Julie — “I wanted to crawl out of my own skin.”
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Latinx comedian Julie Piñero was swept up by her partner Jose’s adventurous spirit almost immediately. To make sense of his murder just weeks later, she threw herself into performance, ultimately developing a one-woman Zoom show centering on the intersection of love and loss.
Find Julie on Twitter at @shmooolie and on Instagram at @shmoooolie.
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I was raised far from Puerto Rico, which is where my family is from. And so Spanish was a big part of my household. But then I would step outside and I wasn’t around a lot of other Latin folks. And so my mom instilled me with this one phrase, that was kind of this fast track to connecting to this thing that I can’t see. The phrase was a question that I could ask myself, if I need to connect to my intuition. And that question is […] which roughly translates to if they make you feel, or if it makes you feel […] And there’s not really a translation for […] because first of all, those words that we bring from afar are pretty untranslatable, because we kind of, you know, we can fit it into the context of our lives here, but they carry with them a piece of home. But it was also this thing that for me, I just know when I feel my […] or not. And when I met him, I remember exactly where I felt it. It was at this intersection in Williamsburg. And I remember exactly what he was wearing, he was wearing this light wash blue t-shirt with a pocket and these green camo pants.
And he was on his bike and he kind of did one of these swerves and stopped over to greet me. And he just looked at me and I just remember looking at him and thinking, oh my god, I’m so totally fucked, because this dude totally […]. If someone had never met Jose, and I was describing him for the first time, his essence is pretty ethereal. He is somebody who off the bat. It was clear that he was larger than life. When you first meet him. He has this like overflowing bubbly energy. He kind of wants to know everything about you off the bat, he doesn’t see the limitations that we see in ourselves. He would stitch Venezuelans slang words across the fronts of his t-shirts. He taught his roommates how to make his mom’s […] recipes. He really radiated this love and connection back to home, and shared that with everyone around him whether they were run this […] or not.
He would call dates, adventures. And so he would tell me just to show up at a certain place at a certain time. I would always ask him if I needed to wear running shoes, and he would always say no. But I think one of my favorite adventures was when he invited me to come hang out in the corner of the room with him while one of his favorite bands practiced. And we brought plantain chips and tea, and just kind of sat and he taught me all the words to their songs, and I even jumped on to the drums at some point, I had never played the drums before. And I just remember looking up and seeing him just being super amped about it, too. The last night that I spent with him was at a bar called the Bitter End. I had a show, my band was playing a show, and I was super nervous about it. I had been kind of searching for myself in all these creative projects and I was feeling stifled that day. I just remember feeling super nervous. But when I looked down off the stage, he was seated at the end of a table right in front of me.
So he was looking right at me, he was probably the only person in the audience that was position looking right at me. And I can see that vision so clearly, because I just remember, like, he was like, emanating safety back at me. He just made me feel totally seen. We left the Bitter End, and we’re sitting in the back of a cab. I remember he like, put his hand in my hair and started massaging it, he would always give these like really, very forceful head massages that I very much appreciate it because I always feel like people go to light on head massages. And so the Uber took us back to my apartment. And at my apartment, there were actually three of us in Uber, it was Jose myself and my friend Gabby from home. Gabby was staying with me that night. So he ended up going back to his place. And then I went out with Gabby for brunch in Chinatown the next day. And we went to the Brooklyn Museum. And that’s when I got a message. I remember I was standing in this stairwell going between the third and the fourth floor. And I was holding a pamphlet in my hand. And I guess I let the pamphlet go. And I just, I just remember seeing it fly down the stairs kind of glide down the stairs.
It was those early weeks of grief where I had this feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my own skin. It felt there were just no answers. The tragedy was so quick and final. And there was no closure around anything that I just had this feeling inside of me that I had to get out. I just had like I was busting at the seams. I just remember nothing felt comfortable. In fact, the feeling that I, the overwhelming physical feeling that I had after he passed away was that I had so much energy, I don’t know where this energy was coming from. I was expecting it to feel depressive. I was expecting to feel lethargic, or that I didn’t want to talk about it, or what but I felt like I couldn’t stop talking about it. The only thing that made me feel mildly okay, was I would sit on my couch in my apartment. And I had friends filter in. And I would tell the same story over and over again. I mean, I would hit the same beats, everything was the same. And that was the only thing that made me feel better. And I think part of the energy that I had was that we had just started dating. I wasn’t really allowing myself to grieve at the beginning. Because we had only spent a couple months together.
I felt like an imposter in my own grief. I didn’t even have a photo of the two of us together to contribute to the memorial. All we were plans in the future. The only photos that we had together were photos that he photoshopped us in two together. And so even that felt fake in a caricature like way. Right after Jose died, I promised myself that I would create a project that blended stand up and live music. And I didn’t know what the goal was when I decided to create it. I just knew that it would give me a chance to write and process my feelings. And also tell the story and share the vision of this person who had such a big impact on me. You would think that I would want to reach a later stage in my grief before I decided to put it out in the world and start telling people about it and kind of performing it more publicly. But actually getting on a stage and telling the story was a really big part of all of the stages that come before acceptance.
This horrible uncontrollable thing had happened to me that threw off the course of everything that I had trusted, and I wanted to take control back over that. And it was incredibly cathartic to just talk about it to just let other people take on the load a little bit because when I would tell the story, even when it was just five minutes, people fell in love with him and lost him. And I almost just felt like, okay, I want you guys to know how this feels because I can’t handle it alone. And maybe that’s reckless. Maybe that is reckless, but it made me feel a lot better. […] are songs were love comes from pain. And I don’t mean before or after it. But love literally grows out of pain. They’re the kinds of songs that make you want to scream. I have nothing left. But to drown inside a pit of my own sadness. And also my tears.
From the five-minute show, it progressed to a 10-minute show, and then to a 15-minute show, and then to a 90-minute show. And then all of the sudden, I was sitting on a two-hour performance that I would live, perform and direct over Zoom. And it pretty much walks you through start to finish when I met him all the way to the point, a couple weeks after we lost him and how I was making sense of it. You know, it’s the story of a process that’s still active, it’s the story of something I’m still healing from. And in many ways, it still feels like a wound. And it doesn’t feel as good as it would feel to have him here, obviously. And I would give it all up to have him here even for one more day. But this is kind of a way to work with what’s been given. And that’s also, you know, inherent to […] is this idea of flow and trusting this connection to this thing that you can’t see that’s happening through you.
And I had always been looking for flow in my creative pursuits and I had always been looking for delaying and my romantic connections and then all of a sudden, I found this person that inspired me to find both of them and trust both of them in this way where it felt like the language that we were speaking was this blend between you know, romantic partnership and creativity that you know once the romantic partnership ends because one person has to leave. What remains is this creative connection that is this enduring language that can allow you to stay connected, even when one person is far away. I’m Julie Piñero and thanks for listening to Good grief. This episode of Good Grief is dedicated to the memory of Jose Zambrano.
GOOD GRIEF is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Hannah Boomershine, Giulia Hjort and Xorje Olivares. executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music and Sound Design are by Hannis Brown. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. If you want more GOOD GRIEF, subscribe to Lemonada Premium, only on Apple podcasts. This season of GOOD GRIEF is dedicated to those we’ve lost in the past year.