He was almost 30 minutes late to our first date. His phone had been stolen and his wallet too; he had to stop at two gas stations to ask directions to Milk, a place that he'd suggested for our meeting.
I was sitting at the table by the door. It was prime real estate, and I could feel other customers hovering behind me, waiting for me to give up and go home. "How long do you wait before you decide you're being stood up?" I asked my best friend in a text.
"Ten minutes," she answered. Then: "Leave." Behind the counter, the employees radiated sympathy for me. I had stopped looking up when the door opened.
But I stayed. I wasn't a person who understood when to cut my losses. I was a struggling writer in Los Angeles. I thought if I just hung in there, eventually things would work out for me. Sometimes they did. Mostly they didn't.
When he finally arrived, he was too frazzled to bother with parking; he dumped his car in an Emergency Vehicle Zone and ran into the restaurant.
We got ice cream that he barely touched. Later, he told me he was too nervous to eat.
After our date, he walked me to my car and hugged me, hard.
He was an audio engineer and a regular at Starbucks, where the baristas knew him by name. I was working as a temp, a warm body at the receptionist desk, working on my novel in a Google document and gossiping with the security guards. He lived a block above the Walk of Fame, and I'd walk past Jack Sparrow impersonators, break dancers and snake tamers to get to his apartment. He lived off of Fresh & Easy and Buffalo Wild Wings. Once he tried to cook for me, somehow managing to incorporate everything I don't eat into one pasta dish.
"It looks great," I told him, looking at the saucepan.
"It's OK," he qualified.
We went out for sushi instead.
Most of our cooking adventures were like that: He made good eggs, and my bacon was undercooked. He liked my pancakes, but our syrup preferences were fundamentally incompatible. I was a purist, born and bred on 100% pure maple. He liked store brands, flavored. I could make good stuffed peppers, and he could grill. I baked him an angel food cake from scratch for his birthday and ended up eating it all myself because he didn't like it. We were both very good at ordering food.
He loved Los Angeles, and he wanted me to love it too. We went to improv shows, hiked Runyon Canyon, caught the planetarium show at Griffith Observatory, went to Dodger games. It didn't work.
A couple of months later, I told him I was moving back east. I had given notice on my apartment. The pots and pans disappeared from the kitchen; strangers from Craigslist carried off the couch and the kitchen table. The walls were bare; the cabinets were empty. I thought it was the end.
Instead, he brought over boxes and helped me pack.
"I think you're making a mistake," he told me on our last night together. It was possible. But I was leaving nonetheless. The next morning he walked me to my car and hugged me, hard.
It took me a week to drive across the country. I texted him from a smoky casino in Vegas, a frigid tent in Utah, a dinosaur-themed gas station in Omaha, the Art Institute of Chicago. I drove across all sorts of borders, bundled up in the oversized flannel shirt he insisted I keep, mentally calculating the time difference to where he was. One hour back, then two, then three. In Los Angeles, he biked past my old apartment, where the buzzer still rang my cellphone.
I fell into a new life. I got a job in journalism and a new apartment outside of Washington. Friends from high school and college were just a Metro ride away. The holidays came and went. My spider plant, a housewarming present from my grandparents, flourished in the windowsill, seemingly impervious to my black thumb. Still, every night I waited for him to get off work so we could talk. Moving was one thing, but moving on was another.
"I want to tell him that I love him," I told my best friend.
"Don't," she said. "It'll only make it harder."
I told him. I didn't have a history of taking good advice.
A couple of months later, I was on a plane back to California. He was supposed to meet me at the airport. The sky was clear that night, and with no head wind, my plane made good time; we landed almost half an hour ahead of schedule.
This time he was 30 minutes early, waiting for me. When I got to the baggage claim, he was already there.
He hugged me, hard.
Maria Moy is a freelance writer and Web content strategist.