Damien hadn’t wanted to but he had agreed to go see his friend, Josh Mayor, perform with his band at West Hollywood’s Peppermint Club and so, apologetically he told Levi, “I’m sorry; we’ll just stay for one set only” and off they went, Damien in his fashionable designer duds and Levi in his outlet mall out-of-season best.
Levi didn’t mind; he was still of the age where clubs were exciting and anytime he was able to wear anything other than the ridiculous uniform of the Fab Friends Factory was a thrill. He had also known Josh Mayor from way back. Not personally, of course, but he remembered when Josh had starred, albeit briefly, in a rather good, smart cable sitcom which was abruptly cancelled following a lawsuit about creative ownership. He had been branded “the next big thing” only to be quickly cast in a series of rushed productions which never equaled his earlier success—a few other sitcoms and even a movie—before his “next big thing” became “yesterday’s news” which became “Whatever happened to?” It was a stunning, fast descent into has-been world, an oft-cited case of sudden stardom not being able to go the long haul (or even the short-term one). He had most recently appeared on one of those “Dancing with the Who Is That in the Big Brother House on a Celebrity Island with a Masked Singer”-type shows and, when his name was revealed and he was called out on-stage, it was clear the majority of the audience had no idea who he was. The applause television audiences heard was beefed up by the show’s producers to make his participation seem more of a get than it really was. Now he was trying to reinvent himself as a singer with a band and, while no producers were calling him for a part in any musicals, his modest success as a touring musical novelty, playing tiny clubs in big cities, paid the rent for his two-bedroom apartment in Burbank.
He and Damien had crossed paths and struck up a warm acquaintanceship not in any professional capacity but via a mutual friend: Juliette Lake, Damien’s former in-the-name-of-holy-Public-Relations wife. Unlike Josh, Juliette’s fame had not ended abruptly but her career had likewise stalled—hers due to a public distaste following a string of drug rehabs and flop films—but many in Tinseltown still held out hope Juliette would one day make a stunning comeback. (She had, after all, once been America’s sweetheart and wouldn’t it be nice to see her on-screen again, fresh-faced and curling up her arms in sleeves of too-long sweaters while looking charmingly impish in something with a title like, “What Gives?” or “Coffee Date”?) Juliette and Josh had been great friends and Josh–a bit of a womanizer whose promiscuity no doubt had touched Juliette and Damien’s non-consummated marriage—had continued his friendship with Damien after the marriage had dissolved in a publicity mess which saw Juliette packed off to Promises Malibu and Damien stepping out of the closet.
As a musician, Josh wasn’t that bad. His voice was strong and, aside from some bum notes in his lower and upper registers, only a few apologies like, “Well, he’s not a singer-singer; he’s an actor-singer” needed to be made. He had charm, of a sort, if you knew who he was and were impressed he was up on the Peppermint Club’s coffee-table sized stage, singing. He had charisma, if your definition of charisma was a spotlight which followed him around as he sang to random audience members from the stage. And he wasn’t so much a song stylist as he was a great mimicker; in a set of cover-songs, there wasn’t a variant note from the well-known originals to be found. But for a live act. . .well, he was remarkably, exceptionally, live.
Damien had requested a booth in back or a banquette on the side but Josh had—mistakenly thinking he was doing his far more successful acquaintance a favor–arranged for Damien and Levi to sit front and center, in a sofa-filled court placed before the stage—a comfy pit in the jazzy lounge. Unfortunately, this afforded them none of the privacy Damien liked and left him sitting among strangers, exposed to any and all wanna-bes, including the man who sat beside them, on Damien’s left.
“How are you doing?” the bespectacled man had asked, thrusting an aggressively-friendly hand into Damien’s when he sat down. “I haven’t seen you in ages. What are you working on these days?”
Levi immediately disliked the guy. The smile was so Hollywood-friendly: the once-bloomed-never-die bouquet of white teeth framed by open, upturned lips. The wide eyes, attentive and bouncing in a stare from Damien’s left to his right eye to add some sparkle. The way the man nodded enthusiastically as Damien explained he was filming a movie in Atlanta (“Yeah? Oh, that sounds great!” the man cried to that one.) and while filming that, working on the pre-production of another film he was shooting shortly after that (“Oh, really? What’s that about?”) in Italy (“Italy? Wow! How nice will that be?”) but just here in Los Angeles for a quick visit with his boyfriend (“Oh? Is that this guy?”).
Levi smiled his best imitation of a Hollywood-friendly smile as he shook the overeager man’s hand—a nice imitation but one undone by his unintentional (yet sincere) eyeroll when the man told him, “So nice to meet you! And you are—”
“Levi. Are you in the business, too?”
The business. This guy probably worked in a movie theater booth selling tickets but thought that made him “in the business.”
“Yes,” Levi lied, astonishing Damien. “I’m a fluffer. Porn, you know.”
“Oh? Fascinating!” the man, asked, non-plussed. “Do you know Jamie Dorten?”
“I don’t, no,” Levi said, shoulders raised to his ears with apology. “I mostly do the low-budget porn; you know, the less witty ones. Instead of something classy like ‘Breakfast in Tiffany’ or ‘Sweet Homo Alabama’, I’m a fluffer on the sets of things like, ‘Hot Uncut Cocks, Vol. 18’ and ‘Cum Dumpin’ Dudes’.”
“Really?” The man actually seemed impressed.
“What can I say? Being a fluffer? It’s a mouthful,” Levi continued, enjoying his rambling.
“But I’m hoping to class it up and improve on my oral skills in more demanding work.”
“I have an interview next week for Senior Fluffer with—”
“He’s joking,” Damien explained, laughing.
“I work in a store,” Levi admitted with an apologetic hand.
“Oh? Really? A store?” the man said, his smile never once wavering, as if his lips were pinned into a smile and his eyes glazed over with a polymer. “How nice!” And, like everyone in Hollywood, seeing Levi was of no use to them, the man returned his attention to Damien. “So that film you’re producing? The job I’m working on ends in a few weeks. Here—here’s my card. If you need any one for—”
Levi had to turn his attention elsewhere. He hated people like that as much as Damien did. He also, he had to admit, envied them on some level. He had never been the type to aggressively push himself on people. Maybe had he done so, he would have heard from the Academy Museum. Maybe instead of having to say, with sarcasm and shame, that he worked in a shop, he could be telling people he worked at that museum all of Los Angeles appeared to be waiting to see finally realized at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. But he could be in the same room as the person doing the hiring and he would be afraid to approach. He had to admit, this guy on the other side of Damien, as obnoxious as he was with his verbal resume spilling forth as they waited for Josh—whose set had ended a few minutes ago—to come out and chat with Damien—had a chutzpah Levi wished he could possess. Just without the phony smile and desperate, popping eyes that screamed, “Please like me! Somebody in this world, please like me!”.
He smiled out to no one, turning from Damien and the intruder to look about the swanky little art-deco-inspired club. His head was exploding with the side effect of at least one of his medications: the sound of bubble wrap. God, it was so annoying the way that sound would just come from nowhere and deafen him momentarily after startling the hell out of him, like someone lighting firecrackers under your chair. His psychiatrist had, despite Damien’s protestations, given him a prescription she hoped would reduce the frequency of this awful side effect but the pill hadn’t yet done anything and it might never help.
And then, as quickly as the crackling arose, it departed.
Feeling the warmth of Damien’s hand snake into his own and then grip it, as if to absorb some of Levi’s patience while the man beside Damien continued to subtly beg for a job, Levi reminded himself the pills and the side effects were all worth it. Just the sight of Damien’s hand in his, the bone of Damien’s knuckles showing white through his tan skin, the hair on his forearm glistening, reminded him of why he was willing to put up with whatever might come.
“Never again,” Damien sighed as they got into his SUV. “That’s exactly why I hate going out.”
“I’m sorry,” Levi said, kissing his cheek. “That must suck.”
“All the time,” Damien groaned. “Always someone wanting me to give them a job. And half the time, they act like we’ve worked together!”
“Yeah, I caught the vibe he was setting off, that whole, ‘I’m in the business’ vibe.”
“How? How was he ‘in the business’?” Damien laughed.
“He bought a DVD once,” Levi snapped to Damien’s amused agreement. “But. . .well, you know,” Levi told him, trying to smooth his mood down, “You’ve made it. And people latch on to the ones who have made it, thinking that maybe this one will—”
“Look–It’s nice to make it but a.) You only ‘make it’ until you’re in a bomb. Look at Josh. I love the guy but—really, be honest: Wasn’t that just a step up from Karaoke?”
“It was Karaoke,” Levi corrected him. “Just with a live band and adlibs between song selections. I kept waiting for him to bleat out ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ or “We Are Family’.”
Damien started laughing but Levi added, “I’m sorry. That was mean of me. I can’t sing.”
“Neither can he,” Damien added. “It’s a shame. As a singer, he’s really an actor. I love the guy but. . .no. And that brings me to b.) You want to help these people out but even as a producer, I can’t go casting people in things just because they’re my friend—or acquaintance. Or a friend of a friend. Or whoever. I’m obligated to staff the production with the best people who can do the best job.”
“Who was that guy? Did you even—”
“I have no idea. But he did come up to me like we knew each other, right? That wasn’t my imagination?”
“If it was your imagination, you may want to take some of my meds because I thought the same thing. He came up to you like, ‘Hey. . .long time no see!’”
“That’s what I thought. I hate that shit. Tell me who you are, how we know each other, and why we’re talking. Or, c.) better yet, leave me the fuck alone so I can have a date with my boyfriend.”
“Exactly. I wanted to punch him. Like, ‘Excuse me! This is my boyfriend whose time you’re monopolizing. Oh—and did you notice that when he thought I worked in porn, he took me seriously. Because, you know, porn is apparently the film industry. But when I said I worked in a store? Poof! I no longer existed! I have to remember that; it’s quite convenient. Asshole Repellant: Say you work in a store!”
“Jesus,” Damien sighed. After they drove in silence for a bit, through the crawl of West Hollywood’s La Cienega traffic and its street-crossing and love hungry—or just plain hungry and thirsty—men and women, all dressed to impress or, as Kyle would say, “Dressed to get undressed”, Damien said dreamily, “All day tomorrow? We are not leaving the house.”
“Oh,” Levi said. “That will be so nice. We’re always running somewhere.”
“I told Nickolas to reschedule everyone. No gardener. No pool guy. No housekeeper.”
“No Nickolas?” Levi asked, hopefully. He still disliked that guy.
“No Nickolas,” Damien assured him.
“Even better,” Levi said. “We can have breakfast in bed. . .lounge by the pool. . .take a few naps. . .”
Damien hummed happily.
“How’s Snap, Crackle, and Pop?” he asked hesitantly.
“I heard them in the club a few times,” Levi told him, matter-of-factly. “It’s no big deal.”
Damien lifted Levi’s hand to his cheek and rubbed his cheek against it, the stubble lovingly scratching Levi’s palm.
“Let me show you how much I appreciate you all day tomorrow,” Damien told him, bringing Levi’s hand to his mouth and giving it a kiss. “You and your noisy head.”
This made Levi roar with laughter and Damien, glancing at him adoringly, ran a hand over his hair.
“A whole day with you alone will be heaven,” Damien told him. And God, how Damien needed a day alone with him. . .