“Levi? Very nice name,“ the rabbi told him as he read the large white nametag affixed to Levi’s shirt. The rabbi had been the fifth he had met at the Braunstein Center’s mixer for new students. “Levi. . .”
Levi explained, “My mother thought she was pregnant with jeans, not genetics.”
The rabbi took a moment. “Funny,” he said. But as he did not laugh, Levi assumed it was the conversational equivalent to faking an orgasm. Like when Levi had earlier been at the buffet and eaten something that, to his eyes, looked like a miniature croissant with apple filling only to find it was the most repulsive, horse-radish filled pastry he had ever put near his tastebuds. He had nearly choked on it but then smiled politely and mumbled a pleased, “Mmmm”, even though it had been the worst culinary sex of his life.
“So Chagai tells me you’re an atheist. Can I ask then what brings you to—Oh. Drink?” The rabbi offered him one of the two glasses of wine he lifted from a passing server’s tray.
“Oh, no thank you, “ Levi said. “I don’t drink.”
“Really? Are you an alcoholic?”
Well, that was personal, Levi thought.
“No, not an alcoholic.” He was going to leave it there but, feeling accused and irrationally wanting to ensure he was not misperceived or, later, when the rabbis gathered to gossip about the newbies, misrepresented, he explained, “I’m on some medicine right now—”
“Oh,” the rabbi nodded, sipping from one glass and still holding the other. “AIDS?”
Apparently The Braunstein Way was to assume the most extreme reasons possible.
“No,” Levi said. “Not. . .because of AIDS. I’m. . . HIV negative.”
Why was he explaining himself to this alleged rabbi?
“Oh, good,“ said the rabbi. “So, tell me, why the medicine?”
“Um. . .well. . .that’s sort of private,” Levi said, hoping he was firm enough and reproachful enough without being offensive.
“Private?” The rabbi chuckled. “What is private these days? What—you have a little erectile disfunction? Some inabilities to—”
“My penis is fine,” Levi found himself saying for the first time in his life. Not because it had been an issue before but because he didn’t think penises were a great dinner party topic like, say, vacation plans or museum exhibits. In all his years, he had never turned to a companion at a party and said, “Have I ever told you about my penis? It does the most amazing thing. . .”
The dare came not from the rabbi but from behind Levi. Turning, he found himself face to face with the white teeth of the grinning good old boy he had spotted earlier. Apparently a long-time practitioner of the Braunstein Method, he was a well-known actor, trotted out tonight most likely to cement the newcomers’ commitment to show up for classes. After all, while some may have been here for spiritual enlightenment, this being Los Angeles, most were probably here to find themselves a Hollywood star to be their study partners. Because, what was closer to the heavens than a Hollywood star? And befriending Mister Pearly Whites was probably even better than passing through the Pearly Gates. . .
“Sorry,” the star said, laying an affectionate hand on Levi’s shoulder and rubbing it with his thumb. “But I heard you say your penis was fine and you just can’t pass up an eavesdrop like that, am I right or am I right?”
“Oh—“, Levi stammered. “Absolutely.” Jesus, Levi thought. This movie star is making a joke about my penis. And rubbing my shoulder. . .
He felt tingly. Like a halo had come to surround and tickle his skull.
The movie star, eternally chewing a wad of gum which apparently made him smile constantly, slid his hand down to Levi’s upper arm, holding it warmly. He extended a handshake. “Nice to meet another guy with a mighty fine penis. I’m–”
“Yes,” Levi said, shaking his hand limply. Starstruck. Which was odd because Levi was not one to get starstruck. He worked with celebrities who came into his store now and then. Some of his favorites had come in and he had dealt with them as if they were just anyone. Treated them with the same high levels of service and friendliness that had marked his career. But this star was different. He made intense eye contact. The smile was eye-catching—and endless. The immediate affection—even after the handshake, he still kept a hand on Levi—was goosebump inducing. And Levi hadn’t even thought much of him when the rabbinical team had introduced him earlier, when the mixer opened, as one of their favorite students and a faithful practitioner.
“And you are?”, the star asked him.
“Uh—Levi. Levi Hastings.”
“Levi! What happened? Your momma thought she was giving birth to denim pants?”
This, a chuckling Levi noticed, earned a belly-laugh from the rabbi. The feel of the movie star’s hands now holding both his upper arms was a balm to any offense he felt at the rabbi’s betrayal.
“I’m just kidding,” the movie star said.
“I love the name, ‘Levi’. You got two brothers named Simeon and Reuben?”
Levi failed to get the biblical reference.
“Daddy named Jacob?”
“He’s an atheist,” the rabbi intoned, obviously displeased.
Apparently the Braunstein Way was also to tell everyone anything you knew about anyone else. So much for New Student-Rabbi confidentiality, Levi noted.
“Atheist?” the movie star repeated, still smiling but his head turned, like a quizzical, adorable puppy. “So you don’t believe in nothing or you just aren’t sure what you believe?”
”I. . .” Levi began, uncomfortably. “I don’t believe in anything. I was raised Catholic but, no. The whole God in the sky created heaven and earth? It’s just not something I believe in.”
“But where do we go when we die, Levi?”
The actor actually lost his smile. But continued to chew his gum. And gripped Levi’s arm tighter. And looked so sad and dejected.
“We just. . .you know. . .”Levi told him, in a whisper as if to gently break the news to him, “die.”
The actor appraised him, then smiled. “I don’t think you’re an atheist.”
“No, really. No God. No heaven. No hell. No otherworldly spirit giving us morality. I don’t believe in it,” Levi said. “For me, I mean. Look, I love that people have religion. I think religion brings good things out of religious people. . .for the most part. Unfortunately, it sometime brings out things like racism and homophobia—”
“Those are some baaaaaaaaad things. . .” the actor agreed.
“Yes,” Levi told him. “Bad things. But I have no problem with people believing in something. Faith can be a beautiful thing. But I believe in me. You know? If I need something to happen, then I need to make it happen. Not pray. I’m not anti-religion. I just, for me, don’t believe in it.”
“Then why are you here?” the actor asked him.
Looking into the blue globes that had won a million hearts on movie screens for ages, and the high forehead tilted toward him in a motion of mutual trust, Levi said, “I’m bipolar—”
“Ah! The medication. All makes sense,” the rabbi muttered.
“—And,” Levi continued, “I was perhaps hoping that in the lessons—you know, the self-help lessons you all talk about. . .that maybe there’d be some way to. . .deal with it. Does that make sense?”
“Of course, Levi. Of course it makes sense.” The actor seemed to lock eyes with him, as if playing the part of a hypnotist.
“So, for me, it’s not about the religious aspects. I’m not here to argue or discount the religious aspects. But maybe something in what you teach can help me. That’s why I’m here.”
“And that,” said the actor, “Is why we’re here. To help you.”
His eyes at last left Levi and landed on the rabbi. “Am I right?”
“You are,” the rabbi said, and Levi noted an odd note of thanks in his tone.
“Well,” the actor said, clapping Levi on the arm, “It sure was nice to talk to you, Levi.”
“Nice to talk to you, too,” Levi said, shaking his hand.
With Levi and the rabbi watching, the movie star turned to leave but swiveled back, pointing at him.
“Levi—where do you work?”
“Oh—Uh” Levi stammered. “I’m not in the business. I’m—I’m a nobody,” Levi apologized.
“You’re a somebody. Where do you work?”
“Uh—a store. Hollywood and Highland.”
“Hollywood and Highland? What store?”
Oh God. This was always so embarrassing. But it was where he fell after that horrible incident in. . .he wouldn’t think about that. It was done. And he was where he needed to be for now. “The Fab-Friend Factory,” Levi told him. “I’m the manager.”
The actor seemed lost.
“The Fab-Friend Factory. You, uh, fabricate a friend at our factory, as the slogan goes. You know, you can make your own teddy bear or action figure or doll and—”
“And dress them up and name them and all that, am I right?”
“Well, that’s pretty fun. You just might see me around sometime. The Fab-Friend Factory at Hollywood and Highland?”
“I’m right,” the actor said with a grin. “Well, I’ll see you around, Levi Hastings.”
And with that, the star exited the scene and the rabbi, Levi noticed, seemed to be watching not the actor, but the actor’s effect on Levi. Levi, still feeling the odd glow of having had the actor’s hands on his shoulder and arms, pondered whether that star could be gay. He had a past littered with several romances with female costars–but Levi wasn’t naïve enough to believe the business of celebrity gossip-slash-publicity. Perhaps the actor was just friendly. But. . .perhaps the actor was in the closet.
Not that it mattered. Levi had just told him he was bipolar. Hardly something that tops a list of traits one looks for in a mate. “I’d like someone who’s bipolar. Unfaithful. Temperamental. Sometimes wears the same clothes three days in arrow because he’s too depressed to do the laundry. . .”
“I think I better be going,” Levi told the rabbi. “But I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
“Your first class is Discovering the Braunstein Way, correct?”
“Yes,” Levi said.
“We’ll see you then.”
As Levi stepped away, the rabbi stopped him with a hand on his arm. Unlike the movie star,m though, there was no zing.
“We accept everyone here at the Braunstein Center,” the rabbi said. “Don’t let the occasional homophobic religious zealot confuse you. We welcome everyone.”
He added in a whisper, “That’s why he first came to us.”