Monthly Archives: February 2014

You Could Never Live Without Me

you could never live without me“You could never live without me.”

I woke up that Saturday morning, three weeks before I was supposed to leave for Israel, with a message from my group leader. I realized forgot to pay the $28 that I owed her for the extended flight for my trip, and I needed to send a check.

The sweat from all the blankets I was curled up in and the frenzy of forgetting dripped across my head. I looked through the stack of white papers on my black dresser, wondering where my checkbook was. That mat of tangles on my head flew by my face as I ran through my room, stacked with clothes, books and papers, not knowing where half of my things were, eyeing the last stages of the cold that I had that past week.

Eventually, I found my checkbook and an black pen. As I scrawled across the paper in my chicken scratch, there was that mental reminder of what he used to say to me whenever I would forget something or make a mistake. “You could never live without me.”

It had been over two years since it was said to me in one form or another, one of the most famous put-downs from a bully who should have been my partner but made it his job to be my keeper. I slipped on skinny jeans and a pair of flip flops and marched out to the mailbox.

The sky was slightly gray in Los Angeles but lined with the lovely fireworks of the palm tree fronds on my street. The feeling of the pavement dotted with black marks underneath my feet was comforting. It was my home now, a blissful thought.

I thought about my former keeper; I rarely yet all the time do, because without him I would have never had this life. It is not an easy one. The skinny jeans that I pulled from my closet, which were once in the back with dreams of wearing them when I got thinner, were now baggy and a size too big due to hunger. When my stomach grumbled as I crossed the street, I remembered that morning when I was so poor I had to go to a food pantry in Inglewood, and that feeling of relief at my very core from simply eating a pretzel roll with bacon bits baked right in. My mind drifted to everything and everyone I lost in those two years, from my beautiful home to one of my closest friends, the only man I ever loved. They were all ghosts now, haunting me alongside those words from that insecure boy: “You could never live without me.”

The wind whipped my hair by the halal market where I buy my produce and the sweet checker always greets me with his bright smile and startlingly beautiful olive green eyes. The sleek UCLA apartments, where I had a cup of tea and a twisted but fun one-night stand with a Ph.D candidate, caught my sight briefly. I walked by all the people roaming down the sidewalk, who just like me were trying to make their way in this city of angels.

I still had a tremendous stack of debt I was trying to get out of. I was forgetful and struggling to survive. Although I was now getting back on my feet with freelance work, I was living life on a dream of a new career path and a prayer that one day things would be better. That was always my dream. I yearned for better as my keeper shrugged his shoulders and carried on with mediocrity. He expected me to do the same, and would push me down to realize this if he had to.

As I arrived at the mailbox, checking the time for the pickup and then dropping the envelope in, I thought about where that $28 of absentmindedness was going. In three weeks, I would be going to Israel. Since before him, it was my heart’s truest longing. He always made promises, but they were always balanced with, “We can’t.” He pushed down dreams while I sought to obtain them, just like this one that was about to come true. Just like how he always saw my writing, saying “It’s good, but…” then followed by criticism of the mundane placing of commas. It almost stopped me from writing, from putting my fingers to the keys and composing the song that my mind was singing. Almost.

The truth was nothing could stop that symphony, not to mention my life from moving forward. My heart had been beating for more than 800 days without him, and it was still thumping its lovely one-of-a-kind drumbeat, pumping blood into my veins and allowing me to be free. Sure, I had suffered, but I knew that my struggles past two years would probably have killed him. In his attempted control of me, he was weak. I proved my strength by greeting each day the best I could as an independent individual.

Sure, life isn’t easy, but it’s mine. It’s filled with broken hearts and one-night stands, struggles with the hot water in my shower and the stacks of paper that one day I will organize and sort through (one day). But it’s an adventure, and sometimes with that there is uncertainty and risk, not to mention prices to be paid. I never know what tomorrow will bring, and that’s the best feeling. I breathe deep and understand the miracle of that action alone.

“You could never live without me.” On the contrary. I’m actually quite alive, thank you very much.

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Of Breasts and Bras: A Daughter of Breast Cancer Story

On the day of my mother’s double mastectomy, I put on a simple beige bra with lace over the cups. I didn’t think much about my bras anymore; just make sure it didn’t show through the clothes and my breasts didn’t look weird, and I was good. Even on the day my mother would lose hers, I didn’t think about it.

It was different when I was 12. My mother sent me off to sleep away camp with my first bra; it had soft light pink cups and no underwire. She didn’t really explain how to put it on before I left, though, and the girls laughed at my awkwardness with this new contraption. Eventually, I watched as one of them put her emerald-colored satin designer bra on backwards, with the hooks facing inside towards her stomach and then turning it around to fit her breasts into the cups. To this day, it’s still the only way I know how to put my bras on.

I didn’t know then how my breasts would get me in trouble. There was no clue about that boy in junior high who touched them inappropriately by the lockers, and then when I saw him down the hall one day I shrieked and ran away. He never got in trouble for touching me; I was punished for screaming. At 16 came the pill that made my body think I was pregnant, making my breasts swelled to an enormous size. Stretch marks now decorated them and they never shrunk. At 5’11, they were now in everyone’s faces.

My ex “loved” them — he would grab onto them like he was squeezing a squeaky ball and shake them hard, biting his folded-over tongue with his eyes bulging wide. He’d give a high-pitched squeal of “TIIIIITTTTIIIIESSS!” that blasted my ears and made me squirm inside. I was just a play toy, mainly because of these things attached to my body.

After the split, I began to truly understand my breasts. My new lovers were appreciative, admiring with whispered pleasure, touching softly and kissing sweetly as opposed to the childlike grabbing. My tops became lower and tighter, as if it was possible. The girls around me complained but then bought their own low-cut dresses to compete with me.

As I became more comfortable in my skin, my breasts transformed from hassle to vital yet lovely accessory. My mom was always concerned about how big they were, saying that I was more susceptible to breast cancer and should get mammograms early. She didn’t know that the danger would grow inside of her first.

After consulting with her doctor, she decided to opt for a double mastectomy. Although the cancer only showed up in one breast, it was the right thing to do; she wasn’t getting any younger, and the idea that she would possibly face another breast removal several years down the line was not a risk she was willing to take.

“Are they removing the nipple?” I asked.

“The cancer is right behind the nipple, so yes,” my mother replied.

“Aren’t you scared?”

“Honey, I don’t need them anymore. They’ve served their purpose, and now they’re done. It’s okay.”

I thought about 14 years previously, when my mom had a hysterectomy for her uterine cancer, and remembered how she later bonded with our dog, Lucy, by cooing about how both of them didn’t have uteruses. She saw her body in functionalities; maybe this was something that came with age. But as she was about to lose her breasts, it felt in a weird way like I was losing mine. I wore my vanity shamefully.

The Saturday night before my mother’s mastectomy, under the twinkle lights in the courtyard of the Cat and Fiddle in Hollywood, my friend Audra and I had a very serious talk about it after distracting myself through the night with boys, barhopping, champagne and beer.

“It’s weird. Why am I more scared about it than she is?” I asked.

“Because you’re projecting,” she said. Although I wanted to deny it, Audra was right. Once a burden, now that I appreciated my breasts and the beauty of them I didn’t want to lose them. And in turn, I didn’t want my mother to have to lose hers.

As I sat in the prep room of the hospital before the surgery and my mom complained about the dirty state of my pink Converse, I kept asking if she was nervous. She kept repeating those words about her breasts serving their purpose as she told me about how I should try on her old bras and see if any of them fit (I knew they wouldn’t, but decided not to say anything). I asked her if she would get new mastectomy bras. She shrugged and said, “Eventually,” brushing it off and turning the subject away.

I knew we were very much alike that manner; if I was nervous or scared about something, I would always say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, find a way to run or push everything away and not let it come too close as to let it bleed. Certain things were just ingrained, I guess. As the doctor arrived, I kissed my mother’s forehead gently and returned to the waiting room.

My mom’s friend Karen was sitting there. She asked me how I was feeling, and I repeated what I said to Audra.

“Your mom is anxious,” she said. “She told me so last night. She’s just trying to be strong for you girls.”

“I feel so strongly about this, Karen, and I don’t know why,” I said.

“It’s because you’re young and we’re older. You’re a young single lady, and your mom is an older married woman. The stages of your life are different than ours. You are still at the beginning, and for you, your breasts matter.”

I paused, thinking of the tight red and black dress from Saturday night, the boys in the bars hitting on me and how good I felt in my skin. Then I  thought of that home video that my father shot several weeks after I was born, with sister playing in the backyard of our then-North Hollywood home, my mother breastfeeding me and him lovingly telling her, “I love you,” as his voice introduced me to the world.

“It’s weird because my mom no longer has her uterus, and now she’ll no longer have her breasts,” I said. “I came from there, was fed from there. My life came from there.”

“You still come from there,” she replied. “She’s your mother. That hasn’t changed, and even when she goes that will never change. It’s just that the plumbing’s gone, that’s all.”

As the evening rolled in and the doctor declared the surgery successful, I went in with my father to see her. I eyed the beige bandages wrapped around her chest where her breasts used to be, the place she nursed me as a baby, ghosts of a glorious past where innocence once reigned. But we were still here despite it all. My mom may not have her breasts, but she’s still alive. And so am I.

I returned to my parents’ house as I drew a bath for myself to relax after the stress of the day. I freed my breasts from the cage of that beige bra and laid in the water. My hands moved across them, feeling those orbs float ever so slightly and appreciating their beauty. They were still here, and for now they weren’t going anywhere. And as I rose from the bath like Venus out of her shell, I felt an unusual sense of peace.

Would I lose my breasts one day like my mother? We can never be certain. All I know is that I, and my mother, will be there for whatever tomorrow will bring me. That, and when I get home to Los Angeles I want to go out and buy a bright red bra.

High School Remembered

About a month ago, a girl who I went to high school with was killed in a motorcycle accident on the northbound 405 freeway. The girls from my high school who I’m friends with on Facebook started putting out meaningful consolations to this girl as standing memorials.

And I couldn’t remember her.

This girl was in my 2000 graduating class at Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, Calif. We were in choir together, which was my biggest high school activity. We probably had classes together too. And still… nothing. I felt like a callous, heartless human being.

It has been almost 14 years since I graduated from high school. It made sense that a lot of the people who I knew would be lost to time. They would off living their own lives in their respective corners of the universe. As I looked at the big smile in her Facebook photo, I kept pushing my brain to grab a memory. I should have remembered something about this girl. But nothing came.

High school was its own form of nightmare for me. I didn’t have many friends, and although everyone knew me, I never fit in. I was smart and stubborn, not afraid to stand up for what I thought was right. Teachers were threatened by my rebelliousness, as it didn’t come in a standard “bad girl” package. They were only interested if you were a good girl interested in math or science; boxes that I could never fit in, not when I loved political science, psychology and English, specifically writing.

It was like a fluorescent dull room where I had to wait for my life to start. After I stood in front of 3,000 people to give a high school graduation speech that stole the show (more than a girl with a 2.9 GPA could ask for), I wove my lucky scarf from Jerusalem to my family in the stands as a sign of victory. I was leaving this place and never looking back.

People went off to college, got married and started having kids. We spread out to all the corners of the earth. For a while, I kept in touch with some of the people from high school. But they eventually disappeared, too. They found me later on Facebook, but it wasn’t like they were my bosom buddies. They were just there.

Several teachers, including my favorite English teacher, died suddenly. Others retired to different parts of the country. One teacher got suspended for pushing a kid into a door, only to find he had a history of abusing students. They were too scared to come forward before that point.

That last story was shared with a good friend of mine from high school over Christmas Eve at a bar in the San Fernando Valley, drinking mulled wine and nibbling at a cheese plate. It was the only piece of gossip I had from the past. Meanwhile, that girl knew everything about the others, from how all the super-rich girls were now pregnant at the same time to my high school nemesis killing another classmate in a drunk driving accident shortly after we graduated. Although we never really hung out in high school, I enjoyed spending time with her in our post-college worlds.

It reminded me of a month before this girl died. I announced on Facebook I was going back to Israel in March after a traumatic experience there at 17. A girl who knew me back then asked me about the incident, and I told her honestly. She said to me, “I had no idea you were going through something so hard. It makes me feel so bad I didn’t know and couldn’t help you.”

All these things made me sit back and wonder: Who and where was I in this post-high school world? Did my previous life and these people mean nothing to me at all?

From 18 onward, I felt like I was running. I never stopped, from college to moving out, then on to marriage and an eventual divorce. Every time I came back to Thousand Oaks, all I could think of was getting out again. It was everything that was against my nature: conservative, straight-laced and Christian, where families were overly concerned with your kid getting on the football team or being a part of the national-ranking dance and choir programs instead of the problems of the world at large. There was an overt obsession with how many AP classes you could take, what UC school you would get into, how perfect you could be.

Meanwhile, there was me, cutting my hair short and wearing red lipstick, long flowy skirts and tank tops. My nickname was “Trouble” and I was busy in class ignoring the teachers and writing poetry into different notebooks, holding my pens as if they were cigarettes even though I never smoked, chewing on the ends while thinking. Hating my homework, I would go home and sit for hours on the computer crafting a novel idea or a script for my video class. I had dreams of creativity and fantasy in a town where dreams were meant for cookie-cutter lives. Every time I went into Los Angeles to visit family was like blissful release.

I hated Thousand Oaks, a hatred that caused me to run, and every time I had to come back it was like a punishment for being a naughty rebellious girl. When I eventually moved away, I paid the price: My parents would never come to visit me, and I was like a pariah. I was alone and forced to make a new family for myself. And when it came down to it, I was willing to do anything to prevent myself from going back, even end up in a horrible marriage.

After one more living situation in Thousand Oaks after the divorce, I settled down in Los Angeles. The smog-filled air was more delicious than any I would see in that suburban town, the people filled with big dreams like mine and a determination that had always ran through my blood. But as the death of that girl filled my eyes, and I looked around at all my Facebook friends who still were friends with the girls they grew up with, I wondered where I was in that universe.

I called my best friend, who I loved and knew since college.

“I feel so strange that I have no real connection to anyone I knew in high school,” I told her. “Like, I disappeared off the map on purpose. Her place in the world makes me wonder about mine, because it seemed like all the old high school people stayed together.”

“You decided to go someplace better,” she said. “It’s okay not to follow the crowd.”

“Did that time in my life mean nothing to me? It was almost like my high school was just my college waiting room. You’d think I’d remember something.”

“You do. You remember getting chosen to speak graduation. You remember how awesome it felt to be leaving. You remember how much joy singing with your classmates in the choir gave you. Those are all the things you’ve told me.”

So one morning, I opened up my yearbook and found the girl who died. I saw her face and remembered her in the girls’ choir, wearing what I referred to as the “bridesmaid dresses from hell” of lavender lace with matching gloves and pearls. Her shy smile hidden behind her long brown curls came to the front of my mind.

It brought me back for a second, and then reminded me of what I was now. Everyone else could hold on to the precious vestibules of those memories, and it was their choice. My choice was chase the path of dreams and fantasy away from the place where I grew up, and let the rebellion that I began there still feed my soul. My closest friends may not be the people I grew up with; however, they weren’t people I clung to because of shared pasts but because of present joys. I revel in my eccentricities, and sure the mean girls are still around in different forms. But their voices were turned down on the radio of my mind so I could find true happiness.

So that morning, I put on a flowy skirt and walked down Venice Boulevard to write on my computer for hours in the local coffee shop. Time has a way of moving forward, but despite the years, some things never change.

Why Go Gonzo?

Gonzo has many meanings. Gonzo journalism was a concept developed by Hunter S. Thompson where there is an element of surprise in the traditional journalism world. The journalist is the main character, there is no objectivity and it transforms the reporting lexicon into art.

Either that or he’s my favorite Muppet weirdo and spirit animal that indulges my quirky side on a regular basis. This could be a highbrow hipster concept or the home of a nerdy Muppet wannabe. Take your pick. But it was the inspiration for this blog, A Dash of Gonzo.

As a former journalist, I feel that it’s important to see the world from an unusual perspective. I wasn’t the standard journalist. While most journalists are jaded (a side effect of the profession), I love people. I love this crazy, messed-up world we live in. I’m abnormally happy and positive; probably a condition I should be seeking treatment for. And above all, I love telling stories; something you can’t do when your editor gives you a 500-word limit.

As the industry imploded, I sought a new career identity. However, like Gonzo we can’t change who we are. He was meant to be a blue weirdo and I was born to tell the stories of this universe. A lot of them are mine, but quite a few are those of the people I love the most: my friends, family and the occasional passer-by who has made an impact on my existence. There are those little hints and corners of eccentricities that are dying to see the light of day.

Some will be funny, and others will be sad. There will be introspections and reflections and certainly adventures. There are new loves and broken hearts littering the pages, not to mention some pieces that may shake you up a bit. I’m not afraid of what people think of me. But I hope to inspire, to stir controversy, to make this blogosphere a little bit better than when I entered into it.

I don’t want people to shy away; going gonzo is about sharing our stories. Don’t hesitate to make this a public forum. But remember, as our beloved spirit animal Gonzo thrives on positivity, so does this blog. If you are trolling, you will be taken down. But of course, not before you are mocked at your stupidity and insensitivity, and have me cheering at your idiocy. After all, no blog is worth reading unless it has its share of enemies.

So hold tight, everyone. It’s time to go gonzo with A Dash of Gonzo, with all the energy of my Muppet hero — although excluding most of his daredevil tricks.