Topanga Seed (Chapter 1)

When he had first been told  he was bipolar, Levi pondered the diagnosis and asked hopefully, “Is it possible I’m just an asshole?”

He had been hoping for “Diagnosis:  Asshole.” The direction to take various, numerous pills was not one he welcomed.  He barely drank, only secretly smoked, and wasn’t a huge fan of the idea of anything foreign entering his body–aside from the occasional handsome, horny tourist.  To him, medication meant he had a problem. ..was a problem.  The pills didn’t cure anything, he knew.  They just temporarily tamed the issue.  And he was the issue, wasn’t he?  Yes, the doctor said he had a chemical imbalance and that was the issue but if that chemical imbalance was in his body, wasn’t it part of him and therefore, really, him?   

And what an awful term “chemical imbalance” was!  True, it was better than “Motherfucking lunatic” or “crazy piece of shit”—both of which were terms his ex had applied to him, per the gossip he heard along the gay grapevine—but it just sounded so trite.  As if he had too much this and not enough that.  And the worst part?  He’d always have too little this and too much that, even though the this and the that kept swapping places.  They swapped places because, as the doctor told him, he was someone with something called “rapid cycling”—his moods were always in flux, crossing and criss-crossing and apparently getting more exercise than he was, even with his gym membership to the 24 Hour Fitness on Sunset.   And so the bottles of pills, all lined up like little soldiers ready to go to war against him and his chemical imbalance, stood awaiting his downing of them as part of his new  morning regime.

***

 He cried after taking the pills that first morning. Cried because he felt like he was crippled and admitting it.  Cried because he had always avoided drugs and now had to take them, seemingly forever.  Cried, perhaps, because that’s what his mood was telling him to do, the manic frustration and anger of last night giving way to the familiar, predictable  depression which would become a suicidal darkness by day’s end.  He knew the patterns of his mental and emotional traffic well.  No pills would ever build an offramp into normalcy.  

After berating himself for his self-pity—a rare emotion for him; he usually had such a “buck up, you fuck up” mindset—he left his apartment, walked down the hall of the mid-rise apartment building to the elevator, took the elevator to the building’s underground garage, got in his car, drove to the underground garage of the building in which he worked, got out of his car, took the elevator up to the second level, and walked down the hall to his store.  Down, over, up.  And not a breath of fresh air anywhere along the route.  He wondered if one day he’d just die from lack of oxygen and recirculated central air.  “Levi Hastings.  Too Stupid to Open A Window”, he imagined his gravestone reading.

As he prepared the store to open—nothing interesting; making sure the register tills had cash, checking displays and lights, verifying the day’s schedule and budgets—he felt the pills in his stomach.  His stomach was not thrilled with the pills; it wanted a croissant or something from Starbucks, not these little hard, colored pills.  He decided he’d go to Starbucks once Judy arrived; he’d grab something or them both.  Lord knows, she barely got to eat.  Retail—at least, at their store—didn’t  pay well and she had that boy who she had to take care of, even though it obviously kept food out of her own mouth.  He earned an okay salary himself, as a manager with a background greater than that of his District Manager, but he had been stunned when he had seen her salary. It had made him angry, to think any company would pay someone so little and expect so much.  So part of his salary went to making sure she had breakfast and lunch on the days she worked the day shift with him.  He was an asshole, but he was thoughtful like that.

A knock on the door called him from the back of the store, past the displays, to a harmless-looking man who smiled to him through the glass.  “I’d fuck him,” Levi instantly decided.  It was something he had fallen into an awful habit of doing whenever he saw anyone new. Fuck or no? In manic phases—like the mood he was clinging to, desperate to avoid the rising tide of helplessness within—most men ended up in  the “Fuck” category.  Unless they were Republicans. . .and. . .even then. . .

“Hi there.  We open at ten,” Levi explained with retail pro cheerfulness after unlocking the door.  

The man’s plump face and beard bore a broad grin and a chuckle, “Oh, no.  No, no.  Are you Levi Hastings?” 

“Um, yes. Lee.  People just call me, ‘Lee’.”

“I’m Chagai.  From the Braunstein Center.”

Levi’s response was a surprised, “Oh.”  He had filled out a form last night, online, about classes at the Braunstein Center. He had done so almost as a joke, having heard rumors that Liza Minnelli was taking classes there—and he had always wanted Liza as a friend.  When he had admitted this to Barry, an LAPD officer he slept with occasionally and hoped he wouldn’t end up marrying one day on a manic whim–damn, equal rights!  So many new dangers!–he had been asked with perplexity, “Why would you want to be friends with Liza Minnelli?”

“Because unlike Madonna,” Levi had explained, “Liza is not a cunt.”

“I think it’s illegal to say, ‘cunt’ and ‘Liza Minnelli’ in the same sentence,” Barry told him dryly, flashing his badge at Levi, one of his few jokes.  It wasn’t funny, Levi thought, but it sort of was for a police officer.  And so Levi had patted Barry’s ebony hand with his own tanned one and kissed him for the attempt at humor.

As for Chagai and the Braunstein Center, Levi had filled out the form just as a lark.  He was an atheist.  He knew that the Braunstein Center was a cult–of sorts.  So he had no real interest inlearning about some weird, hybrid self help-meets-Kabbalah—meets Faux Buddhism–meets Beverly Hills nonsense.  But he did fancy himself as a sort of cultural anthropologist. . . of cults. He felt that, as someone with no spiritual beliefs, he was immune to the spirituality on offer and he was able to watch, like an observer, as the lost souls of Los Angeles—the Lost Angelenos, he called them–found some guidance in the latest rebranding and repackaging  of God.

“Is it true Liza Minnelli goes to the Braunstein Center?” he asked Chagai after they had been chatting at the door for a few moments, interrupting Chagai’s explaining that he had come by because he happened to be in the area and had seen Levi’s contact information that morning.  Levi, who had expected an informative e-mail in his inbox and not a person at his door, was non-plussed.  How neighborly for the man to just pop by in Hollywood–where no one was neighborly–as if he were returning sugar or a screwdriver or, perhaps, some long-lost spirituality.

“I can’t say I’ve ever seen Liza Minnelli,” Chagai said.  “We don’t know how that story got started, Lee.”  Seeing Levi’s disappointed face as his mind processed that he was seemingly so far away from nights spent around a piano in Liza’s  West Hollywood house, singing “”Ring Them Bells” and “Buckle Down Winsocki”, Chagai leaned in with the pose and tone of a conspirator. “But I teach a class where one of my pupils is an actor you may have heard of:  Harris Lee.”

Harris Lee!  He was no replacement for Liza Minnelli–Who was?– but as a replacement for Barry, he might work.  The innocent sharing of class notes and philosophy over after-class coffee could lead to dating, love, and maybe. ..maybe even marriage!  Why, by this time next year, Levi might be. . .Levi Lee. Or, as his friends called him, Lee. . . .Lee Lee.

Yes, a year from now he could be a Chinese tennis player.

“Say no more!,” Levi told him.  Feeling his moods slide like plates under the earth and needing a distraction from their shifting, he asked  “Are there any classes tonight?  I’d like to learn as much as possible, as soon as possible.”

If the moods were going to shift, even with the new weight of his medication atop them, it would be better to be somewhere than at home, feeling life drain from him.  And maybe.. .maybe in those lessons. . .maybe something apart from spirituality and some religious dogma that could never appeal to him. . .maybe there would be something there that could help him.

If nothing else, he decided as Chagai rattled off the courses available to him as an introduction to the Braunstein Method, he might have some funny stories to tell one day. Perhaps, a memoir to write.

Chagai misunderstood the grin on Levi’s face as Levi imagined himself at a book signing at Book Soup, smiling amongst the crowded bookshelves for photographers and gleefully signing copies for fans of his debut book, “I Was a Thirtysomething Cult Member”.

Fuck moods.  He had a cult to join.

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