Ben and Travis’ attempt at a post-meal retreat was unsuccessful. Dessert was served in the front sitting room beside the fire, and everyone’s presence was expected. The sun had long since disappeared behind the foothills, and the ranch now sat in quiet stillness – no cars passing, no helicopters overhead, no evidence of a busy world beyond. To Ben, the atmosphere was stark and deafening in its placidity. He was unaccustomed to such silence.
Claiming a spot on the dark chenille sofa, Katy nestled herself between Ben and her brother. Her vanilla-scented perfume was acute, her black miniskirt riding up her slender thighs. Ben did his best to scoot away from her, but the right side of her body touched him regardless. Everyone else sat in chairs around the room, consuming apple fritters and hot coffee while continuing to discuss the various antics of Hollywood, which, by that point in time, was unbearable for Ben to listen to or participate in any longer. He would have much preferred to discuss cattle breeds or the current conflict in Beirut or the goddamn exploration rover on Mars. But even Arturo seemed fascinated by the idea of film-making, and so the conversation droned on.
Bryan discussed myriad challenges they’d faced during the production of ‘Swell’, including the incident of Ben breaking his nose and chipping a tooth after accidentally slamming the butt of a swordfishing harpoon into his own face. Intrigued by the story, Katy swooped in for a closer look, requesting that Ben reveal exactly where the harpoon had hit. Ben smiled wide to reveal the cosmetically-repaired incisor and the scar on his upper gum, and she said, “I can’t really tell,” lingering too long, touching his thigh, fluttering her eyelashes. He sat forward to dislodge her from his side and retrieved his coffee mug from the table. Glancing at Travis, he noticed a stone-cold expression.
“So, Audra,” Katy chirped, oblivious to any tension, pulling Ben back beside her, shifting her position so that her arm was pressed tightly against his elbow, her plump breast cushioned into his bicep. “Is it true that Ben was in a grunge band in high school?”
And suddenly there poured from the girl’s mouth a torrent of questions concerning him – but never asked directly to him, as though he wasn’t present in the room. It was one of the most peculiar circumstances he’d found himself in, and it left him a bit dumbfounded. She asked about his hobbies, his interests, his love life, who he’d taken to senior prom. Far worse than any tabloid reporter digging for answers to irrelevant questions. Throughout the inquisition, Audra remained good-humored, tripping over her answers lightly, never revealing too much, trying to make light of an awkward situation. Bryan sat across the room, attempting to contain laughter, but it managed to bubble to the surface through stifled snorts anyway. Arturo feigned deafness and aloofness, lost in his fritter. Mrs. Cooper excused herself to the kitchen to retrieve more coffee.
Travis, on the other hand, was clearly aggravated. He sat rigid, an ankle braced against a knee, a muscle twitching in his jaw, eyes burning a hole in the floor as he listened to question after question spill from Katy’s mouth like torrential rain. Each time Ben glanced at him, he could tell that his patience was waning. Finally, Travis spoke in a low, venomous tone, never looking up from the worn Aztec-design area rug he’d been staring at for the last fifteen minutes. “Katy,” he said. “Shut up already.”
Silence filled the room like a vacuum. Katy glowered at him. Hesitated only a second before responding, “You shut up. I wasn’t talking about you.”
Travis lifted his eyes to meet hers. His pupils were dilated with a slow-rising fury. “No, but you’re talking about Ben, and I’m pretty sure he’d tell you to shut up, too, if he wasn’t so goddamn polite.”
In a juvenile gesture, she flipped him the middle finger and said, “Fuck off, Travis.”
They glared at each other, Travis with clenched jaw, Katy with fisted hands at her sides. The room seemed to close in on everyone. Ben glanced over to Audra, who sat looking back at him with tension covering her face. He decided to try and ease the moment by clapping his hands together and flashing his brightest, most sparkling smile. “Boy, how ’bout them Rockies, huh?” he exclaimed. He wasn’t certain where the hell he was going with the comment, but his attempt at pacification fell on deaf ears, anyway. Katy curled up against him. Pressed in even closer than before and said to Travis, “I have a newsflash for you, big brother. Ben isn’t interested in you.” She spoke slowly and deliberately, as if trying to communicate to a child, and then she proceeded to plant a kiss directly on Ben’s mouth.
“Katherine Elizabeth!” Mrs. Cooper’s startled exclamation filled the room as she returned just in time to witness the event.
Ben plucked Katy away, like removing tentacles from his skin. Exhaling an uneasy laugh, he moved over to sit on the arm of the sofa. A clear boundary needed to be drawn between them: me here, you there, little girl. He wished she’d leave the room altogether – he didn’t want to see the situation worsen – but she was petulant and immature and sat there with a pout on her face, twirling locks of her raven hair around a forefinger.
Travis’ agitation spiked. He stood up, grabbed his sister by the elbow, and propelled her down the hall, out of sight. A moment later, their muffled voices were raised in anger. At one point, Katy screamed loud enough for all to hear: “Are you fucking kidding me?!”
Ben slid from the arm of the sofa back down to the cushions and ran a clammy hand down his face. What the hell just happened? He wondered how he’d plummeted into an alternate, perplexing reality.
Mrs. Cooper stood in the middle of the room, the steaming coffee carafe still perched in one hand. She held a look of distress on her thin face, perhaps asking the same silent question to herself. Placing the carafe down onto a hot pad, she made her way to the hallway as though intending to play mediator or referee, but Katy marched across the foyer past her, her bare feet loudly thumping against the oak floorboards. Without uttering a word, she bounded up the stairs in a jog, her long hair flying behind her. A second later, Travis passed by as well, heading in the opposite direction, grabbing his coat from the foyer and yanking the heavy front door open. Ben called out to him, but it was too late; he’d already exited, slamming the door closed behind him.
Ben glanced around the room, expecting someone to appear from behind the curtains and proclaim that it was all a well-played joke. Or for the floorboards to crack open and swallow the sofa, along with him on it, down into the abyss below. He would have preferred that, something explosive and paranormal to explain the incident, but nothing so dramatic happened – just awkward silence settling across the room like agitated dust particles.
* * * *
Ben decided to go after him. He felt responsible for the sibling rift, even if the underlying cause for friction hadn’t been his fault. As he stood up, he caught Audra’s eye, and a wordless communication passed between them: Tread lightly, she seemed to say. He nodded and managed a smile of assurance before stepping into the foyer to pull his ski parka on. Exiting the house, he braced himself for cold air but was met instead by a mild evening – brisk yet calm, a vast, cloudless sky filled with uncounted constellations scattered above him, the waxing gibbous moon offering some light on the path he followed.
He didn’t bother to zip up his coat as he headed toward the bunkhouse, intending to check there first for Travis before wandering off elsewhere. As he walked, he gazed up across the fields toward the silhouette of snow-covered mountains beyond and wondered if they would still go snowboarding in the morning. At that point, it seemed irrelevant; so much had happened, he almost wondered if they shouldn’t head back to Aspen early.
The revving of an engine resounded, echoing across the valley. Ben looked toward the distant barn and watched an ATV quad pull out, its fat tires grinding against snow and gravel as the driver maneuvered it across the ground. It was Travis, dressed in his Sherpa-lined coat, his blonde hair aglow in the moonlight. Cupping his hands to his mouth, Ben yelled his name. Miraculously, Travis heard him and spun the ATV around. Riding over to where Ben stood, he idled the engine. “Hop on,” he insisted, sliding forward on the seat to make room.
Without hesitation, Ben climbed up behind him and hooked his hands into the rear luggage rack for support. They drove for half a mile, illumination from the headlights and the moon guiding them over a crunchy snow and gravel path that traversed the ranch. The property seemed so expansive, it was hard for Ben to believe that it had once been nearly five times its current size. After passing a few fenced pastures and an old windmill that stood beside a well water tank, they ascended a hill that overlooked the ranch. Here, Travis came to a stop and cut the engine. Ben slid off the seat and wandered away a few feet to admire the nighttime view.
Travis leaned against the warm ATV and lit up a joint. Catching sight of this, Ben quickly returned to his side. Travis took a toke, passed it to him, and said with lungs full, “You sure Audra won’t hunt you down?”
Ben shook his head. Tried to make a joke, smiling broadly. “She’d never be able to climb up here that quickly.”
Travis chuckled, but only slightly, his mood still somber. Ben tried to think of something humorous to say but didn’t get the chance to speak before Travis spoke himself. “I’m sorry about what happened back there,” he commented, gazing off across the valley. “This happens sometimes. A lot, actually. She knows every single button to push, every single tactic to use to raise my blood level.”
“Because she can. Because she wants to make me miserable.” As the joint was returned to him, he took a drag and continued to stare off into the night. Evidently, the weight of their argument remained heavy on his shoulders. “There was someone,” he continued solemnly. “An intern who was here for a while, from Laramie. He got in the middle of everything and really fucked it all up. Now, Katy can’t let it go. For that matter, neither can I.”
Travis’ profile was half in shadow, half in moonlight. Ben took note of the sharp line of his nose, the sternness of his jaw, the way his eyes squinted against the smoke circling his face. There was nothing impressively handsome about the guy, yet the attraction was strong for Ben. He felt it in his gut, in his groin, like a torch. On occasion, he’d experienced intense stirrings, but never like this. Never this inflamed or this stark or this vividly real. Travis exuded sexual energy from his pores like a goddamn preternatural creature.
“So I take it everyone knows you’re into guys?” Ben asked. The question had been pricking at the back of his mind ever since they’d arrived at the ranch. To Ben, it was apparent that this small-town, mountain cowboy had no hesitation at being who he was, which intrigued and mystified him.
Travis didn’t blink an eye, as though the question was perfectly natural for him. He flicked ashes away and said, “Not everyone. My dad never knew. He died before I had the courage to tell him.”
An image of his own father discovering this new path he’d tripped down flashed before Ben’s eyes, sending an instant cramp of anxiety to his gut. Self-proclamation was not one of his strong points, and he couldn’t imagine anyone else learning about his fleeting interest in Travis. In fact, he wasn’t sure he was ready to reveal the truth to Audra or Bryan, even though they were already witnessing his transgression first-hand and had undoubtedly been discussing it together ever since Travis had been discovered half-naked in his suite earlier that day.
Travis studied him briefly. Handed him the joint and surprised him by saying, “I take it you’ve never come out?”
Ben stared at him, bewildered. Does he think I’m a goddamn closet faggot? That kind of secret was fodder for the media. Sure, it was 2005, and a few brave souls in the industry had come out over the decades, risking their careers to pave a path for acceptance, but it was still suicide for someone like Ben to proclaim to be anything but heterosexual. He was fully aware of that fact, every fucking day. And he wasn’t that brave – or that gay. Bringing the joint to his lips, he took a long drag, hoping to calm his nerves, which were razor sharp by then. The intensity of the smoke caught in his throat and perpetuated a brief coughing spasm. “Shit, Travis,” he exhaled, trying to control the coughing long enough to speak. “I’ve never done this before.”
“No?” Travis frowned, a look of consternation on his face. “Well, that explains some things…”
“You’re damn right it does.” Ben returned the weed and wandered away from him, annoyed at his unfounded assumption. Nearing the edge of the ridge, he stopped and peered down. Caught glimpses of cattle scattered in shadow across the field below like tiny figurines on a game board. Travis approached from behind and slid his arms around his waist. Body heat bounced off of Ben’s back like electrons, but he didn’t push him away.
“There’s a reason you got into my truck last night,” Travis whispered, grazing Ben’s ear with his lips. “Don’t fight this so hard.”
The embrace was mollifying. Ben leaned into him, pressed against his chest, the back of his head resting in the crook of Travis’ shoulder, his palms covering the man’s calloused hands. Annoyance dissipated from him like the evaporation of an early morning fog. Forget the anxiety. Just be with him. Enjoy the ride. They stood together for a while in the silence of the night, peering up at the myriad constellations in the night sky. “Ursa Major,” Ben commented, pointing to the northern Great Bear configuration. “Shit, in L.A. I never get to see stars like this. It’s all bright lights and smog. Easy to forget there are other parts of our galaxy out there. At least, I forget, until I step out into the wilderness like this.”
“Even when you see it every day, you can lose sight of the bigger picture,” Travis said, as though speaking for himself. “It’s easy to be egocentric, thinking of yourself and what’s happening in your own little pocket of the world.”
“Yeah, I do that a lot,” Ben admitted. “I mean, I travel, meet a ton of people, attend charity galas and industry functions and Hollywood parties, but the truth is, I’m trapped inside my own head a lot. Disconnected most of the time. Not sure why that is.”
“Maybe because you feel disconnected from yourself,” Travis speculated.
The truth of the statement hovered in the air around them, circling through the cold.
“Something’s been pricking at me since last night,” Ben said. He paused for the right words before continuing. “How the hell did you know about this… about me?”
Travis shrugged. “I didn’t,” he responded. “Not right away. But once I noticed you noticing me in the restaurant, I kind of figured. My intuition is alarmingly accurate. It’s always in the eyes.”
“Really? I was that obvious?” How many others have noticed that in my eyes..?
“Not to most,” Travis assured him. “Just to those looking for it, like me. Maybe a few others. You felt it, too, though, didn’t you? That pull?”
Ben shrugged. “I’m not sure what I felt. Even when you offered me a lift, I didn’t know what I was thinking or expecting. It was impulsive.”
“Yeah.” Travis hugged him tighter. “Subconscious thoughts are strong. Hidden parts of ourselves that drive us can’t always be explained. Sometimes, impulse is the best thing to go with. At any rate, I’m glad you went with yours. Glad to have you here.”
Ben turned around and prompted a kiss. There, in the middle of nowhere, without concerns of Katy or Audra or anyone else interrupting their intimacy, he felt liberated to make full contact. In reciprocation, Travis slid his hands inside Ben’s open parka and lifted his shirt a fraction to touch his stomach. The sensation of cool fingers on warm skin was unexpected, and the muscles of Ben’s abdomen involuntarily twitched. As Travis’ hands moved higher, gripping him just beneath the ribs, Ben kissed his mouth harder and yanked the zipper of Travis’ coat down to reach up under his shirt, too. His fingers explored Travis’ chest, sliding down to trace the line of hair just below his navel, hooking into the waistline of his blue jeans and tugging gently.
At his touch, Travis inhaled deeply and barked, “Come here,” pulling Ben down with him onto the large granite rock they were standing on. The surface was freezing cold and covered in patches of snow, but neither of them cared. Travis hovered above Ben with his wet mouth firmly pressed to his. As his hand slid down to cover Ben’s crotch, Ben instinctively moaned; he’d wanted – no, needed – to be touched there all fucking day. His body pulsated with a pent-up sexual energy that demanded release.
In what seemed like one fluid motion, Travis unbuckled Ben’s belt, unsnapped his jeans and pulled the zipper down without his lips ever leaving Ben’s mouth. When he reached inside his boxer briefs to take a hold of him, Ben thought, Goddammit, I’m gonna lose it straight away. But Travis only lightly played with him, giving him a gentle squeeze as his mouth traveled over his Adam’s apple and across his neck, his goatee abrading Ben’s skin along the way.
With shirt pushed up, a chill traveled through Ben’s body and continued to surge through him as Travis licked a path down the length of his abdomen, leaving a trail of saliva, continuing farther until he reached the waistband of Ben’s boxers. Here, Travis paused and met his gaze. “Is this what you want?” he asked gruffly. Ben nodded. Screamed in his head, Yes! Fucking yes! Had never felt so desperate since he’d lost his virginity to Natalie freshman year.
Travis knelt between his legs to pull at his jeans, and Ben arched up to allow him to slide the denim down over his hips. He followed suit with his boxer briefs, and then there he lay – fully exposed to the elements, teeth chattering, buttocks half-frozen to the granite rock beneath him. The chilled night air was like ice on his burning erection, but his arousal never faltered. Travis mumbled something about Ben’s thickness before sliding him into his mouth. The man didn’t bother to warm up to the task, simply swallowed Ben in, all the way down to the hilt. He worked Ben like an expert, his movements quick and strong, his mouth sliding up and down in a smooth, steady rhythm, his tongue slithering with each thrust and pull, his fingers lightly pulling on Ben’s testicles, which were now heavy and full and ready for release.
Unaccustomed to such proficiency, Ben reached his peak almost immediately. Too quickly. When the wave arrived, he gasped, grabbed Travis’ hair between his fingers and held tight to his head to hold him down. But Travis didn’t attempt to pull away anyway – simply allowed him to let go and shoot waves across his tonsils. Afterwards, Ben lay panting, overwhelmed, trying to regain his senses. Intense euphoria coursed through his head. Travis slid forward to straddle above him and drowned him in a messy kiss, and Ben tasted the saltiness of his own seed in the man’s mouth, as though Travis had purposefully held some aside to share with him. Under normal circumstances, Ben would have found such an experience appalling, but with Travis, he didn’t. Nothing about the circumstance was normal.
Travis’ belt buckle scraped against Ben’s naked groin as he inexplicably rolled off of him and got to his feet. Leaning up on an elbow, Ben looked at him imploringly. “What’s up?” he asked.
Travis wiped the corners of his mouth with a thumb and forefinger and replied, “Let’s head back and get out of the cold.”
Ben hesitated, wanting to stay there longer despite the fact that his entire body was pulsating in uncontrollable shivers, that the air was now freezing the sweat which lightly covered his torso and crotch. His teeth began to chatter again. He said, “Let’s stay awhile,” and raised a hand up to entice Travis to return to his side. But Travis just looked down at him, obstinate, hair falling across his forehead, hands stuffed in the pockets of his coat.
Disappointed that their encounter had ended so abruptly, Ben reluctantly hoisted his pants back up and stood from the rock. All at once, an odd sensation of lightheadedness overtook him, throwing him off-balance, and he swayed slightly, reaching out a hand to steady himself but finding only air.
Travis grabbed him by the elbow and said, “Hey, you okay?”
His concern was genuine, and Ben smiled. “I think so,” he replied. “I guess you must have sucked the oxygen right out of me.”
“It’s a combination of the weed and the altitude,” Travis stated. “Happens to everyone not accustomed to it.”
Ben didn’t know if he fully believed this theory. He’d already been in Colorado for several days; he doubted the altitude would still be affecting him in that way, and he’d smoked plenty of pot in his life. But he didn’t mind having Travis’ arm draped around his shoulders as they walked back to the ATV.
“Sure you’re okay?” Travis asked again before releasing him.
Ben nodded. “I’m fine.”
Together, they slid onto the cold seat. Travis jumped the ATV to life, once more sending a cacophony of noise across the silent valley, and Ben gripped his shoulders as they traversed back down the hill.
* * * *