The easiest way to get from Levi’s apartment to the Braunstein Center would have been to take Santa Monica Boulevard west from Hollywood through West Hollywood, maneuvering a southerly turn on Wilshire, in Beverly Hills. But this route, which would have taken Levi along heavily trafficked Santa Monica Boulevard into the heart of West Hollywood, was not one Levi followed. From Huntley to Doheny, Santa Monica Boulevard was the heart of Los Angeles’s gay community. And in that gay community, Levi imagined, paraded its apsiring king of its vapid queens, X.
He did not know where X lived now, with whom, or even if he was still in Los Angeles. He had heard gossip from some friends then–who were no longer friends of Levi’s now–how horribly X had spoken of Levi after their relationship had ended but these days, Levi knew nothing. For all their years together, Levi had let X vanish into the mist of Los Angeles’s gay population, where X looked just like any number of other men, with his close-cropped beard, faded buzz of a haircut, and, after their relationship, an arm turned tattoo-artist sketchbook. He had made no effort to follow him, online, in-person, or in secret. Just let him go, like a child a balloon, letting the currents take X wherever the currents would, letting him snake up and up, disappear, deflate, land or pop. Whatever did happen to balloons, anyway?
X had a name at one time. A name which had echoed off Levi’s tongue so often it had become an instinctual sound. A name Levi had loved saying, pronouncing, every utterance a prayer to the god now demoted to a single letter: simply, “X”. Levi refused to utter that name now, nor even think it. No human being had ever hurt him as X had, Levi’s entire world collapsing for a second time, the first being the disaster in Atlanta he refused—as he did now with X’s name—to even think about or mention aloud. How sweet X had been when they had met, X so seductive in his attempts to extract from Levi his secrets, exorcise Levi’s inner demons, and elicit laughs from the then-almost lifeless Levi. But, once seduced, X had begun wielding a strange power over him. It wasn’t just Levi who had noticed this. Many of Levi’s friends from both Atlanta and the few he had in Los Angeles—even X’s friends—made quiet mention of X’s control over him. The way X wanted the spotlight and Levi had to retreat into his background. The way even affection was handed down from X to Levi as a human rewards a puppy. When X was gone from Levi’s life, Levi was comforted in a small, petty way by the repetition of the same phrase from whoever was still in his life: “Good. I’m glad he’s gone. He was a real jerk.”
But Levi had loved He Who He Refused to Name. Their end had broken his heart and, some speculated, his mind. Whatever had happened to Levi, that once brilliantly funny young man who everyone said should be a writer or, with that voice of his, a singer? Who could recite with ease dialogue from movies older than anyone any of them knew? Or who could throw a party that was classy and warm and as dignified as its food was delicious? Well, that Levi, gossip still told people, was dead. Maybe it was that thing in Atlanta—Oh, how people still had nightmares about that. What a horrible thing to live through—which had broken him and it just took a long time to show up. Maybe it had been there all along, pre-determined from birth, and slowly rose to the surface, a lava-like personality change, inevitable and destructive, altering forever the landscape of Levi’s mind, heart, and soul.
Or maybe, some thought, it had been caused by the destruction of the love he had once felt for X.
He sometimes wished he himself had a way to understand what had happened, some author to write out his story like those trite mysteries everyone loved, those Girl Gone on a Train in the Water Telling Big Little Lies to the Woman with the Dragon Tattoo in the Window crappy books, all with similar titles and similar artwork, all wrapping up their character’s complexities in a nice, simple bookmark of a bow. Levi knew there was a difference; in books, characters always have someone who understands them; particularly when those books are written with a movie deal in mind. They simplify the character’s psychology, distill and diminish complex emotions into some character’s cathartic scream alone in their car or under a bridge, simplifying the psyche for a stupid audience. But he knew screaming under a bridge did no good but hurt his throat. He would never have that ten-pages-from-the-final-page resolution, no penultimate chapter breakthrough. No one knew what had happened to Levi to cause such a shift and no one, Levi in particular, would ever really understand if the Old Levi was gone because of that thing in Atlanta, his mental illness, or X.
Kyle always threw in, “PTSD. He has PTSD. Because of what happened in Atlanta.”
But X. . .X who no longer had a name because Levi could neither stand to say his name nor understand him. X who was an algebra problem of a person, unsolvable and incomprehensible without a calculator which was able to process the entire complexities of the human mind. Levi had a feeling that it was all due to X. It was why he did not cyber-stalk him, did not look him up on the internet, no longer spoke with anyone who he knew to be friends with X, and did not drive down Santa Monica Boulevard between Huntley and Doheny.
When Levi had first come to Los Angeles, X had taken him out to a restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard, one of those celebrity-owned places lining the crowded, wide, West Hollywood sidewalks, a place better known for celebrity sightings than its menu. When they were a couple, they had often strolled Santa Monica Boulevard together, grabbed coffee at the Starbucks, occasionally met friends for drinks at Mickey’s or attended Brad and Chad’s Friday night court at The Abbey, around the corner on Robertson. That was all Santa Monica Boulevard meant to him, now, from Huntley on to Doheny. And so, if he was in his car alone and able to be distracted by reveries and memories, he never drove this stretch. He would go out of his way to take a north or south turn, go several blocks down or up in either direction, cross using other parallel roads, and then pick up Santa Monica Boulevard around La Cienega or Beverly. If X was still in West Hollywood, he didn’t want X to see him. X, who Levi occasionally admitted to himself had indeed victimized Levi–though Levi would never dare say that aloud to anyone, never wanting to be viewed as weak enough to be vicitimized–would in X’s always-the-victim way grab his friends and say, “Did you see that? He’s stalking me!” And X’s drama queen bitches would indeed agree that, yes, Levi must be stalking him. For whatever reason would Levi have to drive down Santa Monica Boulevard—that major thoroughfare by which Levi might reach Beverly Hills or Santa Monica or Century City or Pacific Palisades or. . .you know. . .the fucking Pacific Ocean?
So Levi proactively avoided that part of the street, as inconvenient as it might be. X could say whatever he wanted—he already had given a hilariously twisted version of the relationship to anyone and everyone they had mutually known which had painted X in a glowing, long-suffering, heroic light which no one found credible but which no one challenged him on. Really handsome men, Levi knew, can get away with lying; X was proof of that theory. Given the choice between calling a handsome man out on his mistruths and his slander. . . or having a miniscule opportunity to suck his dick. . .Levi found most gay men would choose to listen to a lie for the miniscule opportunity to suck the good looking liar’s dick.
And so, when their relationship ended, as if in a divorce decree, Levi had granted X–without being asked–all of the gayest strip of West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard.
And now, when Levi drove to the Braunstein Center, he did so in an inconvenient manner, turning off congested Santa Monica Boulevard—usually with great difficulty and a whiplash turn thanks to oncoming traffic—and taking side streets several blocks away until he could head back and pick up Santa Monica at point beyond GLBT-Town.
It was worth it. He harbored no fantasy of ever seeing X again; would have turned down the chance if offered. No screaming match would resolve anything. (“You did this so I did that. But I never would have done that if you hadn’t done this!”) There would be no sentimental reunion in the future, the two running into each other by coincidence. (“Oh my gosh. How are you? You look fantastic!”, “Oh, please. I look like a cow. How are you? You look. . .,even better than when—” “Do you think. . .maybe. . . we could have coffee sometime?”) X, like a leaf on an automobile hood that now hits the freeway, was gone.
And Levi didn’t care.
He just wished he could stop hearing X say, “You’re going to die alone.”
That little sentence meant so much. None of it good. And, he feared, all of it sounded so determinedly prophetic.