The Optimist

By Sophie Kipner

A delusional girl’s very misguided search for love

The Lion

I’m not going to lie; I've always been a bit of a horny kid, climbing onto anything around me with an edge. For the longest time, I thought my heart was located between my legs because it beat and pulsed so much. My mother would have to physically rip me off couch corners and away from Jacuzzi jets when guests would come around for dinner.

My mother’s always been quite wild and whimsical, but after my dad decided our house was too small for him -when I was about six and my sister nine – she formed a panicked edge. Instead of admitting I’d learned my ways from her, she would self-consciously laugh it off, pretending she didn't get it. “I don’t know where she comes from!” she would say to a slew of new friends, new suitors, with chronically wine-stained teeth as she’d pry me off the furniture. Inevitably, we'd fall down together, our bottoms bouncing across the floor like gently skipping pebbles across a placid lake. In front of a room full of loosened jaws, she'd get up swiftly, like it was nothing but some dust on her shoulder, fluff her black bob, give me a wink, and return to the party, seemingly unscathed.

And that party side of her, that was my favorite. That was when she was most alive. When she was on, she was on full blast. Hot or cold, never lukewarm. She told jokes everyone laughed at and could hold any room with a story. You should hear some of her stories. If she were around someone whom she thought might be able to change her life, her laughing would become increasingly robust. It would tear through walls, that laugh, and she’d use it to cleverly string together awkward silences. This was just one of many ways she knew how to fill gaps. I'd watch her mingle and work the room, throwing herself over eligible men. “Twilda, baby,” they’d say as she’d corral them with her wit and charisma, her irrefutable charm. But this chameleonic flip-flopping was normal. This was Los Angeles.

Crammed into a tiny, busy house, my sister Brenda and I grew up under my mother’s loosely focused eye in Topanga, a tree-house kind of town nestled in the Santa Monica mountains where names like Ocean and Summer are not cool; they’re ordinary. I always saw my mother as this colorfully dressed woman who, after one too many burns, wore an ill-fitting black cloak over her outfit, subduing her. You see, after my dad left, she never stopped moving and that franticness –paired with her staple glass of red wine – made her especially slippery. You knew underneath she was still a modern art painting, a unicorn, but you didn’t know when it would show, so you’d wait on edge as she buoyed between hope and depression. Maybe that was her way of teaching me how to keep a man on his toes.

Contingent upon the crowd, she would vacillate between being sexually free-spirited and neurotically concerned about upholding appearances. On one hand, she’d be too aware of herself and on the other she’d encourage us to be expressive and open and comfortable with our bodies, not caring what anyone else would think. Unfortunately, my sister was reserved and I took it too far (I loved being naked and would take my clothes off everywhere I went: supermarkets, toy stores, zoos, even monasteries when my mother thought she was a Buddhist). So depending on her mood, her reaction to our polar-opposite behavior either impressed or infuriated her. But either way, she never told me to stop. I guess we’re all like that. We're all a bit fickle.

Sure, she was messy but messy was interesting. At the end of the night, when everyone had left, she’d wake me up and lead me to the empty living room, light an American Spirit cigarette and start swaying to Nina Simone and Sam Cooke.

“Why’d everyone leave?” I’d ask, but the wine tipping out of her glass would usually distract me as she waved it through the air. She’d move silently through the room, and I’d copy her from a few steps behind. I spent many nights like this, following her trail of moonlit smoke and dancing in her wake.

“Everyone’s just so Goddamn boring!” she’d always say when no one stayed.

“Not me, though, right?” I’d ask, just to be sure, hips swaying, finding a groove.

“You could never be boring,” she’d say sweetly. “You’re my baby.” The red wine would always leave a little mark on either side of her mouth, like baby horns. I loved them so much that I even missed them when they’d disappear. Thankfully, she’d never be without them for too long.

My mother became fanatical about Dorothy Parker just before my eleventh birthday and would read her to us in bed. The queen of emotional shrewdness and intelligence had eventually found my mother; the words seducing her with their shared distrust and adoration of love. They soon became her bible. Dorothy’s poems took the place of Goodnight, Moon and I’d often go to bed confused. Most kids got The Tale of Peter Rabbit but I was sent to sleep with lines that would stick to my insides like gum, the most glutinous being: “Be the one to love the less.” Talk about a goodnight story. So, like we were told of gum, Dorothy’s wisdom through my mother’s voice would grow inside me into a tree. Leaves would fall but the roots would dig deeper, grasping firmly.

That line, about loving the less, it burnt a hole in me every time she said it because I knew she didn’t mean it. It couldn't possibly be sound advice because love is when both people love the more, and I was going to find a man who loved me just as much as I loved him. Our love would be mind-blowing. We’d have to take breaks walking down the street because we’d be so overwhelmed by the amount of love we would have for each other. Our hearts would ache not from loss but because they'd be stretched to their limit in order to hold the limitless expanse that was our love. We'd think there could be no more room inside us left to store it, that we might just burst, but we don't because we're human and we’d adapt. The harbinger of love is making the choice to believe in it. I knew it existed; it’s just my mother had forgotten, and I had to prove her wrong because proving her wrong would be the only way she could be happy again.

So, I did what most children would do who were trying to save their parents: I'd crawl under the table during dinner parties – back when I was small and undetectable - and play footsie with the guests. It was sort of a matchmaking, Robin Hood kind of expedition, I guess, since my motives were altruistic. I'd spin my forearm around their feet to mimic my mother's foot, just to get the ball rolling. I'd pull back; watch as their toes pushed forward to return the gesture. From there it would usually take off on its own, the back and forth of twirling, searching feet, and it would instill in me a sense of pride and accomplishment because my mother would always think the man had made the first move. Men would, at times, need the encouragement to initiate and that's all I was doing. I was just a catalyst, giving my mother a chance to feel adored again.

It worked in momentary bursts but it didn’t have any holding power, and so it was often just the three of us. A house of estrogen. A unit. Before turning off the lights at night, mom would turn around in one sharp, quick move and ask us, “And what is our mantra, girls?”

“The cure for boredom is curiosity,” we’d say together in glorious harmony, those pious words of Dorothy Parker, “but there is no cure for curiosity.” I loved this quote because I’m naturally inquisitive, but when I’d turn to Brenda, she’d just roll her eyes. She didn’t get it. In fact, she still doesn’t, which is why I nanny her five-year-old daughter, Mary. I have to make sure she believes in magic before my sister’s sensibilities get in the way. I’m hoping Mary’s temperament malleable, but one can never be sure.

My quest for personal happiness and that of bringing it to others persisted in myriad ways. A case in point was when I was in my mid teens and I wanted to be a phone sex operator but my voice was never husky enough. I’d have to just practice on strangers. I’d pick up the phone and dial random numbers and wait for it to ring. And each time it did, it gave me a thrill. Would he be an old, lonely man? Would he be my old 7th grade history teacher, Mr. Hockley? The main problem was that my voice would always come out differently from how I’d anticipated, like everything else in my life. The sound I'd hear in my head was dry and raspy, like I'd been incessantly smoking cigarettes through the night at a full moon party, screaming my head off. But when I'd open my mouth, trying to muster that richly seductive tone, I'd cough. “Do you have something stuck in your throat?” people would ask me, not realizing it was a PHONE SEX CALL, and, “Do you need some water?” I would have thought that sounding like I had something stuck in my throat was a phone sex asset, but something was lost in translation. It was probably a blessing in disguise that they didn’t understand the nature of the call since most of the receivers were stay-at-home moms. That could have become really dicey. It’s true what they say: the dots always connect in retrospect.

I’ve had an enviable amount of relationships, all of which would be considered lucky, largely erotic and fantastic by anyone’s standards. Some were brief but all were profound, and the good news is that I don’t have baggage from them because I just move forward. Some things stick, of course, but that’s natural. I might have filled pockets, but phew, no bags.

One of my favorite mentors was a pizza deliveryman I grew up around named Rainbow Dan. He was a bit ominous, spouting truths he’d learned in past lives. We never had an affair because my mother beat me to it, but I couldn’t blame her. He was a steal.

“He reminds me of one of my first boyfriends,” my mother said as her cigarette smoke played with the shape of her face. She was trying to relax on her new brown deluxe sofa but couldn’t quite find the right angle. Channeling Goldilocks, she moved from seat to seat.

Milk was over from across the street. His name is Milken, but everyone calls him Milk. He’s always been across the street, for the most part, for as long as I can remember. He was usually hanging around me, annoying me with his limpness, his awkwardness. He never knew where to put his hands.

We were about ten, and Milk had been sent to detention after yelling at a girl who was making fun of me. I also was in trouble because, according to Mrs. Wells, I had instigated it. When we got home, Milk sank in the corner while I explained to my mother why, for a moment, my shoulders had slouched like Milk in that seat. She said round shoulders were for victims, and that I wasn’t a girl with round shoulders. We weren’t victims, but every once in a while something would throw us.

“They called me stupid,” I started, “because I said Captain Cook found the Cook Islands.”

“How is that stupid?” she said. “He did.”

“They said I was thinking of Captain Hook, from the movie. Then they all started laughing because I thought he was real.”

This happened a lot in class because I’d often mix up my words. I figured it was because my brain was moving too fast; they thought I was just dumb. My teacher believed I never knew what I was talking about and the students would follow suit, a classic behavior of sheep. Apparently, my teacher had never heard of Captain Cook, and therefore assumed I had jumbled my words again, the room quickly erupting in laughter.

“Well,” my mother said, turning to me. “Are you going to let some mean little misinformed kids make you feel dumb?”


“Where’s your backbone?” she added. “You’re Irish!” She started banging on her chest like Tarzan and stamping her feet in rhythm. It was coming to that time of night, and Rainbow Dan had just given her a pick-me-up.

“We smoke, we drink, we fuck, we dance!” she yelled, coaxing Milk and me to repeat.

“We smoke!” we screamed. “We drink! We fuck! We dance!”

When Milk came to the word fuck he’d stop and just mouth it. He could never say it out loud.

“Milk,” I said. “I know you think you’re helping but you’re too little to stand up for me. You’ll just get hurt.”

Milk’s bones hung from their sockets; his feet so big he could barely lift them, which rendered his walk quite clumsy. I’m pretty sure his balls hadn’t dropped, either. It wasn’t his fault, though; I was used to men. I was used to men like Rainbow Dan.

“Is he your boyfriend?” Milk asked my mom, referring to the man with technicolor pants.

“Oh God, you know I hate to be put in boxes, Milky boy,” she said, dancing away at the thought of him.

“Rainbow Dan’s just kinda lame,” Milk interjected. “He smells like patchouli oil.” I rolled my eyes. He was so young, so clueless. He had no idea that if a man smelled like the Earth it meant he was manly.

“Oh, you’re just jealous,” I said. I looked over to my mother for confirmation but she was looking the other way. It’s hard to get her attention.

“Dan’s like the wind,” she added. "You can just ride him and he'll take you somewhere."

You couldn’t tell it was only 4:00 in the afternoon because the trees around our house would cast blankets of shadows that left us in a perennial state of darkness, save of course for the random laser of light that would pass through the branches. One of them blazed through my mother’s face, illuminating the gold in her hazel eyes. They shimmered there on the couch, just like she did –a bright light whose white had yellowed and greyed, stained from years of trying to shine too brightly.

It was so obvious that she was the most luminous of lights for miles, but I could tell she was starting to see it fade. Instead of slowing down, though, she sped up, as if to counteract it, but it only depleted her more. The thought of not being as dazzling as she’d always been was bringing her down. Her massively romantic heart had slowed beating, despite her skittishness, and if I didn’t help her get it going fast and ferocious again, I’d lose her.

“Are you in love?” I asked, hoping to mistake the nervousness that made her hover for the effervescent effect of love, but the phone would ring before I’d get an answer and she’d be distracted, coiled around his voice like the cord wrapped around her finger. But that was how she loved now; she loved in frenzy.

Every day for a week, Rainbow Dan the deliveryman would show up on my sinuous street in the canyon with no shoes on and those aptly fit multi-colored pants, a loosely buttoned shirt and untamed hair, holding a pizza. No one knew if he had a home, which probably added to his mystery. He literally came every day that by the end of the week, pepperoni had taken on a new meaning. My mother, he told me, was addictive. She was that powerful.

“You have two choices in life,” he said as he passed me the box at our front door. “You can be a sheep, or you can be a lion.”

“Okay,” I said. “What are you?”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” he said, throwing his head back in a surfer head jerk: think Keanu Reeves. “I’m a lion prophet. I’m a radical fucking lion.” I already thought his shirt was pretty much unbuttoned but in one shocking move he tore the remaining fastened buttons apart and revealed a giant lion tattoo on his ribcage.

“Oh,” I said. Okay. It was all making sense now. That’s when Rainbow Dan reached his dirty hand out and touched my shoulder and stared at me with his stoned blue eyes.

“Your mom?” he added. “She’s a lion.” It all sounded like more of a bedtime story than what was read to me, so when I went to bed that night, I thought about what the prophet lion Rainbow Dan had told me. I realized we were part of a pride. I realized that it was okay if sheep don’t like me because, heck, are sheep ever going to like lions? No. Lions don’t care what sheep think because they are lions. Being a lion meant taking risks, making things happen. Lionesses don’t wait for lions to show interest. They sprint and they leap and they pounce onto other lions because they’re confident and sexy and powerful. That’s how we fall in love.

I gave Rainbow Dan a high five with my right hand because my left was still holding the pizza. I didn’t even care if it was pepperoni again; I had a craving for meat. Finally, someone knew what we were. I was going to go out there and own it. I was going to tear the shit out of love and it was going to be exactly what I’d been waiting for. Fuck fading. Screw settling: explosive love prevails! But after Rainbow Dan delivered his last pizza, it became clear that I was back to the beginning: disillusionment had once again broken my mother.

She’d lived her life so fully that she hadn’t anticipated it wouldn’t work out for her in the end, and the encroaching banality of a life left alone had befriended her. I was surrounded by women who had forgotten what they were looking for. They had lost their hope of butterflies because too many people had told them they weren’t real, and if they were, they certainly weren’t sustainable. I couldn’t possibly bare the thought of us settling though because, well look at my parents: when you settle, you can still fail.

Dorothy Parker’s words were cutting at us, line by line, and I could see my mom couldn’t stomach the thought that they might be true. She lived by them, but like an atheist who begins to pray when everything is going downhill, she secretly clung to the possibility that Dorothy’s truths were fallible. I think deep down she’d just pretend to disbelieve in love, to be hard and aloof, because the way her eyes lit up with any new prospect indicated her hope was kicking; it’s just that her recovery period was steadily expanding.

It wasn’t just my mother I was trying to save. It was everyone who’d become jaded. The only ones I knew who weren’t emotionally spent and stripped were at my grandma’s care home, but they all had dementia so no one would take any notice to what they had to say. One at a time, I would save women and the day would come when we’d all be drinking around a fireplace, laughing with full hearts with our dream men.

Like fixing a symptom in lieu of the cause, I knew that before I could save everyone, I’d have to start with my mother. She was the fulcrum. And, if Brenda saw that mom could find love, then she would believe she could, too, and it would start a domino effect, filtering all the way down to Mary.

The biggest problem was that my mother and sister weren’t as optimistic as they needed to be; they didn’t try hard enough. They were still lions, like I was, but they couldn’t see it anymore. They weren’t near enough mirrors to see the reflections I did. That’s where I was going to do it where they couldn’t. My self-assuredness, my self-awareness, my unyielding tenacity, that’s what made me the only one fit for the job. I was, invariably, at the age of thirty – now an undeniable adult –their last chance. All I needed to do was show mom the best wasn’t over, that there were other men after my dad who could love her the way she’d always wanted to be loved before her teetering over the edge landed her at the bottom of the well. Actions speak louder than words, so I’d accomplish this by finding love myself.

I was okay with being the Braveheart; the rest would fall into place. And when I thought about it, finding love didn’t seem too intangible a goal. How hard could it be? There were billions of people to choose from. All I needed was to find one.

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