The following story is true, although several details have been watered down so you don’t get too engaged.
When people speak of desirable social environments, the #1 quality they look for: “down-to-earth” people. To me, that’s a peculiar choice. I prefer “friendly” people, for what am I to do with a surplus of unfriendly down-to-earth people. In order to embrace their lack of flightiness or realistic outlook (if that’s what down-to-earth means), I need them to first say hello; to be charming, and thus welcoming.
In my experience, there exists an extreme shortage of charming strangers. Social networking and the isolation that comes from it pretty much killed off the last of ‘em. In fact, charm isn’t really necessary anymore; people are getting by without it. Engaging the passerby now has a stigma attached (you’re creepy), but befriending people online, good for you!!! You’re expanding your network.
So in the rare instance when a stranger charms me a bit, namely a girl, I feel compelled to take action.
Sitting in a coffee shop pretending to write a new script (I was making a To-Do List), the female barista approached me and asked what I was working on. More importantly, she bore a bright smile… sans incentive. For anybody who has ever been to a Starbucks/Coffee Bean/Local Spot, you know this never happens. It’s the stuff of movies. Someone showing interest in what they typically wouldn’t is the inciting incident to many stories; Character A is shattering Character B’s routine (e.g. being ignored). Therefore, I instantly felt I was in a movie and assumed the protagonist role.
We only talked for 3 minutes, but many topics were covered: What I was (theoretically) working on, her opinion about it, me opining about her opinion, and ultimately the abstract idea of speaking to each other again. There was ‘something’ special about this girl; something that words COULD describe, but would require a pen from the romantic era.
With phone technology improving every week, it makes sense that we exchanged email addresses.
How long should I wait? Oh forget it — I couldn’t help it. I wrote her that night. Here is the exact body of my message:
“Hey, what’s up? Hope you didn’t have to work too late. You seem fun, but… I could be wrong. I’d love to find out. When can you hang out?”
SOLID. INQUISITIVE. MYSTERIOUS. SHARP-WITTED. FUNCTIONAL.
One day — that’s all it took for her to write me back. I wrote her on Sunday; she wrote me back Monday morning. And in LA, one day is warp speed. Here’s why:
Communication in LA is no longer about efficiency. Instead, it is a chess game of perception. One’s reply time (in regards to a phone call, text, or email) carries with it an indicator of one’s preoccupation. The assumption carried by most people is “Every minute that this person doesn’t respond to me is one more minute that they are doing something better than responding to me.” In every other city, this thought-process would be dismissed as insecure paranoia (e.g. their cat might be sick) In LA… this is EXACTLY correct. Their cat is fine.
Coffee Girl’s email was straightforward: “I’d be down to hang out. I’m free on Thursday night.”
I was both elated and upset. While excited to hang-out, I desired responses to my specific inquiries. For example, I wish she wrote: “Oh I’m fun. Question is… can you keep up?” (The underline was also part of my fantasy). But if she had composed such playful rhetoric, I would compulsively keep the chain going and inevitably botch the mission. Instead, I kept it brief: “Cool, how about Thai?”
I told some friends about my upcoming Thursday date; how I found this girl charming/witty/ambitious. They asked how I hit on her. I said she hit on ME. From this point on, the conversation played out very much like the bleacher scene in GREASE, except before anything happened. So unlike John Travolta, everything we said was in future tense. “Are you going to get very far?” “I hope I do.” “Does she have a car?” “I don’t know, I’m going to pick her up.”
To those that have been in love, you know how it feels to see the world with that magical rosy blur. I’m not talking to you.
To those that have awaited a date with a true compelling stranger, just the anticipation gives you an undiscovered swagger. For this isn’t just any date, it’s the beginnings of a fairy tale; and in no fairy tale does the hero or heroine meet their true love through a mutual friend. It’s all fate, happenstance, and destiny… and that brings a rush.
Thursday night came and I never heard from her.
When I taught English in Brazil, even my most advanced students had trouble with the word “flakey”. I described a lot of Americans as ‘flakey’ (especially Blue-State Americans). My students asked, “Can you ‘splain me flakey?”. I would try, but at the conclusion of my seminar even I was confused.
I started by describing the literal definition of a ‘flake’ — a small, thin piece that has become detached from a larger piece of mass. (Note: The pure confusion on one student’s face would have, if pursued, become a classic painting as memorable as the Mona Lisa).
This didn’t work, so I tried a different approach. I asked them to close their eyes and imagine a leaf on a tree — then picture a very small part of that leaf breaking off in a strong wind. As the piece of leaf descends to the ground, the wind will blow it east, west, southeast, up, down, diagonal, etc… The direction of the flake is unpredictable; it has no clear path or control, and tends to be at the mercy of its surrounding environment.
I will get back to this, but first I want to tell you what happened with Coffee Girl.
Friday, Saturday, Sunday all passed without contact, and I chalked the encounter up to the aphorism: “If you don’t try, you can’t win” (which is, by the way, a graveyard for frustration; one that periodically has zombie-like attacks on the mind). And after all… it was only a 3-minute conversation.
Then, Monday afternoon, I opened my email to find the following message from Coffee Girl:
“Hey, SO sorry I didn’t get back to you. Things have been crazy, but I can do THIS Thursday night. How about 7:30 at Cherry Cafe?”
With its myriad meanings, “Crazy” is one of the most utilized words in English. However, only recently has “Crazy” become a synonym for “Busy”. My linguistics assumption: This usage was conceived by Gen-X, strongly maintained by the current Gen-Z, and most definitely popularized by my generation: Gen-Peter Pan. I’m no history buff, but I’m guessing Dr. King never described his protest schedule as “crazy”.
I won’t tell you what I wrote back, because dating experts will find fault in my word choices, but I will say that I confirmed. We’d meet there.
Thursday night came and I decided to be fashionably late. Ohhhhhh yeah, my life is crazy too. You can’t nail down a time on ME! I’ll be there when I’m there, honey.
I showed up at 7:46, the hostess handed me a menu, and sat me down, alone… at a table for two.
7:46, 7:52, 8:00, 8:03, 8:07 and I still had only one means of contacting her: Email — for why did I need to force her number with the place and time already set. I fired off a quick one from my phone, and this time… the response came in seconds.
“Oh no! I totally forgot about this. Can we reschedule? Yikes!”
And so I explained to my Brazilian students that a flake being whisked away by a breeze is akin to external forces affecting people’s ability to follow-thru. They are “flakey” because, like a flake falling from a tree, they’re helpless to the direction life takes them. No big deal really, except sometimes there are victims in the process.
(Note: They got it, but didn’t. For example, they kept calling slightly tardy students ‘flakey’)
I didn’t get up right away because that would be too telling to the couples sitting around me. Instead I kept reading the menu, ordered an iced tea, and texted “what’s up?” to many MANY people.
So it caught me off-guard when someone said my name. I figured an old co-worker spotted me and decided to take action. But no… it was her.
Remembering she worked/lived in this neighborhood, and chose the locale, I realized this was possible.
“Oh, hey”, I said theatrically. But Coffee Girl spoke with an intense urgency: “Listen, I’m so sorry I forgot about this, but my brother is going through some serious issues right now and I absolutely have to go see him tonight. He called me earlier today and invited me to his house for dinner. That hasn’t happened in over 8 months! Something is wrong with him, and I know he needs me there. I’m very worried about him. Look, I know this is weird, but can you come with me? I thought we could talk at his house.”
Amidst telling this story from hindsight with a skewed perspective in my favor, I failed to mention something of concrete truth. I will say it now: Coffee Girl… was remarkably pretty. And that can kick pride and a value system right in the teeth.
I hesitated (just to give the impression that I had a backbone), then agreed to come. And once again her smile hit me hard.
“Great!”, she said. “My boyfriend is pulling the car around front. You can ride with us.”
An oft criticism about LA is that it’s ‘fake’. Cosmetically, sure, but when people talk about ‘LA fake’ they are referring to people’s inability to be ‘real’ (which is ironic because one would need an absolute stronghold on their identity in order to ‘fake’ it — and that ain’t the case out here) New Yorkers hate Los Angelinos and vice versa. LAers are thought of as disingenuous, always wearing a veneer, and NYers are thought of as snobs who love New York and think they’re better than everyone. When the Knicks play the Lakers, each respective fan hopes to win a battle against a facet of humanity they dislike (arrogance/artificiality).
I don’t fully agree with New York’s claim, but they were definitely a little bit right when I told her boyfriend “it was great to meet him”.
He cleared room in the backseat for me. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only +1 of the evening. When my date sat up front with her boyfriend, their brown pitbull joined me in the back. This dog… was mean, but, thankfully, came with an oral instruction manual. I was (kindly) told he doesn’t trust new people, and I shouldn’t sit too close. Not knowing the ‘biting threshold of distance’, I scooched closer to the door, providing me with an extra 1.5 inches of precaution. The dog let out a huffy, angry growl, implying, from his point of view, that something in this car was bad wrong.
Then this pitbull started barking ferociously and instantly got a scolding from his parents: “No, no… no”. My date’s boyfriend followed this up with the least surprising sentence I’ve heard in LA: “He’s a rescue dog.”
Now laid back and comfortable, Coffee Girl apologized again about forgetting our dinner, and said she’s really bad about making and keeping plans. The car suffered a silent awkward beat when I told her I was the exact opposite.
During the ride to the mysterious brother’s house, I engaged in superficial conversation with the boyfriend (which I initiated). The topics:
1. Where I was from.
2. Where he was from.
3. Respective attributes about where I was from (primarily about temperature).
4. Contrasting qualities about where he was from and where he currently resides (primarily about temperature)
5. Mutually summarizing the above discourse as ‘cool’.
And then we arrived.
Before going up to the brother’s apartment, I received a brief report on his character. “Brother” (as we’ll call him) drinks a lot. He never has people over. Anger comes easy to him. He’s perpetually depressed due to a chemical imbalance and just regular shit. He views life as a curse.
I said, “He sounds like a great guy”. My date said… “He is”. And my date’s boyfriend said, “Try and get out of the car slowly — our dog gets nervous”.
We headed up the steps to the brother’s apartment, each with different feelings. My date: Concern. Date’s boyfriend: Confusion. Me: Curiosity and self-loathing.
The brother answered the door, hugged his sister tight and shook her boyfriend’s hand. Upon seeing me, his face transformed into bewilderment. He and I had one thing in common: We had no idea who I was.
OH BOY — more rescue dogs!!!! This time 2 Junkyard Rottweilers. I was proud to be greeted with chaotic snapping and barking. These were the sweetest rabid dogs I had ever met — and the brother said something fascinating about Chucky and Yo-Yo not knowing me yet.
The four of us ate tacos and drank wine, and the brother definitely seemed fragile. Tonight was an important night for him in some way. Would you like me to describe his vibe in one word? I’ll use ‘grave’.
The conversation was unpretentious — lighthearted dialogue RE: the best ways to prepare taco meat. I wanted to weigh in, but was highly unsettled by the brother’s stoic rage and piercing stare. He did not want me there on suicide night.
I’m pretty sure the brother downed 2 bottles of Syrah himself, my date drank 6 glasses, and my date’s boyfriend only drank 5 because he was driving.
Apparently less worried now, my date and her boyfriend headed to the couch, turned on an iPod, selected a track from Radiohead’s heroic ‘free’ album… and proceeded to make-out softly.
The bad news: This stung. My date, the coffee barista, was merely a stranger now… not a charming one. The good news: The brother found someone to talk to.
Carpe Diem is a commonly used expression by those fearing the end. Every last drop of each day must be maximized and savored. If you say ”I’m a Carpe Diem kinda guy/gal”, people instantly comprehend your attitude and are perhaps a little inspired. But why isn’t there a familiar and accepted antonym for Carpe Diem? What if, come sunrise, you are straight-up pissed that father time is forcing a day upon you? Or despise the mere existence of yourself? What do you call that?
Whatever it is… my date’s brother can identify.
The first beat of our conversation: Pixar’s The Incredibles. If you, the reader, have kids — know that their love for The Incredibles is inferior to my date’s brother’s passion for this cartoon. The dialogue came about when I motioned to the framed red poster. He interpreted my line “Oh, you like The Incredibles?” as “If you’ve got a disturbed soul, now is the time to speak of it”.
To the brother, The Incredibles was robbed of an Oscar, should have a sequel, and acted as a passageway into the chamber of his angst. Topics he covered:
1. Everybody at his old job hated him.
2. Everybody at his new job hates him.
3. His job is boring, and only made worse by #2.
4. He hates himself.
The Incredibles was the only beacon of hope he had for humanity; a metaphor for something pure, special, and innocent; a direct contrast to the nefarious nature of everything else: Wall Street greed, BP Oil, crooked D.C., etc, etc, etc.
For clarity, please note that the above paragraph was HIS point, not mine. I thought he was fucking nuts, and was distracted watching my date slide her tongue across her boyfriend’s gums.
After twenty more minutes of commentary on “The State of Things — i.e. atheism, the death penalty, his mother, pesticides”, I just told him everything would be fine — and he appeared to take solace in that; perhaps because the trite advice came from a fresh source.
“Time to go”, I said, startling my date and her boyfriend. They giggled, as if they had been caught necking by the school’s vice principal.
Heading downstairs, my date said something I am still trying to decode. My intelligence simply can’t crack it, and I ask the reader for any and all input:
Earnestly, she turned to me, put a hand on my shoulder, and said… “Thanks for coming”.
The ride back was quiet, save for a little empty conversation and the pitbull.
The boyfriend slowed to a stop in front of my car. The night was over; this was all over.
The boyfriend turned to face me. I thought he would tell me off, say something to the effect of ‘This is MY girl, ya understand?’. But he said nothing so cinema-like, only asking “Is that it? (in reference to my sedan).
Then Coffee Girl twisted for goodnight mode. She said she hoped to see me again at the coffee shop. Given the circumstances, I decided I’d kiss her on the second date.