Like so many romances in this town, ours started at the gym.
I’d like to revise history and tell you that I was wearing one of those sleeveless T-shirts because my Rottweiler-like biceps refused to be chained and that I confidently walked up to this struggling damsel in distressed cotton and offered to help her load 45-pound plates onto the leg press.
I’d like to say that she was so smitten, so taken by my outdated chivalry and in-fashion muscles that she grabbed my cell, entered her number and begged me to meet her for a protein shake.
That is not what happened, except for the part about meeting at the gym, an independent place carved out of an old Art Deco movie house in Belmont Shore. As was common for me in those days, I was actually standing around, talking with a friend and not working out anything more than my voice. And I am sure that I haven’t owned a shirt without sleeves since junior high.
As I chatted beneath the pounding second-story cardio room, she quickly crossed into view. My friend introduced us.
“John, do you know Robin?” he asked. “You’re both journalists.”
We had never met, but we knew each other’s bylines. I wrote for the Long Beach paper, she for a travel magazine. I suggested that I do a piece on Long Beach for her magazine and she, acting generously, said that was a good idea.
In truth, I wanted to ask her out rather than write for her. But instead of getting her number, I allowed her to flee up the stairs to the exercise bikes.
Though I managed to ask strangers difficult questions for a living, I struggled with shyness in my private life. Many of my dates up until that point had made the first move.
My extroverted pal offered to help. He trotted upstairs, handed Robin my business card and told her, “He’s interested.”
“Oh, good,” she said.
I would learn later that Robin thought I was interested in freelancing — not dating.
I waited to hear from her, but didn’t. When I bumped into her she always seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere else.
I saw her once at a Laundromat in Belmont Heights, but I was there with a female friend, and Robin incorrectly (but understandably) assumed that we were sharing more than dryer sheets and quarter rolls. I saw Robin once more, at a Coffee Bean, and we talked for a few exciting minutes about a column I wrote for the paper before she dashed off, clearly disinterested.
Then 9/11 happened, and we kind of lost touch. I experienced a short but painful series of dating disasters. My friends were getting married, and I seemed to be going the other way, each new date progressively less appropriate for me than the last. Frustrated and 30, I vowed never to settle for what came my way again. I would be as assertive about love as I was about reporting.
Robin immediately came to mind as the kind of person the new, courageous me would ask out. I managed to get her email address and suggested coffee. She raised my ante, suggesting drinks instead.
We arranged to meet on a Sunday, and I was feeling newly confident about having shown some initiative. But the night before, I received an email from her saying she had just returned home from a trip to San Francisco and was too sick to go out.
I figured this was an excuse and didn’t ask to reschedule.
Then that mutual friend of ours intervened, asking us to judge, of all things, a beach-side dog contest in the style of “Stupid Pet Tricks” that he was hosting for an animal charity.
After we named the winning pooches, we walked barefoot across the sand (enter requisite dating cliché and wordplay: long walk on the beach in, well, Long Beach) to a brewery at the base of the Belmont Pier. We immediately connected, talking much about our Southern California childhoods, hers in Palos Verdes, mine in Santa Monica, and our decisions to pursue careers that, let’s face it, rarely lead to home ownership in either city.
Drinks turned into dinner at Café LaStrada, an Italian restaurant with French doors that swing open onto 2nd Street, Belmont Shore’s main drag. Dinner turned into a kiss (please don’t ask who initiated it) in front of a neighbor’s picket fence, which I remember because I poked my hand while trying to steady myself. A kiss turned into a commitment and then a wintertime engagement on a cement park bench — nicer than it sounds — on Naples Island overlooking Alamitos Bay.
Engagement turned into marriage. Marriage turned into an upside-down mortgage, a right-side-up daughter, PTA meetings, homework, soccer games, pizza parties and SUVs.
Together for 10 years now, we still go to that same gym on the weekends. I am in far better shape married than single, probably because I don’t stand around the gym talking, but nevertheless you still wouldn’t want to see me in anything sleeveless.
John Canalis is a community news editor in Orange County