A few days before the interview, he had hoped he would walk out of the Pickford Center on Vine Street with the job at the Academy Museum. As he sat in his car in the parking lot behind the building, he realized he would never hear from them again. He had truly given a horrible interview. Answers that drifted aimlessly, his mind unable to focus. All the numbers—the valid measurements of his success—forgotten in a mist. All his anecdotes that painted clear images of his successes, all forgotten in a haze. And, to his shame, that awful moment when a simple question caused him to admit that he was Levi Hastings, one of many Atlantans who, just a few years before, had been shot in one of the bloodiest of the numerous terrorist attacks which had unfurled in one afternoon all across Atlanta.
He remembered suddenly the mother screaming as she cradled the red corpse of her headless baby.
He turned on the ignition. If he drove the streets of Los Angeles, his mind would be too occupied to go back down that road to Atlanta, too distracted to remember that day and all that blood and the firecracker sounds of the gunfire and the way news rolled across town that afternoon—gunfire downtown, gunfire at the Fox Triangle, gunfire at Atlantic Station, students shot at GSU, Ponce City Market the sight of another massacre. Grady Hospital bombed. Gunmen shooting panicked drivers caught in traffic. Murders on the Metro.
He gunned the gas and drove down Fountain. He needed to get home and down pills. Whatever it would take to knock him out.
“Worried about you,” the text message from Damien read. “Please call me.”
It was four in the afternoon when Levi turned his phone back on and saw the message. It had been preceded by a happy, encouraging, “Haven’t heard from you. Hoping you knocked ‘em dead!”. Then, “Are you there? Or just busy moving into your new office?” Then, “Honey. Please let me know how it went.” Followed by “I’m here for you, Levi. Baby. Honey. I’m here. Just talk to me.”
But he couldn’t talk. Or text. He was so humiliated. All he could do was cry, sob, call himself hateful names, and sit against the wall in his living room, punching his legs as hard as he could and, when that hurt too much, ferociously scratch his left arm with the fingernails of his right hand until his forearm’s skin bubbled with yellow puss and blood.
He never wanted to see anyone again. It was too humiliating to know that he was so fucked up he couldn’t even stumble his way through a job interview for a position that had seemed catered to his passions and professional background.
He just wanted to die.
“You’ll die alone,” X had said.
If only, Levi thought. If only.
“I don’t mean to be selfish,” Levi texted Damien. “I’m so sorry. I’m. . .” he looked for a word but his vocabulary had been impaired all day and now it struggled through the four Klonopins he had downed in a desperate attempt to force him into sleep. He finally found the word that suited how he felt: “Heartbroken.”
His phone rang immediately.
“Hi,” Levi said quietly.
He hadn’t heard Damien angry with him before but there it was: Levi had fucked up. He had fucked up the best thing that had ever happened to him. Just like he had fucked up the next best thing that had ever happened to him and, before that, the next, next best thing that had ever happened to him.
“So twelve hours after your ten a.m. interview, I finally hear from you.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t call.”
He heard Damien sigh before he carefully told him, “You don’t have to call, Levi. But. . .you scared me when you just went silent like that.”
He meant because you’re bipolar, Levi thought. Anyone else would be, “Oh, I figured you just needed time alone.”
“Why don’t you come over here tonight and. . .just let me hold you? Huh?”
“I can’t,” Levi told him. “I—I’ve already taken my pills and—”
“Just the usual amount, right?”
Again, because you’re bipolar, Levi thought. And probably accidentally overdosed just a week ago.
“Yes,” he lied. “But I’m getting sleepy.”
“The nanny is here. I can head over there. Is that okay with you?”
Levi could not speak. His left arm was a stinging mess of blood and puss. His legs were probably bruised from how he had hatefully punched himself.
“I want you to,” Levi said, his voice shaking. “But tonight might not be the best.”
Damien asked gently, “Is that because you’re at your worst?”
“Uh-huh. And I don’t want you seeing me like this.”
“Lee. . .come on. It’s okay to lean on somebody when—”
“No, listen. When I was with. . .the ex. X. I tried to tell him. At the end, toward the end, I tried to tell him, ‘I’m sick’. Like, ‘Now is not the time. I need to be alone.’ And he would make me go out to parties and The Abbey.”
“I’m not bringing you out to a club, Levi. I just want to see you.”
“But, listen. He did that even though I really needed to just be alone. Because sometimes, when you’re bipolar, I find, it’s best to not be around anyone. That way you can’t hurt anyone. You can’t say anything wrong. No one can get mad at you because you act like an asshole.”
“I’m not going to get mad at you.”
“You will. You’ll want me to snap out of it.”
“I don’t expect you to snap out of it. Remember: my brother is bipolar. I understand.”
“I have to tell you something if you come over.”
A momentary pause. “Are you breaking us up?”
“No,” Levi laughed sadly at the irony. “I want us to stay together. That’s why I’m afraid of you coming over. But if you do—”
“I have to tell you something.”
Damien told him firmly, “I’ll be there in about twenty minutes. To continue our everlasting, never-ending first date.”
Levi washed his arm, applied a stinging disinfectant, bandaged the arm with gauze, scrubbed his face clean, dug the salt crust out of his eyes. And saw before him the crazed look in the mirror he feared would chase Damien away.
He tried to rearrange his face. He was an expert at rearranging his faced, putting on a mask to hide his moods. But not tonight. This was the type of day where his mind was heading so far out of control, no amount of practiced smiles or eye-grins could deflect the truth.
When Damien arrived, Levi sat with him on the couch, and told him about the interview. And about Atlanta. About the shooting. About having to learn to walk again. About leaving Atlanta heartbroken.
And about how glad he was he found Damien and how sorry he was he had ignored his repeated text messages and calls and how he was scared, scared that Damien would see him like this and run, run all the way back to the Hollywood Hills and never call him or kiss him again. Scared that he would cost himself Damien and Track the same way he had unintentionally cost himself the dream job at the Academy Museum. Scared he would never hear Track’s giggles again, or be able to carry him at the zoo again or play with him again. Or awake in the early morning with Damien’s arms locking him in his embrace or suddenly looking at him and smiling or instinctually kissing him.
Damien softly rubbed the gauzed arm and held Levi’s sleepy head against his. And told him, “Tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow’s tomorrow? You’ll be fine. Until then. . .you can trust me. You took care of me when I was down. Now I’m taking care of you.”
They were barely noticeable in the dark—or even in the day—but as Levi slept soundly, quietly, his head on the pillow of Damien’s chest between Damien’s shoulder and neck, Damien softly, absent-mindedly traced the scars that dotted Levi’s back. Both scars had matching partners on his chest. One more set could be spotted with a careful eye on his right leg, front and back. And on his left leg, two more, also front and back, as if designed to match.
He had never asked Levi about them, about why he had scars that seemed to extend from one side of his body clear through to the other. He had determined this was something Levi would share at some time. Maybe that exboyfriend of Levi’s, the one who Damien knew had damaged Levi in some way, had made him afraid to explain the scars. Not that they were all that noticeable; the ones on his chest were almost buried under chest hair; the ones on his legs also hard to spot due to a skillful surgeon’s careful stitching and the hair on his muscular calves. The ones on Levi’s smooth back more visible but still not unsightly or all that clear at first—almost like a blemish until looked at more closely. But Damien knew there was a story–had done the math enough to have long ago solved the equation and know what the story was– and he waited, patiently, for Levi to explain it to him. Yet it was always as if nothing had ever happened; Levi never indicated the scars even existed until tonight. Because if the scars didn’t exist, there was no reason to explain them.
But as Damien lay there, having known long before tonight, when Levi had told him that these scars were remnants of that incident in Atlanta which had horrified Levi into silence, Damien’s fingers circled and traced the small raised flesh of the two scars on the back of the magical man he lay beside. And he gently put his lips on Levi’s head.
Levi was so good most of the time. But that bandaged arm. That odd, desperate light in his eyes this evening. He was struggling.
Damien was used to men being taken from him by other men.
And although his brother dealt with bipolar disorder himself, Damien had no idea how to fight to keep a man when the enemy threatening the relationship was the illness that caused the man you love to beat himself up. Or grow silent. Or think of suicide because he didn’t get a job.
So. . .Damien decided. . .he’d have to learn how to fight for this one.
Levi, he decided–even if Levi himself did not know it–was worth it.