Notes: Some of you may read this and think to yourselves, “Oh, she's just cooking up an over-the-top homophobe for us now.” But the person I’m basing a certain uncle on is actually a real person to whom I have the great displeasure of being related. While he’s not as well-off as I portray this character, he is ultra-conservative, so controlling and abusive neither of his children want anything to do with him, and almost got into a fistfight with my father at my grandmother’s funeral because of what he said about my mom, who is his sister. So yes, the misanthrope is real, guys. Have a nice confrontation!
Title: Love Letters
Part Thirty: Speak Up or Get Out
In the end, it wasn’t for Ryan or even for himself that Ben rocked the boat. It was for Cheryl, and in retrospect he was just as shocked about it as everyone else seemed to be.
On Sunday the Kuzniar house was filled with people, nearly thirty of them to be exact. The adults milled around eating, drinking wine—so much wine, too much wine, it didn’t take much imagination to see how someone could become an alcoholic in this environment—and telling stories, while the kids went outside and played croquet, or actually played something more along the lines of “take shots at each other with balls and mallets and run around screaming,” which looked like a lot more fun to Ben. The teenagers secreted themselves away in the rec room after swiping half the food, and for a while Ben thought this was as rough as it would get. There were plenty of snarky, falsely-sympathetic endearments directed toward Cheryl, Ryan, DeeDee and the kids, but more of the family seemed to be genuinely sympathetic, and only a few people had batted an eye when Ryan introduced Ben around, so that was good. No one seemed to want to hang onto his company for too long either, so Ben could drift around the periphery from group to group when Ryan was called away to help his mom or, more often, handle something with Joey. He learned a lot about the Kuzniar clan in general that way.
They tended toward white collar jobs—plenty of lawyers, a few doctors and several accountants. Most of the women went lovely but conservative with their appearances: floral dresses, high heels, tasteful jewelry and only one piercing in each ear. The men wore slacks and polo shirts, or rarely, a sports jersey that got them some ribbing but was generally acceptable. Ben saw no tattoos anywhere; Ryan seemed to have the monopoly on those, and he was wearing a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt despite the heat that covered most of them. The part of Ben that hated this wanted to rip the shirt off of his boyfriend and show everyone here just how gorgeous he looked, but that wasn’t possible. It was a little disconcerting to Ben to realize that in some ways, he blended in with this crowd perfectly. Professionals, nice but unimaginative dressers, adept at keeping their distance while maintaining a veneer of politeness. It must have been absolute hell on Ryan to grow up in a place like this, when his passions took him in such a dramatically different direction.
What the Kuzniar’s didn’t say was almost as interesting as what they did. After half an hour of wandering, Ben learned that Brody was still something of a taboo subject among the family while Cheryl was fair game. There were plenty of stilted conversations about “Cousin Billy,” who after a few minutes Ben learned was Uncle Bill’s only son, and apparently back in jail after another “incident.” “Thank goodness he has Cathy and her husband,” people would say over and over again. Cathy was Bill’s daughter and little Grace’s mother, and no one seemed to remember her poor husband’s name. People tried to talk about Joey, but it was clear that they were mostly just ignorant about him, and spoke in hushed tones about how “sad it was that he was so slow,” and “poor little Molly, havin’ to live with such a family.” Then they’d notice Ben and reassure him that they thought Ryan was “doing a wonderful job trying to step in and set things right, he always comes when his mama calls!”
“His brother would be proud of his efforts,” one heavy-handed man said as he clapped Ben on the shoulder. “At least the kid’s givin’ it a shot. What is it you do again, young man?”
I’m a New York Times bestselling author, you condescending piece of shit, Ben wanted to say, but he didn’t. Saying that was the sort of thing that made people want to prolong the conversation, and that was the last thing he wanted right now. “I’m a freelance writer.”
“Oh.” Ben escaped a moment later with a sense of grim satisfaction, and Ryan found him a few minutes later out in front of the house, seriously considering throwing the long-stemmed wine glass he’d been carrying as far as he could fucking chuck it.
“You okay?” Ryan asked, wrapping his arms around Ben’s waist and kissing the back of his neck.
“I’m fine,” Ben told him, setting the glass down on the rail so he could turn and kiss Ryan properly. “Just working on my zen,” he said between pecks against Ryan’s mouth that just made him want more. “How much longer is this supposed to last?”
“Mmm, I think Mama’s going to start cutting the cakes in half an hour or so,” Ryan replied, closing his eyes and soaking up the affection like he was starved for it. Fuck it, he probably was. “After that we’re in the final count.”
“Thank god.” Ryan pulled Ben close again and they lost themselves in kissing, not even noticing the champagne-colored Lincoln Towncar that pulled up right in front of the house and parked in such a way that no one would be able to get their own cars past it. Two men and a woman got out of it, the woman holding a wiggling toddler in a frothy white dress, and headed for the front steps. Ben didn’t pay them much heed until one of them spoke, in a stentorian voice that the people behind the house could probably hear.
“For the love of Jesus, don’t put your queerness on display, Ryan,” he boomed. Ryan jumped back with a start and Ben got a good look at the speaker. “There are impressionable young minds here, and I don’t want any of them tempted to turn their backs on God and go down your path.”
The man was about Ben’s height, wearing a well-tailored linen suit and a white shirt that matched his perfectly-coiffed white hair. He had a thick grey mustache and wore a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles that accentuated the lines beneath his pale grey eyes, but instead of making him look old it just made him look powerful. By comparison, the young man with the receding hairline and deep worry lines beside his mouth was positively washed out, and the woman didn’t fare much better, her pale pink lips thin and disapproving. The only other person in the group with any sense of liveliness was the baby, and Ben had no doubt that would be scolded out of her as soon as she was old enough to acquire a sense of shame.
“Uncle Bill,” Ryan said quietly, cementing Ben’s instant dislike into hatred with the apprehension in his voice. Bill didn’t say anything else, just turned and entered the house like he owned it, completely disregarding the “Please ring the doorbell” sign that they’d hung there this morning to keep Joey from going mad trying to count everyone who came inside. Ryan let out a quiet groan and followed him inside, and Ben trailed after them, feeling like he was watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion.
Uncle Bill apparently had a word for everyone, and none of them were nice. “Cousin Sissy,” he greeted DeeDee’s sister, “you’re looking positively jaundiced in that color, my dear. I would’ve gone with something other than yellow considering your complexion.”
“Matthew,” he said to the hearty man who’d tried to interrogate Ben earlier. “I see you’re still buying your suits at Men’s Warehouse. Your firm’s not doing well enough to let you afford something properly bespoke?”
“I, uh…actually, we just closed a case against the state for—”
“For a piddling, piss-poor amount,” Bill cut off. “Oh, I know all the details of it; the attorney general and I had a good laugh over it the other day.” Bill shook his head. “If you’re going to do something stupid like take on a class-action lawsuit for some whiny little fishermen complaining about pollution, then you should have had the balls to go for the throat, boy. The government can be a gold mine if you squeeze them the right way.”
“Precisely,” Bill said with a sneer before moving on to the kitchen. People seemed to melt out of existence as he came close, and Ben could see why.
DeeDee was in the kitchen, putting the newest batch of her fried chicken out on the platter. “DeeDee,” Bill announced, making her jump up and almost spill the chicken.
“Oh, William!” She put the food down, wiped her hands on her apron and reached out to pull him into a hug. “Welcome!”
“I’d rather you didn’t touch me until you’ve properly washed up, DeeDee,” Bill said, forestalling her with a raised hand. “I don’t care to allow my suit to be soiled if I can help it.”
“Oh. Of course.” They exchanged a little cheek kiss instead. “And Robert, Cathy! It’s so lovely to see you both.”
“Thank you, Aunt DeeDee,” Cathy said, shifting her kicking toddler in her arms.
“And there’s the pretty little birthday girl!” DeeDee added, beaming. “Hi, Gracie! You can just let her down if you’d like, Cathy honey, she won’t be able to grab anything in here that might get her into trouble.”
“I’d rather not,” Cathy said. Grace squealed and Cathy blushed uncomfortably.
“Well then, at least let me make you up a plate of food to take outside,” DeeDee tried again, her constant smile finally beginning to falter. “I’ve got some fresh chicken, and there’s potato salad and hush puppies and corn on the cob, and I’m about to do some okra.”
At this Bill actually chuckled and shook his head. “DeeDee, every time I wondered why my brother had bothered to marry you, a taste of your cooking would remind me. But no, we’ve already eaten. I’d prefer it if we could simply cut the cakes and eat them now so as to spend as little time as possible out in the sun and the heat. Too much sunshine is bad for Cathy’s complexion; she inherited her mother’s tendency to turn into a tomato when she goes outside.”
“Of course,” DeeDee said, now just resigned. “Boys, could you help me take the cakes outside to the dessert table?” she asked Ryan and Ben.
“Sure, mom,” Ryan said, grabbing the pineapple upside down and Joey’s three-tiered chocolate monstrosity. Ben got Grace’s and a red velvet that said Happy Birthday Sissy! and DeeDee managed the last three by herself. Neither Bill nor his daughter and son in law offered to help.
Outside things were much less tense; some of the kids had started a water-balloon game, and a lot of the adults had moved from wine to beer. Belts had been loosened, heels had been left on the porch in favor of wandering barefoot through the grass, and as soon as people saw the cakes coming out they mobbed them.
The happy birthday song, as sung by three dozen semi-inebriated people trying to remember seven different names at the end of it, was pretty hilarious. DeeDee took care of the cutting and made sure everyone celebrating a birthday got a piece of their cake first, then let the rest of the family have at them. Soon everyone was chewing on a slice of cake, and Ben hoped that everyone’s mouths would be too full to make conversation.
Unfortunately, there was no stopping some people from being assholes.
“Ryan,” Joey said softly, tugging on his uncle’s arm as he looked at the late arrivals. He had chocolate smeared over his mouth, and he shied away when Ryan went to wipe it clean. “Ryan, plus four? Four?”
“Yes, plus four,” Ryan said patiently as he finally got the worst of the frosting off with the wet napkin he held.
“Plus four what?” Bill demanded, rolling his eyes as he looked at Joey. “Lord above, is he still doing that ridiculous counting? It’s a sick compulsion, that sort of thing. Now that his father is gone, I don’t hold out much hope for your grandson ever being able to live in society like a normal human being, DeeDee,” he said, completely ignoring Joey’s glare. “Brody can never be replaced, you know, not with your queer exhibitionist of a youngest son and certainly not with whatever trash Cheryl is associating with these days.” Cheryl, standing not ten feet away quietly chatting with one of the cousins, shut her eyes tight before downing the rest of the wine she was holding.
“William,” DeeDee began, trying to calm things down, but some men were made for the soapbox. He reminded Ben of some of the politicians he’d met at fundraising events: quick with an opinion and not really interested in anything anyone else had to say.
“I’m afraid the best of your brood is gone now,” Bill continued in full voice. “My brother Joseph would be rolling over in his grave to see how they’d turned out. Pamela is carrying far too much weight, and of course, your youngest,” he added with a sneer, “is hardly fit for polite company, especially not with that man accompanying him. No, Brody was the best. If only he’d had the sense to marry better, he might have really made something of himself.”
“Minus one!” Joey suddenly shouted at Bill, surprising everyone. “Minus one! Minus one!”
“What in God’s name are you tryin’ to say, boy?” Bill demanded.
“I think he’s telling you to leave,” Ryan said, his voice totally flat.
“Well, lucky for me I don’t have to listen to the ramblings of a special child,” Bill said with finality, but Joey just kept yelling. Molly came out of the house and tried to help Ryan calm him down, but Joey was red-faced and just a few breaths away from screaming now. “For the love of God, shut your boy up!” Bill yelled at Cheryl, who broke out of her frozen stupor and went to Joey’s side, pulling him close and whispering in his ear. He calmed down marginally with his mother’s presence, no longer yelling, but he was still breathing in heavy, angry gasps and giving Bill a look that should have struck him dead.
“You can’t even control your own children,” Bill said with a sneer. “It’s a failing on this side of the family, I’ve noticed. Did you drink when you were pregnant with him the way you do now? Or was he a lesson for you from God, for not heeding His word?”
“You’re a fine one to talk about controlling his kids,” Ben said. In that moment, you could have heard a twig snap out on the lawn. Bill looked like he couldn’t quite believe some nonentity was speaking to him, and the rest of the family looked on with a combination of dread and anticipation.
“And who are you, to address me in such a manner?” Bill said, his voice cold and dismissive. “Just another God-forsaken faggot.”
“I might be gay, but at least I’m not in jail,” Ben replied. “Which is where your namesake is, if I recall correctly. For…what was it? Oh right, armed robbery, assault and battery and illegal possession of firearms. Thanks for all the details,” he added in Cousin Matthew’s direction. The other man looked like he wanted to sink right into the lawn. “Hardly an upstanding citizen you produced there.”
“I have long since disowned that bad seed,” Bill told Ben coldly. “And if I recall correctly, you’re not a part of this family. You’re not even on the periphery of it, and you never will be. Queers can’t get married in North Carolina, praise God.”
“No, but we can have civil partnerships in Denver, which is where I’m from,” Ben returned. “And we can file tax returns together and serve openly in the military and pretty much do everything you can do, except spout amoral bullshit with a straight face.” There was a collective gasp. “I just think you should examine your own job at parenting a little closer before forcing your opinion of other people’s on everyone in hearing distance.”
Bill looked dumbfounded. Ben had no doubt that this was the first time in a long, long time that anyone had spoken back to this man, and he just didn’t’ know how to handle it. “I don’t have to listen to this,” Bill snapped at last, pulling himself together. “I don’t have to listen to the words coming out of your perverted mouth, and neither does my family.
“DeeDee,” he turned to Ryan’s mother, who was white as a ghost, “we will be discussing the annuity after this, mark my words. And the rest of you speechless bastards,” he rounded on the crowd with a roar, “can all just go to Hell!” He dropped his cake plate on the ground, turned and stalked off inside. His immediate family followed him, little Grace actively wailing now that she still hadn’t been allowed to set her white patent shoes on the ground.
“Minus four,” Joey said with satisfaction.