Levi’s mind was binge-watching all the horrifying episodes of “What If?” that his personal Paranoia Network was streaming. Currently, as he worked through helping a trio of teenagers fabricate two teddy bears—Levi felt instinctually protective of the he-doesn’t-know-it-yet gay male friend of the two girls–his mind was being horrified by a particularly gruesome episode: “What If Damien Met Someone Far Hotter and Richer and Successful Than You and Has Completely Forgotten You Exist?”
In some rational part of his mind, he knew he was being silly. Or at least was able to hope he was being silly. But that he had first texted Damien three hours ago and not received a responding text message full of honeys and silly monkeys and babe had ruined his morning. Damien always replied immediately, whether working out in his gym, or in a meeting with his partners, or on vacation, or while spending time with Track.
This was why, he thought, he did not like caring for anybody. They gained control over his mind, which was already out of his control. By simply deciding to respond to a message later—when they weren’t in a meeting, or driving, or working out—they could devastate you, bringing to light all your fears and neuroses and reminding you why no one would ever be able to love you and why you should overdose, curl up into a ball, and die. You worthless piece of shit. You nobody. You silly moron who thought you could compete—in Los Angeles, no less, where the men in Damien’s world were either genetic perfection or perfection curated and created by a doctor who put this new nose here, pulled this skin tight, augmented that cheekbone to match this one, and added new perky pecs that simulated those of the most rabid gym rats.
Never fall in love. He had told himself that after how many failed relationships? And hadn’t they all failed because of him? Because, as a person, Levi Hastings was a failure. A freak with a chemical imbalance that never seemed to be corrected, no matter how many drugs he swallowed or how many hours he sat with a psychiatrist trying to show her how his mind was working now, with three more of this pill added and two less of that one? As if all this mixing, matching, adding, and subtracting somehow built a better Levi? All he felt was catatonic, his mind’s creativity caged in. Catatonic and, now, paranoid. And the paranoia, of course, would lead to helplessness. That feeling always came after paranoia. Because if he was afraid someone left him, there was nothing he could do and still retain his dignity. If Damien chose to simply walk away into the Hollywood world, there was nothing to be done. Their paths would never cross again.
After making their bears, he sent off the three friends—the two girls making themselves best friends bears while the young gay teen smiled with a rehearsed smile but an inner sadness Levi recognized. The fresh-faced gay teen was on the periphery of their friendship—of it but not in it. He was their sounding board, their camera holder, their audience. But not their friend. Or at least, not their reciprocated friend. He gave them attention and care; they gave him their worries and their ideas and opinions. But he was just a passing acquaintance who was hoping he’d be a lifelong friend. Instead, the teen boy had watched as the two girls giggled while they made teddy bears to exchange with one another, he envious he had no friend of his own.
Levi had wanted to pull him aside and say, “It gets better.” But first, he didn’t believe it really did, not when he was feeling so fraught with worry and uncontrollably convinced Damien was gone forever simply because he hadn’t returned a text message. And second. . .it wasn’t his place. Hopefully the teen had parents who were seeing him for who their son was and were understanding and letting him know they were loved. But he knew they were probably ashamed of him, like Levi’s parents had been ashamed of him. Shame bred indifference, no communication, no relationship. And then they die and you wonder, did they even care that they had a son and had no real relationship with him or did they regret that they let the world’s homophobia in, letting it ruin their bond with their own child? Did they realize how stupid they had been?
He told the salespeople he’d be back in a moment, went into the stockroom, and pulled out his bag of pills from his jacket. Identifying a Klonopin—his doctor had increased the size of the pill or the miligrams or whatever measurement pills used last week—he pulled one out and resealed and replaced the bag. Each of the new Klonopins was now more powerful than the other Klonopins had been. Nice, anti-anxiety medication, he thought. Usually used by him to shut off his brain so he could sleep in a mental blackout.
But he was so anxious, he needed something to calm him.
He took one, swallowed it without water, and after angrily checking his phone and finding, again, no response from Damien, he returned to the salesfloor.
“Can I take you to lunch today?” read the text message. “I’m sorry about returning your message late. Was on long phone call.”
Seeing the message, Damien had to break his own rule: You never turn your back on the door guests enter through. You only face the door—always with a smile. But his eyes had watered over. His mind—that out of control, crazy, paranoid mind—had convinced him he would never hear from Damien again. But here was the magical contradiction. He felt both like his mind—seeing how he had been able to get so upset in just a few hours– had just broken and that his heart—which had likewise been so easily crushed–had just healed.
“No worries,” Levi relied. “Hakuna Matata, as some warthogs and meerkats say. Yes, lunch would be great. How was last night?”
And, with the mental whiplash his mind was so used to, Levi read, “That’s one of the things I need to talk to you about. What time can I swing by to bring you to lunch?”
And from heartbreak to heart healed to heartbreak again, paranoia to calm to paranoia once more, Levi stumbled to his desk’s chair and typed back, “How about one?”
“Great,” Damien wrote back. “I’ll see you then!”
Levi noticed there was no baby, sweetie, honey, or silly monkey. Just. . .”I’ll see you then.”
“Are we still on our first date?”
Levi had blurted it out as soon as they sat down at Twenty-Five Degrees, the hip and stylish red-wallpapered and chandelier-dotted burger joint inside the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt. There had been an unusual timidity with Damien when he came into the store. While the salespeople had all dropped heir jaws, never able to get used to the idea that their store’s manager ahd some type of friendship or relationship and had been known on at least one occasion to have kissed Damien Lanchester, Levi had simply let them know he’d be back in an hour.
“Just an hour?” Damien had asked. “So, no time for Musso and Frank?”
Levi had laughed shortly with a false gaiety. “I work in retail. I have to combine my half hour lunch with my two fifteen minute breaks to make an hour-long lunch.”
“Hmmm,” Damien had said. “How about our old spot then?”
“The Snow White Café?”
Levi was faintly reassured by the fond grin that appeared on Damien’s face.
“Yeah,” Damien had said. But Levi knew Barry was working on the boulevard. It would feel so disrespectful if he brought Damien, for a second tuime, to that same cubbyhole of a restaurant he and Barry used to go to.
“Um. . .how about that burger place at the Roosevelt?” Levi had suggested. And Damien had agreed—sure, no difference to him—and they had walked down through Grauman’s courtyard from Levi’s store, down the boulevard, and across the street to the Roosevelt. Awkwardly. Levi’s tongue, his mind so fearful that this lunch would end with a break-up speech as desert (“It’s not you. It’s your mind.”) found forming words impossible. And noticing Damien’s like nervousness. . .
Glancing at Damien—handsome, loving, so sweet Damien—he thought he would will himself to die if Damien broke things off with him. No one, Levi thought, could ever, ever be more wonderful.
And so, once they were seated and menus placed before them by a waiter who told them he’d be back with their drinks in a moment, he had done it. Levi had blurted out, with a speed and nervousness that tried to sound playful but sounded woefully needy, “Are we still on our first date?”
Damien parroted the question. “Are we still on our first date?”
Levi held his face as stolid as possible, but he could feel the inevitable pain burning in his eyes, knowing he had just torn the figurative bandage off what was sure to be a ghastly wound.
Like a bullet wound. . .
Damien edged closer to him in their leather booth. “Are you nervous about—”
“About you breaking up with me.”
“No,” Damien said. “No, no, no.” His eyes scanned Levi’s face; Levi feared he was sizing him up. “Yes, he’s crazy,” he imagined Damien thinking.
“You silly monkey,” Damien said, taking one of Levi’s hands in the brace of both of his.
Silly monkey. The words made Levi laugh so suddenly, he thought he would cry. Happy, so happy that he had been wrong. And sad because his mind was spinning in a way other’s minds didn’t.
“Where did you get that idea?” Damien asked, almost reprovingly. Gently.
“I just got paranoid. I’m sorry. That’s not like me. But I felt bad about not going with you last night and I. . . Look, I know you’re a moral, upright person. But in my mind, when I get crazy like that—paranoid? I get nervous someone is going to try toi take you away from me and—”
Damien burst out laughing with such a deep chuckle that nearby tables tossed glances their way.
“I assure you, no one I was out with last night—” He laughed again. “No, Levi. No. You had no competition.” He smiled with his eyes, smiled at Levi, and said, “No one can compete against you. We are still on that first date.”
“The first, wonderful date.”
Damien squeezed his hand.
“No end in sight,” Damien told him. “So I hope that reassures you.”
“Good. Because I have two things you and I need to talk about. And know that nothing changes between us, no matter what I’m about to say.”
“Damien. . .not to soujnd like a southern belle, but my head is literally spinning. From paranoia to calm and happy to paranoia to—”
“Let me spit everything out then. Because nothing—I mean it, Lee, nothing is wrong. But I need to tell you some things and ask you some things. Okay?”
Levi said, “Okay” but no, things were not okay. Something was different. He braced himself mentally and, Damine noticed, physically, as well. Clenched jaw as if to steady it, a smile locked in so as to conceal any hurt, and a gaze so steady as if to hide surprise.
“You scared me last week when I saw how you hurt yourself—”
“I’m fine. It was a—”
“Lee, I care about you. That’s not fine.”
“Sssh. Let me just say what I need to say so we can enjoy the rest of our lunch with each other. Please. Lee. Please.”
Levi struggled into silence, fearing he was being misunderstood.
“You know my brother is bipolar. So I called him this morning—that’s who I was talking to when you texted me. I. . .I just wanted to see. . .,how can I help you. Not leave you. Not lecture you. Just. . .how,. when your moods are out of control or when something like maybe not getting that job—”
“Definitely not getting that job—”
“Have you heard back from them? Gotten a rejection letter?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Then you don’t know. You may be getting it, you may not. But that’s the thing: I need to know how to help you. You being silent. . .and beating yourself up. . .that’s not good. I can’t let you do that.”
“Show me your arm.”
Levi did and Damien shook his head at the sight. Still covered in scabs from his self-inflicted digging away at his own flesh.
“That’s not fine, honey.”
Rolling his shirtsleeve back down, Levi nodded in sad agreement. He was broken. That was undeniable. “So . . .what did your brother say?”
“He said,” Damien sighed. “Honestly? He said to run.”
Levi wanted to blurt out, “Your brother’s an asshole” but before he could even form the words to hold them back, Damien added, “I told him that is absolutely out of the question. I told him there is no way I’m turning away from you. Not with all you bring to me. To Track.”
“So, not running?”
“Not with the way I went around this morning, after we made lunch plans, humming and happy because, lucky me, I get to go have lunch with Levi.”
Levi smiled so much, his face turned red.
“Stop,” Levi pleaded. “I’m about to pass out.”
Damien laughed quietly. “Don’t do that. There’s bigger endearments to come when we’re somewhere private. But. . .I do need to ask you a favor.”
“In lieu of my running. . .to help me help you. . .can I go with you to your next psychiatrist’s appointment?”
“Hold. You want to have a date where we go, not to lunch, but to my shrink’s office?”
“Well, we can have lunch before or after.”
“Dinner and a shrink. It’ll be all the rage.”
“So, you’re fine with that?”
“Of course. I. . .I’d actually like you to meet her. Then she can stop thinking I’m having a delusional relationship with a celebrity who I have some photos of on my phone.”
“Good. I just. . .I have some things I need to ask her. With you there, of course.”
“I’m an open book to you, Damien. Whatever you need.” Open heart, open mind, open everything. He could never inhale enough of this man, physically or figuratively.
“Great. I’ll clear my calendar for your next appointment. But. . .before then. . .I do have to tell you about last night.”