To Levi’s frustration, his psychiatrist seemed to doubt that he was dating a movie star. “I’m not crazy! I mean, okay, yeah—I’m bipolar. But I’m not nutsy koo-koo. I really am dating an Oscar-nominated actor.”
He whipped out his phone. “Look— There we are—in bathrobes. Matching bathrobes. This isn’t your typical I-ran-into-a-movie-star-on-the-street photo, is it?”
“Levi—” she asked, offering him a polite escape from what she obviously thought was some mania-induced fib, “Were you maybe at a spa and ran into him and he agreed to a photo with you because you’re a fan and–”
“No! Okay—look. You can’t tell anyone but. . .there he is asleep. He doesn’t know I took that one. But he just looked so cute and—”
Her eyes widened. The nutsy koo-koo was indeed sleeping with Santa Claus: Christmas Warrior.
Levi, needing to hear that he was indeed not hallucinating an entire relationship, sat back in his chair. “I’m not imagining this, right? I mean—you see him in the pictures, too. Right?”
“I see him.”
“Thank God. Because the first night, I really thought, ‘I’ve lost my freaking mind and the drugs have just pushed me over the edge.’ So I had to get some photos of us. But then my best friend, Kyle. Well, he’s blind. So what good does a photo on my phone do me with him? And I can’t tell anyone else because no one else I know has to keep my secret. But doctor-patient confidentiality does extend to who I sleep with, doesn’t it?”
“It does.” He noticed she seemed quite jealous.
“Good. Because he’s been in all these independent films but only been in a few mainstream movies and with that Santa Claus film coming out in the next few days, people are beginning to really recognize him. I mean, I recognized him when I met him but a.) I couldn’t remember his name and b.) I’m a cinephile, anyway. Oh—cinephile. That means film fan, not some kind of pervert.”
“Yes, Levi. I know what—”
“Some people don’t though. I once described myself that way, ‘I’m a cinephile’ and this uptight lady asked me—I swear to God—she asked me, ‘And you admit to it?’ To this day I think she has me bundled up in her head with Michael Jackson and Roy Moore.”
He noticed she seemed stunned.
“Are you okay?” the patient asked the doctor.
“Yes.” She smiled, shaking her head. “It’s just not every day someone meets and dates a movie star. I guess I just got a temporary case of being starstruck.”
“But we’re in L.A. You can’t swing a coke straw without hitting someone in the business.”
“True. But they don’t normally have an Oscar nomination under their belt.”
“Well, once Julia Roberts got one, it seemed like they were just handing them out to anyone. . .Anyway, he’s been in New York and it’s weird because I watch him do these interviews and it’s like he’s sort of who I know but not. And then at night we talk on the phone for hours. Let’s see—yeah. My call log shows last night we talked for two hours and forty-six minutes. And he’s totally different. It’s like there’s Public Damien and Private Damien. And what’s weird is it reminds me of how when I was a kid, I used to think the people on TV lived in the TV. Did you ever do that?”
“No. I never thought the people on TV—”
“—Lived in the TV? I thought everyone thought that when they were young. I mean, obviously I know now that the people on TV are not really in there. But this feels like the Damien I see on TV answering the same questions over and over, just with different interviewers, lives in the TV. And the Damien I know—the one I’ve slept with and kissed and had dinner with and so on—he doesn’t live in the TV. Anyway. . .I wanted to talk about my medication. I’ve thrown up twice this week. Ever since you added in the Lamictal, I’ve been puking and or nauseous. Is there something else we can try?”
“Is your doctor checking your liver?” the pharmacist asked him quietly as she began ringing up his latest rounds of prescriptions.
“How so?” Levi asked.
“She has you on some pretty high doses and these drugs—particularly these two here, not so much those three—can cause liver damage. Is she having your blood checked?”
“No. . .” Seeing the pharmacists’ disapproval, he offered, “Not yet, anyway.”
“I’m not a doctor,” the pharmacist told him, “But the next time you see her. . .just ask her. About getting your liver checked and if you should be having your levels monitored. These two even carry warnings about liver damage. You don’t want one problem to turn itself into another.”
He made a mental note to ask his psychiatrist about this at their next appointment. But in the fog of the medication he had already taken that morning, he forgot that resolution by the time he left the pharmacy and pulled his car out onto Larchmont.
“You see? You have to deal with your poison. You eradicate your poison. You make the world a better place by not being such a weight upon it. Right now, all of you are evil people. Evil little people. ‘Oh, but I’m not so evil. I am nice and I let people into the lane even if they don’t use turn signals!’, you say—”
As someone who did just that and had been thinking just that, Levi was a bit more hooked than usual as this week’s instructor, a fast-talking woman who sounded as if she were maybe Russian or an Israelite or from New Jersey–he was bad with accents—berated the class into belief.
“Well, you are still evil people. You still have poison. And you pollute the planet and the world and humanity. So you must deal with this poison. ‘But how I deal with my poison?’, you say. I tell you how. Braunstein Method. All your answers are in the Braunstein Method book. Not the volume you have there. This one.” She held up a new, shiny, leather-bound edition that did, Levi had to admit, look very appealing. Very academic and holy and prestigious, even though it probably had huge print and the ridiculous page-and-a-half wide photos that he noticed saved all the Braunstein Center’s books from having to contain very much information.
“That one you have? That is introduction-level. You keep studying and you buy this one. They have some left in the bookstore. But you study and you eradicate your poison. You do as I say. It all makes sense the longer you study, see? We go round and round and each time we make pass, we add in something new and it all come clear, no?”
He noticed the Real Housewife with Artificial Lips, Breasts, Cheeks, Buttocks, and Hair nodding in agreement. “Soooo clear,” she said softly to herself.
“So we talk now about Shame Cake. Who here knows what the Shame Cake is? Tell me! Shame Cake! Do you know? You? Anyone?”
No one in the whole class knew what the Shame Cake was. “Because,” Levi thought, “It isn’t in the introductory level book. . .”
“You do not know because you need this book!” The teacher slammed her leather-bound volume on her podium. “What is this—Ninety-five dollars to buy, but as Mastercard say, the lessons inside have no price! Look—in this book we talk Shame Cake. Shame Cake is the ancient Braunstein Method idea. A theory. You see, three princes from three different kingdoms, they were eating and drinking and having a good time, no? They had their beer and their malt liquor and their wine and sangria and they eat and they drink and one of the princes, he say, ‘I don’t think we deserve all this good when our people are so poor.’ And this prince, what he said, it make the other princes think, too. They felt the Shame Cake. They were eating and drinking, having a feast, and when they eat this cake—delicious cake, lots of frosting and so, so many layers, right?—they feel shame. Why? Because they do not deserve that cake. But there they were, with more cake than they could eat. They did not make the cake. They did not pay for the cake. They did nothing. But delicious cake was there, while other people starved. How many of you are eating Shame Cake?”
A few students raised hesitant hands in the air. But this displeased the teacher who—again with the overdramatic slamming, Levi thought—slammed her book on the podium and started screaming at the class.
“All of you eat the Shame Cake! All of you are evil people! You deserve nothing! But what do you have? You—what do you have?”
“A nice house. . .” the man she had pointed to meekly offered up.
“You don’t deserve it with all your poison!” she told him; a claim he apparently agreed with. She jammed a finger toward Levi’s newest Braunstein Center friend, Mya. “What do you have that make you eat Shame Cake?”
“Uh—” Mya stammered, searching fior something good in her life. Levi, though, knew her life was pretty shitty. Hell, if he had her life, he would have downed all his medications in one big cocktail and called life over. Finally, she said, “My phone. . .”
The woman used a Windows Phone that hadn’t been supported in three years. Levi was correct, he thought. Her life sucked.
“You need to think! What you have that is so good, so much better than others—none of you deserve. You need to fix the poison. See? That make sense?”
Levi knew it made no sense but damn, most of the class was just buying it.
“You fix the poison and you deserve good. And what is the best of all good?”
“The Flame,” spoke the Real Housewife.
“Yes!” The instructor was nice to her; celebrities always got the soft touch at the Braunstein Center. The instructor even smiled at her, before looking at the rest of the heathen in the class with repugnance. “The Flaaaaaaame!” she repeated, drawing the word out slowly, as if it were spooled about her tongue. “To deserve the best, you eradicate the poison. You then deserve good. And The Flame, The Candle, it wants to give you good. But it can not give you good as long as you have poison. If you want goodness, you must make yourself less poison.”
She turned to Levi and stepped right up to his desk.
“What do you have that you do not deserve?”
Immediately, the only thing Levi could think was Damien Lanchester.
Quickly, he lied and said his car.
But he was jarred by the suddenness of how deeply he felt and how protective he felt toward Damien that he would not name him, even as a vague, “My boyfriend” or “Someone I’m dating.”
He would not offer up his private happiness to be so interrogated.
But as he drove home that evening, after coffee with Mya and Denise and Reggie, he was solemn in thought and did not even turn on the radio. He just silently drove down Santa Monica Boulevard thinking about what he needed to change about himself to be more worthy of Damien. To always stand out from all those handsome stars and wanna-bes that would now flock about him as his fame began to soar with the release of his new movie and all the press attention he was receiving this week and into next. . .and likely, forever after.
Levi realized that, as much as Damien and he were speaking and sending text messages, he needed to be good enough to deserve Damien now and in the future. X had said—in cold, brutal words he would never forget—that there were so many things wrong with him.
Those things, he saw now, were his poison which kept him from being deserving of this man who he saw clearly now, was too good for him.
He had to eradicate all of that poison.
Even if it meant buying that ninety-five fucking dollar book.