Title: Love Letters Side Note #1: Jasmine's POV
It took Jasmine Napuna exactly one month to go from meeting Ryan Kuzniar to liking him, then to loving him, on to worrying about him, and finally to mothering him. Mothering was a strong instinct with her and Ryan looked like he could use it, and those urges had shaped a lot of their interactions over the course of their friendship.
Jasmine first met Ryan when he queried her about publishing his graphic novel five years ago. Coelocanth Press had only been running for eighteen months, and while Jasmine had published three different web comics and a handful of small run prints of some genre-defying stories, she hadn’t found a project to fall in love with, not to mention the press wasn’t quite breaking even yet. Accepting email queries had mostly led to a lot of frustration over some very stupid stuff, and Jasmine honestly thought that if she hadn’t found Ryan’s work when she did, Coelocanth might have had a short life span.
Reading the email was a pleasant surprise. Opening the attached artwork was a revelation. Beautiful, haunting, even the deliberately drab pictures seemed brighter for his use of light and shadow. It was nothing more than character sketches and a few completed panels that Jasmine could already tell needed some work, but for the first time in months the idea of doing the work didn’t make her cringe. Instead it excited her.
She emailed back her acceptance, he emailed his thanks, they started chatting and before she knew it Jasmine was emailing or texting Ryan several times a day, and not just about his project. When she found out he lived in Boston, it seemed natural to meet up. When they actually came face to face, in a hip little coffee shop that she’d picked but quietly abhorred, her first impression was, “This is the most adorable person I’ve ever seen in real life.”
Dark, messy hair, unnaturally blue eyes and a smile that seemed to consume his whole face, Ryan looked like he was still a teenager, not a college graduate. He had a thin white t-shirt on, and bandages on his left arm from his wrist to his shoulder. Jasmine looked at it assessingly as they shook hands. “New tattoo?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said, grinning a little bashfully and running his free hand through his hair. “I went to the expo last week and fell in love with one of the designs, and the guy’s trying to make a name for himself so he gave me a discount, provided I walk around in short-sleeved shirts whenever I’m outside for a while.”
“I see.” Probably the guy gave Ryan a discount because he was too cute for words, really, but whatever made the kid happy. “Let’s get a table and we can talk about the first book’s story arc.”
Talking with Ryan was so easy. He was friendly, empathetic and listened to her suggestions, although he didn’t agree with them all. Particularly when it came to the Phantom.
“Why the mystery?” Jasmine asked as she sipped her second cup of tea. “You could make the Phantom a real ally for her, instead of something that might be mistaken for a dream. Janie is a great character, don’t get me wrong, but if you plan to take this series as far as I thinkboth of us would like, she’s going to need a strong supporting cast.”
“A big part of the appeal of the Phantom comes from the mystery,” Ryan explained. “He’s supposed to be this ephemeral creature, something between Janie’s dreams and her reality. He’s the hint of something greater, something special. There’ll be plenty of other characters to pad things out along the way, but the connection between Janie and the Phantom is never going to be a personal one. Intimate, but not…y’know, personal.”
“Hmm.” Jasmine wanted to argue some more about that, she wanted to get to the root of the Phantom and find out what was really going on, but it wasn’t important for the first volume. She could afford to bide her time.
Janie and the Phantom’s first volume was a shocking hit for Coelocanth Press. Jasmine did her best with marketing, but in the end it wasn’t all that necessary—word of mouth had this book taking off like a rocket in their relatively small circle of publishing. By the end of the first six months it was selling well enough that Coelocanth was actually making a profit, and then the unthinkable happened.
Neil Gaiman read it.
He read it and he liked it, and wrote Jasmine to tell her so, completely without prompting. Given permission to use his praise for marketing, she did so, which got them a lot more attention. After the first year, volume two was ready to come out, and volume one had already been translated into Japanese and was selling decently there over there as well.
Jasmine took on other projects; her press couldn’t subsist on a single book no matter how good it was, but for Ryan there were no other projects. Janie and the Phantom was his life, his fixation, and whatever he used as his muse wasn’t wavering. It took a long time to produce something with such thoroughness and detail, though, and while the money was good it still meant that Ryan was basically living in a closet, subsisting on ramen noodle and radishes (which he ate raw, ugh, Jasmine couldn’t get her head around that) and wearing the same four outfits in a rotating schedule, depending on how often he could get laundry done. Jasmine saw it, and she hated it. Ryan deserved a better existence, and asking him to move in with her was a natural step.
It was never sexual between them, of course. Ryan made no effort to disguise the fact that he was gay. Jasmine didn’t mind; she was bi herself, and didn’t care who Ryan was fucking as long as he was safe about it. They talked all the time, about work and about everything else, and living together was a very easy transition. Plus, Jasmine could indulge her caregiving instincts and feed him now, because goddamn, the boy was too skinny. Jasmine hated cooking for just one; she had a large family living back in Guam and had been the oldest girl in a family with seven kids, and cooking for a crowd was something she had learned early on. She and Ryan got along beautifully, and making room in her apartment and life for Ryan kind of felt like Jasmine was getting a gift.
Some things, though…some things were a little odd. Like the fact that Ryan didn’t really date. Or rather, he dated, he went to clubs and talked up guys and occasionally brought them home, but he didn’t often go on more than one date with the same guy. It wasn’t because his dates weren’t willing; Jasmine could see that they were, most of them reluctant to leave once the morning-after breakfast was done. Ryan was sweet but firm about seeing them off though.
“Why?” she asked once after a particularly handsome guy was shown the door. “He seemed like he was really into you.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said with a little sigh. “I’m just not interested in something serious right now.”
Jasmine took in the blush, the way he didn’t quite meet her eyes, and figured it out. Unrequited love. Ryan was in love with someone, and that someone wasn’t in the picture anymore. Maybe an ex, maybe not, but whoever it was, their influence was strong enough to keep him from starting over with someone new, at least for now.
Sad, but not her business. Jasmine didn’t ask and Ryan didn’t tell, and things went back to normal for a while. They worked on Janie and the Phantom, went out to clubs together, Ryan got to know every member of her large family and Jasmine learned a little bit about his. He didn’t talk to them often, usually a phone call with his parents once a month and occasional texts between him and his siblings. He went home for a few days every May around his birthday, and spent one week in Concord for Christmas. When he came back he was pale and quiet and unhappy, and Jasmine plied him with good tequila and better food and made him talk to her and her mama until Ryan was happy again. So he didn’t get along with his family and he didn’t seem to want a boyfriend. Fine, whatever, Jasmine could handle that. She’d be the family he didn’t have, and they’d commiserate over failed dates together.
Then she found out about The Letters.
The letters were a funny thing. When Ryan wasn’t working or playing or teasing her, he generally had a book in his hand. He would watch TV with her but he preferred books, and sometimes instead of a book, he read letters. The same letters, over and over. There weren’t many of them, and they were well-worn, a little soft around the edges where they’d been handled, but occasionally he Ryan got a large padded envelope in the mail from his brother, and those days he was always manic and smiling, and wouldn’t come out of his room for hours.
Jasmine assumed for a long time that the letters were from a family member, but when she finally asked about it after finding Ryan reading the same one—she could tell by the tiny stain on the top corner—over and over, he ducked his head for a second, a sure sign he was embarrassed and trying to decide what to say to her.
She tried to make it easy on him. “You wouldn’t read them so much if they were from a family member, would you?”
“No…well, except they kind of are, I guess.”
Jasmine sat down next to Ryan on the couch, and he immediately snugged up next to her. He craved contact, and it wasn’t unusual for them to fall asleep in the same bed, entirely platonic but undeniably close. It made Jasmine wonder about his childhood, honestly. All Ryan ever said about it was that it was “formal,” whatever that meant.
“So, who’re they really from?” she asked gently, stroking his knee with the back of her hand.
“They’re from a guy named Benjamin DeWitt. He’s—so, okay, this is weird, but he’s my brother’s pen pal.”
Yeah, weird…that was one word for it. “Your brother the football jock, ex-army guy, tough cop brother? Brody has a pen pal?”
“I know, right?” Ryan grinned. “Brody’s the last person you’d expect to do this kind of thing, but they’ve been writing each other since he was in elementary school. They’ve kept it up for almost twenty years now, it’s like looking through a time capsule. Anyway, Brody kept all of Ben’s letters, and when I was little I found them and started reading them for myself. I kind of got a little addicted to reading about Ben. He’s just so interesting, you know? He’s descended from Benjamin Franklin, he’s a researcher and a historian, he lives in Denver, and I think he’s writing a book right now. He got a publishing deal last month, at any rate.”
“How do you know that?” Ryan blushed and Jasmine put it all together. “The envelopes are full of letters, aren’t they. Your brother gives them to you once he’s read them.”
“Does Ben know?” Because this was the kind of thing that a person might consider creepy.
Ryan shrugged. “I have no idea. Probably not, but it doesn’t matter. Brody and Ben are never going to meet up, they only write letters. Well, Ben writes, Brody’s too lazy to do that now, he usually texts. And since Brody’s never going to meet him, the odds of me meeting him are next to none, so he won’t know.”
It seemed like kind of a thin justification to Jasmine, especially considering how protective Ryan was of the letters and how invested he seemed in Ben. Jasmine was pretty sure that this was the mystery man, the one Ryan was fixated on, the reason he couldn’t go past a first date with anyone. Part of her wanted to encourage Ryan to just man up and go meet him somehow, but more of her wanted to take those letters and hide them, or burn them, anything to get them out of Ryan’s sight. Because it was kind of hopeless either way, hopeless and strange and yeah, a little creepy, and Jasmine didn’t want Ryan to waste his affection on inanimate, paper, on a man who only existed in his mind and on the page.
But she didn’t say any of this to Ryan. That would have been cruel. Instead she settled for distracting him. “Wanna watch Game of Thrones?”
Ryan refolded the letter and put it aside. “Sure.”
And there was much delicious angsting.
Later that night when Ryan went to bed, he forgot to take the letter with him. Jasmine hesitated, staring at it for a long time before she finally picked it up. Just a peek, right? One look at one letter, what harm could it do? She opened the letter up and started to read.
I’m finally out of there! I didn’t really know how I’d feel once I got away from my mother and got to college, but I love it. Columbia is amazing, and New York might as well be an entirely different continent for all the differences here. It’s like being let out of a prison without even knowing you were a prisoner until you’re suddenly free. I feel like I can do anything here, be anything here, have anything here. I don’t even know what to want yet, but at least I’m not afraid to try anymore. I—
Jasmine put the letter down abruptly. This was…man, it was intensely personal. Jasmine was surprised that Ryan’s brother had been okay with him reading it even once; the fact that he’d given it to Ryan to keep was mind-boggling. From the little Jasmine knew of Brody Kuzniar, he was pretty much a man’s man, all about sports and beer and his work and his family. He and Ryan weren’t close, but they had some kind of understanding that Jasmine didn’t get.
Not your business, she reminded herself. Jasmine left the letter on the table, turned out the light and went back to her bedroom.
When Lenora moved back to Boston from Los Angeles with a boyfriend in tow, Jasmine immediately introduced her one of her oldest friends to her newer one. Lennie and Ryan got along like a house on fire, and Grant was cool once he realized that Ryan’s hugging and handsiness didn’t mean that he was trying to steal Lennie away. Lennie and Grant looking for a place to live turned into Jasmine and Ryan joining them on a quest for the perfect apartment; the timing was perfect, their lease was about up and the place that they found would save them four hundred dollars a month. They all moved in together, Lennie and Grant rented a studio for their sculpting and metalwork, and things were good. Ryan never wanted for company, Jasmine had plenty of people to cook for and they all got along beautifully. Life was sweet and fun and exciting, and if Ryan sometimes took out a Letter and got that look on his face that Jasmine hated, well, at least she was getting better at distracting him from it. With a little more time and effort on her part Ryan might not go to letters written by a man he’d never met for comfort.
Then Brody died, and everything went to hell.
They were both hung over New Year’s Day, and had fallen asleep together in Jasmine’s bed. Around 8 am Ryan’s phone started playing the Joey Ramone version of What A Wonderful World, his mother’s ringtone. Ryan had just gotten back from spending Christmas with his family two days earlier and it was strange for his mom to be calling so quickly.
Ryan groaned and stuck his head under a pillow, tacit permission to ignore it, and Jasmine tried to get back to sleep. But she called again. Then again. By the fourth time, Jasmine rolled over, fumbled through Ryan’s clothes until she found his phone and stuck it under his pillow with him. “Just answer her.”
“Mmmph.” Ryan lifted the pillow up and sighed, then answered. “Hey, Happy New Year, mom.” A few seconds later he sat straight up in bed, all of his languor gone. “Why do I need to be sitting down? What happened, what’s wrong?” Jasmine sat up next to him and watched his face. “He…oh my god. What?” Ryan scrubbed a hand through his hair; tears were already appearing in his wide, bloodshot eyes. “When? How?” He listened in silence for a minute, then said, “Oh god, mom, don’t cry, please, shit, don’t cry…” Ryan seemed to suddenly realize that he was crying, and he tilted his head up toward the ceiling and wiped his face. “Of course I’ll come back down. Jesus, how are Cheryl and the kids handling it?”
Holy shit, this was serious. Jasmine’s concern went from red alert to major overload when Ryan said, “Have you…are there any arrangements for the funeral yet?” Oh god, someone was dead. Cheryl, that was Ryan’s sister-in-law…Brody, then? Oh, no.
“Yeah. Yeah, I know. Of course I will. Yeah. I love you too, mom. I’ll see you soon, okay? Okay…I know, I love you too. I know…mom…” Ryan’s voice broke. “Mom, go be with Cheryl, okay? She needs you right now, the kids will need you. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Okay. I love you.” Ryan hung up the phone and just stared at it for a moment.
“Is it Brody?” Jasmine asked hesitantly.
“Yeah,” Ryan said, his voice sounding kind of far away. “He was hit by a car this morning while he was on patrol. He died at the scene.”
“Oh Ry, I’m so sorry.” Jasmine leaned over and wrapped him up in her arms. Ryan let her hold him for a moment, felt the tremors than ran through him, but he didn’t break down. The tears didn’t stop, but he was fighting them.
“I have to go home,” Ryan said, pulling back way too soon. His jaw was tight and he was pale, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to let himself go. “I need to shower and pack. Can you get online and find me the quickest flight to Concord?”
“Of course,” Jasmine agreed. “But honey, is that…I mean, isn’t there anything else I can do? I could go with you, if you want.” She wanted to help him, wanted to be strong and be there for him to lean on.
“It’s better if you don’t.” Ryan leaned in and kissed her cheek, and Jasmine realized with a start that she was crying as well, and Ryan was comforting her. “I’ll be okay.” He got out of bed and headed for his room, and Jasmine realized to her shame that Ryan was a lot tougher than she’d given him credit for. She dried her eyes on the edge of her nightgown, got up and headed for her computer. If Ryan could hold it together then so could she.
He flew out that afternoon, silent and solemn and wearing a suit that she’d never seen him in; Jasmine hadn’t even realized Ryan owned any formal suits. The tie was nice, though; it brought out his eyes. Ryan left and Jasmine worried and promised that she’d call him every night.
The funeral was set for a week out. Jasmine wanted to buy Ryan tickets that would bring him home right after, but she figured his family might need him longer. The day of the funeral she called in the morning, just to check in, and he sounded okay—subdued, but okay. That evening, though…
“What happened?” she asked immediately after he answered the phone.
“What do you mean?”
“You sound perky. It’s a little weird.” Especially weird in light of the fact that they’d buried his brother that morning.
“I…huh. I guess I kind of am. Not, not happy or anything, but…” Ryan drew a deep breath. “Ben came to the funeral.”
“Brody’s pen pal?” Ben who kept Ryan emotionally unavailable, Ben of the many letters and no face time?
“Yeah. I sent him a notice, but I didn’t really think he’d come. He did though, and after Cheryl was a complete bitch to him I took him out, and we sat and talked for hours and hours, and now I’m wearing his tie.”
“Wait, what?” Wearing his tie? “Did you get laid today, Ryan?”
“No, Jesus!” He sounded defensive and more than a little angry, and Jasmine felt like smacking her own forehead. “I wouldn’t do that on the day of my brother’s fucking funeral, and thanks for thinking so much of me.”
“I’m sorry, that was so inappropriate of me,” she apologized. “I’m just surprised, that’s all. I never thought anyone would ever meet him.”
Ooh, still terse. Jasmine would have to tease it out of him. “Sooo…what’s he like? Is he as good looking as the picture in his book?” Because of course Ryan had the man’s book; he’d even read the damn thing.
“High praise,” Jasmine said, remembering how Ryan had sighed over that picture.
“I know, I didn’t think it was possible, but he’s so handsome. And he’s smart and funny, and he knows I read his letters and he doesn’t even mind!”
“Really? Wow.” That was rather gracious, all things considered. “Nice guy.”
“I know, he’s almost too good to be real.”
“How did you end up with his tie?”
Ryan launched into the story and Jasmine settled back on the couch, happy to listen but getting a growing feeling of nervous anticipation, as though something inexorable was about to change their lives. She just hoped she’d be able to ride the wave instead of getting pulled under.
Ryan came home after another week, and Jasmine figured out pretty fast that nine times out of ten these days, if he was on the phone he was talking to Ben. Benjamin DeWitt became a tangible presence in their apartment; even Lennie and Grant knew about him, and gave Ryan shit about his long-distance boyfriend accordingly, but Ryan just shrugged off everyone else’s opinions. He was stuck on Ben, completely enamored, and Jasmine was smart enough to know that she didn’t want to draw a line in the sand for Ryan’s affections. Maybe it would be good for him, talking things out with Ben. Maybe they could be friends. Maybe they could even be more, although she doubted it.
When Ryan got a box in the mail full of the rest of Brody and Ben’s letters from his mom he was over the moon with happiness. And Ben, man, somehow he just got it, knew the right thing to say and kept Ryan happy, all without making him uncomfortable. Gracious, that was the guy’s biggest descriptor in Jasmine’s mind. Gracious and kind and clearly interested, or he wouldn’t be so tolerant of Ryan texting him at all hours of the day and night.
That kind of commitment deserved a little boost, so Jasmine took it upon herself to call up the organizers for the MileHiCon in Denver and see if they were interested in expanding their panels to include Ryan. They were, and they even ended up paying his airfare and hotel costs, although Jasmine had been ready to foot the bill and just buy fewer groceries for a while, maybe pick up a couple of shifts at the bar.
Ryan was rapturous about the news, of course. “I’m going to Denver?” he asked her when she told him about the con. “Seriously?”
“Good timing, huh?” she asked.
“Really good timing. Suspiciously good, in fact.” He was trying to be cool about it but that grin kept breaking through, the grin Jasmine loved, and that only seemed to be on his face lately when he was talking to Ben. He came around the table and threw his arms around her neck. “Omigod, I love you so much! You’re the best friend ever, you’re amazing, you’re perfect!”
“You’re babbling,” she said, but she hugged him back happily. This was the Ryan she knew and loved, not the quiet, reserved man who’d been managing his grief so carefully for the last few months. “Are you going to tell Ben?”
“Of course! He can meet me there, we can…” Ryan’s voice trailed off, and when he pulled away his expression was anxious. “Oh no, what if he doesn’t want to meet me?”
“Why wouldn’t he want to meet you?”
“Because, I don’t know, because we’re not…I mean, we’re just friends, right? Because he doesn’t like me enough to meet up with me, or because I remind him of Brody, or—”
“You and Brody are almost nothing alike,” Jasmine told him. “Ben’s not spending all his free time chatting you up on the phone because you remind him of his pen pal. He’s talking with you because he likes you. Now go call him and tell him you’re coming to Denver.”
They stared at each other.
“Okay, I’m going.”
“Good, you should be going.”
“I’ll call him.”
“So call him already!”
“But what if—”
“Oh, for the love of god, I’ll do it.” Jasmine reached around and grabbed Ryan’s phone out of his back pocket and found Ben’s contact info, along with a decadent picture of him in a suit. “Wow, hottie alert.”
“Shut up,” Ryan said, snatching his phone back. “I’m calling, okay? I’m calling him.”
And of course everything was fine.
Jasmine heard almost nothing from Ryan during the con, not that she’d expected to. He had panels, he had Q and A’s, and he had Ben. She was trying really, really hard not to be jealous of Ben. She went shopping with Lennie and pounded on metal for a while with Grant and was finally feeling back to her old self when she went to pick up Ryan at Logan International. And then when she saw him, she knew.
“Oh thank god,” she said as she walked up to Ryan, “you finally got laid.”
“Say it a little louder,” Ryan told her as he opened his arms for a hug. “Not everyone within a hundred feet quite heard you, I’m sure.” But he was practically vibrating with happiness, and Jasmine held him tightly and even picked him up for a second. “Omigod, stop!” Ryan laughed. They hugged and he kissed her cheek and for a moment everything was perfect.
“I take it the con went well then,” Jasmine said when they finally separated.
“So well. Unbelievably well.” They headed for parking, Jasmine picking up the spare backpack that Ryan had somehow acquired and that was probably filled with free schwag.
“That’s excellent. So when is he coming out here? I want to meet him.”
“I don’t know.”
Uh-oh. “You didn’t make plans to see each other again?”
“Not specifically, no.” Jasmine must have looked as astonished as she felt, because Ryan got defensive. “I’m sure it’ll happen, I just don’t know when! He’s got a lot of work to do getting stuff ready for his next book, and it’s not like we’re not busy here, too.”
Ryan was very clearly just as miserable as he was happy, which was strange but the kind of dichotomy he somehow excelled at pulling off. Jasmine’s first instinct was to steal his phone, call up Benjamin DeWitt and give him a piece of her fucking mind for leaving Ryan in a state of uncertainty. Ryan wouldn’t thank her for that, though, so she cleared her throat and changed the subject. “Tell me more about the con.” He did, and the ride home was bearable because of it. Ryan went straight to his room when he got back, barely sparing a moment to hug Lennie and Grant, who both looked at Jasmine curiously.
“Is he all right?” Lennie asked.
“Hell if I know,” Jasmine snapped. “It’s not like he’d let me do anything about it if he wasn’t. I need to cook something.”
“I’ve got chicken on the cutting board, I was going to make—”
“No, I need to cook something, Lennie!” Cooking calmed Jasmine down, way more than working or exercising or drinking did.
“Then you can help me,” Lennie said calmly, standing up and handing her Wii controller to Grant, who took it without comment. His stoicism was a balm on days like today. “And don’t yell at me, please.”
“Sorry.” They went into the kitchen and prepped the food in silence for a while before Jasmine opened up and told Lennie what was bothering her.
“I mean, if he really loves him they would have had something planned, right?” Jasmine demanded as she seasoned the rice. “What kind of guy lets his brand-new lover fly away without setting up some kind of meeting?”
“They’re still learning about each other,” Lennie said as she chopped up some bok choy. “The relationship lines aren’t so clear yet. I’ve been there. Heck, I wasn’t sure Grant was going to come back to Boston with me until two weeks before I left, and we’d been together for three years by then.”
“Why didn’t he tell you?”
“Because he assumed I knew, apparently.” Lennie rolled her eyes. “Men. He was genuinely shocked to find out I was upset about it. He asked me why I would even think that he was staying behind, since I was the love of his life.”
“And obnoxious, yeah. Plus it took forever to figure out how to ship his pneumatic hammer across the country.” They looked at each other and smiled. “It’s got to be even harder with two guys trying to figure each other out,” Lennie continued. “Ryan doesn’t like to ask for the things he wants and who knows what Ben’s hang-ups are? If it’s meant to be they’ll work it out.”
Ugh, patience. Jasmine hated when people counseled patience, but in this case Lennie was probably right. Her interfering quota was already maxed out thanks to the con. So she didn’t say anything when she heard Ryan ask Ben when he was coming to visit, and she didn’t say anything when she realized that he’d stopped asking when Ben was going to come visit. She didn’t even say anything when she realized what Ryan was working on in his spare time, a haunting portrait that was so filled with emotion that it could have been a map of Ryan’s heart. Jasmine didn’t say anything and Ryan was more affectionate than ever with her, needing a physical outlet for all of the feelings he wasn’t expressing. It wasn’t great, but at least the men were still talking. Maybe one day Ben would pull his head out of his ass and realize that he had a good thing going with Ryan, but that even good things needed proper attention if they were going to survive.
Then one day, all of a sudden, there was yelling and running out of the apartment and the stunning surprise of Benjamin DeWitt, here in Boston, holding onto Ryan like his life depended on it. Seeing them embrace actually made Jasmine’s throat tight, which meant it took her a little longer to yell, “Hey! Quit fucking in the street, guys, get the hell up here!”
Ben DeWitt, the author, the icon, the unconscious manipulator of her best friend’s hopes and fears in the flesh. Well, good. Time to see what all the fuss was about.