I don’t know why, but 9/11 is on my mind today more than usual.
Perhaps it’s because it’s the 18th anniversary, and 18 is the number used for “chai,” or life in Hebrew. Perhaps it’s knowing that there are so many people alive right now who were small children that day, or perhaps not even born yet. Or maybe it’s because a few weeks ago I stood where the towers stood, hearing the water rushing through the memorial.
Or maybe it’s because my whole childhood, all I wanted to do was live in New York.
Growing up in small Thousand Oaks, I wanted the Big City. I wanted to walk everywhere and take subways and be independent. Sit on stoops eating pizza, run around museums, be where it was all happening. And for me, that was New York.
At 21 I went to New York on my own and met a bunch of New Yorkers who didn’t like me and my California chill. But while I was there, I went down to Battery Park and saw the Sphere, the only artwork to survive the 9/11 attacks. I took the Staten Island Ferry for kicks, and then walked through the Financial District to where the twin towers once stood.
At the time it was just an open lot and a white fence, blocked off, people hustling this way and that, as New Yorkers do. But I stopped. Remembered the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when my father kissed me goodbye before he went to the airport for what was supposed to be his annual trip to Amsterdam.
There was a voice inside my head that echoed when he said goodbye. Something isn’t right. Ripples in the universe to tell me that the world would never be the same.
It was that day where my brain decided it wanted to be a journalist. That I dedicated myself to my college paper and a life’s mission to help my people through my writing and courage. Just as my childhood thought that New York would be the place where my life would go.
There were so many wishes in my head when standing near that empty lot. Wishes that Columbia Journalism School would open its arms and recognize my writing. That this city would take me in and make me one of its own. That I could have a landmark life, which as many narratives told me, only started when you made it in New York.
But like that lot where the towers once stood, I felt empty, and returned home. Except for a 24-hour layover at 28, New York was just there for me – the place where better bagels and corned beef sandwiches were from.
In 2013, after a year full of trauma and pain, I claimed a new address, a new city. Because in 2012, all I wanted was my address to say, “Los Angeles, CA.” And then it became mine.
I was born in Los Angeles, but raised mainly in its suburbs. My mother didn’t like the traffic. My dad drove in every day. The quiet of suburbia almost destroyed me. But once I sunk my teeth into my birthplace, my soul would never let it go. It was a part of me for always.
It didn’t matter that my grandparents were sworn New Yorkers – they left in 1945. I was second generation Los Angeles native. This was my city, my home. Those palm trees that let me know that I was safe, that skyline that reminded me this city took me in and gave me a second chance at life.
And what a life it has been. And I’m utterly in love with El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula. This city is my home through and through.
But then a few weeks ago, I went back to New York.
I took the Greyhound from Boston, four hours of highway leading into the city. As we made the turn into the Lincoln Tunnel, my jaw dropped as I looked at that skyline while Frank Sinatra crooned in my ear buds. Everyone’s heads in the Greyhound craned their necks to see it.
New York, New York. It was strange, but I adapted quickly. Immediately started darting around on the subways. And when the train crossed over into Brooklyn, it was like I felt it in my bones. There was something about this place.
The next day I took off into Manhattan as the city pelted me with rain. I hid out in the Jewish Heritage Museum, where I found a book with the cursive of Emma Lazarus, another Sephardic woman inspired by this city. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
How people tried to twist her words. How people wanted to erase them, or say they didn’t mean THOSE people. How the language of 9/11 influenced the rhetoric and modes of our lives even to this present day.
In the rain outside the window near Emma Lazarus’ poem stood the Lady in the Harbor, that great Statue of Liberty. The woman who witnessed both those huddled masses as well as her city in flames. She had seen it all.
When the weather calmed down it was time to make the walk from Battery Park over toward One World Trade. I saw the new tower, with a sunflower climbing to the sky. If I was more familiar with the skyline, I would have kept looking for two large buildings instead of just the one.
In the memorial, I saw children running and asking curious questions. It was filled with people speaking many different languages. Ladies in hijabs, men with yarmulkes, curious eyes and all shades of skin. We were united by one thing: This place, where it all happened.
They were amazed by this park, where the lush green trees played a significant contrast to the enormous amount of gray concrete and dark stone. Where the names were inscribed. Where the water rushed and the imprints of the buildings stood. Looking up, I even saw my old friend the Sphere, which I had seen all those years ago in Battery Park.
This place reminded me that, for a minute in the history of mankind, people were a united front in love and kindness. But then I recalled that it went away so quickly, to leave us to the unrelenting, indescribable now.
After a late lunch I went down to the Staten Island Ferry to see my Lady in the Harbor. I had forgotten how beautiful she was. How much wonder she could give to so many people, who excitedly snapped pictures of her with enthusiastic smiles despite the grayness of the sky.
I couldn’t help but to join in, and the joy and patriotism overtook me. She reminded me about all the people who have come here through the centuries and transformed this America into what it is today. It was the same person who my great-grandparents met as they came to New York before moving to a different place. They found ways to make better lives for themselves, as so many others have before and since.
She told me that there is darkness in this world, and sometimes it lingers, but she would always lift her lamp beside the golden door. Don’t give up hope. She stood against despair before, and she will do it again.
My last night in New York, I called a Lyft to take me back to Brooklyn from the Village; my feet were tired and I needed a minute to breathe. As my driver took me downtown towards the Manhattan Bridge, my mouth dropped yet again. As the night claimed the city, next to the World Trade, there was a beam of light that shone in the sky. There were once two, but now there is one that stands strong in the night.
I hadn’t seen it before this point; most of my trip I was busy underground enjoying the subways. But in that moment, I understood New York for the very first time – in the empty places, let there always be light, just as that lamp is lifted in the harbor.
And as I left, I realized that there was room in my heart for another city.
So to this city on one of the darker days in your history, let me say thank you. Let me offer a toast, a prayer, whatever you want to call it, for all those who suffered on 9/11.
Here’s to the ones who grieve – may you find love even when the darkness is closing in.
Here’s to the ones who changed – may you always find the strength to walk the path of life despite the trauma.
Here’s to the ones who refuse to forget – no matter the days ahead, may you continue lighting the candles of remembrance for others to follow.
Here’s to those who sacrificed – may your souls be bound up in goodness, always.
Here’s to the New Yorkers – tough as nails, but truly kind at the core. Who know darkness, but at the same never give up on dreams, laughter and song.
You are the best of us, and although we can never fully heal your scars, we can give you our love and compassion. It shouldn’t just be on 9/11, but every day that you feel the agony and despair that sets in when the world gets quiet and refuses to acknowledge the ongoing pain that comes with loss.
On this 18th anniversary, this “chai,” may you be given strength in all its forms. May you never give in to hatred, but rather find ways to show to the universe that you will never falter. May you fight for humanity all your days. May you banish the darkness with the flame of life itself. And New York, never stop being you.
Love always, from Los Angeles.
In the cultural lexicon, there is often a phrase I hear from people: “It was so bad I still have PTSD from it!” It is such a part of the public discourse that it causes people to scoff when they hear those four letters together.
Don’t scoff. It’s real. Six years ago, I didn’t know I had PTSD – I just knew there was something wrong.
The third verse of “Love the Way You Lie” had just played from my computer. Eminem’s seething voice is echoing in my ears. “Don’t you the sincerity in my voice when I talk?!?” My mind is flashing back to the pain of my abusive marriage and the fight to leave, and I can’t stop. Dear G-d, I can’t stop.
The light is off. Tears are running down my face as I lie against the cold beige tile of the bathroom floor. My body is convulsing in a fetal position; it wants to scream, but it has no voice. What is happening to me?
My fingers find the soft bath mat and start touching it – it’s soothing. I’m coming down. But once I do, my mind is left figuring out why my body became so paralyzed by fear simply by listening to a song, and terrified that this is my new normal.
And then another attack happens. And another one. I don’t know how to stop them. What’s wrong with me? Why won’t this go away?
It took months of therapy to realize that the song was actually a trigger, and a lot of the behavior I had been exhibiting was a part of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, most commonly known as PTSD. It is most normally associated with soldiers coming back from war, but it can also include survivors of rape, abuse and other traumatic events.
People like me.
Recognizing my PTSD was a life changer. Once there was a name for it, I could understand what it was and the way it would affect my life, and develop the coping skills necessary to keep going. But part of it was accepting it wouldn’t go away simply because I wanted to, but rather adjusting to figure out this new part of me.
In the years since my life has reached a point of “relatively normal.” This has meant working full time, paying my bills, maintaining friendships, chasing my dreams – basically living a more normal life than in years past. Yes, I’m slightly eccentric and I still can’t date to save my life, but I’m a functioning adult.
Relatively normal is not normal, though.
With PTSD there are certain places you can’t go, people you can’t see, things that can’t be done anymore. Triggers are specific to that person and where the trauma came from. In my case, television channels, the movie “Juno,” certain songs and if I am grabbed in a violent manner.
Despite the new normal, there is still a life of eggshell walking. Some triggers grow fainter, but then you trip over new ones. The behavior patterns shift and the attacks go from weekly to monthly to maybe even bi-yearly, but they come one way or another.
They don’t always come from overt things, but rather minutes and the moments where life is suddenly derailed and the unexpected arrives. Something will be said, words will be used, a tone of voice, even just a song – and you are shunted back in time to the point where you were violated, helpless, alone.
You take precautions. You know it’s coming. It’s like a ticking time bomb. Can I get somewhere safe? How do I respond? How do I ride this one out until my body lets me know it’s time? Because PTSD isn’t always, “Oh, I had it, but it’s gone now.” Sometimes I think it is, but then another attack comes and says, “Nice try.”
In the aftermath of a trigger you feel ashamed. There’s the brokenness, the emotions of being unlovable and unworthy. Your mind is like a knocked over Lego house you need to rebuild, but then you wonder what the point is when you know it’s going to get knocked over again in six months.
Sometimes the triggers are a blessing and not a curse. With my ex-boyfriend, I would have these types of attacks and difficulties more frequently. At first, I thought they were the growing pains of the first attempts at a new relationship. Later, after our breakup I realized they were preventative measures that my brain was giving me to let me know I was falling into the same pattern of abuse.
It was wondrous when I found out my brain was trying to signal me, and how it adjusted to this version of my existence. But would I trade my PTSD so I can have a life where I’m not emotionally derailed every six months and I’m able to have a healthy romantic relationship? Absolutely.
As research is progressing, so is my education of what PTSD is. It’s realizing I was experiencing signs of it even before the attacks started happening. It’s understanding how it’s different than the standard anxiety I have experienced my whole life, and accepting that it’s okay to have this. And in that education are my hopes for the future.
Normally you would know this about me unless you were a close friend or significant other. But my PTSD story isn’t only mine. With the amount of mass shootings and incarcerations of people taking place in this country, there will probably be more stories and people with it in the decades to come. If I can get one more person to understand, I’ll have helped make the world easier for people like me.
I need you to know what PTSD looks like. And when I tell you I’m being triggered, I need you desperately to believe me. It’s not a joke. It’s debilitating. Difficult. And very, very real.
I’m getting ready for work on a Friday morning when I open up my Facebook messenger. “Hey Reina, can I ask you a question?”
It’s an innocuous statement, but it stops me in my tracks. A question. A question marked as coming in at 3:30 a.m. his time in New York.
Questions at those times of night are usually ones where the questioner is uninhibited enough to say the things they want to say but don’t have the courage to in waking life. If you’re close enough to them, it’s a hookup or a drunken run to Del Taco. But when you’re 3,000 miles away… well, there are probably more layers to that inquiry that pure id desires.
We’re friends, but not particularly close; not to the point where he knows that shooting me a message after 11 p.m. typically won’t get you anything until the next morning. And if there’s anything in my messenger at that time, it’s usually my friend Bryce who has decided to activate the group text to find someone to take her to the airport.
But there it is, clear as day from him: “Can I ask you a question?”
I’m about 85 percent sure what his question is. And for that, I have an answer. The answer scares me, because I know what it means – adaptation, change, uncertainty.
When it comes to my answer, though, I have questions. Lots and lots of questions. And they aren’t only for him; they’re for me as well.
They are the questions of empty beds, daily routines and phone calls. It’s the analysis of friendships and relationships, shared values, career goals and weekend plans. It’s surveying the past and the present, and not being so blind that I’ll repeat the mistakes. They’re the curiosities of looking in the mirror and seeing the scars and the blubbery parts, grabbing the folds, checking every angle and saying to yourself, “Really?”
If it’s the question I’m thinking of, that is. I could be wrong. I have about a 15 percent chance I am. Because that can’t be the question… can it? It’s too easy. After all this time, it can’t come to this. Or maybe it can.
Ugh, how do I answer this question? Because I had been meaning to ask him the same thing, usually under the haze of inebriation before scaring myself from saying it aloud. He beat me to it.
I am reminded of the four sons of Passover – the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask a question. I never understood the fourth child until this point. Things could be simple, I could be wise as well as wicked, but not being vocal wasn’t an issue.
This time, for the life of me, I could not find the courage to open my mouth and speak the question. Specifically this one.
It was something that was rolling through my mind since a cold night in January, sitting in his passenger’s seat on Mulholland Drive struggling to keep my eyes open. Since March, when I mentioned offhandedly at a party to a group that I wanted to hear a song, the next minute seeing him at the music booth, and the song coming on like magic. Since April, when he put his hand on top of mine when posing for pictures. These were incidental, accidents.
It couldn’t be, right? Because I had been wrong before when it came to these things, more times than I can count. I sent out my own version of spies to figure it out, and most of the time they came back with nothing. My friend told me several months back that he had asked her to hang out with him, and she’s far prettier than I ever will be, so there’s absolutely no way.
Yet instincts had been pulling at my insides that something was off. I’ve been asking myself. Asking the people around me. Asking anyone else… but him.
And now here he is, random Friday morning, asking a question that might be the question I wanted to ask, the answer that I knew I had in my arsenal, the thing that I was desperate to know, because that could change everything.
And I respond with that he can ask me, but I’m getting ready for work.
Yup, good old guarded Reina, scared of her own damn shadow. Way to go, kid.
Later that day he tells me he has figured out the answer to his question. I don’t believe him; you don’t text a girl 3,000 miles away and three hours behind for something you can figure out by typing into Google. I ask him when he’ll be back from New York. He tells me. And that’s the extent of the conversations… well, until he asks me a few days later how tall I am. (5’10 and a little drunk due to birthday shenanigans, and then begin questioning Fudgy the Whale’s proper pronouns.)
Meanwhile the question is still lingering in the universe, unanswered, unspoken. My mind is still a blubbering, blundering mess. But sometimes I have to remember there are some questions that are meant to be left unanswered; maybe this is just one of them, and there’s a valid reason for it that I won’t know until many years from now.
Yet somewhere in my brain, I comfort myself that at least I know the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything: 42.
I’m not a nice girl.
On Facebook today was told today that I was angry and negative, because I wouldn’t take a girl yelling out the n-word in a synagogue quietly and said publicly I wouldn’t go to a restaurant that kicked out a gay couple. He then defriended me under the guise that I wasn’t positive enough.
I’m negative, nasty, mean. I’m not a nice girl.
Perhaps I’m not. Perhaps I never was.
For years I strove to be the nice girl. Let everyone have a good time, feel happy in my presence. The idea that I was intimidating due to my height, stature and very loud voice had led to a lot of heartbreak. So I became all smiles, submissive, helpful, happy. Because I’m a nice girl.
Things slid off my back for the sake of my “family.” My “friends.” If I rocked the boat in any way, they would leave me and I would be all alone in the world. I learned in college that people would turn on me if I spoke my true feelings in public, so it came to a halt.
For years, politics never left my lips, controversial thoughts were left to my private life, eating me from the inside out. Because all I wanted desperately was to love and be loved. And if years of being a woman in society taught me anything, the only way this was going to happen was if I was a nice girl.
I started hurting. People started taking advantage of me. I started compromising on the things that mattered, putting myself to the wayside for the sake of everyone around me. I compromised on my ethics and standards, even though I looked around me and thought, This is wrong.
This is wrong.
I got divorced. By nature divorced girls aren’t nice girls. They are filled with sexual energy, anger and, in my case after years of abuse, trauma. They are given side eyes by men in public, even when they proposition you over the internet and via text. You want to be loved when there is a degree of fear surrounding you, because you are the unknown entity. You realize they can’t ever go back to normal. So you try to find a new one.
And if I was going to get anywhere in this new normal, it meant switching back to being a nice girl.
In the years that followed, there was a strange equilibrium that was reached in my public life. Friendly, warm, kind, with a slight tinge of zaniness. Putting politics aside in favor of love. Making sure everyone felt welcome around me, because I wanted desperately to be a source of hope and kindness that people felt safe around, because that’s all I ever wanted and felt others needed it too. Going to temple in the hopes of finding my husband and him recognizing that it was okay to be with someone like me. Because despite my appearances I’m still a nice girl.
Yet it didn’t seem to be good enough.
But in the past few years, something struck in me, somewhere between my mother’s death and now. Where being nice has gotten me friends, but has filled me with anxiety. When is the knife going to tip? When are they going to realize I’m not what I seem, and they get up and leave me? That I’m not a nice girl after all, but filled with apparent nasty thoughts and have standards of what I will and won’t put up with?
Being a nice girl hasn’t made me happy. It’s caused me to be a spendthrift with my money under the mask of generosity and personal economic stability. It has meant time for everyone else around me to the point where I rarely spend a day at home. It has meant getting stoned to let go of my inner thoughts, and crying myself to sleep in an empty bed, wondering why being nice isn’t good enough to have a second chance at a married life. Because being nice means my life isn’t mine. It’s for everyone else.
Yet the minute I have stopped being a nice girl has caused no end of difficulties. It has led to people yelling at me for not attending the birthday party of a two-year-old after getting into an accident. The ending of friendships because I’m “drama” after losing my mother and having my life upended as a result. The begging for me to come back to temple when I’m just tired of wasting my time with synagogues that either don’t accept my political beliefs and aren’t getting me any closer to the person I want to be.
The struggle takes its toll. It has trained me to avoid confrontation and not speak my mind for fear of being attacked. It has meant holding everything in until my very being explodes into a meltdown of anger, tears and frustration. It has meant putting myself second almost all the time in favor of everyone else’s happiness, because it seemed that the only way to be loved is to be nice. It has meant being afraid of letting people in to know the whole me, not just the surface. It has meant running away from the fight because all I want is to be that beacon of love, and I can’t be with drastic opinions about how people should make this world a bit better.
And then I remember my OKCupid, where guys would write me, saying that I “seem like a nice girl.”
And it makes me cringe and brings me back to the truth: Being nice is a bare minimum. It’s the baseline of what a human being should be, and a word of inaction and stagnancy; no one ever moved forward in life just by being on the baseline.
If there was anything I knew about myself deep down, it was that existing on a baseline was never for me.
The words used to describe me growing up, and even in my adult form, are rarely “nice.” They are creative, passionate, determined, resilient, funny, courageous, loud, nerdy, opinionated and downright strange. And yes, sometimes it’s friendly, warm, caring and personable, and occasionally it is angry, difficult and negative. But nice? Not really.
Perhaps it’s for the best that I’m not a nice girl. That there are better words out there in the universe to describe my identity and what I will and won’t stand for. It makes me an individual, not a face in the crowd of thousands who don’t want to shake things up. Because I refuse to be steamrolled or knocked down. And if I am, I’ll get up again because giving up has never been in my wheelhouse.
So I’m not a nice girl. Why be nice when you could be more?
He sits across the table at the Coffee Bean on Saturday night. He looked cute in his pictures – big and burly with nerdy glasses — but his surly face in person made him less attractive. He greets me by saying that my leather jacket makes it look like I’m going to kick his ass, when in truth it makes me feel like a boss.
Our conversations on the phone and over text seemed fine. He dug that I knew how to cook bamya. I was excited about the idea that I didn’t have explain my cultural identity as a Sephardic Jew to him, not to mention someone agreed with my feelings about how gross gefilte fish is. But above all, his dating profile said he wanted monogamy – a difficult feat in Los Angeles.
Yet in person our conversation kicks me in the teeth as he talks about “traditional gender roles” – a strange statement from a 42-year-old still living with his parents and paying for my tea with an unemployment benefits card. As I told him I think they’re ridiculous, his face becomes puzzled.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Aren’t you submissive –“
“Only in the bedroom. But it doesn’t make me less than a feminist outside of it.”
“But you wear dresses!”
“And leather jackets and boots. And I work full-time and just finished school part-time at UCLA, and am chasing my career dreams.”
His face transformed into a dumbfounded expression at my quick conversation — not the first nor the last one I’ll receive. He then decides to dive into politics, discussing how terrorists are all Muslims and, “Walls work.”
(You know where walls work? Around my vagina, because you’re sure as hell not getting in there, buddy.)
The contradiction that was outlined in that conversation seemed to epitomize my dating life over the past seven years. Here I was in Los Angeles, the second biggest city in America, as a single woman: Loud, liberal, sex-crazed, open, fun, and carefree, quick with a joke, living an independent life full of ambition.
Yet despite my brash exterior, I’m a hopeless romantic. Family is still a priority, I don’t scoff at religion fully, and of course there are still those dreams I have of idyllic life. They consist of monogamy, children, dogs and houses with white picket fences. Perhaps it was societal grooming from a young age, or that hope of a romantic love making me feel worthy and fears of not being alone. But something was telling me that the dream could be mine, and I should go get it.
For decades, it had been a nonstop quest. It led to a lot of bad decisions, including getting married young to an out-of-control person, which led to my eventual divorce. Many of the guys that I was interested in over the years were either not keen on the idea of monogamy, or interested in it with someone that was definitely not me.
Getting to it means you have to date. That being said, dating for me is pure agony and full of anxiety. Almost every first date I go on starts with me sitting in the car for at least 10 minutes in front of the date location, lamenting to a friend on the phone how I can’t believe I’m doing this AGAIN, what the hell am I doing here, what’s the point when it’s probably going to be yet another disaster? He’s going to think I’m too fat, irritating, ugly, only good for a quick lay and not a relationship – or worse, he’s controlling and difficult and I won’t see it until it’s too late.
After I get off the phone I’ll play with my phone for a bit, wondering in my head why I can’t just have a guy friend magically appear from my life and admit his feelings for me so I don’t have to do this anymore. This is all before I actually have the guts to walk in for the date.
When I’m not dating, there’s my father echoing in my ears. There are different phrases: “I’m saving money for your wedding,” and, “I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s like” and “You have so many friends, you’d think they’d know someone for you.” And, of course, the one that makes me the most upset: “If you need me to hire a matchmaker, we can do that.” (They’re $5,000 a pop minimum, and I spend a good chunk of my relationship with my father trying not to get him to his spend money on me so he can enjoy his retirement.)
The closest I came to the dream was a three-month relationship. The fence wasn’t white, but there was a wooden gate before the door and a front yard where a jacaranda tree began to flower. A vegetable garden was in the back, which he taught me to water. There were two dogs and parties with games of cornhole while he introduced me to his friends as his girlfriend. Going to bed with him at night and waking up to him cuddling me the next morning was bliss. And yet the sex was surprisingly hot given the domesticity.
A little over two months in, though, he broke his rules down for me: He didn’t want to get married. He had no interest in monogamy (at least for himself – he eventually threatened not to sleep with me if I dated anyone else). Yet he wanted me to be the mother of his children. The trappings of domesticity were part of the façade that drew me in.
It was hard to end it, but under the jacaranda tree my fantasy was broken. We had just returned from a weekend trip in Las Vegas when I discovered another girl’s makeup on his bathroom counter. My attraction to him hadn’t waned, but the relationship wasn’t working. The purple flowers fell around me as I admitted, sheepishly, that I was falling for him and needed to know whether or not he was in this too. His response was, “I care about you a lot, and I’m glad you’re getting attached to me.”
Less than a week after that conversation I ended it. And almost two years later, sitting at a Coffee Bean in front of a guy looking at me wanting to fit “traditional gender roles,” I was still striving for those dreams of monogamy, family and white picket fences. And in an old school Carrie Bradshaw fashion, I typed it out and asked myself – are those dreams too much to ask for, being the person I have become?
Several days before the disastrous Saturday night date, I told my friend about my dad’s conversation talking points of me finding someone and ending up in a relationship.
“Why does he keep doing that?” she asked.
“I think he’s concerned about him dying and me being alone,” I replied.
“Tell him your friends will take care of you.”
Her phrase seemed so simple, and yet I remembered over the past seven years who had my back when life got hard. None of them were my romantic partners.
All those years of cultivating those friendships lived alongside that lingering dream in my head of domesticity. It told me if I had monogamy, marriage, family and the white picket fence, creating a Jewish home with someone, that’s the garden where love would grow. It was the place where safety would live and my heart would thrive; where everything would work and I could advance in years with the knowledge that someone was there looking out for me and holding me through both the tears and the smiles. It was always part of the plan.
It’s a different world out there now. And perhaps the universe was telling me that this fairy tale wasn’t a part of mine and it was time, at long last, to throw in the towel.
It’s a hard thing to give up after yearning for that great love for so long. Of playing with doll houses as a kid and learning how to cook while married; watching movie couples kiss on-screen and playing out scenarios with crushes in your head to love songs. Of going to Jewish singles events and temple services in the hopes he finds me, and wishing on a star for that second chance at a wedding dress and domestic bliss. Giving it up breaks my heart.
Yet maybe there’s something else: Instead of monogamy and white picket fences, perhaps it’s world travel and creative expression. Or telling stories and playing Auntie. Maybe brunches and solo drives up the coast. Perhaps making movies in far off locales and making love with strangers on foreign beaches.
I have no idea what lies beyond that dream I had of domesticity. But maybe the universe is telling me that it’s time to go find out.
Every woman has a story. If there were more proper ladies in my life, they would say, “That’s personal. We don’t talk about that.”
Luckily, I was raised by strong women, not proper ladies. They never hid anything, sometimes to their own detriment, but in this case to their credit.
Because every woman had a story. It may not have happened to her, but she knows.
One of the first stories I heard about it was from my mother. There was a girl from high school. It was the 1950s and done in a back alley, hidden in the shadows. She was left to bleed out on her parents’ lawn. She died. Her family was never the same since that early morning they discovered her body.
Millions of women fled to back alleys and shady doctors during this time. My grandmother confessed to me over a cup of coffee in her kitchen that she was one of them. She was living in a two bedroom house with eight other people, including her two children; there was no room and no money for another mouth to feed. Birth control wasn’t readily available. In her world, risking it was the only option.
She didn’t know that I knew it wasn’t the first time she sought one. My mother told me that after my great aunt’s husband was killed during World War II, her mother didn’t want to bring a child into a world like that. His mother stopped her and my great aunt and told them to not give up hope, to have the child and name it after her son.
Her son’s name was Jack. My mother was Jacqueline.
At 17 in government class, researching it for a class project, I realized there was historical context. From American Indians to the pioneers heading west, it was downright common. In Eastern societies they even had special teas. This wasn’t a new phenomenon; it was a tale as old as humankind, and one that will never stop no matter where humans go.
After turning 20 I was diagnosed with premalignant cervical cancer. The doctor cuts off a piece of my cervix and I’m sent home to rest for several days with some pads and warnings of no heavy lifting, no operating machinery. The doctor says the procedure was “like that” major medical procedure, and takes just as much time to heal. One month to be precise. My mother is unusually gentle with me, driving me there and back, picking up a chicken pot pie from the market for me as I’m put to bed.
By the time I was 23 and the condom broke, I was in a hot and heavy relationship with my now-ex. When we weren’t having sex, he was echoing conservative radio hosts like the expert mimic he was, right down to the views on women’s autonomy. Driving to the Ralph’s on Cherry Avenue in his tan Toyota Corolla to get a Plan B, I can’t help to ask, “What happens if…?” I asked. He responds rapidly that I would get it because, “I can’t let my mother find out.” Apparently no belief is as strong as the threat of a domineering Jewish mother.
I’m 28, in a car and my friend is driving me home. Halfway home I realize he’s drunk, but he’s an angry drunk so asking him to stop might be more than I bargained for. He’s blabbering on about his ex-girlfriend who he just saw, a friend of mine who had a particularly traumatic family history. He starts screaming how she has had four and that “her uterus must be scraped clean.” He calls her a slut. Whore. Bitch. I’m too scared to say anything.
At 32 I’m sitting in a Thousand Oaks Planned Parenthood, trying to take care of my birth control because I needed a new IUD and didn’t have good enough insurance to go to a regular gynecologist. I’m looking out the window and I see a lone person carrying a sign, marching back and forth lazily, as if this an everyday occurrence. Not threatening to most eyes. But this place had been firebombed in the past. Not the first Planned Parenthood. Nor the last.
And wandering the internet, even as recent as an hour ago, I watch how men seem to know more about what to do with my body than I do. How born-agains with stars in their eyes talk about how “every child is precious” without solutions to the children who are here and unwanted. How people express their opinions and try to create legislation without understanding the facts, science and logic that come with that word.
And our stories as women linger in the darkness, silenced because it’s not proper. It’s not nice to talk about it. To say the word. That one little word that creates a firestorm wherever it lands.
I don’t even need to say it. You know it just by reading the stories above.
The proper ladies might have had one thing right: Our choices for our bodies are personal. They are choices we don’t make lightly. Those who understand know that it isn’t just a word or even a political landmine, but a major medical procedure that comes not only with a physical aftermath, but also an emotional one.
But I would also argue that, like my mother and grandmother did, we need to talk about it. Keeping it in the dark makes it invisible, intangible, unknown. And in order to have the full, complex conversation, it needs to be known. Every woman’s story. Every woman’s tale. Every woman’s fears and struggles. And the men must stay silent, forced to listen.
So grab a cup of coffee and sit with your sisters. Because for anyone who says, “We don’t talk about that,” my answer is, “We do now.”
It was already dark at 6:55 pm as Cigdem and I parked on Washington Way in Venice Beach.
“What are we doing again?” she asked me.
I showed her the website – the idea was to meet new people beyond physical appearances. We would be ushered into a dark room and then connect on a “spiritual, more emotional level.”
She gave me a look, blinking her eyes in a way so that I can read her thoughts immediately.
“We’re going to die,” I squeaked. We burst into laughter – we had both been on the dating scene for far too long.
For the past seven years I have been single in the greater Los Angeles area, experiencing very little luck when it came to romantic connections. Even though I had some short-term flings and relationships, but it was hard to actually settle down and find someone who was interested in committing to the long-term — at least with someone who shared my values.
I have no luck with OK Cupid anymore. Tinder is a horrible invention, and Bumble was like a full-time job that just stressed me out with its countdowns to how long this connection would be open for. Meanwhile, every Jewish dating site was filled with either guys I know, dated, or had zero interest in me. So when I saw this dark room idea on a Facebook advertisement, I met it with a “why not?” shrug.
Around 7:02, we entered the cold Venice night and approached the random address we were told to go to. I rang the digital doorbell on the rickety wooden door. “I don’t know,” Cigdem said skeptically, but soon enough the door opened.
We walked in to a beautifully lit hostel with a green lawn and romantic strings of lights above. There was statuesque lady with an elegant silver cross on her neck greeting us with plastic cups of wine. She escorted us inside the rustic wooden house and upstairs into the dark room. After my eyes adjusted, I could see we were at a long, elegant wood table in a room with a vaulted ceiling.
I began cracking jokes and singing “Whistling in the Dark” by They Might Be Giants before segueing into “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” A few minutes later the door opened, and other person walked in – this time a guy. The door was shut once again.
Even in the dark we started asking the standard “getting to know you” questions — “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “Where do you work?” We discussed the insane Los Angeles weather we had been having. It was the talk that comes with so much of dating it might as well be canned.
Eventually the door opened again and the lady who greeted us walked in; I could tell by her voice.
She did a brief introduction, explaining that this was a pilot program she was starting in Los Angeles. It is a great place to start, she said, since there are so many people here are from different backgrounds and cultures that are seeking real connection.
She outlined basic policies – no sexual assault (the fact that has to be said is utterly insane), no hogging the conversation, and PG-13 language only (well, I’m fucked).
After that, she said that with Valentine’s Day having just passed, she was trying to focus this presentation on love.
“So to start, what is love?” she asked
My answer was, singing, “Lady don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.”
“So it’s about pain?”
“Oh, no no, that’s a song.” I tried to head-bang to the right, a la “Night at the Roxbury,” before remembering I’m in darkness and no one can see what the hell I’m doing.
Instead I let my words turn serious and mentioned a parable, about a rabbi going to a young man and asking him why he was eating a fish. The young man responds, “Because I love fish.” And the rabbi said, “Oh, I see. You love the fish. You love the fish so much that you decided to kill it, cook it and eat it. Don’t tell me you love the fish. You love yourself. So much love is fish love.”
Cigdem and the guy each addressed the question their own way. Then the lady asked, “Okay, so what about arranged marriages? Is that love?”
We began answering, then she would add another question. Then another, and another, until questions fell away and it delved completely into conversation. The dark room had gone from just another dating gimmick to an actual serious discussion about the trappings of modern love and relationships.
As we dove in deeper, it felt like the questions came not from the moderator, but from inside myself. It was like the universe was checking in on my romantic escapades: “What have you learned? What has been special? What has been odd? What has been difficult? What worries you? What can you share before you move on into a different chapter?”
In that room, I brought over seven years of dating experience, along with the trappings of a bad marriage previous to that. Cigdem brought her own experiences, as did the guy we didn’t know. We also allowed our parents’ stories and our cultural backgrounds to enter that darkened room (which, as we later found out, each of us had a connection to Turkey), what they expected of us, and how they shaped our beliefs about family, love and marriage.
In the darkness we could get into issues that mattered, things that we cared about as people who were really looking for something more. With every dating app, speed dating and singles event that I had gone to, these were the conversations I wasn’t having, and needed to. And just maybe I wasn’t the only one.
“So back to your original question, I once read an article called ‘Love is Not Enough,’” I said to the moderator after about an hour or so. “It begins with talking about John Lennon and how he sang, ‘All You Need is Love,’ and then talking about all the terrible things he did in the course of his relationships. Then it talks about Trent Reznor, who wrote something along the lines of ‘Love is Dead,’ and over the years he has sacrificed his career and touring to help sustain his relationship and his family. Love isn’t enough; you have to have something else behind it.”
“It’s an action, not a noun,” the moderator said.
“You need more than just love,” the guy said.
The moderator said that it was finally time to turn on the lights. I covered my face as all of a sudden the bright lights flooded my eyes. Next to me was a good-looking guy, who was smiling at Cigdem and me with a big toothy grin. And I couldn’t stop smiling back; it felt like weights were lifted off my shoulders with just a single conversation.
Even after the evening was over, the conversation continued. We were able to talk more comfortably about our family histories and our parents, sitting outside under the cold Venice sky. We laughed, shared stories, exchanged information and parted, with Cigdem and I heading back to her car.
As we strapped in, she said, “I did not expect that.”
I never expected it either. I took a shot in the dark with the hopes of finding love, not realizing there was something in the room that I needed more and had forgotten over the years — deep, thoughtful conversations. And in that room, I found it.
Sure, the dark room didn’t have my true love in it. There was another hurdle to jump over, another step to be taken in this quest to find my partner, and that was okay. Ever step I have had to take in my dating life over the years was okay, because they were mine and teaching me along the way.
As I drove home from Cigdem’s house, I looked over at the empty passenger seat and smiled. Finding love, in so many ways, was not about the person who would be sitting there, but the person who I had become driving along this road. And I really liked that person a lot.
You can’t help but to feel heavy when the nurse at the doctor’s office asks you to step on the scale.
I always turn my back and ask the nurse to never tell me what it says. Shutting my eyes, I feel my breath moving through my body. The seconds are agonizing, wondering how much my clothes weigh and how they’re contributing to that evil number that supposedly defines who I am on this earth. I sit in the examination room, tapping my feet nervously, wondering if this guy is going to be like every other doctor who responds to every problem I bring up with, “Lose weight.”
Later that night, looking in the mirror, I check all the angles of me – there’s my father’s body type, big-boned and tall. My mother’s soft belly. The curls that define the Abrevaya side of my bloodline, with that streak of gray right at the front. There’s my grandmother’s smile. My Uncle Victor’s face shape. Even my Uncle Barry’s eye color is there; the light-toned rarities in our families filled with brown eyes.
My uncles were superficial men. Two are gone, and we barely had any relationship as adults. One is still alive, and the relationship is at an arm’s distance. Sometimes I wonder if they only have viewed me as heavy.
Living in Los Angeles is the thrill of my life. It’s magical residing in a place where people are ambitious and determined like me, expressing themselves and finding the freedom to be who they truly are. There are infinite conversations to be had all across the city with a wide variety of backgrounds. Not everyone is a struggling Hollywood stereotype, but they all believe in the spirit of this place, made up of dreamers from all over the world.
I live in a walkable neighborhood, so getting out is not a problem. There are bright Sunday mornings, carrying bags to buy groceries. Wednesday night walks to Busby’s East for The Moth. There are strolls around the art museum and tar pits. There’s drifting up to The Grove on random evenings… anywhere my feet can go, I’ll venture.
Yet sometimes, when picking up an acai bowl or a cup of coffee, I notice the eyes from strangers as I walk past. How dare I eat when I’m heavy?
After visiting the doctor, I realized that this was the age that my father started really developing hip and back problems. That wasn’t going to be me. Monday mornings transformed into boxing, weightlifting, and crunches. Wednesday mornings were for shoving a swim cap on my head and diving into the Culver City Plunge. Suddenly there was exercise that I liked; my body moved and felt good.
Yet when it’s time to get dressed at the pool, the ladies in the locker room raise their eyes. I’m heavy. What am I doing here?
I began eating healthier once I moved into my apartment; gone were the salty crackers, processed cookies, and ton of sugar. Here came whole grains again, chicken, fish, lots of vegetables and delicious spices. Cooking again feels great. And I don’t berate myself if I don’t stick to everything perfectly; sometimes the night is so rough it needs a pizza.
Yet no matter how nutritious my diet is, I look in the mirror, put on pants, slip on a bra. It’s still heavy. I can’t morph into what the world wants me to be.
Swiping across Tinder, OkCupid, Hinge… there have been no limits to the dating apps that have resided in my phone. When it was just sex, it was easy; every guy is curious about a girl who might be out of their comfort zone when it comes to body type. And hey, sex is fun, and there are no problems with it.
Most guys didn’t acknowledge me beyond the bedroom. Men have come and gone from my bed, but sex has lost meaning simply because I trained myself for it; if it meant anything beyond physical pleasure, my heart would break every time. After all, I was heavy; that didn’t make me girlfriend material.
It plagued my dating life. My camp boyfriend wanted me to lose his virginity to him after not seeing him for years, but once he saw me heavier he said I was too fat to have sex with. My first boyfriend was a bigger guy, but then he told me it might not work between us because his best friend was berating him to break up with me since I’m heavy. I would go out to dinner with my guy friends, then suddenly say they’d date me only if I were 20 pounds lighter. My ex-husband became my husband simply because he was the first guy to be proud to be out with me in public.
No matter how many times I am told I’m a “catch,” I don’t pursue guys. It doesn’t matter how many of my friends say he has a crush on me, it’s not possible that he’s interested in me. The sentiment is followed by the procrastination, laziness, complaining and whining about dating in general. Even the issue of dating itself becomes too heavy.
You get scared. Whenever I have an opinion online, the first comment I get often is that I’m fat. In posting a picture on social media, I question if my face is too big, if there’s a double chin, if my hips are too wide, if my body is just not good enough to even be featured there (even the above picture is an example). It’s seeps into the little and the large. There is no escape from heavy.
As you get older you fall into the comforts of life. You don’t want to go out and take as many risks; there is so much more to lose, and it’s a lot harder to recover when you do. And no matter how hard you try, you know your body will never fit the “healthy” stereotype. So why do you keep trying?
There are so many things that make life lighter. There’s the doctor who opened that door and spoke to me kindly. He decided not to go by the numbers on the scale to determine my health, but by running comprehensive tests that say, despite the number on the scale, my blood pressure is perfect, cholesterol fantastic, heart strong. Just stay active and eat healthy.
There’s school, work, friends don’t see the number on the scale, but rather see me. We embrace, laugh, and become family in lieu of the ones who view me simply as heavy. My intellect is viewed as a positive, my ambitions a gravitating force. The conversations and company make me feel a feather wandering joyfully in the wind.
My father remembers once being picked on regularly because of his weight and height, so he never mentions it. When he describes me, it’s as brave, smart, funny, caring, kind… anything else but heavy. Creativity is what he sees as beauty, the values that linger beyond the surface, moral standing and doing what’s right versus focusing on popularity. His attitude reminds me again and again of what really matters in the world.
And when I put my hands to the computer keys, remind myself of the words that I put in the digital atmosphere, the crayons I choose to scribble with, it feels like a second skin. No matter the medium — screenplay, blog, story — I feel at peace here. That’s when I surrender myself to the universe to speak truthfully, to share, to fill the air with something worthwhile. It’s the way to be more than just a body, but to be a true vessel for others, to inspire laughter, love, healing, and other intellectual curiosities. After all, I’m a body now; one day I won’t be.
They are all the things that remind me that I’m not just heavy. That I’m worth the space that I take up in this world.
It doesn’t always work; sometimes you fall away and forget your value beyond the superficial. You get courageous for a second, but then immediately retreat because there’s no way it will work. There is so much that frightens you, but then you have to remember the lightness you feel when you forget for just a minute and see into the mind and soul. There is so much potential beyond heavy. The very word becomes a limitation, when we should all live our lives beyond the definition of what our bodies are.
And then it’s time to take a deep breath and remember: I’m the way the universe has meant me to be. And heavy or not, that should be good enough.
There is a photograph that I keep on my dresser of my grandmother and me sitting at her tiny round kitchen table. The light is shining through the window, and we’re playing cards; I’m probably teaching her how to play Go Fish for the hundredth time. It’s a mundane moment; it’s not even a well-taken picture, as the exposure is too dark. However, it’s one of my favorites.
Nony’s kitchen was more beautiful than a sunset, warmer than a blanket, chaotic yet utterly peaceful. It cast a spell on you, and would never let go. Nothing horrible in the world could touch this place.
To this day, I joke that my Nony taught me that Sephardic women rule two rooms in the house, and one of them is the kitchen. (You can guess the other.) We have our little secrets of how we make things work and create magic seemingly out of nowhere. But just as my grandmother’s kitchen was her territory, my kitchen has become my own sacred space.
Today would have been her 101th birthday. I have spent it remembering Crescent Heights and its vintage yellow tile and little nooks, then Palm Drive with its laminate floors and wooden cabinets. But no matter where the kitchen was, she’d make it her own. And with every meal that found its way to the table, it also came with vital life lessons:
- Be prepared for anything and anyone walking through the door who might be hungry. Stock the freezer; you never know when your grandchildren might want squash frittada.
- Fine China is beautiful, but tiny cheap plastic pink bowls are just as good, if not better.
- Always add salt; it brings out the flavor in everything, even life itself.
- Tell all the jokes, no matter how blue. Tell them to the point where the more innocent members of the table need translation.
- Drink your coffee strong, and drink it slow to prolong the laughter. If you can’t drink it slow, at least add a biscocho so you have something to nibble on.
- Share traditions. Give the Mexican neighbor upstairs borekas, she’ll give you flan so your husband can eat it without his teeth.
- Take the time twist up the sides of your borekas. Traditional baking may be slow, but every minute of preparation is another bit of love in the world.
- No matter how small the kitchen, there’s always room at the table.
- The crispy part of the rice is always the best part that people go for; if someone gives that up for you, that’s true love.
- Even when there may be very little money in the bank, find a way to feed your neighbors. Never forget to welcome the stranger into your home.
- Always find an excuse to celebrate.
- Get your priorities straight. Even if there’s a diamond ring waiting on the other side of the door, never leave the fish frying on the stove to burn.
- You could be given expensive purses, but the best gift you could ever get is a five-pound bag of pre-washed spinach and a small package of cream cheese. If you are truly happy in your life, it doesn’t take much to make you happy.
- If a handyman comes, desperately try to feed him. If not, talk his ear off until he relents.
- Create a space where there is so much love you can’t tell who’s a friend and who’s a family member.
- It is actually possible in the same sentence to say that someone has put on weight and that they must be hungry, here, eat this.
- Communicate, share. Find a way to bridge the gap, even when there are languages spoken at the table you may not understand.
- Stand strong in your kitchen; this is your turf and your rules. If they’re not helping, feel free to kick them out. But if you love them, sneak a kiss before they go.
- Always add a little sweetness at the end (my grandmother would call this a “savor de boca”). If there are not at least two pints of ice cream in your freezer, this must be remedied immediately.
- There is no room for grudges with a bunch of delicious food in your face. Make room for forgiveness.
- Food, when crafted with love, is not just food.
- The table, and those surrounding it, are sacred. Treat them as such.
My grandmother has been gone for 13 years, and I long for her every day. Most of my adult life has been spent on efforts in bringing her kitchen back. Part of what I love is sharing what she taught me with my friends, all in the hopes that we can create what she had for the modern world.
I’m a different woman than my Nony, but it doesn’t matter; what matters is what she left behind, which is worth more than money. For 23 years she gave me so much that, in the quiet moments, I latch onto. And when I see her face reflecting at me in pictures, I know that no matter what is going on there will always be a way to make it okay.
And if all else fails, here’s another spoonful of sutlach.
Several months back, I visited my friend Jared after he broke his ankle. Between our tea drinking and strange anime watching on his bed, he said something that stuck in my soul: “2018 was the worst. If I could burn it, I would.”
Something about his words lingered in me long after I left him. I headed back to my apartment in Miracle Mile, thinking about them. What would I burn if I had the chance?
Walking into my room I shut the door, and it hit me in the leg.
It was a 15-pound gold frame with green matting and plexiglass, a wire weaved on the back so it could be hung on the wall as it was many years ago in a different apartment. Inside of it was a relic from my past: My ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract from when I had been married.
I had ideas for it. There were visions of new artwork transforming this heavy monstrosity into something better; not letting it be what bound me to an abuser and a past I wanted to forget, but the reminder of my transformation into something better.
“If I could burn it, I would.”
I kept it first out of necessity, as there were things in that marriage contract to protect me in case my ex would chain me to him. This specific ketubah contained a clause that would allow a civil divorce to act as my Jewish divorce, also known as a get, if my ex refused to grant me one (traditionally, the man has to grant the divorce to the woman in Judaism).
On a bright August day, wearing a Beatles shirt and long black skirt, I was granted my get, and this three-foot-tall beast of past art was tucked away in my parents’ house behind the guest bed. Five years later, when my dad was moving out of my childhood home, it was given back to me.
“Throw it away,” I said. “I don’t want it.”
“No, don’t,” I was told. “It’s so beautiful. And you don’t know when you might need it.” For what after five years of divorced life, I didn’t know.
When I moved to my Miracle Mile apartment I took it with me. Now it was tucked away behind the door to my bedroom to hit me in the leg. And after almost seven years of divorced life, I had to sit and wonder why.
Was I going to transform it into a new piece of art? No; there was no point in investing money into it, and I wasn’t terribly skilled at painting or drawing. Was I going to hang it on my wall? Definitely not. So why was I holding on to it?
“If I could burn it, I would.” And what was really stopping me?
I had pictured a bonfire at Dockweiler Beach in late December, a communal friend event to help everyone let go. There was little interest, as I wanted to do it around Christmas when everyone was flying out, so I cancelled it. It was selfish anyway.
My friend Cigdem, who I had performed storytelling with, texted me and asked me why. I told her about the marriage contract I had sought to burn by the ocean.
“Let’s just do something at my house then – just you, me and Jeanette,” she said. “I have a fireplace.”
In all the times I had visited Cigdem’s apartment, I never knew she had a fireplace. We had watched videos on yoga balls in her bedroom; sat out on the balcony nook full of colorful linens she created; drank Turkish coffee in little cups at her long table and cooked in her kitchen; filmed stories on her green tufted couch in the living rooms.
I never noticed the fireplace, tucked on the north wall, with the little switch to turn on the gas. Never thought to look — until we had something to burn in it.
Instead of a December beach bonfire, I bought two bottles of five-dollar wine at Trader Joe’s and Cigdem cooked a vegan dinner. Jeanette had brought a bunch of various items left by former roommates from years past and Uber driver items that hadn’t been claimed by the people who dropped them, ranging from an ultrasound picture to sets of keys.
But then the question came: “How do we do this?”
There were a million ideas in the air, of goddess circles, tarot and written things. Jeanette brought dried bay leaves to possibly provide some incense and some positive thoughts to what we were doing.
“Also, it’s the full moon at the height of its power at 9:48,” said Jeanette. “We should burn that at that time.” It took me a while to realize that when she said “that,” it meant my marriage contract.
The wine flowed, loosening our tongues. We began doing our own version of storytelling, bouncing off each other to create and imagine. It went on for an hour when at 9:12, Cigdem said it was time to begin. It was almost like we knew that the hour was at hand.
We sat at Cigdem’s circular coffee table near the fireplace on bright cushions. She pulled out her notebooks and pens, ripping pieces of paper out of a notebook.
“Let’s first write about what we want to let go of.”
We furiously scribbled, a cigarette dangling from Cigdem’s lips. I wrote different ideas and created slips of each one. I was letting go of so many things tonight: Of being the divorcee, of being afraid of not finding love and fear of the future, of not feeling comfortable in my own skin. I ended it with three words: “You are enough.”
We each took our time to read. It was communal, raw, empowering. It was like an initial cleanse, a preparation of the sacred task that each of us were about to do.
Jeanette picked a song from her phone to play – “Burn” from the Hamilton soundtrack, as she explained what she was burning. She was letting go of guilt and remorse as she cast three envelopes into the fire, brightening the flame to gold for a moment before the envelopes burned to ash.
Staring at the fire as the last one burned away, Cigdem touched my shoulder. “Reina, it’s time,” she said.
I picked my song – “Rise Up,” by Andra Day. As I held the ketubah in my hands, I remembered the wedding blessings I once said under the chuppah. There was a reference to the song “Od Yishama,” where it proclaims that the city of Jerusalem will ring once again with the joy of the bride and the groom; my beloved Jerusalem, which was painted on my marriage contract.
My thoughts lingered on the holy city of my people, the place that I dreamt about for years during my marriage, the place in my mind where I was trying to fly to but something always prevented me from taking off. How my ex made false promises to return me there. It took my divorce and own willpower to finally put me there, riding solo on buses, Bob Dylan blasting in my ears as the wind rushed through my hair. I was enough, and I would keep being enough.
I prayed furiously in Hebrew. I thanked God for taking me this far by my own hand, and meditated on a new marriage, a new chance at creating a loving home and family with someone. Praying that these years of waiting and discovering who I was before I got to be with someone else were worth it.
At first, I ripped slightly; in a Jewish divorce, they will tear the ketubah paper slightly, showing it cannot be mended. But that slight tear didn’t cause me pain. Rather, it brought me courage. “Bo’i chattan, bo’i chattan,” I said, ripping through the paper, ripping through his name, keeping mine intact.
As Andra Day ended, I switched the song. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt now sang their love to me, and their voices gave me strength.
“And when our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”
Tonight, I was letting go.
Each piece was thrown into the fire, the shock across my face as the flames turned from golden to bright blue. Another piece in – blue again, the flame becoming extra hot. I had never seen fire like that.
“There must be something in the paper,” Cigdem said.
There was something in the paper, a curse being released from its fibers, a weight being lifted with each piece that turned the fire blue. The music crescendoed. Tears filled my eyes. Watching his name burn, then finally, knowing that I was the last standing survivor, watching the signature of that once hopeful bride go into the flames.
After it was done, I was blasted backwards, tears rushing down my face. Cigdem and Jeanette ran to hold me as I saw the paper of what was once my marriage turn to black, then gray ash.
“If I could burn it, I would.” And I did.
Cigdem burned her item – a letter from her past – as she broke out various instruments. A colorful maraca, a clear tambourine, even a musical instrument made from a coconut. She then turned on her own song: “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” My tears became mixed with my laughter; we had been singing that song several weeks earlier on a wild night of exploring the city.
Through the rest of the evening, Jeanette, Cigdem and I sung and danced, writing on dried bay leaves our hopes and dreams for the new year and letting their prayers fill the air. And as we shared, there was a part of me that was still the girl at 29 running into the night in fear and uncertainty, amazed that this was the version of life that came from it. And I thought was finally — finally! — I could let go. Maybe now I would stop having to talk about it.
And yet it kept coming up in conversations, even weeks after that night. Why couldn’t I let go? Why was this happening? Why couldn’t I just be me, not just the divorcee?
Last night I told Jared what I had done to my marriage contract. He said it was amazing that I had that opportunity to let go, to burn something, to feel catharsis. Not everyone has that, he said.
But when he said it, I realized something about these past seven years. No matter how far I got from what had happened, it was still mine. Every trauma and tear, alongside every laugh and bit of love, was just another chapter of my story, another world I was a part of, before I came into this one. I could burn items, but I couldn’t burn my past; after all, hadn’t that made me into the determined woman I became after years of struggle? Hadn’t the decisions I had made brought me this minor form of eternal bliss?
And as I hugged him and his husband and drove away into the night, singing to the radio, I felt it in my bones. Freedom was mine. I felt good. And I let go.