“What do you think would happen if we erased each other like in the movie Eternal Sunshine?” I ask, sitting shotgun in his car. “You think we’d find each other again?”
“Yes,” he says. “I think so.”
Bouncy Ball # 9 - Brie
“So have you done this before?” I ask, yanking a strip of packing tape across the bottom of an empty cardboard box.
“No,” Brie says. “But my friends have.” She points to the guys next to us, packing loaves of bread. “What about you?”
“Nope, first time.”
Brie and I are making boxes at the LA Regional Food Bank, the two of us trying to keep up with the 20 people filling them.
I like Brie. She’s helpful, and she’s almost too ready for the day. Her hair and makeup are perfect, and she radiates energy.
“I can’t wait for lunch,” Brie says to her friends. “I’m so hungry!” She turns to me. “Have you ever been to The Boiling Crab?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Once. It was awesome.”
I’d gone with him. It was the first time he ever ate crab, and I’d taken a picture of him wearing the bib and grinning, a claw in his hand.
“So do you volunteer a lot?” Brie asks, snapping me back to reality.
“Well, not recently. But I’m trying something different everyday, and this is my thing for today.”
“Oh, that’s awesome!” She rattles off a couple of websites to check out.
“Thanks,” I say. “So you do a lot of volunteering?”
“Well, sometimes I volunteer with kids. And I also do sort of my own personal thing. It’s not really a big deal, but I like it.”
“Yeah, my friends and I have these catered game nights, and every time we do, we buy a lot of food. Like way too much food. At the end of the night, we plate all the leftovers, and then we drive around and look for people on the street to give it to.”
“Oh, wow, that’s great!”
“I like it,” she says. “You know, some people don’t take the food because they don’t know where it’s from. They don’t know us yet, and I get that. But when they do take it, just...the looks on their faces. They’re so grateful. They can’t believe someone took the time out of their day to care about them.”
Bouncy Ball # 10 - Kyle
I’m at the New City Church, singing along to Amazing Grace. People around me have their hands raised to the sky, their arms open, their chests out, pure joy and peace on their faces.
I’m jealous that they can find peace this way. While all these people are loving Jesus, I’m preoccupied with the pervert next to me, who keeps leaning closer into my space even though I was the only person sitting in the entire row before he stationed himself two inches from me. He smells like little kids - stale cookies and dirt.
In any other circumstance, I’d ask him to move over, but this guy, well, something isn’t right with him. Possibly CP, possibly a mental disability, I don’t know. I’d keep trying to guess, but that’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to navigate. Either way, I’m convinced he knows exactly what he’s doing right now, and he knows he can get away with it.
After his hand grazes the side of my arm for the third time, I leave the room to use the restroom, and when I get back, he’s moved to another aisle pushing up against another single woman.
Her problem now.
I take my seat. After a few minutes, a mild-mannered man named Kyle starts his sermon. He’s sincere, but I’m a little disappointed he’s not breaking into a sweat, yelling like Evangelical preachers in the movies.
I’ve never personally felt anything for Jesus, but not for lack of trying. When I lived in Oklahoma as a kid, I tried so hard to love Jesus, but it just wasn’t there for me. I guess you really can’t make your heart feel things like that. There are so many beautiful stories in the world, why would my soul have to choose that particular one?
I’m jotting observations in the margins of my program when Kyle says a phrase that grabs my attention: “the tapestry of shalom.”
“The tapestry of shalom.” I write it down. It’s beautiful - the way it sounds, the way it looks.
“Everything is woven together in a complex and perfect way,” Kyle says. “If hydrogen and oxygen didn’t come together in that particular way, we’d all be dead. Everything is interconnected, entwined with everything else.”
I’m listening now. I’m not fascinated by Jesus, but I am fascinated by the idea of connections in the Universe.
“This is shalom. There is shalom in the way God created the world. When people work for the community of others, there is shalom.”
“Wherever there are people suffering,” he goes on, “this is the broken fabric on the tapestry of shalom, and we need to repair that tapestry, to ease the suffering of our brothers and sisters. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus says, ‘Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Kyle’s reaching the height of his sermon: “We need to restore the tapestry here on earth! We need to build the New City from Revelations here on earth! We need to restore the kingdom on earth and make it a place where there is no more injustice!”
“Amen!” someone shouts.
“No more racism! No more sexism! No more pollution! No more decay!”
After the service is over, I wait until Kyle is alone to hand him a bouncy ball. “Here. I think the Universe wants me to give this to you.”
“But if it did exist,” I say. “What would you want heaven to be like?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I guess just unconditional love. You can feel it surround you completely. You’re wrapped up in it, and it’s just pure. That’s what I think heaven is - to know what it feels like to be wrapped in pure love without any fear.”
I smile. “I like that.”.
“Thanks,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll forget it.”
“But I won’t.”
Bouncy Ball # 11 - Echo Park Lake
“Okay, Nghiem. These people right here,” I say, as we float over toward a couple on a nearby boat. “Ask them if there’s a good yoga studio nearby.”
“Man,” he says. “Fine.”
We’re in a peddle boat in Echo Park Lake, and I’m maneuvering us up next to all the other boats and asking them for recommendations in the area because I think it’s funny. My friend James Nghiem, well, he just can’t leave.
We float up next to the couple. “Hey,” James says. “Do you guys know of a good yoga studio around here?”
“Yes, actually,” the woman says. “There’s a great place in Silverlake.” She gives us the name of a studio she loves and recommends her instructor.
“Thank you!” I turn to James. “See, they’re nice. Okay, my turn. This couple over here. Smoothie place.”
James groans. “Why?”
“Because I think it’s fun.” We pull up to a young couple. “Hey, do you guys know of a smoothie place around here?”
The girl, a pretty young redhead in a sundress, perks up. “Actually, yes! There’s a place on Sunset between I think Echo Park...is it Echo Park?” She turns to the guy she’s with, and he shrugs. “No, between Logan and Lemoyne. Right across from the Walgreens. I can’t remember what it’s called.”
“You should get the creamsicle smoothie!” she shouts as we float out of earshot. “It tastes just like a creamsicle!”
“I love that they keep explaining while we slowly float away from them,” I say. “We’re gonna hit up that smoothie place, for sure.”
After a while, we come across a boat with a young boy and his dad. “Hey,” I say, steering toward them. “Can I give you guys this bouncy ball?”
“Sure,” the dad says.
He holds out his hands, and I toss the ball over. It’s a shitty throw. He reaches for it, but it plops down in the water between us.
The kid points. “Look. It floats.” It’s bobbing on the ripples of water.
We try to maneuver both boats to get to the ball, but every time we get close, it floats off in another direction. After a few minutes, I give up. “I’m just going to leave it,” I say. “But thanks for trying!”
Father and son exchange a look. “You want to keep trying?” the dad asks.
The boy nods, excited, and they steer their boat back toward the ball.
I turn around, smiling. “All right, Nghiem. Let’s go get that smoothie.”
Bouncy Ball # 12 - John
I’m at the Moth Story Slam, a storytelling show where anyone can sign up to tell a five-minute story. I’m giving today’s bouncy ball to John because he told the best story of the night, and I’d like to commemorate it, even though it’s not my story to tell.
Bouncy Ball # 13 - April
“I have something for you.” I say, stopping April before she leaves.
It’s Wednesday night, and I’ve just bowled a few games with a bunch of my co-workers. We’re having a send off party for April. She and I have similar positions at the school, but she’s moving on because she’s been selected for ABC’s Writing Fellowship Program, her career goal of becoming a TV writer finally coming into fruition.
It’s reassuring, the fact that her hard work and dedication paid off. It’s inspiring, like a campaign slogan: “Yes, it can be done.”
I hand April a big yellow bouncy ball with a smiley face on it.
“Thank you!” she says. “And I have something for you.”
She opens her hand. It’s a small blue bouncy ball. With a smiley face on it.
She’s been reading my blog.
“Oh my God! Where’d you get this?”
“I’ve had it for years,” she says. “I really like what you’re doing. I can’t wait to see where it goes.”
Bouncy Ball # 14 - Sasha
I’m in a small room in the Church of Scientology watching a 15-minute orientation video in Spanish. Earlier today, I took an online personality test posted on the church’s website, and I came in to get a free one-on-one consultation to go over my results. After a few minutes, Sasha slides the glass door open to check on me.
“It’s in Spanish,” I say.
“Oh my gosh!” she says. “Let me fix that for you.”
“I think I pretty much get it. You can just play it from here.”
“I’m so sorry,” she says, fiddling with the control box on the wall. “This is pretty new technology.”
“It’s cool,” I say. “I figured if enough time went by, I’d eventually start to understand it.”
“Let’s try this.” She starts the video again from the beginning. “There we go!”
“Great, thanks.” Honestly, I’d prefer to watch it in Spanish. It’s nonsense to me anyway.
After the video’s over, Sasha asks me a slew of personal questions: When did I move to California? Why? Did I have any past religious affiliations? What do I believe in? What brought me here? What am I looking to find?
I answer her truthfully. “I just wanted to see what it was like in here. I like to know things, and I thought it would be an interesting experience.”
Sasha leaves for a second and returns holding a couple sheets of paper, the results of my online personality test.
The top sheet shows a line graph. It’s split in half, the upper part positive (0 to 100), the lower part negative (0 to -100). The categories at the top are positive: “Happy,” “Communication.” The ones at the bottom are negative: “Depressed,” “Irresponsible.”
Sasha keeps the second piece of paper tucked carefully underneath the first like it’s the final round of the World Series of Poker. I’m not allowed to see it.
Most of my points are in the positive, but there are two low points. One is right at zero: “Happy.” The other is all the way to the very bottom, lurking over the word “Irresponsible.”
“So do you think you’re happy?” Sasha asks.
“Well, I think I’m trying to be.”
“Okay,” she says. “Do you find that you blame something outside for your unhappiness?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe. I guess that could be true. But if so, it’s just one thing.”
“What’s that thing?” she asks.
“A bad relationship. I guess I could blame that for my recent unhappiness.”
“So what happened?”
“I wanted more than he could give, and then it ended badly.”
“Have you talked to him about this blame?”
“Because there’s nothing else to say. It’s done, and it happened, and that’s that.”
“Hmm,” she says.
I point at the lowest point on my graph: “Irresponsible.”
“What’s this about?”
“Well, I don’t know. Let’s try to figure it out,” she says. “Does this make sense to you?”
“No. I’m very responsible.”
“That’s not necessarily what it means,” she says. “It’s more about cause and effect. Say, for instance, someone is holding a gun on you. In that situation, that person is the cause, and you are the effect instead of the cause. Do you see what I mean?”
“Ummm….so wait, are you saying I don’t actively participate in my life? Like you mean I don’t act, but I just let things happen?”
“Remember,” she says. “This is not our assessment. This is based on your assessment of yourself.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s true of me.”
“Hmm,” she says. “Do you think it might apply to another aspect of your life? Maybe your career isn’t where you want it to be. You said you want to be a comedian, but you’re working at this other job. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re able to put as much time into your career?”
“Well, sure,” I say. “But I do the best I can, and I’m making progress. When I decide I need to change things, I do it.”
“Hmm. Because the results of your test show something different. Can you think of another part of your life where you’re the effect instead of the cause?”
I’m starting to get annoyed. “Not really. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just about the guy again. Is that what you want?”
“Okay, there you go!” She’s excited that she got something out of me, jabbing her pen at my graph. “That’s what it is. See, with Scientology, you can move this up.” She draws three arrows pointing upward toward the positive side of the chart.
Oh, I see. Just move that line up there.
“Let me ask you,” she says. “Have you ever tried to help someone, and it didn’t work?”
“Yes, all the time.”
“Can you give me a specific example?”
“Oh God. Well,” I say. “I once got my friend really expensive tickets to an NFL game for his birthday, his favorite team. But when we drove down to the game, the traffic was so bad, we missed the entire first half. I got so upset that we missed it, I made the situation even worse.”
“Okay,” she says. “And what does that make you feel like?”
My eyes tear up in frustration. Leah, do not cry in the goddamn Scientology Center. I don’t know if I’m more annoyed by her obvious attempts to make me feel like shit, or by myself for falling into her little therapy trap and letting her get to me.
“Well,” I say in a controlled, even tone. “It feels like the harder I try to make things better, the worse they get.”
Sasha stares at me for a long time, smiling like a robot.
“Uh, are you waiting for me to say something?”
After a few more stupid minutes, Sasha passes me off to Ron, who stares me down with his icy blue eyes while he tries to sell me a book and DVD about Dianetics. During the sales pitch, he points to my low score: “Irresponsible.”
“Did this rub you the wrong way?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “It did.”
“Well, remember, this is your assessment of yourself. We’re not trying to make you feel bad.”
Bouncy Ball # 15 - Mario
It’s Friday, and I’m at the final Silverlake Lounge open mic.
I haven’t been here in months. I used to go almost every Friday, but I’d stopped coming because I don’t like it. I’m here tonight because my friend James is new in town, and he wanted to check it out.
I’m at the bar chatting with the bartender, Mario, who’s the best thing about the Silverlake Lounge. He takes a shot of something with me - cinnamon flavored? I don’t know. When someone gives me a shot, I take it. I guess since I’m so irresponsible and all.
“Mario,” I say, “I want to give you this.” I hand him a bouncy ball.
He cracks up laughing.
“You gave me a bouncy ball before.”
“I did? Was I drunk?”
“Yeah,” he says. “It was smaller, lots of different colors. I still have it.”
“Wow, that’s crazy” I say. “I don’t even remember that.”
“It was a long time ago.”
I don’t know how to feel about that. On one hand, I like it. It means that at my core, I am always the same person, and that person makes the same gut decisions every time. It’s comforting.
But on the other hand, it means that at my core, I am always the same person, and that person keeps doing the same things the same way and erasing them, forgetting them, but repeating them as though they’re inevitable.
Bouncy Ball # 2 – Jamie
“What you drinking?” I ask.
“White wine,” Jamie says.
“I’ll have that, too,” I tell the bartender. “Feels like one of those nights.”
“Yeah, I’ve had a shitty week,” Jamie says. “Just after the New Year, Mark and I broke up. Did I tell you that?”
“Oh shit, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah.” She looks down. “You know what really drives me crazy about it?”
“He should like me more. He’s not that awesome – he’s miserable.” She sighs. “I just don’t understand why he doesn’t like me more.”
I’m starting to think this city is full of women who’ve spent too much time trying to mean something real to unhappy men.
“It has nothing to do with you,” I say. “It’s on him.” I stand up. “Are you gonna be here a minute?”
“Because I gotta go to my car and get you a bouncy ball.”
Bouncy Ball # 3 – Jonathan
One of the festival workers walks by, and Jonathan sighs, exasperated. “How does she not recognize me?”
“That’s really driving you crazy, isn’t it?”
“Leah, we spent three days camping together. It’s not like I met her once. And it wasn’t even that long ago!”
“Maybe she just hates you,” I say. “Anyway, what am I gonna do with this bouncy ball?”
“There’s lots of people here,” he says. “Give it to someone.”
“But there has to be a story attached to it.”
“They can’t all have stories.”
“But they have to.”
A few minutes later, I duck out the bar’s back door. I notice the girl who doesn’t remember Jonathan standing in a small group, so on an impulse, I walk up and stand in the middle of their circle. “Hi,” I say, “you don’t know me, but will you do me a favor?”
I hold out a purple bouncy ball. “Will you hand this to my friend?”
“Just hand it to him? Do you want me to say anything?”
“Just say hi if you want, but don’t say anything about the bouncy ball.”
“Ok,” she says. “Who’s your friend?”
“He’s standing inside leaning against the wall. He has dark hair, glasses. His name’s Jonathan.”
I laugh. “Oh, you know him?”
“Yeah,” she says. Then, she looks over my shoulder and smiles really big. “Hey!”
I turn – it’s Jonathan. I didn’t see him creeping up behind me.
They hug, and she hands him my bouncy ball. “That girl asked me to give you this.”
A few minutes later, Jonathan and I are walking to my car. “I don’t get it,” he says. “Why did you ask her to give me this?”
“You were freaking out about her not knowing you, so I thought it would be funny if my bouncy ball brought you guys together.”
“Oh! That’s a good idea!”
“Yeah, it was,” I say. “But you ruined it.”
Jonathan bounces the ball as we walk, chasing it a few feet down the sidewalk. “What if I lost this right now?”
“That’d be okay.”
“Or what if I bounced this really hard, and it got caught on that awning, and then two weeks from now, you were walking by, and it dropped right in front of you?”
“That would be amazing,” I say. “That’s part of the reason I do this. I always thought it would be cool if one found its way back to me.”
Bouncy ball # 4 – Ann
“Have you ever had your tarot read?” a 13-year-old girl asks me while we wait at the crosswalk. “Cuz you should go to my grandma.” She points across Venice at the sign on the front of a house: Spiritual readings by Ann.
“Actually,” I say, “I was just going there.”
I follow the girl into Ann’s house. There are five other people sitting in the living room when we walk in.
Ann appears from the back. She’s shorter than me with dyed blonde hair, and she’s wearing an old lady smock. I’d put her at around 65 years old.
“Come in,” she says in a slight Spanish accent.
“Are you sure?” I point behind me. “I mean, I don’t want to interrupt.”
“You’ve been here before, no?”
“Uh, no.” I hate to point out the obvious, but shouldn’t she know that already?
“Ok, come in.”
I follow her into a small kitchen where there’s a giant pot of spaghetti noodles boiling on her stovetop. “I don’t want to interrupt anything,” I say again.
She pulls out a chair. “Sit. It’s just family dinner.”
“Well, yeah, that’s why—”
But she’s not listening. She walks back into the living room, leaving me there to take in my surroundings – flowered green wallpaper peeling around the edges, a pack of Marlboro Reds and a lighter on the counter, and Virgin Mary candles on the windowsill, staring me down.
“So what can I help you with?” she asks, drawing the curtain closed behind her.
“How much for a tarot reading?”
“What about a palm reading?”
“20. But you won’t learn nothing. You want me to help you? You do cards.”
“I’d like to, but I don’t have 45 dollars.”
“Ok. How much you have?”
“40.” Shit. Negotiating has never really been my strong suit.
She nods. “Okay, take out the money and hold it in your hand. While you hold it, I want you to think of two things you wish for. One of them, you keep to yourself. One of them, you say out loud.”
I hold the two twenties in my right palm. I wish I could figure out how to be happy, I think.
“I want to be a standup comedian,” I say.
“What’s that mean?” Ann asks. “You talk to people? You get in front of a room of people and talk to them?”
I laugh. “Yeah, pretty much.”
She holds the deck out. “Shuffle these.”
When I hand them back, she starts turning them over. “When I say something, tell me if it’s true. Okay?”
She turns over about 12 cards, none of which mean anything to me. “You’re a good person,” she says, “and you want to help people. But you have trouble right now. True?”
“Sure, I guess.”
She studies the cards. “What you said you wished for, you’ll have that.”
“Well, that’s awesome. Good news there.”
“You’re always trying to find the light,” she says. “You’re always looking for light in other people. But the more you look for light, the less you find.”
She points to one of the cards. “You’re always giving all the love you have, but you don’t get no love. You had long time with no love. Three years?”
Goddamn it. “Yes.”
“You never hurt no one,” she says. “But you always get hurt. You want to trust, you look for trust, but there is none.”
“I’m sure I’ve hurt people,” I say.
She shakes her head. “No. Not that bad. You don’t hurt no one too much.”
"Well, that's a relief."
“You try to fit everything together like a puzzle to make sense of things, but you can’t,” she says. “The harder you try, the less you find it. Yes?”
“Yes.” Obviously. That’s why I’m sitting here – because I’m trying to fit everything together like a puzzle. I’m trying to make bouncy balls mean something, to make random stories connect, to make sense where there is none.
“You let me help you?” Ann asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “What’s that entail?”
“You come back tomorrow?”
“No. This is a one time thing.”
“Okay.” She flips a few more cards, but I can tell she’s pretty much over this now that she knows she can’t rope me into an aura-cleansing crystal session. “You had your heart broken.”
Jesus. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to think about this. I’ve already thought about it enough for a lifetime.
“You love someone?” she asks.
“I did,” I say, annoyed.
“Things are not the same as they used to be,” she says.
“He cares about you a lot. But his mind is not right.”
“Your husband. You married, right?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
She’s confused. “I thought you said you love someone.”
“I did. But he didn’t love me.”
“But did you kiss and make love and spend time together?”
“Oh my God. Can we move on?”
“But he’s not your boyfriend?”
She narrows her eyes. “You have to accept things for how they are.”
She gathers the cards. I feel like I’ve disappointed her.
“I can see that you are lost,” she says. “Remember, there’s other fishes in the sea.”
Bouncy Ball # 5 – Girl at the intersection
I walk across the Von’s parking lot toward Sunset Blvd. She’s not at the corner anymore, so I scan the street, hoping I didn’t miss her.
“Broke. Hungry. Stranded.” Those were the first three words on her sign. I didn’t read the rest.
I catch sight of her a little further west, holding her sign out for cars as they pull up to the light.
“Hey,” I say.
She turns. She has short hair, cropped close to her head like a boy’s cut, and her eyes are dark blue and bloodshot red. Now that I’m close, I can tell she’s young, maybe 17.
“Here.” I hand her two sandwiches: one turkey, one roast beef. “Here.” I hand her some cash. “Here.” I hand her a smiley face bouncy ball.
“Oh my God,” she says. “It’s been so long.”
“Ok,” I say. “Have a good night.”
“You’re so cool!” she shouts after me.
“I’m not that cool.”
If I were that cool, I wouldn’t have done this as a part of some little game I’ve been playing.
If I were really cool, I would’ve done this without the bouncy ball. I would’ve done it because I felt like the right thing to do.
Bouncy Ball # 6 – Server in a Thai restaurant
The server plops a plate of seafood fried rice in front of me. I pick up my fork and poke at a large chunk of squid.
“You’re brave,” Jeramy says.
“No, I’m not. I just have to try a new thing everyday because I said I would because I’m stupid.”
“Still,” he says. “I wouldn’t eat squid.”
Wednesday night, and I’m in a random Thai restaurant with Jeramy and James, two Oklahoma comics that just arrived in L.A. James is one of my best friends – he started doing standup shortly after I did, and he was in the audience the first time I went onstage. He’s moving to L.A., and Jeramy had come along to keep him company on the ride.
Today’s bouncy ball plan is to eat squid, something I never thought I’d do because I’m afraid of it and grossed out by it.
I think of the last time someone put a plate of squid in front of me - I was at a Mexican restaurant in East L.A. with him. “Will you find out if this has squid in it?” I’d asked before ordering.
He spoke Spanish with our server. “No,” he’d said. “No squid.”
So I ordered it. But when she brought it out, covered in squid.
He’d laughed. “I guess I don’t know the Spanish word for squid.”
Yeah. Guess not.
I spear a tentacle with my fork and hold it up to my mouth. Right before it touches my lips, I squeal like a little girl and drop the fork. “Oh my God! Gross!”
“Oh come on,” James says. “I once saw you lick the side of a hot sauce bottle that was sitting on the counter in a Waffle House. Do you know how gross that is?”
“Yeah, but that’s different,” I say. “I don’t care about germs.”
“Just do it.”
“Fine.” But I still weigh it over another few minutes before shoving a chunk in my mouth and forcing myself to chew. “Oh God, why? Why do people like this?”
“Does it taste good?” James asks.
“No!” I swallow that first piece, and then I eat five more. I figure if I’m going to do this, might as well do it all the way.
Bouncy Ball # 7 – Jules
“I wanted to ask you,” I say to Jules, lowering my voice. “Is it normal that I just started crying for no reason? Should I be concerned about that?”
Jules laughs. “Actually, that’s pretty common. Was it during the pigeon pose?”
“Yeah, I don’t know what that means,” I say. “But it was when we were lying flat on our backs.”
“It’s probably because you let go of some of that tension you carry in your shoulders,” Jules says.
Today, for the first time, I’d come to the free yoga class that my work offers our staff. Every week prior to this, someone had asked, “Leah, are you coming to yoga?”
And I’d responded, “No, I can’t. I’m too sarcastic.”
So this morning, when I’d announced I was going, one of my co-workers got excited. “Oh my God, you’re gonna laugh so hard!”
But I didn’t laugh that much during the class. Only once, when Jules walked up next to me and tried to position me. “Lift your heart,” she’d said, and I laughed out loud because it reminded me of the acting class I’d taken in college. On the first day, the teacher told us all to be tripods, and she’d singled me out, standing next to me and whispering “be more of a tripod” while pulling an invisible string from the back of my neck.
Today, other than the “lift your heart” moment, I don’t find too much to make fun of. So what if Jules keeps saying weird words that I don’t understand and hitting a chime at random intervals? So what if we’re slowing down today’s heat to compensate for the feminine exhaustion we’re feeling due to the tides of the moon? I don’t know if I’m going soft, but beyond the bullshit, I like the movement, the slow control over my body.
“Those shoulders just don’t want to relax,” Jules had said, pushing my shoulders flat against the ground before moving on to help someone else.
That’s when it happened, lying there with my shoulders flat against the ground. That’s when the tears came flooding out. I didn’t feel sad. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. It just felt nice to cry like that.
Bouncy Ball # 8 – Westin
“You’re a shot gun – bang! What’s up with that thang? I wanna know. How does it hang?”
Right around that line – that’s the point during my rendition of the Salt-N-Pepa song “Shoop,” where I get shot in the face with soapy foam in front of a bar full of people.
Friday night, and I’m at Dimples karaoke bar in Burbank because I’ve decided that tonight’s task would be to sincerely sing a karaoke song, to try to do it well, without any irony. People are afraid to try their best at things these days.
When I’d asked for song recommendations, a guy named Westin had piped in, “Salt-N-Pepa.”
Despite the fact that I keep running short on breath because I’m not trained in dancing and singing at the same time, I’m doing a pretty badass job until the foam hits me. Out in the audience, I see James. I can tell by his face that he’s embarrassed for me, but I also know there’s only one thing I can do.
Keep rapping. Keep dancing.
Up to this moment, I’ve spent so much of my life trying to avoid looking like a fool, it’s actually nice to give up and embrace it. To not give a fuck.
After my performance, I receive a complimentary DVD of my own humiliation, and I decide to give my bouncy ball to Westin for choosing the song.
“I’m doing this thing,” I say. “I really don’t have a good explanation.”
“You don’t have to explain,” he says. “If someone offers me a bouncy ball, I’m not turning it down.”
On the ride home, James turns to me. “What are you gonna do tomorrow?”
“I gotta do my bouncy ball thing in the morning,” I say. “And then I have to write all day. Somehow, I have to figure out how to make all this shit into a story.”
“You can do that,” James says. “It’s a good idea.”
“Maybe.” I pull up to the curb. “Or maybe I’m just a crazy person.”
He opens his door. “Well, yeah, you’re a little crazy.”
“Wait a minute, you’re agreeing that I’m crazy? How am I crazy?”
“Oh, I don’t know, man, you’re just…you’re crazy. But in a fun way.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’re definitely not boring.”
A jolt runs through me. I’ve heard that before. Well Leah, you’re definitely not boring. He used to say that.
I play it off. “Well, okay,” I say. “As long as I’m not crazy in a bad way.”
I pull back onto the road feeling kind of weighty. I’ve tried to distract myself with these bouncy ball quests.
I guess I can’t forget that easily.
8 balls down. 182 to go.
“You know what I think?” he says, riding shotgun in my car. “I think life’s like a connect-the-dot squirrel. Do you remember those connect-the-dots we did when we were kids?”
“Yeah. But how is that like life? And why a squirrel?”
“I don’t know why a squirrel – that’s just what I see.” He pauses. “I just think that everything that happens is connected to every other event, even when the connection doesn’t seem obvious at first. You know when a word pops in your head, and someone says it out loud?”
“That’s a part of it,” he says. “Those small coincidences, they just show how everything overlaps, and everything that happens is part of a bigger picture. One of the dots on the connect-the-dot squirrel.”
He looks right into my eyes. “When I die, if you look at my life from above, it’ll be a finished squirrel.”
Monday morning, 7:45 AM. I’m at work, going through my morning set-up routine: open the conference room, draw the blinds, turn on the computer. I notice a folded Wall Street Journal on my keyboard. There’s a post-it note on top, my boss’s handwriting. “Do you see your name in this article? - Dave.”
For a brief moment, I think maybe it actually says my name in the article even though I know I’ve done nothing particularly newsworthy (unless you consider me calling out the lady who cut in line at Trader Joe’s a hot news item).
But as I read the title, I groan. “The Most Powerful Person in the Office: Executive-Assistant Jobs May Be Thankless, but They Also Offer Big Impact.” I scan through the article – it’s about how Executive Assistants are more concerned with their boss’s lives than their own.
“Motherfucker,” I say, dropping my bag on the floor. Two seconds later, Dave appears in front of me, exhausting early morning energy oozing from his smile.
He points at the newspaper. “I thought you’d like that.” He doesn’t seem to notice that I kind of want to punch him in the face.
I’m Dave’s assistant, my official title “Assistant to the Head of School.” The truth is, I like Dave. He’s good at what he does. And I know he’s just trying to relate to me – to be fair, the article also called Executive Assistants “indispensible” and the “most powerful people in the office.” But it’s early, it’s Monday, and his effort to relate only reinforces the gap between what he thinks I am and what I want to believe I am.
“I am not a secretary. I am not a secretary,” I whisper when Dave walks away.
This is the mantra I mutter under my breath when the copier jams, when 18 teachers ask me “Is the meeting in here?” even though it’s clearly written on the dry-erase board next to the door.
Because to them, I am a secretary. And not only that, I’m a good secretary. I know where everyone’s supposed to be every second of the day. When I see a stray walk by my door out of the corner of my eye, I loudly say, “Board Room,” and watch her turn in the other direction while I simultaneously send an email to schedule Dave’s visit to another school and intercept a solicitation call from the front desk.
This is not a throwaway job – it’s intense, and I care about the outcome. I care about the kids that go to this school. Compared to other people’s jobs that I hear about, my job is great, and I’m lucky to have it. The only problem is, this is not why I moved to Los Angeles.
I moved here to have adventures.
It’s Friday night, and I’m in my bedroom, doing one of those yearly purges of all the unnecessary shit I’ve collected. I’m trying to get rid of some things to free up space, but every piece of junk is suddenly so connected to a memory, it’s hard for me to part with it.
Buried at the bottom of the mound of t-shirts, I find a tiny backpack I used to carry. I unzip it.
I look inside and laugh. Of course. It’s full of bouncy balls.
That’s no surprise – I collect bouncy balls. I always have at least one on my person, usually around 10 in my purse, a few scattered in my car, and in fact, an entire drawer full in my bedroom. Just before I left Oklahoma (now two and a half years ago), my friends had roasted me. They gave me 250 bouncy balls with my name on them to toss them out into the world – 250 balls just waiting to go on adventures. I gave some away that night, but since then, I’ve been storing the rest in a drawer, 190 of them.
I pull a ball from the backpack and hold it between my fingers. It has a date written on it in Sharpie: 2/10/12.
I remember now why I separated these ones. These aren’t just any bouncy balls. These ones are special. I’ve marked each of them with either a name or a date.
The ones with the dates, I’ve found in random places – on the side of the road, in restaurants, buried in the grass outside a friend’s house – and I’ve saved them because I believed every time I found one, it was a sign from the Universe letting me know I was moving in the right direction. The ones with the names were gifts from my friends.
Of all the bouncy balls I have, these are the important ones because these are the ones with the stories attached to them.
I put the marked balls back in the backpack. These, I keep.
The 190 others, well, I don’t know what to do with them.
I’m sitting at my desk proofreading a report. I hear the buzz of an email come through, asking me to schedule a meeting.
Dave walks in. He stands in front of my desk, smiling. “Hey, this is yours, right? I found it outside, and I figured you lost it.” He reaches out, opens his palm.
It’s a bouncy ball. I’m speechless.
“It’s just a little joke,” Dave says, confused.
“No, It’s great.” I grab the ball. “You know, I…” I search for the words that might explain to my business-minded boss why it’s significant that he handed me this stupid toy. I have a feeling, “I’m magic,” won’t go over well, so I finally just settle on, “I collect these.”
“Oh really? Well, I’m glad I could add to your collection.” And he walks away.
I inspect the ball, holding it between my fingers. It’s an eyeball.
This just can’t be. I’ve been trying to stop believing in fantastic things like magic. I’ve been trying to be logical and realistic. I’ve been trying to be an adult.
But this is just too big a coincidence. I think – no, you know what? Fuck it! – I know that magic exists. I’m holding the evidence in my hand.
The Universe speaks to me. And because Dave just handed me this bouncy ball, there’s not a soul in the world that will ever be able to convince me otherwise.
It’s Wednesday, late afternoon. I pull up outside the Ice House in Pasadena.
They haven’t put out the open mic sign-up yet, so I go back and sit in my car for a few minutes, his texts running through my mind like headlines on a marquee. “I’ve decided to say yes to more things. Hang out with more new people. Branch out a little more. It was starting to feel all the same.”
Then: “I’ll still hang out with you. Just not gonna hang out as much.”
When I’d read those words, I read the underlying message: “I need to change my life to be happy, and that means I need less of you in it.”
“Why are you taking it so personally?” he had said later, in person. “It’s not about you.”
I’d stared at him, all the muscles in my body clenched in frustration, angry tears welling up in my eyes. Why am I taking it personally? Why am I taking it so personally?
Well, because of the injustice of it. We had spent our weekends together eating weed brownies, watching TV, going to breakfast on Saturdays, writing, going to mics – that’s what we did because that’s what I thought he wanted to do. Now he’s bored.
I think about all the times I chose to hang out with him on my couch instead of going to a mic, instead of running, instead of meeting up with friends, instead of so many things. I had suggested other things – I’d brought up seeing Bill Burr at the Wiltern, having a beer while we watch the football playoffs, riding the boats in Echo Park, taking a weekend trip to the Grand Canyon, running up the Baldwin Park stairs. But he’d dismissed all of them. He didn’t want to do those things.
Or more truthfully, he didn’t want to do those things with me.
Why am I taking it so personally?
Because I feel like I’m a little kid, and I just lost my best friend. But not like he died, or moved away, or even like he decided to ditch me for a cooler best friend. It’s like I had a best friend, and then I woke up one day and found out he never even existed.
Stop thinking about it. I take a deep breath and head back into the club.
When the mic starts, I sit in the back next to my friend Jonathan. Adam sits down to the left of me. There’s something about Adam that always makes me feel comfortable – he’s just an easy person to know.
A thought occurs to me. “Hey Adam,” I say. “It’s January 8th.”
He stares at me. “Okay.”
“It’s our half-birthday today.” Adam and I were both born on July 8th.
He laughs. “Oh yeah! Happy half-birthday!”
I turn to Jonathan. “Jonathan, it’s me and Adam’s half-birthday today.”
Jonathan rolls his eyes. “Oh. My God.”
But I think it’s cool that I’m sitting next to Adam on our half-birthday. I think it’s significant somehow.
I think it’s one of those squirrel moments.
Thursday night, I’m standing outside the Hollywood Hotel. I already went on, but I don’t want to go home, so I stand at the entrance with all the other comics.
A guy that looks vaguely familiar walks up. “You’ve been here awhile, right?”
“I mean,” he says, “you’ve been coming to this open mic for awhile.”
“Oh,” I laugh. “Well, I guess so.”
“I was here a couple years ago, and I remember you from then.”
The phrase “a couple years” hits me like a shot to the gut. “Shit,” I say. “Wow. Yeah. I guess that was me.”
I turn to my friend Jeff. “Jeff, I’ve been coming here for more than a couple years.”
“Oh God, that’s not a healthy line of thought,” Jeff says.
“Yep. Gonna think about that all night now. It’s the same thing over and over again. What am I doing with my life?”
And right then, just like that, it hits me. I know what I need to do. I know exactly what I’m supposed to do.
And it’s weird.
I have in my possession 190 bouncy balls without any stories attached to them.
I also have 190 days until my 32nd birthday.
I’m going on a quest to give these bouncy balls stories.
Here’s the plan: everyday, I will do something I wouldn’t normally do. Everyday, I will find a person with a story, big or small, and I will give them a bouncy ball until I have none left, until they’re all out in the world where they should be. I came here to live an adventure, but one hasn’t fallen in my lap, so maybe it’s time for me to find my own.
Every Monday, I’ll post a blog, a bouncy ball journal of sorts, about the people I meet, the things I do, the places I go, and the bouncy balls I leave to mark the adventure. If you’re interested in keeping up with me, you can track my progress and read my blog, but the truth is, I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it for me. I’m doing it because something has to change here.
Partly, I’m trying to prove to myself that I’m not boring, that I enjoy new experiences and new people. Partly, this is one of those “get my shit together after a bad relationship” montages. But mostly, I believe that systematically getting rid of these bouncy balls will help me let go of some of the weight I’ve been carrying around inside.
I’m not looking for meaning. I’m not looking for a common thread or theme to come out of this, though I’m open to the chance that I could find one. There’s no big plan for the end, and I have no delusions that this is going to make me understand the meaning of life. When I turn 32 and finish this quest, I’ll just be 32.
The only thing I’m looking for are stories, and in those stories, tiny connections with other people.
Bouncy Ball # 1 – Adriana
“So what do people look at while they’re getting haircuts?” I ask.
Adriana runs a comb through my just-washed hair. “You know, it’s funny you asked that. Sometimes, I get customers who just stare right at themselves when they’re talking to me.”
“They don’t look at you?”
“Nope, right at their own mouths.”
“So they’re just like, ‘This is what I look like when I have a conversation.’ That’s pretty narcissistic.”
Adriana’s cell phone dings a text, and she puts down the scissors to respond. “I’m sorry about that,” she says when she’s finished. “My boyfriend’s coming to pick me up. We got robbed last month, and I’m still a little freaked out.”
“Yeah, I was the only one here. I was sitting at the front with one of our iPads, and a guy just walks in, grabs it, and runs.”
“Yeah, and I’m kinda ghetto, so I ran after him.”
“Wait, you chased a guy down the street? I don’t think you’re supposed to do that.”
“Well, I’m not just gonna let him get away with it!” She shakes her head. “I was talking mad shit, too.”
“Did you catch him?”
“Well, so I’m running after him screaming, ‘Thief!’ And no one’s paying attention to me. But he turns around to see where I am, and he trips and falls like a dumbass.”
“Oh my God!”
“I know! But right before I made it to him, a Mercedes Benz pulled up, and two guys wearing suits got out and pulled him into the backseat. Then the car just took off.”
“That’s crazy!” I say. “Maybe he’s from the future, and he needed that iPad to complete a task to save all of humanity.”
“So are you from here?” I ask.
“Yeah, I grew up here. I lived in New York for two years, but then I just had to get out of there.” She sighs. “There was this guy, and we spent so much time together, and then it went so bad that I had to physically move away from him.”
I nod. “I know how that is. I need to move away from here for the same reason.”
“Did you like New York?”
“Loved it,” she says. “It was a really good experience.” She pauses, her hand on her hip. “Actually, a lot of it was good because of him. We had some great times. But when it was over, every single thing in that city just reminded me of him. You know?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“So,” she says, clipping my hair up in giant rolls. “Where are you going to move?”
“I’m not really moving,” I say. “I just like to fantasize about it.”
“Oh,” she says.
“I have a plan, though,” I say. “Everyday, I’m going to do something that I normally wouldn’t do.”
“That’s a great plan. What are you doing today?”
“This,” I say, gesturing toward her in the mirror. “Getting my hair cut.” For the last three years, I’ve been getting my hair trimmed every six months at Supercuts. This haircut will cost me a hundred bucks with the tip. This is a fancy haircut.
“That’s awesome!” Adriana says. “I’m so glad I get to help create the new you!”
I chuckle. “Me too.”
“So are you doing anything fun tonight?” she asks.
“Well, I’m doing some open mics, so not really sure if that’s fun, but it’s something.”
“Oh cool. You know, the last time I went to an open mic, I went to see a friend of mine who also moved to New York.”
“Is he liking the standup scene in New York?”
“Well, yeah. Actually, the last time I talked to him, he said that he was walking down the street, thinking about what he was doing with his life, and he walked right by Louis CK. It was like a sign from the Universe that he should keep going.”
I smile. There aren’t a lot of people in the world who say things like, “a sign from the Universe.”
After I pay, I hand her a smiley face bouncy ball. “Here. I want you to have this.” That’s all I say.
She doesn’t ask questions. “Thank you!”
I walk to my car feeling pretty okay. Day one, story one, bouncy ball number one – this is the first of 190 bouncy balls.
Or to put it another way, it’s the first dot of 190 dots that make up my very own connect-the-dot squirrel.
About the Bouncy Ball Project
I have in my possession 190 bouncy balls. I'm on a quest to give all these bouncy balls stories.