When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I tried to dress to impress, but that went out the window a couple of kids ago. Which explains how I looked that day when my sons and I were in the home stretch of an extended school break. I wore an air of extreme jet lag and an extreme case of the "moms."
We had just returned from the requisite grandparent visit. I was unshowered, sporting a little (OK, a lot) of vacation weight, and my recently cut bangs, which needed constant "doing," were, quote, undone, swept up and away off my makeup-less face. But it didn't matter; we had just been heading out for dim sum. I am known to dribble soy sauce on myself quite often when we do dim sum. Amazingly, I didn't that day. The only thing that was amazing was the look on my face when I took the boys for ice cream after lunch that day — and my ex-boyfriend walked in.
I had imagined this moment.
Usually I was passing him as I walked up the aisle to accept an Oscar, Emmy, Pulitzer … [insert wonderful award here]. The award actually didn't matter, only that I oozed accomplishment and was wrapped in a cute dress.
Bumping into him in Baskin-Robbins on Wilshire Boulevard in West L.A. in a bra that didn't really fit was not part of the plan.
I had been helping my 6-year-old decide between mint chip or chocolate when I saw him walk in. It seemed from his demeanor that he'd already seen me. He sauntered up. I froze.
I've been married to an incredible man for almost 14 years. I was flanked by our two beautiful and adorable sons. Still, my first inclination was to flee. But there was no bathroom nearby that I could see. The freezer that held the ice cream cakes was too small, but still I considered it.
And there it was. There we were, hugging.
I was suddenly so mad at myself for having the most clichéd female response of feeling ugly, of feeling unworthy. In Los Angeles, the worst you can be is unimpressive. And I knew in that moment in my blowy beige blouse and army pants that I was just a girl who used to be thinner.
I didn't even pretend not to be awkward. I think I even said, "Well, this is weird" after he introduced himself to my children.
My. Children. My incredible children.
Here's what I really wanted to say:
Do you see this? Do you see this life I have?
Do you know they were both in the NICU after they were born? Do you know I gave up my career to stay home with them? Do you know my older son, the one whose hand you just shook, almost died at birth? And I am the one, me, I am the one who took him to the doctors and therapists and music classes and did the research and managed his care and medicines until it almost broke me. But instead of being broken I was brave and had another child. He's the one in the blue Puma shirt. He was six weeks premature and so I struggled all over again. But here they are, my children, wolfing down ice cream, after soup dumplings, and you can't tell there was any struggle or challenge. Nope, that's because of me. Me. Strong, accomplished and wonderful me. Mother. They don't give awards for that. They should.
But I didn't say any of that. Instead I was insecure and tripping over my words like the girl I used to be, not the woman I am, as we all made our way to the register. I paid for my sons' ice cream but didn't order any for myself, for fear of being judged.
I had first met my ex when I was young, in college. He had wooed me, pursued me. I had resisted. He took me to parties when I arrived in L.A. He dangled his Hollywood lifestyle in front of me, and I loved the possibility of it. I loved the little-girl dream of movies and lights and action.
Then I became the girl he wouldn't take to parties, would just meet after my shift waiting tables. But we had history, and I thought I was more to him than what I actually was. I thought I was the girl he would always come home to. The special one, I reasoned. I was too naive or hopeful to see who I really was to him, and he was too arrogant to set me straight.
I don't know if I ever really loved him, though I wept often over him as if I did.
I could still hear the words he said almost 20 years earlier as we stood next to his black pickup truck, after French fries with gravy at Swingers on Beverly, where I would meet him late at night after finishing work. I realize now that does not a healthy relationship make. (I had once thought about slashing the tires of that black pickup truck when I caught him at the movies on a date with a woman who wasn't me.)
"I've met someone," he'd said.
Back at the ice cream shop, we chatted for a few more moments. I told him that we'd been back East with my husband's family. (The word "husband" came out of my mouth, and it still surprised me. Me, I have one of those.) He spoke of his children. I did not ask about their mother, the someone he'd met. She is a beautiful actress I occasionally see pop up in movies. I knew they'd divorced years ago.
Then he turned to me, milkshake in hand, and said, "See you in a decade," and grabbed some napkins on his way out. He didn't even wave as he headed for the door.
"That was my ex-boyfriend," I explained to my sons as we sat down.
"The mean one?" my 11-year-old asked.
"Yes!" I squealed as if I were chatting with a girlfriend.
"He looked so nice."
And right there was all I needed to start a conversation about relationships and love and how to treat people and expectations and romance.
"Yes, he looks nice," I agreed. "He wasn't."
The author is a writer and teacher living in Culver City. Her website is mommiebrain.com.
L.A. Affairs chronicles love and dating in and around Los Angeles. If you have comments or a true story to tell, email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com.
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