The mountain pass from Aspen to Buena Vista was a nail-biting, absurdly narrow road filled with switchbacks, twisting turns and unguarded drop-offs that bridged the distance between the two towns, reaching a dizzying height of over 12,000 feet at its highest point. Although typically closed for six months out of the year due to treacherous winter road conditions, Travis claimed that this year the department of transportation had deemed it passable three weeks ahead of schedule, and so they were forging through in his Dodge Ram, the road packed with snow but more or less plowed.
“It’s a shortcut to the ranch,” he’d stated as they’d begun their ascent, expertly traversing the route, avoiding ice patches and rocks in the road with ease while miraculously remaining on the snow-packed terrain.
Pressing a hand against the dashboard to steady himself, Ben had commented, “I take it you’ve driven this before?”
“Sure have,” he’d replied, eyes fixed ahead.
For miles, they followed a river that was half-frozen and covered in patches of ice but still raging across boulders embedded in its core. Douglas-fir, Ponderosa pine and leafless quaking aspen lined the road, pointing upwards to an endless blue sky devoid of clouds. Ascending higher, they eventually reached alpine tundra, far above the tree line. Here, the sun reflected brightly against the crests of snow-covered fourteener mountains. Ben had never seen Colorado from this perspective – had only ever been to Aspen and Telluride, the safer places, never taking the scenic route, never driving on a questionable mountain highway that probably should have remained closed. But there was no denying the immense beauty of the terrain, even on that formidable road.
Strangely, Travis seemed perfectly content driving, as though he traveled long distances and treacherous paths frequently.
Their remaining time at the hotel had been quick. Ben had showered and dressed and called down to the concierge desk to request an extra toothbrush for Travis. He’d also ordered a bottle of ibuprofen, dry toast and two large Bloody Mary cocktails, which had been promptly and expertly delivered to the room within minutes. Although events of the previous evening had remained foggy in his mind, he’d decided to keep quiet about it; bringing it up would have only punctuated the anxiety and uneasiness he was feeling. And Travis had chosen not to discuss it, so he’d gone about his business, packing his carry-on bag and grabbing his snowboard from its lonely corner.
Finishing off the last of the Red Bull he’d purchased at a gas station in Aspen, Ben started to feel human again. Was thankful for the caffeine and the fact that neither Audra nor Bryan had brought up any questions along the way. For the most part, they both remained engaged in private conversation in the backseat, whispering together, occasionally laughing, but keeping the stories and jokes between themselves.
Travis finished gulping down his super-sized coffee and took quick bites of a granola bar, his hand barely leaving the steering wheel as his attention remained firmly focused on the road. The Resistol cowboy hat he’d been wearing earlier was on the seat between them, and Ben absently ran his fingers along its brim, feeling the hardness of the straw prick against his fingertips. It aroused a subconscious thought, a sense of physical connection to Travis, and he quickly pulled his hand away as though he’d touched open flame. Travis peered at him curiously but said nothing.
From within Ben’s coat pocket, his mobile phone rang; the obnoxious resonance of the ringtone startled the entire interior of the truck. Quickly fishing the Blackberry out, he saw that it was his agent calling. He’d been irresponsible since arriving in Colorado, ignoring every single message she’d left him. He acknowledged that he couldn’t keep it up – that he had to face the real world eventually. “You’ve reached Ben,” he said.
Barely had he spoken the greeting than Travis swerved to avoid hitting a red Jeep Rubicon heading up the road from the opposite direction. The pickup skidded and passenger-side tires dipped into the slushy gutter, almost sending them spiraling off the edge. A quick vision of everyone tumbling over the side of the mountain blinked before Ben’s eyes, but Travis righted the truck as soon as it fishtailed, never overcompensating, keeping the studded wheels steady on the packed snow until he could safely steer back out of the gutter. He continued on without comment.
“Ben?” Melissa said. “You still there?”
Ben righted himself in the seat and gripped the phone tighter to his ear. “Yes, I’m here. Just driving over a small patch of frozen hell at the moment.”
“You haven’t returned my calls,” she stated. “We need to discuss your schedule, and I’ve got this ‘Treading Water’ screenplay for you. The reading is in a few weeks.”
Melissa had been Ben’s agent for just shy of two years. In her mid-fifties and well-established in the industry, her personality shifted between congenial and difficult, like two separate ends of a spectrum, depending on her mood. She didn’t always understand boundaries, and she certainly didn’t understand the meaning of vacation, but she was accomplished and respected and successful at keeping Ben on track – most of the time. “Don’t worry, Mel,” he assured her. “I’ll look at the screenplay when I get back.”
Her persistence continued. “Is there a printer in your suite? I can send the screenplay and your media schedule directly to you.”
“I won’t be back to the hotel until Saturday.”
A slight pause passed as she took in this new information. “Where will you be? I can send it to you, courier it to you, wherever you are.”
“I doubt there’s courier service where we’re going. Or a printer.” Ben glanced over at Travis, but he seemed oblivious to the conversation, concentrating on the drive instead.
Melissa became concerned. “Are you even in Colorado?” she demanded.
Ben laughed, hoping to dispel her anxiety. “Yes, Mel, I’m still in Colorado.”
At that moment, they crested a rise and paused to look down at a valley spotted with blue spruce, pinyon pine and quaking aspen groves. Two vast lakes lay spread out across the middle of the land, sunshine sparkling off of their half-frozen surfaces like a billion little mirror balls. A sizeable herd of Rocky Mountain elk grazed languidly near the edge of the southern lake. It was a spectacular sight, like something straight out of a landscape painting. Travis found a place to pull over and turned the engine off. Audra immediately insisted on getting out.
“Ben?” Melissa said.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here.” He pushed his door open and hopped out, surprised by the mild temperature. Here, the bright sun was melting the snow from the tips of the trees. Cradling the phone between his chin and shoulder, he shook out of his parka and tossed it into the open bed of the truck. The air was still biting cold against him but it felt invigorating. He breathed deeply.
“Is everything all right?” Melissa asked again.
Carefully, he stepped over a berm of snow and jumped down to the road. Audra and Bryan were taking photos of the valley, the lakes, the herd of elk, and of each other standing in various poses. Travis had disappeared into the trees with a trail of cigarette smoke following him.
“Hmm…?” He slid his sunglasses over his eyes and leaned against the truck.
“Don’t forget about Chicago next week.”
Another morning talk show to discuss his Oscar win and what it was like being involved in a queer roughneck movie. Interview upon interview, one on top of the other, ongoing, never ending. Cyclical. Tiresome. It had been six months of that. “I won’t forget,” Ben assured her. “I’ve got you to keep him on track.”
“I’ll email you the new screenplay. Okay? Will you get a head start on reading through it?”
The sight of Travis reappearing from the trees, buckling his belt and puffing on his cigarette, winded Ben as though he’d been punched in the gut. He sighed. “Mel, let me call you when I know what I’m doing.” He could tell that she wasn’t happy with his abruptness, but she managed to sound amiable anyway. “All right. Just please call me,” she said. “The sooner the better.”
“Yes, dear,” Ben promised. They said goodbye and he slid the phone into his pants pocket.
Travis approached Bryan and Audra and offered to photograph them together. Ben’s sister and her fiancé stood with arms around each other, faces happy, smiles wide. They were handsome and perfect, and in countless ways, Ben envied their relationship.
“I think we’d better look for a decent place to relieve ourselves before moving on,” Bryan commented after the camera had been put away. He stepped carefully through the snow on his crutches with Audra holding tight to his waist. Ben chuckled at the sight of the two of them struggling up the rise and pulled his Blackberry back out to snap a picture.
Travis sauntered over, cigarette between his fingers, and leaned against the truck close to where Ben stood. “So what do you think of this place?” he asked.
Ben snapped a picture of him before he could react. “It’s fucking amazing,” he answered.
As he witnessed Travis take a drag of his cigarette, suddenly he craved one himself. Travis plucked the pack of Camels from his shirt pocket and shook one out for him. Instead of offering him his lighter, he leaned forward, cupped Ben’s hand, and lit the cigarette directly from his own. The man’s touch sent an electric current sailing straight up Ben’s arm, and he pulled the cigarette away from his lips, surprised by the sensation. Travis also removed his cigarette, whispered something inaudible, and grabbed Ben by the wrist. Slowly, he leaned in, lips parted, a look of stark intensity on his slightly freckled face as though he intended to kiss Ben, right then and there.
To avoid contact, Ben took a wide step back. Tripped over a rock and lost his balance. He reached out a hand to brace himself against the truck bed and felt instantly, irrevocably foolish. What the fuck are you doing, Mansfield?
Travis appeared annoyed. Flicked his cigarette into a puddle and stepped away from the truck. With the toe of his boot, he kicked at a thin layer of snow until he reached muddy gravel below. Staring at the ground in consternation, he hooked his fingers in the belt loops of his jeans and sighed. His curls reflected the sunlight. The scar over his left ear was more pronounced than usual, as though irritation brought it out. Watching him poised there, serious and brooding, Ben thought, He’s a goddamn beautiful sight.
When Travis lifted his face to look at him, his eyes were narrow. “So that’s it, then,” he said, voice thin. “We act like nothing happened. Why am I not surprised?”
Ben swallowed. Cursed and commanded himself to tread carefully on what he considered to be a delicate situation. “I don’t remember much of what happened,” he explained. Which was true. And also false.
Travis crossed his arms. Squinted at Ben for a long moment before moving forward. In two strides he was upon him, cupping Ben’s face in his hands to bring him in closer, shoving his tongue inside his mouth and hungrily sucking until Ben could feel saliva forming at the edges of his lips. Pinned between the truck and Travis’ hips, he remained still and rigid, like a stone statue. His initial reaction was to not reciprocate. It was similar to the potent scene between Toby and Levi, when Ben had almost broken his neck on the metal steps of the oil rig during production due to the intense physicality of Seth’s kiss. Outwardly, his character had shown no signs of interest in the kiss, while inwardly, he’d practically choked on his immense desire. Ben understood that sensation, now.
Travis’ kiss was brutal and evocative. Visions from the previous night flashed behind Ben’s eyelids like lightning flickering into a darkened room: the two men sitting on the floor near the warmth of the gas-lit fireplace, facing one another cross-legged, leaning in with mouths open in a prolonged kiss that had lasted for an indeterminate amount of time. It had just been a kiss – and yet it had been a hell of a lot more: hands exploring faces, hair, shoulders, arms, thighs, chests, the unmistakable hardness of crotches…
Just as quickly as he’d pressed up against him, Travis released Ben, spinning around on his heels and stepping away. Ben followed his gaze and noticed Audra and Bryan slowly making their descent back down to the road. He brought the cigarette to his lips with a shaking hand and silently prayed for his erection to quickly subside. How the hell was he going to explain it? They were each liberal, open-minded individuals who had experienced myriad life situations, both on and off the screen, but even so – how are they going to react to this absurd, queer curiosity that I’ve suddenly tripped into?
As they approached the truck stomping snow from their boots, Audra moaned, “I cannot believe I just peed squatting down in a snowy forest.”
“Well, being a man does have its attributes, my love,” Bryan teased, playfully pulling on her arm. She thumped him on the chest. Their lighthearted disposition confused Ben; either they were choosing to play dumb or they truly hadn’t witnessed the kiss. The latter seemed doubtful to him, for their view of the truck from the tree line had been perfect. But Ben decided to play the charade with them anyway, feigning blissful ignorance.
“You’ve never pissed in a forest before, Audra?” he said, forcing a chuckle.
She noticed the cigarette perched between his fingers and immediately marched closer to him. “Tell me you’re not actually smoking that thing, Benjamin.”
Purposefully taking a long drag, Ben blew the smoke up above her head and replied, “Yes I am, Mother dear.”
Her nose crinkled as though the stench of rotting carcass was in the air. She pulled the camera from her pocket and pointed it at him. “Say cheese, big guy.”
Ben grinned foolishly, holding the cigarette up to his mouth like Groucho Marx. She took the picture and previewed it on the screen. “Mom’s sure to love this one,” she taunted, which was a hollow threat, as both she and Ben were adults and she would never have shared such a ridiculous photo. Travis peered over her shoulder and agreed that the photo was amusing. Then he pulled open the driver’s side door of the truck, slid behind the steering wheel, and said, “I hate to break up the party, but we really should get going.”
Once all were inside the cab, Travis shifted into drive and warned them to hold on tight as tires briefly spun against the softening snow. A spray of pebbles, dirt and mud from beneath the slushy surface kicked up around them as they took off across the valley, the shimmering lakes almost blinding their path.