The first time I ran
into Dennis after the infamous non-wedding, I was wearing
a coffee-stained tank top, no make-up, and baggy red track
pants that made my ass look as big as Montana. I ordered a
double espresso, collected my change, turned around to
grab a napkin, and lo and behold, there was the man who’d
“needed to talk” after our rehearsal dinner six months
I should have known
this day was coming. UCLA is a big campus, but the medical
plaza is a small world.
It was not good. We
gaped at each other, both of us mute and rooted to the
sun-bleached concrete. His gaze slid away from mine, so I
focused on the small blue name tag pinned to his white
coat: Dr. D. Schell. We were standing, fittingly, in The
Bomb Shelter, which is the café adjacent to the med
The silence between us
stretched into eons. Stars flared up and extinguished in
the heavens. Species evolved and died out. It became
tragically apparent that the Big One was not going to hit
right now, swallow me up into the San Andreas fault, and
save me from the raw humiliation of this moment. I had to
say something. Anything.
Lisa?” Those are the words that actually came out of my
He startled when I said
her name. “She’s good. She’s…you know.”
I nodded at his left
hand, which, although tan and sprinkled with thin dark
hair, remained ringless. “Still not married?”
“No.” He scuffed at the
“Good to know. And
actually, as long as we’re on the subject, I still have a
few bills I could use some help with. As you know.” I
smiled at him, sweetly. The expression on his face
suggested that I had sprouted pointy, glistening fangs.
“The photographer, mostly. The engagement ring paid for
the band and the catering, and I sold the bridesmaids’
gowns on eBay, but I took a loss, so…”
He flinched. Couldn’t
bear to think of my platinum-set Tiffany diamond ring
sparkling away in some second-rate West Hollywood jewelry
shop. Poor baby.
He cleared his throat,
pulled his Palm Pilot out of his pocket and commenced
poking at it with the plastic stylus. One of his nervous
little tics. That and pulling on his earlobe. “I want to
help out with that stuff. I kept meaning to call you,
“Lisa.” I nodded
briskly. “I know.”
“Listen.” He finally
raised his gaze, up to about my chin, as he gestured to
the café counter. “Can I buy you something?”
” I planted my hands on my drawstring pant waist. “Chai?
Latte? No thanks. You’ve done enough. Just pony up ten
thousand bucks and we’ll call it even.”
His big brown eyes were
those of a puppy cowering in the face of a rolled-up
newspaper. “I deserve that. I know. Listen, Gwen, I never
But I was already
walking away. Strutting my stuff in red track pants and a
messy ponytail, trying to make an imperious Miss Thang
exit before I burst into tears. Which I did, approximately
four minutes later, when I reached the campus botanical
gardens and caught sight of the quaint little
mission-style chapel across the street. A bride and groom
were posing for photographs on the church lawn.
Late Friday afternoon
was an odd time for a wedding, but sometimes the church
and reception site were cheaper if you were willing to
book a Sunday or a Friday. Just another fun fact I’d
amassed on my long, meandering, and ultimately aborted
trip down the aisle.
was tiny, disappearing in swaths of white lace that I
recognized from the Modern Bride special issue on Vera
Wang. The groom was tall, lanky, a little goofy. Both of
them looked stunned in the afternoon sunlight filtering
through green leaves. Shocked by the final fruition of all
those months of strategizing and bickering over
centerpiece ideas. They were married, for better or for
worse. Off with the wedding gown and on with the rest of
I sat down
right there on the sidewalk, rummaged through my bag until
I unearthed my cell phone, and speed dialed my roommate
(and would-be maid of honor) Cesca. At times like this, a
girl needed to hear someone say things like “When he asked
about the ring, what you should have said was,
‘Pawned it. Went to Hawaii and slept with a cabana boy.’”
What a girl
did not need was to discover that she had forgotten
to recharge her cell phone last night, and that she
consequently had no battery power left.
was the justice? I was already pinballing around rock
bottom. Literally kicked to the curb with no dignity and
no Kleenex. Were a few ions of Nokia lithium really too
much to ask?
I swiped at
my eyes with the back of my arm and checked my watch. I
had fifteen minutes until my meeting with my research
adviser, who, much like a pit bull, would lunge for my
jugular at the first sign of fear or weakness. I needed to
talk to Cesca. Now.
“Come on.” I
punched the phone’s power button one more time, praying
for any sign of life. A little flashing red light.
beeped angrily and gave me the technological equivalent of
the finger--the “please charge battery” message. Then the
illuminated screen went blank.
I pressed the power button again. Nothing.
black limo pulled up across the street. The Vera Wang
brigade piled in amid a flurry of tulle. Guests streamed
toward the parking lot, no doubt headed to a gala
reception with champagne fountains and ice sculptures,
where the groom would manfully blink back tears while
toasting his new wife.
even get thirty seconds from Verizon.
So I did the
only thing left to do. I hurled my cell phone into the
middle of Le Conte Avenue, where it was promptly run over
by a forest green Saab. The driver, a blonde beach bunny
with dark sunglasses, honked her horn and flung her
cigarette butt at me as she vroomed away.
The time had
come to take a minute and ask myself: what had I become?
night of my (unnecessary, as it turned out) rehearsal
dinner, I had turned into the kind of woman who commits
phonicide and willfully creates road hazards just because
she sees a glowing, happy couple who apparently registered
at Good Karma, Inc.
truly horrible part was, I missed him. He had lied to me,
cheated on me, and humiliated me in front of a rented
reception hall’s worth of friends and family, but I missed
him anyway, and I could never admit it.
to God, Gwen, if a guy ever did that to me I would cut off
his penis. And then FedEx it to his new girlfriend.”
That’s what Cesca had said, and she had a point. Part of
me knew that he didn’t even deserve my chilly
courtesy—that what he in fact deserved was to have
his nether regions severed, sealed, and delivered–but
another part of me was still holding on to what we’d had:
the sunny Sunday mornings brunching at Gladstone’s while
watching the tide roll in. The post-sex, late-evening
showers we took together, dueting “Summer Lovin’” at the
top of our lungs. The safe, even spaces between his
breaths when he slept.
We had been in love,
least, I had.
But now “we”
had been reduced to me, the dead cell phone, and the limo
tracks of another couple’s dream wedding.
footsteps on the pavement behind me as a long, dark shadow
engulfed my little patch of sidewalk. I craned my neck
around to see who had witnessed my curbside meltdown.
Praying—to God, Buddah, Gaia, anyone who might listen—that
Dennis hadn’t followed me out here.
Wincing, I forced
myself to look up from the ground. My eyes skimmed over
khaki pants, a blue button-down shirt, and the face of a
man I’d never seen before. Mid-thirties, with dark hair
and dark eyes. He seemed concerned.
“You look like you need
to borrow a cell phone.” His voice sounded all deep and
East Coast. The kind of guy who’d been on the crew team at
I blinked up at him,
hoping we could both ignore the fact that my eyes were red
and puffy. “What?”
“Do you need to make a
call?” He offered up a silver Motorola with one hand, but
his eyes never left my face.
really.” I started tucking strands of hair behind my ears.
“There’s no emergency or anything. I just wanted to call
my roommate. To…tell her something.”
Why wasn’t anyone chiseling this down in stone?
problem?” He reached out and helped me to my feet. His
grip felt warm and steady, but not too tight. Obviously,
he was practiced at making people feel comfortable and
secure. I wondered if he was a doctor, like Dennis.
kind of a long story.” I hitched up my track pants and
pasted on a smile.
He continued to stare,
and I was feeling less comfortable and secure by the
second. Finally, he nodded and said, “You’re Gwen, right?
I took two giant steps
back and shaded my eyes with my hand. No matter how I
squinted, this guy’s face did not ring any bells. “Gwen
Already my eyes were
darting around, trying to find the best escape route. Had
I been dumped by my physician fiancé only to be slain by a
stalker from Banana Republic?
at my expression. “Don’t worry. We haven’t met, but I
recognize you. I saw you in your office when I visited the
mental health clinic.”
This did not go a long
way toward calming me down.
He laughed again, and
the corners of his eyes crinkled up. His skin looked tan
and a bit weathered. Probably from all that yachting down
at the asylum.
“I’m Alex Coughlin.” He
offered his hand. “I’m the new trustee on the children’s
clinic board. Dr. Cortez showed me around the new building
this morning, and he took me by your office. We just
peeked in, but I remember you. Dr. Cortez said you were
one of his best new therapy interns.”
“Well, I try. When I’m
not having meltdowns in front of the new trustees.” I
He smiled. “Don’t worry
about it. I know how much pressure graduate school can
“Oh yeah? What fancy
degrees do you have slapped up on your wall?” I sized him
up and took a guess. “M.B.A.?”
He blinked. “Maybe.”
“How do you know I’m
not some nice anthropologist who just happened to wander
into the medical plaza?”
I nodded at his wrist.
“Anthropologists don’t wear Patek Philippe watches. And
all that brushed twill--it’s a dead giveaway.”
psychologists have quite the eye for detail. All right, I
admit it--I’m a preppy M.B.A. who wears an ostentatious
watch.” He turned both palms outward. “What can I say? It
was a gift from my mother, and it does keep good time.”
I willed my
puffy eyes to deflate. I hadn’t worked up the nerve to
flirt with anyone in the six months since Dennis had
dumped me. But maybe it was time to dive back in the
dating pool. Maybe all was not lost. Maybe, just maybe, I
wouldn’t have to grow old alone in Los Angeles just
because I was an academic with a head for useless facts
instead of a serene Modern Bride or a Britney Spears
back at him, feeling attractive for the first time in
glanced at the ostentatious watch. “Oh my God. Is it
really five o’clock? I’m late for a meeting with Dr.
for a second. “I just came from a meeting with him myself,
so if you’d like, I could call and tell him you’re showing
me around the campus. We could go grab a cup of coffee.”
shot up. “Are you asking me for a date?”
I guess I am.”
I looked at him, and
then I looked at the chapel and the cell phone lying
disemboweled on the pavement and shrugged. “Okay. Why
“Such enthusiasm.” He
followed my gaze to the Great Nokia Massacre of 2005. “You
want to tell me why that cell phone had to die so young?”
“I might as well. You
should know what you’re getting into.” I lowered my voice
to a whisper. “That—I’m
sorry, what was your name again?”
“That, Alex, is
what eight months of wedding planning leads to.”
He looked confused.
“But you’re not married?”
“Nope. I was all
wedding, no marriage. I learned my lesson.”
“Got it.” He nodded.
“Well, I don’t know about weddings, but I always thought
it’d be nice to settle down, move out to a ranch in
Colorado, have a big bunch of kids, and live happily ever
sounds great, too,” I assured him. But inside, I was like,
Good luck with those catering bills, suckah.
Yes, right from the
beginning, the big red flags were there.
As we strolled two
blocks over to Café Chou on Wilshire Boulevard, Alex
called my adviser and told Dr. Cortez I was graciously
providing a “walking tour of the campus facilities.”
Shiny, late-model Boxsters and BMWs whizzed by on their
way to Bel Air and Beverly Hills. I examined the fractured
pieces of plastic and metal that had once been my cell
phone and wished, not for the first time, that I could add
a little impulse control to my life.
“Okay.” He snapped his
own phone shut and grinned at me. “He bought it. We are
officially playing hooky.”
I closed my eyes and
turned my face up to the golden sun. “How can something so
wrong feel so right?”
“So you’re that kind of
girl.” He opened the glass door to the coffee shop and
ushered me into frigid, mocha-scented air-conditioning. “Fiesty.”
“That’s one word for
He ordered a
large coffee, black. I opted for herbal tea, as my system
clearly did not need any more stimulants of any kind. We
waited through a long, awkward pause at the counter while
the server prepared our drinks, then found our way to a
table by the café’s front window, where he shook his head
at my phone and tossed it into the trash bin.
I need that!” I protested. “I mean, I know I should have
thought of that before I chucked it in the street, but I
could still fix it…maybe.” The truth of the matter was
that I couldn’t afford a new phone, but he didn’t
need to know that I lived off a meager fellowship and a
lot of boxes of orange macaroni and cheese.
He raised one eyebrow.
“God himself couldn’t fix that thing. So who is
this guy who drove you to such senseless violence?”
“Oh, let’s not go down
that road.” I tried to avoid broaching this subject with
strangers, as I tended to go off on long, frothy-mouthed,
spirally eyed rants.
“We’re going down that
road. Drink your tea and start talking.”
I flushed. “Let’s just
say that he was not worthy of the many hysterical
breakdowns I had over whether the wedding invitations
should be white or ecru.”
shook his head, his eyes bright and intense. “How can
planning a wedding be that bad? What’s to do? Call a few
churches, buy a few cases of booze, end of story.”
I sipped my tea. “The bride needs a few cases of booze
before she even gets to the bachelorette party. You have
no idea. Guest lists, church decorations--”
“Come on. Church
decorations? Buy a few rolls of crepe paper, some duct
tape, problem solved.” His smile was so disarming that I
forgot I was bitter for a second and smiled back. “I don’t
see the need for hard liquor yet.”
“And then there’s the
dress.” I covered my eyes and shuddered. “First fitting,
second fitting, final fitting…”
“Yeah. You know,
so the bodice stays on and the hem is short enough that
you don’t trip.”
“Well, just buy
some extra duct tape and you’re good to go.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Of course. I can’t believe seamstresses all over America
are letting their most precious resource go to waste on
“I’m serious.” He
feigned great earnestness and masculine consternation.
Honestly. What would Emily Post say?”
“She’s dead. She
doesn’t get a say.”
I’ve seen the dark side of ‘I do,’ and it is ‘I don’t.’
Uttered the night before the ceremony, when the erstwhile
groom decides that his true destiny lies with his
ex-girlfriend, a massage therapist who makes popcorn
mosaics on the side.” I waved my spoon for emphasis.
looked skeptical. “Popcorn mosaics?”
“With shellac and
spray paint and stuff. Apparently, it’s her true artistic
medium? Pop Secret? Redenbacher? Does she have a corporate
sponsor?” His laughter was contagious. For the first time,
I was actually starting to appreciate the inherent
absurdity of the whole situation.
know, I don’t believe that ‘true art’ and ‘corporate
guess you’re right.” He rubbed the emerging stubble on his
chin. “To keep it real, she’d have to get a grant.”
“A few well-placed
patrons and she might be able to move on to her pasta
period and take the L.A. art world by storm.”
“Yeah. And then on
to rice, legumes—who knows what poignant sorrows lie
within the humble lima bean?”
“Okay, you wanna
hear my sad little story or not?”
He pretended to
debate this for a minute. “I’ll hear the sad little
gracious of you. Anyway, long story short, my ex
couldn’t resist the siren call of the his ex, and
by the time the dust settled—”
“Don’t you mean ‘the
“—the only thing I
needed duct tape for was to box the gifts back up and
return to sender.”
saluted me with his coffee cup. “And you still have your
sense of humor.”
We lost eye
“I’m over it,” I
agreed, lying through my teeth.
“You’re better off
I stared down at the speckled gold Formica tabletop, my
thoughts turning inexorably to the wedding dress still
moldering away in my closet. The bridal salon wouldn’t
take it back. Apparently, all Amsale gowns were final
sale, even if Dennis wasn’t.
Morning after morning,
as I selected the day’s ensemble, I was greeted by the
ivory silk reminder of my failure and disgrace.
Dennis had found bliss
with a “less complicated” woman, some other euphoric
bride-to-be would soon be flashing my pawned ring, and
still I hung on to the hand-beaded fabric that tied me to
a life I’d almost had. The life I’d wanted so badly that
I’d been blind in my faith and careless with my heart. The
life I’d wanted so badly that I’d--oh, God, the
shame--literally begged Dennis not to leave when he
said he was meant to be with Lisa.
On the sidewalk in
front of the rehearsal dinner restaurant, I’d sobbed that
my life could never be the same without him. And he had
cleared his throat and said: “I love you, Gwen, but I
Well, I’d been right about one thing. My life had never
been the same since that night.
I yanked myself back to
the date in progress and Café Chou and smiled at Alex in
what I hoped was a winsome manner. “Let’s talk about
something else. Like you, for instance. Let’s talk about
back in his chair. “Fair enough. What do you want to
do you do with your time when you’re not playing hooky in
the middle of the afternoon or stewarding the clinic?”
“Stewarding the clinic?”
what you do?”
“Technically, yes, but stewarding…it makes me sound
like I smoke a pipe and wear an ascot and I’ve got one
foot in the grave. I’m only thirty-five.”
“Okay, then, what do you do when you’re not, ahem,
charitably donating your time to the psychological
improvement of young minds?”
financial analyst and consultant.”
“That sounds really…um…”
laughed. “It’s not as dry as it sounds. I love the
challenge of turning around companies on the brink of
disaster. Kind of like bailing out the Titanic with
a hand bucket.”
“But how on
earth did you end up working with the clinic?”
tricked. One of my friends roped me into helping out on
the board of a children’s charity, and somehow I just got
sucked in deeper and deeper. And now I enjoy it.”
“Not really. It’s kind of a personal thing for me.”
Ah. I could
see where this was going. “You have children?”
question surprised him. “No. I’ve never even been
not, if duct tape is your idea of a pew decoration.”
got engaged once.” He seemed suddenly mesmerized by the bottom
of his coffee cup.
I pounced. “Almost?
his fingers on the table. “We went our separate ways
before I actually bought the ring.”
“No way are
you getting off that easy after I spilled my guts all over
this table. What happened?”
you know how it is with L.A. dating. She was beautiful, I
was a sucker for a pretty face, neither of us had any
common sense. One thing led to another and…we’re much
better off without each other. The end.”
“Alex.” I tossed a
sugar packet at him. “Come on. I got dumped for a
box of Jiffy Pop. You gotta give me something here.”
discussing this,” he said, hanging his head sheepishly.
I gave him a look.
his voice. He looked to the left. He looked to the right.
“The woman I was dating—Harmony—”
said. L.A. dating. She’s a soap opera actress, if that
tells you anything. I met her at a black-tie dinner for
one of the companies I worked with.” He leaned in closer.
“We were just different personalities.”
I nodded. “Which is the
polite way of saying she was as crazy as the day is long.”
He shrugged. “She was a
force of nature. A gorgeous, charismatic—and okay,
crazy—force of nature. I made the classic male mistake.”
“Not reading the
good looks get in the way of good judgment. I kept telling
myself that a woman that beautiful had to have some
redeeming qualities.” He was still communing with his
coffee mug. “I saw what I wanted to see, instead of who
she really was.”
He sounded quite reasonable and insightful. (For a man.) I
couldn’t decide if this meant he had unlimited romantic
potential or if, given that he had once dated a woman so
good-looking that people were willing to overlook her
full-blown psychoses, he was wholly out of my league and I
should just give up now.
The two of us huddled
together. The passersby on the other side of the plate
glass must have thought we were planning a heist.
“And? What happened?” I
He straightened up in
his seat. “I shouldn’t say any more than I already have.
It was a long time ago, and it’s not worth remembering.”
I nodded knowingly.
“Bad break up?”
“Only if you consider
finding another man’s sopping-wet boxers in your bathtub
‘bad.’ But on the bright side, I stopped being such an
idiot about dating.” He placed his mug back into the
saucer with a definitive, end-of-story clink. “So the
short answer to your question is, no, I’ve never been
married and therefore have no children.”
“But, you know, some
people don’t get married before they have kids,” I pointed
out. “Look at Calista Flockhart. Heidi Klum. Look at
The J. Crew smile
blinked on again. “We shouldn’t even get into this. I
don’t want to scare you more than I already have.”
I made a big production
out of bracing myself against the table with both hands.
“No, no—bring it on. I can take it.”
“Just remember, you
asked for it.” He met my eyes. “I’m old-fashioned. I’ve
always wanted to find the right woman and get married. Big
believer in two parents, family dinners, the whole
yeah. Ranch in Colorado and all.”
And he got that look on his face that guys get after they
watch too many McDonald’s commercials featuring precocious
blonde moppets playing catch with their dads. “All that
fresh air and room to run around. What a great place to
raise a family.”
I signaled the guy at the counter for another tea.
“Why Colorado? Did you grow up there?”
and bred in SoCal.”
“I don’t know. It just sounds nice—all the trees, the
fresh air, the slower pace…”
heard, of course, about the Colorado winters.”
I’ll teach the kids to ski, take them tobogganing.”
“How many kids?”
“Oh, five or so.”
ranch house is going to need a lot of square footage.”
He shrugged. “Real
estate’s cheap, compared to Los Angeles.”
“True.” I narrowed my
eyes. “And what about the mother of these five children?”
“Well, she’ll be home
with them.” He started backpedaling almost before he
finished the sentence. “It’s not a political thing,
barefoot and pregnant and forced to bake pies. I just
think that if you’re going to have children, you might as
well raise them yourself. My mom was a single parent, and
it was not a good scene. It’s nice for kids to have
someone at home.”
“Sure, it’s nice for
the kids. But what happens when happily ever after
breaks down and Mom is stranded in the middle of nowhere
with no job and no income while Dad takes off with some
He waited patiently for
me to settle down. “No Waltons for you?”
“Can I get a ‘hell
We studied each other
across the table.
“Hmm,” he said.
“Hmm,” I said.
He pushed back his
shirt cuff and consulted the controversial Patek Philippe
watch. “Listen. I’ve got to get back to the office, but
I’d love to finish this discussion later. How about Friday
night? I have Lakers tickets.”
I must have looked
hesitant, because he added, “I solemnly swear not to chain
you to the stove in the ranch house. Until the third
I laughed. “All right,
I’ll go. But I ain’t bringing no pie.”
We shook on
evening, while I was finishing up some final case notes
and preparing to go home for the night, a courier showed
up at my office door with a small package and a release
form to sign. When I unwrapped the box, I found myself
staring at a brand-new, top-of-the-line cell phone. The
thing weighed like two milligrams. The message included
could use the latest model—it’s shock absorbent. See you
He had attached the
note with duct tape.
I sank down in my
chair. My heart was doing a little flutter kick that I
hadn’t felt in so long, I wasn’t sure if it was
infatuation or the early symptoms of cardiac arrest.
I had survived the
break-up with Dennis along with all the accompanying
humiliation, despondency, and self-doubt. And now I was
getting all melty and blushy over a cup of tea and a
glorified walkie-talkie. It would appear I was ready for
another spin of the roulette wheel of love.
The human heart is
either really resilient or incredibly masochistic.