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L.A. Affairs: I really couldn’t have asked for a better first date

Bonding on a bench in Elysian Park.

Bonding on a bench in Elysian Park.

(Anthony Russo / For The Times)

He took me to a park bench on our first date.

That September night I was doing dishes after a community dinner and he pulled me aside. “Can you get away for a while? I want to show you something special.” I was living the social worker life at a shelter for homeless people in Boyle Heights. César and I had met just the previous Saturday when he volunteered at a soup kitchen on skid row where I was making big vats of lentil soup.

My “Yeah, sure,” that night was the first of many that most of my girlfriends would have had second thoughts about. I didn’t. He was polite, earnest, easy to talk to, nice on the eyes and my gut was telling me to go for it.

We got in his truck, drove into hills of darkness and winding roads. “This is Elysian Park. I spent a lot of time here growing up,” he told me. There was a note of pride in his voice. Sincerity too. We parked and walked dirt paths through eucalyptus and pines. We swapped stories of how I ended up in L.A. and how he’d lived in “the neighborhood” since he was 7. Suddenly, the way opened up before us. A peak in the distance dotted with palm trees, a valley of nature and there spread out before us, the magical lights of the downtown L.A. skyline.

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Past L.A. Affairs columns

He could tell I was impressed as we sat down on a lone bench. I was impressed with him as much as the view. I’d grown up near the Rocky Mountains so I’d seen lots of pretty vistas and this one went straight to the top of my list. Originally I’d moved to L.A. for the ocean, but as it turned out, the sprawling city drew me in. I relished the diversity, the multiethnic cultures, music and foods. That night I discovered that a love of Los Angeles was something we had in common. The setting and the feeling were right so that bench became our first-kiss bench too.

On our second date, we walked Griffith Park. With his four dogs. Then we had pizza with jalapeños back at his house in Echo Park that he shared with his mother and sister. His mother spoke little English and I spoke little Spanish but we managed.

Talk about diving right in.

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We both liked the thrill of adventure. We liked change and we liked talking about things that mattered. He was into philosophy and books and I wanted to write stories for children. He’d studied Hebrew for six months in Israel and I loved to travel.

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There was no Facebook or social media involved.

It was simply our good luck that we were at that time and place and awake enough to pay attention. Our lives intersect with lots of people every day. In a crowded city like L.A. it’s easy to be anonymous, lost or alone. It’s up to us to decide who to strike up a conversation with, who to take a second look at, and when to say “yes.”

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I continued to say yes even as I learned more about him. His immigrant mother worked in a clothing factory and had raised two kids alone. His family was riddled with alcoholics and abuse. Gangs pressured him to join throughout middle and high school. He dropped out of college and joined the Marines before finally making it back to finish his education.

I can’t explain why I didn’t run. Why I grabbed him with both hands and held on.

“Will you marry me?” he asked as we kissed one night in his truck. “Will you marry me?” I answered.

None of my friends or family could believe it. My best friend and I were in line in a women’s restroom when I broke the news. She screamed like we were teenagers instead of 27. “But you’ve only just met him!” were the first words she said.

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There was silence on the phone when I called my parents in Colorado to share the news. After all, I’d only mentioned him once or twice in our conversations. “Honey, are you sure?” they finally asked.

Once we made up our mind, there was no looking back.

Our first-date, first-kiss bench is still there and one of our favorite places to visit. Our children have played on it; our dogs have run around it. We’ve enjoyed the view at all times of the day and evening since. The memories for us are so strong it’s as if they’ve seeped into the bench itself. Molded atoms of memory with atoms of wood, fiberglass, earth, plants and trees, all surrounded by the bustling, cosmopolitan city of L.A. that we love.

I really couldn’t have asked for a better first date.

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Michele Wolfe is the author of the novel “The Three Graces.” Her website is authormichelewolfe.com.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the current dating scene in and around Los Angeles. We pay $300 per column. If you have comments or a true story to tell, email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com.

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