“They wouldn’t let me bring my peacock assistance animal,” Levi said to the flight attendant, by way of explaining away Scarlett O’Hare, Track’s Southern belle bunny he had forgotten behind in Los Angeles and which Levi was now entrusted by Damien to get safely to Atlanta. The bunny’s voluminous petticoats and leghorn hat failed to fit into Levi’s carry-on—“Too many pills,” he had wryly thought when he had tried, unsuccessfully, to squeeze in the antebellum bunny without damage–and so she was carried through LAX onto the airplane, in Levi’s arms, as if a child. No, not even for his first time in First Class could he shed his image as a man who played with stuffed animals.
He had been on the phone the night before with Damien warning and pleading with him that he was stressed out over the trip. He had been having nightmares—flashbacks, really—of the shootings. And while he did not wake up, sitting straight up like characters having nightmares always did in the movies—he instead found himself choking on his own pre-vomit or just opening his eyes with his head on a pillow—nights had been fitful and no matter how many Klonopins he took or how much cold medicine he added on top of that as a little over-the-counter chaser, he had been unable to do little more than lie in bed awake and stare out the walls of windows to silent Los Angeles stretching out far below the house. Even refusing nightmares and flashbacks space in his sleep by staying awake did no good, for the LAPD loved their helicopters. And helicopters—that horrible whomp-whomp-whomp-whomp-whomp sound of their blades and rotors chopping the air, were tied in his mind to the shootings.
He preferred not to remember that part of the attacks, in particular.
And when he did sleep, and didn’t dream about the shootings, when there were no whomp-whomp-whomps of passing LAPD helicopters patrolling the city from the skies, he then dreamt of being in a plane crash.
“It’s like my fucking mind is saying, ‘Sleepy? Let’s terrorize ya! Here’s a flashback! Here’s a nightmare! Here’s a premonition! Here’s Bonnie Franklin topless!’ I just cannot sleep,” he had cried to Damien. “And when I can’t sleep, I get so awful. So Damien. . .please understand this first visit—and maybe the others—is going to be really hard for me. And on top of that, there’s this. I need to sleep and I’m so stressed.”
“You don’t have to come,” Damien had told him. “This is a lot for you, I know. I’ll miss you but I won’t be mad if you decide you just can’t right now.”
“No,” Levi told him. “I do. I need to do this because I need to see you. And kiss you. And I miss Track so much. Oh my God, I miss him. And. . .I just need to see Atlanta again. Maybe exorcise some demons, you know? Just. . .know that I’m not meaning to be an asshole if I’m not my usual self. Just know that I love you. Please.”
His nightmare about the plane crash was not, as he had feared, a premonition. Not that he believed in premonitions–but he certainly did not want to be proven wrong nor tempt it with a “Come on! Crash my plane and kill us all so I can believe in ESP!” In his very vivid dream, he had been in coach, not first class, and on the plane’s left side, not its right, and in an aisle seat, not a window. And the plane’s engines had stalled during take-off, causing the ascending plane to level down, the passengers all saying, “Oh, no, oh no, oh no!” in almost slow motion. And the plane, still moving forward, slowly angling down when it should have angled up. And then, now angling down and passengers screaming, gained speed as it fell forward and down, as if a missile being driven into downtown Los Angeles. Levi noticed that in his dream he did not scream. He just held his breath, looked out the window, saw a flash of the US Bank tower, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles City Hall—all passing by far too quickly and at too low an angle, the plane below their roofline—and Levi deciding to just close his eyes and let the next second happen and his life end as the plane tore into and exploded into Union Station and wiped out city block after city block with its carnage, fire, and black smoke.
He breathed easier still seeing that the actual, real plane he was really on climbed into the sky not over Los Angeles, as in his dream, but instead over the ocean. He had not been able to see the Santa Monica pier in his dream, nor that clean sliver of light brown sand that so perfectly gave way to all that dark bluish green of the Pacific. So, he thought, at least that part was wrong. Of course, poor Scarlett O’Hare’s left paw was virtually flattened as he had gripped it so tightly during takeoff but he’d fluff it back up before he got to Atlanta.
He arrived in Georgia at two in the morning. Though his plane had taken off at five pm, with the time difference, he arrived in the middle of the night. And shortly before landing, he had received a message from Damien on his phone, via the plane’s wi-fi: “Am so sorry. We are doing a night shoot and running very long. Am sending someone to pick you up. He will have a sign with your name on it. Honey, I am so sorry. He’ll bring you to the hotel; front desk team knows to let you into the room. I’ll be there as soon as I can, hon.” This was followed by, “I will have phone on me. Call me if you can not find him.” This followed by, “I am so, so, so sorry.”
This made Levi want to turn back; just get on the next plane returning to Los Angeles. He didn’t want his first look at Atlanta again to be alone. He didn’t know what his reaction would be. He feared he’d have a nervous breakdown, right there at the airport, as soon as he saw that hole in the skyline. He had even closed the window shade as the plane had approached. He didn’t want to see Atlanta. He was really only here for two people: Damien and Track.
How he had become so much in love he’d return to this place, he was certain he would never understand.
Levi found the smiling assistant easily enough; it was pretty hard to miss the scroll reading “LEVI HASTINGS” that required the man to stretch his arms open as wide as he could. Held aloft above his head, it was made not only visible, but unable to be missed. And, unlike Nickolas, this assistant—a hire from the movie’s production team—welcomed Levi and, without asking, carried his luggage to the SUV he had somehow parked outside the luggage area—a big no-no at the Atlanta airport, leaving an unattended vehicle in that lane.
“Damien is so sorry,” the assistant had explained as he opened the trunk and lifted Levi’s suitcase inside as Levi noticed how much cleaner the air smelled in Atlanta—even at the airport—than in Los Angeles. “Today has been hell. The weather moved the day shoot from location to studio and then tonight’s shoot? The parking was a mess, the lighting took forever to set up, there was a problem with the neighborhood noise. . .It’s just been an awful day for everyone.” He slammed the trunk shut and reached to open the backseat door for Levi.
“Oh, that’s okay. I can sit up front with you. Sitting in the back while you’re driving up front would be too snooty for me,” Levi said, waving away the idea of him pretentiously being driven like Miss Daisy.
“No, no. . .I insist,” the assistant said. Seeing Levi scowl, he added, almost pleaded, “Really, Damien insists.”
“Oh my God,” Levi sighed in resignation, “Even in Atlanta, he’s so Hollywood. . .”
When the assistant opened the door, the interior lights came on and Damien, who had been crouched down in the backseat, hiding, sat up, arms thrown wide, his face beaming. “Get in here and give me smooches, you sexy thing!”
Damien could sense it. Levi was definitely off. There was definitely something wrong. It wasn’t necessarily a bad wrong—the kisses he was giving Damien were surely passionate and oh, so, so worth those two weeks of waiting for this night to come. All that missing him, all those phone calls. All the missed phone calls. But it was more than love causing Levi to hold onto Damien so tightly as they were driven from the airport to midtown Atlanta and Damien could sense it. There was a nervous light behind the veneer. Even now, softly moaning in a whisper so as to not let the driver hear him, Levi sounded. . .desperate. Desperately seeking distraction. Kiss and pet and lose himself in some mad love making and he wouldn’t see the “WELCOME TO ATLANTA” signage or know when they were on the 75 North. Or have to see the line of skyscrapers that stretched from downtown through midtown to Buckhead, almost all lined up in a row. Or see the spot where one no longer stood.
It was as if by making love to Damien, he was avoiding seeing that which he did not want to see again. And knowing Levi had come, regardless of how horrifically this city had been etched into his mind, that he was returning to where he had been shot five times and had to drag himself to safety. . .had come to this place solely to see Damien and Track. . .it made Damien love him all the more.
And so Damien kissed him, again and again, kissing his Seeking Handsome to distraction and, upon arrival at the Georgian Terrace, guiding him swiftly out of the porte cochere and into the hotel’s stunning tower of an atrium, across the lobby, into an elevator, and up to the suite of connecting suites he, Track, and the nanny were occupying. There was no need for Levi to see Atlanta if he was not ready to see it once again. Damien would shield his eyes, guide him as Levi sometimes guided his blind friend, Kyle. He had already lived through the hell of the attacks. Damien did not want him to have to relive it.
After they made love and Damien, who had been up since early morning of the day before and had to get some sleep before reporting to the set late that afternoon, held him in his arms thinking they would drift off to sleep, Levi stirred.
“What is it?” Damien asked him.
“Tomorrow,” Levi said.
“You mean today?”
Levi had to think for a moment. “Yes. Today.”
“What is it?”
“Let’s just. . .pull the bandage off,” Levi said. “Let’s go where it happened. I’ve never been back. But then I can get out whatever I need to get out. And then I can just focus on you and Track.”
“You sure about that, honey?”
“Yes,” Levi yawned, snuggling up against his chest. “It’s a wonderful day for an exorcism.”