Chapter 21: Mask of Stoicism

Beyond the arc of the front porch light, Ben could just make out Travis’ profile. He was standing several yards down the driveway with his hands clasped behind his head, looking across the length of gravel and dirt to the main road beyond as though waiting for a car to appear. But the road remained quiet and dark, no evidence of life beyond the perimeter fence. Whatever vehicle had dropped Katy off a few minutes ago was long gone – and so, too, was Eric.

Gingerly, Ben approached Travis. Pressed a palm into the crevice between his shoulder blades. Startled by the touch, Travis flinched and spun around with wide eyes, staring at Ben but not really seeing him. Despite the shadows surrounding them, Ben could see the dampness on his cheeks, the despair in his eyes. Ben knew that he was intruding, walking smack-dab into the middle of Travis’ brittle emotions, but he didn’t step back or turn away. He wanted to be included. He wanted to help, if he could – if Travis would allow him. “Hey,” he said quietly. “Katy told me about the ring. About Eric giving it to her.”

Travis’ expression withered at the name. “I ran out here to see if I’d catch him,” he muttered. “I’d fucking strangle that prick with my bare hands…”

The front door of the house opened and closed. Katy ambled her way down the steps and over to where they stood with arms wrapped tightly across her torso. She, too, had dampness on her cheeks and despair in her eyes, but, miraculously, was no longer in fight mode. “Can I please have the ring back?” she asked quietly, lifting her open palm into the air.

Travis answered with a slow shake of his head.

“He gave it to me, Travis.” She succumbed to her sobs once more but managed to retain a stiff upper lip. “You already took him from me once. Please don’t do this to me again, it’s not fair…”

“Don’t go near him, Katy. I mean it.”

“How can you say that?” Her voice turned desperate. “What gives you the right? You dumped him a long time ago. He’s not yours anymore. You don’t have the right to claim something that’s not yours. And you’ve got Ben now. So please give me back the ring… Please.”

Ben noticed that Travis was rolling the ring between his thumb and forefinger as though it exuded power he hoped to harness. He also noticed that the man was struggling to maintain a level-headed decorum during this interaction. “How long has he been in town?” Travis asked.

“Only a few days,” Katy replied. “That’s what he told me, anyway.”

“And you hooked up with him, how? When?”

Realizing that her brother had no intention of relinquishing the ring, Katy finally dropped her hand back to her side and sighed. “I saw him after school yesterday,” she said. “He was hanging around outside the Eagle’s Nest, and when he saw me and Kelly walk by, he called me over. We talked for a long time, and he drove me home. Then he offered to pick me up from school today, and we had coffee at Brown Dog and talked some more. He’s to take me out again Friday night, to see something at the drive-in.”

“You’re not going out with him Friday night,” Travis stated. “Not Friday and not ever. I don’t want you going anywhere near him again. You got that? I mean it, Katy. Nowhere near him.” There was no anger in his voice, only absolute resolution.

Ben bit the inside of his cheek and tensed his abdomen, anticipating the fury that he knew would follow. He was prepared to hold Katy back when she started swinging fists, when she started to shout and kick, but she didn’t lash out, only cried, burying her anguish in her hands.

“I don’t understand,” she said between sobs. Her voice distorted behind her palms. “Why do you do this to me? Why do you treat me like a child, like shit, all the time? Always stealing the good ones away, denying me happiness… Eric really liked me when he was working here. He said I was his favorite girl. Then you swooped in, and it was like I no longer existed. It’s like you want me to be miserable and alone. And that’s what I am, you know. I’m always that. What makes you so fucking special, Travis?” Looking up at him through a waterfall of tears, she added, “When do I get what I want?”

Travis’ hardened demeanor faltered. He slipped the ring into his front pocket and stepped forward to pull his sister into a hug. Once in his arms, Katy collapsed against him like a rag doll, barely able to stand on her own two feet. Her tears flowed freely. Travis rubbed his hand over her hair and pulled her in closer. Spoke loud enough for Ben to hear, “You’ll get what you want, Kat. Someday. But not Eric. It can’t be him. He’s trouble all around. He’ll hurt you, like he hurt me. Trust me, you don’t want to experience any of what I went through in Boston…”

Katy wiggled out of his arms to look up at him, sniffling, wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand. “What do you mean? What happened in Boston?” she asked.

Ben witnessed pain spread across Travis’ face like a slow-moving wave, tumbling over him, swallowing him in the undertow. The Great Reveal was about to happen, and it was going to take all of Travis’ resolve to expose it. Ben decided to withdraw from the conversation. As much as he wanted to hear it, he figured it was best to give the siblings their privacy. “I’ll be out back,” he announced, ready to step away, ready to retreat. He’d sit and talk with the cousins some more, or even entertain Uncle Ed, if he had to.

But Travis grabbed his hand and pulled him close. “No,” he said. “Stay. You need to hear this, too. It’s now or never. I’m only going to discuss this one time. After tonight, what happened in Boston stays in Boston, and we’re never going to talk about it again. Got it?” His gaze shifted between Ben and Katy, demanding their compliance to his request.

In unison, his audience nodded and responded with, “Got it.” Their voices were as wary as their facial expressions, illuminated in the front porch light. Apprehension hung in the air like humidity, weighing them down, and Travis stuck a cigarette between his lips with a shaking hand, preparing to tell his tale.

*    *    *    *

With a nudge of his hand, Ben coaxed Travis to move forward a little so that he could slide into the cast iron clawfoot tub behind him. Although he tried to be careful, some of the bathwater spilled out over the edge and down to the tiled floor anyway, landing in a puddle and soaking up into the purple bathmat. It took the twosome a moment to get situated – Ben with his legs spread in a V, Travis nestling back against him. Bubbles popped and floated up around them. Once they were settled in, Ben reached over and grabbed the two bottles of Coors he’d momentarily set down on the toilet seat while he’d undressed. Handing one to Travis now, he whispered, “Relax for a while.”

Travis accepted the beer and murmured his gratitude. Took a long drink and rested the bottle on the lip of the tub as he laid his head back against Ben’s shoulder. From the main room, the Bill Evans Trio circled the turntable, filling the bunkhouse with melodic jazz piano. Ben rubbed a hand down Travis’ chest, circling his abs with his fingers, swooshing the hot, soapy water around his torso. He wanted to fold the guy in his arms and compress his body against his own and pronounce his deep affection for him, but he knew that what Travis needed the most was a foundation to lean against that had no ulterior motive or complication.

The guy had experienced enough fucking complications in his 24 years of existence to circle the Earth twice over. He deserved a break, from everything.

“Are you comfortable?” Ben whispered in his ear.

Travis nodded. Raised Ben’s hand to his chest and pressed it there.

“You were right to tell her,” Ben assured him quietly. “She needed to hear it directly from you. Otherwise, she’d go behind your back to see him, just to spite you. You made the right decision, as hard as it was.”

“Doesn’t make me feel any better.” Travis was solemn. “Retelling that nightmare brought it all back. Eighteen months later, and it’s like I’m right there in that fucking basement again, reliving the moment. These images don’t go away, Ben, no matter how hard I try to stomp them down. What’s worse, now you know the truth about what happened. That scares the shit out of me, man. How can I expect you to understand any of it? You’re probably seeing me very differently, what with Jack and now this…”

“I’m not seeing you any differently,” Ben insisted. “Not in a bad way, like you’re thinking. I’m just so fucking sorry this happened to you…” He paused, felt a lump creep up into his throat and quickly forced it back down, determined to keep his emotions in check. He’d already shed a few silent tears as he’d stood out on the driveway listening to the story. Travis had provided only a broad overview of his experiences, and that had been enough – any more detail would have been too much for Katy and Ben to absorb. They didn’t have to know everything to know that it had been an unthinkable, barbaric event.

“It’s really hard to believe,” Ben continued, running his chin through the hairs on the top of Travis’ head, lightly kissing his scalp. “Why would Eric do that to you? It’s not like he didn’t already have you.”

“I’ve tried to analyze it for eighteen months,” Travis replied. “And there’s no defining or explaining it other than I guess Eric didn’t have me the way he wanted. Apparently, he wanted to break me, and, boy, did he succeed in doing it.”

“Hard to believe there’s such evil in people…”

“Just because you don’t believe it, doesn’t mean it can’t happen.” Travis’ aggravation seeped through his otherwise exhausted disposition. “That’s exactly why I never told anyone about it, because no one would fucking believe it was against my will, that I didn’t want the drugs or the restraints or the objects shoved up inside me.”

Ben kicked himself, voiced an apology, and embraced Travis tighter. Insinuating that male rape was a freak occurrence was a mistake. Who the fuck am I to assume the statistics of such things? he thought. I live in a bubble. Sexual assault is sexual assault. The images that Travis had just conjured up made him cringe. Just as he’d cringed on the driveway listening to the tale. Just as he’d continue cringing whenever he thought about it.

“You should’ve let me go,” Travis said. Of course he was referring to his foolish attempt to drive off into the night in search of Eric, which Ben had promptly prevented by reaching inside the truck and snatching the keys out of the ignition. Travis seeking revenge in his current state of mind would have been a huge mistake.

Travis had argued for only seconds, simply because he was too exhausted by then to wrestle Ben to the ground in search of his keys. But instead of going straight to the bunkhouse, he’d strapped on his mask of stoicism to return to the family gathering on the back deck – ever the scrupulous Cooper boy, the pillar of strength, the heroic one able to swallow down sorrow like hot tar and still retain a smile for everyone.

In contrast, Katy had excused herself at the driveway and retreated up to her room, heartbroken and sick and in need of a good cry. Undoubtedly, it would take the girl a while to come to terms with the harsh reality of her boy-crush, but at least now she knew the truth, as sordid and deplorable and unforgivable as it was. Ben hoped the experience would also give her clarity on other points of contention, like her unpredictable and unwarranted attitude towards him. All he wanted was to focus his efforts on Travis without having to worry about what the young sister had in store for him around every corner.

“I wasn’t about to let you go anywhere,” Ben said now, taking a sip of his beer. “Driving into town with revenge on your mind wasn’t a smart idea.”

“I wasn’t planning on killing him or anything,” Travis muttered defensively. “I just wanted the fucker to know he’s not welcome anywhere near Katy or this ranch again.”

Setting his bottle aside, Ben stretched his arm up towards the towel rack, grabbed the washcloth down with the tips of his fingers. After soaking the cloth in the soapy water, he proceeded to scrub Travis with it. “Sit forward a little,” he prompted and ran the washcloth over his back and shoulders and down each arm. He scrubbed Travis’ chest and belly and continued down as far as he could reach from his position behind him. While leaning forward, he kissed Travis’ neck. Sucked on the top of his collarbone. Whispered, “Just take it easy, babe. Relax.” Encircled the washcloth around his cock and softly caressed his balls, not aiming to arouse him but just provide some pleasant sensations.

“Mm, that feels nice…” Travis responded. “You’re being awfully kind to me, Mansfield. All things considered. I wouldn’t have expected it.”

“What ‘things’ are you referring to?”

“Everything. I’m spoiled goods. I come with a shit-ton of baggage. You didn’t know all of this about me when you originally signed on. Jack, the assault, all of the fucked-up things about my life. It’s why I wanted to keep our hookup short and sweet. You weren’t supposed to get this close to me. I wasn’t supposed to get this close to you. But now here we are… close, or something.”

“You regret that?”

Travis didn’t immediately respond. He sipped on his beer slow and easy while contemplating an answer, then said, “I won’t talk about regrets. I’ve got too many, and they’ve pushed me to the brink, to the point of tipping over the edge, too many fucking times. No, I don’t have regrets. Not with you. Only wishes for different circumstances.”

“All the shit that’s happened in your life doesn’t define who are you as a person, Cooper.” Ben was surprised by his level-headed quote of philosophy. Was he suddenly some kind of expert on the importance of being kind to yourself, of appreciating yourself? Lord knows he’d never follow such advice in his own life. But Travis deserved to know that someone was on his side, that he didn’t have to face the misery of his circumstances alone – that someone genuinely cared.

Travis sank an inch beneath the water. “I’m not real sure your family or your fans would agree with you on that,” he muttered. “My personal damage would fuck up your professional image in a heartbeat.”

“Well, no one else is here,” Ben said. “Let’s just concentrate on you and me right now. The rest of the world doesn’t matter, and I prefer it that way.”

“I like the way you think,” Travis said. “I really do. But at some point, the rest of the world will matter, Ben. Everything comes back around, whether we like it or not.”

In the main room, the first side of the record came to an end, and the tone arm automatically returned to its cradle. Afterwards, the only sound in the bunkhouse was the occasional droplet of water falling from the faucet down into the tub of now-tepid bathwater.

Cupping Travis’ whiskered chin in his hand, Ben angled the man’s face toward him and strained to reach him with a kiss. Despite the awkward slant and the sloshing of water between them, their lips pressed together and their tongues collided, and it was just like Ben had described: they were alone, the two of them, in a cocoon of quiet solitude and shared affection. The rest of the world was shut out, uninvited into the privacy of their coupling.

*    *    *    *

The bus terminal was empty aside from a few midnight stragglers waiting for red-eye departures. Ben stood near a large bulletin board, glancing over pamphlets and bus schedules, not really paying attention to what he was reading, just passing the time. From behind, he caught wind of some odd conversation and turned to see a homeless man shuffling across the concrete floor talking to himself – his clothes threadbare, his hair a knotted, greasy mass atop his frail frame. Approaching Ben, the man mumbled something that sounded like gibberish, like another language, just a bunch of made-up words. Ben could smell the heavy stench of liquor and urine emanating off of him, permeated into his ragged clothing.

Digging into his pocket, Ben pulled out a rubber-banded ball of money. Slapped it into the palm of his upturned hand and said, “Go get yourself a warm meal tonight.” Which would probably translate into bottles of bourbon, but who was Ben to judge?

The man smiled toothlessly at him, bowed his head, and mumbled, “God Bless, brother,” before shuffling off, the holes in his shiny red patent-leather shoes revealing dirty feet.

Ben glanced at the clock on the wall. It ticked half past midnight. What the hell was taking Travis so long? Impatient, he pushed through the heavy door of the men’s room and entered inside. Was hit by the rank stench of the space. Instinctively, he covered his nose with the back of his hand and took a quick survey. The place looked as though it hadn’t been touched by a cleaning crew in years: toilet paper clogging the urinal drains, piss stains on the floor, several broken metal stall doors, a glass-less window closed in with brick covered in graffiti resembling chromosomes and atoms and nuclei.

Travis was nowhere in sight. Ben stepped in further and heard a muffled noise and walked down the length of the chipped hexagon-tiled floor until he reached the last stall, which was the only one that still had a functioning door. It was closed but unlatched. Ben paused and heard movement and the distinct sound of heavy breathing from within. His heart skipped a beat. Gingerly, he pushed at the door, but it swung open only partially, hitting the backside of a man who was standing there thrusting his hips in a frenzy like a wild animal. His starched twill pants were pooled down around his ankles, his white shirttails wrinkled, his hairy buttocks grasped by the fingers of a familiar hand.

Travis’ hand.

Stunned, Ben moved to catch a glimpse of Travis seated on the toilet with the man’s massive cock shoved down his throat. So massive it seemed impossible that Travis’ lips could even stretch around it. The stranger’s hands were clutched on either side of his blonde head, forcing him still while he thoroughly skull-fucked his beautiful face. Along with it, the sounds of choking, heavy grunting, saliva dripping down Travis’ goatee.

Travis hooked his gaze up onto Ben; his usually expressive sea-green eyes were lifeless and devoid of any emotion as the stranger continued to pound into his mouth, oblivious to Ben’s presence behind him.Travis looked at Ben as though he had no idea who he was and furthermore didn’t care. At the same time, he was furiously pumping his own dripping dick with movements so swift that his hand was nothing but a blur.

Ben heaved. Tasted bile. Stumbled back out into the terminal, desperately trying to catch his breath, feeling as though he was being asphyxiated, as though hands were literally crushing his windpipe. He pushed through the front glass doors and bounded out onto the sidewalk and landed into the warm night air. Doubled-over, he stood with hands pressed against knees, trying to breathe, trying to focus, feeling bewildered and sick and stunned. He considered going back inside to beat the fucking shit out of the both of them – Travis and the stranger and the disgusting, arousing moment they were sharing together.

But then the drunk bum in the red patent-leather shoes whom he’d just handed a wad of money to inside the terminal approached him and slurred with outstretched hand, “Spare a dime, brother…?” while small black birds tumbled out of his mouth and flew straight towards Ben’s face…

Ben awoke with a start, gasping. His body was covered in a film of sweat. Shooting up to a sitting position, he glanced around with wild eyes, trying to gain his bearings in a darkened room. Travis’ fingers grazed his lower back, pulling him out of his dream state. “You okay?” he inquired through a groggy whisper.

Ben looked down at his shadowed profile. He was laying on his side, naked from the waist up with only the flannel sheet covering his lower body. It was so hot, they must have kicked the quilts off at some point during the night.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Ben slid out from under the sheet and made his way to the bathroom in the dark. Once inside, he shut the door and sat down on the toilet, not bothering to flip on the light. Cupping his face in his hands, he inhaled and exhaled through trembling lips. What the hell is going on in my head? Why the dream?

A light tap sounded on the door, pulling him back to the moment. “Ben? Everything all right?”

Ben rubbed hands down his face. Jerked his head from side to side, trying to crack his neck, hoping to snap to attention and regain composure. With mind buzzing, he stood up, flushed the toilet, and pulled the door open with a smile. “Yeah,” he replied. “Just had to piss.”

Travis remained in the doorway for a few seconds as though trying to study him in the dark, and then he stepped aside to let him pass. Ben returned to the bed and crawled under the damp sheet. After Travis completed his own task in the bathroom, he slid back in beside Ben, pulled him close, draped an arm around his neck, rested his lips lightly on Ben’s forehead. “You sure everything’s all right?” he repeated.

Stretching a leg across Travis’ thighs, Ben replied, “Yes. Just a weird dream. No big deal. Sorry to wake you.”

Travis didn’t push for further explanation, and Ben was thankful for it. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to, or wanted to, describe the starkness of the imagery or the emotional stress he’d experienced inside the twisted funnel of such a dream. Travis Cooper was under his skin – shit ton of baggage and all – and Ben’s unconscious mind was steadfastly trying to work through it.


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