Levi didn’t quite know what to say. Not having dated a movie star before, this being accused of trying to recruit said movie star into a cult was a whole new thing for him. Thankfully, allowing him a moment to compose himself, his accusers, Botoxface and Bitchface, were interrupted.
“Excuse me—I’m sorry to bother you but—”
Damien put up his hand to tell the woman about to ask for his autograph “Not now”. But he saw the young girl she was presenting to him and rearranged his angry face.
“Are you Damien Lanchester?”
“I am,” he said as warmly as he could manage. Even actors, Levi thought, need a moment or two to get into their character’s part.
“Oh—I’m so sorry to be a bother,” the woman said, addressing the tense group consisting of convincingly warm Damien, struggling-to-smile Levi, an angry Matty, and an insincerely-smiling Jeanne. “My daughter here, Anissa, just loved you in that Christmas movie, didn’t you, Anissa?”
Anissa, starstruck, eyes wide, nodded her head anxiously and wobbled between hiding behind her stylish mother and running into Damien’s arms.
“Well,” Damien said, “I’m a huge fan of you, Anissa. Can I give you a hug?”
“Go ahead—” Anissa’s mother said, as if permission needed to be granted. Her daughter was already stepping toward Damien, beaming in happy disbelief.
Levi wondered if that’s how he looked when Damien made love to him—all teeth and gums and eyes wide, with an “I don’t believe this shit is my life” expression accompanied by a nervous giggle. Levi assumed he probably did.
Damien smiled into the young face. “So how old are you, Anissa?”
“Five!” Anissa told him, backing up her claim with an open hand, as if proof of age.
Damien counted her fingers and thumb. “Five, huh? Well, I am so glad you came over to see me. I was just thinking, I wish Anissa would come over here and say, ‘Hello’.”
Anissa turned to her mother with shock, but her mother was adoring Levi’s boyfriend’s sweetness.
“Tell Mister Lanchester how many times you saw his movie,” his mother urged, adding directly to Damien, “She just loved it. So did I!”
“Five!” Anissa told him, yet again backing up her claim with an open hand, as if it was the only number she knew.
“Five times? Well, I think you saw that movie more times than—than anybody, Anissa!”
Without prodding, she climbed onto his lap, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Anissa!” her mother cried, laughing but embarrassed.
Damien shook his head at Anissa’s mother to let her know his lap was Anissa’s lap.
“Hey—she saw the movie five times. . .”, Damien joked with her. “I should pay her college tuition.”
“Still. . .Anissa!”
“It’s okay,” Levi blurted out to the mother. “I do the same thing when we’re at home.”
Damien turned to him, trying to hold in a belly laugh which escaped as a giggle and Anissa’s mother made a mouth of realization, as an “Oh” of comprehension came over both mind and mouth.
“Would you like a photo?” Levi offered both mother and Anissa.
“Oh—would you?” the woman asked, unlocking and handing over her phone as Levi stood.
To get a good angle, Levi had to cross in front of Jeanne and Matty. Jeanne pulled in her six-thousand dollar gladiator-boots as Levi passed between her and the table but Matty kept his bored disposition and legs stretched out. “Move,” Levi told him quietly. So quietly not only did it escape Damien’s ears, it read as a threat to the powerful CAA agent. Matty tucked his legs beneath him so Levi could pass. There was a look on Levi’s face, a change only visible when he turned his head toward Matty, that was menacing. It had not been the sweet-faced Atlantan from earlier. Which was what Levi had intended for the prick.
But once he turned back to Damien, the lap-entrenched Anissa, and Anissa’s mother, kneeling beside Damien’s chair, his smile was alive and warm.
“Say, ‘Santa’!” Levi cried, taking the photo and giving the mother and daughter duo an excuse to exit.
“So. . .” Damien said to the group once they were alone, “Before we were interrupted you were accusing my boyfriend of trying to convert me. Care to go back to that,” he asked Matty and Jeanne, “and apologize?”
“No apology here,” Matty said after a glance with Jeanne showed she was giving him the lead.
“Then we have nothing to say to each other,” Damien said.
Oh. This wasn’t supposed to go this way, Levi thought. Damien’s friends were supposed to fall in love with Levi. Not let Levi ruin their friendship with Damien. He tapped Damien’s arm for his attention but Damien was staring Matty down.
“It’s not a big deal,” Levi whispered. “You three are friends—”
“And my friends made a rude accusation you don’t deserve,” Damien told him, firmly. He took Levi’s hand in his and turned back to Matty and Jeanne. “Apologize. You two have been treating him like crap all night. I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt—you know, he’s new, you have to get used to him, you’ll warm up by the end of the night. But you just ignored him. Treated him like shit. And now you’re accusing him of having some agenda—all without even talking to him. Without getting to know him?”
“He’s in a cult!”
“And you go to a psychic, don’t you, Jeanne? Once a week you pay a thousand dollars to a con artist who tells you bullshit.”
Levi made a mental note: Never argue with Damien. He was tough.
“My psychic—” Jeanne began before Levi leaned in and said, with a sarcastically broad grin on his face and a fist under his chin, feigning interest, remarked flippantly, “Oh, this should be good.”
“Look—” Matty said, pointing at Levi’s exposed wrist. “He even wears their purple string bullshit.”
“And you wear a cross!” Levi shot back.
“Excuse me?” Matty was indignant. His face looked like that of an old lady, offended by a young whippersnapper’s modern conceits. Inasmuch as Matty’s Botoxed and botched face could move, that is.
“May I?”, Levi asked Damien.
“Proceed. . .” Damien said, holding his hand out toward Matty.
“This string? For me, it’s not some religious bullshit. It’s a good luck charm. That’s it. I’m interviewing for a job I want and this is just meant to bring me good luck in getting it. I don’t think it’s transmitting some crap energy from a garden rock like the center tries to tell me. But that? That cross? Oh—let’s talk cults, shall we?”
“There’s a bit of difference between the Braunstein Center and a real religion—” Matty dismissively told him.
“Is there? You assume I’ve been indoctrinated into something. How about you? I’m assuming you didn’t just come to Jesus. Am I right? Been going to church since you were a kid? Well, how’s that for indoctrination? Before you even know what the alphabet is, your head is getting filled with nonsense about some unwed mother and how God mysteriously came to her and a flood that lasted forty days and how God created the world in six days and—”
“I’m an adult now and I choose to believe,” Matty said. “And you are one rude motherfucking atheist.”
“At least my morals are my own,” Levi argued.
“Meaning you Christians go through life being hateful, spiteful assholes who then seem to think because you believe in a kind Jesus, that makes up for how shittily—I know I just made up a word!—you treat other people. It’s you Christians that say gay people are bad. Who denied people with AIDS medical treatment. Who let parents and infants get seperated at the border. Who push conversion therapy and cause people to kill themselves. And you have the gall to get pissy with me because I wear a purple string? A piece. . .of yarn?”
“A piece of bullshit!”
“Symbols are imbued with meaning we give them. This to me,” Levi said, pointing to the string, “Is hope that I get the job I want more than anything.”
“Oh? What job is that? Professional cocksucker to the stars?”
“Fuck you, Matty.”
Levi almost had to check to make sure those slowly, clearly stated words weren’t his. But he saw both Jeanne and Matty turn toward Damien. Damien, who was sitting back in his chair, looking at both Matty and Jeanne with disgust, gripped Levi’s hand.
“That’s right. Fuck. You. Both.”
The couple was stunned. Damien just didn’t seem to care. “I am happy with someone for the first time in ages. This guy here has every reason to run for the hills. I’m out of town half the time. When I’m here, my time is limited. I have a child. He knows wherever I go, I have wanna-bes and industry sluts trying to get in my pants and he has to worry that I might—just might—take one or two up on their offer when he’s not around. He has to deal with explaining to his friends the story of my fucked-up marriage. That I wanted a child so badly, I faked a fucking marriage and paid off a surrogate. He has to cope with the fact that, irony of ironies, now that I have the kid, I don’t know how to be a good father. So he teaches me. Anytime he talks about me to anyone who cares about him he will have to explain that my marriage was a bad choice made for me by my publicists and I was too much of a pussy to stand up and say no. I work in an industry where he’s going to meet assholes like you two all the time—assholes who will say ‘hello’ and then turn their backs to him while talking to me. He makes me happy. He stands by me. This guy here—this guy? The one you’ve been ignoring all night? My son loves him. He gives me and Track all that his heart has. And what does he get? You two treating him like shit. Are you out of your combined fucking minds? You don’t fucking insult him.”
Damien squeezed Levi’s hand so hard Levi thought he would crush every bone in it. But the bones would be well lost.
Damien added, “You fucking kiss his ass. Do you hear me? I love him. And you better fucking respect that.”
“I’m not kissing anyone’s ass,” Matty said.
“Considering that’s what you do for a living, and you can’t extend that same respect to Levi,” Damien said, “I’d say you and wifey number four here can hit the road.”