After their date at the psychiatrist’s office on Larchmont and a quick bite at Du-Par’s, they stopped by Levi’s apartment—which Damien reminded him was now “our apartment” just as the house was “our house”—because Damien had been disappointed by how little Levi there was in the house overlooking Runyon Canyon. “All that’s here is your clothes,” Damien had told him that morning, concern heavy on his voice. “It’s like you’re ready to move out at any moment.”
Levi had explained that was not the case, hurriedly hoping to kill any offense Damien was feeling. “Ready to move out?” That was not Levi’s intent.
“You already have furniture,” Levi explained. “I just thought if I brought my shit in here it would look like junk and—”
“I mean, you. I want to see more ‘you’ here, Levi. You’re here. Your clothes are here. But where are your books? I know you read like a maniac. There’s not a single book of yours in the library. There’s no photos anywhere of your friends. None of your knick-knacks—”
“You really want me to bring a vase from HomeGoods in here?”
“Yes. Yes, I do. I want this place to be your home, too. This isn’t a museum. You’ve seen how quickly Track can drag all the stuff in his toybox into any room in the house and make it a massive play pen? I want you to do the same. Where are those movie posters you love?”
“Damien—they’re in IKEA frames. I’m not bringing something that disposable—”
“Okay. How about this? How about, you bring the movie posters, and I get them framed? That way, it’s both of us—you provide the art, I provide the frame?”
“Well, I still need some for the apartment. We don’t want it to look empty.”
“So pick whatever ones you want. Baby, I want you to look around this house and know you belong here. Got that?”
“I got that.”
“I don’t think you do. Look—I want you to smile when you see things you like: a vase on that shelf, a movie poster on that wall. Your favorite books over here; books you’ve stopped reading because they bored the shit out of you over there. Your favorite DVDs by the player. I don’t want you to feel like you’re in a hotel and the only place you can put your stuff is in the closet.”
And so they had ended up in the apartment, Damien aggressively grabbing things to put into a pile—eventually several stacks–that Nickolas would then have to have shuttled over to the house. Some of the nicest things Levi owned were several gorgeous stained glass lamps, replicas of some ornate Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Shades of bright green glass and golden cabochons, great green dragonflies, cheery green notes just like green-eyed Levi. Yes, they could leave some in the apartment, but wouldn’t this one look great in the foyer, when you first entered the house? And how about that one for the nook—the one between the home theater and the office–where there currently was a character-free sleek stainless steel lamp? And that lobby poster there, the one for East of Eden? That would look great framed and matted, its colors really brightening up that dead space in the kitchen!
And these books. So many books. Stacks and stacks piled up like columns (but never like tables; Levi resented anyone who viewed books as pedestals for vases, dishes, or feet). Books that showed Levi thought, how he thought, who he looked up to, how deeply entrenched his mind was on the world of art and film. Books that revealed that, as far back as his teens, he had sought out stories of people who also suffered from that weird malady he had some vague idea he might also have— Gene Tierney’s autobiography, Carrie Fisher’s novels and memoirs, biographies about Vivien Leigh, Stephen Fry, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Hemingway, and Atlanta’s other great son and Levi’s first crush, Ted Turner. Those books were Levi’s heart in dogeared pages, bound between covers, and to the house they were to go.
And all those picture frames on the over-stuffed bookcases between the living room and the dining room.
When Damien started grabbing those, the questions started.
“So—who is this?” he asked of a group photo of Levi and five friends, taken at the rooftop of Ponce City Market.
“Oh—nobody,” Levi said, awkwardly. “Really. Those can stay.”
Damien immediately noted the discomfort in Levi’s face. “And these?” he asked, pointing gingerly to a frame beside that holding a photo of two smiling men.
“Old friends. We don’t talk anymore, though.”
“Oh.” Hesitantly, he asked, “Why?”
“Just. . .the usual stuff.”
“How about these two here?”
“Same thing. Don’t talk to me anymore.”
Damien’s scowl reaffirmed his confusion. “All of these—”
“All of them are people who don’t talk to me anymore.” He saw Damien’s questioning face requesting a reason. “The bipolar thing,” Levi admitted, his voice quiet, as with shame. “I don’t blame some of them. Like him. I yelled at him one day. I was in a bad mood. So, you know, we had an argument—as friends do. But I had to win. And it wasn’t even about the argument. The argument was something stupid. I just wanted to win, period. I was manic and the mania was breaking and I knew a depression was coming on so, to keep the high—or simulate it, I guess—I tore him down in the process.”
Damien picked up another frame and looked at the phot within: Levi and about ten friends at a long table in an Atlanta restaurant.
“They just got tired of me cancelling plans,” Levi said. “I was figuring out something was wrong and so I’d learned when to maybe not be around people. But I didn’t want to say, ‘Hey. . .Crazy Guy is visiting. It would be best if I stay in bed and not expose you to him.’ I would just say, ‘I’m sick’ or ‘I’m not feeling well’ and they felt I had cancelled plans one too many times so. . .goodbye to me.”
“You were doing something for their benefit and—”
“They didn’t see it that way.”
“Did you ever explain to them why?”
“No. I didn’t see a shrink until years later, here in L.A.” Levi explained. “I knew what was wrong with me—I figured it out in high school–but getting that classification? That was too real. If you know it and hold it back—you know, admit it to yourself when you’re alone but otherwise act like all is fine around other people—it becomes a habit. The I’ll-believe-it-because-they-believe-it thing. It’s just what I have pops out no matter how much I try to suppress it and. . .then there’s damage. I told these guys here. These are more recent losses, you might say. They dropped me immediately. I figured they would. They had always talked about a friend of theirs who was bipolar and they made jokes about him and then, there’s me, telling them I’m bipolar, too. And they told me they didn’t want to be around that.”
“Not all of them. Some I deserved it. Some–like her? I don’t even know what she did. I just got angry at her one day. Irrationally angry. So I cut her out of my life, myself. I miss her but. . .you know how it is. First, I don’t know how to apologize because I’m not sure how I even got angry at her or why. Second, how do you apologize for slicing someone out of your life? You can’t say, ‘I’m sorry. Can I come back in?’ Why would they even let you back in when you stormed right out and might do the same thing again? And of course, there’s that time thing. I might remember her but it’s been ages. Just because you think about someone, doesn’t mean they think about you. It’s probably been so long I’m a bad memory and nothing more.”
“So. . .I have to ask. . .why do you have their pictures up? That seems so. . .” Damien sought the right word but even that one did not do it justice. “Morbid.”
“They’re tombstones,” Levi told him. “Tombstones of dead friendships. I see them everyday—that is, when I’m here—and it reminds me, so I don’t do it again, what I’ve done to people I love.”
“Love,” Damien asked, “As in present tense?”
“Yes,” Levi said. “I suppose so.”
“Why don’t you call them and—”
“They’re better without me.”
“Don’t say that.” A sudden fear took hold in Damien’s eyes. “And don’t you ever think about feeling that way about me, that I’d ever be better off without you.”
“If we ever fight. If we ever have some blow-out argument or some big fight and I tell you to get out. . .Promise me you’ll come back.”
“Promise me you’ll never tell me to get out,” Levi laughed.
“Okay,” Damien chuckled nervously. “Bad phrasing. But Lee. . .I’m serious. Please don’t ever—”
“I won’t. Not you. Not Track. You’ll have to get a restraining order to keep me away.”
“I’ve never loved anyone like I love you.”
Damien took a moment, breathed in and said, “Good. That makes me feel better. But. . .for your sake, Levi. . .All of these people still mean something to you. Call them. They probably miss you.”
Levi matter-of-factly smirked. “I can’t imagine anyone missing me, Damien.”
“I bet they do. I bet when they think about you, they don’t think about that last time they saw you. They think about how funny you are. Or what good company you are. Or what a great listener you are. Or how you made them feel when you would smile at them or hug them hello. They probably wonder where you are. Some prodigal son.”
“No. I can’t call them now. They’re all dead to me now. Really. It has to be that way.”
“How about this guy here? What’s the story there?”
“That’s X,” Levi told him.
“Oh.” Damien stared into the frame and at the handsome chiseled face within it, the bright smile and the sparkling eyes of X staring back at him. “Well, fuck this cunt,” Damien said, tossing the frame over his shoulder, where the glass shattered against the floor. “Don’t call that motherfucker.”
Levi hugged Damien, laughing. “I’m not calling any of them. I shouldn’t be punishing myself with their photos as a daily reminder of what I did wrong. You’re right; it’s morbid. They shouldn’t be up. And they’re not coming to the house. Let’s take out their pictures and fill the frames with pictures of you and Track. These photos are the past.”
“I’m the future,” Damien said, kissing Levi’s eyebrows. “Allow me to introduce myself.”
“I have to tell you something, ” Damien whispered in his ear. “I’m sorry.”
Levi turned to him from their place on the floor where, between the towers of things Damien would make Nickolas have carried to the house, they had sporadically started making out.
“I think I made you feel small at your doctor’s office today.”
“Small? Damie—I never had anyone stick up for me. I knew you were looking out for me.”
“I shouldn’t have said it the way I did. I’ll apologize to your doctor, too. I know you like her—”
“It’s okay. I know you’re worried.” That Levi said this as he went to stroke Damien’s face and as his hand trembled was an unintentional reminder as to what had worried Damien.
“I just think she has you on too many pills. Really. My brother never had all these. . .things.”
“She has to find the right blend of meds for me, Damie. Your brother has the more easy-going bipolar. I’m the wilder one, I guess.”
“But you don’t seem wild. Really. It’s like you said on our first date—”
“Pardon me? I believe we are still on that first date!”
Damien swallowed Levi in his arms, chuckling, “Pardon me. Earlier, on this eternal, everlasting and lovely date, you pointed out that you were bipolar—but that there were people who were ruder than you, more disruptive than you, and more unpleasant than you. Only you got labeled ‘sick’ while they all got a pass for having a bad day. You’re absolutely right. I’ve never seen you go off like you say you did with X or. . .what are their names—”
“Brad and Chad,” Levi spat out with a disgusted eyeroll.
“Brad and Chad. So. . .if you’re really not that bad, the why so many pills?”
“Maybe it’s the pills that are making me less volatile,” Levi offered.
“Do you think so?”
“I can’t really say. That’s the thing: I always had stretches of what you might call ‘normal’. But then would come stretches of everything: Anger, followed by sulking, followed by happy, then silly, then I’d be irritated. On and on and sometimes one atop the other. And I still have those swings, Damie. I hide them around you as much as I can. But I can still feel, even under the meds, all these waves. In and out and I’m pulled by the undertow here, and I’m swimming to the surface there and sometimes I cling to you and the thought of you. Like a buoy. Keep me sane. Don’t be crazy; he won’t love you if he sees you crazy.”
“I’ll always love you.”
“From your–and Whitney Houston’s–mouth to my ears,” Levi said. “But that’s why. . .that’s why I don’t care if I can’t walk as well as I used to. Or that I’m hearing that popping sound in my head. Or that I can’t write that well. Hell, there’s a whole generation that has no idea how to read cursive handwriting, anyway—”
“Damned iPhones,” Damien muttered.
“Damie—I mean this: I would give up my ability to walk for you. And for Track. If the pills keep me sane so that we never have issues relayed to my bipolar shit—and I don’t want everyday to center around my bipolar shit; there’s other shit to worry about and have fun with—then so what?”
“Just so you know,” Damien said, “I want you to know I hardly evr think about it. Really. I don’t think of you as damaged or—just so we’re clear. I see the guy who made me smile that first day we met and who hasn’t stopped making me smile yet.”
“Alright. See? So, so what if my hand shakes? So what if I stumble and fall every now and then?”
“I just want to make sure that your doctor is paying attention to those things,” Damien explained. “What if you fall when no one’s at the house? All those stairs.”
“I always have my phone with me. I’ll always be able to call someone—”
“But, Levi—I’ve seen you hop out of bed and run downstairs to make us breakfast—and you didn’t have your phone with you. That’s what I’m afraid of. What if one morning, you head downstairs and you lose your balance?” Damien physically shuddered. In a manly way, Levi noticed adoringly. “I sometimes do think about that and it scares the shit out of me.”
“I’ll be fine,” Levi promised. “But, you know how you always talk about perspective? Well, from my perspective I do not want to lose you. I will not do to you what I did to X, or even Brad and Chad. Or. . .any of those people in those photos. I need to take those pills and if I end up in a fucking wheelchair—and I don’t think I really will; I’m just saying—it doesn’t matter. I would do anything to show you I love you.”
He snuggled up to Damien’s ear, took it in his mouth, and whispered, “I want to be good to you.”
“You are good to me,” Damien assured him. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be on the floor with.”
Levi laughed, “Even this hellhole?”
“This apartment,” Damien told a snuggled-up-in-his-arms, “Is really nice.” This set Levi off with a fit of laughter.
“This?” Levi asked him, sweeping his arms sort-of wide as it was a pretty narrow living room. “Oh, Damie, you’ve been living up in the hills too long when you think this is nice. You’re just seeing the appeal of the opposite!”
“I meant it’s sweet. It’s small. Cozy. Perfect for you and I to just hide away from everybody. It’s romantic.”
“Hahaha. A room with no view,” Levi laughed, pointing to the sliding glass doors that gazed out to the side of the neighboring building and a bunch of drooping power lines between, “A balcony covered in pigeon poop. Sirens all day long—police, fire, ambulances. Helicopters overhead all night. Listen! There’s one now! Siren! And that’s to say nothing of the neighbors stomping down the hallway all day, having conversations so loudly, they might as well be in here with us. And that Russian couple yelling at each other all night upstairs.”
“Don’t forget the sound of their fucking.”
“Oh, Christ—they are loud, aren’t they?”
“They are. You know. . .it’s raining and I’m not a big fan of driving in the rain,” Damien said, looking at the dreary rain falling between the apartment and the wall of the building next door. “Why don’t we go into our bedroom here in our little apartment and teach those Russians what real fucking sounds like?”
“I’m in,” Levi told him. “But, only if you agree that this is a shithole apartment,” Levi informed him with a kiss on his chest.
“Never!” Damien cried, leaping to his feet with a groan from having been flat on his back for too long on the hard floor. He held out a hand to pull Levi to his feet. And when Levi tried to rise, his hand was trembling. His arm was spasming. And he had trouble finding his balance.
And when Damien saw the look of determination in Levi’s eyes—determination to control his mind, even if it meant damaging his body, and all for Damien and Track—Damien thought he had never loved any adult more.