He could have chosen to go to the movies, or for an afternoon hike of Griffth Park. He could have driven out to Santa Monica and spent the day at the beach. But the loneliness of living on top of Hollywood, in Damien’s house but without Damien, drove him instead to plan on spending one of his days off from the Fab Friends Factory attending a luncheon at the Braunstein Center, where The Movie Star would be among those speaking about how the Braunstein Center’s methodology had helped them in their life. He had accepted half-heartedly, calling it “more Braunstein bullshit” but–knowing this first week of filming would not have been a good week to fly out to Atlanta and facing a full day alone in a house he felt awkward living in–the emailed invitation to “The Braunstein Way: A Discussion”, an event as blandly titled as their bottled water–at least gave him a reason to not be at home while the housekeeping, pool, and yards people were there, wondering who the blond guy was.
The session was well-attended and Levi, by not dilly-dallying and socializing with anyone, managed to grab a seat toward the front once the doors to the small auditorium opened. He hoped to hear something that would lift his spirits; his doctor-mandated mood chart—on which he was to keep a record of his daily moods throughout each day, had progressively shown a happy-face deficit and a sad-face surplus. All day yesterday had been nothing but sad-faces and so far today, a sad face followed by an angry face. He didn’t know why Damien’s assistant was always so rude to him—not in an overt way but in that bitchy way some snotty gay men specialized in and which Levi had never mastered, instead having a history of opting for the less graceful, full-on “I’ll kill you, fuckhead” batshit crazy—but Nickolas had done it again that morning. Levi had merely been letting him know that the housekeepers Damien paid to, you know, keep house, had not been doing the laundry or changing the bedsheets per Damien’s direction. And Nickolas had remined Levi that Damien was not in town. Which led to Levi reminding Nickolas that though Damien was not, Levi was. Which, in turn, led to Nickolas reminding Levi that Damien was his boss, not Levi. Which led to Levi feeling like Krystle Carrington when she first moved into the Carrington mansion and the housekeeping staff treated her horribly and made her cry. So he got on the telephone and cried to Damien because Mrs. Gunderson wasn’t doling his laundry and Nickolas was being mean to him.
It was no better than going batshit crazy. And he wished he had instead unleashed a can of whoop-ass on Nickolas rather than cried over the phone to a soothing Damien, who hadn’t been due on the set for a few more hours and had just finished a work-out in the hotel gym. “I’ll call him and straighten his ass out, honey. You go enjoy your day listening to He Who Can’t Act for Shit,” Damien had cooed to him. And now, as he listened to The Movie Star who Damien called He Who Can’t Act for Shit and other assorted celebrities and business people claim that the Braunstein Method had improved their lives and led to their success, all Levi could think of doing was snapping Nickolas’ big head off his tiny pencil neck. Peace and Candle light? Fuck that nonsense. He wanted to go serial killer on an assistant’s ass.
He did notice that The Movie Star had noticed him and gave him a wink from the speaker’s podium between gum-chews. The Movie Star also did that annoying thing speakers had become fond of in the 2000’s—pacing the stage and making swooping hand motions, as if stomping about made their words any more believable or effective. “My heart was opened!” was accompanied by both arms sweeping from fingers on chest out to the sides. “My mind was blown!” was accompanied by hands popping off the head like fireworks. “The Flame. . .touched. . .my. . .Soul!” was accompanied by two sincere palms flat on his heart—and a theatrically overstated frown.
All Levi could think was that he hoped Steve Jobs was burning in Hell for starting all this stomping-all-over-the-stage nonsense. “Just stand at the fucking podium and speak,” he thought. “Stop trying to be that Apple asshole.”
Wow, he thought, the afternoon slot on the mood chart was definitely receiving an angry-face.
He knew without being told who was behind him as he exited the auditorium when he felt two heavy hands clamp down on his shoulders and thumbs dig into his neck muscles, as if to massage them.
“Son. Of. Jacob!”
He turned to The Movie Star, all wide eyes and a giant smile.
“Put ‘er there!” The Movie Star said, slapping a hold of Levi’s offered hand and shaking it tightly.
“I really enjoyed your talk,” Levi lied sweetly.
“Yeah? Well, thank you. It’s really powerful, this Braunstein Method. Really opened my eyes, you know? Made me less about me and more about. . .the world around me. My world.”
“Uhmmm,” Levi said by way of not pointing out how self-obsessed his view still was.
The Movie Star inspected his face with sucked in cheeks and squinty eyes, looking at him from all angles. Levi had to admit that, though not a talented actor, he did make one feel. . .well, embarrassed but the embarrassment gave way to a tingly, goofy feeling. “You look distracted there, Levi.”
“Oh,” Levi said, snapping out of his reverie. “That’s not so much distracted as . . .homicidal.”
“Haha. Who better watch out for you?”
“It’s—God, this is so petty. Trust me, I know how ‘shame cake’ this is because I should still be living in a lousy apartment off Highland, not worrying about–well, you might understand. I’m living in Damien’s house and his assistant—“:
“That place up over Runyon?”
“Oh—you’ve been there?” He had forgotten that Damien had mentioned that The Movie Star had harassed him at one point about a role Damien had refused due to gratuitous nudity, gore, violence. . .and a horrible script. (The film not only got made without Damien but became a box office sensation. Damien, though, did not regret his choice; he had a rule against rape being used for entertainment. It was one of the things Levi loved about him.)
“Just two or three times. When he first moved in to that place—gees, that is a great house–I came over a few times to try to get him to do a movie. The Train? I wanted him for the part of the drug dealer. He didn’t like it, no matter how hard I pitched it. Said he didn’t want to rape someone on-screen. And I was all, ‘Damien! What’s a little rape?’ Anyway—you and Lanchester? Shacking up?”
“Oh, no. No, no, no.” Shit. What the hell was he thinking, sharing his living arrangements with The Movie Star? He knew—Damien had told him—some celebrities, to keep their own dirt out of the tabloids, sell other celebrity’s dirt to the tabloids. “Not like that. I’m just house-sitting,” Levi lied. “Damien is in Atlanta—”
“Yeah, he’s doing that Penny Symphony movie, am I right?”
“Um—Penny Serenade. The remake of the—”
“That’s right—the remake of that old Cary Grant and Irene Cara film.”
“Irene Dunne. Irene Cara came much later.”
“Oh—that’s riiiight,” The Movie Star said. “Irene Cara.”
“Anyway, Damien’s assistant is just a little bitch and was rude to me this morning. It’s nothing.”
“Need me to break some chops for ya, Hastings?” The Movie Star asked. “I will. I’ll break out my brass knuckles and—Boom!—knock some sense into that bitch.”
Well, that sounded very Braunstein Center, Levi thought. He loved how they had all been preaching peace and light and being kind while up on-stage but here in the emptying auditorium afterwards was The Movie Star, ready to dislocate someone’s jaw.
“Damn, Hastings. You’re stressed—am I right? Tell you what? You up for a meditation session? Chill yourself out? Take the bad energy down and put it over there somewhere?”
Levi noticed that when The Movie Star said, “over there somewhere”, he indicated, as if he were before a camera, some distant spot off-screen.
“I’ve always been fonda you. You’re one of those people other people just get a soft spot for. Am I right?”
“No. You’re sort of wrong there. . .” Levi said awkwardly. “My own parents loathed me. Right from the beginning. Tried to leave the hospital without me. But the doctors and nurses made them take me. ‘We don’t want him, either!’”
“You’re a funny guy, Hastings. Well, I’ve got a soft spot for ya. Come on. I told the rabbi I needed a private mediation session. You ever had one? No? Well, this one’s on me. It will calm you the fuck down and maybe save that assistant her life.”
“His life. The assistant is a guy. Named Nickolas.”
“Oh,” The Movie Star said, unconcerned. “Come on—the rabbi’s closing the courtyard for us so we won’t be bothered by everyone. It’s this way.”
Levi followed him silently, horrified with the realization that The Movie Star had been joking about using brass knuckles on what he had assumed to be a female assistant. Even as a joke , that was. . .disturbing.
The courtyard at the Braunstein Center was, surprisingly, not centered around the Topanga Seed. Levi had always found this strange, given that the Braunstein Center created so much merchandise based on that giant rock which had been—allegedly–conveniently found on the original site of the Braunstein Center in Topanga Canyon. Instead, the giant rock was shuttled off to the side, fenced in by a split-rail fence, so that the courtyard could be a calm seating area surrounded on all four sides by classrooms and offices of the Center. The Rabbi had placed two seats facing each other, one for the rabbi, one for The Movie Star but, upon seeing that The Movie Star had brought along Levi Hastings for the session, another seat was brought out for Levi.
They were seated side-by-side, Levi and The Movie Star. He coudn’t wait to tell Damien about this; Damien quietly ridiculed, dismissing The Movie Star as a talentless hack whose only success had been to take his off-screen personality and slap it on-screen. No matter the part, the mannerisms, speech cadence. . .everything was always the same. “He doesn’t act; he just reads dialogue,” was how Damien had explained it. Levi had agreed; in fact, he had been the one to first point out in their discussion that The Movie Star was a personality and not a thespian. But now, Levi had to admit, the man had charisma and a personality—and it was that very vibrant personality—the way he could look at you and almost hypnotize you, or put a heavy hand on your shoulder and get you to spill truths—that made him so successful a celebrity and so dangerous a figure head for the Braunstein Center.
This meditation was unlike any of those he had taken part in during the Braunstein Breakfasts, the daily session where practitioners would come for a bagel, bottled water, meditation, and a mental beat-down to start their day. For one, the rabbi had instructed them that he would be touching them. Memories of his friend’s abuse at the hands of an elementary school teacher had flashed in his mind but the rabbi explained it was to help with the breathing, relaxation, and trance the meditation required. Because of this, a second rabbi—Rabbi Junior, as Levi nicknamed him as he was the straight-out of-grade school rabbi who had blessed Levi’s purple string bracelet a few months before—had been brought into the courtyard, which had been closed off to the rest of the center due to The Movie Star’s presence.
They had been instructed to close their eyes and relax; to let all limbs hang loose, to allow their feet to get heavy, their shoes melting into the earth. They were to breathe, breathe deeply. And to envision those slow, full breaths as they were drawn from the courtyard air and into their throat and lungs. They were to think, picture, remember those things that were upsetting them. Allow them to hurt them now, for in a moment, they would be gone.
Levi at first thought about Nickolas. How he had treated Levi so condescendingly. As if his being an assistant to Damien made him somehow better than Damien’s boyfriend. But that was petty. Not something that truly hurt. No. What truly hurt was knowing the man he loved was all the way across the country, filming a movie in Atlanta.
Where Levi had been shot.
He was fearful of going back. Yes, he had been reminding himself, yes, he had lived there for a year after the shootings. A year during which he had to learn how to walk again. Had to see that so many places he had loved were now scarred forever, now sites of the various shootings that had taken place across Atlanta that day. And then he had left and never gone back. Never planned to ever go back. Why ever go back when so much pain had taken place there and all good had turned bad? Where every place he loved now had markers being erected: Ten dead here. Twelve dead here. Forty-three dead here. One hundred and seventy-two killed here. . .
He worried that, in his need to see Damien during the months of filming “Penny Serenade”, he might be forcing himself into a situation his mind would not be able to handle. In his fantasy, he came to Atlanta and was happy and carefree; he dreamt of bringing Track to—well, maybe not Piedmont Park; that was unrealistic to expect that park to be a happy place again. But maybe to another park somewhere. Watch him play with other children or push him on swings. Have lunch with Track and Damien in a nice restaurant; maybe spend a rainy day inside at that Lego store in Buckhead. Maybe when Track was sleeping in his room with the nanny, Damien and Levi would be able to stroll down Peachtree to 10th Street. Oh, how he loved that stretch from where he used to live to 10th Street, the lights sparkling in the trees and the cafes and diners whose tables spilled out to the sidewalk. To him, it was the most charming part of Atlanta, what had been the most charming city in the world, he had thought before the terrorist attacks. He feared that being back there would jar him, make him nervous, tense. The very idea of going back made him clench and unclench his fists, sometimes made a sweat break out on his forehead and his stomach to turn a little.
But Damien would be there. Maybe not able to be with him all day, depending on the constantly-changing shooting schedule, but with him as much as possible. Surely that would calm him, if being back presented any difficulties. And there were always his drugs. He could just up a dose of Klonopin or something to take the edge off.
But what he feared most was that he would do or say something horrible that would make Damien hate him. Stress had a way of going into Levi one way and coming out another.
As the rabbi’s fingers lightly traced imaginary lines and loops on his face, scalp, and neck–oh so lightly it was both ticklish and torture, causing both goosebumps and anguish–the rabbi asked him to concentrate on what he needed help with, what was worrying him. “Concentrate on that and pray to The Flame. Connect with The Flame and The Flame will share its love.”
Forgetting as much as he could the primal need to swat away the rabbi’s fingers while they slowly and lightly–hypnotically–traced lines along his forehead and then under his chin, Levi could think just one other thought: He did not want to lose Damien.
He loved Damien so much, he did something Levi could not recall ever having done.
Prayed to that bullshit Flame that the stress he was feeling would dissipate like morning fog burning off in the sun as soon as he landed in Atlanta and found there nothing to be afraid of. Prayed that he would be able to be carefree around Damien and Track. Prayed also, that his moods would not do that which he feared. . .anxiety and sadness giving away to something brittle and angry, something which rose like an insane inferno and made sweet Levi a Levi no one ever wanted to be around ever again.
The atheist in him hated that he was praying. But for Damien, he would do even that. Even if, while doing it, he thought praying was bullshit.