My friend Zulema died of cancer last night while a major thunderstorm brought flash floods, a tornado, and a mini-tornado (like a tornado, but cuter) to our adopted city of Austin, Texas, sending her off in style. She was only 39, she was awesome, and it sucks. My heart's aching for her, her boyfriend Darin, her family, and her many, many friends, but I'm also enjoying the celebration of her life that's been happening in and on various social media outlets (the same outlets that are too often filled to capacity with negativity, hostility, humblebrags, pointless political arguments, and cliched platitudes) and the love and community connecting every one of us who knew her. (I apologize for the hippyness of that statement, but I also don't apologize because I totally mean it.) I love seeing photos from the parts of her life that didn't intersect with mine, and I'm in awe of how much goodness she put into the world. I hope it's not just temporary, but I feel like this love and community is making me a less hard, less resentful, less closed-off person. I need to remember to keep those feelings around and appreciate the love and friendship I have right now. I take too much of it for granted and retreat into the private world in my head too often.
Enough about me and my problems, here are a few things I love (fuck the past tense) about Zulema and my way too brief time on this planet with her.
She had one of the great first-name/last-name combinations.
She loved Captain Beefheart AND Hall & Oates. Yeah!
She was sweet and kind, but also interesting and hilarious. Too often, that Venn diagram looks like two separate circles with a foot of space in between.
She was never one of those "hey, look at me" people. She was modest, humble, relaxed, comfortable with herself. No big ego stuff, no drama. She was always so present, so receptive to everyone around her. She never had to win over the room. She just said funny stuff quietly, naturally, in the course of conversation. As someone who's publicly made an ass out of himself on too many occasions, I always admired that about her.
She was incapable of taking a bad photograph. I only look passable in maybe one out of thirty photographs. She looked great in every one, even when she was sick.
She said one of the five or six funniest things I ever heard. Two summers ago, a group of us pooled our money and rented a beach house in Port Aransas, a small resort town on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico. We spent that long weekend swimming in the Gulf, cooking and eating big delicious meals, drinking lots of beer and wine, and hanging out in the swimming pool and hot tub across the street at night. On one of those nights, after returning to the house, a few of us were sitting on the balcony, enjoying the breeze, and we got into this long, booze-fueled conversation about what would happen if our beach vacation turned into a Hotel California-style scenario in which we could enter but never leave. What happens if you were trapped in a beach town forever? We weighed the pros and cons in detail, and Zulema said one of the drawbacks to permanent beach life was that the beach town prostitutes were "too sandy." That's one of the most hilarious things I've ever heard, and it makes me laugh every time I think about it. I can't do that joke justice because so much of it depended on her word choice, her delivery, and her facial expressions, but if you don't think that's funny, even in my truncated, fuzzy memory version, you should be catapulted into a swamp.
She was just someone you felt good around. She made you feel better. She was so damn likable.
She got sick shortly after that Port Aransas trip, and I didn't see her for a while. My last conversation with her was four months ago at the grocery store. I was putting some kind of produce item into my cart, and someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "You need to put that back." I turned around, and it was her. She looked great, healthy and happy. She'd beaten it for now, but only a week after our conversation, she'd find out that the cancer was back and that it had spread. That last conversation was a fun one. We talked about our shared love of Bob Odenkirk and the way he yelled "Goddammit" on "Mr. Show," and we talked about cat buttholes. My uncle married a Jewish woman (this seems like a weird digression, but wait for it) and converted to Judaism. He became way more obsessed with being Jewish than his Jewish-by-birth wife. I am the same way, but with cats. I was a dog lover from the jump, but since my wife and I got two cats three years ago, I am the cat-lovingest son of a bitch in town. Zulema was a cat lover, too, and we talked about our pets. She told me a story about an old cat of hers who unwittingly ate some hot chile peppers, which led to some joking about the eventual passing of those chile peppers and about cat buttholes in general. I'm so glad I ran into her that day. There's something ridiculous and completely endearing about cat buttholes being the subject of our final conversation.
I wasn't one of her closest friends, and I only got to hang out with her for a handful of years, but I thoroughly enjoyed her company, and I was lucky to know her. I miss her already.