I met Paul through the Southern California Mountaineers Assn. We became buddies over rock climbing trips to Joshua Tree, Lake Perris and Malibu’s Point Dume. When Paul’s girlfriend moved out, I felt sorry for him.
Then, my partner of nine years told me we were done.
So Paul and I were newly single, rusty at flirting, and awkward as seventh graders. After nearly a decade away from the dating scene, I was like a baby giraffe on roller skates when it came to romance.
Our first unofficial date was a Halloween party in the San Fernando Valley. (I was limping from a fall during a climbing trip to Suicide Rocks, where I’d tried to impress Paul with my rock climbing skills and ended up on my butt at his feet.)
He picked me up in an ’80s rocker getup, including a Richie Sambora wig, and opened his passenger door for me. Climbing in proved awkward with the mini skirt of my court jester costume.
Jittery at being alone with him, I tried to make conversation and asked, “Is this too short? Can you see anything?” He tilted his head like a confused dog — uncertain of where the stick went and whether he’s supposed to chase it.
While I didn’t mind the physical exposure of looking out from a 600-foot-high ledge while climbing with Paul, exposing my feelings in a potential relationship was terrifying.
Then my parents came into town from Massachusetts. As I took them to church services with me that Sunday at the Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes, I warned them to be cool. (My dad looks for any opportunity to imitate Pavarotti, and my mom tears up at religious music.)
As I sat between them, I found myself daydreaming about Paul. I felt like I could even smell his cologne. That was weird, right? Thank God he couldn’t see the purple floral dress I’d worn that morning to please my mother. It was a very conservative, New England-ish sort of sack my grandmother bought for me, not something the hip L.A. woman I was trying to be would wear.
Then the final hymn ended and people turned to finally get a look at who was doing all that singing (my dad) and to stare at my mom’s mascara-tracked face.
As I tried to hustle them out of the pews, we nearly crashed into … Paul. He also was trying to scramble out of the church before we saw him.
He’d been sitting behind us the whole time.
After an awkward, overlapping exchange, I blushed to match my dress, made a quick introduction to my parents, and then did what any normal 37-year-old would do: I panicked, blurted, “Well … nice to see you!” and ran for the car.
The problem was: I really liked him.
A few weeks later when I ran into Paul at L.A.'s Rockreation climbing gym, I expressed regret for my immaturity at the church by flirting so hard that even the manager rolled his eyes. Paul suggested dinner that night at P.F. Chang’s. We made it through to dessert where my fortune cookie read, “The project you have in mind will soon gain momentum.”
He walked me to the car that night and asked if he could get in and talk. Here it comes, I thought, and braced myself for the “just friends” speech.
“Well, you probably know by now that I like you,” he said. “But I’m not sure if you feel the same.”
“I’d like to start dating but it could get awkward with our friends if it goes sideways,” he continued. “If it doesn’t work out,” he said, he’d agree to be the one to step away from the friend circle to make things easier on me.
I sat still as a bunny rabbit caught by a motion-sensor light.
“Could you say something?” Paul said. “I feel like it’s half-time of the Laker game, and I’m standing naked at center court.”
It all came pouring out. I stammered that I liked him too. (He confessed that he hadn’t just coincidentally been at church; he had gone hoping to casually run into me, and then tried to make a getaway when he realized I was with my parents.)
We had a few more awkward moments together in our early days of dating.
Like our botched first kiss.
We went to dinner at Native Foods in Westwood, and as we walked back to his car I was nervously babbling about the tasty tempeh Reuben sandwich when he tried to kiss me. I thought he was gallantly opening the door of his pickup, not leaning in with his lips. I jumped back and shrieked as if he’d thrown hot coffee at me.
A week later he kissed me for real on the balcony of my apartment as the palm fronds rustled and my nosy flight-attendant neighbor spied on us.
We played mini-golf at the One Putt in Hawthorne, made out under a lifeguard tower in Manhattan Beach, and slowly I got past my self-consciousness.
I had actually put my life in Paul’s hands dozens of times on the rocks. Didn’t it just make sense to trust him, and myself?
A little over a year later, we married at Wayfarers Chapel. But I wasn’t able to enjoy the Champagne. I was already pregnant with twins.
For the past 17 years we’ve celebrated the anniversary of “the Laker Game dinner” with a date at P.F. Chang’s. We express gratitude for our relationship, and also for our awkward phase being behind us.
The message in my most recent cookie? “Sing and rejoice, fortune is smiling on you.”
The author is a freelance writer. Her website is ellennordberg.com
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