Levi, used to a wearing a uniform five days a week that made him look like a colorful, overgrown Munchkin, was not one to have to worry about clothing. Because he wore copies of the same red pants and colorful button-down shirt almost every day, clothes shopping had become a hobby in which he had fallen far behind. So when Damien asked him to accompany Damien to meet some of his best friends for cocktails and dinner, he had felt his heart surge and grow at Damien’s further inclusion of Levi in his world—and then a chilling when he recalled how dated his closet had become.
“I don’t know what to wear. I don’t even know what’s in style anymore.” Levi complained to Kyle on their weekly walk around Culver City.
“Wear what you’re wearing now,” Kyle told him, holding the new seeing eye dog’s leash . “You look fabulous.”
“Thanks so much, Elsa Klensch.”
“Look—have you gained weight since I last saw you?”
“No. I’m about the same si—”
“About? As in ‘My waist is five inches bigger but I still think I look good because I’ve become delusional’ or ‘about’ as in ‘Yes. I still have the body of a heroin addict on a year-long hunger strike’?”
“Sadly. . .the latter.”
“Good. Don’t ever change. I’m going to call my old friend Federico. He owes me. When I used to do print, I did him a favor and did a runway show or two for him—no charge. And I should have charged him because his designs then were pure shit. He has a shop on Melrose. He’ll loan you some stuff for the night.”
“Oh. . .I don’t know. I think I just need to go to Abercrombie and—”
“Levi Hastings. You are in your thirties and approaching the big four-oh. You do not shop at Abercombie and Fitch. Not at your advanced age.”
“Um, my ‘advanced age’ is the same as your advanced age,” Levi reminded him. “And really—I’m just going to go the mall. I am not ‘Melrose Ave fashion’. A nice shirt and pants and a jacket maybe. . .”
“How does Damien dress?”
“Oh—he always looks like he has a stylist. He doesn’t, except for like promotional appearances and shit. He just has a really good eye for matching things up and layering and he knows how to wear a watch and a leather cuff and—He looks really good.”
“And you’re going to go to a party with him dressed like you just fell into The Gap?”
“Well. . .I don’t think he really cares what I wear since he mostly takes off anything I have on anyway. . .”
“Calm down, Crystal Allen—You like that? I listened to ‘The Women’ last night.”
“I caught the reference. Very good,” Levi said encouragingly.
“I’m just saying you need to look like he does in front of his friends. They’re going to judge you. It’s what Los Angelenos do.”
“Los Angelenos? Gay men everywhere. I’m used to it.”
“Well. . .just don’t let a tell-off rant like what happened with Brad and Chad happen again. That’s all I’m saying. Look nice and maybe no one will say anything to set you off.”
“That Brad-and-Chad incident had nothing to do with my clothes.”
“I know,” Kyle said, placating him. “We were all going through a lot of crap then and their insults didn’t help. But you really like Damien. And if his friends end up being the usual Hollywood bitches, I want you to fly right under their cunty radar. Just look good. The right clothes can work wonders. I’m serious. Remember, I know a lot about clothes. ‘Dress to impress–and impress to get undressed’ was my motto.” He sighed. “Now my must-have accessory is a seeing eye dog. Fuck you, world. I need a blow job.”
While Levi and Kyle were lunching at Culver City’s homey Maxwell’s Cafe and fretting over what Levi should wear to meet Damien’s friends, Damien was trying on more costumes at the offices of Culver City Studios for Alicia and the wardrobe designer. Both women had been infuriated by Matt Ingraham’s decision to leave them without a leading man so close to production start, thankful that Damien had been both available and willing to take the part, but now fearful of the alterations needed to reuse any of the pieces custom sewn to Ingraham’s measurements; not a single piece fit and, having been custom cut, there was no material to “let out” for Damien’s broader shoulders or longer legs.
“Every single piece,” the costume designer moaned. “Every single piece has to be made all over again.”
“That’s going to be as nice ding in the budget,” Alicia groaned, hands covering her face as she muffled a frustrated shout.
Damien almost wanted to apologize, as if it were somehow his fault that Matt Ingraham, who photographed taller and broader on-camera, was a shorty off it.
Grinning sympathetically, Damien asked, “I can take this off, then?”, indicating with his thumbs the suit jacket he hadn’t even been able to get over his shoulders, so tight had it been.
“Take it all off,” Alicia moaned.
“Hey—watch yourself,” Damien said, stepping behind the screen where a dresser helped undress him. “You have to buy me dinner first.”
“And send you to the Mike Pence Conversion Therapy program,” she shouted to him.
“Or sprout a cock!”
“That may be more likely than turning a gay guy straight,” Alicia mused. “By the way. . .I didn’t want to ask in front of Levi. . .”
“Here we go. . .” Damien exhaled loudly.
“But what happened between you and Federico? I really liked you two together.”
Damien pulled on his own pants and dismissed the dresser. “Yeah, I liked him and me together, too,” Damien explained. “Unfortunately, Federico liked us together and us and a stranger together and Federico and any WeHo whore together and so on and so on. And, funny thing is. . .” He pulled his tee shirt on. “I like to know I’m not gonna catch something from my lover’s disloyal cock.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Apparently you’re the only one. I was blessed with a loyal circle of friends,” Damien said. “Most of whom sucked off Federico’s big Latin dick.”
“Are you serious?”
“Oh, yeah. Serious and still bitter about it. Anyway, fuck him and I hope he gets deported. Nothing like living up to that old stereotype of the Latin lover. Latin Lover? Fuck that bullshit. Latin Lover isn’t as romantic as it may sound.”
He took his shoes out to the chairs where Alicia and the wardrobe designer had been sitting and took the designer’s now-vacant chair.
“So, Levi? How do you feel about him?”
Damien stopped tying his shoes to look at her. “Lucky. God damned lucky.”
She smiled–but he caught the look that unintentionally paired with the smile.
“Don’t be one of those, Alicia.”
“One of those people who once they make it in the business start walling off those who haven’t.”
“I didn’t say shit, Damien.”
“He’s not in the business, he doesn’t want to be in the business, and he’s not using me to get into the business.”
“It isn’t always about getting in the business, you know—”
“Money? I’m not worried about him being after that, either. Do you really think I’m so unattractive and shitty that he can’t actually like me for me?”
“Of course he can like you for you.”
“Then don’t turn this into one of those He-isn’t-good-enough-for-you-because-he-doesn’t-have-an-Oscar lectures. There are many good people who have no interest in what we do.”
“I’m not saying that. I like Levi. A lot. I was only asking about Federico. Levi looks. . .” she searched momentarily. “Sweet.”
“And?” He knew something else was coming.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Damien. Please.”
“No, tell me.” He may have welcomed her criticism with his words but his body posture told her to tread carefully.
“Wounded. He seems very wounded and nervous and—”
“He’s been through a lot.”
“And you’re a caretaker. Do you really need to be taking care of someone?”
“He takes care of me, too. It is not one-sided.” Damien sighed and flipped his phone to the camera gallery. “And if he seems—”
“He is. He has scars from bullets.”
“I mean. . .emotionally. He looks so fragile, Damien. His hands shake and—”
“He was very nervous about meeting you.”
“Why be nervous about meeting me?”
“Because I told him you were one of my favorite people and—”
“Aw! Am I?” she cooed.
He kissed her forehead. “Yes. And he wanted you to like him. He was terrified. Plus, he had to tell you about Atlanta. He was afraid you’d think he was a misogynist pig telling you, of all people, how to make a movie.”
“I didn’t take it that way. He had a point, a point every single person who saw that script—myself included!—should have caught. The writer’s working on that, by the way. We may change the sequence to a Miami hurricane.”
“Miami? A hurricane?”
“If it’s in the budget.”
“Story by dollars,” Damien sighed, nervously. “Don’t let the bottom line cause this to be a mistake on our resumes, Ali.”
“My name’s on this thing, too.” She told him. “We’ll make a change that works and the picture will be unassailable.” She hesitated. “Back to topic. . .How will Levi handle you being gone for two months?”
“Levi,” Damien told her, “Will be coming to Atlanta every week on his weekends.”
“What do you like about him most?” she asked. “I like him but I want to know what you see in him.”
He didn’t have to think. He knew.
“He has got the most loving heart of anyone I’ve met. Yeah, he has some issues. Don’t all of us? Every single one of us is a deal breaker in someone’s eyes. But he loves with all his heart. Even when we’re just making dinner or watching a movie or on a run or, like earlier, climbing the stairs in Beachwood Canyon—”
“Oh, I love those stairs,” Alicia whispered.
“I see it in his eyes. Just. . .love. Trust.” He smiled sadly. “With Federico. . .Thom before him. . .Cam before Thom. . .it never felt like I had an ally. Levi is an ally. It’s not me against the world. Or me against the world and Federico. It’s me—and Levi—against the world. I just love catching him with his heart in his face like that.”
She smiled. “I saw it the other night. I know I didn’t stay long but I had that thing, that DGA thing. But I did see how he looks at you. It’s adorable. He really looks at you—even in a glance–with absolute love. I don’t want you to think I doubt him. Really. I’m all for you two together. I just don’t want one of my favorite people getting hurt again by yet another bad guy.”
“Oh?” Damien teased. “I’m one of your favorite people, too?”
“You know you are,” Alicia said, returning his kiss on the forehead. “Now get the fuck out of here. I have to get on a call with the casting director.”
“So, the Amber is all pissy anytime I mention your name,” Kyle was telling him as he ate his turkey meatball sandwich. It was one of his favorite things in the world to eat. Sometimes, Levi watched him smile at every bite and thought how nice it would be if Levi could afford to pay for him to eat it at every meal.
“I can’t be bothered,” Levi told him. “I’m tired of people treating me like I have something wrong with me that needs to be fixed.”
“But you do need to be fixed,” Kyle said, stabbing his finger to where his ears told him Levi’s head was.
Levi sometimes wished Kyle would choke on his turkey meatball sandwich.
“Anyway, I wish you two would make up already. So she insulted you? She didn’t mean it.”
Levi sighed. “It’s not the insult; it’s the implication. I happen to like my job and—”
“No, you don’t,” Kyle flatly told him. When Levi said nothing, Kyle continued. “You bitch about it all the time.”
“No, Kyle, I don’t.”
“It’s in your tone. You think what you do is just as unimportant as Amber does. And you’re just as embarrassed by what you do as she is. Put yourself in her place. She has all these important friends and she has to introduce you, the guy who plays with teddy bears—”
“I work with children,” Levi clarified.
Kyle waved him off. “She thinks you’re a loser and so do you.”
Levi’s eyes stung and watered.
“What?” Kyle asked.
Levi said nothing.
“I’m tempted to leave you here and let you find your own way home.”
“The dog knows the way.” Kyle found his French fries and put one in his mouth. “I didn’t say anything you don’t think.”
“I do not think I’m a loser.”
“Yes, Levi, you do. You hate your job, you hate that it’s the only thing you can handle right now. Well, at least you can have a job.”
“Oh—this is going to be about you now?”
“Do you think I like relying on my friends and family for every thing? Oh, today I get a treat: Levi has a few hours to spare so he can drop off some CDs and buy me lunch so I don’t have to eat a can of cat food?”
“You don’t eat cat food.”
“What do you think tuna, is Levi? Can of tuna, can of cat food. If you started buying me Nine Lives, I probably wouldn’t know the difference. Don’t try it—I’m just saying.”
“I’ll get you other things to eat. You just never tell me what else you want.”
“I’m tired of telling you what I want. I want to go into Ralph’s myself and look at the aisle and look at what’s new and see the prices and the packages and see what’s new and improved and what has a great new taste or now with lower calories. But I can’t. I need you to buy my groceries for me. And you’re upset because you don’t like your job?”
“What does any of this have to do with—”
He was distracted by his phone vibrating across their table and playing his newest ringtone, a sample of Seal’s “Crazy”. Seeing the number, he froze.
“Hold on,” Levi told Kyle.
“Who is it?”
He didn’t answer Kyle. He instead answered the phone. The number was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He assumed they were calling to tell him what he already knew: he did not get the job. But at least they were calling to let him know, to allow him that one dignity. Well. . .he thought. . .let’s brace for it and get this over with.
“Hello,” he said, “This is Levi Hastings.”