Notes: Oof, heavy. Don’t worry, things will lighten up in the next part. For now though, at least the boys are alone. Thanks so much for reading, guys! Your feedback is inspiringJ
Title: Love Letters
Part Five: The Lunch of Revelations
Ryan had carpooled to the church with his mother, so they took Ben’s car to the spot he had in mind. It was closer to Charlotte than to Concord, and when Ryan parked out in front of the place, Ben was more than a little surprised.
“The Roasting Company,” he read off the sign, which featured a chicken wearing a sombrero. “Really?”
“It’s a great place,” Ryan assured him with a smile. Ben was starting to think he’d believe almost anything if Ryan kept smiling, but his face must not have conveyed his trust. “The food is delicious, and you can get a booth in the back and people will leave you alone. I used to meet Brody here on the weekends before he shipped out after college.”
Something wasn’t adding up in Ben’s mind. “How old are you?” he asked as they got out of the car and headed into the restaurant. Ryan walked close to him, and held the door as they entered.
The interior was about what you’d expect from a diner. Circular overhead lights shined too brightly on the scuffed laminate floor, and the hostess at the front could barely be heard over the Bob Marley track playing. Several of the walls were brick, and lights from various neon signs gave the place a slightly funhouse feel. Ryan seemed to relax almost instantly as the girl led them to a high-backed booth. Despite the noise, it actually did feel kind of private.
“I’m twenty-six,” Ryan said after the hostess gave them a couple glasses of water and walked away.
Six years younger than Brody. “So you were in high school while he was at Duke.”
“Why meet him here?” There had to be decent restaurants in Concord, closer to their parent’s house. If Brody was driving the two-plus hours it would take to get from Durham, where Duke University was, to this part of the state then surely it was to see the whole family.
“Um.” It was hard to tell in this lighting, but Ben thought Ryan might have been blushing. “I wasn’t living at home at the time. Whenever Brody would go home for weekends, he’d make a detour to come and see me. I wasn’t old enough to drive, but this place is within walking distance of my school.”
“What kind of school?” Ben asked.
“A private boarding school, for challenging children.” Ryan dropped his eyes and fiddled with his water glass, pushing it back and forth across the slick bed of condensation that appeared beneath it. Ben drank a little from his own glass to give Ryan a reprieve, and give himself time to figure out what he actually wanted to know.
The problem was, Ben wanted to know too much. “I don’t want it to seem as though I’m interrogating you…”
“No!” Ryan looked up again, his blue eyes wide and his expression earnest. “I want to talk. I don’t mind telling you things. That was years ago, anyway.”
Their waiter came over and interrupted the moment, which was fine with Ben. He needed to think. He ordered one of the beers on tap, a quarter of a rotisserie chicken and the sides that Ryan recommended, then sat back and gathered his thoughts. So far, they weren’t very happy ones.
It was clear that there was some kind of rift between Ryan and his family. Ben wasn’t here to pry; he didn’t need or want to know the details of the Kuzniar clan’s private life, but now that he was alone with Ryan, Ben couldn’t deny that he was curious. Curious as to how this man could be so different from the rest of his family. Ben noticed the thin lines of blue polish down at Ryan’s cuticles, where he hadn’t been able to completely remove it. The empty piercing holes were just begging to be filled, and his hair…that couldn’t be the way he normally kept it. Ben wanted to see the real Ryan, not this sad, dutiful version that seemed so uncomfortable in his own skin.
“So you didn’t go to the same high school as Pam and Brody?” Ben asked after the waiter left.
Ryan shook his head. “No. My parents thought it would be better for everyone if I was removed from their immediate vicinity.” He shrugged listlessly. “They may have been right. I wasn’t doing a very good job of fitting in at home.”
Ryan heaved a big sigh and sat back, running his hand through his slicked-down hair. It actually looked much better once it was a little messier. “Okay, before I explain about this, promise me you won’t get mad.”
Ben was completely confused. “Why would I get mad?”
Ryan shifted uncomfortably. “Well, you might think it’s a violation of your privacy, and I get that, but really, you have no idea what it meant to me, and even Brody came around eventually, and—”
Ben reached out and put a hand over Ryan’s before he could stop himself. It was just to focus the younger man. It had nothing to do with his fingertips wanting to linger against the soft, cool skin. “Ryan. What are you talking about?”
Ryan shut his eyes and took a deep breath, but didn’t pull his hand away. “I read your letters!” he blurted after a moment. “When Brody went away to college he left a lot of stuff in his room, and I was being a brat one day and snooping around and I found a stack of your letters in a box in his closet. A huge stack. And I read them all.” Ryan twitched under Ben’s hand like he wanted to move, to gesture, and he looked anxious.
“Oh.” Wow, that wasn’t the revelation that Ben had been expecting. He pulled back, much to Ryan’s evident discontent, and took a moment to consider that.
If Ryan had read every letter from the time Ben and Brody started writing to the time Brody left for college, that was…eight years’ worth of correspondence. Two letters a month, not quite as many once they started emailing, then that still had to be almost two hundred and fifty letters. Letters that had, very definitely, been private; letters Ben had written about his father and mother, letters from abroad. Letters in which he had bared his soul, because it was safe for him to do so. That was the deal. Ryan reading through those letters had definitely not been part of the deal.
Ryan seemed to feel compelled to fill the silence, and what he had to say almost broke Ben’s heart. “I’m so sorry, I know it wasn’t the right thing to do, but I—I kind of didn’t have a lot of friends back then, and so I was home a lot, and alone, and when I found them and started reading I just had to continue, because you were so interesting. It was like I’d found this amazing treasure, this special secret person that I could relate to, that made me feel better when nothing else could. I was twelve when I found them. Almost thirteen, I was just starting the eighth grade, and I was pretty much a loner. I didn’t have anyone at home or at school I could relate to, but somehow I felt like I connected to a lot of what you wrote about.
“Brody found out, when he came home for Christmas break,” Ryan said after a moment’s pause. His eyes were glinting again, damp around the edges. “I didn’t even think about putting them back in his room. I’d already read them all, but I couldn’t bear to part with them. He found them under my bed.” Ryan squeezed his eyes shut, and a tear rolled down his face. “He lost it and started yelling at me and I yelled back, because I didn’t want him to take them. We shouted back and forth and he called me gay—just as an insult, I don’t think he actually thought I was, but when he said it it was almost a relief, like him saying it kind of gave me permission to agree. And I did. Loudly. And then my parents got involved.
“My dad told me I wasn’t gay. I insisted I was. He grounded me for all of break, and when school started again…” Ryan tried to smile, but it wasn’t convincing. “I decided not to hide anymore. I came out very, very visibly. I flirted with boys, I wore makeup, I got beaten up a few times. I was arrested once. My dad was running for mayor at the time and he didn’t want me making a scene, so naturally that made me even more determined to make one.” Ryan looked down and started to worry at the edge of his paper napkin.
“Dad lost the election and I barely passed the eighth grade. My parents sent me to a re-education camp in Utah over the summer, and when that didn’t work they sent me away for high school. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Jesus Christ,” Ben murmured. Ryan looked like he wanted to melt into the booth, like he expected Ben to start yelling, or get up and walk out. Ben leaned toward him, taking his hand again. Shit, Ryan’s fingers were freezing. “I’m not mad,” he assured Ryan, and he really wasn’t. The letters had been intended for Brody’s eyes only, but Ben of all people knew how important that sort of personal connection could be for someone. He had inherited a priceless collection of Benjamin Franklin’s own letters from his grandfather, and those words, which had never been intended for sharing, had become inspiration to thousands of people. If Ryan had gotten the tiniest bit of comfort from whatever Ben had written, then it wasn’t a violation; it was a gift. “I’m glad you got to read them, if they meant so much to you.”
“So much,” Ryan agreed, using his free hand to wipe at his eyes. His smile had resurfaced, at least. “I meant it back at the church when I said that Brody was my role model. He was the perfect person in so many ways, you know? He was smart and athletic and my parents loved him. Everybody loved him. But Brody and me, we didn’t have a close relationship. We basically didn’t have any relationship until after our fight; I was always too young for him to want to do things with me. But things changed after we both left home.
“Brody was in his sophomore year at Duke when I started high school. I didn’t expect to hear from him, ever. I didn’t even go home on the weekends when he was around. But one Sunday, when he was supposed to be heading back to Durham, Brody stopped by my dorm and brought me here, to have lunch.”
Ryan pointed behind himself and to the left. “We sat at the last booth next to the door over there. He bought me lunch and handed me a stack of letters. They were everything you’d sent him since he’d started college.
“He said that just because I was gay didn’t mean I should be treated like a leper, and he was sorry he’d gotten me into so much trouble, and that if it meant so much to me, I could read your letters. He told me you wouldn’t mind.” Ryan turned his hand around and threaded his fingers through Ben’s with a grateful grin. “And look. He was right.”
“Jesus, Ryan.” Ben shook his head incredulously. “I didn’t know any of this. Brody never really talked about you. He talked about Cheryl, he talked about your parents, the kids, but almost never you.”
“Well, like I said, we weren’t close.” That fact was clearly an open wound for Ryan, but one he’d done his best to get over. “But every week that he came down to visit, he’d always come and have lunch with me, and he’d bring me your newest letter to read. You were the only thing he and I had in common, and I was so grateful to him for sharing you with me.”
“I’m grateful that he did too,” Ben said with complete honesty. “I’ve never thought…” Really, he’d never thought of himself as anything close to interesting. Ben wrote about interesting people, he was descended from interesting people, but not so much himself. He didn’t know what Ryan saw in him, but he was glad to have helped, however inadvertently.
He might have continued, but just then, their food arrived. Ben let go of Ryan’s hand and pulled his arm back to make room, not missing Ryan’s quick pout when they separated. He was starving, though, and it smelled so good.
Ryan picked up his beer and held it out. “To Brody. One of the best people I’ve ever known.”
Ben clinked their glasses together gently. “To Brody.” It was nowhere near remembrance enough, but for right now, it would do.