His name is Felipe, and as far as Lyft drivers go, I’ve hit the jackpot of nice ones to look at. He’s six foot four, early 20s, Brazilian. All of this I learn within seconds of my ride to the airport because of my chronic case of “tell me your life story” face.
I don’t purposefully try to start conversations with strangers, but thus is my life – strangers telling me deeply personal things whether I’m in the mood or not. Maybe they can tell I’m collecting stories, and they hope they’ll tell me something meaningful, something I can preserve. And aren’t they kind of right?
I’m in a peaceful mood this morning, on my way to the airport to fly to San Antonio and see one of my oldest and best friends, John. Because of that, I’m easy to talk to, charming, and a good listener - my best version of me, and maybe Felipe’s ideal early morning passenger. After some small talk, he tells me he just moved to LA from Missouri, where he went to college.
“Do you think you’re gonna stay in LA?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, “I don’t know. I moved to the US from Brazil. I left my family and my friends, my home. I guess I just figured if I’m going to be tied to anything, it’s not going to be a place.”
He asks me what I do, and I tell him, “I’m the assistant to the head of a school.” That’s my generic conversation answer.
He digs deeper. “Is that what you always wanted to be?”
I laugh. Who wants to be that? “No,” I say. “I’m here because I’m a standup comedian.”
He perks up. Most people do. They don’t know how truly un-glamorous stand up comedy actually is. “How long have you been doing it?”
I sigh. I always sigh when I answer this question now. It’s involuntary. “Ten years.”
“That’s great,” he says. “You do what you love.”
“Yeah, well.” I stare out the window. “I don’t know if I love to do it anymore.”
I shrug. “Life circumstances? I guess. It’s just…not what I thought it was.” I change the subject. “What do you lov—”
“I love to play basketball.” He answers before I can finish the sentence. “Started playing when I was 15 years old. That’s pretty late, I know. When I was in high school, they would lock the gym at night, and I used to break in to play. I got caught and got in trouble for it once.”
He looks at me in the rear view and smiles, his eyes genuine. I’m always surprised when beautiful people are also authentic.
He continues. “I started to realize in Brazil that I was pretty good, so I moved to the US. I played in college in Missouri. I wanted to play professionally, but the stress was so much. I kept meeting with different people who were supposed to help me, but no one was interested.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I totally get that.”
“But one day,” he says, “I remember I was really down. I missed home. I wondered what I was doing. I thought to myself, ‘Do you love this? Then just play because you love it.’”
I sit silent, wondering - do I love standup?
“And you know what?” Felipe says. “The very next day, I played like I loved the game. I had so much fun on the court during practice, and the only thing that mattered was that I got to play in that moment. And during that practice, the manager from a Puerto Rico league happened to be watching, and he approached me afterwards and asked me if I wanted to play for him. He was going to pay me to do what I loved!”
“That’s amazing!” I say. “So you played in Puerto Rico?”
He shakes his head. “No. I stayed in Missouri to finish my degree because my education was more important to me.”
“Wow,” I say, thrown by the story’s sudden 180. “Man. But do you still play?”
“Of course. I’ll always play. I play in a league here.” As he veers off the main road to the ramp that leads to Southwest departures, he looks at me again in the rear view. “You should always do the thing that makes your heart beat faster. But do it only because you love it. If you don’t do it for that, then you’ll…you won’t be…you won’t have…” He searches for the right words.
“You’ll be dead inside."
“Yes,” he says. “I couldn’t put it better than that.”
“I want you to know that how you’re feeling is very important to us,” the lawyer says, his face bright red. It’s always red. He’s one of those dudes with a big red head.
The head of the school (my boss), the HR lady, and I sit across from him at the large brown table in the freezing board room. The lawyer continues, “And I’m here if you have any questions at all. Do you have any questions for me right now?”
I stare at this vague memo he had handed me to read, the one with phrases like, “the school has taken appropriate action to address the sustained finding” and “I cannot share the nature of those actions” and “I am also directing you not to retaliate.” I wish I could think of the perfect question, but the only real question I have is, “How does that man still have a job here?”
I’ve already asked that one. I asked my boss. I asked HR, and the lawyer already explained why before I could even ask - because he has “rights as an employee.” Translation: because they’re afraid he’s gonna sue.
That’s the point of this meeting - to tell me that because of the employment laws in place in the State of California, they certainly understand why I would feel angry or uncomfortable, but it’s not their fault. Their hands are tied.
I have one of those work daydreams, you know like the main dude in the show Scrubs, where I jump up, point at the lawyer, and shout, “This is bullshit! And please for the love of all things holy, tell your head to share some blood with the rest of your body!”
In real life, I say, “Do I have to talk to him?”
“No,” my boss says.
I work as an executive assistant in the head’s office of an independent school (California code for “private school”). When people ask me the best part about my job, I say, “The kids.” I don’t mean in a professional athlete press conference sort of way. I just mean that hands down, the best part about working in a school office has always been being a witness to whatever a child says on the fly.
Like Mike, the 8th grader who had to sit in what I deemed “the bad kid chair” next to my desk at least twice a week. One day, I told him to guess how old I was, and he didn’t hesitate before he said, “40.” I was 32 at the time. I said, “No, that’s too high.” And he said, “Leah, quit lying to yourself.”
Or Stan, the 8th grader who had to sit in that same chair very early one morning before school even started for punching another student. Our dean came in and gave him a good talking to, and he casually raised his hand up, cutting her off like a miniature Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock, and said, “Excuse me, can I stop you right there? I hear what you’re saying, but I also feel like I’m getting the short end of the stick.” Not gonna lie, I really enjoyed watching that dean swallow anger while she tried to calmly explain why he can’t punch a dude.
Or my favorites, the middle school girls who swarm my desk in the mornings during basketball season asking me if I think we’ll win our next game, entangling every paper clip on my desk in a long chain, and writing messages on post-its like “Macy is awesome” and sticking them all over my computer.
A lot of these girls remind me of myself when I was young - they’re athletic and excitable and a little bit sassy without even really meaning to be. I want them to be kids for as long as they can be. I want to protect them from all the dumb parts of the world that they don’t even know exist.
I’m in 8th grade waiting by Coach C’s desk to ask him how to solve an algebra problem. Had I been listening at all, I could’ve figured out the problem myself, but I’d been staring out the window during his lecture. Sometimes I literally stand up while he’s teaching, walk to the back of the classroom, and gaze out the window. I don’t know why he lets me do it. Probably just doesn’t want to deal with me anymore.
I don’t have an excuse for my behavior other than to say that I’m 13, and this is the year I choose to act out against authority figures (as it turns out, that impulse never goes away).
I don’t respect Coach C, mainly because of the rumors. He teaches algebra, but he also coaches middle school basketball, and several of the girls on my team have whispered about how he touched their thigh every now and then, put a hand on their lower backs, rubbed their shoulders in a way that felt weird. It hasn’t happened to me yet.
Maybe it’s just a rumor. There’s also another rumor about him, a weirder one - that he has a monkey puppet in his desk drawer and he cut a hole in the back to “do things to it.” I don’t even really know what that means, but I pretend I do.
Anyway, I’m standing by the balding, blond mustached, beer-gutted Coach C, who’s seated in his desk chair, his short-sleeve buttoned down shirt one size too small (that shirt, I think, is doing the hardest job in the school by staying buttoned), and I’m asking him to explain an easy algebra concept when he reaches over and runs his fat pointer finger down my left thigh.
I step away. “Why did you just do that?”
“B-b-b-because,” he stammers, “I wanted to see if you’d think it was my pencil.”
“What?” I ask. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
He’s agitated and - could it be? - embarrassed. He tells me to sit back down.
Later that semester, I see the monkey puppet tucked away in the bottom drawer of his cabinet. I don’t know what that means, but I know it exists.
It’s August of my 6th year working in administration. School’s starting soon, so some of the faculty are back, and the halls buzz with small pockets of activity. I’m determined to start off this year on a more positive note due to a bunch of new hires who seem so bright-eyed, I don’t want them to lose their minds until at least November, so I’m making an effort to be more welcoming. After all, I’ve been a blunt-ass bitch for five straight years. Time for a change.
To help boost morale, the boss gave me the okay to start a work softball team. One of our new hires, an assistant teacher, an older man, probably mid-60s, does screen printing as a side business, so when I see him in the copy room, I pop in. “Hey,” I say, “would you be able to print shirts for our softball team?”
“Yes,” he says. Or maybe he says something else. Maybe he says, “Of course,” or, “I’d be happy to.” It’s such a mundane work conversation, I wish I could forget it.
But I can’t. Because as this dude answers me, he reaches up and caresses my face, his open palm sliding down my left cheek right there next to the copier.
Don’t gloss over that last paragraph. Read it again. Put yourself in that situation. You’re at work, the place you’ve worked for 6 years, the place you have to show up to get paid to survive in Los Angeles. You stop in and have a 30-second conversation with one of your coworkers. It’s the longest conversation you’ve ever had with this coworker because you don’t know this person. And then he reaches up with his chubby little troll hand and caresses your face. Then think about how many people in your everyday life you allow to touch your face. Then think about how you’re standing next to a copy machine and a bunch of human resource posters about labor laws in California.
When I tell this story to my friends in the weeks to come, I will always mention that it’s next to a copier. I’m not sure why I hone in on this detail other than I have a prejudice about the types of things that people can do next to copy machines. At copy machines, we stare while the machine churns out sheet after sheet, and our coworkers pop in and say things like, “Happy Friday!”
But who knows? Maybe this guy’s copy machine is from a movie in the 80s, and it’s a work Christmas party, and a drunk lady is making a copy of her ass.
In real time, I’m shocked speechless. I just back out, my mouth agape, and walk to my desk wondering why I didn’t deck the prick.
I think about it over the weekend. I think about how many women have suffered so many worse things than a man caressing their face. I mean, he didn’t grab my ass or cup my breast or say anything overtly sexual (all, by the way, things that strange men actually have done to me and to every other woman you know). I myself have suffered much worse things from men in general, including rape, but this is the worst thing that’s happened to me in a professional office environment, a place I’d considered safe. And I keep coming back around to the same question - how creepy of a person do you have to be to reach out, cocksure that nothing could possibly happen, and put your hand on a stranger’s face at work?
That’s not an amateur move. Naw, that’s pro.
I work with about 80% women, so I ask a few of my female coworkers if that dude ever has touched them.
“Oh my god, yes!” they say.
Two of them tell me about their uncomfortable encounters with him. I’m not gonna tell their stories - they aren’t my stories to tell - but they’re stories about a man who thinks he can touch women whenever he wants, regardless of how uncomfortable the women feel. They’re stories about a man who knows the exact amount of touching he can do and get away with it.
The next morning, I report him to HR. A week later, another female coworker confides in me about a different incident. I encourage her to report him, and she does even though she’s embarrassed. Then the two other women I spoke with report him. And then a couple more people that I didn’t even know about report him - they tell me later out of solidarity. In the end, we’re three weeks into the school year, and six different employees at my school have filed a complaint about this man touching them or someone else in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. This man who teaches children, 7th graders, the very same 7th graders that flock around my desk in the mornings.
I arrive at work the following Monday morning after I filed my complaint, and the first thing I see when I walk up the long staircase to my office is my boss at the top of the stairs, talking and laughing with the dude that touched me.
I wait until my boss finishes greeting all the students, and then I follow him into his office and say, “Can I talk to you?”
“Of course,” he says. He shuts the door behind me. I plop down on his couch, and he sits in a chair facing me.
I get right to it. “Why is that man still here?”
I tell him that the first thing I saw when I came in was him on the stairs, laughing with that man, and that it made me feel pretty unimportant. I tell him that I know that dude is bad. I ask him, “Who’s gonna be responsible if he touches a 7th grader? Who’s gonna take responsibility if he does it again?”
My boss, he has no answers.
I almost didn’t write this story.
I told myself that I reported the man, that I confronted my boss from every angle, that I did everything right, the way I’m supposed to do things as an adult in a professional environment. I said all the things I needed to stay. But why do I still feel so gross?
Maybe because I’m great at my job, and I’ve sacrificed a lot of things for it. To my boss, I’m pretty irreplaceable, and the man who touched me is an assistant teacher, which is a position with a high turnover rate. We hire several new assistant teachers every year. For the day-to-day running of the school, I’m 20 times more important. So while I see all these horrific stories in the news of men using professional power to try and dominate women, it must be true that even men without power think they can touch us just because they’re men, and we’re women. That being a man in itself gives you that right.
This happened in late August/early September, just before the Weinstein story broke nationally, before all the stories, before the terrible hidden truth came tumbling out from entertainment, from politics, from government, from everything, and out of respect for those victims, I refrained from writing about it because I didn’t want it to seem like I’m trying to jump on some train and make my story like theirs. I know it’s not the same level of thing that all these women are dealing with - of course it’s not - but the amount such a small moment has affected me has only made me more empathetic and in awe of the women who had the courage to come out on a national scope and talk about such awful things that they’ve endured.
I wrote this story because I have to do something to appease my rage - rage toward this man, toward the “law” that allows him to remain in a classroom, and toward myself. Because when I was a kid in 8th grade, and Coach C ran a finger up my leg, I knew in my gut that it was wrong, and I said something right then and there. But now I’m 35, and I pride myself on calling people out on their bullshit, and when that dude touched me, I said nothing. Nothing. I robbed myself of seeing the look on his dumb face when I said, “Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Is it better to be an 8th grader, saying every thought that crosses my mind but not telling anyone? Or is it better to be a 35-year-old too stunned to speak who later reports the incident? I don’t know the answer, but why do I have to know the answer? The real problem is that we live in a world where adult women and middle school girls question their own responses to being touched - Is it an overreaction? An underreaction? The correct reaction? - instead of a world when men don’t touch us whenever they feel like it.
I used to love my job, but it’s tainted now because every single day that I walk into work, I have to see that man parking in the space next to me, haunting all the hallways, or the worst, standing with a group of my girls. I am full of torrential rage, and it doesn’t subside as time goes by. It feeds on itself. It grows.
Compared to the horrors we’ve heard, this is just a tiny sexual harassment story, but my rage is immense, mixed in with all other rage from hearing all the other awful stories - it’s that feeling in the pit of every woman’s stomach of built up injustices just waiting to get loose. What if we could figure out a way to put all our quiet rage together? What if we could harness all that energy? What could we change if we could release it all at the same time?
Alex Cardenas. That’s the name of the man who caressed my face . I’ve either not named or changed everyone else’s name in this story to keep their lives private, but Alex Cardenas obviously doesn’t see any boundaries between us, so neither do I.
Another regular Monday morning. I check my email like I do every morning, and I notice I got an email from the lawyer over the weekend. “Thanks for meeting with us yesterday,” he writes. “I thought of you when I saw the attached this morning.”
“The attached” is this cartoon:
I write back “hahahahahahahaha” because I’m sure that’s what he wants me to say, and because I can’t say what I want to say. Next time I see him, he says, “I’m so glad you thought it was funny!”
But I don’t think it’s funny at all. I think it’s a fucking joke.
I always think of my dad when I’m on airplanes. I’m not sure why – I never actually rode on a plane with him.
Maybe it’s because he’s the reason I first flew. My parents had been divorced for about six years when my mom moved us from Massachusetts to Oklahoma, and my first flight was to visit him in Boston that summer.
Or maybe it’s because when there’s bad turbulence, the kind that makes your stomach drop, and I start to imagine the wing cracking under the pressure and breaking off, one side of the plane folding over like a wounded bird, I hear my dad’s voice, something he told me a long time ago after he picked me up from the airport on one of my trips, when I’d been on a rough flight and was shaken up by it.
“You know,” he’d said, “I used to be afraid of turbulence, too. But then someone told me that, in all of history, a flight has never gone down because of turbulence.”
“Really?” I’d asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he laughed. “I don’t even remember who told me. Some guy. But it worked. I’m not afraid of it anymore.”
It’s weird, the things our brains choose to remember. Weirder still that the things people say, the things that really stick, are rarely profound.
I wish I could say it worked on me, but I still get scared when there’s turbulence. I don’t think it’s because I’m worried the plane will go down – it’s because it’s hard for me to accept that I have no control over what happens up here, that I might as well just sip my complimentary orange juice and look out the window at the clouds while we bounce through choppy air because even if we are going down, well, that’s just what’s happening, and there’s nothing I could do to stop it.
I’m helpless, suspended in mid-air.
September 22, 2014
Monday morning at work. Unremarkable as any – answering emails, answering phones.
My cell phone rings, the screen lighting up: “Uncle Harry.”
It’s one of those zero moments, like a reset button on every moment of my life before it. I know the outcome of this call before I answer it.
“Leah…sad news…your father…he passed away…he was having trouble breathing last night, they put him to bed…sometime while he was sleeping…the nurse found him…no one was there…will let you know about the services…”
And I say something, and then I hang up and walk right up to my nearest co-worker and say, “My dad just died,” and burst into tears, and she hugs me, and our HR rep appears next to me and whisks me into her office and we just stare at each other, and I feel silly for being there and for not knowing what else to do.
“I bought a plane ticket to see him in November,” I say, as if the act of buying the ticket guaranteed his survival. I just can’t believe I’m one of those people who waited too long to say things.
This is the last time I’ll see my dad.
We’re side by side at a blackjack table in a Rhode Island casino. It’s mid-afternoon, and I’m five bucks away from losing all the money he’d given me to play.
I’m not a big gambler, but my dad gets a kick out of explaining the games to me. He usually gives me 50 bucks, and when I lose that, he still tosses me a few chips every now and then, despite my protests. “I’m just gonna lose it, Dad.”
I slide my last little chip into the circle to bet. My dad bets 20 bucks. “You have to switch it up a bit,” he says. “The more you bet, the better the chances. You can’t win big unless you take big risks.”
I lose the hand, but he wins. I spend the next half hour watching my dad until he’s up $600. And then I spend the fifteen minutes after that watching him lose it all again.
I wonder, “What’s the point?”
No one asked me to speak at my father’s funeral – I volunteered. I’d been on the phone with my uncle, and he was explaining the plan. “We’re going to have a very small memorial,” he said. “We’ll have an Armenian priest say a few words, just a little something.”
“Can I say something?”
“Of course,” my uncle said. “That would be nice.”
I was surprised at myself for volunteering so quickly. And now I’m surprised to find myself actually doing it, standing in front of the small group of my family and a few of my dad’s old friends who showed up to mourn.
I tell the story of the first time Dad and I played catch. I tell the story about how my dad liked to beat up BooBoo, one of my favorite teddy bears. These are the same stories about my dad I’ve been telling for years.
My family knows these stories, but they sit and listen and laugh at every place they should, every place I’d planned a laugh when I’d jotted down my notes hours earlier.
“In all my years doing these services,” the Armenian priest says after I sit down, “I’ve never seen such a unique tribute.”
But I feel like a fraud. Essentially, I was performing an act up there. I felt very much like a comedian, a Master of Ceremonies, while I told stories about my father.
It’s a trick. A trick that I’ve spent the last nine years perfecting.
I can’t believe that no one can see that I’m on autopilot, being a comedian to make up for the fact that I really don’t know much about the man I’m eulogizing.
My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when I was in middle school. My aunt talked to me about it then – she’d asked if I understood exactly what that meant, if I was aware that it was currently incurable, a slow deterioration. I nodded, blankly staring out the window of her car and filed it away in the “Things To Deal With Later” folder, which then got shoved in the wrong box and lost in a corner somewhere.
It’s not that I wasn’t aware of his disease – I could see his decline when I visited, like when you see a kid that grew five inches since the last time you saw him. Still, I didn’t realize how bad it got.
I always thought I’d have more time.
And now, I'm left wondering how well I really knew my dad. I don’t know how he felt about politics, religion, society, racial tension. I don’t know how he’d feel about Bill Cosby being a psychopathic rape monster or the systematic police brutality targeting people of color. The only things I know for certain about him can be contained on the shortest list of things he loved…
He loved his family. He loved telling stories to them, about them.
He loved standup comedy, but he stopped listening to it in the mid-1990s. His favorite comedian was Steven Wright.
He loved Boston sports – well, he loved ANY sports. Until the day he died, he rooted for every Boston team, but if they weren’t playing, he’d settle for any game on TV, be it tennis, golf, or (my least favorite) professional bowling.
He loved to sing songs he made up out of sentences people said. My favorite song of his was "Is Leah gonna wear those clothes to the wedding?", an old gem that played on regular rotation in the Kayajanian household from 1986 to 1992.
He loved to gamble. Toward the end of his life, most of my dad’s stories were about big wins at the blackjack table or on one spin of a slot machine. He was all about the risks, the rewards, and the thrill of betting on the underdog.
That’s how he gambled. That’s how he loved his sports.
But I don’t know if that’s how he lived.
I’m in Boston for Christmas with my boyfriend, who is meeting the Kayajanian side of my family for the first time. I know he’s planning to propose to me sometime soon, not sure when, and I know he’s planning to ask my father for his permission during this trip. I’d prompted him to do it, thinking it would be a nice gesture, thinking it would make my dad feel like, well, my dad. What I didn’t consider at the time is how opposed I am to the idea of being handed away like property.
After their brief conversation, I pull my boyfriend to the side. “So? How’d it go?”
“Good,” he says.
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘You’ll have to ask her. She’s her own girl.’”
I don’t end up marrying that guy, even though he’s a good man. Instead, I move to LA to try and be a comedian. Or more accurately, just to try.
December 25, 2014
My mom’s in Los Angeles for the holidays. Usually, I drive to Oklahoma, but I stayed here for Christmas and flew her to me, since it’s really just the two of us celebrating these days.
Today, we’re visiting some distant relatives in Northridge, and they’re treating us like they’ve spent Christmas with us our whole lives, but I still have a weird removed feeling, like I’m watching another family through a wall of glass.
Molly gives us a small tour of her beautiful house. In one of the guest bedrooms, I stop short at the door, staring at a very familiar bow-tied teddy bear aloft a couple of pillows at the head of the bed.
“Where did you get that bear?” I ask.
“I got it from your mother!” Molly says. “Remember when she had the estate auction at her house? I just thought he was cute, so I bought him. Was he yours?”
“Yeah,” I say.
I can’t believe it – I’m staring at BooBoo, the very bear that my father used to beat up, making me laugh for hours. The very bear I’d referenced when speaking at his funeral. I consider how crazy it is that I’m standing in a house in California staring at a stuffed animal a six-year-old me used to drag around in Massachusetts. And BooBoo looks great – clean, his fur bright white, the dingy gray coat I’d given him apparently bleached out of him for good.
“Do you want him back?” Molly asks.
I shake my head. “No. I just…I can’t believe you have him. I never thought I’d see him again.”
Molly and my mom move on to a room across the hall, but I linger behind, approaching the bed. I reach out and touch BooBoo’s big fat white arm.
I whisper, “Merry Christmas, Dad.”
I pull into my usual spot, 7:40 A. M. I have five minutes before I need to be at my desk, so I just sit, coffee in hand, and stare out my windshield. If only I could shut off my brain, the constant lists of things I need to do.
You need to write, I tell myself. As of late, I’ve been slacking in the writing area. It hasn’t affected my standup – I write jokes onstage – but writing prose is something I’ve always done, something that bugs me when I don’t do it, like restless leg syndrome for the brain.
It’s not that I have no ideas – it’s that I just can’t seem to sit still to start. Something is clogging up in my mind, a stopper holding all my words at bay. I don’t know how to release it other than to make empty promises to myself that I don’t follow through with. I’ll start writing tomorrow.
But I won’t. Months will go by before I do.
My co-worker parks and steps out of her car, balancing her usual five assorted-sized bags, a coffee, and a small paper bag, no doubt with a pastry inside. She starts walking toward me. I roll down my window. “Hey Lady, you need help?”
“This is for you,” she says, handing me the pastry. “I was thinking about you this morning and how you lost your dad last year. I was wondering how you were doing.”
This thought: Someone remembers. Then a slice right through me, cutting all the tiny things I can control away.
I need to write about my Dad.
I’ve just started college at the University of Oklahoma. One week in, and I’ve decided against being a theater major after one class, during which my acting teacher told me I wasn’t good enough at being a tree and pulled an imaginary string from my back to help me. I realized in that moment that I’m just too sarcastic to attend these classes while keeping a straight face.
I call my Dad and tell him I’m thinking of becoming a business major. I have no basis for this decision, and it’s so clearly the wrong choice for me – perhaps an overcorrection in the opposite direction of theater – but I’m freaking out about deciding right this second what I want to do with my life. Maybe I should be practical.
“Business?” Dad asks. “Really? Wow, that surprises me.”
I sigh, frustrated. “Why?”
“Because,” he says, “when you were a kid, you used to write stories all the time. I guess I always thought you’d be a writer.”
“How do I know which one to get?” Sosa asks, staring at a wall of softball gloves in this Big 5 sports store.
I shrug, picking up a cheap bat, taking a test swing. “Whichever one feels best on your hand.”
For years, I’ve been telling myself that I’m going to start a softball team. This year, I actually do it.
I am the manager of a co-ed slow pitch softball team, and I’m teaching Sosa, my boyfriend and one of the best athletes I know, about a sport that he’s never played, save a few games of catch in the park near my house and once or twice when he was a kid.
“It’s not really about the price,” I say. “It’s more about how it feels.”
He nods, picks up a glove. “It’s pretty stiff.”
“All new gloves are stiff,” I say. “After a while, you’ll break it in, and it’ll be only your glove. It’ll fit your hand so perfectly that any other glove will feel weird, and you’ll wear it until it falls off.”
I think of my dad suddenly, a rushing wave of regret that I won’t be able to tell him I’m on a softball team. If he were still alive, that’s the conversation we’d have every time we talked. “How’s the softball team?” he would ask every week, and he’d be genuinely interested in the answer while I’d go on and on about how to even out our good bats, where to play someone with a great arm but no aim, slow pitch courtesy runner rules, and every intricate detail that would bore the hell out of anyone else.
I’ll think of my dad every time I play.
On my 6th birthday, he gave me my first softball glove. It was so huge on my tiny hand that I could barely hold it up. It was actually bigger than the glove I eventually bought in high school (the one I still have now), the one I had to buy after Dad’s glove broke off my hand during a particularly intense high school tryout, almost ten years after he gave it to me, the year I made varsity.
It got a lot of use, that glove. I loved it. In fact, I remember the very first time I used it, playing catch with my dad in the backyard of my aunt’s cottage in Cape Cod. “Don’t hold it that way,” he’d said. “Flip it over and catch it the other way or you’ll get hit in the face.”
I flipped it over. “Like this?”
“You got it, Kiddo.” He tossed the ball, but I closed the glove before it reached the pocket, and as predicted, it hit me square in the face, knocking loose one of my front baby teeth. I started crying immediately, and Dad tried not to laugh as he followed me inside, where I announced to my stepmom, “Dad threw the ball at my face!”
It’s taken me almost a year to write this story.
Over these last 11 months, I’ve grappled with whether or not I really knew my dad much in the first place. I’ve wondered how well he knew me. Because my father and I didn’t talk about a lot of stuff besides sports and gambling, and because he didn’t ask me much beyond, “How’s your car? How’s your dog? How’s comedy?”, I had mistakenly believed that was an indication that we didn’t know much about each other, or that he had a life that moved forward after I left, a life separate from me.
I was wrong.
When I was a kid, my dad was the best dad. He made me laugh harder than anyone, and I never once heard him raise his voice. After I moved to Oklahoma, and he got diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he wasn’t in my life much, and I thought it was because he wanted it that way. Only now do I realize that it’s not that he moved on and became someone different – it’s that time stopped for him when he got sick. It’s that the world and I moved forward, and he stayed behind.
But he always knew me, the person I am at my core. When I was little, he knew I would laugh like a sociopath if he beat up my favorite teddy bear. He knew to get me a softball glove that was too big for my hand because I’d fall in love with the game and play all the way through high school. He knew I’d be the worst business major on the planet. He knew I was a writer. He knew I wasn’t the type of daughter that you “give away” to marry a man.
And I knew Dad, too. I knew he was so much more than those last few years I saw him, sitting on that same spot indented in the old couch cushion in an apartment that didn’t change at all after the mid-90s, right down to the post-it note next to the cordless phone with my first Oklahoma address written on it, watching sports and game shows on TV while he slowly faded away.
I wanted to write a tribute to my dad, to the person he was before he got sick. I wanted to do something beautiful in his memory, but as it turns out, I have to settle for being a living tribute to him.
When I first moved to LA, I told my dad, “Give me five years, and you’ll see me on TV.” This July marked the beginning of year five, and he’ll never see me on TV. My dad will never see whether I “make it” or not.
But I don’t think he ever cared about that anyway.
He liked that I didn’t do what anyone told me to do. He liked that I was somewhere in the world on a stage trying to make strangers laugh, despite my eight years of secondary education. I think he would’ve liked to hear that my softball team is in first place, I think he would’ve laughed if he saw a snippet of me and my team in a Dixie Cup commercial, and I think he would’ve loved to see my name, his name, on the marquee outside the Improv in Harrah’s Las Vegas – a city he used to visit every year before he got too sick to fly.
If I were one hand of blackjack, I have a hunch my dad would have put everything he had on me.
Because I am the underdog.
And I am all in.
And just because I don’t gamble with money doesn’t mean I don’t take huge risks.
To my dad, I am that homerun ball hit by Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox during Game 6 of the ’75 World Series, that moment in the famous video clip of Fisk madly waving on his way to first base, willing the ball to stay fair. I am that ball the moment before it lands in fair territory.
I am Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass that will eventually end up leading Boston College to an unlikely last second win against Miami in 1984. I am that ball the moment before it’s caught, flying toward a huddle of Miami defenders surrounding just one BC receiver.
I am soaring through the air, flying toward something, a moment of suspended hope.
He just never gets to see where I land.
Author's note: To join me, my family, and countless other families affected by Parkinson's hoping to find a cure, please consider making a donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
The Caller of Bullshit Takes on the Cock ‘N’ Bull Pub without Making One Immature Reference to “Cock”
It’s late Tuesday night, and I’m booked on a show at the Cock ‘N’ Bull Pub in Santa Monica.
I arrive just after the show starts and stand next to the bar, scoping out the crowd. I’ve been here a couple minutes when the bartender (also the owner) approaches. “What can I get you to drink?”
I don’t really want anything right now. I’m waiting for the host to finish his set so I can walk across the room to the bathroom. “Well…” I say. “Actually, can I just get some water?”
“We ask everyone to order a drink.”
This isn’t out of the ordinary. Some comedy shows that don’t charge a cover at the door have a drink minimum for the audience.
“Oh, I’m performing on the show,” I say.
“So?” he barks. “All the more reason for you to order a drink. You think you can just come here and use my stage for free and not buy anything?”
In all my years doing standup, I’ve never heard this before – requiring the comics on a booked show to buy a drink. I’ve heard it at open mics – buy a drink, get five minutes of stage time – but never at a booked show. In fact, sometimes I’m even booked on shows that provide the comedians with – GASP – free drinks!
I stand there staring at the guy, first trying to process his outright rudeness and then the implications of what he’s saying. He stares back.
“Well how about I just leave?” I ask.
He scoffs. “You can’t just buy a bottle of water? It's a couple bucks.”
“I never said I wouldn’t buy a bottle of water. It’s not about that. I would’ve bought one.”
“Okay.” He walks over to the cooler. “Perfect. I’ll get you one.”
He turns. “What’s the problem?”
I don’t know what to say, so I settle for, “I don’t like the way you approached that.”
I leave thirsty.
Here’s why that little interaction is bullshit.
First of all, really Cock ‘N’ Bull Pub? That’s how you treat people? Even if it were a one-drink minimum for comedians to perform, you feel it’s necessary to bark it at their faces rather than explaining the policy? (After I left, the booker told me that comics performing on the show are actually NOT required to buy a drink. He mentioned that the bar used to host an open mic with a drink minimum, so maybe the bartender was “confused.”)
Side note about me: I’m good to bartenders and servers. I tip them more than 22%, especially when they work in a place where I’m doing standup because it just makes sense to do that. That being said, I would like Dick Bartender to know this: I would’ve tipped you $3 on a glass of water, you fucking douche.
But all of these obvious reasons aside, what really offends me is the blatant disrespect for comedians.
I’m not going to go on one of those “standup comedy is hard” rants here. I’m not going to mention that I’ve sacrificed relationships, jobs, and time for the past 9 years of my life for basically zero monetary reimbursement. I’m not going to ramble on about how much gas I use in a week driving back and forth from mic to show to club to whatever. Or how I have a full time job on top of that, so weeks of my life get eaten up, and I miss out on just getting to enjoy a beautiful day. Or how the hours of waiting to get up can make you slowly lose your mind.
I chose this life and all that comes with it. I get that.
But I’d like to remind people, because some of you don’t seem to get this – standup comedy is a JOB that most people don’t get paid to do, and getting paid has little to do with talent. Of course, the best comedians around deserve to get paid for their work, but there are tons of lesser-knowns who don’t get picked up for some Hollywood reason and are nevertheless hilarious. In fact, some of my very favorite comedians to watch I see at open mics and on just a few good shows. And I’m not talking about people who get a few chuckles. I’m talking about people who I’ve only seen crush in any room.
Isn’t that worth something?
I realize I’m not a big name comedian, but I’m actually making some progress in my career doing standup here in L.A., so I’m lucky because I don’t have to do this show. Believe it or not, Mr. Dick Bartender, there are other places that have no problem giving me 7 minutes on stage AND a glass of fucking water.
I’m lucky. That’s not the case for all of us. Plenty of really funny people have to take all the stage time they can. And if this had happened when I first moved here and was dying for time, I would’ve had to give that bar my money, and I would’ve felt gross about letting a jerk treat me like that.
But I’m also lucky because now I can pretty much afford to buy a drink whenever I want. There are comics among us who sleep in their cars, who eat one meal a day, who sink all their money into this because they’re funny, and they’re meant to do this.
Cock N’ Bull pub, you should be ashamed of yourself. Bullying comedians into buying a drink in your bar when they’re there to entertain a room full of people who came to watch the show is straight up disgusting. If you think it’s too much to give a glass of water to a comedian who gladly drove out of her way to perform for free what it took almost 9 years to hone, then here’s an obvious solution: don’t have a fucking comedy show in your bar.
“Would you like to continue with the trial or change your plea?” Judge Hector Gutierrez asks.
“Well,” I say, shuffling through all of the papers in front of me. “I have a question. The ticket cites me for ‘driving on the shoulder,’ but during the arraignment, the judge read the charge as ‘illegally passing on the right.’ Is that the same charge?”
I can feel the other people in the courtroom behind me growing impatient. We’ve already been here for three hours, and they’re still waiting to face the cartoonishly evil Officer Rodriguez and his pile of traffic court citations.
“It’s the same thing,” Officer Rodriguez says like I’m an idiot for not knowing. He had a similar tone during an earlier trial, when the defendant asked, “Officer, you referred to the number two lane. Which lane is number two?”
“The number two lane,” the officer said.
“I’m not familiar with that terminology. Which one is the number two lane?”
“The number two lane,” the officer said.
“Yes, but which one?”
“The number two lane.”
The exasperated defendant looked at the judge, who didn’t seem to notice or at least not mind this obvious display of unnecessary assholery.
Then there was another trial, when the Spanish-speaking defendant and his translator successfully argued his defense, and the judge dismissed the charge. The defendant thanked the judge, shook hands with the translator, then turned to Officer Rodriguez and extended his hand.
Officer Rodriguez backed away and shook his head “no.” That’s right, he straight up refused to shake the man’s hand. Someone sitting near me audibly gasped. “What a dick,” I said out loud. This is traffic court, for Christ’s sake.
Officer Rodriguez, probably in his early 20s, is more of a character than a real person. He’s playing the unnamed role “DICK COP” in one of life’s generic screenplays.
But this movie, it’s not about justice.
“That’s the same charge,” Officer Rodriguez repeats, impatient even though he’s the reason we’re all still here. Based on the number of cases he has lined up, he must’ve gone on a ticket-writing tear on a two-day span in September.
“Then yes,” I say to the judge. “I’d like to go to trial.”
The judge asks Officer Rodriguez to give his account of the traffic infraction he issued me on September 24, two days after my dad died.
As the officer speaks, I feel a slow burning rage rise inside me.
Officer Rodriguez appears at my passenger window. “License, registration, and insurance.”
It’s Wednesday morning, late September. I’d been heading to work on 10 West in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and I’d taken the exit for Vermont as soon as there was enough room to fit my car in the off-ramp. My passenger’s side crossed the solid white line, sure, but I didn’t pass anyone on the freeway. I did what roughly 75% of the world’s driving population would do. I mean, what kind of uptight weirdo waits until all wheels can be on the inside of the solid white line before taking an exit?
I don’t even look at the officer, just shake my head while I pull out the items and hand them over. I’m annoyed. He didn’t have to pull me over for that bullshit.
“Why did you drive in the shoulder, Ma’am?”
“Drive on the shoulder?” I sigh. “Can I just…what are you…look, my dad just died.”
On Monday while I was at work, I got the phone call – my dad had passed away from Parkinson’s disease, and while he’d been living with the symptoms for a long time, his death was still sudden to me. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. But that’s another story I’m still figuring out how to write.
He stares, undaunted. “Why were you driving on the shoulder, Ma’am?”
That’s the exact moment I decide I don’t like this guy. Whether or not he wants to write me a ticket, when someone says, “My dad just died,” anyone who doesn’t respond with, “I’m sorry to hear that,” is a sociopath.
“Driving on the shoulder? Really?" The problem with me is I’m genuine to a fault. That means I can’t act like I like you when I don’t, and I’m incapable of not calling people out on their bullshit. "Like 40 other people haven’t just done that same exact thing since you pulled me over?”
I don’t understand why I should be polite to cops when they're rude to me. You want to write me a bullshit ticket, fine. I’m not gonna kiss your ass while you do it.
I’d also like to note that I understand this is a white privilege. And I also know if I were black, I wouldn’t feel like I could argue with a uniformed officer without literally fearing for my life. I hate that it’s the truth, and I will do whatever I possibly can to make that known and to help change it.
At the same time, my personal truth is that I wasn’t afraid of Officer Rodriguez. I’m not afraid of anyone, really. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be. I get in arguments with people all the time, strangers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how my life ends – being stabbed to death over an altercation about whether or not it’s clear where the cashier line ends in Trader Joe’s.
I’m comfortable with going out like that. There’s a weird dignity to it. Put it in my obituary: “Caller of Bullshit.”
“Why did you just drive on the shoulder, Ma’am?”
“I didn’t…I don’t…” I throw my hands up. “Because I didn’t think it was a big deal. Look, can you just go write me a ticket or do whatever you gotta do?”
He takes my license and disappears for a few minutes before reappearing with his stupid little metal ticket clipboard. “Ma’am, why is the address on your license different from your registration and insurance?”
“What? I don’t know. Because I moved.”
“How long ago did you move?”
“What does that matter?”
“Ma’am, I need you to answer the question.”
“I’m sure longer than what it’s supposed to be. Okay? We good?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. Months.” 36 months, to be exact.
“How many months?”
“I don’t understand why you need to know that.”
“I don’t know. Six-ish? Nine? 12? Give or take a few here and there?”
He nods, starts writing. “I’m writing you a citation for driving on the shoulder and for not having the correct home address on your license.”
“Of course you are.”
He hands me the clipboard. “Sign at the bottom.”
As I sign, I say, “You know, my dad really did die. I don’t know if you think I’m lying or what.”
“I didn’t say you were lying, Ma’am.”
“Ha! Yeah. Okay. Well karma exists, so I hope this comes back to you.” I hold the clipboard out, but before he can grab it, I let it drop in my passenger’s seat, the tiniest of protests.
“Ma’am,” he says.
I ignore him, staring straight ahead.
“Ma’am. Pick up the clipboard.”
I turn to him. “Oh, I’m sorry. What?”
“Pick up the clipboard, Ma’am.”
“Oh okay.” I pick it up and dangle it in the air just far enough so he has to reach for it. He grabs it, his cold stare never once changing, tears off the citation, says some other required nonsense, and walks off.
“At approximately 7:10 on the morning of September 24, the defendant was heading Westbound on the 10 freeway,” Officer Rodriguez states. “There was heavy traffic. The defendant was in the number two lane. She then pulled into the shoulder lane and passed three cars on the right. When I asked her about the incident, she said, and I quote, ‘I didn’t think it was a big deal.’”
He goes on, but that’s the last thing I hear him say. I look down at the file in front of me, now even more worthless than it was seconds before.
For months, I’d taken video of that point on the Vermont exit. For months, I’d listened to my friends tell me that even if I didn’t pass anyone, the fact that I crossed the white line would probably be enough for me to pay the fine. For months, I’d grappled over that two seconds, and I’d thought about every possible angle to prove that if the charge is driving on the shoulder, then I may be guilty of it, but if the charge is passing on the right, I’m not guilty.
In short, I had come to defend the infraction that I was cited for. Call me naïve, but it had never once occurred to me in preparation for this trial that Officer Rodriguez would just straight up lie and say I did something else.
I absolutely did not drive down the shoulder on the freeway. I’d only been on the shoulder for a split second with one side of my car. It’s actually not even possible to pass a car on the shoulder at the point where I got the citation. There's a guardrail there.
“Do you have any questions for the officer?” Judge Gutierrez asks.
“Yes. Uh,” I pause, stammering, trying to collect my thoughts. I’m so angry, I’m shaking. I turn to Officer Rodriguez. “Are you saying that I drove down the shoulder on the 10 freeway?”
He doesn’t even look at me. “Yes, the defendant was in the number two lane and then moved into the shoulder and drove down the 10 freeway passing at least three cars.”
“So wait,” I say. “You’re saying I was on the freeway and passed three cars on the right while driving down the shoulder?” Maybe he’s not meaning to outright lie.
“Yes,” he says, much more impatiently. “On the freeway. On 10 West.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “On the freeway? You’re saying I did this on the freeway?”
“Do you have any other questions for the officer?” the judge asks before Officer Rodriguez can lie again.
I turn to him, my mouth open. “Um. Well. No, I guess not.”
See, the thing about me is that I’m genuine to a fault. That means that even in the midst of everything going on in this country right now with law enforcement officers, I can’t hide the fact that I’m shocked that a uniformed officer would lie under oath over a traffic violation because one morning, a girl who just lost her dad called him on his bullshit. And it was bullshit, and I’m right to fight it. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t be lying.
Now I’m just scrambling. All of my evidence is moot, and I look unprepared and stupid.
“You know,” I say, “I just…I don’t know how to defend against that. What he’s saying I did, I simply did not do. How can I present a defense to you when he’s saying something happened that just didn’t happen?”
The judge gives a condescending nod. “Do you have anything else you’d like to add?”
“Yes.” I don’t really know what to say, but I have to say something. “He forgot to mention that the first thing I said when he walked up is, ‘My dad just died.’ He didn’t mention that part.” I open the file folder, take out my father’s death certificate, and place it on the table, sliding it close enough to Officer Rodriguez for him to see it. As though it would matter to him either way.
“Well, I’m very sorry to hear about the death of your father,” the judge says.
“Thank you, Your Honor, for saying that.” I turn to Officer Rodriguez. He meets my eye for a quick second, then looks away. I just can’t get over the fact that he knows he’s lying, and I know he’s lying, and he knows that I know he’s lying, and yet, here we stand, waiting for “justice.” I know Officer Rodriguez is a dick, but so help me, until this moment, I had no idea that he’s also a dishonorable man.
The judge rules against me based on the credibility of Officer Rodriguez’s testimony. Because he's a cop, and I'm not.
I almost didn’t write this story for so many different reasons. First of all, unarmed black people are dying at the hand of law enforcement with no consequence, and I didn’t want to come off like I’m belittling that with my complaint about something so trivial as having to pay a fine for a minor traffic infraction that I didn’t actually commit. I didn’t want to come off like a little entitled brat who argued with an officer and then complained about the consequence while other people were protesting much more noble causes.
I almost didn’t write this story because I’m a white person (Armenian white, which means most of the time I’m treated as a white person), and I didn’t want it to come off like I don’t realize the type of privilege that allows me. I do. I am not black. But also, Officer Rodriguez is not white.
I almost didn’t write this story because what difference would it really make if I did?
Had I gone into traffic court and lost a case based on the fact that I crossed the white line to exit and I argued with a cop, and those two things together resulted in a $268 fine, then I wouldn’t have written this story. I would’ve complained to my friends and called Officer Rodriguez a dick to everyone that would listen. But I wouldn’t have written this story.
Here’s why I did write this story.
After I left the courthouse, something crossed my mind, something that I saw during another trial that day, the trial where Officer Rodriguez refused to explain what he meant by the number two lane. Seemingly out of nowhere, that defendant said at one point, “I would just like to say that Officer Rodriguez was nothing but courteous during this traffic stop.”
At the time, I thought, “Kiss ass.”
But now, thinking back on his tone, on the look he exchanged with the officer when he said it, I realize he wasn’t really saying Officer Rodriguez was courteous – he was saying the exact opposite. He was doing the only thing he could do – sending a coded message to the officer himself: “I know what you are. I see you.” Just like me sliding the death certificate over was my way of saying, “You and me know what this is really about, and it’s personal.”
After I realized that Officer Rodriguez had lied during my case, I realized that he probably lied during that case, too. And he’d probably lied during the case with the translator, where he’d refused to shake the man’s hand. And that’s just one day in court from his year and a half in service, a fact the judge had gleaned at the start of the first trial.
I’m writing this story because it’s the perfect illustration of what is wrong with the justice system in this country.
Amidst the tension surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I’ve seen several social media posts in defense of police officers in general. I get the argument that not all police officers are bad. Of course I get that. We all do. Stop insulting our intelligence and acting like we can’t acknowledge that. We know that there are police officers who are kind, who are good, who are protectors, who joined the force because they believed in justice.
But to those officers and the defenders of those officers, I’d say this: you should be angrier with corrupt officers and the injustice in the system than anybody. They’re the reason why the community doesn’t trust you. They’re the evidence of why the justice system is and needs to be scrutinized, criticized, and completely overhauled. They are not protectors of the people – they are what the people need protection from.
The truth is, Americans want to believe in justice. We want to believe that this country works the way we were taught it does when we were kids saying (or exercising our right not to say) the Pledge of Allegiance in school. We want to believe that we are truly free.
I want to believe it so much that when I go to trial for a traffic ticket one day, I never once consider the possibility that an officer of the law would simply lie under oath, and the court would take his side based on nothing but the fact that he’s a cop. Despite the grand jury’s refusal to indict in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, despite the building evidence of incident after incident where uniformed police officers are more of a threat to the people than crime, I was still shocked when Officer Rodriguez lied.
I’m writing this story because it’s not about what happened to me. It’s about what could happen to so many other people. If Officer Rodriguez is crazy enough to fabricate stories in traffic court, and if Judge Hector Gutierrez based his judgment solely on the credibility of his word, then that system is, to say the least, flawed, and to say the most, a blatant disregard for justice. And worse, that system has given unlimited power to a dangerous and vindictive man. A man who has a gun, a badge, and judge-sanctioned credibility. Even though I’m a white girl, and this is a traffic ticket, that is not okay. You get me? That is NOT okay.
I’m writing this story because, besides filing a formal complaint against the officer (which I’ve done) and submitting for appeal (which I can’t do due to the nature of the issue), it’s the only thing I can do.
But mostly, I’m writing this story because I believe that Officer Rodriguez, ID # 17510, of the California Highway Patrol is exactly the type of law enforcement officer who will murder someone someday and get away with it, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least say something.
I had this running joke with my grandpa. It started when I was around ten years old. He asked me, “How’s my favorite granddaughter?”
And I said, “Your ONLY granddaughter!”
And he laughed. From that point on, he asked me that question every time I saw him until the last time, on his 90th birthday this past September.
He was bowling.
It’s May 2013. I’m walking down the main drag of Regent, North Dakota with Papa, heading to a local auto body shop that I’m pretty amazed exists in such a forgotten town. We’re moving slowly – Papa has to stop every half block or so to catch his breath.
“You watch,” he says. “Angel will be here in a few minutes. She won’t let me go too far without checking on me.” He’s right, I know. My grandmother, Angela, who’s indeed an angel (given that angels are brash and loud and constantly trying to feed you), barely let Papa walk these few blocks to begin with.
“Well,” I say, “would you have it any other way?”
“No,” he says. “She’s a good person.”
We walk into the shop, and a bell dings our presence. The lady behind the counter is tall with short hair and the build of a woman who probably plowed a field or two in her day. “Hello,” she says.
“Are you Gary?” Papa asks, making his way to a chair set up in the middle of the store.
The woman and I exchange a look, and I shrug.
“Are you the person I talked to on the phone?” he asks. “I talked to Gary.”
“Oh,” she says. “That must’ve been Gary Weisman. He’s not here right now, but he should be back soon.”
Papa sits down, catching his breath for about 20 seconds before picking the conversation back up. “Oh, okay, I see,” he says. “You know, I used to live here. Long time ago.”
“Really?” she says. “Well, isn’t that interesting!”
“Yes, many years ago.” He leans back and turns his chair to face her. “So what’s your name then, Sir?”
Oh my God.
I open my mouth to say something, but she speaks before I can. “I’m Brenda,” she says. “Gary’s wife.”
“Oh, Gary’s wife,” Papa says. He doesn’t apologize for the gender confusion, just skips on over it like it’s nothing.
A young guy, maybe in his late teens, walks into the store and starts perusing the aisles.
“That’s a tall young man over there,” Papa says.
The kid looks over at us.
“I was six foot three when I was in the navy,” Papa says. “Now I’m five ten. Can you believe that? I shrunk five inches.”
The kid smiles kindly and nods.
“How tall are you?” Papa asks.
“Six foot six,” he says.
“No, six six.”
“Papa,” I yell. “He’s six foot six!”
“Oh, oh,” Papa says. “I see.”
He makes a few more minutes of small talk, and then starts to stand. I grab his arm, pulling him up. I can tell he doesn’t like that he needs my help.
“Well, I’ll come back another time,” Papa says. Just before we walk out the front door, he turns back and yells at the tall kid, “Don’t lose any weight!”
I crack up laughing.
Regent, North Dakota. Population: 162.
It’s about an hour and a half outside of Bismarck (North Dakota’s capital city with a one-terminal airport), and it’s the starting point of the Enchanted Highway, a two-lane highway that connects Regent with I-94, a 30-mile stretch of road with giant metal sculptures along the roadside. It’s a road I’ve now traveled, a road where my grandparents, mom, and I stopped along the side to take pictures of each and every imposing metal scene.
Growing up in Oklahoma, I thought I was used to driving down stretches of highway with nothing on the horizon, but Regent holds a much more haunting sense of isolation. It’s creepy, really, walking around this tiny town at night next to my mom, seeing nothing but broken down houses and stars, thinking about how, poof, a tiny surge of electricity or a strike of lightning or even a bomb could zap us out right here, in this moment, and the rest of the world would still sleep without even knowing.
I’ve always felt more comfortable in cities, with lights and people around. My grandpa feels exactly the opposite. If it were up to him, I think he’d stay here in this town for the rest of his days.
See, Regent is the place where my grandpa, Lewellyn Maxwell, was born, and we’re here because he wanted to visit one last time before he can’t walk anymore, before the lung cancer spreads too far too fast.
“Papa,” I say, as we walk back toward our rental house. “Did you think that woman was a man?”
“What? No,” he says.
“Really? Cuz it seemed like you did.”
“No, no,” he says. He’s out of breath. We stop at a bench next to the sidewalk and sit down. I’m leaning against him. We sit in silence for a minute, looking out over Main Street of this dirt road town. It’s two in the afternoon on a Monday, and everything’s closed.
“I don’t like it,” Papa says suddenly. “I come back here, and the way it was is gone. Nobody’s here from when I lived here. I’m the last one.”
I don’t know what to say. I have no idea what it’s like to be on your way out of life, sitting in a town that thrived in your memory, watching it pass away with you. I don’t know how many more times I’ll get to talk to Papa, though, so I want to say something.
“Maybe you’re alive because you’re the only one that can take watching it go,” I say. “Maybe it’s your burden.”
He shakes his head. “Maybe. But it’s no fun. It’s terrible, and I don’t like it one bit.” He stares forward, his arm around me, his only granddaughter. “It’s like it’s all forgotten.”
He goes on. “I knew when I was in the war. I knew there’s no escaping death. We all die. There’s no escape from that.”
The air is still, no breeze, just sun. No people out on the streets, just us.
He sighs. “Bobby London. That one got to me. We used to play basketball together. When I found out he was sick, I called him everyday.”
For as long as I can remember, Papa’s been obsessively keeping up with distant relatives and old friends, sorting pictures, making phone calls. When I visit him, he tells me about family members I didn’t know I had, fills me in on third cousins in Oregon I’ve never met. So many relationships could’ve gone lost, but my grandfather refused to let them die. He kept in contact with everyone that impacted his life.
“Bobby’s wife called after he died,” Papa says. “And she thanked me for calling him all the time. She said, ‘You were the first one who sent us a Christmas card every year, and I want to thank you for that.’ But I couldn’t be here for the funeral. I wanted to be, but Angel couldn’t go, and I can’t go anywhere without her. She even gets worried about me walking across the street.”
Papa hits his thigh with the palm of his hand. “But I still got my legs,” he says. “If I can’t use my legs anymore, well then they might as well bury me.”
I smile. This man is the heart of where all my fight comes from.
It’s that Maxwell blood – there’s something in it that makes us all fight beyond any reasonable point, far beyond the moment where anyone else would give up. That will, that sheer stubbornness, that’s why Papa is still here. Well, that and Angela, of course.
“Bobby London,” Papa says. “You know, in the war, my ship went to Germany to the Pacific and then back to Germany again. Same boat, same skipper. And not one of us got hurt on it. Not one of us.”
An SUV drives toward us on the main drag and pulls up directly in front of us. It’s my mom and Angela.
“Makes you wonder,” Papa says. “You wonder why they’re all gone, and I’m still here.”
Mom and Angela get out of the car and attempt to take pictures of us together on the bench, but they’re too far away, and neither of them can figure out how to work their cell phone cameras.
I’m glad they suck with technology because while they bicker about which button to push, I have that many more seconds to sit by my grandpa and commit this moment to my memory. I have that many more seconds to record this in a history of things that I experience with presence of mind, with my body, with my eyes, not second-hand through a picture.
I am this person, this person that people tell things to. I am a recorder of these moments. I can capture them better than pictures. I can make them live forever.
We get up to leave, and I drop a bouncy ball here by this bench. It bounces down Main Street toward the Enchanted Highway until it’s out of sight.
Leon, a resident of Regent, heard Papa was in town, so he ambles over to our rental house late Tuesday afternoon.
The two men have never met before. They’d missed each other – Papa in Regent for the front half of his life, Leon for the back half – but they quickly figure out that they knew all the same people. They start their conversation discussing the land, the history, what the town used to look like, but soon, they’re just saying names of people they both knew, many of whom had long since passed away.
And I get the strange sense that every time Papa and Leon mention a name, it brings that person back to life again for the briefest of moments, unforgotten.
My grandfather, Lewellyn Maxwell, died on December 11, 2013 at 90 years old, just three months after I watched him bowl on his birthday. I’m writing his name in this story because it’s all I can do, and I’ll say his name a million times out loud because he won’t be forgotten.
He will exist in Massachusetts, where he lived most of his life and died in his sleep, in Germany, where he fought in World War II, in Oregon and Oklahoma, where he often visited family, and of course, on that Enchanted Highway in Regent next to those ugly metal sculptures and my bouncy ball.
Favorite granddaughter, only granddaughter – there’s no difference. Either way, it’s been an honor, Sir.
“So now that we’re here, I’m gonna ask you this one more time.” I turn to Chris, who’s sitting in the passenger’s seat of my friend’s car, a car that she doesn’t know I’m driving. “Are you absolutely sure you want to go in here?”
Chris is trembling violently, but he pulls it together enough to look at me, holding one clenched fist in the air. “Puh-puh-puh-puh-lease, L-L-Leah, I n-n-need to g-g-go in.” He says the sentence through gritted teeth with a stutter that he doesn’t have in real life.
“Okay,” I say, turning the car off. “Your call.”
We get out and make our way into the ER. Chris’s gait is determined now that he can see what he imagines is his salvation, and he’s even self-aware enough to make a joke about it. “I l-l-l-ook like such a c-c-crackhead right n-n-now.”
I laugh. “Yes. Yes, you do.”
Chris is not on crack. He is, however, very drunk and very, very, very (like astronomically) high from drinking a shitload of vodka Redbull and eating an entire weed brownie.
He had come back to our hotel room from one of the Bridgetown Comedy Festival’s famous after parties around 2:30 AM, talked to me before laying down, and a few minutes later, I woke up to him crumpled on the floor in the fetal position, begging for his life. I’d tried to talk him out of going to the hospital, but he wouldn’t listen.
I’m on the fence about whether or not I’m being a good friend. On one hand, I’m bringing him to the ER in the middle of the night, but on the other hand, I can’t shake the feeling that a real friend would sit him down and say, “Look, you’re just fucked up, and it’s gonna suck for about two good hours, but you ain’t gonna die.” That’s what my friends would do anyway.
But here we are, in the waiting room with a few other scattered patients. I wish I’d brought a book with me. Chris is normally great company, but right now, he’s kind of stuck on a loop, repeating the phrases, “This is n-n-n-not g-g-good” and something that sounds like “Mermermer d-d-dying.”
An hour passes before the ER nurse calls Chris’s name. He stands, all six-foot-five of him, and takes the slowest steps I’ve ever seen to get to her office. Seriously, if I tried to recreate how slowly he walked over there, I don’t think it’d be humanly possible without drugs.
The nurse waits patiently, not even changing her expression. Meanwhile, I’m behind him laughing my ass off. “Oh come on!” I want to yell at her. “You know this is funny!”
“So what kinds of shows do you watch?” Christina asks. It’s February, a couple months before the Bridgetown Festival, we’re sitting in a diner in Culver City, and I’m wishing I could eat this French toast without her in front of my face.
She wants me to talk about TV dramas because that’s what she writes, and she’s waiting for another opening to talk about herself. “Do you watch Breaking Bad?”
“No. Well, I’ve seen a few episodes.”
She bristles, shaking her head. “That’s a great show! How far did you get? You have to give it past the first season.”
I sigh. “Yeah, okay.” When people want me to like things, it makes me want to hate those things. But this girl doesn’t know that about me because she doesn’t know me.
Christina’s a temp where I work. I’m here eating with her because I’m a comic, and she’s a writer, so she felt those two “careers” were close enough for us to have a lot in common. It takes about five minutes of sitting before the obvious truth sinks in between us – we don’t like each other.
Problem is, we’ve already committed to this brunch (not my idea), so we’re in this thing now, and we’re both just trying to get through it.
The worst moment between us has already happened, minutes after we sat down. We’re talking about living in L.A., and she’s asking me what I’ve been doing to “get myself out there.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m really not that good at networking. I don’t like doing that stuff because I feel like when I talk to people, it should be genuine. But when I get involved with people here, I feel like everybody’s trying to get something. I just don’t see the point in having conversations with someone just because I think they can help me.”
She scoffs. “Well, listen – I’m pretty sure you have to schmooze to get anywhere in this town.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not like that,” I say. “And I’m not going to do that. And if I got something that way, I wouldn’t be happy.”
We stare at each other, and it’s suddenly very uncomfortable in here.
I didn’t mean to, but I’ve called her out. My blunt words had just sliced through what she’d been doing with the last ten years of her life. What she’s doing now, really. I mean, she had probably even looked at this lunch as some kind of opportunity. She can’t get anywhere by talking to me, but she doesn’t know that going in. Maybe I know a guy that knows a guy who can get her script in front of the right people.
But I don’t know a guy. I’m just me. I check my phone for the time. Thirty more minutes.
“Did you go to the after party?” Steve asks. It’s Friday morning in April, Day Two at the Bridgetown Festival, and I’m in my hotel room getting ready and talking with my two hotel-mates, comic friends.
“Nah,” I say. “Didn’t make it. By the time I got back to the hotel, I was exhausted.” I’m not exactly lying – I was exhausted. Then again, I had no real desire to go to the after party in the first place. I should go. I know I should go – after all, even the people who run the festival billed it to us as a place where some “industry” will be, a good networking opportunity.
To be completely honest, I can’t even believe I got into this festival. Sure, I’m funny enough to get in—then again, a lot of people who didn’t get in are funny enough—but until I received the email saying I made the cut, I’d been under the impression that you had to know someone to get on the lineup. And like I said, I don’t know anyone. I just sent in a good clip.
“So how was it?” I ask.
“It was hella fun! Danced my ass off,” Chris says.
“I got drunk with the guy who books Conan,” Steve says.
“Well, that’s good. Right?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I have no idea what I was saying. I’m a little worried about it.”
“I’m sure you’re fine. I never know what to say to those people.” I sigh. “I just feel like I’m supposed to be talking to people, but it feels…I don’t know…icky.”
“Everyone feels weird,” Chris says. “Chances are, they’re thinking the same thing you are. You should stop worrying about it and act like yourself.”
“Yeah,” I say. “But maybe that’s the problem.”
“Here, wear this,” Rebecca says. She hands me a wrap scarf thing-y that she had on over her hoodie, and I put it on to shield my head from the rain. It’s Friday afternoon, and Rebecca and I are walking down a winding road through the woods, making our way to Portland’s Japanese Gardens.
Rebecca’s not a comic – leave it to me to make friends with the only non-comic on a weekend when I’m supposed to “network.” She’s a bartender-slash-tailor-slash-designer from Brooklyn, and she came to Portland with her friend, an NYC comic, because she felt like getting away.
She has a sultry voice, curly hair, and she reminds me of my friends from home because she’s an easy person, and I don’t feel like I need to impress her. When I talk to her, I don’t feel like she’s looking over my shoulder to see if there’s a more worthwhile person to talk to in the vicinity.
We take a break from our walk and head over to a log overlooking the mountainside. I watch as Rebecca carefully empties tobacco from her cigarette and fills the shell with some weed that one of the festival drivers had given her the night before.
“Wow,” I say. “You’re good at that.”
“Thanks.” She lights up.
Despite the constant smeary drizzle, it’s beautiful here. I feel like I haven’t been outside in months. I spend most of my time in cars, at work, or in dark rooms and bars telling jokes to a slew of bored-looking comics waiting to go on.
Even though it’s so peaceful where we are, I have a ball of anxiety churning in my gut. In a couple hours, there’s an event for comics. I check my phone for the time, do some quick calculating, and realize I’m probably going to be at least an hour late. Shit, I suck at making it to these things.
When we get to the gardens, though, when Rebecca and I follow the designated pathways, each one leading us to a mini pocket of hidden beauty, when I start to feel like a little kid exploring the woods in the back of my childhood home in Massachusetts, I forget about the time completely.
After more than an hour passes, I get anxious again for the briefest of moments, and then it suddenly hits me that the reason I feel anxious is because I don’t want to be trying to network right now. I want to be right here, where I am. I want to enjoy this.
In fact, I’m so lucky to be here in Portland, walking around with a new friend, taking pictures of Japanese Gardens that I got to see with my eyes in real life, up close.
This moment right here. This is the reason I want to be a comedian. I want to live a life like this.
On my last full day in Portland, I opt out of any festival activities, guilt-free. Instead, I walk around a street market with Rebecca, get my tarot cards read by a 15-year-old in a tent, head to my final festival show, where I close out with a great set, and finish the night at an open mic.
If you ask all the other comics what Bridgetown was like, they might talk about how it’s a big non-stop party. They might talk about having a drink with the guy from Conan. They might talk about what so-and-so did when blah-blah-blah, or how drunk they got that one night.
Here’s what happened to me in Bridgetown – I had three really solid sets, I saw beautiful parts of a city I’ve never been to, and I met a cool girl from Brooklyn who reminds me of my best friends.
Maybe this kind of behavior won’t get me famous, but that’s okay. I'd rather be the person who drives you to the hospital in the middle of the night when you’ve had too much weed.
I’d rather be known for that.
After a brief lecture about the dangers of mixing Redbull and weed, the nurse sends us back into the waiting area, warning us it might be another few hours before she can get Chris in a bed.
In the next half hour, he fades in and out. I’ve been where he is, so I know that 95% of what’s wrong is that he’s having a panic attack, and because he’s so high, that’s making all of the things going on in his body escalate to epic proportions.
“Oh my God,” he says at one point. “Leah, I’m gonna be sick.”
“Well, uh, can you make it to the bathroom?”
“Right now!” Then he holds one hand up over his mouth and flails the other at me.
I run to the desk, and the night attendant, rushed, hands me a barf bags. As soon as Chris gets a bag in his hand, he fills it right to the top.
“Wow,” I say, “that’s crazy. That bag had the exact capacity you needed.”
He gives me a dirty look.
“I mean, it’s not a centimeter less than it can hold. That’s amazing. Don’t you see how amazing that is?”
He looks pitiful, sitting there holding a bag of his own vomit.
“Uh,” I say to the attendant, “what should we do with this?”
The attendant rolls his eyes and walks out with a pair of gloves on, takes the bag of puke, and heads back to wherever they put all those nasty things.
I plop back down in the chair next to Chris. "Feeling better?"
He glares. I shrug. But sure enough, about five minutes later, he turns to me. “Leah, I think I just want to go to bed.”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s because you’re drunk and high.” I stand up. “Come on. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“So wait,” Stephanie says. “Someone proposed to you at a music festival?”
Stephanie and I just met – she’s in town for the week, visiting from Chicago. We’re in John’s apartment-slash-audio-recording-studio getting ready to record my friend Andy Sell’s podcast, “People We Know.” While John figures out the levels and all the technical shit, the four of us chat about nothing. Not sure how we got on the subject of my engagement, but here we are.
“Yep,” I say. “At like four in the afternoon.”
“I’ve heard the story,” Andy says. “Man, I wish I could’ve seen that.”
“Well, you can,” I say. “The video’s on Facebook.”
“What?” Andy says. “This whole time? We have to watch that now.”
“But,” I say, “it might not—”
“On it,” John says. He already has my Facebook page pulled up.
“I mean, he might’ve taken it down by now.” Everyone ignores me, trolling through my 900 photos. “I don’t really get why he left it up for so long.”
“Wow,” John says. “These pictures of you…you look so…happy!”
“God.” I laugh. “What do I look like now?” This isn’t the first time someone from L.A. has looked at old photos of me and remarked on how happy I looked.
We spend 20 minutes trying to find the video of my engagement, but it’s not there anymore, so I guess I can no longer watch the minute-long clip of the moment my life turns upside down, the kick off point to my biggest adventure thus far – leaving my safe haven in Norman, Oklahoma and moving right into the hell-pit that is Los Angeles.
It’s almost like it never happened at all.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, April 2010, and a bunch of my friends and I are crowded together along with hundreds of other people in the middle of Main Street. The street’s closed for the Norman Music Festival, and the band Grupo Fantasma just finished playing on the main stage.
The MC, a scantily clad hot girl wearing an outfit that better belongs on someone dancing in a cage, walks up to the microphone. “Before we bring up our next act,” she says, “I’d like to call to the stage the winners of our VIP festival passes.” She holds up a pair of all-access lanyards. “Please welcome to the stage – Brian and Leah!”
“What the fuck?” I ask. “How did we win?”
“I signed us up,” Brian says. I notice the beads of sweat collecting on his forehead.
I know what this is. I know exactly what this is.
The walk to the stage takes forever, and I can hear our friends screaming their asses off as I make the trek around the side of the stage, up the stairs, and finally, to the girl standing near the microphone. I’m holding a tall beer in a cozy, and I’m wearing flip flops and a t-shirt that says “Magic” with a picture of psychedelic mushrooms on it.
Hot Girl holds out the passes, and I grab mine, then turn around and try to leave. Brian stops me.
I turn back. He’s on one knee. He holds out an open ring box, a custom-made ruby gem surrounded by diamonds. It’s really beautiful.
Our friends are roaring. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel right now, but all I want is to get off that stage, so I do what will make that happen quickest.
He stands up, and again, I try to walk off, but he catches me.
“Kiss me,” he says.
So I do.
When we walk offstage, all our friends and his family members are right there to greet us. I hug 37 people, and Brian hands me the ring, which I actually hadn’t put on yet.
It doesn’t fit.
I should mention, I ran a half marathon earlier this same day, so my body is swollen and bloated. The ring fits the next day, and every day after that for a month, which is how long I wear it before I give it back.
But for someone so intent on reading signs from the Universe – a theme that shows up often in my writing, my jokes, my life – I ignored that obvious sign for as long as I could because I didn’t want to hurt such a good man.
I still have a recording of the first time I ever did standup. It was at the Oklahoma City Loony Bin in July of 2006.
This is the first thing I ever say onstage:
“I’m not funny. Nobody ever suggested that I should ever do this. Nobody ever said I was funny. I don’t think my name has ever appeared in a sentence with the word funny, unless that sentence was, ‘Wow, Leah’s really not funny. I hope she never tries to do an open mic.’”
I go on. “I’m really here because someone broke my heart, and I’m masochistic, and I was like, ‘Well, I could kill myself, or I could make an ass of myself onstage in front of a bunch of people I don’t know.”
Despite this insecure and suicidal preamble, I do pretty okay for my first time. Even listening to it now, a little more than seven years later, I think to myself, “Hey, those jokes are actually not bad.”
Still, that moment seems like warp zones away.
I didn’t have the confidence I do now. I didn’t have the stage presence or the voice or the jokes I do now. I didn’t know the things I know now about the world of standup – its relentlessness, its ruthlessness, its loneliness. I didn’t realize how serious the business of comedy can get.
And during those first four minutes onstage, I had no idea that standup was hijacking my life, slowly oozing into every other thing until today, when nothing is left untouched by comedy, and it’s become such an integral part of me that I don’t remember who I was without it.
December 22, 2012 – the day after the world’s supposed to end. I’m listening to the click of my boot heels while I walk into the City Arts Center in Oklahoma City to watch a comedy show my old comic friends put on.
“Leah,” I hear.
I turn my head and see Brian smoking a cigarette with a few of his buddies.
He looks exactly the same, and I’m suddenly aware that I don’t. I’m leaner, my hair is longer, I’m wearing makeup, and to top it off, I’m dressed up, ready to go to a cocktail party my friends are having later on tonight. The thought crosses my mind – I look so L.A. – and I brush it off.
“Hey,” I say, and I just keep walking because I don’t know how else to react. I haven’t seen him since the day I moved out of Norman. He had helped me finish packing up my car, and I said goodbye to him in the driveway of my old house, his house now.
Twenty minutes into the show, and I steal a glance behind, but he’s not there. I get up and walk out into the lobby to find him buying a beer.
“Hey,” I say. “Do you have a cigarette?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t, actually. Just ran out.”
He nods and heads back into the theater, and I start chatting with a comic friend of mine.
A few minutes later, he comes out holding two cigarettes. “Look what I found.”
We walk outside, and he hands me the cig and a lighter. “So you’re smoking again?”
I shake my head. “No. But I am right now.”
I light the cigarette. “So how does it feel to be out of the Air Force?” He’s been in for six years, and this is his first week as a civilian.
“It’s great,” he says. “And I’m finishing up my certification to be an EMT. I think I’m going to do that, and then use my GI Bill to go to school for nursing.”
“That’s awesome,” I say. “I can totally see you doing that.”
He goes on to tell me about his life, catching me up on his career plans, what’s going on in our neighborhood – apparently, after I moved, two of our old friends moved into the place next door, so my friends are currently occupying the last three houses on my old block.
“I’m still planning on moving out of Oklahoma someday,” he says.
He’s said that before, so many times. “Well, if that’s what you want to do, then just do it.”
“Yeah, I think I still want to live in the Northwest.”
I toss my cigarette on the ground, and then I look at him, my ex-fiance. I can’t even believe that I have an ex-fiance. It seems like a million years ago when he proposed to me onstage. It seems like a story about a thing that happened to someone else.
“I think,” I say, “that you should do whatever makes you happy.”
The words are cliché, overused, like something a character would say in a movie. But I want more than anything for him to know that I really mean them.
“So how have things been with you?” my friend Jonathan asks. We’re sitting in a restaurant in Eagle Rock having a lazy Sunday brunch and talking about standup.
This is the first time we’ve hung out in a while. Months earlier, I had pissed him off with some dumb thing I said, and he reacted immediately by un-following me on Twitter and deleting me as his Facebook friend for the second time since I met him.
Eventually, his anger wore away, and here we are, friends again.
“Things are pretty good now,” I say. “But I did go through a weird couple months. I don’t know, right before the holidays, I started to not love standup.”
“Yeah, for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel anything for comedy. It was awful. I thought maybe that was it, that I was done, and I had no idea what else to do with my life. It was so…so heartbreaking.”
“Wow,” he says. He pauses, thinking a moment before he continues. “But doesn’t the fact that it was so heartbreaking to you that you didn’t love standup actually prove how much you love standup?”
Okay, Guys, let’s get real.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I didn’t face down a couple of emotional blows since I broke off my engagement. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t fall in love. Twice. In the past three years. With the wrong guys. Actually, falling in love with men who don’t love me and then pursuing them far beyond what’s reasonable is kind of my thing.
It’s embarrassing for me to confess that. I want to believe I don’t need that, that I’m above all that nonsense. But I’m not, and I have to work really hard to get beyond it.
See, I used to believe in magic, in signs from the Universe. For years now, I’ve lived like the lead character in a romantic comedy, and I’ve done some ridiculous things because I thought it was helping move my story along.
“Oh come on, Leah,” a fake person I made up says. “What have you really done that’s so ridiculous?”
I once wrote a letter to a guy and threw it out of my car window while driving down the highway, thinking that if the letter got to him, the Universe wanted us to be together.
I once saw the first three letters of a guy’s last name sky-written over my neighborhood, and I believed that was the Universe telling me he was missing me.
I once wrote, “LK loves CP” on a bouncy ball and threw it out into the world, and later that night, I heard from CP for the first time in six months. I believed the two things were connected.
I once did the “He loves me, he loves me not” thing with flower petals, and when it landed on “He loves me,” I believed he really did and twirled down the street to celebrate. I was 30.
I once left a voicemail on a guy’s phone saying, “Meet me on the wall in the middle of campus at noon if you want to get to know me better.” I waited on that wall for a half hour. He never showed.
I once wrote a novel about my grandmother’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, and I wrote some random guy I loved into it.
I once mailed a guy a book about The Velvet Underground under the fake name “Melba Hamlin.”
I once wrote anonymous one-sentence letters to a guy and then mailed them to him every day for 17 days.
I once went to a movie with a guy, and he put a Tweety Bird Pez dispenser on my leg like Jerry does to Elaine on an episode of “Seinfeld,” and I thought that meant he loved me. Later that night, he made out with my friend.
I once asked a 40-year-old man who lived thousands of miles away from me if we could be together after spending one week with him.
I once told a guy I loved him in a pizza place, and he said, “Thank you.”
I once said the words, “Universe, please give me a sign,” and immediately looked up to see the Big Dipper shining right in front of my face.
I once deleted a man’s number from my phone and then almost immediately received a blank text from that number. I asked him, “Did you just send me a blank text?” He said, “No.” So then I believed that the Universe sent me that text as a sign not to delete him.
I once loved a man that said he thought life was like a connect-the-dot squirrel – you don’t see the whole picture until the story’s over. We had dinner one night, and he pointed at my necklace, one I wear almost everyday. “What’s on the back of that?” he asked.
It was an acorn. And of course, I thought that meant something.
But it didn’t. None of it did.
I’ve read signs from the Universe, and I’ve believed in magic. I could lie to the world and myself and try to pretend that it wasn’t about some guy, but that’s not true. It always was. It was always about some guy that I believed the Universe wanted me to love.
The truth is, I’m a 31-year-old woman who’s lucky to have a bunch of amazing friends, who hasn’t had the best family life, who’s been through a normal amount of shit, who has gotten this far by believing that bouncy balls and signs from the Universe guide me, who has never really known true love, who wants to know what that feels like, who has always said “I love you” first, and I once moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles because I believed I could make it as a standup.
I once drove my car out of Norman on my 29th birthday and left a man who actually loved me behind.
I once dropped a bouncy ball with my initials on it in Denver, in Las Vegas, in all the cities I passed through on my drive to L.A.
I once started from scratch after five years.
I once went to open mics in a huge city where I didn’t know anyone, and no one even tried to pronounce my last name right.
I once decided that the things I get should be based on how much work I put into them and how much I’m willing to sacrifice.
I once listened to recordings of three standup sets I did on a random Wednesday night in L.A., and it suddenly hit me that all three of the hosts knew how to say my last name.
The truth is, if I’ve ever had a true love, it has always only been standup.
And if there ever was any magic, it has always only been me.
It’s a sunny day in L.A. I’m driving home from work in traffic like I do every day. As I get on the 110, a car merges in the lane just ahead of me. There’s a bumper sticker on the back. It says this:
“If not for love, then why?”
About the Author
Leah Kayajanian is a comedian and writer who lives in L.A. She spends her days working at a school and her nights doing standup and creating cool things with her friends.