Author Archives: thereinavictoria

The Ballad of Thousand Oaks (Reprise)

There is a town just about an hour north of Los Angeles, called Thousand Oaks, California. One of those sleeper, outside-Los Angeles towns, the place where baby boomers settled with their children in the early 1990s.

The place where schools had good reputations and houses were large and cheap. Where suburban sprawl reigned and tract houses caressed the hillsides.

I wasn’t born there. But from the age of 10, my family lived in the house off of La Granada Drive.

Thousand Oaks wasn’t home, but it was the town I was raised in.

Today it became a heartbreaking refrain in a different song – the one about America and guns, of angry white men who are traumatized by modern society and can’t think of another way to live. It is the town on everyone’s lips, whispering anxiously. They don’t see me from this town; now when I so passionately declare my love for Los Angeles from every rooftop in the city. Yet this is where I came from.

The signs were always there for this day, too.

In high school there were the boys with the guns, who thought black trench coats were a joke. As my dark poems were reason to psychoanalyze me, they were the doe-eyed teenagers who would run into the open space preserves near my house, laughing as they shot rabbits for fun in the tall golden grass. One night hanging out with a friend, he tossed the long hair out of his eyes as he decided to show me his BB gun. Bright  red plastic. It looked like a toy.

The highlight of Thousand Oaks life was Conejo Valley Days. They were the May days where people imagined themselves as renegade cowboys despite their white BMWs and bleached blonde hair. Rodeos, gun stands selling their wares, and parades would surround you as country music blasted from the speakers. The thrills of small town life echoed across the streets, their conservative leanings on full view as they kept yelling out their claim of being “America’s safest city.”

And, of course, there was Borderline. It is still probably the only dance club for miles, and if anyone wanted nightlife nearby, it was the only place to go.

Every kid I grew up with went there at one point or another. As teenagers, Borderline was the place you ended up at if you wanted to look cool. As you got older, you headed there for different-themed nights, not just country music. Blue tinged lights, honey-colored wood, pool tables, and a large dance floor for line dancing greeted you. You could meet anyone there, as my friend went one night and met the man who became her husband. It could be rented out, as another had her wedding reception there.

Restaurants and bars came and went in Thousand Oaks, a constant rotation of corporate America’s tastes. But Borderline always stayed, across from the Los Robles golf course, its large glass windows overlooking the 101 freeway at Moorpark  Road as people merged to get onto highway 23.

The glass windows that people broke with chairs to get out as the shooter sprayed bullets.

Across social media, there are prayers. “Prayers for Thousand Oaks.” Pretty images and prayers. You’re sending prayers yet again instead of dealing with the issues at hand.

I don’t want your prayers. Like the angst-filled teen I was in this town, I want to fucking scream.

No matter how much my desired raged to escape my hometown, no matter how much I love Los Angeles, it was the place where my height grew taller. Where I learned to write. Went to school. Had my first crushes. Learned to drive. Recovered from divorce. Said goodbye to my mother on the laminate floors of Los Robles Hospital, where so many people today are saying goodbye to their own loved ones.

When it came time to move my dad, there was talk about keeping him in Thousand Oaks. In the wake of the election, I told my sister I didn’t feel comfortable with keeping my liberal, Jewish father in a place that was so proudly conservative. Worried about the rising extremism on the right, my exact words were, “It’s just not safe anymore.”

It’s not. But I don’t know where is.

Could I give you answers for my hometown about what will happen, what we should do? Of course not; it’s not where I live anymore. My community is elsewhere. For many of us who grew up there Thousand Oaks wasn’t home, but a place we had to survive to get to where we are now. Where our parents may still live, or might have disappeared from.

Yet no matter how we feel about it, Thousand Oaks is the place where our roots are, deep in the ground like the thousands of oak trees that still populate the town.

And somewhere inside the core of my being, I’m still the girl from Thousand Oaks. The girl who ate avocados and lemons from the backyard, lived in the house on La Granada with the yellow roses blooming outside, far away from everything. Who sat in her driveway in her high school crush’s El Camino, staring at his Oasis CD in the console, as he told her she was crazy.

Thousand Oaks was the place where I danced in the junior high auditorium and cried to Alanis Morrisette. Where the coyotes howled at the sounds of sirens and the roadrunners dashed alongside them. Where I walked through the hills and stared out, looking beyond my suburban town in the hopes for making my life bigger than it is. Where I became the woman that I am today, with all her shades of gray and contradictions.

And no matter where I call home in the world, I’m still from Thousand Oaks.

Advertisements

The Diner; or The Problem With Kavanaugh

12227814_1259178407442056_8184967878949952745_nWhen it came to the Kavanaugh hearings, there were a million recollections rolling in my head: From my first kiss to the last guy who messaged me on Facebook asking me to… needless to say I had a lot of experiences, a lot of words. And yes, I suffered a PTSD attack from just hearing Brett Kavanaugh speak for five seconds, flashing back to my life with domestic violence.

But there was one scene that was the most powerful in my mind during this time. And it was from several weeks back at an old-school diner in the San Fernando Valley.

As the hearings continued I didn’t know why this particular scene plagued my mind: Of my friends and me goofing off at a table, eating burgers on a Saturday night when one of my guy friends joined us. It was great to see him; in fact, up until that night my only complaint about him was that he didn’t come out with us often enough, as I think he’s brilliant and absolutely love spending time with him.

The conversation had its usual laughter, twists and turns when all of a sudden it veered in a completely different direction: Namely the Jewish singles’ events that my girlfriends and I participate in.

It’s hard to date in Los Angeles, and over six years I have tried many ways to find the love of my life. The singles’ events are by far the most problematic because of the guys who attend. They often have no idea how to properly behave themselves, running from socially awkward to utterly inappropriate, thus making them difficult evenings at best.

Several weeks before the diner, one of my friends was talking to a guy at one of these events. When she told him she wasn’t interested in having children, he turned icy, looking at her pointe blank and saying, “Then what good are you as a woman?” She posted this incident on Facebook, and I expressed my support of her.

My friend at the diner didn’t see it this way.

“You guys are bringing down the whole organization from these posts,” he said. “[They’re] just trying their best. [They] can’t control who shows up.”

Normally I respond well to constructive criticism from my friends. That means listening, processing what they say, and going forward from there with them; my best friendships and relationships come from this understanding.

But I couldn’t in this case.

Dating has brought hilarity, but also hazards. There has been sexual assault and harassment; and yes, there was rape. There were also situations that were almost impossible to escape, one of which was located in the parking garage of this very organization he was talking about. After an event, I was cornered, groped, and not allowed to leave. I have been open about it, but never mentioning the name of the organization as to protect the leaders, who I greatly respect.

What happened in that garage showed me the power of hierarchies. My weakness and desperation for work at that time allowed for the cornering, which is so often how these stories go. When it was done, I realized this disparity removed my agency. After all, the guy’s parents were wealthy donors, and I had no money; why would they believe me?

For months I kept silent, only telling a few select friends. Some believed me, others didn’t; one guy even said he stopped being friends with the assaulter not because of the incident I described to him, but simply because the guy supported Donald Trump.

One of the people I told was a board member, who desperately wanted to report my assaulter. At first my answer was no; I would be cast out of the organization if I came forward. It was only when I found out there were other girls that I gave him the go-ahead, on the strict condition not to mention my name.

The rumor was he was talked to by the higher ups, but it didn’t matter; I still see him at events from time to time. And here I was, years later, being lectured in a diner regarding an organization where I was sexually harassed and assaulted.

Did the guy who was lecturing me know about this incident? Probably not; it’s not something I talk about regularly. Knowing who he is, he would probably have empathy towards me if I told him; in all my experiences with him he is kind, decent, and morally sound. But in attacking my friend who was disrespected by a man (even just in words), he also made a choice to disregard her experience, and even view it as an attack on the organization as opposed to on her.

In the #metoo movement, it has meant that the world has seen us and knows that numerous women have experienced sexual assault and harassment over the course of our lifetimes. Whether it’s through dating, a party, the workplace — the location doesn’t matter. What matter is in this hearing we were forced to watch as a government body disregarded testimony, claiming that Dr. Ford coming forward and speaking out was there simply to make trouble.

If experience has taught me anything, people like Kavanaugh will always exist. But for every Brett Kavanaugh there are hundreds of Lindsey Grahams and Mitch McConnells: They are the people who will defend their friends, and in turn the status quo, refusing to fight the misbehaviors of their peers. They can be deplorable sexists, but they can also be normal decent human beings who would say loudly that they believe Dr. Ford.

But this hearing isn’t a question of beliefs; it’s a question of actions.

We beg you, the men in our lives, to stand up not only against someone who is your political opponent, but who you also may agree with or even like. It means looking at your friends and not excusing their conduct. It means recognizing your own behavior and seeing how it disenfranchises women who are both scared and scarred. And it’s about taking that knowledge and creating a safe space with it.

It also means looking across the table and apologizing for your actions. If my guy friend were sitting across from me now, I’d probably apologize for this whole piece I just wrote. But I also hope that he would offer me an apology too, so together we can fight for a better world. After all, aren’t we always told that evil occurs when good men do nothing?

The State of #MeToo; or Didn’t They Know I Was 12?

With the Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault in the news, particularly given that the accusation came from when she was 16, I couldn’t help but to go back to reflect on the #MeToo campaign when it started a year ago. When it began, I was in awe of my friends’ courage and determination to stop the cycle of sexual harassment and abuse with their stories.

But something struck me about my feed: The most common age that came up was 12.

On my 12th birthday, I got my very first stereo, complete with a brand new CD player. Excitedly, I took it into my Thousand Oaks bedroom, where it joined my bright pink flower sheets and stuffed animal tree and looked out to the lemons growing in the backyard. I was 12, about to leave elementary school behind for junior high, and couldn’t be more thrilled.

Shortly after I went to a sleepaway camp, where the city girls were already shaving their legs on the cabin floor and wearing sexy bras. I barely knew how to put on the training one my mother got me. One of the girls showed me how to do it while she wore an emerald green satin push-up bra.

They were sharing about having sex, wanting to have sex, even one girl claiming she started having sex a year and a half earlier; whether she was lying or not, I’ll never know. I knew I wasn’t ready for it. I was 12. Did they know we were 12?

When I was 12 I wore t-shirts with hearts across my chest and powder blue Guess jeans that my 5’7 body didn’t want to shrink out of. My fingertips sparkled with Wet and Wild blue nail polish, and I carried a red Jansport backpack with a leather bottom and scribbles in black Sharpie over the canvas.

As I would walk home from school, my backpack heavy with books, I heard the whistles from boys in cars as they were driving by. I knew what it meant, but was confused. Didn’t they know I was 12?

I got my very first access to America Online and its chatrooms, starting to chat with instant messenger. Older boys started asking not only for my a/s/l (age/sex/location) but also for my bra size and intimate details of my life. I liked the attention, but didn’t like the questions. Didn’t they know I was 12?

We had a school assembly, and I was wearing one of my heart shirts, with bright red sequins. I don’t remember why we had it, but there was an actor who was performing onstage, probably in his early 30s, and he chose me as a volunteer. We began acting out a scene, but suddenly he got very flirty. He put his arm around my shoulders, and tried to kiss me. I ran off the stage immediately, upset and embarrassed. The teachers did nothing. Didn’t they know I was 12?

Hanging around school one day, one girl volunteered to put makeup on me, as I didn’t  do that yet. She slathered brown lipstick on my lips and lined my eyes in black. We had the final school dance of the year that night, and she insisted the older boys would love me. They did, wrapping their arms around me, trying to possess me when in truth I just wanted them to hold my hand and talk to me, get to know me. My body wasn’t mine. Didn’t they know that I was 12?

Right before I turned 13, there was a boy who wouldn’t stop following me around at Jewish day camp. I didn’t like him and told him to stop. He didn’t. Told him to get away from me when I was swimming; he was crowding me. It got so bad that when I swam away I ended up kicking him in the head. It was acknowledged simply as a crush by the staff, but I felt threatened every time I saw him. I wasn’t 13 yet; I was still 12, if only for another week. Didn’t they know?

Maybe it would get better. Maybe 13 would be better.

This was not knowing that 12 set the stage for even worse things. It was having the boys jump to try to kiss my cheeks even though I didn’t want them to, and not having anyone call them out for it. Being groped in the hallways of my junior high, and getting punished for it by the administration for screaming and running away when I saw him. That I knew at the time that trying to explain it to my mother would do nothing; she would always believe the adults in charge, not me.

In the years to come, I would be taught that my smarts were not worth as much as how I looked, dressed and behaved. That my value was in my ability to attract a guy and have him be my boyfriend. It led me to believe, as I did in later years, that the boys who were interested in me, and the world at large, were in charge of telling me when my body was ready to be sexual. Not me.

And I wasn’t ready.

I was a child. I still had my stuffed animal tree in my bedroom and my sheets were still bright pink. My stereo was covered in glow-in-the-dark stars, where I would play Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” on repeat, particularly the song “Mary Jane.” I’d hit track nine and would just cry and hope that somewhere in me I was still, as the song said, “The last great innocent.”

I was 12. And so were my friends.

I was one of the lucky ones; others experienced even worse at that age. I saw younger ages in #MeToo, the youngest detailing a sexual assault at three years old.

By 16, when Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser was assaulted, the system was already ingrained in us as girls. It was too late. And even though she was four years older, the truth was that she probably experienced the same emotions as I did at 12: No one would believe us. They’d never punish the guy, but instead they’d punish us. That this was what was expected of us as women.

I thought of all the instances where I was harassed or assaulted, both in my childhood and adult life, and they were too numerous to count. But I remembered that we were trained young to just accept it. At 12, I was taught through the actions of those around me that this would simply be a part of my life as a woman from this point on.

But therein lies the question: What if we didn’t have to go by this? What if we could raise our daughters and sons in a place where this wasn’t our world?

That’s why we threw up our hashtag: To know that we weren’t alone in our stories. We could be inclusive and share. And through each other’s heartbreak, we begin to heal.

But now we have to take the next steps. Knowing that almost every woman has a story like this is not enough. Realizing that some men do too isn’t enough either. And simply acknowledging it and moving on is the way to simply forget, and claim that sexual assault and harassment doesn’t happen. It did and it does. And we must remain vigilant and keep the energy of #metoo going.

I don’t want to forget. Because I was 12, and deserved better. So does everyone else who proclaimed their truth through this hashtag, and the women who are fighting the fight for us still. It’s time to create a safer world, one where hopefully girls will never have this happen to them, and where those who are the assaulters are held accountable.

We Are Nanette

In 2014, four years before we got the privilege to see Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” I was just a girl at a microphone on a Monday night.

It was at an open mic of all women in Tao Studio. This room was a warm and supporting place, filled with women sharing, women laughing, women cheering among the red walls. Above all, it was safe. Everyone in that room made me feel empowered, and I could explore my humor in the best ways possible.

I learned the basics of comedy there. You get about five minutes, give or take, depending on the venue. At one minute you get the light, so wrap it up. Speak slowly, as you’re dealing with a bunch of drunk people. Pay tribute to the house by buying something – a drink, a snack, etc. – and try to stay to the end and watch and support all the other comics (although most people don’t).

Here there were women of all races, shapes, sizes and sexualities. We also all had our own stories, not unlike Hannah Gadsby and “Nanette.” And each sense of humor was special and treated as such.

This women’s mic still occurs once a week (and I still love, even when I can’t make it out). But even in their mixed-gender mics, Tao has a code of ethics that rule over the studio and the people who come there; it makes this place one of a kind. When you left and went into “the real world,” there was a different set of rules.

Whereas I started in a room of all women, most of the venues for other open mics I went to were 75 percent straight white men. Their topics usually revolved around their penises, ranging from complaining about their penises in skinny jeans to seeing my boobs in a low-cut top and remarking how they would stick their penis between them. If they really wanted to appear edgy, they’d start telling rape jokes — something forbidden at Tao.

In the event there was a female comic, her appearance was often ballyhooed by the men. These women were often white, skinny and conventionally beautiful. They would often play into the same norm of hypersexuality, trying to be “one of the guys.” When I would talk to them during our shows together, the same story would come up: “My manager suggested that I try standup to diversify my portfolio as an actress.”

My jokes didn’t fit in here; sure, I talked about dating and sex, but I also joked about my mother’s breast cancer treatment, my family and leaving abuse. In comedy I sought to create and write, to tell funny stories, not necessarily to become an actor. The goal of standup was always to get to punchlines; that often meant sacrificing truths for the sake of the joke, glossing over the ugliness.

A fellow comedian committed suicide about five months into my fledgling standup career. I had known about his struggles with depression due to seeing his sets regularly. His death broke the hearts of everyone who knew him. But then, after a few weeks, I saw comedians joking casually about killing themselves. It was hard for me to continue after that; I ended up taking a hiatus.

I tried coming back several times. But although I could make people laugh onstage, there was something in me that couldn’t continue beyond those sputters. My comedy was skewing both political and personal, which isn’t often mainstream or appealing. It wasn’t the type that keeps bookers interested, and I certainly wasn’t pretty enough to get booked based on looks alone. There was no fulfillment in writing jokes simply for the sake of jokes. My heart needed to be in my jokes, and there wasn’t a place in for it in timed sets at drunken comedy clubs.

Instead of comedy, I decided to tackle storytelling; it seemed more of a fit for what I wanted to do as a written artist. It provided more challenges and a chance for something else that could help people feel not only laughter, but catharsis. I loved comedy, but I saw very few places at the table for someone like me.

Until Nanette came.

At first, 20 minutes in, I was getting bored. I stopped my Netflix and continued doing other things; after all, this was supposed to be comedy. John Mulaney, Ali Wong and other comedians had all graced my Netflix to deliver joke after joke, often loudly. This was a Tasmanian woman – not brash like Chris Rock, or beautiful like Iliza Schlesinger – who was just talking, and occasionally being funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny. More like, “Oh, that’s funny” statement funny.

Several weeks later, I was getting ready to do my storytelling show with KPCC. It was nerve-wracking, as my words were about to make me bare my soul. I was dressed, putting on my eye makeup meticulously. It was quiet, so I turned on the TV for some background noise, figuring maybe I should give Nanette another chance.

That’s when Hannah Gadsby lifted a mirror.

“I’m quitting comedy,” she said. And with those words, and all the precious words after, soared anger, heartbreak and rage at the status quo of what comedy had become. She was funny, but more importantly, she had a heart.

She rejected the idea that we had to suffer for our art. Threw away the conventions that we have to be driven to constant punchlines and feeding intoxicated hedonism, and if we weren’t we were doing it wrong. Objected to the idea of the comedic persona versus the real her – because the real Hannah is good enough, and it’s not worth destroying for the sake of making others laugh.

And I cried, because all I was thinking about the piece I wrote was not the fact that in a few hours’ time I would be emotionally naked. It was that the wish buried inside of me was that when I told stories that I would be as funny as I am during a normal conversation.

So many female comedians I know suffered the way Hannah did, rejected comedy the way she did. We left because we felt the pressure to push the envelope, to follow the status quo of the comedy clubs. There was no space for us to simply be and to share. Nanette not only gave us a battle cry, but an open space to explore and make our own that could be loved and accepted as a new art.

It’s time for comedy to come into the new era, and I hope to find the right people along the way to restructure it. Because we are all Nanette.

But You’re So Pale!

32337179_10156357148019116_349050463137562624_nIn late April, my friend David and I decided to break away from our Jewish community bubble, heading to the Pico-Union Project in downtown Los Angeles. We were invited to an interfaith Iftar-Shabbat that one of his Muslim friends was attending.

This place was LA’s Sinai Temple in the 1920s, and it showed in the building. The stained glass windows reminded me of the colors of my childhood, underneath the golden bricks of the Sephardic Temple on Wilshire Boulevard, the house my grandparents built. Bouncing around in the pews, the cantor’s voice soared, warm trilling music, a romantic dance of Spanish and Hebrew weaving through the room. My Nony’s kisses were accented with the praise of “Mashallah!” and the air lingered with scents of garlic, rosewater, cloves and strong, salty cheeses.

As David and I mingled, a large Pakistani Muslim man named Yaseen started talking to me. I introduced myself — Reina — Spanish for queen, named after my Nony, who was named for her grandmother and so on. Yaseen asked me about growing up Jewish. “Well, my family’s a bit different,” I said. “They’re Sephardic.”

Sephardic means that you are descended from Spanish Jews. My name dates back to the town of Cordoba, where we lived happily until 1492, before the Muslim Moors were overthrown, the Spanish Inquisition kicked us out and we migrated to the Ottoman Empire. But when I tell people I’m Sephardic, I usually get the same response: “But you’re so pale!”

It doesn’t matter that my great-grandfather Solomon was dark from working under the sun of the Port of Istanbul. Nor that my name can be traced back generations, or even that Cordoba is the same town that birthed Maimonides, possibly the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived. I’m just pale.

Growing up, except for Maimonides, there were no Sephardic stories in my studies. If there were Jewish characters on television or in movies, they were an Ashkenazi stereotype from Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews are rare here — most stayed in their adopted countries or went to Israel, not facing the persecution that Ashkenazis did. Yet when Solomon, a Young Turk and anarchist, tried to kill an Ottoman Sultan but instead ended up with a bounty on his head, he, his wife and their babies headed to America, singing old cantares, eventually heading to Los Angeles.

There was no one like my family. We were warm, loving and absolutely in your face at all times. My family spoke Ladino, or a dialect of Spanish and Hebrew not unlike Yiddish. The kitchen was Nony’s kingdom, where the radio would play and she would swoon over Julio Iglesias, and her cooking was accompanied by concerns over our marriageability.

But oh, the magic of the Sephardic foods that came out of there — flaky cheese borekas, browned hard-boiled eggs, spinach and squash frittadas, silky rose-flavored rice pudding and Turkish coffee. This was a place of dancing, laughter, passion and strong conversations. From postwar refugees to the handyman, everyone was welcome at Nony’s table, and no matter how little she had, she always found a way to share. There was no shortage of love here.

With a small Sephardic community here, being Jewish here meant a degree of assimilation. My mother married an Ashkenazi Jew, who happily gave up gefilte fish for borekas. We went to a non-Sephardic temple. Occasionally we would eat deli food. However, my mother rejected Ashkenazi culture. She would often recount her childhood walking through Hancock Park with Solomon, where religious Ashkenazi Jews would single them out, saying they weren’t really Jewish due to his dark skin.

When I got to college, away from my doting family, the Jewish kids dismissed my Sephardic roots. My paleness was always questioned, and my father’s Ashkenazi background caused them to scoff at me. I didn’t fit in, often preferring my Muslim friends. We spoke lovingly of our similar foods and lamented our meddling grandmothers trying to marry us off. But I was still Jewish, and wanted a Jewish life.

My college rabbi insisted that marriage meant giving up my culture and adopting my Ashkenazi husband’s. There were a few attempts, including a smelly failure in making gefilte fish that caused the pot to stink for days. I tried to adapt, but putting it on felt like an ill-fitting coat. During my divorce, the rabbi decided I didn’t exist anymore. It was like waking up in a desert alone, where all I can hear is “But you’re so PALE!!!” A place where because I don’t look like their definition of my people, there’s no way I can be my people.

After I tell Yaseen that I’m Sephardic, his eyes widen. “Oh!” he said excitedly. “Do you speak Ladino?” The first thing he said wasn’t a comment on my paleness. It was an excited question, and a knowledgable one at that. He asked me about something that I had grown up around my whole life.

As we ate dinner to break the Ramadan fast, Yaseen came to speak at the podium. He talked about growing up a gay Muslim man to immigrant parents. He explained how he began to challenge his own identity and study Jewish-Muslim relations. One of the most special topics for him was the Ottoman Empire.

“After the Spanish Inquisition, 250,000 Jews were taken in by the Ottomans,” he said. “And we have one of their descendants sitting here.”

In his words, I traced steps taken over hundreds of years, the steps of my people from Cordoba to Turkey to America, to finally Los Angeles, my beautiful home. It was in this room, where my story was being acknowledged; that no matter what I looked like, I was accepted as one of my people.

Afterwards I hugged him tightly, but it wasn’t only me who embraced him. It was my mother, grandparents, great-grandparents. All my ancestors who kept our culture alive and gave it to me to protect; they danced in my blood, and gave me the love to share with others. And all I could think in that moment was of my Nony’s voice, simply whispering, “Mashallah.”

The Night I Called the Suicide Hotline

prevention hotlineAnyone who meets me would tell you that I’m one of the happiest people they know. It’s an overwhelming experience to see a 5’11 hurricane of joy coming at you, but my chipper attitude is a trademark (it’s also a turnoff for people when they first meet me, but when they get to know me, they know it’s genuine).

My mentality has been that after almost dying at 21, every extra day is a blessing. I love cracking jokes and having fun. Generally, I’m in love with life.

Except the days that I’m not.

Even those of us with clown faces struggle, even the happiest of people have a fight they’re trying to win. We see our visions of perfection and playfulness, like Kate Spade or even Robin Williams, and see them crumble. And although I love being warm, friendly and giving, the universe doesn’t always return those things. All of us seek to love and be loved; and when we don’t feel accepted, the burden of it can sometimes be dangerous. This is where the thoughts of suicide can come into play.

January was a low point, although it should have been the happiest of times. I finally had a full-time job after years of back-to-back contract work and uncertain bank statements. I was halfway through my business and management in entertainment certification at UCLA and acing every course. I had just moved into a dream apartment. My father was on the road to recovery after a fall; the doctors told me if I wasn’t there he probably would have died. And although my mother was gone, my life had seemed to come to a place where it was normal again.

Yet I was struggling at work with my ADHD and barely understanding my finance class. There was my post-breakup weight gain that I was trying to lose and my inability to get over my anxieties to go out and date. When it came to my writing, I was finding difficulties with my voice now that I wasn’t fighting for my daily survival. I missed my friends, who I hadn’t talked to in a while and weren’t reaching out. There was an overwhelming sense of emptiness creeping inside me. It felt like the rest of my life was going to be spent alone, and my heart was breaking.

Driving up Sunset Plaza Drive on the way to my dad’s place in North Hollywood, my eyes darted to a cliff near one of the giant Hollywood Hills mansions. And somewhere in my mind bubbled the idea: I should pitch myself off that cliff.

It shouldn’t come from me. I had lost people to suicide, took part in the heartbreak that comes with death, particularly death at a young age. The thought of doing that to anyone I loved was awful to me. Forcing my father to grieve for both me and my mother was inexcusable; I love him too much to cause him any extra pain. And there was the fear of a helpless 72-hour hold in a hospital, and a background that had the numbers 5150.

Yet I wanted to. I really wanted to.

I made it to my father’s place, spending the whole time crying on the trundle bed in his office. My life felt like it existed on the edge of a knife, and I was dreading returning to a world of food stamps and hopelessness. What would happen if I lost my job? How would my rent be paid, how would life go on? What would happen when my father died and I was left alone in the world? Would anyone really miss me if I pitched myself off of that cliff on Sunset Plaza Drive?

My father didn’t know what to do, so he ordered takeout and put on a movie. It comforted me for a split second, but the thought was still brewing in my head. Would anyone miss me?

He asked me about my therapist; I would see her in a few days. He asked me if he could help in any way, and deep down I knew no matter how much he loved me, he couldn’t defeat those thoughts in my head. I decided to go home, even though my dad was uncertain of letting me out of the house. He wanted to drive me to make sure I was safe, but there was work the next morning and I couldn’t leave my car in North Hollywood.

Heading down the 101, I couldn’t even see the downtown Los Angeles skyline, my favorite sight in all the world. Those spires of light climbing to the sky always let me know I was home, that I was safe. But in my eyes there was only my darkness.

I couldn’t hold on any longer; I needed a voice to talk me through this, but didn’t know who to call. In my pain, all I could think of was how friends in the past had left me for less than my depression. My agony felt like a burden, and it wasn’t one that my mouth was eager to share with people I cared about.

But I had to live. This was the only thing that was certain. So I begged Siri for the number for the National Suicide Hotline.

The woman on the line instructed me to pull over; it was too dangerous for me to drive while I was feeling this way. I pulled in front of an elementary school off of Vine Street south of Sunset, as wind rustled through the nearby trees.

We talked for 20 minutes, and I explained to her everything that was happening to me in that moment. It also meant going back yet again and unpacking over six years of agony. It was a journey that started with his threat: “If you leave me, I will kill myself,” followed by, “I don’t care if you love me or not, I’m never letting you go.”

In the years since I would face no end of struggles. Yet despite my difficulties there was perseverance inside to survive, to prove something to the world, to my past that said, “You could never live without me.” There was success, but something inside kept gnawing at my soul. Was this it?

“Do you have a therapist?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Are you taking medication for ADHD or depression?”

“No… but I had no health insurance per say, and no money to get it.”

“You have insurance now, what’s stopping you?”

The truth was I didn’t know. Helpless consumed me, left me praying, wishing someone would come find me. But on my phone, in the middle of Vine Street, there was a dim light to guide the way. And like so many times before, I was the captain of this journey, the one who was going to have to come to get me.

I ended the call, started the car and drove home. In the grace period between awake and sleep, it was like a flashback tape with the keyword “suicide.” I laughed with Alvin on black couches, then sat at his memorial. I laid next to Mark in bed again from back when we dated, fast-forwarding to staring at his green hat during mourning. I stood six years ago in a white-walled hospital, the words 5150 echoing my ears, feeling the anger pulse through me as I realized he used suicide as a way to manipulate me into staying in toxicity. Then I looked into myself… and wondered if I was better than any of them.

The next morning came and I took the baby steps back. I buckled down in work, school and therapy. I started looking for a psychiatrist, which as anyone knows is difficult in and of itself. It took time, but my circumstances got better. And I still retain that bubbliness and chipper, can-do attitude.

However, if you ask me if I’m okay now… well, the answer isn’t clear cut.

I have good days and bad days. I have days where life couldn’t get any better and days where I don’t want to move from my bed. Days where I have drive and determination and days where it seems like something isn’t right. Perhaps it’s the up and down of life, a roller coaster that sometimes is hard to ride. And sometimes we think we’re alone on it, when it truth it’s that we can’t always see our fellow riders when our peripheral vision is skewed.

But no matter what, even in the darkness, it’s nice to know that there is a light to lead us back. And it’s just a phone call away.

 

If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline at (866) 273-TALK.

One Night in Orange County

The rain was coming down in Costa Mesa as I ran through the drops, my emerald green dress bright among the gray. I’m sheltering my makeup with my mother’s purple shawl. I didn’t remember if I locked my car, heading back to make sure to lock my blue Honda, listening for that reassuring beep.

I look at the shape of it, standing next to the Paul Mitchell School. And I look at it and can’t help to say to myself, I used to get my hair cut here.

It was a time where that was my luxury; ten dollar haircuts and getting my eyebrows waxed. I was too busy walking on eggshells to enjoy the world. Too scared, too contained, too realistic.

My d’orsay shoes clicked against the wet pavement, staring at the school for just a moment. If myself from seven years ago were standing here now, she wouldn’t recognize me.

It took me a while to collect my bearings to remember the cross streets of my old apartment: Bristol and Sunflower, a giant complex with sprawling green grass fields and fake creeks, where if you looked up you could see the sleek high rises light up at night. I had picked out the apartment personally, much to the anger of my ex-husband. Yet he kept it during out divorce.

My compartmentalized brain that just got off of work three hours before had blacked out that corner. Like how I blacked out that when I lived down in Orange County that I was, in fact, born in Los Angeles. Where I made my home now.

I lived on the edge of South Coast Plaza, where the carousel horses at the entrances would greet capitalist consumerism. The fancy mainstream brands would light up the Orange County streets that were too fancy for sidewalks. There was the flirtation of counter-culture not too far away; the Japanese market; the artsy anti-malls with bohemian coffee shops and hipster restaurants; the organic grocer filled with various green drinks and health items.

I wanted to experience it all during those years ago. But my ex told me not to dream.

On a different Friday night, I left this place with a red duffel bag and whatever else I could carry away in a rickety silver Saturn. This was a girl with nothing but a dream, a prayer for a future — a safe future. But this Friday night, even my d’orsay shoes shone in a way that I never did here.

I walked into the Center, surrounded by artwork and warm light. My friends started arriving. I clutched onto my white handbag as my pearl and gold earrings swung from side to side. Glancing outside at the twinkle lights, I remembered this place. It didn’t look like this. I didn’t look like this.

Yet it didn’t bother me as we looked at the artwork. There was a photograph of an old phone that I couldn’t help but to bid on, called “Art Deco;” it would go perfectly in my hip Los Angeles apartment.

I laughed with my friends as we ate and talked about our lives. Sat together and rested our heads on each other’s shoulders. Drank wine and laughed. I talked expressively with my hands, no rings on my fingers.

My dress twirled as my body swished across the room with a strangely confident swagger. Yet as I met more and more people who lived in Orange County, there was something whispering at me: You don’t live here anymore.

I walked around the gallery with my friend Jen, studying all the different works of art. When I left Orange County she was one of my first friends when I moved away, meeting me right in the heart of my post-divorce wild child phase. She became the first family member in my new Los Angeles home.

I had mentioned to her during our walk around the gallery that I used to come here all the time. The tone of the statement was flippant, but I was hinting at something underneath the surface. It was a way of trying to show that there was another person looking out from inside of me.

She was a scared wife, unsure of a life without her husband because he always told her she could never live without him, who couldn’t even imagine the person she was at this moment. It was a person who had made it, despite the odds against her. I was the person who she always wanted to become.

I go to the bar to ask for water for my friend Tiffany and me. A young guy with a blonde pompadour approaches me.

“You enjoying the auction?” he asks.

“Sure, just grabbing some water for my friend,” I reply.

“I have the best water.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, this water was drunk by Chuck Jones.”

“Sure.”

“It’s going up for auction!”

“Uh-huh.”

“I have the DNA of Chuck Jones!”

“That’s impressive, considering the fact he’s been dead for a while.”

As the rambling continued, I recognized that this was a guy trying to flirt and failing miserably. I eventually walked away; it felt good to be approached, but at the same time, I was tired.

I excused myself to go back to Los Angeles after that. I told Jen I was picking up a Coca-Cola and some cash for the Renaissance Faire tomorrow, and I would see her in the morning. I picked up my purchase from the silent auction and headed to my car. The ground was shining from the rain; walking away as my shoes clicked against it, I felt like I was living in a fantasy.

Yet looking at the Paul Mitchell School, the place where I once used to live, I knew what I had to do. I had known it all along: It was time to see my old home again. No matter how many times I had come back to Orange County over the years to visit my friends, I tried to avoid the corner of Bristol and Sunflower. It was time to face it.

I turned up the street, past South Coast Plaza and its quiet carousel horses. Drove down Sunflower past the art theater and the Vitamin Shoppe. And there it was, my old apartment building.

I looked over, and in my mind’s eye, there she was: The defeated suburban wife with the red duffel bag and a prayer. She was looking into a mirror and seeing the current version of herself, with bright ambitious eyes, a fancy green dress and d’Orsay shoes.

She was a ghost now. Gone, but never forgotten.

I turned onto the freeway, the rain making my car sparkle, “The Edge of Glory” causing the speakers to rumble along the 405. And I drove away, victory clasped in my hand, I sang and danced with the ghost of myself one last time before crossing the Los Angeles border to head home.

Remembering the Holocaust; or The Man Who Roared

Auschwitz_outerwear_distinguish_yellow_Star_of_DavidWe speak the words: Shoah, Holocaust, the unforgettable fire that consumed six million Jews and five million others in unspeakable hatred. We look at ourselves in the waters of time, see those who came before us and watch the ripples that echo even 70 years after the fact, knowing there is no way to truly heal from the horror.

We just sit and talk; talk as if we can’t fully process that it actually happened. We talk about the relatives we lost and the older generations still living with numbers still on their arms. We say “Never Again,” although sometimes just as a catchphrase without questioning what it actually means. But there is a lot to say about the Holocaust that can’t be summed up in those two words. And we’re still trying.

I have felt the ripples of the Shoah my whole life. My mother catalogued testimonies at Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation for almost seven years and suffered the trauma of hearing the terrible stories day after day, which she would share with us every day after she got home from work; some still haunt me.

As I got older the Holocaust was taught in a way that it was supposed to motivate my Judaism; again and again I was told I was a foil against Hitler’s plan of exterminating Jews, and therefore should conduct myself in that way. After so many years of having the tragedy of my people thrust upon me, I became numb to it.

I have many words about the Holocaust. But the one thing I can never leave out of my discussion is the night I heard a man roar.

It was July of 2005, and I was sitting in a classroom at Georgetown University. And there he was, my economics professor standing in front. He was a giant, even for me, and I stand at almost six feet; a portly Sicilian man who somehow had a thick Virginia accent and whose personality dominated any room. He was highly libertarian, distrustful of government and free market to an absurd degree. I loved to impersonate his classroom pacing in the courtyard of our apartment building, and how he ended almost all his arguments with, “And then you die. And… THAT… would be a tragedy.”

He was Catholic and talked about how much he loved his wife and kids. He graded on curves when he knew the material was difficult (then watched us all get mad at the guy who scored 100 percent, as he was an avowed communist and didn’t believe in the free market). When it came time for the final, he allowed us to explore unusual topics — mine was the Adam Smith water-to-diamonds paradox compared to wands and broomsticks in the Harry Potter universe.

But that night in July, he roared.

We were taking notes, scribbling as he talked, watching him pacing back and forth across the length of the room. He was going over how 170 million people had died at the hands of their own governments in the 20th century, 50 million of those from war.

He asked: If only 50 million of those were from war, where did the rest of those people come from? From governments who decimated their own for their own agendas, no matter how terrible they were.

“If you want proof, go to the Holocaust museum,” he said. “Walk through the room with the shoes. Smell the shoes, and remember that there were once people in them.”

Suddenly, there were girlish giggles from the corner; two students were whispering to one another. Whether it was related to his seriousness or some other topic, I will never be sure. But I remember the fury.

It was an explosion, a bomb of anger that they weren’t understanding the depths of what he was talking about. His personality that was so passionate about what he was teaching became a fire that would destroy anything in its path.

He began yelling about they couldn’t understand the horrors of people being slaughtered because they were comfortable sitting in a classroom. Millions of people died simply for being who they were; nothing more, nothing less. Each pair of shoes was a person who was snuffed out because of hatred. They couldn’t understand hate that way because they had never seen it, and by turning a blind eye to it makes it almost a guarantee that they’ll see it again.

The room was stunned into silence. He tried to continue on, but it had grown late. And as the class ended, this giant of a man dissolved into tears.

When a lot of the class left, I went to him. My presence was followed by several of my friends; they were all black. I sat with my professor, comforting him, listening to him as he was distressed at the ignorance of our fellow students. He looked up at me, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.

“I’m not Jewish,” he said to me. “I can’t imagine what it was like for you.”

“People make Holocaust jokes all the time,” I replied. “I have to tune it out in order to survive.”

“We know,” one of my friends said. “We do it all the time with jokes about slavery.”

We all continued to talk together, and spent plenty of hours afterwards discussing. Our conversation awoke something inside of me. It was like we found a rotted tree and dug up its roots. In the tangled wood was all the hatred of the world, and it reached up to the sky with different branches – homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. They are all different, but the common ground is that hate can destroy everything around it, like a weed. But only if we let it.

So many years have passed since that night in July. We have all since left Georgetown and my classmates, professor and I have gone to our own corners of the world. But no matter where I go, I will never forget that night.

I have packed it and unpacked it millions of times. I have written about it time and again, when a larger-than-life Catholic man fought against hate for a people not his own, but deep down he knew all people were he is to embrace. When my black friends began to understand my struggle and I learned about theirs. It has manifested into my life in many different ways, from the pallbearers I chose for my mother’s funeral to my current job at a non-profit where we teach tolerance for all, as well as the history of the Holocaust, genocide and hate crimes to students and professionals throughout the greater Los Angeles area.

And my professor was right. We are seeing hate yet again. The roots of the tree are the same, but it’s almost like it’s adapted to a new climate and it is growing stronger with every passing minute. And the worst part is there are people out there defending it and helping it grow, suffocating voices who are calling for a better way.

As I am breathing deeply, as I am told “Never again” yet again, I wonder: Are we ready to do what it takes to heed those words? Are we going to giggle in fear of the task at hand? Are we going to dismiss it, say, “it’s not THAT bad”? Or are we going to roar like that July night, remind ourselves of the fight at hand and join each other in solidarity to make a better world?

My choice is to roar. What’s yours?

She Thought I Would Shoot

pistol girlI sat in our counselor’s office, bouncing my 16-year-old sneakered toes on the floor of Westlake High School. My ratty red Jansport was on the floor, stuffed with textbooks, folders and my favorite notebook, where my poetry was written in my trademark black scribble with strange-looking “e’s.”

Why was I here? I looked around this tiny broom closet they called an office. My eyes darted to the bookshelves, stacked with various generic titles on how to help problem children. And if I was here, that meant I was one.

I hadn’t cheated on a test; I was too lazy for their boring classwork. I had never gotten involved in a fight at school; my numerous bullies were more likely to make me cry than have me attack them. Sure, I stood up to my teachers, but it wasn’t like my classmates were by being disruptive. It was challenging the so-called knowledge they were trying to throw at me, where I became known for writing five-paragraph essays about how ridiculous my essay topic was. If you really needed me, you’d find me in the back of the class, writing.

The counselor walked into the office, a swarthy-looking red haired woman whose name I lost to time. While she wore thin, wire-framed glasses, I opted for funky, thick-framed black eyewear, which in 1999 was ten years before its time, and a pixie cut.

I was odd for a suburban town like Thousand Oaks; I was a brown haired, tall and curvy latchkey kid hanging out at the Barnes & Noble after school, while most of the girls were blonde, petite and yelling at their mothers to get them coffees from a place called Beanscene. They all went to the same church on Sundays, whereas I went into Los Angeles for Hebrew school. We had nothing in common; I couldn’t bond with these girls.

Their mothers were always around volunteering with extracurriculars while their fathers worked; my parents both worked in the city. The only time my mother didn’t was when it was time to take me to the psychiatrist, where he would give me his latest cocktail of pharmaceuticals, musing how he was just like me while shoving them down my throat. The drugs would cause me everything from feeling so angry I could barely contain myself to developing huge breasts and stretch marks all over my body. When I complained, he shrugged and said, “Look on the bright side: You’re not lactating.”

As she sat across from me, all I could think was maybe they were right. Maybe I was a problem child.

“How are you today, Reina?” the counselor asked me.

“Good, but I’m kind of wondering what I’m doing here,” I responded.

“I just wanted to check if you were okay.”

“Um, yeah…”

The counselor then went on about my poetry notebook. Less than a month after Columbine, I had written a poem, and it was sympathetic to the shooters. They were bullied as badly as I was, pushed so hard to the point where they grabbed guns and shot.

She thought I would shoot, too.

I was puzzled by this. I had never seen this counselor before, and because of one poem, she thought I was going to be murderous. She did nothing when I stood in the middle of the classroom and the boys picked on me so hard I burst into tears while my teachers did nothing. She wasn’t there when the girls would pester me, or my choir teacher would yell at me or push kids into doors.

Yet now, because of one poem, one girl, because of Columbine, she thought I would shoot.

My innocent hands had only picked up water guns. The only weapon I knew was my pen. The only harm I ever thought of was self-harm, and even so, I never acted on it, partially because my mother told me that if I ever killed myself it would kill my grandparents. She didn’t know about my psychiatrist, my home life or my life in the halls of high school. But yet this one poem meant dead bodies.

She didn’t remember that there were dozens upon dozens of mass shootings before this point. My parents would let me read their Newsweeks, and I followed the timelines since 1996, seeing pictures of white boys in orange jumpsuits facing trials. I couldn’t understand why Columbine had everyone spooked, like they had never seen anything like that. Yet I was smart enough to know why they did it; guys bringing guns to school, trying to look cool or make up for some missing part of themselves. And there was a hunt afoot for the next one.

I knew what the counselor was looking for. I knew the boys in my classes who hunted in the hills already, who killed bunnies and maimed them for their own personal pleasures. She never asked about them; it was about me, the girl with the thick-framed glasses, pixie cut and ratty Jansport. Because I wrote a poem. Because she thought I would shoot.

I explained to her what it was like to be bullied, to be treated the way I was by the others. That there was no desire in me to pick up a gun; rather there was a desire to understand, to process, to feel. In them, I saw elements of myself, of the pain and hurt that was inflicted upon me as a growing person, and in them I also saw the path I would never take.

Later, when my mother found out about me being called into the counselor’s office, she called her. The counselor told my mother she had never met a student with as much empathy or courage as I had. It was a lovely thought, but all I can think now was that she probably never found the kids in my high school who loved to play with guns and showed signs of being problems. She would have rather gone after those who spoke their truth, who were trying to find a way to cope before moving forward and speaking out.

It takes adult eyes to see the adult mistakes, and hers was the same one as today; where you want to find that one person who would cause the chaos when in truth the problem is larger than that. A sweep under the rug was all she wanted, in the form of a girl who people thought was strange anyway. But the problem with that was that she was smart, not to be packaged in a box.

Since that day, countless children have died at the hands of hundreds of young boys with guns. They have ranged from elementary school children to high school students in Parkland. And calling me into the office that day in 1999, thinking that I would shoot because of a poem, did nothing to stop them.

Now my generation is the adults. And instead of pointing fingers at the children who are speaking their truth, maybe we should use double-sided mirrors instead.

The Last Song of Barnett Lewis

IMG_1325On February 23, my Uncle Barnett Lewis died under suspicious circumstances. Today, I delivered this eulogy for him. For my favorite Lost Boy… this is for you.

His name was Peter Pan. Or it might as well have been.

Barry was the eternal child, our puckish playmate overlooking Santa Monica Boulevard. His apartment on Cynthia Street might as well have been Neverland, with mirrored walls, elegant furniture and décor, alongside the greatest Mickey Mouse collection known to man. One of the first things I knew as a little girl was that we were Uncle B’s princesses. And I relished in it.

My eyes were the same color as his, and his grandma Ida: bright blue with a touch of green. His grin was that of a giant, larger than life yet gentle and warm. The smells of him – of cologne and old cigarettes – still makes me feel that the world is mine for the taking, that I am surrounded by the purest love. When he was around, I always felt like I belonged.

He was cosmopolitan and always chic, jet setting all over the world, climbing the ladder and living amongst the Hollywood stars. He loved driving through Coldwater Canyon because of the homes he worked on there. Barry was the perfect picture of ‘70s excess spilled over into later decades, with the disco flair of West Hollywood dancing behind every step.

He was the life of any party, the thrill in the boring day-to-day. This was alongside his band of Neverland companions, whether it was Barry goofing off about Dale’s beard, which Dale claimed he was “growing for the winter,” or wandering through the streets of New York with my mother in her white medical dress; Barry told everyone who passed them by, “She’s my nurse.” Their whimsy brightened our world and drove my dad crazy. Yet their anarchy was simply inspired.

I was always thrilled to come visit Los Angeles to see my grandparents and Uncle B. When Barry was around, there were frilly dresses, stuffed animals, laughter, balloons, outings in the city with him and Nanny. Something about him and his Technicolor universe made me want to aspire, want to grow up. Want to have that city life that he had, surrounded by palm trees and bustling streets.

One day, when I was seven, I said to my mother, “Mom, Barry’s so great. Why isn’t he married?” She really didn’t have an answer for me – probably because it would take another 20 years for it to be legal.

I figured it out when I was 14, listening to my father and him talking. Barry was discussing plans for my sister’s wedding with her first boyfriend. “Now, now, Barry,” my dad said. “Shoshana has a lot more boys’ hearts to break.”

And naturally, Barry said, “Well, so do I.”

From there I began piecing the story of his life, of a community that I was only a part of by association. In his 20s was the liberation of Stonewall, his 50s the hanging of Matthew Shepherd on a fencepost, his 60s finally the right to marry. Barry was stuck in a time where, despite never really being in the closet, he didn’t get to be who he wanted to everyone, even to the woman that mattered most: His mother.

Growing up, I would think of Barry when the gay slurs echoed in my high school hallways and the evangelical kids were desperate to save my Jewish soul. Their ignorance clawed at me and lit a fire in my stomach. Barry gave me direction and purpose; he showed me that I didn’t have to embody hate. Standing up for what was right was much more important than fitting in. And when they try to come at us, that love and acceptance should be our creed.

As we get older, we find that it’s time to put aside our toys and leave the playground. We come into our own, remembering to see the world through different, mature eyes. That was not Barry. After all, Barry was Peter Pan. A lost boy who would never grow up.

I soon realized that Barry was not a fantasy to follow. He was a man, and a flawed one at that. He liked things his way, and was extremely meticulous. If something was the slightest bit off in his eyes, he would comment on it, sometimes brutally. If the spotlight went away from him for just a second, he would do anything in his power to reclaim it.

Underneath the surface of my childhood playmate was an unbelievable pain that no amount of earthly good could cure. But in Barry I learned something vital, and that is to truly love someone meant loving that person for all that they are and all they can never be.

I got older. I made mistakes in my life. And there was Barry in the background, with a hug, his lost boy laugh and strong opinions on interior decoration; in fact, when I got divorced, one of the first things he said to me was, “Get the furniture.”

His aesthetics clashed with mine, but he painted my universe with his sass and salty tongue. And from him, I learned to dish it too; when I wished him a happy birthday last year, he asked me if I knew how old he was. I responded, “Someone once told me that a lady never reveals her age.”

He had little to give, but what he gave was so much more than he thought it was. He didn’t shower us with money, but his love was worth diamonds. He encouraged my father in his theater dreams. In Dale, he found someone to both clash against and pull in close. In my mother and Aunt Cindy, he found a gang for gossip and ganja. He gave my sister an Auntie Mame, my cousin Amy the uncle she deserved, Beau a family member who really wanted to be there for him. And a month ago, when he said how proud my mother would be of me after helping my dad recover from his fall, he gave me the knowledge that I was becoming the woman I was always meant to be.

His worth was not in his toys, his gifts or his knick-knacks. It was in his one-of-a-kind, precious soul. And at the end of it all, Barry was human like anyone else. He just wanted to love and be loved, but he didn’t always know what it looked like, or how to embody it.

I had plans for Barry. I wanted him to taste my cooking and see my beautiful new city apartment. I wanted to host dinners with everyone to get together. With him, I saw the opportunity to begin a healing process, reuniting the family and creating something new from the pain and ashes. There was a future for us, and Barry was supposed to be a part of it. And now that the sun has set on Neverland, I’m not sure where we go from here.

He was Peter Pan. A lost boy. And I hope wherever he is now, he will find a way home.