“How much for a blow job?” Damien asked the blond man at the corner of Hollywood and Orange.
“Fifty cents,” Levi told him, getting into his SUV. “But my thoughts and dignity are still available for a penny in aisle two.”
“Come ‘ere, you funny guy.” As they kissed hello, Damien pulling Levi’s face to his with a grip on his chin, the horn of the car behind them blared.
“I’m moving, I’m moving,” Damien shouted back at the man as he put the SUV in gear and took off.
They were going to meet a couple of Damien’s friends for drinks at the Waldorf Astoria, maybe dinner after. . .or maybe sex (that last activity minus the other couple). Damien had been a bit vague that morning. So Levi had changed into his new clothes after his shift ended at five, emerging from the stockroom in his pressed linen pants, brown belt, and uncomfortably too-summery-for-winter shirt. Seeing him, both Judy and “That Greg” had whistled approvingly.
“Levi! Have I ever seen you in normal clothes?” Judy cried. “You look good!”
“Thank you for being surprised,” Levi had replied with a smirk.
He had spent an hour and a half in traffic the other morning, racing down to the outlets in the city of Commerce (“No, really, it’s a real place,” Levi explained to Damien—who had never heard of the place) so that he could buy some new clothes from last season at supposedly discounted rates in Banana Republic’s “Factory” store. The bargains were hardly bargains but they did fulfill the promise of being a season or two behind. And now, a few days later, Damien had told him to just meet on the corner of Hollywood and Orange after his shift and he’d swing by and pick him up. “Oh! I get to feel like a street whore!”, Levi had exclaimed. “How very Tennessee Williams of us!”
However, when they got out of the SUV, Damien handing his keys with a movie star grin to the valet, Levi felt cheap and unfashionable next to him. No matter what Damien wore, he wore it well. Even gym clothes looked tailored on him. And now—pairing a blazer and cream-colored, untucked shirt with a pair of jeans—he just wore clothes as if a stylist and fashion designer had cut and sewn everything with an overall vision: Movie Star. And next to him, Levi, the Outlet Mall Discount Dude. But the thrill of having the beaming, suave Damien place his hand—with pride, Levi noticed–on the small of Levi’s back, guiding him through the creamy, chandelier-dominated lobby and swiftly into an elevator, made his insecurities vanish, temporarily.
But, like a rapid-cycling mood swing, the friends they were meeting reinstated his personal insecurities ten-fold. While he was honored—it sounded pathetic but he had come to feel so deeply and all-encompassingly for Damien that yes, it was an honor to be introduced to those he loved—to meet Damien’s friends, he was also fearful. And his fears, he decided, were not unfounded.
Matty Bowerman, with a wax-like face frozen into a nonetheless handsome and knowing mask via Botox and almost-botched surgeries, was a powerful CAA rep. Not one, Damien had explained, to really have a lot of free time for socializing without a paycheck coming in some way, shape or form. No doubt, despite their friendship, Matty had some plan for Damien to, at some point, change his representation to CAA so that Matty could get him big roles in some less actorly action movies, making him a big whore to the Hollywood machine, but with Matty—as his pimp—earning ten percent. With Matty was his latest wife, referred to by some as “Whore Number Four” but best-known as best-selling novelist Jeanne Corbett, whose Young Adult novels more often than not crossed over to the Fiction best sellers on the strength of what Levi had previously assumed were semi-illiterate and emotionally-stunted middle-aged women. She had sold two novels (“Trixie Gets Sassed” and “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Leighton”) to the Disney Channel and her latest (“Ka-WEEN of Mortonville High”) was now under contract for a series adaptation over at Netflix.
And, while Damien failed to see it, neither Matty nor Jeanne cared much for the blond from the toy store.
That is. . .once they saw he wasn’t in the business and neither could make any money from him. Having never been all that interested in celebritites and having stood outside that business of show, he hadn’t had any real-life connection to people in the business.
He had heard tales, but always discounted them. But, as soon as smiles and handshakes and introductions had been made and that question—always the first or second—was asked. . .”So, Levi, what do you do?”. . .and as soon as Levi stumbled over his answer, “I-uh-I manage a store. At, uh, Hollywood and Highland”—anyone but the man who affectionately slung his arm over Levi’s shoulder and whose smile grew a Seussian five times larger every time he glanced at him, could see Matty and Jeanne’s disinterest. To them, Levi was suddenly a thing—a potted plant or an umbrella over their rooftop table by the pool. They were here to see their friend Damien, not whoever this no one was.
And they froze him out.
Regardless, Levi smiled along, laughed at their jokes, and played the part of the pleasant companion. He did notice he had trouble holding his goblet of sparkling water; his hand had started trembling and he assumed it was the nerves he felt. He wanted these two—two of Damien’s closest friends—to like him. To ask after him. To stick up for him when Damien and Levi eventually had their first fight. Instead, laughing quietly at one of Matty’s jokes, earning a strangely disdainful glance from Jeanne, his hand began to tremble more. So he put the glass down, knowing she had seen how nervous her look had made him.
Had he been the crying type, he probably would have cried. He felt tremendously rejected, despite his locked-in-place smile and for all Damien’s frequent squeezes on his shoulder and occasional pecks on the lips. The three of them seemed so happy and he wished he could join them in their happy, carefree Oh-and-did-I-tell-you-about-so-and-so-ness of it all. He felt out-of-place in out-of-style clothes, here on an out-of-this-world view rooftop at the poolside restaurant with his—how did this happen again?—movie star boyfriend.
The question Levi had just asked himself was asked aloud by Jeanne, who wagged a finger between Levi and Damien while asking the question, “Now, how the hell did you two meet?”
She asked with a bemused smile and threw back her hair as if delightfully curious, but Levi feared she meant it far more critically than Damien was hearing. As in, “Damien Lanchester, how the fuck did you meet this piece of shit?”
“Ah—” Damien said, turning to Levi. “Do you want to tell it or—”
Levi shook his head and smiled him encouragement.
“Well—” Damien began, “I brought Track to Hollywood and Highland. I had been at Rebecca’s place the night before and her little kid—Lisa? Lianne?—”
“Lizbeth,” Jeanne supplied.
“Lizbeth. So Lizbeth had this teddy bear with her—”
Levi had never heard this story. He listened with a smile but a confused one, likely looking like a demented rent boy to the two opposite him.
“And she kept bouncing it up and down on my lap. I asked where she got it and Rebecca told me about this store at Hollywood and Highland—”
“Your store?” Matty asked.
Levi came clean. “I’m hearing this part for the first time.”
Damien explained, “I never gave him the back story.” He winked at Levi, who almost visibly melted—and not due to the propane heater the waiter had placed too close to Levi’s seat–as Damien continued. “And she said that, uh, Lizbeth?”
“Lizbeth,” Jeanne confirmed.
“That Lizbeth had made her teddy bear at the store in Hollywood and Highland. So I thought, ‘Great. I have all day off, tomorrow. I’ll take Track there. Lizbeth and Track are about the same age so he should enjoy it.’ So I get to Hollywood and Highland and I can not find this damned store—”
“It’s easy to see from the street,” Levi explained to Matty and Jeanne, “But once you’re in the complex, sort of hard to figure out how to get to.”
The duo nodded with, at best, semi-politeness. As in, “Shut the fuck up unless we give you the speaking stone.”
“Yeah. It’s up a few stories and, well, anyway, I eventually find the right hallway—it’s sort of right above where we walk in on the Academy Awards night—that hallway with those columns that have the Best Picture winners on them. And I’m walking toward this store and as I get close, Track—who doesn’t know where I’m bringing him; it was just gonna be a surprise—he sees Levi. Standing there in the door to his store. Holding a teddy bear dressed in a leather jacket and jeans and sunglasses. Meaning the bear is dressed that way. And Track shouts out, ‘Bear!’ And so I look up and really look at the store. I’m just glad I finally found the damned place. And I see Levi.”
Damien turned to Levi then and kissed the hand he held and, with their eyes locked, he added, “And I fell the fuck in love.”
Levi was confused and let it show. At the moment, he didn’t care about Jeanne or Matty. Damien Lanchester had just professed to loving him. And forgot the part where he went into the boutique next door rather than come into the store.
“Wait,” Levi said. “You held up your hand when you saw me and said, ‘Not interested.’”
“I never said, ‘Not interested’,” Damien said, laughing.
“Busted!”, Jeanne cried.
Matty howled, “Someone got the story wrong!”
“You never get the how-we-met story wrong, Damien! You’re in the doghouse, now!” Jeanne laughed.
“No, what happened was—” Damien explained.
“You turned when you saw me, gave the hand—” Damien held up his free hand to demonstrate for Jeanne and Matty, “Like, ‘Not interested!’ and you went into the store next door.”
“I panicked,” Damien told Levi. He turned to Jeanne and Matty. “I did. I saw him and—it was like this instant kick-in-the-ass. He looked so. . .sweet. I get so sick of all these plucked and trimmed and hard-as-nails users in this fucking business. And here’s this adorable guy—I mean, look at him. Is he handsome or what?”
Damien didn’t seem to notice neither Matty nor Jeanne offered much agreement.
“And he’s at the door to this store, holding a fucking teddy bear. . .and I just felt like a kid again. Like I was ten years old and having my first crush all over again. So I panicked and—I remember I actually turned Track’s head, like this—” He mimed putting his hand on a small head and turning it, like a steering wheel, “—and said something like, ‘Uh—no. We have to go in here first.’ And we went into this other store. And we hung out there and I pretended to browse until I could get my shit together.”
“So—” Matty asked, interrupting their moment of gazing into one another’s eyes. “How did you end up meeting if you were hiding?”
“Well, I got my shit together and went to Levi’s store. And Levi—”
“I was looking him up on my phone—” Levi admitted. “I couldn’t remember his name.”
“He couldn’t remember who I was. I think that’s my favorite part,” Damien giggled.
“I just knew I had seen him somewhere. And I had—I’d seen several of his films. But I couldn’t place his name,” Levi explained. “But I haven’t looked him up since. It just feels weird, knowing that there are interviews and videos and tabloid stories all out there so—I’d rather not do that. So instead, we have these long, long conversations—”
“And, at first, he’d ask me something and I’d tell him, ‘You can look all this stuff up. There’s all sorts of interviews and biographies on the internet’ and he’d say, ‘No, no, no. I don’t want to read about you on the web. That’s just strange. I want you to tell me. Like two regular people.’ And we—”
“So, how did you go from the store to now, though?”
“He stalked me,” Levi said bluntly, with a smirk.
“I did. I stalked him,” Damien said, playfully admitting to a pretend crime. “I brought Track in to see him a second time—”
“Oh—and you ran into me at the Braunstein Center—”
“That’s right. I forgot about—”
“The Braunstein Center?” Jeanne and Matty both cried with distaste, not simultaneously, but close. A hard-to-master, almost-simultaneous ejaculation.
“Oh—” Damien said, dismissing it. “Robin had convinced me—for publicity–to go to this press thing they were having. What was it for again?”
“Water,” Levi said. “The Braunstein Center discovered water. I don’t know what the rest of us have been drinking all these years but–”
“I love how you just break it down,” Damien told him as if the other two weren’t there. Remembering they were, he added, “So I go and run into this guy, here, who’s working the event as a volunteer—”
“Why were you volunteering there?”, Matty cried, disgusted. Turning to Damien, he asked, with accusation loud in his voice, “He’s not recruiting you into that cult, is he?”
“No, he’s not recruiting me,” Damien scoffed. “He doesn’t even believe in it.”
“Then why are you volunteering with them?” Jeanne asked. “You know they’re a cult, right?”
“Okay—can we get back to the story, please?” Damien asked. “Lee is smart as a whip. And no he is not a cult member. And no, he is not recruiting me.”
“Then why was he volunteering there?” Matty asked, adding, “And, by the way, you need to fire Robin. That’s not the type of press you need.”
Damien turned to Levi apologetically. “Do you want me to explain or—I’m sorry. I just don’t want to talk about you like you’re not here.”
“I’m fine,” Levi said, reminding himself to remain calm and to smile. No bitchy retorts. Just keep it pleasant. “I was there because I had started taking classes there.” Seeing their victorious eyes pop wide and fingers pointing to him, as if Damien hadn’t heard what Levi had just said, Levi added firmly, “I was curious. Not a cult member. I’m an atheist. I’m certainly not going to believe the galaxy started when a candle wanted to share its flame and so it created all we know over seventy-two days. I can never believe anything like that.”
“An atheist?” Jeanne sad the word with the same tone she would say, “A child molester? A granny rapist? A consumer of carbs?”
“Yes. So I’m also immune to things like Catholicism, Judaism, Christianity and—” He stopped himself before saying, “-and other like mental illnesses.” Instead he took a moment and said, “I just was curious as to what they taught. And, when you get away from the cult stuff—all that pseudo religion stuff, and the face reading and the palmistry and all that nonsense–the self help classes are okay—”
“Why do you need self help?” Jeanne asked.
“He lives in L.A.,” Damien butted in. “Everyone here can use an occasional self help, self-improvement classes.” With a tip of his wine glass at both Matty and Jeanne, “Myself included and you two, in particular.”
They laughed but not as warmly as they would have done a few moments before.
“So. . .you don’t believe but you’re still involved with them?” Matty’s eyes, squinting in disbelief, accusation.
“Yes. They’re really harmless,” Levi said, to a huff of disbelief from Matty and a headshake of disagreement from Jeanne. “At least, to me. I go, take mediation classes, some self-help classes. There’s no brainwashing going on. I mean, maybe if I were rich or powerful, they’d want me more.”
He noticed Matty sat up aggressively but Levi continued, “But—I’m just sort of there, taking classes and–”
“He’s going to recruit you, Damien.” Matty told Damien, Jeanne nodding in accusatory agreement.
Levi found Matty staring angrily at Damien while pointing angrily at Levi as if Levi was some kind of pariah. A leper in La La Land. Bad ju-ju at Jean-Georges.
“You hear that? Did you hear what he said? They don’t want him—he’s not rich or powerful. They want you. And he’s how they get you, Damien.”
Matty gave Levi a look of naked repulsion. “This guy right here.”