How the hell did he ever end up on Brad and Chad’s Christmas card list? But. . .there it was, mixed in among his AmEx bill, his AT&T bill, and a Happy Holidays greeting from the dentist whose bad breath made that root canal last spring doubly painful. Had Brad or Chad even meant to send it to him or did they just send cards out randomly now, hoping to “build their brand”? He tore the card out of its envelope and. . well. . .what else could he expect? They certainly wouldn’t send out Christmas cards celebrating the Baby Jesus or cards depicting a snowy village on a magical winter’s night. No. . .their holiday greeting was all about. . .them. Brad and Chad. The reasons for the season. Shirtless, in matching pants and Santa caps, mouths agape as Brad (or Chad) tacked up a stocking by their oversized fireplace while the other, also open-mouthed and eyes bulging, looked on as if nothing so wondrous had ever been seen. Levi wanted to smack the crap out of them.
The greeting inside was even worse: “Brad and Chad wish you the happiest of holidays. Whether we’re celebrating Hannukah (Brad) or Christmas (Chad) we always wish for the same thing: That you all treat others with respect and kindness”
This, Levi thought, from two West Hollywood looka-likes who, even in middle-age, asked people who were overweight, “Have you ever thought of eating healthy, darling?” before erupting into peals of childish laughter.
The card continued, “We encourage you to embrace diversity—”
Levi wanted to scream. He had never seen so many white gay men in any one place as that time X had made him go to Brad and Chad’s anniversary party. (Levi had called it, “The Bird Street Bitches Self-Admiration Bash.”) The duo didn’t have a non-Caucasian friend between them. They probably didn’t even like the word, “Caucasian.” he could picture them giggling, “Oh, honey. We love Cock. But not Asians!” Their parties, their circle of friends, looked like that 2018 photo of GOP Capitol Hill interns. All whities. Not even one person of mixed race, nor one whose genealogy was anything but European. Nor an overweight one. Or a heterosexual. Or anyone other than cookie cutter gays who affected the same attitude, vocal fry, and disdainful, downward gaze as Brad and Chad. “You must have been beaten up a lot in your childhood—” Levi had remarked on that last tirade, “And now you think you’re better than everyone. But you’re still the little bitch you were when you were a weakling six-year old.”
He cringed at how vicious he had been. That night, when he had finally had enough of their snide comments to him. . .they weren’t just insults. They were truths. And the truth was worse than a crafted insult. He had gone on and on—even now, he cringed while recalling how he had continued, seeing he had hit a nerve and how he just kept digging deeper, a paleontologist digging up old wounds, watching their faces change as his guesses, like a brush dusting sand and soil gently, revealed their accuracy, telling Levi where to pursue for more bones. And viciously, to equal and beat them at their ow game, he had dusted their bones off and slapped them on display. As if he were some harbinger of revenge for all the adults Brad and Chad had made feel badly—as if those adults, usually other gay men had the nerve—The dammed gall!–to go to The Abbey, unaware it was Brad and Chad’s private kingdom.
In the moment of his attack, Levi had enjoyed it. Had thrilled at the sight of those two bastards crumbling in front of their party guests—guests just as bland and pathetic as they, watching silently (or at least it seemed that way in his memory) as Levi let loose. Those downward looking eyes, first proudly and angrily but surprised, welling with tears as Levi told them truths about the two of them and their pathetic lives and the lies they had built for themselves and how they nauseated him and how the world was still laughing at the two of them. It hadn’t ended when they had fled their little towns, Levi informed them, and gone off to college and “reinvented themselves” as two bitchy fags. Even now, every time those two bitches dared to step outside West Hollywood the world, Levi explained, was cracking jokes at their hair and clothing and their very relationship. At every aspect and element that made them Brad and Chad. At everything that made them not so much a couple but two pathetic jokes who looked like twins and who had found one another. “Narcisexuals!” he had called them.
That was the end of he and X.
Private moodswings, X had tolerated. (Though nowhere near as well as X, always a vivid artist in creating pictures of his long suffering and unjustified, unsurpassed victimhood, liked to paint.) Levi knew now that he had been at his worst then.
And he had been apologetic to X. He had not blamed his bad behavior on an illness he hadn’t yet allowed to be diagnosed–but on himself. He, Levi, was to blame, he said and he, Levi, was so sorry he had embarrassed the man he loved. He would never have done that; didn’t know why he did it but he wouldn’t have meant to do it. Something snapped and his temper swirled up and out like a Santa Ana-fueled wildfire and—Whoosh!—it was out of control and no fire department could have contained it. And he was so sorry he had hurt X by causing him embarrassment. He never would have intended to do that.
Why, Levi had asked him, would he ever want to hurt the man he only wanted to make happy?
But public moodswings—and such a vicious attack on the two men X had wanted to become—were simply unacceptable.
Levi tucked the card between his AmEx bill and the dentist’s flyer. That’s when he noticed just how thick the card itself was. He took another look at it. The front of the card was actually a photograph. On heavy photographic paper. He turned the card over and read, “This keepsake photograph has been printed on Kodak Fine Art Paper for framing. Simply remove the photograph from the front of the card—”
Brad and Chad actually thought people wanted to display them in their home. In a frame.
Suddenly. . .Levi stopped feeling badly about hurting them with the truth.
Kyle enjoyed walking at The Grove. It was what Los Angelenos called “touristy” simply because it was clean and well-lit and, unlike some other parts of the city, safe. And you didn’t have to circle the block for hours, looking for a parking space; there was a garage for that purpose. No stranger asked if you could spare a dollar or, with inflation, a five.
When he had been a model, before he was blinded, he had done several fashion layouts here, in the little park area. Yeah, it had a fake park, too. A little sliver of a pocket park, with a fake lake and even fake people standing around on its grasses. Everything about the perfect neighborhood represented by The Grove—its streets of shops and restaurants, its art-deco bookstore and movie palace, its park and even the trolley that shuttled shoppers from one end to the other—was make believe. But “touristy”? Even jaded Kyle had never agreed with that label. It was just safe. Self-contained. Controlled.
And for Kyle, now unable to see, The Grove’s one long thoroughfare was a nice place to walk. With just a few bends and curves and only one intersection where a real street crossed the make-believe pedestrian only boulevard, it was easy to navigate, branded as it was onto his memory. He could recall its sights he could no longer see and easily know where he was. He felt that minus a seeing eye dog or a cane, he could walk from the Farmer’s Market clock tower to the pretzel kiosk near Crate and Barrel, all the way at the other end, without tripping once.
Levi never let him try that, though he would sometimes feel Kyle’s desire for independence and stop holding his arm as they strolled. But no sooner would he let Kyle walk freely than some idiot shopper—usually carrying a coffee cup and chatting on a phone and expecting the world to clear a path so that they didn’t have to look where they were going—would walk straight into him. As if the socially-impaired Los Angelenos were metal drawn toward the visually-impaired magnet that was Kyle.
“You are an idiot,” Kyle was informing him in his best friend-means-open insults mode.
“You could have gone to a premiere and instead you’ll be in your store making teddy bears? You’re the manager. Change the assistant manager’s schedule so you can go!”
“I’m not going to do that,” Levi explained. “They—”
“There are going to be so many famous people there,” Kyle argued. “I would go in a heartbeat.”
“I see famous people all the time,” Levi said with nonchalance. “I’m not Lucy Ricardo. They don’t really do anything for me.”
“Well, I think you should go. How many times are you going to get to go to the—what’s this?”
“They put up that giant Santa house in the middle of the street,” Levi said, explaining why he had grabbed Kyle’s arm to navigate them both up onto the sidewalk.
“Aw!,” Kyle whined sentimentally. He was usually crass and cold but Christmas always warmed his heart. “The Santa house! What does it look like this year?”
Levi gave Kyle’s elbow a slight tug backward—“Putting you in ‘Park’”, Levi had once called it—so that he could look upon the house and describe it. God, he hated that Kyle couldn’t see any more. Hated that he was right here, in the middle of The Grove with its simulated small-metropolis atmosphere, its buildings and streets all decked out in the lights and sights of Kyle’s only must-celebrate holiday, and Kyle couldn’t see a damned piece of it.
“Okay,” Levi began, “We’re next to Banana Republic. The house is in the street and it looks like a giant, bright red gingerbread house.”
“Oh. So cool. How tall?”
“Do you remember how, across the street from Banana, there was a Zara and above the Zara there as a restaurant with a red awning—on the second floor? It’s about as tall as those red awnings.”
So, it’s a bright red. It looks almost like its glass painted red and lit from inside or something. I mean, the whole building is illuminated. So it’s this glowing red and it has all these gingerbread frosting trimming along the windows and the roofline, with green garland in the frosting. Um—ice cream cone chimneys. And it has a tower—like a clock tower—covered in snow. The front door is an archway under a triangular porch roof-thing, also covered in snow.”
“Where’s the front door?”
“Uh—it faces toward the Farmer’s Market. And above the door, hanging off the little awning, is a red ribbon with yellow calligraphy reading, “Enter” and—oh, this is cute—above the door, in what’s supposed to be the second storey, is a bear hanging out a window.”
“Yeah. He’s waving at the passersby—his right arm moves up-and-down. He’s wearing a little blue jacket and a red bowtie and a Santa cap. And—”
“Excuse me,” a man asked them with loud sarcasm—as if he wanted the people of Kenya to hear his indignant scoffing, “But can you fucking move?”
Levi was about to tell the man to fuck off but Kyle politely said, “Excuse me” in a polite voice, as if he were asking for more tea, “But can you take your shitty attitude and go fuck yourself with it all night long?” He then shouted for all to hear, “I’m blind, bitch!”
“Well you don’t have to block the whole fucking walkway!” the asshole let them know, now taking the two steps that, had he taken earlier, would have caused fewer children in the area to learn a new f-word which wasn’t “fun”.
“Oh, go to Hell,” Levi shouted after the man, “Like the whole of Los Angeles can’t get around two skinny guys on a sidewalk.” Kyle shouted what had been the man’s direction—until Levi turned him to where the man had gone, “Life must be very tough for you, cockhead! If you can see you can easily walk around. Nice holiday blessings to you, jerk!”
As Levi stared at the man disappearing shamefully into the crowd, Kyle whispered, “Was everyone looking?”
“Um. . .yes.”
“Good. That just made my whole fucking Christmas. I needed to vent. Can we find someone else to terrorize?”
“Sure. . .” Levi told him, gently guiding him back into the pedestrian flow. “I’ll look for someone wearing a Trump hat.”
“’Make America Germany again’”, Kyle mumbled in his best Trump impersonation, which actually, wasn’t very bad. “Only I alone can destroy this country!”
A man’s voice interrupted their slow walk: “Hold up! Levi?”
“Who’s that?” Kyle asked at the strange voice calling Levi’s name.
“Oh—hi there,” Levi said, surprise audible on his tongue.
“Who is it?” Kyle asked eagerly, likely hoping it was Levi’s new paramour.
“Rabbi McCory.” Levi said, motioning the rabbi who always assumed the worst to Kyle,
“Um, this is my friend Kyle.”
“Hello, Kyle,” the rabbi said, putting his hand out for a shake. Levi moved Kyle’s hand into the hand of the Braunstein Center rabbi.
“An Irish rabbi?” Kyle asked. “Let me guess: Braunstein Center. The self help synagogue.”
The rabbi smiled politely, though with strain. “Are you acquainted with the Braunstein Center?” the rabbi asked, challenging Kyle’s apparent dislike.
“Not that dumb,” Kyle announced. “But Kookoo for Cocoa Puffs here—”
“Anyway!” Levi interjected with a forced gaiety. “How are you, Rabbi McCory?”
“He probably eats corned beef and cabbage for Hannukah. . .” Kyle muttered, loudly enough to be heard. . .as he intended. “An Irish rabbi. Faith and Begorrah, you unmensch!”
“Um. . .I’m fine. Just finishing up holiday shopping. And you?”
“Oh—” Levi stammered, fearful Kyle would interject again, “I’m fine.”
“I’ve been thinking about you.”
“Worrying about you, actually.” The rabbi reached out and touched his arm, patting him with a physical expression of concern. “How is your bipolar disorder?”
“Oh my fucking God! Is this nutcase for real?” Kyle shouted, as if he could sense how embarrassed Levi was by this very odd question. Levi tried unsuccessfully to shush Kyle..
“Listen, Mail-in Rabbi. I know for a fact the Braunstein Center is a cult. You back off! You don’t go talking about people’s medical—He was trying to embarrass you and make me stop being your friend, Levi. You realize that’s what he meant by that, right? And you know what, oh Leprechaun Rabbi? He doesn’t even have that! I think he has PTSD and his doctor misdiagnosed him. So you just shut the fuck up, you know-nothing, fake Jew.”
“Kyle,” Levi told him, “Really. Stop.”
“No way! Listen—I know who you are. Just selling all this nonsense that means nothing. Nothing! How does it feel to be a slimeball snake oil salesman? Huh?”
“Levi—I’ll see you later.” The rabbi said with a nod.
“Don’t leave, Mister Rabbi Irish Guy. I wanna hear how many years you studied at rabbinical school. I’m guessing none.”
“Three years,” the rabbi snapped.
“Three years as manager of a Foot Locker perhaps, but you’re an ordained rabbi like I’m Andrea Bocelli.”
“Goodnight Levi,” the rabbi said firmly, adding tensely, “And Mister Bocelli.”
Hearing Levi take in slow, measured breaths, Kyle calmly, coldly told him, “Do not even be mad at me. If you can’t see that he just tried to use personal information he knows about you to humiliate you. . .” Kyle exhaled angrily. “The Braunstein Center is not a benign self-help group, Levi.”
“Kyle. . .Just stop.”
“He wanted me to be shocked and disappointed. If you had been alone, he wouldn’t have started out with that. Come on! ‘How’s your bipolar disorder?’ Surprised he didn’t ask, ‘How do you like having Damien Lanchester’s cock up your ass?’”
“Sssh! Watch what you say—” Levi told him, clarifying, “About Damien. People are all around us, you know.”
“Do you? Do you know what he was trying to do? Cost you friendships so that he can get his claws in you and drag you further into the cult? So your only friends are followers?”
“You’re the only one about to cost you my friendship,” Levi snapped.
He hesitated. “Just be quiet,” he said, aloud to Kyle and as advice to himself. “No words,” Levi thought. “Say nothing.”
“No—I want to hear. Go on. Tell me.”
“Sometimes—” Levi said, in a measured, guarded tone, “It is very—very!—difficult to be your friend.”
Kyle’s silence urged him on with its defiant, deafening quiet.
“You insult me and you think it’s a joke—”
“When do I insult you?”, Kyle barked at him.
“You call me an idiot because I won’t intrude on Dam—” He stopped from saying his name aloud, as if not to let strangers hear. “His time with his son. You call me crazy. You call me crazy all the time! And, just now? Kookoo for Cocoa Puffs? Is that supposed to be funny? Do you have any idea what I’ve been going through since–”
“I’m sorry. I thought you knew I was kidding. And I know its been rough on you ever since—”
“Well you don’t act like it—”
“I’m sorry. But you’re falling into their trap.”
“I am not falling into anyone’s trap! One technique—just one—is helping me try to be a better person. I’m not a fool. I’m not buying into their twelve dollar bottle of water. I don’t wear their religious underwear or buy every book, pen, and toothbrush they hawk at me. But I need to be a better person—”
“You are so in danger right now,” Kyle told him calmly, quietly. “That you don’t even see what’s about to happen to you.”
Levi took in a loud inhale, slow, angry, stubborn.
“Lee. . .I’m telling you now, if you think I’m the problem here. . .if you want to keep Damien in your life. . ,.you need to get that cult out of it. Because you think you’re some little tourist in their world but, man, you are sucked in. I am telling you this, whether you want to hear it or not and I need you to believe me:”
Kyle reached out and, finding Levi’s arm, gripped it so that he crushed it.
“You. Are in. Danger.”