-ality

Invisible

by

     Prince Dimitri Mannerstein lowered his menu and watched his arch-rival and dearest love study the wine list at Luigi's Trattoria. "You think this place is clean?" he said when Edward Fitzwilliam, sensing his surveillance, looked up.
     Edward nodded towards the door. "The card in the window reports an 'A' rating by the Kentucky Board of Health. I wouldn't worry." The man the other competitors in the Rolex Three Day Event in Lexington knew as "The Pilot" never exhibited fear or worry. Rightly so. He'd won blue ribbons on five continents —with Dimitri coming in second—for thirteen years.
      "I don't trust American institutions," Dimitri said. "What has the U.S. ever done for Austria?" He spied what looked like bread crumbs on the red-checked tablecloth and dusted it with his hand.
      "Then go hungry, Dimitri," Edward said, tossing the wine list on the table. "You weren't even born when Waldheim was Secretary General. Get over it."
      "He was a good man," Dimitri muttered. The two men exchanged a glare and turned their attention to the short swarthy waiter standing, pencil and order book in hand, by their booth. "Bring me a hamburger," Dimitri said.
     "You wanna that on wheat bread or white bread?" the waiter said.
      "White"
     "And your meat–rare, medium rare, well, well done, or burnt?"
     "Medium rare."
     " Mayonnaise, mustard, catsup?"
     "All three."
     "Onion, tomato, lettuce..."
     "Oh, for God's sake just load it up and bring me the damn sandwich," Dimitri said.
     "We just wanna give you what you want—to make our customers happy," the waiter said, his eyes focused on Edward, who was grinning at the Prince's frustration.
     "Lower your voice and let the man do his job, Dimitri," Edward said.
     "Bring us a pitcher of beer and two glasses, too – please," Dimitri said sharply.
     "Okay-dokay. But no burgers and beer. I bring you spaghetti and wine. This is an Italian ristorante, not Mac Donald's. You wann'a beer, you go to the bar down the street."
     Dimitri stood up, a full head and shoulders taller than the waiter, and sailed past him. "I'm getting the manager," he said over his shoulder. Dimitri was not one to waste time on underlings.
     Now alone with Fitzwilliam, the waiter leaned against the booth partition and smiled. "That's your boyfriend, Skinny Boy? He's no good, that one. You need a man who will make you fat and happy."
      Edward crossed his arms across his chest and leaned against the red vinyl seat. "No, he's not my boyfriend. And you're a piece of work." The waiter's apron strings barely fit around his stomach, and the white T-shirt he sported was straining at the arms, and barely stretching around his flabby-breasted chest.
     The waiter winked at him. "I like your skirt."
      "It's a kilt, Sir. My Father was a Norman, but on my mother's side, I am of the Clan Thompson — a force to be reckoned with, I assure you."
     "It's a nice skirt. A man could reach up under it and get a handful —or two? What does that guy know? What'ya doin' here?"
      "You ask too many questions. But, we're here for the Rolex and believe me, staying thin helps my performance."
     The man's eyes widened with admiration. "You here for the horsy shit? Me too. My cousin call me. Philippe, come here and help, he says." He gave a wave into the air and slipped his pencil between his ear and his thick, shaggy black hair. "I come," he said proudly. "Where your boyfriend take you after dinner?"
      Edward wagged his finger. "Ah-ah, Prince Dimitri's not my boyfriend and it's none of your business where we go."
     The waiter came to attention. "Prince? I hear you— that' l'affetto di amanti, no? He a real prince?"
      Edward nodded yes. "All the way from Vienna."
     "Then he has enough money to buy you a steak." Philippe grinned, then sobered as he leaned towards Edward. "Mulrooney's Bar —just down the street. I meet you there at eleven and we have a dance. Maybe I take you back to my room and I kiss you between your legs," he whispered. "I make you forget prince what's-his-name."
     "Are you insane? How dare you speak to me that way," Edward hissed, but before he could recover his composure, Dimitri was back, his jaw muscles tight across his clenched teeth. He slid into the booth. Philippe bowed respectfully and Dimitri let out an exasperated sigh.
      "Fuckin' ignoramuses. Every last one of them. The menu says hamburgers and beer."
      If he told Dimitri about Philippe's lewd suggestion now, there would be blood. "I take it the manager isn't here?" Edward said instead.
     "No, and this bozo of a cousin of his is in charge."
     "I take your order now," Philippe said, readying his pad and pencil.
      "Due hamburger ed una brocca di birra, cousin Philippe," Dimitri said.
      Philippe glowered, but scribbled on his pad, and nodded. "Okay-dokay."
     When he was gone, Dimitri chuckled and said to Edward, "I talked to someone pretending to be the manager —he said our waiter just got off the boat from Sicily and his Englaise not'a so good."
     "It doesn't seem to slow him down any," Edward said.
     "Was he talking to you? What did he say?" Dimitri demanded.
      "He likes my skirt."
     "Bah, the man wouldn't know a kilt from a kazoo. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Ignorant."
     "I don't know if he's daft or just stupid, but he's —different. Aren't you the one who says Americans are cookie-cutter people?" Edward said. They could hear O, Sole Mio being belted out from the kitchen, and they laughed as quietly as they could.
     "Philippe's not an American and he's not a singer either," Dimitri said.
      Philippe returned to their booth with a large tray heaped with plates of spaghetti drowning-in-meat-sauce, breadsticks, wine glasses and a bottle of Chianti. Silently, but with much ado, he unloaded the tray, shook out two folded napkins and handed one to each man.      "There, everything okay-dokay," he said. He tucked the tray under his arm, making Dimitri cringe at the thought of the man's armpit near human food. "Taste that. You like?"
     Dimitri resigned himself to having pasta instead of a sandwich. "You can go now," he said to the lingering waiter who was now leaning against Edwards' booth partition and watching them eat.
     "Could I get a salad?" Edward said, thinking it would drive the man away from them. Dimitri's capitulation had taken the sport out of the sparring, and he wanted to eat without interruption; the comedy was over. But within seconds, Philippe was back with bowls of greens and tomatoes, and cruets of yellow dressing perched on his tray.
      "One for you and one for your friend." Philippe unloaded the bowls, set the empty tray on the booth table in back of Edward, and nudged the Scotsman to move over.
     "Hey now, what are you doing?" Edward said.
     "I take a break. I join you."
     "Bloody hell you will," Edward spat at him. He caught Dimitri smiling a 'that's what you get for encouraging him' smile, and twirling another forkful of stringy pasta. Philippe pushed himself against Edward hard and Edward moved away from him. "Have you lost your mind, Sir?"
     "I like you. You a cute, skinny guy and you talk funny, but we have a drink, okay-dokay?" Philippe snatched a wine glass off the table in front of their booth and turned it right-side up.
     "Good God no, I'm a Sandhurst man."
     "I no care. I'm not Catholic anymore."
      "I think we could do with another bottle of wine," Dimitri said. Philippe gave him a suspicious glance, but headed to the kitchen. Dimitri snapped into action, hauled out three twenties, threw them on the table, and grabbed Edward's arm, dragged him out of the booth, and shoved him towards the front door. "Go!"
     The Hilton Hotel dining room was empty when they finally got back. "Why is it people never learn the street names in the cities they live in? If I knew where Rupp Arena was, I wouldn't need directions," Dimitri had complained the third time they stopped a passer-by and asked how to get to the hotel.
     "At least you can get a decent martini now," Edward said. They'd stopped at three bars along the way too, and Dimitri had insisted they leave each one, wining about the gin being too warm and the olives too ripe. "We'd have been here sooner if you hadn't forgotten the cell phone."
     A young woman in a tight black skirt and heels led them to a table and offered them menus. Dimitri said, "Never mind just bring us a hamburgers with everything and cold beer. And a dry martini to steady my nerves." She picked up the menu with a,' right away sir'.
     "We had a good hike," Dimitri said, trying to sound upbeat. Edward was watching the Mexican busboys noisily clearing tables. One of them glanced in their direction and told the others to quiet down, drawing their attention to the customers in the Ermenegildo Zegna jackets. The boys suddenly got very busy, ignorable.
     "I've traveled around the world a hundred times and never met a man as crazy as Philippe," Edward said.
     Dimitri took a sip of the fresh martini the waitress sat in front of him, and nodded approvingly. "Well," he said, popping the skewered olive into his mouth. "There was that fellow in Calais. He was short and dark like Philippe too."
     "Oh yeah, the taxi driver. But he didn't have a moustache. He didn't try to cheat us either, as I recall."
     "Only because he knew we knew the street names," Dimitri said. "That's my point. We didn't live in Calais but we damn sure knew the names of the streets. But that guy in Athens had a moustache. Not a bushy one like Philippe. It was manicured. The Egyptian in Cairo had a beard."
     "Yes, well none of them can hold a candle to Philippe when it comes to boldness."
     "He did say something to you."
     The thought that Dimitri might be able to find his way back to the ristorante made Edward think better of coming clean. "His eyes said it all."
     The open-faced burgers heaped with condiments and slices of vegetables set before them distracted Dimitri, but as soon as he'd finished the quarter pounder, he got lost in a carb-induced reverie that carried him back to Luigi's. "Don't you think it odd that short dark men always come after you? I see a pattern here."
     Edward was on his fourth glass of beer and too mellow to play defense, but with Phillipe's sexual advance having taken up residence in his memory, it was a question worth considering. "So maybe that type of man is attracted to me. So what?" Dimitri was making roads in the catsup with a limp fry. The calm before the storm. "We all have a type— skinny Scotsmen are attracted to you, Dimitri. Come to think of it, most men are attracted to you."
     Dimitri finally bit into the fry. "It might be the same guy. A stalker, you know? A horse groupie. How else do you explain a passionate midget popping up in every city on the equestrian circuit?"
     "You mean like that Peter Sellers' movie where he wears all those funny disguises outside the jail. The Return of the Pink Panther, I think it was," Edward said. "No, it's impossible."
     "It's possible it was the Return of the Pink Panther," Dimitri said. He leaned back in his chair and covered a belch with his hand.
     "No, I mean it's impossible that all these men could be the same man chasing a horse rider about the world."
     "Gives a new dimension to the term globetrotter," Dimitri said.
     "Imagine someone having nothing better to do than traipse around jumping rings and stables. He must have plenty of money to do that."
     Their eyes met. "We don't have lots of money and we traipse around jumping rings and stables lugging around a thousand pounds of living, eating animal meat," Dimitri said.
     "I was about to say he should better spend his money ridding the world of hunger and disease, but it seems like I'd be calling the kettle black at this point," Edward said.
     "Alright. Let's just say your stalker shows a remarkable dedication to a time-honored sport— and thank God for people like him," Dimitri concluded, and pulled back the cuff of his silk shirt to look at his Rolex. "There's time to make the Dressage Competition, Edward, you want to go?"
     "I'll pass." Dimitri was in one of his moods and he didn't feel up to a fight.
"Then I'll get a cab." Dimitri opened his wallet again and handed Edward a wad of bills. "This ought to take care of the tab. Goog-bye, Love." He kissed Edward on the cheek. "You are irresistible."
     Edward's eyes followed Dimitri's tight round ass out of the dining room. After all these years the Prince still liked to see the riders compete. But for him, the thrill had ebbed. At thirty five he was nothing more than a high-class rodeo wrangler, a vagabond performer like his mother's troubadour ancestors, a well-paid animal act for rich people who like competing with titled persons. Americans especially liked their programs littered with princes, counts, and lords from across the pond, even if their rich titles added up to middle class incomes. They liked their royalty tall, handsome, lean, and charming too, so he'd kept himself denied and toned. He still wore the same size jodhpurs he wore at twenty-two —to keep down his costs of doing business. Meeting Dimitri had kept him riding long after he'd won enough cheap blue satin to reupholster a recliner. How many more would he have to win before they could retire to his cottage in Hamshire?
     "Would you care for some coffee, Sir? We're about ready to close, but there's still coffee."
     The waitress was back. Edward read her name-tag and told Jennifer no-thanks, he was heading upstairs. The busboys were through clearing the tables and beginning to set up for breakfast, folding napkins into flower petals and arranging them on the plates. Cloth origami, Edward mused. At the elevator, he grabbed a complimentary Herald-Leader, read the headlines, and thumbed through to the sports section looking for his name among the Rolex winners. He'd been interviewed too, and there was the picture — the man who jumped horses in a skirt — of him at practice.
     Half-way to the fifth floor, he noticed a familiar scent was hanging in the air: garlic. He looked up and then down into the face of his elevator companion. Philippe! The man, sans five o'clock shadow and wearing a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt and cotton slacks, winked at him. "You forgot your desert."
     The mountain had found Mohammed. "How the hell...."
      "Your boy friend tell Francisco the Hilton would never allow us in the door so we'd better sell a lot of pizzas." Philippe poked his forefinger into Edwards ribs. "I couldn't let you go to bed hungry, Skinny Boy." He held a Styrofoam box on his arm.
     Was he a stalker or just tenacious? It was the moment of truth. "We ate already. The man I was with is my boyfriend, Philippe. We've been together for years." The door opened and Edward stepped into the hallway with Philippe at his heels.
     "You no fool me. I know you a good boyfriend." Philippe opened the box and showed Edward a chocolate brownie cake covered in fudge syrup imbued with bright red cherries. "Enough for two. Add some warm brandy and a few kisses..."
     Edward noticed another scent — soft musky aftershave —that filled his nostrils. "Thank-you. But I don't eat chocolate." He refused to move. Philippe was obviously not above following him to his room. He wasn't afraid of the crazy Italian, but wasn't taking any chances either.
     Philippe closed the box. He sat it on the table, underneath a gilt-edged mirror, next to a opulent silk flower arrangement of blue and purple hydrangeas. Philippe moved closer to him, and wrapped two full strong arms around his waist. Edward felt flesh give way as his face pressed against Philippe's pillowy chest, warm and comforting. A warm hand was sliding up the
back of his thigh, working its way around his left hip. "If that'a guy was really your boyfriend, he would be here with you, feeding you chocolate and kisses every night."
     Reluctantly but resolutely, Edward pushed him away. Short, dark men may have flirted with him from Austria to Argentina, but he never flirted back. And never wanted to. Until tonight. He'd contemplated going to Mulrooney's with his ardent admirer, knowing Dimitri would make the trip to the Horse Park, but he was tired. The excursion into downtown Lexington had been excruciatingly taxing even if it was entertaining. His feet hurt. "No. Leave or I'll call security. The hotel has cameras, you know." Edward said. Then, as if to defend Dimitri, "He's at the Horse Park—he'll be back soon."
      Philippe came close to him again. "Maybe you get lucky and he run off with the ticket-taker," he said calmly. "Okay-dokay, I leave you alone. I go, but I don't forget you, Skinny Boy." The elevator closed behind him.
     Edward stared at the closed brass doors. He didn't feel irresistible. He felt like a tired, sad Skinny Boy. Maybe it was the metallic distortion. He pulled his shoulders up and back and took a deep breath, and held his head at its photo-perfect angle. How long had it been since he'd had chocolate and brandy? Not since he and Dimitri were in Zurich. Not since the night they saw the ice sculptures. Not since the first time they made love. And he had told a stranger Dimitri wasn't his boyfriend before admitting he was.
      He took the Styrofoam box with him to his room. He'd soak in a hot bath and get room service to bring up a bottle of brandy. Thanks to Philippe, Dimitri would get an unexpected welcome. If he made it home by dawn.
     Filippe returned to the ristorante and picked up his car and his identity. Frank de Silva returned to the Motel 6 on Richmond Road shedding his wig on the way. His mother would have been proud. He'd been an Egyptian, a Greek, a Pakistani, a Frenchman, and now an Italian, and each time Edward hadn't recognized him thanks to those summer nights he'd spent at the Moolan Rooge strip club in Camden New Jersey, watching the performers putting on their make-up and costumes, and transforming themselves into Bambis and Renatas.
     "The foundation of entertainment is deception," his mother said in a lucid moment before the vodka took hold of her wits and she barraged his father with accusations of infidelity. "It isn't enough to pretend you're someone else, you have to become invisible and be that other person." What better way to learn the truth of what she said than to see a pro in action?
     He'd watched Zorba the Greek a hundred times, and had his friend Nikos teach him how to knit his eyebrows to make himself look angry for his role as a customs official in Athens. In Mexico City, he'd made contact with Edward as a taco vendor, a piccador, and a friar. That's when the unthinkable happened: Dimitri caught him putting on a disguise.
     "Not to worry. You can be useful, Frank. I need someone to play the part of persuer so I can play the part of jealous lover. You get my drift?"
     "Yes, and his name is Ghent Romanov."
     "My, you are observant."
     From then on, Dimitri would whisper into his cell phone, "We'll go to Roberto's, or the bullfights, or the cathedral," and Frank would make sure Dimitri could get away, appearing in another incarnation to distract The Pilot while The Prince fussed and fumed, creating a reason to disappear for a few hours. Of course he knew the game. His mother played it with his father. Only a fool mistakes jealousy for love, but liars seek out fools so they can hide their deceit behind self-righteousness.
     "Someday, he's going to catch on, " he once told Dimitri.
     The Prince had held his head higher and looked down his nose at him, and said, "Never happen, Frank, I can hide you in plain sight and never fear. You're not Edward's type. To him, you're invisible."
     So sure that Edward would never stray with someone as unacceptable as he, Dimitri failed to notice the cracks in Edward's wall of resistance, cracks that resulted from the steady, subconscious erosion of his trust. Tonight had proved Frank was right about that. Edward had let him get close enough to touch him, to whisper in his ear, and feel the smoothness of his flesh beneath his skirt.
     Dressage is the French word for training by which the horse is, according to the Federation Equestre Internationale, developed into a calm, supple, and flexible "happy athlete." Horse and rider are a team demonstrating their understanding of each other through a series of ever more complex gaits and movements, culminating in the final performance of compulsory figures and movements executed to music.
     The concentration needed to compete in dressage is the same as for fighter pilots, only machines are more reliable and predictable than animals. Sometimes there's no explaining why horses or riders shy away from the familiar or charge the unknown, but they do. Frank de Silva saw many otherwise talented teams lose because they lost concentration, took too many risks, or failed to pay attention to changes that signaled it was time to get out of the round. Or not compete in the game at all.
     Frank had spent his childhood around stables too. While mama stripped, papa worked at Pimlico. Frank spent his summer days exercising two-year olds. At twelve, he knew he was too big to be a jockey and too short to be a female impersonator, and he didn't have the looks for the blue-bloods' clubs. Jobs went to the lithe and light-skinned boys who had grown up giving orders to grooms and tailors, the ones who had the connections and the incomes that let them spend ten hours a day learning how to hunt, jump, and dance with their mounts.
     An orphan at twenty, Frank'd moved to Lexington to work the Keenland track where a young Saudi, Sheik Abdulla Trafiq Aziz, noticed Frank had a way with horses.
     "This is my newest love," Aziz said as he led Frank to a freshly straw-strewn stall. Munching on a green apple was Desert Flight — a two-million dollar sand-colored stallion with a braided mane, a tail of silk thread, and legs that looked like they could leap over mountains and run forever. Stroking his withers was a tall auburn-haired rider who wore a red and black tartan, black knee socks that peeked over calf-high riding boots, and a gentle cotton shirt that exposed sinewy arms. "This is Edward Fitzwilliam —the only man allowed to ride him besides you. You got that? My horses and their riders are married, you might say." Edward had smiled at Aziz, and nodded in agreement.
     Following behind the men as they chatted, Aziz in a flowing white cassock and Fitzwilliam in his plaid kilt, Frank led the horse to the track. Aziz wanted to see the latest additions to his stable in action. As soon as Fitzwilliam swung into the saddle, the two moved as one, breaking into a trot, then an easy canter, and finally a full-speed gallop. Frank's eyes riveted on the young rider who proved stronger than he looked. As the team passed the two onlookers at the rail, the wind pressed Edward's blouse close to his chest and lifted his pleated skirt above his thighs revealing long strong muscles that hugged the saddle — and Frank felt a jolt in his groin that buckled his knees. Images of those legs holding him as tightly as they held the soft leather close to the thundering animal strobed through his brain.
     "Magnificent!" Aziz said as the team turned into the inner field and slowed to take the jumps. They flew over the course, Fitzwilliam urging the beast onward like a cavalryman unafraid of cannon or lance. "He's a natural," Aziz said, and Frank felt himself tremble with desire. Fitzwilliam was beautiful as only thoroughbreds can be. God blessed. Heaven sent. Angels among men who remind the rest of us how imperfect we are.
     Often, over the course of the years, Fitzwilliam walked by him. Sometimes he would give him an order — cool him down — or ask a question — have you saddled Desert Flight? — and Frank would say, "Yes sir and Yes sir." Always yes. Always ready to hold the reins or caress the boots as he hoisted the rider into the saddle. Always tempted to let his hands travel into that forbidden space. Yet he never dared. He was the joke — the circus flunky who complained about sweeping up elephant shit, but couldn't bear to give up show business.
     By the time he returned to Lexington, Frank knew hundreds of people like himself around the world, all of them more than willing to let him play out his roles, to play the fool for the rich as they did. And he got better and better with each performance. At first it seemed to him that he was as bad as The Prince. Deceit in the name of love was still deceit. But eventually he told himself, better me than someone who doesn't really love him.
     While Edward was riding in the ring qualifying, Ghent had demand Demitri make a choice. "I'm going home for the Olympic tryouts," he said, and Dimitri barred his exit from the stall where Frank had just tied The Prince's bay gelding.
     "I won't let you go," Dimitri said, and held Ghent tightly about the shoulders. "We belong together."
     "The same thing you said to Edward, I'll wager," Ghent said, and pushed Dimitri so hard he fell into the hay. The horse stirred, but Frank steadied him as Dimitri leapt to his feet.
     "It's not just Edward, what about the Sheik Aziz? I have a contract."
     "A contract my family will buy if you agree to ride for them. Come by the administrative office after the show tonight. I'll make the arrangements this afternoon."
     "Done," was all Dimitri said, and Frank knew his chance had come. The Prince would be on a morning flight to Brussels.
     Hiding in the hotel hallway was Manuel, the Mexican waiter who would bring The Pilot his breakfast and console him with chocolate and brandy when he woke up alone.