Open and Honest – Part II
Open and Honest – Part I
The din of the locker room on a busy weekend is absurd. Skis are banging together, heavy fabrics are rustling, the chatter is loud. I don’t even notice him walk by as I rush to snap my buckles in place. Between my early morning duties getting the Sunkid up and my requested presence in the Children’s Center shortly, I have barely enough time to boot up, grab my gear and go.
I’m laughing and joking with a few coworkers when I feel his eyes bore into me.
“You must be Ben,” he says, drawing my gaze from the boots beneath me. He holds out his hand, an uncomfortable look on his face. It catches me off guard.
“Yep,” I say, reaching up to meet his open palm.
He says his name and our eyes meet. It’s a brief moment of confused recognition for me. I know him. I’ve seen him. But he’s not one of us. This is not his locker room. He’s not another instructor I need to know, but an employee of another department, and I don’t know why he’s here, now, talking to me, picking me out of everyone. “It’s nice to meet you,” he tells me.
“You too,” I say, realizing I’ve already spaced his name. From the corner of my eye, I see her watching as he turns and leaves.
I don’t have time to process what just happened. I have to get to work. I go back to my boots, snapping the last buckles in place and throwing my other shoes on top of my locker.
“So that must be your competition,” the Southern Gentleman remarks quietly.
It all suddenly clicks into place: her, him, the open relationship, the other department, the glare, the honesty. He’s her other half. He came and found me; he sought me out. And I barely registered him.
The image of his eyes, the way he was measuring me and judging me, it all makes sense. And from just that brief few sentences, the only ones we ever actually speak to each other, I know all too well what he got himself into and how poorly he’s dealing with it.
“Don’t say that,” I whisper. I want to yell at the Southern Gentleman, to tell him I can’t think of him as competition, that I can’t measure myself against him. I want to tell my friend to keep it down, to stay quiet, to not let the others know. But as I slide my jacket on, I merely say, “it’s not like that.”
I can’t let it be like that.
It’s not until after work that I have a chance to think about him and her and me. And suddenly, I’m scared again. I’m worried that I’ll be that guy, that I’ll be the one promising to be ok with things, promising that I fit into this strange, non-monogamous relationship. I’m worried that I’ll be that guy who says the right things, and yet doesn’t feel that way.
I could see in his eyes that he was scared. I can infer that he loves her. She’s implied they’ve been together a while. The previous year, when she was working lifts, I ran into her at Telluride on a freeride trip; I try to remember if he was the guy with whom she was riding, but I can only picture his eyes from the locker room, the ones full of fear and anger and anxious desire. And I don’t envy him. He’s already lost her and he doesn’t want to admit it to her or to himself.
If I’m not careful, I’ll be that guy too.
The beer slides down my throat smoothly. It’s all laughter and happiness, piled around the table at the brewery. It feels like family, like home, and it’s exciting. Given how divided we’ve felt, how mistreated, how abused by the changes, it’s almost miraculous that we’re still finding moments like this, even while our boss is stepping down mid-season and management is turning over like a cartwheeling skier after a crash.
The big bay windows open up to the packed parking lot outside, the waning evening sun casting golden rays across the center of Nederland. From the corner of my eye, I notice him pass the window. His mouth is suddenly taught as we exchange a nod.
A second later, I see her and my heart skips a beat.
He’s here. And so is she. They’re here together. And I still can’t fucking remember his name.
I pretend not to notice as they walk in, praying that they’re not coming to join us. The conversation flows as normal as they disappear into the crowd. And I relax into the moment, the awkwardness waning. They’re here to hang with other friends, with non-work or at least other department people. That makes my life easier.
When I do catch sight of him, I can tell he’s working as hard as he can not to look at me. I’ve caught him several times sizing me up, trying to figure out how I ended up inserting myself into whatever situation they’re in, whether he can take me, physically or metaphorically I can’t tell. He’s been watching me at work, only for the few small moments we’re both on the same part of the mountain.
And then she comes over.
I feel stiff as a board. She says hi to the table, making eye contact with each person in turn. My heart feels in my throat as I raise my glass and smile at her. I try to hide in my phone as she makes conversation.
“Don’t you have a boyfriend?” a girl at our table asks.
When I look up at her, I can see him by the bar, four eyes reaching for mine at the same time. From where he is, he can’t hear the conversation, but his look says all I need to know. It’s one of possession and jealousy, one I know I’ve worn plenty with far less reason. We’re aligned like this only for an instant, him quickly lost in the crowd, my gaze diving down to the safety of my beer, my phone, and the table.
The question seems to catch her slightly off guard, but she quickly masks it as she turns back to the girl. “Yes,” she answers. I can’t tell if her voice actually rises questioningly or if that’s just what I want to hear. “Yes, I do.”
I stop listening to the conversation, wondering what my role is. I can’t tell how aggressive or forward I should be. I can’t decide if my actions would close doors for her or make others feel uncomfortable. How much of that is my responsibility? After all, our first date, that testing ground, still hasn’t happened, and her other is watching me hawkishly.
“Well, I gotta go,” she says, her brief visit over. We wave goodbye as a table. I’m happy to be just another instructor at the table, if only for the instant.
“I’m sorry if that was too awkward for you,” she texts me later.
“It’s ok,” I reply, trying my damnedest to brush off just how awkward I felt. “I court awkward.”
“I don’t know, man. I mean I’ve never been in this position before,” I explain, the darkness pressing down on the bike path. “I’ve barely had a relationship with one girl, let alone had three girls that I’m interested in and that seem interested in me.”
The Southern Gentleman snickers at me. “Sounds like a tough spot to be in.”
“Yeah, well, I mean, if I had to choose right now, there’d be no question I’d choose her. But given the open relationship thing, I figure that it gives me leeway to play the field, right?”
“Don’t ask me. I’ve been with the same woman almost a decade. But it sounds like a good problem to have.”
I laugh nervously, elatedly. “I can’t be doing that badly if she’s having serious conversations with me and talking to him about me and we haven’t even been on a date. I mean, tomorrow, but not yet.”
“Yeah, man,” my friend says, “that guy is fucked.”
“Don’t say that,” I chide, suddenly somber. “I can’t look at it like that. I won’t.” I can’t tell if I’m telling him or myself.
“I’m just saying.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell her, the crisp cold morning air cutting through my jacket. “Something came up.”
“It’s ok,” she says, but her eyes tell me she’s confused and a bit worried.
I take a breath, the sentence I’ve been preparing all morning sticking in my throat. “I’m not sure I’m going to be emotionally available for a while.” I hope she can’t see the tears, the anger, the entirety of the situation welling up. “I still want to do dinner, but it may be a while.”
“Thanks for understanding.” I know she doesn’t, but it’s the best I can do as I try to force normalcy for another day.
“If you need to talk,” she texts me later.
I want to tell her everything, to grab her and kiss her, to hold her, to feel human warmth. I want to escape the world and I want to do it with her. But I can’t. I need to focus on myself, on what happened with my friend and roommate, and with my suddenly prescient move.
“Thanks, but I don’t feel comfortable getting you involved,” I reply.
It’s nearly two weeks before I start to feel normal again. I cry. I hate. I mourn.
I pretend it’s alright long before I feel it. I pursue her halfheartedly, unsure if I can take more ups and downs after the rollercoaster week that landed me in Nederland. I watch her at work, unable to keep my eyes off her. We chat on the lift; we have moments of strange emotional intimacy that seems so foreign, so new. We go ride other mountains, her graciously driving me as our Ned carpool slowly fades to just the two of us.
And then my grandfather dies.
In three hours that morning, I stare at my laptop, sobbing and letting the tears roll down my face. When it’s time, I suck it up and go to work.
I don’t mention it to anybody. I clutch his poles in my hands, the ones with the leather straps I paid to replace. I ski on his skis, teaching my lesson, carrying him with me, and it’s like being on air. And at the end of the day, I find her.
We ride the lift up, chatting, flirting. I’m not sure how it comes out, but as we exit the lift, I remark, “My grandfather died today.” She’s the first person I’ve told. It somehow makes it more real.
“Oh, Ben,” she says, a frown crossing her face. “I’m sorry. Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” I tell her. “I did my mourning this morning.” And in saying it, I know it’s true.
“Ok,” she says, a bit skeptical, sizing me up.
I flash back to a conversation we had on our way to another resort to ride. She keyed in on my astrological sign, pointing out Cancers are emotional. “Do I seem emotional to you?” I had asked.
“No, you don’t.” Her confirmation made me realize that while I sometimes feel emotions strongly, I keep them under control.
As we ride, it’s like I’m lost in the moment. It feels as if it’s just the two of us. And in the moment, that’s all I want.
Open and Honest – Part III