Ben determined there had to have been some passive-aggressive cruelty in Melanie’s decision to print the entire screenplay out on single-sided paper before wrapping it up nice and neat and sending it via overnight service to The Little Nell. When he retrieved the package from the front desk, it was stupidly enormous. “Seriously, Mel…?” he mumbled, annoyed, hoisting the carry-on bag back over his shoulder while struggling to position the cumbersome package under one arm and his snowboard under the other.
“May I call a bellman to assist you with your things, sir?” The young woman behind the front counter had noticed his struggle. Her smile was friendly, and he smiled in return, as best he could with the knot on his left cheek. “No, thanks, I’ve got it,” he replied. Balancing his belongings, he made his way across the busy lobby to the bank of elevators. All around him, there were customary hushed whispers, staring eyes, people elbowing their companions and pointing fingers. “It’s Ben Mansfield… Isn’t that Ben Mansfield…? Could he really be here in Aspen…?” Followed by the familiar sound of camera clicks and more hushed whispers.
While waiting for an elevator car to arrive, Ben kept his eyes focused on the fleur de lis pattern that decorated the gold and burgundy carpet beneath his feet. Within seconds, he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck start to tingle with the onset of claustrophobia. He hated that sensation – being amidst strangers who wanted to touch him, be near him, without the slightest regard for his personal space. It was a frequent occurrence in public areas, and one he never got used to. Had it not been for Travis’ shuck-and-jive routine at the diner the other night, Ben figured he’d probably still be there, signing autographs with a plate full of cold eggs and hashbrowns pooling into a greasy mess before him.
In order to manage the anxiety, he closed his eyes and concentrated on the oxygen filling his lungs. Breathe through it… Breathe through it… He couldn’t muster even a small spark of congeniality to appease anyone at that moment. The world felt black now, jagged and impossible, and he had no more strength to give. What he wanted most, aside from crumbling to the floor, was to shut himself in his room as quickly as possible and get shit-faced drunk.
By mid-afternoon that day, after a three-hour drive containing little conversation, Travis and his passengers had arrived back in Aspen. To avoid traveling over the high switchbacks of the mountain pass with the equestrian trailer hitched to the pickup, they’d taken a safer, though longer, route through Leadville, eventually catching the interstate that wound through the impressive quartzite and limestone cliffs of Glenwood Canyon. They’d only made one pit stop along the way, giving Bryan and Audra a chance to use the facilities while Travis had coaxed Ben to wander off with him for a cigarette. Standing together in the sunshine for ten minutes, sharing nicotine while watching vehicles tear down the interstate, Travis had said, “So what are your plans for your last night in Aspen?” to which Ben had curtly replied, “Nurse my wounds.” Physical wounds, emotional wounds, all of it.
Travis had surprised him by wrapping his arms around him. Had grazed his ear with his dry lips and whispered, “I’m sorry our time together was so brief, Benjamin,” before gently releasing him. Although the embrace had been short, it had also been filled with unmistakable emotion – the very sort of emotion Travis had pointed out shouldn’t be tossed into the mix. What a fucking hypocrite, Ben had thought, smashing the cigarette out beneath his boot. With a straight face, he’d responded, “Your choice, Travis, not mine.”
The front drive of The Little Nell had pulsated with activity upon their arrival – bellhops pushing luggage carts full of suitcases and skis around cars, limos and taxi cabs which had crowded the pavement, either picking up departing guests or dropping off new patrons arriving to the resort. Due to the activity, Travis had been forced to park the Dodge at the curb half a block away in a loading-only zone. Between the high volume of traffic and the hitched horse trailer, they’d been unsuccessful at getting any closer to the front entrance.
Standing on the sidewalk to say goodbye, Ben had felt nauseous. Had hefted his bag over his shoulder and tucked his snowboard under an arm while squinting at Travis, who’d stood leaning against the warm grill of the still-idling truck with arms crossed and an indiscernible expression in his sea-green eyes, his face still scratched all to hell. “Have a safe trip home,” he’d spoken with sincerity. “Try to find some time to relax.”
The sun had slipped behind a bank of cumulus clouds, casting unwanted shadows across the valley. Ben, no longer confident in his ability to remain indifferent, had swiftly wished Travis a farewell with a wave of his hand and a broad “Thanks for everything” statement before turning to follow Audra and Bryan toward the hotel. The presence of three anxious photographers focusing their lenses on the trio from across the street had weighed heavily on Ben’s mind as he’d forced one foot in front of the other, concentrating on the cement path ahead of him, repeatedly thinking: Keep walking, keep walking. He hadn’t faltered in his stride, hadn’t hesitated or glanced back at the Dodge a single time. That was how it had had to end. But it had been goddamn difficult.
Now, standing in the bustling lobby, alone yet completely surrounded, Ben considered making a dash for the nearest door or hiking up the stairs to his room, but an elevator car finally arrived. Its large metal doors parted with a ding, accompanied by a sigh of relief from Ben. Departing guests stepped out with luggage and skis and children, brushing past him, causing the snowboard to teeter within his grasp. Once inside the safety of the elevator, he immediately claimed a corner spot. Propped his snowboard up at his feet and kept his eyes averted from the other passengers crowding in around him. Luckily, someone else pressed the button for the fourth floor.
“Loved you so much in ‘Roustabout’,” a mid-forties woman dressed in pink ski pants and turtleneck sweater softly crooned while others whispered their approval.
Ben caught her eye. Smiled as best he could. “Thanks…”
“Hope you didn’t hurt yourself out on the slopes,” she continued. She gingerly touched her own cheek to indicate his bruised one.
Although Mrs. Cooper had kindly played nurse at the ranch, bringing out her first aid kit to fix up his cut with antibiotic ointment and a butterfly bandage, the wound was still fresh and painful. “Ajax was harsh on me this morning,” he lied. The lopsided smile lingered on his face for as long as he could stand it, which was about three seconds. The woman’s smile turned into a sympathetic frown.
Audra and Bryan were already in their room re-packing suitcases and talking quietly together when Ben entered into his side of the suite. They each paused to look at him, probably hoping to gauge how he was doing before they spoke, but he gave them no opportunity to do so; as soon as he dropped his belongings and tossed his keycard to the counter, he waltzed over and shut and bolted the door that connected their two rooms together. I don’t want to talk to a single fucking soul right now, he thought, not caring how rude it was to ignore them. As far as he was concerned, they both deserved the abrupt dismissal.
During his 48-hour absence, the suite had been spotlessly cleaned, the bed made, the wet bar restocked. Pulling out a cold bottle of Blue Moon from the beverage fridge, he flicked off the top, took a long swig, and landed down onto the leather sofa. Propped his hiking boots up onto the alder coffee table and pushed Colorado tourism magazines to the floor as he did so. From where he sat, he could see a bath towel that had been formed into the shape of a swan poised in the middle of the bed. A handful of gold-wrapped chocolates was scattered around the water fowl, like a “welcome back” package from The Little Nell.
Welcome back to Aspen, Mr. Mansfield. Welcome back to your lonely, pathetic existence. Hope you’ve enjoyed your stay.
He finished off the Belgian brew and returned to the fridge to fish out another. Back at the sofa, he removed his boots, slid out of his parka, and lounged against a stack of throw pillows with an arm up under his head. A print of bison grazing in a snowy meadow adorned the opposite wall, and he stared at it, absently wondering whose job it was to choose art for hotel rooms. Some pieces he saw along the way were fancy; others were shit. Undoubtedly, it depended on the caliber of the establishment. Visions entered into his mind of the rustic motel room at the hot springs with its salmon-colored walls and paintings of mountains mimicking poorly-orchestrated paint-by-number kits.
He shut his eyes, wanting to block the images out, but the memories arrived like whiplash anyway. That room, that Kentucky bourbon, that talent Travis possessed for pulling his darkness into the light, turning him inside out, pushing him to pinnacles of ecstasy he’d never believed possible. Raw ass or not, he wished they had fucked in the woods this morning, right there on the wool blanket beneath the naked branches of the trees, fully exposed to the elements. At least then he could have experienced it all one final time.
Because he doubted he’d ever again reach such pinnacles, no matter which way he roamed or who he hooked up with along the way…
Setting the beer down, he stood and hoisted his large suitcase up onto the bed. Tipped the towel-swan over and sent a few chocolates spiraling to the carpet as he did so. Once stripped down to his boxer briefs, he redressed in a pair of black and red athletic shorts and a black crewneck t-shirt. From the bottom of the suitcase, he retrieved his running shoes and sat on the edge of the bed to lace them. At that moment, getting shit-faced drunk wasn’t the solution to numbing his emotions; instead, he’d work them out of his system through sweat and pain and maybe get a decent endorphin high as a reward – at least enough to tide him over until he decided to get shit-faced drunk later.
Grabbing his iPod, a bottled water, and the keycard from the counter, he exited the room and hopped down the stairwell to the fitness center, which was on the first level but tucked away from the main lobby. The room was empty, and he was grateful. After pulling a clean towel from the rack, he settled the headphones onto his ears, stretched out his legs, and got on the treadmill. Chemical Brothers pumped through his iPod as he warmed up with a jog and slowly increased his speed and incline level until he found a good challenging pace.
Eleven miles later, the burning in his glutes and quads had begun to successfully dissolve the fever in his head. He slowed his pace a fraction and took a swig of water. Wiped the sweat from his brow with the towel and turned his attention to a hotel guest who’d entered into the room. Without a glance to Ben, the man took a seat on a recumbent bicycle in the corner and opened up an Architectural Digest magazine. He was tall, fit, late-forties or early-fifties, with olive-colored skin and neatly-trimmed brown hair graying at the temples. Clad in navy-blue running shorts and white tank top, his profoundly-sculpted biceps, triceps, and quads did not go unnoticed. Ben concentrated on averting his gaze elsewhere. Found other elements within the utilitarian room to focus on – the rack of barbells, the weight bench, the row of high windows that overlooked Aspen Mountain – but his attention continued to sweep back over the stranger, like a magnetic pull.
For a time, the man was engrossed in his magazine, intently reading an article within its pages as he pumped the pedals of the machine. But eventually, as if sensing something in the air, he swung his gaze up and hooked his large brown eyes onto Ben, peering at him from beneath impossibly-long eyelashes. Mutual eye contact locked into place between them, lasting a good ten seconds – recklessly long – while the steady whoosh of fitness machines continued rolling beneath their bodies, unabated. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi…
The stranger was the first to break the spell by offering a small smile. His upturned lips revealed a row of perfect white teeth. In response, Ben frowned, looked down, and ramped up the speed of his pace. The treadmill clocked 12.7 mph as he tried to outrun the intensity of the moment, keeping his eyes focused on the digital display. What the fuck are you doing? he screamed at himself, angry at his weakness. At this rate, the whole goddamn world would know he was gay within a day.
But you’re not gay, he rationalized. It’s only Travis you want.
So why the hell was his dick jumping in his shorts…?
Aggravated by his thoughts, over-exerted from the intense run, he abruptly ended the workout and jumped off of the machine. Leaned forward with hands pressed against his knees and sweat dripping into his eyes and sucked in as much oxygen as possible, trying to maneuver past the physical strain. After a moment, he righted himself and wiped his face and neck with the towel. Drank the rest of the water in the bottle and tossed the empty container into a nearby trash receptacle. All the while, eyes were on him.
With silent curses, he commanded himself not to reciprocate the gaze. Do not look over there. Do not fucking look at him. But the urge was too strong, the intrigue too compelling, and he caved into his weakness. Immediately, he noticed a keycard being casually proffered between two fingers as the stranger gripped the bar of the recumbent bicycle, his legs still pumping the pedals at a strong, steady pace. Although he’d returned his attention to the magazine, coyly pretending to read its contents, the keycard remained pointed outwards from his hand, like an invitation. Ben blinked. Noticed the platinum wedding band encircling the man’s ring finger. Is this what the shithead does when he’s away from his wife? He recalled the words Travis had proclaimed earlier while on their ride: “This is all an experiment! A one-time thing! Tomorrow, I’ll go home to my normal, everyday life, and none of this will have ever happened.” Apparently, such occurrences weren’t unheard of. Hell, maybe they were even common.
Ben contemplated the possibility that he was misinterpreting the gesture. That the guy was holding his keycard in his hand simply because he had no pockets in his shorts. But he wasn’t holding it a minute ago… Whatever the truth of the situation was, whatever assumptions this guy was making as a result of their prolonged eye contact, Ben wanted no part of it. The stakes were simply too high, and his head and his heart were still reconciling his departure from the ranch. A random blow job or quick fuck with this guy, no matter how hot it might have been, simply wasn’t worth the risk, especially with so many curious eyes lurking around every corner.
A spontaneous encounter wouldn’t fill the void Travis had left behind. As far as Ben was concerned, nothing could.
* * * *
“Please, come to dinner with us,” Audra urged once more, pulling on his elbow as though to coax him out of the room. She’d already managed to gain five steps toward the door. “I’ve made reservations for three. They have blackened sea bass on special tonight.”
Ben recognized that her words were meant to entice him, but the mention of a gourmet fish platter wasn’t enough to change his mind. Nothing was. Gently, he plucked his sister’s fingers from his arm and took a step back. “I really can’t,” he said.
“Sure you can. Come on. This is our last night here. A quick change out of your sweats and we’ll go down and have a nice dinner together. The Montagna has award-winning cuisine, five-star. And a stellar wine vault.”
“That’s nice,” Ben said. “But I really don’t want to go, Audra. I’m not up for casual dinner conversation tonight, my face looks like shit, and I don’t have much of an appetite. Besides, I don’t think Bryan would want me there. Not at the same table.”
Crossing her arms, Audra pouted. “Why on Earth would you think that?”
“He made it pretty damn clear how he feels right now,” Ben replied. “Which is, basically, for me to fuck off.” He sank down onto the sofa and pulled the giant binder full of screenplay back up onto his lap. He’d only made headway through the first 15 pages before Audra’s persistent knocking on the connecting door had interrupted him.
“That’s simply not true,” Audra protested. “He’s just… a little confused about things. We both are. That’s why you need to come to dinner with us, so we can talk about it, the three of us.” She perched herself on the arm of the adjacent chair. Fidgeted with the floral scarf around her neck. Ben noticed that she’d dressed up for the occasion: a sleeveless black dress, Manolo Blahnik pumps, the Tiffany diamond and sapphire bracelet Bryan had given to her on her 26th birthday. “We care about you, Ben,” she continued. “We want to understand.”
“Understand what?” he asked. “My sudden queerness…?”
“Oh, Ben, you’re not queer,” she scoffed. “You’re just being adventurous.”
He stared at her, a bit dumbfounded. “Adventurous…? Is that how you and Bryan have classified it?” He sighed. Shook his head. “Neither of you know what the hell is going on…”
Audra sat forward and peered at him with her vivid azure eyes. For Ben, it was like looking into a mirror, only the emotion in the reflection was much more intense. “What is going on?” she pushed. “Enlighten me. Please.”
“Don’t act so naïve, Audra,” he said. “The tendency’s always been there for me. You know that.”
“I don’t know that,” she insisted. “How could I know that…?”
“It was bound to surface, eventually,” he continued, ignoring her rebuttal. “Couldn’t stay hidden forever. Somehow, Travis knew. Called me out on it before anyone else had the guts to, including myself.” Leaning forward, he retrieved the opened bottle of Fat Tire from the coffee table and took a long swig. “Help yourself,” he said, gesturing to the four bottles left in the six-pack he’d requested from room service once the remaining beer in his beverage fridge had been consumed.
“No, thanks,” she said with a frown. “Pregnant, remember?”
“Ah, yes.” He lifted the bottle as if in a toast before bringing it to his mouth and finishing off the contents. “More for me.” A long, low belch resounded across the room. He whispered an apology for the intrusion.
“You haven’t always been… this,” Audra spoke. There was fervency in her tone. Her hands twirled in the air as though she was attempting to deflect events that were outside of her control. “Sure, you’re open to new experiences – you always have been, even when you were a kid, which is why you got into so much mischief all the time and why you’re now Hollywood’s biggest and brightest. You’re not afraid of taking risks, and it’s commendable. Enviable, even. But this thing with Travis… well, it was weird and unexpected, but it’s over now, right? Tomorrow, we go home. We get back to it. And, if we’re lucky and play our cards right, your little adventure here stays under the radar. No harm done.”
“Wow.” Ben was speechless. Felt as though he’d just been tackled sideways. Rather than voice an immediate retort, he sat gawking at his sister, wondering just how long it had been since she’d lost touch with reality. Her once superpower-ability to analyze him through sibling telepathy had just fizzled into a complete pile of bullshit. She didn’t know him at all. “I think you’d better head out,” he stated. Despite his aggravation and the sudden pounding of his heart, his tone remained surprisingly steady.
“Get the hell out of my room, Audra.”
“I’m not trying to argue with you,” she insisted. “I just want to talk.”
He slid the binder off of his lap and got to his feet. Approached her with mind blazing and hardened jaw and propelled her from the chair over to the connecting door. She huffed and hissed and attempted to break free, but he pulled the door open and gently pushed her over the threshold into the adjoining room.
Upon her entrance, Bryan dropped the book he’d been reading, grabbed a crutch, and clumsily got to his feet. A look of alarm spread across his face as he shifted his gaze between them. “Take her to dinner,” Ben instructed him with a glare, releasing his hold on Audra’s arm but giving her one more nudge forward as a final gesture. “Have fun. Talk shit about me all you want. Just leave me the fuck alone.”
The wall vibrated with the impact of the slamming door. Once more, Ben switched the deadbolt to the locked position, determined to not be disturbed for the rest of the night. All he wanted was silence. And the remaining four beers. And the ability to block out the kaleidoscope of memories from the last 48 hours that continually swirled through his mind without solicitation.