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?
We all come to Los Angeles with a dream.
It’s cliché to say because the idea of it is ingrained in the American psyche: Hometown hero boys who come off of Greyhound buses in Hollywood with hope in their hearts, and pretty girls who were big names in small towns now praying to become stars on a sidewalk. It’s not only America; people all over the world have joined in that chorus, crossing borders to arrive on our shores.
They come to be a part of the dream, the dream that a lot of us have: To make it, whatever that “it” may be. It could be stardom, it could be a new life in a new country, it could be any number of things. It really doesn’t matter what that “it” is exactly. It’s different for everyone.
After all, in Los Angeles, we are the fools who dream.
That’s the main line in the song “Audition” from La La Land, and with good reason: Because to the rest of the world, we are fools. Ask anyone in New York, San Francisco, almost any resident of another big city, and there is usually a roll of the eyes about us. “The people there are so…” and then you fill in the blank with whatever you like. They don’t know we are so much more than that. After all, in order to survive this city we had to learn to stop caring what people thought of us a long time ago; those who do usually end up on the Greyhounds back home.
We don’t listen to them, because they don’t know the people who live here. We are the immigrants and the fresh-eyed optimists, coming from all over the world with all different backgrounds and shades of skin. We are the freaks and the disenfranchised, trying to escape our pasts. We are the strange ones who couldn’t settle for ordinary life, couldn’t bow our heads in submission to those who thought they knew better.
You know those people. They are the ones who tell us to hang up hopes along with our childhood dreams, which were cute when we were of smaller stature. It’s time to tie nooses around our necks to head to the office or strap a child to our bodies. Their chorus is, “Grow up!”
Apparently, wanting our lives to be better than the status quo was for children. So we come here to Los Angeles, where the clothes were casual and there was still room to breathe — even in the freeway traffic jams and smog.
We are here to pursue. Here, where you sit on the side of Mulholland Drive, with the stars of the city sprawled at your feet. Here, where the Pacific Ocean meets the sand and summer seems to linger eternally. Here, where the sizzle and the smell of bacon wrapped hotdogs from street vendors trying to make a buck fill the night air and we line up at the taco trucks to share a laugh and a bite. Here, where we come to thrive in the sunshine and pound our laptop keys in the coffee shops.
Our dreams are all different and yet the same. Because here is home. It is what we have created, all of us, together as residents of this city.
No matter where I’m coming from, when that downtown skyline hits my eyes, I know I’m safe here. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember, even when I used to live somewhere else. No matter what you change in your life, you can’t change where you came from.
In a weird way, I came back home all those years ago to make it. My make it, though, wasn’t for fame. It was for freedom. To have it, it meant the anonymity to grieve, followed by the courage to become. Only a bustling city, full to the brim of fools and dreamers, can you get something like that.
Somewhere in the suburbia where I fled, I’m sure there are men and women who once knew me and call me a fool. Perhaps I am. Perhaps I always was. There was a rebellious core in me back then that was fighting against the suburban box, full of chain restaurants, unnaturally clean sidewalks and emerald-colored laws, perfectly cut.
Maybe it was because I was meant for red Chucks and graphic t-shirts, not billowing housewife skirts and ballerina flats. Maybe it was because of my discomfort in McMansions and gravitation towards the Spanish style architecture of my grandparents’ home. Maybe I saw myself more in the people who came here trying with hopeful eyes rather than the ones who settled in for the as-is, lofty in dismissing the dirty city.
In Los Angeles we are not above it. We live in the grit, thrive in it. That is why this city fights so hard, from the street corners all the way up to city hall. This is a difficult city to be in, we know this. But we don’t give up. We will never give up.
We sling espresso shots and shots of tequila across bars, knock on your doors to deliver food, drive Lyfts, take out trash, wash dishes and serve food to demanding patrons. Almost every person in this city has a story about the time they put in for their dream, and we wear those days like badges of honor.
And even when we do make it, in that great “it” that lies somewhere in our sunshine filled universe, there is no pause. We work the long hours, writing checks for our bills and driving to get to wherever we’re going. And yet at the end of it all, we’re still typing away on our pilots, singing on stage, cooking bright foods, opening shops, telling stories and jokes to waiting audiences.
We don’t stop. We will never stop. Because we are the fools who dream.
You can’t extinguish that with 10,000 realities and hundreds of neckties. You won’t break us by dismissing us. We, from the immigrants to the faces on a Greyhound bus, are the Angelenos who make this place what it is. Together, we are united in something bigger than ourselves.
There is a song in all of us, each individual heart, and we sing it proudly and as loud as our voices can go, to the point where the world begs to see it. And with a light of the screen, a voice in our ears, the note of a song, the dream comes alive again. And it is the fools who make it.
I couldn’t even explain the sunrise that morning. After not sleeping for the past 24 hours, fueled on caffeine-laced Mexican cokes and the pure adrenaline of anticipation, the words were escaping me. Wisps of dark clouds and the fading night were joined with the fire of the morning sun, the shades blending together next to the plane.
Everyone I knew was asleep as I was standing by the window in my long skirt, leather jacket and TED hose. Munching on coconut chips and sipping on my water bottle, all I could think was, “Almost 15 years later, and it has come to this.”
The wounding of my past was crouching nearby, knowing that I had the weapon to finally vanquish it. In those years far gone, I had accepted its presence and given up any hope of returning to Israel. But after watching all my friends travel there like it was right around the corner and leaving me behind nursing my jealousy, it was finally my turn.
As I settled into my uncomfortable seat, I plugged in my headphones and began listening to the Birds of Tokyo’s “Lanterns”:
In darkness I leave
For a place I’ve never been
It’s been calling out to me
That it’s where I should be…
I had been there, though. It’s the place that first taught me about true heartbreak and betrayal. When I returned home, it gave me lessons in pure longing and how to hold on to the torches that we keep alight in the hopes that we will get back the things we love the most in the world. And sometimes, in the small miracles of the universe, we do.
In boarding that plane, I didn’t know what to expect. There were certain pieces of baggage that were coming with me beyond the giant pink suitcase: The gravity of my mother’s illness, the uncertainty of my future, even ghosts of my past who haunted me, to the people who I wished I could call to be there with me in this sliver of my life. But I let them slip away in all the calls I was able to make to those who celebrated this moment with me.
As the plane touched down in Tel Aviv, I was sucked into a two-week journey that seemed to change parts of my DNA. Standing on a rooftop in Jerusalem after I woke up on my first Israeli morning, I sent the anger of my former Israel experience into the wind, blending into the church bells of the new hour, the songs of the Kotel and a call to prayer from the mosque that echoed across the stones. And as I became liberated, my heart began to open to all the new experiences, both on my own and as a part of Na’amat, the women’s organization that brought me there in the first place. I saw sunrises and sunsets, beautiful place after beautiful place. Every step I took further drilled into me the kind of person I am, the past steps that were taken and the future ones that I hope to accomplish.
The experiences I’ve written about over and over, the words spoken and woven into their own forms of tapestries. As I returned home, I decorated my life with the photos and the memories of those two weeks, ranging from kissing a boy on the shores of the Mediterranean to watching children run in the courtyards and along the streets of the Old City on Shabbat. My life back in the United States, which was filled with illness, pain and heartbreak seemed like a stark contrast to the one I could be living in Israel.
In Israel, people who wanted to take me in rather than find every excuse to push me away surrounded me. There, if a guy was interested in me, instead of skulking in a corner or dancing around his words in order for me to say something, he would ask me out. If I had sex with him, it wouldn’t be an excuse not to call me again. And while there was a work ethic that could be cutthroat (especially if you ever met a taxi driver or a shopkeeper), there was also a human ethic that I can’t even begin to describe that made me feel invested in that world, which was looking to help one another rather than to hurt.
In a place where I was living every man for himself, Israel was where everyone was seeking to connect to each other. It was more community based where if your neighbor struggled, so did you. Sure, there were the people who were looking at their phones, but there were also days where those phones were given up and we talked, we reached out to each other, we embraced. I signed, “I love you” with my fingers with deaf Arab women in Nazareth and laughed as I wore a fez and bow tie on Purim and a rabbi handed me a shot of vodka, a bag of candy and directions to my hotel in Tel Aviv. I was spoiled rotten by my old friends and linked arms with new ones. I was shooed out of stores when I didn’t have enough shekels to pay for something and invited into strangers’ homes for plates and plates of food. It was a different mode of life, and coming back to the one I left behind, where my mother laid in hospital beds and I remained financially stagnant, was tricky.
There was nothing more that I wanted to do in the days after my return than to get back on the plane and come back to Israel. I wanted to hide in the crevices of the Old City I came to know and put my fate with all the people I had met, from wandering Shabbats while wearing white dresses to Muslim, Christian and Jewish children who danced together in a daycare center in Jaffa. But I thought to myself, “Give it six months. Six months, and then you’ll figure it out.”
Now it’s been a year, and I don’t know if I’m any closer. My life is here, as are my friends and my family. I love them, but a part of me wonders if there could be a life over there for me that is better than the one I invested in here. It would be a simpler life and I’m not sure if it would be one to drive me crazy in the end. Sometimes I wonder if the fates of the world gave me Israel to give me serenity to make room for the turmoil to come, as I knew very little peace before or since then.
Today, a year after I arrived in Israel, I watched my mom wander through the house, her eyes tired and touching her side, wincing. I sent her bed and tucked her in as the tears rushed to her eyes. As I held her tight and began to silently cry alongside her, I thought of the candles I lit each Shabbat I was over in Israel. I always lit five for each of the people who I loved and wanted to protect with my prayers in the holy land: my mother, father, sister, cousin and myself. In Israel, I carried the people that I loved with me, even though they weren’t there. And here, I carry the land of my people that I have grown to love with me, even though I am gone.
Israel is the name that was given to the patriarch Jacob, which means, “To wrestle with G-d.” I wrestle with the love that the holy land has given me and the love of the world of the people who I love and who love me back. I may always wrestle, but with it comes the strength to face the world. And sometimes, you can’t ask for more.
Like most humans out there in the greater universe, I love food. There is a world of flavors out there, and living in one of the culinary hotspots on the planet (sorry New York, but our produce in Los Angeles is better), I get to try a whole bunch of them. And not only that, I have access to all of them at diverse markets nearby so I can create my own variations in my kitchen at home. My love of food, both of eating it and cooking it, is pretty well known due to a previous food blog with my own recipes and currently running a foodie cluster for Jewish young professionals in Los Angeles.
However, with great foodie-ness comes great responsibility. As foodies, we have to uphold certain values when it comes to getting our grub on in the world. We all eat, but being a foodie means savoring and valuing it. This is the reason why we have designated ourselves as a part of the foodie race; because we understand that food is a part of life, but goes beyond that to become a part of our very existences and interactions.
Therefore, I decided to create the Ten Commandments for Foodies. If you want to be a true foodie, follow these simple rules and I guarantee you an awesome and delectable experience.
1) Thou shall be adventurous. Chocolate bars with masala or rattlesnake sausage may sound a little crazy, and there are certainly some weird foods out there. But being a foodie means trying something that may have some people scratching their heads and wondering why you did that. Don’t let their wrinkled noses and fake barfing sounds deter you. Go ahead and try that yak at the Himalayan restaurant down the street or taste the ice cream with the bits of caramelized turkey skin in them. Ignore the haters. There’s a reason why you’re the foodie and not them.
2) Thou shall not be a snob. Random fact: Most human beings on the earth have to eat food in order to survive. You’re not the only one who eats. Yes, you may enjoy food, but it doesn’t make you special that you can pick and choose exotic flavors to enjoy or that you plunked down a large amount of cash for a meal. Don’t act like you rule the world simply because you know the difference between crème brulee and crème fraiche. Being a foodie doesn’t make you better than anyone else. Also remember that not everyone in the world has the luxury to have food. Let that guilt sink in while you’re ordering your microgreens.
3) Thou shall respect your food service professionals. It takes many hands to bring your delicious food to you: Chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs, line cooks, waiters, waitresses, and even delivery people. Beyond that, there are bus boys, cashiers, dishwashers and even janitors and decorators who bring about the ambiance of wherever you are. They work hard to give you the best food experience possible, whether it’s delivered to your door, served at your local cafe or a brought out at a nice restaurant. They are not your slaves. Respect your food service professionals and they will respect you. (For more information on this, see my friends at Glove and Boots on restaurant etiquette.)
4) Thou art allowed to have personal preferences, as are thy fellow foodies. There are certain foods we either like or dislike, no matter in what context they are delivered. For example, I hate the taste and smell of bananas. The smell makes me nauseous, and if there’s a banana in a smoothie, it doesn’t matter how many other flavors are in there; I will find it. If someone tries to force you to eat or do something that you don’t want to, it’s your right to walk away. The same goes in relating to your fellow foodies and their food preferences. All your foodie experiences should be fun, not a game in edible superiority.
5) Thou shall not give into peer pressure to like or dislike something. There was a restaurant I went to in Westwood that famous LA food critic Jonathan Gold is gaga for. It’s one of his favorites. But I tried it and it was a big giant, “Meh,” for me. And guess what? That’s completely fine! There are certain places that I absolutely love that I’m sure Jonathan Gold would never step foot into. I’m allowed to not like something, and I won’t dislike something simply because it’s not “cool” in the foodie universe. Every foodie has a unique palate, and that’s what makes each individual foodie special. That being said…
6) Thou shalt not judge thy fellow foodie. My fellow delightful foodies roaming the world all enjoy certain things that I might not. Personally, I’m not as crazy about Mexican food as the general Los Angeles population is. (I know, gasp!) Some of my friends absolutely can’t stand Middle Eastern food and it’s one of my favorite types of cuisine. But it doesn’t matter, because each foodie is one of a kind and doesn’t necessarily share the same interests across the board. But if you judge your fellow foodie, you’re closing the door on sharing other food-related experiences with them, and food is all about bringing people together, not driving them apart.
7) Thou art allowed to maintain health/religious/personal beliefs with food. There are many food limitations out there. People with diabetes have to monitor their sugar and carbohydrates. Those with Celiac disease can’t have gluten. There are vegans, vegetarians, kosher, halal, allergies… the list goes on and on. These issues, whether for a person’s health, religion or belief system, should not make these people less a part of the foodie world. On the contrary, like with foods you like or dislike, you should be enjoying what you’re eating. It’s pretty hard to do that when your religious beliefs are compromised or you’re having an allergic reaction.
8) If it’s good, thou shall share it. Did you find an excellent hole-in-the-wall barbecue place? How about a great new food truck? If so, it is your duty as a foodie to share this information. A lot of independent restaurants, cafes and trucks don’t have a ton of money for great publicity teams that can deliver the message about how amazing their food is. They depend on word-of-mouth, particularly the mouths of fine foodies, whether through conversation or social media. This rule, however, also applies when you’re at a restaurant with your friends. If there is something that’s very delicious that you’re eating, don’t hog it all. Share a taste with your friends. Spread the good word that is food.
9) Thou are allowed personal food pleasures. Sure, I’m a foodie, but guess what? I really like deli food. Take that back. I love deli food. Is it super-gourmet? Nope. Is it tasty? Magnificently so. Will I apologize for it? Not a chance in hell. I have been eating deli food my whole life, probably since I could chew. It’s the food that brings back the memories of my grandparents taking us to eat corned beef sandwiches. We are allowed to have these things in our eating lives that bring back blissful memories. They may not be cool, but they are what make food truly special. And if you want to argue with me, watch this scene from Ratatouille and try not to smile.
10) Thou shall play with your food. If you’re not enjoying what you’re eating, then what’s the point of being a foodie? Whether cooking your own dishes, trying out a new restaurant or returning to your favorite place for the hundredth time, enjoy whatever tastes you choose. Life’s too short to be eating badly, so go for the best stuff that you can and appreciate every mouthful. If you take your food too seriously, you lose the joy and the pleasures that come with a full belly and a satisfied tongue. So don’t be afraid, let’s go play! So bon appétit, betayavon, and rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay G-d!
Do you have any more to add to the list?
There are times where my mind seems to have no choice but to drift back to Ithaca. When the days are hard and the weight of life seems too difficult to bear, our thoughts travel to the places where things were easier to face. And my mind goes back to that upstate New York town again and again.
I think of beautiful fields with tall grasses and wildflowers of different colors. Back then I imagined being a part of magazine spreads of white clothes on perfect young lovers, littered with dreams of being kissed by someone who loved me on a picnic blanket, looking up at a bright blue sky from the earth below. The colors seemed richer there: The bricks an earthier red, wood a deep chocolate brown, the green grasses painting the land emerald green in the humid summer sun. Or maybe my memory wants to think all those things were true, just to comfort me.
There were those old buildings and homes that were there for hundreds of years as the university shone on top of the hill. I never visited it, nor its gorges, but know well enough never to say, “Ithaca is gorges,” to anyone who ever lived in the town, no matter how much they did or didn’t enjoy their time there.
I think of my black sundress and fake daisy-topped shoes and a black trash bag filled with pillows and linens that I slept on the night before, covering a black leather couch. There was a giant green suitcase on loan and a gold band around my left ring finger. All these things rolled confidently into the Ithaca bus station as the Honda Accord sped away.
I didn’t look back. I should have looked back.
A little less than 24 hours of my 32 years of existence was spent in Ithaca, but it became a part of me. It merged into my soul and its death grip hasn’t let me go. It’s like a vortex in my brain, pulling me into the depths but yet at the same time providing a life raft when the world isn’t as kind as it used to be.
The years have passed and the details have grown into images while sleeping, occasional flashbacks in daydreams and words shining back at me on a computer screen. Very little has remained the same from that time. The gold band is gone, as is the suitcase. I shrunk out of that black sundress. And that Honda Accord has driven far out of my sight, and I have no hope in it coming back to me.
When I walk alone through Culver City, I’ll sometimes stare at the earth red brick on some of the buildings downtown and my body somehow shifts me back. I crawl into the memory, warm like a womb that cradles me to remind me that this glorious point in my life existed. In the green hills and the humid air as new students navigated the streets, there was innocence left inside of me, with the taint of the world barely touching my skin. And the day after I left, crying in a polka-dot dress in a random, gray field in Albany, I knew how much I already missed Ithaca and how life wouldn’t be the same.
Since that time, I have made many decisions about my life. Some were the best decisions that I had ever made. A few were the worst, and somehow no matter how strong the best decisions were, the bad ones remain more vivid. But no matter what happened, I kept sailing through the ocean of my life, not unlike Odysseus in search of his own Ithaca.
There are days where I feel so much closer to Ithaca, like sunny days with the Rolling Stones blasting through the sound system of my car. Those come alongside the moments where I have cried over a too-hungry stomach, felt the anxiety of the real world trying to put me in a chokehold, and hugged my mother tightly and felt against me what she referred to as the “grotesque shape her body” that her illness has created. It’s those places where Ithaca feels so far away that there is no mental pathway to take me back.
I travelled since my journey to Ithaca and found beautiful places along the way. There was the lush beauty of the Napa Valley, the eccentric and the eclectic meeting up in New York City and standing on the sands of the Mediterranean, the sea of my ancestors. Even as I drive along in my car, each street feels like another current to travel on an endless journey. Yet even when my heart’s dearest desire came true and my feet once again roamed the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, I felt that missing piece roaming around inside of me. And like the ancient captain Odysseus, my heart was calling for Ithaca over and over again.
But unlike Odysseus, Ithaca was not my home. It wasn’t even close to it. I was born here in Los Angeles, where my family is from. My return almost three years ago came in my time of crisis, with the realization that I needed to come back to my birthplace. I adapted, creating a new family for myself and trying to kick start a new life among the palm trees. But in the depths of my mind there are fields filled with wildflowers and dreams of making love on a blanket in the midst of them. No matter how good the days are sometimes, the feelings of being lost on an open sea were accumulating in the back of my mind.
Several years back, there was an article talking about how archeologists were trying to find Odysseus’ beloved Ithaca, and how some of them think that they were close to finding the golden shores that the hero craved throughout Homer’s epic. They talked about looking for the place where his one true love, Penelope, waited for him. Where he called out for 20 years on the rough ocean. The place that he called home.
When Odysseus returned to Penelope, she didn’t believe it was him after 20 years, no matter how many times he said it, and asked him to prove it with something only he would know. And he did by talking to her alone in the room with their marital bed, showing her where one of its posts was built from a living olive tree and the tree still stood. He showed where his roots were as a human being, in the place he had invested his very soul.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter if Ithaca is or was a place. It’s not why it’s in the text of Homer’s epic. Ithaca is simply home. It’s not necessarily a location, but the feeling of putting your heart somewhere and knowing that it would be safe until you returned for it.
And maybe that’s what I attach to Ithaca. There was the risk I took to get there and the freedom it allowed me to just be a part of the universe as opposed to fighting it. It was where I was exposed to the first time to real truth, to the path that leads towards intimate conversations driving in the dead of night and honest declarations and soft smiles as my eyes opened in the morning. It was where I was all bravery and true beauty, not just a band on my finger that was unknowingly weighing on me like a chain.
I was my best self in that small minute of my life, and in a world where you forget how to do it anymore, it’s when the mind returns to the place where it remembered that. It takes away the trauma, the darkness and the horrible decisions that cost you more than you care to write down, replacing it with sun and wildflowers. And sometimes that’s the energy you need to keep moving forward in the darkest of times.
The days of Ithaca are gone now, but the sweet and lovely memories that help comfort won’t go away, which deep down is beautiful. I’m not sure if I could ever bring them back exactly how it was then. But there has to be another form of Ithaca out there, a place to rest my heart and take back like Odysseus did. And I will keep sailing on, no matter how long it takes to get there.
It was three hours of conversation that led up to it, but it seemed like an eternity at the same time. I had put down my cold beer on his dresser and my hands began to fidget in the red light, staring out the window at the flowing trees. “I don’t know how this goes now…” I said nervously, but I didn’t need any more words anyway. His long hands found me and his lips soon caught mine in a kiss.
One hand was running through my hair, the other at my waist. I wrapped my arms around his neck and my back arched. We broke apart, his hands cupping my face just the way I like a guy to do after his lips are on mine.
“I’ve wanted to kiss you from the minute I saw you,” he whispered softly. “Standing at the microphone…”
The lights were fluorescent a few hours earlier as I took the mic at the Eagle Rock sandwich shop and began working through my material. I saw him in the back during my set: brown messy hair and beard, bright blue eyes, with a tall and lanky build.
He went up as well, but decided that comedy wasn’t his flavor; he preferred the beat of his drums. We stood outside for about an hour talking with another comic. Eventually the other comic left and this boy and I were left to ourselves. We walked towards my car, and as I arrived I asked, “Where’s your car?”
“Well, I took the bus,” he said. “But I’m going to be straightforward. I like you and I want to spend more time with you. So if you could give me a ride, I’d like to get you a drink.”
This is Los Angeles, land of indirectness and game playing, so I had never experienced anything this straightforward on these shores. So I took him up on it, and was led eventually led into the hills of Mt. Washington. And after much talking, beer drinking and laughter, I was ensnared in his lips, remembering what it was like to be possessed by kissing. It was truly a possession, and my stomach was on fire. I was left as a wide-eyed junkie, craving more.
The kiss is something that has been devalued in the hookup society. There are guys I know who refuse to kiss girls, even though they have sex with them. And to them, I say go back and practice your skills, because there is nothing more valuable. I am of the firm belief that the makeout is a lost artform; one that needs to be brought back for the sake of intimacy and humankind.
I’ve been kissing since the tender age of 14. The first one was with a boy named Jason at a Jewish youth group convention. The Eagles’ “Hotel California” was playing, I was looking pretty in my formal dress, and it was… slimy. I swore I would never kiss again. Somewhere G-d was laughing, because I’ve kissed a lot of boys since that point. (I have never kissed a girl, but I really never found a girl who I was attracted enough to kiss.)
I remember sitting with my friend with benefits at the age of 20, him moving my lips and spending hours teaching me to kiss properly as we hung out on his front porch with the dogs. As the years went on, I experienced many different sets of lips. All of them were different, from plump, pillowy lips to those that I had to coax to kiss correctly. Each one had its own flavor, and it was fascinating.
When life with my ex set it, kissing either turned into quick pecks or soul-sucking monstrosities. I remember feeling teeth against my cheek and more aggression than actual affection. At one point when things were really bad, our relationship counselor told us to build up intimacy by making out regularly. I was excited by this prospect and completely down for more kissing. Like the prospect of sex though, he shrugged it off.
My last birthday we were together, I got very drunk and proceeded to make out with him at the bar where we were celebrating, my long purple dress enveloping us both. Even thought I was inebriated, my body could still feel the reluctance in those kisses. I could feel him pulling away, but he couldn’t refuse because we were in a bar of all our friends and appearances mattered more to him than affections. To be with someone who couldn’t enjoy the simple pleasure of kissing… it was a matter of time before the destruction set in.
When the breakup set in, I was reintroduced to the kiss. Standing in the parking lot after my first “date” with a guy, and having him so close to me, his body present and standing in parallel with mine, I felt the energy flit in my stomach. And when his lips reached mine, I found myself in a state of shock and excitement. What had I been missing all this time? It was like music of the mouth, sensation and expression without a single word. It didn’t matter what happened later (which was he proposed marriage to me after two dates and I said no), but for that moment, I rediscovered the perfection that is the kiss.
There were a lot of frogs kissed since that day. Some boys were sweet and asked if they could kiss me (and for that, I thought, “For asking, you can have two.”) Some tried to be romantic and jar their way into my mouth when I didn’t want them there. There were horrible kissers who licked me so much that dogs would be standing in applause if they could manage it. And then there were those who were good, but got distracted by the other options that were available, such as the possibility of sex. The kiss got lost.
Yet after probably hundreds of kisses in my life, I never get sick of them. I sense more because of them and feel more elation in them than any sexual encounter could make me experience. I joke when I tell people that I never know if a guy is into me until his lips are on mine, but it’s true. As a writer, I am well aware that words can lie; bodies can’t. The body is just as important to read, because often you can find things that you need to find in its motions when the words fail. It starts when the voice ends and movement and sensation begins. And we all need to relearn this language — even myself.
As I kissed my open mic boy goodbye, him possessing me one more time with his mouth, I wondered if I would ever see him again. I’ve lived in this city long enough to know the answer was probably not; there are so many distractions and other lips in this town that most people refuse to settle on just one pair. But as I journeyed back out into the night, the scent of him on my body, I reflected on what my comedy teacher said: To paraphrase her, comedy certainly gets you some action.
“You could never live without me.”
I woke up that Saturday morning, three weeks before I was supposed to leave for Israel, with a message from my group leader. I realized forgot to pay the $28 that I owed her for the extended flight for my trip, and I needed to send a check.
The sweat from all the blankets I was curled up in and the frenzy of forgetting dripped across my head. I looked through the stack of white papers on my black dresser, wondering where my checkbook was. That mat of tangles on my head flew by my face as I ran through my room, stacked with clothes, books and papers, not knowing where half of my things were, eyeing the last stages of the cold that I had that past week.
Eventually, I found my checkbook and an black pen. As I scrawled across the paper in my chicken scratch, there was that mental reminder of what he used to say to me whenever I would forget something or make a mistake. “You could never live without me.”
It had been over two years since it was said to me in one form or another, one of the most famous put-downs from a bully who should have been my partner but made it his job to be my keeper. I slipped on skinny jeans and a pair of flip flops and marched out to the mailbox.
The sky was slightly gray in Los Angeles but lined with the lovely fireworks of the palm tree fronds on my street. The feeling of the pavement dotted with black marks underneath my feet was comforting. It was my home now, a blissful thought.
I thought about my former keeper; I rarely yet all the time do, because without him I would have never had this life. It is not an easy one. The skinny jeans that I pulled from my closet, which were once in the back with dreams of wearing them when I got thinner, were now baggy and a size too big due to hunger. When my stomach grumbled as I crossed the street, I remembered that morning when I was so poor I had to go to a food pantry in Inglewood, and that feeling of relief at my very core from simply eating a pretzel roll with bacon bits baked right in. My mind drifted to everything and everyone I lost in those two years, from my beautiful home to one of my closest friends, the only man I ever loved. They were all ghosts now, haunting me alongside those words from that insecure boy: “You could never live without me.”
The wind whipped my hair by the halal market where I buy my produce and the sweet checker always greets me with his bright smile and startlingly beautiful olive green eyes. The sleek UCLA apartments, where I had a cup of tea and a twisted but fun one-night stand with a Ph.D candidate, caught my sight briefly. I walked by all the people roaming down the sidewalk, who just like me were trying to make their way in this city of angels.
I still had a tremendous stack of debt I was trying to get out of. I was forgetful and struggling to survive. Although I was now getting back on my feet with freelance work, I was living life on a dream of a new career path and a prayer that one day things would be better. That was always my dream. I yearned for better as my keeper shrugged his shoulders and carried on with mediocrity. He expected me to do the same, and would push me down to realize this if he had to.
As I arrived at the mailbox, checking the time for the pickup and then dropping the envelope in, I thought about where that $28 of absentmindedness was going. In three weeks, I would be going to Israel. Since before him, it was my heart’s truest longing. He always made promises, but they were always balanced with, “We can’t.” He pushed down dreams while I sought to obtain them, just like this one that was about to come true. Just like how he always saw my writing, saying “It’s good, but…” then followed by criticism of the mundane placing of commas. It almost stopped me from writing, from putting my fingers to the keys and composing the song that my mind was singing. Almost.
The truth was nothing could stop that symphony, not to mention my life from moving forward. My heart had been beating for more than 800 days without him, and it was still thumping its lovely one-of-a-kind drumbeat, pumping blood into my veins and allowing me to be free. Sure, I had suffered, but I knew that my struggles past two years would probably have killed him. In his attempted control of me, he was weak. I proved my strength by greeting each day the best I could as an independent individual.
Sure, life isn’t easy, but it’s mine. It’s filled with broken hearts and one-night stands, struggles with the hot water in my shower and the stacks of paper that one day I will organize and sort through (one day). But it’s an adventure, and sometimes with that there is uncertainty and risk, not to mention prices to be paid. I never know what tomorrow will bring, and that’s the best feeling. I breathe deep and understand the miracle of that action alone.
“You could never live without me.” On the contrary. I’m actually quite alive, thank you very much.