It’s 11:30 a.m. I’m halfway through my five-mile run, heading South on Berry on a pleasant spring-y day, and I’m thinking about my recent string of bad luck and how I have foolishly attributed the bad things that have happened to the workings of the Universe, to some power outside of myself.
I think, Leah, your bad luck is simply a series of inconvenient coincidences. The Universe doesn’t really hate you. That’s ridiculous.
At this exact moment, as the thought floats from my mind, I see a large circular piece of metal in the middle of the sidewalk in front of me, and before I can correct my path, I step into it mid-stride, somehow get both my ankles caught in it, and take a pretty rough tumble onto the concrete.
“Mother-fucker!” I scream. Out loud. At no one. “Fuckin’ god fuckin’ damn it!”
I survey the damage, open scrape wounds on my knees and my left shoulder, bright red blood trickling down the front of both legs. I stand up like a cripple, take two slow steps, and then I say, “Fuck this,” and I just start running again, only now from an outsider’s perspective, I seem much less like a peaceful woman enjoying her daily run and much more like a crazy homeless person.
Because as I’m running, I’m yelling in between bursts of breath, screaming out sentence fragments and weirdo phrases that only make sense to me. Things like, “Fucking Universe!” Or, “Knock me down a million times, and I’ll get up every time, motherfucker!” Or, “Bring it, bitch! But you’re gonna have to kill me!” Rest assured, Readers, I’m not exaggerating to make this funny. No, I’m literally yelling these things while running and bleeding down the street.
I’m so pissed off, in fact, my adrenaline kicks in, and I’m almost at a sprint now. Leave it to me to shave ten minutes off my five-mile because I’m having a facedown with The Universe. It’s exactly like that scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest and Lieutenant Dan hit a bad storm at sea, and Lieutenant Dan screams curse words at the heavens.
I make it home in record time, but when I step through my front door, when the adrenaline stops and the sting kicks in, I know this: I, Leah Kayajanian, am officially at war with The Universe.
Let’s get this out in the open: I believe I live inside a story. That means that I see the people I run into everyday as characters, and I see the world as an elaborate movie set. It’s weird, I know, but it’s my way of dealing with life. Other people have God or science or logic (none of which I’ve ever warmed up to), but I have stories as a way to cope with life: my way of applying reason to what just might be chaos.
Because everything in a story happens for a reason. In a well-told story, there are no insignificant or unnecessary details. I believe things in this world are more connected than separate, so when good or bad things happen, I imagine a fucked-up “checks and balances” version of karma where all happenings are the result of very meticulous measurements of what you put out into the world vs. what you take from it.
Until now, I’ve made sense of The Universe this way, and though I’ve often thought it unpredictable, I never before thought it unfair.
A couple days before my psychotic run, I’m at Bill’s, my favorite Norman dive bar, with James Nghiem, and we’re both signed up to sing in the 80s karaoke contest.
I’m in a good mood. Earlier tonight, I got to do stand-up, something I don’t get to do a lot lately since I’ve been working nights, and I got to hang out in Oklahoma City with my comic friends after that, something I feel like I never get to do. We smoked pot in the back of a P.T. Cruiser, I peed by a dumpster, and we went to eat at Hooters, where we ordered boneless chicken wings from a pregnant server.
Now we’re back in Norman, and I’ve convinced Nghiem karaoke is a great idea. He’s sitting at a tall table drinking a 2-dollar Lionshead beer, just where I left him before going in to the bathroom. As I get back to our table, I hear the intro to Purple Rain start playing.
“Shit,” I say. “I signed up for a Prince song. This is the second one I’ve heard tonight.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does,” I say. “I want to be original.”
I get up and walk over to the woman in charge. “Hey, Angie. Do you think I should change my song?”
“What’d you sign up for?”
“Little Red Corvette.”
“No, don’t change it! I love that song.”
“But everybody’s doing Prince.”
She shakes her head. “That doesn’t matter! Yours is my favorite, anyway.”
I walk back to our table feeling much better about my song choice and slide back into my chair across from Ngheim. “So in the bathroom stall,” I say, “there’s paint chipped off the back of the door. And the way it’s chipped, it looks exactly like a werewolf wearing sunglasses and staring up at the sky.”
“I’m serious. I see it every time I go in there. Next time, I’m bringing my phone in to take a picture.” I take a sip of my beer and then slam it back on the table. “Oh my God, where’s my phone?” I open up every zipper on my purse and rummage through, but it’s not in there.
“Did you leave it in your car?” James asks.
I shake my head. “No! I used it right before I went in the bathroom. I just fucking had it!”
Initiate panic mode in 3…2…1…
James takes his phone out of his pocket and calls mine. He frowns. “It’s shut off.”
“What the fuck?! Someone stole it? No fucking way this is happening to me again.”
Purple Rain comes to a close, and I charge up to the microphone. “Angie,” I say. “I need to use the mic. I can’t find my phone.”
She hands me the microphone.
“Listen up,” I say. “I’m looking for my phone. I had it in my hand five minutes ago, and it’s brand new, and I just got it to replace the last one that someone stole. So if you’ve seen my phone, please, please, please just turn it in. I don’t give a shit if you stole it, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, I really just want it back. Please don’t do this to me.”
“What kind of phone is it?” someone yells.
A lady sitting at the table front and center says, “Someone’s gonna pawn that shit. You can’t leave that lying around.”
“Oh, nice,” I say, still into the microphone. “I can’t leave my phone on a table because then some fucking asshole piece of shit thinks it’s theirs?”
“I’m not trying to argue with you,” the lady says.
“Well, you’re not fucking helping.”
Angie pulls the mic from my grip. “Seriously, people,” she says. “It has a tracking device on it anyway, so we’ll find it. You might as well turn it in.”
She’s lying. It doesn’t. I’m defeated already, but I spend the next half hour running around the bar and retracing my steps during the three-minute time span when I was without my phone. I walk back and forth to the bathroom, eyeballing all the other patrons while I frantically search the floor. The worst part about the whole thing isn’t the fact that I just went through this same exact thing three weeks prior. It’s not that this is my second iPhone that I bought on credit. It’s not even that I’ve only had the phone for a week and half.
No, the worst part about all of this is that whoever took my phone never left the bar. The thief is one of the 40 or so people in here, watching me walk back and forth like a crazy person, letting me tap on legs so I can look underneath bar stools and tables. Somebody sitting in this bar, the bar that I’ve been coming to for the past ten years, stole something of mine, sees my distress, and refuses to give it back.
Ain’t that some shit. I may deserve most of the bad coming at me, but I don’t deserve this.
After my search proves fruitless, I storm back over to the microphone and snatch it out of Angie’s hand. “All right, motherfuckers!” That’s what I lead with. The bar patrons quiet down to politely witness my meltdown. “One of you assholes in here has my fucking phone, or you know who does. This is just shitty! You people are all just shitty!”
“What color is it?” someone yells.
“It’s black. Like every fucking iPhone on the planet. But what the fuck does it matter? Someone in here fucking stole my phone, and they’re not gonna give it back no matter what I say about it because the world is shitty, and you can’t fucking trust anybody. I don’t trust any of you people. I just…I just…”
Angie nods at me in sympathy and slowly pulls the mic from my hand. Her eyes speak loud and clear: “Leah,” they say. “You are officially making a fool out of yourself.”
I walk back over to Nghiem, defeated. I grab my beer and swig the rest of it. “Let’s go,” I say. As we walk out, I flip off the bar with both hands and scream, “Fuck you fucking assholes! Fuck this bar and everyone in it!” I stumble a little bit and fall into a paper rack by the front door.
Two guys and a girl are leaving with us, and the girl stops in front of me. “I feel really bad,” she says. She opens her purse. “You can look through my stuff if you want.”
I sigh. “I don’t want to look through your stuff. I know you didn’t take it.”
That’s not entirely true. She could’ve taken it, and she could’ve offered to have me search her to seem less suspicious, I know. But if that kind of person exists in this world, I would rather not know about it.
Nghiem and I get in my car. Before I start it, I wrap my arms around my steering wheel and lay my head down, face pressed up against the horn. “I fucking lost my second iPhone in a month,” I say. “I couldn’t even afford the first one, but I just had to have it.”
“This isn’t your fault,” James says. “It’s just shitty.”
“No, it’s my fault,” I say. “I suck at keeping things.” I pull my head up. “Did you know that my mom got on my AT&T plan so I could get this phone after I lost the first one?”
I start driving, but since I usually plug my phone in to play through my radio, there’s no music, just dead air. After a few minutes of silence, I say, “I feel like The Universe hates me right now.”
James shakes his head. “The Universe doesn’t hate you. We can fix this.”
“Pfffttt, right,” I say.
“I know how you feel,” James says. “I felt the same way all last year, like everything was against me.”
Shit. Nothing like getting blasted with a ball of perspective during a “woe-is-me” moment.
In 2010, James’ year started with the sudden death of his father, which kicked off an unbelievable streak of bad luck. A hailstorm totaled his brand new car. (During this storm, a giant piece of hail actually left a huge, hideous bruise on his shoulder, which was ironic because he once told me he wanted his MMA fighter name to be James “Deadly Cloud” Nghiem.)
Within weeks of James driving his replacement car, his dad’s old vehicle, someone broke into it outside Othello’s, the bar where we do stand-up every Tuesday night. What did the thief steal? A CD case with a bunch of mix CDs and some inspirational notes that James kept, things his dad used to say.
What kind of person steals things so personal?
A few months later, James let me borrow his expensive video camera, and I forgot to lock my car, and you can probably see where this is going. The camera, I replaced, but I couldn’t replace it’s content: film of James onstage when he got to open for Todd Barry. James certainly didn’t deserve that kind of luck.
These are my inner thoughts, but I’m still pouting on the outside.
“Things got better,” James says. “This year is a really good year for me. It’s just been kind of shitty for you.”
“Oh, man, I’m only halfway through the year. I got six more months of this bad luck?”
“No,” he says, not a question in his voice. “You’re gonna turn this around.”
I really want to believe him. I really want to believe I’m half as strong as he is. Because it seems that when things don’t go your way, but you go on, you’re a human that can overcome obstacles. But when you have the kind of year James had in 2010 and go on, you’re a hero.
I decide before I fall asleep that night that I’m not a hero, but I’m not the kind of person who’s going to let an iPhone break me.
“So why do you think the Universe doesn’t want you to have an iPhone?” BradChad Porter asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
He shakes his head. “Like do you think that maybe one day, we’ll find out that iPhones cause cancer, and then you’ll realize that when people kept stealing yours, really they were saving your life?”
“Maybe.” I cross my arms and stare out he window of his Saturn. We’re driving north on I-35 to do nothing, it seems. He had come to pick me up so I could “run errands” with him, but now that I’m in the car, I think he just feels bad for me.
“I’m blaming this on you, by the way,” I say.
“Well, you were supposed to hang out with us last night, and if you had, we would’ve stayed in the city, and I wouldn’t have gone to Bill’s, and I’d still have my phone right now.”
“Huh,” he says. “But maybe I would’ve met you in Norman, and we would’ve gone to Bill’s anyway. And I’ll tell you what, I’m glad I wasn’t there when you lost your phone because you got to have James there, and he probably reacted appropriately to the situation. I would’ve thought it was hilarious.”
I shrug. “It was probably pretty humorous.”
“I don’t think you understand,” he says. “The second you turned to me and said, ‘Oh shit, I can’t find my phone,’ I would’ve laughed right in your face.”
“Good to know,” I say.
“Two iPhones? Someone stole two phones from you in one month.”
“Don’t forget, someone also stole my GPS system. And 60 bucks. And if you go back a few more months, someone stole my iPod and James’ camera out of my car.”
He shakes his head. “Man, what is your issue with The Universe?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking that maybe my cat and Kevin Bozeman cursed me.”
“I found a bouncy ball a few months ago,” I say, “and you know, those are good luck to me, and then I lost it because my stupid cat stole it and hid it somewhere.”
“Wait, your cat stole your bouncy ball?”
“Yeah, I don’t know. I think she started playing with it during the night, ‘cause she only comes out at night, ‘cause she’s a freak. But I looked everywhere for that fucking thing, and I couldn’t find it. So if it was good luck when I found it, it has to be bad luck to lose it, right? I think she stole my luck.”
Brad laughs. “Your cat?”
“And around that same time,” I say, “Kevin Bozeman told me that no matter how bad things get, they can always, always get worse.”
“The comedian? Why did he say that?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I think he thought he was helping me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. Just that my cat and Kevin Bozeman put a curse on me, and now The Universe hates me.”
“Nope.” He shakes his head. “No, I don’t accept that.”
“Well, that’s my theory.”
“Well, it’s wrong. Your cat and Kevin Bozeman did not place a curse on you.”
I stare out the car window. “I know it’s just a phone,” I say. “And in the grand scheme of my life, it’s not important. I just…I just really liked it. That’s all. And I believe in karma, but I don’t get this one. I would never steal someone’s phone.”
It’s true. I wouldn’t steal someone’s phone because, for one thing, I know what a pain in the ass it is to deal with Apple, whose motto should be, “We make cool stuff, but we’re dicks about it.” Or to deal with AT&T, whose motto should be, “We rape you in the ass with rusty metal rods, and we would do it to children if we could, but they’re not old enough to sign our ass-raping contract.”
And most of all, I wouldn’t steal someone’s phone because I know why I bought mine.
I actually bought my first iPhone in Pennsylvania on my way back home from Massachusetts. At the time, I was driving a U-Haul van with my mom’s stuff crammed in the back, my mom reading some god-awful paperback in the passenger’s seat, and a tiny Chihuahua running back and forth throughout the cab for the entirety of the 28-hour drive.
I stopped at an AT&T store not too far across the Pennsylvania state border because I was fresh off the end of a tortured pseudo-relationship-thing, and I couldn’t bear the static on the radio, the weight of the way my life was looking ahead of me—living with my mom, working all the time, worrying about money, no job, no gigs ahead, no love, no definite future. I needed a tiny distraction from my life. I needed to listen to music that I liked, so I bought an iPhone in Pennsylvania to stream music while I drove us to Oklahoma.
And that stupid phone, iPhone #1, well, it got me all the way home.
Storms are brewing all around Oklahoma, the threat of tornadoes menacing the state. Norman and Oklahoma City make it through relatively unharmed, but the threat of a huge twister is enough to shut down Othello’s, so there’ll be no open mic comedy tonight.
I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve gone to Othello’s every Tuesday for four years.
I call Brad. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing. I was actually going to see if you wanted to meet up. I have something for you.”
“What is it?”
“I’m not telling you.”
“Is it a bouncy ball?”
“Do you really think I’d drive all the way to Norman to give you a bouncy ball?”
“I don’t know.”
In the end, I decide to drive to his house to watch movies and, inevitably, talk about comedy until well into the night.
When I walk in, I flop down on his couch and chat with his mom (Yes, he also lives with his mom. OKC comedians are a sad bunch.), and after a bit, he comes in and hands me a small white envelope. This is what it says:
“Oh my God,” I say. “No way.” I open it up, and inside, there’s 200 dollars, enough to replace my last phone. “Who is this from? Who is everybody?”
“Oh my God, you guys, I don’t even know what to say. This is too much.”
“It’s a gift,” Brad says. “We wanted to do this for you. We love you, you know.”
“It’s just that I feel like such a brat,” I say. “I don’t need an iPhone.”
“Well, look,” Brad says. “You’re moving away from us. And we can’t give you 10,000 dollars to help you move and to make sure you’ll be okay. But this, well, this we can do.”
It’s nice to know I have people behind me, even when I’m battling a power so great as The Universe. I figure this envelope of money is my friends telling me, “Leah, that’s just life. Don’t let it beat you.”
James Nghiem is at my house syncing iPhone #3 with his computer, which I have to do because my computer’s software is too outdated, and this is one of the minor things that make the repeated theft of my phone a terrible nuisance.
This is the third time we’ve done this, and it’s starting to feel very silly. For the third time, we restore the settings of my very first phone, the one that made the trek from Massachusetts with me, and I get back all the contacts that I had before, even the one name that I’ve since deleted. I stare at the name of the person I can’t call anymore, a friend that I’ve lost, and consider deleting it for a third time.
No, I’m not going to delete his name. That’s what I did on the last two phones. Because this is my very last chance with an iPhone, I decide that I should break the cycle and do something different, no matter how tiny it seems. I have no plans to call Mr. Man, but I figure it’s all about perspective and attitude, so I can simply change what that name means to me. Instead of looking at it and thinking about all the things I’ve lost, maybe I’ll look at it and remember all the things I still have, all the lessons I’ve learned from the people I’ve met in all the places I’ve been.
The verdict is still out on whether or not I’m at war with The Universe. The day I bought Phone #3, someone stole a handful of burned CDs and a couple of new ones out of my car, which I swore I had locked, so the karmic and cosmic mysteries of my made-up bullshit world still remain.
Because life is a story, an ongoing story without an end. And depending on who you are, that story can be guided by bouncy balls, God, chaos, reason, destiny, or just pure chance. But even I’m not too cynical to know that when I fall on the ground and scrape up my knees, if I can get back up and keep running forward, The Universe smiles on me.
(c) Leah Kayajanian All rights reserved. Comment below to get in touch with Leah, or send her an email!