“Motherfuck!” Levi muttered. Barry hadn’t texted him in ages—okay, not really ages as in the cosmological, geological, anthropological, or historical ages or ages in terms of either having had birthdays since they last texted, but it had been awhile. A few weeks, at least. Or a month? Levi had never been good with dates. As sentimental as he was, he and X had made up an anniversary date because neither had ever locked into their memory the exact date of their first date. As for Damien, Levi couldn’t quite determine how long they had known each other—a determination made even more difficult because they both kept saying they were still on their first date. It had seemed romantic—and it was; the most wonderful date that never ended—but it did shit to help him remember when they had first met. But it had effectively ended he and Barry’s snogging sessions. “You are not going to fuck this up for me” he told Barry via brainwaves. “Not after all those nights boring me with your long, never-ending stories!”
He had seen too many stupid movies with stupid characters who stupidly ignored letters or messages sent them, only to then have that message or letter discovered by someone who then got the wrong impression and left them or stopped loving them and, oh—that was so tired. He furiously typed:
“Can’t text right now. On a date. Seeing someone. Will text you later. I’m sorry if this seems callous. I really don’t want to write something like a break-up text. Not that we were ever together but you know what I mean. I can’t cuddle with you anymore. I just need that to be clear in this text message in case, through some crazy zany mishap the guy I’m seeing accidentally reads your text and thinks I’m seeing someone behind his back. Not that we were seeing each other, more cuddling with each other. But that has to stop. I’m sorry. I just can not be that person whose whole life blows up because they were too stupid to either lock their phone or clearly and succinctly answer a message.”
He hit send and tried to catch his breath. Goddamnit. His text sounded unhinged but he needed all his points covered. He would not be that stupid person.
“It’s OK,” read a reply. “Maybe friends?”
Levi shook his head and ignored the message. There was no time to have a dialogue with Los Angeles’s longest-winded police officer via text message. He’d call him later, Levi decided.
Unfortunately, Barry hung over their day at the L.A. Zoo. Fearful that, for some crazy reason, Barry might himself decide to visit the zoo, as well. After all, as his sometimes-committable cuddle buddy was committing himself to some stranger, Barry might have nothing better to do on his day off. A coincidental, random visit to the zoo might be just the thing Barry needed, Levi feared. And so, as happy as Levi was to spend the morning with proud papa Damien and excitable, lovable Track, Levi kept having heart palpitations every time he thought he saw Barry—which happened anytime he saw an attractive, tall, muscular black man. And, being attracted to African-American men, his eyes instinctually zoomed in on any black men in the area. They were never Barry, some not even as tall or as broad through the shoulders. But that initial glimpse would send him into a momentary panic. Jesus, he wished he had a Kolonopin. Yes, they helped him sleep but they were actually meant for anxiety. Taking one during the day would just calm the edges of his nervous fit.
Damien didn’t seem to notice, thankfully. Nor did he seem all that secretive about their relationship. Even with Track present, Damien had briefly, almost by instinct rather than plan, woven his fingers into Levi’s. A sweet, natural inclination of one man’s hands toward the other. If Track had observed this connection or seen it, he had made no mention of it. Most likely, he would have not given it a second thought. Too young to have been indoctrinated into the world’s homophobia, and never having seen his father be affectionate to anyone but him, it likely would have struck him as natural that his lovable Daddy, who held Track’s hand with one of his own, was absent-mindedly holding the hand of Mister Lee with the other as the trio walked through the Koala House.
Track loved that Mister Lee somehow knew so much about animals—Levi was actually reading the informative plaques and translating their scientific terms into child-speak–and that between his father and Mister Lee, he always had someone to lift him up and give him a grown-ups’ view of the koalas or the gorillas or the meerkats. And Daddy was so happy with them both, even though they had been stopped several times that day by strangers.
“Are you David—Daniel—”
“Damien,” he had replied patiently and with a gentle smile.
“You’re in that movie—the one that just opened!”
“Um. . .yes.”
That’s when the overexcitable (and alleged) fan—who loved him so much they didn’t even know Damien’s name—would turn to Levi and ask, “Can you take a picture of us?”
That had been fine the first time, Levi found. And fine the second time. But by eighth time a family had intruded upon their day at the zoo, breaking into their conversations, their laughter, their time playing with Track and teaching him about the animals, by asking, “Are you that guy?”, it had grown tiresome. He was so thankful when Damien gracefully explained, “I am. Thank you for saying hello. It means the world to me. Only–it’s a rare day with my family, so. . .if you don’t mind,” and backed away.
His family. Not “my son and a friend.” But, “My family.”
Levi was so covered in tingles he barely paid any mind to the mother of the gently rebuffed celebrity stalkers’ murmuring, “What an asshole.”
As they walked on a bit further up a slope which brought them toward a pen of Colobus Monkeys, Track oohing and aahing all the way from his perch atop Levi’s shoulders, Levi leaned toward Damien, whose frustration was simmering, and muttered, “I love how you think your enchanted ballcap renders you unrecognizable.”
Damien, laughing at himself, put an arm around Levi’s waist, and sighed. “It always worked for Superman with Clark Kent’s eyeglasses.”
“How many of us have the children?” asked the Braunstein Center instructor in a whisper so quiet one had to strain to hear her. Most of the class raised their hands. Except Levi. Childless Levi, with his hand down, being read by some in the class incorrectly as having sad swimmin’ semen, or, correctly as being too gay to go there.
“we all have children!” the instructor screeched, slapping the podium for effect like a lunatic. She pointed at Levi. “Even you!”
“We go through life and we teach other people, right? What do parents do? Eh? They teach. That. Is. What. A parent. Do. They teach!”
“Teach: What a parent do,” Levi wrote in his official Braunstein Center notebook.
“Look—who here do not teach? Who here never ever never say to someone, ‘Let me show you how to do this’ or ‘Let me show you what you can do’? Eh? Who? You don’t teach? You don’t teach? No—we all teach. And that is what the Flame wants to do. It wants to be your mommy and your daddy. But more! Where do we learn? Eh? Who teaches us?” She shouted, “Tell me!”
“At work,” offered that little man who always had to push his glasses up using a thumb on the nose bridge whenever he spoke.
“Tell me more. How? Who teach you at your work?”
“Place of employment,” Levi mentally corrected her, He hated when people referred to “your workplace” or “your job” or “Your place of employment” as “your work.” It was another of his pet peeves, right up there with, “LOL” or “U” instead of “you”. . . or those fucking emojis.
“Um, my coworkers,” the man continued to offer up, obviously fearing he may not be giving the correct answer. “When they teach me how to do something new, like how to use some office software or a shortcut, like if you hold down control and the ‘v’ key you can copy and—”
The instructor stopped him with her raised palm. “Who you say teach you?”
“My, uh, co-worker. . .” the man admitted, looking like he wanted to sink into his chair.
“No! It is not your co-worker teaching you,” she shouted. “It is The Flame! The Flame is teaching you what you need to know!”
Levi, somewhat annoyed that he was missing a few hours with Damien to listen to this malarkey, wrote in his notebook, “God wants us to know how to copy and paste?”
“The Flame,” she continued, “Reaches down and anytime you are taught—or you teach other people? That is The Flame. The Flame wants to be our parents and we have to let it! Because parents teach.”
Levi realized she was pointing to him when the Real Housewife of Botox Injections turned his way. She never talked to him, which was a shame because he had written a great tagline for her next season: “I may not know how to spell or write, but I won’t hesitate to edit you out of my life.” Twirl.
“Yes?” Levi asked.
“Who do you teach?”
“Uh. . .” He actually taught lots of people. Which, according to Miss Whisper-to-a-Scream meant The Flame was acting through him so often, he should charge an occupancy rate. “My employees. The managers who report to me. My boyfriend’s son. . .My boyfriend. . .”
“Ah! Ah!” she said, seemingly having a fit, smiling and jabbing her finger at him. “Your boyfriend’s son. What you teach him?”
“Oh—about animals. Like when we go to the zoo, I teach him about what an animal eats and where an animal lives and that type of thing. Just stuff.”
“And your boyfriend? What you teach him?”
“Um. . .About my life, I guess.”
“What about your life?”
“Well, that’s maybe not a good answer. Um. I teach him—well, like the other day. We went to the zoo, we went to lunch, we went to a movie. And then we went back home and played with his son. I teach him how to play. How to not always, one-hundred percent of the time be the ‘father’ but to chill out and have a. . .a sense of play. You know. Be a kid again. So he can really play with his son. As opposed to being an authority figure all the time.”
“Oh. That’s really sweet. I like that,” murmured the Real Housewife. She gave him a smile he found unusually authentic and wiped what appeared to be a Real Housewife tear. (Not really a cry, just an in-case-there’s-a-camera-around tear.)
The instructor followed her cue. She always did. Celebrities were not to be argued with.
“The Flame,” she announced, “It work through you. You bring your boyfriend and his son very valuable lessons. The Flame brought him to you and The Flame brought you to him because The Flame need him to learn what you teach. That,” she concluded, “Is The Flame at work.”
Perhaps she saw that she touched him somehow, as insane as he still thought all this was. Because she touched his hand and said softly, with a firm nod, “You are good. And you are good for them—boyfriend and son.”
And Levi, who had never thought of himself as good—particularly after how he had disappointed X—wiped a tear that had surprisingly taken shape in his left eye.