Notes: Oh my gosh, my vacation wasn’t the productive thing I had imagined it to be. Mostly it was me trailing after my MIL like a baby duck while my husband worked on his homework and her boyfriend cut hair. The lady likes company and I like her, so it was a good match. But for fuck’s sake, California, why are you so goddamn cold? Two hours north of LA and I was freezing all the time. I got back to Colorado, stepped out into 28 degree F temperatures and sighed with relief. It’s just different here. Less humidity, I guess. Aaanyway…
This is a 3k Ryan POV. I’m halfway through the epilogue and will bestow it presently. Enjoy, darlins, and thanks for being patient about my scheduling issues. The trip was nice, but I’m so happy to be back home, I can’t even tell you.
Title: Love Letters
Part Forty: Ryan POV: Breaking Ice
The thing was that, before Ben, Ryan didn’t really understand the meaning of the word “friend.”
Ryan was good with words, he always had been, they came a lot easier to him than numbers ever did. Not as easy as colors and shapes, constantly blending in the back of his mind as his errant hand leaked doodles onto the edges of his homework, but pretty easy. He was reading alone by the age of five, and at the age of seven he stole the family dictionary and propped it up in his room and used it whenever he got to a word he couldn’t understand. When he was in the third grade, Bunnicula became Ryan’s favorite book, and he spent one evening looking up the proper definitions for all the words he didn’t quite get.
Admonish: a mild criticism, warning or reminder. That one was easy, Ryan’s mom did that all the time. Admonish, admonish—it sounded better than scold, to his ears, and so Ryan adopted it as his own. His mother admonished him. That made sense.
Devious: sneaky, sly. That was a good one for Brody. Only he wasn’t as sneaky as he thought he was, because Ryan knew all about the tree house Brody had built in the woods where he took girls sometimes. It was a noisy place.
Bewilderment: confusion. The look on Pamela’s face when Father told her she wasn’t going to go to prom with someone like Charlie Jackson, who was a year older than Pamela and black and had given her flowers when he asked her out. Pamela had been excited, she had already picked out a dress to match Charlie’s suit, but when Father said no, you had to listen. Pamela was aghast (surprised, shocked, horrified), it was a predicament (a difficult, puzzling or unpleasant situation) but in the end she didn’t go to prom, not with Charlie, not with anyone. Ryan understood much better after he looked all this up. Bunnicula had the best words.
There was one of them in particular that he tried to assign to Father: blight. The dictionary said it was a plant disease, which caused the plant to wither and die. Ryan didn’t think Father was a plant, but he did wonder if maybe there was a blight inside of him anyway, something tiny and withered that should have been leafy and green and full of life. That was the only reason Ryan could think of that would explain why his Father was the way he was sometimes.
Ryan didn’t really have friends, nothing beyond classmates that he sometimes did projects with, kids who didn’t mind sitting next to him on the bus and the occasional boy or girl who wanted him to draw them a picture. Ryan thought that was normal. Pamela never brought people home, after all, and Brody was too busy playing football and making out with girls to have friends. It wasn’t until Ryan got ahold of one of Ben’s letters—not that he was looking, he wasn’t snooping for that one, Brody had left it on his desk and Ryan had only been looking for a pencil, honest!—and read through it that he started to wonder if maybe he had it wrong.
Ben wrote about his mother, he wrote about classes, he wrote about living overseas and how much he hated spelling things in German but loved to say the words.
Schwangerschaftverhütungsmittel is the word for contraceptive. Can you imagine asking a girl if she’s got one of those before getting it on with her? Another one I like is lebensmüde. I think it means world-weary, or it might possible mean suicidal. Either way, it’s awesome.
Well yeah, that was pretty awesome, but what was even better was that Brody had someone who wanted to share words with him. Cool foreign words, no less. Wow.
Naturally Ryan had to find out all he could about Ben after that. Naturally, that led him to the other letters, and naturally he had to read them. It was all Ryan could do not to write to Ben himself, but he didn’t think Brody would appreciate that. He probably didn’t want to share his friend.
The letters Ryan could scrounge from Ben were always interesting, fascinating, a glimpse into a life that Ryan had never known could exist. It seemed like Ben was always traveling, always seeing things, always taking care of himself, by himself, and that was so strange as to be almost impossible for Ryan to conceptualize. In the Kuzniar household, you did what your parents told you. Specifically your father. All of Ben’s words were bright and strange and fresh like a breeze, while all of the words in their home just got duller and drabber and darker.
Things didn’t really change until Ryan came out. It wasn’t the fact that he was gay that caused problems, really; Ryan was pretty certain his parents already knew and were just ignoring it. It was the fact that he put the word “gay” out there, blatantly, publicly, in such a way that it couldn’t be ignored, that made it unforgiveable. Being sent away from his home, as dysfunctional as it was, almost broke Ryan. Being offered Ben’s letters by Brody, after his brother had so vehemently defended his territory not long ago, patched up a little of that rift. Brody was the means by which Ryan learned both “friend” and “family” the way he thought they were meant to be understood, and he was forever grateful to his big brother for that.
Ryan moved beyond words into other ways of expressing emotion, into painting, into art, into comics and graphic novels and simple sculpture. Art became verdant, benediction, even insufflation when Ryan felt like he would die if he didn’t have some way to speak about everything he was feeling. Doing art led to finding other artists, and eventually to finding Jasmine, and she became the first real person to redefine “friend” for Ryan.
It wasn’t luck that had brought them together to work on Janie and the Phantom; Jasmine had actively encouraged Ryan to go for it, and worked as hard as he did on making it a success. Jasmine stepped into the role of friend and commandeered a lot of others too: safeguard, sister, mother. And Ryan let her, because it felt good to be cared about, any way the caring came.
More people entered Ryan’s life, more friends, occasional lovers, coworkers. He liked his life. He kept in touch with his family as best he could, but beyond Brody and his kids, Ryan really didn’t care all that much.
Then came the accident. Then came the funeral, and with it came Ben.
And fuck, that turned into something wild, more than Ryan had ever hoped for when he sent Ben’s invitation, and the intensity of his own emotions frightened him. He wanted to pick Ben up and fold him into his life, curve him just right so that the last of the empty spaces were filled. Friend, lover, partner. And for a while it had seemed possible, and Ryan basked in the glory of Ben’s companionship and ignored the niggles, the wrinkles, the bits that didn’t fit. Then Maydays happened, and Ben ripped himself right out of Ryan’s life, bringing back the empty spaces and leaving them ragged-edged and bleeding.
Space was a word Ryan despised. Latitude, margin, volume…all components of measuring distance, the gap between two things. Ryan didn’t want a gap, he despised gaps, but he couldn’t close this one on his own. He’d promised he wouldn’t.
Not that that was an easy promise to keep.
“You need to just take him out of your contacts list,” Jasmine advised from where she was stirring the smoked salmon chowder she had on the stove. “Take away the temptation to text or call.”
“I’ve got his number memorized,” Ryan pointed out, sliding his finger across the phone. The picture for the contact was of Ben in a suit, a photo that Michael had sent through a while back. He looked ridiculously hot, as usual.
“Yeah, but if it’s not in your phone you’ll have to take the time to punch the numbers in instead of calling him with one finger. Here.” She set the spoon down and came over to him. “Gimme.”
Ryan groaned but handed over the phone. He ran a hand through his disheveled hair as he watched her erase Ben’s information and shut his eyes. Fuck, but this was a lot harder than he thought it was going to be. It had been three months since he’d spoken to Ben, since he’d promised to keep his distance and give them space.
Three months was more than enough time to forget someone, if you really wanted to put them behind you. Three months was an eternity to live in limbo, but that was what Ryan had said he’d do, so…he’d done his best to keep busy. He finished the last volume of Janie and the Phantom, thrilled or upset legions of his fans with it, and did his best to help his family get back on its feet. His mother and Melissa were good friends now, Cheryl was back from rehab and figuring out how to be a mom again, and the kids were happy in school.
“You’re doing good,” Jasmine told him, handing the phone back. “Seriously. This is the best thing you could be doing right now, except for finishing the last damn painting for the Janie guide.”
“You really think a guide to the universe is going to sell?”
“Would I have asked you to do it if I didn’t?” Jasmine asked, one eyebrow raised. “Do I make it a habit to waste your, and therefore my, time by having you do ridiculous things?”
“Well, you did try to make me cook last night,” Ryan pointed out, the heavy feeling in his chest easing a little.
“And that cornbread was goddamn fantastic, so what does that tell you?”
“That I am but your humble arms and eyes, milady,” Ryan said. “How long before the chowder is ready?”
“It needs another half hour or so to simmer.”
“Great. I’ve got a date to help Molly build a scale model of the Parthenon, so I should get on that.” Ryan stood up, then leaned in and kissed Jasmine’s cheek. “You’re too good to me, you know that?”
“I know everything,” Jasmine purred, scratching her nails through his hair. It felt better when she did it. “Go get your Greek on. I’ll let people know when this is ready to go.”
Molly was in her room, surrounded by white paper, glue and multiple pictures of the Parthenon for reference. Lots of paper had already been folded into tubes, which she was painstakingly gluing together so that they were all the same circumference.
“That’s a lot of pillars,” Ryan said as he sat down next to her on her bed.
“Forty-six for the outside, twenty-three for the inside,” Molly confirmed, her pale hair falling down and hiding most of her face. “I think there’s more than that here, though. Joey wanted to help, so I had him fold the paper around that dowel.” She pointed at the slender wooden rod up by her pillow. “He had fun.”
“That was nice of you.”
Molly shrugged. “Not really. He’s the one who wanted to help.”
The fact that Molly didn’t understand the favor she’d been doing her younger brother just by letting him help made Ryan want to scoop her up in a hug, but she was focused on the glue right now. “What can I do for you?”
“Will you help me draw the pediments?” Molly handed him the stiff white paper she’d precut to be the right size and a pencil. “I want to do the frieze as well, but in sections so it can be removed and I can demonstrate where the pieces originally were, and then where they all ended up.”
“I can do pediments.” Ryan looked at the picture, then began to lightly sketch in Athena and Poseidon. “This is for World History, right?”
“Yeah. I chose Greece because I like their mythology, and my teacher told me I could use your graphic novels in my report as a representation of modern interpretations of ancient Greek mythology and culture.”
“Wait, you got your teacher to agree to let you use comic books as a source for your history report?” Ryan demanded, looking over at his niece. She smiled shyly, and he laughed. “You’re totally brilliant, you know that? You’re going to rule the world someday.”
“Thanks.” They worked quietly a little longer before Molly said, “Grandma said you’re going to stay with us, for good. Is that true?”
Ryan restrained himself from sighing. Grandma had been bugging him about that for weeks, trying to get him to agree to move back to Concord permanently. Jasmine seemed to be in the mood for a change and didn’t mind leaving Boston behind, but there was no way they were going to set up shop so close to his family. Ryan was glad he could help them, but now that they were getting back on their feet he was starting to feel the urge to move on. Where, he wasn’t sure yet.
“I’ll definitely stay for a while longer,” Ryan replied eventually. “But I’ll have to move on eventually. Jasmine and I both will.”
“I thought so,” was all Molly said.
“That won’t change things between us though, Molly,” he assured her, bumping their knees together. “No matter where either of us go, we can keep in touch. In fact, I might fade away into nothing like a sad, lonely ghost if you abandoned me completely.”
“We can’t have that,” Molly told him, mock-serious. She smiled and shrugged. “I figured you’d have to go. It’s okay. It’s a lot better now.”
“Yeah.” Even if things were very, very far from perfect, they were definitely better. It was true for Molly; hell, it was true for Ryan. He might be living in limbo but at least he wasn’t in hell.
Jasmine called everyone down for dinner a few minutes later. Joey showed up with his mother in tow, which meant they’d been watching a movie together; Joey’s therapist recommended Cheryl set aside some time every day to spend with her son, and she was doing her best. Ryan’s mother was there, chatting about everything under the sun while she gushed at Jasmine for cooking, and pointedly mentioning all the things she thought they could all do together in the future.
Ryan broke through her monologue about sleighing. “As long as we do it before the new year, that’ll work out.”
“Oh, there’s no need to be so specific, darling, that’s all months away.”
“Yes, there is. I’m not staying forever, Mom, you can’t just plan my life out for me without talking to me about it first.”
DeeDee looked stricken. “I am doing no such thing!” she protested.
“Yes, you are. And I appreciate you thinking of me, of both of us,” he indicated Jasmine, who winked at him. “But I’ve got something else in mind.”
“What could be better than staying with your family?” DeeDee demanded. “Honestly, Ryan, don’t you want to be here for the children?”
Oh, a guilt trip. Lovely. And hell no, not anymore.
“Mom.” Ryan just stared at her for a moment, and she flushed a little and looked down at her plate.
“Tell me something about the Parthenon,” Cheryl said smoothly, looking over at her daughter. “It was a temple, right?”
“Dedicated to Athena,” Molly said.
“What was Athena the goddess of?”
The rest of the meal was spent talking about history and mythology, and if DeeDee avoided Ryan and swept off to the kitchen to do dishes as soon as they finished eating, well, that was fine, he didn’t feel like confronting her right now. Eventually he’d have to, but at the moment he had deadlines. Ryan headed up to his room to get back to work on the last painting for the guide, grateful for a little time alone. He’d get back to work on the Parthenon later.
Ryan checked his email before breaking out his paints. Fan mail, fan mail, hate mail, fan mail, hate mail…he’d check those later. Penis enlargement, and right after that was the equal-opportunity vaginal reconstruction offer. Fuck, he seriously needed to work on his filters. Next was—
An email from Ben? Seriously? Ryan leaned in and checked again. No, it was real, Benjamin Franklin DeWitt, right there in his inbox. The subject line read BOOK DEDICATION.
Holy shit, his hands were shaking. Ryan sat down at his desk and wavered over the cursor for almost a minute before he finally clicked on the email.
This book would never have come about without inspiration in the form of Ryan, the genesis of my very own love story.
That was all it said. No introduction, no sign off, nothing but the dedication. Ryan checked quickly and saw that Ben had sent it to Linda as well; she must have requested it. But why send it to him? Was this an invitation, or was it a final valediction? Surely if it was a goodbye there would have been more to it…right?
Only one way to find out. Ryan fumbled for his phone, checked the contacts and then swore when he remembered that Jasmine had just deleted Ben a few hours ago. Fucking timing…Ryan put Ben’s number back in, then tapped out a very simple text.
Was it too much? Too weird? Not welcome? Ryan pressed send before he could think too hard about it, then sat back and stared at the ceiling, his heart fluttering in his chest like leaves caught in a tornado. Oh fuck, please write back. Please write back, don’t tell me I did the wrong thing, all I want to do is the right thing with you, for once, pleasepleaseplease…
His phone beeped. Ryan immediately checked the message, then sighed with relief. As well you should be. Awesome, that meant Ben wasn’t only not put off by Ryan contacting him, he was being playful about it. Ryan hazarded another message.
Does this mean I can keep texting you now?
The reply came back fast. Texting only. For now.
That was fine. Fuck it, that was Christmas. Ryan grinned at the words, then looked over at the last painting, only half-done. It was the one of the Phantom, who had always been the most elusive character in Janie’s universe, for all he was one of the most important ones. Maybe Ben would be interested in finding out what had happened in the story. Got it. How about sending a package?
What’s in it?
Ooh, curious, maybe a little suspicious. Ryan didn’t want the prospect to be something Ben was afraid of. Surprise. Nothing big, I swear, no letters or videos or pairs of my used boxers. ;)
As long as its underwear-free, sure.
Sweet! Thank you.
And then, because that didn’t feel like enough, he added, Really. Thanks.
Oh no, the pleasure was all Ryan’s.