“Hey everyone, let’s get together for a photo!”
The sky is bright blue over Castle Park with a touch of clouds, a warm April day in Sherman Oaks. There are about ten of us getting ready to go mini-golfing, and despite the fact that I am absolutely terrible at it, I decided to join in.
There we stand, arms around each other, giants smile for the camera with my hand on the middle of my friend’s back. When suddenly there is a hand on top of mine.
My stomach flips; I know exactly whose hand it is. My face is desperately trying not to give away my shock as my brain goes a mile a minute into analyzing mode. As we continue into the park and I show off my lackluster mini-golf skills, I take glances towards him, but I can’t meet his eyes; I’m trying not to be too obvious so not to give away the debate inside my head.
That resting of his hand on mine couldn’t have been on purpose… could it? Mutual romantic feelings aren’t things that exist in my world. Or maybe that’s changing now? What the hell is going on? My running mind allowed the day to fade into the past, but that touch lingered on like a memory, even though a year has passed since then.
Touch is my most dominant love language; it took years to not only realize that, but also know exactly what it meant as I approached both my friendships and relationships. It translated to special handshakes with our security guards at my office, giant hugs for all my friends whenever we’re together, and of course the constant chasing of sex and a romantic relationship (which took me forever to realize that yes, I want and love having it, but I was also craving the cuddling and intimacy that comes with amazing sex).
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. For years I’d walk through Thousand Oaks after school on quiet streets, purposely touching the bushes and trees as I’d stroll by. My senses were engaged by coarse branches alongside smooth leaves against my fingers as the wind whipped around me. A million feelings against my skin in the quiet of innocent days… and there were never enough things to touch. I always wanted more.
It was a truth I couldn’t put my finger on or vocalize properly for years, but knew when touch made me happy and when it didn’t. When he’d shake me violently and try to tell me it was love, it was about his happiness, not mine. Our lives together ended with a piece of parchment placed into my cupped hands in a small Hebrew library on Beverly Boulevard. The softness of it against the fingers let me know I was blessed with freedom, a new life. And when I hugged my father and sobbed after it was over, it was like my heart defied gravity.
In the years since, I was able to discover and explore touch on my own terms. There were so many forms of touch I underestimated and didn’t appreciate. Venturing out into the world included the feeling the cold snow in the mountains of Big Bear, wood of the wave-like benches on the pier at Coney Island as the sun went down, and the smooth golden stone underneath my fingers in Jerusalem. Each one was a way to tell me that I was love, and that meant having a wondrous life.
When the people I love came into that life, these feelings just grew stronger. Each one has something special to contribute. Holding my roommate for twenty minutes while she cried after loss; kissing the top of my father’s forehead before we had dinner together; feeling my nephew squirming in my arms for the first time as I kissed his soft head; the feeling of my mother’s fingernails through my hair as she laid in a hospital bed jaundiced. Touch opened me to the universe and all its tangled emotions and feelings.
And the boys… the boys, the boys, the boys. The feeling of wearing a short plum dress sitting in a comedy club in Santa Monica, a hand running up my thigh under the table. The touch of soft kisses on my neck as I felt Mediterranean sand underneath my toes. The growth past fear to wake up next to someone, arms pulling me in, laying there as if time ceased to exist. The blindfolds and ties, ice cubes and fruit, thousands upon thousands of kisses from a diverse cast of characters. Each one provided a different sensation to enjoy.
I found joy in submission, letting go, ignoring prudish mores that others may hold and letting myself be taken completely by this language without words. Yet at the same time, in each touch there was a secret wish in my heart to be chosen, to be just us against the world for as long as we possibly could. And outside of those touches, I had to watch as each wish was blown out like a candle — whether by him or me. Yet there were no regrets; onto the next, the next, the next, hope for a lifetime love fading in the embers.
And so life rolls on, one day into the next. Touches and human contact come and go; a handshake here, a giant embrace there, a kiss in the darkness, hands groping behind closed doors. Life and touch are taken for granted, until one day when one of the security guards comes up to me at work and starts doing our secret handshake. I’m laughing with joy as someone yells out sternly, “You can’t do that anymore. Coronavirus, you know.”
Several days later, I walk with my dad through his apartment building. We are talking about the days to come, and as I leave there’s a kiss on his smooth forehead. I head home on the bustling freeways, not knowing that it’s going to be a while before I get the opportunity to be near him again.
And soon I’m behind closed doors. The men are gone, everyone I love behind their own doors and windows, our only connections to each other through our respective technological devices. The world has almost completely shut down, except for hospitals and grocery stores. “Social distancing” and “six feet apart” become a chorus to the songs repeating in our heads. The streets are empty and people dart frustratedly, avoiding even the brush of clothing against bare skin in a shop. No one knows when we will get to be in the same room, to touch, to even just be together.
The sky these past few days have been overwhelmingly dark clouds, full of rain. And I am flashing back to that year ago, underneath the sun, standing with friends. Laughing as that boy put his hand on mine and my overactive imagination jumped through circles. Over-analyzing even to this day because when the solitude sets in, so do the questions.
What did I miss then? What am I missing now? Where am I, and where are we as a population going? And I look at the skies and realize it’s not the questions and insecurities that rattle me the most, but the fact that the universe could take something as simple as human contact — as touch — all away in an instant, with an uncertain return date.
Yet as I wrap myself in blankets and soft, fuzzy socks, I make a wish. Despite the dark skies, I still have a simple wish — for touch, for love, for not holding back once the opportunity presents itself. And I’m trying my best to keep that torch lit.
“Once upon another time/somebody’s hands who felt like mine/turned the key and took a drive/was free…”
The clink of the keys is echoing across the empty staircase, various trinkets hanging off the metal hoops. I walk into the garage and open the door to Tommy the Honda, my beloved CR-V.
Take a deep breath. Turn the key. Hands on the wheel. Move forward. Open the garage door.
The clouds look like the stuff of childhood drawings and sunny days ahead. The music is blasting, the passenger’s filled with various snacks. I’m in the driver’s seat — controller of my destiny, queen of Americana, where the car is the symbol of freedom from the world’s rules and demands.
I’m here, but alone; it’s 2020, and social distancing rules in California are in effect. But the truth is I’m not quite alone. As my friend Sarah often points out, we are often a variety of ages existing in one being. So I’m driving solo, but not quite.
“I recall the sun sank low/Buckley on the radio/Cigarette was burning slow/So breathe…”
17-year-old me is in the car. She’s in the process of learning to drive her father’s green Volvo along Ventura Boulevard on Sunday mornings on the way to Hebrew High, when fewer people are on the road. She and dad stop at their Woodland Hills bagel place for the usual — onion bagel dotted with poppyseeds and a mocha frappuccino from the Starbucks next door (17-year-old me does not understand good coffee yet).
She fights her father for control of the radio — he wants to listen to Breakfast with the Beatles, she wants the weekly Top 40 countdown with Rick Dees. Dad tends to let her have her way, but he won in the end; today there’s no listening to the weekly Top 40 countdown, and if it’s Sunday morning the Beatles are playing.
And there is 27-year-old me as well, somewhere near the California-Arizona border. My road trip partner hands me the keys to his silvery Honda Accord as he’s adjusting the white baseball cap on his bald head. “You didn’t expect to come on this trip and not drive any of the distance, did you?” he asks with a laugh. He has no idea that my husband doesn’t allow me to drive with him in the car because he says I’m a bad driver; this is probably the nicest of the colorful descriptors he has of me.
I decide not to say anything, but instead adjust the seat, turn the key, breathe deep as I drive into an Arizona monsoon, complete with lightning cracking across the sky. And somewhere between Orange County and Ithaca, driving his car and listening to the “48 Laws of Power” and the Rolling Stones, something wakes up and remembers that maybe I’m not who my husband thinks I am. I am someone that I’m just getting to know, and someone my road trip partner will never meet; in the end, it will be his loss, not mine.
And there is Tommy the Honda, my beloved CR-V roaming with me across Southern California, with all the different friendly faces piled in the car through our years together. As we drive to our various adventures, the car fills with laughter, bickering and inside jokes. Here I’m 32, 33, 34… the years speed by like mile markers, but each memory feels like a pocket of happiness along the road.
It doesn’t matter where we’re heading — dressed nicely for a wedding at the Korean Friendship Bell in San Pedro, ski gear in the trunk for a snow-covered cabin in Big Bear, a day of Renaissance Faire shenanigans in Irwindale with the rustling of costumes. Every seat is taken. The people in my car aren’t the same every time, but they all have the same title: not friends, but family.
“Just yellow lines and tire marks/Sun-kissed skin and handle bars/And where I stood was where I was/To be…”
For every happy memory behind the wheel, there is pain too. Because there’s 29-year-old me behind the wheel of a silver Saturn, breathing deep under the fluorescent orange lights, shaking in fear and cold, stuck in 1 a.m. road construction. She still hasn’t fully digested what has happened, but knows the life she knew is over. The darkness has set in, and she has no idea what will happen when the sun rises.
I’d like to think I’m not her anymore, particularly because so much time has passed. There are flashes of her sometimes, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to ever shake her fully. I have to stay comfortable with the fact joy and grief both live inside me at the same time.
Yet as I’m driving Tommy the Honda towards the desert, I don’t feel like I’m truly the one behind the wheel. Even pressing the gas pedal up the mountains, I’m a passenger in the current circumstances. So many times I’ve craved someone to take the wheel so I can have a moment to enjoy losing control. But the truth is that being in the passenger’s seat has not been nearly as joyful of an experience.
“No enemies to call my own/No porch light on to pull me home/And where I was is beautiful/Because I was free…”
It could be because of my junior year crush, sitting in his El Camino in my parents’ driveway. I’m staring at his copy of Oasis’ “What’s the Story Morning Glory” underneath the stereo. He had just driven me home after an incident with my mother, and he’s telling me, shaking his head at the steering wheel, that I’m crazy.
All the things I wanted those soft brown eyes to tell me — I’m beautiful, creative, fun, interesting, smart — there’s no room for that. His lips that I wanted to kiss me have nothing but cutting words. There’s no place with him for this confused teenage girl; as I discover later, that’s only half true, because later I realize there is only if I’m valuable in other peoples’ eyes.
It could be the monster sitting in the driver’s seat with 28-year-old me on the passenger’s side, my gold wedding band cutting into my left hand. We’re sitting in the middle of a traffic jam. The sun is setting as we approach the Grapevine, snow glittering on the hillsides. He’s becoming increasingly angry, screaming in a high pitch, banging his hands on the steering wheel of his red Toyota Corolla. Yet I’m still not allowed to drive because I’m a “terrible driver.”
No matter how much I try to comfort him, it will never work. If I ever had a reaction like that, he’d escalate even more to the point where I was forced to calm down and help him. For me, losing control was never allowed.
It could also be the 38-year-old man-child on our second date. It’s dark as we’re driving through Angeles National Forest, him with two bottles of wine waiting to be opened for a picnic and me with cheese and crackers. His large hand is on my knee, moving up my thigh, driving me wild as I’m talking, talking, talking along the winding roads into the unknown wilderness.
“Something” by the Beatles comes on the radio. I curl into his shoulder, feeling peaceful with him; I’m already smitten. “So this is how I get you to shut up,” he says in his Kentucky drawl. I take it as a joke, but it sets the tone to how our romantic relationship will go, as well as its extremely trying postmortem. Even today I know if he sees this, he’ll shoot me an email. It doesn’t matter; I don’t even bother reading his feeble attempts at feeling important.
“Once upon another time/before I knew which life was mine/before I left the child behind/me…”
What is driving me at this moment I can’t really say. Self-isolation has made me feel like my life is made of ghosts, both of past selves and the people around me. They all are with me as I near the entrance from Interstate 5 to Highway 138, also known as Pear Blossom Highway.
Any other day this is the road to Las Vegas through Mojave, but now it’s quiet except for a few cars. The snow on the surrounding mountains is peeking through fog, the wind moving across the low brush. I pull off to the side of the road, take pictures of orange poppies blooming and the clouds rolling in. It is beautiful here, the elegance of the silence resonating along the miles before turning onto Sierra Highway to head back.
In Agua Dulce, I leave Sierra Highwayand drive past the old pizza place where my friends and I would go after climbing at Vasquez Rocks. The store is dark and shuttered. In the reminiscing of the past, I head to the rocks.
There more people than I can handle here, rows and rows of cars along the dirt road where usually it’s quiet and forgotten. They want to pretend that the new world in crisis doesn’t exist and everything is still normal. I can’t blame them; it’s hard to let go. But at the same time, I know better than to fall completely into the fantasy. I snap a few pictures of this place for my own sanity before driving away.
The clouds set in as I merge onto the 14 Freeway to head back to Los Angeles, the drops of water washing the dust of Highway 138 and Vasquez away. The gray isolates me more as I return to my city life. More cars surround me, the rain going from slight drizzle to heavy drops. Can this rain wash away this moment in time? Can I come out of all of this insanity clean?
“I saw myself in summer nights/stars lit up like candlelight/I made a wish, but mostly I/believed…”
In the drive back into the San Fernando Valley, I find another ghost sitting with me. It’s from a January night over one year ago, in a white Honda Accord somewhere overlooking Reseda from the hillsides. The valley floor is twinkling with streetlights that make it appear like sparkling stars. The four people in the car fill it with music, laughter, conversation; it’s cold outside, but their warmth permeates everything.
I have the map in the passenger’s seat. The driver’s hands touch mine pointing to different streets. Then my hands touch his pointing to others. I lean in towards him to ask a question. He leans towards me. Something is stirring in my stomach every time his hands brush mine, but I’m growing oddly comfortable with the feeling. This car is strangely magical, and the last thing I want to do is leave and go back to the real world.
It’s near midnight and I’m falling asleep. The driver looks at me and says something along the lines of, “Reina’s fading; we should head back.” I perk up, brushing it off with “I’d never abandon my team” and “I’m fine.” But the tone of his voice is so soft and gentle, like the warm embrace of a lover after you’ve just woken up. Like there’s something underneath the surface of his words.
Driving home, I blast music along Ventura Boulevard, shaking, almost in a state of anger; that the real world outside that car exists; that I can’t stop time and just make that night in the car the rest of my existence on earth; anger that this human was making me feel like I could be the girl in Angeles National Forest again, feeling for someone who will never return those feelings. I’ve become an animal in a trap, trying to bite their leg free so they can run again.
Since that night I’ve been running from multiple areas of my life that require changes in approach, thinking that it would save myself from the inevitable pain of miscalculated gestures, one-sided affections, and rejection. Yet what have I missed of my life by running away or pretending like I’m fine, I’m superhuman and feel nothing? What will I miss by being locked away inside the confines of my walls?
“In yellow lines and tire marks/Sun-kissed skin and handle bars/And where I stood was where I was/To be…
As I park the car in my garage, the water drops settle on the hood. Here I am, a million ghosts in the shell of one being. Loneliness is my only companion for now as I am navigating this brave new world in the pandemic, alongside all these past versions of myself and the people who have made up my world.
Some of them are gone, whether by death or grievance; I don’t wish them ill, but our paths are divergent now. Others I wonder when they will be close enough again for me not to take them for granted, and how I long to hold them. I take them all with me, whether I want to or not, into the shifting landscape.
The other side of this world is still unseen and unclear. It’s lonely and frightening. We’re at the beginning of the storm, unsure of how long it will linger. And getting into the driver’s seat to maneuver it in the days to come, headfirst into a monsoon, is possibly the hardest thing we’ll have to do. Yet it has to be done.
So take a deep breath. Turn the key. Open the door. Moving forward, yet staying still. Hoping at the end of this, we are driving together, not apart.
“Once upon another time/Deciding nothing good in dying/So I would just keep on driving/Because I was free.”
Yesterday there was a dress — a black sundress covered in yellow flowers in the Michael Kors outlet store. I showed it to my friend Jared, who said, “Oh my G-d, you have to try that on. It’s so you.”
When I did, I began grinning from ear to ear, glowing from every pore. I looked in the mirror and felt like that little girl who watched “Beauty and the Beast” and longed to be Belle. I was her in this outfit. I then said aloud, “This is going to be my last first date dress. This is the dress that I’m going to wear when I date my future husband.”
That dress came home with me. But then I woke up the next morning and looked at it still in the bag, the tags still on. Seeing it made sadness sweep over me. The prayer that I put in that fabric – of the last first date – seemed far away. Because after eight years of on-and-off singledom, I had in so many ways given up.
There were so many dresses over time that seemed like they would be that dress – the one that would take me from liberated divorcee to remarried lady, wiser and ready to build a family with a person who would be an equal partner. For years I had acquired dresses with a tingle in my heart that maybe, just maybe, this was the one.
There were white dresses with lace and A-lines for the High Holy Days at temple. A tight snakeskin dress boys grinded against in an underground Beverly Hills nightclub. I’d wear black cocktail dresses to work red carpets and greet A-list entertainment professionals with an air of coolness. And, of course, there was a red maxi dress caught in the summer breeze that would cause a former target of my affections to realize what he lost out on by pushing me away.
As the years have come and gone, with various amounts of dating in between them, it led me to the black sundress with the yellow flowers. It was the latest idea of the future I wanted, yet somehow had never become manifest: That last first date, where single life was over and a new chapter geared towards marriage and family would begin.
The concept of finding my person was a specter that followed me for years. Even when I was dating my ex-husband, there was even a Zach Braff movie that came out – it was called “The Last Kiss.” I never saw it, but the premise haunted me: Who out there is worthy of being the person we kiss last before we die? My intuition somehow knew, even then, that my last kiss wouldn’t be him.
Instead of letting my ex go, this led to the suppression of my intuition. There were so many things I sensed even then, from his emotional instability to our relationship being more about pleasing everyone else versus him actually liking me. He kept telling me this meant I didn’t live in reality, and I needed him to take care of me.
His words were reaffirming the reflection I saw of myself in the mirror: Tall, fat, ugly, too smart and too weird for a girl. This was my last chance for a family; after all, who else was going to want me? So I poured myself into making my marriage work while he sat and watched sports and Fox News on a continual loop, telling me why my efforts were for nothing and we would end up divorced.
In the eight years since the end, most of my friends and family have coupled up. They have celebrated their own weddings, started their own families, all the things that I had prayed for since the misery of divorce. But as thrilled as I was for them, it was like watching them through a glass window, unable to touch what I had desperately wanted. Through the pane I could hear them bemoan my single existence, yet the glass between us meant they were removed from the struggle. The fact that I was looking and might have needed some help couldn’t penetrate their minds for more than a minute, and if it did, I was handed a scrap or two under the guise of, “He’s socially awkward, but he’s really nice!”
So I turned away from the glass, realizing the only person fighting for my love life was me. I tried for guy after guy, date after date, swiping black eyeliner and making my lashes long enough to flirt. If I didn’t find a guy online, there was very little chance he would meet me in real life, no matter how many single events I attended; guys who seemed to express interest in me in person (or people who would say that a specific guy was interested in me) would never ask me out because apparently I’m “intimidating.”
And no matter how many people told me to ask guys out, the truth was that I wanted to be asked out. It made me reflect on all the relationships of me doing the heavy lifting while my chosen person kicked back. And above all, I just wanted to prove to the ether that I was worthy of being pursued, let alone wanted.
The dates of showing up in a cute dresses, cardigans and heels while the guys appeared in sweaty wrinkled polo shirts with messy hair were endless. They were filled with misbehaving men who felt that I should excuse bad behavior while seeking me as the person to fix all their problems. And as the red flags of my previous life returned and I broke off relationships as soon as I realized they weren’t working, it made me wonder what the hell was wrong with me.
And I woke up this morning, the dress with the yellow flowers still in its bag, and that thought permeated every thought: What the hell was wrong with me? I bought a dress for something that I didn’t know would ever happen.
And besides, didn’t I create a good life for myself? Despite poverty, death and heartbreak, in this time I became financially independent, strong, moving forward in pursuing the career in entertainment I always dreamed about. My writing had become even better than before after years of discipline and work, and now had been finding courage to share it with more people. And even though I had the confidence to walk into rooms by myself and have no problem doing things on my own, the friends I have are magnificent human beings who never made me feel less than loved.
All the while, my bed and my heart felt empty. As every New Year would come and couples would kiss, the clock would feel more oppressive, the countdown ringing in my ears as a reminder that I was failing at the one thing I always wanted as the world moved on without me. I watched spiteful, cruel people who could care less about hurting those around them find their partners as I sat in the dark, staring into a mirror that made me feel broken, unlovable, ugly, unworthy. But above all, my heart had become consumed with exhaustion; unable to move forward, tired of fighting through the jungle to find the love of my life and create a family with that person that the universe didn’t seem to want to give me.
And still, I bought that sundress.
Despite the weariness of single life and the struggle, there is still a small candle lit somewhere in the darkness. It is a slight spark that reminds me that I have been in the dark in so many aspects of my life, and I have kept going, digging through it and somehow made it to the other side.
It’s a fire that glows yellow like sunshine, like flowers. Like hope. Hope that maybe one day, it’ll be time for that chapter that I had been waiting for; one that isn’t easy, because relationships aren’t simple. But one that hopefully will not be alone.
And when he gets here, I pray that I’ll be standing in a black sundress with yellow flowers, kissing him on the lips and then saying, “What took you so long?”
It’s August 2010, and I’m in the New York subway for the first time in years. I’m about to walk into a train to the Museum of Modern Art, when across the platform I see it in orange lights: Q Train, Coney Island, Brooklyn.
My heart skipped a beat. Brooklyn. The place my Papu painted pictures of with his words; tales of cars with bucket seats and watching the Brooklyn Dodgers’ practice after school. Where he and my Aunt Sophie danced along the sand near the roller coasters.
I had never been to Brooklyn, but a fire was burning in me in that moment. It was 9 am, and a voice inside me was telling me to jump the tracks and plow through those open doors of the Q train. To forego everything else and follow my heart to Joseph Amira’s hometown.
Yet my brain knew there was a plane to catch at JFK in six hours. After eight blissful days away on a cross country adventure, it was time to get back to my berating husband and apartment in Lakewood across from the meth lab. It was time to return and continue my normal life of joblessness and despair.
There was only so much time and space left for my freedom, so I got on the subway to MOMA and sped off, looking back at that Q train. As we headed into the tunnel, a wisp of a prayer entered my brain: Please G-d. Please let me, at one point in my life, go to Coney Island.
It’s nine years later, and I’m lugging a flower-covered suitcase through the bus station wearing a black fedora and vintage dinosaur t-shirt. The only jewelry I’m wearing is a pair of silver hoops; my left hand has been bare for almost eight years now. I had just gotten off the Greyhound from Boston, ready for the next leg of my east coast adventure: Four days in New York City.
I wasn’t the same person as I was back in 2010; a lot of the characters who were a part of that story had disappeared into my history. I lived in the heart of Los Angeles now in a beautiful, safe historic apartment building. And now I only had one parent; after having lost my mother three years before. The 2010 version of me was a ghost now.
It’s humid and sticky in the subway, but it’s no concern; I purchase a seven-day Metro pass and start to navigate the train, pulling my heavy bag alongside me through the turnstile, up the stairs and onto the platform. The system was a mystery to me; the only thing I knew was I had to somehow navigate myself onto the M train to the Knickerbocker Avenue station in Bushwick.
The subway car is rattling as it rears up from underneath the lower east side onto the Williamsburg Bridge, crossing over the river. My bones ache in familiarity as we finish traversing the water; the very marrow of my being knows this place. After over 40 years, since my parents lived in New York, an Amira descendant had returned to Brooklyn.
My friend Elan picks me up from the Knickerbocker station, walking me over to his apartment several blocks away. He’s in his element in Brooklyn, his sportswear blending in with all the hipsters, making his way to the plethora of vintage shops to scour for priceless items hiding in the racks. Yet our friendship still remains strong; we’ve known each other for so long that we found out that we’re actually cousins by marriage.
As we traverse the city the first night I’m there, asks me what I want to do while I’m in New York for the next four days. “All I know is I want to go to Coney Island,” I say to him.
“Coney Island?” he asked. “That’s far.” I found out several years after my last visit to New York that it would have taken me an hour and a half to get there.
“I know it’s far, but it’s my grandfather’s birthplace and I’ve always wanted to go.”
Luckily Elan is a sympathetic soul, saying that we’d go together on Thursday, taking the F train; the Q train was less than ideal, it made too many stops. He insists it’s the best day because we don’t have to deal with the locals fleeing the city for the beach on a Saturday, and it should be sunny with no rain.
In the meantime, that meant I’d have to wait. But waiting in New York doesn’t mean counting the hours; it’s doing everything else in the meantime.
Waiting translates to visiting the Brooklyn Bridge in the rain holding a plaid umbrella and seeing all the different cultures come together at the 9/11 Memorial. It’s sailing along on the Staten Island Ferry and giving a loving salute to the Lady in the Harbor. It means walking miles and miles, whether on the streets or in the middle of The Strand bookstore, yet feeling like you’re standing still.
And it also results in food – lots and lots of food. Warm chewy bagels from Ess-a-bagel on 51st street; crunchy half-sours from Pickle Guys on the Lower East Side; sitting on a stoop and sinking my teeth into Sicilian-style pepperoni pizza; steaming soup dumplings in Chinatown at a communal table in Joe Shanghai; deathly rich frozen hot chocolate from Jacques Torres’ shop; dollar oysters at a Brooklyn bar during happy hour; and of course melt-in-your-mouth pastrami in the bustling old-school wood paneling of Katz’s Deli with my childhood friend Kevin. Every bite was its own journey.
But then Thursday finally came. And Elan was right; it was 73 degrees and sunny, so beautiful that you could easily confuse it with a Southern California day. That morning I put on a polka dot dress, red lipstick and a pair of Chuck Taylors. I took a selfie, and smiled; I looked luminous, exactly the way I wanted to when heading to this place.
In the afternoon, after hanging out on the Lower East Side, Elan and I met up in Union Square and boarded the F Train. As we got further and further from the city I was surprised at how empty the train got, and how my surroundings changed – instead of just concrete and skyscrapers, there were lush green trees and suburban neighborhoods filled to the brim with brownstones. You could peek through gaps in the fencing to see the streets with cars moseying by.
There was a quiet in the air. Elan filled the ride with a combo of acrobatic tricks on the handles (and breaking his phone screen) and stories of the development and growth of Coney Island and the mob connections to some of the restaurants. I couldn’t say I was surprised about the mob element – after all, Joseph Amira was one of their favorite errand boys and numbers’ guy back in the day.
We reached the end of the line, the sun still shining brightly. There was a giant old lifeguard tower in the terminal. We walked out to the street and my heart skipped a beat. There were the towering roller coasters, the giant Ferris wheel, and various shops, not to mention the Nathan’s Hot Dog stand. Finally, I was here. It took me 30-some odd years, but I finally made it to Coney Island. My spirit was soaring.
“What do you want to do first?” Elan asked me.
That’s the moment it came back to earth. I didn’t think about that. All I knew for all these years was that I wanted to go to Coney Island – that was pretty much it.
We wandered through the Luna Park carnival and down the streets. There was so much about this place that reminded me of Southern California, particularly the Venice boardwalk and old school Long Beach. A part of me wondered if that’s why, even though my grandfather loved with all his heart Brooklyn, he was perfectly happy living the rest of his life in Los Angeles.
We continued meandering before heading into the old Freak Show. The show wasn’t starting for a while, but everyone working there was friendly. The guy behind the bar offered us beer from a local brewery.
“Where’s the brewery?” I asked.
“It’s right down the street,” said the guy behind the counter. “You should go.”
Elan and I hustled over, and sure enough, there was the Coney Island Brewery, attached to the local minor league ballpark. Among the giant vats of beer with Sno Coney and Mermaid Pilsner, the owners explained to me that their parent company had another location in their independent brewery arsenal: Angel City in Los Angeles.
I couldn’t help but to laugh. After all, Joseph Amira was famous for making raki with my Uncle Victor in the bathtub, even if he didn’t drink. And if he were alive, he’d make sure the first place we’d stop in his hometown would be a baseball stadium, whereas his granddaughter was sure to find a trace of home, even 3,000 miles away.
After finishing our beers, Elan and I got in the spirit of Coney Island. We had Nathan’s hot dogs and deep fried Oreos for dinner. We eyed the funky murals and looked over the Brooklyn Dodgers wear in the shops. All I could think was how family members longed for and discussed Coney Island like it was an unobtainable dream, and here I was, making it a part of my reality. I couldn’t help but to wonder what my mother would have thought of all this.
We found a place on the pier to settle – a large wood bench area that was shaped like the ocean waves. Kids ran around with their skateboards and parents pushed strollers. We laid back as I snapped pictures. Luna Park’s lights began to glow in the twilight and the music from the Ferris wheel swelled.
“My grandparents probably went on dates here,” I said to Elan. “They kissed on this pier. My whole life stemmed from here.”
Elan and I discussed our hopes for the future — how I need a Brooklyn boy to “make an honest woman of me,” his hopes with a girl he had a crush on, where we saw our worlds playing out. There were conversations about past and how my writing was stifled before my divorce and how the years since affected me. There were tales about Elan’s job hunt and finding his place in New York, and how Los Angeles wasn’t allowing him to grow.
The conversation of past became the present, to where were discussing my lunch with my friend Kevin at Katz’s Deli earlier that day. He described himself as a fan of mine. The idea of my writing having “fans,” let alone in a place like New York, was foreign to me.
“Well, you’re talented,” Elan said.
“But that talent didn’t come from nowhere,” I replied. “A lot of it came from my mother. She even wrote her own eulogy.”
“Yup. She would always get the last word, even in death.”
“I’d love to read it.”
“I can read it to you. I have it.”
I went through my blog and found her eulogy. And as the sun went down over Coney Island, I read her words into the wind. The heavens collided with the earth, the pain of loss and the pleasure of life, all in one spot in the universe. Tears pouring down my face, remembering the seed planted from two lovers wandering down a pier, whose daughter brought me into the world. How I listened to her speeches throughout my life, with four words as her creed: “Remember who you are.”
After the fires of these past eight years had almost destroyed me, I had sough the root of my tree, and arrived in gratitude. I laid on a bench overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, wondering what dreams would come to fruition beyond this point. I was strangely hopeful in a way that I hadn’t been in so long. Sometimes the only way to move forward is to go backwards in time, even just for an afternoon.
As the night grew chilly (not to mention that I lost my left contact lens), Elan and I knew it was time to go. We boarded the Q train and began making the slow trek back to Bushwick. As we approached Manhattan, I thought about the desperate girl on the subway platform back in 2010, and that little prayer she had. It was so simple, but the years since made the prayer come true in a way that she could have never imagined.
And like my mother calling to me from beyond the grave, I remembered who I was.
There is a town just about an hour north of Los Angeles called Thousand Oaks, California. One of those sleeper suburban towns, a place where baby boomers settled with their children. Where schools had good reputations and houses were large and cheap.
And in this town was a country line-dancing bar called Borderline. It had blue tinged lights, honey-colored wood, pool tables, and a large dance floor. It was the only dance club for miles, which brought out teenagers who wanted to be cool for having their birthday parties there, and college students on college nights.
It existed on the same plane as fairytales and happy endings, where the surface may be beautiful, but underneath there is something off kilter. The shine too shiny, the colors so deep that it hides the disturbing issues beneath its surface.
Before November 7, 2018, if you asked me where I’m from at a bar and I’d tell you, with a glass in my hand, that I’m from Thousand Oaks, California. You would probably respond with something generic:
“Oh, I have cousins out there.”
“Oh, I’ve driven through there.”
“Oh, it’s so beautiful out there.”
But after that day, if I gave you the same response, the answer would be, “Oh, yeah. There.”
A year ago Thousand Oaks joined a laundry list of towns across the United States: Columbine, Parkland, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook. Each place has their own story, their own song, of the days before and since.
For Borderline, it was a mournful dirge of college students and a PTSD-incapacitated gunman. It was a waterfall of flowers over that corner of Moorpark Road and a memorial ceremony at city hall, followed by fires that ravaged the hillsides. They made the view from my childhood home, once covered in oak trees and brush, into an empty black moonscape. Thousand Oaks had become the hellhole that I envisioned it to be as a teenager who was desperately yearning to get out.
In recent days the memories have come flooding back. Conejo Creek Park, where my mother used to walk our dog by the ponds filled with ducks, now has a memorial garden and bricks with the names of the victims. Articles about the ramifications flood all the local papers with pictures of the crying survivors. And the hashtag that popped up after the shooting — #1000OaksStrong — made a comeback.
I couldn’t help but to remember how, despite my hatred for my hometown and my desperation to leave it, it all broke me. I went to bed for weeks it seemed, barely functioning. My childhood was burning, and the anguish of that fact spilled over everything in my life.
In the days that followed, I had to wake up and ask myself an important question: What was I going to do with this pain? How can I process this? What story could I tell as a girl whose hometown had been broken by an unspeakable tragedy?
Around that time I had begun writing another screenplay — an impulse triggered by the death of a middle school and high school classmate. The mood I wanted to create was that of my hometown. The people I had known growing up had become a part of my characters, and even the town’s name was inspired by it.
At first it was going to be a piece about the depravity that hid behind the surface of suburban life. It was about how anyone who was different from what the status quo should be — straight, white, well-behaved — was something to tame, not celebrated or appreciated. It was for those of us who rebelled and transformed ourselves into something else, but it wasn’t out of love. It was about the anger that festered and lived on.
Borderline reminded me of the fact that Thousand Oaks was once my home. It was where my writing craft was first discovered then honed over numerous attempted novels, poems, blog posts and other unusual experiments. It was where I was dismissed, then triumphed, and finally escaped to grow and become the woman I am today. It was where I knew my pen would be more powerful than any weapon I could ever hold. It allowed me to heal, to grow, to change. And if I were to share its story, it wasn’t only about the anger: it was about more than that.
I am Thousand Oaks strong. This place made me this way, and not only me; there are so many of us who have left to other places. And unlike my life as a depressed, difficult teenager growing up there, I couldn’t paint this place in darkness forever. Borderline made me realize the true story of Thousand Oaks: That there are so many people who would not be the people they are today without it.
It is time for a different song of Thousand Oaks. A ballad that features both pain and promise; that it is home and at the same time leaving it behind for something better; that it is both over there, and yet at the same time right here with us. A song that was a million contradictions rolled into one, and should never work. And yet it does.
My hometown, while it continues to heal, deserves another song. And for you, for Borderline, I sing.
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.