“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.