Notes: So, as a gift for my readerwife and those others of you who thought the last post was too short, voila! Have one that’s over twice as long and contains two pictures! (Remember they're just suggestions, these two can look any way you want them to.) All because I love you, damn it. This particular part flowed really fast, probably because so much of its dialogue, but regardless, writing it was a very fun time. Enjoy, darlins.
Title: Love Letters
Part Eight: Parties and Other Things You Can’t Refuse
Sometimes, Ben thought he should have gone with writing novels. It had to be easier than this. All you needed was an idea, a spark of inspiration that you could run with, and then you could do anything you wanted to it. You could build entire worlds of your own making, you could take your characters to new times and places. As the writer you could do all the research you wanted to, but anything you didn’t like, you could claim artistic interpretation and ignore. Novels had to be easier than nonfiction.
The truth was, Ben had become a writer almost out of a sense of duty, of expectation. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy the craft of it, and in truth the nice thing about nonfiction was that when you dealt in facts, there was a very low amount of uncertainty as far as where to take your story once you had one. Ben’s grandfather had been a natural at it, both keenly insightful and an expert researcher, and he passed a lot of his method to Ben over the years. Ben, an avid reader and for a long time easily led by the adults in his life, let his grandfather guide him toward a career in writing without a fuss. He worked on his school newspapers, wrote essays and articles that gradually got better and better, and finally wrote his first book, Liberty Or Death. It was a roaring success, and that was when Ben finally realized exactly what he’d gotten himself into.
People called him a natural. The worthy and logical heir to his grandfather’s elevated standing in literature. Someone to watch, someone set for a long and illustrious career in writing. Only none of that was true. Ben wasn’t a natural writer; he had worked for years and years to get to the point where he could do this. His first book had come about almost by accident, a logical continuation of the dissertation he wrote for his PhD in American History. It had taken Ben three years to write that dissertation, and another two to modify and expand it into a book worthy of the title. And people had loved it, yes, but now Ben had to do it all over again, and this time, he didn’t have that fire within him, that ember of interest. Whatever subjects he tried to stoke the flames for were shot down by Lydia, and it was getting to the point where Ben was seriously considering taking the battery out of his phone, because he was so sick of hearing the word No.
Of course, he wasn’t about to actually turn off his phone. Then he wouldn’t be able to talk to Ryan.
It was a relief for both of them when Ryan finally left North Carolina. Getting back to Boston decidedly relaxed the younger man, and as a result they were able to talk for longer periods of time, although Ryan didn’t have any more privacy at his apartment in Boston, with three roommates, than he’d had in Concord.
“Jasmine, Lenora and Grant,” Ryan explained while cooking something. Ben could hear the sizzle of the pan on the stove. “Lenora and Grant are together. They’re artists, but he’s a metalworker and she’s a sculptor, so they have a separate studio for their work. As for Jasmine, she’s my personal goddess.” Ben made out a muffled damn straight in the background. Ryan laughed. “She runs Coelocanth Press, it’s the imprint that publishes my graphic novels. She’s my editor, my publisher and my best friend all rolled into one.”
“That’s handy,” Ben said, lazily pressing the delete key as he watched his latest half-finished proposal slowly disappear from the screen in front of him. It wasn’t a very good one anyway.
“It is, I adore her,” Ryan gushed, and Ben listened to him rhapsodize for a while about how he and Jasmine had met when Ryan first came to Boston after school, how her then-boyfriend had managed the coffee shop where he got his first job, how he’d watched her start up Coelocanth Press and then invite him to be one of her first titles. “It’s only been a year and she’s already turning a profit,” Ryan continued. “Pretty good, considering we’re not exactly on the New York Times bestseller list like you.”
“It’s better to be happy,” Ben told Ryan. There was a brief silence.
“You’re not happy?” Ryan asked tentatively. Ben sighed.
“Fine doesn’t exactly mean happy.”
“I’m…” Ben didn’t like to complain, but it couldn’t really hurt under the circumstances. He was keenly feeling Brody’s loss, his touchstone whenever things got difficult. Ben didn’t feel like mentioning that to Ryan, though; the last thing he wanted to do was remind the man of his own grief. “I need to come up with another book proposal, and I’m having a hard time deciding what I want to focus on. Nothing I like interests my agent, nothing my agent likes interests me. I’ve got until April to figure something out, or my publisher will start frothing at the mouth.”
“That sounds ominous.”
Ben shrugged, not caring that Ryan couldn’t see him. “I’ll figure something out.” He had to believe that. Failure wasn’t something that Ben dealt with well.
“I got your package,” Ryan said, smoothly changing the subject. “The inscription was really sweet, thank you.”
Ben felt himself blush, and was grateful that Ryan couldn’t see him. He’d sent Ryan a copy of his book, and on the title page he’d written:
For Ryan, whom I only wish I had met sooner. Yours, Ben DeWitt.
He had worried a little bit after he signed it, wondering if that was too suggestive, or if the implication was on the negative side. He didn’t blame either Ryan or Brody for never making that connection before, and he didn’t want it to come off that way. Apparently all his worrying was a waste. “You’re welcome.”
“I sent you a copy of Janie and the Phantom, but I didn’t overnight it or anything, so it could be a few more days.”
“I look forward to reading it,” Ben said.
“What are you doing tonight?”
What Ben wanted to say was, staying home and talking to you for as long as you’ll let me. That would have been ideal. He didn’t, because he actually had plans tonight. “I’m actually going to a fundraiser at the Sheraton Hotel downtown. The event planner there’s a friend of mine, and he needed to pad the guest list.”
Actually, the invitation had been a little more gracious than that. Michael Clifton, Facilities Manager and Event Coordinator, thank you very bloody much, had called Ben up last night and proceeded to bitch for half an hour before getting to the point. Michael was a transplanted Brit who had an American mother, but had never lived in the US before coming to work here half a decade ago. He and Ben had had a fling, nothing serious but extremely fun while it lasted, and Michael was one of the few people Ben had slept with whom he’d managed to maintain a decent casual relationship with.
“You have to come,” Michael had demanded at last. “Really, darling, if you don’t come my world will fall apart. It’s supposed to be an evening of entrepreneurial, artistic and literary enjoyment, and I just got an email from Cussler bowing out, two bloody days before the event.”
“Clive Cussler and I don’t even write in the same genre,” Ben had protested. “I don’t have time to get things together for a signing, and—”
“No no no!” Michael had interrupted quickly. “No need to bring anything but yourself, darling! You’re just there to give the whole thing a tinge of literary cachet! I just want the benefitting organizations to be able to point you out!”
“And who are the benefitting organizations?”
“A coalition of our ailing local charter schools. Lovely cause, a chance to see and be seen, and I’ll make sure you get a good meal. It’s not healthy to live on nothing but coffee and toast, darling. Surely your mother taught you that.”
“I don’t have time to rent a tux,” Ben warned, ignoring the mother comment.
“Not a problem. You have a lovely black three-piece suit that looks both astoundingly gorgeous on you and very educated. Could you possibly get some spectacles, darling? For me, just for the night? You’d be so delightfully apropos in them.”
“Apropos of what?”
“Of yourself, Ben, of your image as a successful and very sexy scholar. Please? For me?”
Ben sighed. “I’ll wear the suit, but no glasses.”
“Thank you, darling. You’re a treasure.” Michael’s intimate tone migrated back to professional. “The soiree begins at eight; I’ll make sure you’re on the guest list. Just head for the ballroom once you get here.”
“I’ll see you then.”
“Ta!” And he’d hung up.
“That sounds important,” Ryan said, a little distant as he spooned whatever it was he’d been cooking onto plates. “And fancy.”
“Fancy enough that I’ll have to wear a suit.”
“I love you in suits.” There was a brief pause, and then Ryan continued, “I mean, the only suit I’ve ever seen you in I loved. On you, I mean. It looked really good on you. And the one you wore for your book picture, but it’s not like I’m obsessing over it, those are the only two. The only times I’ve seen you in a suit, I mean.”
“I don’t think you’ve ever seen me in anything but a suit,” Ben said, getting up to go look in his closet. He had a lot of suits…maybe more suits than casual clothes, which was kind of a sad state of affairs. There were a lot of things he’d had to be formal about over the years. There were some regular slacks in there, a few pairs of jeans and t-shirts and the old college sweats that he absolutely would not admit to anyone he could happily wear for days on end.
“I’d like to though,” Ryan said cheekily. “Why don’t you send me a picture of yourself?”
That would mean copping to the ratty sweats, which was not going to happen. “I have to get ready to go, actually.”
“And you have to eat the dinner you just made,” Ben reminded him.
“There is that.” Ben heard Jasmine say for fuck’s sake, tell him you’ll call back later or something, Jesus. “Okay, yeah, I really do have to hang up now.”
“Good night, Ryan.”
“Bye, Ben.” He hung up and Ben set his phone down, and then, with entirely unfeigned reluctance, pulled his three piece suit out of the closet. This had been one of those purchases that Linda had insisted upon, and for what he’d paid for it, Ben figured he might as well get his money’s worth. He looked through his shirts, uninspired, and decided to look at ties instead. Boring, boring, boring…paisley? Where had that come from? And—oh. Ben pulled the slender black tie free from its hook and ran his fingers over the silk, lingering on the blue accents. Ryan’s tie. He’d wear that. Ben grabbed a blue shirt to match it, laid them all out on his bed, then headed for the bathroom to begin the tedious process of making himself look presentable.
The ballroom was packed with hundreds of people, almost none of whom Ben knew. He was let in, as promised, and grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing waiter as soon as he could. God, Ben hated events like this. It was one thing when he could be one-on-one, or even just host a small, intimate reading. When he was able to make a personal connection, Ben could be witty, charming and a pretty decent speaker. In situations like this though, even small talk sometimes escaped him. Considering the last time he’d been in such close quarters with a crowd had been at Brody’s funeral, Ben wasn’t disposed to enjoy tonight.
“Ben! There you are!”
Except for the part where he got to see Michael. Michael Clifton was a slender black man, immaculately dressed, beautifully mannered and with one of the filthiest mouths Ben had ever heard once he got drunk. Michael had an absolutely effortless way of being with people, of fitting in with any crowd. He was confident, he was pretty and he was shameless, and he used all of those traits to great effect for himself.
“Michael.” Ben extended a hand and Michael ignored it, pulling him into a hug instead. He smelled like Hugo Boss. “So,” Ben said when they separated. “Here I am. And this place is packed, I seriously doubt you actually need me to be here.”
“Nonsense, darling, your presence is absolutely requested and required,” Michael replied. “Let me introduce you to some of our donors.”
“A mere fifteen minutes of mingling, darling, and then I’ll make sure you get a nice, private corner table and a lovely meal, all right?” He patted Ben’s cheek, laughing when Ben rolled his eyes. “Come on now, this way.”
Michael tugged Ben along behind him like a cat on a leash, flitting from well-dressed cluster to cluster and saying some variation on, “Oh, excuse me, Mayor/Congressman/Doctor/Mrs. Moneybags, have you met Benjamit DeWitt? Oh, he’s a bestselling author, one of Denver’s very own making waves on the national stage. But I’ll let him speak for himself.” And then he would leave Ben with that particular cluster, for five to ten minutes, to stumble through the same conversation over and over again. Sometimes it was okay; Mayor Hickenlooper had actually read his book, which gave them something to talk about. But by the sixth cluster, an hour into the party and with Michael nowhere in sight, Ben was giving serious consideration to faking a headache and bailing.
“Ooh, so it’s a book of great American speeches?” the grey-haired lady on his left asked.
“Not always speeches, but they were a part of it,” Ben replied.
“Like the Gettysburg Address?”
“No,” Ben said slowly, because hadn’t he already explained this? “The book is specifically about the Revolutionary War period. The Gettysburg Address happened during the Civil War.”
“But it’s one of the greatest of all American speeches, young man.” She scowled darkly at him. “I’m surprised at you for omitting it.”
“It was written about a hundred years too late for inclusion in this particular book, ma’am.”
“Well, I still think it remarkably shortsighted of you,” she sniffed.
“And what about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech?” the woman on his other side demanded. “I suppose that one didn’t merit inclusion either!”
Just then Ben caught Michael’s eye from across the room. Michael raised his eyebrows questioningly and Ben silently mouthed I will kill you at him. A moment later Michael was there.
“Pardon me, ladies, I must steal our shining star away for the time being.” He guided Ben through the crowd, out of the ballroom and down a side hall, not far from the kitchens. He pushed Ben down into a folding chair. “Sit. I’ll get you some food.”
Ben shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, letting the bustling noises and rich smells waft over him as he pressed on the throbbing space between his eyebrows. So much for wishing for a get-out-of-jail-free headache, now he actually had one.
Michael tapped him on the shoulder. “Here you are, darling.” Ben sat up and took the plate from him. Roast beef, baby potatoes and scallions, asparagus and a steaming cup of coffee. Ben might have whimpered. He would never admit to it, though.
Michael sat down across from him and watched him eat for a while. “I know you don’t feel like it amounts to anything, but I do appreciate your being here,” he said at last. “Even if it means you end up harboring wicked thoughts about me.”
“Not too wicked,” Ben allowed. “You are feeding me, after all.”
“There’s looking on the bright side. Were those lovely octogenarians giving you a hard time?”
“They just don’t understand the difference a century makes in a time period.” Ben finished the roast beef and started in on the potatoes. God, he was hungry. “Can I please be done now?”
“Not quite,” Michael said with a sympathetic grimace that he absolutely didn’t mean. “There are a few more people to get some face time with, plus, it would be nice of you to stay for the speeches.”
“Oh, didn’t I mention those?” Michael asked lightly. “Yes, the speeches, darling. This is a fundraiser, after all, certain people must be acknowledged.”
“God damn it, Michael.”
“Free alcohol for the rest of the night,” he promised. “Not that cheap champagne either, I’ll dedicate a waiter to bringing you the good stuff.”
“If you get me drunk I won’t be able to drive home.”
“I’ll comp you a room. Come on, darling, you’ve been doing so well,” Michael said encouragingly. “See the night through, won’t you?”
Ben felt like banging his head against the wall. He took a sip of his coffee instead. “Throw in breakfast and it’s a deal.”
“Done! Thank you, darling, you are better to me than I deserve.”
“Yes,” Ben agreed. Just then, his phone beeped. Surprised, Ben took it out.
I want to see u in your suit! I’ll show you mine if u show me yours:) Included with the text was a picture of Ryan, in the middle of some kind of people pile, not quite smiling but looking like he wanted to.
Oh, those eyes! Just use your imagination for the piercings, people:)
Ben looked at the picture and felt his heart give a little lurch.
“New lover?” Michael asked with a grin. Before Ben could stop him he reached out and grabbed the phone from his hand. “And oh, isn’t he tasty? And young! Darling, are you stalking college campuses now?”
“No,” Ben said shortly. He wanted to grab for the phone but his plate was balancing on his lap. “And why do you think he’s a lover?”
“Darling, please, give me some credit. You never answer your phone if there’s a chance of it being someone you don’t want to speak with, which is most people. You certainly don’t look at their messages like they’re the head chef in the kitchen of your heart.”
“Sorry, I know it’s not a metaphor that works for everyone. So…” He looked carefully at Ben. “Not a lover. Not yet, at any rate, but I’ve the feeling you might like him to be.” He stood up. “C’mon, up then! We’ve got to send the lovely lad a picture, otherwise he’ll be devastated.”
“Shouldn’t you be working?” Ben demanded.
“Can’t leave you alone, darling, otherwise you'll slip away like a shadow in the night and I'll lose the pleasure of your company.” Michael knew him too well. “Come on, up you get. One quick pic for your man and then back out into the madding crowd.”
Ben sighed but acquiesced, putting his food and coffee down on the floor and standing up. He brushed his hands over his front nervously. “What should I do?”
“Just look natural, darling,” Michael said. “Maybe give us a bit of a smile.”
Ben gave it a try.
“Oh darling, no! This is not a smile for your proctologist, however accurate he may be; this is a smile for your hopeful young man! Try again.”
Ben tried again, but he’d never been good at forcing smiles. Finally, just before he looked away in exasperation, the camera clicked.
“Perfect,” Michael told him. “I was just waiting for that moment of giving up, you do it so gracelessly and yet it manages to make you more adorable than at almost any other time. Now to just send this along.” He typed a quick message and hit send before Ben could get the phone away from him.
“What did you write?”
“See for yourself, darling.” Michael handed his phone back and Ben took a look.
Just ignore the background, I can't Photoshop for shit.
The picture was actually pretty good, he had to admit, but the message: One good turn deserves another. Some suit porn to tide you over, darling! That he could have done without.
I didn’t write that, Ben added and sent. His phone stayed suspiciously quiet.
“If you’ve traumatized Ryan I’ll still kill you, free booze or no,” he warned.
“Goodness, so homicidal tonight. Allow the poor boy a moment to marvel at your beauty before you give in to the darkness.”
Sure enough, a moment later he got a new text. U look amazing. Thank whoever took the picture for me.
“And he’s so welcome,” Michael said graciously. “Now then, I’ve fed you, caffeinated you and promised you alcohol. Once more into the fray, darling?”
“Let’s get it done,” Ben agreed with a sigh, and let Michael lead him back out into the ballroom.
Thankfully there weren’t many more meet and greets, and Michael, true to his word, kept Ben supplied with gin and tonics. Those took the edge off of the nearly two hours’ worth of speeches he had to sit through, and by the time Michael led Ben to his room for the night, he was practically cheery.
“Four gin and tonics and two glasses of champagne, what a lush,” Michael complained jokingly as he pulled off Ben’s shoes and socks. Ben sat on the edge of the firm hotel bed, staring down at his bare feet bemusedly as Michael deconstructed his suit. “What would your young man think of you, Ben?”
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “I’d like to know, but I don’t.”
“Well, why not? Where is he, anyway? You could have brought him tonight, you know.”
“He’s in Boston.”
Michael looked over from where he was hanging up Ben’s jacket and frowned. “What’s he doing there?”
“He lives there. I met him at a funeral.”
“Picking someone up at a funeral? That doesn’t seem your style, darling. Who died?”
Ben’s throat felt uncomfortably thick, like he’d tried to swallow something that just wouldn’t go down. “It was Brody’s funeral. Ryan is his little brother.”
“Oh no.” Michael had stuck around long enough to figure out who Brody was, and over the years of their friendship he’d discerned the man’s importance. “I’m so sorry, Ben.”
“And I didn’t pick him up,” Ben continued doggedly, ignoring the condolences. If he thought about Brody while he was drunk he might start crying, and there was no way in hell he’d let himself do that in front of Michael. “Nothing happened. We went out for a meal, we talked, we stayed in touch. That’s it.”
“But you’d like there to be more.” Ben just shrugged. “Well, he’d certainly like there to be more if his messages are anything to judge by, darling.”
“I don’t think that’s a really good idea,” Ben said, looking at Michael as he undid Ben’s careful Windsor knot. “You know I’m not very good at ‘more.’”
“Oh darling.” Michael leaned in and kissed his forehead. “You just have to find the right man. I’ve always been more of a Mr. Right Now type, anyway.” He slipped away with the tie.
“Don’t lose that,” Ben warned him. “It’s Ryan’s.”
“You stole his tie? You’ll be pulling his pigtails next, you sly devil.” Warm, fast hands helped Ben out of his pants and shirt and under the covers. “There’s a bottle of water and two Tylenol on the bed stand to help with your inevitable hangover, and the bathroom has one of the toiletry bags, so there’s supplies to brush your teeth with in the morning. I’m off tomorrow but I’ll have the kitchen send you something delicious and greasy around nine, sound good?”
“Sounds good,” Ben agreed. He reached out and caught Michael’s hand. “Thanks for taking care of me tonight. I’m sorry I’m such a pain.”
“Darling,” Michael smiled, “I treasure every opportunity to take care of you. It’s not something you normally allow, you know.” He patted Ben’s shoulder, then stood up and headed to the door, pausing to turn the lights off. “Sweet dreams, Ben.”
“You too.” The room went dark as the door closed. Ben lay on his side, alone in the huge bed, his head swimming with gin and doubts. Part of him wanted to text Ryan, to ask him what the hell they were doing, but he knew the other man was asleep. Plus, he knew his waking, sober self would be horrified by such a thing, and so he did his best to let his exhaustion carry him off into sleep. Eventually, it worked.