A rejected essay submission specially written for the L.A. Affairs column of the Los Angeles Times.
Our almost-relationship combusted on my 23rd birthday. He was too broke to take me to dinner — or even gift me a one-dollar greeting card. That night, I ate shitty pasta in my little San Pedro apartment and cried myself to slumber, wishing his inaction was unexpected — but secretly knowing such oblivion would disappoint.
“Just so you know,” I said to him the next day, “you’ve still treated me better than any other guy.”
And that was the truth. But it wasn’t enough to hold on.
I first saw him at The Echo in 2016. He and his bandmates were opening for an act from the Valley that my friend and I were devout fans of, and they were shaking out indie rock with a southern twang that didn’t belong to LA. Charmed by his jawline and white jeans, my friend and I sleuthed his identity on Instagram the next day. To my surprise, he followed me back a few months later.
I never intended to meet this dude IRL, and the thought of doing so was unnerving. He was nice: our earliest Instagram conversations were sparse and feathery, mostly revealing where we lived (he in Eagle Rock by way of Austin, Texas, me in San Diego for school), what I was studying, where in the world he would go next as a touring musician with just a suitcase and guitar. And of course, there was some flirting — a concept I hadn’t mastered in person, but managed online with proficiency.
Yet, no matter how cute or likable I was on Instagram, I was an awkward, inexperienced 20-year-old in real-life. He, on the contrary, was an insanely gorgeous specimen capable of full-beard growth. So for two years, I dodged his expressed interest to kick it, citing our distant locations. He never took offense.
I dated a lot of terrible men over those two years — all of whom gifted me cringe romantic and sexual experiences to wax poetic about. I was ghosted by the machismo dude I lost my virginity to in San Diego; I was dumped by a rock-climber from Chino who wanted an outdoorswoman rather than a writer; I shaved my head after things soured with a stylish bad boy/keyboardist from Carson; and between those episodes, I survived other, unremarkable heartbreaks.
These short-lived connections all fizzled the same: men were blind to my bad-assery. Painless love seemed mythical, and though my mother insisted that “the one” wouldn’t hesitate to appreciate me, I found it difficult to imagine romance sans grief. The idea of lasting reciprocity and the “girlfriend” label — not friend, not “girl I’m dating” — was elusive.
That sort of changed when I finally caved and agreed to go on a date with this guitarist guy who kept showing up in my Instagram messages. Per my friends’ instruction, I just had to see what he was all about (I ain’t mad, but I’m positive they hoped that if I got laid, I would quit whining about another guy who’d ghosted me a week before). I pleaded guilty to no longer having excuses to avoid my long-time crush, and when he asked if I were around town, I messaged him that I’d be free “tomorrow night.”
Sunday evening, I left my apartment looking fine as hell in my tightest mom jeans and favorite lipstick. Soon after I parked, he emerged from inside the low-rise, looking just as handsome as he did both online and the first night I saw him years ago. After calming my nerves with a pre-game of wine and weed, we walked down Sunset to Sage Plant Based Bistro, just a block from The Echo, buzzed and giggly and sharing vegan appetizers from the same side of the booth. Hustling home afterward in the cool January air, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other once behind closed doors, three years of sexual tension rupturing into a single night. By sunrise, it was clear we’d be seeing each other again.
“Again” turned out to be the next night — and copious, subsequent ones. All through that spring, I would drive from my job in Cerritos to his new spot in Montebello, where we took evening strolls and grabbed Mexican food from Kavaleras and Ordonez Cantina. We streamed Nathan for You his laptop and had lots of great sex. On weekends, he introduced me to hip eateries and the best bars for dancing. He played guitar in the morning and crooned his syrupy songs, showering me in affection. I was enamored — and though we weren’t officially together, we weren’t talking to other people either.
Especially refreshing was the fact that neither of us played hard-to-get, an aimless sport I was frequently a victim, but never a fan, of. We responded to one another’s texts in a reasonable amount of time; if we wanted to hang out, we would. I’d never experienced healthy communication and honesty. In these unpretentious ways, I could tell he was a genuine guy — who knew they existed?
But our first date was not unlike our entire relationship: we hung around, we smoked, we ate. At some point, we met each other’s friends. He seemed satisfied by the routine our relationship had fallen into, but it was hard for me to date someone for so many months without definition. I knew I’d eventually want to do relationship-y things: take road trips, meet each other’s families, daydream about co-parenting a pup.
I placated my doubts and tried to take things day-by-day as he did — but the longer we were superficially together, the more blatant our problems were. Most of them were tied to his lifestyle, always in flux. Because he traveled for his music, he never held down a day job for more than a few months, and even when he was working, it wasn’t often enough to take care of himself, let alone a girlfriend. Long-term goals were also a foreign concept to him. He instead believed things would work themselves out — his music career, his living situations, his volatile mental health and appalling financial irresponsibility.
He was a male Elizabeth Holmes — all confidence, no tangible game plan. As both a realist and goal-oriented woman, I had to laugh: how could I date a grown man who so strongly believed in fortune instead of execution? I was five years his junior, but felt decades beyond: I was the one with a feasible career, my own apartment, a college degree, a car (in which I regularly took him to and from work — gag me), a clear idea of the future.
But even though our incompatibilities were rampant, I figured love was about compromise, and still wanted to give it a whirl. He knew this, and together we continued entertaining the idea with quasi-officiality, even when he confessed, out-of-the-blue, that he wanted to open our “relationship” when he left for tour again in the fall. I tried to empathize: he was still coping with childhood trauma mostly rooted in his evangelical Christian upbringing and witnessing paternal infidelity. So when he said he didn’t want to limit his sexual explorations, I was willing to sacrifice yet another significant personal value: monogamy.
But when my birthday rolled around, his passivity materialized as the final caveat. No longer was I desperate enough to tolerate neglect and compromise.
The day after, I hit him with the ominous “we need to talk” text — not just about my birthday, but everything. For the last time, I picked him up from his barista gig at The LINE Hotel in K-Town, and we drove to Echo Park Lake, where I idiotically fantasized we’d be the day before, riding the swans and admiring the glittering downtown skyline.
Instead, we watched other couples enjoy the waters from a frigid park bench as I divulged my dissatisfactions. I told him that his birthday faux pas was indicative of our bigger issues: his refusal to take our relationship seriously, our contrasting views of monogamy, and his unsustainable lifestyle. But as his other admissions surfaced — that he always felt like the Achilles heel in romantic relationships, and how he wanted a family but was convinced he’d be a poor father — I knew his pain wasn’t anything I could fix. No relationship, titled or not, could bandage that.
Things had to end — that much we could agree on.
As I cruised the 110 southbound, I pondered how our connection was deeply centered on serendipity: the concert, our first date, our breakup, all mapped in the heart of Echo Park; entering each other’s lives and exiting them in the same few feet. I pictured the beginning and the end as little red pinpoints falling in place years apart, yet so close in distance.
Then I thought about my mother’s wisdom — the man who I’m supposed to be with won’t hesitate to make me his. He’ll embody my past lover’s attributes — that tenderness and bedroom prowess, those virtues and good looks — but some of my own, too: long-term ambition, gumption, faith in a two-party love, and, most importantly, a 401k (…I’m joking, I’m joking).
Above all, he’d remind me that I never needed better. I needed the best.