Notes: I’m a terrible person, I promise you sexytimes and then I have to work other people in and this thing gets even longer. Next one, sexy, I swear. This one brings Heather back into play, because I couldn’t get this close to the end of the story without her. Still…close, guys! So close!
Title: Love Letters
Part Thirty-Seven: Don’t Be That Way, Just Be Your Way
It turned out Ben didn’t spend Thanksgiving alone. He had planned to, it was all settled, just him and a frozen turkey dinner because yes, sometimes Ben really was that unmotivated, but in the end he was surprised with good food and better company.
The food came from all over the place. Ben had no clue how people got the idea that he didn’t eat—he ate every single day, even if sometimes it was nothing more complex than cold cereal and pizza. On rare occasions he’d cook something huge and complex that he could freeze and eat from for weeks, but when he was in the middle of edits Ben couldn’t be bothered. Linda knew that, and she’d started a tradition a few years ago of sending him care packages when he was in the throes of the second draft—never for the first draft, because, as Linda put it, she didn’t like to encourage sloth. But second draft care packages were along the lines of giving a puppy a treat for good behavior, her way of encouraging Ben to take the time to be a real boy who could afford to take a break and eat some real food since he’d gotten the worst of his work out of the way.
The day before Thanksgiving, Ben opened the door to a harried-looking Whole Foods employee who was carrying two big bags. “Delivery for Benjamin DeWitt,” he said, huffing a little under the weight of the bags.
“Awesome.” A second later Ben found his arms full of paper sacks that were practically enough to bow his back. “There you go, man. No need to tip, the lady already did. Happy Thanksgiving.” He was gone in a moment, and Ben kicked the door shut with his foot and staggered to the kitchen, where he put the bags down and opened the card lying on top.
At least I didn’t have it delivered by singing telegram this time! Eat up, Benjamin, you have to keep your strength up for the third round.
PS—there’s enough for two, just in case!
Well…huh. It was a nice thought, even though Ben had no one to share it with. He opened the bags to see what was inside.
Sweet potato casserole, pumpkin pie, green beans and almonds, creamed onions, two different types of stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, a bag of rolls and a turkey that had to weigh at least fifteen pounds that was still warm from the oven. Enough for two? Was Linda used to feeding pro athletes? Ben put the food into the fridge, taking a little stuffing and green beans for lunch, because why not? No one would tell him no. He sent Linda a quick text thanking her for the food, and figured that was the end of it.
Except it wasn’t, not quite. Michael, who was naturally too busy to get Thanksgiving free, nevertheless sent Ben a gift certificate for a local restaurant that would be open for the holiday. Ben even got a box full of homemade cookies from his father’s family. Some of them were shaped like pumpkins while the rest were clearly cut from the imprint of a small child’s hand, and iced to look like turkeys. They all had sprinkles, copious amounts of sprinkles, and pieces of candy corn that Ben was sure he’d break a tooth on they were so hard, but he appreciated the thought.
“It was Carly’s idea,” his father explained to him that evening when he called to say thank you. “She made them for her class and insisted that we send some to you. I’m glad they made it okay.”
“Yeah, the cookies are fine. Why are they celebrating an American holiday in the schools up there?”
“They aren’t. Last week was a cultural appreciation festival, and everyone had to pick something that wasn’t Canadian. Carly chose Thanksgiving. Her mom worked for hours on a pilgrim costume, and I was on snack duty.”
“She seems to like dressing up.”
“Budding actress, maybe. She’s going to be a snowflake for the holiday play, and she’s already fretting about her outfit being sparkly enough.”
“Boys must be so much easier,” Ben said. He knew he’d been a low-maintenance child and as close to independent as was possible for a teenager while still living in the same house as his mother. No drama, no discussion, no fights or arguments. Just two people living together and mostly staying out of each other’s way. It was like the perfect roommate situation.
“These ones aren’t as easy as you’d think, between the sports and the injuries that go along with them. And my girls have a certain charm.” There was a moment of silence before his dad said, “I’m sorry, you know, that I wasn’t there when you were—”
“It isn’t a problem,” Ben interrupted, really, really not wanting to talk about it. “I understand.”
“Sure, Ben.” His father heaved a sigh that still sounded remorseful, and no. Just no.
“I’ll talk to you later, okay? Tell everyone I said hi.”
“I’ll do that, son.”
Ben hung up and stared at the phone. Son. It wasn’t a term he was used to having directed at him, and he wasn’t sure he wanted it to be. Ben was done with playing a subordinate role to supposed authority figures, he had been for over a decade. He wasn’t about to start again.
Except with Linda, but she didn’t count. Linda was the evil queen of everything, and her power could not be denied.
The holiday’s biggest surprise came in the form of a knock on the door around two in the afternoon. Ben was in the process of heating up his feast, and he really hoped it wasn’t another delivery person, because it was just mean to make them work on Thanksgiving. But it wasn’t a delivery person, even though she was carrying things.
“Hi!” Heather said brightly. She had a six-pack in one hand and a box of pizza in the other. “I come bearing gifts.”
“What are you doing here?” Ben asked, stunned. “I thought you were still in Capetown.”
“I got a deal on an early ticket and I was kind of done with that scene, so I decided to come back a little early. And now I’m freezing my ass off on your doorstep, so…how about you let me in before the grease congeals on the pizza?”
“Oh fuck, right.” Ben moved aside and Heather came in, just like she had up until her departure four months ago. She walked straight into the kitchen, then stopped abruptly.
“Um…wait. Am I interrupting something? Are you having an actual, real, honest-to-God Thanksgiving dinner?” She glanced at him and lowered her voice. “Do you have a guy over? Do I need to leave?”
“There’s no one else here,” Ben assured her. “The food was a gift from my agent. I was just going to eat it by myself, and there’s way too much for just one person, so it’s a good thing you’re here.” He took the pizza and beer from her and set them on the counter so she could get out of her mittens and heavy coat. “Actually, why are you here?”
“Dude, I just told you—”
“No, I know why you’re back in America, I just don’t know why you’re here instead of with your family. Don’t you have a ludicrous number of siblings all anxious to see you?”
“Exactly,” Heather groaned. “And they’ll bother me and ask me a million questions and my parents will smother me, and I’m just not ready for that. I haven’t told them I’m back yet, and I won’t until tomorrow, if you’re willing to let me sleep on the couch.”
“It’s your couch, you know that,” Ben said. “Let’s get some food and watch some Battlestar Galactica.”
“You are a god among men,” Heather enthused, grabbing a plate and loading it down with turkey. “I haven’t been able to watch anything since my iPad mostly died last month—did you know you have to use a voltage regulator to keep your shit from blowing up over there? Because I didn’t know until the damn thing actually started smoking, like literally, my iPad cord started to smoke. I started crying, it was so depressing.”
“You can get a new one now that you’re back.”
“Eh,” she said, the verbal equivalent of a shrug, and went into the living room to set things up.
They settled into the couch like she’d never been gone, and ate in silence for a while as they watched “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Heather’s comfort episode when it came to BSG. After the food was gone and they were kind of slumped together, Heather said, “It wasn’t what I expected.”
“Yeah, Africa. The trip in general. I thought I’d be happy, you know, getting things off my mind and doing whatever I wanted and seeing the world. And I was, sometimes. Definitely had some adventures, and I don’t regret going. But mostly I just missed home. I really missed being here, and I missed my family, and I missed you. I even missed work.” Heather turned to look at Ben, and her eyes were a little shiny. “I guess I’m really not meant to be with someone like Sarah, you know? I’m not an intrepid explorer or an adventurer. I’m not like that.” She gestured toward the screen at Starbuck. “I’m just me.”
“I like you this way,” Ben told her, completely honest. “You don’t need to look to other people or other places to find meaning in your life, to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with being happy with what you have. I think that’s great. I think you’re great.”
“Aww, you’re the best boyfriend a lesbian could have,” Heather cooed, deliberately breaking the mood. Ben was grateful.
“And you make a lovely girlfriend. Now shut up and watch the show.”
“Oh, fine.” She stayed silent until the episode was over, then took a pull of her beer and said, “But seriously, you’re having Ryan over at Christmas, right? I’ll give you some space.”
“I don’t think he’d know what to do with space at this point,” Ben said. “And he’s not coming until the twenty-sixth.” Ben still had no idea how Heather had wrangled information about Ryan out of him from half a world away, but she had a method for getting him to open up that basically revolved around being uncomfortably direct when she thought he was holding something back. Ben appreciated the candor, even if he wasn’t always comfortable with the subject matter. “You’re welcome to visit while he’s here.”
“Oh, I’m totally going to bug you guys while he’s here, don’t worry about that. And you know Michael’s going to want some face time too, so don’t think you’re getting out of anything. But I think you’ll need some space, too. You like space.”
“I like company,” Ben protested. “And Ryan loves being around people.”
Heather rolled her eyes. “I’m thinking he’s going to love being around just you more. You’ve hardly ever had any time alone together, and this is your second chance, right? A fresh start, kind of? You should begin as you mean to go on, and that means privacy.”
Ben stared at her for a moment, then said, “Since when do you read Charles Spurgeon?”
“Fuck off, I can make up poetic things without help!” Neither of them moved for a long moment, then Heather said, “Okay, fine, I might have been googling motivational quotes and that one stuck a little. And screw you for knowing who said it first, are you sure you don’t have a photographic memory?”
Heather left the next morning after a cold pizza breakfast, and November turned to December which turned to Christmas with startling rapidity. Ben worked and went out with Michael and stayed in with Heather, had awkward but persistent conversations with his father that were slowly getting easier, and sent out more gifts that year than he ever had before. He got pictures back from the recipients: all of his siblings holding up their gift cards to the camera (he didn’t know what they wanted, he’d just done what his dad had suggested and they seemed to like it), Molly and Joey with books Ryan had recommended (as well as another signed copy of his book that Molly wanted for her teacher, who was apparently over the moon at the mere thought of it), the big bouquets of flowers for Ryan’s mother and sister-in-law and a goofy picture of Ryan in all of his new winter gear, which Ben had decided on when Ryan mentioned he’d always wanted to try skiing. Ben hadn’t been in years but he had always enjoyed it, and he figured it would make a good day trip while Ryan was here.
And then it was the day. The Day. It capitalized itself without Ben wanting it to, insistent in its importance even when Ben would have preferred it to be just another day. His heart wouldn’t let it, though. It wasn’t just another day, it was the first time Ben was going to see Ryan in six months, and he couldn’t help putting it up on something of a pedestal. He knew he shouldn’t, but six months was a long time, and despite knowing that he’d done the right thing in breaking things off and then insisting they take it slow to start up again, Ben felt like he was going to jump out of his skin with restlessness.
He got to the airport two hours early, just in case the laws of physics bent enough to allow Ryan’s flight to warp space and time. He paced the marble floor of the enormous arrivals area, leaving the few seats on the sides for the mothers. The place was packed with people saying goodbye, since it was the day after the holiday, and Ben liked the bustle of it—no one was focusing on him, they were all too wrapped up in their own worlds to pay him any attention. Except for the greeter in the cowboy hat, who just nodded with understanding and left him alone.
The notation next to Ryan’s flight finally switched from On time to Arrived, and Ben curled his hands against the metal gate that he and everyone else had to stand behind and waited anxiously for Ryan to show up. The escalators brought up the next load of people—no Ryan. Not in the one after that, or the one after that. Ben was on the verge of going back to make sure the flight had actually arrived when he saw the bright blue hat he’d saddled Ryan with coming up the escalator. Ben walked around the gate and met Ryan before he had time to do anything other than smile hello, and pulled him into a hug so fierce and relieved that Ben surprised himself. It felt good to see Ryan. It felt amazing to hold him, and to be held back so hard Ben felt his neck pop.
“Hey,” Ryan managed, just a little shaky.
“Hey,” Ben replied, pulling back just far enough to see Ryan’s face, and the incandescent smile he wore. Ben wanted to taste that smile, he actually leaned in before Ryan looked to the side.
“We’re being recorded,” Ryan said softly. Sure enough, there was a group of tweens with their phones out, wide-eyed and grinning behind the gate. As soon as they realized they were being watched they scattered.
“Let’s get out of here,” Ben suggested. “Do you have any luggage?”
“Nope, just my backpack.”