The Brief Luscious Life of William Benjamin
It was his voice you would notice first: low, silky, reassuring, playful, exceedingly British. Then came that smile, open, ready to break into laughter, followed by mischievous eyes, as if your favorite childhood friend had suddenly developed into a grown man with golden earrings and the strongest, warmest hug you could ever have in your life. His was a body designed to give comfort, and he never shied away from that gift. Instead, he cherished it and, most importantly, shared it.
After hearing his voice and seeing his beautiful dark face, you would have to pay attention to his hands. They were strong, his hands, but also nimble and constantly in motion. To be with him was to see them stirring, pushing, lighting, folding, popping, whisking, shaking, nearly always enveloped in the flavorful mist of a busy kitchen. But here’s the thing: most of the times, those hands would eventually bring you the spoils of its many creations. You would be sitting or standing, drinking and talking, and those hands would bring you tray after tray of the most cozy solace, to fill you up and make you whole again. To him, food was not mere sustenance but immediate affection, a display of his love for you and life itself, and you would feel so very lucky to be there with him, sharing a meal you knew came straight from the heart.
This was William. This was the man we all loved. This was the friend we will miss for the remainder of our now less-radiant lives.
He was a handsome man. Also, stubborn. Occasionally, bullish. But usually sweet, welcoming and kind, even if he would probably be the last one to admit it. His faults, minute evidence of his humanity, remained mostly imperceptible, diluted as they were in an ebullient pool of laughs, steaming casseroles and spontaneous dance moves. It was nearly impossible to resist his charm, which he knew how to use, sneaky fox that he was. Any gathering would always be enriched by his presence, and he would shine, our William, like a dashing sun surrounded by minor planets, mixing and mingling, guffawing with his entire body as he rushed from discussion to gossip to a stream of anecdotes, or “talking rubbish” as he would later dismissively say, an exultant glint still sparkling in his eyes.
For all his outwardly shenanigans and joyful embrace of those around him, he was also secretive. At some point we all had to recognize we had access to different shades of William, with only a lucky few allowed into his glaring entirety. This was a cool cat after all, trying to adjust life to his own terms. For instance, any conversation enumerating hardships or discussing the capricious nature of life would be interrupted by William’s standard phrase “I wasn’t made to suffer”, which depending on circumstance and disposition could be further embellished by another of his preferred phrases, the colorful “Fuck that for a game of soldiers!” These words, flowing from his mellifluous voice and enunciated in a perfect BBC accent, would be emptied of any hint of crassness by the time they reached your ears, flowering into a sort of lexical honeydew instead – with a trace of spice, just as we liked it.
From his Guyanese roots to the streets of London where he grew and the Amsterdam canals where I like to believe he bloomed, William’s life was graced by two recurring themes: friendship and food. Both were naturally intertwined, as anyone who knew him could confirm. To meet him was to eventually be fed by him. Nonetheless, you must understand he wasn’t a chef or one of those meticulous cooks populating our television sets; no, nothing as prosaic would suit him. He made chicken, fish, fried plantain, various salads, sweet and savory treats and a chocolate cake as dark as his skin (and just as gorgeous), but there were no names to his dishes, only his happiness in seeing you taste them and utter the inevitable words: “William, this is delicious!” He gave true meaning to the expression “soul food”, because that’s what he cooked: food to replenish the soul. The best part? He knew we would always be hungry.
My friendship with William can be traced back to 2006, amidst the cacophony of a call-center surrounded by the red-bricked beauty of Amsterdam. There were many languages spoken therein, and many voices and accents speaking them: Dutch, French, Portuguese, German, Romanian, Spanish, Canadian, all soaring and falling as the hours slowly melted away. But there was one voice you couldn’t help but notice, and be swayed by its timbre. I searched for it the first time I heard it, rising from my cluttered desk like a meerkat gauging the distance of the Kalahari Desert. Quickly I discovered it belonged to a dapper black man of an uncertain age. He was clearly older than most of us, but his age was betrayed by an impish smile and constant outbursts of the most charming, contagious exuberance. It didn’t take much to befriend him; I think I said “Hello”.
Soon we were cracking silly jokes and disrupting office work. Here’s another thing you would love about William: he knew how to make you laugh. The man was funny! He would have you convulsing like a 5-year-old on speed if he wanted to. We both enjoyed witty banter and wordplay, but he was much better at it than I ever was. By the time I managed to make him giggle he would have me drying tears from laughter.
We didn’t meet much outside of work, at least not in the beginning. Even at work, our hours were irregular and often disparate, meaning our encounters were usually tinged with serendipity. We led different lives, enriched by different people and colors. It’s probable we would remain chatty work buddies and not much else if he hadn’t one day resolved to cast his irresistible spell: he invited me to dinner. Over food, wine and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear (his favorite), our bond grew stronger. Stories were shared, and numbers. He was nearly twice my age, but not only did he look much better than I did, he also displayed the beguiling energy of a teenager. I had a hard time keeping up.
Nothing much changed after our first meal together. The world kept spinning, we returned to our roles and to the other people in our lives.
One day my phone rang. It was William (who else could it be with that voice?), whom I hadn’t seen in a while. He asked me if I would be willing to help him move his furniture to a storage unit. He seemed surprised when I said “Sure, when do you want me?” Following a flippant remark about my choice of wording, he set a time and date. I accepted and hung up, completely unaware I had just set my life on a new and delectable course.
Some time later, moving day arrived. It was an unusually warm day in Amsterdam. The skies were the color of sapphire and the breeze carried the distinct sounds of bicycle bells and a new morning. William was climbing into the open back of a van, drenched in sweat, holding the higher end of a large sofa I helped carry. We had been discussing the insane prices of apartment rentals and our current discontent at the options available to individual tenants, which we were both on the verge of becoming. As I felt my veins pop and any remnant of strength being drained from my arms, William suddenly stopped and asked “Why don’t we move in together?”, as if it were the most logical conclusion to a pressing problem. He could be mad and spontaneous like that. I replied “Sure!”, not only because I liked him but also because I was about to let a heavy sofa fall on my feet and was in no condition to argue.
A few days later, we met for a drink and a questionnaire. I was only aware of the first part though. It was William who came up with the questions, mostly about my social history and general grooming habits – “to make sure you’re not some crazy white boy”, as he graciously put it. He wasn’t too dissatisfied with my answers, which sealed the deal and led to a few busy weeks cycling around various Amsterdam neighborhoods. Eventually we found a place which suited our needs, and on a rainy October day of 2006 we officially became housemates.
There is no whisper of sentimentality when I say my years with William were some of the happiest of my life.
We were an odd couple. A skinny white boy and a burly black man with nearly twenty years of age difference between them, sharing a modest apartment, trying to get by without getting on each other’s nerves, slowly discovering and adapting to quirks and routines and an entirely new personality.
We had so. much. fun!
As the days and weeks and then years went by, we learned a lot about each other. We took up new jobs, made fresh decisions, met new people, shared the ones we liked. To my own circle, William, or Will as I would call him until the last time we hugged, was none other than “the husband”. It was a silly joke, but one full of affection. To any stray cat on the street which tickled my fancy I would say “You HAVE to meet William!” So I brought them home with me, and they would feel Will’s buoyancy, and they would taste his food, and they would also fall a little bit in love with the dashing man I called “husband”.
What I enjoyed the most while living with William was the domestic thrill of uncovering his stories, his recipes, his multicolored moods and infatuations. Any day in his company would turn into a stream of surprises. For one, he was incredibly adept at defying other people’s expectations of him: he would talk like the most articulate BBC news anchor, but could also curse with the vigor of a drunk construction worker; or he could give the appearance of a sensible, pragmatic man, but would become giddy at the news of a new Harry Potter book or a new season of Doctor Who. For all his worldliness, there was still the sparkle of innocence shining in his eyes.
Although very different beings, we shared quite a few traits and preferences. Two of them stand out above all others: our love of movies and travel.
The first led to endless discussions, passionate ratings and rantings, not to mention plenty of cinematic recommendations. We usually went to the cinema separately, so movie nights became a ritual of expectation and curiosity. “How was it?” would be the first words uttered as soon as we set eyes on each other. Nonetheless, my own recommendations were normally met with yet another of his trademark expressions: “Are there any black people in it?” If I came home raving about some new independent movie, that would be the first thing he asked. He said it half-jokingly, more as a cheeky tease than anything else, but it also shed a light into his own personal world, one where many times he would be the only black man in the room; where he had no choice but to be burdened by a history which cast him as an outsider. Yes, there was vulnerability under those muscles and sunny disposition.
As for travel, it never failed to brighten our common lives. Wanderlust flowed through our veins, although I soon realized I had a lot of catching up to do. When he wasn’t visiting friends and family in London, he was continuing his journeys around the world, quite often also visiting friends and family. You see, William’s chummy circle was as vast and far-reaching as his heart. Although one of his defining characteristics was his constant pursuit of a good bargain (I can see him clearly, sitting in our living room, hunching over flyers displaying various “special offers”), he would have no qualms about splurging on plane tickets. If he wasn’t visiting friends in Australia, he would be joining family in Canada, or some other variation of this theme. When he said “I’ll visit,” he meant it. He valued friendship above all else, which was the reason I found myself lost in Queens on my second trip to New York, trying to deliver Amsterdam treats to some friends of his I had never met. With William, this was par for the course. As you know by now, he attributed great value to food as well, which was how I found myself scouring the Jewish neighborhoods of Manhattan, trying to make sense of my surroundings so I could bring him rugelach. A wasted afternoon would mean nothing, because I would be visualizing his face when he opened his box of delicacies. There was hardly greater pleasure than to see him truly happy.
My own reward would be provided as soon as I opened our door, exhausted by rarified air and altitude. Coming home to William was like reliving a warm childhood memory: it was cozy, it smelled good, it was safe. It was all I needed.
Nothing could illustrate the nature of our days together more accurately than the hushed glimmer imbuing every 25th of December. Never in my life have I enjoyed Christmas as I did with William. You know those postcard living rooms seeping through every cloying Christmas movie or television special, brimming with warmth and mouth-watering food and general happiness? That’s what Christmas with William looked and felt like, minus the excess sweetness. For 6 years, joined by the wonderful Ingolf and later by Elle, we had champagne for breakfast, homemade rum cake for dessert and a seemingly never-ending cascade of food throughout the day, all to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin, occasionally interrupted by a seasonal movie or, more significantly, Doctor Who’s Christmas Special. Everything about us and our living room was easy, comfortable and soothing. At the center of it all would be William, rushing between kitchen and decorated table, bringing nourishment and good tidings, sharing stories and presents, illuminating our lives.
But I could never give you an accurate description of William. From the dreadlocks of his youth to the impeccable trimness of his Amsterdam days, his was a path lined with people, spices and laughter, too abundant to properly pin down. I could tell you again of his voice or his smile, or the invigorating power of his embrace, or his tender stillness when I cut his hair, or how he waved his arms when he danced, or how he sang passionately but frequently out of tune, or the husky smell of his skin, or his unbridled enthusiasm for life and his playful pursuit of pleasure.
All of these things are mere details of a much larger whole, more complex and mysterious than I could ever convey. Of one thing I am certain: you would have loved him, just as we all did.
Although I am unable to forgive the cancer which ravaged his body with such unexpected violence, I know Will would not want the clocks to stop, the phones to be cut off or the pianos to be silenced. Wallowing in sadness would be contrary to his entire being and outlook on life. “Fuck that for a game of soldiers,” as he would say. Keep on moving, follow your dreams, see the world, laugh, love, eat, LIVE.
You may ask yourself why I’m telling you all this, trying to give you a glimpse of a man who never shied away from being ordinary and who liked nothing better than to indulge in simple pleasures. I’m telling you about William because, even if he led an unpretentious existence, he couldn’t help but be extraordinary. I’m doing what he taught me to do: I’m sharing my love.
Ultimately, we may all be stardust, but William sparkled brighter. We will cry, we will miss him, we will remember him, we will say “I wish you had met William!” to all those we deem worthy of our love, we will know his life was only brief if we assign a number to it, we will dance to his favorite songs, we will eventually let go of the pain, we will keep on living, we will do our best to adjust to a world without William – a world that is now dimmer and less extraordinary.