On February 23, my Uncle Barnett Lewis died under suspicious circumstances. Today, I delivered this eulogy for him. For my favorite Lost Boy… this is for you.
His name was Peter Pan. Or it might as well have been.
Barry was the eternal child, our puckish playmate overlooking Santa Monica Boulevard. His apartment on Cynthia Street might as well have been Neverland, with mirrored walls, elegant furniture and décor, alongside the greatest Mickey Mouse collection known to man. One of the first things I knew as a little girl was that we were Uncle B’s princesses. And I relished in it.
My eyes were the same color as his, and his grandma Ida: bright blue with a touch of green. His grin was that of a giant, larger than life yet gentle and warm. The smells of him – of cologne and old cigarettes – still makes me feel that the world is mine for the taking, that I am surrounded by the purest love. When he was around, I always felt like I belonged.
He was cosmopolitan and always chic, jet setting all over the world, climbing the ladder and living amongst the Hollywood stars. He loved driving through Coldwater Canyon because of the homes he worked on there. Barry was the perfect picture of ‘70s excess spilled over into later decades, with the disco flair of West Hollywood dancing behind every step.
He was the life of any party, the thrill in the boring day-to-day. This was alongside his band of Neverland companions, whether it was Barry goofing off about Dale’s beard, which Dale claimed he was “growing for the winter,” or wandering through the streets of New York with my mother in her white medical dress; Barry told everyone who passed them by, “She’s my nurse.” Their whimsy brightened our world and drove my dad crazy. Yet their anarchy was simply inspired.
I was always thrilled to come visit Los Angeles to see my grandparents and Uncle B. When Barry was around, there were frilly dresses, stuffed animals, laughter, balloons, outings in the city with him and Nanny. Something about him and his Technicolor universe made me want to aspire, want to grow up. Want to have that city life that he had, surrounded by palm trees and bustling streets.
One day, when I was seven, I said to my mother, “Mom, Barry’s so great. Why isn’t he married?” She really didn’t have an answer for me – probably because it would take another 20 years for it to be legal.
I figured it out when I was 14, listening to my father and him talking. Barry was discussing plans for my sister’s wedding with her first boyfriend. “Now, now, Barry,” my dad said. “Shoshana has a lot more boys’ hearts to break.”
And naturally, Barry said, “Well, so do I.”
From there I began piecing the story of his life, of a community that I was only a part of by association. In his 20s was the liberation of Stonewall, his 50s the hanging of Matthew Shepherd on a fencepost, his 60s finally the right to marry. Barry was stuck in a time where, despite never really being in the closet, he didn’t get to be who he wanted to everyone, even to the woman that mattered most: His mother.
Growing up, I would think of Barry when the gay slurs echoed in my high school hallways and the evangelical kids were desperate to save my Jewish soul. Their ignorance clawed at me and lit a fire in my stomach. Barry gave me direction and purpose; he showed me that I didn’t have to embody hate. Standing up for what was right was much more important than fitting in. And when they try to come at us, that love and acceptance should be our creed.
As we get older, we find that it’s time to put aside our toys and leave the playground. We come into our own, remembering to see the world through different, mature eyes. That was not Barry. After all, Barry was Peter Pan. A lost boy who would never grow up.
I soon realized that Barry was not a fantasy to follow. He was a man, and a flawed one at that. He liked things his way, and was extremely meticulous. If something was the slightest bit off in his eyes, he would comment on it, sometimes brutally. If the spotlight went away from him for just a second, he would do anything in his power to reclaim it.
Underneath the surface of my childhood playmate was an unbelievable pain that no amount of earthly good could cure. But in Barry I learned something vital, and that is to truly love someone meant loving that person for all that they are and all they can never be.
I got older. I made mistakes in my life. And there was Barry in the background, with a hug, his lost boy laugh and strong opinions on interior decoration; in fact, when I got divorced, one of the first things he said to me was, “Get the furniture.”
His aesthetics clashed with mine, but he painted my universe with his sass and salty tongue. And from him, I learned to dish it too; when I wished him a happy birthday last year, he asked me if I knew how old he was. I responded, “Someone once told me that a lady never reveals her age.”
He had little to give, but what he gave was so much more than he thought it was. He didn’t shower us with money, but his love was worth diamonds. He encouraged my father in his theater dreams. In Dale, he found someone to both clash against and pull in close. In my mother and Aunt Cindy, he found a gang for gossip and ganja. He gave my sister an Auntie Mame, my cousin Amy the uncle she deserved, Beau a family member who really wanted to be there for him. And a month ago, when he said how proud my mother would be of me after helping my dad recover from his fall, he gave me the knowledge that I was becoming the woman I was always meant to be.
His worth was not in his toys, his gifts or his knick-knacks. It was in his one-of-a-kind, precious soul. And at the end of it all, Barry was human like anyone else. He just wanted to love and be loved, but he didn’t always know what it looked like, or how to embody it.
I had plans for Barry. I wanted him to taste my cooking and see my beautiful new city apartment. I wanted to host dinners with everyone to get together. With him, I saw the opportunity to begin a healing process, reuniting the family and creating something new from the pain and ashes. There was a future for us, and Barry was supposed to be a part of it. And now that the sun has set on Neverland, I’m not sure where we go from here.
He was Peter Pan. A lost boy. And I hope wherever he is now, he will find a way home.
Standing at the craps table in Henderson, air-conditioned within an inch of my life in this refuge from the Vegas heat, I take the emerald green dice from the stickman and blow on them.
I see the people standing around me at the table — a short, sad yet angry Israeli next to me in a salmon pink shirt smoking cigarettes; a tall black man on the other side who eyes me warily, as I am the only female at the table; an older gentleman playing with his chips nervously, their clicking sound echoing in my ears; and the giant of a guy who identifies himself as my boyfriend, throwing down money.
Tossing the dice along the top, getting the hard eights and sixes, I watch my partner in craps whoop as our chips graduate from one row to two. My nose is sniffling from traveling from arid desert air to the chilled casinos as I continue roll after roll, my bags stacked under the table with two Jameson and gingers just above them.
He passionately kisses me after I hit seven and my turn is over. Calls me lucky and gets us comps for the buffet upstairs. I’m barely able to eat because I don’t feel well as he loads up three plates full; food piled so high it practically measures up to his almost 400-pound, 6’6 frame.
We have been together for three months, and generally things were working. We enjoyed each other’s company, my family liked him, my friends enjoyed how he made me feel. Yet there was a gnat of truth buzzing in my ear: He didn’t want to be monogamous, and continued dating multiple women. He got angry and jealous when I would suggest dating other men. He was controlling in bed, and my pleasure was completely ignored. He didn’t want to get married, although he was warming up to the idea of having a child.
I told him we have different values. He said we didn’t. We continued on, although I sensed something not right. He was bringing me in and pushing me out; putting me on calls with his mother, giving me a key to his house, and yet not wanting to compromise on things I requested.
I wanted to end it, but something told me to keep giving it shot after shot. All the issues were just me, I told myself. It was my past, my fears, my anxieties. And now here I was with him, in Las Vegas.
He’s in his element; he lived here for three years, knew everything about placing bets and getting what you want. Every show has a comp, every venue comes with the wave of his hand as he parked at the valet. He’s always walking five steps ahead of me, playing with his phone every spare second, my feet barely able to keep up.
I’m lost here. I hadn’t been to Vegas in almost two years. Yet every minute with him there is a thing to do outside our hotel room. I pack dresses I never get to change into as I’m shunted from local businesses to fancy pools with giant facades, from dramatic theaters to elaborate casinos. I always dreamed of experiencing Vegas as a VIP, and these were princess-style treatments. I should feel special.
I miss my friends back in Los Angeles, who are celebrating birthdays without me. I’m not with my father for Father’s Day. I should be happy that I’m with my so-called boyfriend in Vegas and he’s actually tagging me on Facebook posts, but at the same time I feel like he’s hiding more than he’s showing.
He’s surrounded by all the things that make him feel like a king, with a cute little piece of arm candy to take it in with. But I could be any girl he feels like pampering at that given moment. He doesn’t see me, ask me what I want to do or how I’m feeling, even though my throat feels like it’s on fire. We’re just floating along in the heat.
As we walk past the Paris, I dream of real Paris, and in New York New York I long for the city’s cursing residents. The world was designed to be here at our fingertips, yet I felt further and further from it as he talks about his dreams but never asks about mine. Facades and fantasies in the desert heat, as I stand in a bright fuchsia dress as he barely grooms himself enough to go out to the nice restaurant I picked for that last evening — the thank you for our trip, overlooking the Bellagio fountains.
Something changes in there. His constant phone companion is gone. He cuddles closer to me, sharing food off forks and kissing me deeply. Finding a way to make deep conversation. Taking me to the Bellagio fountains and through the hotel’s conservatory, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
At the end of the evening, he asks if I want ice cream. I nod furiously. Although there’s no ice cream, we find a Jamba Juice, sit on a bench and split a smoothie, laughing about the man who was wandering through the mall farting, giggling about all the things we saw.
This was my version of heaven, all that I wanted from him in this relationship. Not fancy pools and VIP shows, crap tables or blown-on dice. Just the two of us, a smoothie, true companionship and overwhelming laughter. This is where I felt special.
It fades away just as fast. The next day he makes me cry at breakfast during a debate about religion he asks me incredulously if I think I’ll see my mom after I die. The entire drive home he texts and calls customer service on a never-ending loop, yelling at them to the point where I become scared and cry again. I ask to talk to my dad just as we cross the California border; he doesn’t let me until we reach Pasadena. I’m silent for hours, wishing to be close to him the way I was the night before.
When we get back to his house, I ask to use his bathroom before I leave. I see another girl’s makeup on the counter. He begins stumbling in excuses, claiming it’s his female roommate’s. Yet two weeks before he said he was strict about his roommate’s stuff not being in his bathroom.
I know him better, and unload on him the truth: That the last time he was in Vegas, he took another girl and asked me to watch his dogs. He probably did the same thing again, and I wasn’t dumb. He never hid the fact he dates multiple women, but lacked discretion.
“We just had a great weekend,” he lamented. “Can’t we just enjoy this? I don’t want a serious conversation right now.”
He never wants a serious conversation. Not about the future nor the past. He just wants the hedonism of now.
“That’s not the point,” I replied. “I think I might be falling for you, and I need to know that this is a thing before we move forward.”
He responds. “I care about you deeply, and I like the fact that you’re getting attached to me.”
No. That’s not right. I deserve a better answer. A worthy answer for who I am as a person. And he didn’t have one.
He asks me what I want. I say I want to be with him. He echoes the words, but I don’t believe him. He kisses me under his jacaranda tree and I walk away, thinking about where this relationship was going. And it’s not in the right direction.
I realized this was a person who would refuse to change, and it wasn’t worth giving ultimatums and demands. I deserved more than comps and craps tables. I needed a relationship where I counted.
I break up with him via email; it takes me a week to get the courage to go through with it, block him on Facebook and drop off the key in his mailbox. I ask for monogamy, knowing I’ll never receive it. That he won’t chase after me nor shed a single tear for my absence; there would always be another girl to replace me.
As the breakup settles in, I see things clearer, like a veil being lifted or the relief of Pacific breezes after the stifling Vegas heat. I see him for who he is beyond our Vegas trip — his close-mindedness, bullying and bigotry; his grabs at control by any means necessary, whether through chronic overeating or manipulating women. Although the sadness of losing his good qualities still stung, I was better off finding someone worthy.
We had a Vegas relationship; a façade, a dream, an image presented to the world of happiness yet simmering under the brim with emptiness and pain. That wasn’t a relationship that represented me.
When it came to love, I wanted a Jamba Juice and laughter relationship, a passionate kissing relationship, a deep conversations relationship, a put-your-phone-away-because-the-other-person-is-so-good relationship. A place beyond arm candy, but rather fully fleshed souls trying to find a way through life together. Where reality lived, and what happened in it wasn’t just sinful nights in the desert, but the foundation for something even greater.
And now, as a single girl once more, I realize I truly am lucky.
This is what dismantling a house looks like.
It is eyes watering at the amount of dust that comes up in clouds around you, sneezing while you’re walking into a demented heaven where all that’s there is stuff. Boxes and boxes of earthly goods are surrounding you, and bags of donations lay out in front of you like tombstones.
The dead live amongst here, the people you used to know.
It’s also the frenzy of the living who are still holding the items, lifting beautiful bowls and crystal, trying on clothing that you remember your mother once wore when it got cold. Going through and trying to claim everything in the tiniest little crevices, from wall hangings to See’s candy gift certificates.
It is pulling an antique yellowed veil from your mother’s closet and not knowing who it belongs to, and knowing probably the only person who can explain it is dead. Then it’s having people insist that you keep it for your own wedding, even though you’re not getting married yet; hopes for the future that you just can’t see at this given moment. You want to get married again, but are not sure if it will actually happen for you. Yet you are being given a veil to wear “just in case.”
It’s swimming through the piles of stuff, and when you say you like something, everyone insists you take it with you. And then you remember you have a tiny guesthouse, and wonder where you’re going to put all of the items you like when there’s barely room for you.
It’s starting a bonfire with the love letters and photos of your ex, laughing and dancing around it with your cousin and sister, bonding over how far you’ve come. It’s also pulling your wedding album, solo in the dark, and finding a container of stickers in your mother’s desk and pasting them all over your ex and his family’s faces (all except for his cousin. You liked her).
It’s the combinations of memories, from both the people who are here and those that are gone. Flimsy paper letters indicating truths about our mortal existences — Turkish immigration papers from my great-grandmother, the death of my great uncle in war, my grandfather longing for my grandmother, a letter from my father after he felt my sister kick in my mother’s stomach for the first time.
Then there are the papers you pull with your name on them, writing in clinical detail what a problem child you were. How you could not communicate, could barely speak, was left screaming and angry until language therapy saved you. Seeing your mother write about how, as a four-year-old child, you went from nothing to her high hopes of you going to some great university one day.
Every school assignment, every attempt at writing and telling stories had been saved, and many of them were thrown in the trash because there is no room to take every little scribble with you. And as others try to hold on to every little piece, you wonder how callous you have become in casting off.
And you think you’ve made progress as you indicate all the crystal bowls and various entertaining platters that are going to be sold off, watching as the stakes are raised again and again. More boxes — of books, kitchen wares, of all the things you thought you’d use again but never did. Tossing off what time has made meaningless; high school yearbooks where you don’t talk to these people anymore and can barely remember them, kitschy things that seemed funny when you were younger, even mementos from friends who you will always love, but ended up breaking your heart in the end.
Hopes for the future, of having the life that your parents did, cast away like shadows in the darkness. Things you wish you could keep but know that there is no space anymore in your current existence. Feeling like you’re falling behind as the people around you, who love you, hold cups of coffee, razzing on your ex because he’s the easiest target at this moment.
Then you realize that you’re suffocating underneath all the items. The weight of the past is being collected in the tangible things, and you desperately want them all to go away. You want to disappear with them, because in that moment you feel like in the things you are one of them, worth very little under the mountain of time passed, left to linger in the graveyard of donations and sellable items worth merely pennies.
And you’re left asking: What kind of life have I lived?
The tears start to flow. My wailing starts softly. It gets louder, and I try to muffle into a pillow. I fail.
My phone text blares. It’s him, my sweet him. He’s so far away from me right now. I tell him I’m having a hard day and that I don’t want to burden him while he’s working; the truth is I’m so used to being independent that I’m terrified to let him in when I’m like this. I prefer to smile and laugh with him, as the happiness he makes me feel is indescribably infinite.
I go back to crying again, thinking of lying in bed with him as he holds me just right, his fingers across my face as he wipes away every tear individually when I would cry about missing my mother, as if counting each of them. And then telling me quietly that he’s not running away.
I still miss her. And I’m crying for her now — two days after Mother’s Day, because I put so much under the surface that I didn’t allow myself to feel at that very moment. As I have been doing during most of this process of dismantling a house.
That’s when everyone surrounds you. To hold you, to touch you and to tell you, “It’s time to stop.”
This is when we stop doing and start talking.
My oldest childhood friend is in my passenger’s seat, telling me that if she gets motion sickness she’s taking the wheel. We’re going to the beach because it makes me happy. I’m behind the wheel because, finally, I have control.
And he calls. He asks me what’s wrong, and I tell him. He tells me to pace myself; box it now, look at it later. He can’t stay on the phone as my friend and I bicker, but he says he’s looking forward to meeting her, and for going to brunch for my dad’s birthday.
I hang up the phone. My friend looks at me. “He called to check in on you,” she said softly. It was strange coming from her, because she is usually so cynical. It was full of wonder and potential.
His words, his voice, the phone call weren’t tangible items, but it was all the perfect gift. It wasn’t an empty glass vase where a dozen delivered roses once resided, a letter trying to convince me of something to win my affections, or a gift that came in tangent with a wedding dress. It wasn’t anything I could hold in my hands.
Rather, it was a metaphorical brick in the foundation; one house was dismantling, another potentially being built. And later, I laid down and whisper the words out loud that I was so afraid to say to him directly.
“This is my family,” I say. “But he is home.”
It’s the tearing down and building up, the yin and yang of my existence. I’m standing on the edge of a knife, so scared that I’m going to fall off, dismantling a house while possibly finding a new home at the edge of my universe.
This is exactly what it looks like.
In the past almost five years I’ve been single, online dating has been the norm. I’ve done them all — swiped left, right and in between, shoved myself into various dating algorithms and marketing ploys. I’ve downloaded a variety of dating apps, ranging from the Hinge to Tinder, or the dating app known as John Oliver puts it, “A barrage of unwanted d**ks.”
But this Sunday, I was done. Seriously done.
I’ve said that phrase quite a few times. I have uninstalled and installed, disabled accounts and bitched plenty of times over coffee with both girl and guy friends. But I never gave up on the potential of finding a lifelong connection online. After all, several of my friends have ended up with partners from OKCupid. I have several friends who have met on Coffee Meets Bagel. One friend even met her guy on JSwipe.
Yet within the past several weeks, I realized that the modern dating atmosphere wasn’t fitting me. My criteria isn’t crazy — I’m looking for a guy who isn’t an a-hole, is semi-stable, fun, has good values, a great personality, can hold an intellectual conversation and preferably smells nice (you’d be shocked how important this is). I’m not looking for a guy to sweep me off my feet; rather, I’m seeking my best friend… who I just so happen to have sex and will live with, and is most likely male.
The longest I’ve ever dated anyone in these past five years is two months. On average, I go about three dates with any one guy. I have my share of horror stories like everyone else. Yet after experiencing the equivalent of dating whiplash, where I went from receiving flowers and making plans for ten zillion future dates to being dumped in a week, I was tired. I couldn’t do it anymore.
Although I have turned off my dating profiles in the past, the constant pressure of, “You need to find someone,” rings in your ears to where you feel forced to turn them back on. But after this past deleting, I decided to take a look at current dating culture, including my place in it. Why did I feel so miserable? Why wasn’t it working for me? And it seemed to boil down to five different categories:
Us In a Nutshell
We are walking, talking collections of various human experiences, from nights up until 1:30 in the morning drunkenly making pancakes to the loving bonds we share with our family members and friends. Each of us has something special that we contribute to the universe, and many great things that we can give to others in our relationships.
Yet online dating is telling us, “Please reduce yourself to a short description with a few emojis, as well as several selfies that show off your body, but not your spirit. Then everyone can play a game of hot or not with you.” How depressing is that? And how can you even think about forming a loving connection with anyone based on that type of mentality?
The online dating world doesn’t give a lot of room for bonding and getting to know another person, and we can be dismissed with the swipe of a finger. It’s not a great place to be. We deserve better.
Let Me Upgrade You
At one point, a guy online asked me if I was into interracial dating. I was alarmed by the question, as race never factors into it. And yet I realized that I am a strange breed, because many of my friends will veto a guy by any variety of things (including race), or hold out for that one that fits their exact type. After falling in love with a guy that was shorter than me. brown-eyed and bald when I prefer tall, light eyes and a luxurious dark head of hair, I’ve learned better.
Online dating makes it worse because both the computer and us don’t think of the person behind the profile. This includes those algorithms sites set up with “personality questions.” Some will show me a 90 percent and he’s boring as hell. Meanwhile, I have met people who were given 65 percent and we had lots of fun.
There is such a thing as too picky, and the online dating world makes us think that there are so many fish in the sea we can get exactly what we want without compromises, which is what dating and relationships are founded on. It’s comparable to ordering a pizza. And speaking of…
Sex or Pizza?
At one point, I had a guy try to get me to come to his house. No coffee, no nothing, just me walking to his door at 10 p.m. My response? “I don’t come hot and fresh to your door in 30 minutes or less, I’m not a pizza.” And yet, that’s what we seem to expect from many of our apps.
Due to the anonymity of online courtship, we treat people as afterthoughts, like what we’re having for dinner tonight. I can’t even begin to count the number of times the opening message I got from a guy was “DTF?” That guy saw me as a place to put his penis, not a person. Otherwise, he would remember that meeting in a public place first is ideal not only for common courtesy, but also for my safety as a woman.
As mentioned before, we are human beings with complex inner worlds. Trying to reduce us into tools for others’ pleasure makes us into commodities, and that’s not right. If you want to hook up from there, I’m not judging — trust me, I have used them for that, too. But with any human encounter, including sex, respect should come with the territory.
The Accountability Dilemma
Usually the best way to find someone is being set up by friends — except in my case, where I hear, “He’s socially awkward/slightly autistic, but he’s really nice!” (Not a joke. Those actually happened.) There is a sense of accountability and shared values with friends. And if he does anything stupid, that friend can promptly yell at him.
Online dating has none of this. There’s a reason why you see so many articles about girls who send horrible text messages from guys to their mothers: because for the first time, these guys are being held accountable. We can feel degraded, or even worse, threatened. And while some sites have moderators to take inappropriate people out, many times we don’t report — or worse, they are the moderators.
When we are strangers on the Internet or with phones in between us, we feel like we can get away with a lot more that we would never do in person. Dating is hard enough without any extra problems.
Fear of FOMO
Several times, I’ve been with a guy where everything seems to be perfect: Solid chemistry and lots of fun. Everything falls into place very, very quickly, as if it was always meant to be there. They were amazing human beings, treating me like a goddess when they were dating me.
Yet all of these times, I have been left because “the one who got away” shows up and they want to try to make it work with them. And almost every time, these guys try to come back into my life after the other one doesn’t take. It never works; the spark is gone and any potential trust has disappeared.
Sometimes we think so much about what else is out there that we don’t see the potential in front of us; it’s called FOMO, or fear of missing out. The online dating world makes it easy jump from person to person, because look at all the people we might be missing if we “settle” for someone. As a result, we are left unsatisfied yet again.
My swearing off of online dating may be all for naught, because let’s face it: When was the last time someone picked you up in a bar or approached you at an event? Or you were the subject of mixed signals from a person to the point where you just assumed they weren’t interested? Sometimes the only way to even date is by going online; at least you know where the intentions are.
I can count the number of times on one hand that I’ve actually dated someone from a bar or event. Hell, it’s pretty rare when a guy openly hits on me or buys me a drink. (Unless my friend Justin is around. For some odd reason, if he’s there I’m getting hit on like mad.) We have grown so adjusted to a screen between us that the idea of courting someone in person is downright antiquated, and the idea of potential, face-forward rejection poisons our minds. And it’s not only with guys — I’m horrible at approaching guys for dating.
There is this great desperation for me to give up online dating, to let go of the toxic culture we have built. It seems like any solid relationship that I could have has to be built organically, not digitally. And yet I’m not sure if I can; the indirectness of online dating has been programmed into our generation’s mind to the point where we can barely talk to people on the phone anymore, sending everything via text.
There has to be another way. We all deserve love if we seek it, finding our match and building great connections. That shouldn’t mean dodging various pictures of guys’ junk, feeling disrespected, devalued or threatened. It should mean building the foundations of trust that come with any solid relationship with a person who wants to break through the bonds that hold us back from one another.
When you figure out how to do this, could you tell me how?
Since I became single four years ago, my change in relationship status meant that, if I ever wanted to have sex again or even think about finding love, I would have to dive back into the cesspool that is dating. After seven years of being out of that world, it was like mingling in a river of toxic waste and trying to figure out the lay of the land from all the people with three heads.
At the time, I was 29, and I hadn’t dated since I was 22, let alone in the technology era. Seeking a relationship really was a different language, and everything you did had a message, like how a friend of mine told me there was a hierarchy of dating places: Coffee for friends and casual dalliances into friends-with-benefits territory; drinks for friends, potential hookups and the slightest chance of a relationship; and dinner for potential hookups and half-possible relationships. Or how when you give your number to a guy you’re interested in them dating-wise and if you add them on Facebook you think of them as a friend. (That one I don’t follow. I’d probably add you on Facebook either way.)
Then of course there are the requirements and rules: Don’t have sex on the first date. Don’t reveal too much about yourself. Don’t show too much cleavage, but don’t be a prude. I can’t even begin to list the hundreds of don’ts that I’ve been told. Meanwhile, there was a whole online dating vernacular to acclimatize to beyond that combined with hundreds upon hundreds of unsolicited pictures of human male junk and requests for pictures in return. For example, I had to learn that a guy asking for more body shots in online dating is a secret way that he’s trying to make sure you’re not fat, because that’s men’s greatest fear while online dating. I guess it’s nice to not have to worry about going out with a person and them possibly taking advantage of you. Either that or I guess it doesn’t matter if I would gouge your eyes out, as long as I’m not overweight while doing it.
The truth was there are so many little variables and squabbles that I couldn’t pull them apart. Don’t post that picture, post this picture; don’t say this, do say that. Let them pay for the meal, or pay your own way to show your independence. Pay for your Match.com account for quality men, or why would you spend money on such an endeavor? It’s very confusing.
My friend Ron gave me a challenge: Write a list of dating etiquette principles that people should follow. Being single and slightly removed from the dating scene as of late (but not enough so that I don’t remember the hell it is), I welcomed the task. As I started coming up with a list, I realized it really boiled down to ten simple, extremely blunt rules that I’m pretty confident most daters and generally nice human beings can agree on:
- Don’t be an asshole.
This may seem like a simple concept, but even if you just look at the standard comments section of a Facebook post, you would be amazed at how many people have a problem with it. Not being an asshole simply means respect for the fact that everyone in the dating world is looking for their better half, and it’s hard to find someone. It means being straightforward in what you want: If you want a hookup, by all means, say so and don’t lead them on. It means that, if someone tells you they’re not interested, not attacking them. Were you listening in Sunday school to the golden rule? No? Well it’s that whole, “Do unto others as they would do unto you” thing. So don’t be rude. And don’t contact people in the form of a proposition of, “Hey, dtf?” Not only does it mean you’re an asshole, but you’re lazy.
- Stop thinking with your junk.
We live in an age where we are programmed to think with our respective genitalia, from dating to what kind of hamburger we buy. Therefore, when we look at online dating profiles or go to singles mixers, all we see is, “Hot or not?” or, in Tinder terms, “Swipe right or left?” Hate to break it to you, but looks fade or change. Also, you’re not going to have sex with this person 24/7 — you’re going to have to talk to them and reason with them eventually if you want to keep that person around. Sure, we all have physical types, but a relationship has to go deeper than that to work. So don’t think in those terms and talk to someone new. It’s amazing what you’ll find, and personally I find people more attractive if they’re smart, funny, decent and can carry a conversation rather than if they have six-pack abs. And speaking of…
- Be open to new possibilities.
I have two examples of this. One was where a 5’6 guy contacted me on a dating site (please note I am 5’11). Normally I don’t go for shorter guys, but he was so easy to talk to and fun to be around we actually dated for a while after that. The second was a girl I used to work with who went on a date with a guy who liked baseball. She said, “He likes baseball, and I don’t like baseball. So I’m not going to pursue it.” That guy could have been her perfect guy, and she threw him out simply because there was one interest that they didn’t have in common. Meanwhile, I took a chance and explored something that I would have never done before, and even though it didn’t work out, I loved the time we had together. Being open means new opportunities, meeting wonderful people and who knows what else? Possibly meeting the love of your life and not having to worry about this dating thing anymore.
- Stop texting, you idiot.
The text is great for many things, ranging from finding each other in a large, crowded shopping center to getting into a car accident for doing it while driving. However, it can also be one of the greatest hindrances to dating and being able to get to know each other. It’s so bad my friend once had to dump a guy via text because he wouldn’t take calls. If you’re trying to date someone, opt for more connection and not less. Texting and even its cousin, Facebook messenger, is a great starting point for getting to know someone, but it can’t communicate the full picture of a person — what jokes they laugh at, how they respond to different topics and their tones of voice. If you have the time and the ability to call, do it. If you don’t like phone calls, impromptu visits work too. Make the effort. Which leads me into…
- Don’t be lazy.
Oh, the lazies, the procrastinators, the shiftless dreamers who hope a person will sweep them off their feet instead of going to get them. They come in many forms, to the girl who contacts a guy on a dating site to say, “Hey, let me know if you have any questions,” to the guy who is too scared and/or lackadaisical to pursue a girl, and when she finds someone else, he decides that it’s the perfect time to declare his love. If this is the approach they take to dating, it’ll probably be the same in a relationship, so avoid them and be better than that. If you like him/her, ask them out. If you’re interested, don’t play games; just say it. One of my favorite instances of this was at a coffee shop in Eagle Rock after I performed at a comedy open mic. He told me flat out he was interested. I was so impressed that he was straightforward that I immediately grabbed a drink with him.
- Focus on the other person.
You know that electronic leash you have in your pocket that you call a cell phone? Yes, technology is grand, with all the pretty lights and dinging sounds, not to mention the ten zillion dating apps and your queue of 20 guys and/or girls in various states of flirty texting. Guess what? If you intend to connect to anyone in human form, it’s got to go into hibernation. If you’re going on a date, don’t play with your phone and don’t answer calls unless it’s an emergency. Same goes for darting eyes around the room and paying too much attention to distractions. Also, if a person says something to you,listen. Ask questions and find out things. Respond with your own experiences. We live in a constant state of FOMO (fear of missing out) that we actually do miss out on great things, even if that person is sitting in front of us.
- Follow basic topic discussion guidelines.
When I went on my first date post-split, I called a former friend of mine in New York for advice. He got very nervous when I asked him, so he started making a list of all the topics that I shouldn’t talk about: No politics, no religion and no mentions of my ex or any previous relationships. When I gawked and asked him what I should talk about, he said, “Anything else.” Years later, the advice still works, but I would add any personal topics that you don’t feel comfortable sharing, like medical or family issues. In the first few times of meeting, it’s all about whether or not you click, and you can only see that if both people are comfortable with the conversation. Topical, touchy issues and possible deal breakers can be dealt with later.
- However, throw the rulebook out the window when it’s time.
When I was dating a chef several years back, the initial chemistry between us was so hot that everything else seemed like a refrigerator. As a result, the above basic topic discussion guidelines were thrown out the window immediately and nothing was restricted from our conversations. What I love the most about dating is that when you find an amazing person that you really connect with, it can be completely unpredictable and exhilarating. It’s instinct; you just know it and they know it too. Any rules that society throws at us, from not having sex on the first date to taboo topics, are tossed aside. These are not the times to be guarded and listen to everyone else. This is when you carpe diem, seize the day, YOLO — whatever you need to do.
- Be you.
There are two important components in dating: This new person and you. Beautiful, wonderful, fabulous you, who sings as loudly as possible in the car and has a passionate relationship with snobby coffee and red pens, not to mention an unnatural love of drag queens and RuPaul’s Drag Race. (Sorry, that’s me). Many people put on facades and fronts while dating, hiding themselves in the hope that the other person will like them, but that means we are doing a disservice to the other person by not letting them get to know the real us. Perhaps we’re insecure or uncertain, but don’t be. You’re great, I know you are, so don’t hide — and if you aren’t great, don’t tell me because I won’t believe you. This doesn’t end in dating, FYI: We sometimes forget ourselves in favor of the new relationship, and I encourage you not to. The best relationships are when the people around us bring out and love our strongest selves, not put us down. So keep doing you, no matter what happens.
- Seriously, don’t be an asshole.
It’s sad that I have to repeat this, but I do. In the second repetition, it’s more in the, “If this is not working out, don’t be an asshole.” This means if you know a person likes you and you don’t like them back, don’t lead them on to thinking it’s more. This means give someone the courtesy of letting them down if it isn’t working, i.e. not disappearing without another word, or ghosting. If the other person lets you down, it doesn’t mean yelling at them, stalking them or going from asshole to psychopath. Rejection is hard, but it’s a part of the dating process on both sides. That being said, if you need to, I give you permission to wallow in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and Netflix before you get back up again. Or take a run. Just remember rule 9: Be you, and do right by you always.
And with that, I wish all of you fair daters very happy dating lives and hopefully the right person to be your complement. Personally, I will be overanalyzing guys’ intentions towards me while listening to all your worries about dating as we hang out. Or at least I’ll be lip syncing for my life in the privacy of my car. Whatever works.
Over four years ago, with the emotional maturity of a college student, I ventured back into the dating universe like an explorer heading to the new world. Sure, that broken heart was there from the tumultuous past seven years, but the possibilities felt endless. As my best friend encouraged me to open an OK Cupid profile, I felt an exhilaration and nervousness as I had to go through all my firsts again — first date, first kiss, first time sleeping with someone new in over seven years.
All those firsts went to a guy named Jason, a Samoan with pillowy lips, soft brown eyes and a bald head. As we were talking, I explained to him that I was fresh out my marriage — it hadn’t even been a month since I left. My wants and needs were made explicit: No relationship, no commitment, and if anything expect only a friends-with-benefits type scenario.
So, naturally, he asked me to marry him after two dates.
When I told him no (after all, I had just left my marriage less than a month before), he began crying. “Well, apparently our making love didn’t mean anything to you,” he said, leaving me flabbergasted and crawling through the dark looking for a proper response.
And thus began my trail of breadcrumbs and broken hearts. Some were necessary, as the people were desperately clingy, incredibly toxic and didn’t need to be around in my life. Others were just cases of ghosting and, “I’m just not feeling it.” But I walk on eggshells despite my best intentions, emotions I have cracked because I’ve been searching for true love for quite a while now.
I only began thinking of Jason again last night when I was meandering through my local Trader Joe’s around 8:30, my favorite time to go shop for my wants and needs. After a warm, relaxing bath, I decided to head out, my hair wet, dark circles of makeup the remover hadn’t gotten under my eyes, slipping on my Star Wars t-shirt and a pair of jeans with no underwear because, hey, no one else had to know.
Given my disheveled state, it only made sense that, while wandering through the produce, the front door opened to reveal Ryan. He had that standard outfit of Adidas track pants, little round glasses and white t-shirt that I had previously grown so accustomed to him wearing. My heart started pounding as I rounded the corner, pretending I didn’t see him, agitated by my shopping solitude being broken.
Ryan and I had never dated per say; rather, he was my hook-up guy for over six months, that random 10:45 pm call where I would head to his house in the hot summer months and end up lying in the grass and having sex with him on a blanket under a full moon. It was a mutually-agreed upon situation, and I enjoyed it. My friends jokingly call him “the cookie guy,” as one night I showed up his house around midnight and he was randomly baking chocolate chip cookies. But the sex was hot and it was a nice distraction from the more difficult moments. Best of all for me, there was no attachment and promises that I had to make if he was more involved in my life. It allowed me to keep things separate, divided, private — the way I liked it.
I hadn’t heard from Ryan in over a month. The last time I did, it was a cold January night, and we switched to the guest bedroom instead of the lawn. I remember getting up from the bed, slipping on my clothes and looking down at him. He looked up at me in desperation, as if his eyes and gaping mouth were begging me not to leave. Yet the aggression in me was seething; while we were in the middle of the act, he asked me about things I don’t like talking about, wanted me to do things I didn’t want to do once we were back to our non-sex reality, which forced me to come up with a lie to get him off my case. The anger was palpable on my face, but given our casual relationship, it didn’t feel right to explain myself. And with that, he disappeared.
And now here he was in the Trader Joe’s, seeing this person with my basket overflowing, my hair matted and my ass unprotected under my jeans. It was only in this moment that I finally understood Arnold Schwarzenegger and his calls to, “GET TO THE CHOPPA!!!”
I didn’t bother to track Ryan down by the dairy; rather, I wanted out as soon as I could. My cynical mind scoffed with the thought of: If he wants to see me, he could text me at 10:45 like he always does. Anger, shame, the parts of my life that I did my best to keep separate from each other were gathering under the fluorescent lights and among the employees’ Hawaiian shirts.
I saw him watching me from one of the aisles as I stood at the checkout stand, making the cashier laugh with one of my jokes. Heading out to the parking lot, I noticed his car parked next to mine, not beginning to believe this string of coincidences. And for the first time in a while, I really thought about Ryan; how scared I was before that he was actually falling for me, how he didn’t really know me from a hole in the wall, how I missed his 6’3 lithe, strong body wrapped in mine. How us being sexual together is so natural, but knew that he was leaving me so unsatisfied and unhappy in other ways that maybe it was best we weren’t doing anything at this moment. How I sought romance, love and monogamy, and knew that this was probably not the person who would give me those things.
As I drove home, I was forced to think about my dating sins — from Jason to Ryan, there were plenty of boys who broke my heart, but there were those whose hearts I destroyed along the way. For the first time in four years, I had to admit the truth: No matter how good my intentions were, how I thought I was being altruistic, how my body slept with boys and left them with no emotions attached, I was just as bad as the guys who did it to me and my girlfriends. I hurt men and did things that I hated other people for doing to me. I refused true intimacy, putting up walls to protect my highly sensitive romantic ego from everyone, which over the years has meant everything from pretending certain people who hurt me didn’t exist in the room I was in to running out of a random Trader Joe’s at 8:45 at night.
It took me all this time to feel guilty, to ask what had become of me. I used to be a loving partner; what cynical creature had I morphed into? I generally liked who I have become over the past four years, but not in a dating sense; I was the girl who seemed to have no filter, get angry and irritated over little things and shoot myself in the foot constantly when there was someone giving me romantic attention. It was one of the reasons why I checked out of the dating process in recent months, shutting down my OK Cupid and deleting all my dating apps; there was enough pain and difficulty in my life with pressing commitments to family and work without having to deal with all the games we play and the hurdles we jump.
The truth is that there are no innocents in the dating game, and we have to learn to accept this and come to terms with ourselves and our guilty consciences. When taking two random people from different backgrounds and experiences and combining them to create something, whether a sexual connection or a love match, it’s inevitable. And, in turn, it sometimes means seeing ourselves for our faults as well as our strengths.
Yet somewhere inside of me, I believe love is possible. That it’s difficult, and yet we can find someone right for us. That we can be together and not hurt each other time and time again without healing and forgiveness. I have to believe that we don’t have to play into the games that swiping right and left and the numerous options that the online world gives us, ordering a person like ordering a pizza and having a list 10 guys long. Somewhere in me, I hope we are more than that, and I no longer have to walk the trail, leaving broken hearts behind me.
The story of 9/11, in my mind, started with my dad leaning over my bed to kiss me goodbye. He was about to take a plane to Amsterdam. Yet the air around me seemed to shudder. And halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness, all I could think was, “Something’s not right…”
Everyone knows where they were during that day when the breath seemed to catch our throats and our bodies began shaking in grief. Some people had loved ones in the buildings or the planes. Others lost people who were on the ground. The stories are all different, yet somehow the same. Either way, we lost something of ourselves that day as Americans that we have been clamoring forever to get back by any means necessary.
As the years go on, we tell the tales of where we were that day. The stories of who we lost, and now, the stories of the people who have someone defied the darkness that marks this day — babies born, celebrations taking place despite the horrors. We weave our words to help heal the scars that have been left behind, when in truth they don’t really fade.
In recent days, I have been listening to StoryCorps, an nonprofit organization dedicated to recording moments in the lives of everyday people. One of their missions has been to record the stories of all the people who were in the twin towers by getting their tales from the people they left behind. The stories were seemingly simple: A man who lost his fiancée after dropping her off for work, a woman whose ex-husband called from the 103rd floor to tell her he always loved her, a man who lost his two sons, a firefighter and a police officer. Every 9/11 story resonated like it was the first one I ever heard.
Lots of people like to dismiss stories. They are a waste of space and time, they don’t mean anything. After 9/11, I decided that I should become a journalist, but in my years of being such in my career I was often screamed at and dismissed for my interest in more narrative focus rather than traditional pyramid style newspaper writing. My editor in Santa Clarita would yell at me daily about being the worst writer he had ever seen; a sentiment that shifted once I switched over to the business desk.
As I met people who poured their hearts and souls into opening up their little shops, talked to people on the phone whose passion resonated through tones, I saw the power of stories: An immigrant man who sought to make a new life for his family. Two movie directors who never forgot where they got their start. A single mother who found her calling in doing for others what they couldn’t do for themselves. All of them were beautiful; all of them were real. Their stories made my words shine. These were the stories I would miss over the years as I fell into desperation and darkness.
We do tend to forget things as time slips away from us as other emotions settle in to replace the sadness, such as anger and fear. We forget the story of that day that shaped us, that 9/11 where a whole country cried out and forgot all the things that divided us and remembered the things that united us. How strange it is now that we are a country more divided than ever before, where lines have been drawn in stone rather than sand that the tides can take away, where chaos and ego reign over restraint and the common good. In our blindness, other lives would fall throughout the world in addition to the ones here.
The words of a friend of mine resonate in my head after my divorce: We would take three steps forward, but then have to take two steps back. The one step was still there, and although we were shaky on it, we had to figure out the path to take to make it right again. I’m hoping we’ll get there. We may, we may not.
In the meantime, we all carry our own stories from the darkest days, whether on 9/11 or in the years to come. The tales we tell shape the people who we are, make sense of the universe and all its strange complexities, of both tragedy and time.
It took me forever to find mine. It is the story of a girl who would fall into darkness, but pulled herself out of it. She had her heart trampled on and broken, felt despair as life threw her curve ball after curve ball, but yet never gave up. She created a new life for herself despite the odds; wanted to quit, but her body wouldn’t let her. Although she would never forget the depraved times of her life, she would remember them while living in the light, because that’s the only way she would survive. I was hoping that the people from the StoryCorps 9/11 project found those types of endings for their stories, too. We may never know.
On this solemn day, I try to remember the people of this country, individuals who lived normal, non-extraordinary lives who had the worst of extraordinary circumstances happen to them. The children without fathers, the husbands without wives, the ones who tried to run but eventually had death catch up to them. Each of them has something to say, and each story they tell is vital to us as human beings.
I want to remember those who had lives that were just beginning, loved ones they wanted to kiss goodnight, hours of conversations that were meant to be had but were cut short with the knife of tragedy. I want to remember the heroes who were willing to lay down their lives for those people, not those who were standing on the sidelines, biding their time to exploit it for their own gains. These stories aren’t complex, although the sheer number of them threatens to drown us in grief. But for their sake, we must never forget.
These people, these stories are the ones that keep us going, because they remind us that love is the greatest power in the universe, and you can’t smoke it out of us. It binds us forever so that not even death can steal it from us; instead, we pass it on. Today, go beyond remembering the over 3,000 people who lost their lives, because every number there is one soul, one life, one voice that we should do everything in our power to keep from being silenced forever.
“If I go crazy, then will you still call me Superman?”
The day before Passover, driving down Sunset Boulevard, that song came on the radio — “Kryptonite,” by the band 3 Doors Down. They had their share of fame in the early 2000s before falling into relative obscurity, but I was still able to recite every word from some inner recess of my brain, which holds sundry facts and figures alongside random song lyrics.
As I sang the chorus and called out Superman, another image flashed into my mind: A red envelope with a birthday card that I gave one chilly April night, right after that Passover had ended three years before. I didn’t write his name on the outside; instead, it simply said “Superman,” an inside joke between us. As we started at photographs and reminisced about Ohio nights, he placed the envelope right in the middle of the table as if it were a breathtaking centerpiece, when in my mind I typically rank birthday cards as trivial at best. I wouldn’t have even bought the card had it not been for him.
The rest of that night was a disaster, so naturally every detail is etched into my brain, right down to me being balled up on the bathroom floor, drunk and sobbing in my pretty floral dress. I let out one shrill sob by accident, and ten seconds later he was pounding on the door. He had never seen me cry, let alone heard all the horrible things spewing out of my mouth that probably hurt him as much as they hurt me. All the while I was trying to hide from him my darkest secret: That I wasn’t sure whether or not I was falling for him, and I was scared to death.
He held me gently and ran his fingers through my hair. He promised me that night he was coming back in a month and, when he did, he would take care of me from now on. It’s amazing how time can make sweet promises into sad lies.
In July, after months of fighting, I made a decision that changed us. My life had become very difficult after all I had been through, my emotions were volatile and he wasn’t making things easier, becoming angrier and angrier with me and trying to pick a fight. I said to myself, “It’s either him or me, and I’ve got to live with me.” So I cut him out of my life. As I tried to make up with him a month afterwards to repair the friendship in hopes one day we could be together, he would call me names and attack me so bad that after he dismissed me telling him that I loved him, I decided to not talk to him again. It would be too painful, and I had seen enough pain.
Do I regret it? Not really. It was absolutely the right decision at the time, and if you put in front of me the exact same circumstances today, I would make the same choice. But the right decisions aren’t always the easy ones to make, and that decision has held me back.
It used to be that I couldn’t understand people who would say, “There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think of him/her” until I got my own version of the story. For almost three years, the very existence of him tortured me on a daily basis, a demon that couldn’t be exorcised. I tried every method in my arsenal to deal with the pain: sex, alcohol, therapy, writing it out, talking it out with friends who knew him and with those who didn’t, refusing to say his name, deleting things on my computer that would remind me of him or burying them so far into my hard drive that they had no hopes of ever being recovered. But nothing worked, and I felt over and over again like I was going crazy. Dating became harder, as there was no trust left in me, and I struggled letting people close. The only medicine was time, and time sadly wasn’t fast enough for me.
As the years passed, life-changing events shaped the very core of my existence. In Los Angeles, I created a new life and made plenty of new friends. My financial survival and mother’s illness became my main sticking points, and dating took a backseat. I travelled by myself, eventually leading me back to Israel. As I stood over Jerusalem and felt the wind whip around me, I made peace with years of anger and began treating myself well, which showed on the outside and the inside. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was mine, and I took full ownership of it. Although he never escaped from my mind, I became much, much more than my mind could possibly imagine. There were parts of me that were certainly similar, but as an overall person, I had definitely changed.
I’d run into him from time to time, playing it ice cool as my stomach would drop at the sight of him. If things got really bad for me emotionally as he would play me trying to get me to talk to him, I would become agitated and aggravated for about a week while trying to shake off the shock to my system. Yet deep down, although he used to know me better than anyone, I wondered if we had a conversation whether we could talk to one another anymore. He was different, and I was no longer the girl he knew; I was more confident, sassier, smarter and courageous. The space he once occupied as my Superman was the one I took up as my own savior in times of trouble.
Suddenly, as if it had taken forever and at the same time happened overnight, I began talking to a new boy. Although we had known each other for a while, we started spending time together just the two of us. We went into music shops and sang songs. He played piano and guitar for me and laughed at all my jokes. We would talk for hours and I could feel myself opening up to him like a flower. Something was telling me inside to let the walls come down, to let him closer to me in whatever form it took.
But as we walked down Ventura Boulevard with linked arms and I brought up that other boy who once had my heart and how he broke me, I felt the mood shift between us. Looking into the new boy’s eyes, I realized that if he was falling for me like I thought he was, he was smitten with a shackled woman, chained helplessly to her past and to the ghost of a man who no longer existed her world. It wasn’t fair to him, but above all, it wasn’t fair to me. I deserved to be happy with someone who made me feel safe and cared for, who let me be who I am and loved me for it. Was it this new guy? Although I hoped it was, I didn’t know and still don’t. But I would never know until I let go of the ghost.
As “Kryptonite” played on the radio, I headed up the hillside to Griffith Observatory, my favorite place in Los Angeles. I hadn’t been up there in years, and the last time I probably wasn’t single, but my heart leapt in the sight of its white walls and dark domes. As I climbed to the rooftop and the wind whipped around me, I looked out on downtown and was reminded of Jerusalem, of sending off my anger into the wind in hopes for future happiness. And I stood on the rooftop as my hair crashed around my face, I did it once more, and let the Superman fly over the skyline.
The chains were released, and I felt free. With music playing in my ears, my smile was deep as I wandered through the grounds, looking out on the city where I chose three years ago to make my new home. On the way down the hillside, instead of thinking of my past, I thought of a dream apartment in Los Feliz, a new car, a job that would thrill me. The new boy flitted in and out of my mind’s eye, but I would see him soon enough and whatever would come of it would come.
But there were bigger issues at hand under that bright blue sky: After all, the next day would be Passover, and with my family and friends by my side, I would be able to sit at the Seder and celebrate my freedom, in all of its forms.
That apartment in Beverly Hills was unusually quiet 11 years ago. My grandmother had made soup despite the heat of that March, and she, my cousin Amy and my Aunt Esther were eating quietly as they could. My body couldn’t even digest the silence as the nurse was in the bedroom with my grandfather. My beloved Papu was sleeping peacefully, the morphine coursing through his veins to diminish the pain of his oncoming death.
The sound of Joseph Amira’s shuffling feet was gone from the white carpet, the roughness of which would announce his arrival. I would hear it as I was drifting off to sleep in my grandparents’ spare bedroom whenever I would come over during college and take a nap there. I would then hear the door creak open just a little bit, just to check in, and then hear the sound diminishing as he would shuffle away.
The small round table in my grandparents’ kitchen seemed empty without Papu. At this hour, he would always drink his coffee with a splash of mocha mix from a mug with little blue flowers. Eating cereal for lunch because he was always told that it was the healthiest thing for him. His big smile would light up his face, topped with the whitened hair would be slightly slicked back in that 1930s style. It was the one that made my young grandmother try to bet her sister that if she spit on his head, the spit would come right off, long before they started dating.
For someone who was relatively so quiet and humble, he had unusual stories: My grandfather was one of the rare people in Brooklyn with a car, which made him a particular favorite for mafia members there so he could run errands and numbers for them. He was probably one of the only Jews under the employ of notorious anti-Semite Howard Hughes at TWA during the war, probably because the last name Amira sounded Italian and he had worked on cars. Then, after moving to Los Angeles and working three jobs to keep his family afloat, he found fortune as Joseph Amira and several of his co-workers invested in orange groves down in Orange County, California.
Yet this was the end of his life. I would never see him again after this day. I headed down the crisp white hall to the bedroom, the second of his three granddaughters, who was named after his beloved wife of 66 years. She sat in the kitchen, trying to pretend like she wasn’t about to become a widow. But we all knew deep down that we were in death’s house now.
As I walked into view of the bed where Papu laid sleeping on the bright orange comforter, I carried a much darker secret that he would never know: That two months previous to this, his 21-year-old granddaughter laid in a hospital bed dying. I almost died before his time to go. If age didn’t kill him, that knowledge probably would have. Somewhere in me, my ability to cheat death came with an odd sense of relief. He had a long enough life without any pain I carelessly brought in.
Watching him breathe ever so slightly, my eyes darted around the room. It was the place where three little girls once jumped on the bed and watched Batman and danced to Madonna on Friday nights after dinners together. He would probably call us from the bedside where he laid now to wish my sister and me “Shabbat Shalom” over the phone so that both he and my grandmother could talk to us at the same time.
My mind wanted to take him away from this place to the one where I liked him best, at the head of the dining room table, a yamulke on his head as browned hard-boiled eggs were passed around. He would sit upright, quietly joyous in his family surrounding him and content in where he was. In a family structure filled with women, he was the patriarch; the man who showed me, alongside my father, what a man should be in relation to the world and his family.
I couldn’t flash forward to the days to come: The men trying to honor him by volunteering to watch my grandfather’s body before the burial, a traditional Jewish practice. Standing next to my tiny grandmother in her black dress during services, her graying hair flat along her face and her eyes in shock. Sitting at the huevo, or reception afterwards, eating browned eggs and already feeling the missing piece in the wooden-paneled room. The people who would hug and kiss me at the Sephardic Temple, where he had been president of the temple, and tell me stories about “a good man.” They ranged from close friends telling me how he would try to pretend that they were actually blood related or how, when they first came to this country, the first stop after the synagogue was at Joseph Amira’s home, at a long dining room table with his family. In the years after, I didn’t realize how hard the days would when I wished he was by me, and how surprisingly shameful it would be when the days came where I was glad he wasn’t alive to see them.
All I knew in that moment was that head chair in the dining room table would be empty now, and no one would fill it the exact same way. My heart longed for the shuffling of shoes along the carpet, the sound of his voice. I would have even been happy to even hear another one of his diatribes against Howard Hughes (he was the only person I ever heard Papu get angry over, in the rare instances he came up). I wished I could ask him questions and hear him tell stories. But our time together in life was now over.
I decided to sit next to him on the other side of the bed, raising my head to G-d. I wasn’t going to tell Hashem not to take Joseph Amira, not when he had been given so much in his life that would leave him content. In this moment, my heart began to reach out in prayer for those of us left behind in his absence: my mother, father, grandmother and sister. I whispered in his ear all my love, without tears or pain, as he had never given me any. Just his love.
As I left the bed, about to walk out of the room, I heard something: His voice. It wasn’t words; he couldn’t speak anymore. He began to hiccup. It wasn’t just a bodily reaction. The struggle of his soul, lingering somewhere between heaven and earth, was coming back to try to find me one last time. I witnessed how the body can wither away, yet how love is stronger than death ever hopes to be.
I stood in the doorway of the bedroom, looking at him, thinking of my then three-year-old cousin Sam several days before, as he shouted his love so loud that “Uncle Joe” could hear him in the limbo where his mind residing now. And somewhere, deep in the corners of my mind, I heard my grandfather’s voice as if he could still speak with me, excitedly saying, “You know, Sammy came by the other day…”
Sam wouldn’t remember that moment of his life, but I would remember this one, even as now Papu was slipping away from me. All I could hope, as I walked away from my grandfather’s bedside, was that we would find strength from his love in the days to come.
Recently, I went to dinner with a good friend of mine who told me about a college classmate they had a crush on for a long time who recently broke up with a significant other.
“Reina, how do I do this?” my friend asked. “How do I take a friend and make them into something more?”
I started laughing my head off, not out of taunting but rather familiarity. It was the famous story of the friendzone again, not the last and not the first. In my recent years of being single, the dance of the friendzone is one that has confused and stumped me again and again. I have never understood it, and I probably never would.
It seemed like a distant idea when I was a married girl watching When Harry Met Sally… on the living room couch of my then-friend in upstate New York back in 2010.
“You realize, of course, that we could never be friends,” Harry says to Sally in the car.
“Why not?” asks Sally.
“What I’m saying is — and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form — is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.”
The conversation continues as Sally says, “Well, I guess we’re not going to be friends then.”
“Guess not,” Harry replies.
“That’s too bad. You were the only person I knew in New York.”
The next morning, my then-friend walked into the living room I had slept in as I was getting ready to head out to Albany to see my cousins. The look on his face while he looked me over was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen over the course of my lifetime: His brown eyes narrowed in a peaceful way, crinkling slightly with his smile so relaxed and unguarded. He looked at me in my black sundress and daisy shoes the way my then-husband never looked at me. Like he loved me.
It wouldn’t be the last time he looked at me this way. Every time it happened I felt pure joy inside, but I never knew what to do with that look after my divorce because I was then, and still am, romantically inept. That’s why we are now “then-friends” as opposed to… well, I’ll probably never know, because nothing ever happened and we no longer are friends at his request.
But as my friend asked me over dinner, “How do I do this?” I thought about that boy. About this concept of the friendzone and the plague it leaves on our lives. It’s a concept that destroys friendships and it shouldn’t have to. And I hate it for that, and many other reasons.
In full disclosure, I know that in many of my friendships with men we have known that we were just friends with nothing more. We have communicated as such and that’s perfectly fine with both of us. I cherish these friendships; they give me a different perspective. Whether it’s the little brother nature of my friend Gary, the fun and whimsy of my college friend Paul or singing in the car with Jeffrey, they are amazing people even if they aren’t romantically-based connections. And I hope all of them find love with someone who is worthy of them (although, luckily, Paul found the most amazing woman to be his wife).
Although many feminists dismiss the friendzone as a concept that “nice guys” use to be angry about not being approached by women and feeling that women owe them sex, I will wholeheartedly acknowledge that I have been friendzoned by guys that I have liked. For me, it’s the equivalent of being told that you are super-cool but also that you resemble Sloth from The Goonies; in other words, a kick in the balls to your self-esteem. It never, ever feels good, no matter who is playing it. But rejection happens and we move on.
Meanwhile, over the course of my life I have watched several of my friends come together in romantic relationships, even though they started as “just friends.” I am always amazed by the pure joy of these relationships. It’s like they had a beautiful painting and then looked underneath it to find an even more magnificent masterpiece hidden behind it. The risk is there when they first start out, but when the reward is worth ten times more, it’s worth it.
It’s in these relationships I find my inspiration for what I want in mine. There are things that come with friendship that aren’t always there with traditional one-on-one dating: Inside jokes, shared memories, a sense of values that are already common. After all, if there weren’t, why would you be friends in the first place?
But at the same time, what is it about friendship that can make a relationship work? You can have common memories with almost anyone and you don’t necessarily have to like them all that much. Sure, there are romantic relationships that don’t start out this way, but I have found in the ones where they started as friends there is underlying deep sense of love that may not be in ones that started out a different way.
The other night, I was with a guy friend of mine at a party — ironically, a guy who has recently friendzoned me — who saw me talking to another guy. Halfway through the conversation, I realized that guy was someone a girl friend of mine had dated. She was nuts about him, so much so that she invited him to my birthday at a bar six months prior (he probably didn’t remember).
My guy friend tried to encourage us to exchange numbers, and I very reluctantly gave him mine. As we walked out of the bar, I told my guy friend about my girl friend who dated him.
“So?” he asked.
“So I wouldn’t date him. I would never do that to her,” I replied.
“I don’t see the problem here.”
“It’s not worth it. She liked him. My friends mean more to me than that.”
The guy friend didn’t understand. But less than 24 hours later, I got the call that made me realize that friendship meant something very different to me than to him. The woman who was ripped from my life was called friend — my mother had known her since their 10th grade year, when she would make a habit of copying off my mother’s social studies papers. However, the word friend sold her presence in my life short. She also took the role of crazy aunt, cousin confidante, truth-telling partner and sister in facing the crazy world at large. She was always there as family; she just didn’t happen to be related by blood.
For those who are true friends, the term “friend” sells them short. Maybe because we live in an age where it means someone you add onto your Facebook and never speak to after that. But in my world, it means something more than digital connections. As it is with my friend against her former flame, it was the same with the friend who asked me “how do I do this,” as it is even with my then-friend. There is trust and respect as friends that cannot be replicated and doesn’t diminish even when the friendship turns sour.
With my then-friend, despite the fact we hurt each other badly, I would tell you today how he is the most brilliant man I have ever known and what an upstanding and truly good person he is. I would not tell you details about the intimate conversations we shared. There would be a mention of him being the type of guy I could see myself with romantically, but that time has probably passed now for us. But I would add that I want him to be happy, and no matter where I go in my life, there is a place in my heart that is reserved exclusively for him and, like with friends past, will be there until I leave this earth.
That is the place where I want my romantic relationships to come from — love and respect, the same place where friendships come from. I think it’s more than healthy to want that in a romantic scenario. The friendzone should be a place full of those things, not a place of so-called punishment, because being a friend is a great thing if it’s done right. It’s eating pie with Gary, drinking wine with Jeffrey, hearing my “crazy aunt” begging me to save her Vicodin when I was in the hospital and coaching my “how do I do this” friend as to how to get that college crush — which, in the end, even that advice boiled down to being a sincere and true friend until the time was right to approach the subject of dating each other.
It’s time to value our friends just as much as we value our romantic relationships. After all, when Billy Crystal was asked whether Harry and Sally, the truest of friends in the end, would have stayed together after getting married, his answer was with a smile and a reassuring “yes.”