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Gary Benchley, Rock Star

At the Pavilion

Is love different when it’s declared in the big apple, and if so, do you have to tell your co-workers about it?

Dear Reader,

Thank you for your patience during my five-week vacation from writing my story for The Morning News. Rosecrans has put me on a schedule, and going forward, I will appear here every two weeks. In answer to your emails, I am well, I am not dating men, I love the Von Bondies, and I do not need a kitten at this time.

Now, please return with me to the halcyon days of late July, 2004, and allow me to tell you what happened.

Your friend,
Gary Benchley


* * *

Fahrenheit 9/11 left me feeling totally creed, as washed out and used up as a Zeppelin groupie at the end of a tour. There’s a part in the movie where a woman reads her son’s last letter to her, right after she learns he has died in Iraq. Watching it, my eyes were glistening, and so were Para’s. I reached over and put my hand on her knee, and squeezed. But she didn’t squeeze back. She just looked at the screen. No reaction, no moment of connection.

After the movie, we left the theater, and I was surprised to find out the United States was still there. On screen, America had crumbled into ashes, but here, in Brooklyn, near the entrance to Prospect Park, there was the half-light of sunset, and cars tootling by with music coming out of their stereos.

Gary: You want to go for a walk?
Para: I fucking hate George Bush.
Gary: The weather is really not bad.

I’d only wandered through Prospect Park once before. It was amazingly quiet compared to the street. I could hear my guitar case knocking against my knee, and Para’s flip-flops paddling over the asphalt. To fill the silence, I said, “I don’t know if I like Prospect Park as much as Central Park.”

“I didn’t know it was a competition,” said Para.

“Maybe the parks could have a battle,” I said, starting to ramble. “Central Park would be like, ‘my fountain is bigger, motherfucker,’ and Prospect Park would be like, ‘hey, I am so much better for bicyclists,’ and Central Park would say, ‘how many movies have you been in?’ and Prospect Park’s all like, ‘maybe I could come over and jog around your reservoir, Central Park, except for the part where I get raped and beheaded.’ And Central Park would be like—”

“Gary,” Para said, taking my hand. I smiled and went quiet at her touch.

She took a deep breath. She said, “That movie made me upset.”


Talking about Central Park brought to mind the upcoming Republican National Convention. It was in the news, Para said: the big march that was supposed to end in Central Park was being re-routed to Queens. Para is a serious marcher, and keeps tabs on these things. I’m a marcher in theory, but the opportunities in upstate New York were limited. During college, I had taken back the night a few times, and with a few dozen peers, I’d yelled angry words at the provost’s window regarding free trade. But that wasn’t the same as big-city activism. Para’s friends, many of whom she has met via her blog, were already planning large-scale activities involving balloons and puppets.

As we walked up a hill in the park, a steady stream of bike nerds passed us, all in Spandex. What golf is to the suburbs, bicycles are to Brooklyn, and these men were in the race of their lives. In contrast, I was tired just from watching their legs pump, tired from band practice earlier that day, tired from the lamentations of the movie, and tired from the heat. I pointed to a bench, and Para and I sat together.

Para: [with false, but much appreciated enthusiasm] I forgot to ask, how was rehearsal?
Gary: [animated] It was awesome.
Para: Awesome. [already bored] Is the band going to work?
Gary: Absolutely!
Para: What are you working on?

Para thinks my music career is a joke, so I didn’t want to push my luck with stories of potential tours or Johnny Cash covers. I looked around for something to change the drift of the conversation and spied four men in black-and-yellow bumblebee suits riding by, flying down the hill.

Gary: Look! It’s Stryper! They ride bicycles now.
Para: How do you know Stryper? That was before your time.

My older brother had been a huge Stryper fan, I explained, and Stryper was a major part of my burgeoning rock consciousness. When I was nine I gazed up at his large Stryper poster (next to the more secular Pink Floyd “Momentary Lapse of Reason” poster), and asked, “who is that girl?” That girl, my brother explained with a sneer, was Oz Foz, a master of the double-necked guitar, dedicated to both pyrotechnics and Christ.

Para: Wow. I only made fun of Stryper. There were these fundamentalist kids in my high school who loved them, and the T-shirts were just amazing. I never heard any of their music.
Gary: It’s some remarkable music.
Para: Does he still listen to them? Your brother?
Gary: Not anymore. He has pretty good taste, if you discount the Steve Miller.
Para: Where is he, again?
Gary: San Diego.
Para: But he’s not going to Iraq.
Gary: I don’t think so.

My brother could be sent to Iraq, but I wasn’t too worried. As a junior lieutenant on one of the largest aircraft carriers in the world, the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan (motto: “Peace through strength”), he is rarely put in front of bullets. He’s in charge of loading things into other things—like plane engines, or crates of food, or bombs.

Para: Does it freak you out to have a brother in the Navy?
Gary: What do you mean?
Para: Like, we’re going to see Fahrenheit 9/11
Gary: Like, would he be wondering why I hate America?
Para: Yeah.
Gary: We were raised by a pretty serious Democrat father. My mom is political too. So it’s OK.

Para was raised by agnostic high-school teachers in Vermont. Her father taught science, and her mother taught English. (Her folks were divorced during her freshman year in college.) When she was 15, Para had serious conversations about menstruation and civil rights with her mother, and rode horses. When I was 15, I was going to Presbyterian youth group and listening to Seattle grunge.

Gary: We’re liberal Presbyterians.
Para: Which ones are the Presbyterians? Different than Catholics?
Gary: The Catholics eat evil cookies and worship a man in a hat.
Para: Presbyterians believe that?
Gary: No, we’re—they’re usually very tolerant. That is, Church of Pres U.S.A. is tolerant. There are also Evangelical Presbyterians, and they’re more about Bible lovin.’

We sat in stillness for five minutes, watching the bicyclists and the fading sun as it dappled the leaves. I thought for a moment about religion, about my own spiritual path. I wondered what my bandmates believed in. Was I playing guitar with atheists? Was someone practicing Zen? I could see Scott going in for Zen. Jacob seemed the atheist type, with his communist tendencies, but he could also have something weird going on—maybe he’s a Zoroastrian. As for Katherine, I had no idea. No religion would fit her.

I was raised to be a churchgoer. Para wasn’t. She knows a lot about Zen from books and living in Vermont, and has divined her future from both tarot cards and I Ching hexagrams. She knows Catholics hate abortion, and that there are fundamentalists, and Baptists, and that they are bad. But she doesn’t really understand the huge variety of experience that is American Protestantism. She never read an annotated, kid-friendly New Testament, or drank apple cider on a hayride while a 22-year old youth pastor sang Harry Chapin songs. She never was asked to commit her life to Jesus, at age 14, as I was. It was a beautiful September day. I took my bible, sang a hymn, was welcomed into the church, and then I went home and cranked the Sabbath.

However, Para believes in God. Or rather, she believes in a magical benevolent force that moves through the universe, a sort of Jedi/Zen/Edie Brickell theology. Whereas I, who know the Apostle’s creed and a miscellany of other prayers, psalms, and hymns by heart, and can sing a rousing version of “40” by U2—I don’t believe in God at all.

I lost my faith when I was 19. One day I was down in the dorm basement, doing laundry, tapping out the rhythm to “Cocoon” off of Vespertine as I sat on the washer. In my heart, I felt the world was a good place, and that things would work out. Then, suddenly, the washer kicked into the spin cycle, and a quiet, inner voice spoke to me. It didn’t speak to me in words, but in impressions and emotions, but what it said was something like: “Gary, the world is not good or evil, it’s indifferent. God has no plan for you. Also, snakes don’t talk, and God has no children.” I looked around, but nothing had changed. The washing machine kept spinning.

It was a truly blessed moment for me, and I definitely felt called to athiesm. Atheism was something that finally made sense. Before I converted, I would see the Christ on Campus guys with their iron crucifix necklaces, and feel a sense of guilt for being such a poor Christian, for all of my doubts and my resistance to churchgoing. But after I came to atheism, I simply wished them well in their own journeys. I got heavily into science, and learned about the heat death of the universe. I stopped listening to Slayer for the lyrics, and began to enjoy how much they truly rocked musically.

I though of all this while I held hands with Para. And then, without saying much, we wandered back to her place. Surprisingly, we had sex, or rather, I had sex, and she wiggled around in an accommodating, comforting way. Afterwards she told me that she had been feeling depressed lately.

Gary: I knew something was wrong. I was worried it was me.
Para: Oh, totally not you. You’re really good. No, I just get this thing.
Gary: [growing closer, feeling his heart expand.] Depression?
Para: It’s really rough. I can’t remember which socks to wear. I forget to eat.
Gary: I’ll remind you to eat.
Para: Sometimes I don’t eat for like three days.
Gary: You should keep pie on hand.
Para: That would work.
Gary: Emergency pie.
Para: And so I went back to my therapist.
Gary: Who is?
Para: Doctor Adams.
Gary: He or she?
Para: She. And she put me back on meds, and they are definitely helping.
Gary: Good.
Para: But they make me a little less than motivated regarding sex.
Gary: [figuring that he shouldn’t blurt out, “I noticed, and I am losing my mind”] Ah.
Para: Which is tough on you.
Gary: [baldly lying] No, it’s OK.
Para: [sighing] You’re great. It’s just no fun.
Gary: Well, how can I help?
Para: Just be patient.
Gary: You know, I really do love you.

Suddenly the air was gone from the room, as if a thunderstorm had rolled in. The words had slipped out of me. I’d had no intention of uttering them.

The thing is, I had been feeling a strong, loving feeling towards Para for the preceding month. I could see her struggling with depression, trying to work things out, and I wanted to help her, to hold her up, and make things work for her. If that’s not love, what is?

But in New York, love is a huge deal, as complex as real estate. A confession of love in Albany is no big problem. You go to a few movies, you make out, you confess love. If I’d been dating Para in Albany, I would have confessed love eons ago. Love in New York, however, meant all sorts of things. You can’t hide love, so we’d have to come clean to our officemates about the relationship, even though they already knew. Being in love meant that, if I went on tour, I’d have to call Para every night, and I’d have to turn down offers of fellatio from tattooed co-eds with purple-dyed pigtails, wearing Hard Candy nail polish and baby-doll dresses. Having love out in the open meant discussing Para’s biological clock—she had already told me about her life plan, and how it involved children. Now I was involved, involved in babies. She had already picked out the brand of stroller she’d own (McLaren), the gender of baby she’d have (tomboy), and the square footage of the brownstone she’d need in order to be a good mother (1150).

Para: That is so…sweet. [pause] Thank you.

I was baffled, and hurt, and relieved, and worried. What comes after you confess your love to your pill-using depressed girlfriend, and she says “Thanks?” What is the correct next step? I had no idea, and no one to guide me.

Para fell asleep quickly. She can drift off like a leaf in the breeze. And normally it takes very little for me to fall asleep, but the idea of love was there in the room like some sort of unexploded explosive device, humming. The love bomb squad would have to be called in to defuse it.

Or maybe it would just stay there, a 10-ton killing machine ticking under the bed. I looked at it, and wondered: did I mean that? Do I love Para? Or, do I want to be in love? Maybe, I thought, in 100 years, when all of these buildings have reverted to wildflowers, because people live in anti-gravity castles in the air, someone will wander by. Some young couple with microchips in their spines. They’ll walk right over this exact spot, and the love bomb that I dropped tonight will finally go off. And for a moment, the world will be choked with love. The rat will lie down with the pigeon. The exterminator will embrace the cockroach. And the beggar will throw his quarters into the air and dance in a fountain with the cops.