Ramadan Days 9 & 10 – A Case of the Lonelies

Sometimes, I am most lonely when I am fasting with my family, none of whom fast (although Justin did do it one year).

In Coming Out Muslim, one of the performers, Wazina Zondon filled the room with her pain when she spoke about time spent with family. This feeling, she said, stemmed from the loneliness of being in a room with the people you love, but who do not or cannot know all of you. (paraphrase)

It’s strange to have yet another part of me be so unknowable to my family.

***

 

This is what I (sort of) remember Rened saying to me when I told her that all Public Defenders have at least one case that haunts us:

“I had maybe thirty clients that day.  But, I remember that he was the nicest man with these huge brown eyes and always came in the same outfit, frayed jeans, blue sweatshirt, tennis shoes.  He was in on some silly trespass violation.  He’d come to court four times earlier, and the judge kept continuing his case.  You know how so many of our clients are – coming to court late, yelling.  He was so polite and patient.  He’d get there when court opened and wait for his turn which could be the end of the day.  He was so dignified.

I called him to the interview room.  I asked him for his address.  Slowly, I saw one single ant climb down his neck.  ‘I’m homeless,’ he said.  I can’t stop seeing that ant.”

 

***

How does a story begin?  It feels too hard to try to make sense of things today.  Perhaps I’ve been waiting for this moment:  the one where things stop making sense, and I am okay for it.

***

 

Mountain lions killed a deer in our backyard one day.  Coyotes killed several of our cats, including one of our dearest, Metro.

A court clerk found Metro in a dumpster at the back of the Los Angeles Metropolitan courthouse, where they keep the drunk tanks.  Even though I was allergic, I wanted that little ball of fur and crust in my life.  I entrusted Metro to a friend for safekeeping.  I flew the next day to attend my dying father in the Bay.  Metro joined my family two months later and was a companion to my mother in the worst of her grief.  He went missing the same night my brother came out.  My brother and my mom searched for him ceaselessly.

 

***

 

“I’m leaning toward yes,” I said.

“Wonderful.  Lean in,” S said.

Some words, when spoken, pull us immediately closer.

S and I met through a few dates that teetered early on toward friendship.  When we realized that we couldn’t or wouldn’t make each other into the people we wanted to date, we became really good for each other.

 

***

 

I woke up today to a powerful loneliness.  I was slicing an avocado and pouring a glass of water when I felt the need to go outside.

It was 3AM.  I wandered to the edge of my mom’s driveway.  I sat in darkness on a slant of gravel.  I heard a rustle in the bushes.  I called for our cat Turkey a few times.  I named him that because I thought it’d be a good idea to confuse my nephew who was barely 1 at the time that Turkey came into our lives.  J.K.

Turkey didn’t answer.  He likes to give me the slip-and-hunt when I open the garage door and had already crept into the night.  (We have strict house rules about not letting him out at night).

Every noise in the bushes made me jump.  Was it a mountain lion?  Were Turkey and I going to get eaten?

Turkey came from a gas station that Saifan, Saimo’s boyfriend-now-husband found at a gas station.  He was about 3 months old, and he’s the closest to feral of any cat we’ve ever owned.  Rarely does a day go by when he doesn’t bring in a rat, rabbit, bird, squirrel, or gopher into my mom’s house.  That’s why we have the rule about not allowing Turkey out at night — when he is most active as a killer.  My mom is constantly having to sweep up and throw away his little gifts to her.

When I returned to the house, sans Turkey, I poured myself a glass of water and felt scared.  I really didn’t want to begin the morning’s fast without anybody.  Everybody else in the house was sleeping.  I sat down to write, and I couldn’t.

All I could think about was how much I wanted to go outside again, to dare a mountain lion to eat me.

I read somewhere once that lonely people are the easiest to manipulate.  Loneliness can make dumb ideas seem like great ones.

***

During Ramadan last year, I re-read an article about how people don’t know how to be alone anymore.

Forget that, I thought, I don’t know how to be lonely.

I was raised in a mid-sized family by Taiwanese standards (growing up we were 6-9 in the house depending on relatives and including elders.)  Not only was I seldom alone, I was the eldest kid of about a dozen plus kids in a tight-knit group of several families.  I set about organizing us on a weekly basis into theater based on whatever my mind could imagine.  It took me years to realize that I was fine when I was alone.

List of things I can do all by myself:  watch t.v. or a movie, have dinner, take a walk, write a story, read a book, go running, and sleep.  But what do I do when the terrible feeling of loneliness comes with any of these activities?  Or, do I sometimes do these activities because I don’t want to be lonely?

I can stuff my stomach full of company.

 

***

 

One way to open a fast is to identify your hunger.

 

***

 

My friend Rened’s path diverged from mine in several key ways.  She started in corporate law, then started at the Public Defender’s office – where we met and served together for a few years.  After I took a hiatus to help my family after my dad passed, I returned to the Torrance office of the PD, where I commuted for hours everyday to and from Pasadena.  I wanted to work in Torrance, near my friend.  Three weeks in, Rened told me she was leaving to go back to corporate law.  It just didn’t pay enough to be a PD.

Rened moved to Baldwin Park.  I transferred to the El Monte office and then over to Eastlake Juvenile.  From there, I left to try my hand at being a writer.  Rened left being a corporate attorney.  She became a Public Defender again.

Over the course of a year, I failed at my brief stint of being a writer (and became very depressed) because I wasn’t really writing.  Friends and family saved my life.

For the next five years, I forged ahead with a new career path as a community lawyer representing groups that had an organizing component in the area of environmental justice.  In my scarce free time, I wrote plays.  After several thrilling cases drew to a close, I heard the call again and left to pursue an MFA and to become a writer.

Rened helped me to move out.  I had two bookshelves for which I didn’t have room in storage.  The day before I drove across the country, she came over to pick them up.  She only ended up with one of them because when she came over to take the other, she couldn’t unscrew it.  Now we both have one of a matching set.

***

In the entryway table at my mom’s house, there are fifty extra posters of Metro that my brother made and posted all over the neighborhood.

***

The first person who ever talked me up from the kitchen floor was Cleo.

When I was first accepted to law school in California, Cleo was also living in Washington, D.C.  I wrote to the list-serve of new admits and asked if anybody would move my stuff across the country for me.  Cleo said yes.  As they unloaded the boxes, Cleo’s father told her – I hope that girl pays you.  Cleo said she’d do it free of charge.

As we became good friends during law school, Cleo proved herself time and again to be my rock.  I was a wreck when I graduated.  I only knew that I wanted to move to Los Angeles.  Because Cleo and another friend, Millicente, were the best people I knew and they were committed Public Defender’s, I decided to become one too.

Cleo once told me that the one thing she really needed in her life was a cat.  I spent a great deal of time at Cleo’s apartment, so I was fairly opposed.  Allergies.  Life got harder and harder in law school for both of us, and human companionship has its limits.  It came time for Cleo’s birthday.  Time for us to get her a cat.

After touring a couple pounds, I saw a black cat (Cleo only wanted a black one) that was quite good-looking.  I fell in love with her emerald eyes and the dangerous look in her eye.  Classical music was pounding endlessly in a loop, the small room piled high with cages.  A frizzy-white-haired elderly woman, a volunteer caretaker, rushed over.

“That one!” I said.  “She’s hot!  She’s sexy!”

“You only want her because you think she’s hot,” Cleo said.

“So what?  I can’t judge a cat by her looks?  That one!”

“You really shouldn’t take her,” the caretaker said, “She’s dangerous and not fit for houses.  She’s wild.”

“The music’s really loud,” Cleo said.  “Shouldn’t we turn it down?”

“It soothes them,” the caretaker said.

We rolled our eyes.

“No, No, I want that one,” I said.

“She’ll scratch you,” the caretaker said.  “But if you really want, I’ll leave you alone with her for a while so you can see that she’s not ready to go home.”  She whipped out of her room.

We stood uncomfortably staring at the dozen or so cats while Bach, or Beethoven streamed loudly in the back.  We realized that the music was driving us batty.  What was it doing to the cats?

The caretaker returned and again we asked for the black cat.  She said no again.  “Maybe in a couple weeks when she’s ready you could come back.”  Cleo thought we should leave rather than continue what was becoming an uncomfortable conversation.  But, I was pissed off.  We demanded that she try.

The caretaker reached a hand near the cage and the cat went wild, hissing, biting, clawing like it was possessed.

A manager came by and asked to try.  She looked a lot like Cleo.  She put on heavy-duty gloves, and even though Cleo continued to claw, she calmed down a little, and the manager squeezed her into a cage and said to the caretaker, “I think we should give them a chance.”

When we arrived at Cleo’s pad in San Francisco, the cat got out of the cage, raised her head in a dignified manner, and then calmly circle-sniffed the apartment and sat down watching us, waiting to be fed.  She meowed pleasantly and graciously as if to say, “Gotcha.”

And she did.  She got Cleo.  She never fussed.  She wasn’t the kind of cat that invited attention or was overly friendly.  She was regal and reserved, and exceedingly loyal to one person, Cleo.  She could be a bit prickly at times, and if she wanted something, she had an insistent meow.

“What’s her name?” I asked Cleo.

“I’m thinking of calling her Moya,” Cleo said.

 

***

 

Rened and I liked to watch t.v. shows together, especially So You Think You Can Dance.  One night, when I was already applying to MFA programs and leave Los Angeles, I was over at Rened’s house, and we were watching some t.v.  We ended up talking about how much I loved writing.

“Seriously, do you think that you’ll come back to being an attorney?” Rened asked me.

“Definitely,” I said.  “But only after I’ve published a couple books.  I think it’d be nice to retire as a trial attorney.”

“You know, I write sometimes,” Rened said.  She was shy about it, but eventually, she went to her room and pulled out a journal of hers.

Even though that night I actually read the entry, I’m only going to reference part of the conversation rather than all the details of her piece.  I hope someday Rened publishes it.  We were both crying when she finished reading it to me.

 

***

During the 11-12 years after Cleo first adopted Moya, she moved to NYC, went through some rough patches and eventually chose to move back to Texas to be with her mom.

Earlier this year, Cleo wanted to move back to NYC for professional reasons so I called her up when my roommate and I decided to part ways.  Come live with me and get a job here.  I’ll be writing my thesis for this MFA, I said.  Because she wasn’t sure if she’d be in NYC for the long term, and because I’m allergic, Cleo decided to leave Moya in Texas with her dad.

Cleo read every story in my hundred plus page thesis two or three times, carefully editing and making comments.  When I graduated, Cleo and my brother came as my play parents.

A couple weeks before Ramadan began, Cleo got the call that Moya had passed away.

 

***

 

It has been a time of mourning in our NYC apartment.

RIP Moya.

I hope that I can be as good a friend to Cleo as you were.

 

***

Is my cat out again? my mom asked me and my sister as we sat down to Iftar.

I think so, I answered with my mouth full.

Oh no! my mom wailed.

Turkey came running in through the cat door, an enormous rat in his mouth.  He dropped his offering on the floor near the dinner table, and as my mom shrieked at him, he picked it up and ran out of the room.

 

***

When Terna and Wazina played Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” during their performance, I could not distinguish between the music and the call to prayer.

 

***

Art can soothe the ache of loneliness.

 

 

FN:  (Rened really really hates cats.  Cleo really really hates ants.  And Justin (used to) really really hate me bringing up Metro’s passing.  They’re all forgiving me for braiding them together in this post.  Fast brain.)

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