Maybe because Levi was so odd himself Levi rarely thought there was anything odd about his relationship with Damien. He rarely thought it odd that Levi was dating a man with a multi-million dollar home in the Hollywood hills, nor did he still find it unusual that when they were in public, someone would inevitably approach—as if for directions somewhere—to request an autograph and a photo. Damien’s about to leave town to film a movie, Levi’s head translated into a business trip. His appearance in the occasional magazine or television program the equivalent of being mentioned in a trade publication, like that time Levi had his photo appear in a museum newsletter back in Atlanta. But it did hit him at random moments that something was off, something odd and unusual, something. . .lucky. . .in his having been paired up by some invisible hand with a man that, in those moments, Levi would remember was so far beyond him and so much better than him and so much. . .just more. More handsome. More successful. More intelligent. More grounded. More funny. More lovely. More loveable. More of everything that showed Levi just how little Levi was.
And in those moments, Levi felt small. Insignificant. Disposable. Trash awaiting delivery to the trash bin. Levi the Loser dating a Hollywood Hills Hunk who was far, far too good for the bipolar bastard from Hollywood and Highland.
In those moments, he saw the unlikeliness of it all and the unlikeliness—what other people would think—would strike at him. At the Braunstein Center, they called it “Wicked Wavelengths”—negative thoughts others had about you (in Levi’s case, that he had lucked out or must be a boyfriend-for-hire or a gold-digger) which flew out of the body of those wishing you ill will and infiltrated you, turning your happiness into sadness. A psychic poison contaminating the happiness of your mind’s reservoir. To deflect these wavelengths, one was to wear a special charm about their neck. Levi had dismissed the idea, for whenever he felt those feelings, he noticed how quickly—almost as if Damien could read his mind—the feelings would be dismissed by Damien. Damien, who would always punctuate sentences not with a period but with a kiss, always, always so giving of those kisses. Short pecks of “I adore you”. Longer kisses of, “You are the one.” Breathless kisses that moaned, “You drive me crazy in the best of ways.” And sometimes even big screen-style romantic kisses that said, “Our love is epic” and felt as if they should be accompanied by a score and a camera panning closer and closer until it faded to a black screen.
Other times, Damien would catch the look, the feeling of inadequacy or irrelevance which would flash across Levi’s face like a sudden awareness he did not belong, and Damien would wrap him in arms that crushed the feelings out of him. Or call him one of his endearing, adoring nicknames: Silly Monkey. Baby. Honey. Or stare into his eyes and say sweet words that calmed and reassured him that Levi was right where Damien wanted him to be. Or he would set Levi off in peals of laughter, tickling him or playfully wrestling with him on the living room floor or in bed. It was as if Damien was better than any amulet the Braunstein Center could offer. Better even than any medication Levi could abuse.
And when Levi had one of those momentary lapses where he could see what others likely were seeing—some retail queen who somehow got temporarily lucky and was able to play boyfriend-to-the-stars for a short while—or were likely asking—“Didn’t Damien Lanchester have access to people far more interesting and sophisticated and better off and, just plain better than Levi Hastings?”–in the days before Damien left for Atlanta, yet again, Damien caught him and stopped him.
Levi had just come from an early day at work; a delivery had to be made of merchandise at four in the morning due to some mix-up between the corporate warehouse and the shipping company and, having gone in extra early to receive it and then do the week’s paperwork, he had been able to leave at noon. Having come straight from the store to Damien’s house, to which he had been given a key a few weeks before, he found Damien in one of those so-Hollywood-he-could-scream moments. Levi had stepped into the living room to find its wall of glass doors all pulled into a pocket in the wall, allowing the gentle breezes of Runyon Canyon to blow into and through the house and the living room to visually extend from the house itself to the sky beyond, the floor transitioning from the interior’s terrazzo tile to the ceramic tile of the patio. And there, by the calm aqua waters of the rectangular pool, in one of six white lounge chairs, in black sunglasses and bathing trunks, his robe on an adjacent chair, a cool drink by his side and a tumbler of ice water and empty glass meant for Levi beside that, lounged Damien, looking every inch the glamorous movie star tanning in the sun, far above Hollywood below.
Levi stood watching him silently for a moment, knowing he was seeing the man he loved at peace. He was also seeing him in private. No made-for-the-cameras persona. No industry polite artifice. Here at home, he snoozed in the sun, laughed at filthy jokes, did hilarious and perfect imitations of celebrities and politicians, sang at the top of his voice—and what a voice he had! How did he never get cast in a musical with that baritone?—and swore in his office about the idiots he had to work with. Looking upon him now, peacefully lying in the sun with Runyon Canyon, Hollywood, and downtown Los Angeles in the distance, Levi thought, “Who the fuck am I? Look at him.”
But as he thought this, Damien sat up a bit, as if having noticed him or sensed his inner turmoil, lifted his sunglasses off so Levi could see his eyes, and waved him out toward the pool. “Get over here, you! I expected you here thirty-minutes ago! Thought you dumped me!”
He did as he was told, drawn to him, and into Damien’s cocoa-butter smelling arms he went. Levi loved the scent of his tanning lotion, the feel of his arms, and the way Damien smoothly turned Levi on his side so they could lie, face-to-face, stretched out on the same chair.
And then Damien told him that while he was in Atlanta, he wanted Levi to live in the house. “I like the idea of you sleeping in our bed, even when I’m not here to hold you.”
Our bed. Live in his house. Our bed. This made no sense. He wasn’t good enough for Damien.
“Just. . .while you’re in Atlanta, right?”
“Well. . . when I’m in Italy, too. And when I come back. I’m not asking you to house-sit; I’m asking you to move in with me. Mi casa su casa.”
“Live with you but with you out-of-town?”
“Until I get back, yes.”
“What if you don’t want me when you get back?”
“Not want you?” Damien shifted himself a bit, leaning Levi further on his back so that Damien could lean atop him and gaze into the wrinkles and squints that composed Levi’s confused face. “Look. . .neither of us knows where this will go, long-term, for real. But I think we’re on the right track, don’t you?”
“Uh-huh.” Levi agreed. “I’m just afraid I’m going to do something to derail the damned train.”
“Stop,” Damien chuckled. “Maybe it’s my insecurity—”
“What do you have to be insecure about? You’ll be surrounded by all these great looking guys throwing themselves at you–”
“You have an inflated view of me, baby. But I’ll be gone a long time. And even with you coming to Atlanta every week. . .I won’t be here. It’s not the same thing. I guess I’m afraid my leaving is going to stretch us thin.”
“I’m not Federico,” Levi said, sweetly stabbing with a reassuring smile to Damien the slut who had hurt Damien. “You’re the only man I care about.”
“Then live in my house while I’m gone.”
It was an awkward proposition. “Oh, Damien. . .” Levi said, trying to wriggle free of the idea—and the responsibility.
“It will make me feel better,” Damien told him.
Levi threw his eyes back at the house on the hill, out to the view over Runyon Canyon and out to Los Angeles and Catalina beyond that. “This is too much house for me. I work in a store. Really—”
“The housekeepers come three days a week. The pool guy, the tree guy. . .it’s all taken care of. No housework. Not even laundry. I wouldn’t do that to you. You won’t be here as a house-sitter. Or hired help.”
“Damie–if you and Track were here, fine but. . .it would just feel weird living here without you.”
“What if I said, ‘please’? I really don’t want Nickolas living here while I’m gone– and I know he’ll do just that. He’ll throw parties and shit. Strangers going through my crap. But I don’t want the house to be empty, either. And, if someone’s going to live in it. . .I’d rather it be you. Sleeping in our bed. Your clothes in our closet. Your naked body in our shower. . .You making my house our house. ”
“But—” Levi said, as if proposing an alternative, “If you rented out the house while you’re gone, you’d get an extra maybe thirty-thousand a month or so. Hell, I pay sixteen hundred a month for my—”
“Sixteen hundred a month?”
“Yes, Damie. I pay one thousand, six hundred dollars a month for that shithole I live in.”
“I didn’t call it a shithole,” Damien sang in apology.
Levi laughed. “Your face called it a shithole.”
“Well, my face needs to shut the fuck up and learn to be more polite, then.”
Levi softened to the idea, but with some asterisks. “I’d have to keep my apartment.”
“Well, if you came to hate me—”
“I will never hate you. Stop that.” As if to wipe the idea out of his mind, snarling Damien ran a gentle hand—warm and soft, over Levi’s eyes, up over his forehead, and over his crown. “That fucking ex of yours really got in your head. But I’m not him.” He kissed Levi’s eyelids. “ I’d love to kick his fucking ass.”
“It’s not just him. It’s not that simple,” Levi said, exhausted with words unsaid. “But if you did come to hate me. . .I need a place to go. Or—suppose I have a shitty mood? I can avoid you.”
“There are six bedrooms here. You can avoid me by going downstairs.”
“No, really, Damien. Besides, I just renewed my lease and they’re a butch to get out of. The contract favors the landlord. And—look at it this way: You know how Matty and Jeanne keep a cheap apartment in Studio City to do drugs?”
“We can keep my apartment as our private sex den.”
Damien’s smile grew instantaneously.
“We can’t be as loud here as you like so . .we keep my apartment. . .and we can really let loose there.”
As if a preview, Damien howled. Levi half expected coyotes to howl back as a chorus from the canyon.
“I’ll give you a key. So that way you know, I’m not keeping it to get away from you. It’s to keep us together. Really. And also, that way. . .if somewhere down the line. . .the train derails—”
“Levi,” Damien said firmly. “I’m only talking about this because you feel some morbid need to–I’m not an asshole.”
“If things did not work out, I’d still take care of making sure you had a place to go. And a nice place. Not a shithole. But I wouldn’t be asking you if I even thought for a second we wouldn’t work out. So why are we even talking about that kind of ‘what if’?”
“Because I’m pragmatic, negative, paranoid, and absolutely certain that as crazy as I am over you, I am so crazy I will somehow make you detest me.”
Damien accepted Levi’s kiss of apology for any misperceived insult stoically—and with a sigh. “How about this: What if after you live here for a while. . .,after I come back and we live together. . .what if we are so happy. . .what if we become a family, you, me, and Track. . .what if—”
“What if something happened?” Levi asked.
“What would happen?”
“Well, for starters, what if I burned your house down by accident?”
“As opposed to intentionally burning it down? It’s insured; I’d buy a new one. Really, Lee—do you have a history of arson you’ve forgotten to share with me?”
“No. But I’m clumsy. And all those gas appliances. What if I forgot to turn one off and the whole house just exploded? I couldn’t live with myself–if I lived through the explosion, that is.”
“I’ll show you how everything works and I’ll even make my assistant print out little instruction cards. He’ll leave one by every appliance.”
“How cute will those be? ‘Dear Moron, to turn on the TV. . .do this’.”
Damien offered, “To open door, put hand on knob. Turn. . .”
“Need to poop? Remove pants, squat, unclench.”
“Do not drink from the bidet.”
Damien laughed and adjusted their bodies again so that he was on top of Levi, looking into his face, stroking his hair back, tracing Levi’s eyes with his thumbs, and reminding Levi how good it felt to have Damien—his weight, his scent, his breath–lying on top of him.
“To make your boyfriend happy. . .just say, ‘yes’.”
He hesitated. Maybe it would be best to keep things as they were. But how could he say, “No”? And by saying ‘No”, wouldn’t he be saying that he and Damien had no future? And he wanted a future with Damien so badly, just not so much in the present. The future Levi had imagined had a well Levi, a Levi free of his bipolar disorder, free of bad memories, all big secrets and all his old pains unleashed and exorcised. A healthy Levi who would never cause any pain or hurt or—worse—frustration and anger. He knew better than anyone that this ideal Levi was a Levi who would never exist; there was no cure for his ills, no method to murder the monster in this mind. He was probably—and how sad was this? he wondered—about as healthy as he might ever get. Moods still rollicking unpredictably, his mind scattered and forgetful in his medicinal haze. And here he was, possibly tossing away the chance at happiness which, had he been religious, would have seemed a merciful hand from Heaven?
He ran a hand through Damien’s warm hair and watched a smile break across his face which caused dimples to deepen on both sides of his mouth. “Yes. I’m saying ‘yes’. And I promise. . .I will not burn your house down.”
“I didn’t worry about that at all.”
“You do remember I’m bipolar, right?”
“You just remember I adore you no matter your mood.” He punctuated this with a kiss.
Levi stared into the handsome face that he was so lucky to be so close to and explained,
“I don’t take your welcoming me here lightly. I know people who have these deal-breakers: If they meet someone they like, they won’t date them if that person has cats. Or even if they like someone, if they find out they live in an apartment—nope. Can’t date them. And it’s so silly and superficial. But here you are and you know I have something seriously wrong with me—”
“You let it define you too much,” Damien told him.
“But it’s there,” Levi argued.
“And we’re taking care of it. And even when it’s there—like when you get stressed out and angry—I can still see the you I love.” Damien snuggled Levi to him. “Even when you can’t.”
Levi hesitated, listened, heard no villagers screaming protest, and so said it:
“You are the most wonderful person I know. Yes, really. The whole world could explode right now and I’d only worry about your safety. I am so frighteningly in love with you, Damien.”
“And I you.”
Oh, those beautiful brown eyes looking into his. In a way no one else on earth got to see him. No close up had ever captured it. Not in any of his films. Not the way those eyes softened in that tough face, the way that tough face, that handsome face, softened with gentility and love and adoration and welcome. This was strictly a private moment.
Levi softly admitted, “ You could break me in an instant. . . and I’d still love you in the mess.”