Notes: Oh my god, we’re SO CLOSE!!! I think one more regular post, then an epilogue, then a few Ryan POV scenes. WHAT!?! My brain can’t handle this. I promise, there will be sexytimes in the next one too, I know you’ve all been without for months.
My next post will be a list of all the stuff I have to work on, just so you all can see how I am absolutely not being a slacker. Well, maybe a little bit. But not really. Also, this Saturday I am going to a very posh Halloween party—no idea how I finagled an invitation to this thing, it’s going to be amazing—and I will get pictures and show off my fabulous costume. Me=excited right now. Yay happiness!
Title: Love Letters
Part Thirty-Six: Clearing The Air
Ben had a naturally cynical nature by this point in his life, honed by years of unfulfilled expectations, familial disappointments and his own stubbornness. He’d done the wanting and not having thing in so many different ways that by now that part of him was pretty well scarred over. Ben was being careful with Ryan, and that was good—exasperatingly slow at times, definitely sexually frustrating, but still good. If he sometimes let himself think bigger thoughts about the two of them, well, that was his prerogative, and honestly he didn’t think Ryan could throw anything else at him that could possibly top what had already happened. There was something strangely comforting about knowing the worst a person had to offer already. Ben accepted every interaction with Ryan with the all the pleasure they merited because he wasn’t worried about what might happen to him if he did.
So if the texts started coming multiple times a day again, and the calls went from weekly to nightly, and from time to time they broke out their computers and watched the same movie simultaneously, it was fine. Better than fine: it was the kind of warmth that started growing inside of Ben, the crumbled fortress of Ben’s faith in Ryan building back up, brick by brick. It was slow and continuous and reciprocated, and Ben enjoyed the process of getting to know the person he loved again.
The thing was, Ben had trained himself to be so cynical at this point that he didn’t really know how to react when good things started to happen. Or rather, he knew what he was supposed to do, but he actively stopped himself from doing it. Like when his father sent him an email on Halloween of his three youngest children all dressed up in their costumes (Iron Man, some hockey player Ben didn’t recognize and Carly as a pumpkin patch—literally, she was an entire pumpkin patch, with a green outfit and dozens of plastic pumpkins glued on like oversized sequins) Ben’s first impulse was to think he was being taunted with his father’s new family, and he deleted it without hesitation.
When he told Ryan about it later that night, though, after Molly was long asleep and Joey was finally calmed down from his trick-or-treating sugar high, Ryan disagreed. “He might have just sent it along because it’s an adorable picture,” he argued. “Your dad’s never been petty enough to bug you with stuff like that before, right?”
“Right,” Ben reluctantly agreed.
“Then maybe he just wanted to share something nice with you. Not as a ‘look-what-I-have-screw-you’ kind of thing, more like, ‘hey, here, be a part of this.’ Can you forward it to me?”
“You actually want to see it?”
“Do I want to see a five year old dressed up like a pumpkin patch? Ah, that would be a resounding yes. Cheryl took Joey trick-or-treating this year and Molly took over door duties, so I didn’t get to see nearly as many cute costumes as I’m used to. In Boston the kids would work the apartment buildings in packs; it was kind of scary but completely awesome.”
“Okay, if you really want it.” Ben dug the picture out of his trash and sent it along.
A few moments later Ryan said, “Awww! Oh my god, she is stupidly cute. This is your sister? What’s her name again?”
“What about the other two?”
“Jean and Michel.”
There was a moment’s pause. “They’re boys, right? I’m not trying to pigeonhole genders here, que sera sera, but they look like boys.”
Ben laughed a little. “They’re boys. Their mother is from Quebec, and she wanted them to have French names. Carly is actually Caroline. The oldest are Emmeline and Isabeau.”
“Wow. Kind of makes you happy to just be Ben, doesn’t it?”
“By comparison, definitely,” Ben agreed. They talked a little longer before hanging up, and after a bit of reflection, Ben decided to send a brief reply to his dad, just saying Thanks. He never expected to get a reply.
Ben didn’t know how to have any sort of relationship with his father. He’d gone without the man for so much of his life that he didn’t even know how to have a father, and Ryan couldn’t help with that. So when he got an email a few days later with another picture, this one of Carly sacked out in her tattered costume, most of the pumpkins long gone and a huge, furry dog being used as her footrest with the caption, She likes it so much she hasn’t taken it off yet, Ben decided to treat it like he would a semi-professional conversation, sort of like what he had with Linda. Gently mocking at times, but mostly serious.
She’ll give in eventually. Tell her hello for me.
A few days later he got the next reply: You underestimate her tenacity. She’s gone all week in it, her mother had to bribe her just to take a bath. Reminds me of you as a kid, you hated baths.
That…was true, but Ben wasn’t about to have any heart-to-heart email conversations with his father about his childhood. There was very little that could redeem that time in his life, as far as Ben was concerned, and memories about hating baths weren’t going to do it. He didn’t bother sending a reply, no more emails came, and after a week Ben was convinced the brief show of interest was over and done with. Then he got a card on his birthday.
It was an actual, physical card, with a $20 gift certificate to Starbucks in it and signatures from everyone in the new DeWitt family inside, even his father’s new wife. Ben supposed she wasn’t new anymore, they’d been married for almost twenty years.
The gift was the kind of thing you got for someone when you had no idea what they liked, but Ben appreciated it all the same. He’d use it once Heather got back and he had a reason to go to Starbucks. The card had a cartoon picture of a generic superhero on the front, and the inside read, HOPE YOU HAVE A SUPER BIRTHDAY!!! It was…it was an effort. It was nice. Ben smiled when he read it, smiled wider when he saw Carly had written her name with a purple sparkly pen. For the first time Ben wished he had a mantle, just so he could do the traditional thing and put the card on it.
Ben set the card up on his desktop instead, next to the postcard featuring a desiccated elephant’s foot from Heather (he had no idea where she found these things) and the sketch from Ryan of himself popping up out of a cake. Naked. It was kind of the perfect birthday card, as far as Ben was concerned. Michael had had a lemon-chocolate-praline cupcake couriered over, because he was ridiculously busy but also excessive, and it had even come with a candle. All together, it had been a pretty lovely birthday, even if Ben had spent it by himself. Maybe…hearing from his dad was okay. Maybe this wouldn’t come back to bite him, maybe it wouldn’t kill Ben to reach out a little.
A week later on Thanksgiving, he called his father.
The holiday wasn’t the same in Canada, of course, but Ben figured his dad was probably celebrating it anyway. Unsurprisingly, Carly was the one who got to the phone first.
“Millander-DeWitt residence, this is Carly!”
“Hi Carly, this is Ben.”
“Ben!” she shrieked. “Hi! Did you get your birthday card? Did you like it?”
“Yeah, I really did, thank you,” he said, moving the phone a little further from his ear.
“Daddy says you turned thirty-three this year. That’s so old. Old enough to be a daddy. Why don’t you have any kids yet?”
“That’s enough of you,” Ben heard his father say in the background. “Say bye to Ben and then give me the phone, honey.”
“Bye, Ben, here’s Daddy!” There was a fumbling sound as the phone switched hands, and then his father was on the line. “Ben,” he said, sounding a little out of breath. “Hi.”
“Hi, Dad.” Now that he had him on the phone, Ben wasn’t really sure what he wanted to say. “I just wanted to say thanks, for the card. And Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Oh, you’re welcome. I hope you liked it.”
“Great.” The silence stretched out for a while, and Ben felt his face redden. “So, uh,” his father finally said, “What are you doing for the holiday?”
“Working, actually. I’ve got a lot of edits to get through before my latest book is ready for publication, so…yeah.”
“You’re not spending Thanksgiving with friends?”
“They’re all busy or away,” Ben said, and there was no mistaking his dad’s deep sigh as anything other than guilty. “But I don’t mind. I’m used to it.” He could have smacked himself a second later, when he realized that he was just grinding the guilt in a little deeper. “Sorry. I meant to say, I’m fine. Really good.”
“Really?” his dad asked, a little sarcastically. “Because spending a holiday by yourself doesn’t quite fall into my definition of ‘fine.’”
Ben just made a non-committal noise. He wasn’t about to get into an argument with his father, of all people, about his life. His dad seemed to realize this, took a deep breath and a step back. “So, how’re the edits coming, then?”
“They’re good.” They talked a little more about writing, then some about his dad’s work, and it actually got easy after a little while. When Ben mentioned some of the letters he’d used in his research, his dad actually laughed.
“Oh, god, speaking of letters…do you still have all of your grandfather’s papers? The Franklin ones?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“All under lock and key, I guess.”
“Same as they’ve always been,” Ben agreed.
“Except they weren’t,” his dad said. “Back when your mother and I were first married—actually, this is kind of a funny story. We got married, and we agreed to delay our honeymoon until the winter break, so we didn’t have to take time off from school. Only your grandfather was planning a business trip over the break, and he hadn’t had the new alarm system for the papers installed yet, and he was too paranoid to leave them in the house without someone to guard them. So he convinced your mother to cancel our honeymoon so we could spend the break babysitting those papers instead. God, she took it so seriously…it was a big relief for all of us once they were finally locked away.”
“You cancelled your honeymoon?” Ben had never heard this story before. His mother had never, ever talked about what went on between her and his dad before Ben had come along.
“For those damn papers, yeah. I understand how unique and important they are, my family’s got some heirlooms along the same line, but I’d never realized just how much influence they had over Deborah and your grandfather until that moment.”
Neither had Ben. He wasn’t afraid to leave his house for fear that someone would break in and rob him of his valuables, but he remembered how terribly careful his grandfather had been. The old man had even refused to stay in the hospital after his first heart attack, insisting on coming back to the house and being with the things he’d built his life around. He’d died two weeks later; the home health nurse had found him sitting in the leather chair in the library, a cold cup of coffee and his phone on the table next to him. He’d pulled Ben’s number up, but he hadn’t dialed it. Maybe he’d thought Ben wouldn’t answer.
Honestly, while Ben could admire the historical value of his family’s artifacts, he’d never really been inclined to study them himself. Maybe it was because he’d so firmly been told not to touch as a child, but he’d always considered them off-limits. He got dozens of letters of inquiry every year from historians and researchers, and like his grandfather, Ben had made it a habit of simply throwing them away. Unlike his grandfather, Ben had no real reason for it other than habit.
Later that night, he went to the library and looked around. There were the papers, there was the chair where his grandfather had died, and there were the stacked-up paintings that Ben had done his best to put out of sight and mind. This room, this entire room was a sepulcher, a monument to two dead Benjamin Franklins, and Ben was suddenly tired of it. Sick, fed up with it, wanted it all gone. Holding onto the papers the way he had been was simply selfish, when there were interested people out there who he knew would kill to get their hands on the original documents. Ben wasn’t going to do anything crazy like pile them all up and burn them, but he didn’t want to look at them anymore.
Ben made two calls the next day. The first was to Calanthe, the librarian at the Boston Public Library who had been so careful with every letter she’d handled. To say she was surprised to hear from him was an understatement, and when she realized what Ben was offering, her attitude went from surprised to dumbfounded.
“But…those…we…I need to sit down.”
“Deep breaths,” Ben advised over the phone as he heard her pull out a chair and fall into it. “Don’t be afraid to put your head between your knees, I won’t tell.”
“I…you…oh my god.” She caught her breath as best she could. “The Franklin papers would be an amazing addition to any collection, of course, and we would certainly take the utmost care and precaution with them. Are you…are you sure you want to do this, though? Just give them away? You could auction them for a lot of money, you know.”
“And then they’d go to a private collector,” Ben said. “And never be seen by the public, which is the opposite of what I want. People should have the chance to see these, to really study them if they want to, and I don’t need the money. Everything is itemized, of course, and it’s all been authenticated multiple times. I’ve got copies of all the paperwork and I’ll send it all to you so we can get moving on this. Sound good?”
“It sounds like a dream come true,” Calanthe admitted. “This kind of bequest comes along once in a lifetime, and for someone as prolific and reputable as Benjamin Franklin, I mean…it’s going to change the entire landscape of work about him. Mr. DeWitt, you’re offering scholars a chance to get a whole new perspective on one of the founding fathers. It’s an incredible gift.”
“That’s what I want for these papers,” Ben said. “That, right there. Interest and passion and appreciation. Not a meaningless existence behind glass. So, you’ll take them, then?”
“Of course we will! I’ll email you the proper forms to get started.”
“And I’ll send you the authentication reports and the inventory list.”
“Thank you. This really means a lot to us...to all of us, working here.” She actually giggled. “Oh my god, this is going to be such a big deal! I’m just, I’m really excited.”
“Good,” Ben said with a smile. “Me too. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
“Great, wonderful. Thank you, so much.”
The second call Ben made was to Ryan. It took five rings before Ryan picked up, and he sounded a little sleepy. “Mmmhi.”
“Did I wake you up?”
“Just had leftovers for lunch, we’re all sleeping it off. Turkey and tryptophan and…and pie. So much pie. My mother and Jasmine together are such enablers, it’s amazing I’m not huge yet.”
“Whatever, you loved it.”
“I’d have loved it more if you were here,” Ryan teased him, and it said something that they could even bring up spending a family holiday together again. In fact…
“What are you doing for New Year’s?”
“Huh?” Ben heard Ryan push the lassitude away. “For New Year’s? This New Year’s?”
“Unless you want to wait until next year to see me,” Ben said.
“No no no, no! Nothing! I’ve got Christmas with the family but New Year’s is free, totally free.”
“Would you like to come out here and spend it with me?” There was silence on the line for a moment. “I know it’s going to be weird because of Brody, since it’ll be the first anniversary of his death, but I’d still really like to see you.”
“I’d love that,” Ryan said quietly. “If you’re sure it’s fine.”
“I’m the one bringing it up, I’m pretty sure,” Ben told him. He couldn’t think of anything he wanted more, actually. “If you need help with the ticket—”
“No, I’ve absolutely got this. People have been feeding off my literary angst, I can definitely afford to buy a plane ticket to come and see you.”
“Do you mind if I show up on the thirtieth instead of the thirty-first?”
Ben smiled into the phone. “No, not at all. Come as soon as you can.”
“Don’t tell me that if you don’t want to see me the day after Christmas, babe,” Ryan said, completely serious.
“Maybe I do.”
“Then that’s when I’ll be there.”