The Problem with Greatness: Part Two: Leif
Today we continue with the second part of my three part short story: The Problem with Greatness. On Friday, you met Antionette in Part One (see post here). Today, you'll be seeing the progression from another perspective, Leif Reinhardt's.
Five time F1 World Champion and holder of the Triple Crown, Leif Reinhardt is used to going full throttle, racing through life, seeing the sights, yes, but at lightning speed. But now he's stuck. Stalled. What's he supposed to do? Toni loves him. To echo Benedick out of Much Ado About Nothing: Why?
It's as though he has taken that last turn at Canada's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve at too high a speed. Will he smash into the Wall of Champions and wallow in self-pity? Will that be the fate for one of the world's best drivers? Or will he take the 3.8G-force and downshift masterfully to pull off a win?
Climb up on your desk, dear readers, and do as Mr. Keating said, shout: O Captain, My Captain.
The Problem with Greatness:
Night shrouded the Ferrari as it sliced through the evening. If the sports car had possessed autopilot, it would know the way by rote. How many times had Leif driven this way? Innumerable. Yet, tonight held the anticipation and grandeur of the first time.
Toni’s words still echoed. I love you. In any other context, he would have known that. But in the wake of that kiss- all passion and potency- her whispered utterance possessed much more import.
After her revelation, he’d been too shell-shocked to move. And when he could move, she’d already disappeared above deck and into the party.
Finding her had been easy. Cheeks flushed. Lips swollen. Hair mussed. Antionette stood near their table in conversation with Eliana Swarovovitch, a Russian modal who had left him in no doubt as to whose bedroom he could celebrate his retirement in. If he so wished. But he did not wish. In fact, her sultry proposition had soured him so much, he’d left for a smoke. Another one who wanted the myth and not the man.
It’s what he deserved, after all. For years, he’d availed himself of such offers. He’d enjoyed himself. But it had also been years, if he was honest, since he’d truly enjoyed a relationship with a woman, romantically. Sex was sex, and he liked it as much as the next man, but it didn’t amount to anything fulfilling in the long run.
Smoking in the thick bank of shadows, he’d considered telling Toni. She was the only one who seemed to understand him. She was his friend, the one person who he could tell everything and anything to, the one person who was an anchor in an otherwise tempestuous world. But she was always stand-offish where his love life was concerned.
The thing was, his dissatisfaction wasn’t just with his love life. It was with his life. Period.
It’s why he’d retired. What was there to stay for? He’d broken every record; achieved every goal he’d set- even the ones he’d added later just to keep things interesting for himself. His career, which had once held such excitement had become drab, in the most boring sense of the word.
The last two seasons he hadn’t even tried too hard. With a half-assed effort, he’d still stayed on top. The sportscasters said Formula One needed a new rivalry, but even the thought of someone challenging him on track had lost its appeal. It had been time to leave.
But he’d talked about his reasons for retiring with no one. Not his dad. Not his sister. Not his brother. Not even Toni.
Yet, somehow, standing in smoky silence tonight, watching Antionette face the sea, moonlight gilding the familiar, and simultaneously, unfamiliar silhouette of her body, he’d found his answer.
Antionette. Toni. His Toni. Almost from the beginning, it had been her. He’d talked himself out of it because she maintained they were friends, as close as a brother and sister. Since he had both, he knew what he felt for Toni was nothing akin to the love he had for his siblings.
But he hadn’t pressed- couldn’t, really. He wanted her, yes, but not just physically. He wanted her in his life, and he would not jeopardize that for all the world. So, he had tried to forget, and had done so, or so he thought he had until tonight.
But after that kiss- scratch that- after that declaration, the calcified parts of himself had awakened. At first, slowly, first gear, then the shift to second By the time he was cruising in sixth, he found himself standing flabbergasted and alone as Toni’s footsteps disappeared into the night above him. It’s how she had slipped away from the party in a taxi rather than have him take her home as was their custom.
He may have been an iceman then, but he was all maverick now.
Leif guided his Ferrari to a halt in front of Antionette’s small bungalow. No lights shown. Why would they? It was after three o’clock. Antionette was never one to burn the midnight oil.
She hadn’t answered any of his calls or messages. Try as he might, it had been impossible to extricate himself from a party where he was the guest of honor. So, while he wanted nothing more than to run after her, he was forced to endure hours of well-wishing and questions, all the while hoping Toni would call him back. She hadn’t.
Seeing her as a lover- allowing himself that luxury- had never been an option. She had always scoffed at the notion. Laughed as though it were the most preposterous idea in the world.
But she hadn’t laughed tonight. Leif closed his eyes and settled back in the soft leather bucket seat. No, tonight she had not laughed. In his arms, she had moaned. Just recalling it made his blood race.
He switched off the engine. Even in dimness, the bungalow was welcoming. Squinting, he thought he could make out the faintest glimmer of light peeking through the Venetian blinds. He hurried up the stone path. The bungalow nestled beneath the spread of massive pine tree branches. Moonlight stitched shadows through the thousands of needles, embroidering night across the garden, over the covered porch, and the slate roof.
For a moment, he wondered if he should ring the bell. If he did, he would run the risk of her not answering, ignoring him. He fished out her spare key and let himself in.
The foyer was small and crowded. Quietly, he made his way to the back.
The living area was dark, the night seeping through the wall of windows. Candles flickered on the kitchen counter and the coffee table. And, there was she, facing her verdant garden, her caramel skin warming her reflection in the windowpanes. Beams of blue moonlight haloed her figure, still sheathed in the black beaded dress she had worn. His fingers itched to caress her waist, feel the sharp edges of those beads bite in his palms.
Leif allowed himself to study her, entertain her as he never had before. That wasn't entirely true. He’d just never allowed himself the hope of her. The hope that after so many abysmal failures, he could have a woman build a life with him. Want to build it. So he stood there in silence and watched her, letting himself see her in all the ways he had refused to for so many years. The sensuous line of her body, the subtle grace of her posture, the quiet allure of her soulful eyes. Those eyes- who saw all of him, knew all of him- and loved him.
“For how long?” His question fractured the stillness. Her pensive gaze disappeared. She swung around, her hand at her throat. Candlelight caught in the diamond bracelet she wore- the same bracelet he had given her for Christmas three years back. A trifle. A trinket. Hell, he’d given his paramour at the time an emerald necklace. She’d lasted two months in his life. He couldn’t remember anything else about her, just the price tag.
She relaxed noticeably when she saw him, but then her bare shoulders tensed and she withdrew again. He approached her, ignoring how she stepped back from him.
“How long?” Her tone was leery.
“How long have you loved me?”
She weighed his words, or perhaps, her response. Then, in a calm, quiet manner, so like herself, she said, “A little over two years.” She turned her back to him, her face reflected in the hard, cold panes of glass. She was an Amazon- all allure, all desirability, but removed and aloof. A small smile teased her lips; God, how he recalled those lips- full, lush, pliable beneath his. “Looking back, I know it was longer, but I only allowed cognizance the last two years.”
“And you said nothing?”
“How would you have reacted? Two years ago you were on the circuit, knocking up points for your fourth championship. If you weren’t focused on racing, it was women. One after the next- Lola, Chelsea, Emma, Joy, Amarantha, Zigi, Geeta, Ana, Lauren, Katie—”
“I get it,” he said, holding up his hand to stop her. It was a pretty damning thing that Toni remembered all their names when he didn’t. “I wasn’t ready to hear it.”
“Are you now?”
Did he detect a sardonic tone? Was she being ironic? That both rankled and amused him.
“Sarcasm has never become you, kæreste.”
“Don’t do that.” “What?”
“Don’t call me sweetheart.”
“Toni, I wish you wouldn’t get so upset.” He started to reach for her, but she recoiled.
“Don’t.” Her abrupt tone softened to the placable calm to which he was accustomed. “Don’t touch me, please.”
His jaw tightened. This was not going the way he had hoped. Honestly, he didn’t know how he had thought it would go down, but he was pretty certain it wasn’t with her across the room pleading with him not to touch her.
“Toni, I’m not going to hurt you.” He took a step forward. She flattened herself against the glass. He stopped. “What are you so afraid of?”
“I just can’t have you touch me. Not now.”
“Why?” Frustration frayed the edges of his tone.
“Because if you touch me, I won’t want you to stop. And I can’t risk losing you for a night of passion, not matter how much I want to be in your arms.”
Leif sat on the back of the sofa and sighed.
“So that’s what you’re afraid of, losing my friendship.”
“You must admit that you don’t have the best track record with women.” He saw her puckish smile and returned it. She relaxed, moving to the opposite side of the couch.
“Why would you assume you’re like any of those women?”
“I assume nothing.”
“Ah, kæreste, but you do.”
Leif almost smirked at her bristling, her shoulders set back, her chin jutting out, her quiet offense. It made him relax, oddly enough. Like old times, just Toni and him.
“I have assumed nothing,” she maintained, crossing her arms over her chest. His heightened awareness of her amplified the curve of her breast, the pulse that throbbed at the side of her long neck. He stared at her, taking his time to appreciate the voluptuousness of her- the topography of hills and valleys any adventurer would kill to explore. And he hadn’t been named after Scandinavia’s most famous Viking adventurer for nothing. He had a great deal of the beau sabreur in his blood, and he felt every bit of it flowing through his veins at that moment.
His eyes locked with hers- those brown eyes that held both irritation and fear locked in their depths.
“You assume that I will hurt you. You assume that you are the same as any other woman to me. You assume that I do not love you with the same passion you love me.” He smiled sadly, fully cognizant of how well founded those assumptions were. Until tonight. A man could sleep his whole life, float through existence untouched by the heart of another, but tonight he’d awakened; tonight he’d become grounded to one reality, one truth: her. “You assume, kæreste. You assume.”
She deflated further into the couch. When she sighed, he heard the tears, but he remained where he was no matter how much he wanted to do otherwise.
Her voice barely over a whisper, she said, “I just don’t…”
“I know,” he said just as softly. The moment deserved the reverence of quiet. “I don’t want to lose you either.”
Toni swiped at her cheeks. Then she relaxed, her whole body sighing into the cushions. When she rolled her head to the side, facing him, moonlight glimmering in her eyes and on the gloss of her lips. He licked his, remembering how ravenous they had been.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“We make no more assumptions. Tomorrow we can talk. Tonight we celebrate.”
“Celebrate?” There was that touch of cynicism again.
“That we love each other.”
He heard her breathing, heavy, scared in the dark.
“Yes,” his smile evident in his answer. “You love me. I love you.”
Another deep, staccato breath.
“Ah, kæreste, we said no more assumptions.”
She sat up and stared at him. No levity in her posture; no humor in her eyes. Only stark seriousness. Leif returned it, knowing she needed something from him and also knowing he would give her everything he could if it was within his power.
“I love you. I always have even though it took your sledgehammer revelation tonight to make me see it. It's not transient. It's real and it's sure and it's a goddamn fucking foundation, too. Why did I retire today? Do you know?”
Antionette shook her head.
“Because there's nothing more to accomplish. I've done it and if I stayed another year, I'd just set new records. I'm empty. And tonight, after the speech, I couldn't fake it anymore. I couldn't smile and joke and pretend that life was just a bowl of cherries. I stood there, under that pier, waiting for something. I didn't know what. Then you came out. You kicked your sandals off and stood in the water and I knew what I was looking for. Then you kissed me as if it was the end of the world. And in a way it was.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “The end of mine and the beginning of ours. You have years of cognizance. I have hours. But I know I love you.”
He stood and walked to her. She tensed.
“Ah, kæreste, you assume again.” He chuckled. “Don’t worry, I won’t touch you. I can make no promise about tomorrow.” He paused, smiling down at her quizzical expression. “That is not quite true. I can make a promise for tomorrow.”
“Can you?” Her puckish grin and the subtle rise of her eyebrow were almost his undoing.
“And what would that promise be?”
“Tomorrow I will touch you. All of you. And I will kiss you. A thousand kisses everyday. For the rest of my life.”
He stopped her with an upraised hand.
“Sleep well tonight, Toni, because you won’t be tomorrow.”
When her expression lightened with mirth and she laughed, he took her in more fully. No severity. No fear. Just amusement and something more twinkling in her brown eyes. She smiled a beguiling half-smile, half serious, half amused. He thanked God for that smile.
“It’s tomorrow already, Leif.”
His mind galloped to catch all the nuances of her voice, all the subtleties. Shock gaped his mouth open.
Toni sat up straighter, her face coming closer to his. Her lips inches away from his own, grinning with all the mystery of the Mona Lisa.
“Do you know what the problem with greatness is, Leif?”.
He shook his head, bewitched and bewildered. Then she drew her finger from the tip of his nose over the ridges of his lips to settle in the hollow of his throat.
“It makes assumptions.”
She grabbed the front of his shirt and dragged him down to her. Momentary shock sent his spine rigid. Then he whooped a laugh and combed his hands into her messy hair.
And when she kissed him seismic waves rocked the room, shaking the bedrock and foundation of all the false truths they had built between them, razing them. And girding him through the destruction was Toni.
* * * * *
So, what do you think? Did Leif do what you thought he would? Did he comport himself as is befitting a F1 driver?
Toni and Leif may have settled their differences- or so it seems- but there is one more person who hasn't voiced her opinion yet. Stay tuned for Friday's post for the final installment of The Problem with Greatness.