"The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike." -Ralph Ellison
I'd love for all of my little blades to read my first publication in a collection of essays!!!
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A few years ago, after graduating from college, I found myself needing some extra income. I’d moved from New York City to Los Angeles and was craving steady work. So when a friend referred me to a Westside family for a tutoring job, I was Carnation Instant Tutor.
At the time, I was a bit adrift. I felt pretty split actually – I had just finished a hyper-successful Broadway debut. I understudied three roles in The Diary of Anne Frank, starring Natalie Portman and directed by James Lapine. We ran for almost nine months. This was my very first acting gig. I was prosperous, I had my own apartment in the West Village, I was a signed client of William Morris, I’d performed before thousands of people, and I was a recent Ivy League Graduate. But my mom had died a few years before and I was suddenly sad. I’d wear sunglasses in the daytime for fear that if people could see my eyes, they’d be scared. My sadness was so deep I was scared of looking down. I often felt I would fall right over. And as my sadness deepened, I knew I needed a break from acting. Plus, my finances were running out and the bright lights of Broadway were fading into the pinky sunsets of Malibu. I just needed a job. I needed to breathe and not be so ambitious for once. Brentwood and a sixteen year-old girl seemed like the perfect medicine. I’d always loved kids and teaching, now I could combine the two, make some money and heal myself. Perhaps I would even become a sort of adopted big sister. Warm weather, pretty good money, helping kids write essays, free meals. I was stoked, as they say in California.
When I arrived at the family’s tree-lined street, I was buzzed into a yard with a deep blue pool. A diminutive woman with dark, attractive features and the body of a teenager brought me in to greet her two daughters. They both had dark brown hair — sloppy in a privileged kind of way — and they were friendly, excited even, to have someone around who was older than them, but clearly younger than their parents. As I entered their kitchen, three dogs lapping at my feet, I was prepared to tackle essays with the sophomore or math with the seventh grader.
Within minutes, I was led upstairs to the 16-year-old’s dimly lit room. Used-up candles, empty water bottles, bags of Terra chips and the requisite Vegan cookies were scattered haphazardously about the king-sized bed. This was to be our study place, a discomfort from the start.
We began with an essay she was writing for English class. But before getting started, we got to know one another in between bites of the aforementioned snacks. Her mother even brought up a tray containing the dinner her daughter requested — cooked beets, steamed carrots, and marinated tofu. We sipped on bottles of flat water. After eating, she said she felt fat.
That same evening, I was invited to move in. Free food and housing, their mother promised, if the kids could come to my room for tutoring whenever necessary. I pictured the girls knocking on my bedroom door like Jehovah’s Witnesses, stacks of books in their hands, ruthless attempts at conversation. A warning light flickered in my mind. I politely declined.
But I did become a regular visitor. When their parents were out, the three of us would open the doors of the kitchen pantry and simply stand before it. In these moments, we were reduced to a Pavlovian state, drooling over our favorite teas, chips, chocolate candy, and cookies. Then we’d journey to the fridge where we’d indulge in kiwi fruits, sliced apples, bright red cherries, and tofu cheese slices. With her little sister left to study on her own and her parents scattered about the house, we’d climb the stairs to her bedroom, like cherubic children, heavy with sleep.
But we didn’t sleep. Instead, I’d listen while she cried like a child. She’d lean on my shoulder, tears spilling onto the strap of my tank top, her body slumped on the bed like a disjointed stuffed animal. Most nights she said she didn’t feel well — her parents were infuriating her, or it was the anniversary of her grandmother’s death or she had a stomachache. I had her write about this pain. It was palpable; it hung over her bed like a mosquito net, capturing her fears, making her itch.
I’d sworn secrecy to this weary-eyed teenager, but I grew concerned as her sadness became a normal part of our tutor sessions. One night I pulled her mother aside as I was leaving.
"Your daughter seems very unhappy."
Her mother asked why, as if I were a nuisance.
"I don’t know."
"The most important thing," the mother continued, "is that she do well her junior year."
My tutoring hours were getting ridiculous, often exceeding four hours a day. I enjoyed the good money and good food, but I had gone from tutor to therapist in a matter of weeks. I probably should’ve charged more for my services considering I ended up calling my therapist on the teenager’s behalf one Tuesday just before midnight after she begged me to let her throw up.
During finals week a few months later, her parents asked me to stay with her while they attended a cousin’s wedding in Carmel. In the same breath, they explained how vital good scores on these exams would be to their daughter’s college applications. The night before they left, her mother pulled me aside to pay me in the kitchen.
"We think she may have a borderline eating disorder."
I merely agreed. I felt as if her daughter’s secret hung over me like a dark cloak; I was stifled, uneasy. I thanked her for the check and walked out towards my car.
Once her parents were gone, the older girl confided that she’d bought liquor and cigarettes. She’d rented some videos. One of her girlfriends was coming over to “hang out by the pool.” How cozy this would all be, except I was there. I have no idea if it ever occurred to her that I might possibly tell her parents, which I never did. I think she was too caught up in the moment, in being a rebel, and I unfortunately could not join the cause. I’d unwillingly become the tutor/therapist/babysitter/friend. I spent the entire evening countering her attempts to ruin her finals. And as I lay in bed that night, sore backed from running circles around this girl, I swore to myself that I was done, expired — like an old Amex card broken in half, then throw away.
After that finals weekend, I never did return to that house. But through a friend I learned that the little sister was to be attending a new school the following year. And that she was still the fun-loving, healthy girl I’d grown to know. She was innately light and I always felt she’d be okay. I also learned that the teenager was seeing a nutritionist and a therapist, and that she began taking anti-depressants again. She also was accepted into a prestigious arts school summer program and into her first-choice college — both undoubtedly helped by a few important phone calls her parents made. I felt mixed about it all.
Months later I realized I’d never once seen the family sit down to dinner together. The parents did not demand regular chores or dole out allowances. The family didn’t enjoy any of the familiar rhythms I knew so well as a child. There was a lot of love in this house, but no one seemed to know where to put it. I often felt the urge to teach this young girl more than how to write essays, but I resisted. What she desperately needed was not something I could give her — discipline, routine, a delicate touch to her cancerous sadness.
And as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I resented her. I grew up in a New Jersey town where a tattoo shop expanded and displaced our only bakery, and my sister and I were able to attend the prestigious prep school only because we qualified for financial aid. My parents were both teachers and we always felt the money pinch. It hung in the air of our home. It pulled at our hair, tugged at our backs. She lived in a sprawling house, her closets bursting with couture and pricey hipster clothing, her own brand-new SUV in the driveway. And she could yell at her mother with abandon. In short, she had everything I didn’t have as a child.
Still another part of me felt deeply for her. Where was her family dinner? Her homework being red-pen checked by a doting mother? Where were her family vacations? She seemed to live like a frantic animal that had been shot in the leg, desperate for safety.
In the end I, too, was desperate. Leaving behind a girl who purged on excess and starved for the simple, I took with me another kind. A girl left drained by one family and hungering for another -- my own.
And as I drove away, I thought to myself -- Take this young tutor, who you are in this moment, and shape her, mold her into a young woman with boundaries and dreams of her own, who will do great things… You have learned when to say no, when to go, when to check in with yourself, how to walk away with your head held high, to be grateful for what you had that no one can ever take away. Love. Love that knew no eating disorders, no separate eating quarters, no couture, no crying out of gossamer sadness, no yelling for discipline. Love that knew colorful, healthy food, that shaped cracks in the ceiling into shapes of animals as you and your mom lay in bed on a lazy Saturday morning, that played rhyming games with your mom until the smell of bacon seeping from the vents signifying breakfast, that meant singing at the piano as your dad played rhapsodically, that knew no great wealth rather great belief in God’s children.
I began to write. I traveled to Oxford and studied Shakespeare. I took care of a stranger as she lay dying of cancer, I volunteered and read books I’d loved as a child to elementary school children, I went for long walks and took a break from acting so I could learn about being. As my friend Alison once said, “We are human beings, not human doings.” After a successful Broadway run, a break from my career, a humbling tutoring gig, and a rekindled desire to “suck the marrow out of life,” as Thoreau recommended, I needed to be. And slowly, this small town I always felt more than, in the slick California sun, it felt real and nurturing, and I began to feel my hometown in my blood. I knew I had a story to share. Tutoring might be the means to the end, but this end would be glorious – I would write and act my big heart out when I wasn’t with these kids trying to eke a smooth English essay out of them. I would return to me – to the girl who’d left New York behind for the promising palm trees of the west. No. I would come back even stronger, more still. I’d needed a break from Hollywood because my mom’s death when I was seventeen had just hit me… But when I drove away from that sprawling house in Brentwood, I looked out of my rear view mirror and said, “I am stronger for this. I will come back and show this world what I can write, how I can act – and this, this story of a girl crying on my shoulder, this story of a young woman feeling helpless, this will only make me stronger.” Walk on, sweet child, I said to the little girl very much alive inside of me, Walk on. And I did. I never looked back, rather I set my eyes on the setting sun, knowing that mine would soon be rising, a golden saucer in the sky, illuminating my way from a small town in New Jersey to the sprawling dreams of Hollywood. I would never again be alone. I had my past and I was driving towards my future – and my mom was right there with me, where she belonged.
A few years ago, after graduating from college, I found myself needing some extra income. I took a seemingly ordinary tutoring gig and what I got was quite extraordinary. I got back me. Reinvented.