Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Story About The Book I Almost Wrote

This morning, I woke up with a song stuck in my head. I haven’t heard this song in a long time, I haven’t thought about this song ever (at least not consciously), and I haven’t woken up with any song in my head for a while. So, I thought it was odd when I found myself singing it as I got ready for class, but quickly forgot about the moment as I headed to my 8am lecture. It took me all day — a bizarre Leap Year Day, I might add — to realize that the singer (Davy Jones — a name I, admittedly, didn’t know) died today.

Life is weird. Sometimes I try to make sense of things that are not meant to make sense, and I look for meaning in meaningless accidents. I don’t do it because I’m bored or hopeless, I do it because I sincerely believe in learning from life, and sometimes I try to learn something at the wrong moments, over the wrong people, from the wrong lessons. It’s like I’m constantly working on one giant puzzle and I’m convinced there are pieces missing (you know that moment when you’re convinced it’s not you, it’s the puzzle that’s wrong!? Just me? OK then…), when really it’s a brand new box, and I just haven’t found some of the right ones yet. But, for what it’s worth (and let me tell ya — it’s worth a lot these days!), I’ve finally gotten most of the straight edges in place; everyone knows that’s the first step, then you fill it all in.

Crumbling Wall. Dolores, Argentina.

Last week, I found out that a book project I had been working on fell through. It’s strange, because I don’t feel sad at all. In a way, I feel really happy — maybe even relieved — and I am confused by this reaction. Most people are giving me the absolutely appropriate and kind words that I would think I’d need. But honestly, I feel good about this dream-crushing experience! I call it that because technically this was a life long dream-opportunity that arose out of the pure certainty in my heart/mind that it would somehow come true. When life actually matches up with the dreaming, I have trouble believing that it’s real. But, even after getting my golden ticket — the most unlikely happening at the most bizarre time — reality still sneaks up and wins.

For those who don’t know, by a stroke of serendipity, the moment I quit my writing/editing life and began volunteering as a physical therapy aide, I found myself tending to the sprained ankle of a new patient. As I set her up with ice and electric-stimulation (better known as e-stim, for anyone who’s ever found him/herself beneath its oddly buzzing patches), she asked me how I got into physical therapy. Without wanting her to know how truly inexperienced I “technically” was (going through a total of one year of physical therapy myself didn’t exactly count as “experience”), I told her I was actually a career-changer just getting into the field. She sounded interested and asked me what I did before? I love this question, because the last thing people expect is for me to say “I was a travel writer living in Ecuador.” But it’s true, and it makes me happy every time I say it!

This launched an interesting conversation, during which I announced that writing will always be my first love, but that I had also always secretly wanted to go into healthcare. When even a dream job in South America didn’t cover up this inner urge, which I had tried for years to cover up by adventures and disguised satisfaction, I realized it was time to bust a move (so to speak). In a way, I felt like the ship I was on (publishing) had just hit an iceberg, and I could either stay on and know my likely fate, or jump off the sinking ship while I still had enough fight in me to swim to a lifeboat. It took me several jobs to realize that I didn’t have to get paid to write; if I loved doing it, I could do it no matter what, and still have a different career. So, I took that knowledge and finally (after MUCH thought, and in a way, none at all) began to run with it.

Unfortunately, I have a lot of dreams. Dreams don’t just “come true” — lemme tell ya! You’ve got to work hard (in some cases, work your ASS off) for them, but these “dreams” don’t come with promises of any kind. To my delight, the woman with the sprained ankle asked me more questions, and I happily answered them. I explained how I was a bit adventured-out after getting sick in Ecuador, getting my heartbroken over too many over-the-top romances (including a couple unforgettable international ones… mmm mmm), and, frankly, I was out of money. But I mentioned that even though I was switching career paths, I had to write a book about all my adventures because they were too crazy, wonderful, and sometimes heartbreaking not to. I felt like the only one of my friends going through the wonderful mess of questions with only temporary answers that I was going through (which is probably not true at all, but I’m waiting for you all to blog about it!), but I knew there were plenty of other people out there who may have wanted to simply know they were not alone. She asked me, “what kind of adventures did you have?” So, as she had 20 minutes to go with her ice and e-stim, I began to tell her.

Walking along the peak of Pichincha Volcano. Quito, Ecuador. (15,500 feet high)

It wasn’t until the end of our conversation that I asked her to tell me about herself, and what she did for a living. Her response intantly sparked one of those magic moments in life when you just KNOW something crazy is about to happen in your life. She said, “Actually, I’m a literary agent…” I gulped, laughed, let the words blow up in my heart, and said: “OH.” I knew this was it. THIS was IT.

~Magic moment!! ~

Then she asked me the question I didn’t even know I had been ready to answer for years. She asked, “How serious are you about that book?” My response was immediate: “I am DEAD serious. I’ve already started writing it…” She gave me her card, told me to email her with a little more background on the story. I told her to watch out if she wasn’t serious, because she was going to get an email from me the next day. She laughed and said she was serious. Clearly, so was I.

In that moment, I knew this was going to happen. It was always going to happen. I always BELIEVED this was going to happen, but at this point — fresh off of me quitting the writing/editing world  and admittedly not brilliant– I just didn’t have a clue HOW.

A 30 page proposal and three sample chapters later (which I wrote in three weeks, mind you), I was signed with the agency. Within one week of signing, I started my post-baccalaureate pre-med program at NYU — my “new” life.

People often asked me how the hell I planned to both write a book and pursue one of the most intensely competitive/time-consuming academic endeavors I could possibly have chosen, and honestly, I had no idea what I was really getting myself into. I actually believed I could do both, because I had to! When a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity knocks on your door, you let that stud in.

As I studied my brains out, I realized how hard it was going to be to write at the same time (about REAL people – scary, to say the least), but I had to make it work. Around the holidays I got a call from my agent. It could have been any news, and she wanted me to call back immediately. I was suspicious.

Sure enough, after all these amazing dots lining up and a little “fairy dust” (as my friend calls it), she got a job offer in another part of the country, and had accepted. Just like that, I knew this was it. Even though my project got passed along to the president of the company, I knew I wouldn’t strike gold twice; not everyone is going to love my story enough to work their butt off for it, and I had found my golden ticket, the one person in the world who sincerely did, but I wouldn’t dream of getting two golden tickets. A couple months of edits and lingering hope later, the end of this opportunity became reality, and my dream book has been put back in the mental bookshelf for now, while my biology and chemistry textbooks remain open in my hands.

I am going to write this book. It is absolutely not “the end.” But frankly, I’m relieved that I don’t have to write it now. School is my absolute focus, above anything else right now. It is my new dream, my new passion. And while writing will always be there, and will always be incorporated into my continuously odd, bizarre, and (to me) exciting life, I’ve got some final touches to add to the ending of my twenty-something story.

This song that I woke up with today seems evermore fitting as I get myself ready for bed tonight. So, I leave you with it, and with this promise: I will write a book. I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I will. Until then, I’ve still got my trusty blog. So thank you for being a part of it, and my ever-changing, always unpredictable, sometimes incomplete yet deeply gratifying story… so far.

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February 29, 2012 · 9:13 pm

Two Gals and a Cucaracha

There comes a time in every gal’s life when she finds herself face-to-face with a giant cockroach. In that moment, how she behaves is strictly instinctual, complicated only by her desire to maintain control and some remnant of composure. Usually, there is only one option: KILL. But for many of us, this is not as easy as it sounds.

It happened only once. I had somehow skirted ever seeing a single cockroach in my apartment and I knew it was just a matter of time. It was summer in the city, after all, and one can only dodge so many bullets before he/she gets hit.

I was in my room, sitting at my desk, texting my then-boyfriend who lived in Chicago when I heard a weird clicking sound. In my gut, I knew exactly what it was, but in that millisecond when my head popped up and began to twist in the direction of the noise to identify the specifics of the sound, I prayed it would not be what I thought it was – the unmistakeable clicking of an exoskeletal creature wandering around the room. And in that same millisecond, from the corner of my eye, I saw the dark body of my dreaded enemy moving ever-so-slowly across the edge of my bedroom floor.

An Ecuadorian woman holds out a giant beetle we found on my bed while visiting the cloud forest in the town of Mindo, Ecuador.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

I screamed. I’m telling you right now, I’m not a girl who screams, and I fuckin’ SCREAMED. Then, I jumped OUT of my chair, watched it freeze against the wall, and I ran the hell out of my room. My med-school roommate, J, popped out of her room down the hall and said “What’s wrong?! Are you OK?!” I told her I just saw the biggest cockroach I have ever seen in my life. We both went into an immediate, girly panic. I’m embarrassed to say that this is my only way of responding to such an event.

Look, I know it’s easy to exaggerate what the biggest roach you’ve ever seen looks like when it is creeping its way across your bedroom floor, but in this case, I am not lying: it was GIGANTIC. It was straight out of Jurassic Park or some horrible museum exhibit that I hope never to attend. This thing was a monster, and it was a monster in my bedroom. Something had to be done.

My heart started racing. J started freaking out with me. GAH! SHIT, WHAT DO WE DO!?! We both started screaming and laughing and squirming and being totally pathetic and helpless as the giant cockroach kept exploring the crevices of my wooden floor like it had just been dropped off on an exotic island by a cruise ship.

This was a HORRIBLE situation. “WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING! WHAT DO WE DO?!”  I blurted out. I was almost shaking with repulsion. J responded, “I don’t know, I don’t know!! We’ve gotta kill it Tavel! YOU CAN DO IT!!” I said “ME? J, I can’t kill it!! AH! I don’t know what to do!” We searched for roach spray, only to find we had none. J, being a great med school student, even though we were both totally disgusted and continuing to freak out just a little bit, collected herself and came up with an idea.

“OK. How about this? YOU stay HERE, I will go knock on all our neighbors’ doors. There has to be someone who has roach spray on our floor!”

I squirmed at the thought of staying put, alone in an apartment with the giant cockroach, who continued to explore my bedroom.

“OK! But HURRY!!!” I yelled.

“You’ve got this Tavel! WE’VE GOT THIS! I’ll get help!” J ran out our front door. I heard her knocking on doors. I overheard the two gay guys who lived across from us tell her they didn’t have any spray, one said “ew!” and we then realized they were just as squeamish about roaches as we were. None of the other neighbors were home, except for the two Columbia students — both girls — at the other end of the hallway. They apologized and didn’t have spray either. J came back into the room empty-handed. We were on our own. A few minutes had passed. My heart kept beating as chills made their way up and down my body every few seconds. It was time to come up with another plan — and FAST!

J: “OK, Tavel, don’t panic but nobody on our floor has roach spray!”

Me: “SHIT! SHIT SHIT SHIT!”

Then J had a genius moment.

J: “Wait! What about that guy downstairs! The one with the pitbull?! He always liked us! He’d be a good neighbor and help two nice girls out, right?!”

She had a point. Honestly, I could care less who helped, I just knew I couldn’t stare at this bug much longer. I screamed: “YES, YES!!! GET HIM!!”

As soon as I said this, I realized how bizarrely we were behaving. Who behaved like this? What grown young lady spends this much time trying to figure out how to deal with a freakishly large, lone cockroach? We were not behaving normally, but that was beside the point.

J had thought of the guy on the first floor, Paul, who always flirted with us just a little and owned a large pitbull. He was a macho Puerto Rican guy who usually wore some sort of bandana over his bald white head, wore almost exclusively white worn-in wife beaters, a silver chain, and cargo shorts, and blasted reggaeton out of his windows every weekend. As much as he was a tough guy, he was always a gentleman towards us. This was our guy.

The plan was set: J would run down to the first floor (from our fourth floor apartment) while I stayed in the apartment and kept an eye on the cockroach. She would find Paul and ask him to come up with his pitbull to take care of our… err… problem. We were going to be FINE.

In the meantime, I was not to lose site of the roach. I had one of my gore-tex sneakers in my hand as I stood with my feet far apart in a sort of awkward half-squat, waiting for the roach to make a move. By now, it had crawled halfway up my dresser, and as long as I stared at it, it stayed still.

This was the absolute worst idea ever, because I can barely stand the site of a cockroach, and there I was barely blinking, staring into its eyes in a Tavel-Cockroach showdown. My body tingled with fear and horror, but I stayed in my spot, in ready-to-smush position, dreading the idea of wiping roach guts off of my beautiful dresser more than anyone can imagine.  The LAST thing I wanted to do was smash that mo-fo on my own furniture, because I knew exactly who would have clean it up, and eventually sleep in the same room as its ghost. This situation quickly became lose-lose, and I began praying to the exterminator gods that this Puerto Rican guy downstairs would be home.

The minutes kept piling up, and the tension mounted between me and the roach. Whenever it moved just a little bit, I raised my arm to fire and it would freeze again. Crushing it with my shoe was an absolute last-resort (the clean-up from these incidents is possibly the worst part). The clock was ticking and I was stuck in the hellish position of staring at the most repulsive creature on Earth as I waited and waited for J to come back with our man.

Of course, all I could do was text my then-boyfriend, who lived in Chicago, things like “AHHHHHH!!!! OH MY GOD. I AM STARING AT THE BIGGEST ROACH EVER!!!! THIS IS HORRIBLE!!” His response, of course, was laughing at me, telling me to just smash it and get it overwith, and asking me to take a picture of it first so he could see how big it was.

As I waited, I nervously raised my shaking Blackberry up to take the photo. My hands were getting clammy, but I did something I still regret to this day: I zoomed in. What I saw in that photo was awful. I still remember it. I can see it when I close my eyes. I got the shot, I hit send and I promptly deleted the image. For what it’s worth, my boyfriend was very impressed (not with me, obviously — with the cockroach). Where was help though?! I needed HELP.

Then, I heard J yelling “Tavel! Hang in there! I GOT HELP!”

Best. Sound. Ever.

The roach was still in its spot, hiding underneath the handle of my dresser drawer when in walked Paul, exactly how I remembered him, laughing at us in his wife-beater saying, “Don’t worry girls, I got this, I got this…”

After he entered the apartment, I screamed (again) and ran out of my bedroom saying “THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! YOU ARE MY HERO!!!”

Paul laughed and said “No worries. I brought my smashing shoe!”

Indeed, he was prepared. In one hand, he had a ratty old sneaker. In the other hand, he had a plastic bag and paper towel. His pitbull was nowhere to be found, but he seemed confident and manly, and I was grateful.

Paul came into my bedroom, asked me where the roach was, and I pointed with disgust to where it had perched itself. It was like a Great Dane that thought it was a mini-poodle, hiding itself behind a pillow a tenth its size.

“Holy shit, that’s a big one!” Paul said, as he approached the danger zone. Something inside me felt validated by this.

As J and I squirmed, giggled, screamed, jumped around, covered our eyes and mouths, trembling in the other room, we heard the sounds of victory: Whack! WHACK WHACK WHACK!!!!!

I screamed one more time, laughing with J at the ridiculousness of our situation. Then I asked, nervously: “DID YOU GET IT?”

To my relief, Paul yelled back from the other room, “OH yeah, I got it! DAMN that thing was big.” Before he walked out, he said “Do NOT go in there yet…”

He walked into the kitchen, where we were hiding, with his smashing-shoe in hand and said, “Uh, do you have any paper towels and some cleaning spray?” I jumped out with the paper towels and some Fantastic (the bottle spoke for me) and began to thank Paul profusely. My biggest concern now was what might be left behind of the cucaracha. Luckily, Paul — in all his exterior hardness, or exoskeleton of toughness, shall we say? — had the sense to clean it all up afterwards. He was quite the gentleman, afterall.

We couldn’t stop laughing and tried to thank Paul the Puerto Rican Roach-Killer as much as we could. To this day, I’m not sure if he knows how much he saved us. Not only did he kill the roach, but he then proceeded to clean it up until my dresser was absolutely spotless leaving behind no remnant of the crime scene. To add to his awesomeness, Paul threw out all the dirty paper towels, put them in our garbage can, and insisted on taking the garbage down for us so that we didn’t have to deal with the aftermath of any part of this slaughter.

Paul, wherever you are, you are a SAINT. THANK YOU.

In retrospect, our response to the giant roach encounter, and the options to which we resorted, was all completely over-the-top. But between J’s quick-thinking and resourcefulness, my ability to stare my fear in the eyes, and the serendipity of having a guy who owns what he calls a “smashing shoe” right downstairs, we were saved and spared the indignity of killing and cleaning up this roach’s remains ourselves. Sure, Paul got a kick out of the whole thing, and maybe we got to make him feel like a man, but he really was our hero. I like to think that I could man-up in this sort of situation (and I know I can), but sometimes, it’s just nice to have someone else man-up for you. I can deal with almost everything EXCEPT roaches — let me just make that clear.

Later that week, I baked Paul cookies to thank him for his good-neighborlyness. Luckily, we never had another roach encounter. I didn’t see much of Paul after that, but I did hear the music blasting downstairs in his apartment. Every time I came home, just knowing he was right downstairs with his smashing-shoe was enough.

All I can do now is wait for the next horrifying roach-encounter. But next time, I’ll be prepared; not only will I make sure to keep roach spray on-hand, but I will also scope out the neighbors in every apartment I live in, just to make sure I know whose door I can knock on in the case of another roach emergency.

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