one hand on the wheel. “do I get any hints about where we are going yet?” I asked, as he merged from one freeway onto the next.
“It’s Mexican” was all I could get out of him.
After two games of twenty Questions and one game of I spy, we finally made it to our destination. It was a shack. Quite literally. It was a shack in the middle of the road called Cactus tacos. I was underwhelmed, but Ben’s face lit up.
“We’re here!” he said as he flicked off his seat belt and opened his car door. I gathered my things, and he came around to my side. He opened the door for me before I could open it for myself.
“Why, thank you!” I said over the dinging of his car, reminding us that the door needed to be closed.
I crawled out and stood next to him.
“So this is the place, huh?” I said. He shut the door behind me and the dinging relented.
“I know it doesn’t look like much. But you said you were up for an adventure and these are honestly the best tacos I’ve ever had in my life. do you like horchata?”
“What is horchata?”
“It’s rice milk with cinnamon. Just—trust me. you gotta try one.” as we walked toward the taco stand, he put his hand on the small of my back, guiding me ever so gently. It felt so comforting and so natural that it made me want to turn around into his arms. It made me want to touch more of him with more of me. Instead, I stood and stared at the menu.
“If it’s okay,” Ben said, moving his hand up my back and now onto my shoulder, “I’ll order for you. I fully respect your right to order for yourself. It’s just that I’ve been here many, many times and I know everything on this menu.”
“Be my guest,” I said.
“Do you like chicken, steak, pork?”
“No pork,” I said.
“No pork?” Ben said, incredulous. “I’m kidding. I don’t like pork either. all right!” He rubbed his hands together eagerly. “Perdón?” he said through the window to the man behind the counter. “Queria cuatro tacos tinga de pollo y cuatro tacos carne asada, por favor? Queso extra en todos. Ah, y dos horchatas, por favor.” the man showed him the size of the horchatas with a look that said, “are you sure you want two of these?” and Ben nodded. “Sí, sí, lo sé. Dos. Por favor.”
I don’t know what it was exactly that made Ben seem so irresistible at that moment. I don’t know if it was because he seemed so knowledgeable about something I knew nothing about (spanish), or whether it was because any time a man spoke another language it was inherently sexy to me (because that was also true). I don’t know. I just know that as I stood there, unable to understand what was being communicated around me, I thought Ben ross was the sexiest man I’d ever seen. He was so secure in himself, so sure that this would all turn out okay. that’s what it was. It was the confidence. He spoke spanish to the man at the taco stand like it never occurred to him he might sound like a complete idiot. and that was exactly why he did not sound like a complete idiot.
“Wow,” I said, as he handed me my horchata.“that’s impressive.” “I swear that’s about the extent of my knowledge,” he said as he unwrapped a straw and put it in my drink. “But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to impress you.”