The Problem with Greatness: Part One: Antionette
It has been a bit since I posted a short story. While I'm doing blog posts twice a week, as well as doing re-writes for my first novel, and- you know- living life with all it's unexpected surprises and demands, I haven't given a lot of energy to composing shorts. However, today that changes. Today is part one of a three part short story.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing The Problem with Greatness. I enjoy exploring the complexities of relational dynamics- between men and women, friends, siblings, etc. This short is a love story, yes, but with a few twists and turns. And, as it has a Formula One driver for its male protagonist, those twists and turns seem appropriate. Especially when they occur to the backdrop coastal California. Come on, y'all, it's summer. And there's nothing like reading about the beach on the beach.
Today we meet Antionette, a physical therapist, who is F1 racer Lief Reinhardt's best friend in the world. She's also madly in love with him. Has been for years. But she can't tell him. She doesn't want to ruin their friendship. And romance always kills friendships, doesn't it?
Dear readers, I present:
The Problem with Greatness:
The problem with greatness was having to sit next to it in its expensive sports car, especially when greatness was sulking, which was the only description for Leif Reinhardt’s current attitude.
Cased in driving gloves, Leif’s hands gripped the steering wheel, his long fingers curling around the supple leather tightly. He stared out the windshield, his gaze riveted to the wending lane of the coastal highway. But Antionette knew better. Leif was not worried about the road; maneuvering a car on any road came as naturally to him as breathing. Leif was fully preoccupied with something else, something which had been preoccupying him exclusively for months now. And his brooding silence had seriously shaken her; after all, she thought their friendship had been one of confidences. It had been for the last ten years. But in the last several months, she’d felt his distance. The easiness that existed between them had all but evaporated. The only balm to that heartache was knowing it was not only she that suffered. Leif had successfully alienated everyone close to him with his taciturnity.
Antoinette didn’t blame him; not completely, anyway. After all, they were on their way to his celebrity studded, media encrusted retirement celebration. At thirty-nine, he’d accomplished everything he had dreamed of since he’d first seated himself in a go-kart at the tender age of six. No one held the number of World Championships as he- five- and he’d topped every record he could in Formula One: pole positions- 91; podiums- 157; the fastest laps consecutively on every track for two seasons straight. Leif Reinhardt was a legend, the racing king of kings.
Antoinette glanced at him, the light from oncoming traffic tracing its way down his profile, his aquiline nose, his truculent lips. The sudden shift of his fierce eyes from the road to her startled her. It was the briefest of glances, but it jolted her; she looked down, picking at a black bead in the lap of her evening gown.
She felt his eyes leave her and knew he’d returned his attention to the road again. Silence reigned. Another foreboding manifestation of Leif’s distance. Always there was music. Always. And while Antionette could admit to herself that she was happy for the reprieve from the Rock’n’Roll of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the fact that nothing played through the stereo speakers was too unsettling to ignore.
No, Antionette didn’t blame him for sulking. In fact, she felt like sulking a bit, too. Her sister had remarked on how withdrawn she had become over the last few weeks, and she laid the blame of Antionette’s mood squarely at Leif’s feet. Where Colette was concerned, Leif could do no right.
Antoinette had tried to tell her of his finer qualities. Colette never listened; she always went off half-cocked and ended up berating Antoinette about loving a man who was oblivious to it. That hurt. Antoinette wanted to confide in her sister; she did with nearly everything else, even though they had very different ideas about life in general. But she couldn’t express the depth of pain she felt every time she remembered that Leif had cut her off. Sure, he still asked her to come to functions with him; he always did between his women. She was the fill-in, the reserve arm candy, the safety net because Leif never liked to go anywhere alone. He’d even insisted on sending her a ticket to the last Grand Prix of the season; she hadn’t traveled with the team since she’d left as their physical therapist two years ago. But, he wasn’t talking to her, and after ten years of close friendship where they had shared nearly every thought with each other, that reticence felt like the pangs of death.
The fact that Antionette was in love with him did not help either, especially since Leif was starkly oblivious to that fact. Hadn’t she been firmly entrenched in the friend camp for a decade?
Her love had not been instant, but rather years in the making. If someone would have told her on that blazing day in Bahrain, when the desert climes had left her feeling parched and dusty, that she would be madly, and, at this point, hopelessly in love with the 5x World Champion of Formula One, she would have scoffed, and scoffed derisively. But years had passed from the girl she had been to the woman she was now, and she was no longer so naive.
Leif’s voice arrested her, unscrewing her attention from the passing scenery of the California coastline and fixing it to him, his jaw hard set, pressing his mouth into a line thinner than the latest modal to grace his arm and occupy his bed. Not that she really knew who that was, but she had enough of his history to make the assumption.
“What would you have me say, Leif?”
“That I’m not a fool. That this doesn’t mark the beginning of the end. That there are more adventures to be had. I don’t know. Just something.”
Antionette found herself smiling at the deprecating, almost puerile tone in Leif’s otherwise deep, masculine voice. She straightened the hem of her beaded evening gown, untangling it from around her legs; it felt like shackles holding her down, imprisoning her, but maybe that was just because she always felt uncomfortable in such expensive rags, as Collette called anything she wore when she accompanied Leif to one of his posh events. Collette lived in Spandex and denim- bikinis and tattered shorts; for a beach bum like her, haute couture was just a snobby word, one she’d thrown out of her vocabulary when she abandoned her collegiate studies to live her life on a board.
“Say something, please.”
Antionette couldn’t ignore the pleading note in his voice, a desperate decibel that melted her heart. When he hit the rumble strip at the side of the road, his nervousness vibrated through her. For a man who knew precisely where his vehicle was on the road at all times, such a swerve was telling.
“You are not a fool, and, of course, this is not the beginning of the end. It is the end of one career which can only usher in the beginning of a new one. Look at Horatio Tines. He retired at the top of his game and went into MotoGP. Two years later, he’s World Champion. He found his new adventure. You will discover your own mountain and conquer it.”
“Conquer it?” He flashed a crooked grin reminiscent of one she was certain his namesake- Leif Erikson- would have had when boarding his knarr to set sail for the uncharted seas that would lead him to America.
“You don’t know how to live any other way, Leif. You find out what you want and charge after it helter skelter until you get it. You’ll find your mountain and you’ll conquer it.”
“God, I love you, Toni,” he exclaimed on a breathy laugh.
If only that were true, Antionette thought, returning her gaze to the glittering moonlit coast. If only that were true.
* * * * *
Antionette watched him leave the dining hall. He had delivered his retirement speech without a hitch, even though she detected his nervous tells throughout. It had been 100% Leif- insightful, clever, witty, and completely sincere. And then he had disappeared.
After countless questions, all invasive and none about her, she extricated herself enough to make her way toward the beach exit where she’d seen him last. However, her exit was not to be. How was it that the man of honor could sneak out unmolested or detained, but she- a mere physical therapist- could barely make it ten feet without being cornered?
Antionette fielded friends and their questions. What were his plans now? Did he see himself continuing in the sport as a commentator or a chief? Would he settle down? Who was his latest woman now?
Antionette answered them as best she could, but, in truth, she did not know. Not about his career plans, not about his personal, most certainly not about his current or future relational plans. She didn’t want to know those- earmarking his newest paramours and bedfellows amounted to smashing salt into the gaping wound that was her heart.
Why did she have to fall in love with such a man? Really, how had it come to such a thing? Years of friendship- that’s what it was supposed to be- FRIENDSHIP. Then, after all the confiding, all the good times, all the laughter, and shared tears, suddenly none of the men she dated could hope to compare to Leif. Not the 5x World Champion. Not the uber-confident, ultra-sexy, extra-witty international man about town. Not the man who had made the world his oyster. No. Just Leif- her best friend.
“Have you seen Leif?” a leggy blonde asked, trying for casual, but coming off more intrigued. Antionette almost rolled her eyes.
“No. I was just about to go look for him.” With that parting reply, Antionette walked away. None of the ante-rooms contained him. Just music and dancing and talking. And, as she wended her way through the crowds, each room felt emptier than the last.
Finally, she walked outside. The air held a chill, not uncommon for February, even in southern California. Rubbing her hands over her bare arms, she scanned the elevated deck. Whether the night air or the free liquor inside, the deck was deserted. Questing further afield, she combed the beach, again finding no activity. Not a single person.
The lure of solitude was too much. Hefting her heavy hem, she descended the stairs, discarded her sandals at the bottom and walked to the edge of the water. Regardless of the cold, she stood there as breaker after breaker frothed at her feet.
A waning gibbous suspended over the sea, dazzling in silver rays of blue tinted light. For a moment, she stood transfixed, staring toward the blurred horizon where sky kissed earth, consummating in the hues of night.
What did she think Leif would do next? Whatever the hell he wanted, that’s what. She’d almost said as much, but her upbringing had gotten the best of her. Collette might be able to ignore the rules of civility and etiquette hammered into them as girls, but Antionette never would. So she’d been polite.
And she certainly did not know about his latest woman. Leif seemed to understand that she didn’t want to talk about his love life, although she was sure he remained reticent because he read her disinterest as disapproval. She didn’t care how he saw it. She was just happy he didn’t talk about it with her.
For a time the media had thought her to be one of his women. Leif’s tack was to remain silent as to the place she held in his life. After one particularly noisy and outrageous report of a midnight escapade of skinny dipping, complete with fuzzy, grainy pictures that were decidedly Leif and assuredly not her, he had broken his silence. She’s my best friend. That had made her heart spread its wings until he said, She’s like a sister to me. Like Icarus, her newfound wings melted, scalding her, serving as warning to remember her place. Everyone seemed to buy it. There had been enough women in and out of Leif’s life to augment the claim. So, she maintained that sibling status and hid her feelings.
A gust whipped spittle at her. She shivered, but remained facing the ocean, inky and undefinable from the sky. Clouds now covered the heavens and the world was dark around her. Only the artificial light behind her that poured out the picture windows and dripped through the decking to the sand below. She knew it was there, but she didn’t turn around to look. Instead, she luxuriated in the quiet for a while longer.
Collette barely spoke to her now- at least, not about men. She’d given up long ago trying to convince Antionette to go on dates. In her own defense, Antionette had tried dozens of times. It wasn’t her fault that every man came up lacking next to Leif. And why must you compare? Collette had demanded. Antionette had no answer to that question, only that comparisons came unbidden, without her even meaning to. How could the ordinary not pale when juxtaposed with such greatness? That was another problem with greatness; it dwarfed everything around it.
Was that why he had left the festivities in such a solemn state? Did he find all other company dim, boring next to the excitement of who he was?
With another strapping breeze, she shivered enough to hug herself. It was time to go back to the party. It’s din hummed in the background, drowned in the sound of sea and wind. And all she wanted to do was forget it all; sprint down the beach and leave it all behind. But, she couldn’t leave him. That was another problem with greatness; it made leaving impossible.
Sand shifted underfoot. Antionette spun around, startled. A pinpoint of orange light flamed in the shroud of shadows that draped down from the overhanging deck. Antionette squinted, only making out the silvered silhouette of the man. She knew who it was- she’d know his form anywhere. When the meager light captured in the signet ring on his pinky, she was certain.
“What’s wrong, Toni?”
“Something’s bothering you.” Another flaming ember and then the acrid scent of smoke. “What’s wrong?”
The chuckle wrenched from her before she could stop it, a thing alive unto itself, brittle and caustic cracking the night. Leif stood straighter, affront in his rigid stance.
“Why are you laughing? It’s a legit question.”
Antionette shook her head.
“You have no idea how legit.”
He cocked his head and Antionette knew from experience that his right eyebrow was arched and his keen green eyes particularly piercing. Even concealed fully in the dark, she knew him by heart.
“If I’ve no idea, then tell me.”
Her stomach clenched. The beats of her heart galloped in quick succession, overtaking each other in their rapid pace. When she labored to breath, the tightness in her chest ratcheting like a vice, she turned away from him.
“I’ll tell you later.
“Tell me now.”
From the corner of her eye, she watched his jaw work, irritation sharpening it on the whetstone of denial. Leif was not used to being told no. Antionette didn’t care. Let him be frustrated. Let him be irritated. Let him be thwarted. Hadn’t she been?
But then she saw moonlight glint softness around his eyes. Silver flinted compassion in their inky depths.
The flash of anger, the vengeance, the satisfaction in meting out a measure of hurt and retribution fizzled.
“Leif, why are you out here?”
For several long breaths, seconds spinning into minutes in a web of analysis and contemplation, Leif regarded her, the orange tip of his cigarette brightening then dimming as he drew on it. He dropped the end in the sand and snuffed it out with his toe. Then he lifted his head and she felt the sharpness of his scrutiny.
“I needed a smoke.”
“Do you think I was born yesterday?” Antionette asked smoothly. “Spill it, Herr Meister.”
A pearlescent sickle flashed across his features, his teeth bright in the darkness.
“Should have known I couldn’t get one past you.”
Damn straight, he couldn’t, she thought. She knew him by heart. Every gesture. Every glance. Even those infinitesimal things- the way his eyes always lightened when amusement found him, the way his lower lip quivered minimally when he was irritated, the way he always pitched forward on his right foot when he wanted to engage a woman’s attention, the way he always brought his hand to rest on her elbow. Yes, she knew him. And she knew he wrestled with something unwieldy, the burden of which was crushing him like his foot had his cigarette.
“It’s over,” he stated.
Cold seized her, freezing in her veins, atrophying her heart with each lugubrious beat it made. Her teeth chattered. She clamped her mouth shut, but it was too late. Leif had heard her.
“You should go inside.”
“I’m not leaving you out here like this. What do you mean everything’s over?”
Leif exhaled a laugh. It smelled like bourbon and smoke.
Antionette ignored the remark and put her hands on her hips, feeling gooseflesh pebble her skin. His smirk diminished and then he frowned.
“Toni- I just need peace. No one up there cares about me. I’m Leif Reinhardt, five time World Champion, successor to Horatio Tines, one of the three who hold the Triple Crown in Motorsports. They only care because of my name or my accomplishments. They don’t care about me. No one cared enough to come looking for me.”
Except me, she thought. I came looking for you. I will always come looking for you.
Tell him, she told herself. Just tell him. It’s only three words. I love you. Three small words that were the earth and the sun and the stars. Universes came into being when they were spoken. Whole worlds awoke at their utterance. Yet, they were so simple. And so impossible.
“What am I supposed to do now? My career is over. What am I without it? A failed husband and father. An inept boyfriend. I can’t commentate. It’s too boring. Nothing can give me a thrill like a drive. And I’ve topped every record. Even my own. Twice. What else is there?”
Her feet moved closer to him. Drawn like the tides to the moon, she flowed until she stood inches from him, the space between them inhabited by his soap, his spice, charred oak and smoky tobacco.
Onyx in the night, his eyes held something she had never noticed, a depth, guarded, shielded, concealing a secret she desperately wanted to know. With him, she hated any secrets. She’d given him his affairs- his love affairs, that is- because she couldn’t withstand the torture. But that was the only reticence between them. The only, that is, until he sprung his retirement on her. Then he’d cloaked himself, seeming to hide his intentions as though he couldn’t or wouldn’t open his future to her. As though he meant to enter it without her.
Until tonight, she’d never thought he had misgivings. Leif always knew what he wanted with unwavering certainty. But now, in the full force of his attention, the veil seemed to tear, if only a little, to reveal hesitancy, maybe even fear.
“There’s another adventure. You’re not done. And you’re not a failure.” That brought a smile to his lips. She noticed his breathing, the quiet intensity, the prescient pause when he held it for an extra moment as if in anticipation. What did he anticipate? His eyes still held hers. “You’re not over. You’ve just begun. There is so much you’ve yet to explore. Things you’ve never discovered. Things you don’t know.”
“Oh, Toni, all those people up there- they just want a piece of me.”
Stark distress seasoned the loneliness of his words, rendering them brittle, as though her reply held the power to break him.
“They don’t love me. They love what I’ve done and who I’ve been, but not me.” He stared over her head, fixing his eyes to the horizon. Then, in a broken whisper, he said, “I just want to be loved.”
Her lips were on his; she hadn’t registered moving, but she was smashed against him, their bodies fused.
Smoky sweetness, peaty and heady and intoxicating, tanged across her tongue. The memories of bourbon and cigarettes melded in him seductively.
Leif held back as though suspended in disbelief, moving through his reality at a slowed, unhurried pace, his brain processing bewilderment.
Then she grabbed the back of his neck, sliding her hands into his dark hair, forcing his mouth against hers. With voracious hunger, she drove the kiss, as though the world would end in the next few minutes and she could fill it with the most precious of things: him.
When he embraced her, returning her ardor, any fear that existed in her evaporated. Telling him was possible. Not only possible; right.
Their lips parted and she whispered, “I love you.”
Instantly his arms tightened. His lips stopped their gentle attrition at her ear.
She’d been wrong and reckless in it. Quickly, she fought out of his arms. His hand reached for her, fingers grazing her elbow.
“You’ll be missed,” she said, tripping backward in her retreat. She took up her hem and ran up the steps, ridges abrading her feet where they tread on the wood boards.
On the faint whisper of a breeze, she heard him call her name. Toni. But she would not stop. He had spoken volumes- in the rigidity of his posture, in the cessation of his lips, in the stark bewilderment and fear that darkened his gaze. No, she would not listen.
* * * * *
Well, dear readers, what do you think will happen next? Stay turned for Monday's post where the second installment will make its debut.