Notes: And here we have 2800 words of apology for not posting last week. I needed the break though, and the trip went pretty well. Almost perfect, right up until the part where Gentle Mother Nature turned into Freak Accident Mother Nature. I’m fine, my dad is mostly fine, but grr. Anyway, I appreciate your patience, your sweet comments that helped make me feel better about the delay, and most of all the fact that you’re reading now. We’re getting into the heavy stuff, people.
Title: Love Letters
Part Twenty-Eight: Ballet and Bars
Joey could have spent all afternoon in the paint section in the hardware store. The place was huge and stocked paint from three major manufacturers, all with their own displays of color swatches, and Joey took samples of each of them. There were some model kitchens at one end of the store that had tables large enough to lay the swatches out, and the salesperson politely looked the other way while they deposited Joey’s finds on a pale oak dining table and set about recreating the color wheels.
Ben didn’t have the eyes for this, really. It wasn’t that he was colorblind; it was just that after a while, his vision stopped differentiating between Lemon Chiffon and Papaya Whip. Joey and Ryan didn’t have that problem, and so Ben was delegated to documenting their expanding organization, which was fine. Ryan made a bright spiral of color out of the Valspar swatches, which Joey helped arrange and took a picture of when done, before they moved on to Sherwin-Williams. They had just enough time to finish with the Benjamin Moore colors before it was time to go and pick up Molly at the pool.
The car was mostly quiet, Joey focusing on blending the different manufacturers’ swatches together now that they’d been assessed individually in hopes of finding authoritative names, and Ben too conscious of interrupting the boy’s reverie to want to break the silence. It wasn’t far to the pool, thankfully, and Molly was waiting for them outside when they got there.
Ben remembered Molly as a slender girl, pale and blonde like her mother, but he wasn’t prepared for how waiflike she seemed now. Either the black dress at the funeral had hidden a lot, or the kid had lost weight that she hadn’t had to spare in the first place. She wore a golden yellow sundress (“Citrine,” Ben’s mind provided unhelpfully) that looked at least one size too big, and her wet hair fell in disheveled waves around her face.
“Hey Mols,” Ryan said with a smile as she got into the backseat of the car. “How was swimming?”
Molly shrugged. “Okay. Ballet was better.” She glanced over at Ben, who, feeling like an idiot, held out his hand.
“I’m Ben DeWitt, I don’t know if you remember me,” he began, but Molly immediately interrupted.
“You’re dad’s friend.” She shook his hand with her own cool, clammy one. “You came to his funeral.”
“Buckle up,” Ryan reminded her as he pulled away from the Y. Molly did, and as soon as her hands were free again Joey reached over and, without looking, grabbed ahold of her closest wrist. She didn’t grab him back or pull away, she didn’t even twitch, just let him hold onto her like it was completely normal. Maybe it was, for all Ben knew.
“Why was ballet so good?” Ryan asked, slowing for a stop sign.
Molly smiled, and that was where Ben really saw the resemblance to Brody and Ryan. “Miss Karinovsky thinks I’m ready for pointe. She’s letting me into the advanced classes.”
“That’s awesome!” Ryan turned quick and grinned at her. “Congratulations, that’s amazing. You’ll be so good, I know it.”
Molly blushed a little. “Thanks.”
Ryan’s cell phone went off in his pocket a second later, and he frowned. “Shoot, can you grab that for me, Ben? It’s probably Jasmine calling to harangue me, I still owe her three paintings.”
Ben delved into Ryan’s pocket, resolutely keeping his hands away from anything that could remotely be considered flirting at this point, no matter how much he wanted to, and pulled the phone out. The screen read Tom Bower. “It’s not Jasmine.” The phone still rang insistently.
“Answer it anyway.”
Ben did. “Ryan Kuzniar’s phone.”
“And where is Ryan Kuzniar?” the voice on the other side demanded.
“He’s with me. Who is this?”
“This is Officer Bower at Onemor Bar. Tell Ryan I’ve got Brody’s wife here, and I need him to come and pick her up. She’s in no condition to drive and the owner’s already complained of her disorderly behavior.”
“Oh,” Ben said, his stomach tightening. He could feel Ryan and Molly’s attention focus in on him. “We’ll be right there.”
“Good.” The officer ended the call and Ryan immediately said, “What?”
“That was Officer Bower,” Ben began, and Ryan grimaced.
“Oh god. Where’s Cheryl?” he asked. Ben heard Molly’s breath catch in the backseat.
“Onemor Bar. Do you know where that it?”
“It’s the same place I picked her up last time,” Ryan said. “Is he in a hurry, or can we drop the kids off first?”
Very conscious of his audience, Ben said, “I think the quicker the better.”
Ryan’s mouth tightened a bit. “Right.” He did a U-turn at the next light and headed back downtown. By the time they got to the bar, Cheryl was outside, leaning against the hood of a cop car as a man Ben assumed was Officer Bower stood speaking in front of her, his posture intent. Cheryl wouldn’t look him in the eyes, and when she saw Ryan’s car pull in she pushed unsteadily to her feet and headed their way.
Cheryl had changed just like her daughter had, losing too much weight. Her hair, so carefully coiffed the last time Ben had been through, was pulled back in a messy ponytail. Her pale eyes looked stark above the dark smudges beneath them, and she was wearing too-big sweatpants and a t-shirt than had seen better days, none of the beautiful clothes that Ben remembered from the few family photos Brody had sent along. Her left arm was bound in a sling, held close to her body.
“Fiii-nally,” she called out, stumbling a little as she made her way over to the car. Officer Bower followed close behind, his expression sternly disapproving. He was an older man, with short grey hair and a slight potbelly, and he had clearly reached his bullshit limit for the afternoon. “What took you so long?”
“I had to get Molly from swim practice,” Ryan said tightly as he stepped forward. Ben got out of the car as well, on reflex, and so did Molly. Joey stayed inside, but didn’t let go of his sister’s wrist, holding onto her as she stood by the back door.
“Molly had…” Cheryl looked blearily at her daughter. “You had swimming today? I thought you were doing…it’s ballet, right hon? Didn’t I drop you at the studio?”
“Swimming was after, Mom,” Molly said quietly. “I walked there from ballet.”
“Oh.” Cheryl looked at her daughter with blank incomprehension before switching to Ryan, and a moment later, to Ben. The blank look dropped away and was replaced with first shock, then anger. “Oh, hell no. I am not getting in a car with that man, I will drive myself home.”
“You aren’t driving anywhere, Mrs. Kuzniar,” Officer Bower told her.
“Stop being so damn formal, Tom, you’ve known me for years,” Cheryl said, rounding on him. “A few cups of…just, I need some coffee, and I’ll be fine.”
“Mrs. Kuzniar, if you start your car up again I will arrest you for drunk driving and reckless endangerment no matter how many cups of coffee you’ve had.”
“Tom,” Cheryl coaxed, “c’mon now, you wouldn’t arrest me. You were Brody’s partner for two years, you wouldn’t arrest his wife!”
“I was his partner, true, and I knew him well enough to know that your husband would’ve happily kicked my ass if I let you drive in your state,” Officer Bower said flatly.
“Well, I’m not riding with that man,” Cheryl insisted, glaring at Ben again. “I’m not!”
Officer Bower glanced at Ben. “What’s the problem with that man? Looks like a normal enough person to me.”
“No, he’s not!” Cheryl insisted. She leaned in and tried to whisper, but being drunk it came out loud anyway. “He’s Brody’s gay friend. He’s been trying to steal my husband for years. Takin’ his attention away from his family, where it belonged…it’s just not right.”
Ben felt blood rise in his face, a mix of anger and embarrassment. He looked for a cue from Ryan but Ryan just stood there, resolutely silent.
“Well, there’s no need to fear for that now,” Officer Bower said, his voice gone gentle now. “Get in the car, Cheryl. Go home.”
“But I don’t want to ride with him!”
“I could drive her car back,” Ben offered, more than willing to keep his distance from Cheryl.
“No!” She rounded on him suddenly, almost falling over. “I won’t have you drivin’ my car! It’s a…no, Brody bought that car for me, and I don’t want you in it.”
“Then you’re left riding with us,” Ryan finally spoke up, sounding almost as tense as he looked. “So get in, please.”
“Go on, now.” Officer Bower took Cheryl’s good arm and led her closer to the car.
“God, why’re y’all so mean to me?” she exclaimed. “I don’t deserve this!”
“Get in the car, go home and sober up,” Officer Bower said.
“I’m not going home,” Cheryl pouted. “I’m going to Brody’s mother’s house, that’s not my home. God, the way she looks at me you’d think I’d killed her son myself. Everyone there hates me.”
“That’s not true, Mom,” Molly said, scooting into the middle seat of the car to make room. Officer Bower kept one arm and Ryan took the other, and they helped Cheryl down into the backseat. Molly leaned into her mother comfortingly as she helped get her seatbelt on. “I love you.”
“’Course you do, you’re my good girl,” Cheryl said, then looked past her daughter at her son. “Joey? Aren’t you going to say hello to your mama?”
“Hello,” Joey said, not taking his eyes off the swatches.
“That was terrible. Give me a kiss, I want a kiss.”
Officer Bower shut the door and sighed. “Ryan, I’m telling you this as a friend. Cheryl needs help. Rehab, therapy, counseling…I don’t know, don’t care, but it’s gotta be something and it’s gotta be soon or she’s going to kill herself or someone else. Those kids need their mama, and she needs to be there for them.”
“We’re working on it,” Ryan told him. “Once her arm is healed up. Mom has a list of grief counselors and addiction specialists and programs for her to consider.”
“Do what you can,” the man advised. “There’s only so much leeway the force can give Cheryl before the chief’s goodwill runs out.”
“I know. Thank you, sir.”
“You boys have a good evening.”
When they got back in the car, Cheryl was haranguing Molly. “Why does he hold onto you?” she demanded. “He always holds onto you. I’m his mother, he should hold onto me.”
“Switch seats with me, I want to sit next to Joey.”
“Mom, the car’s already moving.” Ryan had wasted no time getting them going. Cheryl’s mouth twisted with melancholy and she looked away from her children.
“There’s always something,” she muttered. “Always something to keep me at arm’s distance. You were always, both of you…you were always your daddy’s children. Always went to him first, you always liked him best.”
Molly looked like she was on the verge of tears. “That’s not true, Mom.”
“I know it’s true,” Cheryl said hollowly. “I come second with everyone. I came second with you when your daddy was here, and now I’m second again. Or hell, third, I don’t know. I was third with your daddy too, now I think on it. You kids, then his friends, then me. His friends. Friends. Like they could give him something I couldn’t.” She seemed to have forgotten Ben was in the car. “He read those letters first, before everything else. Not the paper, no time for the TV, nothing. He read that…that damn book…twice, kept it on the bedside table. I wanted to burn it. Can’t believe that little shit signed it for him. Had to make it special, so Brody would hold it close. And Brody knew what that did to me, and he didn’t even care. No one cares.”
“Momma…” Molly was crying now, her face turned into her mother’s shoulder, but Cheryl didn’t notice. She just stared out the window, drifting through her stupor. Ben shared a worried glance with Ryan, who drove a little faster than strictly legal to get them back as soon as possible.
By the time they got to the house Cheryl was asleep, snoring with her face mashed against the glass of the window. Ryan parked the car behind the chain of others that had appeared during their absence, then went around to the door where Joey sat silent and opened it up. “Let’s go in, guys,” he said gently.
“But Mom,” Molly protested with a sniffle.
“I’ll come and get her in a minute. Ben can stay in the car with her until I come back out.” The look Ryan gave Ben was pleading, but it wasn’t something Ben even had to think about.
“Of course I will,” he said. Molly looked slightly appeased, and Joey got out of the car without comment, his hand still firmly attached to his sister’s wrist. Molly immediately turned to Ryan for a hug once she exited the car, and after a moment Ryan turned and led them inside.
What the fuck am I doing here? Ben asked himself once Ryan was out of sight. He felt so out of his depth he couldn’t even see the surface anymore. The kids, okay, he’d been doing all right with that, but for all his private nature Ben wasn’t the type of person who was content to sit back and take abuse. A large part of him had wanted to lash out at Cheryl for being a complete and utter bitch to him, and it had taken Ryan’s pained expression and Molly’s obvious discomfort to keep him from doing that. Ben didn’t mind being teased, he could handle professional ridicule and he didn’t even care about being ignored, but a deliberate attack wasn’t the sort of thing he was inclined to let slide.
But Cheryl was drunk and in pain, and she had good kids and Ryan needed his support, so Ben didn’t say anything. He just stared straight ahead, staring at the trees and the grass and ignoring the other occupant of the car right up until the moment when she suddenly grabbed his shoulder.
“Why didn’t he love me best?” Cheryl demanded, her grip uncomfortably tight. “He was so careful with your damn book…what makes you better than me?”
“Nothing,” Ben told her, and he meant it honestly. “He didn’t think I was any better. He did love you best, hang on a sec.” Ben took out his phone and searched his inbox for the text. He hadn’t been sure why he’d kept it, beyond the fact that it was a keepsake from Brody, until right now. Ben found the one he wanted and showed it to her. “Look.”
It’s our 12th anniversary in a month. Google says I have to give her something silk. I’m thinking lingerie. She looks fucking amazing in lingerie. Does lingerie do anything for you? Is there some manly equivalent?
The conversation had devolved from there into a discussion of jockstraps, but this was the important part. Ben watched Cheryl work it out in her bleary head, and he was completely unprepared for the tears that filled her eyes once she was through.
“He gave me Victoria’s Secret,” she cried, her face blotchy. “It was in Moroccan Blue, and that’s my favorite color.”
“I can assure you, Brody never sent me lingerie,” Ben told her. Cheryl looked at him blankly for a moment, then laughed. Her breath smelled like gin, but the laugh seemed genuine, not bitter.
“God Almighty, I don’t understand you at all,” she said once she’d settled down.
“Good thing you don’t have to.”
“You like Ryan, huh? Like, really?”
“Yes,” Ben said firmly.
“That’s good,” Cheryl said, letting Ben’s shoulder go and sitting back against her own seat. “That’s nice. Brody worried about him. The kids love him, y’know.”
“I can tell.”
“Poor boy needs someone to love him in this place,” Cheryl continued absently, looking out the window again. “It’s a hard place to live when they don’t really want you here. I know it. No one knows like me.” She chuckled, and now the bitterness was back. “They think I ruined Brody. Think I’m ruinin’ my babies. But what do they know?” Cheryl sighed. “What do any of you know?”
That, Ben thought, was a good question. He didn’t know what it was like to lose a spouse, but he did know what it was like not to have a real parent. “Are you ruining your kids?” he asked her, looking straight at Cheryl. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“Shut up,” she whispered.
Ben shut up.