When you belong to the city
On our first real date, we shared cigars and Scotches in a dark, red basement bar in Manhattan with the windows steamed over from the cool fog outside. I’d been friends with Benari for years, and this, thrillingly, would be the first night I’d invite him to come home with me. It would also, I assumed, be the last. Seven days later, I would leave New York City on a one- way f light back to my native Los Angeles.
Happy to say, I was wrong. He was in the Army Reserve, and, to my surprise, he visited often, and I loved picking him up from LAX in my ’ 84 El Camino. We had whiskey at Bigfoot West and ate Tacos El Gallito burritos from the truck parked next to my studio apartment off Venice and La Cienega boulevards. He’d hinted that he was considering giving L. A. a shot. I tried to keep my cool. I loved his visits and found myself thinking of him a lot when he was away.
During one of his trips here, after seeing a show at the back of Meltdown Comics on Sunset Boulevard, he became distant and quiet. Over appetizers at Bossa Nova, he told me that he’d received a call that afternoon. He was being deployed to Afghanistan.
He left and the months went by. We went back to a friendly correspondence. Then, after a somewhat regrettable office f ling, I realized it was time to get out there and look for someone close enough to live in my area code but not so close as to stumble over on the way to the mail room.
I was too frugal ( absolutely broke) for any paid dating service, so I used freebie favorite OKCupid. “I’m looking for a Wonder Mike to my Casanova Fly,” my profile said, “for a truly regrettable karaoke rendition of ‘ Rapper’s Delight.’ ”
I’d heard the usual complaints levied against dating in L. A.: The guys are shallow and looks- obsessed; everyone’s vying for status and justification for an oversized ego. I certainly wasn’t anyone’s idea of successful, and I’m not particularly svelte. By all accounts, dating should have been a disaster.
But the year I spent dating in Los Angeles was unexpectedly lovely. Of course, there were dud nights. One date had named his dog after a fictitious sex addict. One broke down in tears five minutes in, talking about his recent move from Chicago. Another needed a sharp reminder that “quit being handsy” is more than an improv suggestion. But those were brief, weird evenings to recount to friends later, exceptions to the rule. Most of the men I met online were undeniably talented, optimistic and ambitious.
Then, after a year and a half away, Benari came back from his deployment. Within days, we’d fallen in love and, in what’s really an underappreciated courtship ritual, I deleted my OKCupid profile. He moved in immediately, and showing him Los Angeles was like giddily introducing him to a sprawling family. I stumbled through showing him how to surf in Venice. We walked around Lake Balboa Park in quiet reflection on Yom Kippur and cuddled in drive- in movies in City of Industry. We walked our fingers over book spines at Blastoff Comics, the Last Bookstore, Skylight and ( the now defunct) Piccolo Books. We loved Compari’s and Pann’s near our first apartment in Inglewood and Tonga Hut near our next apartment in North Hollywood.
It was in that apartment that he told me the news. He’d gotten a job back in New York, a job he’d worked hard to get and there wasn’t any question of him taking it. I knew he’d been interviewing there, and I’d gone back and forth on how to handle the possibility. But there in our kitchen, now faced with the reality of it, my choice was obvious. I was choosing the person I loved over the city I loved.
There was a feeling leaving Los Angeles that I’d never had leaving anywhere else, a hyper- awareness that the memories of things I loved were starting to sting with loss. It was the feeling of a breakup with a population of 3.8 million.
Like any great breakup, there’s a soundtrack; Snoop Dogg, Frank Zappa and, yes, a little Tom Petty and Warren Zevon. The bargaining to visit often, keep in touch and still be friends. A sad protectiveness not to let the places I loved not be there when I came back. I had loved a lot when I was there and loved Los Angeles best of all.
Three months later, he’d left me, suddenly, and I returned to Los Angeles. I worried that my hometown would be haunted by loss. It was at first, but within weeks, the ghosts of confused heartache gradually gave way to the warm embrace of a place of belonging. Maybe my Los Angeles story wasn’t meant to end. My new apartment is right by the Tonga Hut, and I’m back searching for a Wonder Mike to my Casanova Fly ( or is it the Warren G to my Nate Dogg?).
I missed you, Los Angeles. I’ve loved a lot while I was here, and I’ve loved you best of all. Stacey Garratt is a writer and a forever Californian. L. A. Affairs chronicles dating in and around Los Angeles. If you have comments or a true story to tell, write us at home@ latimes. com.