Bouncy Ball # 31 - Winston
"You know," Winston says during a brief break in the karaoke. "One of my goals is to make it into one of your stories."
"Really?" Since the first time I took someone from real life and wrote them in a story, I've always wondered people's reactions to becoming a character.
The music kicks on, the intro to the Quiet Riot song "Cum on Feel the Noize," while Erika, my roommate and Winston's girlfriend, hops up to the front of the room and dances with the energy of 10 kids diagnosed with ADHD.
"Oh my God!" Winston says. "Where is that voice coming from?"
Her singing voice during this particular song is, for lack of a better adjective, terrifying - this throaty raspy growl that comes from some darkness that she must be hiding within.
Earlier, we'd gone to "Rebel Bingo," half-bingo game, half-dance party. If you're curious, it's exactly what you'd expect to happen if a bunch of hipsters decided to start a Bingo game. At one point, the host of the show had yelled out, "This is not just Bingo. This is a REVOLUTION!" and I distinctly remember thinking, "Nah, it's just Bingo."
So here I am, hours later, in a private karaoke room at Soop Sok in Koreatown, watching Erika do an air guitar solo while a really weird Korean music video plays behind her.
After Erika's epic finale, the next singer gets up to sing "What's My Age Again?" by Blink 182. I laugh. "The first time I had sex was to this song," I say. "In a car."
"Oh my God, no!" Winston says. "How was it?"
"I mean, it was in a car. And it didn't last very long."
"Well the fist time I had sex it lasted forever."
"I was drunk."
I laugh. "Was it her first time, too?"
"Oh no," he says. "She had lots of sex with lots of my friends. I don't remember much about it. But I DO remember coming out of the room and looking around thinking, 'Well, I'm one of the sexually active people now. I did it.' I wanted to walk out and announce it to the world."
"So did the girl have a good time?"
"Oh yeah, she was really into it," he says. "I kind of feel bad about how I was to her, actually. Because I really liked this other girl at the time, and she'd be over, and I'd sneak her around so the other girl wouldn't see us together."
"Oh, I know," he says.
"Well, did you ever get with the other girl?"
"We went on like four dates." His voice suddenly loses its familiar joking tone. "Even dating was hard for her. Because, well, she'd been raped...isn't that awful? So she couldn't take any intimacy at all. We were hanging out, and she just said, 'I can't do this,' one day. So we ended it."
"It really did. I mean, on one hand, I liked her so much, and I wanted to be there for her, you know? But on the other hand, I totally understand why she felt like she did, and the best thing I could do was give her space."
Later, before I leave, I hand Winston a bouncy ball.
He looks up at me, surprised. "Really? Just like that?"
"Just like that."
Bouncy Ball # 32 - Breezsa
"Man, I messed up!" I say.
"That was seriously amazing," Sosa says, his giant brown eyes wide.
"But I messed up!"
"Where did you mess up?"
"On the part where I go down to the ground, I'm supposed to do this little thing before with my hips."
"Oh," Sosa says. "Well believe me, no one watching would be paying attention to that."
"Let me do it one more time." I walk over to his computer, restart the song, "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails, and then I get in position facing his closet, my back to him, and wait out the counts before my cue.
Earlier, I'd attended an Intro to Burlesque dancing class, where I learned about 40 seconds of this dance. I'd recruited Sosa to watch me before I forget it.
Because I'm me, I of course made the class into some sort of challenge. When we'd broken into smaller groups, I'd watched the others like a basketball coach scouting the competition. I need to put my hips out more there like she's doing, I thought. And that lady just has more ass than me. Nothing I can do about that.
Like most things I've been trying, I enjoyed the class. It demystified "sexy" for me. Before, I'd thought my athleticism and general "I say fuck a lot" persona made me fluid and strong, but not sensual. I never realized that it was a trick of presentation, that a swish of my hips or a jerk of my neck to flip my long brown hair is the difference between centerfielder and centerfold.
After the class, excited, glowing with sweat, I'd walked over to Breezsa, our instructor. "I want to give you this bouncy ball," I said. "I've been trying new things and giving people bouncy balls."
"Uh...ok," she said. She didn't seem to appreciate the gesture. Then again, I don't know what I expected her to do. Hug me? For a brief moment, I wondered why it's so hard for me to connect to people like Breezsa. And then it hit me.
I don't have to be best friends with the Burlesque dance instructor. I just have to admit that I can learn from her.
Sosa's perched on his bed eating candy and drinking orange juice while he watches me run through the dance again. I arch my back, I shake my hips, I flip my long hair, ending in a sexy pose, and then, poof! I turn right back into myself. "Goddamnit! I fucked it up again."
Sosa laughs. "I swear, Leah, that was amazing. It's so crazy to see you do that."
I hop up on his bed and sit cross-legged, pulling my hair up into a ponytail. "Why is it crazy?"
"Because you don't do things like that."
I shrug. "So was it sexy?"
Bouncy Ball # 33 - Mt. Wilson Revisited
I'm looking out over Los Angeles from the top of Mt. Wilson. The lights don't just shine - they move and sparkle from one end of the city to another, a fluid wave of human interaction seen from the top of a towering mountain. "Do you see that? It looks like magic."
"Yeah," Sosa says. "I'll never unsee this."
The original plan had been to make the drive up the mountain alone, a quest I'd assigned myself because a week earlier, when I'd ridden up the mountain with my friend Brent, we weren't able to see the view due to the dense fog. It bothered me: a quest left undone, a fear left unconquered.
Sosa had decided to tag along at the last minute. I'm glad he's here.
He tries to capture a picture with his phone. Before, I might've done the same thing. I might've spent five minutes trying to get the perfect shot to send to him, wherever he is, with the caption, "I got to see this with my eyes today."
But today, I don't think about sending him a picture. I don't think about anything except what's in front of me. For this second, I've let go of the thoughts that haunted me on the whole drive up the mountain: I should be doing an open mic right now. I should be working out right now. I should be writing right now.
I should be living right now.
Sosa pulls a bag of Berry Sour Patch Kids from his pocket, our favorite candy. He pours some in my hand.
"Oh my God, yes!" I say. "You've had these the whole time?"
"I was saving them for the top."
We stand side by side staring out over the city, chewing our Sour Patch Kids in silence. I feel like a little kid that found a secret path to a place where most of the people shimmering below us have never been.
I'd like you to share it with you, but an iPhone can't show you how it shimmers. That's something you have to see for yourselves.
Bouncy Ball # 34 - Lindsay
"We've never done this before," I say.
I'm at a Korean BBQ restaurant with Lindsay, an old friend from college who lives in Seattle. Her job has her working in L.A. a couple days a week, so here we are, staring at the pile of uncooked meat we ordered.
The server picks up the tongs and moves the meat to the center of our grill. "Don't put in right over the middle," she says, "but get it closer so it cooks all the way." She walks off.
I flip the meat for a few minutes. "Is it done?"
Lindsay shrugs. "It looks done to me."
"Well, okay." I cut the pork in half and put a piece on her plate. I take a bite, and then notice the pink center. "Does THIS look done to you?" I hold my fork out to show Lindsay.
The server comes back, picks up the shears, and cuts the chicken into smaller strips.
"Is this pork done?" I ask her.
"No," she says, barely even looking at it.
"Oh. So...are we supposed to wait for you to cook it?"
"Yeah, I was going to cook it for you."
"Oh. Well, I just ate a piece. Is that bad?"
"I mean, am I gonna get sick?"
"Yeah, you might," she says.
I exchange a look with Lindsay and we put our pork back on the grill. The server stays a few more minutes. "It's done now," she announces and saunters away.
"What the fuck? I told her we'd never been here." I rummage through my purse. "Man, I forgot my bouncy ball in the car. I guess I'll just have to give it to you today."
She laughs. "Is that bad?"
"No, no," I say. "Sorry. I just mean that you're the story tonight."
After the BBQ, Lindsay and I head to Echo Park to a stand-up show - I'm on the lineup. I go up first, seven minutes, but I can't break the crowd the way I want. They laugh, but not big laughs. They're holding back, and I can't quite reach them. The set itself is passable, not great.
I get offstage, frustrated, and Lindsay follows me outside to talk for a minute.
"That was really good," she says.
"No it wasn't. It was okay."
"They laughed," she says.
"Yeah, but I wanted to do better than that." What I really mean is, I wanted her to see me do better than that. I want her to think I'm good at what I do.
"You're better than the last time I saw you," she says. "You're better now than you were in Portland, and you were better in Portland than you were Chicago."
"Yeah, well, Chicago was the worst," I say, remembering the week I'd spent as the feature at Zanies, bombing night after night. Lindsay had seen me on the last show, a Sunday night, and we got in a fight a few hours later at a karaoke bar when I asked her what she thought of my set, and she basically told me I was the worst on the show.
"Well, you're better now. You know, when I was in there watching you just now, I thought, 'She might actually be a comedian.'" She catches herself. "Not that I thought you couldn't do it before. It's just really hard, you know?"
I laugh. A year ago, a comment like that might've ruined my night.
"The point is," she says, "I thought you were really good."
"Would you tell me if I wasn't?"
She smiles. "Did I tell you in Chicago?"
"Well, I tell it like it is."
While we ride down the 10 to Lindsay's hotel, she says, "I can't believe you live here."
"Me neither," I say. "I'm just now starting to feel like I do. It was hard to get used to it."
"What do you mean?"
"I think mostly it's just hard to connect with people here, you know? Where we lived in Norman, I had my best friends around me all the time, so when I moved here, I kept looking for those kinds of connections."
"You can't do that," she says. "You can't compare the present to where you've been in the past. I did that for so long. Everyone I met, I expected them to be like our old friends. But I just cut people off before I got to know them, you know?"
"Yeah, I get that," I say. "You know, I feel like we've known our friends so long that to them, I'm the same person I was when I was 19. I feel like no matter what I'm doing with my life, I'm always that crazy girl they met ten years ago. There's no room to grow." I pause, realizing that I've done that exact thing to Lindsay tonight. "But I guess I do that to you guys, too."
Bouncy Ball # 35 - Rockey
A few days into my bouncy ball project, my best friend Rockey texted me from Oklahoma. "Will you do this ab challenge with me?"
On February 12, I finished it:
If anyone is unimpressed by this, I encourage you to stop what you're doing right now and complete a two-minute plank. If you can't, nothing you say matters.
And yes, if you're wondering, I do look like Superwoman.
Bouncy Ball # 36 - Dave Grohl
"I've been spending a lot of time driving up mountains lately," I say, winding up a dirt road that supposedly leads to some hiking trails.
"Huh," Doug says, ever the conversationalist. "Well, we're just looking for some kind of entrance or trailhead."
"You know, I've heard the word trailhead today more than I have in my entire life."
Doug and I are searching for tarantulas. He'd read on LA Weekly about a walking trail where you could see the spiders skittering across the side of the dirt path.
"So what are you gonna do with the bouncy ball?" Doug asks. "I doubt there'll be any other people since it's so late. Are you just gonna give one to a tarantula?"
I laugh. "Well, Doug, I know you're gonna hate it, but I guess I'll probably have to give it to you."
"No, that's fine with me," Doug says.
"You didn't take the last one I tried to give you."
"Oh yeah. I kinda remember that."
"Yeah, you should," I say. "I threw a big fit about it. But honestly, who doesn't take a bouncy ball? What's wrong with you?"
He laughs. "You know, I just had a thought. I know what we can do if this doesn't work out."
"Dave Grohl lives somewhere up here. I can Google his address."
"What? Oh my God, we have to do that! That's perfect!"
It is perfect, actually. Dave Grohl, from Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, is the reason I know Doug. In college, we had a writing class together, and we both sat in the back of the room for the entire semester, but we never said a word to each other.
On the last day of class, I'd come in hungover, took my usual seat, and immediately sprawled out over my desk, cradling my head in my arms to forget about my splitting headache. I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"Is that a Foo Fighters tattoo on your back?"
"Oh," I said, pulling down the back of my t-shirt. "Yeah."
He reached out his hand. "Hi, I'm Doug."
That was 12 years ago.
"It's this road up here to your right," Doug says.
There's a a driveway that leads up a steep hill and according to the internet, Dave Grohl is in a house at the top. I pull in front of the mailbox and put my hazards on. "Perfect."
I get out, drop the ball in the mailbox, and jump back in my car. "Fuck yeah! Dave Grohl gets my bouncy ball."
"Well, maybe. If that's his house," Doug says.
"Let's just say it is. That's what I'm gonna believe."
Bouncy Ball # 37 - Safari Dal
"Excuse me, do you mind if I plug my computer into that outlet?"
I look up from my screen. There's a guy standing there, his charger in hand. I'm in the Starbucks located in a laundromat on Sunset, the closest one to my house because my washing machine isn't working.
"Sure," I say.
He plugs it in, but it's not long enough.
"Just switch me seats."
"Are you sure? I don't want to make you move."
"Naw, it's no big deal." I pack up my computer and move one table to the left.
"So what are you working on?" he asks, opening his laptop. He pulls out a book, "The Four-Hour Work Week," and places it on the table next to his computer.
"I'm writing a blog right now," I say. "What about you?"
"Well, lots of stuff," he says. "Because I have this plan. I just finished getting my real estate license. I'm trying to think of the best way to make money so I can do what I want to do."
"What do you want to do?"
"I want to travel."
"Oh my God, me too. I think about that all the time." I abandon my blog, even though it's causing me all sorts of anxiety, and I have an interesting conversation with Dallas instead.
Dallas is a rapper in his spare time - he goes by the name Safari Dal. I listened to a couple of his songs on Sound Cloud, my headphones plugged into his computer, and they're actually really good. He used to play college baseball, third base, but after a couple years, he realized that when he's on the field, he's thinking about what he's gonna do off the field, and when he's off the field, he never thinks of baseball at all. Right now, he sells cars to make money, but he's hoping that he'll be able to make enough in the next few years so that he can build his savings, take a few years off, see the world. He also has some ideas: an electronic cigarette that contains healthy vapors, a shirt that has a removable hood so you can change the colors.
He's 20 years old.
"Holy shit!" I say. "You're 20?"
"Yeah," he says. "Is that weird?"
"No, it's just crazy how motivated you are."
"I just have a plan, and I feel like I need to start working toward it. I feel like I need to work as hard as I can right now because I'm just getting older."
"Oh God, wait until you're 30."
He laughs. "It's just hard for me to focus on one thing."
"No, I get that. I have so much going on that I constantly think I'm abandoning one thing for another." Like now, for instance. I'm abandoning the work I'm supposed to be doing to have this conversation.
But isn't this what I'm supposed to do? Isn't the point of this blog the experience rather than the writing?
Ok, guys, real talk time.
I wrote most of this blog in Vegas. I wrote it early in the morning while my friends were still asleep, sitting in the upstairs of a McDonald's because it's the only place nearby with free Wi-Fi.
That's the problem I've been running into - the difference between having experiences and writing about them. Following the bouncy ball premise I've set for myself is a standard that's proving to be more than difficult - it's a fucking pain in the ass.
If the problem were just that I haven't stopped moving once for the last five weeks, I'd shut up about it. After all, I've taken this on myself, and no one but me is holding me accountable for it. But there are more problems than that.
For one thing, I genuinely enjoy the things I'm doing, so much so that I want to continue doing them. I would've loved to learn a sexy dance to the entirety of that Nine Inch Nails song rather than have to stop at 40 seconds. During the first week of this project, I enjoyed my work Yoga class so much, I've attended every week since. But last week, because I went to that particular class and it ran over, a domino reaction went into effect, and I didn't make it home in time to complete my plan for the day, so I ended up making a split second decision to take my clothes off onstage at the Hollywood Hotel, manufacturing a story.
For another thing, I'm putting too much pressure on people, on moments, on the things I've planned that usually fizzle out to an uninteresting end or blow up in my face.
Take this past week, for instance. On Thursday, I had plans to meet Doug, but earlier that afternoon, I got in a very minor car accident in Culver City, a comical endeavor during which a small child with paint on his face stood next to me, asking me a million adorable questions while I took down his grandmother's insurance information.
I didn't think to give that kid a bouncy ball, but I should have.
On Friday, I was so worried about missing another opportunity, as soon as I met Safari Dal, I gave him my bouncy ball thinking it would take pressure off the rest of my day.
As it turned out, Dallas was interesting, yes, but it's also worth noting that at a horse race later that afternoon, I picked the winning horse three out of four times. And then later that night before my set at the Comedy Store, I saw the manager, Tommy, go off on possibly the best rant I've ever seen.
Tommy should've had the story that day. It should've been him.
So I'm going to continue doing this because I follow through with things.
But if I'm being honest, it's my job to report that I already do plenty of exciting things on my own and that everyday I meet someone interesting because I live and work and do exciting things in a city jammed to max capacity with people.
And It'd be nice, so nice, to have a minute to enjoy it.
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Four: I Take My Clothes Off in Front of a Room Full of My Peers, So the Least You Can Do Is Read This
Bouncy Ball # 23 - Drunk Guy
"So is it always this crazy here?"
I knew he was gonna talk to me. I saw it in his eyes the moment he walked by. "I don't know," I say. "I've never been here."
"Seems a little overwhelming, you know?"
"Yeah. I guess. I don't like the band."
"Wow," he says, leaning in too close. "That's a little hyper-critical."
I'm at Bootie LA, a mash-up dance party at the Echoplex, and I'm definitely one of the oldest people here within a 50-foot radius.
During the band's third song, it had dawned on me that I didn't like watching live mash-up bands. Is this what we do now? I think. Is there any better way to drain the soul out of music?
I pull my face away from the guy's whiskey breath. "I mean, they're fine. I guess."
"Okay, okay," he says. "So what do you do?"
"Like as a job?"
"Yeah. Or I could guess. You know what you look like you do?"
"No, but please tell me. This is gonna be awesome."
"A physical therapist," he says, spraying my face with whiskey spit.
"Wow. Never got that one before."
"You look like a healer. Can you heal me?" He gestures wildly, sloshing his drink on my arm.
"Sure, yeah. I'm a healer. I heal people."
I've moved as far away as possible, my back pressing against the bar. I'm stuck.
"Are you gonna tell me what you do or what?" he says.
I feel a splash of whiskey on my shoulder, a spray of spit on my face. This guy's getting me all wet in the worst way possible.
"You keep spilling your drink on me."
"Yeah. You've done it twice."
"Well how is that my fault?" he says. "You know that people are bumping into me."
Bouncy Ball # 24 - CVS Security Guard
Super Bowl Sunday, I'm at CVS to steal some Chapstick. Why steal? And why Chapstick? Well, because I've actually never stolen a thing in my life and because every time I tell people that they say, "What, even Chapstick? Who pays for Chapstick?"
The closest I'd come to stealing had been months ago with him - we were standing in the back of a full coffee shop, and he was demonstrating how easy it easy to take things.
"Watch," he'd said, lifting the lid of a glass dish and grabbing a blueberry muffin.
No one noticed.
"See what I mean?" he said, holding the muffin up like it was the Ten Commandments. "I could just take this right now. No one cares." He tried to hand it to me, but I won't take it.
Today, though, I steal Chapstick. It's uneventful and easy. I put the Chapstick in my pocket and walk through the self-checkout to buy some cough drops. Simple. I leave, but then I have to double back in because I almost forgot why I'm doing this.
"Hey, guys," I say to the two security guards by the door. "Can I give you this bouncy ball?"
"I give them to people. It's kind of my thing."
The other one grabs it, looks it over. He points to the date written on it, underneath my name: 6/19/11. (All of my bouncy balls say "Leah Kayajanian - Roasted! - 6/19/11".)
"Is this your birthday?" he asks.
"Yes," I say. "I'm three years old."
Bouncy Ball # 25 - The Number Two Bus
I'm sitting by the window on my first L.A. bus ride, riding down Sunset from Echo Park to the Comedy Store.
A woman carrying four Vons grocery bags gets on at Alvarado. She's unkempt, her hair matted, her shirt torn. She has a tattoo on her left breast. I try to read it, but can only make out the first letter, a "C." She sits down in a seat by the front, and the woman in the row behind her gets up and moves, I'm guessing because of the smell.
The Vons lady waves at the woman, and then she turns back to the front, her chin lifted, proud. When she gets off the bus a few stops down, she tells the driver, "Thank you, Sir, and have a good night!" She's the first person who even acknowledges him.
We pass by the Vista movie theater, its marquee a poster for the movie "Her." I'd gone to see it with him, just before we stopped talking. I take a blurry photo of the poster through the bus window.
I'm starting to see why people hate riding the bus. Besides the inconvenience, there's a graveness to it, a weighted sadness that's palpable - it runs between all the passengers like a thread of darkness while they calmly listen to their iPods, clutching their belongings.
We pass by the Wing Stop where he and I had eaten after the first time we'd slept together. We'd talked for so long, we lost track of time, and we both got parking tickets.
I hear a woman behind me moan, "Oh my God" for no apparent reason.
After I posted my last blog, I'd talked to my best friend Rockey about including my memories of him in my writing. "It's not about him," he'd said, "This is about you going on adventures. Soon, you won't even think of him at all."
Rockey's right, I suppose. But I've been purposely cutting him out of my writing when he is ever-present, and there's a dishonesty in that. Because really, every time I'm standing still, my mind goes right to him.
With every bouncy ball I put in the world, I don't know if I'm letting him go piece by piece, or if I'm trying to re-find my best friend like a city-wide game of hide and seek that only one of us knows we're playing.
I hear the woman behind me sigh, "Noooooooo," and I turn around to check on her, but there's no one there.
At the Highland bus stop, there's a middle-aged man on the bench just outside my window. He catches my eye and waves at me. I wave back. He traces both hands down the sides of his face. "Your hair," he mouths, and then he gives me a thumbs up. He slides his hand down the center of his face. "Your nose," he mouths. Thumbs up. I smile. He pats the seat next to him. I shrug. We lurch forward, and he blows me a kiss.
Few stops down, the bus starts beeping to indicate the handicap ramp is coming down. The people in the front of the now-packed bus groan.
It's a very old woman with a walker. She makes her way up the ramp and into the aisle. Before she says a word, another woman in the front seat says, "Don't even look at me like that. I'm not giving you my seat. You're not the only one with problems."
"I didn't ask for your seat," the older lady says, positioning herself in the center aisle, holding on to the strap for balance.
"You were gonna ask."
"No, I wasn't. I don't want your seat. I can stand."
A young guy taps the older lady on the shoulder, and gestures for her to sit in his seat. She smiles, sits with great effort.
"I'm sorry," the woman in the front says. "But you gotta understand, I've been around too many people who are faking it. And you're not in that bad shape. You're still young."
"What? You don't look a day over 60!"
The old woman laughs.
And we ride on. From the outside, we're just a big mobile box, an obstacle for all the other cars on the road that pass by. When I'm in my car, I never think about how there's a small world in this box, life stories colliding, forced to stand jammed next to each other, forced to exist together in this moment.
The inferno, I think. Everybody gets on. Nobody gets off.
At my stop, I leave a bouncy ball on my seat.
Bouncy Ball # 27 - Brent
Brent looks over at me, my hands gripping the seat, my eyes fixed straight ahead. "Are you okay?"
"Well, actually, I'm a little freaked out right now." I'm riding up to the top of Mt. Wilson with Brent.
"You can see all of L.A.," he had said. "It's the best view of the city."
We'd smoked weed beforehand, a terrible decision on my part, because once we start to ascend Mt. Wilson, I remembered that I am deathly afraid of heights, and now I'm super paranoid on top of that because 1) he's driving, which means I have no control over the situation, and 2) I have not told anyone where I'm going, so this is the perfect way to murder me.
My eyes dart around the car. Metal water bottle. That's what I'll use to hit him over the head if he tries to kill me. I look over at Brent and immediately feel bad for coming up with a survival plan - he wouldn't hurt anyone.
"I'm just afraid of heights," I say.
"You're fine," Brent says. "I got this. You trust me, right?"
I hesitate. Do most people trust that easy?
"Yes," I say. "I trust you."
"Okay, then just know that everything is gonna be fine."
Brent is a good driver. He goes slow. He uses both hands on the wheel. The best possible person, I think, to drive a neurotic stoned woman with trust issues up a mountain on a foggy night.
But as we climb further, the mountain is covered in a dense fog, so much so that we can barely see the road in front of us. We're only going 20 miles per hour, but I'm completely on edge.
"As long as I can see the center line," Brent says, "we'll be okay."
We drive a little more until we find a clearing. "You want to go back?" Brent asks.
"How far are we?"
"We're really close."
"And how do you feel? Do you feel scared at all? Do you think you got this?"
"Yeah, I got this," he says. "I'm not scared."
"Okay." I sigh. "Let's go to the top. We've come this far."
I hold my breath for the entire rest of the drive. When we reach the peak, we can't see anything but a haunting cloud cover. "Please just pull over for a second," I say. "I want to put my feet on the ground."
Brent pulls off to the side in front of some sort of building, and we get out of the car, the fog rushing around us. "Man, this sucks," he says. "I'm sorry. I really wanted you to see this."
"It's okay," I say. "It's not your fault. And this is an experience, for sure."
"Yeah, but you're scared."
I feel bad. "Look, man, I'm just afraid of heights. I just am. I wish I wasn't scared, and I'm sorry I got so freaked out. But I'm still here, you know? I'm trying."
"Yeah," he says. "Well, I wish you could at least see the view."
"Maybe it's more poetic this way."
We're standing next to the most fantastic view of Los Angeles, and we can't see a thing.
Bouncy Ball # 28 - Mike
"I love your shoes," I say to the tall guy standing by the Green Room door. "I used to only wear checkered Vans."
"Yeah, aren't they great? And they're so comfortable."
"I'm Leah," I say.
We shake hands.
"So how did you end up at this thing?" I ask.
"Oh," he says. "I'm here with Neko. What about you?"
"I'm here with this girl," I say, gesturing toward Katie. "She works for Comedy Central, and she invited me."
Katie and I are at a taping of the Comedy Central show "@midnight," a social media based sort-of-game-show.
Not only did I get to attend, I got to watch from backstage where there was free wine and food and a bunch of people who believe they're super important. We spent the taping in the Green Room, watching the show on a live feed and eating fancy meat from trays.
I'm loving this. There is nothing better than being a nobody at the VIP party. You just slink around like a criminal, go into rooms that you're probably unwelcome in, and fill your stomach and pockets with as much free shit as you can. The first thing I'd done backstage was shove a banana in one of my coat pockets and a bottle of water in the other.
At one point, I'd actually leaned over the food table and unknowingly knocked over the Creative Executive Producer's glass of wine with my pocket banana. Katie had grabbed the wine just before it spilled , and when I turned back around, oblivious to the damage I'd caused, she was smoothing it over. "She's from Oklahoma," she'd said.
Later, when I tell Mike I'm from Oklahoma, he says, "We were there! We stopped in Oklahoma City for the night. We went to that big store...what's it called? With the hunting and fishing sport stuff?"
"Yeah, Bass Pro!" he says. "We went there, and we went to Toby Keith's restaurant."
"Dude, I know exactly where that is! That was such a big deal when we got that Bass Pro." I laugh. "What did you think of Oklahoma?"
"Well, like I said, I went to the Bass Pro and the Toby Keith's. Is that pretty much what it's like? There was a lot of Duck Dynasty stuff."
"No, that's not what it's like," I say. I pause. "Actually, yes, that's kinda what it's like. That and not that."
Bouncy Ball # 29 - Gust
"Here, just take this bouncy ball," I say. "I'm sorry."
"It's not me that has a problem with it," Gust says. "It's the hotel. You can't be doing that stuff because they got cameras up everywhere around here. And when stuff like that goes down, they come down hard on me."
"I understand completely," I say. "I'm so sorry. I accept full responsibility for my actions."
I'm here at the Hollywood Hotel, one of my favorite L.A. open mic spots, apologizing to Gust, the barkeep and the man responsible for keeping the comedy going down in this hotel basement. I've known Gust since I moved here two and a half years ago, and he likes me. Or at least he did before five minutes ago, when I'd stripped down to my underwear onstage during my open mic set.
Here's what happened - my original bouncy ball plan got derailed, so I had to come up with a new one fast. You know when you're trying to come up with an idea, and the only one that keeps popping in your head is the absolute worst idea, but you can't think of anything else?
My mind went right to "Take your clothes off onstage." I don't know why, but from the second I thought of it, I couldn't stop thinking about it until I did it.
They'd called me up early. "I can't believe I'm doing this," I'd said from the stage, "but I'm gonna do standup in my underwear."
The words had come out weird, breathy, nervous, but I didn't hesitate. I pulled off my shirt, tossed it on the ground, unbuttoned my jeans, and yanked them off.
Every eye in the room was on me. A girl took out her cell phone and either captured me in a photo or on video.
There was a moment, just one moment where I started to think, Yeah, this is bad. Right when I pulled down my pants, I heard my friend Megan's voice from the crowd. "Leah!" she'd said. That's all, but I could hear the subtext. "Leah, you don't have to do this."
But the thing is, I did have to do that. I had to do it to prove to myself that I could do it.
Yes, I'm trying to find stories and yes, I may have gone too far, but after all this shit, I'm still a comedian, and I still know deep down that the best way to get comfortable onstage is to make yourself uncomfortable and work your way out of it.
My stunt didn't last long. As soon as I'd pulled my pants off, I heard Gust yelling at me from the back. "Please put your clothes on, Leah!"
"Oh come on," I said. "I saw a guy up here naked before."
"Yeah, and I almost got shut down," Gust said. "Please put your clothes on."
"Fine," I said. "I guess that's good enough. Is that good enough?"
The crowd clapped.
"So I'm not Jewish," I said, launching into a bit while stuffing my leg in my jeans. "But people guess that I am all the time." I did all my time and stepped offstage wearing jeans and a bra, my shirt and shoes in hand.
Bouncy Ball # 30 - Cashier at the pizza place by the ArcLight
"Goddamn it," I say, making yet another circle around the block.
It's 11:00 PM on a Friday night, and I'm in Hollywood looking for a parking spot near the ArcLight Cinema. About a month ago, a comic friend of mine told me that the pizza place by the ArcLight had phenomenal cookies. I'd written it on my list of possible bouncy ball quests, and tonight, it's just the easiest task to complete. I'd gone to work, then the Improv, then did a show on the Westside.
I'm starting to hate this bouncy ball shit. So far, this project has done nothing but suck away my time.
I find a spot on Vine. I dart out of my car, across the street, and sprint up Vine, down Sunset. When I walk into the pizza place, there's a pastry counter just inside the door.
A snobby man with hipster glasses (and I guess cool hair?) looks me up and down. "Can I get you something?"
"Yeah, I heard you guys have this chocolate chip cookie with rice crispy-"
"We're out," he says, cutting me off. "This is all we have."
"Oh, okay." I look at the pastry display. I see a chocolate chip cookie with bacon on it. "I guess I'll have this."
"The bacon?" he asks. I swear to God, his voice sounds disgusted.
"Yeah, that one," I say. "Sure, whatever."
He rolls his eyes and gets my cookie with so much attitude, I'm almost impressed by it. I have no idea why this guy's being such a dick about a cookie. It's not like I walked in five minutes before they close. And even if it were five minutes before they closed, all this motherfucker has to do is slide a goddamn stale cookie in a sleeve and run my credit card.
When he's hovering over the credit card machine, I drop a bouncy ball in his tip jar. It lands with a thud just as he turns around.
Rushing down Sunset toward my car, I break off a piece of the cookie, shoving chunks of it in my mouth while I mumble to myself. "Goddamn motherfucking prick thinks he's better than me."
I don't even taste the cookie. This is not about enjoyment anymore. In fact, I don't know what this is about. I'm annoyed with myself for putting myself in this situation. I'm annoyed that I have five more months of this goddamn bouncy ball project. I'm annoyed that I'm in Hollywood right now.
I don't know if you guys have ever angrily wolfed down a chocolate chip cookie while walking down a city street, but if that happens in your life, there is a part of your brain that says, "Hey, I think something isn't right here."
I'm not learning anything from this. Yes, I'm doing a bunch of things, but I'm still just me doing these things.
I haven't changed at all.
The Bouncy Ball Project, Week Three: I Lie to a Stranger in Santa Barbara and Get Too Honest with a Stranger in LA
Bouncy Ball # 16 - Nick
"So do you like living here?"
"Love it," Nick says. "I've been here 20 years."
I'm sitting at the bar in Brophy's, a seafood restaurant on the pier in Santa Barbara. I've never been here, but there's something so familiar about it. The seafood, the beach, the pier, the smell in the air - it all reminds me of my childhood weekends spent on Cape Cod.
Nick, a local, had sat down beside me over an hour ago, and he'd bought me and my friend our first oyster shooter.
"Wow, 20 years," I say. "Do you think you'll move anywhere else?"
He shrugs. "I don't know. Sometimes, I think it would be nice to spend some time in other places, but the weather here, man! And the beach."
"Yeah," I say. "Do you live nearby?"
"I live on my boat."
"Of course you do. That actually makes sense."
"Doesn't that ever get old?" I ask. "Living on a boat?"
"Naw," he says. "It's nice because it keeps me active. I don't spend too much time there. So what about you? Where do you live?"
"Oh yeah? Are you from there?"
"No, moved there from Oklahoma."
"Oh wow. Did you go for a specific reason?"
"Yes," I say. "To do standup. I'm a comedian."
"Really? That's awesome!"
"Yeah, it's cool."
"No, I really admire that," he says. "You like Chris Rock?"
"Oh, of course, he's great!"
"Yeah, he's my favorite," he says. "Who's your favorite?"
"Louis CK," I say. "He's pretty much the best."
"Wait, you don't know him? Oh my God! His name's Louis CK? Here, hold on." I Google his name, and a bunch of images come up. "This guy."
"Oh yeah, he looks familiar."
"Wow," I say. "It's so weird to me. To comedians, he's like the most famous one of us, but I'm always running into people that have no idea who he is."
"But he's good?"
"He's the best!" I say. "You like standup comedy?"
"Look him up. Tonight. When you get back to your boat. Do yourself a favor and look him up on YouTube. Start with 'Chewed Up.' That one's my favorite."
"Yeah, that's the name of his special." I take a bar napkin and write it down, all caps. "LOUIS CK, CHEWED UP."
"And if you like that, then watch anything else he ever did."
"Thanks," Nick says. "And what about you? Write your name down, too."
I laugh. "Oh, okay. Well, those clips won't be as good." But I write my name in all caps underneath Louis' name.
Nick and I talk about standup for awhile, and it comes out that he's a musician. "I play the classical guitar."
"Yeah. That's why I moved here. I studied it in college."
"You don't play anymore?"
He shrugs. "Not really. I used to have this beautiful Brazilian classical guitar, custom-made, but I sold it to pay off my student loans. It was really nice, though. Worth about 1800 bucks."
"Wow," I say. "That sucks!"
"Well, I don't know. I paid off my debt. But yeah, sometimes I think back on it, and I think of what it was like to play it."
"So you regret it."
He shakes his head. "I don't look at it like that. It was amazing I got to play that guitar for as long as I did. There was nothing like it in the world, that was the only one, and I got to play it."
I decide that Nick's a cool guy. I give him a bouncy ball.
I almost feel bad for lying to him.
Bouncy Ball # 17 - Annie G
"Oh man, Channel Five!" Annie says. "She just doesn't get it. He's not even looking at her. Who's Gingham looking at?"
"It's a guy, right? He's gay."
"I don't think so," Annie says. She follows Gingham's gaze. "Blond waitress."
I turn around. "Oh my God, you're right."
"And look at that poor girl," Annie says.
Back at Channel Five, the girl in the black dress is sucking down oysters and wine, flirting, doing everything she can to keep her date's attention.
Gingham leans in to kiss her, and it's a tragedy - close, thin-lipped peck that grazes the side of her mouth. "Oh no!" I say. "That's the worst kiss I've ever seen."
"I know, Leah," Annie says. "Poor girl. And check out Channel Three, still going on about her research project. The guy with her's like, 'Oh my God, please make her stop talking about her lab findings on stem cells.' Oh, and check out Channel One. I think Channel One is looking at us."
Sure enough, two guys across the bar are staring right back at us. I crack up laughing.
Annie and I are at Brophy's, and we're having the best time in the world pretending the people across from us are different channels on a row of TV screens. Visually, it makes sense. The other side of the bar is actually a row of windows that lead to an outdoor patio. The windows are open, all six of them, and each one frames a scene.
Channel One, two straight dudes on their cell phones, Channel Two, an older couple trying like hell to bring romance back in their relationship, Channel Three, a bored-looking grad student who came to the bar in a sweatshirt, Channel Four, static, Channel Five, Gingham and his poor lady, and Channel Six, an older man that Annie had dubbed "Walmart." He half listens to the younger guy blabbering next to him while he looks around for women. Later in the night, Walmart will buy both of us a drink because I have nice arms, and, spurred by Annie, I will catch his attention and kiss both of my biceps.
I don't know how we started this game, but we play it until all the stars of our shows find seats in the restaurant, and all the channels turn to static.
It's around this time that Nick sits next to us, and we strike up a conversation.
"So how do you two know each other?" Nick asks.
"Oh, we've known each other since we were 12," Annie says. "We went to camp together every summer in Minnesota. Camp Slammer Jammer."
"I could tell you guys were old friends," Nick says.
I stifle a laugh. Annie and I have hung out just a handful of times, but I like her lots, and we have a nice back and forth. And apparently, we lie to strangers together.
For the next 20 minutes, we tell Nick stories of Camp Slammer Jammer, where we had camp nicknames (hers: Cus-TARD, mine: The Big Laguna) and participated every year in the big Camp Karaoke Contest as part of a group called "514 Levi 32 30."
Annie's the reason I'm here in Santa Barbara. She'd texted me earlier in the week: "Hey, Leah K! I may have a bouncy ball adventure!" She had a place to stay in Santa Barbara for the weekend, and she'd invited me to join.
Annie and I got to this bar by riding rented bikes down a path that runs three miles next to the beach. At sunset, when I'm winding down this sand-scattered path by the sea behind Annie, when she keeps having to stop because her dress gets caught in her bike pedals, I'm a little kid again.
"It feels like I'm in a postcard," I say.
"You are in a postcard, Leah K."
Bouncy Ball # 18 - Linda
"I've been writing mostly about the brain's survival mechanism," Linda says. "You know, the part of the brain that's in charge of fight, flight, or freeze."
I nod, turning my face to cough into the crook of my elbow. Over the course of the afternoon, I've been getting more and more sick - ache-y, fever-y, and now a cough coming on. I'm pretending it's not happening.
I'm at the Culver Hotel with Linda. She'd asked me to meet her here after work, and I've been curious all day about why - turns out, she wants me to edit some things for her.
"I have some information I think would be helpful to put out there," Linda says. "The kids I work with go right to survival mode when they don't know an answer. Their brains just go there immediately, and I've been trying to work with them."
"You mean you can teach them to control that part of the brain?"
"Well," Linda says. "You can keep it in check. This is what I tell the kids - you have a checker in your brain, and he's there to protect you. But sometimes he's too protective, and he shows up even when you don't need him. Sometimes you don't need him there, and you have to say, 'Thank you, Mr. Checker, but I don't need you right now.'"
"Huh," I say. "That's interesting."
I wonder if that works on all parts of the brain. I wonder if I can shut things out by politely asking them to fuck off. Thank you, Mr. Analyzer, but I don't need you to go over every detail of everything that ever happened. Thank you, Mr. High School Coach, but I don't need you to somehow make this friendly flag football game the Super Bowl. Thank you, Mr. Emotional Processor, but I will no longer need you to pay attention to anything my heart says.
Bouncy Ball # 19 - Erika - Matt
I'm lying on the couch watching yet another episode of "Parenthood" when my roommate Erika comes in.
"How was the show?" I ask.
"Oh," she says. "It was amazing!" The thing about Erika is her contagious enthusiasm - her eyes light up with the same amount of passion when she's talking about human rights or when she's retelling a particularly funny improv scene.
"After the show," she says, "I'm standing with Winston, and I'm freaking out about what to do with your bouncy ball. So much so that Winston was like, 'Ok, you're starting to stress me out.'"
"Oh my God!" I say. "I didn't to make you stress out like that! It's not that big a deal."
"No, no" she says. "I just wanted it to be kind of magic!"
I laugh. I'd left work early due to "the sickness," and after getting home and realizing I can't do much with a fever and leaking orifices, I'd asked Erika to take my bouncy ball for me.
"So I go over to that Gelson's right next to the UCB, you know the one, right?" Erika says. "And there's this guy named Matt Bennett. You know him? He's been in a few things." She takes her phone out and Googles his name, showing me the images.
"Hmm. Yeah. Looks familiar."
"Well, that guy," she says. "He's cool. When I moved here, I saw him in a show at UCB, and my friend and I talked to him after, and he was super nice. And then a few weeks later, I ran into him again, and I waved at him like we were best friends. You know? I was just like, 'Oh, that guy's my friend.' Even though he probably meets one thousand people a day."
"So after that, I keep seeing this guy. In the last three years, I've run into him like five times, and every time, he remembers me, or he acts like he does. He was at Gelson's."
"Yeah," she says. "I was wearing a jean jacket, and he was wearing a jean jacket. So I was like, 'This is the guy.' And I went up and I told him, 'Hey, I have this roommate, and she's doing a thing.' While I'm telling him about your project, I'm just holding the bouncy ball, you know? And he's looking at the ball, and he just stops me and says, 'So wait, is that for me?' And he seemed really excited about it! So yeah, I gave it to him. And when I left, I saw him in the parking lot. Not like a stalker. I didn't follow him out all creepy, but you know, I just kind of looked over at him, and he was walking and bouncing your ball. So there you go."
Bouncy ball # 20 - Francine
"So how do I start this?" I say. "Do I just talk?"
Francine nods. "Sure," she says. "Whatever you feel."
"Well, okay, then. Honestly, I feel a little weird about just telling you things."
"Why do you feel weird?"
"Because I don't know you. I feel like, 'Why would she care what I'm saying?' I mean, I know it's your job, but it doesn't really matter."
"Of course it matters," Francine says, her brow furrowed with concern. Uh oh. I hit a trigger.
"No, I didn't mean it like-" I sigh. "Okay."
I'm sitting in my first ever therapy session with Francine, whose name is not really Francine. She's a tiny woman, short with a petite frame, no makeup, and long wavy brown hair. She's around my age, give or take a few years.
"So I guess I'll just talk then."
I tell her about the guy. I tell her about standup comedy. I tell her about my family. I get super emotional. I have a hilarious moment in the middle where she says, "What do you do?" and I say, "I'm a comedian" through sobs. I ask her if she thinks I'm bipolar, and she clears me of that. I tell her that I'm worried that this bouncy ball thing means I'm crazy. I make sure to fit in everything I think needs to be covered from my weird brain.
Francine actually offers me some insight into my life that I hadn't thought of before. In the past, when traumatic or trying events had happened, I didn't have anyone there to help me process them, so I've developed my own self-reliant way of processing things: I write them into stories and jokes. That's how I make sense of them.
"I'm not looking to start any new relationships," I say toward the end of our session. "I'm just going to take this time right now and focus on standup."
"You mean you," Francine says. "Focus on YOU."
I laugh. "Well, same thing."
She gives me a sad smile. "So I want to see you again next week."
"Next week? Is that what people do? They come in weekly?"
"Well definitely at first," Francine says. "To build a relationship."
"Man, who can afford that?"
Francine looks away.
"I'm sorry. Was that rude?" I say. "I didn't mean for that to be rude. I have no filter."
"Oh no," she says. "It's good that you say what you think."
I make an appointment with her, even though I know I'm going to cancel.
I don't want to come back.
Bouncy Ball # 21 - Server at Duna's Restaurant
"Do you have anything that's good if you're sick?"
I'm in Duna's, a Hungarian restaurant on Melrose, to do a comedy show. I'm the first one here and the only one in this restaurant right now.
"The chicken soup," the server says - she's a kind woman in her mid-twenties with an accent and a side braid.
"Yeah, I'll get that," I say. "I can just sit anywhere?"
She nods. After she brings out my soup, more comics and a few audience members trickle in.
Earlier, I'd posted about the show on Facebook, and one of my friends had commented that he knew the restaurant. Years ago, he and a friend had come in to Duna and looked at the menu to peruse the vegetarian items, and they left because they didn't see a lot of options. The owner followed them out and gave them dinner rolls because he thought they were hungry and couldn't afford to eat.
"I'm glad that place is still around," my friend said.
I eat my soup, I do a pretty solid seven minutes, and then I go to the counter to pay my tab. When the server brings my card, I hand her a bouncy ball. "I want you to have this. It doesn't mean anything."
But the woman smiles, hugs the ball to her chest, gripping it like the most priceless treasure in the world. "It means something to me!"
As I walk to my car, I think about how much I've stressed lately trying to find these bouncy balls a home, but I decide not to stress anymore.
Because no matter where I start, they always end up in the exact right place.
Bouncy Ball # 22 - Ryan & Patrick
"I'm fascinated by this Oklahoma thing," Patrick says. "Do you still have family there?"
He's one of the hosts of Crab Nation, a funny internet radio show where they run through and comment on the day's headlines. The other host, Ryan, is a comic friend of mine, and he'd mentioned that I should call in to the show sometime.
That's what I'm doing right now - standing outside my work calling in to a show about what's going on in the world even though at almost every moment of the day, I have no idea what's going on in the world.
"Yeah," I say. "I got my mom, and she's actually in Blackwell. And my friends still live in Norman. I consider my friends my family. Cuz I don't have a good family."
We all laugh.
"The making of a stand up fucking comedian!" Ryan says.
"But I don't want to be like that," I say.
"I guess," I say. "I mean, is it unfixable? Does it have to be?"
"Nah, have a drink," Ryan says. "Who cares? You're fine. Don't worry about it."
"Load a bowl," Patrick says.
"Yeah, smoke up!" Ryan says. "You can numb it."
Finally. Some good advice.
“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.