Sunday, November 28, 2010

My Cowboy

Notice the Joe Lando photo on my bedroom wall.
I want to tell you about my best friend, C. I woke up today missing him. A lot.

I pulled myself out from under my warm ‘dyner’ (a Danish type of blanket-comforter) and realized it was an extra frosty November Saturday morning. The living room window revealed the neighboring building across the street was covered in white. The spires had dotted snowballs perched on top. And the snow was still falling. The building I peer out into happens to be the castle – Amelienborg Slot – where Queen Margrethe II of Denmark lives with her French husband, Prince Henrik. I imagined the two of them drinking tea and eating ‘bolle’ by the fire. Or making bolle by the fire. Either one. (Don’t Google-translate ‘bolle’ unless you want to learn that morning-rolls and ‘screwing’ are the same word).

Craving coffee, I stumbled toward the kitchen and, on the way over, glanced at the silver cowgirl boots I had kicked off my feet last night, after stumbling home drunk at 2AM. And I began to miss him. Cowboy.

You see, that’s his nickname. There are a lot of nicknames for a lot of people in my life, and I’m a firm believer that nobody gets to choose their nickname, the nickname chooses you. You cannot decide what people call you, and conversely, you cannot decide what you call another. The nickname simply reveals itself to the world. In my life, I have a Buggy, a Bugaloo, a Jax, a Sunny-bear, a Tisty, a Scooter (well, had a Scooter, he’s remarried now and probably got a new nickname), a ’Bine, a Tans, a Ditdot, and the list goes on. The nicknames personally bestowed on me are within the realm of: Tommy, Hammy, Joey Lawrence-lover and Angela. I’ll get back to the Angela later.

But my C. – who others call Chiuy (pronounced Chewy, because his last name is Chiu) – became Cowboy shortly after a Royal Caribbean cruise that I took with his family years ago, departing from San Pedro south of Los Angeles. The ship docked at the Ensanada port-of-call, where we traipsed around the Mexican town looking for the perfect pair of cowboy boots for C. He was a man on a mission – finding the perfect pair of cowboy boots was his only goal that entire cruise (after giving away all his money to the cruise-ship casino). It wasn’t easy; C. has a rule about only putting high-end luxury materials on his body. I don’t recall perfectly, but he was searching for a particular kind of snake-skin or alligator-skin boot, probably with an elephant-ivory-studded heel or something really pricey and endangered. But he found the perfect pair of cowboy boots during that outing in Ensanada. Delighted, we bought them and went off to eat enchiladas and avoid drinking the water. 

C. wore those boots into the ground. He used them to make a fashion statement in the hospital, beneath his green scrubs; and to give me a swift kick in the heiny when the need arose.

Somehow, a week or two after the purchase – we were still two students at UCLA at the time – C. was decked out in his new reptilean cowboy boots, as we gossiped over dinner at our favorite Third Street restaurant called Barefoot, ironically. And when I asked him to hand me something, the word “Cowboy” fell out of my mouth.

“Please pass me the salt, Cowboy.”

And it was decided. We didn’t discuss it – and he never mentioned it. But when he dialed my phone, I said “Hello Cowboy.” And when I screamed at him I would whine “Cowboy?!?” in his face. And being the stinker that he is, he would just smirk in return... pleased that he was in the same league as tough guys like Hoppalong Cassidy, Mr. John Wayne, and Zorro. C. was my urban, drugstore cowboy. Of Chinese descent.

So when I saw last spring a pair of sparkling silver ankle-length cowboy boots that just screamed “feminine tough-gir,rodeo-clown-ho-down in Denmark” I simply had to have my own pair of cowgirl boots. I love them and I wear them frequently, and they often make me think of my cowboy.

Nabokov buff
After university, I lived with Cowboy in a Beverly Hills-adjacent apartment, and that first summer of our cohabitation was filled with random experiences of buying Playboy magazines at the corner magazine stand, eating endless dinners together at our favorite senior-citizen diner called Jan’s Restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, and endless, sleepless marathon-movie nights chosen from Cowboy’s library of classics. He always knew precisely which film to put on and when. And some of our favorite movies from that time together include If Lucy Fell (with a 7-year-old Scarlet Johansson cameo), Beautiful Girls, and Dreams for an Insomniac.

C. took his cowboy boots with him when he left California in 2000 for medical school in Philadelphia. It was a sad and painful day, watching my best friend leave our little nest in Los Angeles. We kept in touch, of course, and he’d send me packages now and then to remind me of him and our shared love of storytelling...the best one being a VHS-box set of every My-So-Called Life episode.

Perhaps it was after watching all 21 episodes of the series over a lonely weekend in 2002, that I was inspired to dye my long blonde hair a bright copper red, in a nod to the show’s disgruntled young soul, Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes).

I called up Cowboy in Philly and told him I was no longer a blonde.

Expecting him to chide me for being "body dysmorphic" or "insane" or “futzing too much with my person,” he laughed and said it probably looked great. “Couldn’t be any worse than what was there before.”

I flew out to Philadelphia to see Cowboy that winter, and when he picked me up at the airport, he stood shoulder to shoulder with the many taxi, shuttle drivers, and hired chaperones holding up names of arriving passengers from faraway lands with monikers like “Mr. Kobayashi” or “Divya Shyama-lamalaman.” Cowboy held up a white paper too, obscuring his face. And the name on the paper read “Angela Chase.”

He always let me play Angela. The tortured wanderer.

Last year, in 2009 – after completing 4 years of medical school, 4 years of residency and one year of advanced training, Cowboy emerged from Philadelphia an official, full-blown doctor surgeon. He’s now back home in California, with family and friends who need him -- while I’m in Denmark, wondering what it would be like to live in the same city again with my cowboy-in-crime.

I need to get past it, but I still struggle to realize that Cowboy is a doctor. A  highly skilled surgeon, no less. His supervising Surgery Chief emailed me, asking for stories about C. that he could deliver to the audience during the graduation-banquet for the hospital's surgery residents. He wanted embarrassing juice on Cowboy, enough to add flavor and spice to a good old-fashioned doctors' roast. So I provided those stories – like the one where, in college, C. used his “For emergencies only!” credit card given to him by his parents to buy a Corvette at an auction. But I also provided a letter that shared the softer side of C. I don’t know if the Doctor chucked the letter, read it aloud, or folded it up and handed it to Chiuy.

But I keep a printed copy folded up in my desk, to read at moments when C.'s ridiculousness  gets me riled up; like the times when he huffs to me on the phone, “I will never ever come visit you in Denmark, because you chose to leave!”

So here is what I wrote the Doctor who gave Cowboy his diploma.

Dinner in Beverly Hills, better than dorm food!
June 7, 2009

Dear Dr. Weingarten,

I’ve known C. since we were 12 years old.

He’s an impenetrable person, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly those things that make him unique, though they’re myriad. When we were in junior high (7th and 8th grade), he was the smartest kid in school, always a level or two above his grade in math. He knew he was bright, and made a point of approaching the cars of the moms picking up their ditzy pre-teen girls from school, to tell them that their daughters were "airheads" (one of whom was my older sister). My mom laughed it off, told him to run along. C. didn’t do those things to be a jerk – far from it. I think he was trying to be memorable in the eyes’ of the parents.

When C.’s dear little brother Kenny passed away when we were 15 years old (Kenny was only 12), C. returned to high school a different person: a bit softer, but still with his trademark humor and friendly smile. He didn’t let any of his friends handle him with kid-gloves. My younger sister Allyson had been close with Kenny and his passing changed her life. It wasn’t long after that she fell into a depression that lasted through her high school years. C. always kept a watchful eye on Allyson.

C. and I would go off to UCLA together at age 17. I would have drowned in a sea of 35,000 students if it hadn’t been for him, my rock. He was straight with me and would tell me when I was being too anti-social, too sorority, too geeky, or too skinny. When I had bad days – received a poor grade on a mid-term or had a fight with my boyfriend – C. would leave roses on the windshield of my car. There’d be a picture he drew or a Dr. Seuss-like poem to make me laugh. C. had an open account at the most exquisite rose shop in LA – so every milestone in the lives of his many female friends would elicit a dozen white or red from their loyal friend.

If I ever pissed C. off, he’d get back at me by taking my roommate in the Kappa sorority-house out to dinner and to see the movie I’d been dying to see. It was his way of telling me where I stood, and I’d get the message to not take him for granted.

In addition to his brainy, rational side, C. is a gifted writer and storyteller. He’s a movie buff and a screenwriter who could be the next Quentin Tarantino if he wanted to, because that’s how twisted and talented C. is. His home-library today holds more than a thousand films.

C. spent most of his college years working as a volunteer at the CARE Center at the UCLA AIDS Institute. While other students were out partying, shopping or engaging in tomfoolery, C. was bringing joy and levity into the lives of patients with HIV and AIDS. One of his favorite activities was playing with the children in the waiting room – taking out coloring books and toys to keep them entertained while their parents sought treatment. 

When I became ill with strep throat while living in the dorms, my parents called C. and asked him to administer the nastiest tasting cough syrup I had been refusing to take; so he showed up at my dorm room, pinned down my writhing, laughing body, until he could pour 2 table-spoons of Robitussin down my throat. That day, I knew he would become a doctor.

C. has a sensitive and overflowing heart that hits you when you least expect it in the tenderest of places. He’s like an accidental mensch who can’t help but be selfless and gracious. He massages stressed shoulders that need a caring touch; he can get rid of a headache just by applying a little Chinese acu-pressure to that meaty spot your hand, all while making you laugh as you scream in agony.

We share a love of fine food, so we’d take each other out to classy 90210 restaurants – places like Wolfgang Pucks and Lawry’s Steakhouse – and fight with each other over who got to pay. Dining with C. is an incredible experience – he'd bring out bottles of wine, several appetizers, savory main courses, a rich soufflé, and endless laughs.

When C. and I were seniors in college – much more mature and evolved since our high school days – he drove 6 hours back to our hometown of Sacramento to take my little sister Allyson to her high school prom. That’s the kind of attentive person he is.

After graduating college we were roommates in a charming apartment in South Beverly Hills. I think he chose the place based on its close proximity to my therapist, Dr. Grenner. C. never saw him, never knew him, just heard stories about “Dr. G, Therapist to the Stars.” To this day, when I run into Dr. G., he doesn’t ask how I’m doing, he asks how C. is.

Since C. moved to Pennsylvania 8 years ago, my time with him has been less frequent. The time and distance have had no effect on his standing in my heart as my most treasured, most one-of-a-kind, most brilliant friend. I know we’ll be making each other laugh, cry, scream and grow, when we are old and gray. 

I beam with pride when I talk about C. and all that he has accomplished in his life. I would never let him near me with a scalpel, because he’d probably engrave the word “Cowboy” in my scar-tissue, but I trust him with just about anything else.

C., congratulations on finishing your Residency in Surgery. You’re kind of amazing, and I wish you good luck as you continue giving aid, reassurance and healing procedures to patients lucky enough to call you their doctor. 

Always put your best foot forward to show us your talent, your passion and your love. The world is a better place for it.

Your Cammy