Notes: The last part before Ben heads to Concord. Setting the stage for all sorts of things, including Histrionic Family Time! I’ll be modeling all interactions after my mother’s side of the family, whom I’ve not seen in a decade and still have nightmares about. Yes, they’re that potent.
Title: Love Letters
Part Twenty-Six: If I Wanted To Know, I’d Ask.
There had been a time in college, when Ben had been confident and self-assured and, frankly, arrogant, when he had wondered why so many of his peers were so interested in what everyone else was doing. Who cared if Karly’s boyfriend’s mom had gotten through surgery okay, what did it matter if Peyton’s dog had arthritis? It seemed like people who barely knew each other, barely even spent any time together had a check list of minutiae pop up in their brains the moment they got together, so they’d have something ready-made to chat about when they had to speak. How are you? How’s your family? How’s your dog? How’s your car? It seemed ridiculous, especially in light of the fact that usually, neither person knew the other one well enough to care. Ridiculous.
Ben had asked his one and only girlfriend, Ignacia, what the point of it was. Ignacia was from Portugal, studying English and Engineering and similarly awkward to Ben in some ways, although she had a much larger social circle.
“There doesn’t need to be a point to it, it’s just polite,” Ignacia had replied. “Those sorts of questions make up the art of conversation.”
“Those sorts of questions barely even constitute conversation, much less have anything to do with art.”
Ignacia rolled her eyes, magnified even larger than they already were thanks to her glasses. “Fine, then call it the art of small talk. It’s what breaks barriers down between people, it is a way of showing someone that you care about them, that you’re interested in learning more. Even if you really aren’t, it’s still polite to participate.”
“So what you’re saying is that small talk gives everyone a socially-sanctioned opportunity for voyeurism?”
“Curiosity is not voyeurism!”
“Yes it is,” Ben argued. “I guess for some people those questions are reflexive politeness, even though I don’t think it’s very polite, but then for everyone else it’s an opportunity to pry into someone’s personal life and hope something salacious falls out.”
Her brow wrinkled. “Salacious?”
“Oh. You really think this?” Ignacia had asked, looking at Ben askance.
She sighed. “I will never be able to introduce you to my avó.”
They broke up a month later.
It took Ben a while to get over his personal hang-ups and learn to handle small talk, and he still wasn’t very good at it. He wasn’t interesting enough for most people to really want to know about He could talk at great length about his family history though, and most of the time people found that interesting enough that he could get them off the subject of himself and onto the subject of Benjamin Franklin pretty easily.
Ben remembered his mother had been the same way. Deborah Franklin Bache had been a physically unremarkable woman, small and serious, who had inherited her father’s square jaw and long nose. On him they looked masculine and professorial; on her they formed a blend that seemed off somehow, her eyes too small and her forehead too low to compensate for her loss in outward femininity. Coupled with the fact that Deborah was a scholar who didn’t really care about how she looked or what she wore, she was far from an easy person to talk to. Ben remembered his classmates teasing him the few times his mother came to pick him up—“Is that your mom or your dad?” they’d asked, laughing a little. It had hurt but Ben hadn’t said anything, and if his mother had ever noticed that something was wrong with her son, she never asked. They had shared a house, she had kept him clothed and fed and checked his homework, and that was the vast majority of their relationship. It had been the same with his grandfather, which was where Ben figured Deborah had learned it.
Family interactions weren’t comfortable for Ben. Friends, well, Ben actually had those so he felt somewhat qualified to deal with Ryan’s friends, even though the only one he could honestly tolerate was Jasmine. The family stuff, though…that was shaping up to be downright intimidating.
Ryan got down to Concord okay and moved back into his old bedroom. Thus began an all-consuming stint of helping his mother, his sister-in-law and his niece and nephew, who became Ryan’s whole world. Ben would get texts throughout the day that he had no idea how to respond to.
Joey put glue on his hands then rubbed them in his hair. Elmers not super thank god.
Molly and I ditched ballet for ice cream. Promised not to tell her mom.
Cheryl is dating someone now. Another cop. He comes to get her and she doesn’t get back until just before the kids wake up.
What was the appropriate response to that? To any of those? Ben usually settled on fairly nondescript emoticon responses when he had no clue what to say, and Ryan hadn’t seemed to mind yet, so…maybe he could fake it long enough to figure it out.
Ben kept sending letters, and Ryan kept sending pictures. Most of them were funny, but a few weren’t. Like the sketch of he’d done of Joey at Brody’s grave.
The grave stone was large and kind of ostentatious, and Ryan wrote that Joey was fascinated with it. He’d run his hands over the carved letters and the cool stone, then touch the grass beneath it, then the stone again. Ryan said that Joey was going through a phase where textures intrigued him. It wasn’t necessarily a good phase, either.
Three days before Ben was due to fly out, Ryan called him up in a panic. “My paintings are ruined,” he said without preamble.
“Ruined how?” Ben asked.
“Joey, he…I was teaching him a little bit about how to paint, I gave him some acrylics and a canvas to work with because acrylics are pretty easy to use and he seemed to like it, and he…when I wasn’t around, I was off getting Molly from her violin lesson, Joey covered his hands with paint and rubbed them all over my canvases. I got most of the paint off some of them before it could dry and a few just had a spot here and there, but five of them are just worthless now.” He sighed, and Ben could practically hear Ryan pulling his own hair. “And I have to get them to Jasmine in two weeks if this volume is going to go to print on time, and I just don’t know how that’s going to happen. Fuck. Fuck.”
“You didn’t lock your door?” was the first thing Ben thought to say, and he immediately wanted to smack himself for it when the line stayed silent for a while.
“No,” Ryan said at last. “My mom was supposed to be supervising Joey, I thought it would be okay, but she got tired and took a nap. And Cheryl was out.”
“I didn’t mean to…I know it’s not your fault. I just…”
“It’s not anyone’s fault,” Ryan said tiredly. “It’s just that I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Ask for an extension,” Ben replied. This much, at least, he understood. “Tell Jasmine you need more time, get her to bargain with the publishers.”
“Yeah, that’s the sort of thing New York Times bestsellers can get away with. Small-time comic book artists, not so much.”
“You won’t know unless you try,” Ben said. “Really, call her. She’ll help straighten it out. It’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Ryan sounded exhausted. “I had all these plans to show you around town and go to the speedway and the parks. Now I’m going to be stuck at home redoing these paintings instead. I hope that won’t bother you too much.”
Stuck at Ryan’s home, surrounded by his family, all of them coming together for a huge, frenetic birthday celebration? Ben had booked a hotel room—his last experience had taught him the wisdom of that—but for every hour that wasn’t spent sleeping, he knew he’d be off-kilter. He couldn’t just say that, though. It was too late to cancel the trip, even though the thought of going out there was beginning to fill Ben with dread instead of anticipation. “I’ll be fine,” he lied.
They hung up a little while later, and Ben immediately called Michael.
“What’s up, luv?”
“I’m going to fuck everything up.”
Michael snorted. “Feet feeling a bit cold at the thought of meeting the family, then?”
“I’m terrible with families.”
“Oh I know,” Michael said, surprising Ben a little with how readily he’d agreed. “I was planning to prime you for bloody weeks before introducing you to my mum, but fortunately we didn’t get that far.”
“Thanks,” Ben said dryly, feeling a little offended.
“Don’t be stroppy, Ben, it’s just the truth. You’re a wonderful friend and an excellent lover, but you’re not exactly the type to take home to the family. You couldn’t even pretend to be interested in my nieces.”
“It’s none of my business!” Ben exclaimed.
“It’s your business if it’s your boyfriend’s business. You’ve got to take these people seriously; you can’t dismiss them like you did the artsy people at his flat.” Ben had told Michael about his trip to Boston, and where it could have gone better as far as he was concerned.
Ben rubbed his eyes. “I just want to see Ryan. That was why I was going in the first place, not to get to know his entire extended family.”
“Life has a way of springing things on us, luv. Think of it this way: if you’re serious about Ryan, then you’ll have to take the plunge with his family at some point, it might as well be now.” Michael paused. “Are you serious about him?”
“More serious than I’ve ever been about anyone else,” Ben admitted. “I love him, I’m just…nervous, I guess.”
“Just be polite and take his side in any family arguments and you’ll likely be fine,” Michael said.
“Family arguments? Are those likely?”
“An extended southern family who’ve recently suffered a terrible loss coming together for the ostensibly-happy occasional of celebrating multiple birthdays?” Michael snorted. “What do you think?”
Ben thought he might not survive, honestly. But it was too late to back out now.