I preferred thick-crust pizza and ending my meals on a sweet note — not flushing down a gluten-free dinner with a green tea smoothie. After making a new home in Southern California, I felt inferior, with all the healthful food choices here and the effort people put into buying organic.
When I first arrived, I met a guy who lived for ocean-view golf courses as much as I lived for daily jogs, and we connected through our shared love of fitness. One night he brought over soy cheese pizza. I asked him, “What in our history together would make you ever think I would eat something with ‘soy’ in the name?”
“Just try it,” he said, putting a piece on my plate.
It wasn’t palatable.
Then at a birthday party, I met Jesse. He smelled like musk cologne and was part Hawaiian, with black hair, tanned skin and sparkling emerald eyes. After we were introduced, he brought me a hefty slice of cake — without making a derogatory remark about the processed sugar it contained or chiding me for licking the frosting off the fork.
On our first date, he arrived freshly shaved in a green shirt that matched his eyes. He smelled like cinnamon rolls, which he said he had been baking with his sister. My opinion of him rose even higher. Close ties with a sibling and baking prowess? Yes, please.
As we strolled out to his truck, I noticed it had a “Semper fi” sticker on the bumper — “Always faithful,” the motto of the Marine Corps. “You were in the military?” I asked, feeling ashamed I hadn’t asked him more questions. I was shy around strangers, especially ones who made my hands sweat and my heart pump louder.
Jesse nodded. “Yep, and not ‘were.’ I am in the military.”
He took me to a Hawaiian restaurant, one he had chosen to share part of his heritage with me. He seemed open, self-aware and vulnerable — traits I hadn’t found before in a man. He ordered for me, picking menu items with sweet flavors for my sweet palate.
“How long have you been in the military?” I asked.
“Since I was 18. I could have left a long time ago, but I decided to make it a career. I really enjoy it. I enjoy the camaraderie, serving my country, following in my father’s footsteps. He served as well.”
“Where are you stationed?”
“In San Diego — for the moment.” Jesse stirred his mai tai and looked pensive.
I decided to press further. “What do you mean ‘for the moment’? Are you going somewhere?”
Jesse nodded, staring at his drink. “I’m going on tour to the Middle East again.”
I remember pushing my plate away as my appetite disappeared when Jesse told me he was leaving the next day. He was serving the country and putting himself into danger to protect me and millions of others, yet all I could think of was how Jesse would fall out of my life as fast as he had fallen into it.
After he left, rather than feel sorry for myself, I decided to spend my free time serving others to mirror Jesse’s actions. It wasn’t the same as serving in a combat zone on the other side of the world, but it was something.
I woke up early Saturday mornings and walked downtown streets, inviting the homeless to dinners at local rescue shelters, buying them coffee and bringing pet treats to their four-legged street companions. I donated clothes to a Los Angeles women’s shelter and volunteered afternoons to set up their holiday parties. Although Jesse wasn’t in my life physically, I felt his presence in my actions.
Jesse and I kept in touch sporadically and managed to have another date via our laptops, during which we virtually “shared” dessert.
Then one night when I was at a party, I felt a tap on my shoulder. As fireworks boomed in the distance, I turned, and there was Jesse. I dropped the plate of cookies I was holding, for the first time not caring about a dessert casualty or the five-second rule. I had expected him back in a month, but friends had planned this encounter and managed to keep it a surprise.
I looked at him and blushed. Eight months had passed since I had last seen him, and the chemistry felt stronger.
After studying his face, I thanked him for his service and for changing me. I no longer felt like a stranger in Southern California, as charity work had provided me with an unexpected sense of community and connection to my new home. And none of the homeless people I served fretted over calorie counts or fat grams in the food I offered. They simply were grateful to receive it.
Jesse and I dated but are no longer together, and I’m OK with that. He left me not with a broken heart but with a stronger heart.
Purdie is a freelance writer who splits her time between San Diego and Los Angeles.