On February 23, my Uncle Barnett Lewis died under suspicious circumstances. Today, I delivered this eulogy for him. For my favorite Lost Boy… this is for you.
His name was Peter Pan. Or it might as well have been.
Barry was the eternal child, our puckish playmate overlooking Santa Monica Boulevard. His apartment on Cynthia Street might as well have been Neverland, with mirrored walls, elegant furniture and décor, alongside the greatest Mickey Mouse collection known to man. One of the first things I knew as a little girl was that we were Uncle B’s princesses. And I relished in it.
My eyes were the same color as his, and his grandma Ida: bright blue with a touch of green. His grin was that of a giant, larger than life yet gentle and warm. The smells of him – of cologne and old cigarettes – still makes me feel that the world is mine for the taking, that I am surrounded by the purest love. When he was around, I always felt like I belonged.
He was cosmopolitan and always chic, jet setting all over the world, climbing the ladder and living amongst the Hollywood stars. He loved driving through Coldwater Canyon because of the homes he worked on there. Barry was the perfect picture of ‘70s excess spilled over into later decades, with the disco flair of West Hollywood dancing behind every step.
He was the life of any party, the thrill in the boring day-to-day. This was alongside his band of Neverland companions, whether it was Barry goofing off about Dale’s beard, which Dale claimed he was “growing for the winter,” or wandering through the streets of New York with my mother in her white medical dress; Barry told everyone who passed them by, “She’s my nurse.” Their whimsy brightened our world and drove my dad crazy. Yet their anarchy was simply inspired.
I was always thrilled to come visit Los Angeles to see my grandparents and Uncle B. When Barry was around, there were frilly dresses, stuffed animals, laughter, balloons, outings in the city with him and Nanny. Something about him and his Technicolor universe made me want to aspire, want to grow up. Want to have that city life that he had, surrounded by palm trees and bustling streets.
One day, when I was seven, I said to my mother, “Mom, Barry’s so great. Why isn’t he married?” She really didn’t have an answer for me – probably because it would take another 20 years for it to be legal.
I figured it out when I was 14, listening to my father and him talking. Barry was discussing plans for my sister’s wedding with her first boyfriend. “Now, now, Barry,” my dad said. “Shoshana has a lot more boys’ hearts to break.”
And naturally, Barry said, “Well, so do I.”
From there I began piecing the story of his life, of a community that I was only a part of by association. In his 20s was the liberation of Stonewall, his 50s the hanging of Matthew Shepherd on a fencepost, his 60s finally the right to marry. Barry was stuck in a time where, despite never really being in the closet, he didn’t get to be who he wanted to everyone, even to the woman that mattered most: His mother.
Growing up, I would think of Barry when the gay slurs echoed in my high school hallways and the evangelical kids were desperate to save my Jewish soul. Their ignorance clawed at me and lit a fire in my stomach. Barry gave me direction and purpose; he showed me that I didn’t have to embody hate. Standing up for what was right was much more important than fitting in. And when they try to come at us, that love and acceptance should be our creed.
As we get older, we find that it’s time to put aside our toys and leave the playground. We come into our own, remembering to see the world through different, mature eyes. That was not Barry. After all, Barry was Peter Pan. A lost boy who would never grow up.
I soon realized that Barry was not a fantasy to follow. He was a man, and a flawed one at that. He liked things his way, and was extremely meticulous. If something was the slightest bit off in his eyes, he would comment on it, sometimes brutally. If the spotlight went away from him for just a second, he would do anything in his power to reclaim it.
Underneath the surface of my childhood playmate was an unbelievable pain that no amount of earthly good could cure. But in Barry I learned something vital, and that is to truly love someone meant loving that person for all that they are and all they can never be.
I got older. I made mistakes in my life. And there was Barry in the background, with a hug, his lost boy laugh and strong opinions on interior decoration; in fact, when I got divorced, one of the first things he said to me was, “Get the furniture.”
His aesthetics clashed with mine, but he painted my universe with his sass and salty tongue. And from him, I learned to dish it too; when I wished him a happy birthday last year, he asked me if I knew how old he was. I responded, “Someone once told me that a lady never reveals her age.”
He had little to give, but what he gave was so much more than he thought it was. He didn’t shower us with money, but his love was worth diamonds. He encouraged my father in his theater dreams. In Dale, he found someone to both clash against and pull in close. In my mother and Aunt Cindy, he found a gang for gossip and ganja. He gave my sister an Auntie Mame, my cousin Amy the uncle she deserved, Beau a family member who really wanted to be there for him. And a month ago, when he said how proud my mother would be of me after helping my dad recover from his fall, he gave me the knowledge that I was becoming the woman I was always meant to be.
His worth was not in his toys, his gifts or his knick-knacks. It was in his one-of-a-kind, precious soul. And at the end of it all, Barry was human like anyone else. He just wanted to love and be loved, but he didn’t always know what it looked like, or how to embody it.
I had plans for Barry. I wanted him to taste my cooking and see my beautiful new city apartment. I wanted to host dinners with everyone to get together. With him, I saw the opportunity to begin a healing process, reuniting the family and creating something new from the pain and ashes. There was a future for us, and Barry was supposed to be a part of it. And now that the sun has set on Neverland, I’m not sure where we go from here.
He was Peter Pan. A lost boy. And I hope wherever he is now, he will find a way home.
To the 19-year-old friends of Blaze Bernstein: You will not sleep.
These are the nights where you will be tossing and turning in your bed. You might be crying, you might not; the tears may not be ready yet. Your arms could be clutching your pillow, huddled in close, or you could be staring at the ceiling, your arms open to the universe.
But you will be awake; awake now for your friend who sleeps.
In that tortured desperation there are questions that linger as you try to shut your eyes. They are simple, but they’re there. They are one-word questions: What? Why? How? Your eyes will dart or become unfocused as you scan your surroundings, looking for the answers. They’re not there. They may never come.
I know because I was once 19. And I lost my friend. And I wish I had answers even now.
True, the circumstances were different, and death does come for us all eventually. But it doesn’t compute in the minds of us who are just hitting our strides. Older generations die, as is the natural order of the universe.
We don’t die. We are young. Forever young.
These next few days will haunt you. There will be details that will never leave, even decades later. You will remember the candles. The flowers. The anguish. The agony. Every single emotion that will come from these days will now live inside of you.
I remember green rooms and sobbing, black dresses and carpools to a cemetery in Simi Valley, a woman with curly hair and a pink dress, shaking by an open grave on a bright May day, screaming at a bright blue sky. A mother doing the unnatural, the undoable, the unsurvivable.
If you pointed her out to me in a crowd now, I would never know her face. But she lives in me forever. And in Blaze’s mother’s face, I saw her again.
Sometimes, when I’m alone and quiet, driving in the car, I can still sense my friend in my passenger seat. His round glasses still shine and his widow’s peak is pronounced. He still wears a blue and white-checkered flannel and cowboy boots, and when he hugs you tight you can smell his cologne, an elegant musk. And he is 23. I’m in my 30s now, and no matter how many years I live on this earth, he will always be 23.
There is a price to pay for youth, and this is mine; growing old while he didn’t.
To this day, I imagine how our lives would have panned out. How we would have forgiven each other for our mistakes, then make up and find new levels to our friendship. We’d stand at each other’s weddings; hold each other’s children. He would bald and the laugh lines that were starting to show around his eyes would deepen. He would joke about my hair starting to turn gray like my mother’s, and getting a bottle of hair dye.
He’s been gone for so many years, and I have lived so much of my life without his presence. And yet these are the things I still wish for.
I have lost many people in my life since he left. I buried both of my beloved grandparents, cousins, my uncle, my aunt, my mother. My friends have died; lovers have taken their lives. I look at my life and realize the fact I have lived this long is a medical miracle. As a result, I enthusiastically treat every day as another that I can bring something good in the world.
But I don’t only do it for me. I do it for him, because through me he gets to do all the things he never lived to have. And he will live in me forever.
This is the journey you will face, and I cannot promise you that it will be easy, particularly under the circumstances Blaze died under. You are not the only ones you know who will be haunted by his death, but it will linger.
The years will pass, but you will remember him. You’ll know his smile, remember his favorite t-shirts, the songs he sang and the secrets that you kept from everyone else. You’ll remember what it felt like to hold him close, the smell of his favorite deodorant, the words of encouragement he said to you and only you. The minor little intricate details that everyone forgot you will never let go of, simply because there’s nothing left of him presently on this earth to hold on to.
And you will want to hold on. Because you still believe in this last little sliver of youthful innocence. It keeps you young. It keeps him alive.
Your days will continue. You will get married and raise your families. You will graduate with your college degrees and accomplish amazing things professionally. You will grow old, breathe deep and see wondrous miracles as you do.
But with each day you are given to live, carry Blaze Bernstein with you. He should be the fire in your soul to do right by others and to make this world better than you left it. He will be your candle in the darkness. He will be your comfort when things are falling apart. He will never die while your hearts keep beating; his soul will bang that drum as it moves forward.
I wish I could give you a lullaby, but instead you have been given a legacy. It doesn’t get easier, but it does get better. You will sleep eventually, but when you wake up know that you have to get up and do the impossible, which is to carry on despite the weight of loss. The world will not be the same, but we find ways to make life worth living, even in the unimaginable days to come.
In memory of Blaze Bernstein and Jason Todd Schneider
I am not pretty.
I have known this a good chunk of my life. I was a behemoth, an almost six-foot-tall plus sized monster. I never even got the “you have such a pretty face” as an argument to take off weight. I knew from a young age that if I was to get by in my existence, it wasn’t going to be on my looks.
I read books and stood up against my teachers. I got A’s and wrote incredible things. I told jokes and became funny. I became more independent, not relying on anyone else to do things for me. Because I wasn’t pretty, I had to find a way to be a woman without my looks or a boyfriend.
It didn’t stop me from trying, though. From a young age, I felt the pressure to be beautiful, eyeing beauty magazines and having girls make me over in the corridors of my junior high like a teen movie. Around 13 I even began stealing makeup from our local drugstores in the hopes that all these products would make me look better.
At 15 I got caught at the local Rite Aid and was driven home in the back of a police car along Thousand Oaks Boulevard, sobbing, wanting to die because I wasn’t pretty. I was never going to be pretty.
Through my teenage years I was forced to watch the other girls around me picked out by the boys at the school dances, held hands with politely, taken out on dates. They were quiet and didn’t really speak up. They allowed their boys to take the lead, be dominant. They were “good girls.”
Meanwhile, if a guy wanted to see me, it was the great secret. I was too “crazy” to date; rather I was relegated to fooling around in secret places or being a sidepiece. Maybe it was because I was overweight, or because I was too tall, too loud or too much. Either way I knew I wasn’t pretty, but to cope I had to adjust my way of thinking. I identified as a courtesan of 21st century life instead, and as an independent woman I took it and ran.
On a date the other night, the balding, portly guy across the table asked me how I ended up with my ex-husband. I told him bits here and there, but I didn’t tell him the full truth. That included that I am not pretty, and here was a guy who was willing to be my boyfriend in public and show me around, to not shame me into corners as a sidepiece. Although he never told me I was beautiful or pretty, I jumped at the chance to be with someone. I also didn’t tell him that when my best friend told me I didn’t have to marry him, I said, “This is my only chance. No one else is going to want me.”
That guy from that conversation eventually decided not to continue dating me, in part because I wasn’t physically attractive enough. (Although I told him after he wasn’t physically attractive enough either, but I was willing to put that aside.)
Living in Los Angeles since my divorce has given me some of the greatest pleasures in my life, as it has helped me have amazing friends, a great job and a busy and fun life. And yet I know I am still a misfit here because this is a city full of pretty people – something I know I’m not. Even though we are an enlightened, “liberal” place, we still fall into gender traps. When you’re a woman, simply being smart, funny and friendly doesn’t really get you as far here, particularly in dating where apps are more of a game of “hot or not” versus reaching an actual emotional connection.
When I told my co-worker about the portly guy above and how I wasn’t pretty, she said, “Wait, who tells you that you’re not pretty?”
I paused and shrugged. “I don’t know. Me?”
The truth was that I am self-aware and know myself. I would be the first to tell you of my smarts and cleverness. The first to argue that I’m funny, friendly and have a great personality, or that I’m talented and know how to write. And I also know that when people describe me, the word they probably don’t use is “pretty.”
There is a great argument that exists in my brain, going back and forth like a ping pong game. I have worked all my life to be a confident, independent, feminist woman that is more than her looks. I can be ambitious, successful and surrounded by wonderful people just by being myself.
Yet I also want to be pretty. I desperately want to be a pretty girl, the girl that guys chase and desperately pray will go out with them. Somewhere inside of me I’m still 15, stealing makeup from the Rite Aid off of Thousand Oaks Boulevard in the hopes that I will look different if I put it on. That I can hide who I am and finally, FINALLY, be pretty.
As this ping pong game is playing, I’m remembering the conversation I had with my cousin Karen at my sister’s wedding. She hadn’t seen me since my mother’s funeral, and I sat with her and really talked.
“Reina, you look stunning,” she said to me. I simply passed it off because I was fully dolled up with fake lashes and curls, but she shook her head. “Of course you look beautiful, but you are stunning. You’re glowing. You’re… happy.”
And I realized in that moment that’s what I want to be. I don’t want to be one side or the other of the ping pong game in my head, but rather somewhere in the middle; where my true self shines through and I am pretty simply by being in this moment. It’s the fear and anxieties that I have, day in and day out, that make the struggle come to life.
I wish I could tell you at the end of this that I have a greater self-worth; I don’t. I wish I could tell you that out there is a guy who secretly pines for me and is waiting for his turn to say I’m pretty; highly unlikely. I’m trying to work on it in therapy while adjusting my mentality in order to cope in the modern world; work hard, get ambitious, be the best person I can be for myself, because at the end of the day I have to live with me for the rest of my life.
But as I don my red lipstick and put on my cute dresses, I’m left wishing. Even as I put on a giant smile and walk through rooms as I charm people with stories and jokes, I’m wishing. As the cute boys wander the room and never come up to talk to me, I wish.
I wish, oh how I wish. How I wish I were pretty.
This is a public service announcement to those “shocked” at Harvey Weinstein’s behavior, whether you are a high-profile celebrity or on the board of the Weinstein Company: We knew.
Harvey Weinstein was probably the most well-known bully in Hollywood; he even had a character in Entourage created after him. His behavior wasn’t documented for the most part. Rather it was an aside, a mention, thrown around as you hung out with your friends at a bar waiting for a cocktail.
You could say it in private, away from your bosses and the higher-ups. You could talk about all the bad behavior that the People with Money were up to in the dark, on your own time. But you never said it aloud during the day. Not when others could hear you.
That’s because Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood was synonymous with power. During his peak years he had unbelievable sway, making run-of-the-mill movies like Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech able to win Oscars over masterpieces such as Saving Private Ryan and The Social Network. He controlled that little golden guy for decades.
The fact he went down now wasn’t a shock. He became more of a TV producer than a film producer. He hadn’t produced a real Oscar winner in years, only a nomination here and there, and his films were not exactly moneymakers. What did he have to offer Hollywood other than a shadow of his former self?
He was an easy target now. But for all those years before… we knew.
The legend of the Hollywood casting couch isn’t just a myth; it’s very real. Every actress in Hollywood has a story to tell you of being propositioned, every assistant a reason why they won’t work with X or Y, every female comedian a story about only being booked simply for being “hot.”
(Please note that it happens to men too, as well as children. This is not isolated only to women.)
We never said anything to those higher than us, though. Blackballing in Hollywood is something that happens, and we never know who will be our ally or our enemy if we speak up (which explains why so many high-profile people keep saying they had no idea). We stay silent because we can’t risk not having a job or being able to move up. Wouldn’t risk ruining our reputations over what we viewed in our minds as “one little thing.” It led us to dismiss ourselves, and in turn our personal validity.
There were many reasons why my father tried to keep me away from the entertainment industry, but this was definitely one of them. He worked with several notorious lotharios over the years and didn’t want his daughter exposed. He wanted me to work in an industry that was stable and safe. Like journalism.
It certainly wasn’t safe.
More women than men are journalism majors in college, yet working at a newspaper I found out why most of them don’t continue working in the field. The old boys’ club was firmly in place at this local paper, and my direct boss was the tyrant-in-chief. Every woman on the team was harassed by him in some way; my version was being cornered in a room day after day, being told that I was the worst writer he had ever seen and if it was up to him I would be fired.
One night I was hanging out with another girl from the team. She told me that she was being harassed because of her clothing choices as an education reporter. I thought it was just us. It wasn’t; it never is just two.
Later it turned out that the higher-ups were all protecting him, indulging in similar bad behavior with other female employees. It wasn’t until corporate and new management stepped in that they found out his long history of harassment with the majority of female employees, including sexual harassment, which he was eventually terminated for.
It was a victory, but with a catch: The only reason why there was an intervention in the first place was because our paper’s subscription numbers were down, and we weren’t making any money.
It wasn’t the first nor the last time I was harassed at a job. In fact, my first job at the local Target in Thousand Oaks was the first time I was sexually harassed by a co-worker, and it got so bad I quit without a two-week notice. He was defended by my manager, a woman, because he was “young” and “didn’t know better.” It didn’t hurt he was our number one in sales of discount cards, either.
The question for me, both with my boss at that newspaper and the co-worker at Target, is why they didn’t know better not to harass women. The same question I’m leveling at Hollywood right now.
I ask because I view my current workplace, which is full of respect, trust and truly noble people, as almost an anomaly. I ask the question because every woman has stories like mine, whether or not they have worked in entertainment. I ask because I am currently a student at UCLA, studying Business and Management in Entertainment, because I’ve always wanted to be a part of the dream factory. And I ask because I know Hollywood is, and can be, so much better than this.
If we are really “liberal Hollywood,” like we are labeled by so many people, then we can definitely translate our values to our workplaces. Those values will become a part of what we create onscreen, which can in turn influence greater society.
We can create equality in spaces that there wasn’t any, like writers’ rooms and directors’ chairs. We can allow women into the boardrooms and have them be the decision makers in addition to men. And yes, we can punish those who indulge in casting couch behavior and take advantage of others openly, not just whisper about them in fear of retaliation in our careers.
It’s really not much, but it’s the start of what could be an amazing new Hollywood that can lead the way for the rest of the world. After all, we create pop culture and influence attitudes worldwide. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, we can remind others in the world that women are worth more.
During this time of year, new years and old years collide. Rosh Hashana is the time of reflection, the time of healing. And, by far, it is my favorite time of year.
My childhood finds its happiest moments at my grandmother’s Rosh Hashana table at lunchtime. I’ll never forget the goodies on top of her lace tablecloth – bagels and lox combined with Sephardic foods such as eggs, squash and spinach frittada and cheese-filled borekas, with the sides twisted up by Nony’s delicate fingers. My mother made the apple jelly, which is open on the table next to the traditional round challah. She made a huge batch of jelly every year and gave it only to the people she liked, from the cantor to our teachers.
Being with my grandparents made our holidays. As small children my sister, cousin and I had run of the Spanish-style duplex on Crescent Heights, where they had lived for 30 years. All the cousins make an appearance, alongside uncles and aunts, clergy and close family friends who had been around for so long you couldn’t tell whether or not they’re actually related; they all found a way to Papu and Nony’s house. It hosted the people I love the most and those who I never met. My father’s father, grandpa Saul, adored my mother’s parents and spent his last day of his life at their Rosh Hashana table. There was family history in this place that my tiny child’s body couldn’t hold up yet.
We eventually moved to Northern California, and my grandparents relocated to a Beverly Hills apartment, pristine and white as opposed to Crescent Heights’ colorful and historic charm. One Rosh Hashana, I refuse to go to temple. I’m sobbing in a pink dress with a patchwork skirt, throwing a tantrum as my father sits with me calmly. After several hours, I calm down and we go, with most of my morning spent looking at the stained glass on the ceiling of the synagogue. And, of course, we come back for lunch at my grandparents’ house.
We move back to Thousand Oaks, and I join the temple choir. I was proud to don a white robe for Rosh Hashana, but my mother hates it; it always makes us late for lunch. Eventually, I give up the choir, deciding instead to gossip with my friend Melissa in the bathroom and follow my friend Allison and her sisters around, admiring their handcrafted talits. But we always look forward to what comes after.
At 17, my sister, cousin and I become too cool for just sitting at my grandparents’ table during lunch, instead choosing to chase around our younger cousins Jonah and Hannah. After they leave, we decide to wander to the bar in the den. We’re hanging out there and I discover a pack of Viagra. At 17, I’m disgusted. But in later years, I realized how special it was that my grandparents were still so hot for each other that they were having sex into their 80s.
At 21, I go to college in Fullerton, but after services I trek up to the 10 freeway and make the drive to Beverly Hills for lunch. The dog, Lucy, is hiding under the small kitchen table, mad she got dragged into this ordeal. Nony is cooking as always, my mother helping her, and my aunt Sophie is visiting from Florida. But my Papu isn’t here entirely. A nurse is nearby at all times. His shuffling feet don’t walk as much as they used to. He can barely speak or remember anyone or anything – except the kids. He remembers his granddaughters and his great-niece and nephews, particularly two-year-old Sammy, who he adores.
It’s his last Rosh Hashana.
The venue switches. My grandmother moves from the apartment in Beverly Hills to the Jewish Home and my cousin Lorrie decides to host Rosh Hashana lunches from this point on. The transition is smooth, with bagels and lox, apple jelly and poached salmon. There are no more borekas here, but my mother makes sure to always bring some frittada. Nony sits with her sister Esther as “the kids” all sit outside in the backyard. There are several new additions to this gathering, though – my cousin Kacee as well as my soon to be ex-husband the most noteworthy.
Eventually, Nony starts to fade too, forgetful and frightened. And soon, she leaves our world of Rosh Hashana lunches. As does Esther and her family, who cut ties.
We continue on despite the changes, both good and bad. My mother still making apple jelly for the holiday and secretly slipping some to the cantor in the middle of Rosh Hashana services before we head over to Lorrie’s house. Lorrie producing a cake for my mother and my cousin Dova’s birthdays and they blow out the candles together. There is raucous conversation and laughter, along with teaching my younger cousins things we shouldn’t be even talking them about, but do anyway.
My cousin Sarah moves to Los Angeles with her family and her two young boys, followed by her parents after they retire. I divorce and come to Rosh Hashana lunches by myself again. The younger cousins who I once chased around my grandparents’ apartment in Beverly Hills head off to college. As my mother grows sick, she isn’t able to last as long at the lunches; she gets tired and needs to rest, and the drive back to Thousand Oaks is long enough without it.
Two years ago, I’m mad at my mother. I’m standing in her kitchen and want her to teach me how to make apple jelly for the holiday so we can bring it to Lorrie’s house. She doesn’t want to put in the work to make it, with sterilizing the jars and grating the apples. I tell her I’m happy to do everything if she just tells me what to do. She still says no.
“Mom, you have to pass it on!” I yell at her. “You have to teach me, because one day you’re not going to be around to do it and the tradition will die!”
That was my mother’s last Rosh Hashana. I really didn’t want to be right in that argument. I still don’t.
The Rosh Hashana lunch after her death, and my mother seems to haunt Lorrie’s house. I can see it my cousin’s face; the agony of my mother’s absence is in her every movement. The house seems to be emptier without her presence.
Yet the kids sit outside, joined now by my friend Gary, who my mother treated like a son. And we find laughter, tell stories, eat to our hearts’ content. The food isn’t the exact same as my grandmothers’ table, but the people are just as good. My cousin Amy laughs as her fiancé Kevin makes corny dad jokes. I ruffle Sammy’s hair and ask him all about school and politics. My sister enjoys being with the family away from Kansas. And somewhere in that crowd was my mother’s ghost, because even in death her spirit wouldn’t be able to bear missing a Rosh Hashana lunch.
Yesterday, I stood in the kitchen, preparing for my dad’s and my Rosh Hashana dinner on Wednesday night. My father came and looked at the baking sheet with raw borkeas on them, with the twisted up sides made by my less delicate fingers. His eyes sparkled with tears – even just for a minute, my mother, grandmother, grandfather, and even his own father were alive again in his kitchen. He missed them. I missed them. We were both lonely without them, yet continued to fulfill our family traditions and share them with the people we love.
During Rosh Hashana, we ask in temple to be inscribed into the Book of Good Life. But that book sometimes needs to be pulled off the shelf and re-read. We need to tell the stories again – the good ones, the funny ones, the sad ones, the embarrassing ones. All of the stories need to find a way to our lips, and laughter should roll off our tongues. And they need to be told to the ones who remember them and the people who somehow wander into our lives and homes, becoming our family.
That way, we’re all at the table together, tied by tradition, and not even death can separate us. And that is the best wish I can give for the Jewish New Year.
Julia always came on Wednesdays.
My mother would buy all her cleaning supplies and make sure the rags were washed so Julia could do her job. She would come in a teal pickup truck around 9 a.m. and begin to clean, as my mother would sit in her office and work.
Julia was a tiny Latina woman who barely spoke any English. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she wore low-slouching jeans and sneakers. She would be there about three hours, and my mother would pay her $80 in cash. During that time, my mother would talk to her in Spanish, as she was fluent. They talked about Julia’s husband, who was our gardener, and her young daughter.
I never asked if Julia was legal. My mother never told me if she was or not. It didn’t matter to her; Julia always did a good job, so she paid her.
One day, Julia came to the house tired. My mother noticed, and asked about her daughter. She began to cry; her daughter was very sick, they had been at the hospital with her all night. My mother paid Julia and sent her home to sleep; she would see her next week.
My mother believed in America, and believed that people should be able to work. She wasn’t giving free rides, but at the same time never treated those around her as less than; she even sponsored our childhood nanny for her green card. When we were younger they were invited to family get-togethers and birthday parties as guests. There was nothing dividing us.
My mother would remember her grandparents, immigrants pursuing a dream in America, seeking a better life and working hard all the way there. Taking odd jobs, from delivering flowers to running errands, in the hopes that their children would have a better life. She was on the other side now.
Julia came rain or shine, but as the years passed the circumstances changed. Cancer was on the bill for my mother. Julia kept cleaning and they kept talking, even at the weakest points of her recovery. Eventually she came back up from her bout with breast cancer, but not before sliding down once again into complications.
As time went on, my mother got sicker and her hospital visits more frequent. I had moved back home to help her, and would be there with Julia on Wednesdays when no one else could be. One week, my father and I had to be at the hospital with her. I pulled $80 from my savings account, gave it to Julia, and sent her home. We would see her next week.
Eventually, another Wednesday came. My mother was in the hospital again, my dad was with her and I was at home.
This was the morning she died.
Hanging up the phone, I started to scream and cry in her office. Julia rushed in, and I told her mom was dead. She shook her head and broke down, tears running down her face. We held each other for several minutes. She continued to clean afterwards, but I could hear Julia sobbing down the hallways.
When I left for the hospital, my cousin came to stay at the house. After Julia was done cleaning, my cousin and her simply held each other on the couch for a good half an hour before Julia went home.
My father continued having Julia clean the house after my mother died. It was almost in keeping Julia was keeping a part of her alive. He would get cash for her and leave it on the dining room table every Wednesday until the day he moved out.
And afterwards, like a dream, Julia seemed to disappear just as quickly. And it breaks my heart, wondering what has happened to her, her husband and her daughter.
I think of her child when she was in the hospital. How is this child different from me? I lived with a mother who I love, who cared for me when I was ill. I had a father who worked hard. We were past our immigrant stage, settled in America after generations of distance from my great-grandparents. They were once the dreamers of America, working hard and making new lives for themselves and their children here. My mother never forgot that. And she saw it in the ladies who worked for us.
I left my mother’s house to settle into a guesthouse in Beverly Hills. I saw the Latin women walking tiny dogs up and down the street, or trekking up the part of Coldwater Canyon without sidewalks wearing traditional maid uniforms. The Mercedes and Audis of this road combine with rumbling large trucks filled with lawnmowers, shears and Latin men, the ones constructing the fancy houses and maintaining the yards for the people so demanding and determined to live in the most famous zip code in the country.
And yet… do these people who they work for see them as people? That they have families that they love and still work no matter the circumstances, because otherwise they don’t get paid? That no matter how many 60-hour weeks their employers have, those people will still have enough money at the end to afford their homes and pay for vacations, fancy cars and private schools, while their workers are lucky to barely make rent?
Do those people remember dreams, and the dreamers who have them?
This country, our worlds are nothing without people like Julia — human beings who love and see more to the world than the status quo. Who reducing to “legal” versus “illegal” makes us forget that they are actually flesh and blood people with hopes and desires. Who work hard for their families and keep moving forward in the hopes that their children will have better lives here. Not everyone remembers.
My mother did. She would call to me, “Remember who you are.” She would remind me regularly that we are a country made from immigrants. She remembered until the day she died that America was for everyone.
Now it’s my turn. It should be yours too.
Standing at the craps table in Henderson, air-conditioned within an inch of my life in this refuge from the Vegas heat, I take the emerald green dice from the stickman and blow on them.
I see the people standing around me at the table — a short, sad yet angry Israeli next to me in a salmon pink shirt smoking cigarettes; a tall black man on the other side who eyes me warily, as I am the only female at the table; an older gentleman playing with his chips nervously, their clicking sound echoing in my ears; and the giant of a guy who identifies himself as my boyfriend, throwing down money.
Tossing the dice along the top, getting the hard eights and sixes, I watch my partner in craps whoop as our chips graduate from one row to two. My nose is sniffling from traveling from arid desert air to the chilled casinos as I continue roll after roll, my bags stacked under the table with two Jameson and gingers just above them.
He passionately kisses me after I hit seven and my turn is over. Calls me lucky and gets us comps for the buffet upstairs. I’m barely able to eat because I don’t feel well as he loads up three plates full; food piled so high it practically measures up to his almost 400-pound, 6’6 frame.
We have been together for three months, and generally things were working. We enjoyed each other’s company, my family liked him, my friends enjoyed how he made me feel. Yet there was a gnat of truth buzzing in my ear: He didn’t want to be monogamous, and continued dating multiple women. He got angry and jealous when I would suggest dating other men. He was controlling in bed, and my pleasure was completely ignored. He didn’t want to get married, although he was warming up to the idea of having a child.
I told him we have different values. He said we didn’t. We continued on, although I sensed something not right. He was bringing me in and pushing me out; putting me on calls with his mother, giving me a key to his house, and yet not wanting to compromise on things I requested.
I wanted to end it, but something told me to keep giving it shot after shot. All the issues were just me, I told myself. It was my past, my fears, my anxieties. And now here I was with him, in Las Vegas.
He’s in his element; he lived here for three years, knew everything about placing bets and getting what you want. Every show has a comp, every venue comes with the wave of his hand as he parked at the valet. He’s always walking five steps ahead of me, playing with his phone every spare second, my feet barely able to keep up.
I’m lost here. I hadn’t been to Vegas in almost two years. Yet every minute with him there is a thing to do outside our hotel room. I pack dresses I never get to change into as I’m shunted from local businesses to fancy pools with giant facades, from dramatic theaters to elaborate casinos. I always dreamed of experiencing Vegas as a VIP, and these were princess-style treatments. I should feel special.
I miss my friends back in Los Angeles, who are celebrating birthdays without me. I’m not with my father for Father’s Day. I should be happy that I’m with my so-called boyfriend in Vegas and he’s actually tagging me on Facebook posts, but at the same time I feel like he’s hiding more than he’s showing.
He’s surrounded by all the things that make him feel like a king, with a cute little piece of arm candy to take it in with. But I could be any girl he feels like pampering at that given moment. He doesn’t see me, ask me what I want to do or how I’m feeling, even though my throat feels like it’s on fire. We’re just floating along in the heat.
As we walk past the Paris, I dream of real Paris, and in New York New York I long for the city’s cursing residents. The world was designed to be here at our fingertips, yet I felt further and further from it as he talks about his dreams but never asks about mine. Facades and fantasies in the desert heat, as I stand in a bright fuchsia dress as he barely grooms himself enough to go out to the nice restaurant I picked for that last evening — the thank you for our trip, overlooking the Bellagio fountains.
Something changes in there. His constant phone companion is gone. He cuddles closer to me, sharing food off forks and kissing me deeply. Finding a way to make deep conversation. Taking me to the Bellagio fountains and through the hotel’s conservatory, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
At the end of the evening, he asks if I want ice cream. I nod furiously. Although there’s no ice cream, we find a Jamba Juice, sit on a bench and split a smoothie, laughing about the man who was wandering through the mall farting, giggling about all the things we saw.
This was my version of heaven, all that I wanted from him in this relationship. Not fancy pools and VIP shows, crap tables or blown-on dice. Just the two of us, a smoothie, true companionship and overwhelming laughter. This is where I felt special.
It fades away just as fast. The next day he makes me cry at breakfast during a debate about religion he asks me incredulously if I think I’ll see my mom after I die. The entire drive home he texts and calls customer service on a never-ending loop, yelling at them to the point where I become scared and cry again. I ask to talk to my dad just as we cross the California border; he doesn’t let me until we reach Pasadena. I’m silent for hours, wishing to be close to him the way I was the night before.
When we get back to his house, I ask to use his bathroom before I leave. I see another girl’s makeup on the counter. He begins stumbling in excuses, claiming it’s his female roommate’s. Yet two weeks before he said he was strict about his roommate’s stuff not being in his bathroom.
I know him better, and unload on him the truth: That the last time he was in Vegas, he took another girl and asked me to watch his dogs. He probably did the same thing again, and I wasn’t dumb. He never hid the fact he dates multiple women, but lacked discretion.
“We just had a great weekend,” he lamented. “Can’t we just enjoy this? I don’t want a serious conversation right now.”
He never wants a serious conversation. Not about the future nor the past. He just wants the hedonism of now.
“That’s not the point,” I replied. “I think I might be falling for you, and I need to know that this is a thing before we move forward.”
He responds. “I care about you deeply, and I like the fact that you’re getting attached to me.”
No. That’s not right. I deserve a better answer. A worthy answer for who I am as a person. And he didn’t have one.
He asks me what I want. I say I want to be with him. He echoes the words, but I don’t believe him. He kisses me under his jacaranda tree and I walk away, thinking about where this relationship was going. And it’s not in the right direction.
I realized this was a person who would refuse to change, and it wasn’t worth giving ultimatums and demands. I deserved more than comps and craps tables. I needed a relationship where I counted.
I break up with him via email; it takes me a week to get the courage to go through with it, block him on Facebook and drop off the key in his mailbox. I ask for monogamy, knowing I’ll never receive it. That he won’t chase after me nor shed a single tear for my absence; there would always be another girl to replace me.
As the breakup settles in, I see things clearer, like a veil being lifted or the relief of Pacific breezes after the stifling Vegas heat. I see him for who he is beyond our Vegas trip — his close-mindedness, bullying and bigotry; his grabs at control by any means necessary, whether through chronic overeating or manipulating women. Although the sadness of losing his good qualities still stung, I was better off finding someone worthy.
We had a Vegas relationship; a façade, a dream, an image presented to the world of happiness yet simmering under the brim with emptiness and pain. That wasn’t a relationship that represented me.
When it came to love, I wanted a Jamba Juice and laughter relationship, a passionate kissing relationship, a deep conversations relationship, a put-your-phone-away-because-the-other-person-is-so-good relationship. A place beyond arm candy, but rather fully fleshed souls trying to find a way through life together. Where reality lived, and what happened in it wasn’t just sinful nights in the desert, but the foundation for something even greater.
And now, as a single girl once more, I realize I truly am lucky.
Once upon a time, there was a girl with no words.
I read about her in the yellowing pile of papers that my father has handed to me, because my mother seemed to save everything. The typewriter font gave away its age, hinting at the clinical and nature of the study of this girl. The girl with no words.
She is obviously smart, but there is a problem: She can’t speak. Well, not really. She makes squeaks and can mimic, either telling those around her what she wants through actions or pointing. But she has no language; she doesn’t understand.
The girl is taken in for further evaluation. At three years old, her language skills are registered in the 14th percentile. She can barely form sentences.
Page after page, improvements come, but new challenges rise up. She has awkward social skills. She can’t hold a pencil correctly. There are lots of tears, and temper tantrums that forbid outings to the grocery store. Every step is excruciatingly detailed.
I continue to flip through, not recognizing this girl. Even though she has my family, my birthdate, my name.
Yet she can’t be me. The files go on to show imagination-fueled pages with scribbled drawings, trying desperately to tell stories. It shows test scores rising from language in the 14th percentile at three to my eventual 99th percentile at 16.
In between the reports, there are scribbled notes from teachers and therapists. “She is a great storyteller.” “She reads beautifully in front of class.” “She’s so creative.”
Those I recognize: my love of reading, sharing and storytelling run deep. But it all involved language.
And once upon a time, I was the girl with no words, under extensive language therapy with the freemasons of the Scottish Rite Center for Childhood Aphasia in Los Angeles. Before this point, I was thought to be either deaf or autistic, even almost committed to a psychiatric ward for children. It was the Scottish Rite who reassured my mother in her tears after seeing me throw a tantrum during my first evaluation, “Don’t worry, we see this behavior all the time in children with language problems.”
Half of my therapy was onsite, and the other half was with my mother. She would feed me an M&M every time I got a word — until I got too many words. Then she switched to using wind-up toys as a reward; a visual treat in lieu of a sugary one.
It switched over as I started school. After trying my hand at a normal kindergarten, I was sent to a special school and pulled out of classes for language exercises. We drove long distances for even more training with additional specialists.
Hours and hours were spent on me, without me realizing the consequences of people focusing too much on one individual. Relationships were strained, fights grew stronger, rifts were made that could never be repaired. All these sacrifices made for the girl with no words.
After being seen by a doctor at 10 years old to participate in a UCLA study for ADHD, he was worried when my scans came back with a giant white spot on the brain; something he feared was a tumor. After it came back negative, he asked my mother, “Was there anything unusual about her development?”
“Now that you mention it…” she replied.
The doctor then realized an unusual truth: I was born with no language center in my brain. Rather, years of speech therapy helped develop artificial pathways to make sure that I could learn; as opposed to having a left-brain language center like most people, mine developed on both the right and left sides.
He also told my mother that, as a result, I probably lack a lot of the memories of that time. Language is tied to memory, which makes sense as someone who didn’t always have it. My childhood exists on almost a foreign plane that I can barely recall. Little details come up here and there, of white lace dresses and little porcelain circus animals, but there are very few moments I can recall with certainty.
At age 12, my junior high determined that my language abilities had caught up to my peers, and I was done with therapy. But the resentment had built between my mother and me; a part of me wonders if it’s because she thought I should be more grateful for the sacrifices she made for my speech therapy which I couldn’t remember.
Then, at 13, something strange happened. The girl with no words became a writer.
A teacher singled her out. Her name was Mrs. Meir. She called my mother in the year that was my darkest. I had been inappropriately touched in the hallways of my school. When I told the administration, they didn’t believe me. Eventually I threatened to kill myself at a Jewish weekend retreat. I felt so invisible.
Yet she found me in the darkness.
“Your daughter is getting a C in my English class,” she said. “Your daughter is too good of a writer to be getting a C in my English class.” In those days, I never heard that I was good at anything.
I may have been the girl with no words, but now I was determined to get them.
It led to hours and hours and hours of words on pages, writing in cursive or typing away on a keyboard. Projects and projects piled up, from personal essays and short stories to full-fledged attempts at novels. Poetry-filled notebooks, two-act plays, screenplays, television pilots and experimentations with different writing styles filled up my computer memory; even my Facebook statuses were an excuse to express. From the back of my boring history classes into college and beyond, I never stopped.
Although at times I struggled, particularly when I was hyper-criticized to the point where I could barely move, I would always find a way to put those mental crayons to chaos on a page. If there was one thing I was taught as the girl with no words, it was there was always another way.
Eventually I became an editor, coaching other writers. That has meant correcting my father’s grammar and spelling when he asks, helping my friends write emails and even developing a freelancing career. Suddenly, the girl with no words grew up to be the woman with all of them.
Last August, I participated in the Landmark Advanced Course, almost three months after my mother had died and one year from my seminar. The original Landmark Seminar helped reconcile the two of us before she died; now, in grief, I returned.
We sat in the room with the chalkboards as our instructor drew on them the basic facets of communication — the 101 concepts of sender and receiver, of how we give a message versus how it is caught by the other person.
“Everything in the world is shaped by language,” he said. And I realized in that moment, it shaped me. It was me.
And as we are allowed to do in the seminars, I went to the microphone to speak, and I told them this story: of once upon a time, I was the girl with no words, who couldn’t talk, couldn’t understand, could barely communicate and wasn’t able to make friends. The girl with no words, who became the woman who used words for her art.
“I’m a G-d damn miracle!” I blurted out.
There were cheers after that as I sobbed, because still inside me is the girl with no words, who was a lump of a child until she was molded by therapists, doctors and my very own mother. Who sits and reads yellowed papers and can understand how far she’s come in her life, yet knows she will only stop when she’s dead.
This is what dismantling a house looks like.
It is eyes watering at the amount of dust that comes up in clouds around you, sneezing while you’re walking into a demented heaven where all that’s there is stuff. Boxes and boxes of earthly goods are surrounding you, and bags of donations lay out in front of you like tombstones.
The dead live amongst here, the people you used to know.
It’s also the frenzy of the living who are still holding the items, lifting beautiful bowls and crystal, trying on clothing that you remember your mother once wore when it got cold. Going through and trying to claim everything in the tiniest little crevices, from wall hangings to See’s candy gift certificates.
It is pulling an antique yellowed veil from your mother’s closet and not knowing who it belongs to, and knowing probably the only person who can explain it is dead. Then it’s having people insist that you keep it for your own wedding, even though you’re not getting married yet; hopes for the future that you just can’t see at this given moment. You want to get married again, but are not sure if it will actually happen for you. Yet you are being given a veil to wear “just in case.”
It’s swimming through the piles of stuff, and when you say you like something, everyone insists you take it with you. And then you remember you have a tiny guesthouse, and wonder where you’re going to put all of the items you like when there’s barely room for you.
It’s starting a bonfire with the love letters and photos of your ex, laughing and dancing around it with your cousin and sister, bonding over how far you’ve come. It’s also pulling your wedding album, solo in the dark, and finding a container of stickers in your mother’s desk and pasting them all over your ex and his family’s faces (all except for his cousin. You liked her).
It’s the combinations of memories, from both the people who are here and those that are gone. Flimsy paper letters indicating truths about our mortal existences — Turkish immigration papers from my great-grandmother, the death of my great uncle in war, my grandfather longing for my grandmother, a letter from my father after he felt my sister kick in my mother’s stomach for the first time.
Then there are the papers you pull with your name on them, writing in clinical detail what a problem child you were. How you could not communicate, could barely speak, was left screaming and angry until language therapy saved you. Seeing your mother write about how, as a four-year-old child, you went from nothing to her high hopes of you going to some great university one day.
Every school assignment, every attempt at writing and telling stories had been saved, and many of them were thrown in the trash because there is no room to take every little scribble with you. And as others try to hold on to every little piece, you wonder how callous you have become in casting off.
And you think you’ve made progress as you indicate all the crystal bowls and various entertaining platters that are going to be sold off, watching as the stakes are raised again and again. More boxes — of books, kitchen wares, of all the things you thought you’d use again but never did. Tossing off what time has made meaningless; high school yearbooks where you don’t talk to these people anymore and can barely remember them, kitschy things that seemed funny when you were younger, even mementos from friends who you will always love, but ended up breaking your heart in the end.
Hopes for the future, of having the life that your parents did, cast away like shadows in the darkness. Things you wish you could keep but know that there is no space anymore in your current existence. Feeling like you’re falling behind as the people around you, who love you, hold cups of coffee, razzing on your ex because he’s the easiest target at this moment.
Then you realize that you’re suffocating underneath all the items. The weight of the past is being collected in the tangible things, and you desperately want them all to go away. You want to disappear with them, because in that moment you feel like in the things you are one of them, worth very little under the mountain of time passed, left to linger in the graveyard of donations and sellable items worth merely pennies.
And you’re left asking: What kind of life have I lived?
The tears start to flow. My wailing starts softly. It gets louder, and I try to muffle into a pillow. I fail.
My phone text blares. It’s him, my sweet him. He’s so far away from me right now. I tell him I’m having a hard day and that I don’t want to burden him while he’s working; the truth is I’m so used to being independent that I’m terrified to let him in when I’m like this. I prefer to smile and laugh with him, as the happiness he makes me feel is indescribably infinite.
I go back to crying again, thinking of lying in bed with him as he holds me just right, his fingers across my face as he wipes away every tear individually when I would cry about missing my mother, as if counting each of them. And then telling me quietly that he’s not running away.
I still miss her. And I’m crying for her now — two days after Mother’s Day, because I put so much under the surface that I didn’t allow myself to feel at that very moment. As I have been doing during most of this process of dismantling a house.
That’s when everyone surrounds you. To hold you, to touch you and to tell you, “It’s time to stop.”
This is when we stop doing and start talking.
My oldest childhood friend is in my passenger’s seat, telling me that if she gets motion sickness she’s taking the wheel. We’re going to the beach because it makes me happy. I’m behind the wheel because, finally, I have control.
And he calls. He asks me what’s wrong, and I tell him. He tells me to pace myself; box it now, look at it later. He can’t stay on the phone as my friend and I bicker, but he says he’s looking forward to meeting her, and for going to brunch for my dad’s birthday.
I hang up the phone. My friend looks at me. “He called to check in on you,” she said softly. It was strange coming from her, because she is usually so cynical. It was full of wonder and potential.
His words, his voice, the phone call weren’t tangible items, but it was all the perfect gift. It wasn’t an empty glass vase where a dozen delivered roses once resided, a letter trying to convince me of something to win my affections, or a gift that came in tangent with a wedding dress. It wasn’t anything I could hold in my hands.
Rather, it was a metaphorical brick in the foundation; one house was dismantling, another potentially being built. And later, I laid down and whisper the words out loud that I was so afraid to say to him directly.
“This is my family,” I say. “But he is home.”
It’s the tearing down and building up, the yin and yang of my existence. I’m standing on the edge of a knife, so scared that I’m going to fall off, dismantling a house while possibly finding a new home at the edge of my universe.
This is exactly what it looks like.
There’s a town just about an hour north of Los Angeles called Thousand Oaks, California. It is one of those sleeper, outside-Los Angeles towns where baby boomers settled with their children in the early 1990s when they didn’t want the stink of the San Fernando Valley on their skins. It was where schools had good reputations and houses were large and cheap, where suburban sprawl reigns supreme and tract houses caress the hillsides.
It’s one of those towns where, 25 years ago, there wasn’t much out there; mainly people with horse ranches, a library, schools and grocery stores. Bigger chain stores and city comforts were out of reach. If you wanted something specific, it meant loading into a car and a half an hour drive in almost any direction.
Thousand Oaks was a place where people ride around in giant pick-up trucks or white BMWs, either cowboys or desperately pretending to be, all while painting the town a bright shade of Republican red. The leading town entertainment was the winning high school football team on a Friday night under those fluorescent spotlights, followed by church with the entire town on Sunday under a huge light-up cross on the lawn.
The children of the people who made their homes out here were tiny little reflections of themselves. If you were any way different you were judged, and your only hope was to cast off your race. religion or sexual orientation to fit the status quo. If you were white and evangelical, like most of the town, you emphasized your whiteness, right down to parental-bought flashy cars, designer clothes and screaming for fancy coffees.
There was a desperate call to win, to succeed. College was the end all and be all of this world, and your extra-cirriculars were everything. Parents slapped football helmets on boys in hopes of getting scholarships and girls fled the cheerleading squad when the dance team won a national championship. You wore show choir sequins and Vaseline on your teeth and let the Napoleonic choir teacher scream and throw his tantrums; bad behavior was excused if you brought home trophies.
This was not the town I was born in; I was actually born in Los Angeles. But from the age of 10, we lived in the house off of La Granada Drive in Thousand Oaks.
It was the town where I was raised in. And I hated it.
Many of the kids grew up together, played at each others’ houses. I was the awkward transplant with liberal, socially conscientious parents — an entertainment techie father and a Holocaust historian mother. We were Jewish and very proudly so, from a family made up of more various people than a cheerleader’s sweet sixteen. My parents worked in the city, came from city families who still lived there, had city attitudes, were city people. There wasn’t room for us in Thousand Oaks.
The teachers never understood me. From a young age I was loud and outspoken. I refused to back down from my beliefs, standing up to my teachers and wondering why their opinion meant more simply because they were older. Passion, smarts, conviction and drive: These were the things that made me.
They didn’t make friends, though. I was that very strange, very tall, loud girl who brought a giant presence to every room. I was teased and made fun of regularly, to the point of crying right in the middle of class when the teacher didn’t do anything to protect me. Don’t get me wrong — there were people who I liked and I know liked me too. But it wasn’t like we were hanging out at each others’ houses. We just were there, acknowledging each other but never really reaching over.
Thousand Oaks was the place of lonely days, where I walked home as a latchkey kid and was left unattended. It was where I felt ugly for being so different and stole makeup from the local drugstore to try to feel beautiful. It was where I cried to Alanis Morissette, watched Sailor Moon in hopes I had a greater purpose in life, and put on red lipstick and my mom’s vintage dresses hoping I would become Gwen Stefani one day.
It was the place of cold evenings where my teenage self packed backpacks and desperately tried to run away, where I hoped I would die to relieve the pain of being lonely. It was where the doctors would cram pills down my throat to control me and make sure I was quiet. I would watch as I lost control over my own body, and when I tried to object they would shrug. It was the place of rejections and no’s, the place where I felt invisible, told to fit in a box when I knew I was better than that.
As a result, all my life there was one goal: Get the hell out of Thousand Oaks.
Most of my family disagreed, particularly my mother. She loved her little castle on top of the hill, all the knick-knacks and designs she made for her house. And one of her biggest frustrations with me was always why I wanted to leave.
In that small town, she had everything she had always wanted. She had her perfect large house with all her comforts, from sewing machines to a large backyard. She had the dogs and the fruit trees in the backyard. The family was far enough away so that they weren’t banging on our doors, but close enough so they could come every other weekend. It was the place she lived. It was the place she died.
But it was quiet. Eerily quiet. And it was in that silence where my anger grew.
By 21, I was gone, headed off to Orange County with a packed Toyota Camry. I fell in love with the beaches and the laid-back college vibe of my new university, and my anger turned to happiness. There were so many friends and fun nights that graduation seemed like a nightmare. After finding a place where I was finally allowed to be myself, thrive and not be alone, I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure I would never return to that place where my loneliness consumed me — even marry an abusive man.
One of the things that kept me married was Thousand Oaks; the idea of returning was unbearable. It felt like quicksand; I hated everything about that place. My focus was on the future. My focus was forward.
But even in Orange County, something was unsettling to me, like my feet were getting stuck. There was no rush of culture or whimsy for me, no joy in the pursuit of having a perfect life and family. It was my parents’ dream, my friends’ dream, everyone else’s dream. Not mine.
So I returned to Thousand Oaks.
It had changed in all those years. All the creature comforts of city life were now there, from Costco to Target. Although there were more housing developments, my parents’ house was still on wistful La Granada Drive, where they would complain about kids drinking near the cul-de-sac and street paving with the city council. It was still scrubbed clean, pristine and shiny. And I still hated it.
A year later, I moved into Los Angeles. It was my birthplace, and after a while I wondered if it was more of my hometown than Thousand Oaks. Walking along gum-encrusted sidewalks carrying grocery bags and sipping coffee along Abbott Kinney felt organic, more than than pick-up trucks and perfect lawns. Whenever I would see the downtown skyline, I would take a deep breath and feel my heart thud proudly through my chest, This was my heart. Thousand Oaks was my hometown, but Los Angeles was actually home.
The people who became my friends were also escapees to Los Angeles — from Dallas, Orlando, New Jersey, Arizona, Chicago or anywhere in between. We found home in each other. They were my friends and family, while the people I went to high school with were a mystery.
As the years went on, people added me on social media. Many were married with kids. Some were like me, single with drive. Some I like much, much better than others, and hope we will see each other and share a coffee or cocktail, and really get to know each other as adults.
I think about all of them — the jocks, the cheerleaders, the jazz hands and the stoners — as I drive back to Thousand Oaks. I think of reading my Facebook the other day, when I had to read about the death of a friend of mine from junior high.
His name was Tony. He sat next to me in junior high science class, and we were friendly with each other. He eventually became a football player, playing under those Friday night lights for the winning team. We were barely friends, but his kindness never stopped.
A friend of mine pulled a prank on him because his friends were so awful to me. She called him and asked him about me. He never said a bad word, although his friends would. I was on the other line, muted, listening intently. It made me feel less alone.
Even though I didn’t how how he died, I thought about articles I read about former football players and chronic brain injuries; how they commit suicide, kill people, lose their minds due to the knocks they took. Wondering if his life had been cut short in part because of our existence in this town.
I arrive at the house on La Granada Drive, with the yellow roses in full bloom. This town has changed in 25 years. The children who grew up on these streets had all moved away to create their own destinies elsewhere, and the housing prices grew so high that very few of them could return.
This house was where I grew to my 5’11 height and ate avocados and lemons from our trees. Where I learned to drive and wrote my short stories. Where I put on my first makeup looks and wore my high school cap and gown. Where the pool parties commenced and my father made his famous hickory smoked Thanksgiving turkey. Where my mother walked and our German shepherd Lucy followed.
And the place where, this summer, my father will leave. Thousand Oaks, the town that I grew up in, will transform from home base to simply a memory.
All my life I always wanted to leave, run away and never return. But sitting in the years of memories, dismantling a house, I don’t know how to feel about it. I had grown and changed. I didn’t live in the past, especially this past that I choose to forget. But the past wasn’t done with me yet.
As I drove into the city, knowing that one day soon I would drive away from Thousand Oaks forever, I really thought about this place: the trees growing wild on the hillsides and the lack of streetlights that allow you to see the stars every night. The coyotes howling at the sound of sirens and the roadrunners dashing alongside them. The rabbits run through the canyons and the hawks circle in the sky, and people still ride their horses up and down the street.
There will be a new child to call this place home. A new family trying to do the best they can. And I pray that this place won’t be as hard on them as it has been on me.
And as they put together their new home, I march forward in mine, scared yet determined, fearless despite the anxieties. Focus on the future, let go of the past, no matter how hard it tries to shake you.
This is the way my time in Thousand Oaks will end.