“Love is the most important ingredient in anything you bake,” the rabbi intoned to the students in Baking the Spiritual Way.
“I have just wasted sixty fucking dollars taking this bullshit class,” Levi thought, restraining himself from throwing his arms in the air as if to say, “Why did I bother? I wanted to know how long I should put a cake in the oven. What is a sponge pan? How do you sift? Instead, I get ‘Put love into what you bake’? I should have stayed at home and watched a horror movie.”
Levi had registered for the baking class at the Braunstein Center because being alone in the big house over Runyon Canyon was unappealing, even after a long, busy day at the store. It wasn’t just that the house was too big or that he sometimes found himself looking over his shoulder after watching a horror movie and speeding his pace while wondering why anyone would buy a house with such long hallways in which a serial killer was undoubtedly hiding to kill him. He also wanted to learn how to bake. He had never learned how and, with Damien and Track in Atlanta, it was one way to fill an empty night when he didn’t have to be at work. What baking and spirituality had in common, he didn’t know and had low expectations of it even making sense. He just hoped he left class knowing how to make a really nice loaf of bread.
Instead of baking bread, a foodstuff Levi thought would have made sense ( Bible / Bread) in that first class, the rabbi taught them how to make cupcakes. “Cupcakes. . .with love,” he reminded them.
Levi, to whom all biblical teachings were jumbled, wondered why cupcakes were the item chosen. After all. . .Jesus made bread. Not cupcakes. Of course, the Braunstein Center wasn’t a Christian church nor a Jewish synagogue. They just used whatever pieces of whatever religion fit their product on offer—from meditation to aerobics to finger painting to cooking and baking classes. But in what religion or school of spirituality did cupcakes jump out as a holy, sacred pastry?
“Give a man a cupcake and he will snack for a day. . .but teach a man to bake cupcakes and he will open a chain of bakeries,” Levi thought.
By the end of the evening’s class, Levi felt that the chef-turned-spiritual-guide had gotten it all wrong: the most important ingredient was not love. It was butter. Levi’s cupcakes tasted awful and they were dry as could be without being crackers. He had made them with love, so to speak. He had thought positive thoughts as he cracked the eggs—except when one egg cracked and splattered all over his apron. He had poured sugar and flour and milk carefully, and with happy images of Track and Damien on his mind. He had placed the baking pan into his small class oven thinking how nice it would be to surprise little Track with a homemade, gorgeously frosted cupcake one day. And how Track and Damien would both think, “Aren’t we lucky? All that personality—multiple personalities, sometimes!—AND he can bake cupcakes!”
But he had remarkable trouble making the frosting. The frosting itself was fine but the coloration went all wrong; Levi mixing in too much of one color and then trying to counteract that by mixing in too much of another color. (Sort of like how he took his medications. Why follow directions?) In the end, he had created frosting that was closer to black than the aqua he had been aiming for. And, after he topped his still-warm cupcakes with the frosting too soon, the frosting melting all over the cupcake in a gray and black ooze, he ended up with something that looked like a dozen giant mold spores.
After the rabbi reminded the class at its close to “Always bake with the most important ingredient: Love!” until their next class, next week, Levi had planned to dump his tray of dingy-looking desserts into the nearest garbage can. As he waited by a hallway trash can to do just that once all the other students were gone, he was approached by Rabbi McCory in the hallway the classrooms emptied into.
“Would you like some cupcakes?” Levi asked, holding out the foil covered tray. “I was going to just throw them out anyway.”
“Why, sure! Who doesn’t love a cupcake!”, the rabbi asked as Levi opened up the foil and thrust the tray at him. “Er—better yet, eh, you enjoy those.”
“I made them with love,” Levi offered.
“I’m sure you did,” Rabbi McCory said. “Levi—I noticed you moved recently?”
This struck Levi as strange. First, that the rabbi somehow had visibility to the address change form he had filled out in the bookstore when registering for “Finding Yourself Through Fingerpainting: A Braunstein Spirituality Exercise” and also that he was making Levi feel guilty for not having shared this information.
“Yeah, I moved about a month or so ago.”
“To a very nice neighborhood,” the rabbi said.
“Yes,” Levi said. “If you like that sort of place. It gives me the heebie jeebies, being so high up and all those corners I have to make. And the roads are insane. I always wonder how developers were allowed to build up there without putting in. . .you know. . .railings. A person can literally wrong-turn themselves to death up there.”
“But it’s a nice house,” the rabbi said. “Based on its sales history, it’s worth about four mill—”
‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!,” Levi near-shouted., “I don’t want to know.”
“How much the house is worth. That’s my—my friend’s house. My friend. Not mine. I don’t know how much it’s worth and I don’t want to know—”
“Four point two million,” the rabbi said.
“And it’s none of your business, either,” Levi snapped.
“Levi—how much do you donate to the Braunstein Center?”
“Excuse me?” Levi had to struggle with the word. “Donate?”
He almost laughed. Why would he donate dollars to a self-serving organization that didn’t even know what it was? Was it teaching Kabbalah? Cooking? Sex? Meditation? Finger painting?
“Yes. Look. . .you go to the gym, right? You’re in pretty good shape.”
“Yes and thank you for noticing,” Levi said, wanting to leave but realizing he was cornered up against the wall.
“Well, why do you go the gym?”
“Because. . .” He wanted to leave, not answer a question like that. “Because I’m gay, in my thirties, and someone somewhere passed a law saying men like me must be sculpted and chiseled in order to have any value–and I strangely subscribed to that notion even though I don’t believe it, have friends who don’t practice it, and have no doubt I’d be much better off fat and happy.”
“But you don’t just pray that your body will be sculpted, correct?”
Levi sighed, “Correct.”
“You go somewhere to get your body in the shape it’s in, correct?”
“And you pay a membership fee to that gym. . .correct?”
The rabbi was suddenly at a disadvantage.
“My friend’s house has its own gym and I workout there now. So no more gym membership. I just head downstairs every morning and get it over with. Now, I’ve got to get going—”
“But my point, Levi, is you go somewhere and you work out?”
“Yes,” Levi said with a sigh. “I go somewhere.”
“And you work out your body there. And then you come here. . .and here you work out your soul. Correct?”
“Not. . .” Levi said, “If you’re going to ask me to donate money on top of all the class registration fees I already pay.”
The rabbi was visibly surprised by this.
“You looked into where I’m living. That feels like a violation of my privacy—”
“I assure you, it was nothing like that. When a student changes their address, it goes through—”
“Not like that. But yes. Partly. We need to know if people are tithing correctly and if they live in a house worth—”
“That is not my house. Yes, I live there but. . .I’m more like a house-sitter—”
“For Damien Lanchester?”
“Damien Lanchester. He owns the house.”
“That’s none of your business.”
“It’s public business. It’s a matter of public record; very easy to look into. True, he listed the owner as his corporation—but he’s the sole owner of his corporation.”
The rabbi smiled at him.
“Do you live with Damien Lanchester?”
Levi’s temper showed in his face. “As a house-sitter,” he lied. “A roommate.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell anyone. Not going to call up TMZ and spread the word. He’s already out of the closet and he’s not exactly tabloid fodder, anyway. So what if you are or aren’t a couple? That’s nothing.” the rabbi said. “But don’t you think, Levi, if you’re such good friends with him, that you should do him the favor of offering him some help?”
Levi was appalled.
“If you had a friend who was making themself sick, you’d step in, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t let them ruin their livelihood by continuing down the same path that will result in their—”
“Damien is the nicest man I have ever met. Anyone alive should aspire to be him,” Levi said, angrily.
“Then you should save him.”
“He doesn’t need to be saved.”
“Bring him here,” the rabbi pleaded with a smile. “Bring him to us and we’ll save him from his poison and—”
“I am not recruiting him.”
“We are not a cult!” the rabbi cried defensively. “We do not recruit! Cults recruit! We do not!” More calmly, he stated, seriously, “We save people from the endless cycle of reincarnation.”
“Damien doesn’t believe in any of that,” Levi snapped, restraining himself from adding,
“And neither do I.”
“Don’t you want to save him in this life so he doesn’t have to live another?”
Levi pulled his lips into his mouth and bit down on them to keep from answering. How dare this moron before him imply Damien was less than perfect? That he needed the help of this ridiculous place which had long ago stopped amusing Levi.
“You’ve had your reincarnation course, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. Apparently I’m a reincarnated Clara Bow.”
The rabbi seemed impressed.
“Rabbi McCory—really. I have to go.” He was angry as hell that somehow all of this had become public knowledge of the Braunstein Center.
“Wait, wait. Just one more moment, Levi.” He ushered him into an empty classroom and shut the door behind him. “I know you were shot in Atlanta.”
The suddenness stopped Levi cold. He had heard the phrase, “making one’s head spin” before but now he knew exactly what that meant. He felt dizzy with the spinning thoughts racing about his head. He had been private, so carefully guarded, with so many people. Not even X knew the full story about Atlanta. Barry knew nothing at all about the shooting. Javad was the same way. Kyle only knew because Kyle was with him that day.
He hadn’t moved all the way to Los Angeles so that he could endlessly relive living in Atlanta.
“That. . .was not . . .for you. . . to know!” Levi shouted hysterically. “That is my life to share–and I don’t want it shared! Who the—”
“Ssh. Ssh.” The rabbi said, his fingers waving him down. “No one knows. Just me.”
“You tell anyone and I swear, I’ll sue the shit out of this place. I will destroy you, this center—all of it.”
“I’m not telling anybody, Levi. Sssh. Calm down.”
“That damned Topanga Seed will get ground down for floor tile and end up on sale at Home Depot–”
“I did not move all the way here so that you can bring up Atlanta to me. I choose who knows about that. Are we clear?”
The rabbi smiled as if trying to appease him.
“Are we clear?”
“We’re clear, Levi,” Rabbi McCory said. “Can I—Can I look at your Flame Filament?” the rabbi asked, pointing to the weave of purple yarn that covered Levi’s left wrist.
“Can I see it?” the rabbi asked.
Levi sighed and, with an irritated eye roll, held out his left arm. The rabbi saw, through the fifteen wraps of purple, the gold charm that had been stitched into place.
“How is that healing going for you?” the rabbi asked, gently holding Levi’s wrist with one hand and pointing a finger at the charm. “You’ve been to Atlanta recently, haven’t you?”
“I go almost every week.”
“To see your friend. . .your friend who is filming a movie in Atlanta. The one you. . .house-sit. . .for.”
“That’s right,” Levi said flatly to the accusation in the way the rabbi said, ‘Friend’ or ‘house-sit’”
“Do you think that charm has helped you in any way? That’s all I want to know. Do you think we’ve helped you heal in any way, Levi?” The rabbi dropped his arm and leaned against the wall casually, his eyes full of a soft concern.
“I really think it’s me doing the healing. You know I’m an atheist; I’m not thinking it was one of the 72 names of God.”
“But then why the charm?”
“It was more a reminder to me—a reminder to heal. As in ‘heal myself’ not ‘someone please heal me’. I think people who lean on a God or religion are weak. I’m not weak. I get up off my ass and do it myself—”
“Then why do you come here?”
“I enjoy the classes and—the camaraderie, I guess.”
“And maybe the hope?”
Levi was silent.
“The hope you’ll find some way to get better? Kill your bipolar disorder? No, no; don’t be upset. You told me about that yourself, Levi.”
Levi breathed in slowly, loudly, to calm himself down.
“We can’t help you with your chemical imbalance. Some things are permanent. Permanent damage.”
I told you you were broken. Damaged goods. Permanent damage.
“And I only know from newspaper reports that you were shot. No one was digging in your past. For blackmail. A quick internet search of your name brings up a few articles that mention you. I imagine you have some trauma left from that shooting. But somehow, you found us. And that was all for a reason, Levi. So that we can help you. Maybe put an end to whatever damage the shootings left you with? The Braunstein Center can help you heal. We just needed to know what healing was needed.”
“Thank you,” Levi said quietly, wanting nothing more than to be away from here.
“But the best way to heal, Levi, is to be like the Flame. Just like the Flame gives its light and we receive that light, in order to receive enough of the Flame to heal, you have to be like the Flame and give. I need you to start giving–donating money—even if it’s just twenty dollars a week.”
“I can do twenty dollars a week,” Levi said with some reluctance. It wasn’t that big an amount of money; just a few Starbucks coffees less each week, he reasoned. “If that’s all you’re asking.”
“That’s all,” the rabbi said brightly. “That’s all! When you give, you’ll see that you, in turn, receive.”
“Fine. Here—” Levi handed the tray of cupcakes to the rabbi, pulled out his wallet and, with great difficulty, his fingers struggled to but finally grasped a twenty dollar bill.
Levi slapped it atop the tray, unable to meet the eyes of the rabbi who was staring at the tremble in Levi’s right hand and noticing it now all along his shoulder and down his entire right side to his foot.
“Don’t ever invade my privacy again,” Levi said. “My private life is private. Off-limits. You know what I tell you. Nothing more.”
“I did not mean to,” the rabbi told him evenly. “Now. . .I hope that misunderstanding is cleared up. Will I see you back here for your classes? The morning meditations and so on?”
“Not if you ever mention Damien Lanchester or Atlanta again,” Levi snapped, leaving the room without his mold-spore cupcakes.