This Is Not a Love Story

Last night I went on a date on second street in Long Beach. S and I met at a club last Saturday night where he’d gone with his younger sister and her boyfriend, all three of them needing a drink after they’d narrowly escaped with their lives. On their way home from dinner, a drunk driver ran a red light and nearly hit their car in an intersection – S saw his life flash before his eyes as the cars headlights flooded his peripheral vision, but at the same time, his foot never left the gas, only pressed harder and a millisecond later they had cleared the intersection, were still breathing and still alive.

I had gone out with my cousin Kathryn on a whim. It was Saturday night, which I had planned to stay in for, but when she suggested we go out, I thought, “I’m twenty-six. I ought to go out and do young people things.” We chose Busby’s, a convenient combination club/sports/dive bar that had good music (for us this means top 40’s), cheap parking and no cover charge, the same things that attracted other young people (who I think are mostly younger) wanting to go out but not spend a ton of money or worry about what to wear. I had stood in front of my closet wondering how “jazzed up” I wanted to be when I decided it was not one of those Saturday nights. I wore what the editors of People Magazine would have labeled “steasy” – (Stylish and Easy, if you’re dumb), a silk shirt and hoodie, a tight skirt and boat shoes. No jewelry, no makeup, freshly washed hair.

S came up to us dressed like a college kid – a purple hoodie, v-neck shirt and dark almost skinny jeans that tapered off into a pair of beat-up Vans. He was a good dancer and social too, though not knowing the story of how he’d just escaped with his life, I thought it was strange that he’d go to a club with his sister and her boyfriend. The young couple stood off to the side making out by the door while S danced with me and my cousin.

I gave him the look I normally reserve for extraterrestrials, “What are you, the world’s happiest third wheel?”

He shook his head, “I knew you were gonna ask me that,” then said enigmatically, “Look, we just came out to celebrate life right now.”

I thought he had a gay touch (I’m not a fan of v-neck t-shirts on guys) and that he might still be in college, but nodded kindly and didn’t ask any more questions. We danced, the three of us, though not even awkwardly as S was a good and lively dancer and seemed to be making friends all over the dance floor. A couple of Africans were celebrating a 21st birthday (I think they were lying), and at one point, asked S if they could take a photo with his “girls,” meaning my cousin and I. They were so drunk they wanted photos with the only two girls not wearing any makeup. I said sure, and while S gamely took the photo for us, I made sure to smile like a maniac. Let the birthday boy go through his photos tomorrow and think, “Jesus what was I thinking.”

My cousin and I didn’t plan on staying too late, so around 12:30AM we gave each other the “It’s time to bounce” look and turned to go.

S glanced at his sister then at me, “You’re leaving? We’re about to leave too, I think.”

“Yeah, it was nice meeting you, S.” I stuck out my hand, which he shook and then pulled me in for a hug.

“Give me your number,” he said.

Rene Magritte The Treason of the Pictures (This is Not a Pipe) 1928-9.

I pulled back and gave him the ET look again. Wasn’t he gay? The word “beard” flashed in my head. Oh whatever. He was nice. Kinda skinny, kinda pasty, but nice. I gave him my number.

“I guess he wasn’t gay,” I said to Kathryn as we got into the car.

He asked me out to dinner the next day. I was then, more or less as I am now, in the business of being open minded. I wonder if with every bad or “eh” date, something narrows, but I think not – it’s a learning process. I said, “Sure.” He suggested Long Beach, a midpoint between Pasadena, where he lived and Orange, where I live. I thought, “Snoop Dogg’s hood. I’m down.”

We texted a bit before the actual date, and he called a few times. He had a nice voice but always sounded sleepy – he was an analyst at a small bank in Pasadena, but clarified saying that it was just a job title and what he really did was pull a lot of data for a lot of people, because they had recently laid off an entire department and expected him and his coworker to pick up all the slack.

“I hate it,” he said, “But honestly, I don’t know what I’d do otherwise.”

I said he’d figure it out and asked him what he majored in in college.

He paused for a minute then said, “I didn’t go to school.”

“Oh, then how’d you get a job at a bank?”

“I started out as a temp, doing like admin paper pushing stuff, then they fired all the other temps and I was the only one, and I was sort of eager in the beginning. I wanted to learn as much as I could. Then they realized that I’d been temping for a year, so they gave me a full-time position.”

I nodded, imagining the disapproval on my parent’s faces. We weren’t a super judgmental family, having a handful of pretty successful individuals who had never gone to college – and indeed I myself had come pretty close to being a permanent college dropout, but still, we are nothing if not hypocrites. My parent’s judgmental expressions were pretty vivid during this conversation.

Later, the night before my date with S I saw the expressions form live.

“Oh honey,” my mother said sadly, “Don’t waste your time with this one.”

“It won’t go anywhere,” my dad said gruffly, “Raise the bar for yourself a little bit, will you?”

“He’s nice,” I said. Had I still been a rebellious teenager I would have lied and said we were close to becoming engaged, but I knew from the few conversations S and I had had that it really wouldn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t one of those, “Oh you never know,” things – I had outgrown those a few dates back. What I hadn’t outgrown or gotten rid of was the tendency to, once the conversation had started, to go on dates out of courtesy. But I’m a writer. Everything is copy. So I went for the copy.

I turned a thirty minute drive into forty minutes because I got lost and got on the wrong freeway. He was running late too. I was listening to rap music, hoping it would put me in a long beach state of mind. We had decided to meet at a Mediterranean restaurant called Open Sesame and I got there before he did, scoring a prime parking spot right in front of the restaurant, which was bursting at the seams with people. When he walked up the certainty of my knowing it wouldn’t go anywhere was only compounded. He was too skinny. Skinnier than I’d remembered and his jaw tapered down almost to a sharp point. He had bad skin. His teeth were crooked. He wore a checkered shirt and white v-neck t-shirt underneath. There was something gaunt about his eyes, which weren’t hungry but tired and defeated. Without the loud music and the energy of having just escaped with his life, S was much more subdued. Shy, even. He apologized profusely for being late. I shrugged, saying I had been late too. Calm down.

The wait at Open Sesame would be thirty-five minutes. It was already 9PM and I wasn’t in the business of eating too much, too late. He didn’t know what to do and put his name down and was about to reach for the buzzer when I said, “I don’t want to wait thirty-five minutes, let’s go somewhere else.”

He nodded and then proceeded to point to every restaurant on the street, “How does that one look? Or that one?” I said nothing until we walked in front of a sushi restaurant. It was mildly packed. “Here,” I said. He opened the door.

I answered some work emails while he debated between halibut and cod.

“Get both,” I said, then, glancing down at my phone, “I’m sorry, my boss is mad at me about something and I really just want to get it done right now.”

A perky waitress with a thick Japanese accent came to take our order. At the last minute I ordered freshwater eel and a seaweed salad. Might as well. I smiled at her and said thank you when she brought our tea.

“You’re so nice,” he said.

I thought, “No, you are.”

When the waitress brought the seaweed salad I pulled apart my disposable chopsticks and felt a splinter. The restaurant was dark though, so I couldn’t see it, only feel it and was then consumed by it. I nodded absent-minded as he told me about his day and asked me about my job. I wanted nothing more than to have a pair of tweezers and a brighter light.

Rene Magritte Discovery, 1927 Oil on Canvas. Brussels, Private Collection.

We ate and I, intermittently rubbing where the splinter was, asked probing questions about his family, which he answered willingly and honestly. He was half Chinese and half Mexican and came from a broken home. His parents had divorced when he was one, his mom remarried a man he disliked and gave birth to two daughters, his half sisters with whom he had alright relationships with. He disliked his stepfather who disliked him back. His biological father was a seventy-year old Chinese man with a predilection for marriage. He had married four times. They were never close, but recently, his dad was diagnosed with colon cancer which made S realize he should reach out a bit more. Pity the man.

He told me all this and I nodded, admiring the fact that he was trying to patch things up with his father and that he made an effort to spend more time with his sisters, especially the younger one, whom he’d gone to Busby’s with.

“What about you?” he asked, “Are you close with your family?”

“Yes,” I said shortly. The splinter was really irritating me.

“That’s so great.”

“It is.”

He ate slowly for a minute, searching for something to say while I studied my hand. My phone pinged and I reached for it. It was my boss again, nothing urgent, but I didn’t like to leave his messages unanswered for too long. I responded, then went back to hunting for the splinter.

Finally, I spied it – the tiniest sliver of balsa wood, or whatever those cheap disposable chopsticks are made of, sticking up across the smooth inside curve of my hand. I pinched it out and felt ready to smile again.

“I got it,” I said.

“What?”

“The splinter. The chopsticks, they gave me a splinter.”

He looked relieved, “Oh, why didn’t you say something earlier? I could have helped you get it out.”

I looked at him, thinking back to a random factoid my cousin had once told me. If you leave a splinter in and it works its way into your veins and bloodstream, it could pierce your heart and instantly kill you. But I would live another night. I saw in his earnest expression the image of his head bent over my hand, the glistening sushi sitting patiently near our elbows, waiting to be consumed with cheap disposable chopsticks. I was certain he would never touch my hands. I would never see him again, like so many others, after this night, and maybe he felt the same way about me. But we were still sitting across from each other at a sushi restaurant in Long Beach.

“It’s okay,” I said, “I got it out.”

“That’s good. Those things can be pretty painful.”

I laughed, “Yeah.”

“So it’s all good. Everything’s good. No more splinters.”

“Everything’s good for now, ” I said.

He asked for the bill and when it came, paid it swiftly.

“You can get next time,” he said.

I smiled and stood up. “Thank you, I’ll get dessert.”

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