Levi glanced up at the pressed tin ceiling of Twenty-Five Degrees. Focused on the black-painted chandelier hanging over their tufted leather booth. The red velvet wallpaper stole his glance for a moment. A secondary eavesdrop on the jumble of conversations happening at the bar and at the table beside them.
“What happened last night?” Levi asked. He could tell by Damien’s voice that it was something bad. He wished he believed in a God so he could pray to some deity or other to please don’t let it have been that, despite his protestations to the contrary, Damien had slept with or met someone else. Please don’t let it have been that Levi, yet again, was proven replaceable.
“Well,” Damien began, “I was out with my partners in the film and. . .Do you remember about a week ago? You were at my place and a script got rushed over to me?”
“Yes,” Levi said, his voice flat. “The script for a remake of ‘Penny Serenade’.”
“Right. Well, the reason they sent that script over was because Matt Ingraham stepped out. Just decided at the almost-last-minute that he wasn’t going to do it. That’s why the part has been offered to me.”
This didn’t sound so horrible, Levi thought. Levi loved the original movie ‘Penny Serenade’ and had been enthusiastic about the idea of Damien playing the part Cary Grant had originated, despite Damien’s disinterest in acting in a mainstream melodrama.
“Are you going to do it?” Levi asked.
“Well. . .here’s the thing: I was accosted last night by the director, Alicia Clare. She’s adamant I play the part. She happened to be out at the same restaurant—Providence; you and I have to go one night. You’ll love it. Anyway, she saw me at Providence and promised me that she’d address anything I didn’t like in the script. And. . .I demanded a lot of money. A lot. Like, I should fire my agent and make my own deals, a lot.”
“I won’t ask how much but does it fall somewhere between what I get paid in a week and say, a bazillion dollars?”
“Somewhere in there, yes.”
“Do it,” Levi laughed.
“You really do like the story?”
“I like the original; I haven’t read what modern Hollywood is about to do to it.”
“You really think I can take on a Cary Grant part?”
“Oh, hon. You are my Cary Grant. And I your Irene Dunne.”
“Well, you’re part of why I’d like to take it.”
“Me? Why’s that?”
“I know you love all those classic movies. Alicia is going to try to do this in that style; it’s updated to today, but she wants it very Old Hollywood. Lots of suits and lots of style. A big score. Very soapy, but in a good way. But. . .here’s the thing: Filming starts in a few weeks. They’re already in pre-production so, if I say ‘yes’, I have to go right into costume fittings, hair and make-up tests, the whole pre-prod routine.”
“In other words, you’ll be busy.”
“In other words. . .I’ll be out of town.”
No. Levi’s disappointment showed in his face before he could attempt to hide it. No, no, no. It felt like Damien just got back from vacation. How were they supposed to date if all their relationship was being conducted via phone and text messages and emails? He sighed and his disappointment was deafening.
“How long will you be out of town for?”
“Well, I’ll still be here for a few weeks but this is really a rush. They already had a start date set when Ingraham walked out of his deal. I have to give them my answer by tonight or they’ll have to go with someone else. But once pre-prod’s done, I’ll be on location for six weeks, maybe eight.”
“Okay,” Levi said. “We’ll just. . .make it work.” He doubted they could. Wherever Damien was going, he’d find someone else who’d rub Levi out of Damien’s memory. When Damien left town in a few weeks, he’d be leaving Levi.
“We can make it work, you know,” Damien told him, frowning at him mockingly.
“You don’t seem to believe that. Unfortunately, I’m used to that.”
“No, Damien, I know we can. I’m just sad we have to. You just got back from a long vacation. Now you’re going away again. And if you’re gone for eight weeks—”
“Probably just six.”
“But possibly eight. You’ll be back here for what—a week or two before you fly off to Italy for three months?” He shook his head. “I’ll make it work. I will. I just. . .I guess I just wish you were here more.”
“I’m sorry. This is one of many reasons why I’m single,” Damien admitted, grinning, trying to lighten the mood. “Seriously. . .I know this is a pain in the ass. No one wants a long-distance relationship. They’re not easy. And I’ve been dumped and forgotten and cheated on during film shoots before—”
Levi muttered, “Idiots.” He didn’t like to think about the men in Damien’s past—preferred they be anonymous secrets, preferred to think Damien had never had sex or fallen in love with anyone until Levi and his giant sense of vanity appeared in his life. But at least now, at this moment, he could look down on them.
“But. . .if we could. . .I’d like to see if maybe, in addition to the usual phone calls and so on. . .if maybe I could fly you out on your days off?”
“Of course. I’m making somewhere between your salary and a bazillion dollars. So. . .maybe you could put your days off together instead of splitting them and you could work early on your Friday, whatever day that is, I fly you out that night, and I fly you back on your Sunday, and you go into work late on your Monday? You are the manager, after all.”
“Oh.” Suddenly the situation looked brighter. They’d just be apart for five days each week and together for two.
“If I’m filming on the days you’re in town, you can hang out on the set with me. There’s lots of downtime between shots. We can talk, have lunch, joke around. . .you can make sure I know my lines. Oh—and we can fuck a lot. And on the days I’m not filming. . .we can fuck all day. Marathon motherfucking fuck sessions.”
“Oh, Damie. You say the sweetest things.”
He chuckled. “You make me horny, baby.”
“We can make it work,” Levi told him. “Where is it being filmed, anway? Are they filming in Japan or–”
“No, the Japan sequence is actually replaced in this version with a—” He stopped suddenly and continued with an awkward gentleness. “The wife loses the baby in the remake due to. . .she. . .she gets shot.”
“Oh,” Levi said quietly. “Well. . .that’s different.”
“She gets shot in the. . .she gets shot at Little Five Points.”
Levi’s eyes grew wide and his breath went in like a deep inhale from one of his meditation classes.
“Little Five Points?”, Levi asked. “In Atlanta?”
“Yes. The story. . .um. . .it uses the attacks as a backdrop.”
Suddenly, Levi felt as if his blood sugar had crashed or all the drugs in his system rose up and joined hands to coordinate knocking him into sleep. He felt light-headed. Sick, almost.
“And that’s what concerns me. It’s not only set in Atlanta,” Damien told him, rubbing Levi’s back as Levi stared up to the pressed tin ceiling, trying to get his mind lost in its grooves and patina, wondering about how old the squares of tins were, where they might have been found by whatever interior designer decided to save them from a garbage pile by using them in this restaurant.
He continued. “It’s being shot in Atlanta.”
Shot in Atlanta.
Three words that jolted him back to the table.
“If you want me to turn it down,” Damien told him, “I will. It’s an otherwise faithful remake I think you’ll like but that part. . .I’ve already asked if maybe we can find some other reason for her to have a miscarriage.”
“Can’t she fall down the stairs? I mean, they do that all the time in movies or television. They have to. . .use that. . .the shootings. . .as a. . .plot device? Really?”
“I’m sorry. I’ll turn it down.”
“You’re not turning it down,” Levi told him. “That’s serious money.”
“For a shitty movie.”
“Damien, you can not turn down a movie because of me. That’s insane. And I know insane, remember? No. Take the role. Really. Just. . .just make them do it respectfully. Please. Not like that fucking Nicholas Cage shit movie where he ran through the bullet spray as people are being blown to bits left and right. Fucking Michael Bay, trying to make a movie about a tragedy. Turned real people into CGI special effect. Moron.”
“If I take it—are you going to be able to come to Atlanta?”
“Shit.” Levi had forgotten that part. He’d have to go to Atlanta again. Back to where it had all happened. Back to where, before the Klonopin, his mind used to travel back to every night. Crack, crack, crack. Sprays of red, like bizarre fireworks exploding out of chests, legs, necks. The weird way the crowd at Piedmont Park that day started looking at their phones as notifications came in. Shooting at Georgia Tech. Shooting downtown. There was a group of people firing into cars stuck in traffic on the 85 and the 75. . .
“Um. . .” Levi said. “Uh. . .Of course.”
“I’ll be with you every step of the way.” Damien told him. “We can ignore what happened if you want to. If you want to see certain sites. . .like where you were. . .if that helps you. . .I’ll be there with you. Or,” Damien said, brightly, “You can show me things like where you grew up. Went to school.” He winked. “Had your first kiss. And then I can try to top it.”
His devilish grin brought a laugh from Levi’s darkness.
“Take the part,” Levi told him. “And I’ll come to Atlanta on my days off.”
Damien pulled Levi’s head to rest on Damien’s shoulder, to the annoyance of two men at the bar.
“Kiss me and piss off some hets,” Damien demanded.
Levi complied and laughed as the yahoos angrily turned their backs in disgust. Yet, for whatever reason, glanced back a few times to see what supposedly upset them so much.
“Now,” Damien said, opening his menu to inspect the offerings with a delighted grin, “Time to have my last burger until filming is done.”
“No, no,” Levi told him. “Our very first part of this first date was over a burger. Our first Atlanta date has to be over one, as well. The Varsity. I have to bring you there for a real Atlanta tradition.”
“Okay. . .I’ll go off the diet once. For you.”
“Once? Good luck with that. Everything in Atlanta is deep friend and brown with gravy. You’re going there thin and sexy. You’re coming back obese.”
“Will you still find me sexy?”
“Mister Lanchester, I’ll find you sexy until your dying day.”
“Even in the afterlife?”
“I’m an atheist. Your dying day is as good as it gets with me.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Now take the part. Go ahead and let them know. Call them back. We’ll make it through this.”
Damien picked his phone out of his pocket but, before he dialed, he turned to Levi. “I just have to tell you—”
“I’m well aware how lucky I am you’ve come into my life, Lee. Really. You are something else.”
Levi smiled sweetly, his heart full. How strange a day it had been: back and forth, up and down, over and over. He went to say sweet words in return, but Damien hushed him.
“No. Just let me have the last word this time. You are everything I could ask for. Don’t you ever doubt it. Don’t you put yourself down because of your medical, chemical imbalance thing. Or your job. Your heart? It makes me want to just wrap you up and keep you all to myself. Thank you for letting me be by your side.”