“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.