I am running errands on a rare free afternoon when I drive past the restaurant Little Door on 3rd Street and surprise myself by having an anxiety attack, pronounced enough that I have to pull over. I can't get a good breath. My hands are so sweaty they slip on the steering wheel.
I was last here a decade ago with my boyfriend at the time. We were together for six years, and for most of those years I felt like a disheveled beauty queen, my sash out of whack, Vaseline smeared on my teeth, trying so hard to win his love. He loved me just enough to keep me coming back for more.
We had met in the middle of college. After graduation, it was mostly long distance.
The few times he came to L.A., I planned for his visits and chose the most romantic restaurants. At the time, that meant Little Door, the McCormick & Schmick's on top of Via Rodeo in Beverly Hills and Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica — strategic choices, in hopes that each place might conjure the necessary feelings in him to commit fully to me. To finally pick me. As if ambience and spectacular lighting could do such a thing.
A day of hiking Runyon Canyon was the talent portion of the competition, where I had fantasized that my athletic ability alone might be enough to make him get down on one knee. (It did not.) But under the twinkling white lights strung through the lattices at Little Door, he had raised his glass for a toast and leaned across the table and kissed me, one of those great Hollywood kisses.
We spent the next day at the beach playing in the sand. For the swimsuit portion, I wore my most flattering bikini, then we cleaned up and went to the Ivy. Maybe it was the vitamin D from the sun or the salty beach air or my then-rockin' swimsuit bod or the restaurant's gimlets, but he seemed breezy, magically more in love as we sat on the same side of the booth. He said he was interested in "maybe even moving here."
But atop Via Rodeo the following night, his last in town, reality set in.
"I love you," he said, "but I don't think I want to be with you forever."
And there I was, weeping over my grilled salmon, unable to eat. I asked why a few times, fully aware that I was dancing on the line between asking and begging. He shook his head, said he wasn't sure why.
"Liar," I said, masochist that I was. "You know, you're just afraid to tell me."
He never told me. Whether he actually knew or not, it didn't matter.
That was the last time I saw him. It took almost a year to heal.
I finally went on a few first dates and a couple of second dates, but mostly I just took care of myself. In therapy I tried to ascertain why I stayed with him for so long, why I had such a malleable sense of self, why I was so willing to become the person I thought he wanted.
In true, watched-pot-never-boils fashion, I met my future husband on a TV show we both worked on. We became the best of friends. One day, under the unforgiving fluorescent lights of the Fox lot cafeteria, over sloppy joes, I realized this love wasn't work. It was easy. No contest.
Driving past Little Door was no problem for a very long time. I forgot about my past hurt. But then my husband and I had two baby girls.
And now I'm parked in front of the restaurant, having an anxiety attack. My heart aches. Why? I'm not pining for the past but, rather, worrying about the future: I can see my daughters sitting in this restaurant 20 years from now, trying but failing to win the love of a person who's not ready, or not nice, or not right for them.
I imagine my daughters crying the way I cried for my ex-boyfriend — a whole body cry. I never, ever want my daughters to hurt like that. And yet my joyful girls, with their enormous eyes and unfurrowed brows, will someday have tears staining their soft, sweet cheeks over a broken heart or from being runner-up. There's little I can do about it.
The other day, my older daughter stood in our yard, staring up at the big blue sky, and she threw open her arms as wide as she could, then brought them to her chest.
"Hug!" she said.
She was hugging the sky. I wanted to lift her up to help her reach it.