"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.