SASSY SUMMER READS

FOUR FABULOUS EXCERPTS FROM THREE RIVERS PRESS

SASSY SUMMER READS
AN EXCERPT FROM THREE RIVERS PRESS

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
(And Other Concerns)

Mindy Kaling

Copyright © 2011 by Mindy Kaling All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. www.crownpublishing.com Three Rivers Press and the Tugboat design are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 2011. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Kaling, Mindy. Is everyone hanging out without me? (and other concerns) / Mindy Kaling. —1st ed. p. cm. 1. American wit and humor. 2. Kaling, Mindy. I. Title. PN6165.K35I8 2011 818'.602—dc23 2011033922 ISBN 978-0-307-88627-9 eISBN 978-0-307-88628-6
PR INTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMER ICA

Book design by Elizabeth Rendfleisch Cover design by Laura Duffy Cover photography by Autumn de Wilde Page 51, photo of Mindy Kaling and Conan O’Brien, copyright © NBCU Photo Bank/Margaret Norton. Page 113, photo of Mindy Kaling and Paul Lieberstein, copyright © Michael Gallenberg. Page 121, photo of Mindy Kaling directing Will Ferrell, copyright © NBCU Photo Bank/Chris Haston/NBC. All other photographs, Matt & Ben postcard, and Matt & Ben script excerpt are courtesy of the author. 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

First Paperback Edition

Alternate Titles for This Book

H

E R E W E R E some titles for my book that I really liked but was advised strongly not to use.

The Girl with No Tattoo When Your Boyfriend Fits into Your Jeans and Other Atrocities The Book That Was Never a Blog Always Wear Flats and Have Your Friends Sleep Over: A Step-byStep How-To Guide for Avoiding Getting Murdered Harry Potter Secret Book #8 Sometimes You Just Have to Put on Lip Gloss and Pretend to Be Psyched I Want Dirk Nowitzki to Host Saturday Night Live So Much That I’m Making It the Title of My Book Barf Me to Death and Other Things I’ve Been Known to Say The Last Mango in Paris (this would work best if “Mango” were the cheeky nickname for an Indian woman, and if I’d spent any time in Paris) So You’ve Just Finished Chelsea Handler’s Book, Now What?
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Deep-Dish Pizza in Kabul (a touching novel about a brave girl enjoying Chicago-style pizza in secret Taliban- ruled Afghanistan) There Has Ceased to Be a Difference Between My Awake Clothes and My Asleep Clothes I Don’t Know How She Does It, But I Suspect She Gets Help from Illegal Immigrants

Failing at Everything in the Greatest City on Earth

would rather you guys think I’m some kind of wide-eyed wunderkind who just kind of floated into my job at The Office without even trying. I want you to picture me as a cute little anime character that popped out from behind a mushroom or something and landed in Hollywood. But writing about my struggles was actually really fun. Besides, who wants to read about success, anyway? Successful serial murderers, maybe.

I

WA S H E S I TA N T to write this essay because, of course, I

COLLEGE RUINED ME

Not to sound braggy or anything, but I kind of killed it in college. You know that saying “big fish in a small pond”? At Dartmouth College, I was freakin’ Jaws in a community swimming pool. I wrote plays, I acted, I sang, I was the student newspaper cartoonist. All this, of course, was less a function of my talent than of the school’s being in rural New Hampshire, where the only option for real entertainment was driving one and a half hours to Manchester, on the off chance the Capitol Steps were touring there. After beer pong, floating in an inner tube down the Connecticut River, fraternity hazing rituals, building effigies and
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burning them down in the center of our quad, a cappella, and driving to Montreal for strip clubs, student-run theatrical productions placed a strong seventh in terms of what was fun to do on campus. We had a captive audience with low standards, which was a recipe for smashing success and the reason for the inflated sense of self I have to this very day. If you’re a kid who was not especially a star in your high school, I recommend going to a college in the middle of nowhere. I got all the attention I could ever have wanted. If I had gone to NYU, right now I’d be the funniest paralegal in a law firm in Boston. I got even more confidence from having a steadfast companion in my best friend, Brenda. A few words about Brenda. Bren is the shit. In college, she was the star of every play at Dartmouth from her freshman fall on. She looked the way a Manhattan socialite should look: perfect posture, gazelle-like, with a sheet of dark blond hair. Girls always worried she was going to steal their boyfriends, but she never did. (I didn’t understand that at all. It’s college! Steal some boyfriends, for God’s sake!) Bren and I befriended each other early on, became inseparable through a shared sense of humor, a trove of nonsensical private jokes, and had the same enemies within the Drama Department. We clung to each other with blind loyalty, like Lord Voldemort and his snake, Nagini. I, of course, was Nagini. If you messed with one of us, you knew you messed with both of us, and Voldemort was going to cast a murder spell on you, or Nagini was going to chomp on your jugular. It was such a good, dramatic time. Bren was the kind of best friend I dreamed about having when I was a little kid. I never knew you could have someone in your life who was pretty much on the same page about essentially everything. In theater, Bren would play Beatrice or Medea or Eliza Doolittle, while I wrote well-attended comedy one-acts and occasionally played Medea’s little buddy or something. I felt like a big celebrity on campus. Well, the kind of celebrity you could

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In 2010, Bren was my date to the Emmys. People thought she was on Mad Men and I was her publicist.

conceivably be at Dartmouth if you weren’t a jock or a sorority girl, who were the real celebrities. My fame was akin to that of, say, Camilla Parker Bowles. Our other best friend, Jocelyn, whom we met through our singing group, was more or less the one directly responsible for making the traditional college experience really fun. She was less competitive and intense, and from Hawaii, so she was very comfortable being naked, which was new to us and intimidating. She, along with our other friend Christina, made us go berry picking and get our faces painted for football games, and she’d host dinners in our shared dorm dining room. Jocelyn is willowy

Jocelyn and Brenda being really adorable at something I don’t remember being invited to.

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and half-Asian, and while fitting the bill technically for a model, has no interest in modeling. She’s just that cool. Me, on the other hand, whenever I lose, like, five pounds, I basically start considering if I should “try out” modeling. When the three of us walked down the street together, I looked like the Indian girl who kept them “real.” I don’t care. After all these years with friends who are five ten or taller, I have come to carry myself with the confidence of a tall person. It’s all in the head. It works out. So I left college feeling like a successful, awesome, tall person. Then, in July of 2001, the three of us moved to New York.

LATE NIGHT DREAMS, QUICKLY EXTINGUISHED

The job I most wanted in the world was to be a writer on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. I can’t believe that was two Conan shows ago. It seems like yesterday. I’d been an intern at Late Night three years before and was famously one of the worst interns the program had ever seen. The reason I was bad was because I treated my internship as a free ticket to watch my hero perform live on stage every day, and not as a way to help the show run smoothly by doing errands. My boss, the script coordinator, greatly disliked me. Not only because I was bad at my job, but because hating everything was one of her personality traits. You know those people who legitimize their sarcastic, negative personalities by saying proudly they are “lifelong New Yorkers”? She was one of those. Her favorite catchphrase was “Are you on crack?” On my last day, she shook my hand limply and said a terse “Bye” without looking away from her J.Crew catalogue. When I arrived in New York, I didn’t even really know how to apply for the job. I had not kept in touch with anyone at Late Night, because even as a nineteen-year-old, I knew that no one wants to keep in touch with the intern. I had placed a lot of faith

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in Woody Allen’s belief that 80 percent of success is just showing up. I said to myself: Are you serious? 80 percent? Sure, I can just show up. Here I am, New York! Give me a job! It turns out the other 20 percent is kind of the difficult, nebulous part. I wrote a letter to NBC asking how I could submit sketches to be considered for Late Night. I got a letter back saying that the network could not even open an envelope that contained creative material that was not submitted by an agent. I thought the phrase “cannot even open the envelope” was a tad dramatic. NBC legal, you drama queens. This initial rejection served as NBC “negging” me, to borrow a phrase from my very favorite book, The Game. It worked. NBC became the sexy guy at the party I needed to be with. When I finally got with him, years later, sure, he was fourth place, kind of fat, balding, and a little worse for the wear, but I still got him.

Here I am, ruining my guest appearance on my hero’s talk show with dorky gesticulation.

HOME IS WHERE THE BED IS

I was jobless, but so were Brenda and Jocelyn. Together we rented a railroad-style apartment in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. The railroad apartment, for those of you who’ve never seen

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one, is styled after the sleek comfort of a 1930s industrial railroad car. All the rooms are connected in a line, and you have to walk through one room to get to the next. Everything about it is awful, except if you need a set for a play that takes place during the Great Depression. The only people this intimate setup worked for were three female best friends who had no secrets from one another, were comfortable (enough) being walked in on naked, and had no boyfriends (or no boyfriends who were ever invited over). Enter us! Real estate was our first disappointment in New York: we had set our sights on trendy Williamsburg, which had plenty of chic coffee shops, cool boutiques, and cute, straight guys. I knew I wouldn’t have been able to afford those coffee shops and boutiques, or had the nerve to talk to any of those hipster guys, but I would have liked to be around them, and felt that it was plausible I could have that life. After visiting several basement-level tenements that were out of our price range, we settled for Windsor Terrace. When we moved there, Windsor Terrace was a Park Slope–adjacent mini-neighborhood that could’ve been the exterior set for much of Welcome Back, Kotter. Not grim, but not great. It was populated mostly by middle-age lesbian couples who had taken on the noble challenge of gentrifying the neighborhood. Brenda and I shared the center bedroom and the single queen bed it would hold, and Jocelyn fashioned herself a sort of bohemian-chic burrow out of the last bedroom, which, while it was the only room with true privacy, was also the size of a handicapped bathroom. She installed a twin loft bed and hung a batik tapestry over the lofted area, where she would read books and magazines for hours. Jocelyn is the kind of person who goes into any room, sizes it up, and immediately tries to loft a bed there. To this day, she lives in an apartment with a loft bed. This was a good arrangement because Jocelyn has hoard-

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ing tendencies, and some degree of containment was crucial. (Hoarding has pejorative connotations now, but you have to understand this was before the show Hoarders depicted hoarders as gruesome loners with psychological problems. Joce is a hoarder of the cheerful, social, Christmas-lights-year-round variety.) Jocelyn would save stacks of six-year-old magazines because there might be a recipe in one of them for jambalaya, which she would need someday if we threw a big Mardi Gras–themed dinner. (This wasn’t crazy, because we would occasionally do things like that.) People who visited our apartment and saw her curtained lair probably assumed Jocelyn was a gypsy we had inherited as a condition of getting the apartment.

I was going through a phase where all my photos had me making a “whoo!” face.

And the stairs. Oh, the stairs. The staircase in our third-floor walk-up was the steepest, hardest, metal-est staircase I have ever encountered in my life. It was a staircase for killing someone and making it seem like an accident. Our downstairs neighbor was a toothless man, somewhere in his eighties or nineties. He lived with what seemed like two younger male relatives, with “younger” meaning in their sixties. In the dead of summer or winter they would wear those ribbed white tank tops grossly named wife

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beaters, which is how we knew they were rent- control tenants (if anyone wears year-round wife beaters, it is the same as saying they are enjoying the benefits of a rent- controlled apartment). They also spoke a language with one another that seemed like a hybridized version of an Eastern European language and the incomprehensible mumble of Dick Tracy henchmen. They would’ve been frightening, except they were incredibly timid and scared of us for some reason. Like when that monster in the Bugs Bunny cartoon gets scared of a mouse and runs screaming all the way back to his castle. In the summer, feral cats in heat clung onto the screens of our living room, meowing mournfully until we threw a glass of water at them. When it got cold, the roaches migrated in and set up homes in every drain. Sometimes, when I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, I would feel a disgusting crackly squelch under my foot, and I’d know I’d have to rinse off a roach from my heel. That was our apartment. We took the bad with the pretty good. Plus, we could afford it, Prospect Park wasn’t too far, and people already assumed we were lesbians, so we fit into the neighborhood right away. It was all good. Until we tried to pursue our dreams.

Jocelyn accompanies me on the subway to my first-ever open mike gig.

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I AM TERRIBLE AT EVERYTHING

Everything I learned about trying to get hired as a comedy writer came from the Film and Television section of the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble. I didn’t have the money to buy many of the books there, so I spent hours sitting in the aisle, copying down sections in a loose-leaf notebook. I was not the worst offender. There were aspiring screenwriters sprawled all over the place there. They’d nurse a single coffee for hours. One kid I saw there all the time frequently brought a large pizza with him and ate the entire thing slowly while handwriting inquiry letters to literary agencies.* The only really valuable thing I learned from the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble was that the only way I could get hired by a TV show was to write a “spec,” or sample script, of a popular current show. That’s when I started working on my first spec, a Will & Grace sample, having seen the show only a handful of times. I went on one audition when I was in New York. I wasn’t actively pursuing acting jobs, but this one was tailor-made for me. It was an open casting call for Bombay Dreams, an Andrew Lloyd Webber–produced musical extravaganza that was transferring from London to Broadway. I was encouraged by the relative lack of actresses, aged eighteen to thirty, who sang, lived in the tristate area, and also looked Indian. Nothing gives you confidence like being a member of a small, weirdly specific, hard-to-find demographic. The first Bombay Dreams audition was a singing audition. I auditioned with “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. In the audition room I saw some Indian girls, but mostly Latina girls trying to pass for Indian. The audition sign-in sheet read like it was for a production of West Side Story.
* It is interesting to note that this Barnes and Noble no longer exists— perhaps no one was buying books there?

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My singing audition went really well, mostly because they were relieved an actual Indian person was auditioning. On the way out, the casting assistant walked me all the way to the street, saying, “We were really so happy you made it out here.” I nodded demurely, like I had a million other auditions that week that were more exciting than this one, and left. They were so happy I made it out there? Why not just hand me my start paperwork? On the subway I started planning what I would do when I got the job. First I would go to Dean & Deluca and buy some tiny marzipan candies in the shape of fruit, an expensive treat I noticed a lot of fancy-looking older white women buying. Next I would pay for an exterminator to come to our apartment to kill the cockroaches. After that I’d take Bren and Joce out to dinner at Le Cirque, like I was a creepy Wall Street sugar daddy and they were my pretty arm candy. I got a callback for a dance audition. I had never danced in my life and did not know what to wear. I went to a dance clothing surplus outlet in Chelsea I’d seen ads for in the PennySaver. Their stuff was discounted because it was irregular, which means the colors were weird or some buttons were off. I bought brown tights, a sleeveless pink leotard, and a white iridescent skirt that wrapped around my waist and was fastened with Velcro. I capped off the entire look with some traditional pink ballet slippers. In the communal mirror of the dressing room of that surplus store, a young Asian girl trying on ballet clothes with her mom said, “Mommy, you should dress like that,” referring to me. The mom hushed her in an Asian language. This sealed the deal. I had never felt more graceful in my life. At the audition I looked like a fucking idiot. The other girls were all dressed in versions of what actual dancers wear: low-key black leggings, a tank top, and sneakers. I looked like the children’s birthday party performer playing Angelina Ballerina, the ballet-dancing mouse. A Kevin Federline–looking choreogra-

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pher taught us an incredibly complicated Bollywood dance routine, which we then had to perform on tape. I stumbled through it like a groggy teamster who had wandered into the wrong room backstage, breathing heavily and vaguely hitting my marks. KFed stopped me before the song was done and kindly asked if I needed some water. I laughed because, as everyone knows, laughing is a great way to disguise heavy breathing. I then exited on the pretense of getting a drink, and quickly left the building. It remains the single most embarrassing performance of my life, and it’s on tape somewhere. I like to think Andrew Lloyd Webber watches it whenever he’s feeling down. My Will & Grace spec was a disaster. In an attempt to achieve the cheeky, gay-centric tone of the show, I had written a sample so over-the-top offensively gay that it actually reads like a propaganda sketch to incite antigay sentiment. So things were coming together nicely for me to embark on a full-fledged depression. One good thing about New York is that most people function daily while in a low-grade depression. It’s not like if you’re in Los Angeles, where everyone’s so actively working on cheerfulness and mental and physical health that if they sense you’re down, they shun you. Also, all that sunshine is a cruel joke when you’re depressed. In New York, even in your misery, you feel like you belong. But it was still hard to fail, so consistently, at everything I had once been Camilla Parker Bowles–level good at. Brenda and I would fi x that, but we didn’t know it yet.

Men and Boys

and sit near people and eavesdrop on them. I could rationalize it— Oh, this is good anthropological research for characters I’m writing—but it’s basically just nosiness. I especially like eavesdropping on women my age. Besides being titillating, it also helps me gauge where I’m at in comparison. Am I normal? Am I doing the correct trendy cardio exercises? Am I reading the right books? Is gluten still lame? Is soap cool again, or is body wash still the way to go? It was through eavesdropping that I learned that you could buy fresh peanut butter at Whole Foods from a machine that grinds it in front of you. I had wasted so much of my life eating stupid old, already-ground peanut butter. So, yeah, I highly recommend a little nosiness once in a while. Once, at BLD, a restaurant where I was writing, I saw two attractive thirty-ish women talking over brunch. They had finished eating and were getting seconds on coffee, so I knew it was going to be good. I heard the following:
GIRL #1

S

OM E T I M E S I bring a script I’m working on to a restaurant

(pretty Jewish girl, Lululemon yoga pants, great body) : Jeremy just finished his Creative Writing pro-

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gram at Columbia. But now he wants to maybe apply to law school.
GIRL #2 (tiny Asian girl, sheet of black hair, strangely huge

breasts [for an Asian girl]) : Oh God.
LULULEMON: 32D:

What?

How many grad schools is he going to go to?

LULULEMON:

I know. But it’s not his fault. No publishers are buying short stories from unfamous people. Basically you have to be Paris Hilton to sell books these days.

32D: For the past ten years that Jeremy has been out of col-

lege doing entry-level job after entry-level job and grad school, you’ve had a job that has turned into a career.
LULULEMON: 32D:

Yeah, so?

Jeremy’s a boy. You need a man.

Lululemon did not take this well, as I anticipated. I felt bad for Lulu because I’ve been Lulu. It’s really hard when you realize the guy you’ve been dating is basically a high schooler at heart. It makes you feel like Mary Kay Letourneau. It’s the worst. Until I was thirty, I only dated boys, as far as I can tell. I’ll tell you why. Men scared the shit out of me. Men know what they want. Men make concrete plans. Men own alarm clocks. Men sleep on a mattress that isn’t on the floor. Men tip generously. Men buy new shampoo instead of adding water to a nearly empty bottle of shampoo. Men go to the dentist. Men make reservations. Men go in for a kiss without giving

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you some long preamble about how they’re thinking of kissing you. Men wear clothes that have never been worn by anyone else before. (Okay, maybe men aren’t exactly like this. This is what I’ve cobbled together from the handful of men I know or know of, ranging from Heathcliff Huxtable to Theodore Roosevelt to my dad.) Men know what they want and they don’t let you in on their inner monologue, and that is scary. Because what I was used to was boys. Boys are adorable. Boys trail off their sentences in an appealing way. Boys bring a knapsack to work. Boys get haircuts from their roommate, who “totally knows how to cut hair.” Boys can pack up their whole life in a duffel bag and move to Brooklyn for a gig if they need to. Boys have “gigs.” Boys are broke. And when they do have money, they spend it on a trip to Colorado to see a music festival. Boys don’t know how to adjust their conversation when they’re talking to their friends or to your parents. They put parents on the same level as their peers and roll their eyes when your dad makes a terrible pun. Boys let your parents pay for dinner when you all go out. It’s assumed. Boys are wonderful in a lot of ways. They make amazing, memorable, homemade gifts. They’re impulsive. Boys can talk for hours with you in a diner at three in the morning because they don’t have regular work hours. But they suck to date when you turn thirty. I’m thirty-two and I fully feel like an adult. Sure, sometimes I miss wearing Hello Kitty jewelry or ironic T-shirts from Urban Outfitters on occasion. Who doesn’t? I don’t, because I think it would seem kind of pitiful. But a guy at thirty-two—he can act and dress like a grown man or a thirteen-year-old boy, and both are totally acceptable. Not necessarily to me, but to most people. (I can’t tell you how many thirty- and fortysomething guys wear Velcro shoes in Los Angeles. It’s an epidemic.) That’s one of the weirdest things I’ve noticed about being thirty-two. It is a lot of

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women and a lot of boys our age. That’s why I started getting interested in men. When I was twenty-five, I went on exactly four dates with a much older guy whom I’ll call Peter Parker. I’m calling him Peter Parker because the actual guy’s name was also alliterative, and because, well, it’s my book and I’ll name a guy I dated after Spider-Man’s alter ego if I want to. Peter Parker was a comedy writer who was a smidgen more accomplished than me but who talked about everything with the tone of “you’ve got a lot to learn, kid.” He had been a writer at a pretty popular sitcom. He gave me lots of unsolicited advice about how to get a job “if The Office got canceled.” After a while, it became clear that he thought The Office would get canceled, and on our fourth and last date, it was clear that he thought The Office should get canceled. Why am I bringing up Peter Parker? Well, besides moonlighting as Spider-Man, Peter was the first man I dated. An insufferable, arrogant man, but a legit man. Peter owned a house. It wasn’t ritzy or anything, just a little Spanish ranch-style house in Hollywood. But he was the first guy I’d dated who’d really moved into his place and made it a home. The walls were painted; there was art in frames. He had installed a flat-screen TV and speakers. There was just so much screwed into the walls. Everywhere I looked I saw another instance of an action that, if the house were a rental, would make you lose your deposit. I marveled at the brazenness of it. Peter’s house reminded me more of my house growing up than of a college dorm room. I’d never seen that before.* Owning a house obviously wasn’t enough to make me want to keep dating Peter. Like I said, he was kind of a condescending
* Look, I’m not an idiot, I realize plenty of boys own houses. That’s, like, the whole point of the Playboy mansion.

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dick. But I observed in Peter a quality that I found really appealing and that I knew I wanted in the next guy I dated seriously: a guy who wasn’t afraid of commitment. At this point you might want to smack me and say: “Are you seriously another grown woman talking about how she wants a man who isn’t afraid of commitment? Is this a book, or a blog called Ice Cream Castles in the Air: One Single Gal Hopes for Prince Charming? We’ve all heard this before!” But let me explain! I’m not talking about commitment to romantic relationships. I’m talking about commitment to things: houses, jobs, neighborhoods. Having a job that requires a contract. Paying a mortgage. I think when men hear that women want a commitment, they think it means commitment to a romantic relationship, but that’s not it. It’s a commitment to not floating around anymore. I want a guy who is entrenched in his own life. Entrenched is awesome. So I’m into men now, even though they can be frightening. I want a schedule-keeping, waking-up-early, wallet-carrying, non-Velcro-shoe-wearing man. I don’t care if he has more traditionally “men problems” like having to take prescription drugs for cholesterol or hair loss. I can handle it. I’m a grown-up too.

SASSY SUMMER READS
AN EXCERPT FROM THREE RIVERS PRESS

Apron Anxiety
My Messy Affairs In and Out of the Kitchen

Alyssa Shelasky

T hr ee R i v ers Pr ess N e w Y or k

In order to protect the identities of those whom I’ve loved and fed, successfully or not, I’ve altered some names, details, and events in the story. Copyright © 2012 by Alyssa Shelasky All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. www.crownpublishing.com www.threeriverspress.com three rivers press and the tugboat design are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for. ISBN 978-0-307-95214-1 eISBN 978-0-307-5215-8 printed in the united states of america Cover design by Jessie Sayward Bright Cover photograph Fuse/Getty Images 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

First Edition

3.

Oui, Chef

I

am standing near City Hall, heading toward my home across the Brooklyn Bridge, and there’s a gray-haired millionaire wearing an Hermès tie, dancing to the tunes of a homeless man on the trombone. New York, it’s good to be back. Over the past year, I left the West Coast, disassociated myself from the Glamour dating blog, turned thirty, and after six intense interviews, got a full-time job that I’m really proud of. I’m a staff writer at People magazine, with a good salary, a private office, and interesting assignments involving film, music, television, health, human interest, and a lot more than celebrity news. My editors all know that I accepted the job under the condition that I won’t have to go clubbing, stalking, or slithering into places where I don’t belong, and that I’m a reformed party girl with an early bedtime. Living in California completely reset my body. It took the mani-pedi, buy-the-shoes, blow-the-doorman right out of me. Ultimately, I had to go all the way across the country just to come back down to earth. When I’m not reporting, I spend a lot of time with my forever sweet and easy sister, who’s working at Real Simple magazine, just a few floors down from People. Or I’m having long talks
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A p ron A n x i e t y

over a few drinks with my closest New York girlfriends, Beth and Jill (Shelley, who I talk to ten times a day, and who is gradually mellowing out herself, never came back from L.A.). Beth is from Western Massachusetts like me. She’s strikingly pretty and reminds me, in her unpretentiousness, of the girls from home. (When Jean died, Beth and I had just started working together at a PR firm, and I remember feeling like she was the only person who understood how the tragedy rocked my tiny town.) And then there’s the smokin’ hot Jill, who’s as devoted as she is difficult. She works in fashion and dates only fancy men whom I describe as “camera ready.” She’s the one I count on every time there’s a party or a plus-one; I just love her company. As always, I’m enjoying a lot of alone time, too—hunkering down at poetry readings, jazz clubs, and other weird and wonderful gatherings, befriending singletons with short bangs and Buddhists with perfect posture, and conversing with total strangers on everything from capitalism to colonics. In this city, you can meet more great people while buying a stick of gum than most do in a lifetime elsewhere. Everyone has a story, mind-bending or blood-racing, on this island of provocateurs. On my favorite nights, I just putter around aimlessly, vacillating between culture and curiosity. There’s nothing I’d rather do than roam the streets without watching the clock. Not that life has been uneventful. After L.A., I invested my life savings in an apartment in an almost-happening neighborhood of Brooklyn called Ditmas Park. I lived there for a few months, but when a meth-head mooned me in the building’s elevator, I realized I wasn’t as edgy as I thought. Soon thereafter, I rented the place to two librarian pescatarians on a budget, while I waited for the property to appreciate and the neighborhood to become a little less sketchy and a bit more Starbucks.
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I then moved in with my parents, who just bought a luxury loft in a more enviable Brooklyn enclave called DUMBO (which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Now, I listlessly inhabit a spare, windowless, prison-white room meant to be an office (the only option besides bunking up in my parents’ bedroom, which, disturbingly, they probably would have loved). On one hand, living at home was a smart, economical decision so I could figure out the next steps in my housing situation. On the other hand, I’m about to turn thirty-one, and I feel a little foolish being a single, stay-at-home daughter with all her money tied up in an apartment that other people live in and that most taxi drivers can’t find. I’m still meeting guys everywhere I go—at Citibank, before a Shakespeare in the Park play, while doing crosswords on the subway—and even though many men have that je ne sais quoi, no one has been quite right for me. The problem is I need to be with an alluring, off-the-grid kind of guy, otherwise I lose interest. But it seems like all the dazzling men have such dark problems: impending divorces, sex addictions, secret debt. I go to art shows and housewarming parties with no shortage of fetching, successful, normal bachelors who just want to love and be loved like the rest of us, yet I end up embarrassed for their unoriginality and unable to bear a conversation with them about work or the weather. So instead, I wind up in the arms of guys like the hot, Hungarian bike messenger who was at a book reading (on a drug deal) and put me in his phone as “Alyssa Sexy Jew.” Bad judgment, exceptional hands. Such lousy, lust-driven decisions are why Dr. Pappa, who I’m still seeing, has me committed to a summer of no dating, no drama, and no strings attached. Then I get a press release. . . . Bravo’s A-List Awards are happening tonight and the lineup

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includes Top Chef ’s current season of cheftestants. While I have zero interest in cooking, something catches my eye. In my wholesome, post-Californian-life, I’ve started to watch Top Chef from time to time because even as a noncook, the show relaxes me. So much so that I’ve written about a few of the winners and the master chefs who have influenced them. But what really hooked me this season was a crush I developed on the token bestubbled bad boy, who I cleverly nicknamed “Chef.” Chef looks like James Dean, says he’s Greek and Jewish, and totally turns me on. I even forced my family to watch an episode, because as I tell them, “I’m pretty sure the one making blood sausage is my soul mate . . .” Only they would see that as a perfectly logical thing to say. Today, like a paper airplane sent from Aphrodite, Chef is on the tip sheet thrown on top of the New York Times and next to yesterday’s coffee. Usually I’d go to something like this myself, but I’ve just sworn off men, I’m living out of boxes in my parents’ apartment, and I just don’t look or feel my best; I’m even wearing one of my mother’s muumuus—which is not as Sienna Miller as it sounds. So in my place, I send a pretty, blond freelance reporter named Stephanie to the Bravo party with simple instructions: “Do not leave until you find out if Chef has a girlfriend. And ask him what he looks for in a woman. Get specifics!” Professionalism has never been my strength. I head home, take a sunset jog, eat a few bowls of cereal and an entire carton of strawberries, floss my teeth, put on a nightgown, and crawl into bed feeling slightly pitiful, not that I’d ever say so. Just before midnight, my phone vibrates as I’m tossing and turning. Apparently, professionalism isn’t Stephanie’s thing either. She’s e-mailed me her transcript from the Bravo

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event, along with a note: “Chef is very nice and very single. Thanks for the assignment!! P.S. I know you’re not looking or anything, but here’s his phone number. . . . Just in case.” Screw journalistic integrity. Give the girl a raise. While tucked under the covers in fuzzy socks and shea butter cream, I reach for the light on the bedside table and start to read the two-page interview on my BlackBerry. I am prepared for a slight rush, a raise of the brow, and then hopefully, a better night’s sleep. But as I read his responses—part juvenile delinquent, part plain ole Joe—my eyes, freshly dotted in cucumber serum, start to widen. He talks about his family’s villa in Greece, and how he dreams of taking a girl there and making her a peasant dish called reginatta, which he describes as stale bread sprinkled with ocean water, covered with bright red tomatoes and crumbled fresh feta. As for the girl, she should be funny, down-to-earth, and extremely family-oriented. He says he’s been a “kitchen-rat” his whole life and that it’s starting to get quite lonely. He’s happy to have been on Top Chef, but he might just become a marine biologist in Florida or a fisherman in the South of France. Wow. He’s just what I thought he’d be like: creative, carefree, and vulnerable. As I read his answers, I am struck by how unaffected he is. How can he be lonely? He’s such a rock star in my eyes. And the perfect woman he described? She sounds a little familiar. I mostly love that he’s a dreamer but doesn’t sound totally dysfunctional. That’s exactly what I want, exactly what I need. A flash goes off, and suddenly, I know without any hesitation, that Chef is more than just a TV fantasy. He is my next boyfriend. Let me explain. There are three things I know about my biological self:

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1. If I walk into a McDonald’s, even just to use the bathroom, I will get a glistening red zit on the left side of my cheek that will terrorize my life for ten days straight. 2. If I combine alcohol with pot, in any quality or quantity, I’ll convince myself that I’m paralyzed from the neck down, pee in my pants, and then puke. 3. When the future-boyfriend flash goes off, though it’s always primal and never practical, the world better buckle up, because we’re all in for a ride. The next day at work, I immediately e-mail the special projects editor at People, asking if I can interview Chef for our annual bachelor issue, explaining that a freelancer had revealed his single status and that he’s definitely an up-and-coming heartthrob. It honestly doesn’t matter if she gives me the green light or not. I have to meet him. I then go to my weekly therapy session with Dr. Pappa, who, just one week ago, made me promise to not date this summer. At the time, I was totally on board, but who would have thought Chef would be right around the corner? “I am going to contact him and who knows what will happen,” I say, after quoting verbatim the cute, off-the-cuff answers he gave to Stephanie. I include the reginatta bit, hoping the Greek nostalgia will perhaps soften her. “Don’t do it, Alyssa. Please . . .” says the shrink. “It’s not a good idea. . . . You really need to be single.” “Don’t worry, Dr. P.,” I say, writing a check. “I’ll proceed with caution.” Who knows why I’m so self-assured when it comes to pursuing guys, and in this case, an almost-famous guy. Some people might say that I’m a hot girl; others might go with a hot mess.

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I think it’s somewhere in between. I can be beautiful or I can be busted, but I can’t get by on my looks alone, even if I tried. Whether it’s my inherited confidence, or an inner cool when it comes to the opposite sex, or some life-less-ordinary-aura, getting guys has always been easy, and getting Chef should be cake. Despite Dr. Pappa’s warnings and my editor’s impending e-mail saying that Chef isn’t famous enough for the magazine, I leave a message on his cell, in my deepest Demi Moore voice possible, that I want to do an in-person interview with him for People magazine’s bachelor issue. Screw it. I can get him on the pages if I really need to. If not, this could be worth getting fired for. He returns my message in a few minutes, sounding dead tired and terribly adorable. He’s excited about the interview, which I feel a little guilty about (but not really). We start to e-mail and text, comparing our schedules, warming things up. He says he lives in Brooklyn but is in the process of moving somewhere else. I write him that the sauce he made on last week’s episode looked so good that “I wanted to take a bath in it!” He writes back four seconds later: “That could be arranged.” This is my kind of guy. Eventually, we agree to meet at a corner café in Williamsburg called Fabiane’s. Even over the phone, we are on fire. Hours before our interview, I am searching online for something food-savvy to say. At this point, the only thing I really know about the culinary scene is that white wine goes in the fridge, guacamole makes you fat, and Tom Colicchio is bald. The more I think about how little we could have in common, the more nervous I get, so I leave early and order a tequila shot at DUMBO General Store, my neighborhood hang. I ask to speak with the restaurant’s chef, who is “preparing for the dinner rush,” not that I understand what that means. “Hey . . . um . . . what’s like a hot topic in the chef scene right now?” I
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ask. He speaks broken English, is sweating his ass off, and tells me he’s totally slammed. “No problemo,” I say, pounding the shot and heading to the F train. On the subway, I remind myself that our get-together is a “business meeting,” so I put on my reporter’s hat and fool myself into forgetting about any romantic anticipation. I brush into Fabiane’s with the look of an unflappable journalist, in a very flappable short skirt, who’s done this hundreds of times. Chef is there already, waiting for me by the dessert display, now walking toward me to say hello. He’s long, ruddy, and crazy cute. Before I can reach out my hand, there’s a kiss on the cheek and a tight hug hello. This doesn’t happen with Justin Timberlake. We arrange a table for two outside, while I take out my tape recorder, which I won’t be turning on, and my list of fake questions, which I won’t be flipping through. I try to stay in character, but the way he looks, the way he speaks, the way he dresses, how our knees touch . . . I’m trembling. I’m not sure what one orders on a bogus interview that’s turning into a first date, with a French-trained chef and me, a kitchen-phobe, so I fumble through the menu and somehow come up with chicken curry salad. He gets a tomato and mozzarella tartine. We agree on a round of Stella Artois. When the waitress walks away, we waste no time getting to know each other. “So, what’s your story?” I ask, with a beer bottle to my mouth, half reporter, half temptress. “I’ll tell you about me, if you promise to tell me about you?” He smiles. “Fair enough.” I smirk, locking my eyes onto his for a beat too long. He swiftly shares fascinating stories about his past, really personal things, and I assure him that everything’s off the record. (If he only knew how off the record!) We are so instantaneously
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comfortable around each other that when his Greek and Jewish heritage comes up, I tell him that a Greek man once broke my heart. Our food comes and I make the long story short. My eyes well up when talking about John, as they always do, and he asks if it still hurts. I say that I’m doing fine, that it’s all part of my fiber now, and that I’ve never believed we get only one great love anyway. I realize that I’m committing a faux pas by bringing up old boyfriends, but this is not the kind of guy who plays by the rules. He doesn’t even know they exist. “Go on a date with me,” he interrupts. “Why should I?!” I say teasingly, wanting to kiss him, seduce him, marry him. “Just be my girl,” he says, with a naïveté I have never seen in a man. “I won’t hurt you.” I tell him I’ll consider it, and we share an excellent piece of lemon cake, taking turns with one fork. It’s tangy and light, with a generous rich glaze, the perfect way to end an early summer night. I’m hungry and I hog it because I barely touched my chicken curry, which looked like bad news in school-bus yellow. “Who orders chicken curry from a little French bistro?” he jokes, as we walk away from the restaurant, nudging me playfully on my side. Without a moment of self-consciousness, I confess that I know nothing about food. He doesn’t so much as flinch. He just wants to know when he can see me again. “Let me think about it.” I wink, waving down a cab. He kisses me good-bye, on the cheek again, but more affectionately this time, brushing back my hair. We play it cool for about two days or two hours. I can’t remember. But I do remember not being able to sleep or stop smiling. I also refuse to acknowledge that this is his last week in New York. He is moving to Washington, D.C., to open a casual neighborhood restaurant in Capitol Hill with a few partners. Caught up in the
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fervor of it all, this strikes me as a minor detail, as if D.C. is just down the street, somewhere in between Westchester and lovecomes-first. He seems to share my geographical haze. We text every few hours, figuring out our next plans, and the following night he calls just to see how I’m doing. Midconversation, I fess up about the bachelor issue hoax: “You really think I’d share you?” I tease, hoping it doesn’t come across as too forward. He had totally forgotten about that which predicated our entire interaction, the actual “interview,” and replies that he doesn’t want to be shared anyway. “You’re the one for me,” he says without any pretense. I have no idea how to respond, so I say, “Thank you.” There is something so innocent, so coltlike, about him. He still has an old, cracked flip phone; he doesn’t have a Facebook account. His favorite restaurants are diners and his dream vacation is fishing on a lake with rolling papers, a transistor radio, and a few cans of cold Coca-Cola. When I tell him a longwinded story about Winona Ryder, which he follows carefully, he says at the end, “I love that. But who is she?” He’s a simple guy, who works really hard, rewarding himself by putting his toes in the sand and his hands on a woman, and I’m mesmerized by the authenticity of it all. Not long after he moves to D.C., Chef takes a train back to New York for a proper first date. He finds his way to DUMBO, where I am counting down the seconds. It’s a hot, humid night in late June and just as he rings the bell downstairs in my parents’ lobby, a summer thunderstorm hits hard. I take a deep breath, check my outfit, smooth down my frizz, and head to the lobby. My heart pounds as I spot him waiting outside in the rain with ripped jeans and amber eyes. Before I can ask if he wants Italian or Thai, he kisses my lips, wraps his tender arms around my waist, and walks us down the cobblestone street, under the
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Manhattan Bridge and the splitting skies. Our bodies are sticky; our hair is wild. We don’t care where we’re going. It is the love affair I never want to end, the perfect storm. After that night, which rocked both my body and mind, Chef starts buying me train tickets to visit him every weekend in D.C. He’s renting a three-bedroom house with “the Boys,” his tireless and tattooed sous-chefs. I like the Boys a lot; they’re real teddy bears, but the house is situated in a dangerous neighborhood, and ironically, their kitchen is infested with bugs and beyond. In the morning, before he heads to the restaurant, Chef always manages to make me strong coffee and cheese toast, which is basically cheese melted on bread in the toaster oven, but constructed with such confidence and so perfectly crispy. I eat with my feet elevated, petrified of any critters that may whiz by. It breaks my heart that in building and launching the restaurant all summer, Chef and his roommates haven’t had any time to clean up this run-down Capitol Hill clunker. It also breaks my back—Chef essentially sleeps on a cot. So the first present I ever buy him is a nice and comfortable “W Hotel” mattress, which I purchase with my press discount. It’s the least I can do—for both of us. He beams over the bed, saying it’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for him. We like all things hotel-related. After making such a splash on Top Chef, my guy is now invited to do a lot of cooking events around the country. He includes me in everything, as if we’re a package deal, and I am tickled pink to tag along. I sit in the audience as he does his food demos, oblivious to his knife skills but obsessed with his aura. When it’s time for the Q&A portion of the event, I wait for some smitten soccer mom to ask if he’s single, and for him to blush and brag about me. “Actually, that’s my girl over there. . . . She’s the best writer in the world. . . .” I
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swoon when he says this, especially because all he’s read are my love letters to him. When we go to a celebrity poker tournament at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, we skip most of the festivities and stay in our suite, with the room-service menu and The Hangover on demand. No one wins bigger than we do that night. For a corporate event in Philadelphia, he is paid to make an appetizer and meet some fans. Bored by the crowd, and enamored with each other, we sneak off a little early. Arm in arm, feeling very much like the untucked artist and his slinky muse, we duck away, and I walk right into a glass door. Face first. Bloody nose. He dies laughing. I die laughing even harder. We have so much fun traveling in our pack of two, checking into hotels, hiding out, watching movie marathons, and tying and untying our terry-cloth robes. He always orders a couple club sandwiches for us to share throughout the night. Chef is a club sandwich aficionado. It personifies his style—simple without being bland, layered without being complicated, and ever so slightly retro. The sandwich has two things I’ve always abhorred, mayonnaise and bacon, but I quickly get over that and fall in love with everything about our toasted, toothpicked ritual, the first of many. He never has much time to enjoy New York with me now that his restaurant is officially open, but when he comes in for meetings, he tries to make a full day of it. I find us cool things to do, like abstract one-act plays and raunchy underground comedy clubs. Since he’s been living behind a stove for most of his life, he’s self-admittedly clueless when it comes to most things nonkitchen. We see an outdoor production of Hair, just like I did when I was little, and have such a wild time it’s as if we’re the ones hallucinating. Despite his first-class cooking pedigree, fine dining isn’t really our thing. After a movie or concert, if we end
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up somewhere fancy, he does the ordering and I enthusiastically oblige. But normally, we have picnics in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and eat at laid-back bistros. We could both exist on cheese and bread, though he’d definitely prefer prosciutto with his. One day we visit Jill and Beth, at Alison Brod Public Relations, the glammed-out PR firm where they both now work. The girls shower Chef in swag from their clients—Sephora skincare, Godiva chocolates, Havaianas flip-flops. He’s floored by my friends’ warmth and generosity, walking out with five bags of freebies, and hugs and kisses from a dozen blushing girls. “Um, your new boyfriend is really hot . . . and has really big feet,” Beth, who married her first boyfriend, giggles into the phone later that night. “You’re great together, Lys.” On a muggy Tuesday morning, I’m in my office pricing out train tickets for the weekend when Chef calls and says, “Coffee break?” What a surprise! He’s in New York? I run downstairs, where he’s holding a cappuccino from my favorite local bakery, and an important-looking envelope. “What are you doing next week, and the week after that?” “Working, visiting you, the usual. Why?” “Because remember how I said my dream was to take the love of my life to Greece?” “Yeah?” I squint, slowly slipping into shock. “Well, Lyssie, that’s you. Will you come with me to Greece?” He has arranged and paid for the whole thing. It’s the end of August, our three-month anniversary, and he’s taking me to the villa he shares with his family, for fifteen days. I am speechless. We’re going to have it all to ourselves. He took the train in just to see my reaction. When I tell Liz, my boss, that I’ll be using up all my vacation days and darting off to Europe to be with my new chef boyfriend, she immediately gives her full approval. Liz loves
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hearing about my life, and because she grew up in the seventies with five sisters in San Francisco, there’s nothing she hasn’t seen or heard. “Keeping up with the Kardashians is easier than keeping up with me, right?” I say, twirling out of her office. My family is also thrilled for me. They’ve treasured Chef ever since they met him, when he told them a hysterical story about waking up in a hospital room with his frowning mother, a disturbed nurse, and a mysterious case of loud, uncontrollable flatulence. That night at their loft, my mother made everyone extra well done steaks burned down to hockey pucks, and Chef, bless his heart, asked for seconds. Getting to Greece is a saga of its own. Chef is as disorganized as he is romantic, and there’s mayhem involving all things customs, passports, and visas. But after seventy-two hours of smoked almonds, Bourne identities, and broken sleep, we arrive at the port of a village, where a beady-eyed taxi driver takes us to the house. The orange sun is just coming up. Perched on a cliff at the end of a narrow road and framed in exotic flowers, olive branches, hummingbirds, and clotheslines, the villa is more like a pretty little beach house than a sprawling ancient estate. We find the hidden key nestled in the outdoor wood-burning oven and let ourselves into our private haven. The inside of the house is lovely and understated, and already, I never want to leave. We haven’t slept in about two days, but before we crash, Chef finds the keys to the blue truck sitting in the driveway, leads me outside, and buckles me into the passenger seat. Delirious, I don’t ask where we’re going. Driving down the steep roads of this gorgeous seaside village, I stare at the views layered in lemon trees, mountaintops, and an aquamarine ocean, while Chef stops at the market down the street that’s just opening for its morning business. Then he drives us down the coast. It’s astounding that a guy who can’t
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remember to close the front door, and sometimes isn’t sure of the month or year, can find his way through these rocky roads like he’s never lived anywhere else. He hasn’t been back to Greece in years, but he is in his element; he is by the sea. Chef parks the car at a private cove, and we walk, holding hands, down to the beach. I sit at the edge, where the waves meet the sand, as Chef rolls up his pants and opens his market bag. He takes out a hardened baguette, perhaps a day or two old, breaks it in half, and sprinkles salt water all over the insides. Using his bent knee as his cutting board, he slices some very ripe tomatoes and takes apart a huge hunk of feta. Sitting in the rocks and shells, barefoot, jet-lagged, and awestruck, I realize that he’s making me reginatta, the dish he described in his interview. We eat, kiss, and cry. It’s almost too much to process that we’re both experiencing the phenomenon of a dream coming true. I wanted to be with him before we even met, and he wanted to be on this beach before he knew with whom. Unbelievable. We sleep away the rest of the day and resurface the next morning feeling fresh, swiftly falling into our daily ritual. For the next two weeks, I wake up first and make us a pot of coffee, a vital activity I have cultivated over the past few years. He wakes up two hours later, first calling me back to bed, then boiling eggs to go with toast and homemade apricot marmalade (brought over by a nice, nosy Greek neighbor). Over breakfast on the porch, with bed heads and pajamas, we decide which beach or covelike “crevice of love,” as he likes to call them, to explore. I pack our CDs for the car ride, books for me, and diving gear for him, and we get in our bathing suits and go. Lunch is an ice cream, or a couple of Mythos beers, and when we get too sunburned, hungry, or horny, we head back

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to the villa by way of the market. The thing about Chef and cooking is that when he’s not in his restaurant, he really can’t be bothered. This doesn’t disappoint me one bit. Our meals are low-key wherever we are, but I’m still careful not to cross the line between adorably foodie-illiterate and downright stupid. At the tented, outdoor markets, we shop for the glorious food basics I grew up with—fruit, cheese, yogurt, bread, and cakes—with a few delicious diversions. I can’t say no to baklava and he’s a lamb gyro junkie. One après-beach afternoon, Chef waits in the car while I run outside to buy a few bags of succulent peaches and plums for the house. My selection looks outstanding, but when I feed him a rock-hard peach, he scrunches his face and tells me it’s totally not ripe! I’m not sure where I got the idea, but I had always assumed all fruit should be hard and crunchy like apples. He delights in calling me out on that one (and I still prefer nectarines hard as tennis balls). For dinner, we eat casually and compatibly, popping into the local trattoria for Greek salads, a shared order of pasticcio, and maybe a few bites of sweet, giant baked beans. While eating gelato or ice-cream sandwiches, we walk home, watching for shooting stars. On our last night in Greece, we have to pack up our things and close down the house for the season. I can’t seem to fit all my sarongs and straw hats into my suitcase with all the evileye charms and jars of honey I’ve bought for my family. Chef nonchalantly suggests that I leave my beachwear here. “You’re going to need everything next year, aren’t you?” he says, with no clue how much his suggestion means to me. Flying home, we review our upcoming schedules, with me in New York and him in D.C., and suddenly the long-distance just seems insane. It takes a two-minute conversation to decide

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that we should move in together in Washington, and by the time the plane lands, I’ve already e-mailed my boss, Liz, that we need to talk. The same day I return to New York, I tell everyone that it’s official. I am leaving town and moving to Washington, D.C., to be Chef’s writerly girlfriend, who wears off-the-shoulder T-shirts and says provocative things. Yes, me, in the nation’s capital, where I have no roots, no friends, no facialist, no freelance work, no favorite homeless guy, no transgendered Starbucks girl, no go-to spin instructor—nothing other than my unbelievable new boyfriend and his uncontaminated, hippielike heart. We’ll light up the city, grow Chef’s business, make babies, and map out a beach house halfway between his restaurant and my family. Or something like that. I give People as much notice as they need, which most of my colleagues use as precious time to dissuade me from “throwing away my career.” They’re not trying to be negative. It’s just not the kind of culture at the magazine where women leave their promising jobs with full benefits and car service just because they’ve met scruffy guys with great hair who whoosh them away to the Greek Islands. I can barely look at Liz, who’s been like a big sister to me since the day she brought me in for a formal interview, when I couldn’t help but blow off all the super-corporate questions and fixate on her translucent skin and uncanny resemblance to Julianne Moore. A seasoned editor with supreme grace, Liz has done her best to keep me on track ever since, and because I respect her so, it’s my great pleasure to deliver her good work. But like my mother, my sister, and the other good women in my life, Liz also knows that my mind is made up on moving to D.C. She accepts that I’m three parts love, one part logic. I have a good-bye lunch with J.D. Heyman, another top
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editor at the magazine and a smart, funny, straight-shooting guy that everyone at People really respects. Unlike Liz, he’s openly apprehensive. “I know you really like this person, Alyssa, but are you sure you want to do this?” he says, looking me directly in the eye. It’s not like J.D. to get so personal. “I’m asking you to wait it out. Give it a little more time, will ya?” J.D. recently guided me through my first cover story, a huge profile on the actresses from Sex & the City, an enviable assignment that brought me so much joy. He worries I’ll feel depleted without New York’s incomparable energy and the camaraderie of being around other people like me. While too gentlemanly to say so, I’m sure, J.D. has also noticed my habit of rushing dangerously into romance, further validating his concern. “New York will always be here,” I ultimately tell him, with a trusting smile. “And the bus is only twenty bucks.” The few people who are excited for me are mostly friends who are Top Chef fans. They think I’ll get invited to the best dinner parties, have barbecues with Bobby Flay, fly to France with Food & Wine. But I tell them that even though it’s what intially drew me to him, the “celebrity-chef shitshow” is the last reason I’m uprooting my life. Turns out, Chef’s career is my least favorite thing about him. Owning a restaurant is a grueling, self-vandalizing profession—I can see that already—and his place has been open only a few months. And being on TV, in my very jaded opinion, is overrated. It can be lucrative if you’re prepared to play the game, but show-business whoredom is not for the fainthearted. It can make you, and it can break you. Nonetheless, Chef likes the taste of celebrity; the validation fulfills something inside him. And so, I feed the beast. I help him hire a publicist and an agent, both with major reputations for making chefs super famous. I buy him a BlackBerry for his birthday, and we create a Facebook and Twitter account for
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him. I even pull a favor with a producer friend to get him on Good Morning America. I am totally committed to his burgeoning career, even if mine is on hold. We’ll take turns kicking ass. As my days at People wind down, I take the train to D.C. every few days to look at apartments for us. It’s fall and Congress is back in session, which means that work is booming for Chef. I worry about adding any stress to his workdays, so I leave him alone at the restaurant and stroll the streets of Capitol Hill solo, checking out the one-bedrooms and bumping into portly politicians who smell like shaving cream and never say “Excuse me.” As I explore the neighborhoods, I try to mesh with my new stomping ground. I stop into coffee shops, read the Washington Post in the park, browse the stores in Dupont Circle, and do all the things that bring me simple pleasures in New York. I try to stay lighthearted with all the unfamiliar people in their unattractive outfits; I smile but no one smiles back. It’s not like we’re all so copacetic in New York City either, yet I totally get, and appreciate, those fuck-my-life dirty looks and broke-andexhausted blank stares. In Washington, no matter what I do, or where I go, I can’t catch a vibe anywhere. But that’s okay. Nothing is going to bring me down now. On my last day at the magazine, I attend a morning staff meeting with more than fifty people, where the editor-in-chief asks everyone to raise their venti skim lattes in honor of my scandalous stories, great sources, and something about an inner sparkle. . . . Truthfully, I have to tune out the words. Otherwise I’ll start to cry. People was a really nice place to work. Luckily, the buzz of my BlackBerry distracts me as soon as the meeting shifts back to business. I look down to read that Chef has found us an apartment in Capitol Hill and rented it on the spot! “OMG, LYS. It has a writer’s den overlooking a

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cherry blossom tree, and a big, open kitchen . . . it’s soooo us!” he texts. That I trust his taste to sign a lease without me shows just how much I like his style. And it’s such a relief. In our own version of “the trick,” Liz and I have decided not to drag out our farewells. She’s not the type to get theatrical in the office, and I’m almost embarrassed by my affection for her. So she’s purposely going home early today to make things easier on both of us. When I hear a soft knock on my door in the late afternoon, I know it’s time. “You take care, chérie,” she says kindly and gently, and as our glossy eyes lock, she exits my boxed-up empty office and shuts the door. I stare at the blank wall, where I once hung a framed copy of a John Updike quote, “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” And I weep. I don’t know why the experience of parting ways with my boss hits me harder than separating from any of my girlfriends or even my family, but I suspect a small part of me knows that in saying good-bye to Liz, I am leaving behind so much more.

63

Cheese Toast for Two Kids in Love
Serves 2

I could become a James Beard Award–winning food writer or a Top Chef Master and I will always believe that the best food in the world is a simple thing called “cheese toast”—which is fancy for cheese melted on toast. Chef has made me cheese toast with Muenster, cheddar, Gruyère, Swiss, smoked mozzarella, Roquefort, and anything else we can find in the fridge. The more options in our cheese drawer, the more he layers. Usually he’ll use three slices with interesting flavors on a piece of thick, hearty bread (I like pumpernickel). But to be perfectly honest, a few slices of Kraft Singles on a frozen sesame bagel could make me swoon, too.
2 large slices of bread, approximately 1 inch thick Dijon mustard (optional) Unsalted butter (optional) 4 to 6 large slices of cheese Salt and pepper

On your bread, spread mustard or butter if you so desire. Cover the bread with 2 or 3 slices of cheese. Put the bread on a baking sheet under the broiler or in a toaster oven for about 2 minutes, or until the cheese gets brown, bubbly, and almost burned. Then remove from the heat, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve.

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Life-Altering Lemon Cake
Serves 8 to 10

My life changed forever that night at Fabiane’s in Williamsburg, and the lemon cake was the star of the meal, so it deserves a lot of attention. This version is from the original Silver Palate Cookbook (Workman Publishing, 1982), and it’s one of the best. I will never forget sharing dessert that night with Chef.
For the cake

½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus additional for greasing the pan 2 cups granulated sugar 3 large eggs 3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour ½ teaspoon baking soda ½ teaspoon salt 1 cup buttermilk 2 tightly packed tablespoons grated lemon zest 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
For the lemon icing

1 pound confectioners’ sugar 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature 3 tightly packed tablespoons grated lemon zest ½ cup fresh lemon juice (about 4 lemons)

Place a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 10-inch tube pan. Make the cake: In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment), cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Stir the flour mixture into the egg mixture, alternately
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with buttermilk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Add the lemon zest and lemon juice. Pour the batter into the prepared tube pan. Set the pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour and 5 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan and a tester or knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Prepare the icing: In a medium mixing bowl, cream the sugar and butter thoroughly. Mix in the lemon zest and lemon juice. Set aside. Remove the cake from the pan and spread the icing onto the cake while still warm. Let cool before serving.

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SASSY SUMMER READS
AN EXCERPT FROM THREE RIVERS PRESS

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ONE WOMAN’S QUEST to CONQUER SKEPTICISM, C Y N I C I S M , a n d C I G A R E T T E S o n t h e PAT H t o ENLIGHTENMENT

Suzanne M O R R I S O N

Copyright © 2011 by Suzanne Morrison All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. www.crownpublishing.com Three Rivers Press and the Tugboat design are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Morrison, Suzanne. Yoga bitch : one woman’s quest to conquer skepticism, cynicism, and cigarettes on the path to enlightenment / Suzanne Morrison.—1st ed. p. cm. 1. Morrison, Suzanne. 2. Spiritual biography. 3. Yoga. I. Title. BL73.M667A3 2011 204'.36092—dc22 [B] 2010041940 ISBN 978-0-307-71744-3 eISBN 978-0-307-71745-0 printed in the united states of america Cover design by Jessie Sayward Bright 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

First Edition

1.

Indrasana

. . . and before Kitty knew where she was, she found herself not merely under Anna’s influence, but in love with her, as young girls do fall in love with older and married women . . .

— leo tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Today I found myself strangely moved by a yoga teacher who spoke like a cross between a phone-sex operator and a poetry slam contestant. At the start of class, she asked us to pretend we were floating on a cloud. As she put it, “You’re oh-pening your heart to that cloud, you’re floating, you’re blossoming out and tuning in, you’re evanescing, yeah, that’s right, you’re evanescing.” I briefly contemplated giving the teacher my yoga finger and walking out. I’ve been practicing yoga for close to a

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decade now, and at thirty-four I’m too old for that airyfairy horseshit. As far as I’m concerned, floating on a cloud sounds less like a pleasant spiritual exercise and more like what you think you’re doing when you’re on LSD while falling out of an airplane. But I tuned out her mellifluous, yogier-than-thou voice and soon enough found myself really meditating. Of course, I was meditating on punching this yoga teacher in the face, but still. At the end of class, she asked us to join her in a chant: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate . . . which means, she said, her voice shedding its yogabot tones, gone, gone, gone beyond. She was young, a little cupcake of a yoga teacher in her black and gray yoga outfit. Maybe she was twenty-five. Maybe younger. She said her grandmother had recently passed away, and she wanted to chant for her and for all of our beloveds who had already gone beyond. In that moment, I forgave her everything, wanted to button up her sweater and give her a cup of cocoa. I chanted gone, gone, gone beyond for her beloveds and for mine, and for the twenty-five-year-old I once was.

I turned twenty-five the month after September eleventh, when the stories of those who had gone beyond that day were

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fresh and ubiquitous. I was working three jobs to save money to move from Seattle to New York, and whether I was at the law firm, at the pub, or taking care of my grandparents’ bills, the news was on, and it was all bad. So many people looking for the remains of the people they loved. So many images of the planes hitting the towers, the smoke, the ash. I had never really been afraid of death before that year. I thought I had worked all that out by the age of seventeen, when I concluded that so long as one lives authentically, one dies without fear or regret. As a teenager, it seemed so simple: if I lived my life as my authentic self wished to live, then death would become something to be curious about; one more adventure I would experience on my own terms. Religion was an obstacle to authenticity, I figured, especially if you were only confirming in the Catholic Church so that your mother wouldn’t give you the stinkeye for the rest of your life. So, at seventeen, I told my mother I wouldn’t be confirming. That Kierkegaard said each must come to faith alone, and I hadn’t come to faith— and she couldn’t make me. This was all well and good for a teenager who secretly believed herself to be immortal, as my countless speeding

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tickets suggested I did. But by twenty-five the idea of death as an adventure struck me as idiotic. As callous, heartless, and, most of all, clueless. Death wasn’t an adventure; it was a near and ever-present void. It was the reason my throat ached when I watched my grandfather try to get up out of his chair. It was the reason we all watched the news with our hands over our mouths. I had recently graduated from college, having postponed my studies until I was twenty-one in order to follow my authentic self to Europe after high school. Now I was supposed to leave for New York by the following summer. Before the attack on lower Manhattan, I had been nervous about moving to New York, but now what was supposed to be a difficult but necessary rite of passage felt more like courting my own annihilation. Everywhere I looked, I saw death. My move to New York was the death of my life in Seattle, of a life shared with my family and friends. Given the precariousness of our national security, it seemed as if moving away could mean never seeing them again. I remember wondering how long it would take me to walk home from New York should there be an apocalypse. I figured it would take a while. This worried me.

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Even when I wasn’t filling my head with postapocalyptic paranoid fantasies, death was out to get me. Once we got to New York, my boyfriend, Jonah, and I would move in together, and I knew what that meant. That meant marriage was coming, and after marriage, babies. And only one thing comes after babies. Death. I came down with cancer all the time. Brain cancer, stomach cancer, bone cancer. Even trimming my fingernails reminded me that time was passing, and death was coming. Those little boomerangs of used-up life showed up in the sink week after week. I measured out my life in toenail clippings. “Stop thinking like that!” my sister said. “I can’t.” “Just try. You haven’t even tried.” My sister, Jill, has always been the wisest, the most grounded, of my three siblings. But she couldn’t teach me how to live in the face of death, not then. But Indra could.

Indra was a woman, a yoga teacher, a god. Indra taught me how to stand on my head, how to quit smoking, and then lifted me off this Judeo-Christian continent, to fly

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over miles and miles of indifferent ocean, before dropping me down on a Hindu island in the middle of a Muslim archipelago at the onset of the War on Terror. Indra was my first yoga teacher and I loved her. I loved her with the kind of ambivalence I’ve only ever had about God, and every man I’ve ever left. Indra introduced me to the concept of union. That’s what hatha yoga is all about, uniting mind and body, masculine and feminine, and, most of all, the individual self with the indivisible Self— who some call God. When I was seventeen, I was proud that I had chosen not to confirm into the Catholic Church. I figured everybody I told— all those sane people in the world who did not share my crazypants DNA— would agree with me. I was right; most of them, especially my artist friends, did. But one teacher, my drama teacher, said something I’ve never forgotten. After rehearsal one day, she listened indulgently while I bragged about my lack of faith, a half-smile on her face. Then she said, “It’s okay to fall away from the Church when you’re young. You’ll come back when people start dying.” People were starting to die. And as if my drama teacher had seen something in the prop room’s crystal ball, spiritual

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memoirs started accumulating on the floor beside my bed. I told no one what books I was reading. If I had, I wouldn’t have said that I was reading them in the hopes of finding God. I would have said that they were works of fiction, really, redemption narratives dressed up in the styles and mores of different times and places. I would never have admitted that what kept me reading was the liberating expansion I felt in my lungs as narrator after narrator was transformed from lost into found. Maybe that’s what led me to Indra. I don’t know. All I know is that one night in the fall of 2001, I walked in off the street to my first real yoga class. I had done yoga in acting classes, and once or twice at the gym where my sister worked, so I knew the postures already. I had never been especially attracted to the idea of a yoga practice, but now I walked into this studio as if I had spent all day weeping in the garden like Saint Augustine, waiting for a disembodied voice to sing, Pick your ass up off the lawn furniture and go work your shit out, for the love of God.

That night, I stepped out of the misty Seattle dusk and into a warm, dimly lit studio. Candlelight glinted off

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the hardwood floors. The low thrum of monks chanting emanated from an unseen speaker, and a stunningly beautiful woman with straight, honey-colored hair sat perfectly still in front of a low altar at the front of the room. Indra. She wore flax-colored cotton pants and a matching tank top. Tan, blonde, tall: I’ve never been one to worship at the altar of such physical attributes. It was more the way she sat, still and yet fluid, that attracted me, and her eyes, which were warm and brown, with friendly crow’s-feet lengthening toward her hairline. Soon we were stretching and lunging and sweating. The lights stayed low and her voice stayed soft, so that eventually it almost seemed as if her instructions were coming from inside my head. Toward the end of class, we were doing something ridiculously hard, lying on our backs with our legs hovering a foot off the ground until my abdominal muscles felt like they would burst. Without realizing it, I had folded my hands at my solar plexus. “That’s a good idea,” Indra said, nodding at my hands as she kneeled beside me to adjust my hips. “It always helps me to pray when I don’t know what I’m doing.” I had to laugh at how baldly she acknowledged my

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incompetence, but even as I laughed I wanted to point out to her that I hadn’t been praying. I had been thinking, Kill me. Please kill me. I wouldn’t pray. Who on earth was there to pray to? Or, for that matter, who not on earth? But by the end of class I was thanking the gods for this teacher. Before I left, I wrote her a check for a month’s worth of classes, and told her I’d be back soon.

Indra co-owned the little studio on Capitol Hill with her partner, Lou. Lou was older than Indra by at least ten years, but they were both the same height and weight— both tall, both strong. That was one of the first things Indra told me when I asked her about Lou, as if this were proof that she and Lou had been designed for one another. I didn’t go to Lou’s classes much— afterwards I always felt like my tendons had turned to rubber bands, but he was too intense and his gaze too penetrating for me. Also, his classes were full of smelly drum-circle types. But Indra’s classes felt like home. I don’t know if I can fully express how bizarre a statement that was. Indra’s classes felt like home. Not long before I met Indra, I would’ve mocked myself mercilessly

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for saying such a thing. Before her, my idea of exercise was walking up the hill to buy smokes. Rearranging my bookshelves. Having sex. Maybe an especially vigorous acting exercise. Most of the time I lived above the neck. I’m a reader. Being a reader means I like to be in small, warm places like beds and bathtubs, whether I’m reading or snoozing or staring at dust motes in a shaft of sunlight. At twenty-five, the idea of physical exertion put me in a panic. I would actually get angry, sometimes, when I saw people jogging, sort of in the same way I would get angry at people who wanted me to believe in a God who requires us to be miserable all the time if we’re to get into heaven. All joggers believed in an afterlife, I figured. They must; why else would they be wasting so much time in this life, which by all rational accounts is short and finite? In my hometown the population was split. Half the people in Seattle jogged and believed in an afterlife, and the other half read and believed in Happy Hour. At twenty-five I was firmly entrenched in the latter half of Seattle’s population, so it came as an absolute shock, not just to me but to everyone who knew me, when I found myself going to Indra’s yoga studio in leggings and

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tank tops four times a week, sometimes more, to sweat and stretch and experience what it was to use my body for something other than turning over in bed. I would arrive at the studio feeling like I’d spent the day tied by the ankles to Time’s bumper, my fingernails scraping the earth. I walked out upright, fluid, graceful, as if Indra herself was the pose I needed to master. My acting teachers were always telling us to find characters through their walks, that if we could physically embody our characters, we could begin to map their mental and emotional landscapes. So, when I walked somewhere alone, I walked like Indra. Spine erect, chin lowered, I was all straight lines when I was Indra— tall and long, my softer curves elongating into her ballerina sinew. My steps were deliberate and faithful. No need to look down; Indra would trust the terrain. In class I watched the way she eased her body into each pose. No matter how excruciating the posture was for me, no matter how mangled and unbalanced I felt in it, Indra’s face was always calm. She seemed to be somewhere beyond the pose, even, as if she were only faintly aware that her body was being sculpted into the posture by an unseen hand, her arms pulled into perfect alignment, trunk twisted

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and massaged, the arches of her feet caressed into graceful caverns. Her toes splayed out one by one like the feathers in a burlesque dancer’s fan.

Indra made me want to buy things. Things like hair straighteners. Even Indra’s hair expressed a certain serenity, while my wavy, fluffy hair, forever escaping its hairbands, said no such thing about me. She made me want to buy yoga mats and books with titles like City Karma and Urban Dharma and A Brooklyn Kama Sutra. I left her class every morning and walked straight to Trader Joe’s, as if the purchase of organic cheese and tomatoes and biodynamic bubble bath was an extension of my yoga practice. And according to Yoga Journal, it was. But the most amazing thing of all was that Indra made me want to quit smoking. After class one morning, just as I was putting on the long wool coat I had worn out to the bar the night before, she asked me if I was a smoker. I told her I was, you know, sometimes— like when I drank, or when a girlfriend was going through a breakup, or like, you know, when I was awake.

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“But I’m in the process of quitting,” I said. Indra laughed, a deep, appreciative belly laugh. “I know how that goes,” she said. She lowered her voice and leaned toward me as if she were about to tell me something she’d never shared with another student. “I was in the process of quitting smoking myself— for about twelve years.” “You’re kidding,” I whispered back. She nodded. “But the thing about quitting smoking is, it’s not really a process.” She smiled. “It’s an action.” It wasn’t the last time Indra would call me on my bullshit. But beyond her words I heard something far more provocative, inspiring and terrifying all at once. I was once you, so one day you can be me. I wonder, now, if that’s the first time I felt ambivalent about Indra? When for a moment I saw not just my potential to be her, but her potential to be me? I don’t know. All I know is that soon something happened that made me willing to follow her anywhere, if she would only teach me how to live.

It was Thanksgiving. That year my grandmother wasn’t well enough to join us at my aunt and uncle’s for dinner,

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but my grandfather would never miss a party if he could help it. In fact, my grandfather usually was the party; now that Gram’s health was failing, we all spent more and more time hanging out at the house to keep Grandpa company. It wasn’t unusual for my sister and me to arrive at our parents’ and find our brothers mixing Scotch and waters for Grandpa on a Friday night; all four of us often started our weekends doing just that. This was not a chore. Even my friends liked spending time with my grandfather. My mom always called her father-in-law an old shoe, the kind of person everybody’s comfortable around, who you can’t help but love right away. My sister called him the Swearing Teddy Bear. Six foot four, with a square head, thick white hair, and bright blue eyes, my grandfather was famous for saying the wrong thing at the right time. When he met my friend Francesca for the first time, he looked her up and down, a sly smile on his face, and said, “Well you’re a spicy little number, aren’t you?” She laughed so hard she almost spat her wine across the table. When I told him that my best friend from the time I was in elementary school had come out, he said, “That’s

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fine, but what the hell do those lesbians do together, Suzie? What do they do?” “They do everything a man and woman do together, Grandpa.” He wagged his finger, already pleased with himself. “Ah, yes— except for one thing.” Politically correct, he was not. Grandpa wasn’t in the best shape. We all tried to get him to ride his exercise bike, and sometimes he would oblige us, pedaling halfheartedly for five minutes, before giving up and requesting a tin of sardines as his reward. Mostly he liked to sit in his big red chair, watching court shows and old British imports, or listening to Verdi and Wagner through his headphones, whistling along to the good parts. After a long night of turkey and mashed potatoes, my father and older brother were helping Grandpa into the car when he started wheezing. This wasn’t unusual. The mechanics of standing up and sitting down had given him difficulty for some time; twisting and bending and lowering himself all at once to get into a car was a lot for a man who hummed to hide the grunts he made when he tried

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to tie his shoelaces. But tonight the wheezing started even as he walked down my aunt and uncle’s short driveway, flanked by his two namesakes. By the time he reached the car, the sound coming from his chest was like sucking on taut cellophane, and as he tried to lift his foot to get in, he crumpled against my father. I ran around to the other side of the car and helped guide him into place as his breathing thinned into reedy sips of air pulled through lips molded like a flute player’s. His eyes were panicked. I held on to his arm and willed him to breathe, taking deep breaths to show him how it was done, how he could find his way back to my face and to the car and to another night of sleep. “Come on, Grandpa,” I said, stroking his arm. I breathed deeply over and over again, this is how it’s done, just do what I’m doing, but soon my own breath grew shallow and sharp and I could feel that my face was wet. I was sobbing. Or hyperventilating. Or both. I don’t remember what happened next, except that I was outside the car, being hugged by my cousin Gabe, who is a priest, crying furiously until my dad ordered me to get back in the car. Grandpa’s breath had deepened a little and he relaxed,

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and we scrambled to get him home. On the drive, he rested limply against the seat, exhausted. He turned his head toward mine. “Well, this is no fun at all,” he said. The next day, all I had to do was think about my grandfather, and my chest and throat would constrict as if I were drowning. I tried not to think about what was coming, but it seemed as if the clock were running faster than usual, as if I could only watch as time pleated like the bellows of an accordion. I watched my grandparents die, and then, as if only a day later, there I was, guiding my father into the car, my own children paralyzed by the realization that soon they would be guiding me. I saw myself wheezing beside my panicked grandchild, creating another link in this daisy chain of family love and heartache, and I knew that it wouldn’t matter if I lived an authentic life or not, if I lived for my family or my boyfriend or some idea of my truest self. None of that would help me as I peered into the void. I went to Indra’s class and did everything she told me to do. I inhaled when she said to inhale, I exhaled when she said to exhale, and by the end, when we were lying still in Corpse pose, I could finally breathe again.

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It was just a few months later that I took all the money I would have spent on a year’s worth of cigarettes— about twelve hundred dollars— and gave it to Indra. It was a down payment to attend a two-month yoga teacher training in Bali with Indra and her partner, Lou. But I’ll be honest: it wasn’t a down payment to become a yoga teacher; it was a down payment on a new me. Not long after I sealed my fate with that check, I bought a thick, lined journal bound in teal leather, and started to write. The act of writing wasn’t new; I had kept journals since my tenth birthday, when my diary had a Hello Kitty cover and a small brass lock to keep my brothers out. But this time I was vaguely aware that I was writing for someone I couldn’t pinpoint. Was I writing for an older version of myself, so that I might remember who I once was? Or was it for Indra, for Jonah, for the ether? I can’t say for sure. But I’m thinking of Thomas Mallon, now, who said, “No one ever kept a diary for just himself.” In the case of the diary to follow, he is right.

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February 17, 2002
Seattle, 3:00 a.m. Okay. So, I’m freaking out. I leave for my yoga retreat in Bali one week from today. I can’t wait to go, and I don’t want to go. It’s heartbreaking to think that in one week I’ll be on the other side of the globe, while Jonah starts packing his things to move to New York. When I get back, he’ll be gone. I’ll have a few weeks to shut down my life in Seattle before joining him there. He’ll find an apartment for us in Brooklyn while I’m still in Bali. I don’t know what’s more shocking to me— that Jonah and I are going to leave Seattle, or that my mother is actually happy that I’ll be living with my boyfriend. Living in sin. She says she’d prefer it if we just got married already, since everybody knows that’s the plan. But as she put it, “If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. But I feel better knowing you’ll be in New York with a man in the house.” Bali. Two months away from home and family. I’m not cutting the umbilical cord, not yet. I’m just sort of perforating it. I used to have balls, dammit. I look back on the person I was when I was fresh out of high school, and I don’t even know her anymore. Back then, I did what I wanted. I didn’t care what people thought of me, or if I was letting anybody down. When all of my friends went off to college, I ran away to Europe as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I hadn’t even been out of the country yet, but I knew what I wanted to do, and so I saved up my money and I did it.

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I wasn’t afraid of anything. Now I feel like I have to apologize to my family for moving to New York. For cutting short the precious time we have together in order to pursue my own selfish dreams. I’m even afraid of this journal. I’m terrified of being honest with myself, but I’ve made a promise that I won’t censor myself here. Ever since the ex-boyfriend read my journal (including an unfortunate entry about how I had cheated on him with a German engineering student named Jochim. Or Johann. I couldn’t remember), I haven’t been able to bring myself to write about anything too risky, except in code. But this trip will be mine. No boyfriend, no family. If I write anything too damaging, I can always burn this book before I come home. I haven’t been to confession in over a decade. When I was a kid my mom would say, “Don’t you feel better? A nice clean slate,” after every confession. I usually felt guilty when she said that, because I knew my slate was still smudgy. I could never bring myself to do all of my penance— if the priest said to do twelve Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers, I’d do two or three of each and call it good. So I knew I hadn’t really been purified. But now I am ready for the clean slate. This trip to Bali is an exhilarating adventure when I think about spending two months with Indra, who I love. But it also represents two months of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, a purgatory of sorts, when I think about spending so much time with Lou, Indra’s partner, who will be teaching alongside her. Lou scares the crap out of me. I feel like he can read my mind. Hell, I’m writing this right now and I have the creepy sensation that he knows I’m doing it. I imagine him, already in Bali, in some womblike meditation chamber, shirtless

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and tan, wearing linen pants with an elastic waistband. I see him breathing deeply, communing with Babaji, when suddenly he opens his eyes, and knows. That’s all he would do, just open his eyes, and know. He wouldn’t know it with his mind; he would know it with his mindbody. When I first began attending Indrou Yoga last fall, I quickly became aware of a certain group of slightly smelly, deeply focused yoga students who followed Lou around like he was Jesus in Spandex shorts. They showed no fear around Lou, just reverence and adoration. Lou makes me feel very small and very weak. Maybe it’s the way he calls his students “people” as if we’re all more hopelessly human and flawed than he is. It might be simply that Lou reminds me of a priest. Well— a priest who smells of curry, has fingernails stained yellow from turmeric, and who chews cloves instead of breath mints. Lou’s the kind of yogi who probably uses a tongue scraper. I think tongue scrapers are revolting. Which is not to say that Lou is Indian. Actually, I think he was born and raised in Connecticut. The legend at the studio is that Lou dropped out in the late sixties, wore his hair long, and draped himself in East Indian getups that looked like long linen nightgowns. He rivaled Timothy Leary in hallucinogenic drug consumption, and when he was done with drugs, he spent four years consuming nothing but fruit juice. The first time I went to one of his classes, he looked straight at me and said, “People, if you are here to study yoga in the same way you studied aerobics in the eighties, please leave. Yoga is not exercise. It’s a spiritual practice. When I see you practicing, you’ll get more of my attention.” I’ve avoided his classes since then. But now I’ll be with him every day. Holy hell.

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February 18

The last time I was in New York, a year or so ago, I was smoking a cigarette at a downtown Starbucks when I overheard two women chatting outside the yoga studio next door. They were gossiping, actually, but in a yogic sort of way. It was clear that they meant their cooing to suggest that they were more concerned than angry. They were talking about another girl in their yoga teacher training program. They both spoke in soothing tones, their vowels as round as the breasts of a Hindu goddess. Clearly this classmate of theirs had done something appalling, because their conversation went like this: “Feather just doesn’t get it.” “Mmm-hmmm. She doesn’t get it. Poor Feather.” “She doesn’t even get how unyogic she’s being.” “I mean, I feel sorry for her, honestly. She just doesn’t get it.” “I know, and I can’t believe she thinks she gets it. Mmmmm. She totally doesn’t get it.” “She doesn’t get it at all!” “I mean, maybe she’s a young soul, you know? Right? But what troubles me is that she thinks she gets it.” “Right? And now we’re upset and she’s polluting the whole environment. It’s like what guruji said. She’s got, like, no samtosha.” “I had total bliss before she came in.” “I know, total bliss, right?” “Right!” And so on. At first I laughed at them. I went home to Seattle and Jill and I joked about them for months. When I told her I was going to Indonesia to study yoga, she said that if Bali

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turned me into one of those yoga bitches she would strap me down and force-feed me steak and beer and cigarettes until I came back to life. “I’ve got your back,” she said. I love my sister. But ever since I bought my plane ticket I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. I don’t know what I’m more afraid of— that I will become one of them, or that I’m going to a place where I’ll be surrounded by them. What I keep thinking of as a yoga retreat is technically a yoga teacher training. But I’m more interested in the retreat part.

February 19
When I made these plans to be in Bali while Jonah moved to New York, it seemed like a good idea. Maybe we needed a break. We haven’t been getting along well in months. But now that the date is approaching he’s sweet and attentive and stays late at the pub till I get off my shift so we can go home together. It’s like we’ve had a renaissance just knowing our time in Seattle is ending. I’ve been packing very slowly, and today Jonah was hanging out while I put my toiletry bag together. I’ve had the same bottle of sunscreen for at least three years— I have so little need for it beneath Seattle’s pewter skies— and I started to pack it, but then I had a thought. “Does sunscreen go bad?” I asked Jonah. He looked sort of puzzled, and got up off my futon to look at the bottle I held in my hands. “This bottle’s been around forever.” He took it, popped the top, and squirted a tiny bit onto his finger. Then, with a quick glance to make sure I was paying attention, he licked it off his finger and smacked his lips the way he would when testing butter to see if it’s gone

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rancid. “Tastes fine to me,” he said, shrugging. For a moment I actually thought that he knew what sunscreen was supposed to taste like when it had gone off, but then he cracked up and started wiping his tongue with his sleeve. “Blech,” he sputtered. “Remind me not to do that again.” I hate the idea of coming home to find him gone. A friend of mine, a sailor who’s been around the world a million times, came to the pub last night and he and I talked about Indonesia for a long time. I’ve always had a bit of a secret crush on him. Last night I felt that familiar thrill— equal parts euphoria and panic— when he walked in. But today? Today I miss Jonah already.

Later
So, I know I said I wasn’t going to censor myself in this journal, but in this one instance, I have to: my friend, the guy who came into the pub last night. I’ve been thinking about it, and I can’t write his real name. It just feels wrong. So, I’ll allow myself this one act of cowardice, even if it is terribly Sex and the City of me. He’s a sailor, so that’s what I’ll call him. The Sailor. He gave me a novel to bring with me to Bali. I’m looking at it right now. Anyway, he’s just a friend. I mean— sure, there was one night, before I was with Jonah, when we kissed. A lot. Without our clothes on. But that was three years ago. So there’s no reason for me to feel guilty about him, even if I did get a little jolt when I opened up the book he gave me and found a card in it. It doesn’t say much other than “Bon Voyage,” but still. . . . Normally this would send me into paroxysms of guilt and I would fantasize about an alternate universe in which I live with him and we lie around in his turret

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reading books all day and talking about them at night. And other things. You know. But I’m too depressed about leaving Jonah. Can’t even enjoy a good fantasy.

February 20
So my yoga clothes for my yoga retreat in Indonesia were made in Indonesia. Is this a good sign? Like, my pants will get a homecoming? Or is this a terrible sign, that I will be greeted as an imperialistic capitalist neocolonialist visiting Bali to check up on my sweatshops? Ugh. I’m pretty sure I was supposed to buy organic cotton “Definitely made by grown-ups” yoga clothes. Shit. I’m already behind the curve.

February 22
I e-mailed Indra to tell her that I don’t think I can go. I’m not up for this, I’m not a brave person anymore and all I can think about is that the world is about to end— everybody says so, Nostradamus, the drunk at the pub last night who kept saying, “You think 9/11 was bad? Wait till you see 6/13!”— and I don’t want to be away from my family and friends when God’s other shoe drops. Indra wrote back. She’s already in Bali, and she said that if things go down she knows where she wants to be, and it isn’t the U.S. She told me it’s beautiful and warm and peaceful there, and that they’re waiting for me. “Everything is simpler here,” she said. Then she told me to do a visualization exercise in which I imagine everything going well. “Imagine a best-case scenario for your yoga practice, your meditation practice, and your life in this unbelievable paradise.”

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Okay. So, my visualization: I’m living in one of those thatched huts I saw in my travel book. There’s a mud floor. I’m sitting lotus style next to a straw bed, in flowing white yoga clothes, the ones I saw in Yoga Journal and would buy if they didn’t cost half the price of my plane ticket. My roommate is sitting next to me, and we’re eating curds and rice out of charmingly ethnic bowls. The curds are delicious. Whatever curds are. We’re reading sacred texts, and they are making us feel very sacred. When it’s time to go to class, we leave with our yoga mats leaning out of our straw bags just so— like baguettes in a black-and-white photograph from France. Hmmm. It’s working, kind of.

February 23
Up in the clouds. I am not having a panic attack. I am not having a panic attack.

Later
I just realized that I didn’t bring a single novel with me, nothing fun to read whatsoever, and yet I probably tore my rotator cuff waiting in the security line at SeaTac with eighty pounds of sacred texts in my bag. At the forty-minute mark I cursed the terrorists for ruining international travel, and my shoulder along with it. Then I took it back. Didn’t seem yogic. Also, bad luck: I’ve got twenty hours of flying ahead of me and I don’t want to tempt fate. That said, when I reached the hour-mark and still had a half-dozen switchbacks to go before my turn for the X-ray anal probe, I allowed myself a few unyogic epithets. They’re winning! I wanted to cry as the TSA guy fondled my emer-

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gency underwear at the frisking station. The terrorists are winning! He smiled down at me as he folded the undies and put them back. He smiled as if he could read my mind, and it was a secret joke between the two of us. It was such a funny smile I couldn’t help but smile back. Then he opened my compact of birth-control pills, presumably to make sure the pills weren’t actually teensy tiny little grenades. So, back to my books. I’ve brought:
The Yoga Sutras. (“Threads of wisdom,” it says on the back. Sutra means “thread.” Opening randomly to a page, I read this: “The body is a disgusting place to visit, a place of blood and feces and pus. So why would you want to engage in sexual activity with one?” And now . . . I close the book.) The Upanishads. (Three different translations— two of which the teller at Elliott Bay Book Company nodded at, and the last of which made him wrinkle his nose and say, “Ew, mainstream.”) The Bhagavad Gita. (I read it in high school, senior year, and pretended that I found it really deep and interesting. I think it’s about a chariot race.) The Autobiography of a Yogi. (Memoirists are egomaniacs. I adore the irony!) Trunk-in-Pond: The Illustrated Kama Sutra. (On sale, pocket-sized, and Hindu, people.)

I also have a trio of New Age texts that, if put together, would be called something like The Universe Comes of Age: God(dess) in the Age of Aquarius. (Oh dear.)

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Okay, I lied. I do have one novel. The one the Sailor gave me. Oh, but I don’t even remember what it’s called. Forget it. Arrgh. Still lying. It’s called Maqroll. Never heard of it, and frankly I don’t even know why I brought it. I probably won’t have time to read anything fun with all these sacred texts to get through.

February 24
I wish this pen had Technicolor ink in it. From gray, gloomy Seattle to this! Bali. I’m in Bali. This has been the longest day of my life. I got in this afternoon, bleary and buckled in the joints from twenty hours of flying. After Jonah and I said goodbye, I was so teary and freaked out, my sister gave me two cigarettes in case I should need them. I put them in the pocket of my gray wool pants, and when I got off the plane in Denpasar I realized they were both broken and my pocket was full of loose tobacco. Which was unfortunate. I could have used one last dose of home before hopping into a stranger’s Land Rover to drive north to Penestanan, a village outside of the town of Ubud, which, according to my travel guides, is Bali’s spiritual and artistic center. First impression of Bali? It’s hot. Like, steam-room hot. The tiny Denpasar airport is the size of Seattle’s ferry terminal, and as full of white people. These other white people were smart enough to wear linen, though. The Frenchwoman next to me in customs eyed me in my black turtleneck and then leaned into her husband. “Quelle idiote,” she said. “Elle est surement Americaine.”

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I would’ve been mad, except that she was right. I sifted the tobacco in my pocket. The hour-long drive to Penestanan made me wonder if I’d survived the flight from Seattle only to die right here in the middle of Indonesia. I mean, holy sweet mother Mary, these Indonesians drive like buzzing road insects looking to reincarnate as soon as possible. I honestly believed we would be lucky if we only killed a handful before we made it to the center of the island. (My travel books told me that the Balinese are a very sacred people, deeply reverent. There is no evidence of this on their highways.) And Holy Christ, the dogs! We were right in the middle of the freeway when a pack of mangy-looking dogs darted right in front of us. The driver, Made— who had the sweetest face and beautiful teeth— just laughed and swerved around them. “Puppies!” he said. I tried to be enthusiastic. “Cute! Love, love dogs. I really do.” But I was lying; this pack looked mean. They kept running alongside the Land Rover, barking hoarsely, clearly wanting nothing more than to spread fear and disease. Their backs were caked with dirt and more than one of them was missing an eye or a leg. But when we slowed down I also noted, against my will, that they were all— um. Virile. It’s shocking to see balls on a dog. It made my blood run cold: if these dogs aren’t fixed, then there will be ever so many more of them. We stopped at a light, and suddenly our car was surrounded by men waving newspapers in the windows. Made clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Jawa,” he said. “Never take ride from Jawanese driver.”

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“Why not?” “They will screw you. You are Australian?” “No, American.” “Oh!” His eyes lit up, and he pointed to my right. “We have your restaurants!” A McDonald’s loomed like a plastic castle against the horizon. As he pointed, he turned off the highway onto a narrow dirt road, nearly taking out three motorbikes in the process. Soon we were passing villages, thatched houses, women carrying huge piles of laundry or building materials on their heads, and more dogs. Lots of dogs. I am going to be here for two months. That’s what I kept telling myself as I looked around and tried not to imagine what those dogs smelled like. I tried to respond to Made’s chatter about McNuggets and milkshakes, but I was distracted. I was starting to wake up. I mean— until now, this had all been a fantasy. I had visualized this person, me but with better arms and clothes, in a charming National Geographic–meets-chic-import-store setting. But now all I could think was, I am going to be here, in this sticky, stinky heat for two months. Spring in Bali was starting to sound about as enticing as jumping into a sauna with a wet dog. I didn’t bring some Yoga Journal model to Bali, I brought myself here, and I couldn’t help but think that my pale, comfort-addicted body was not designed for roughing it. And the prospect of arriving at some mud-floored hut that was undoubtedly crawling with island creatures made me yearn for my cushy mattress and insect-free apartment. I was headed for a complete meltdown. Packs of rabid dogs, a mud-floored hut. I’d catch lice and ringworm and Japanese

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encephalitis. Come to think of it, it really hasn’t been all that long since Indonesia’s last civil war. Maybe they’re cooking up another one right now? At least if I’d gone ahead to New York, I’d only have had to deal with cockroaches. Which reminded me that Jonah is moving to New York in seven weeks. I missed my sister. I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to smoke. So I sort of did this meditation thing. Well— it’s not really a meditation, at least not one I’ve ever done in class. But it’s something I used to do on long car trips when I was bored or starting to get carsick. I look around at everybody else on the road, and I imagine them without their vehicles. It’s sort of like the trick of imagining everybody in the audience in their underwear, but it’s actually effective for calming me down. So all of us on the road, we’re still in our seated positions, holding invisible steering wheels or resting an arm on the door. The motorbikes are still packed two to a bike. But there is no bike. And there are no cars. All the vehicles are gone, and we’re all just zipping across the earth like this, just our bodies in space going very, very fast. But once we had arrived and I stepped down from Made’s elephant of a car, how very real it all became.

you know. it’s funny how scared I was. That was only a few hours ago, and already I’m looking back at that person— that person who was me— and feel like I should have just relaxed and waited to see what would happen, instead of imagining all sorts of terrible things. I mean, what good does that imagining do, anyway? You won’t know what something’s like till you’re there. Take my roommate, for instance. The only thing I knew to expect when I got to my lodgings in Penestanan was that

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I would have a roommate waiting for me. We spoke on the phone a month or so ago, very briefly, but her voice on the line was light and airy and she said something about seeing where the spirit takes us on this journey of the self and that we would be on a wisdom quest or vision quest or something like that, and so I was pretty sure she was of the New Age. Indra had told me that Jessica was a massage therapist, but on the phone Jessica called herself a bodyworker. I had no idea what a bodyworker was, but I suspected that it was someone who did not wear deodorant. Made dropped me off in a parking lot, really just a gravel road. To my right, the gravel mixed with dirt until it became a trail leading into woods that looked as cool and damp as the woods at home. To my left, green rice paddies stretched to the horizon. Jessica, pink-cheeked and lion-headed, stood where the gravel parking lot met the sea of green. About my height, but smaller in build than me, more willowy. She wore a ballerina-pink sarong, a white camisole tank top, and ancientlooking Teva sandals. She’s very pretty, like a muse, and her blonde hair is something else— it was held off her heartshaped face by tiny headbands of her own braids woven around her skull. My first thought was, I want that. As if I could buy her braids. The best news of the day? Jessica smells amazing. Like vanilla and amber. Not a dirty filthy hippie in sight! Feels like something to write home about. She doesn’t shave her legs, though. But you know, I went through my own experiment with hardcore feminism in high school, so I know all about it. I’m with ya, sister. At least Jessica has the balls to exhibit her hairy legs. When I stopped shaving, I wore lots

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and lots of tights. If I could’ve worn tights under my bathing suit, I would’ve. Since I couldn’t, I just never swam. Jessica had come to meet me with a Balinese girl named Su. Su is about sixteen, I think, maybe even younger, and she wears her jet-black hair in a long braid. Her family runs the compound where we’re staying. It was sort of funny to me that Jessica, this willowy blonde, was wearing a sarong while Su sported capris that could have come straight from the J. Crew catalogue. But just when I was thinking that perhaps Bali was going to be more westernized than I had imagined it would be, Su bent down to pick up my enormous suitcase and placed it on her head. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to protest (holy colonialist, Batman!) but she wouldn’t hear of it. She just clasped either side of the suitcase in her smooth, brown arms, and lifted it onto her head. Talk about shame. Before I left Seattle, my friend Dan gave me a bumper sticker to put on my luggage (along with his advice to tell people I’m Canadian) and there it was, his bumper sticker screaming out at me from right above Su’s forehead: marxists get crazy laid. Su giggled, clearly amused by the look on my face. “It’s not hard,” she said. And that was that. Next I found myself following Jessica and Su past the pavilion and into the hot green labyrinth of terraced rice paddies that stretched across the earth everywhere I looked. Some fields looked like wheat, with long, thin stalks shooting up around us. I ran my fingers through them as if they were hair. Others were clearly younger fields, just mud blanketed by a thin sheet of water, like acres of mirrors spread out across the earth. I caught our reflection in these mirrors

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as we leaped from one terrace to the next and navigated narrow pathways of mud and grass. Su could actually jump with my luggage on her head. Amazing. Everything smelled like heat and duckshit. My eyes were blinded by the green. After about twenty minutes we arrived here, at Bali Hai Bungalows, my home for the next two months. And remember what I was saying about how it’s crazy to get all worked up in advance about something when you have no idea what you’re in for? Here’s why. My mud hut? It’s actually a mansion. marxists get crazy laid. When I looked up the hill to see our house shimmering down at us, partly obscured by palm trees, I thought of that song from The Sound of Music, the one that goes, “So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” And then I thought: When the people revolt, they string up the folks in these houses first. But then I became distracted by the pool. Actually, there are three pools. Three pools! One regular pool, one kids’ pool, and one that’s even smaller . . . the infants’ pool? The pet pool? I imagined the murderous pack of wild dogs lounging about in their own pool, sipping umbrella drinks. The compound is made up of five big houses, three just off the dirt road, two up another thirty stairs or so from there. We’re butted up against the forest, looking out over the rice paddies. Ours is the corner house, farthest from the road. Tiled veranda, shiny marble floors, teak furniture throughout the house. A vaulted ceiling on the first floor, where there’s a futon with a batik print bedspread, a cozy corner by the windows

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with a table and chairs. To the right, a steep staircase; to the left, a full kitchen with a refrigerator stuffed full of pineapples and papayas. And tucked at the bottom of the staircase? A bathroom that defies all expectations: gleaming gray and blue tile, a vase full of jasmine on the counter next to the sink. A long, deep bath with faucets for both cold and hot water. Upstairs, which is where I am now, is one big bedroom the size of my apartment in Seattle. In the center is a kingsized bed with mosquito netting cascading from a hoop in the ceiling, like a long and gauzy chandelier.

i just went downstairs to use the bathroom, and on my way down, I stopped to stare at these incredible, bug-eyed monsters carved around a glassless window— the only light source on the dark steps— and I almost knocked into Su. She started giggling at once. I told her how beautiful I thought the bungalow was, and she just giggled. “Yes,” she said. “I didn’t expect to have three pools on my yoga retreat!” Her brow furrowed and she picked at her lower lip. I thought maybe she didn’t understand me, so again, I said, “Three pools, it’s great.” “Two pools,” she said. Her expression grew serious as she gathered her words. “The smallest pool is reserved.” “Reserved,” I repeated. She nodded and pivoted around me to continue up the stairs. I turned and watched as she took the steps two at a time. She was almost buried in the shadows at the top when I called out for her to wait.

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“Who’s the smallest pool reserved for?” She barely turned around as she answered me. “For God,” she said.

Midnight
I think I’ve pinpointed the characteristic that makes Jessica so strange and new to me: she’s earnest. Like, really earnest. Most of my friends are funny, ironic, sarcastic types. Theater people, writers, readers. You know, um, smokers. Smokers are always ironic, aren’t they? (Although I’ve been hearing rumors that we’re all going to lose our irony soon, now that 9/11’s happened. Apparently the age we’ve been in was an ironic one, but now it’s over. Which is a weird thing, considering irony has survived most recorded wars, revolutions, and plagues, but whatever, we’re a sensitive nation these days.) No, Jessica’s earnest, and perpetually inspired. It’s like she’s piped into some incredibly moving radio channel that keeps telling her the Greatest News Ever. When she’s especially excited, her voice climbs to a silvery blue pitch and I start to wonder if she’s going to break into song. When she told me about the bodywork she does— something called craniosacral massage— she said, “It’s just! So! Amazing! That I get to do this incredible! Ah! Work.” After I unpacked my things, I went downstairs just as the sun was setting and found Jessica sitting at the table on the veranda, writing in a spiral-bound journal. I sat down across from her and we stared out over the darkening rice paddies and listened. There’s a gamelan orchestra that practices in a pavilion in the middle of the rice paddies. All women, Jessica said. The sounds they make are incredible, like a delicate silver web hanging in the air one minute and the next, medieval

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knights in chain mail and armor start slam-dancing. I’d bet you can hear them throughout the village. My first boyfriend after high school— the one who liked to read my journal— used to say that the gamelan was the most transcendent and mystical of all musical forms. He would point out the percussive clanginess of it all as if it were a direct link to the divine. At the time, in his smoky apartment, I listened to it and hated its lack of melody, its unpredictable noise. But in this environment, this dark green night, it makes perfect sense. Jessica disappeared into the house for a while, and when she came back out she had a plate of rice cakes and tahini, jam, and avocados. I dug around in my straw bag and pulled out all the hippie snacks I bought at Whole Foods last week: unsalted almonds, soy crackers, hemp seeds. And then, with the courage of a dozen resistance fighters, I added a few pieces of the German-style beef jerky I had swiped from the pub after my last shift a few nights ago. “Oh, heavens to Betsy!” Jessica cried. Naturally, I started to move the contraband back into my bag, figuring Jessica’s a vegetarian who can’t eat in the presence of my jerky. She was looking at me with wide blue eyes, her lips puckered in disgust. “There are ants in the tahini!” She pushed the jar aside and I tried to keep from laughing. I’ve never heard anybody say “heavens to Betsy” before, especially not over tahini. But mostly I was just so relieved. I could keep my meat. After tonight, I’m pretty sure I won’t be allowed to eat animals for two months. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even go home a vegetarian? Um, I can actually hear my brothers laughing at that last thought, from ten thousand miles away. They like to say that

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they are meatatarians. In their preferred diet, the only food other than meat that isn’t verboten is butter, or anything that can be dipped or drowned in butter. I suspect Jessica would probably pass out if she had to eat dinner on their terms. She’s sleeping next to me right now. We’re sharing a king-sized bed that could sleep an entire family, it’s so big. She’s lying on her back, with her head propped between two pillows to keep her spine straight. I don’t want to sleep. The darkness here is so heavy and warm, and the mosquito netting is distracting. It reminds me of the forts the sibs and I used to make when we were little. Like I should be wearing Underoos or something. How can I sleep? Being under a canopy is too thrilling. And I’m in such good company; Bali’s wide awake, like me. Crickets. Frogs. Dogs. A rooster— isn’t it a bit early for a rooster? Sounds of the women packing up their gamelan instruments. A clang, a gong, chatter. It’s all perfect. More perfect than I ever could have imagined. I wonder what everyone at home is doing. Jonah, is he at work? At home? God knows what time it is there. Or if he’s thinking of me, here on an island I hardly knew existed a year ago, with no responsibilities to anyone but myself. I’m absolutely on my own.

February 25
Morning

It’s 7 a.m. I’m up at 7 a.m. This is incredible. I wish I could call everybody back home and tell them SEE? I CAN GET UP EARLY. Especially if I’m insanely jet-lagged, I guess. We have class in two hours. I’m sitting on our tiled veranda, watching Jessica. I’m eating papaya with lime and drinking

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ginger tea, even though it’s about four thousand degrees out here. I would love some coffee, but Indra told me before I left Seattle to prepare for a “cleansing” two months. Which means no coffee, no sugar, no alcohol, and no meat. Oh, and no sex. I told Indra that wouldn’t be a big deal, since I was leaving the boyfriend at home, and she gave me this funny look and then said, “No sex of any kind. You can just as easily drain your own battery as another’s.” Exclamation point! Jessica is sitting lotus-style on the edge of the veranda, her head tilted back, eyes closed. She’s pressing a large Starbucks travel mug against her chest, and every few minutes she lowers her head to the mug and sips from it, then she raises her face back up to the sun, smiling slightly, as if in worship. I don’t blame her. For worshiping this place, I mean. Except that I don’t want to close my eyes, I don’t even want to blink, I just want to take it all in. It’s spectacular. Palm trees, papaya trees, a slice of the turquoise pool sparkling below us. It’s like eating breakfast in a glinting emerald sanctuary. There’s a small temple off to the left of the veranda, with a sculpture of a tiny, sexless god peeking out at us, smiling placidly. It almost looks like the god and Jessica are smiling at each other. Like they’re both in on the secret. I did ask Jessica if she thought it would be bad if I allowed myself coffee in the morning. She said yes. Which is an understatement. She basically responded as if I’d suggested it might be okay if I freebased cocaine before class. “No biggie,” I said, but it came out in a sort of ragged whisper. The thought of going without coffee made my throat hurt in the way it does just before I break into uncontrollable sobs. But that was fifteen minutes ago. I’m better now. I think. OH SHIT. Oh my God. Oh God, gross. I just reached

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out to take one of the prickly-looking lychee fruits from the bowl in the middle of the table, thinking that maybe some natural sugar could be my replacement for caffeine, but just as I was figuring out how to remove the skin, a tickling on my forearm drew my attention to a parade of ginger-colored ants marching from the fruit in my hand up to my armpit. Only now do I notice that the fruit is swimming in a soup of ants. I can’t stop wiping my arms of both real and imaginary bugs. There’s a never-ending line of ants climbing up the table leg like pilgrims on their way to the promised land of lychees. The only good thing about these ants is that they are distracting me from my nerves about class. One hour till we have to be there. Please, God. Let it go well.

Evening
Oh no. Oh God. Oh Jesus. Oh, this is bad. I don’t even know how to say it. No, wait. I do know how to say it. They’re a cult. A cult! But it’s not Kool-Aid they’re drinking. Shit, Jessica’s coming. I’ve gotta go. I know what’s in that Starbucks mug of hers. Run, run. Okay. I’m ready to get this down, now. I’ve escaped the house and am safely ensconced in a little restaurant called Wayan’s Warung. Wayan is this great big woman with, like, five babies on her hips at all times and a booming laugh. I wish I could tell her why I’m here alone. But I don’t think it would translate. Today started off so well. I got to class this morning a little bit nervous, but excited to see Indra. And right away I

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felt like things were going to be okay. Everything was going to be just fine. Class was held in that big wooden pavilion where Made dropped me off yesterday. It’s called a wantilan. It has a pointed roof woven like a wicker basket and a panoramic view of green fields and forest that makes me want to stand in the center of the wood floor and spin like a top. All along one side are the women’s gamelan instruments, a million different xylophones and gongs encased in wood painted red and gold. When we jump or fall, you can hear them reverberating for minutes afterwards. Indra and Lou arrived holding hands, both of them dressed from head to toe in flowing white linen. I realized right away it was the first time I’d seen them together. They smiled at us, and then at each other, and then back at us. I was struck by their commitment to being so yogic— I would probably laugh if I tried to be so serene. We quickly formed a circle, and Indra and Lou took their places among us, Indra sitting on her heels, Lou cross-legged. Indra looked into each of our faces before welcoming us. When she looked at me with her big brown eyes I couldn’t help myself— GOD I am such a nerd— I broke into a huge grin. It was just such a relief to see her. She laughed. As Indra talked about the two months ahead of us, Lou massaged his entire body. He was constantly working on himself, either his toes or his heels, his calves or his hips. His earlobes, even. I wanted to tell him to calm down and just hire someone to do that for him. Someone like Jessica! But he just kept right on milking his toes, and seemed to be only slightly there with us. So we went around the circle, checking in.

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Lou said, “I’m looking forward to our practice together. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard.” He said some other stuff, too, but that’s all I really heard. Indra said, “I’m excited for this great group of yogis and yoginis to get to know each other! And Lou”— she turned to him, her whole face brightening— “what do you say we make these yogis into teachers over the next two months?” And I felt like jumping up and cheering. When it was my turn to check in, Indra made my day, saying, “Suzanne is my plant, everyone! In Seattle, she always asks for the things I want to teach. So tell me, Suzanne, are you ready for some core work?” “Yup, definitely core work,” I said. “And how are you today, Suzanne?” Lou asked, cracking his toes five at a time. “Oh, fine,” I said. “Ready to stretch after the plane ride yesterday.” Everyone laughed as if I’d said something very true and funny. And then something awful happened. Without a thought, I announced to the circle, “And also, I’m fearing death.” A moment of silence followed, and I felt the faucets in my pores turn on. Then Indra looked into my eyes and I stopped sweating. “We all are. That’s why we’re here. Good for you, Suzanne.” And then we moved on. So, right away, I felt that I was in good hands, that it was the right choice to come here and get my head together before I move to New York. It occurred to me that maybe this feeling of safety and understanding is why some people go to therapy. And just when I was about to float up to the rafters with relief and happiness, Indra said she wanted to have a little chat about health precautions for our time in Bali. “Don’t drink the water,” she said. We all laughed. I mean—

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we all pretty much know this, right? Doesn’t everybody know that you don’t drink the water in developing countries? Well. Indra says that when you’re in a place for two months, it’s almost impossible to avoid drinking the water at some point. For instance, one morning when you’re really tired you might forget and run your toothbrush under the faucet. Or you might be singing in the shower and not notice that the water is running right down your face and into your open mouth. Give that water a little time in the petri dish of your stomach, and voilà: you’ve got the Bali Belly. The thing about the Bali Belly is that it’s really nasty. It’s amoebic dysentery, just like Montezuma’s Revenge or the Delhi Belly, but Indra says it has a particularly bad caboose on the end of its long, mean train. Apparently, after you spend several days on the toilet, you start leaching toxins out your tongue. And you know, I hate leaching toxins out my anything. I’m completely against it. So this layer of toxins, it starts out green— like mucus— and then it turns gray, as if that mucus were decomposing in your mouth. And then, when you’re dangerously dehydrated, your tongue turns black. The second she said this, I started thinking about Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, all of those poisoned priests found with blackened tongues. I pictured my yogamates sprawled across the floor of the wantilan, inky squids exploding from their breathless mouths. And I quickly descended from the happy rafters. “But no worries!” Indra said. “Nothing to worry about. There’s a really easy way to avoid contracting the Bali Belly, and you don’t even have to take antibiotics. I’ve never had to worry about the Bali Belly or a black tongue— because I drink my pee.”

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Right, I’m thinking. No antibiotics, great. Then: Wait. Now’s when the wantilan became a carousel in the middle of the rice fields, spinning and spinning. “People,” Lou said, “I know it might sound strange to you, but urine therapy is a common practice outside the Western world. It’s a natural way to fight aging, disease— ” “And it makes for a great facial,” Indra added. Lou was rubbing his neck something fierce. He seemed suddenly very tired of having to explain all of this to us. “Urine is very pure. It has a bad rap as a waste product. But urea,” he finished, sighing and speaking at the same time, “is a great toxin-killer.” Indra said that urine has cured people of everything from acne to AIDS. Like, they drink the urine and then they say good-bye. To their AIDS. I wasn’t even thinking about how crazy that is. All I was thinking was, “But is it worth it?” Indra was still talking. I got the feeling she’d delivered this speech a few times. “Tonight, before you go to bed, drink a glass of water. Purified water, that is! Then, tomorrow, when you wake up, go into the kitchen and fetch a tall glass. Your glass should be able to hold about eight ounces of liquid.” I know from my career as a cocktail waitress that eight ounces equals about four double shots. My mind sat with that knowledge for a long, grave moment. “Now, take that glass with you into the bathroom and pee into it,” Indra said, “catching the midstream, just as you would at the doctor’s office. And then—drink it.” She rubbed her hands together as if she was just getting to the good part. “If you do this every day of your stay in Bali, I can guarantee you won’t leave with a black tongue.” “Do it for the rest of your life,” Lou added, looking at us

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one by one, “and you will have greater health, happiness, and, most important— a deeper yoga practice.” Oh, Holy Jesus. My teachers have told me to drink my pee. To partake of my own piss. That urine is a beverage. I know from years of cleaning up after both babies and grandparents that urine is not a beverage. Urine is urine. So, were they joking? They didn’t look like they were joking. Indra and Lou went on to discuss the tasty option of mixing urine with fruit juice, and I felt that familiar seizure in my stomach, that feeling I used to get in church when I knew at any moment I would burst out laughing and piss Mom off. And just as I did as a child at St. Monica’s, I started looking around to see if I could get anybody else in trouble. As I made my way around the circle, my eyes landed on Marcy, a middle-aged woman from San Francisco with a thick white ponytail. She was smiling. An easy target. But then I noticed something. She wasn’t just smiling. She was also— nodding. And Jason, sitting next to her, nodding. Jessica, my roommate, nodding. They were all nodding. As if this were something we all already did. As if one day our parents taught us how to pee into the toilet, and the next day how to pee into our sippy cups. And then it dawned on me: I am the only one here who doesn’t already drink from the midstream. I am the only one here who hasn’t tasted my own waste. I am the only one here who isn’t out of her fucking mind. Looking around at my nodding yogamates and beaming teachers, I knew that I had made a huge mistake coming

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here. I had left my home, my people, and for what? To join a cult? But I had to be careful. I’ve seen enough zombie movies to know that your doom lies in your discovery. So even before I made the conscious choice, my neck tensed, my chin lowered— and I nodded. I tried to smile, like great, so great to be here with other people who drink pee, and I kept on nodding. I doubt I was convincing anybody, but what else could I do? I’m outnumbered, there’s no escape. I’m stranded on an island, among pissdrinkers.

SASSY SUMMER READS
AN EXCERPT FROM THREE RIVERS PRESS

PEOPLE

ARE

unappealing*

*EVEN

ME

three rivers press
New York

Copyright © 2009 by Sara Barron All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. www.crownpublishing.com Three Rivers Press and the Tugboat design are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Barron, Sara. People are unappealing / Sara Barron.— 1st ed. p. cm. 1. Barron, Sara. 2. Comedians— United States— Biography. I. Title. PN2287.B27A3 2009 792.702'8092— dc22 [B] ISBN 978-0-307-38245-0 Printed in the United States of America design by elina d. nudelman 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

2008039915

First Edition

9 non- equity

I studied acting for four years at the university level and received a BFA. That stands for Bachelor of Fine Arts to most, but my mother’s favorite joke was that it stood instead for Big Fucking Actor. “Look who it is!” she’d say when I’d fly home to visit. “My big fucking actor of a daughter!” My stock response was “Very funny,” to which she’d reply, “Well, I thought we ought to laugh instead of cry about it.” “It” was the hour of reckoning: I had my BFA, my memorized monologue. I’d re-soled my jazz shoes and purchased a beret. It was time to scrap the “student” portion from my title and graduate to “Actor.” Ever watch TV? See a movie? Attend a Broadway show? If so, perhaps you’ve noticed acting as a career path for the physically attractive. Some of the beauties can act to boot, but first and foremost they’re oddly and unfairly pretty. On the attractiveness scale from one to ten, these girls are tens. Conversely, I was not. I’m not gratuitously self-deprecating. I’m just being realistic. Sporting a
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FUPA and faint wisps of back hair, I hung just left of center: a four. Stilettos, a hint of rouge, a nicely tailored dress— these devices inch me toward a five, a six at best. But you wouldn’t stop me on the street to say, “You ought to be in pictures!” And were you privy to one or another of my college acting projects— let’s say you’d been at Barnes & Noble’s magazine rack on the night I hit the open mic— then you, like Peggy Pearson, would have told me not to quit my day job. And you, like Peggy Pearson, would have been ignored. I clung to my acting ambitions like a million others so clearly destined to fail because the sparest shred of talent (I do do a great Tina Turner impersonation) mixed with a pinch of encouragement and the desperate hope for fame can convince you to pursue a ludicrous ambition. I have to be an Actor! you decide. I can’t live a Life of Regret! You’re primed to try. And primed to fail. One Sunday morning not long after my college graduation, I was on the phone with my mother. “Just called for a chat with my big fucking actor,” she announced. “How’s it going, anyway?” People love to ask you how it’s going when you’re in hot pursuit of an acting career. Unstable artistic paths attract this line of questioning and it’s ironic, I think, seeing as how the honest answer is almost always “bad.” Variations include “very bad” or “soul-suckingly bad.” Any actor who says otherwise is lost in a maze of denial and the reason is this: Actors with careers on the upswing don’t get asked the question in the first place, since, in accordance with the nature of the beast, everyone already knows. Everyone’s seen him/her in that movie starring Colin Farrell, the Tylenol commercial, the walk-on role in a CSI show. So instead of questions getting asked, praise is given: “You were wonderful in that Tylenol commercial!” A successful actor needn’t explain herself nor laundry list her accomplishments; she’s too busy basking in her public praise. In contrast, it’s the rest of us who must hone our desperate mantras. Asked how the acting’s going, we throw down the card of overcompensation.
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“How’s the acting going?” “Great!” we say. “So great!” Then we forgo specific details with a qualifying statement like, “I’ve got an audition,” or “I landed a callback.” So vast are the variations on what this could entail, they do nothing to support a claim of greatness. But it’s all we have to cling to and therefore all we ever say. I’d go exactly this route with my mother. “So how’s the acting going for my big fucking actor?” “Great, Mom! Really great. I’ve got an audition on Tuesday for this one play called Feelin’ Fine, then another one on Wednesday for an improv troupe, then another on Friday for a disco-danced version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “Anything paid?” “What?” “Anything paid?” This question confused me. Four months on the audition circuit, and a word like paid had lost its meaning. It seemed completely out of context when mentioned in regards to acting. It was as though I’d said, “I’ve got an audition!” and my mother had followed up by asking, “Chicken or beef?” It all felt very disconnected. To support myself, I worked the evening shift at a Banana Republic in Soho, where I learned how to properly fold a button-down shirt. Then I’d spend my days auditioning feverishly . I was like a madwoman, having decided that what I lacked in cuteness, I’d make up for in drive. Another woman might have the fuller head of wellgroomed hair, the more shapely, toned physique, but I’d work harder. I’d audition for anything. In one week, I tried out for the role of a street whore named Lavinia in a triple–Off Broadway production of Bernard Shaw’s classic Androcles and the Lion, to which I wore my beret and engaged in the following dialogue with a raging homosexual who read the role of Army Captain:
“You are brave, Captain!” “Do you mock me, whore?”
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“Not I, Captain!” “Do you even know how true Christians love, you whore?”

This was followed by an audition for a student film pitched as Melrose Place meets Roots, then an original play entitled Take Me as I Am about pedophilia as a disease to be understood rather than reviled, then Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, then the part of Woodland Nymph #4 in an avant-garde performance piece called Fly Like the Wind, Geronimo. Maggie and I went to this last one together after Maggie saw it listed on a flyer in her local diner. The flyer said the producers wanted sixteen bars of an up-tempo song, so I chose the Merman standard “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” made it to bar number ten, and was promptly asked to leave. I waited for Maggie outside the audition studio nursing a juice box before she emerged, ectastic. “I got a callback!” she shouted. “The director called me ‘organically magical’!” “What’s that supposed to mean?” Maggie didn’t know for sure but learned the rough translation at the callback. “Will you go onstage naked,” asked the director, “as you mime being stuck in a box?” Maggie was deeply insulted, told him no, and stormed out the door. “How degrading is that?!” she asked me later. “Very.” “I mean, public nudity’s no walk in the park to begin with. But nothing’s worse than”— a look of fear and disgust overtook her— “mime.” The first callback I ever got was for a sketch comedy group called Lil’ Devils. The group’s creative director asked that I improvise a scene about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen having sex with each other, which, frankly, I nailed. (Pun intended!) I had the whole production team in stitches as I performed Mary-Kate atop her twin in reverse-cowgirl position, hammering away until she
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bruised her own pelvis and cracked her sister’s ribs. Not only was I being funny, I thought, but I was also commenting on the negative side effects of anorexia in Hollywood! This sort of multilayered artistry was rewarded with a callback, yes, but not an actual part. For as gifted as I may have been at mimed celebrity incest, I’m not good at impressions. I mean, sure, my Tina Turner can stop traffic, but the folks at Lil’ Devils needed someone with a solid Walken or DeNiro. This tease and denial of the callback broke my father’s heart. “Did you hear back about the sketch comedy group?” he’d ask expectantly . He wanted so badly to have something to show off about. At various weddings and Bat or Bar Mitzvahs, we’d both had occasion to endure the gloating parents of other commercial actors. “Did you see Kimmy in the Herbal Essences commercial?! She’s the girl whose hair gets frizzy from the rain?! Wasn’t it AMAZING?” The way they carry on, you’d think their child won the Nobel Prize or, at the very least, contributed to society in some microscopic sliver of a way instead of mugging for the camera about freesia-scented styling gel. My father craved a taste of this same sort of undue pride. “Dad, this is tough to tell you, but I think that Lil’ Devils sketch group went with someone else.” “What?” “I think they needed someone better at impressions.” “But did they hear you sing?! Did you do your Tina Turner?!” He was more deluded than a porky pageant mother. He could not understand how anyone, having borne witness to my version of “Proud Mary,” would— could! — deny me the chance of an awed, adoring crowd. I imagined my mother trying to explain it. “Joe, it’s time to accept that maybe acting isn’t Sara’s forte.” “What?” He’d try to convince himself that she was the one who’d gone mad. “Have you gone mad?!” “No.” She’d stay calm. “I have not. Now let’s focus on the posi102

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tives: She doesn’t have cancer. She doesn’t do drugs. She’s learned to fold shirts at Banana Republic.” My mother had begun to make progress, combating the shared hopes and dreams of my father and me, when the impossible occurred and I scored a part. Two, actually. I’d be playing the dual roles of Orange Girl and Sister Marthe in a quintuple–Off Broadway production of Cyrano de Bergerac. “Where’s ‘quintuple–Off Broadway’?” asked my mom. I could hear the air quotes in her voice. “Downtown? Uptown? Brooklyn? Queens?” “New Jersey,” I answered. “Do they have theaters in New Jersey?” They do, in fact, though this particular production would be mounted in the director’s apartment, in the living room he’d partitioned off with shower curtains. “New Jersey has theaters,” I explained, “though I, personally, will be performing in a much more avant-garde space than that.” “Where?” “A loft.” Loft sounded artier than Jersey apartment. “Are you getting paid?” “What?” “ Are you getting paid?” “I’m not sure I understand the question.” As far as I was concerned, the opportunity to play the dual parts of Orange Girl and Sister Marthe was payment enough. Orange Girl (lest you’ve forgotten her noteworthy scene in act I) sells her goods to fellow villagers. She asks, “Oranges? Milk? Raspberry syrup? Lemonade?” And then just after Cyrano’s entrance, after he’s said, “One more word of that same song, and I destroy you all!” Orange Girl exclaims, “What an outrage!” I’d say both those lines and then have two and a half hours to kill “backstage” before reemerging in act V as Sister Marthe. I’d say, “Sister Claire stole a plum out of the tarte this morning!”
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just minutes before (spoiler alert!) Cyrano confesses his love for Roxane and dies. I’d use my rehearsal time to practice alternate line readings (“WHAT an outrage. What an OUTRAGE!”), a diligence I hoped would impress the director, but it seemed rather to annoy him. One day I let one slip that was especially robust:
Cyrano: One more word of that same song, and I destroy you all! Orange Girl: WHAT AN OUTRAGE!!!

The director got angry. “JESUS CHRIST!” he shouted from his living room couch. “Sara, I need— NEED! — for you to tone it down, okay?” “Toning it down,” I repeated, and did a little salute, “toning it down.” This was a trick I’d learned in acting school: When you, the actor, are given a direction, you repeat it back to prove your understanding, e.g.: “Sara, move back. You’re supposed to be behind Roxane.” “Moving back, sir, moving back.” “Can all the nuns exit stage right?” “Exiting stage right, sir, exiting stage right!” I considered this the height of professional behavior, yet for all my fellow cast mates it seemed to connote my possible battle with autism: Every time I did it, they’d give me wide-eyed and bewildered looks, the worst of which came from the actress playing Roxane. A doe-eyed eighteen-year-old who, when not busy giving me the are-you-autistic eye, indulged in this horrific habit of calling me “sweetie.” I have a rule of thumb with that word: If I’m older and fatter than you, don’t use it to address me. “Hey, sweetie!” she’d say while practicing one of her big, dramatic scenes. “If you’ve got a sec, can you do me the biggest favor ever?” I always had “a sec”; I had three lines. “Can you run to the deli and get me a Coke?”
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With nothing else to do and without the backbone needed to say no, I’d agree to her biddings. Then en route I’d count the reasons I despised her: 1. Roxane called me “sweetie.” 2. Roxane had big, beautiful eyes. 3. Roxane called herself “a guy’s girl.” “I’m just a guy’s girl!” she’d explain to Christian the heartthrob or Ragueneau the bread-shop owner. “Girls can be so catty, you know? So all my friends are always guys!” This common rumination disgusts me every time I hear it. Disguised as some pathetic attempt at an independent streak, what someone really ought to say is, “My ability for interpersonal connection begins and ends with my need for sexual approval!” This sort of woman flips her lid at the chance to bowl or check the football score and for such penchants she expects a fat helping of attention. Preferably male. For my part, I prefer the title Girl’s Girl. Not contingent on a penchant for fruity alcoholic drinks (though I do love a double amaretto on the rocks), the foundation for my claim is this: Between me and my close friends, flirtation and sexual tension needn’t be the building blocks. 4. Roxane was eighteen, and eighteen made me feel old. I may have been just five years older, but the thing about aspiring to act is that anything can make you feel old. You’re over the hill by the time you’re twenty-six. They don’t tell you that in acting school, they don’t say, “Ditch all this: Lose thirty pounds, audition NOW!” though such advice would prove more helpful than what they do dole out on chakras and vocal technique. It’s true some successful starlets don’t hit their stride until they’re twenty-six, but hitting a stride by twenty-six means you’ve been booking commercials since you were ten. If by twenty-six you’ve worked little enough that there’s still room on your résumé for a show you did in college, good luck. You’ll need it. If someone has legally rented a car and uttered the phrase “I’m
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thinking of giving acting a shot,” she’s in trouble— just as deluded, I believe, as my father and I. Roxane, in all her resplendent teenage-ness, made me consider all these harsh realities. She’d set my wheel of unpleasant thought in motion every single day and forced me toward a revelation: This acting thing might not pan out. To be fair, it wasn’t just Roxane that did it. It was Roxane plus the commute to New Jersey plus the “theater” in New Jersey plus the shower-curtain stage in the theater in New Jersey. There was also the issue of my costume, which in the role of Sister Marthe included a habit made of felt and paper towel. There are only so many times you can layer those fabrics on your head before you wonder what the fuck it is you’re doing, only so many times you can practice lines like “Raspberry syrup? Lemonade?” before your mind begins to wander and the pressing questions get too pressing to ignore. Is this all there is? Is this a bad idea? Is there a God? Am I an asshole? If I punch Roxane the next time she says “sweetie,” how will she react? With two months of rehearsal, I had a lot of time to think and I decided: No. Yes. Maybe. Yes. She’ll punch me back. Then bitch and moan about how catty girls can be. These questions were exhausting, and exhausting is not my preferred mode of operation. The show zapped me of my auditioner’s enthusiasm: I’d already auditioned for dozens of things, I’d finally achieved my goal of getting a part, and the experience— all that I’d been waiting for!— had turned out to be as glamorous as ath106

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lete’s foot. So what was next? Had this production been a fluke? Was it worth it to keep trying? Well, it goes against my natural instincts to keep trying. I’m more of a quitter: When the going gets tough, I do get going. It’s just that my brand of going takes me away from completing a goal instead of driving me ambitiously toward it. The prospect of being an actor started to look much more difficult than I had imagined, and in an effort to clear my head and gain perspective, I decided to take a couple months off from the audition circuit and review my other options. My BFA paired with my Banana Republic employment had earned me the following skill set: efficient shirt-folder, masterful Windexer (at the start of every shift I’d Windex all the mirrors in the fitting rooms). Maggie suggested that I tack on the adjective hilarious. Specifically, after seeing my closing-night performance in the role of Orange Girl/Sister Marthe, she’d said, “Wow. You were hilarious.” “Really?” I asked. Sister Marthe, to remind you, makes her entrance for the big, dramatic death scene. “That’s not quite what I was going for.” “Well, you were.” She shrugged. “You and that paper-towel habit had the audience in stitches.” Maggie meant it as a compliment, but I was worried seeing as how my supposed hilarity was unintentional. “I’m not sure that that’s a good thing.” “Well, then try something where it would be. You did really well at that improv troupe audition, remember? Or what about stand-up?” Stand-up. Interesting. Now that Maggie mentioned it, it didn’t sound half bad. Another person might have seen the creative foray for exactly what it is, a horrifying chance to humiliate oneself before an audience and — bonus!— the only career path less stable and more difficult than acting. But I’m a renegade where practicality is concerned, so to me it sounded fun. I liked the idea of taking a break from the acting routine, all the while staying in pursuit of a goal that involved a stage, attention, and applause. And laughter! Laughter I’d encouraged!
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After Maggie made the suggestion, I couldn’t shake it. My parents called to ask how the acting was going, and I told them I’d switched gears. “I’m done with acting!” I announced. “I’m trying stand-up comedy instead!” My father was saddened by the acting abandonment though simultaneously excited about the prospect of the stand-up, and he suggested that I open with my Tina Turner impression. My mother, on the other hand, had a tougher time and started crying. “Oh god!” she wailed. “Why!? Why?! Why don’t you try something stable! Why don’t you start over? You could be a paralegal! Or a mailman! Just please try something where there’s health insurance!” My mother has never been a crier. I’d seen it only twice before, once when my grandfather died and once when she had to pay for an ER visit out of pocket. I found the situation very disconcerting, and I handled it by doling out the same advice she would have given me. “Let’s focus on the positives!” I told her. “I don’t have cancer! Now you do one.” She blew her nose and took a breath. “Well,” she managed, “at least this way they’ll be laughing with instead of at you. And that, I guess, is something.”

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Writing a stand-up act is no easy task. Watching Leno perform his opening monologue might convince you otherwise, but from personal experience I can say: Putting pen to paper to construct a decent punch line is good only for a headache. That, and it’s an effective way to get yourself to clean; nothing prompts the urge to scour your home from floor to ceiling like staring at a blank page. I’d spend ten minutes writing in a notebook I’d titled “Funny Thoughts!” then break from my creative exploits to tackle my toilet with Ajax. My lack of focus, skill, and originality is the only excuse I can give for what I came up with: jokes at the expense of Gwyneth Paltrow and Britney Spears (my “topical” material), in addition to tirades I’d hammered out about dating a man with the last name Hitler or, conversely, a Hasidic Jew. I wrote my Gwyneth bit around the time of the ’02 Oscars, an event to which she’d worn this odd Lycra top sans brassiere. “Is it just me . . . ?” I’d ask using an inflection I’d heard ten
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dozen times from other comics. “Or did Gwyneth look like she was sporting some serious FAT-BOY BOOBIES?!” I’d shout the phrase “fat-boy boobies” like I’d offered up some nugget of comedic gold, but the audience always seemed to disagree. The notion of Gwyneth with breasts smaller than my brother’s never succeeded in tickling anyone’s funny bone but my own and consistently I’d leave the stage to an exhausted heckle like, “Thank god,” or “Seriously?” Afterward I’d sulk in the corner with an amaretto sour chased by the preferred lie of all crap comics: “It’s their loss if they don’t get me. I’m just too highbrow.” My Britney Spears joke (and this was BTF, mind you: Before the Fall) focused on a song of hers called “I’m a Slave 4 U,” a three-minute masterpiece in which she talked about how much she liked to dance and have sex. There was this one line of the chorus where she sang, “I really want to spend tonight with you / I really want to do what you want me to.” And from the way she performed it— the belabored exhalation, the sigh and moan that accompanied each note— you’d think she was mid-orgasm. All this hemming and hawing just because she’d donned a pair of couture underwear over her designer jeans? Just because she’d thrust her crotch at a muscled hip-hop dancer? It struck me as unrealistic, primarily because at this stage of her career, she still laid claim to her virginity. Well I, as a comedian, wanted to comment on this funny juxtaposition. So I’d quote the lyric to the audience: “She sings, ‘I really want to spend tonight with you / I really want to do what you want me to!’ Which we all know means . . .” And then my punch line, “ANAL SEX!” I’d get the occasional seal of approval from a guy in the audience: “Anal. Totally.” And one time a guy heckled after me that his girlfriend had “an asshole tighter than a baby’s fist!” You’d think a comment like that would force a joke into retirement, but no. It stayed a fixture in my repertoire, a manifestation of my comedic genius. I’m getting the audience to reflect on their own lives, I’d think. I’m an artist.
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In stand-up circles, to kill means to do well and to bomb means to do poorly. That’s the slang the professionals use. Performing my act once a week every week for a year, I killed just twice: once at a high school in the Bronx, and once at a midnight show in downtown Manhattan for three bachelorettes and their three dozen cohorts. The high schoolers laughed at my eight-minute joke set not because they appreciated my cultural insights, but because in the bright cafeteria light they’d managed to see the outline of my nipples. I’d worn a thin, white T-shirt sans brassiere (à la Gwyneth) and received a look of pity and discomfort from the school’s assistant principal once I got off “stage.” “Well that went well!” I said naively. Before she had the chance to say, “It was your visible nipples, not your cultural commentary,” a slew of rambunctious teenage boys approached me. “I seen yer tits while you talkin’!” shouted one. Caught off guard, I wasn’t sure what to say besides “Thanks!” So that’s what I did. A child said, “I seen yer tits,” and I replied, “Thanks very much!” Then he introduced himself as Lashawn and requested an autograph. “Sign that shit ‘To Lashawn,’” he instructed, “‘from the lady with wack nipples!’” Never one to turn away my fan, I did as requested and signed the front of his spiral notebook, “To Lashawn from Sara Barron: the lady with wack nipples.” It was the first and last time I’d be asked to sign an autograph. My set for the bachelorettes proved more productive. These ladies were a mess of acrylic backless shirts and penis straws, and when I rambled on about Britney’s proclivities for backdoor entry they went as wild as Maggie in a hospital. They were what’s called my “target audience,” and, as such, they found my use of words like anal, penis, sex, and shit hilarious. Finally, I thought, a group astute enough to understand me. After I’d finished my set, one of the women came over to
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introduce herself. “My name is Mariah,” she said, “like the singer.” Mariah was morbidly obese, and she wore a baby T that had a picture of a Buddha on the front. Beneath the Buddha was the phrase i’ve got the body of a god. “And I wanted to tell you,” she went on, “I really like your style.” “I really like your style,” I answered back, and I meant it. The baby T, while not my favorite look on most, is a whole different ball game when worn by someone self-confident enough to laugh in the face of her own morbid obesity. I hold that sort of selfawareness in very high regard. Mariah explained that she was a producer of “ladies’ entertainment.” “And I’m putting together a show that I think you’d be good for.” Dr. Phil says that opportunity is the moment when luck and hard work collide, and here, it seemed, was mine. It was neither here nor there that the first industry professional to recognize my talent was drunk and sporting a tiara. The point is that she cared to buy what I was selling— dick jokes, butt jokes, and a willingess to work for next to nothing— and that was all that mattered. Mariah’s show, she explained, was a variation on a Chippendales revue. She’d titled it Lettin’ It ALL Hang Out! and it featured the Jewish drag sensation Ida Slapter and three male strippers. “A black guy, a white guy, and a Mexican,” she told me, “so whatever flavor you want, we got!” As far as Mariah was concerned, the show was structurally perfect except for one small missing piece: a female comedian. And she thought she’d found that missing piece in me. “Your stuff making fun of dicks and fucking’s real funny,” she said. “The gig’s yours if you want it.” And how could I not? Before accepting a job, most people want to know details about salary, or perhaps location or schedule is a primary concern. But my checklist differs slightly: I want drag
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queen interaction. I want male stripper interaction. And if there’s the added bonus of performing for an audience of drunk and sadly optimistic women, I’m in. I’ll hop on board faster than you can say, “Sara Barron makes bad choices.” Rehearsals began the following week. The first day there I made the acquaintence of Ida and the strippers: one black, one white, one Mexican, just like Mariah promised, named Hershey’s Kiss, Bootstrap Bob, and Penga, respectively. Ida served as the master of ceremonies, opening Lettin’ It ALL Hang Out! with an imitation of the jiggly Colombian songbird Shakira, belly dancing and spoofing the performer’s signature head-stuck-underwater singing style. Then she’d deep-throat a piece of produce— zucchini, cucumber, celery root; whatever was on sale at Whole Foods that week, Ida downed it like a Tootsie Roll— to get the ladies in the mood for the forthcoming buffet of multiracial genitalia. Penga was the first of the guys to take the stage. His routine was to strip out of a business suit until he was in nothing but what’s referred to by those in the male-stripper community as a “banana hammock.” Then he’d mime oral sex on some lucky bride-to-be, announce her vagina to be both “nutritious and delicious,” and bow to uproarious applause. Hershey’s Kiss went next. His physique was nothing to write home about, but in keeping with cultural stereotypes, his “dick,” as Ida called it in his introduction, was the size of a soup can and twice as long. Like Penga, he wore a banana hammock that fit tighter than a condom. This allowed every woman in the audience, whether she sat four feet from the stage or forty, to view his strange and unusual gift. Hershey’s Kiss would then spend seven minutes onstage doing anything he could to make it bounce violently around. And when it did, this sucker was of such size and consequent power that it’d knock him square against his chest on the upswing, then graze him midthigh on the return trip down. It was my job to follow this display with a seven-minute joke set. And as it turns out, amateur jokes don’t do a good job of
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holding an audience’s attention after they’ve spent fifteen minutes staring at a horse cock. Up until this, my professional stage debut in Mariah Ciarullo’s Lettin’ It ALL Hang Out!, the rudest antic I’d endured while performing stand-up was a mock snoring noise. These bachelorettes had plans to change that. See, the problem with people who pay money to be entertained is that they’re awfully impatient to be kept entertained. These women had spent forty bucks a head, and not for penis jokes. For penis. Actual ones attached to a Benetton ad’s worth of well-endowed men, and I was an unwelcome pit stop en route to more of what they’d come for (pun intended!). And they hated me for it. “You suck!” they’d scream. “Get off!” “I hate you!” and/or “I hate you, bitch!” were other audience favorites. We, as humans, each have our own personalized limit on how many times we can handle being told we’re hated before we: a) find the wherewithal to extradite ourselves from the destructive situation, or b) learn to lean on medication. My limit is ten, and once that number came and went, I chose option B. I’d pop a Lexapro, hit the stage, and endure the scathing heckles. I did this for two months and chalked up the emotional pain and selfloathing I experienced to a simple payment of comedic dues. A comic’s favorite conversation, after all, is always about how difficult comedy can be. And since so many of the professionals also take the time to medicate with store-bought booze or a bottle of meds, it seemed that all was as it should be. Mariah, for her part, remained unaware of the disaster that unfolded every time I took the stage. She was preoccupied with Alan, the club’s self-described “head bartender.” Head bartender by night, he worked as a personal trainer by day and as such kept Mariah entertained with grain alcohol and flirtatious suggestions on how best to combat her obesity. “The only thing I’d do if I was training you personally?” he’d say. “I’d just add a little definition
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through your arms and midsection. Maybe a few leg lifts to tighten up those calves, but that’s it. ’Cause you look good, girl. Really good.” It was both adorable and humiliating to observe their interactions. You knew Alan was in it just to try to build his client base, that if push came to shove he wouldn’t touch Mariah with a bottle of Bacardi, but the sweet part was seeing her so happy, so fleetingly adored. Her face could’ve caught fire and she wouldn’t have noticed, not as long as her “sexy baby,” as she called him, remained unscathed. Every night after I enraged the audience, Ida would return to the stage to lighten the mood with an X-rated juggling act: three dildos tossed around to the tune of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” Then by way of introducing Bootstrap Bob she’d say, “I don’t know about y’all, ladies, but my heart goes on for big dicks! Holla!” And with that, Bob would close out the evening with an offbeat hula hoop routine: He’d masturbate until visibly aroused, then take the toy on a few goes around his own impressive endowment. After every set at which I tried and failed, Hershey would wait backstage to comfort me. Bob and Ida still had sets to do and Penga didn’t speak any English besides the phrase “nutritious and delicious,” but there Hershey would be, his arms spread wide. “Sally Barron needs a hug,” he’d say. (Everyone in the show called me “Sally Barron” and I went with it since bombing every night didn’t do a lot to make me want to be remembered.) Then he’d hug me and I’d emerge covered in canola oil. One of the secrets I learned working alongside male strippers is that before going out onstage, they douse themselves in cooking oil— canola, preferably, as it’s the most resistant to beading and provides the greatest sheen. Hershey, Penga, Bootstrap Bob, they all carried a bottle to any professional engagement, packed in their manpurse alongside a penis pump. Penis pump? Penis pump.
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Like Santa Claus or leprechauns, I’d heard of these strange, elusive objects before but didn’t think they actually existed. Not until one got tossed on the chair beside me, anyway. It looked like a hollow kazoo. “But why?” I asked Hershey. “You don’t need a penis pump.” “Exactly,” he replied. The exchange was like one of those commercials for dandruff shampoo where someone says to a Head & Shoulders user, “But you don’t have dandruff . . . ,” and we’re left to intuit that Head & Shoulders is the reason why. Ergo: Penis pumps are out there. Penis pumps work. And that simple if surprising fact is on a short list I call “Hope.” Over the course of several months, Hershey and I became good friends. It was the inevitable result of hugging on a weekly basis, of being stuck in the back corridors of a strip club with nothing else to do but interact with one another. What transpired between us was a platonic variation on the Dirty Dancing story line: Every night after my set, in an attempt to lift my mood and broaden my horizons, Hershey would teach me his core stripper dance moves. I learned to shake the two halves of my ass in rapid, fierce succession. I learned to shimmy, to “drop” my “junk” to the “flo.” I discovered the key to an effective pelvic thrust. I practiced constantly, and this impressed Hershey, who thought I had a real gift. “Forget the comedy,” he’d say, “bitch knows how to shake her shit! You’re good!” After three months and a marked improvement in my ability to do what’s called a “whip around,” Mariah finally caught wind of my comedic failings and fired me. Alan had shown up to work one night with a woman named Song on his arm, and when Mariah saw them “Frenching wildly,” as I used to say, she became a metaphoric pot of boiling water, ready to blow the second some asshole knocked her top off. Next came my comedy set before the angry crowd. With Alan preoccupied, Mariah finally had the time to watch me perform, and when she did she seemed displeased. “WHAT THE FUCK?!” she screamed.
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“Is something wrong?” I asked. “YOU FUCKING BOMBED!” she answered. “THE REPUTATION OF MY SHOW IS ON THE LINE!” Then she called me “pathetical” and explained (in fewer and more violent words than this) that she’d no longer be needing my services. There was no severance package, no “thank you for your contributions to the cause thus far,” just a swift shove out the door and a promise from Hershey that he’d call. He never did. But his words stayed with me: You know how to shake your shit . . . You know how to shake your shit . . . And then, the words he didn’t say, the words he left me to intuit: You COULD shake your shit . . . for CASH. But would I shake my shit for cash? Could I shake my shit for cash? Ass waxes and G-strings weren’t appealing aspects, but neither was a full-time job back at Banana Republic folding shirts for eight bucks an hour. I mean, stand-up comedy sure as Sherlock wouldn’t be my ticket out, unless, of course, I’d gotten on the train to chronic poverty/depression. And if that’s where I was going, I’d rather take the scenic route. I’d rather amble slowly there in a pair of rhinestoned pasties.

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