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Love lost and found in Los Angeles

It was on a smoking patio in Echo Park that an older woman named Annie shattered my illusions about finding a suitable boyfriend in my 30s.

"Tell them, 'If you don't have jack, don't call back,'" she said, while I fiddled guiltily with an American Spirit (I had "quit" two weeks earlier). I nodded, thinking I understood.

"J.A.C.," she said again, holding up three fingers. "Job, apartment or car."

Had it come to this? Was my baseline for dating in Los Angeles really a guy's possession of J.A.C.? What about being body-slammed by love?

I had been looking for almost three years, after leaving my boyfriend of 11 years. I took the cat and he took the $845 two-bedroom apartment in Silver Lake. I was 31, and single for the first time in my adult life.

"Please, just come home," he pleaded with me six months after I moved into a lonely walk-up in Echo Park. "We can get better."

But I knew that we couldn't. We were broken — had broken each other. What I needed from a relationship bore little resemblance to the needs of the 18-year-old girl he first met many years ago.

The problem for me was that the dating game had changed drastically in a decade. It frightened me to realize that the last time I had gone out on a first date was in the 20th century.

I wasn't even on Facebook, where all the twentysomethings were busy "poking" each other. Worse, I didn't have a smartphone and didn't really text, which seemed like an epic fail in a dating landscape dominated by digital communication. How was a guy going to ask me out if he couldn't text me?

For a while I spent far too much time in Eastside bars — bathing my broken heart in whiskey and getting hit on by 25-year-olds who thought I was 23 and always gaped in the most unsettling way when I said I wasn't. They were usually unemployed couch surfers with glib Chinese-character tattoos and overly pointy shoes. They didn't have J.A.C.

If I lived in Manhattan I would just drop my iced caramel macchiato with extra soy on a busy street corner and a hunky man with a New Yorker turned to James Surowiecki's latest economic treatise tucked under his arm would stop to help me. We would get married in the South of France.

But Los Angeles was all faceless freeway and high-speed metal edge. Chance encounters weren't likely to happen here. If I wanted to bump into someone I would have to do it somewhere unromantic, like in line at Vons or mid-plow at Bikram yoga.

Friends told me to join groups where I'd meet men with similar interests. A cooking class maybe, or a book club. That feels too contrived, I told them, before secretly signing up for a free dating website. When the only guy I met on that site tried to sell me magic mushrooms, I jumped ship.

Despair set in, then acceptance. I grew to enjoy making dinner alone, obsessing over "Lost" on Netflix and watering plants on my patio. I liked reading alone in bed at night. It was only in the early morning, when half-remembered dreams still lingered, that I felt lonely. But mostly I was alone, and that was just fine.

The second I was at peace, I met a man — my own age! — and fell in love. I was playing bass in my band at the Down and Out bar on Spring Street downtown, and he had come to see me a few times — wondering who I was and liking how I moved onstage.

Once I moved too much and fell off. He rushed to pick me up, but I was too embarrassed to notice. Soon after that I left alone on a long-planned trip to Vietnam.

While I was gone he knocked me sideways with passionate, well-written letters. By the time I got back we were crazy about each other. He is creative, handsome, warm. I like the way his shirt cuffs hang over his slender wrists and the way he looks at me when he thinks I'm not looking.

An independent film producer, he traveled a great deal before we met, which threw the whole J.A.C. equation out of whack. But when it came to him, none of that mattered. I had been body-slammed by love.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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