Monthly Archives: December 2014

Legends of the Friendzone

Recently, I went to dinner with a good friend of mine who told me about a college classmate they had a crush on for a long time who recently broke up with a significant other.

“Reina, how do I do this?” my friend asked. “How do I take a friend and make them into something more?”

I started laughing my head off, not out of taunting but rather familiarity. It was the famous story of the friendzone again, not the last and not the first. In my recent years of being single, the dance of the friendzone is one that has confused and stumped me again and again. I have never understood it, and I probably never would.

It seemed like a distant idea when I was a married girl watching When Harry Met Sally… on the living room couch of my then-friend in upstate New York back in 2010.

“You realize, of course, that we could never be friends,” Harry says to Sally in the car.

“Why not?” asks Sally.

“What I’m saying is — and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form — is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”

The conversation continues as Sally says, “Well, I guess we’re not going to be friends then.”

“Guess not,” Harry replies.

“That’s too bad. You were the only person I knew in New York.”

The next morning, my then-friend walked into the living room I had slept in as I was getting ready to head out to Albany to see my cousins. The look on his face while he looked me over was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen over the course of my lifetime: His brown eyes narrowed in a peaceful way, crinkling slightly with his smile so relaxed and unguarded. He looked at me in my black sundress and daisy shoes the way my then-husband never looked at me. Like he loved me.

It wouldn’t be the last time he looked at me this way. Every time it happened I felt pure joy inside, but I never knew what to do with that look after my divorce because I was then, and still am, romantically inept. That’s why we are now “then-friends” as opposed to… well, I’ll probably never know, because nothing ever happened and we no longer are friends at his request.

But as my friend asked me over dinner, “How do I do this?” I thought about that boy. About this concept of the friendzone and the plague it leaves on our lives. It’s a concept that destroys friendships and it shouldn’t have to. And I hate it for that, and many other reasons.

In full disclosure, I know that in many of my friendships with men we have known that we were just friends with nothing more. We have communicated as such and that’s perfectly fine with both of us. I cherish these friendships; they give me a different perspective. Whether it’s the little brother nature of my friend Gary, the fun and whimsy of my college friend Paul or singing in the car with Jeffrey, they are amazing people even if they aren’t romantically-based connections. And I hope all of them find love with someone who is worthy of them (although, luckily, Paul found the most amazing woman to be his wife).

Although many feminists dismiss the friendzone as a concept that “nice guys” use to be angry about not being approached by women and feeling that women owe them sex, I will wholeheartedly acknowledge that I have been friendzoned by guys that I have liked. For me, it’s the equivalent of being told that you are super-cool but also that you resemble Sloth from The Goonies; in other words, a kick in the balls to your self-esteem. It never, ever feels good, no matter who is playing it. But rejection happens and we move on.

Meanwhile, over the course of my life I have watched several of my friends come together in romantic relationships, even though they started as “just friends.” I am always amazed by the pure joy of these relationships. It’s like they had a beautiful painting and then looked underneath it to find an even more magnificent masterpiece hidden behind it. The risk is there when they first start out, but when the reward is worth ten times more, it’s worth it.

It’s in these relationships I find my inspiration for what I want in mine. There are things that come with friendship that aren’t always there with traditional one-on-one dating: Inside jokes, shared memories, a sense of values that are already common. After all, if there weren’t, why would you be friends in the first place?

But at the same time, what is it about friendship that can make a relationship work? You can have common memories with almost anyone and you don’t necessarily have to like them all that much. Sure, there are romantic relationships that don’t start out this way, but I have found in the ones where they started as friends there is underlying deep sense of love that may not be in ones that started out a different way.

The other night, I was with a guy friend of mine at a party — ironically, a guy who has recently friendzoned me — who saw me talking to another guy. Halfway through the conversation, I realized that guy was someone a girl friend of mine had dated. She was nuts about him, so much so that she invited him to my birthday at a bar six months prior (he probably didn’t remember).

My guy friend tried to encourage us to exchange numbers, and I very reluctantly gave him mine. As we walked out of the bar, I told my guy friend about my girl friend who dated him.

“So?” he asked.

“So I wouldn’t date him. I would never do that to her,” I replied.

“I don’t see the problem here.”

“It’s not worth it. She liked him. My friends mean more to me than that.”

The guy friend didn’t understand. But less than 24 hours later, I got the call that made me realize that friendship meant something very different to me than to him. The woman who was ripped from my life was called friend — my mother had known her since their 10th grade year, when she would make a habit of copying off my mother’s social studies papers. However, the word friend sold her presence in my life short. She also took the role of crazy aunt, cousin confidante, truth-telling partner and sister in facing the crazy world at large. She was always there as family; she just didn’t happen to be related by blood.

For those who are true friends, the term “friend” sells them short. Maybe because we live in an age where it means someone you add onto your Facebook and never speak to after that. But in my world, it means something more than digital connections. As it is with my friend against her former flame, it was the same with the friend who asked me “how do I do this,” as it is even with my then-friend. There is trust and respect as friends that cannot be replicated and doesn’t diminish even when the friendship turns sour.

With my then-friend, despite the fact we hurt each other badly, I would tell you today how he is the most brilliant man I have ever known and what an upstanding and truly good person he is. I would not tell you details about the intimate conversations we shared. There would be a mention of him being the type of guy I could see myself with romantically, but that time has probably passed now for us. But I would add that I want him to be happy, and no matter where I go in my life, there is a place in my heart that is reserved exclusively for him and, like with friends past, will be there until I leave this earth.

That is the place where I want my romantic relationships to come from — love and respect, the same place where friendships come from. I think it’s more than healthy to want that in a romantic scenario. The friendzone should be a place full of those things, not a place of so-called punishment, because being a friend is a great thing if it’s done right. It’s eating pie with Gary, drinking wine with Jeffrey, hearing my “crazy aunt” begging me to save her Vicodin when I was in the hospital and coaching my “how do I do this” friend as to how to get that college crush — which, in the end, even that advice boiled down to being a sincere and true friend until the time was right to approach the subject of dating each other.

It’s time to value our friends just as much as we value our romantic relationships. After all, when Billy Crystal was asked whether Harry and Sally, the truest of friends in the end, would have stayed together after getting married, his answer was with a smile and a reassuring “yes.”

Playing Pretend

When I started comedy several months ago, I met a guy named Alvin in my classes. A tall Asian guy with thin-framed glasses, he had dropped out of medical school and decided to pursue his dreams as a comedian. There was no pretension with Alvin. He was funny and sweet as he explained his uptight Asian family who so desperately wanted him to become a doctor and joked about picking his American name, then finding out it was that of a cartoon chipmunk.

Today I found out Alvin killed himself.

He had depression issues, and I remembered that we once talked about how he felt that onstage was the only place he could be himself. It was the only place he didn’t have to pretend that everything was fine and that he didn’t think once in a while about suicide.

In his death, I heard the echoes of people around me every day as I have fallen into dark times. Stay positive and happy. Keep a smile on your face. Don’t ever let them see you sweat. And especially don’t let the Internet see you down, or else it could ruin you.

My depression has been taking a toll lately. In the stress of trying to survive I have been falling apart. The world seemed to know it too, as I watched people who I called friends reenact the cliché of “rats from a drowning ship.” I’m blessed to have quite a few good friends to catch me, but at the same time I’ve been hearing people tell me to push it down, play pretend. Don’t let the world see that, because how are you going to get a job/romantic partner/anything good if you are negative?

This time of year seems to be a trigger, especially with Seasonal Anxiety Disorder, commonly known as SAD. This time of year has brought it out for so long that it even has its own psychological diagnosis. It kind of makes sense: The holiday season is stressful. There are presents to afford, travel arrangements to make (also expensive) and family issues that can be ignored for most of the rest of the year. There’s a lot of work to wrap up before the financial year is finished, if you are so lucky to have a job. If you don’t and are looking, you have to patiently fold your hands and wait until the new year happens, and who knows what your situation will be like during that time?

All the while, the entire world is telling us to be happy. Joy to the world, have a holly jolly Christmas, be whimsical in the holiday spirit. When the world is difficult and everyone is telling us to be positive, it adds a toll on us. We have to play pretend and smile because we don’t want to ruin that most wonderful time of the year for everyone else around us. When we are worn thin, we have to give to everyone else that positive spin and act as if nothing is the matter in our lives, when in truth everything is.

Our lives have become that way in the social media age, where every day we have to pretend like it’s good when often it’s not. We have to become our very own public relations departments, and like with editing your own work, this is a very hard task when things might not be 100 percent great. Top it off with comparing yourself to your friends who seem to be getting engagements, job promotions and babies like they were falling from the sky, and there seems to be a recipe for disaster for anyone who is struggling through dark times.

Putting up a front destroys us. We want to tell people how hard it is, but we don’t want to lose our friends. At the same time hiding it becomes a hard task.

When it’s something that everyone knows about, it gets worse. I remembered how, after four years of struggling in my marriage, I got divorced to so many people saying, “I had no idea it was so bad.” Four years of marriage hiding counseling sessions, his threats and putdowns and my utter unhappiness had taken a toll on me; that game of playing pretend that everything was fine has come with a price I’m still paying.

Yet as I have sought transparency in my current emotional situation, unafraid of the truth in it, I also pay as people who I stood by in their dark hours run during mine. There is no winning this battle of emotional turmoil and depression. And in cases like Alvin, sometimes the depressed people pay for the careless actions of those around them who think the only answer to depression and darkness is to, “Stay positive.”

The other night, I had a friend call me to catch up. It was amazing to hear her voice after so long, as I missed her terribly; I could even see her smile in my mind’s eye through our conversation. We talked about people in general, and I will never forget what she said to me.

“There are a lot of people there who are all about appearances,” she said. “There are people who pretend to have money by flashing fancy things they can’t actually afford. Pretend to have love by surrounding themselves with people they call friends but aren’t. Pretend to have their shit together, and they really don’t, Reina. But they want to make the world think they do.”

As the conversation flowed between us as if no time had passed, I thought about this microcosm that our world had become. I was depressed as hell, but I then thought about the people who loved me, the authentic life that I was seeking. I’d rather have real ones who loved this person through the ups and downs than the fake ones who would leave as soon as what was in it for them disappeared, as that price is cheaper. I’d rather people know about the struggle rather than try to hide it, because struggle is what makes us human. It’s what makes us who we were always meant to be, and creates the beauty in our worlds.

If Alvin was open in life the way he was onstage, maybe things would have been different. I don’t know, though. All I know is that it should never have to come to this.

If you or someone you know has been thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit them at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Home

The Christmas lights twinkled around Beverly Hills as my friend Audra and I headed down Santa Monica Boulevard. It was a road I’ve taken over a hundred times in my life as I drove to my grandparents’ home off of Palm Drive, but yet felt as strange to me as if it were in another country.

“I don’t know where home is anymore,” I said. “But I know where it isn’t.”

“Where isn’t it?” Audra asked.

“With polar bears.”

There was a pause from Audra to let my normal eccentricity rush over the conversation. “Polar bears?” she asked.

“Yup,” I replied. “It’s cold wherever polar bears are. And they eat cute little seals. They would have no problem eating me.”

“You’ve thought about this more than you probably should.”

“Yeah, probably.”

As the holiday spirit takes over the little corners of Los Angeles, I have thought about home more often lately. It’s not so much a place anymore than a feeling, one that I haven’t felt in a long time. Sure, there have a couple hours here and there if the right people are around, but I’ve had to sit back and watch as the malaise of the world wears down the roots in me that would try to plant into the ground. The feeling has, if anything, been fleeting.

It has been this way for almost three years. That cold January night, I took a wrecking ball to my life as I left my ex. But the trauma didn’t come from the end of a marriage; it came from packing a duffel bag with my most precious items and being told I could never go home again. It came from something as simple as a marble cheese plate at my apartment being left out on the table after a party I hosted, and then coming back almost two years later to collect my other belongings to find that it was still in the same place, molded over with decay. I had spent nine years of my life building a life for myself in Orange County, a home that was beautiful and was an open tent for everyone. In an instant, it was shattered.

Every incident that showed my marriage was nothing but a falsity and the people who claimed to love me that only liked it when I was on top were like demolition blasts to the idea that I ever had a safe, secure place with anyone. My roots after divorce were gnarled and unable to attach to grounding force.

I eventually made a decision. I had to return to the place where I was born, where my family was: Los Angeles, where I learned to drive and my grandparents once lived and loved me. My cousins and other relatives in the city would protect me and give the sense of home that I craved, I thought. I could make new friends here and create a new life. Find a great job and work my way up. Find a new partner and build a home, both in his heart and in wherever we ended up together.

Two years after the move, I was now sitting in a cocktail dress on Saturday night that was once formfitting but now hanging looser on my body that I couldn’t afford to replace. My friend Audra was drinking the complementary bottle of water she got after the waitress at the Beverly Hills Hotel completely ignored her request for a glass 45 minutes before. We had gone to a party there and I enjoyed the friends who I was close to, but then got completely turned off as I watched the fakeness begin to permeate our surroundings.

I was thinking about the full day of work ahead of me the next day, and how I could barely afford to stop working even for a day. There were brief moments of happiness in there, like when I got onstage to do comedy and hanging out with friends. There were times where I felt at home, but they were fleeting at best.

“Here’s the thing about Los Angeles,” I said to Audra as we drove past the wealthy houses of Beverly Hills on our way back to Culver City. “Two things happen to the people who come out here. Either they get so sucked into the superficial culture that every good thing that was a part of them from where they came from disappears, or they get so jaded that they struggle with it, and they start rejecting it and becoming hard and difficult.”

“I don’t know where I am on that spectrum,” she responded.

“I know I’m the latter now. I’m rejecting. I’m friendly and kind, but I don’t really trust anyone anymore… present company excluded.”

She nodded in acknowledgment as we stared at the chandeliers that had replaced the street lights along Rodeo Drive, thinking of the friends who I watched go from down-to-earth out-of-towners to shallow Angelinos. We wondered about the people who we knew and if they would change sooner or later. The Christmas lights were a blessed distraction, but faded to the reality of the city streets.

“I’m getting harder than I’d like to be,” I continued. “I’m angrier than ever, and definitely unhappier. I’m crying almost every day, fighting for my survival here. I thought I would be closer to my family if I moved back, and I’m really not.”

“You thought things would be different,” she said.

“Yeah,” I replied. “And I know I haven’t always been the best person. I’ve procrastinated on projects and have been selfish and flaky. But considering the circumstances over the past three years, I’d like to think I’ve done the best I can.”

As we parked in front of my apartment and Audra put on her hazards, I sighed as I looked at her. Sweet Audra, who was so kind and brilliant, yet at the same time played along with all my crazy shenanigans, whether it was going to a Beverly Hills party or simply running out on a Saturday night at 10 p.m. to go to the Salt and Straw in Larchmont. I began to cry one more time as she hugged me tightly.

“I know if I’m going to leave Los Angeles, now is the time,” I said through the tears. “My parents are happy and healthy, at least for the most part. I don’t have a true career here, and I don’t have a partner or children. I can go somewhere else, begin again.”

“Would you go to Boston?” she asked. I have talked about moving to Boston quite regularly if I could find a full-time job out there.

“I don’t know where I’ll go. Just a place without polar bears.”

We began to laugh in our cocktail dresses at the absurdity of chandeliers hanging from city streets and the fact it took 45 minutes and a hissy fit in Beverly Hills to get water. We were over it.

“But you have to remember something, Reina,” Audra said. “It’s not the circumstances in your life that should create your happiness.”

It was an echo of things I kept hearing: That no matter where I went, I had to take myself with me. That flaky, procrastinating, selfish girl who was eccentric and strange, yet somewhere in there maybe possessed something good. Even if I left Los Angeles, she would be with me. And although the world may have thought her strange or eccentric or even a bitch, she really wasn’t all bad. I had to hear my therapist keep saying that I undervalued myself almost every session I was in with her. Now, maybe it was time to start believing she was right. And in valuing myself, I had to value more than what this city thinks of me.

No matter what the world thought of me, we all deserve a sense of home. Personally, my body has ached for it; I craved roots to something real, and I felt like plastic fake seaweed in a tiny fish tank. But I also needed to realize that I’m not plastic; I’m a living, breathing person who has been hurt by the past and current circumstances and needs to learn to not run. I need to learn to crack open her heart a little bit more to let the right people come inside and grow there. Otherwise, I was always going to stay unhappy, and I would never find home again.

But no matter how cold it gets out there in the world, I’m not letting in any polar bears. No matter how cute and cuddly they are.

The Skin I’m In: The Problem with #BlackLivesMatter

My skin is pale with hints of olive, my hair brown and wavy with bright green eyes. Everything about me should say that I’m a typical American (albeit a tall, large-breasted one). Yet I hear the echoes of the Middle East when pain inflects in my singing voice, see it as I slip the hamsa around my neck and feel it when I look at my phone and see Jerusalem looking back at me. I’m a Spanish Jew who came to America via Turkey. But like my ancestors in Spain, I can be very good at hiding my identity.

Jewish persecution is not obvious, but it is present. I have felt it at bars when Middle Eastern guys have hit on me and then quizzed me as to whether or not I was a Zionist. The fact I wear a hamsa and not a Star of David is evident of my fear of that outside world judging me. And although I have to read week after week articles about people who want to destroy my people both here and abroad in whatever way they see fit, at the same time I am blessed. I can hide my minority status simply because I have the light skin of my grandparents, not the darker skin of my great uncles. Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. And sadly, we have seen it play out on our news screens more often than not lately.

My family was always an unusual bunch of people when it came to racial diversity, and we took stands. My great-grandfather was a proud freemason, who was rumored to leave his chapter after his friend, a black man, was denied entry due to the color of his skin. My mother refused to have her eighth birthday party because her best friend, a black girl, would not be invited. My father, who got yelled at regularly by his mother for inviting black friends over, was active in black theater during the civil rights movement. When I met one of his collaborators several years back and asked him how my white dad got in black theater, he laughed and smiled.

“We were at a party, and they saw your dad and they were angry,” he said. “They wanted to know why he should be there. And your father explained the history of the Jewish people and how they had been persecuted and destroyed through the centuries. Our struggles were the same. And from that point on, I understood your people, and your dad was one of the most respected men in that community I have ever seen. A lot of people didn’t like him for it, but that didn’t matter to him. Just what was right.”

We were rare. Perhaps we still are. Over time, I have seen the woman my family raised me to become, and even in the smallest actions, I have found myself to be unusually colorblind. And then, in less than a week, I saw how the world wasn’t.

Watching how two police officers within the past week were sent walking back into the world with no ramifications in killing two men, you wonder. You sit there as the hashtags have come and gone, seeing these men’s faces again and again. They have seemed to blend in with one another now. Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. And now Eric Garner. Black-skinned men, far from perfect, although none of them worthy of death — but even if they were, who were these men to deal it to them?

These are four different men, and it took Eric Garner to wake us up to realize that something is very wrong in the way we deal with justice in this world. The new hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, has become a huge statement. My friends are posting his last words: “I can’t breathe.” I remembered a time in my life where I said that exact statement while I was unknowingly dying. Except through medical help, I lived. And with my life, my voice is thankfully preserved.

As I lie in my bed, I lie in solidarity with the protesters who are conducting “die-ins” across the country. The hashtag of #blacklivesmatter is important, not only from the point of the death of Eric Garner. But what happens when the fury dies? What happens when the anger fades into oblivion and their names become memory again? What are we going to do to change this life where police brutality is acceptable behavior, particularly against minorities?

As I slip on and off my Jewish colloquialisms and identifying characteristics, I see the woman that my people made me: My Turkish great-grandfather, who was no stranger to fighting for what he believed in as a radical in Istanbul, who stood for a worthy man against his powerful organization because he knew racism was wrong even then. My father, who, no matter how much his mother screamed at him, risked his own reputation to use his art for the greater good of helping others find their voices. My mother, who had to answer my eight-year-old mind’s question about why Dr. Martin Luther King marched, knowing that her mother couldn’t see the difference between black and white skin when she was that age. They knew then that this battle against inequality meant potential sacrifices. And that is what we have to do.

Whether we bang on the doors of Congress to let us in to finally have our say, head out to the streets to be loud and clear in masks and our own real faces, to make a statement to let the world know we can’t live like this anymore, we have to do it. We recognize the problem, but we can only complain so far. If we don’t make changes and create the appropriate actions, we are going to lose our voices — the ones that create art, speak our hearts, that sing the pain and the suffering to give us the root of where we came from, which is humanity.

The question isn’t the problems or how they came to be; they’re already here. The question is: What do we do with them now that they are here? What should we sacrifice in order to make sure that we don’t have to see more people fading into the background? We need to rattle the chains more than any hashtag can give us. So slip on your identities, walk out the door and stand by your brothers. It’s time to get to work.