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Once upon a time, there was a girl with no words.
I read about her in the yellowing pile of papers that my father has handed to me, because my mother seemed to save everything. The typewriter font gave away its age, hinting at the clinical and nature of the study of this girl. The girl with no words.
She is obviously smart, but there is a problem: She can’t speak. Well, not really. She makes squeaks and can mimic, either telling those around her what she wants through actions or pointing. But she has no language; she doesn’t understand.
The girl is taken in for further evaluation. At three years old, her language skills are registered in the 14th percentile. She can barely form sentences.
Page after page, improvements come, but new challenges rise up. She has awkward social skills. She can’t hold a pencil correctly. There are lots of tears, and temper tantrums that forbid outings to the grocery store. Every step is excruciatingly detailed.
I continue to flip through, not recognizing this girl. Even though she has my family, my birthdate, my name.
Yet she can’t be me. The files go on to show imagination-fueled pages with scribbled drawings, trying desperately to tell stories. It shows test scores rising from language in the 14th percentile at three to my eventual 99th percentile at 16.
In between the reports, there are scribbled notes from teachers and therapists. “She is a great storyteller.” “She reads beautifully in front of class.” “She’s so creative.”
Those I recognize: my love of reading, sharing and storytelling run deep. But it all involved language.
And once upon a time, I was the girl with no words, under extensive language therapy with the freemasons of the Scottish Rite Center for Childhood Aphasia in Los Angeles. Before this point, I was thought to be either deaf or autistic, even almost committed to a psychiatric ward for children. It was the Scottish Rite who reassured my mother in her tears after seeing me throw a tantrum during my first evaluation, “Don’t worry, we see this behavior all the time in children with language problems.”
Half of my therapy was onsite, and the other half was with my mother. She would feed me an M&M every time I got a word — until I got too many words. Then she switched to using wind-up toys as a reward; a visual treat in lieu of a sugary one.
It switched over as I started school. After trying my hand at a normal kindergarten, I was sent to a special school and pulled out of classes for language exercises. We drove long distances for even more training with additional specialists.
Hours and hours were spent on me, without me realizing the consequences of people focusing too much on one individual. Relationships were strained, fights grew stronger, rifts were made that could never be repaired. All these sacrifices made for the girl with no words.
After being seen by a doctor at 10 years old to participate in a UCLA study for ADHD, he was worried when my scans came back with a giant white spot on the brain; something he feared was a tumor. After it came back negative, he asked my mother, “Was there anything unusual about her development?”
“Now that you mention it…” she replied.
The doctor then realized an unusual truth: I was born with no language center in my brain. Rather, years of speech therapy helped develop artificial pathways to make sure that I could learn; as opposed to having a left-brain language center like most people, mine developed on both the right and left sides.
He also told my mother that, as a result, I probably lack a lot of the memories of that time. Language is tied to memory, which makes sense as someone who didn’t always have it. My childhood exists on almost a foreign plane that I can barely recall. Little details come up here and there, of white lace dresses and little porcelain circus animals, but there are very few moments I can recall with certainty.
At age 12, my junior high determined that my language abilities had caught up to my peers, and I was done with therapy. But the resentment had built between my mother and me; a part of me wonders if it’s because she thought I should be more grateful for the sacrifices she made for my speech therapy which I couldn’t remember.
Then, at 13, something strange happened. The girl with no words became a writer.
A teacher singled her out. Her name was Mrs. Meir. She called my mother in the year that was my darkest. I had been inappropriately touched in the hallways of my school. When I told the administration, they didn’t believe me. Eventually I threatened to kill myself at a Jewish weekend retreat. I felt so invisible.
Yet she found me in the darkness.
“Your daughter is getting a C in my English class,” she said. “Your daughter is too good of a writer to be getting a C in my English class.” In those days, I never heard that I was good at anything.
I may have been the girl with no words, but now I was determined to get them.
It led to hours and hours and hours of words on pages, writing in cursive or typing away on a keyboard. Projects and projects piled up, from personal essays and short stories to full-fledged attempts at novels. Poetry-filled notebooks, two-act plays, screenplays, television pilots and experimentations with different writing styles filled up my computer memory; even my Facebook statuses were an excuse to express. From the back of my boring history classes into college and beyond, I never stopped.
Although at times I struggled, particularly when I was hyper-criticized to the point where I could barely move, I would always find a way to put those mental crayons to chaos on a page. If there was one thing I was taught as the girl with no words, it was there was always another way.
Eventually I became an editor, coaching other writers. That has meant correcting my father’s grammar and spelling when he asks, helping my friends write emails and even developing a freelancing career. Suddenly, the girl with no words grew up to be the woman with all of them.
Last August, I participated in the Landmark Advanced Course, almost three months after my mother had died and one year from my seminar. The original Landmark Seminar helped reconcile the two of us before she died; now, in grief, I returned.
We sat in the room with the chalkboards as our instructor drew on them the basic facets of communication — the 101 concepts of sender and receiver, of how we give a message versus how it is caught by the other person.
“Everything in the world is shaped by language,” he said. And I realized in that moment, it shaped me. It was me.
And as we are allowed to do in the seminars, I went to the microphone to speak, and I told them this story: of once upon a time, I was the girl with no words, who couldn’t talk, couldn’t understand, could barely communicate and wasn’t able to make friends. The girl with no words, who became the woman who used words for her art.
“I’m a G-d damn miracle!” I blurted out.
There were cheers after that as I sobbed, because still inside me is the girl with no words, who was a lump of a child until she was molded by therapists, doctors and my very own mother. Who sits and reads yellowed papers and can understand how far she’s come in her life, yet knows she will only stop when she’s dead.
There are days where no matter where you turn the road is blocked and you can’t make it through. These are the days where you’re at the lowest, and you’re wondering if it’s worth it, if you’re worth it.
That day for me was Monday.
Sitting in my parked Honda in Griffith Park, I looked out the window at the beautiful foliage, the standard California warm brown combined with the emerging green from the rains that decided to grace the Southland. I was parked near the Greek Theatre, just below the observatory, my favorite place in all of Los Angeles; the place I couldn’t get to because the road was blocked for the holiday.
The road was blocked. This sounded too familiar.
It had been about five hours since I lost my job; the one that I thought was it. They told me when I was brought on board that people stayed, reassuring me in a calm voice that this was permanent. They were growing. This was good.
They had been talking about eliminating several of our television magazine programs on Thursday. On Sunday I updated my LinkedIn profile. On Monday they let me go, claiming “convergence.” I was still getting letters of congratulations on my new position as I was sitting in the park.
When I got upset upon my termination, saying how I let everyone down, my boss didn’t understand. She had been with the company for five years; the last time I held a full-time job with benefits for more than one year was 2009, just as the recession took hold. This job didn’t even offer health insurance and was a drastic pay cut for me, but I took it in hopes of getting closer to working in the field I wanted, of video and television.
With everything they told me previously, this was supposed to be the one for me. I would stay there for a long time. But the road was blocked.
Almost every job boiled down to money: Full-time positions would hire me and then in turn realize they didn’t have enough money to sustain my employment. Contracts liked me, but not enough to pay off the recruiter to buy me out of it. Positions were eliminated and management shifted. And yes, on one or two occasions it was my doing; I will not pretend that I am blameless. But no matter the circumstances, when you’re tossed out like yesterday’s trash, you begin to believe that you are.
Over the years, I have constantly looked for full-time work but was forced into limited contracts. There were whispers of “overqualified” and suspicions about my work history’s lack of long-term positions. My anxiety over desperately needing a job forced me to bungle almost every job interview I went on. And when I was able to get a job, I couldn’t bring myself to trust anyone I worked with, because deep down I knew it wouldn’t last. It never did.
In the meantime, my friends as human resources consultants told me I should be making $70K while I had never been able to top $50K. I usually was forced to take the first job that was offered to me because I needed money, no matter if the work environment was a good fit or not. The idea of pursuing the dream career was put on the backburner in favor of survival, because monetarily I was on my own.
Eventually enough was enough, and with the help of my father I decided to begin coursework at UCLA in business and management in entertainment. Three days after I registered, I was offered this job, which would put me closer to the career that I had always wanted. Finally, my life was coming together. My father was so proud of me. And now, several months later sitting in Griffith Park, it was coming undone.
The days blurred together in tears, phone calls and Facebook messages. I loved all my friends and how they reached out to me, but for every one of them who called I wondered if there were ten more who were whispering and asking what the hell was wrong with that girl who couldn’t hold a job to save her life — mainly because that was the overwhelming voice that was running through my head. I recalled how, several months previous to this, my therapist said that my inability to hold a job was a sign that I was bipolar and needed a psych evaluation immediately.
(However, when the doctor and I went through the results several months later and he told me I wasn’t, the first thing out of his mouth after that statement was, “I hope you fired your therapist.”)
Despite the people surrounding me, my desperation grew bigger. No matter how much my friends said they loved me and my father expressed his support, it was me who faced the future with nothing but a black blazer and professional dresses buried in the back of my closet. It would be me who was going to be rewriting my resume, sending out cover letters and walking into job interviews, praying with every day that passed after it that I wouldn’t get another rejection letter. The job hunt grind was back, and the idea of it just broke me. I wasn’t ready to do this again. Not now, not so soon.
In my mind, the road was blocked, just like that road to the Griffith Observatory. I was blocked from the place where I wanted to be, that beautiful pristine palace on the hill with green manicured lawns and a breathtaking view of the city, where at night the buildings would become towers of stars and my soul would shine along with them. My happiest place, and the minute I thought I was there, that I had finally made it after years of struggling, it was snatched away just as fast.
What could I tell the world? What could I say when I thought my life was finally coming together, with the hopes of now finding a romantic partner to complete the trifecta of work, home and love? It was gone just as fast. All I had left were my classes.
The day before, I had stood in Agua Dulce, recording a professional introduction at a liquor store. It was the place where I interviewed the directors of the movie Little Miss Sunshine on a crappy pay phone while serving as a newspaper reporter in Santa Clarita. The corner was filled with the noise of whizzing cars and bright blue skies, but I was excited to share my story with my class.
My world felt darker now than that girl, who was talking excitedly about editing video for her job working at an Israeli television station and scheduling programming online. Now there was no job, and the cute introduction that I had recorded with my friend Gary was not real anymore. It hurt even more to try to upload it to the website, as the file wasn’t transferring over and I only had a few hours left to turn it in. I was frustrated and could feel the tears rushing to my eyes again.
It was then that I remembered sitting in the park again, the silence setting in when my friend Jana called me. My eyes wandered towards the golden light of the setting sun caressing the brown leaves as she gave her strong, bold encouragement that seemed to pierce me through the fog.
“You are a dangerous combo, my dear,” she said. “There are so many people who are creative but not intelligent, and there are people who are intelligent who don’t have a lick of creativity. You have both in spades. So I don’t want to see any tears on those cheeks. You’re worth more than that.”
It made me shake my head. Crying wasn’t going to get me there any faster; she reminded me of that. It was time to think fast, think quickly; what are you going to do now that the road is blocked?
In my case, it was 10 pm, and I changed from my pajamas into a long sleeved black top. Fishing through my makeup bag, I pulled out a tube of bright red lipstick, my power color of so many years, and put it across my lips.
Yes, here I am. No job is going to change that; no career can take away my identity. And I hit record on my webcam and began to talk about losing my job. And as I talked, I felt like I was pulling the knife out of my back.
“Things don’t always go the way you plan,” I said to the camera. “Productions never go according to plan either, and you need someone to roll with the punches, to make things work.” If there’s anything I had to do in my life, it was that. And that’s why I was meant to do what I was doing, to take the path towards this career, no matter how many roads got blocked in the process.
As I uploaded the video and sighed, I laid back on my bed and looked up at the ceiling, thinking of the observatory and the city of stars, this place that I called home. The road was blocked for now, but if I have learned anything, that’s usually not a forever thing. After all, there was more than one way up to the top of the mountain.
When we think of fairytales, we see Disney dance before our eyes like leaves in the wind. We think of clean and shiny, and of those words that end the tale: “And they all lived happily ever after.”
We forget the beginning and the middle of those stories — where Cinderella is in rags or Snow White being sent into the woods to be killed; details glossed over like they don’t matter to the story. But they are a huge part of the tales that begin with, “Once upon a time.” In fact, they are part of why we tell them again and again.
My story five years ago began with those words, because once upon a time, I was a fallen angel who crashed hard to earth.
When people think of fallen angels, they think of descending from heaven, when in truth I came from an unusual purgatory. It was pristine and clean; the better to hide the cracks under the surface. It was the place where you had dreams and illusions of what it was, but then you woke up to find that those dreams were your protection against what was actually there — waking in the middle of the night in cold sweats, my walking on eggshells and forced panic attacks, his short fuse, complete with banging on the walls and the high pitched screaming echoing in my ears.
There was only one option for survival, which was to fall away in a blur of colors — white walls and doors with silver handles, black coat against a cold January night, a red duffel bag with orange fluorescent lights and a green prayer book. And before I crashed on the slopes of the dry brown hills of this place, I let a prayer escape from my lips.
When angels fall, where do they go? When they crash to earth and are abandoned by those they thought loved them, where do they make their new home?
Luckily for me, there is a City of Angels. It is full of dreamers and drifters, of dirt and grit that coexist alongside sunlight and glimmering gemstones. It is packed with people constantly talking and honking their horns, charging through with coffee cups and their latest projects. Where I used to live, they called it La La Land. It was known as unreasonable, impractical, awful, the other, the fear — all this despite the fact it was my birthplace. And it was the place that would give me the anonymity to grieve.
I had returned to be born again, naked and crying to the universe. Back in the city that was once home, I was crawling on the floor in the ashes, the agony of what I lost. My soul was shaking in agony, trying desperately to learn to walk again as a lone entity when accustomed to running with a weight tapped on my back. All the while, I was lying in strange dark rooms, and all I could ask was, “Who am I? Where did I go?”
One night, another cold night, I met an older gentleman with a guitar. For an hour and a half, he sang holy prayers and told stories of Jewish sages and wisdom beyond compare. His melodies were beautiful and his words inspiring. But then he sang a prayer in Hebrew. “Lord, guard my tongue from evil and my lips…”
These words, this melody were already a part of me; I used to sing it. I first heard it in a coffee shop over the loudspeaker, and it merged into my being. Music was the only place where safety lived in my past and my happiness dwelled. It defused bombs and replaced fear with laughter and dance. And in the darkness, where I fell to earth, this song was a light waiting for me.
I rushed to the man afterwards. “How do you know that song?” I asked him.
He looked at me, shocked. “I wrote it,” he replied.
It was a flicker of a phrase, but one of the many bricks in the foundation. It told me that I could create a new life in this strange place that was now my home. A door had opened, and there laid out before me was a narrow bridge for me to cross over into a different world. Strapped to my back was the darkness and the baggage that came with the past, the things which I couldn’t leave behind just yet. But as a childhood song taught me about those bridges: “The most important part is not to be afraid.”
When I started, I began crossing that bridge as a lonely soul. People whizzed by my ears, as if everything was perfect and nothing could catch them. My inadequacy threatened to take over. Yet even when things got dark, there was a whisper, both inside my head and outside of it: “Keep going. I promise it will be worth it.”
It wasn’t long before I met people on the path and they began to walk with me. When the sun shone, they taught me to glow alongside it. When world got colder, they kept me warm. And when the road narrowed and the fear threatened to take over, they kept me from falling over the edge.
Others along my path were not so lucky. Some flung themselves off the bridge; others fell away as their days were numbered. I thought I could catch them, but even though I was a fallen angel I had no wings to fly far enough so they could stay in my grasp. All I had were the memories they left me with, and the long path ahead. In being on the bridge, there were sacrifices to make.
There were little stumbles and celebrations along the way. There was singing and cheering under full moons and tears standing in food pantry lines with an empty belly. There were phone calls, stolen kisses and warm embraces. They resided alongside the heartbreaks and death, and the moments in between where you’re laughing and crying all at once. They all live on the bridge, waiting for you to discover them and then fall away from your hands, but not how they felt emotionally as they were coursing through your veins.
Time passes, and as we move along there comes a moment where you realize the bridge has gotten wider. The smile grows broader on your face and sleep gets a little easier. Your laughter flows out of you lightly, and there comes a breath where you look up at the blue sky, and you’re able to easily say, “Okay. I’m okay.”
Recently, my fairytale has progressed to the point where people have been seeking the end. Where was the prince that was supposed to sweep me away and take me to his kingdom? Where does the happily ever after come from?
This was a question that was brought up over Christmas Eve. After whiskey and wine, my friend and I stared at each other, blissfully happy to be in each other’s company after many months apart. I kept lamenting that I should go to one of the many Jewish singles parties pulsating through the city. My weariness of the search was catching up with me, but several people in my life seemed to be begging me to find someone; they didn’t want me to be alone.
“I don’t get the push,” he said to me. “You have so many amazing friends, and family who loves you. You have a great new job, you live in a place that you love. You’re smart and funny, an amazing writer and have so much going for you. So what if you don’t have a man? That doesn’t make you who you are. A man shouldn’t define your worth.”
As the Chanukah lights flickered, I realized that this is why I fell to earth in the first place: Because I knew that there was more to life than what had happened. That being an angel, or someone’s idea of one, isn’t worth sacrificing yourself for. Sometimes you have to come down to earth to realize that.
As I headed home later that night, I took a deep breath and soaked in the lights. Here I was, home again in the City of Angels; a place that gave me the anonymity to grieve, but when it came time also gave me the brilliance to shine on. It is where brown hills turn green after the rain and sky somehow becomes bluer, where glasses are raised high and the laughter is louder, where dreamers find their sanctuaries and their compatriots. It doesn’t come without sacrifices, but there was no happiness like the one I was experiencing in this moment, right now.
There was no prince, but I had a kingdom all my own; it was in a place where fallen angels can hit the ground, get up and walk the path to becoming a queen. And this fairytale has only just begun.
Everyday I’m counting. Today it’s 71 days. When my mom first died, I started counting minutes. Then hours. Time stood still, and now it’s slithering slowly across the floor, hissing like a constant reminder of what has happened.
Yet it is invisible. No one else hears it but the ones who have been hit the hardest. Sometimes it’s quiet and there is laughter that echoes through the house. Sometimes it’s loud and there’s nothing we can do to fight it but cry and scream loudly about how we wished it would go away.
I don’t believe this has happened. The hallways are empty, and I expect to hear her voice coming across the floors. It never comes. It will never come again. My father swears he sees shadows through the house. But I’m not sure if it’s her. I’m not sure of much of anything anymore.
I’m trying to transition to counting weeks — ten weeks. I’m just beginning to transition into counting months. It’s almost like with every step it should be less difficult, but it’s not. There were over 33 years with her. Now there’s only 71 days without. My father’s lost. My sister and cousin are both lost. I’m lost, and no matter how strong they tell me I am, it’s not something I can navigate my way out of.
The crowds of people who shuffled through the rooms here are gone. The deli trays that were delivered have disappeared, the flowers have wilted and the consolation cards from people ranging from beloved family members to my ex-husband are stocked away in a box somewhere. There is a fear that creeps in with the silence, and you try to shoo it away. But the future is uncertain, and while it is there is no way to kick the fear out of your realm.
Some days I’m completely normal. I can tell the stories about how creepy it was for the mortician to keep smiling and winking at me during our consultation the day after, not to mention my inner monologue (“Knock it off, buddy. I’m not that pretty today and I don’t have the credit cards”). I can talk about how he showed me the bonnet that he wanted my mother to wear, and I started making jokes, becoming hysterical (“She’s Sephardic, not straight out of shtetl”). My friends and I drank wine, played trivia or hopped around flea markets laughing over the weeks. These were great days.
But in this time there are even exchanges. For every good day there is a day where my body feels like it’s been kicked and dragged on the ground, soreness popping up in different places due to stress. There is an endless list of things to do, hard tasks that must be completed but still make you feel like vomiting. There are enough tears to raise the oceans. And as you try to collect the pieces, the heat rises and the vultures begin to circle. They don’t care about the pain, and can never hear the desperation.
They hold pieces of paper with long columns of numbers about the big decisions you have to make RIGHT NOW in the midst of crisis. Or they hold up the words you write as indictments, yelling you down as you look over your mother’s autopsy reports, the tears flowing from your eyes as they abruptly hang up on you because you’re too emotional.
They don’t believe either. And if they do, they believe you should be over it by now. It’s just a death, after all.
I made promises to myself during this time of mourning that I would take care of myself. I broke almost all of them. I promised myself I would observe shloshim, or the Jewish customary 30 days of mourning. It meant refusing to shave my legs and go on massive job interviews, yet doing so anyway because you felt like there was nothing else to do, and the thought of not moving made you want to scream. It meant not celebrating birthdays, yet putting on a brunch for my father’s.
I made mistakes. I became overly emotional. I did things I wouldn’t normally do, ignored people who normally would never be ignored. You want to stop feeling this way, feel like you’re not acting completely out of selfishness. There’s something inside of you that believes that you are better than the rest of the world when it comes to mourning, when in truth you’re not.
You hear the voices from those around you — buck up, get going, get moving. The quiet is setting in and all you can hear is the ticking of a clock, tick tock, you’re running out of time because the only thing that’s really certain in life is death and the pile of taxes and bills that have been left behind.
It’s time to grow up. Find a job, find your path, find everything right now. Move on, but keep your chin up. Now, when the world has taken away your normal and has given you a new reality, act like a human. But you’re still crawling across the floor like a child. You’re a ship without a captain, with no sense of direction and no sense of future.
You want to believe that this will end. All of it. But yet there is no end of the tunnel in sight.
There were calls never made, errands never run, things that I left open ended when I shouldn’t have, like my dating profiles. I wasn’t ready for it. Wasn’t ready for the life changes when I already had enough. And yet, as I believed even before my mother died, I believe that fate sometimes intervenes.
When he contacted me on my OK Cupid, I thought he was cute so I indulged it. After everything that happened, the emptiness of my life was consuming me. Two years of obsessions with medical tests and hospital visits were catching up with me. I was lonely and just really wanted to get laid. I had been through enough without having to deal with dating.
We started talking, and the conversations switched from minutes to hours and playing footsie under restaurant tables. We went out several times. I almost ran out on him for ghosting me for a short period; instead, there I was, standing my ground, confronting him. He apologized for his behavior, offering to take me to a nice dinner. We began talking again, with the sex put off to the side at his request.
“I really want to get to know you, the real you,” he said. “I want to see if we can hang out and be together normally, without sex in the way.”
It was a whirlwind. I danced with him across courtyards and ventured through art museums and bookstores with his hand in mine. We lamented about Maureen Dowd’s insanity and discussed Charlie Parker’s genius sitting on benches. I kissed him on subway cars and laid my head on his chest as he ran his fingers through my hair told me stories of late nights discussing Nietzsche. We would lie on his bed, but coupled with the standard fooling around were intimate details shared and a unique sensuality of the mind.
I love looking into his soft brown eyes that were shining behind his glasses and smiling at him with a giant goofy grin. If I was getting sad, he would call me sweetheart and kiss my forehead. I’d continue talking for a little while longer, but when it got to be too much, he would then cup my face, press his sweet lips against mine and tell me that I’m beautiful. No one I’ve dated has ever told me that. And when I look at him, I know he’s not lying to me.
He listened to me as I described what it was like to read my mother’s autopsy, heard me lament about the piles of temporary tattoos she left behind and how horrible I felt for my cousin. I cried and he cried with me, not even imagining the pain. I told him of the past two years and the present mourning. And yet he didn’t run like the others. He grasped my hands tighter instead.
“You’re a treasure,” he said to me one night standing under fluorescent lights in his kitchen, looking me in the eyes. “You know that, right?”
It’s something I was unable to believe, even though I know that he says what he believes and doesn’t hide. Yet in mourning, sometimes you feel like you’re suffocating under the same dirt that buried the person you love. That soil that you tossed in their grave lives inside of you and you’re fighting it every day to just breathe. The anxiety can be all consuming, and I’m confident he has felt some of it in dating me, rubbing against his own fights with the universe.
Yet in those moments where we were quiet together, with no one else around, I wasn’t a mourner. I was a shimmering diamond, just happy and twinkling in its natural state, at peace in a way that my heart hadn’t known in a long time.
“I don’t know where this is going,” I said to him one evening as we were driving from dinner into the setting sun. “But you’re the best thing that has happened to me in a long time.”
He nodded in agreement and clasped my hand as we moved forward along a path towards G-d knows where. In mourning, you never know where you’re going to land, just that the days are laid out before you and they will be challenges. He can’t solve everything, but even if it is just for a little while, the comfort will be something that I hold on to forever.
I have to believe that things will get better, that I won’t be incapacitated from mourning for the rest of my existence. The belief that there will be joyful occasions and more happy days than sad ones has to be my driving force; otherwise I will feel the madness creeping in. Yet somewhere in these 71 days I’m discovering hope again.
In the darkest moments, I have to remember the sun in the sky, and that every day goes from sunrise to sunset just as it did before. That the phone calls and constant text messages aren’t just imagination, but love in words. Although they can’t completely repair the hole in my heart, they can help me patch it up, brick by brick. And right now, that’s all you can ask for. I believe that.
This post was previously published on LinkedIn in October 2015.
As a marketer, I have seen trends come and go in terms of my industry. Things that are hot one minute completely fade into oblivion into the next. But as October has begun, I have seen a backlash that I never thought I would see as openly: One against Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
For as long as I can remember, this month has been explicitly that of the infamous Pink Ribbon, the one that decorates various sundry items in stores. They are on water bottles with cancer-causing BPA, makeup products known to interfere with breast cancer treatments, even foods that patients shouldn’t eat, like buckets of fried chicken.
Since 1991, the pink ribbon has been a rallying point for breast cancer, starting with the Susan G. Komen Foundation distributing them during their famous walks, taking a page from AIDS’ red ribbon. Since then, other ribbons have come up, but the pink ribbon has surpassed them all in the pop culture lexicon, from “Save the ta-tas” t-shits to commemorative coins. The whole idea was that pink was a feminine color, and by displaying the ribbon it was a goodwill call to women that the company or organization that displays it supposedly cares about its non-Y chromosome carrying customers.
I never liked it. You think I would have changed my tune when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago. Yet several months back, when I walked alongside her into a fundraiser to speak about her experience to a fundraising event, we were forced into a room strewn with pink balloons, bandanas and all sorts of blush-hued doodads dotted across the white clothed tables. Surrounded by these items, I realized my disdain has gotten worse, and reject the idea of claiming pink because my mom doesn’t have breasts anymore.
I felt society’s pressure to display that pink color from the beginning, right down to the pink Converse sneakers I wore to the hospital the day of my mother’s double mastectomy. However, the hours spend pretending that everything’s okay does not equal a color on the Pantone wheel. It can’t describe how my breath caught in my throat when my mother called me and told me she has cancer. It wasn’t saying every word that I was thinking as doctors bungled her treatment and I would rush to sit in her stark hospital rooms, kissing her balding chemo head. A ribbon doesn’t detail the sacrifices made. There was the fear that you might miss out on the rest of your mother’s life while working late hours for a full-time job, instead opting for a freelancer’s life. And then there was the reluctance of bringing a romantic interest into the picture, because you didn’t want pity from anyone.
I’m not the only one who felt this way. While going through her own cancer treatment, my friend Katie is rebelling against pink as she goes through treatment. She understands where it has stood in the cause marketing movement, how it has become the symbol for a fight against a deadly disease. However, try telling her that as her insurance bills accumulate and she goes through radiation.
I look at breast cancer awareness from two different angles. One is as the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, whose treatment and recovery has occupied my life for a good chunk of time. The other is as a savvy marketer in business who sees how messages are delivered to various audiences, not to mention a former journalist who loves researching and breaking down an argument piece by piece. So that is exactly what I’m going to do.
Breast cancer is not that unusual — it’s the second most common cancer for women after skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, over 230,000 women year are diagnosed every year (men are also breast cancer victims, though, although it’s much more rare). Approximately one in eight women will have breast cancer in her lifetime, and there are an estimated 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in this country. The statistics prove the fact that most of us in this country either know someone or are related to someone who has or had breast cancer. That ribbon represents breast cancer awareness, but if you’re not aware of breast cancer by now, you might not be alive.
Meanwhile, the Susan G. Komen Foundation has been under fire in recent years, particularly given its defunding of grants to Planned Parenthood in 2012. Its change to the funding of the one of the leading breast cancer screeners in the country caused the founder and CEO to step down, although it was reported the year after that she received a 64 percent increase in salary. Alongside reports of the lack of money put into actual breast cancer research in the same year (only 20 percent of its money, which 50 percent went to “education,” whatever that means), its amount of donations and respectability both took a dive.
The pink ribbon has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost become invisible, and not necessarily a gesture with any meaning behind it — just look at the NFL and its pink shoes come October. Sure, they “support” breast cancer awareness, but domestic violence is also a vital women’s issue and October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month, symbolized by a purple ribbon. Yet I don’t see a swarm of purple ribbons anywhere near the NFL commissioner, and when domestic violence happens in their own ranks, it’s swept under the rug. With friends like these, it’s no wonder that that shade of blush, that colored ribbon to end all cause marketing ribbons, has taken a dive in terms of market value.
Of course, the nail in the coffin isn’t only these factors, but it’s the current state of American life. Right now the federal defunding push of Planned Parenthood, where a huge chunk of breast cancer screenings in this country takes place, is a serious issue that might force the government to shut down again. Beyond Planned Parenthood, healthcare in the United States is still a tremendous issue and no closer to being fixed than it was when the Affordable Care Act was passed, with patients accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital debt. The current lack of the middle class allows for very little wiggle room if a person is diagnosed with cancer, with some having to resort to GoFundMe campaigns for their treatments. Now try putting a pink ribbon on that. I dare you.
Cause marketing like this can only work so far in the current state of the world. In this information age, this rising younger generation knows more and is far more educated about a variety of issues. This means we can see the holes clearly in simplistic marketing plans — the pink ribbon, after all, is a marketing plan no matter who claims it. Also, when we see our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends go through cancer, it’s a lot harder to tell us that a pink ribbon will make everything better, because we don’t see it coming for us in our time of need. It doesn’t say anything about the human experience of going through cancer.
What does work is this: My mother standing at a podium and speaking about her breast cancer experience. Talking about my father’s best friend Bill, who he has known for 35 years and is also a breast cancer survivor. Reading Katie’s blogs and hearing her tell her stories. Seeing that it’s people, not just pairs of boobs, going through breast cancer.
Then, in turn, you need to show the ripples in the water from that person — the circles of loved ones, professionals and other people who cancer hits just as hard. It shows how we link to each other as humans. The reason why posts are shared on social media and we rally around causes is because we as humans are moved by the content that talks about it. You can’t move people with a pink water bottle anymore. That way of human life is over.
The stories we tell about our struggles have now become the marketing tools that help us realize the potential we have to experience life as human beings. In turn it allows us to support organizations that go beyond ribbons and corporate sponsors to really help cancer patients, survivors and families — places like the Cancer Support Community and the City of Hope. In turn, it can also go into the vital research that can hopefully prevent the rise of breast cancer in the next generation of women.
The pink ribbon is choking us, preventing us from seeing the real story behind breast cancer, which is what worthy charities need in order to get those fundraising dollars. It’s time to take away the pink and focus on what matters.
For everyone who has been there this week, for the love that surrounds me, and of course for my mother on Mother’s Day. This is my last gift to you, mom. Thank you.
Sometimes I feel I have lost my words. I lost my words because she gave all of them to me. Every word out of my lips my mother bestowed on me, because she was there for the days when I had no voice.
She sat patiently and fed words to me through speech therapy as a child, every little victory coming with the reward of a wind-up toy. It was so that, as I grew up, I could detail every rush of life, catalog the love and dreams engulfing the universe, and note the turning of the world as it came crashing into us. It was her biggest gift to me.
Even without speech, Jacqueline Amira Slutske taught me through her actions how to become a woman: Be fearless. Smart. Stubborn as hell. Take the lead when it’s your time. Laugh a lot, even when the situation doesn’t call for it; that’s when you need it most. Take care of your own. And never forget where you came from.
In her pursuit of my speech therapy as a child, a doctor told her, “Stop being such a Jewish mother.” She was mad as hell at that statement, but don’t let that fool you: She was definitely a Jewish mother. I butted heads with her regularly, because I learned at her knee to be strong, bold and brave, a commander of your realm. But you could always count on her. That’s what Jewish mothers do: They’re always there, whether to kiss your childhood skinned knees or help you fight the adult-sized demons lying next to you, causing you to scream into the night.
Jackie carried on the name of Jack Arouty, her uncle who was killed during World War II. His mother insisted that my pregnant grandmother and my great aunt, in their desperation and grief, would name Regina Amira’s child after her son. Mom’s birth in Los Angeles was followed by a telegram to her father, who was working on planes at La Guardia. It said, “Hi Dad, I’m here!”
She was the apple of Joseph Amira’s eye. When he would get home from work, she’d hide and he’d always ask aloud, “Where’s Jackie?” She would then jump out of the closet and say, “Here me is!” Mind you, her grammar got a lot better as she got older, particularly because she read so many books. You would never see her without one, whether it was on tape or a paperback. Public libraries were her favorite places, and her passion was learning.
She adored her brother Victor with every fiber of her being, along with her large multi-generational family. Her friend Rachel taught her to sew, and she made so many of her clothes, even her wedding dress. She looked forward to phone calls with her cousin Lorrie on Wednesdays. She played numerous card games with my father and supported him in every way, whether moving across the country several times, typing a master’s thesis while pregnant or cursing a man in Honolulu who was causing him trouble at the community theater. Word to the wise from that: Do not mess with Amira women and those they love, whether it’s her man, her children or even the dogs.
In our childhood, she gave Shoshana and me a wild sense of imagination, knowledge and creativity. She was our teacher, but also the keeper of dreams. Bedtime stories were her specialty, where we would lie there and she would tell us about the wardrobe to Narnia or the night Max wore his wolf suit and journeyed to where the wild things are.
Wherever we moved to, she created a family for us. Our friends weren’t really friends, but rather warmly received relatives who were adopted over time. We shared with our neighbors and mom showed us the joys of a multicultural world. Yet she also taught us to remember who we are: We are Jewish women, Sephardic Jews descended from a proud tradition that carries responsibilities. Be proud of your heritage and share it while remaining respectful and in the modern world. But don’t eat the gefilte fish.
As with our friends who became our family, every kid that came into her house was one of hers too. So much so that my friend Allison would walk into the house, look at my parents and say, “Hi mom, hi dad.” My mother loved it. She yearned to make soup for Remy, who seemed to show up whenever it was on the stove; glowed when Gary sent “Mama Slutske” flowers on Mother’s Day; and relished in sewing baby clothes for Eve’s little girl Jorry, gushing about how cute she was in pictures. And when Victor became ill, she stepped up and became a mom for her niece, Amy, too.
My mother had particular tastes: She adored Motown, Carly Simon and home repair shows. She loved chocolate with caramel, tongue sandwiches and lamb chops; if we were feeling particularly carnivorous on any given night, we turned to each other and said, “Meat,” and laugh when others tried to say it that way and failed. The only thing she really didn’t like was the movie The Sound of Music. This, however, did not stop her from singing the parody version of “My Favorite Things” at our Seder every year.
Every holiday was a labor of love, but particularly Passover. She would spend weeks preparing all the foods and sometimes things wouldn’t go to plan — although I can’t pretend that she wasn’t secretly thrilled that our dog Lucy had no taste for people food except for the novias she made. When Seder came, my mother would read the Haggadah she wrote and her voice would break, because in her own words, she cried at supermarket openings. In the days after her death, the first words to comfort me were her own words about Passover: “I am never alone when I am cooking. Generations of women of my family are encouraging me and smiling.”
I have said so many words, and can keep saying them. But words can’t describe the sound of her laugh that would redden her cheeks and send her smile up to the sky, a lot of which was my doing. You’ll never hear how wicked her sense of humor was, or see the childlike wonder consume her in receiving precious little gifts, like a pinwheel pen or a tea infuser shaped like a manatee.
The last gift I got from mom was one more conversation with her in the hospital on Monday. It was where we could say the words that needed to be said in that tiny little sliver of time, when one life is standing at the edge of glory and the other has many more steps to take. We said we loved each other and she told how proud she was and how she loved getting to know me as an adult. She ran her fingers through my hair one last time with her perfect pink nails as I sobbed at her bedside, and looked into her big brown eyes before kissing her forehead.
And, in the end, the words weren’t there anymore. I was left howling on the floor, holding her hand one last time, crying for my mommy like a five year old child while trying to be a grown up, thanking her for everything she gave me, gave all of us, when the grief was too overwhelming to bear.
There were very few words left at that moment. Yet at the end of it all, it was enough.
This blog has not had a guest blogger, but its first is my favorite. A month ago, my mom Jacqueline Amira Slutske wrote this piece to be read one day at her funeral. A week ago she passed away, and on Sunday this was read to all those in attendance. For those who couldn’t be there, for those who want to know what type of woman she was, these are her words. Please enjoy them.
To be read at my funeral:
Don’t think of me when the last light from the sun is dying, although I appreciated many sunsets and hope you will take the time to be still and let the beauty absorb into your life and your heart.
But rather remember me in the early morning when the dew has not yet dried,
When it is easy to hear the conversation of birds,
And when the rising sun sends its rays through the clouds to light up hopes for another day,
Remember me when the day is new and the creatures who dare to go out only in darkness are returning home to their families.
Remember me when strangers wish each other “Good morning”
And dogs have their human companions all to themselves.
Remember me when there is something new to be learned and there is joy in the learning.
Remember me when you are sharing stories with the people you love best and making new connections that bind you closer.
Remember me when you are answering questions about the past, and sharing hopes for the future.
I will be there, listening and smiling, just beyond the place where you can see me.
I will be there when you enjoy a book that we once enjoyed together,
I will be there when the sun warms your face, and the moon is bright enough to read by.
I will be watching when you help someone else, and hoping that I set a good example.
I will be smiling when you say “hello” to a stranger you are passing, and bring a surprised smile to their face
I will be listening when you hum along with music when you are preparing a holiday meal.
Even though you will not feel it, I will be holding you when you need to be held,
And hoping that my love is reaching you across the great divide between us now.
I hope that you will remember what I always tried to keep close, in even the worst circumstances, that “this too, shall pass.”
I hope that you will take some time each day to dwell on the people and things you have loved and that have made you happy and let the smile that comes to your face linger there for a while.
I hope that you will never see forgiveness as surrender, but as the generous act of love that it is.
I hope that you will always be able to find a silver lining in even the most difficult of circumstances, and that you will find a way to live appreciatively all your life.
I will be applauding when you use your creativity to make a better you and a better world, and I will be hoping that the world is a more peaceful and plentiful place for all the children growing up in it.
Know that all great things are accomplished one small step at a time. Be prepared to take that step even if it is terribly scary. I will be there holding your hand.
We take our place in the world for a while, and then we leave.
I will live as long as you remember me, and you will live in me forever.
I hope that I have brought light and laughter and love to all of you that I have loved,
Because you have been everything to me.
At 19 years of age, I shocked the entire staff of the Pierce College Roundup when I was the first to receive a first place award at a state conference for an on-the-spot opinion piece on feminism. It led with a line from the piece that inspired my feminism, The Vagina Monologues: “Down there? You want me to go down there?”
Going down to try to claim the written copy of my piece after the awards, I was approached by members of the judging panel.
“We liked it,” he said. “It was terrific. But it would never be published.”
“Why not?” I asked.
I never really got a direct answer to that question, but it boiled down to somehow comparing the word feminist to the word vagina in the dirty-word pantheon was unacceptable for mainstream America to hear.
In my younger world, feminism was a dirty word, a thing you never talked about. Feminists were man-hating ball-bashers, pantsuit wearing frigid “femi-nazis” who were so into the cause of women that they didn’t see anything else around them. They isolated men and were too radical for the mainstream.
Yet when I snatched my mom’s copy of The Vagina Monologues to read it at 18, it changed me. Eve Ensler, the famous playwright, told me in her wonderful words that I was a woman, and that was really okay. I would be hurt and things would be difficult, but it was all about getting back up and fighting the good fight until it was won. It even led me to participate in The Vagina Monologues at Cal State Fullerton my senior year of college.
Reading the forward from Gloria Steinem, I realized I could be smart and bold, fierce and seeing more to the world than what it had given me as a woman growing up in a conservative Christian town. I was left thinking back to several years before in high school, when my teachers would yell at me for having an opinion and asked me why I couldn’t be quiet and a good girl like my older sister. They called me trouble, when in truth I wasn’t; rather, I am everything that Gloria wrote about.
So imagine my betrayal when she was in the news last week about how supporting Bernie Sanders was more about my libido than about my mind. How I should support Hillary instead. This wasn’t my Gloria. This wasn’t the woman who taught me to think for myself and be a powerful woman in my own right. This wasn’t one of the women who inspired my feminism.
It was so unfortunate, because now is an amazing time to be a feminist. Strangely enough, it has transformed into a modern buzzword, the pendulum swinging to it actually being cool. The single most influential female pop star in the world, Beyonce, showed up at an awards show with the word “feminist” in big giant letters flashing behind her. Younger starlets embrace it, and I have had conversations with plenty of my male friends about their feminist leanings, both gay and straight. This is the biggest step of all; when men start to embrace feminism as their creed, they help bring women to the forefront. They have done random things such as come up with hashtags such as #fuckthepatriarchy (which is still in the running for sexiest hashtag ever for me) or speak publicly about why they believe in feminism.
It’s so rare from my father’s generation, where men were put in cookie cutter boxes of masculinity that they had to break (like my dad did), but it’s now more common. I think it’s partially because these men are our friends, brothers and devoted sons to their mothers, our comrades in arms against the large, big bad world. They worked with us, studied with us, partied with us, took care of us as we took care of them. They saw the injustices as we faced them and saw our struggle, taking it to heart, seeing us through horrific things they can barely dream of: date rape, sexual harassment, abusive relationships and discrimination for being women. They may not always call themselves feminists, but they support us in any way they can, and that is truly special.
When I see people like Madeline Albright saying that there is a special place in hell for me for not supporting a candidate just because she is a woman (although she has since retracted), I wonder about my feminism. I see my mother and the women who pioneered the cause, who are deathly concerned about a Republican who seeks to outlaw abortion yet again in the position to appoint Supreme Court justices. I’m frightened too, but I can’t elect out of fear. And I see my sisterhood, the younger women who also are looking for hope rather than fear, and want to vote accordingly.
This is how we become divided as women. Messages like this in the media is how we fracture, wage war on one another, when in truth we need to unite to see the bigger picture. Others who don’t support women want us who do fractured and splintered, transform us into stereotypes of cat fighters and gossip mongers, feeling the need to fit with the box given to us rather than follow our own instincts. And then seeing women who normally I respect play into it made me feel downright wrong. We should stand together, old and new, never apart.
However, I have to keep reminding myself of the stories my mother told me from when she grew up: About her high school classmate who sought a back-alley abortion and was left to die on her parents’ lawn. Remembering all the money put into her brother for college because the boys went to school, and how she was unable to go to Berkeley like she always dreamed because she was a girl and should be more focused on finding a husband, paying for college out of her own wages. How there wasn’t always the term “Ms.,” let alone birth control that was readily accessible. There are things that, as a woman who was born years later, that I take for granted because… well, in my lifetime they were always there.
Yet I remember that day at 19, standing there and hearing that a part of my body was considered to be a dirty word unacceptable for mainstream America. When, after my divorce, I began to become sexually promiscuous that, although my closest friends celebrated it, I was shamed by others and even lost friends due to it. How, even when I loudly proclaimed my feminism for years before it became “cool” and “mainstream,” that my ex used to refer to it as “cute,” dismissing the cause. Dismissing us.
Yet I see how it used to be versus now, like when everyone would snicker at my last name of Slutske, and now how women I come across tell me how cool it is, that I should be proud of who I am and own it. How I see everyone involved in the conversation of feminism — black women, Latinas, white and even transgender women asking those inclusive questions, sharing their feelings and garnering love and support from each other. Empathy and support is just as important to our feminism, and it helps build something better for the future.
One day, I was sitting with my friend and her two young boys. While she and I enjoyed some grown up conversation, the boys were distracted watching television. They were watching a fantasy kids show with multiple main female characters, totally invested in the story arc. There was no one shushing them, ridiculing the characters or calls to watch a more “boy” show. This was the show they were following, in fact highly invested in, with strong female characters and strong male characters both equally involved in the adventures. This was feminism in action: The ability to see male and female as equal partners, as if it was no big deal.
We still have a ways to go, problems they won’t know about until they’re older. Abortion is constantly threatened, Planned Parenthood is always in risk of having money taken away for women’s health and the depictions of women as simply sexy is sadly still more commonplace than it should be. Yet I see people fighting these stereotypes head on, both men and women. We are getting closer to the dream of equality between genders, although the fight is still on for a more inclusive voice. We are at the beginning of something great, where even kids are being raised with these ideas, and they’re becoming the backbone of our society. We just need to go a little further.
Feminism is not about anger, and it’s not about frigidity. It is a living, breathing, beautiful thing that everyone is starting to see blossom and grow, and in turn nourish by seeing more, asking more. It is the opportunity to be more, to strive further, to tap greatness from everyone on a level playing field, no matter who they are. And, despite everything, I’m truly excited for the future.
My stuffy head from my cold seemed to be drowning in the thick Beverly Hills air. I had just left dinner with him and was holding a box with my leftover pizza. The back of my shirt was all lace, so the night atmosphere struck it like a whip.
“Could you hold my pizza box?” I asked him after we crossed the street. “I need to put on my sweater.”
He held it as I put it on, and then I went to take back my pizza box, he jerked it away.
“No,” he grinned wickedly, a twinkle of fun in his eye while his nasal voice betrayed his own stuffiness. “It’s my pizza now.”
I went to grab it, and it was pulled away. Again. And again.
“C’mon!” I yelled. He began to run, giggling. My feet began to hurt as my nasal voice began calling out his name, and it almost seemed to egg him on. Being taller than me, he held it out of my reach, laughing as I began climbing all over his nice work clothes to get it, holding him desperately by the waist as he tried to walk away with it. It wasn’t malicious; rather, I joined in on the game, becoming winded in my sickness but still wanting to play as the pizza box was out of my reach.
That pizza box might as well have been the two of us. It seemed like this had been going on for months. We had been friends for a long time, but since the moment we started hanging out just the two of us, we were grasping and stumbling, tripping over our different hindrances as we opened up to one another. At first, I was scared of him messaging me every day and sending me articles and being around all the time, as I didn’t know if I wanted him that close. But then, it just became so natural that when he wasn’t around it frightened me.
Together, we could be anything we wanted. We could be silly — balancing macaroni boxes on our heads while taking pictures, singing songs, making each other laugh during the day through endless conversations. We could be serious — talking about our past relationships, our families, stories that we would never share with anyone else, revealing our deepest secrets. He had shown he how much he cared through so many methods, I had no idea that there were so many ways to do it. He was kind, warm and the person who I felt I could say anything to. And before I knew it, I was falling for Mr. Pizza Box. The one thing I couldn’t say to him.
The last time I fell like this it hurt. I fell in love with one of my best guy friends after my divorce, but the timing was off and it didn’t work. The promise of a relationship was there, complete with games and guesses, but every time I tried to go for it, it faltered — until eventually it was destroyed. I lost the friendship, lost him, and three years down the line, it still takes a lot of effort to look at any pictures of him and not feel stabbing pains in my stomach.
Mr. Pizza Box knows about that guy. He nicknamed him “Baldie” after I told him his name and he looked up his picture on Facebook. What he didn’t know is that we were experiencing the same exact M.O. that I was back them: Close friend who knew me better than most people, who would always answer when I called and would do almost anything for me. This “Baldie” would have, could have just as easily been my next husband. Yet when the time came to make it real, when all I asked was for him to grab a cup of coffee with me, which would lead to the discussion, it was time to run. To this day he is out of reach, like that pizza box that I was trying to grab while winded from a cold.
It was moments like these that made me wonder how I ever ended up married in the first place. But in my mind I went back to that night 10 years ago, back when my ex-husband first came to my apartment and we watched the sun come up while we were both naked in my bed. My ex was a simpleminded fool, but that made it easy for him: He wanted something. He went to go get it. He got it.
Despite everything wrong with him (and there was a lot), this was the one thing he could do correctly that leaves other guys stumped. Meanwhile, I watch myself dating, with other guys shying away from me, fearful of rejection and not making moves unless they know with 100 percent certainly that I’m into them. And they usually don’t — I’m not particularly forthcoming in that respect.
He eventually handed the pizza box back to me as we sat on the nearby steps, holding hands. I kept looking at him, hoping he would look at me so we could finally have the kiss, the only thing that would let me know without a shadow of a doubt that he was into me, but it never came. As we continued walking, my lips felt like was going to say something, but I felt my words slip out from under me, the fear constantly consuming me as I kept trying to say it, then dismissing it by peppering in the words, ”It’s stupid,” multiple times before I walked out of his car.
Driving home along the canyon, I thought of my world three years ago, and how I lost one of my best friends and could today barely look at a picture of him without thinking about how there was a grin for everyone else, and then there was that soft smile he used exclusively for me. How today, when I would sit next to Mr. Pizza Box during certain things and would notice out of the corner of my eye how he kept looking at me, how he told me he loves my smile, how he kept doing all these wonderful things to me. How now, in addition to the Baldie, there was another boy on this planet who would have my heart, who I would love always no matter what happened to us.
Yet the next morning, as I ate the contents of my pizza box, I realized something: It was my choice. My relationship life didn’t have to be a series of games and guesses, where I would fall for boys who would rather play games than make moves. My love life no longer had to be founded on deception rather than honest, emotional feeling and communications. I could either claw and climb desperately over something that would never come down, or wait patiently on the sidelines until it was returned to me, brought to me because that person was done seeing me struggle and ready to compromise.
I didn’t have an answer one way or another of how this could be done. But at least the pizza was tasty.
In the past three years, I haven’t had a relationship, so therefore I’ve had a lot of sex. A LOT OF SEX. I have jokingly called myself a playerette (read: female player) in the past and have refused to settle for less when it comes to having a relationship… or probably the main reason why I haven’t had one since my divorce. Instead, I have dated and had sex, half in trying to find a partner, half in living a liberated single life.
The other night, I was sitting around drinking with my cousin and her boyfriend after my show at the Ice House, and we were joking about guys and having sex as we would do if he wasn’t around. And I made a joke about a guy friend’s beard — one that I would say out loud in a comedy act but never post to the great wide Internet. And my cousin’s boyfriend stopped me.
“Do you have any idea how you would sound if you were guys?” my cousin’s boyfriend said to my cousin and me. “You sound like those chauvinistic dudes, except in female form.”
It wasn’t in an accusatory tone, but rather pointing out something that perhaps I missed in my quest for sexual freedom. Three years after discovering what it meant to be sexually liberated and unbound, and I had become a stereotype that disgusted me on the opposite end of the aisle. Or had I?
Before my ex-husband, my sex life was, for the most part, unrestricted. It was never out of love, but rather out of my own seeking of pleasure. There were rejections and difficulties, but I never felt shame in having sex at any time. Before I ended up dating my ex, I stopped having sex for about nine months. It was my longest period of not having sex since I lost my virginity. I thought that love would be worth it.
When my ex and I started having sex, it seemed out of mutual desire, except I noticed something after about a year of dating: I was initiating every time. When I stopped, the sex problems in the relationship began. He swore after we were married and living together he would make sure to have sex with me at least once a week. Of course, my ex loved words more than actions, and I was back to initiating — which meant begging, coercing, anything.
He wouldn’t kiss me lovingly or show me gentle touches outside of sex, so the only way to get it was to have sex, which rarely happened. Every time I would try to masturbate and he caught me, he would cry for me to stop and ask why he wasn’t enough. It was easy to manipulate me when all he needed to do was get me to beg to have sex with him. As a result, I felt more and more insecure about having a roaring sex drive, among everything else that was making me feel trapped in that life.
When I was thinking about leaving my ex, I was talking to a guy friend of mine on the phone with the anxiety dripping from my lips. After he calmed me down, I remember how out of the blue these words he said quietly to me were: “Reina, don’t move on right away.”
“Oh, no!” I laughed. “I have no desire to get involved in a relationship so soon!” A pause, and then, “I am open to casual sex, though.” His nervous laugh responded. He didn’t know me before the marriage, so he had no idea.
When I finally left my ex, the fear gave way to liberation. The playerette was born. Finally, I could have sex whenever I wanted without having to beg for it. I could touch myself as much as I wanted. I didn’t have to have a guy stand around me and eye me as to when I was cooking dinner, yell at me constantly about not wearing my wedding ring 24 hours a day or make me feel insecure about the fact I had a sex drive. It was my time. I was ready to not feel guilty about wanting sex.
I was straightforward with all my partners for the first year: I didn’t want a relationship, but to fool around. At the most, all they were going to get from me was a friends with benefits situation. My intention was never to hurt, although sometimes it inevitably happened. My partners were open and intrigued by a girl like me, who just wanted sex and nothing more. I felt better about myself than I had in years — and it showed.
I bragged and boasted about the guys I slept with to my friends, some of which were way out of my league. Some were utterly beautiful while others were skilled lovers. Some weren’t great at all, but worth the funny stories that came afterwards. My bright feathers were on display, both to people who loved living vicariously through my sexual deviancy and to others who probably should have never have known about them. When some girls would yell at me about how “nice girls shouldn’t,” I laughed my head off and made out with the next guy in line.
If I learned anything from being a playerette, it was this: Sex isn’t a bad thing, and having many sex partners should never be shamed. However, we don’t have sex just because it feels good. Many times there is another issue at hand. There’s a hurt we are trying to mask or a wound we are trying to hide from the world. Players are more than just seducers. We are human beings with complex emotions of how we deal with sex, love and relationships, which isn’t always the status quo.
The first time it came to a head for me was one dark April night around 1 a.m. Wearing a floral dress and boots while curled up in a ball on a bathroom floor, I was drunk, screaming and crying, “I’m fucking all these guys so I can forget!”
My primal scream came with dual meanings. The first was wanting to black out the hell that my life had been in the three months since the divorce, where my life had been completely upended. The second was about the boy who found his way onto the bathroom floor with me, who started pounding on the door ten seconds after I let out my first huge sob, asking me to let him in. The same boy who told me not to move on right away after my divorce touched my hair and comforted me quietly that night, all while my rising romantic feelings towards him so shortly after the divorce were scaring me.
That boy, who looked me in my teary eyes that night and made promises he would never keep, eventually disappeared. After the heartbreak, I lost my flavor for sex for a long time. Although I could still play when I was really motivated to, my post-divorce sexual liberation came with a sense of fun and freedom. His departure from my life made me feel, for the first time since the divorce, alone. So in a weird twist, I pulled back from the playerette lifestyle, seeking true solitude as opposed to hiding behind my body.
Over the following years, I had one-night stands and random dates. Some were good, but for others they would use me more for enacting their sexual fantasies rather than indulging in mine. Guys would reject me and I’d shrug it off and move on. Guys would become my friends and say to me things like, “If you lost more weight, I’d date you” or try to fumble in approaching me for dating to the point where I just assume they weren’t interested at all. Meanwhile, boys would cross my path where I would develop crushes and, in my insecurity, make jokes to my friends about it. (Like when a guy who I had a crush on asked me what my type was, all I could think was, You, half naked, in my bed. That’s my type. When a friend asked me why half-naked, I replied, “Hey, I like to unwrap my presents!”)
During this time, the jokes and the dating stories were rising, where I was talking game but feeling lonelier than ever. It’s a never-ending pattern of disrespect and disrepair, where we feel slighted by the partners who have shared our beds and said they would call yet never do. And in turn there was me, who just seemed to wander the world looking for a partner, being the girl who every guy wanted to marry or sleep with, but none ever wanted to date. So, in turn, I would fool around and kick boys out of my bed with a offhanded comment about my pure desire to wear my Supergirl pajamas, and how few men would ever rank higher than them.
In a world where we all seek connection, I felt more joy from my friends than any sexual conquest, but I still talked game about guys and wacky dating stories. And when my cousin’s boyfriend called me out, I finally felt the guilt that everyone else said I should be. I hated these guys who would talk smack about women and make me feel like arm candy in dating, and yet with my friends I was doing it too. What was I seeking in it, really? Equality? Power? Reassurance that this dating saga hasn’t been all for nothing?
As I sat around and thought about it, it made complete sense. In boys objectifying me for my looks, I fought back by objectifying them. With them not approaching me to date them, in turn I wouldn’t approach either. In being kicked out of beds, I kicked out my partners too. My anger began to take over, and my tactics were becoming just as dirty as the boys’. As I thought about the woman I was when I was married — still considerate and warm, although sexual — a part of me wondered if this jading in me towards human beings was worth it. Having sex isn’t a bad thing in the slightest; the insecurity is.
I still want it all, though: To share my bed with one man for the rest of my life, to start a family while still being desired by my husband, to go beyond a lifestyle that meant either jumping from boy to boy for sexual fulfillment or living celibately. It’s a natural human tendency for most people to not only have sex, but want love from someone. After all, even players and playerettes at the end of the day are looking for the right people. And there’s nothing wrong with that.