The staccato tap of intermittent knocking pulled Ben from the confines of a deep sleep. His head was filled to the brim with cotton, and the thudding seemed a great distance away, as though buried within a dream within another dream. Reluctantly opening an eye to squint against the bright sunlight streaming in through a gap in the curtains, he tried to gain a sense of time and place. On the bedside table, the digital clock read 10:00am.
Another knock resounded. “Ben!” a voice called out.
Ben rolled from the bed with sheets still tangled around his legs and fell straight to the floor. Cursing, he ripped the constricting fabric from his ankles and stumbled to the door. Once pulled open, though, he discovered no one present – just the plush carpet and burgundy wallpaper of the empty hotel hallway. The knocking continued. Ben realized that the source came from the connecting door that led to Bryan’s and Audra’s room. Crossing the carpet in bare feet, he carefully stepped over clothes, boots and empty liquor bottles along the way. A room service table draped in white linen stood by the television armoire, covered in a dozen dirty dishes. The smell of onion rings and shrimp cocktail permeated the stale air of the room.
From the leather sofa, Travis stretched and yawned, surprising Ben, who’d forgotten he had company. The man was clad only in a pair of dark blue boxer briefs with a spare blanket tucked up around his legs. When Ben looked down at his own appearance he discovered that he, too, was clad only in his underwear. What the hell…? He couldn’t remember a goddamn thing.
The knocking intensified, and suddenly the phone in the room started ringing as well, shrill against Ben’s hungover head. “Shit! I’m coming!” he yelled, tripping to the door. He pulled it open only partway and was immediately greeted by Bryan’s smiling face, far too chipper for so early an hour. In the background, Ben could see Audra with the phone to her ear. When she noticed him she quickly hung up, and the ringing in his room ceased.
“Breakfast time, sunshine,” Bryan sang, attempting to push the door open further. “Audra finally wants to go out.” And then, sensing something odd in Ben’s expression, he added, “You alone?”
Holding fast to the door, Ben’s mind circled possible answers, but he didn’t get a chance to speak before Audra pushed her way into the room, jokingly insisting that he get his ass moving because she was famished, and one should never keep a pregnant woman waiting. When she saw Travis, she stopped short, causing Bryan to trip into her, sending one of his crutches to the floor. Travis struggled to pull on his blue jeans, attempting to stay upright while fumbling with the buttons of his fly. Audra and Bryan just stared at him. A long, awkward moment passed.
Ben cleared his throat. Tried to find his voice. “Bryan, Audra,” he muttered. “This is, uh, Travis.”
“H-hi,” Audra stammered. She glanced sideways at her brother, perplexed.
“Morning,” Travis smiled, his own voice strained and scratchy. He buckled the leather belt around his waist.
Bryan hesitated a moment, as if gathering his thoughts together, and then he hobbled over to where Travis stood and extended a hand. “Nice to meet ya.” Travis accepted his handshake. Stood for a moment before taking a seat on the arm of the sofa.
Ben shut himself in the bathroom. Poured a glass of water from the tap and looked at his reflection in the mirror, which was very telling: black hair standing up in directions he had never seen it do before, blue eyes bloodshot and drooping, head feeling like an anvil on his shoulders, ready to topple at any moment. He was hungover. Exhausted. And his recollection of the evening was dim and disquieting.
He remembered ordering room service and emptying out the restocked bar. He also remembered talking with Travis about his ranch in Buena Vista and his own recent trip to the Academy Awards. Surprisingly, Travis hadn’t seemed the least bit impressed by Ben’s stardom, claiming that he rarely went to the movies. Called himself a “Rocky Mountain hick boy”, which had amused the hell out of Ben. Who the hell is this guy..? The fact that he’d never seen a single one of Ben’s films intrigued him. Made him strangely relieved to be just an average person.
They’d conversed for hours, straight into the darkness of predawn, and somewhere between the last drops of Grey Goose and the last drops of Seagram’s 7, Ben’s physical attraction to the man had become acute. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Ben had listened to him talk about palominos or buckskins are some other such horse type and had become completely entranced by the movement of his mouth. Now, he recalled the man’s lips tasting like salt and whiskey.
Once, in a major magazine interview for ‘Roustabout’, Ben had stated that he wasn’t completely opposed to the idea of exploring his sexual options, just as his character Toby had done in the film when he’d hooked up with Levi. Although it had been a flippant remark voiced to the journalist – one Ben hadn’t analyzed too deeply at the time – he now realized that what he had spoken might have actually been the truth. The fact that he’d selected a blonde-headed cowboy who embodied certain characteristics of Levi was immaterial at that moment; Travis simply presented an undeniable intrigue, like uncharted territory waiting to be explored. Greater forces had propelled Ben to climb up into the cab of Travis’ truck the previous night – just as greater forces had prodded Travis to offer him the ride.
A thick terrycloth bathrobe hung from a hook on the wall, compliments of the hotel, and Ben slid into it. Pulled the belt tight around his waist before exiting the bathroom. Audra and Bryan sat on the sofa talking with Travis, who had pulled his undershirt on and was trying to comb through his blonde curls with his fingers. Upon Ben’s entrance, Audra said, “Your friend here’s invited us to come along with you to the ranch.”
Confusion set in. Did we make plans? Ben looked hesitantly at Travis, who eyed him intently, prodding him with his expression to recall their conversation. A very distant memory of his invitation to snowboard on some remote mountain pass near his home came to mind. Ben glanced over at his board, which stood propped up in the corner, as yet still unused on this trip.
“Would you mind if we tagged along?” Audra asked Ben, her eyes imploring his for any sign of disagreement. Ben shook his head but inwardly screamed a multitude of obscenities. This wasn’t the fucking time for sibling bonding. And, really, what did they know about this guy? Ben forced a grin, scratched the thick stubble on his face, and said to her, “Are you sure you’re up for it?” Hoping above all hopes that she wouldn’t be.
“A mountain drive sounds nice,” she replied. “I could use the fresh air.”
“The drive is pretty long,” Travis interjected. “We should probably get on the road soon.”
Ben sighed and popped a cold, soggy French fry into his mouth, regretting it the moment the salt and oil clung to the back of his throat. Bryan and Audra retreated to their room to pack a few things, and once the connecting door closed, Ben surveyed the mess on the floor. “What the hell happened last night?” he mumbled, hands on hips, wanting to demand what the hell had happened between them last night. “Looks like a fucking bomb hit in here.”
Travis stooped to gather bedding and empty bottles from the floor. “Your fancy-shit hotel does have housekeeping, right?”
Ben managed a chuckle. “Yeah. And I’m hoping it has a truckload of aspirin and jumbo-sized Bloody Marys, too.”
Travis exhaled laughter, dimples clearly defined through the shadow of his goatee. He picked up his worn, thick-soled cowboy boots that looked as though they’d stepped through a mile of muck and sat down on the edge of the bed to pull them on. Ben found himself distracted by the man’s arms – the muscles, the freckles, the black-and-white tattoo of a Texas star imprinted on the top of his right forearm, near the wrist, surrounded by a thin, brown braided-leather bracelet. It was the only tattoo he could remember seeing on the guy.
Leaning a hand down against the room service table to steady himself, Ben experienced an odd sensation, as if falling from the edge of a cliff, floating downwards, circling slowly through the air, having no idea where he might eventually land but committed to taking the flight.
* * * *