Alicia Clare was as understanding and sensitive as she was intelligent and tough. A one-time actress, she had found acting not as taxing of her creativity as she would have liked. Though always beautiful, whether made up or make-up free, she had never been concerned with looking glamorous—or as she said, courtesy of Hedy Lamaar, “Standing still and looking stupid”. She had found directing to be more suitable to her skills and artistry and preferred over acting and artifice. Unfortunately, being a woman, Hollywood had been slow to accept her decision to make a career transition. She had been given the gender-based and biased burden of proving herself repeatedly with highly-praised and awarded television work and film shorts all in order to get a single feature film made—and when that film had become a hit, she had received little credit for it. Instead, credit for its success had gone to the male actor who had starred in it. (This, despite the fact that the film was truly an ensemble piece and the name above the title had less screen time to the below-the-title names.) Now six films in to her feature directing career, she still found securing financing and creative control over the films she wanted to make incredibly difficult. Whereas, if she had been a hack like some of the men she knew, she would have a film in production at all times. And she would likely get credit for its box office success. And, maybe, just maybe. . .an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
She had wanted to have a quick drink with Damien to toast his agreeing to sign on to her long-planned remake of “Penny Serenade”—or, as she so thankfully put it, “saving my ass from having to hire Ryan Reynolds or Jake Gylenhaal”. What she had not anticipated seeing at Poppy in West Hollywood that evening was Damien accompanied by a tall, thin blond man with beautiful, green eyes and a manner refreshingly free of West Hollywood arrogance.
She adored him almost immediately. And when Damien explained—gently he noticed, as if to not upset the fragility that had appeared in Levi’s face when Damien had begun addressing the topic—that Levi had lived through the very terrorist attack which the film was going to use as a plot device, she noticed how Levi’s hand shook as he sipped on the glass of sparkling water.
“So, I’m fine filming the movie and Levi is fine with it, as well. But he mentioned something to me that I think, as a survivor, we need to consider,” Damien said. “Please don’t take this as mansplaining.”
“I know you too well,” Alicia told him, rolling her eyes in faux exhaustion and touching Damien’s arm fondly. He had been among those supportive of her from the get-go and go-and-do-it, telling her she could go and make it happen. He had even offered to do that thing an actor of his stature had to be careful about ever doing: television. And, when planning the film he was producing in Italy this spring, he had offered her the director’s slot first. But her commitment to “Penny Serenade”—which involved a lengthy post-production—had kept her from accepting, a circumstance which had been coincidental but fortuitous: Damien already had a vision for his film and they likely would have competed with one another too much in its production.
Levi explained that, to him, it seemed that the screenplay was exploiting the Atlanta attacks. They were present in the screenplay, he felt, for no reason other than to cause a miscarriage. God, he hoped she understood that he didn’t think himself a director. He wanted her to like him very much. When Damien had suggested he come along to meet her, he had actually cowered from the idea. She could have easily been an intimidating force. Instead, she listened, nodding and digesting his words with an open mind. He just did not want one of Damien’s friends to dislike him.
“But there are repercussions,” Alicia explained. “The miscarriage is what sets so many other parts of the story in motion.”
“But why does it have to be caused by . . .what it’s caused by?” Levi asked. “It seems like Damien’s character and the wife character are out and about, the shootings start, she’s wounded. . .and the attacks themselves are never mentioned again. There’s no trauma from the shootings. There’s no mental residue. There’s just the trauma of the miscarriage itself.” Levi could not look at them. “There would be much, much more going on.” He took a sip of his water, wishing it was something highly alcoholic; flammable. “I know.”
“What I was wondering,” Damien explained, “Was if it might be best to change that sequence? If not, I think the knives will be out for us. People will say the film is replacing the original’s earthquake-in-Japan sequence just to capitalize on the Atlanta terrorist attacks. If the script was about the attacks, I’d see the point. But the film is about a marriage. And it seems to be using the attacks as a contrivance. Particularly as no character mentions them again afterwards.”
“You live with it every day,” Levi said. “Trust me. There’s a whole city full of people jumping at loud noises. Fireworks. Avoiding large crowds. . .”
“Your call,” Damien said. “Look—Michael Bay has already had his action hero saves the day take—”
“What bullshit that was,” Levi muttered.
“Wish fulfillment crap,” Alicia added. “That whole cliched, ‘I have a message from Atlanta’ line before he shoots the terrorist. . .Crap.”
She eyed them both, her head tilted a tad as if she were on one of her many museum haunts, inspecting a piece of art. “How are you now?” she asked Levi.
“I’m better. But it was a long road. And I still have a long way to go. It’s still hard to talk about. Much less. . .even remember.”
She watched as Damien lovingly rubbed Levi’s back and the sweet, sad smile Levi sent to Damien, eyes full of love and, her attentive eyes saw, pain.
“The wife can have a miscarriage some other way,” she said with the lightness with which she might say, ‘Let’s have him wearing a tie but no jacket’.”
“We’ll figure it out,” she told them both as she winked at Damien. “That’s what screenwriters are for. If he gets upset having to rewrite his script. . .I’ll just womansplain it to him.”
At the charming Beachwood Café the next morning, as Levi watched Track delightedly steal a sip from Damien’s green smoothie made of kale, Levi shamefully thought how, as a child, he would have demanded chocolate milk, Damien explained again to Track that he and Mister Lee were going on a hike after breakfast and not to Disneyland.
“Disneyland is tomorrow,” Damien promised him.
“Why not today?” I want to go see Mick Mought today.”
The nanny corrected Track. “Mickey. . . Mouse.”
“Mick Mought,” Track told her, not hearing the difference. Turning pleading eyes to Levi, he said, “Mister Lee. . .why not go to Disneyland today?”
“Well, because after Daddy and I go hiking, Daddy has to go to work. . . and try on clothes.” He flinched at his own words.
“Daddy has clothes,” Track said. “Lots of clothes.,”
“He has to be fitted for—” Seeing Track look at him in confusion, Levi explained, “Daddy is going to be in another movie and the movie people have to see how Daddy will look in the clothes he wears in the movie. But tomorrow, you and Daddy and Nanny will have all day to spend—all day!–at Disneyland.”
See?” Damien asked Track, stealing back his smoothie and spooning some oatmeal into Tracks’ mouth. “Now, come on. Eat.”
Track opened his mouth obediently and then, after swallowing, asked, “Aren’t you coming to Disneyland, Mister Lee?”
Levi had not wanted to go. The fireworks, the loud noises. The crowds. Not his type of thing. He would love to spend the day watching Track laugh and Damien return to his childhood but, no. . .Disneyland was not for him, not just yet. “Not tomorrow,” Levi explained. “I have to work all day while you all get to play and ride rides and meet Mick Mought.”
“Mickey Mouse,” the nanny corrected Levi.
“Yes,” Levi told her, ”I realize that.” He noticed Damien had twisted his head as far away as possible and that Damien’s chest was heaving with an unlaughed laugh.
“But I want you to go, too! Daddy—make Mister Lee go, too!”
“Levi can’t go tomorrow, Track. He has to work.”
“But it won’t be any fun without Mister Lee!”
Levi almost choked on his pancake. “Track. . .You’ll have lots of fun. Daddy will be there and so will Nanny.”
“But I want you there.”
“Track, I can’t. I’ll go to Disneyland with you and Daddy and Nanny some other time. But you’re going tomorrow with Daddy and Nanny and you’re going to have lots and lots of fun. With them,” he stressed.
“Oh. . .” Track said, his crying beginning. “Daddy. . .I want Mister Lee to go. . .” Needing comforting, Track reached for Damien, who lifted him up out of the restaurant’s high chair and held him up to him.
“Mister Lee just can’t go tomorrow, sweets. But he’ll come some other time. You still want to go see Mickey Mouse, don’t you?”
“Not. . ,.not without. . .Mister Lee,” Track sobbed.
“I’m sorry,” Levi mouthed across the table, as if he were somehow to blame.
“I’ll never forgive you, you s.o.b.,” Damien whispered back with a devilish smile. Turning back to Track, he dried Track’s tears and told him, “Oh, you do so still want to go see Goofy and Mickey and Peter Pan. Here. I’ll let you have the rest of my kale smoothie.”
To Levi’s astonishment, kale comforted and quieted the child, who took a spot on Damien’s lap and, hiccoughing thru the end of his crying fit, sipped the concoction happily. Even as an adult, had anyone offered him kale, Levi would have started bawling like an infant.
“I wanna go with you and Mister Lee,” Track insisted after breakfast, as they walked toward the SUV the nanny had driven over, parked beside Levi’s Mustang in the small parking lot of the village grocer.
“I think this may be too much for you,” Damien told him. “It may be too much for me.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Levi sniped, laughing. “Like your legs can’t handle a few hundred steps.”
“I want to be with Mister Lee!” Track cried.
“Track—you’re going home with Nanny. This hike is too much for you.”
“No!” Track said stubbornly. “I’m not!”
“Track!” Damien was not used to being rebuffed by anybody—much less a toddler. And his eyes were huge with resentment over the matter.
Levi quickly turned him around and whispered, “Let’s have him join us.”
“What? Are you nuts?”
Levi fastened a reproving glare upon him and shook his hand. “Hi. Levi Hastings, bipolar person. Have we met?”
“I didn’t mean that. It’s just that those stairs are steep—”
“He’ll take one look at them and want to go home,” Levi whispered. “Let him make up his mind and that way, Nanny Fine over there won’t have to deal with him screaming all the way home about how he wanted to be with us.”
Understanding calmed Damien’s features and he explained to Track that he could come with Damien and Levi as Levi whispered the plan to the nanny. “But I’m not carrying you,” Damien explained. “You have to go up the stairs all by yourself. And there’s lots of them.”
“I do it!”, Track shouted, tiny fist in the air, victorious in his determination!
But to all their surprise, even though Track had jumped and skipped as the three adults walked to the first set of the stairs they were going to climb, he still had enough energy in him to look up at the steep climb of stairs before him and tell the group, “I go first!”
As they watched, Track leaned forward, put his hands on the first step, and then crawled up on his knees. He then repeated this process for the second step. And, slowly, for the third.
“We’re going to be here til he’s twenty-one,” Damien quipped.
“I hope there’s a plastic surgeon who delivers facelifts because I’ll need one by the time he’s a third of the way up,” Levi added, setting Damien off to a fit of giggles.
Track turned to them all from the grand height of the fourth step.
“Okay. I’m done now.”
Damien laughed, “You’re done?”
“I’m done. I go home with Nanny now.”
Damien scooped Track up from the stairs, gave him a long, hard, noisy kiss on his cheek, and turned him over to the nanny.
Levi and Damien watched them disappear down Beachwood and, when they were gone, and Damien turned to find Levi still watching the spot where they had vanished around the bend, Levi asked, “I don’t even get a ‘Goodbye, Mister Lee’?”
Damien swatted Levi’s ass. “He runs hot and cold, doesn’t he? First he wanted you to go to Disneyland, then he forgets you because he wants to watch Sesame Street.”
“Yeah. He loves that show.”
Levi immediately translated that into plans for when he was in Atlanta. One day when he was visiting Damien during filming of the Penny Serenade remake, Levi decided, he’d bring Damien and Track to the Center for Puppetry Arts. It would be his surprise, bringing Track face-to-face with all of Jim Henson’s Muppets. He smiled brightly to Damien and held a hand outright, toward the stairs. “After you, Mister Sexy Legs.”
“Oh, no,” Damien told him. “You first, Mister Gorgeous Ass.”
“Oh, but kind sir, age before beauty.”
“You silly ignoramus: Bottoms before tops.”
“No, no. Gods before the godless.”
“Lovelies before the loveless.”
“Sweets before the sours.”
“Can we get around you while you decide who goes first?” Damien and Levi were jolted out of their private banter by a frustrated senior couple standing before them, trying to get to the stairs Damien and Levi were blocking. “We’d like to get our exercise in before we die.”
“So sorry,” Damien said, stepping out of their way.
The wrinkled, pink husband turned to them as he started up the stairs. “Cute couple,” he said to his wife.
“Reminds me of us,” she called back to him. “Fifty years ago.”