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L.A. Affairs: She turned me down because she wanted me to ask her out again

An illustration of an arrow aiming for a heart, atop a piano.
Music brought us together. Misunderstanding drove us apart.
(Magda Azab / For The Times)

I was a single parent with a 10-year-old daughter. Living in Los Feliz, I was working at a downtown law firm and teaching at a college in the San Fernando Valley — 35,000 miles of driving a year. Part of my overloaded routine was a weekly trip to the West Valley to take my daughter to piano lessons. It was inconvenient, but music has always been essential to my family. I felt like I had no choice. My candle was broken in two, and four ends were lit.

The highly recommended studio was run by an amicably divorced couple, who would switch off as teachers. They had a 6-year-old daughter with perfect pitch. Serious musicians. Since I had to wait for my daughter anyway, I started lessons myself, reviving a childhood devotion to the piano. One teacher, Susanne, a gifted musician of understated beauty, became my occasional instructor and my instant crush. After a few sessions I got up the nerve to ask her out to a chamber music performance at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, sometimes called the “Carnegie Hall of the West.” It was one of my favorite venues for first dates. It never let me down.

She accepted.

The new book -- due out in time for Valentine’s Day 2021 -- will feature our favorite tales of searching for love in Southern California, curated from the beloved L.A. Affairs column.

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The night before our date she called me and canceled, saying she “didn’t think it was a good idea.”

Massively disappointed, I kept my cool: “Sure, I get it. You’re my daughter’s teacher, and that’s the way it should stay.”

I kept taking my daughter to the studio, and I would see Susanne regularly, but I was resigned that I had struck out. The competition was heavy, I thought, and she was in a league of her own. But I began taking my lessons from her ex, who was also a talented teacher.

About four years later, I arrived at the studio one day and noticed Susanne was sporting what appeared to be a diamond engagement ring on her left hand. I felt crushed. But I politely asked, “So when is the big day?” “Oh, no,” she said, explaining it was a fake. “I just wear this to keep the wolves away.”

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Becoming a single mom by choice seemed insane: I was a public schoolteacher, not a lawyer. I didn’t even have paid maternity leave. How could I afford daycare, diapers and doctor’s appointments? I expected people to think I was crazy, but they were supportive.

I was confused. Did this compute? Why would somebody use a ring as a defense and then give it away? She’d already rejected me. So was this light now green or still red? Or was I just in some other category of harmless losers? I couldn’t resist the opportunity. After a little more chatting I mentioned an upcoming show — Marilyn Horne — and said, “Let’s go to the recital at the Ambassador.”

She accepted.

She told me to pick her up at her family’s bakery business in North Hollywood. See you there, I said. To myself, I thought, “Hmm. She didn’t want me to pick her up at her house.”

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We had been dating for three years when he finally told me he didn’t believe in the institution of marriage. “Why do women always want marriage?” he said.

So there I was at the Swiss Bakery at Van Nuys and Ventura boulevards at the appointed date and time. But Susanne was not. Her mother, Heidi, greeted me warmly and explained that Susanne was having car trouble.

So I waited. And waited. And I wondered what was going on.

Then I heard Heidi talking in hushed tones on the phone: “He’s a very nice man. Now you get down here right away.” A few minutes later, Susanne appeared. We went to the recital. Walking back to the car after the concert, we broke the ice with our first kiss. (Thank you, Marilyn Horne.)

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Later, she caught me off guard when she turned to me and said, “Why didn’t you ever ask me out again?”

What?

She wanted to know why I’d never asked her out again after our first date plans fizzled. I told her it was one thing to be turned down with “too busy” excuses, as it leaves a door open. But to have someone accept and then cancel because she “doesn’t think it’s a good idea” has finality written all over it.

I told her I thought I was being respectful of her considered decision rather than badgering her and jeopardizing my daughter’s music classes.

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That’s when she told me what had really happened that night: She had been visiting a friend who was a well-known movie score composer. Susanne had grown up sheltered in a close-knit family, and the little dating experience she did have ended badly. This “friend” told her she was too easily dominated by men, and when she mentioned her upcoming date with me, he urged her to “take control” and cancel the date to show herself that she was in charge of her relationships.

So she did, not realizing she would be taken at her word when she said she didn’t think it was a good idea.

“I didn’t think you’d just give up,” she told me.

How could I have been so stupid? My relationships in those intervening years had flared like newspaper in a fireplace and quickly turned to smoldering wisps of ash. Yet here, years ago, I had betrayed myself with moderation and good manners. Meanwhile Susanne had gone through her own share of tumultuous relationships, turning down five proposals of marriage in the year before we got together. (Which explains why the fake ring came in handy.)

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I spent every moment I could with Susanne in the next few weeks.

Two months later I proposed over an extravagant dinner at Rive Gauche in Sherman Oaks.

She accepted.

Six months after our first date, we were married. My brother was my best man. When he stood to make a toast, he told the crowd: “Tom and Susanne didn’t meet at a bar or on a double date. They were brought together by their love of music. But they almost lost it by a comedy of misunderstanding.”

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And then he told this story.

The author is a trial lawyer and amateur pianist in Los Angeles. Tom and Susanne have been married for 34 years. Their blended family includes seven children and three grandchildren.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here.


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