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?”