“Goddamnit!â€ I yell as I fumble and drop the ball.Â â€œFuck!â€
â€œYou took your eyes off it,â€ Sosa says.
â€œYou sound like my dad.â€
Weâ€™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.
Iâ€™m wearing pigtails and a football jersey t-shirt.Â Sosaâ€™s wearing a backwards Cowboys baseball cap.Â He tosses me the ball.Â â€œI feel like a little kid,â€ he says, reading my mind.
Heâ€™s about to turn 32.Â I gave him the football as an early birthday present because Iâ€™m going back to Oklahoma this weekend, so Iâ€™m not going to be here on his actual birthday.Â He doesnâ€™t mind.Â â€œUh, Iâ€™m 32,â€ he says.Â â€œItâ€™s not a big deal.â€
I still feel pretty shitty about it.Â Heâ€™s my best friend here.
We donâ€™t talk muchâ€”just me yelling, â€œFuck!â€ every time I throw a little offâ€”but tonight is perfect.Â The darkness creeps in until we canâ€™t see the ball anymore, but I donâ€™t want to go inside because this is the most peaceful Iâ€™ve ever felt in this city.Â I think itâ€™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 Sosaâ€™s birthday, it was going to give us the fall.
Fall is my favorite season, but I donâ€™t get to see it much here.Â Tonight, though, I can smell it in the air, and it triggers a million different feelings for things past that I canâ€™t quite pin to a specific memory.Â It reminds me of October in Oklahoma when I was in college.Â 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.
Iâ€™m eight years old playing kickball in my friend Scottâ€™s front yard.Â Itâ€™s a big yard, littered with orange, red and yellow leaves fallen from the trees.Â In an hour, I have to get ready for a dance recital, but thereâ€™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.
Itâ€™s my turn to kick.Â My team (made up of me and Scott) is behind, and there are two outs.Â Nick rolls the ball toward me, and I kick a dribbling grounder that rolls slowly back toward him, but Iâ€™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.Â â€œLetâ€™s go, Scott!â€ I say.
â€œLeah, youâ€™re out,â€ Nick says.Â â€œI hit you before.â€
â€œNo, you didnâ€™t!Â Iâ€™m safe.â€
â€œYouâ€™re out, Leah,â€ Chris says. â€œI saw it hit you.â€
â€œIâ€™m not saying it didnâ€™t hit me, but my foot hit the base first.â€
â€œLeah,â€ Nick says, getting impatient.Â â€œYouâ€™re out.Â Weâ€™re up.Â Get off the base.â€
â€œNo way!â€ I say.Â â€œI beat it out.â€
â€œLeah,â€ Scott says.Â â€œIâ€™m on your team, and you were out.â€
I stand on first base, or an old baseball mitt, and cross my arms.Â â€œSafe.â€
â€œJust get off the base!â€ Nick yells.
â€œNo.â€Â I sit down on top of it.Â â€œIâ€™m safe.â€Â I hear my mom whistle in the background, but I ignore it.Â This is more important.
Nick tries to drag me off base by my legs, but I kick my way out of his grip.Â Chris and Scott try to pick me up, but I swing at them until they back off.Â Scott rides his bike directly toward me, and I stare it down without budging.Â Â He swerves around me at the last second.Â â€œLeah, youâ€™re so stupid!â€ he yells.
My mom whistles for a second time.Â Iâ€™m planted, my hands digging into the grass.Â â€œSafe.â€
They start throwing rocks at me.Â Small rocks, just pieces of gravel from the driveway, but they throw them hard enough that I have to cover my head and face.Â â€œIâ€™m not moving!â€ I yell through the crook in my elbow.Â â€œI was safe!â€
â€œYou were OUT!â€
For twenty minutes, I sit and refuse to move an inch.Â â€œIâ€™ll sit here all night if I have to,â€ I think.
But then I hear the only thing that can make me move: â€œLeah Cristen!â€ my mom yells from two doors down.Â â€œGet!Â In!Â Here!Â NOW!â€
At that point, I just burst into tears.Â â€œYou guys are stupid!â€ I scream.Â â€œI was safe!â€
I run home, tears streaming down my face.
Iâ€™m 24, maybe 25.Â Iâ€™m sound asleep in my bed.Â Something startles me awake, and I open my eyes.Â My heart jumps.Â My breathing stops.
Thereâ€™s a hooded figure, a witch, sitting on my chest, weighing down on my rib cage, and I canâ€™t breathe in.Â I canâ€™t move.Â I try to scream, but nothing comes out.Â All I can do is look from side to side.Â Yes, Iâ€™m in my bedroom.Â Yes, Iâ€™m in my bed.Â 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 itâ€™s as real as the mattress underneath me.Â I canâ€™t fight her off.Â I have to wait until she leaves, and only then do I wake up for real.Â Only then can I breathe again.
I have the dream again when Iâ€™m about 28.Â The fear is exactly the same, the weight, the realness of her, and I still canâ€™t breathe.Â Iâ€™m paralyzed again.Â I feel myself fighting from the inside.Â I canâ€™t talk, I canâ€™t breathe, but my brain is fighting as hard as it can.Â â€œNot this time,â€ I think.
Then something amazing happens: I break the spell enough so that I can move my arms.Â The witch is still on top of me, and I still canâ€™t talk, but I can move my arms, so I just start taking swings at her.Â She dodges them, moving left, then right, and I never make contact, but I keep swinging until she vanishes.
Then Iâ€™m awake, and I can breathe and talk again, and Iâ€™m in my bed, swinging my fists at nothing as hard as I can.
Since that night, Iâ€™ve never dreamt about the witch again.Â Maybe I fought her off for good.Â Or maybe sheâ€™ll come back, I donâ€™t know.Â But I do know that even when I was scared out of my mind, I still swung at the bitch.
â€œRockey,â€ I yell.Â â€œGet the fuck off me right the fuck now!â€
â€œIs that all you got?â€ he says.Â Heâ€™s on top of me, his knees and left arm holding me down, and heâ€™s slapping my face with his right hand.
Iâ€™m kicking as hard as I can, Iâ€™m screaming, and Iâ€™m trying desperately to get my hands free, but heâ€™s got me pinned, and no matter how hard I fight, Iâ€™m trapped.Â 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.
Itâ€™s October 13, 2012, and Iâ€™m in Norman, Oklahoma for whatâ€™s supposed to be a â€œrelaxingâ€ weekend with my college friends.
Iâ€™m here to visit, but also to escape Los Angeles, a city I believe is crushing me.Â Now that Iâ€™m here, though, Iâ€™m starting to wish I could be back in LA, something I never thought Iâ€™d wish.Â But Iâ€™m hungover, my best friend is on top of me, and I canâ€™t fight my way out.
This is mostly my fault.Â See, up until last night, I hadnâ€™t had a drink in two months.Â I didnâ€™t stop drinking because Iâ€™m an alcoholic.Â I stopped because I was just done with it, and because I wanted to prove to myself that drinking wasnâ€™t too important to my life.Â And as it turns out, Iâ€™m right.Â Itâ€™s not important. Â In the two months that I didnâ€™t drink, I saved a lot of money, I lost a few pounds, and I finally figured out what the term â€œclearheadedâ€ 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.Â It was fun, I guess, from what I can remember.
Whatâ€™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!â€ they keep yelling at me.
â€œI feel like shit,â€ I say.
â€œOh, just drink, and youâ€™ll feel better.â€
But I donâ€™t want to drink.Â It doesnâ€™t seem fun to me anymore.Â In fact, Iâ€™m starting to see these get-togethers with my friends from a completely new perspective.Â I love my friends, donâ€™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.Â The best people, even.Â But lately, when we get together, Iâ€™m starting to wonder what it is that bonds us, if all we have in common is that we drink a lot.Â Maybe, as a group, weâ€™re not as interesting as I thought.Â Maybe weâ€™re not hilarious.Â 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.Â When I step outside in the afternoon to call Sosa and wish him a happy birthday, itâ€™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 Iâ€™ve known for awhile, a truth I havenâ€™t wanted to face: this is just not the place I want to be anymore.
To be completely honest, Iâ€™d rather be in LA.Â Today is Sosaâ€™s 32nd birthday, and Iâ€™d rather be sober, clearheaded, and hanging out at open mic with him.
Itâ€™s October 2009, and Iâ€™m taking a Creative Non-Fiction class at OU taught by my mentor, Professor Agymah Kamau.Â I normally donâ€™t write Non-Fiction, mostly fiction and jokes for standup, but I feel like because Iâ€™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 â€œThe Mystery Puddle.â€Â When I turn it in, I believe itâ€™s a hilarious and well-written homage to my college friends. Here is an excerpt from that story:
â€œIs that shit or puke?â€
Itâ€™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.
â€œWhat do we do?â€ I ask.
No response.Â I want him to say that we go back to bed and the problem disappears, that thereâ€™s really no harm in letting one of the other 11 people on this vacation deal with this sudden emergency situation.
“Itâ€™s brown like poop,â€ I say, â€œbut it smells like vomit.â€
Scott still canâ€™t quite form a sentence.Â â€œButâ€¦whyâ€¦â€
I throw my hands up.
â€œBut how did it get there?â€ Scott says, finally.
â€œI donâ€™t know.Â Somebody put it there.â€
â€œWell, It wasnâ€™t me.â€
â€œHow do you know it wasnâ€™t you?â€
He sighs.Â â€œHow do you know it wasnâ€™t you?â€
We stare at each other.
I save everything Iâ€™ve ever written.
Iâ€™m regretting it right now, reading through an old forgotten file I found on my computer.Â This particular document is a six-page email I wrote to Professor Kamau three years ago.Â Itâ€™s one of those things that you find from your past that youâ€™re embarrassed to look at.Â 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, â€œOh my God, I am SUCH a dick.â€
There are several reasons why reading this is embarrassing.Â First of all, I sound like a douchebag the entire time.Â Like when I say this:
â€œI 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.Â Iâ€™m sorry if Iâ€™ve done anything to cause you to doubt my motivations, and Iâ€™m truly sorry that Iâ€™ve failed in saying what I mean.â€
Somebody please punch me in the face right now.Â Thereâ€™s also this:
â€œI suppose I can see why you took my statement as me scoffing at integrity, but Iâ€™d like to assure you that I do know the difference.Â In writing, itâ€™s the difference between Kurt Vonnegut and Danielle Steel.Â In music, itâ€™s the difference between Paris Hilton and Jimi Hendrix.Â And in comedy, itâ€™s the difference between Larry the Cable Guy and Richard Pryor, who Iâ€™m quite certain told more than one poop joke in his time.â€
I donâ€™t know what your face looks like while youâ€™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.Â For six years, he read the crap I churned out, always telling me point blank if it was good or bad.Â Six fucking years.Â 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 â€œThe Mystery Puddle.â€Â Now that youâ€™ve read an excerpt from it, there are two more important things you need to know about the story: 1) itâ€™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) itâ€™s 20 pages long.
Thatâ€™s right.Â 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, Iâ€™ve spent a lot of time these past few weeks trying to figure out why Iâ€™ve changed so much since I moved here.Â After racking my brain for an answer, an answer finally just comes to me.Â Itâ€™s simple and obvious, but putting it in writing is a weight off my chest, me taking a swing at whatâ€™s been holding me down.
Itâ€™s this: I havenâ€™t changed.Â Not one bit.Â But I have become more honest with myself about who I am, who Iâ€™ve always been.
I am a self-righteous asshole.Â I am the most stubborn person I know.Â 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 Iâ€™m also older and wiser, and Iâ€™m also a person who can look back and admit when Iâ€™m wrong.
Professor Kamau, if for whatever reason youâ€™re actually reading this, Iâ€™m sorry.Â You were right.Â That story was a 20-page piece of shit about shit.Â No one wants to read someoneâ€™s stories about a bunch of college kids getting drunk and acting like pricks.Â Those stories, theyâ€™re not magical or hilarious or relatable or inspiring.Â Theyâ€™re not what I want to contribute to the world.
And Nick, Scott and Chris, if for whatever reason youâ€™re actually reading this, I was safe.
Iâ€™m walking down the sidewalk with James Nghiem heading toward Loganâ€™s, a bar that I never liked when I lived here.Â James is telling me about standup in Oklahoma, what itâ€™s been like since I moved away, and itâ€™s nice hanging out with him away from the rest of my friends for a while.Â Itâ€™s so familiar, but at the same time, it feels like Iâ€™m revisiting a past life.
â€œI donâ€™t know,â€ James says.Â â€œLately Iâ€™ve been thinking that I have to change something in my life.Â I think Iâ€™m starting to feel like you did before you moved away.â€
â€œYeah, man,â€ I say.Â â€œHonestly itâ€™s so weird being back and seeingâ€”motherfucker!â€
A drunk guy, a frat boy looking character, just stumbled right into me, roughly pushing me back with his shoulder, and heâ€™s walking away without even an apology.Â â€œHey,â€ I say, turning around.Â â€œYouâ€™re a cocksucker!Â Hey, Iâ€™m talking to you!Â Turn around!Â Cocksucker!â€
Frat boy completely ignores me, doesnâ€™t look back or acknowledge me in any way.
â€œYouâ€™re a fucking douchebag!Â Turn around and face me, you piece of shit!â€
I turn back to James.Â Â â€œWhat an asshole!â€
James smiles. Â â€œMan,â€ he says, â€œIâ€™ve really missed you.â€