Murder, betrayal, mistaken identity, drug addiction: aspects of a complex movie plot, skillfully woven through a tropical tapestry of pineapple fields, sandy beaches, ocean waves, and ancient island burial grounds.
By page 62 of the ‘Treading Water’ screenplay still spread out across his lap, Ben had gained a fairly comprehensive overview of the story structure and the lead character he was slated to play in it- if he was chosen for the role. The protagonist, Scott Pitkin, was a heroin-addicted college dropout from the mainland who awoke on the beach of Waikiki one morning to discover he’d been wrongfully accused of brutally murdering an underage island girl whom he’d never even met.
The story was teeming with left turns, unexpected surprises, and a mass of grittiness, giving it the potential to develop into a gutsy, unapologetic suspense-drama if handled correctly. From what Ben could decipher from the screenplay up to this point, the protagonist’s personality encompassed immense depth, despair, and anger – traits he felt confident he could portray well on screen, especially given his current state of mind. And with Stephen Fletcher set to direct it, Ben had every intention of snagging the part; he’d never worked with Fletcher, had never starred in a murder-mystery thriller, had never stepped onto the balmy beaches of Honolulu. The prospect of the project was exciting to him, like a ray of hope or an arrow of opportunity or some other such metaphor poking through his wall of depression.
Sliding on the mask of a new character was similar to sliding on new skin – an opportunity to disappear inside the facade of someone else for a while. A cutting-edge project like this was exactly what Ben needed to steer his focus in a different direction. Grabbing his Blackberry from the coffee table, he quickly sent a succinct text message to Melanie: I want this part. To which she replied within thirty seconds: I knew you would, sunshine. Talk more when you’re home tomorrow.
Home. He’d only been gone seven days. Why did it feel so much longer? He wondered how it would be flying back to L.A. in the morning, leaving the majestic Colorado landscape to return to the smog of the overcrowded city he called home. Back to the daily grind… The one bright spot of his return was seeing Beau and Sasha again, his two Lancashire heelers – non-judgemental companions who would be waiting for him with excitement and joy behind the front door of his house in the Hills as soon as he pulled up into the driveway. He’d intended to pick up a souvenir for Austin as a thank-you gift for house-sitting while he was away, but he hadn’t yet gotten around to it, and now it was getting late and he wasn’t in the mood to change out of his sweats and go out, not even down to the gift shop in the lobby.
Besides, he was a little too buzzed to be seen by anyone, anyway. Intoxicated celebrities never make for flattering tabloid headliners, and he was already teetering on the edge of exploitation with the hound dogs on the front sidewalk, huddled together with their zoom lenses pointed, waiting for him to misstep. It was critical that he put his best foot forward and avoid scandal from now on – or, at least, for a while, especially with Chicago only a few days away and the reading for ‘Treading Water’ on the near horizon.
Thinking about the talk show he was scheduled to appear on prompted him to examine the wound on his face. The bright lights above the large mirror in the bathroom illuminated his bruised complexion, and he cursed at his reflection. Although the swelling on his cheekbone had subsided, the surrounding tissue was turning ten shades of purple. The butterfly bandage that Mrs. Cooper had administered to cover the small gash appeared stark white against the darkened flesh surrounding it. By Thursday, the bruise would probably be ten shades of putrid yellow. “You’re gonna look fucking great on camera,” he mumbled in irritation. His only hope was that the make-up artist on set could work magic on his face. Otherwise, he would have some explaining to do to the show host.
I was on a horse that threw me… I was preparing for a role… I was on the receiving end of a sucker-punch… I was on the verge of falling hard for someone… I did fall hard for someone, straight to the fucking ground.
The tapping of knuckles on a door interrupted Ben’s talk-show scenario and pulled him back into the moment. Standing erect, he stared at his rigid reflection in the mirror and waited, listening for evidence that someone was actually out in the hallway. Maybe the knock had come from down the hall, room service delivering someone’s dinner… But the knuckles drummed again in a burst of four, this time a little louder, and Ben exhaled. He hadn’t realized that he’d been holding his breath until he let it go. Scuffling over to the thick door, he peeked through the security peephole, half-expecting to see a photographer lurking there but discovering Audra instead. Her appearance was distorted in the microscopic glass, her forehead enlarged as she stood peering up at the peephole in anticipation.
Pulling the security lock back and swinging the door open only a few inches, Ben looked out at her and said, “Whassup?” trying to sound sober and alert.
She held in her hands a small, black baker’s box with gold lettering on it, which she lifted up towards him like a precious gift. “I brought you dessert from the restaurant,” she replied. “Tiramisu. As a peace offering.”
Ben’s eyes drifted from the proffered box to his sister’s face and back to the box again. She knew that tiramisu was his favorite sweet treat and was using it as bait. Clever girl. Opening the door a fraction further, he accepted the cardboard box from her hands and muttered, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied.
A moment of restless silence passed while Audra shuffled her feet and Ben shifted the dessert box from one hand to the other. He supposed she was waiting for him to invite her inside, but he made no attempt to do so. Although a small voice inside his head implored him to be kind to her, a louder voice declared resistance. “Well, I guess I’ll see ya in the morning,” he slurred quietly.
Audra’s expression faltered in disappointment A slight frown spread across her lips as she said, “Okay, sure, I’ll see you in the morning…” Then, with head drawn down, she turned away.
Don’t be a dickhead. She brought you tiramisu.
“Audra wait,” Ben said. He tried to keep steady through his buzz as he stuck one foot out of the room while keeping a hand on the door so as not to get locked out. Even though he was still pissed about their combative conversation earlier, he recognized that Audra was family and that he needed her as an ally, now more than ever, especially since all three of them, Bryan included, would be seated together on the two-hour flight home in the morning. Leaving this bout of friction in the air wasn’t a wise idea.
Audra paused and turned her head, waiting for him to continue, waiting to hear what he had to say. He took one more step out into the hallway and immediately noticed Bryan perched in the open doorway of their room a few feet away with arms crossed and eyes narrowed, glaring at him. To Ben, he seemed to be standing there like a witness or a bodyguard for Audra, ensuring that his fiancée was safe and that Ben wasn’t mistreating her again. If contempt was a tangible object, it would have smacked the two friends to the floor.
Ben clenched his jaw. Clenched the box in his hand until one side folded in under the pressure of his fingers. “Nothing,” he told Audra, his resolve vanished. “Thanks for the dessert. I’ll see you in the morning…” He swung the door back open and made to step inside, but before he could disappear into the safety of the room, a hand clamped down onto his bicep, forcing him to pause. Looking over his shoulder, he discovered Bryan standing only a few inches behind him.
“Stop being an ass to Audra,” Bryan commanded.
Jerking free of his grip, Ben flipped around to face him head-on. The distance between the two friends was uncomfortably close, and Bryan took a step backwards to offer space but continued to stare firmly at Ben as though daring him to protest his statement.
“I’m not the one being an ass, dude,” Ben retorted with jaw set and determination in his drunken stance.
“Bullshit,” Bryan insisted, equally determined. “She’s tried talking to you three times today, and each time, you’ve pushed her away. I’d call that being an asshole.”
“What the hell do you know about our conversations?” Ben demanded. “You haven’t attempted to be a part of any of them. All you do is lurk in the shadows snarling at me like I’m a goddamn freak.”
“Well, that’s because you are a goddamn freak, B-” Before Bryan could finish the sentence, he was on the carpet, not from a punch but from a powerful thump to the center of his abdomen that sent him sprawling backwards several inches until he fell to the floor. “Fuck, dude!” he spat, struggling to get back up onto his feet. The wind had been knocked out of him, and as a result, he was off-kilter. “I was just fucking joking with you…”
Seething, Ben stooped to retrieve the dessert box he’d dropped and hissed, “Well, I’m not fuckin’ amused, Jensen.” He turned into his room and shut the door. Took a moment to breathe through his agitation, wondering how it was possible that he and Bryan had ever even been friends. At what point had their amicable relationship morphed into this loose, pseudo-friendship based mainly on their mutual connection to Audra? And soon he’s going to be my brother-in-law, no getting around it. Fucking great.
It was time to vacate. As spacious and comfortable as the hotel suite was, being inside it felt claustrophobic now, like a prison. Ben decided he’d get dressed, stumble through town, and let the cold night air snap him out of his agitation, fuck the paparazzi waiting on the front sidewalk. He’d find a gift for Austin and maybe even something for Christine, as a small token of retribution for the countless times he’d screwed her over – a guilt that forever plagued him which no amount of gift-giving or repeated apologizing ever seemed to eradicate. Maybe he’d even stop in for a bite to eat somewhere and concentrate on not sending out signals of sexual depravity to every goddamn patron in the restaurant. For that, he’d now need new sunglasses – not only to shield his face from the usual ring of gawkers but also to mask his hidden desires, since, according to Travis, he exuded vibes on an unconscious level. The silent interaction with the guy in the fitness center earlier was a prime example of his inability to mask the truth. In the future, he’d need to be careful with the coded messages he involuntarily projected through his eyes: Take me home and fuck me senseless, ’til I can’t fucking see straight.
A knock rapped on the door, this one staccato and strong and dissimilar to Audra’s knock.
“Leave me alone!” Ben yelled. Sifting through the contents of his suitcase, he pulled out a pair of Calvin Klein jeans and his black cashmere v-neck sweater. He’d already showered after his workout, so there was no need to clean up again, but he could have benefited from a shave. He considered completing the menial task before going out in public but then thought: What’s the fucking point with this shiner on my face?
The sharp knock repeated, this time in succession of six, like the urgent pounding of a drum beat.
“Jesus Christ, Bryan,” Ben hissed, twirling around to peer through the peephole once more. The distorted profile he encountered wasn’t his sister’s stylish black hair or Bryan’s mess of brown curls but rather the front bill of a baseball cap. Although the visitor’s face was hidden behind a pair of sunglasses, the recognition was immediate, and Ben sucked in air. Counted to ten. Contemplated opening the door. Contemplated telling Travis to fuck off. Contemplated crying. Contemplating performing all three acts simultaneously. Finally, he turned the handle and pulled the door open.
“Hey,” Travis said with that familiar gruff tone.
“Hey,” Ben echoed. Peering out into the hallway, he conducted a quick sweep to ensure that no one was lurking in the shadows, Bryan and Audra included.
“Don’t worry,” Travis said. “I took the long way around to get up here, including the stairs. Pretty sure no one saw which way I was headed.”
Rather than pull the door open wider to allow Travis entrance, Ben nudged it in the opposite direction, closing it partially. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
Removing the sunglasses from his face, Travis held the shiny new Ray-Bans out to him and said, “I wanted to bring you these. You know, since I broke your other ones. I figured you’d need another pair before hitting the airport.”
Apparently, it was an evening of proffered gifts: peace offerings from guilty parties who now felt regret for their wrongdoings. Ben hesitated a moment before accepting the glasses, at which time he opened the door wider and mumbled, “Thanks,” indicating to Travis that he had permission to enter the room. Travis obliged and stepped inside and pulled his sherpa-lined coat off to lay it across a bar stool. Glancing around at the surroundings, he motioned to the empty beer bottles and papers strewn across the coffee table and said, “Guess you decided to stay in tonight and have your own party, huh?”
Ben shut and bolted the door. Hooked his hands onto his hips and uttered a simple, “Yeah.”
What the fuck are you doing here, Cooper…?
“I was passing through town again,” Travis stated, replying to the question as though Ben had voiced it out loud. “I, uh… Well, I don’t know what I’m doing here, exactly.” He removed his Winter Park baseball cap and ran fingers through messy curls while focusing on the carpet. “I probably shouldn’t have come, I suppose, but…” He shrugged and lifted his gaze back up to Ben, green eyes glossy with emotion although his voice remained impassive. “I didn’t like how we left things, you know? Hanging in the air like that. It didn’t feel right.”
Ben paused before responding. It was important that his words be coherent and purposeful and not just a blabber of emotion tainted by too much alcohol consumption. But his response was driven by underlying tones of sorrow and frustration anyway, despite his best efforts to disguise it. “Well, I never expected to see you again,” he muttered. “I’m a little stunned, actually. I mean, you said our chapter had closed and we were over, but now you’re here, so… Fuck, dude, you’re standing in my room. I dunno what to think about that. Where we left things off… well, what’s the point of doing anything about that now? I’m out of here tomorrow.”
Travis nodded. Flicked his baseball cap over onto the bar counter and took two steps forward to cup Ben’s jaw in his calloused hands. The kiss didn’t last long, mainly due to Ben’s slow reaction time, but when Travis released him, Ben felt warmth spread through his limbs. The guy’s lips still tasted like salt and whiskey, with a hint of nicotine added in. One-hundred-percent Travis Cooper.
Travis’ facial expression remained composed and his voice dispassionate as he said, “There, that’s the goodbye I wanted to give you earlier.” Somehow, he was able to retain a steady poker face through the statement, hiding any sign of emotion beneath that cool exterior he carried around him, and Ben thought: You’d make a hell of a great actor yourself, Cooper… Wiping fingers down the corners of his lips as though wiping remnants of their kiss away, Ben said, “Well, I feel much better now, thanks for that.” He yanked on the metal handle of the door and pulled it back open, showcasing the empty hallway beyond. “Glad you could stop by for a minute, Cooper. Maybe I’ll look you up the next time I swing through Buena Vista.”
“Ah.” Travis crossed his arms and snickered, having no intention of leaving.
“You said it wrong.”
“Said what wrong?”
“Buena Vista. You called it ‘Bweh-na Vee-sta’. It’s pronounced ‘Byoo-na Vi-sta’. A Colorado native you’re not.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” The flippancy of the comment pissed Ben off. “I’m trying to express something here, and you’re accusing me of pronouncing the name of a goddamn hick town incorrectly?”
“Just pointing it out,” Travis stated, still smiling.
Seconds ticked by, neither man moving until a bell announcing the arrival of an elevator car down the hall shook Ben free of his disbelief and prompted him to shut the door so as to avoid any curious passersby. In a swift move, Travis pinned him up against the frame, locking his arms on either side of his face to keep him still. “Let’s start this over,” he whispered, breathing across the stubble on Ben’s jaw before softly pecking the bruise on his cheek. “I’m really sorry about that…” he muttered. Then, mouth pressed on mouth and no more words. This second kiss was messier and more urgent than the first, lasting significantly longer and packed with emotion, no way to hide it, for either of them.
This time, when Travis released him and stepped back, Ben didn’t wipe the saliva away, but rather licked it from his lips, wanting to capture it all on his tongue. Beneath his sweatpants he’d gone commando, and it clearly showed, like a flagpole pointing skyward through the fleece. Quickly, he shifted himself and scooted around the bar to stand behind the counter, pretending to busy himself with a glass in the sink as he willed his erection to go down. In the meantime, Travis wandered over to the sofa and took a seat in front of the large binder opened up on the coffee table. Flipping through a few of the pages, he said, “Is this the screenplay your agent wanted to send you?”
“It’s a goddamn novel.”
“Does it look promising?”
Ben shifted himself one more time and came around to the front of the bar to lean against a stool. “It does look promising,” he replied. “I’m pretty excited about it.”
“Think you’ll do it?”
“I’m hoping so. If I’m chosen for it.”
“Oh, you will be.”
Ben shrugged. “Difficult to say for sure. There are no guarantees…”
Getting to his feet, Travis stepped wide over the knotty alder table and approached Ben. Took a hold of his hands and peered intently into his eyes as though searching for something there – or maybe offering something. “You’re right,” he whispered. “There are no guarantees… But you shouldn’t let that stop you from trying, Ben…”
Then lips on lips again, long and powerful and teeming with raw emotion, no way to hide it. For either of them.
* * * *