Because I write romance novels, folks often ask me questions, assuming that I’m some kind of love expert. So not true. I’m as failed as many in the love department, though I had a lovely bit of luck three years ago when I met my boyfriend, Michael. This is an essay that started as a Valentine’s Day blog in 2008. I’ve been working on it (and my relationship) ever since!
Three years ago, I stood on a sidewalk in Manhattan Beach, watching my date drive up toward Rosecrans Avenue and turn right, disappearing into the night. Walking back to my friend’s house, I contemplated the kiss I’d just shared with this man who had made the perilous drive from Malibu all the way to my friend’s party and me. We’d met two weeks before in a class I’d taught, and after the class was over, he’d walked up to the desk as I packed my books and extra handouts.
“Great class,” he said, a hand on his hip. “I really liked it. Maybe next time you’re down here, you and I could go out. Get to know each other.”
The air around us seemed to still and then glimmer. I’d fantasized about this moment for years, even when I was married. There I’d be, teaching my heart out, and the good looking guy at the back of the room would fall deeply in love with me. How romantic. Finally, my dream had come true. The good looking guy was right here, now, watching me as I stared back at him, my mouth likely agape. His voice was low, smooth, calm, and his eyes were dark brown. He was an actor, lived in Malibu, and was writing a young adult novel. All class long, he’d asked great questions and cracked good jokes.
“Okay,” I said. “Sounds great.”
When I told my LA friends about meeting the actor, they were overjoyed that I had met someone viable, so overjoyed that one of them decided to throw a party in two weeks and invite us both.
He’d arrived at the party on time and with flowers, and we’d had fun, but after the sidewalk kiss, the upshot was this: The actor and I had absolutely zero chemistry. You all know that lack of fizz when your lips meet? Your body does not heat up. Your skin does not prickle. Your heart does not even beat an extra beat.
That was our kiss. Dream man no longer.
The next day, I flew home to the Bay Area a bit dejected. I was a firm believer in the Yes Plan, taking what the universe provides and going along with it. Yes to Malibu man. Yes to LA. Yes to the party. But sometimes it was hard to not fall off the yes wagon and stay at home and eat popcorn, drink Cabernet, and watch HBO on demand. Despite myself, sometimes I took these dates personally, wondering what it was about me that evoked bad kisses and dull conversation. But I didn’t have too much time to contemplate this because I had yet another date to go on.
After disembarking and scooting out of the terminal,, I stood in the florescent glow of the Oakland Airport parking lot, opened the rear door of my Volvo, and changed into a very fancy black dress with sequins. Trying not to trip in my new high heeled black pumps, I teetered into the car and drove to meet a man I had a dance date with, a guy I’d had a mad crush on. We’d met months ago at our gym, and he was funny and could incline bench press 100 pound dumbbells. He was tall and dark and handsome and financially solvent, though he did have this unnerving habit of talking incessantly about his ex-girlfriend Tammy.
On our first date, he talked about her for the first two hours and about his relationship with her for the second two. Each time we saw each other on a date or during our workouts, I learned a new fact about her, down to the scar on her abdomen from an appendectomy. They’d been broken up for well over a year, and he wasn’t over her.
When I arrived at his house—my suitcase and shoes thudding around in the back of the car—he came out before I had a chance to even take off my seatbelt. He was wearing a stylish jacket and sleek, black pants but looked bleary-eyed and unshaven.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Oh, Tammy came for a visit,” he said, sitting down in the passenger’s seat and closing the door.
“Really,” I said. I looked toward the front of the house, and there Tammy was, wearing a bathrobe, waving to us from the window.
Apparently, they’d been very busy for a few hours before I arrived. He was clearly not over her except, I guess, in a literal way. He’d been over her all afternoon.
“Are you sure you still want to go out?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said, his eyes rimmed red.
For a second, I thought to tell him to get the hell out of the car. Why was I bothering with him? What was I doing? The Yes Plan has an eject button, and I needed to use it. Flip him out of the car and wing myself home, where I could slip into bed, and try to forget about the entire weekend.
He smiled at me as if nothing were out of the ordinary, and maybe nothing was. We’d gone out on dates but they had been more like outings. Urban adventures with some flirting and split checks at the end of the night. And besides, I’d been looking forward to learning how to salsa, buying this flouncy dress especially for the moves the instructor would teach us. I wanted to hear some music, and there would be other men to dance with during class time. When the class was over and the club opened for general admission, I might actually meet someone who wasn’t dating Tammy.
And I had stayed in a 23-year-long marriage out of lethargy, inertia, and fear of doing anything different or new or scary or dumb. This evening was potentially dumb and certainly different.
“All right,” I said.
He waved to Tammy, and I pulled out of the driveway.
Our few previous dates had been not unpleasant but involved nothing physical, and on this third date, nothing more than dance moves happened between us. As we tried to flow in a salsa way on the dance floor, I hoped he would take me in his arms and pull me close, but did I really want that? I had the same lack of buzz with him as I did with my actor date the night before. The idea of this man was more exciting that the him of him, despite his good looks and humor and nice suit.
After the dancing and a meal at an oyster bar, I came home from the date and the trip to my empty house, and fell into a deep sleep. Exhausted and slightly deflated the next morning, I slogged out of bed, and tried to do a little writing on my novel, but the words wouldn’t come so I wrote emails instead. After cleaning up the house a bit, I got back in the car, headed to the gym, worked out, dressed, and then powered through the Caldecott Tunnel to College Avenue where I was to meet my third date of the weekend, a man I had been corresponding with on Match.com. As part of my Yes Plan to the universe, I was going along with what the universe was lobbing at me. And this man was one of the big softballs I’d caught.
However, I'd almost let this man slip out of my glove--I was teaching and writing and traveling a lot that month. I was busy with my high school senior's activities, and I was dating the men I met online and onland. The Yes Plan had kept me busy, introducing me to strange and interesting coffee partners, including a 34-year-old man and a man with one black tooth. But this man Michael had continued to email through my periodic radio silence, and finally, we picked a time and date to meet.
From his Match.com ad, I wasn’t convinced we’d ever see each other again after this first date. I’d long given up the notion that each man could be “the one.” This fellow seemed nice, was persistent, and had a charming smile (at least in photos). What did I have to lose? At least his teeth looked the same color. And he was a respectable 50 years old. I wouldn’t have the feeling I was talking to my oldest son. So what that I was tired. So what that I was zero for two for the weekend? So what that I had a stack of 30 essays to grade? There would always be time to read those in the evening.
When I arrived at our designated spot at the corner of College and Shafter in Oakland, I found that the restaurant we had picked was just about to close. As I walked out, I noticed a man walk in, someone I recognized. Wait, I thought, was that my date? I stared at the man, realized my mistake, and then kept moving. No, he was not the man from the pictures. So I headed for the sidewalk. As I was waiting, the man I thought I knew approached me. He said, "Are you Jessica?"
"Yes," I said.
Jim, I thought. I blinked. Oh. From Match.com. The man who liked James Joyce. Who had actually managed to finish Finnegan's Wake. How strange to be spotted in the real world because of the virtual. These meetings were supposed to be choreographed and ordered and fixed. There was supposed to be no interface except for the arranged. In fact, so much of it seemed like a dream, the clicking through profiles, the assessing of a person in quick, easy reads, all of it done to the flickering buzz of a computer, none of it tangible, defined, sure.
I scanned the busy block, cars and people everywhere but no other Match.com date in sight. I shrugged and started talking to Jim, knowing that when my date showed up, this conversation would look a little strange. Michael would show up, and I'd be talking with a man I had tried to end correspondence with online. Jim was an interesting man, but the Yes Plan also included the right to pass. And I’d wanted to pass on Jim because the truth of that matter is that I’ve tried to read Finnegan’s Wake 100 times and only get to the bottom of the first page before closing the book.
As Jim spoke, I noticed another man crossing the street. Was it Michael? What would he think of me? What would he think? That he was five minutes late and I turned to the next available man as recompense? What must it seem like to him? That I was scavenging men up off the sidewalk. I’d been on too many sidewalks this weekend talking to men I didn’t like, and I wanted to chase after this man, even if he wasn’t Michael, ending this conversation with Jim.
I thought of things to say because it was Michael. Yes, it was. It was Michael. He was tall and walked with a sure, brisk step. But then he kept walking.
Come back, I thought, but he didn’t, striding away up toward Zachary’s Pizza.
Rats. He was cute.
I sighed, and Jim and I kept chatting. I talked about Joyce a little bit more (Please, only The Dubliners for me) and then I felt a tap on my arm.
It was the man who had crossed the street.
"Hi," he said. "I'm Michael. And I got a little lost down there."
Michael looked at Jim, and I smiled. “Michael, this is Jim. He recognized me from Match.”
Jim extended his hand, and the two men shook hands. How weird, I thought. Please, don’t let me forget this. Or please, let me.
“Well,” I said to Jim. “It was great to meet you, but we’re off for a date.”
I have to give it over to Jim. He was gracious and nice, and he waved a little, and we all parted.
I was nervous at first, I think, talking too much to explain what had happened and about the restaurant closing. For some reason, my heart seemed to need an intervention, pounding out of rhythm and too hard. I focused on my footsteps, the clack clack on wet pavement, and not how I thought I’d missed Michael back there, watching him walk away. But then he’d come back.
I must have been talking too much because he said, “If this isn’t a good time, we can reschedule. Or, not do it if it’s too much.”
Right then, I knew that I wanted to be on this date, the first date I’d wanted to see through to the end for a long while. This weekend, I’d already had a lot of nothing and too much actually sounded like a great idea. Michael was patient and unflustered by the Jim incident. Unconcerned that every restaurant we passed on our way down the right-hand side of College Avenue seemed closed.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just a little confused.”
Michael looked at me, waiting for something more coherent.
I knew I couldn’t completely explain the whirl of weekend dates or the weirdness of meeting Jim in one articulate sentence, so I smiled instead.
We kept walking. We chatted in that new, nervous way of people meeting each other, crossing the street to find another closed restaurant, and then finally finding one that was open and crowded. We stood in line to order our salads, and talked about the day, the weather, what we did, where we were in our lives. We were bumped and jostled by servers and patrons, and I wondered if I would ever relax, feeling strung out and nervous. Maybe Michael was right. Maybe this wasn’t a good time.
Finally, we sat down at a table and began to talk and to explain why what we were doing on Match.com. As we talked, I felt myself let go, relax. I began to breathe, one, two, in and out. And as I looked at him, I saw something I hadn’t really seen in any of my dates. Actually, he was seeing me, looking at me, listening to what I was saying. He moved his chair closer to mine, making sure we could hear each other over the din of the restaurant. We pulled out the photos of our children, we ate big green salads, we laughed. I didn’t want lunch to end, but it did, the server taking away our plates, diners waiting for a table glaring at us.
Without touching, I felt more excitement than I had in Manhattan Beach with my actor. Without even knowing why, I knew that Michael and I connected in a way that my dancing date and I never could. And I knew that Jim and I would not have had this date either. By now, he’d be explaining Finnegan’s Wake, and I’d be longing to grade my 30 essays.
Outside, it started to rain, the weekend closing down into storm. Michael and I were done with the restaurant, though we weren’t done with the date.
“Do you want to get coffee?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, not ready for this to be over. Not ready for my empty house and a long rainy night alone. Not ready to be done with this gentle, beautiful man.
So we walked down the street, under his umbrella, and he put his hand at the small of my back. That’s when I knew. His touch did more for me than all the quick end-of-the evening kisses I’d had. The heat from his hand pulsed into my back. He guided me, and we walked together. We were moving forward, into the rain, down the street, toward something bigger than just coffee.
Three years later, today, I think of that day in February 2006. We lucked out, that date turning into more dates, and then a life together. It wasn’t always easy, both of us coming out of long, sometimes complicated marriages, both of us with almost adult children, both of us with patterns we developed long ago. But here I am. I’m in that life right now, writing from the house we share together. He sits behind me on the couch in the office, working on a computer program, typing softly, clearing his throat, drinking his coffee. It’s February, and it’s raining, just like that February day we met. And I know that the warmth from his hand was true and real and I am exactly where I should be.
But how possible for it to not happen at all. So many small incidents could have change the space-time continuum and thrown us both off course. I could have ended up in Malibu, canceling all additional weekend activities. My plane from Los Angeles could have been delayed. My dancing date the night before could have gone theoretically better, and I would not have even wanted to teach that morning. I could have bailed on the Yes Plan and decided to blow off the whole date with Michael after the class and claimed fatigue, a tiredness that was really very true. Michael could have imagined I'd blown him off when he saw me talking to Jim and jumped back on BART in a huff. He could have given up looking for me and sat down at the pizza parlor and had a nice hearty slice. He could have enjoyed the date he’d had the day before much more than he had, canceling on me at the last moment. Just about anything in our lives before three pm on February 26th 2006 could have been different, and it wouldn't have been us on the corner of Shafter and College, waiting for each other in front of the closed restaurant.
Until that day, every date I’d been on had been like the first page of Finnegan’s Wake, unintelligible, confusing, and impossible to get through. Until Michael tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to him, I wouldn’t have believed I would ever get to page two.
In my mind, I see him still, coming down the BART escalator, crossing the street and walking on past me, and then coming back, touching my arm, saying hello.
How ordinary. How miraculous.
Life's like that. We never know that one day will be the important day, the one we will never forget. We can’t wake up thinking that this will be the day that changes us forever or else we might freak out and stay under the covers eating chocolate. But we have to show up, keep trying, saying “yes” to what is in front of us that could help us grow. We show up and live, and then we look back and say, “That was it. That the day I met you.”