‘Hey. Do you want to get tattoos and get engaged?’
We were good at being young together.
When we met, I was making coffee and he was serving pizza at a neighborhood restaurant in Berkeley, my hometown.
On days off, I laced up my white roller skates with red wheels and he grabbed his skateboard and we’d stumble and roll along on the knotty sidewalks between the two group houses where we lived with vegetable gardens and hot tubs and chickens.
At night, we climbed to the top of abandoned old buses, looked up at the stars through patchy fog, and talked about the things we wanted to do. Write poetry, start movements, visit family in other parts of the world.
He persuaded me to move to Los Angeles, where he is from, and where we could find more work. In L.A., we were more professional than we’d ever been. He started a PhD program; I was getting teaching gigs at better universities and bylines in bigger publications. We worked seven days a week and had almost no friends and rarely left our Mid-City apartment because we were afraid we’d never find parking again. We moved to a little house in Koreatown with a driveway and a handful of friends within walking distance, but things still felt strained. We went to Target and Trader Joe’s and watched Netflix a lot. We glanced over our ever-glowing laptop screens at our bikes, crammed behind the front door, with slow-leaking flat tires from sitting unused for so long.
That’s when we started to fight about more heavy-duty things, like money and what it means to have a good life. When things were very tense, we’d descend on the kitchen -- making elaborate meals like tortellini en brodo from scratch -- but then eat while talking mournfully about breaking up, that maybe we’d be happier if we went our separate ways.
We were in a holding pattern. Something had to give.
It was September first, a warm night, the kind you never get up north. I had just taught my first day of classes and felt relieved and energized. He suggested we go to dinner, try this ramen place up the street in Silver Lake, and I remembered what we loved about living in Los Angeles.
There was always something new to discover.
There was a long wait for a table, so we stopped for a drink at the bar next door and fell into the kind of talk we used to have. We talked about what we were reading, retold our favorite stories about our parents, and brainstormed about jobs or fellowships that would let us live in Sri Lanka or Austria, where we had deep roots.
When we went back to the ramen place, a few parties were still ahead of us.
“Let’s walk around,” he said.
Then, at the corner of Sunset and Silver Lake boulevards, while we waited for the light at the crosswalk to change, he turned to me, cocked his head in the direction of a neighborhood tattoo parlor and asked, “Hey. Do you want to get tattoos and get engaged?”
We had sort of talked about this before, in circles, in theory. Things like, if we were to get married, we’d do it like this. But we always left it at that. I grew up with a counterculture mind-set that marriage was patriarchal and heterosexist, and I always figured happiness came from not committing, from bucking the system.
But when it came up for real, things felt different. The coy invitation, the mischievous smile I’d come to know, the people buzzing in the warm night. Nothing was more important to us than family, so what if we became each other’s family? It didn’t feel like a step some outside force was telling us to take -- like the degree program, the better job, the more expensive house -- that may or may not make us happy.
It just felt like… us.
“Maybe,” I murmured, and then grinned.
“Really?!” he said, beaming, like the roulette ball had finally rolled into the right slot.
“Let’s get another drink and think about it,” I said, but my skin was already buzzing with anticipation, thinking about the crow I’d get on my inner arm to match the one on his forearm, and the sage sparrow he’d talked about getting on his chest, like the one he’d drawn for me as a gift when we first started dating.
I grabbed his hand, and we crossed the street, even though it was late, even though we had to work in the morning, even though we had stopped doing impulsive things long ago.
We never made it back to the ramen place that night.
The author teaches journalism and creative nonfiction at Loyola Marymount University and Cal State Northridge.
L.A. Affairs chronicles the current dating scene in and around Los Angeles. We pay $300 a column. If you have comments or a true story to tell, email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com.
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