Category Archives: The present
Anyone 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.
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.”
“Yeah, this water was drunk by Chuck Jones.”
“It’s going up for auction!”
“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.
We 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?
I 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.”
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.
On 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.
To the 19-year-old friends of Blaze Bernstein: You will not sleep.
These are the nights where you will be tossing and turning in your bed. You might be crying, you might not; the tears may not be ready yet. Your arms could be clutching your pillow, huddled in close, or you could be staring at the ceiling, your arms open to the universe.
But you will be awake; awake now for your friend who sleeps.
In that tortured desperation there are questions that linger as you try to shut your eyes. They are simple, but they’re there. They are one-word questions: What? Why? How? Your eyes will dart or become unfocused as you scan your surroundings, looking for the answers. They’re not there. They may never come.
I know because I was once 19. And I lost my friend. And I wish I had answers even now.
True, the circumstances were different, and death does come for us all eventually. But it doesn’t compute in the minds of us who are just hitting our strides. Older generations die, as is the natural order of the universe.
We don’t die. We are young. Forever young.
These next few days will haunt you. There will be details that will never leave, even decades later. You will remember the candles. The flowers. The anguish. The agony. Every single emotion that will come from these days will now live inside of you.
I remember green rooms and sobbing, black dresses and carpools to a cemetery in Simi Valley, a woman with curly hair and a pink dress, shaking by an open grave on a bright May day, screaming at a bright blue sky. A mother doing the unnatural, the undoable, the unsurvivable.
If you pointed her out to me in a crowd now, I would never know her face. But she lives in me forever. And in Blaze’s mother’s face, I saw her again.
Sometimes, when I’m alone and quiet, driving in the car, I can still sense my friend in my passenger seat. His round glasses still shine and his widow’s peak is pronounced. He still wears a blue and white-checkered flannel and cowboy boots, and when he hugs you tight you can smell his cologne, an elegant musk. And he is 23. I’m in my 30s now, and no matter how many years I live on this earth, he will always be 23.
There is a price to pay for youth, and this is mine; growing old while he didn’t.
To this day, I imagine how our lives would have panned out. How we would have forgiven each other for our mistakes, then make up and find new levels to our friendship. We’d stand at each other’s weddings; hold each other’s children. He would bald and the laugh lines that were starting to show around his eyes would deepen. He would joke about my hair starting to turn gray like my mother’s, and getting a bottle of hair dye.
He’s been gone for so many years, and I have lived so much of my life without his presence. And yet these are the things I still wish for.
I have lost many people in my life since he left. I buried both of my beloved grandparents, cousins, my uncle, my aunt, my mother. My friends have died; lovers have taken their lives. I look at my life and realize the fact I have lived this long is a medical miracle. As a result, I enthusiastically treat every day as another that I can bring something good in the world.
But I don’t only do it for me. I do it for him, because through me he gets to do all the things he never lived to have. And he will live in me forever.
This is the journey you will face, and I cannot promise you that it will be easy, particularly under the circumstances Blaze died under. You are not the only ones you know who will be haunted by his death, but it will linger.
The years will pass, but you will remember him. You’ll know his smile, remember his favorite t-shirts, the songs he sang and the secrets that you kept from everyone else. You’ll remember what it felt like to hold him close, the smell of his favorite deodorant, the words of encouragement he said to you and only you. The minor little intricate details that everyone forgot you will never let go of, simply because there’s nothing left of him presently on this earth to hold on to.
And you will want to hold on. Because you still believe in this last little sliver of youthful innocence. It keeps you young. It keeps him alive.
Your days will continue. You will get married and raise your families. You will graduate with your college degrees and accomplish amazing things professionally. You will grow old, breathe deep and see wondrous miracles as you do.
But with each day you are given to live, carry Blaze Bernstein with you. He should be the fire in your soul to do right by others and to make this world better than you left it. He will be your candle in the darkness. He will be your comfort when things are falling apart. He will never die while your hearts keep beating; his soul will bang that drum as it moves forward.
I wish I could give you a lullaby, but instead you have been given a legacy. It doesn’t get easier, but it does get better. You will sleep eventually, but when you wake up know that you have to get up and do the impossible, which is to carry on despite the weight of loss. The world will not be the same, but we find ways to make life worth living, even in the unimaginable days to come.
In memory of Blaze Bernstein and Jason Todd Schneider
During this time of year, new years and old years collide. Rosh Hashana is the time of reflection, the time of healing. And, by far, it is my favorite time of year.
My childhood finds its happiest moments at my grandmother’s Rosh Hashana table at lunchtime. I’ll never forget the goodies on top of her lace tablecloth – bagels and lox combined with Sephardic foods such as eggs, squash and spinach frittada and cheese-filled borekas, with the sides twisted up by Nony’s delicate fingers. My mother made the apple jelly, which is open on the table next to the traditional round challah. She made a huge batch of jelly every year and gave it only to the people she liked, from the cantor to our teachers.
Being with my grandparents made our holidays. As small children my sister, cousin and I had run of the Spanish-style duplex on Crescent Heights, where they had lived for 30 years. All the cousins make an appearance, alongside uncles and aunts, clergy and close family friends who had been around for so long you couldn’t tell whether or not they’re actually related; they all found a way to Papu and Nony’s house. It hosted the people I love the most and those who I never met. My father’s father, grandpa Saul, adored my mother’s parents and spent his last day of his life at their Rosh Hashana table. There was family history in this place that my tiny child’s body couldn’t hold up yet.
We eventually moved to Northern California, and my grandparents relocated to a Beverly Hills apartment, pristine and white as opposed to Crescent Heights’ colorful and historic charm. One Rosh Hashana, I refuse to go to temple. I’m sobbing in a pink dress with a patchwork skirt, throwing a tantrum as my father sits with me calmly. After several hours, I calm down and we go, with most of my morning spent looking at the stained glass on the ceiling of the synagogue. And, of course, we come back for lunch at my grandparents’ house.
We move back to Thousand Oaks, and I join the temple choir. I was proud to don a white robe for Rosh Hashana, but my mother hates it; it always makes us late for lunch. Eventually, I give up the choir, deciding instead to gossip with my friend Melissa in the bathroom and follow my friend Allison and her sisters around, admiring their handcrafted talits. But we always look forward to what comes after.
At 17, my sister, cousin and I become too cool for just sitting at my grandparents’ table during lunch, instead choosing to chase around our younger cousins Jonah and Hannah. After they leave, we decide to wander to the bar in the den. We’re hanging out there and I discover a pack of Viagra. At 17, I’m disgusted. But in later years, I realized how special it was that my grandparents were still so hot for each other that they were having sex into their 80s.
At 21, I go to college in Fullerton, but after services I trek up to the 10 freeway and make the drive to Beverly Hills for lunch. The dog, Lucy, is hiding under the small kitchen table, mad she got dragged into this ordeal. Nony is cooking as always, my mother helping her, and my aunt Sophie is visiting from Florida. But my Papu isn’t here entirely. A nurse is nearby at all times. His shuffling feet don’t walk as much as they used to. He can barely speak or remember anyone or anything – except the kids. He remembers his granddaughters and his great-niece and nephews, particularly two-year-old Sammy, who he adores.
It’s his last Rosh Hashana.
The venue switches. My grandmother moves from the apartment in Beverly Hills to the Jewish Home and my cousin Lorrie decides to host Rosh Hashana lunches from this point on. The transition is smooth, with bagels and lox, apple jelly and poached salmon. There are no more borekas here, but my mother makes sure to always bring some frittada. Nony sits with her sister Esther as “the kids” all sit outside in the backyard. There are several new additions to this gathering, though – my cousin Kacee as well as my soon to be ex-husband the most noteworthy.
Eventually, Nony starts to fade too, forgetful and frightened. And soon, she leaves our world of Rosh Hashana lunches. As does Esther and her family, who cut ties.
We continue on despite the changes, both good and bad. My mother still making apple jelly for the holiday and secretly slipping some to the cantor in the middle of Rosh Hashana services before we head over to Lorrie’s house. Lorrie producing a cake for my mother and my cousin Dova’s birthdays and they blow out the candles together. There is raucous conversation and laughter, along with teaching my younger cousins things we shouldn’t be even talking them about, but do anyway.
My cousin Sarah moves to Los Angeles with her family and her two young boys, followed by her parents after they retire. I divorce and come to Rosh Hashana lunches by myself again. The younger cousins who I once chased around my grandparents’ apartment in Beverly Hills head off to college. As my mother grows sick, she isn’t able to last as long at the lunches; she gets tired and needs to rest, and the drive back to Thousand Oaks is long enough without it.
Two years ago, I’m mad at my mother. I’m standing in her kitchen and want her to teach me how to make apple jelly for the holiday so we can bring it to Lorrie’s house. She doesn’t want to put in the work to make it, with sterilizing the jars and grating the apples. I tell her I’m happy to do everything if she just tells me what to do. She still says no.
“Mom, you have to pass it on!” I yell at her. “You have to teach me, because one day you’re not going to be around to do it and the tradition will die!”
That was my mother’s last Rosh Hashana. I really didn’t want to be right in that argument. I still don’t.
The Rosh Hashana lunch after her death, and my mother seems to haunt Lorrie’s house. I can see it my cousin’s face; the agony of my mother’s absence is in her every movement. The house seems to be emptier without her presence.
Yet the kids sit outside, joined now by my friend Gary, who my mother treated like a son. And we find laughter, tell stories, eat to our hearts’ content. The food isn’t the exact same as my grandmothers’ table, but the people are just as good. My cousin Amy laughs as her fiancé Kevin makes corny dad jokes. I ruffle Sammy’s hair and ask him all about school and politics. My sister enjoys being with the family away from Kansas. And somewhere in that crowd was my mother’s ghost, because even in death her spirit wouldn’t be able to bear missing a Rosh Hashana lunch.
Yesterday, I stood in the kitchen, preparing for my dad’s and my Rosh Hashana dinner on Wednesday night. My father came and looked at the baking sheet with raw borkeas on them, with the twisted up sides made by my less delicate fingers. His eyes sparkled with tears – even just for a minute, my mother, grandmother, grandfather, and even his own father were alive again in his kitchen. He missed them. I missed them. We were both lonely without them, yet continued to fulfill our family traditions and share them with the people we love.
During Rosh Hashana, we ask in temple to be inscribed into the Book of Good Life. But that book sometimes needs to be pulled off the shelf and re-read. We need to tell the stories again – the good ones, the funny ones, the sad ones, the embarrassing ones. All of the stories need to find a way to our lips, and laughter should roll off our tongues. And they need to be told to the ones who remember them and the people who somehow wander into our lives and homes, becoming our family.
That way, we’re all at the table together, tied by tradition, and not even death can separate us. And that is the best wish I can give for the Jewish New Year.
Julia always came on Wednesdays.
My mother would buy all her cleaning supplies and make sure the rags were washed so Julia could do her job. She would come in a teal pickup truck around 9 a.m. and begin to clean, as my mother would sit in her office and work.
Julia was a tiny Latina woman who barely spoke any English. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she wore low-slouching jeans and sneakers. She would be there about three hours, and my mother would pay her $80 in cash. During that time, my mother would talk to her in Spanish, as she was fluent. They talked about Julia’s husband, who was our gardener, and her young daughter.
I never asked if Julia was legal. My mother never told me if she was or not. It didn’t matter to her; Julia always did a good job, so she paid her.
One day, Julia came to the house tired. My mother noticed, and asked about her daughter. She began to cry; her daughter was very sick, they had been at the hospital with her all night. My mother paid Julia and sent her home to sleep; she would see her next week.
My mother believed in America, and believed that people should be able to work. She wasn’t giving free rides, but at the same time never treated those around her as less than; she even sponsored our childhood nanny for her green card. When we were younger they were invited to family get-togethers and birthday parties as guests. There was nothing dividing us.
My mother would remember her grandparents, immigrants pursuing a dream in America, seeking a better life and working hard all the way there. Taking odd jobs, from delivering flowers to running errands, in the hopes that their children would have a better life. She was on the other side now.
Julia came rain or shine, but as the years passed the circumstances changed. Cancer was on the bill for my mother. Julia kept cleaning and they kept talking, even at the weakest points of her recovery. Eventually she came back up from her bout with breast cancer, but not before sliding down once again into complications.
As time went on, my mother got sicker and her hospital visits more frequent. I had moved back home to help her, and would be there with Julia on Wednesdays when no one else could be. One week, my father and I had to be at the hospital with her. I pulled $80 from my savings account, gave it to Julia, and sent her home. We would see her next week.
Eventually, another Wednesday came. My mother was in the hospital again, my dad was with her and I was at home.
This was the morning she died.
Hanging up the phone, I started to scream and cry in her office. Julia rushed in, and I told her mom was dead. She shook her head and broke down, tears running down her face. We held each other for several minutes. She continued to clean afterwards, but I could hear Julia sobbing down the hallways.
When I left for the hospital, my cousin came to stay at the house. After Julia was done cleaning, my cousin and her simply held each other on the couch for a good half an hour before Julia went home.
My father continued having Julia clean the house after my mother died. It was almost in keeping Julia was keeping a part of her alive. He would get cash for her and leave it on the dining room table every Wednesday until the day he moved out.
And afterwards, like a dream, Julia seemed to disappear just as quickly. And it breaks my heart, wondering what has happened to her, her husband and her daughter.
I think of her child when she was in the hospital. How is this child different from me? I lived with a mother who I love, who cared for me when I was ill. I had a father who worked hard. We were past our immigrant stage, settled in America after generations of distance from my great-grandparents. They were once the dreamers of America, working hard and making new lives for themselves and their children here. My mother never forgot that. And she saw it in the ladies who worked for us.
I left my mother’s house to settle into a guesthouse in Beverly Hills. I saw the Latin women walking tiny dogs up and down the street, or trekking up the part of Coldwater Canyon without sidewalks wearing traditional maid uniforms. The Mercedes and Audis of this road combine with rumbling large trucks filled with lawnmowers, shears and Latin men, the ones constructing the fancy houses and maintaining the yards for the people so demanding and determined to live in the most famous zip code in the country.
And yet… do these people who they work for see them as people? That they have families that they love and still work no matter the circumstances, because otherwise they don’t get paid? That no matter how many 60-hour weeks their employers have, those people will still have enough money at the end to afford their homes and pay for vacations, fancy cars and private schools, while their workers are lucky to barely make rent?
Do those people remember dreams, and the dreamers who have them?
This country, our worlds are nothing without people like Julia — human beings who love and see more to the world than the status quo. Who reducing to “legal” versus “illegal” makes us forget that they are actually flesh and blood people with hopes and desires. Who work hard for their families and keep moving forward in the hopes that their children will have better lives here. Not everyone remembers.
My mother did. She would call to me, “Remember who you are.” She would remind me regularly that we are a country made from immigrants. She remembered until the day she died that America was for everyone.
Now it’s my turn. It should be yours too.
Standing at the craps table in Henderson, air-conditioned within an inch of my life in this refuge from the Vegas heat, I take the emerald green dice from the stickman and blow on them.
I see the people standing around me at the table — a short, sad yet angry Israeli next to me in a salmon pink shirt smoking cigarettes; a tall black man on the other side who eyes me warily, as I am the only female at the table; an older gentleman playing with his chips nervously, their clicking sound echoing in my ears; and the giant of a guy who identifies himself as my boyfriend, throwing down money.
Tossing the dice along the top, getting the hard eights and sixes, I watch my partner in craps whoop as our chips graduate from one row to two. My nose is sniffling from traveling from arid desert air to the chilled casinos as I continue roll after roll, my bags stacked under the table with two Jameson and gingers just above them.
He passionately kisses me after I hit seven and my turn is over. Calls me lucky and gets us comps for the buffet upstairs. I’m barely able to eat because I don’t feel well as he loads up three plates full; food piled so high it practically measures up to his almost 400-pound, 6’6 frame.
We have been together for three months, and generally things were working. We enjoyed each other’s company, my family liked him, my friends enjoyed how he made me feel. Yet there was a gnat of truth buzzing in my ear: He didn’t want to be monogamous, and continued dating multiple women. He got angry and jealous when I would suggest dating other men. He was controlling in bed, and my pleasure was completely ignored. He didn’t want to get married, although he was warming up to the idea of having a child.
I told him we have different values. He said we didn’t. We continued on, although I sensed something not right. He was bringing me in and pushing me out; putting me on calls with his mother, giving me a key to his house, and yet not wanting to compromise on things I requested.
I wanted to end it, but something told me to keep giving it shot after shot. All the issues were just me, I told myself. It was my past, my fears, my anxieties. And now here I was with him, in Las Vegas.
He’s in his element; he lived here for three years, knew everything about placing bets and getting what you want. Every show has a comp, every venue comes with the wave of his hand as he parked at the valet. He’s always walking five steps ahead of me, playing with his phone every spare second, my feet barely able to keep up.
I’m lost here. I hadn’t been to Vegas in almost two years. Yet every minute with him there is a thing to do outside our hotel room. I pack dresses I never get to change into as I’m shunted from local businesses to fancy pools with giant facades, from dramatic theaters to elaborate casinos. I always dreamed of experiencing Vegas as a VIP, and these were princess-style treatments. I should feel special.
I miss my friends back in Los Angeles, who are celebrating birthdays without me. I’m not with my father for Father’s Day. I should be happy that I’m with my so-called boyfriend in Vegas and he’s actually tagging me on Facebook posts, but at the same time I feel like he’s hiding more than he’s showing.
He’s surrounded by all the things that make him feel like a king, with a cute little piece of arm candy to take it in with. But I could be any girl he feels like pampering at that given moment. He doesn’t see me, ask me what I want to do or how I’m feeling, even though my throat feels like it’s on fire. We’re just floating along in the heat.
As we walk past the Paris, I dream of real Paris, and in New York New York I long for the city’s cursing residents. The world was designed to be here at our fingertips, yet I felt further and further from it as he talks about his dreams but never asks about mine. Facades and fantasies in the desert heat, as I stand in a bright fuchsia dress as he barely grooms himself enough to go out to the nice restaurant I picked for that last evening — the thank you for our trip, overlooking the Bellagio fountains.
Something changes in there. His constant phone companion is gone. He cuddles closer to me, sharing food off forks and kissing me deeply. Finding a way to make deep conversation. Taking me to the Bellagio fountains and through the hotel’s conservatory, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
At the end of the evening, he asks if I want ice cream. I nod furiously. Although there’s no ice cream, we find a Jamba Juice, sit on a bench and split a smoothie, laughing about the man who was wandering through the mall farting, giggling about all the things we saw.
This was my version of heaven, all that I wanted from him in this relationship. Not fancy pools and VIP shows, crap tables or blown-on dice. Just the two of us, a smoothie, true companionship and overwhelming laughter. This is where I felt special.
It fades away just as fast. The next day he makes me cry at breakfast during a debate about religion he asks me incredulously if I think I’ll see my mom after I die. The entire drive home he texts and calls customer service on a never-ending loop, yelling at them to the point where I become scared and cry again. I ask to talk to my dad just as we cross the California border; he doesn’t let me until we reach Pasadena. I’m silent for hours, wishing to be close to him the way I was the night before.
When we get back to his house, I ask to use his bathroom before I leave. I see another girl’s makeup on the counter. He begins stumbling in excuses, claiming it’s his female roommate’s. Yet two weeks before he said he was strict about his roommate’s stuff not being in his bathroom.
I know him better, and unload on him the truth: That the last time he was in Vegas, he took another girl and asked me to watch his dogs. He probably did the same thing again, and I wasn’t dumb. He never hid the fact he dates multiple women, but lacked discretion.
“We just had a great weekend,” he lamented. “Can’t we just enjoy this? I don’t want a serious conversation right now.”
He never wants a serious conversation. Not about the future nor the past. He just wants the hedonism of now.
“That’s not the point,” I replied. “I think I might be falling for you, and I need to know that this is a thing before we move forward.”
He responds. “I care about you deeply, and I like the fact that you’re getting attached to me.”
No. That’s not right. I deserve a better answer. A worthy answer for who I am as a person. And he didn’t have one.
He asks me what I want. I say I want to be with him. He echoes the words, but I don’t believe him. He kisses me under his jacaranda tree and I walk away, thinking about where this relationship was going. And it’s not in the right direction.
I realized this was a person who would refuse to change, and it wasn’t worth giving ultimatums and demands. I deserved more than comps and craps tables. I needed a relationship where I counted.
I break up with him via email; it takes me a week to get the courage to go through with it, block him on Facebook and drop off the key in his mailbox. I ask for monogamy, knowing I’ll never receive it. That he won’t chase after me nor shed a single tear for my absence; there would always be another girl to replace me.
As the breakup settles in, I see things clearer, like a veil being lifted or the relief of Pacific breezes after the stifling Vegas heat. I see him for who he is beyond our Vegas trip — his close-mindedness, bullying and bigotry; his grabs at control by any means necessary, whether through chronic overeating or manipulating women. Although the sadness of losing his good qualities still stung, I was better off finding someone worthy.
We had a Vegas relationship; a façade, a dream, an image presented to the world of happiness yet simmering under the brim with emptiness and pain. That wasn’t a relationship that represented me.
When it came to love, I wanted a Jamba Juice and laughter relationship, a passionate kissing relationship, a deep conversations relationship, a put-your-phone-away-because-the-other-person-is-so-good relationship. A place beyond arm candy, but rather fully fleshed souls trying to find a way through life together. Where reality lived, and what happened in it wasn’t just sinful nights in the desert, but the foundation for something even greater.
And now, as a single girl once more, I realize I truly am lucky.
This is what dismantling a house looks like.
It is eyes watering at the amount of dust that comes up in clouds around you, sneezing while you’re walking into a demented heaven where all that’s there is stuff. Boxes and boxes of earthly goods are surrounding you, and bags of donations lay out in front of you like tombstones.
The dead live amongst here, the people you used to know.
It’s also the frenzy of the living who are still holding the items, lifting beautiful bowls and crystal, trying on clothing that you remember your mother once wore when it got cold. Going through and trying to claim everything in the tiniest little crevices, from wall hangings to See’s candy gift certificates.
It is pulling an antique yellowed veil from your mother’s closet and not knowing who it belongs to, and knowing probably the only person who can explain it is dead. Then it’s having people insist that you keep it for your own wedding, even though you’re not getting married yet; hopes for the future that you just can’t see at this given moment. You want to get married again, but are not sure if it will actually happen for you. Yet you are being given a veil to wear “just in case.”
It’s swimming through the piles of stuff, and when you say you like something, everyone insists you take it with you. And then you remember you have a tiny guesthouse, and wonder where you’re going to put all of the items you like when there’s barely room for you.
It’s starting a bonfire with the love letters and photos of your ex, laughing and dancing around it with your cousin and sister, bonding over how far you’ve come. It’s also pulling your wedding album, solo in the dark, and finding a container of stickers in your mother’s desk and pasting them all over your ex and his family’s faces (all except for his cousin. You liked her).
It’s the combinations of memories, from both the people who are here and those that are gone. Flimsy paper letters indicating truths about our mortal existences — Turkish immigration papers from my great-grandmother, the death of my great uncle in war, my grandfather longing for my grandmother, a letter from my father after he felt my sister kick in my mother’s stomach for the first time.
Then there are the papers you pull with your name on them, writing in clinical detail what a problem child you were. How you could not communicate, could barely speak, was left screaming and angry until language therapy saved you. Seeing your mother write about how, as a four-year-old child, you went from nothing to her high hopes of you going to some great university one day.
Every school assignment, every attempt at writing and telling stories had been saved, and many of them were thrown in the trash because there is no room to take every little scribble with you. And as others try to hold on to every little piece, you wonder how callous you have become in casting off.
And you think you’ve made progress as you indicate all the crystal bowls and various entertaining platters that are going to be sold off, watching as the stakes are raised again and again. More boxes — of books, kitchen wares, of all the things you thought you’d use again but never did. Tossing off what time has made meaningless; high school yearbooks where you don’t talk to these people anymore and can barely remember them, kitschy things that seemed funny when you were younger, even mementos from friends who you will always love, but ended up breaking your heart in the end.
Hopes for the future, of having the life that your parents did, cast away like shadows in the darkness. Things you wish you could keep but know that there is no space anymore in your current existence. Feeling like you’re falling behind as the people around you, who love you, hold cups of coffee, razzing on your ex because he’s the easiest target at this moment.
Then you realize that you’re suffocating underneath all the items. The weight of the past is being collected in the tangible things, and you desperately want them all to go away. You want to disappear with them, because in that moment you feel like in the things you are one of them, worth very little under the mountain of time passed, left to linger in the graveyard of donations and sellable items worth merely pennies.
And you’re left asking: What kind of life have I lived?
The tears start to flow. My wailing starts softly. It gets louder, and I try to muffle into a pillow. I fail.
My phone text blares. It’s him, my sweet him. He’s so far away from me right now. I tell him I’m having a hard day and that I don’t want to burden him while he’s working; the truth is I’m so used to being independent that I’m terrified to let him in when I’m like this. I prefer to smile and laugh with him, as the happiness he makes me feel is indescribably infinite.
I go back to crying again, thinking of lying in bed with him as he holds me just right, his fingers across my face as he wipes away every tear individually when I would cry about missing my mother, as if counting each of them. And then telling me quietly that he’s not running away.
I still miss her. And I’m crying for her now — two days after Mother’s Day, because I put so much under the surface that I didn’t allow myself to feel at that very moment. As I have been doing during most of this process of dismantling a house.
That’s when everyone surrounds you. To hold you, to touch you and to tell you, “It’s time to stop.”
This is when we stop doing and start talking.
My oldest childhood friend is in my passenger’s seat, telling me that if she gets motion sickness she’s taking the wheel. We’re going to the beach because it makes me happy. I’m behind the wheel because, finally, I have control.
And he calls. He asks me what’s wrong, and I tell him. He tells me to pace myself; box it now, look at it later. He can’t stay on the phone as my friend and I bicker, but he says he’s looking forward to meeting her, and for going to brunch for my dad’s birthday.
I hang up the phone. My friend looks at me. “He called to check in on you,” she said softly. It was strange coming from her, because she is usually so cynical. It was full of wonder and potential.
His words, his voice, the phone call weren’t tangible items, but it was all the perfect gift. It wasn’t an empty glass vase where a dozen delivered roses once resided, a letter trying to convince me of something to win my affections, or a gift that came in tangent with a wedding dress. It wasn’t anything I could hold in my hands.
Rather, it was a metaphorical brick in the foundation; one house was dismantling, another potentially being built. And later, I laid down and whisper the words out loud that I was so afraid to say to him directly.
“This is my family,” I say. “But he is home.”
It’s the tearing down and building up, the yin and yang of my existence. I’m standing on the edge of a knife, so scared that I’m going to fall off, dismantling a house while possibly finding a new home at the edge of my universe.
This is exactly what it looks like.