“Goddamnit!” I yell as I fumble and drop the ball. “Fuck!”
“You took your eyes off it,” Sosa says.
“You sound like my dad.”
We’re playing catch out in front of my house on a very rare evening in Los Angeles, one where it feels like the fall, a perfect cool breeze and fading sunlight, and a change in the air.
I’m wearing pigtails and a football jersey t-shirt. Sosa’s wearing a backwards Cowboys baseball cap. He tosses me the ball. “I feel like a little kid,” he says, reading my mind.
He’s about to turn 32. I gave him the football as an early birthday present because I’m going back to Oklahoma this weekend, so I’m not going to be here on his actual birthday. He doesn’t mind. “Uh, I’m 32,” he says. “It’s not a big deal.”
I still feel pretty shitty about it. He’s my best friend here.
We don’t talk much—just me yelling, “Fuck!” every time I throw a little off—but tonight is perfect. The darkness creeps in until we can’t see the ball anymore, but I don’t want to go inside because this is the most peaceful I’ve ever felt in this city. I think it’s the simplicity of playing catch with my best friend mixed with the sudden change in weather, like Los Angeles decided that just this one night for Sosa’s birthday, it was going to give us the fall.
Fall is my favorite season, but I don’t get to see it much here. Tonight, though, I can smell it in the air, and it triggers a million different feelings for things past that I can’t quite pin to a specific memory. It reminds me of October in Oklahoma when I was in college. At the same time, it reminds me of October in Massachusetts when I was just a kid playing football with all the boys on my block.
Every single year at this time, I get a sense of nostalgia for all the Octobers that have gone by in my life.
This is my 30th one.
I’m eight years old playing kickball in my friend Scott’s front yard. It’s a big yard, littered with orange, red and yellow leaves fallen from the trees. In an hour, I have to get ready for a dance recital, but there’s still enough daylight left to get in a good two innings before my mom whistles out the front door, my signal to run home for dinner.
It’s my turn to kick. My team (made up of me and Scott) is behind, and there are two outs. Nick rolls the ball toward me, and I kick a dribbling grounder that rolls slowly back toward him, but I’m fast, so I run it out and cross first base a millisecond before the ball hits me in the back.
I stand on first and clap my hands. “Let’s go, Scott!” I say.
“Leah, you’re out,” Nick says. “I hit you before.”
“No, you didn’t! I’m safe.”
“You’re out, Leah,” Chris says. “I saw it hit you.”
“I’m not saying it didn’t hit me, but my foot hit the base first.”
“Leah,” Nick says, getting impatient. “You’re out. We’re up. Get off the base.”
“No way!” I say. “I beat it out.”
“Leah,” Scott says. “I’m on your team, and you were out.”
I stand on first base, or an old baseball mitt, and cross my arms. “Safe.”
“Just get off the base!” Nick yells.
“No.” I sit down on top of it. “I’m safe.” I hear my mom whistle in the background, but I ignore it. This is more important.
Nick tries to drag me off base by my legs, but I kick my way out of his grip. Chris and Scott try to pick me up, but I swing at them until they back off. Scott rides his bike directly toward me, and I stare it down without budging. He swerves around me at the last second. “Leah, you’re so stupid!” he yells.
My mom whistles for a second time. I’m planted, my hands digging into the grass. “Safe.”
They start throwing rocks at me. Small rocks, just pieces of gravel from the driveway, but they throw them hard enough that I have to cover my head and face. “I’m not moving!” I yell through the crook in my elbow. “I was safe!”
“You were OUT!”
For twenty minutes, I sit and refuse to move an inch. “I’ll sit here all night if I have to,” I think.
But then I hear the only thing that can make me move: “Leah Cristen!” my mom yells from two doors down. “Get! In! Here! NOW!”
At that point, I just burst into tears. “You guys are stupid!” I scream. “I was safe!”
I run home, tears streaming down my face.
I’m 24, maybe 25. I’m sound asleep in my bed. Something startles me awake, and I open my eyes. My heart jumps. My breathing stops.
There’s a hooded figure, a witch, sitting on my chest, weighing down on my rib cage, and I can’t breathe in. I can’t move. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. All I can do is look from side to side. Yes, I’m in my bedroom. Yes, I’m in my bed. Yes, everything is completely the same as it was when I went to sleep, but there is a horrifying hooded figure holding me down, and it’s as real as the mattress underneath me. I can’t fight her off. I have to wait until she leaves, and only then do I wake up for real. Only then can I breathe again.
I have the dream again when I’m about 28. The fear is exactly the same, the weight, the realness of her, and I still can’t breathe. I’m paralyzed again. I feel myself fighting from the inside. I can’t talk, I can’t breathe, but my brain is fighting as hard as it can. “Not this time,” I think.
Then something amazing happens: I break the spell enough so that I can move my arms. The witch is still on top of me, and I still can’t talk, but I can move my arms, so I just start taking swings at her. She dodges them, moving left, then right, and I never make contact, but I keep swinging until she vanishes.
Then I’m awake, and I can breathe and talk again, and I’m in my bed, swinging my fists at nothing as hard as I can.
Since that night, I’ve never dreamt about the witch again. Maybe I fought her off for good. Or maybe she’ll come back, I don’t know. But I do know that even when I was scared out of my mind, I still swung at the bitch.
“Rockey,” I yell. “Get the fuck off me right the fuck now!”
“Is that all you got?” he says. He’s on top of me, his knees and left arm holding me down, and he’s slapping my face with his right hand.
I’m kicking as hard as I can, I’m screaming, and I’m trying desperately to get my hands free, but he’s got me pinned, and no matter how hard I fight, I’m trapped. I never stop fighting, but I never get free, either.
The six other people in the room, my best friends for ten years now, are ignoring my struggle for freedom and watching our OU football team beat the shit out of Texas.
It’s October 13, 2012, and I’m in Norman, Oklahoma for what’s supposed to be a “relaxing” weekend with my college friends.
I’m here to visit, but also to escape Los Angeles, a city I believe is crushing me. Now that I’m here, though, I’m starting to wish I could be back in LA, something I never thought I’d wish. But I’m hungover, my best friend is on top of me, and I can’t fight my way out.
This is mostly my fault. See, up until last night, I hadn’t had a drink in two months. I didn’t stop drinking because I’m an alcoholic. I stopped because I was just done with it, and because I wanted to prove to myself that drinking wasn’t too important to my life. And as it turns out, I’m right. It’s not important. In the two months that I didn’t drink, I saved a lot of money, I lost a few pounds, and I finally figured out what the term “clearheaded” really means.
As a reward for my two months of sobriety, when I arrived in Norman last night, I started chugging whiskey like a rock star and had yet another hazy night of memories with my college friends. It was fun, I guess, from what I can remember.
What’s not fun is waking up 30 years old with a blinding headache and a sour stomach and watching all your friends start taking shots at 9 AM.
“Leah, drink!” they keep yelling at me.
“I feel like shit,” I say.
“Oh, just drink, and you’ll feel better.”
But I don’t want to drink. It doesn’t seem fun to me anymore. In fact, I’m starting to see these get-togethers with my friends from a completely new perspective. I love my friends, don’t get me wrong, I still love them just the same as I always did, and I know that they are all individually good people with good hearts. The best people, even. But lately, when we get together, I’m starting to wonder what it is that bonds us, if all we have in common is that we drink a lot. Maybe, as a group, we’re not as interesting as I thought. Maybe we’re not hilarious. Maybe chaos and craziness is just always the result when you give 13 people who love attention a lot of alcohol and then send them out into the world.
As the day wears on, I gradually start to feel better despite the fact that all of them take turns telling me to be more fun. When I step outside in the afternoon to call Sosa and wish him a happy birthday, it’s so nice to hear his voice. Before I go back inside, I take a few deep breaths, and I finally admit to myself a truth that I’ve known for awhile, a truth I haven’t wanted to face: this is just not the place I want to be anymore.
To be completely honest, I’d rather be in LA. Today is Sosa’s 32nd birthday, and I’d rather be sober, clearheaded, and hanging out at open mic with him.
It’s October 2009, and I’m taking a Creative Non-Fiction class at OU taught by my mentor, Professor Agymah Kamau. I normally don’t write Non-Fiction, mostly fiction and jokes for standup, but I feel like because I’ve taken classes with Kamau so many times before, adjusting to the change in genre should be a breeze.
The first story I submit for the class is called “The Mystery Puddle.” When I turn it in, I believe it’s a hilarious and well-written homage to my college friends. Here is an excerpt from that story:
“Is that shit or puke?”
It’s 4:30 a.m., and Scott and I stand hovering over the dark brown puddle on the floor in the quaint rental house bathroom.
“What do we do?” I ask.
No response. I want him to say that we go back to bed and the problem disappears, that there’s really no harm in letting one of the other 11 people on this vacation deal with this sudden emergency situation.
“It’s brown like poop,” I say, “but it smells like vomit.”
Scott still can’t quite form a sentence. “But…why…”
I throw my hands up.
“But how did it get there?” Scott says, finally.
“I don’t know. Somebody put it there.”
“Well, It wasn’t me.”
“How do you know it wasn’t you?”
He sighs. “How do you know it wasn’t you?”
We stare at each other.
I save everything I’ve ever written.
I’m regretting it right now, reading through an old forgotten file I found on my computer. This particular document is a six-page email I wrote to Professor Kamau three years ago. It’s one of those things that you find from your past that you’re embarrassed to look at. I force myself to read the whole thing, but more than once, I have to look away from the doc, turn to the side and announce out loud to no one, “Oh my God, I am SUCH a dick.”
There are several reasons why reading this is embarrassing. First of all, I sound like a douchebag the entire time. Like when I say this:
“I can admit failure, but let it be clear that I intend to continue trying to be a writer and trying to be a stand-up comedian, and, first and foremost, trying to be an honest and good person. I’m sorry if I’ve done anything to cause you to doubt my motivations, and I’m truly sorry that I’ve failed in saying what I mean.”
Somebody please punch me in the face right now. There’s also this:
“I suppose I can see why you took my statement as me scoffing at integrity, but I’d like to assure you that I do know the difference. In writing, it’s the difference between Kurt Vonnegut and Danielle Steel. In music, it’s the difference between Paris Hilton and Jimi Hendrix. And in comedy, it’s the difference between Larry the Cable Guy and Richard Pryor, who I’m quite certain told more than one poop joke in his time.”
I don’t know what your face looks like while you’re reading these passages, but you should be visibly cringing right now.
I wrote that email to my mentor who taught me writing for six years of my college career. For six years, he read the crap I churned out, always telling me point blank if it was good or bad. Six fucking years. And instead of thanking him for making me a better writer and a more real person, one of the last things I did before I left OU was send him a self-righteous long-ass email about how I deserved an A in his Creative Non-Fiction class, even though my story was a legitimate piece of shit.
See, the story in question, the story that I defended so adamantly for six pages was “The Mystery Puddle.” Now that you’ve read an excerpt from it, there are two more important things you need to know about the story: 1) it’s about me and my friend trying to figure out which one of our other friends might have shit on the floor after a night of heavy drinking only to find out that it was actually my dog, and 2) it’s 20 pages long.
That’s right. I wrote a 20-page essay about poop and drinking, and a six-page email defending that essay like I was MLK fighting for civil rights.
I am SUCH an asshole.
Since getting back to LA after my trip to Oklahoma, I’ve spent a lot of time these past few weeks trying to figure out why I’ve changed so much since I moved here. After racking my brain for an answer, an answer finally just comes to me. It’s simple and obvious, but putting it in writing is a weight off my chest, me taking a swing at what’s been holding me down.
It’s this: I haven’t changed. Not one bit. But I have become more honest with myself about who I am, who I’ve always been.
I am a self-righteous asshole. I am the most stubborn person I know. I fight every battle, whether or not it needs to be fought, and this can be a good or bad trait depending on the day.
I am those things and more, and I have always been those things, but I’m also older and wiser, and I’m also a person who can look back and admit when I’m wrong.
Professor Kamau, if for whatever reason you’re actually reading this, I’m sorry. You were right. That story was a 20-page piece of shit about shit. No one wants to read someone’s stories about a bunch of college kids getting drunk and acting like pricks. Those stories, they’re not magical or hilarious or relatable or inspiring. They’re not what I want to contribute to the world.
And Nick, Scott and Chris, if for whatever reason you’re actually reading this, I was safe.
I’m walking down the sidewalk with James Nghiem heading toward Logan’s, a bar that I never liked when I lived here. James is telling me about standup in Oklahoma, what it’s been like since I moved away, and it’s nice hanging out with him away from the rest of my friends for a while. It’s so familiar, but at the same time, it feels like I’m revisiting a past life.
“I don’t know,” James says. “Lately I’ve been thinking that I have to change something in my life. I think I’m starting to feel like you did before you moved away.”
“Yeah, man,” I say. “Honestly it’s so weird being back and seeing—motherfucker!”
A drunk guy, a frat boy looking character, just stumbled right into me, roughly pushing me back with his shoulder, and he’s walking away without even an apology. “Hey,” I say, turning around. “You’re a cocksucker! Hey, I’m talking to you! Turn around! Cocksucker!”
Frat boy completely ignores me, doesn’t look back or acknowledge me in any way.
“You’re a fucking douchebag! Turn around and face me, you piece of shit!”
I turn back to James. “What an asshole!”
James smiles. “Man,” he says, “I’ve really missed you.”