We met in a bar in Flagstaff, Arizona. I'd just moved back from Cambodia, and I was going out for one of my first beers back in the states.
Not long into the first one, I notice this amazon of a woman with huge blond and red streaked hair and frosty lips, wearing a short, red tank dress and at least fifty bracelets. She's six feet tall and showing a lot of leg. People at the bar swivel their heads to watch her every move.
She stands next to me to order a drink, and in this throaty voice says, "What are those?" pointing to my cigarettes.
I tell her they're Cambodian. Her eyes light up and she shoots out a long, tan arm and points at a table in the corner. She orders me there. Before I can say no, I'm following her to my seat.
She tells me she's an international private investigator, a bounty hunter, and a bail bonds enforcer. And, that her name is Zora. I sit there for hours listening to her.
Within a week she takes me to Las Vegas. We drive there in her red Mustang. As always, there's a colt .380 under the driver's seat and a 45 Megastar in the trunk.
In Vegas, we skip the casinos and head straight for the male strip clubs, where Zora drops at least $200 on lap dances from buff guys with names like Roman. Her getup is the same as before -- teased hair, jewelry and the ubiquitous tank dress, which, I realize, is the best way to show off her tattoos.
One is this big circle with blue and white swirls in it -- kind of like a bowling ball -- on her left shoulder. Every guy she meets asks her about it, and when they hear her answer, they sometimes propose marriage.
Turns out the tattoo is a magic globe she holds in her dreams. And in these dreams it gives her superpowers.
"Ever since I remember I've had the dreams. And they're very vivid, but it varies -- usually it involves fighting, sometimes with guns, sometimes with superhero powers, like lightning from my fists and all that. And I usually have superstrength and I can fly and I have all those things, right. And it's my most common set of dreams, and it varies. Sometimes it's medieval, sometimes it's futuristic, sometimes it's present day, sometimes it's like a guerrilla war in Latin America."
"Can you describe that Zora to me? That Zora in dreams?"
"Very powerful, athletically. But beyond the rules of nature that this world allows. So, 6-foot-5 and long -- almost like impossibly long -- silver hair. This sortof otherworldly quality to her, where her voice did not sound normal. It sounded almost musical.
"It became something that I aspired to be. Aspired to be this sortof superhero, this sortof person who would fight for a cause. That was my motivation in life. Ever since I was ten or eleven, I decided that that was my goal."
Zora took the dreams seriously, so seriously that at the age of 12, she sat down and composed a list of some 30 skills she needed to learn if she wanted to become as close to a superhero as any mortal could be. She even gave herself a deadline: to master these skills by the time she was 23.
Zora pulls out the old spiral notebook that was her diary at the age of 13, and turns to the inside back cover.
"Yep, there's the list. The list included martial arts, electronics, chemistry, metaphysics, hang gliding, helicopter and airplane flying, mountain climbing, survival ..."
Throughout her teens and 20's, each time she started a new diary, she would update the list and write it in the back of the book. Each one with the same format, each one titled The List.
"Weaponry, rafting, scuba diving, herbology -- yes I studied that. CPR, first aid and mountain emergency medicine..."
The list also includes body building, archery, demolitions and explosives. She wanted learn how to hunt animals and track men.
"Major physical conditioning ..."
And the most incredible thing about all of this is that Zora accomplished nearly every item on the list.
"Throwing stars and compound bows, and throwing knives, and yes, it was a very interesting passtime..."
To keep up with the goals set by the list, she sped through school. Starting in the 7th grade, she began completing entire school years during the summer term and finished high school by the time she was 15. She got her BA at 18, a master's at 20 and completed the course work for a PhD in geopolitics by the time she was 21. She wanted to live like Indiana Jones, spending half her time in the classroom, and half her time saving the world in the jungles of Peru.
"Item number 4: camel and elephant riding. Um, evasive driving. Stunts..."
When you're a kid, you have these romantic visions of what you'll be when you grow up. But how many people are so diligent they commit their dreams to paper and make it their life's work to achieve them? How many keep a list, amending it, adding to it, ticking things off as they go along, well into their adult lives?
After finishing the course work for her PhD, Zora decided to quit school, disappointed at the lack of cliff-hanging adventure in her doctoral program. And since superheroes who live in the real world need jobs, she decided to seek employment at the only place that would allow her to put all the skills from the list to use. Zora wanted to become an agent in the CIA. And so began a rigorous application process. Interviews, psych exams, a three-day lie detector test.
"After that, then they send investigators out to interview me, interview my neighbors, interview ex-boyfriends, interview friends, ex-friends, former colleagues, people I worked with.
"They threw a question out in an interview: 'So what would you do in this situation: If you were driving down the road and you had one of your native agents with you, someone who's going to give you some information, and you were in a third-world country somewhere, and you were driving a car, and you accidentally ran into a dog. And people had been out playing, the street children, and they see the dog get killed, and they get upset and they rush toward the car, what do you do in that situation? You don't want to draw attention to the person who's with you?' So, what I said was that I would tell my agent to get down lower and that I would get out of the car and draw the attention to myself and try to appease them in some way, either by giving them money, more likely. And that was an acceptable answer to them.
"At the time, when I was going through the process, it felt like everything was coming together. And I had not felt so much joy, probably ever."
"Did you tell them about your dreams?"
"Absolutely not. I would tell them that I had a sense that I could combine the whole street smart, intellectual -- the education -- with the sortof adventurer personality. And I was actually told that I had the perfect personality for it and that I would do really well. It was, like, THE fruition of my life. That it was going to be the step into the next -- you know, where I would be using all that list and preparation to move into the next phase, which would be to actually put it into practice."
About eight months into the interviews, Zora got a letter saying she'd been rejected. She appealed over the next year and a half, partly to find out why they'd turned her down. But the best they could do was tell her to try again in a few more years. In the end, the CIA wouldn't take her, and they wouldn't even tell her why.
"Probably it took me more like two years to recover. I was a basketcase -- I wasn't -- I wasn't -- I was, just down. I would have to work, I couldn't concentrate, sortof slumped down, staring at the wall. I put my whole life into examination. All the years of preparation."
Most of us give up our dreams of superhero adventure when we're adolescents. Zora was only getting to it at the age of 27. Here she knew how to fly a helicopter and survive in the wilderness, but for what?
She devoted a lot of time to thinking about why she might've been rejected by the CIA. Maybe it was all those months she spent with right-wing militia groups doing her doctoral research ... maybe she shouldn't have told the CIA how she ended up in a clandestine IRA club one night while one vacation in Ireland ... maybe the CIA didn't like the fact that her father, a professor at the University of Minnesota, is an outspoken Serbian nationalist.
Or -- maybe it was simply her own fault, that she couldn't turn herself into a superhero.
"I had violated the agreement of the list. Violated the agreement that I had made with myself. That I had not become what that archetype was. That I'd become something lacking. The point being that my mythology should've guided me better. And it felt like such a final thing."
So Zora remade herself.
She had been virtually isolated from other people since she was 15, when she started actively pursuing the goals on the list. Her parents were happy that she was so busy, because she had no time for boys.
But now she started working for a woman private investigator. One day when she went to court, she wore her first pair of panty hose, because she was told it would help her look more feminine. Soon after, she was schooled in the sheer power of lipstick, a short skirt and a supermodel runway walk to control the minds of others.
These days, she works for an international private investigation agency that handles these kinds of cases.
"Child abduction retrieval custody. Reverse stings. Occult and ritualistic crimes -- those tend to be really interesting, I like working on those. Anti-terrorism. Kidnap protection and return. Counter-intelligence."
She's happy doing this work.
In a typical case, Zora's agency sent her on a mission to Mexico to do what's known as a reverse scam. The agency was hired by the family of a young woman who'd recently traveled there, and fallen in love with a man she planned to marry after knowing him for only ten days. The family suspected some sort of con.
Zora contacted him, pretending she was looking for a girlfriend who used to work with him in the travel industry. She took a photo of a classmate with her to begin the scam.
"I sortof played the distressed American student going to a Spanish school. He invited me on a couple of dates and asked me to come back for the bullfight."
"What did you wear?"
"Oh, I wore like a little, itty-bitty skirt and a little tank top. I made it seem like I had plenty of money, and that interested him. He kindof perked up at that. He never mentioned, the whole time I spent with him, he never mentioned that there was ever a woman. And he -- I found him to be pretty emotionally open and a very romantic guy, but I honestly felt that he probably was not in love with her, that he was taking this as an opportunity to live in the United States. And that was the report I gave."
Before Zora set out for Mexico, I rode with her to the airport. We were late, and hurrying through the terminal, just ten minutes to spare, when she did the strangest thing: She sat down in a chair, far from the gate, and wouldn't move. I told her she was going to miss her flight, but she didn't budge.
I sat down next to her. She said she was scared. About the case? About which disguise she might wear? About being found out? No, she said. She said she was afraid that once she got to Mexico, people wouldn't like her.
The next time I was at her house, I hadn't noticed before, but I realized her bookshelf was packed with advice on how to build confidence -- titles like Princessa: Machiavelli for Women.
Books like that aren't really so far from the idea of keeping a list, having an ongoing plan for self-improvement, believing that if you just put something on paper and stick to it, you can change.
Zora still has her list -- but while the old list was all about being perfect and saving the world, the new list is very different.
"I need to learn how to play tennis and golf. My new list is windsurfing, tennis, golf. I need to develop some sort of talent. Like I need to learn how to sing properly or to do some kindof comedy, sketches, acting. Acting, yeah, I need to learn how to act. Oh, and I need to learn how to sing like Billie Holiday."
She doesn't take the list so seriously these days. There are no deadlines. She puts things on the list and later decides not to do them. It's not a grand mission anymore. Now, it's just a list.
END SONG: "Goldfinger" performed by author and Billie Holiday impersonator, David Sedaris.