He was still half-asleep, the night’s drugs compounded by the morning’s, and secretly smoking a cigarette on his balcony in his “smoking” clothes—shorts and a tee he only wore to smoke–when Kyle called to ask, “You know how you mentioned that Damien Lanchester guy to me and how he’s coming by your store again this weekend? Remember? Well, I have news for you. He’s gay.”
Levi held the phone away so Kyle couldn’t hear his exhale of cigarette smoke into the Hollywood air, his eyes half-dazed, following the lines of telephone wires criss-crossing the small space between his balcony and the apartment building next door. “Gay people always think any actor in Hollywood is gay. It’s reverse stereotyping. . .or something.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is so. Name an actor and there’s always someone out there claiming, ‘I have a friend who’s slept with him’. It’s all so boring and predictable. Like—Harris Lee.”
“He might be gay.”
“See! Uh—Trevor Crawford.”
“Oh—I hope he is.”
“Totally gay. I have a friend who says his friend slept with him.”
Levi rolled his eyes. “Tom Cruise.”
“We don’t want him! The hets can have him. Anyway, fun game but really, your Damien Lanchester is gay. As in ‘out gay’.”
This didn’t compute at all in Levi’s gay mathematically challenged mind. “But he was married—”
“Cover marriage. He was gay then and he’s gay now. Why do you think they divorced?”
“Look—I don’t know. I don’t want to read tabloid stuff about him. I remember something about his wife being a druggie or something and all I care? He’s a nice guy and I don’t want to know all that paparazzi, gossip column bullshit. And it’s not like we’re friends. We just talked a few times—”
“And he’s coming by your store.”
“For his son. Not to see me. For his son. You might recall I work in a teddy bear store.”
Levi cupped his hand over the phone to take a drag on his cigarette.
“Levi—the man is out. You need to Google him; Alexa told me all sorts of shit about him. He gave an interview to The Advocate a few years ago, around the time of his divorce. He just wasn’t famous enough to get a lot of press so he didn’t get the usual People Magazine Coming Out Cover Story shit. But he was even on the Out 100 last year. He was only like number 98 or 99, but he was in the 100. You,” Kyle announced, “know a real, bona fide power gay!”
Levi digested this in shock.
Kyle asked, “Are you still a power bottom? You might make a great couple.”
Maybe he should have done some online research after all, but Googling him seemed invasive. Like snooping. Even if the information—gossip, old interviews, anonymous blog posts—was all out there for anyone to see, it seemed wrong to seek it out. He hadn’t typed in his name since that first day he had been trying to figure out why he recognized him and from where. To do so would have seemed a betrayal to a person who had been nice to him. And Levi wasn’t the type of person who snooped, anyway. He was he type who could be trusted to stay in people’s houses and never look in their medicine cabinet or dig through their goodie drawers. That wasn’t his style. Once he knew someone, he assumed anything they wanted him to know—(“I simply adore a good double-headed dildo”)—would be something they’d tell him themselves. Torn between regretting his stance on looking up anything on Damien and wondering if Damien might be interested in more than making his son happy–No! That was ridiculous!—he forgot about the phone and exhaled his cigarette smoke loudly.
“Oh my God! Are you smoking? Are you fucking smoking? As soon as they get me a seeing eye dog that knows what the hell it’s doing, I’m making it walk me up to Hollywood so I can kick your ass! Put out that cigarette, you son-of-a-bitch!”
His hands smelled like coconut, his breath like Listerine Total Care, and he rest of him like Irish Spring. Basically, aisles 4 and 6 of your local CVS. It was all a deception to conceal the scent of tobacco on his fingers and cigarettes on his breath. He didn’t want anyone knowing he still secretly—every now and then—smoked. Adults thought it smelled awful and children, he decided, should never associate smoking with anyone they loved or looked up to. And as much as some of his friends might have been looking down on Levi for taking a retail job in a children’s store after the disaster that had changed his life, the children who came into his store often became enamored with and in awe of him.
They would stand by, with wide eyes,, waiting their chance to have him stuff their teddy bears or pick out their dolls’ clothes or make their teddy bear come to life before their very eyes. He could make a teddy bear seem as if it were reaching out for a hug, like an infant, or a doll reach out to their new best friend. He was magical in that sense and though all the others on the salesfloor mimicked his talents, there was something sincere in Levi that children could read. They were safe with him. Safe to be children. Safe to be innocent. Safe to play with an adult without reproach.
Levi had wanted to be a father. It had been one of his natural callings; customers often asked if he had any children of his own or if he had been a teacher, so natural was he in communicating with children of all ages. But he had realized a few years ago, before the incident in Atlanta he refused to think about, that he would never be a father. Even in the states or cities in states where gay men could adopt—even before his psychiatrist had diagnosed him as being bipolar—he had known there was something wrong with him. Something that would have made him a bad parent. His moods—those sometimes wonderful, sometimes rollicking, but sometimes oh so awful moods—would have caused a child to live in an unstable world. And if he wanted to be a truly good parent, he thought, the best way was to not be a parent at all. He could not raise a healthy child if the child was at the mercy of his own illness. That was perhaps the worst part of his illness, for him, now that he had acclimated to the schedule of pill-taking (and, occasionally still, pill-puking): knowing that all that extra love he had to give would never be given.
And so, unable to ever have his own sons or daughters, he did the next best thing: He worked in a store where he was able to make other people’s sons and daughters have an hour or so of the type of childhood he wished he would have been able to give his own children, had he ever been well enough to have any.
Perhaps it was this which had attracted Damien Lanchester to him. Perhaps some of that heartbreak lingered in those bright green eyes when Levi played with Track on that first visit, and then the visit that followed because Track—almost immediately after leaving the store on that first visit—had pleaded to go back “to see Mister Lee”. Yes, being a well-respected actor in Hollywood—though not a household name, per se—and being out publicly, Damien had his share of dates and potential mates thrown at him from all sides: from agents pushing a client, from aspiring actors hoping he could get them a film job if they gave him a hand job, from well-meaning friends who had met a handsome young man they thought he’d like. But Levi was a pair of loving eyes that knew how to play with a child; he knew better than Damien, even, how to play with Damien’s son. An awkward but loving father who had never known a father himself, Damien filled the role of father to his son far less convincingly than any role he had played on film or stage. It was a role he wanted to excel in—Track deserved the best–but it was one he knew he failed in by the way Track raced to the nanny’s arms as soon as Track and Damien returned from any excursion. But Levi. . .Lee. . .Levi with the green eyes and the way with children. . .Levi with that loud, sharp laugh, and that sad lonely air about him. . .Levi who was never listened to. . .Levi who had started to fill his dreams as he drifted off to sleep each night. . .
Levi was different than the men he was used to. There was a genuineness there, a humility unusual in the braggarts of Hollywood. And no agenda. No aspirations to be in the film industry. He offered no competition and no threats of emotional blackmail for a position in Damien’s production company. When, on that second visit, he saw how he made Track howl with laughter, saw how other children Track’s age and older gravitated to him, eager for his attention—like a blond, thin Santa Claus—all holding up their doll or teddy bear, all asking him questions, wanting his approval, his playtime, he saw someone rare and very special. So used to the hard arrogance of the film industry, where people with dreams of stardom or just a small bit on a small tv show, would be openly dismissed or disregarded with cruel comments like, “Too fat” or “No one would want to fuck her”, and where those insults no longer were shocking or uncommon, this gentle person with the dirty sense of humor and the surprising way with children was someone he wanted to know better.
And so, after the nanny had put Track to bed with his newest stuffed animal from Levi’s store, Damien told her he was going out for the night. He didn’t know if Levi’s store was still open or if it was closing or if Levi would be gone, but he got in his car, drove down from Wattles Drive, down to Hollywood Boulevard, and over to the Hollywood and Highland complex. He gave his car to the valet, raced to the elevator, took it up to the floor Levi’s store was on, and made his way toward the Dolby Theater and down that terrazzo-tiled hallway from which he had first seen him just that short eternity ago when they had first met.
The doors to the store, usually flung open, were locked; the lights inside dimmed.
But inside the store. . .finishing the night’s paperwork at the counter. . .Levi.
Levi with the green eyes so full of promise.