girls

Girl Crush

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When I first created my blog, I had no idea what to expect. I’d been writing essays for months, sometimes sending them to my mom, or a friend or two, without ever any intention of sharing them publically. But when a girlfriend told me to publish one of them after reading it back in May, I decided I’d just go for it. Why not? I thought, who knows what might happen. Well, for one, Kara has happened.

I met Kara almost ten months ago at a New Year’s party. It was a fairly small gathering considering the occasion – no more than 25 people – at a beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills. The host had been very precise about attire, commitment, and start time, so I was surprised to see two empty seats at our table set for 8 when we sat down. As promised, the dinner started promptly at 9:30, with a hearty soup dish served first. The servers had just cleared our bowls when she and her friend arrived. I nearly choked on my champagne. She was achingly beautiful.

We didn’t speak at all during dinner. For one thing, the dimensions of the table and the acoustics of the room simply did not allow for it, unless we wanted to shout our conversation. The seating chart had also been strategically designed to ensure men would be talking with women, and women with men (it went boy girl boy girl). Thus, I spent most of the dinner speaking with the older guy to my left, and occasionally with the enviably dressed couple to my right, who kept disappearing presumably to do drugs. The only discussion involving her was when the older guy whispered to me “who brought the 18 year old?” I smiled politely, resisting the urge to blurt back “you mean the stunningly gorgeous chick I want to simultaneously strangle and know everything about?” It’s strange the effect beauty can have, attracting and repulsing, inspiring both admiration and envy.

After dinner ended, one of the tables was removed and a “dance floor” created. The area couldn’t have been more than 10 feet squared, but I’d start grinding in an airplane bathroom if they played the right song. The iPod deejay worked his magic, and soon enough I was tearing it up. A few glasses of champagne and months of pole dancing classes ensured some pretty, uh, sexy moves (“You were f***ing the furniture” one male friend later commented. Pretty hilarious, if not a bit embarrassing). Luckily, most of the men had migrated downstairs to the pool and hot tub, so my numbers were performed for the ladies. Midnight came and went, and shortly thereafter I left, never having spoken to the beautiful girl.

A couple of months later, I ran into her at another party. This time, we actually talked. She remembered me from New Year’s, and commented on my dancing – “My friends thought you were weird and annoying, but I thought you were awesome.” This thrilled me. Firstly, because within seconds of her opening her mouth I could tell she was different from 90% of the girls who attend parties in the Hills. Secondly, she appreciated my femininity and the freedom I’d been experiencing in expressing it. “What’s your name, I’ll find you on Facebook,” I probed. “Kara Degas.” And with that we became friends. At least according to social media.

Over the next few months, we saw each other at one more party and liked each other’s statuses two or three times. Once she private messaged me with a link to a KCRW podcast in response to an article I had posted about pollution. A couple of times I just stared at photos of her that popped up in my news feed and thought there’s no way this girl can be cool. She was just too flawless to be deep and interesting. I remember at USC having a friend who was impossibly beautiful, rich, smart, perfect. Myself being fragile and insecure, I cried to my mom about her one day, and she responded that her beauty probably works against her sometimes, with people not being able to see beyond her exterior. “Everyone has their cross to bear.” Right, I thought, poor perfect-looking people. What could they possibly understand about the real world?

Turns out everything. Kara reached out to me after my first blog post with a touching private message. Within a couple of entries, she was my biggest fan. I felt beyond flattered, as if the coolest girl in school had just made me part of her court. I suggested a drink, and a few days later she dropped by my house. I was nervous waiting for her to arrive, like a first date from Match.com. What was she going to be like? Would we get along? Would she like me? Well, she had enjoyed my essays enough to reach out, and those were pretty personal. I took a deep breath and opened the door.

We talked for 5 hours. It was one of those conversations where you have so much to say to each other that a single story never gets told. One idea branches into another and another, and soon you’re both spiraling and crisscrossing and jumping backwards and forwards. The more she revealed about her heart-breaking upbringing, her failed relationships, her obsession with reading and neuroscience, the more I was falling in love. It was the kind of spark I’d felt when I met my writing partner – an instant soul connection. I’d only experienced this a handful of times, all with women, and it had always floored me. How could intimacy be this easy?

A couple of months ago over dinner my dad started talking about male bonding. “It seems so much easier to connect with [his tennis and golf buddies], like being in a relationship with a guy would somehow make more sense.” My mom and I looked at each other knowingly. We’d had the same conversation before about women. My parents have been married for 30 years, closer to each other than anyone in the world, and yet, there was still something about that bond between same-sex friends that could not be replicated. I felt it with Martha, with Katelyn, with Ally, and now with Kara. It’s a special form of love, one that moves past the physical and sexual, beyond even the mental and emotional, to a sort of understanding of core being.

That first night I’d seen Kara on New Year’s I’d mistaken my attraction towards her as a girl crush. I had assumed the draw I felt towards her was a result of her beauty, the way it had been for so many of the men who had “known” her without ever knowing her. Now, months into our friendship after that intimate night at my house, I realize I was being pulled to her by something else, by this special chemistry between women. And if nothing else ever comes from my blog but this, well, it will all have been worth it.

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Crying It Out

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Last night as I was closing the curtains and turning out the light in my bedroom, I received a text from a girlfriend. “R U out of class yet?” I deliberated for a moment if I should respond, the heaviness of my limbs encouraging me to wait until morning, the middle school grammar begging me to flip the phone over. “Yup, crawling in bed.” My fingers hit the keys almost automatically, as if driven by some sort of external Mischievous Spirit of Texting. “: /” She responded. How could so much meaning be conveyed in two dots and a dash? I wondered as I obligatorily sent her that all-probing ubiquitous 21st century question: “What’s up?” I watched the three dots, my eyelids half mast. “Can I call u for like 2 mins while u lie in bed lol.” I groaned. Why did I have to even respond in the first place? Why can’t I ever just leave conversations dangling? “Nooo, lol, I am sooo tired, I’ll call you in am.”* I extended my arm to place the phone on the nightstand and then stopped, the : / staring me down. For some reason I couldn’t shake those beady eyes, that slanted mouth. “Unless it’s important. Obviously if you are upset over something I’m here.” The phone instantly rang.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I’m one of those people who has always relied on others when I’m feeling like shit. That’s not to say that every time I break into tears I reach for the nearest set of open arms (although it’d be awesome to see the reaction of say, the stranger sitting next to me in 12 Years a Slave when I draped my sobbing being in their lap), but I do enlist my closest friends or my mom when I’m having a dark day or night of the soul.** I’ll usually make it through about 5-10 minutes of soul-contorting pain before breaking down and reaching for the phone. After all, misery does love company.

In some ways, my tendency to immediately seek out the comfort of others makes me feel weak. Sure, it was fine to tearfully call up my friends in middle school when Charlie didn’t pass back the note in math class, but I’m 28 years old now, a grown woman. I shouldn’t need to consult my girlfriends every time things aren’t going perfectly with a new guy, or I’m feeling unsure about my career, or I’m upset over being stuck on a blog post. I mean, I’m mature enough to handle my own feelings, to learn from my mistakes, to reflect in the solitude of my own mind. Aren’t I?

Well, yes and no. There is a time and place for self-introspection, for journaling and working through one’s feelings alone, and then there is a time to lean on others. The challenge is being able to recognize which method of coping the situation calls for. Not hearing back for several hours from a text message you sent to a guy you like, no matter how anxiety-producing and nerve-grinding, does not warrant a conference call with your female support group. This is not only a waste of their time, but will leave you feeling utterly pathetic when he responds 20 minutes after said call apologizing for the delay in his response because he was having lunch with his dying grandmother. Trust me, it’s better to just distract yourself with any number of wonderful activities – knitting, learning French, skydiving, actually hanging out with your girlfriends and talking about politics or philosophy or the fashion comeback of the crop top – then to destroy yourself over some dangling text message conversation. (Now, if the next text he sends is “I want to break up with you,” then you can make the call.)

On the other hand, there are occasions when you should absolutely reach out and seek advice and comfort. Last year when I was dealing with an emotionally abusive relationship, I could not have made it through without the support of my loved ones. The night I finally broke free of that damaging situation I spent all day talking with my mom and two best friends, garnering the courage I needed. I’d been struggling for a couple of months to get out of it on my own, but it wasn’t until I really reached out that I was able to do so. Some things are just too large to be contained in a single vessel. Sometimes, you just really need that shoulder to cry on.

*     *     *     *     *     *

I answered the call immediately. She had been there for me over the last couple of weeks as I had been trying to make sense of a relationship, and I wanted to return the open arms and ears. Her voice was weak and watery, and any annoyance I had felt over the postponement of my bedtime quickly evaporated. For the next 45 minutes, she poured out her fears, her pain, her loneliness, her insecurities. I listened and responded as best I could, wanting to make sure she felt seen and heard but also trying to provide guidance. As we talked it out, I became more and more acutely aware of a certain symbiosis that was occurring. I recognized so much of myself in her, and through this process of sharing I could feel us both obtaining a clearer picture of ourselves. Just as a piece of art can deepen one’s understanding of the world, so too was this crying out of the soul helping both of us better grasp our own humanity.

The conversation finally began to wind down close to 1 o’clock. “Thanks for talking me off the ledge there,” she said, her voice stronger, regaining vitality. “Of course, that’s what friends are for,” I replied, grateful for the trust she had put in me. “Okay, you sound tired, I’m letting you go to bed now. Sorry that was longer than two minutes.” We shared a laugh and hung up. I rolled over and squeezed the teddy bear I’d had since birth, saying a silent thank you to all of the people who’d helped me through my own dark nights.

 

*I’m perfectly capable of using shorthand and butchering the English language when others do it with me, but the day I substitute “u” for “you” is the day I stop calling myself a writer.

** The woman in front of me during a screening of this film handed me back tissues and asked if I was okay. I probably could have hugged her.

Amy, Alicia, Barcelona

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“You know who your real friends are when you travel,” the pretty blonde Canadian said over her glass of champagne atop the W Hotel in Barcelona. She was recounting her experience in Greece a couple of weeks prior, when a friend of hers left her in a restaurant in a fairly seedy neighborhood, leaving her feeling hurt and vulnerable. Alicia and I looked at each other shocked. Even in the tensest of moments, inevitable while traveling, we could not imagine doing such a thing to each other. We had definitely hit some rough patches throughout our time spent abroad- my misaligned neck in Rome, her broken camera lens in Shanghai, Vegas mornings mirroring the one in The Hangover – but we always worked through it and our relationship only deepened from it.

Travel buddies trouble buddies – we’d coined the phrase a couple of years back while laughing with some friends over a particular wild experience in Paris. That trip to Europe had been our first together, and it cemented our friendship in that unique way traveling does. Something about the extreme highs and lows and constant pulsating energy forges a bond that can last a lifetime. Or break one that’s been years in the making. I knew why people had consistently told me I should travel with a boyfriend before marrying him. But until that happens, I’m blessed to have found my partner in overseas crime: the beautiful, adventurous, down-for-everything Alicia Anderson.

On this European tour, I joined up with Alicia in Barcelona. London had been exceptional, but after a week of sightseeing alone, I was ready to have someone by my side, especially after the intense anxiety-producing flight to get there. My last morning in London had been lovely- a long run through Regent’s park, but it all went down hill after that. First the train I took out to the airport stalled on the tracks, and I instantly regretted that second cup of coffee, my hands shaking as I checked the time every few seconds. After 20 or so minutes of not moving, the conductor came over the airwaves to announce we were being held due to someone being struck on the tracks. I felt guilty for getting so worked up about a missed flight when a person may have just died, said a little prayer, and then continued to panic. So much for my happy place with waterfalls and organ music.

When we finally arrived at Gatwick, I sprinted to the bag drop, politely asked to cut in line, made it through, only to find my flight delayed 3 hours. The board informed me my flight info would be up at 3:05, so I got a beer, wrote, and chatted with a lovely Englishman. At 3:09 I went back to look at the board again, and it said my gate was closing at 3:11. I grabbed my bag and started sprinting down the halls, covering a solid half mile before finding the gate, sweat pouring, long queue not moving. After half an hour laughing with the couple in front of me in line who had also hauled major ass, we got on the plane, only to be held captive on the Tarmac for an hour and a half.

Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Barcelona, near dark, google maps not properly working, I wanted to cry. I got to the bar below the flat we were staying, got on their wifi, and found an email from Alicia – if I’m not on the patio I’m in the room with the pinwheel, just call up my name to the window. “Alicia!” I moaned tragically. “Amy Main!” The sound of her voice, the singsong way she always said my name- a rush of relief washed over me. She came down and we shared a long hug, then she grabbed my bag and we headed up to the apartment.

“Here’s a cold glass of water, we have red or white wine, and I’m making some tapas. I wasn’t sure if you’d feel up to going out, but I figured you’d be thirsty and hungry.” It was this kind of anticipation of needs that made her such an incredible friend and travel partner. “I am your mind,” I had once joked with her in Italy, after a particularly poignant moment of nonverbal communication. We’d been saying the phrase ever since. Right now she was mine.

After a little red wine and tapas, we ventured out into the streets. She pointed out some of the places she had been that day and the day before, and we found a little restaurant in an alley to have paella and sangria. Even though we only had three nights in Spain, we both agreed to call it an early one after dinner, since we planned on doing some heavy walking, Gaudi viewing,and drinking the next two days. This was one of my favorite things about traveling with Alicia. She shares my intense desire to experience as many cultural and debaucherous things as possible in a short period of time.

Which was exactly what we did. Wednesday we hit a trifecta of Gaudi monuments. First was Casa Batllo, the Barcelona architect’s nautically designed residential masterpiece. I tried to imagine actually living in the fluid, organic spaces, where no straight lines existed and everything seemed in motion. Next we walked to Sagrada Familia, begun over a century ago and not scheduled to be finished until 2040. It was single handedly the most unusual place of worship I’d ever stepped into (although the mosque in Cordoba, another Spanish must-see, is a close second.) The hanging Jesus resembling an anguished Dionysian circus performer, the soaring stained glass, the kaleidoscope ceiling – it was definitely worth the price of admission (note: the Spanish will charge for everything, churches and parks included.) We concluded our Gaudi day with Parc Guell, picking up a bottle of cava, ham, and cheese (our three Barcelona food groups- bloat, bloat, and more bloat, but so good.)

That night we ate a late dinner at a restaurant recommended by a friend, Boca Grande, and enjoyed some of the best ceviche we ever had. Upstairs at their chic bar, Boca Chica, we met some Spanish gentlemen who introduced us to Monkey 47, the preferred liquor of choice right now in Barca. After shutting the place down at the tender hour of 2am, we made our way to a near empty club. Now, this may sound horrible – a dance floor with no dancers?! – but for me, it was heaven. I’m not sure I’ve ever danced so freely, whirling around the floor, flipping around hand rails, diving swan like into the arms of a handsome Spaniard. “Your friend is crazy! We love her!” our new friends expressed to Alicia. It felt like a dream, the influences of the day coming together perfectly in this moment of unrestrained joy. I thought of the dancers in the Egyptian tomb paintings I’d seen in the British Museum a few days earlier. There’s a reason every culture through every age has expressed themselves in this way — dance.

The next day was Alicia’s birthday, and we spent it having drinks at various places along the beach. First came Arola at the Arts Hotel, under a huge Frank Gehry fish sculpture. It was literally the one thing she wanted for her birthday, and it did not disappoint. The 15 minute handcrafted cocktail, the exquisite tapas, the adorable assistant bartender from Portugal who was beyond excited to bring Alicia a free happy birthday drink – “I’ve never gotten to do this!” We had mutually made each other’s day. A stroll down the boardwalk treated us to many a gorgeous sun-tanned body, and we decided to stop for a beer to be able to fully enjoy the people watching. Beautiful beach, beautiful weather, beautiful company. Things could be worse.

Our final drinking destination for Alicia’s birthday and our Barcelona trip was the W hotel, one of the most incredible places to view the sunset. We left around 8, figuring that would give us plenty of time to catch the sun’s descent on the third longest day of the year. We opted for the bus to save a few euros and our feet, but after three stops, the bus came to a grinding halt. We had hit the most densely packed roundabout I’d ever seen, literally worse than the 405 on a Friday afternoon when Obama’s in town. If I had been alone, or with someone besides Alicia, this may have induced anger or tears. But considering what I’d learned in London, and the current company, we turned the traffic jam into a scene from a Chevy Chase movie. We laughed so hard I nearly did cry. It really is all a matter of perspective.

We had accepted our fate of spending the evening in a roundabout, but then something miraculous happened- the driver found the one open pocket and maneuvered towards it, Mario Andretti in ten tons of public transport metal. We cheered as he honked his way through, going up on a curb, dodging a century old lamp, our hopes revived. He finally cleared the circle and gunned it down the Ronda, delivering us to our destination. A quick cab ride and we were there, the sun hanging at 2 o’clock, stalling for our arrival. We made it to the 26th floor with plenty of time to watch the colors change, the city an aging actress, dazzling in each incarnation until eventually fading out of the light.

“Have a great rest of your trip!” The blonde smiled and waved goodbye. I looked at Alicia, Albariño in hand, hair gently cascading down her shoulder, perfect skin defying the passing of another year. I thought of the last two days, the whirlwind that was only the beginning, and felt so lucky to have found her, my traveling soul mate, the girl who would never leave me in a restaurant, who kept me from falling to pieces, who “was my mind,” my travel buddy trouble buddy. I raised my glass- “to us in Barcelona.” Maybe we hadn’t found Javier Bardem, but who really needed him as long as we had each other.

The Cambodian Girls

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Every morning when I wake up and wash my face I’m greeted by a colorful star ornament. It dangles from the handle of my medicine cabinet, its eight points shooting childlike energy out in all directions. The bright purple, green, and pink hues clash with the light mauve of the bathroom wall, but this only exaggerates its purpose. This star, given to me by a petite Cambodian girl, serves as a daily reminder of gratitude.

In February of 2013 I visited Cambodia with my parents as part of a Southeast Asian tour. Our trip began with a two week cruise taking us through Singapore, Bali, Malaysia, and Thailand. I know what you’re thinking – “wow, your life sucks. Traveling on a boat full of senior citizens sharing a room with your parents? Yuck.” But luckily, I love my parents, and those old people have a lot of exciting stories to tell you about their trip over the hill. (Plus, there was a hot Aussie trainer eager to help me with my, uh, form.) Needless to say, it was wonderful. But after 14 days of endless buffets, a hundred games of Hearts, and AARP Zumba, I was ready to get down and dusty in the forest of Angkor.

I didn’t know much about Cambodia going into it, except what I’d read in textbooks back in school. I knew the country had suffered tremendously under the bloody hand of the Khmer Rouge, and that it was poorer than the other third world nations I had visited. In regards to Angkor, I could vaguely remember spending ten minutes looking at photos of temples in my Asian Art History course at SMC, but I was always distracted in that class by my professor’s good looks (he was married- no fantasies fulfilled). Aside from that, I’d spent a few minutes googling the country the day before I left, and then decided I would just learn about it when I got there. I do love surprises.

Our first night in Siem Reap I fell in love. The warm air whipping my hair on the rickshaw, the bright lights of Pub Street, the sweet coconuty Amok. We sipped $2 mojitos under bamboo fans in a bustling alley and watched the swell of foreigners drifting in and out of restaurants and shops. Languages from all over the world sang around us, a symphony of diversity. I watched my mom taking it all in. She’d never looked more youthful than at this moment, her eyes alight, her nose crinkling as she laughed, still experiencing wonder at 57. This is the life I signed up for, I thought, one of our many family slogans. It doesn’t get much more magical than this.

But it did- Angkor Wat. How to describe it? Ancient, mythical, impossible, unrepeatable, like a lost fairy tale reawakened. We spent hours exploring the main temple, scaling its walls, feeling its ghosts. How could this place have been buried for so many centuries, kept secret from the rest of humanity? Who were these ancient people who built these monuments, thrived and flourished, then just disappeared? I ran my hand over the archaic carvings. It was the closest I’d ever been to time travel.

As the sun peaked in the sky, we finally decided to move on to the next temple. Angkor Wat is only one of more than a thousand temples in Angkor Thom, and we only had three days to cover as much as we could. We found our guide – one of dozens, maybe hundreds, of rickshaw drivers – and he motored us off to Prasat Bayon, the temple of the mysterious faces. I definitely remembered discussing this one in my class, the fact that each of the 216 zen-like visages were slightly different. I thought of Ancient Egypt, and the varied imagery used to distinguish each pharaoh from the others. Who were these faces? Boddhisatvas? Jayavarman VII? The truth remained sealed behind the stoic lips of the 216 stone faces. An hour passed, maybe two, and it was time to continue to the next site.

At each of the temples, vendors hawked items to the visitors, as typical of any tourist destination anywhere. These included fresh coconut water, fans, t-shirts, scarves, and silly little knick knacks, like kazoos. The sellers ranged from 7 years old to what looked like a 100. We bought a few things along the way – I got a dress and a coconut, my mom got a fan and a scarf – but we couldn’t possibly buy something from everyone, and we had to become adept at saying “no, thank you.” It was hard to turn down the little boys with their funny masks and musical instruments. It was harder still to choose amongst them who to purchase the diet coke from. “From me, ma’am, buy from me!” I thought of the clubs in Vegas, where people would “make it rain.” I nearly choked on the absurdity.

Our last temple for the day was a bit further off the beaten path. The sun had just begun its torchlike descent to the horizon, and we hurried down the dusty entryway to the gate, determined to see all we could before closing. As we shuffled along, our flipflopped feet sore from the day of sightseeing, a group of 6 or 7 young girls with scarves joined us. “Ma’am, 3 for $5. Beautiful scarf. Pretty on you,” the girl said, trying to appeal to my vanity. One of them tugged on my mom’s dress- “For your daughter. So beautiful. You buy from me.” We smiled at them. “When we get back, but first we need to see the temple!” my mom exclaimed, and they nodded.

We were the only ones inside the temple grounds. The light was spectacular, “Golden Hour,” and we absorbed as much of it as we could in 20 minutes. When we walked back out, our first day officially concluded, the girls greeted us. “Ma’am, you told me you’d buy!” “But I already have so many scarves! Look!” My mom showed her her earlier purchases. “For gifts, for friends,” the girls pleaded. “My husband has all the money,” my mom replied. It was true. He was in charge of carrying the money, and he had already retired to the rickshaw. Their faces fell. My heart broke. I wished I could take each of them home with me, give them each the education and opportunity I had, provide them with the kind of life I had been blessed with.

I reached into my small purse and rummaged around for something, anything, I might be able to give them. I found a JuicyTube lip gloss. “Here, for you.” I handed it to one of the girls, and her eyes shined the way my mother’s had the night before. She put some on and shared it with the other girls excitedly. “Do you guys want to take a picture?” my mom asked. “Yeah!” They eagerly lined up with us beneath the blood orange sun. Click.

They followed us to our rickshaw, and we got a few dollars from my father to give to the girls. It was so little to us, but so much to them. Why does the world work this way? I wondered. “For you, for you!” The girls held out little straw stars for the three of us. “No, no, we don’t need that. You keep it,” my dad said. He wasn’t trying to be rude, he was just telling the truth. We didn’t need the stars, and we didn’t want to take something from them that would earn them money. We got in our rickshaw, and the driver started up the engine. “For you!” One of the girls put the star in my lap. I started to give it back, and then locked eyes with her. It was the girl I’d given the lipgloss to. I saw myself through her in that moment, and understood. I clutched the star to my chest, took her hand, and said “Thank you.”

As we made our way back through the forest, past the temples and lake, past a small village with no electricity or running water, past children in school uniforms walking the miles back to their homes, I felt more grateful than I ever had in my life. For that moment, for my parents, for the beauty of the place and the people, for the girl, for the star. What a gift. I think about it everyday.