"I'm still working on your bouncy ball story," Ryan says as he takes a seat next to me at the Hotel bar. "You need me to get it to you soon?"
"Just whenever," I say. "Think about it like this - when you give me a story, you're giving me one more night I get to go to sleep instead of stressing out about this."
Bouncy Ball # 66 - Joshua Tree - Written by Fernando Ramos Sosa
“What if a man was standing behind that cactus?” Becky says.
“Yeah, and he had red eyes, and they were glowing.”
I’m standing in a desert with my friend Becky. It's freakishly quiet, the moon is very bright like a night sun, and the stars are representin’ like a mofo. We’re parked on the side of the road in a national park without a permit, so we look hella suspicious. “We’re not supposed to be here right now,” Becky had said as we were driving in.
Becky and I are yes-anding the fuck out of each other when a park ranger passes us in a police Chevy Tahoe.
“It’s weird that he didn’t stop," Becky says. As soon as she hits the “p” on stop, I hear him turn around. We’re like, “Oh shit!” We make a mad dash to her car, the park ranger’s ride accelerating towards us. We hop in, she puts the key into the ignition, puts the car in reverse and BAM!
A Chevy Tahoe blocks our path, red and blue lights flashing, a spotlight aimed at the back of our heads. We exchange a look; she puts the car in park, rolls down her window and shuts the engine off.
Officer Mark walks up to Becky's window. "What are you guys doing out here?”
“Nothing,” I say.
“Just came out to see the stars, huh?" He shines a flashlight in the car.
“Yeah,” we say.
He shines the light into the back seat. "What’s with the crossbow pistol? You know that’s illegal to have, right?”
“In California or in the park?” Becky asks.
“Both,” he says.
“Really? But I purchased it at a gun show in California.”
I’m slightly uncomfortable at this point, but I’m thinking, Becky’s got this. This is just a complete misunderstanding. We’re going to be fine. Also, she’s white.
“IDs," Officer Mark says. "Both of you.” He’s definitely in officer mode now, shoulders back, brow furrowed, hand on pistol. He takes the IDs and heads back to his Tahoe.
“Did you know they were illegal?” I ask.
“I don’t think they are. Really,” she says, laughing.
Okay. We’re good. She’s laughing. She didn’t know. Everything’s gonna be fine.
Officer Mark comes back, hunching over to shine his flashlight in the back seat again, trying to get a better look. “So if I search your car," he says, "I’m not going to find anything weird, am I?”
“No” Becky says.
“So where’s the gun?” the officer asks.
What the what?
“There’s no gun in here," Becky says, giggling.
“So what are the ear plugs for?”
I look behind me to where his flashlight is pointing, and sure enough, there's a pair of neon orange earplugs in a small sealed plastic baggy.
Here are some examples of what Becky could’ve said: “I don’t like to hear sounds,” or “I like the way neon orange earplugs look in my ears,” or “They’re the last thing my father gave me before he ventured into the dark mountains of Mordor never to return.”
Becky says none of those things. Instead, she slowly turns her head towards the earplugs, slowly turns her head back to Officer Mark, and you know what she says? NOTHING!!! Absolutely nothing! Nothing comes out of her stupid mouth! You know, like a LIAR.
Oh my god! We are going to fucking jail. I’m going to be handcuffed right now and put into a Chevy Tahoe!
“You know I technically own your car right now, right?” Mark says. “I’m going to search your car and WHEN I find the gun, I’m going to be pissed.”
After the longest four seconds of my life, Becky finally says, “I’m a lawyer, and the worst thing for me to do right now is lie to you.”
“So we’re speaking the same language then?”
He walks back to his Tahoe, rocks crunching under his shoes.
“Becky, do you have a gun in here?” I whisper when he's out of earshot.
“No. I really don’t!”
“Well you’re acting like a fucking liar right now. Why didn’t you answer him about the earplugs?”
“I was nervous. I didn’t know what to say.”
“How about the fucking truth? Why do you have earplugs in your back seat?”
Our conversation is cut short when Officer Mark comes walking back with our IDs. “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to let you go.”
“Back-up is far off," he says, "and it’s been a long night, so just get this obnoxiousness out of my park and don’t shoot any of my critters with it. Is that fair?”
“Yes” Becky says.
He shines the flashlight on my face, “Is that fair?”
Fair? Let’s see. We’re out here without a permit. We have an illegal crossbow pistol and also a GUN, and you’re just gonna let us go? Fair?
“Yes” I say.
“Alright. Leave. Now.”
I consider giving Officer Mark the bouncy ball, but decide he'll probably shoot me if I do. As we exit the park, I’m feeling grateful that my friend Becky is a lawyer…and also white.
Bouncy Ball # 67 - Keyboard Player at Santa Monica Pier
"Oh my God, did he just say 'human race'?"
"He did!" Sosa laughs. "What is it about this music? It's so...something."
"Yeah," I say. "I know what you mean. There's just something, just, off about it. Like Christian music."
"Yes," he says. "Exactly."
"It's like someone took a bunch of words, entered them into a machine, and this song came out. Just a guy in a room somewhere typing 'love, peace, world, hope, human race, heart.'"
Sosa and I are eating corn dogs at the beachfront in Santa Monica, sitting on a wall that separates the asphalt walkway from the sand.
There's a street performer on the walkway. He's playing keyboard and singing. He has an incredible voice, but his lyrics are generic and corny, rife with phrases like, "True love lasts forever" and "Hope makes the world turn."
A guy pulls his bike up right in front of the keyboard player, and Sosa and I look on with amazement while he closes his eyes, nods his head to the 80s soft rock beat. "Man," I say. "Is that guy really into this?"
The guy's young, maybe 20, and he's wearing skater shoes, baggy jeans, a hoodie, and a baseball cap tilted to the side. He seems a little too cool to be rocking out to these keyboard jams. (Honestly, it sounds like the music playing in the background of a Hallmark store.) Still, the guy stands and listens for the entirety of two songs, and at the end of the second song, he blows our minds when he points at one of the performer's CDs, displayed at his feet.
"Holy shit," Sosa says. "He's buying a CD!"
"Oh my God!" I say. "He's on drugs, right?"
"He has to be!" Sosa shakes his head. "They're 10 bucks. He's paying 10 bucks for a CD!"
We watch in amazement while money and CD are exchanged. I can't wrap my mind around the fact that this kid, this young beach kid, felt so moved by these generic 80s soft rock songs.
What does he hear that we can't?
Bouncy Ball # 68 - Utpara
"Now I want you to walk down a long hallway," Utpara says, his soothing voice seeping into the corners of my mind. "At the end of it, there's an elevator. Step onto that elevator. You're going to ride this down to your heart. So picture the doors closing in front of you and feel the lurch of the elevator as it goes down, down, down, leaves your brain and heads toward the middle of your chest, your heart center."
Utpara works for NASA, but he teaches meditation classes for free on Sundays because he learned so much from meditation, he wants to share that with other people, to spread his peace to the greater world.
"The elevator stops," Utpara says. "The doors open in front of you. Step out of the elevator into a garden. Picture the trees, the flowers, the sky. This is your garden - you can make it look however you want."
My garden is not really a garden. It's the woods in the back of my house that I played in when I was a little kid - a pond, a cranberry bog. My "garden" is New England in the fall. I can feel the crispness in the air, smell the faint scent of dying leaves and a slight hint of saltwater drifting inland from the ocean.
Me and the other few people in this meditation class play around in our heart gardens for a few minutes until Utpara directs us back into the elevator, and we ride back up to our brains.
I open my eyes, and the first thing I see is a picture of Sri Chinmoy staring at me, his eyes half-closed in what Utpara had described as a "high state of meditation." To me, he just looks really really stoned. And creepy. Let's not forget creepy.
This meditation class reminds me of so many experiences I've had in the past few months - the New City Church, which is really not that different from the Scientology Center, which is really not that different from visiting a fortuneteller or a therapist, from attending a yoga class, or an Al-anon meeting. I can see the connection between these things, between the people, who are really the same people over and over again - people who are looking for the best way to live in this world.
Bouncy Ball # 69 - Point Dume
"So you want to tell me about the debate team now?" I ask, shielding my eyes from the sand.
"Sure," Brent says. He pulls out his wallet, takes out what looks like a small business card. "When I was in high school, I joined the debate team my senior year. And the very first debate I was in, I won."
"And I did okay after that," he says, "but then my last match was a split-decision tie. If I would've won, I would've gone to Nationals, but I lost. And it was bullshit."
Brent and I are at Point Dume - it's a small cliff on the coast of Malibu that juts out into the ocean. It's windy today, a little chilly, and as usual, I forgot to bring a jacket. We still have at least a half hour before sunset.
When Brent invited me to ride up to Point Dume, he'd given me instructions. "Bring something that you only hold on to because of a memory." He'd brought his high school debate membership card. I'd brought my piece of The Indestructible Cup.
Brent holds his membership card in his hand while he tells me the story of his last debate, reliving his frustration at losing. "I still get upset when I think about it," he says, "I feel like I've been holding on to that loss for too long. I mean, the way I look back on it, I sound like those guys that relive their high school football games. I make fun of those guys all the time, but really, I'm just like them."
A gust of wind blows sand across our faces.
"I figured it's time to let it go. I've been bitter about this for so long, and I don't think it's good for me."
"Wow," I say. "Well, that's a really good one. My thing isn't that deep."
"No, it's okay," he says.
"I mean, mine's just a funny story that reminds me of my friends." I dig through my purse until I find it, a speckled blue piece of hard plastic, the remnants of The Indestructible Cup.
"This is The Indestructible Cup," I say. "When I was in Oklahoma, I went to a friend's house, and he gave me some wine in this cup. And I said, 'That's a cool cup,' and he was like, 'Leah, that's The Indestructible Cup. No matter what you do, you can't destroy it.'"
"So then for the entire night, he walks around behind me and tells me stories about how he and his friends tried to break this cup, but they couldn't. He was like, 'We ran over it in a truck. We shot it with a BB gun. We threw it off a cliff.' Just all these things he'd done to try and break it."
I shiver, pulling my legs in closer to try and warm up while the sun disappears into the ocean in front of us.
"At some point, he starts trying to get me to destroy the cup. He's like, 'You want to hit it with a sledgehammer? I got a bunch of sledgehammers in the garage.' And I was like, 'Why do you have a bunch of sledgehammers?' So anyway, at the end of the night, he follows me out to my car. He puts the cup underneath my front side passenger tire, and then he stands in front of my car while I start it. Before I back out, he gives me the thumbs up."
I smile, remembering Matt's face, the ridiculous hat he's wearing with flaps that cover his ears even though it's the summer in Oklahoma.
"So I put the car in reverse, and I start to back out, and the cup breaks immediately. Seriously, it shatters in less than a second. I just heard a popping noise, and I saw Matt's face. It destroyed him."
I crack up laughing.
"Matt picked up a piece of the cup, and he came over to my window, and he handed it to me. And he said, all serious, 'Leah, you take this, and every time you look at it, I want you to remember what you did here today.'"
"You broke his cup," Brent says. "You destroyed everything he believed in."
"That's the thing," I say. "I didn't think it was gonna break, either! I believed in it, too!"
It strikes me in that moment, as the sun touches the water, how Matt's excitement about that stupid cup made me believe in its power just as much as he did, how one person's passion can be so great, other people can't help but absorb it.
I dig a hole in the sand, and I place the piece of The Indestructible Cup in the hole. Brent does the same with his membership card, and there in front of the sunset on a crisp, windy night in Malibu, we bury pieces of our past, him leaving his bitterness behind, me finally giving The Indestructible Cup a suitable resting place.
Stories of Bouncy Balls Past - The DMV
I'm new to L.A. I've been here a month, and I'm waiting in line to check in at the DMV.
I survey the room - it's completely full of people waiting in chairs with tiny paper numbers in their hands, their eyes steeped in boredom and irritation, any one of them a time bomb.
I reach the front desk and give the clerk some paperwork. I guess I don't zip up my backpack well enough, because when I turn to go sit down, I swing the backpack up on my shoulder, the zipper comes undone, and about 30 different types of bouncy balls fall out, scattering in every direction.
At first, I'm mortified. It's times like these when I wonder why I feel the need to carry a backpack full of bouncy balls everywhere I go in the first place.
But then a handful of strangers help me chase down these bouncy balls, collecting them, walking up to me, and dropping them in my bag. And the people who aren't helping me, well, they're laughing. Even though I'm embarrassed, I realize that at the very least, I've just done something silly enough to break up the monotony of their mornings.
Bouncy Ball # 70 - Written by Gloria Johnson, Mom
Note: I sent my mom a clear-colored bouncy ball with the note, "Please give this ball a story." Here's what she wrote. Everyone, please enjoy the weirdness that is my mother.
Boing, boing, boing! There I was, pure as crystal, bouncing along, happy, excited about my travel plans, when I was picked up by a homeless person.
He gave me to his pal, Homeless Doggie Duke. I was thrown, chased, drooled on and bitten time and time again. Finally, I was thrown so hard that Homeless Doggie Duke couldn't catch up with me. As I was flying through the air, feeling free again, I spotted my landing destination. Lower, lower, lower...oh shit...an uncovered cesspool!
Well, it could have been worse. Instead of this ugly piss yellow color I have become, I could have been "shit brown" and living with the alligators throughout the sewer systems of the city.
I bounced my way out of the cesspool when an alligator charged at me. He missed, so off of his scaly back I bounced. From crystal clear coloring to pee-pee yellow coloring, oh my! I sure hope you like yellow!
"I forgot to tell you," Sosa says through text. "Last night, Katie asked me if I let you say my name in your blog."
"I guess I never asked you," I say. "Wait, didn't I ask you?"
"I was like, 'let' her? Leah is gonna do whatever she wants."
"Ha!" I say. "That's exactly what my dad said when Brian asked him if he could marry me."
Bouncy Ball # 71 - Dad
I put it in an envelope, but I haven't mailed it yet.
Bouncy Ball # 72 - Apple Squares
On Friday, I find a recipe online for apple squares. My great aunt Agnes used to make these for every family gathering before she passed away, more than 15 years ago, and I've dreamed of tasting them again every day since.
The picture on the recipe looks exactly like her apple squares. I feel connected to my family while I peel and slice six apples by hand.
I feel like a strong Armenian woman while I crush four cups of corn flakes with my knuckles, while I knead the dough into two large balls. I feel like my grandmother, my great aunt, all the women in my family while I roll out the dough on my kitchen counter with the new rolling pin I bought.
Four hours later, after I've missed all the mics I'd planned on making, I feel like a grown ass woman when I finally pull the baking sheet from the oven, golden brown flaky crust glistening atop a bed of apples and cinnamon.
And I feel like a complete failure the moment I fork that first bite in my mouth, and I realize, "Oh my God, these are fucking terrible."
I'm a failure. I failed.
Friday night, after my apple square fiasco, I make it to the Hotel in time for my friend's show. Before it starts, a bunch of us are chatting outside the front doors.
"Hey," James says. "I got a package for you today."
"This guy sent me this package for you. And it's kinda weird, but instead of explaining, I'm just gonna give it to you."
He unzips his backpack, and I watch, interested, as he pulls out...
...a plastic bag full of bouncy balls. Wah. Wah. WAH.
"He says he never wants the bouncy ball thing to end," James says.
I stand, my mouth open, not sure how to react. On one hand, I'm flattered and so honored that someone I don't even know is into this bouncy ball thing enough to buy a package of bouncy balls and mail them to a stranger.
On the other hand, I've been doing everything I can to try and get rid of these things. What had before been my pleasure has now become my burden. Seeing that unopened bag of bouncy balls - how many? 50? 100? 200? - I feel like I just rolled a boulder up to the top of a hill and looked over the crest to find that I have five more hills to go, all of them taller than the first.
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.