Naomi is sitting in front of me, her small hands cupping a teacup as I jot some notes down.
I’m interviewing her today for my Arts & Entertainment weekly article. Somewhat of a folk legend to natives of Downtown LA, her fan base consists of artists, PBR and weed enthusiasts, and moody underprivileged teenage girls. She’s Italian by blood, Russian by birth, but jaded in the way only a true Angeleno could be. Though she looks hardly over the age of 20, Naomi is a tiny 36 year-old who lives on welfare and generous PayPal donations. She jokes that she’s almost homeless and the shack and ragged nightgown is enough to convince me.
I ask if she’s happy.
There’s a wan smile on her lips as she writes out the words on the moleskin notebook I gave her. Once upon a time, I imagined she must have had a soft, but high-pitched voice. Since a brutal accident, that she only alludes to in poetry, she’s been mute. Adding to her mystique, I suppose. Or a way to avoid interviews. Either way, it hasn’t stopped her from expressing herself.
“It’s not a matter of being happy or not. It’s whether I’m comfortable enough to accept what I have and keep on.”
Naomi’s been abused in almost every way – by family, lovers, and even neighborhood gang members that harassed her on her way home. Somehow that resulted in the decision to channel her live experience to writing popular local poetry on her blog while she hides away in her shack. Like a modern day Emily Dickinson, but with Wi-Fi.
I can’t help but to stare at the raised scars on her white collarbones.
“Can you tell me more about your views on love?”
She gives sort of a silent chuckle as she begins writing again.
“I live by a mantra.”
I look at the words that she’s written.
“Je suis elle qui ne t’aime pas. Et je ne vis pas pour toi ou quelqu’un autre. Translated, it means, ‘I am she that loves you not. And I do not live for you or anyone else.’”
“Why is that your mantra? It’s quite depressing.”
“When you are told that you are loved by people who only hurt you your entire life, you begin to question what love is. I prefer to live without the benefit of a doubt.”
I nod, letting this sink in. Reading her simple poetry on her poorly managed, but popular blog before the interview, I was able to piece together clues of what happened to her to cause her to think that way.
“Society,” she writes, “has twisted the meaning of love to where it is more of an idea rather than expressed actions. The way your mother or brother may love you, but not respect you or even treat you well. I do not believe in love, rather, I believe in kindness.”
At this, she smiles at me, and for a moment, I think I understand what she means.
“Have people shown much kindness to you?” I ask.
“I see kindness everywhere,” she writes. “It is in the eyes of people who help me, those that wish to understand me, and a few individuals that have stayed by me. But kindness in itself is not enough, and usually it is fragmented and fleeting. Humans get tired of routine, eventually kindness fades into selfishness.”
“Isn’t that where love comes in?” I challenge.
She looks at me with a glassy stare and starts scribbling again.
“Kindness is still concrete than love will ever be. It is kindness that causes you to feed people. On the other hand, you can desperately love someone without knowing why and only seek to have them fulfill your needs. But really, what is love?”
I can’t really argue with that, so I move on to another topic. “Can you tell me about your past lovers?”
Her face glows and her eyes bore hard into me, like she’s trying to understand who I am.
I am shocked as I read what she’s written next.
“Can you tell me about yours?”
“Well,” I mutter. “It’s not very professional, nor are they probably appropriate for this context…” I notice her silently laughing and I continue. “But if it’s a tit for tat you want, you can get it.”
My face grows red as she makes me recount everything from high school puppy romances to recent newsroom flames. As I tell one story, her head tilts, and her hand finds its way to mine. She looks as if she wants to tell me something, but instead, pours her heart out to me as well. I break down in the middle of it, wiping my snot on the new sweater I bought the day before and she brings me embroidered napkins and lemon tea. As I head out the door, embarrassed, and thank her for the interview and conversation, and gives to me in a slip of paper, a poem she created quickly in her head while we were talking.
I guess it doesn’t take too long for her to get creative.
When I’m getting back into my Prius, I can see her pale body through the curtains. She looks like she’s staring at me, but I don’t wave back before I turn on the engine and drive away.
My editor canceled the article right after I wrote it. According to her, she had searched up Naomi’s blog and was annoyed by how simple and unprofessional it looked. It wasn’t relevant for the L.A. Times at the moment, so the article was shelved indefinitely, maybe for months. It made a sour feeling in my stomach and I had to suppress a writer’s tantrum because I had considered the interview to be one of my best works. But journalism worked the way it worked, and I decided to let it go.
On a blustery November morning in my home in Eagle Rock, I received an email from Naomi, asking me to visit, “preferably immediately.” I canceled my plans for a jog and drove immediately to her place.
Naomi was waiting for me outside. I was shocked by how skinny she had become. Her arms were like sticks and her skin pulled at her collarbones and elbows.
“I’m a little sick,” she writes.
I decide to ignore the understatement, and ask her what’s wrong.
To my surprise, she gives me a hug, as well as a bound cardboard book that looks like it’s a collection of poems and little drawings.
“Why?” I ask.
“You know what to do with them. There’s one for you, at the very end.”
I flip to the last page, and get to a clean piece of paper. In wobbly, red ink, there is a poem, entitled, to Adrianna.
I read the poem and then look back to her.
“Thanks. This is one of the best poems of yours that I’ve read.”
She chuckles at compliment – I realize it was more modest than it could have been. I ask her if she wants me to come in, but she shakes her head, saying that her house is messy and filled with the ‘bad air’ of her sickness.
I give her another embrace, and the last thing I remember was her tiny, bony body walking back to the house after we pulled away.
I found out Naomi died from a painkiller overdose two weeks afterward. To this day, I still don’t know whether it was an accident or not.
The next article I wrote after Naomi’s death was the one that made me into the ‘next big thing.’ Rich, the big EIC applauded me for my controversial piece on suicide as an art form, which landed more than 300 comments on the LA Times link and was shared over all sorts of social media. Despite some backlash, he thought the article was ballsy and promoted me to assistant editor of the Arts and Entertainment section.
I could now call all the shots I wanted and the first thing I wanted to write about was her.
I gathered up testimonies from estranged family members, friends, fans, and my own recollections. I read every single poem in Naomi’s poetry book twice, and also received access to what was left of her mementos after the shack was torn down. I wanted this to be my opus, but at the same time, I was afraid to write it.
Her words lingered in my head, but for some reason, it wasn’t the ones about herself. I realized, that in meeting Naomi and researching her life, I had to come to terms with another one—my own.
My eyes drop from my MacBook and glaze over as I recall all of the mangled relationships that I had experienced – picked apart by Naomi’s judging eyes and personal sentiment. Some of them had ended well, while others easily supported her belief that love was only a construct secondary to the value of kindness. A few of them were still my friends, some had rescinded to strangers, and the rest had never spoken to me again.
There was Benny, who had thrown dirt at my fifth-grade tormentors when they dumped a dead pigeon into my roller backpack. Jésus, who had taught me how to swim and kissed me when our moms were making brownies. Morgan, who had a face like James Dean, but told me ‘I was too busy’ and slept with the other cheer captain instead. Goro, who broke my heart while studying abroad in Kyoto when his last words to me were “We’re better off this way” in Japanese. Cameron, who had come out as gay after we graduated from Columbia, but still called me from time to time to ask how I was doing. James, my first editor at a small-town newspaper. Calder, who flirted with me in the copy room like we were in a rom-com movie, and even Olivia, who had lasted one month and left me feeling empty and confused.
But I think back to the last one, the one who I thought would last forever, that I thought would stay for good. The one that ended so badly that I’m still afraid to admit he exists and that I had fallen for him. The one all my friends and family remember, that know better than to bring up. That one that loved me, like Naomi had loved the one who put his hands around her neck and choked the voice inside her.
My fingers shake as I pick up the receiver from the corded telephone, the one he gave me before I asked him to disappear from my life forever.
I punch in the numbers out of memory, realizing that I never forgot.
“Hey. It’s Adrian. I know you still remember me.”
I spread my wings to fly away
Feathers plucking out by flight
You watch me in the moonlit height
Your body far and mind alone.
But if my strength the wind will flay,
I’ll feel no terror when it should fall
Your hands outstretched, you open all
And bring me safely down to home.
– Naomi Constantine