“You’re going to live with him without being married?” Barry asked. He sounded scandalized, a rare note of alarm from a man who would say in a leisurely-paced thousand word diatribe what most would scream in one: “Fire!”
“That’s the first thing you ask?” Levi cried, turning from the lobby cards he was filing through in Larry Edmunds Bookshop, the legendary movie-memorabilia and Hollywood books bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard.
“You just struck me as the type who wouldn’t move in with someone without being married,” Barry explained.
“Oh, Barry. You’re so sweet. I don’t know how to tell you this. But I’m not a virgin.”
“Yeah, I’m aware of that. First-hand knowledge, actually. You just seemed like the type who would get married. Now that we can get married. . .why not?”
“When you say ‘we’, do you mean the greater gay community ‘we’ or the you-and-me ‘we’.”
“Not you and me.”
“Just need to be sure. Proposals seem to be going around these days. Like flu.”
“I’m taken, too.”
“Ooh! So touchy. How is. . .I’m sorry. I’m a bad friend. How is. . .”
Barry didn’t get it.
“How is whatshisname? The guy you’re dating?”
“Oh. His name is Federico. He’s good. Very nice guy. I think you’d—”
Levi spat out the name as if it were something repellant. Like a pube.
Levi tried to be gentle but his natural instinct was to seek out and destroy his boyfriend’s exes—even if they were now boyfriends with Levi’s own exes.
“That name is going around, too. Again—like the flu.”
“That’s the one. Tell me. . .has he ever mentioned Damien?”
“Why would he mention Damien?”
“I’m just asking. Probably not the same guy. But could you ask him?”
“Ask him what?”
“Ask him if your Federico knows my Damien. You see, my Damien has an ex. That ex is named Federico. I’m just curious if your Federico is his Federico. And, if so, just so you know. . .your Federico has had more gay men in him than the Liza Minnelli Fan Club.”
“You love Liza.”
“That’s not the point right now.” Levi said, pulling out another lobby card to buy. “The point is that all of a sudden, this name—Federico—is everywhere. Someone mentioned a guy by that name. Then a few days later, Damien mentions his Federico. You have a Federico. I drove by a restaurant the other night. Federico’s! There’s a clothing shop on Melrose—Federico. Where did all these Federicos come from?”
“Well, he’s never mentioned a Damien,” Barry said. “And I bet what it is is you never knew anyone by that name. But now that Damien has mentioned a Federico, now you’re hyper alert to it. Like when you made me watch ‘Casablanca’? I had never paid attention to that movie before. But then I saw it and I noticed it all around me, all the time. ‘Play it again, Sam’. ‘This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’. ‘Of all the bars in all the world. . .’ I run into it again and again, all day long. Especially here on the Boulevard.”
“Especially here at Larry Edmunds,” Levi wryly said, holding up a Casablanca lobby card like a cinematic flash card. Barry didn’t get it.
“I’m sure none of these Federicos are all the same but now you’re aware of a Federico, you’re going to see all the Federicos that have always been around you.”
“Well,” Levi said, doubting his favorite police officer and cutting short his theory on why the world seemed so full of different Federicos instead of it being because there was one very busy Federico, “Just ask him. And if he did indeed once date my boyfriend, a.) break up with him, and b.) give me his address.”
To Levi’s resentment, there proved to be something to Barry’s theory. After buying four vintage lobby cards at Larry Edmunds, the man at the framing shop, a balding, obese, middle-aged man who greeted him cheerfully and admired the lobby cards with an engagingly exaggerated, “Ooooh!”. . .was also named Federico.
Just to be on the safe side, Levi told him, “These are being framed as a good luck gift for Damien Lanchester.” Seeing no recognition of the name from Federico of the Frames, Levi added, “He’s an actor. He’s starring in the remake of this movie here, ‘Penny Serenade’.”
“Oh, really? They’re remaking this movie? Is your friend an extra?”
“Well,” Levi thought, “This is one Federico down.”
After Damien left Los Angeles with Track and the nanny, Levi reluctantly saw again how lonely Los Angeles was. He had, since meeting Damien, almost forgotten how sad he would sometimes think Los Angeles felt—almost as if the sadness began not somewhere within him but somewhere out there, in the basin, and it drifted, mist-like, across the city. Some would breathe it in and—voila—sadness. Loneliness. A feeling of being inconsequential and alone.
He had thought when he had lived in his apartment that if he ever was able to buy his dreamhouse in the hills of Beachwood Canyon, that he would become immune to that mist. But now, living in Damien’s house, even higher up in an even higher hillside than the house he loved in Beachwood Canyon, the sadness still crawled and drifted and rose up the hillside, where he inhaled it like a menthol cigarette and where it sank him down as with weights. When he had lived in the basin of Hollywood, he had felt watched and tiny, a spec of indifferent humanity surrounded by towers and hillside homes, a million eyes upon him but not seeing him. But now, in the hills, looking down into the basin and its vast mass of so many homes and millions of people. . .he felt as if he was still alone, still unwatched by others, an unimportant pebble that could roll down the hillside and which no one would notice. Out there, everyone had a place to go, friends to meet, love to share. And he was alone, living a pointless existence, a life which would be missed by no one if it were to end.
It was as if someone had hit “mute” on the house’s volume for, without Track’s happy shouts and pleas for Levi to play with him or Damien’s always near physical presence, laughter, singing, and those ecstatic moans and whispers, the house was lifeless. Levi often found himself inhaling and holding his breath, as if to hear the house make any sound of his own or to not intrude upon its stillness.
At night, he found himself unable to sleep. The bed in which he and Damien had spent so many hours, both asleep and avoiding sleep, now felt foreign and lonely. He felt as if he now understood what the Braunstein Center called Shame Cake: he would lie in bed and look through those tall glass doors to the deep balcony beyond and the view of the blackness of Los Angeles, dotted by sparkling lights, beyond that, and think he was living somewhere he did not belong. There was no joy in a house this big, or a bed this comfortable, without Damien. And so Levi had even spritzed a pillow with Damien’s cologne one evening, thinking the scent of him would allow Levi to drift off peacefully into the dark, with the smell of Damien’s chest in his lungs and the memory of his drowsy words of love repeating quietly in Levi’s mind. But the cologne smelled different on a pillow case than it had on Damien’s chest hair and Levi tossed the pillow fitfully from the bed, as if it now offended him.
Though Damien told him Levi’s insistence on staying in the house alone was silly, that Levi could bring his friends to the house to keep him company, have dinner with him, enjoy the pool, watch television, Levi felt as if he could not call anyone, again remembering that minus Damien, he had never really had all that many people to call in the first place. That was why he had so easily fit into Damien’s life; Levi had no life of his own. He might have been charming in Damien’s eyes, but he had also been remarkably convenient, with little to keep him from Damien when Damien had wanted to see him. And because that had been always, Levi had forgotten—almost acquired a false arrogance in the forgetfulness—that no one else had really been demanding or clamoring for his time and attention. But now that Damien was gone to Atlanta, Levi saw clearly that he had only enjoyed the past several months–and its frantic pace of restaurants and hikes and movie-going and nights spent in little Hollywood theaters watching aspiring actors in some good but mostly bad stage plays–because Damien had kept him so utterly busy. But without Damien, there was nothing to do but sit on the patio at night and watch an entire city blinking in the dark with neon life and he alone, just watching rather than living.
More often than he would ever admit, his eyes watered over and the lights smudged into a blur, a swirl of Van Gogh-like paint across the starry night. And he didn’t always know if he was simply missing Damien and Track or if this malaise was driven by one of his moods. That, he thought, was the worst part of it all: not knowing what the sadness was—a matter to address with more pills or the pain of a longing heart. And that confusion often left him sighing with tears as he watched the flames of the firepit and quietly sobbed into the night, wishing the extra pills he took would help him find some level of calm and appreciation for the gift of living in this glamorous, wonderful house. But no matter its attractiveness, he came to it with dread each day after work and fell asleep inside it wishing he was in Atlanta with Damien.
The morning Damien began filming “Penny Serenade”, Levi sent him two photos via instant message. In each, Levi was lying on the Hollywood sidewalk, face up to the camera, his green eyes cast sideways to the Walk of Fame star beside his face. In one, he gazed at the name, “Irene Dunne”; in the other, “Cary Grant”. In his message he wrote:
“Salutations and best of luck as you start filming today. You, my dear lovely star of my heart, will be amazing as the star of ‘Penny Serenade’! Cary, Irene, and I send you our love. They both know their film classic is in good hands. (And I know your hands are classics in their own right, hubba hubba wink-wink.) By the way, I hope you appreciate these photos because I’m absolutely sure I contracted something nasty–and I don’t mean a bad reputation–as I took them, having to lie on the filthy Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street sidewalks. I’m pretty sure someone—dog, homeless person, or drunk sorority gal–done peed all over poor Dunne and that’s why the back of my shirt is wet. Also, I nearly got trampled by a stampede of pretentious assholes on Vine, where Mister Grant’s star is located outside Trader Joe’s. (I only tell you this because ever since posing on the sidewalk for your pleasure, I have been scratching like mad, I’ve contracted pink eye, and my left testicle just fell off somewhere around Hollywood and Wilcox. Hold—the right one just did, too.) Much love to you, my love. You will be wonderful and this film will be fantastic. Know that I am thinking of you on the first day of what will hopefully be a very short filming schedule. I want you back here sooner than yesterday. I love you. P.S. I will get vaccinated before I come to see you next week so that you won’t catch my sidewalk syphilis. As the song goes, ‘You Were Meant for Me’. . .not syphilis.”