Maria and Ben briefly embraced and then she pulled away from him all too soon. He sighed inwardly as he felt the loss of her touch keenly but still he smiled. "You look beautiful," he said, finally finding his voice.
"You don't look half bad yourself, Ben," Maria said. "In fact, in that suit, you look downright dapper." She looked at him earnestly. "I can't believe it's been so long since I've seen you. You haven't changed one bit."
"You have… You've only grown more attractive," Ben said. He knew she would think he was laying it on too thick but he was still marveling at how amazing she looked. Some of her features had softened but she was still beyond gorgeous.
She waved a hand. "Ben, you are flattering me," she said with a little chuckle that was decidedly sweet and yet slightly nervous in tone. "Anyway, how are you?"
"Older," Ben said with a smirk. "Hopefully a bit wiser though I am not entirely sure."
"You've always been wise, Ben," she said. "You're just a good man." She then looked sheepish at having said that aloud. She turned to look around the crowded gymnasium. "Benjy should be here around here somewhere. Teenagers tend to want to steer clear of their parents though in social situations. Maybe he's hiding. Though he's too polite to say so, I think he's a tad bit embarrassed that I teach art here."
Ben shook his head. "I doubt that he feels that way. And when he's off at Tulane this fall, he will miss you dearly."
"I will miss him," Maria said. "I am going to experience what it means to have empty nest syndrome. I can feel it settling in already."
Ben nodded. "Well at least you still have Ross, right?" There he had said the other man's name without even flinching. He watched Maria's face contort though for a moment in a pained expression and he was going to ask her about it when she began gesturing wildly to someone through the crowd. He decided to ask her about it later when and if they got a chance to be alone and talk more.
Benjy spotted them through the crowd and hurried over to them, a beautiful blonde teenage girl trailing after him. He immediately pulled Ben into a quick, tight hug before pulling back. "You came!"
"Of course I came," Ben answered. "I wouldn't miss this day for the world." He then stood back and watched his son for a moment. He looked so much like Ben had at his age. Their eyes were the same color and their hair was a thick, shaggy sable. Benjy was tall and lean too with an angular face but for whatever reason, Ben thought there was a touch of Maria in him too shining through his eyes. He supposed it didn't matter if they weren't biologically related; they were mother and son in every way.
Benjy looked at Ben watching him. "What is it?" he asked with a laugh.
"You look … Very grownup," Ben said. "You must have grown half a foot or more since Christmas."
Benjy waved a hand. "You sound just like Mom. She swears every time she turns around that I've grown another inch." He rolled his eyes but there was humor dancing in them. He then wrapped his arm around the girl with him. "Dad, this is Janelle." Ben understood then that they were dating though Benjy didn't come right out and say so.
Janelle and Ben shook hands and he smiled at the young woman with bright blue eyes. "It's nice to meet you, Janelle," Ben said.
"I feel the same," Janelle gushed. "Junior has told me so much about you."
"'Junior'?" Ben echoed and looked at Benjy questioningly.
Benjy smiled. "That's Janelle's name for me. We both agreed that it sounds more mature than 'Benjy'. I am still getting used to it though."
Ben nodded. It would take a while to get used to it for him as well. Benjy had always been well, Benjy to him. But Ben understood that his son was growing up – that he was already grown up actually – and that he was seeking out his own way in the world. Ben would have to deal with the fact that his only living child was an adult. He wasn't normally sentimental but it was moments like these he wished he got to see Benjy –er, Junior – more often. Fortunately for Ben, Junior would be spending at least half of the summer in Sunset Beach with him. In fact, he was flying back to Sunset Beach with Ben the day after next. Ben looked forward to spending time with him.
"Well, Junior," Ben said pointedly, "are you ready for your speech today?"
Junior nodded. "Yes I am," he said with a smile. "Janelle read it over this morning and said it's –"
"A winner," Janelle enthused.
Ben and Maria smiled knowingly at each other. It seemed their son had found someone who thought he had hung the moon. That was good. Ben wanted his son to be surrounded with love, and friends too. He was a good kid, even if Ben may be biased in believing so.
"So, Dad, are we still on for the summer?" Junior asked.
"Of course," Ben agreed. "I'm looking forward to it."
Maria smiled though it looked forced somehow to Ben. "I am sure you two will have a lot of fun."
"I'm going to miss you, Junior," Janelle said quietly.
"I'll miss him too," Maria said but smiled brighter now. "But thank god we have MySpace, Facebook, text messaging, video conferencing tools …" She was trying to look on the bright side, bless her. Ben didn't know what to say though to alleviate her anxiety so for the moment, he said nothing as Maria and Janelle talked with Junior.
Finally, Junior said to them, "Dad, Mom, Janelle and I have to run. Principal Schumer wants us up there. We are doing a dry-run through of graduation or whatever. We'll catch up to you two after."
"Alright, Benj – Junior," Ben said and they embraced again briefly. Junior squeezed Maria's hand and then he and Janelle were off like a shot, headed towards the makeshift platform.
Maria turned to look at Ben then. "Do you want to take a walk while we wait for the ceremony to start? We've still got a good hour to burn."
Ben nodded. "That would be nice," he said. He wanted to spend as much time with her as he could before that Ross English character showed up. Ben didn't relish seeing him again. He didn't like or trust Ross. And on top of that, if he was honest with himself, there was some part of him that would always think of Maria as his Maria in spite of everything.
Maria and Ben fell naturally into step as they moved towards the gym's back doors. They were soon walking through the double doors and out into what appeared to be a quad. There were some parents and faculty gathered in the schoolyard but it was mostly empty. Ben started to speak when he spotted a colorful mural of a familiar looking pier at sunset and he whistled unexpectedly. "Maria, did you …? It's amazing."
They walked towards the mural painted on a wall outside the gym. Maria shook her head as she ran her fingers over the dry paint. "I wish I could say I did that," Maria said.
"Who … Benjy?" Ben smiled. "I mean Junior?"
Maria nodded, smiling proudly. "It was our son, yes."
"It's beautiful," Ben said. "He inherited his mother's artistic heart, didn't he?" It certainly made a strong case for nurture over nature.
"Yes, but he has his father's brains for business … He charged the school $300 for painting the mural," Maria laughed. "Principal Schumer nearly keeled over when he asked for the money but she finally agreed to pay up when she saw how lovely it was."
"It is lovely," Ben agreed and he stepped back a bit to take in the sight of the whole thing. It was incredibly detailed but his eyes soon found a small sketch in the corner that riveted his attention. It was of a dark-haired couple standing beneath the pier, watching the sunset. The face of the woman was decidedly familiar to him. It was Maria. She was standing beside Ben in the picture, holding his hand.
Just then a memory began to stir in his consciousness…